My Poetical Education.

I was bored on my commute to my teaching job at the local JC, but happily, the English Dept. had just gotten a set of tapes of poetry readings and lectures and I started listening. It passed the time in a way that felt productive, and who doesn’t like being productive? I did anyway. The nonsense on the radio was more boredom—noise! I began with a set of dramatic readings of Robinson Jeffers. His long lyric poems really got me listening, his self-built stone house and tower were right in my wheelhouse of interest. I’m crazy about the life off-the-grid, and the Jeffer’s place was right on the Big Sur Coast!…Oh! Be still my heart! You can visit this place, open every Saturday by reservation. Do it sometime if you are visiting Carmel-by-the Sea. It’s a cleansing palliative to all the touristic shlock. Jeffers brought poetry front & center into my life, as the giddy, drug-fueled, anti-war, civil rights 60’s ground to a halt..this from his Tower Beyond Tragedy:

...I say if you let this woman live, this crime go 
unpunished, what man among you 
Will be safe in his bed? The woman ever envies the man, his 
strength, his freedom, his loves. 
Her envy is like a snake beside him, all his life through, her envy 
and hatred: law tames that viper: 
Law dies if the Queen die not: the viper is free then. 
It will be poison in your meat or a knife to bleed you sleeping. 
They fawn and slaver over us 
And then we are slain. 
Tor House and Hawk Tower

Yikes! Tragedy is serious business if you let it in, and Jeffers let in plenty, his long poems were fashioned after Greek Tragedy, while carrying the great weight of those stones he carried one by one, up from the beach to build his fortress of tragic reality. Here’s from Hurt Hawk

...The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.


I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bones too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him for six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight. What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

Jeffers got the engine started as I graduated to confessional poets like Robert Lowell, here's a bit from his much anthologized Skunk Hour...
...My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church....

Skunk Hour brought me smack-dab into the feelings of being at the mercy of Uncle Sam’s murder-draft when I was being hounded by my local draft board just as I was rolling toward my true vocation of Art studies, dropping my pre-med aspirations. Freshman year began on the heels of an expansive summer in Germany where I’d navigated my time feeling full of possibility, a Jew in Der Vaterland. When I returned home I found a pile of notices from the local draft board, waiting for me, waiting…Vietnam hung like a sword of Damocles. “…My mind’s not right” Indeed…Robert Lowell’s language was rich enough to keep me at it, thinking poetry might have something big to say to me.

Then came the grief mongers—I call ’em. Wheeling cartloads of sadness two loads for a dollar. To feel grief is important…but suddenly it felt industrialized, people giving seminars, weekend workshops…hey! poets gotta make a living! Right? Robert Bly was in the ascendancy and big daddy of the Grief-ers, who’s workshop I attended right here in my little valley; our exercise was to look at a lichen encrusted, half-rotted piece of firewood, and write about our moooohhhhthers. The workshop happened to be given on the weekend of the first 49’s Superbowl, and as we sat beavering over our notebooks, we heard a great shout roll up and down the valley as the Niners prevailed. How to parse that!?!? That collective shout of joy!! As we bent to the task of grrrrreeeeefff!. Here follows David Whyte, one of those making his living peddling heartbreak and melancholy.

The Well of Grief
Those who will not slip
below the still surface of the well of Grief
turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breath
will never know the source from which we drink, the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.
David Whyte

Of course he was right, as Bly was right to point out a Nation living in denial of grief, pointing out our general problems with the puer aeternus, the eternal child, living in a horizontal structure moving from place to place, pleasure to pleasure, interest to interest, never dropping into that well. David Whyte was making a living bringing poetry to the corporate world, a noble act if there ever was one and I congratulate him for that—to de-reify the world in Marxist terms, a real possible healing. If I believe anything, it’s that there is a well that all humans, from all times & places draw water. It connects us to a common aquifer. To rescue the Golden Calf, to come back to the real sense the world which Poetry provides, the life of the imagination as Wallace Stevens points out, is the most powerful force on our planet. Poetry boils it into a heuristic tartrate. But there was something of the “Big Stick” in all that grief.

I followed Bly’s reading schedule, locally, when he came to town, and he did bring a lot of great poets to the front row of attention, especially the Eastern ecstatics: Rumi, Mirabai, Hafez. I was glad to be introduced to that world by Bly.

Mirabai writes:
The colors of the dark one have stained my body.
My prayer beads are my carnelians and pearls,
All day I shout for joy and,
You want me to come home to ride a jackass
When I have felt the elephant sway between my thighs,
Try to be serious.

Bly had come out with his book Iron John and started what he hoped would be a MEN’s movement, but sheesh! All that grieeeeving and drumming! A neighbor friend was on that bandwagon had organized a weekend retreat for men, a Shadow Workshop it was billed as “to get in touch with your Daaaaarrrk side”, hopefully to retrieve some vague lost maleness through story and poetry. One of the exercises was to go outside and walk for an hour, contemplating your shadow self, repeating a mantra I’ve lost, but I walked just 20 paces away from the group where I came across a solitary thistle plant in bloom; I was working hard to suspend my disbelief—I mantra’d away walking ’round and ’round and ’round that thistle until I’d worn a trough in the forest duff. But the genius of the exercise WORKED! I discovered I could be like the thistle, a real prick! And…I was in the middle of negotiations for buying our home, I stiffened my offer and got the house for below the last offer. Thank you Shadow Workshop, thank you!

