Commiseration Via Poetry

antidepressant-Mirjana-Veljovic

Antidepressant by Mirjana-Veljovic

In college, back in the fall of 1972, my sophomore poetry teacher assigned our class the task to compile an anthology of contemporary poems that revolved around a common theme.  I chose despair because I reckoned that depression might be a common theme for poets, a notoriously withdrawn and navel-gazing lot.  I figured poems of despair, unlike, say, political poems or poems dealing with domestic bliss, would make for easier harvesting because they would exist in greater abundance.

So, I checked out anthologies and skimmed poem titles and promising poems hoping to amass thirty or so specimens to satisfy the minimum requirement. In 1972, Auden and MacLeish were alive, Sylvia Plath less than a decade dead, Anne Sexton about to kill herself in a couple of years, so many of the poems I looked at had been written mid-century.

Of course, I have lost my anthology, which was hand written and received a B (likely the lowest grade given), but I do remember two of the poems I included.  One was Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” whose rhymes and rhythms I liked and whose rather childish message was right up my cynical alley:

I walked out one evening,

Walking down Bristol Street,

The crowds upon the pavement

Were fields of harvest wheat.

 

And down by the brimming river

I heard a lover sing

Under an arch of the railway:

‘Love has no ending.

 

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet,

And the river jumps over the mountain

And the salmon sing in the street,

 

‘I’ll love you till the ocean

Is folded and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking

Like geese about the sky.

 

‘The years shall run like rabbits,

For in my arms I hold

The Flower of the Ages,

And the first love of the world.’

 

But all the clocks in the city

Began to whirr and chime:

‘O let not Time deceive you,

You cannot conquer Time.

 

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare

Where Justice naked is,

Time watches from the shadow

And coughs when you would kiss.

 

‘In headaches and in worry

Vaguely life leaks away,

And Time will have his fancy

To-morrow or to-day.

 

‘Into many a green valley

Drifts the appalling snow;

Time breaks the threaded dances

And the diver’s brilliant bow.

 

‘O plunge your hands in water,

Plunge them in up to the wrist;

Stare, stare in the basin

And wonder what you’ve missed.

 

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead.

 

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes

And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,

And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,

And Jill goes down on her back.

 

‘O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress:

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.

 

‘O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbour

With your crooked heart.’

 

It was late, late in the evening,

The lovers they were gone;

The clocks had ceased their chiming,

And the deep river ran on.

 

 

auden

WH Auden

The other poem I remember including, a much better poem, is Archibald McLeish’s, “You, Andrew Marvell.”  As it turned out, the very next year I would hear MacLeish read the poem in person, he who was born the year that Tennyson died.

You, Andrew Marvell

And here face down beneath the sun

And here upon earth’s noonward height

To feel the always coming on

The always rising of the night:

 

To feel creep up the curving east

The earthy chill of dusk and slow

Upon those under lands the vast

And ever climbing shadow grow

 

And strange at Ecbatan the trees

Take leaf by leaf the evening strange

The flooding dark about their knees

The mountains over Persia change

 

And now at Kermanshah the gate

Dark empty and the withered grass

And through the twilight now the late

Few travelers in the westward pass

 

And Baghdad darken and the bridge

Across the silent river gone

And through Arabia the edge

Of evening widen and steal on

 

And deepen on Palmyra’s street

The wheel rut in the ruined stone

And Lebanon fade out and Crete

High through the clouds and overblown

 

And over Sicily the air

Still flashing with the landward gulls

And loom and slowly disappear

The sails above the shadowy hulls

 

And Spain go under and the shore

Of Africa the gilded sand

And evening vanish and no more

The low pale light across that land

 

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun

To feel how swift how secretly

The shadow of the night comes on …

 

Unknown

Archibald MacLeish

Sometimes, like this morning, when sleep has stood me up and I don’t feel so hot mentally, I seek a dark poem with which I’m not familiar as a way to commiserate with a stranger who might have it worse than I-and-I.

And lo and behold I discovered this poem by Jane Kenyon a couple of hours ago. Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia, was the subject of the superb book-length elegy Without by her husband Donald Hall.  I read the poem in the New Yorker in the mid-Nineties right after I had recovered from a serious case of clinical depression. You can read one of the poems from the collection here, but I would love to share with you Jane’s poem, which I find profound and beautiful:

HAVING IT OUT WITH MELANCHOLY” BY JANE KENYON

  1. FROM THE NURSERY

When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad — even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.

You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”

I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours — the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.

  1. BOTTLES

Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.

  1. SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND

You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.

  1. OFTEN

Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.

  1. ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT

Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors — those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist

Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.

  1. IN AND OUT

The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.

Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life — in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . .

  1. PARDON

A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.

We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.