But that world became a little too touchy-feely for me, it began to cloy after a while, and I began a period of living with some serious poetry that had lost the Ich (Fichte’s idea of a supremacy of the ego), the center of the Universe as a thing in itself, that ding an sich business of the romantics. One of the tapes From the school was TS Eliot reading his Four Quartets, dense with words not in common usage, very language-y and spiritual to the max. I listened to that tape in my car on repeat play and ended up memorizing sections like this from part 3 The Dry Salvages:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

Or this, the last lines of that long poem:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I continued listening to the tapes but the great thing was meeting living poets of great accomplishment. The English Department was funded to bring in Robert Duncan (some say the father of the Beats) “…Often I am permitted to return to a meadow, a place of first permission, everlasting omen of what is…” Such gravitas, such SF Royalty, I was awestruck. Poet Michael McClure whose play Minnie Mouse and the Tap-dancing Buddha was playing at the Magic Theatre in SF, came to read and do a workshop, “And all the gnats at sundown in the rosy lovely light, are cousin angels catching light upon their wings in the antechamber of the night.” It remains the best play I have ever seen.

The very best play I’ve ever seen.

Wild! Weird! So entertaining, it was a musical with on-stage musicians, the action taking place splashing around in a foot of water in a pool they’d created. The Buddha was a big man in gold lamé, carrying on his shoulders a small guy who juggled the whole time. The dramatic fulcrum was that Mickey had run off the animation stand with Daisy Duck who was seen as a giant white feathered scrim the inside of which you could see the silhouette of Mickey lost and flailing. “Oh! Minnie”, says Mick when he emerges from that giant duck’s ass at the end of they play, “It was soooo dark in there!” OK, OK, poetry CAN be fun and funny and transport you, which seems to be the point. A point, anyway. McClure had great beatnik cred being among the readers at Gallery 6 in SF along with Allan Ginsburg when Ginsburg read HOWL. Want to read a great book about that period? Try McClure’s Scratching the Beat Surface.

On my car-ride tutorial, had a chapter with The Maestro of the Imagination, Wallace Stevens. He whipped up word soups that delighted me with their invention and improbable images of geographies spilling with vividness to tell the tale of the mystery of being. Here, the last lines of This Solitude of Cataracts:

...He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way,
To keep on flowing.  He wanted to walk beside it,

Under the buttonwoods, beneath a moon nailed fast.
He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest

In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks
Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be,

Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction,
To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,

Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,
Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.

I was sure I’d seen the azury center of time tripping on mushrooms. Try Stevens’ Peter Quince at the Clavier or his longer pieces The Auroras of Autumn or Sea Surface Full of Clouds to get the full flavor of Stevens. Here’s another favorite, really, how poetry changes the world…changed my world:

Anecdote of the Jar...
I placed a jar in Tennessee,   
And round it was, upon a hill.   
It made the slovenly wilderness   
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.   
The jar was round upon the ground   
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.   
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,   
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

All of this post feels like skipping a stone over a pond of still water, rings expanding, never dropping to some depth that is the reality of poetry. But it does give a sense that my life was deeply drawn into the poetic imagination. What did drop to a greater depth was the performance piece I created called The Poetry Jukebox:

I started memorizing poems as an insomniac moment took hold during a concentrated patch of trouble. The memorization didn’t help me sleep but after a few months I had memorized some of my favorite poems. I began with Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice...

It’s a longish poem and I liked having at the ready and in my mind. After I had 40 or so memorized, I said to Judith, “I know… at Burning Man, I’ll be the Poetry Jukebox.” I woke from a sound sleep thinking “what a dumb idea,” but Judith was already in the studio making the thing—the box, so I did it, and continued to do it at Burning Man and Arts fund-raisers, where the “box” was offered as an auction item, and it lasted until 2020 when it retired. (That thing raised over $15,000).Most of the poems were short-ish and chosen for quick apprehension, growing to 140 poems I still have in my mind and the memorization continues as a “hobby” (even artists need a hobby). Billy Collins and Mary Oliver came into the jukebox, as ever popular along with the great, Kay Ryan whose poetry is deceptively simple and at once complex with internal rhyming schemes and the most quotidian themes brought to real mystery—like cleaning clutter:

That Will to Divest

Action creates
a taste
for itself.
Meaning: once
you've swept 
the shelves
of spoons 
and plates
you kept
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also 
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss 
rooms, not to 
divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you've begun.

- Kay Ryan

Kay is an inspirational presence in our lives, living not far away, having won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, 2x US Poet Laureate, a MacArthur Fellow, sheesh! and she is very funny. She taught ESL classes for 35 years at the local JC before any of that laureate-ing. She is a real Mensch—a person in full. To live in the imaginal life of language is to live with That Necessary Angel Wallace Stevens describes. So, poetry came to be central in my life in this slow blossoming I’ve described. When I had performed the Jukebox for 2 years, I threw the thing on the flames of the Burning Man, thinking I’d fulfilled something—who knows how these things work, but when I returned home from the “burn”, I began writing my own poems, blossoming eventually into this writing—been at it ever since, winning a grant to write (MONEY for writing, YAY!), won a 3rd place bronze medal in the International Poet’s prize, read publicly, and even had some work published. The Poetry Jukebox was reconstituted and continued its performances until it retired in 2020. This testament is to remind all y’all to follow what moves you and do just a little bit of it (5 minutes is all the mystery asks of you)…every day.

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