  1. CREDO

Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.

Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.

There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.

  1. WOOD THRUSH

High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.

Unknown-1

Jane Kenyon

Happy Hump Day!

 

 

 

Do Lawd, Tennyson!

lf

At the tender age of five, playing a card game called Authors, I first encountered Alfred, Lord Tennyson with whom I would forge a rocky relationship.

The Authors deck held eleven sets of four cards depicting an eclectic array of writers, a disparate mishmash of talents: Louisa May Alcott, James Fenimore Cooper, Dickens, Hawthorne, Washington Irving, HW Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, RL Stevenson, Twain, the insufferable John Greenleaf Whittier.[1]  You drew and discarded and drew trying to make a “book” of all four. I played Authors a lot with my mother when I was sick with rheumatic fever, so, I knew these writers’ names and faces before I read them – and the titles of a few of their works.[2]

Although I don’t remember exactly, I probably first read Tennyson’s poetry in junior high. His “Charge of the Light Brigade” appears in virtually every 7th grade anthology.

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Tennyson, as you probably know, is descended from Mother Goose on his father’s side.

Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.

Although I was obsessed with nursery rhymes in kindergarten, for whatever reason Tennyson never flipped my switch.  I preferred Americans, Frost, ee cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose very name sounds like a poem. As an undergraduate, I took a Victorian Lit class for about a week but quit attending, not showing up again until the last no penalty drop day so I could cop the signature of the disheveled tweedy professor.

“So nice meeting you, Mr. Moore,” he said without irony. “I was hoping you’d show up again before the drop day passed.”

I smiled, thanked him, felt guilty.

I didn’t seriously study Tennyson until I took a grad course after I started teaching. That summer, I read him carefully, and although I prefer Browning, I learned to appreciate aspects of Tennyson, despite the Victorian bric-a-brac of his verse and his excessive morbidity.[3] The man was a master of versification. Here’s my favorite phrase of his: “the slow clock ticking.”  Try to say it fast.

You can’t.

It captures sonically the slowness of monotonous waiting.

On the other hand, the source of that phrase, the poem “Mariana,” gives center stage to a minor character from Measure for Measure who in Act 5 fornicates with her fiancé in a pitch-black room as part of a comic switcheroo. Her fiancé thinks he’s fornicating with someone else. It’s an elaborate ruse choreographed by the Duke, in part to force their marriage.

Here’s a parodist addressing the cognitive dissonance between the play and poem.

Mariana of the moated grange

about to get laid in Shakespeare’s play,

mopes in Tennyson night and day,

pretty fucking passing strange.

Tennyson’s poem imagines her waiting for her lover who has abandoned her because she lost her dowry at sea.

Here is the poem’s refrain, repeated with minor variations seven times.

She only said, “The day is dreary,

He cometh not,” she said;

She said, “I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!”

***

Nevertheless, I do admire Tennyson’s great elegy “In Memoriam,” that Moby Dick of mourning, written for his dear, dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam who had died of a stroke at the age of twenty-two.

 

hallam

Arthur Henry Hallam

The poem is written in a stanza now known as the “In Memoriam stanza,” a quatrain of tetrameter with the rhyme scheme ABBA, a very rigid form that makes fluidity extremely difficult (see above parody), especially when stringing several stanzas together.

After the death of my wife Judy Birdsong, I decided to reread “In Memoriam” to remind myself that mourning was in fact rather commonplace, that others, thousands, millions, billions have had to face heart-rending disseverment, “the blight man was born for.”

Well, I discovered my grief was in no way as profound as Tennyson’s, as deep as his, perhaps because I had had time to prepare myself (or perhaps because I am not as deep or as profound).

Nevertheless, these lines really struck a chord:

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.[4]

Anyway, after teaching Tennyson for the very last time this week, it occurs to me that I must be practicing psychological projection, attributing to Tennyson unconscious qualities that I have denied in myself.  How else to explain how often he has appeared in this blog? For example, here is a short story in which the narrator costumes himself as Tennyson to go panhandling as part of academic research. Type “Tennyson” in this blog’s search engine and eight posts appear, most of them mocking him.

Why the obsession?  What is it within me that I’m projecting on him?  Humorlessness?  Hypersensitivity?  Sing-song metrics? Pessimism?

Calling that great dissector of all things Victorian, Dr. Freud.

tennyson


[1]Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!

[2]Because I was bedridden for three months, my mother taught me how to read, even though I wouldn’t enter kindergarten for another month after my illness.

[3]E.g., Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns

The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds

To dying ears, when unto dying eyes

The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;

So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

[4]During the last week of Judy’s life, I actually did algebra for recreation, sought escape in symmetry.

 

Green and Dying

The other evening as the sun was sloping toward its western bower, I sat on the porch of the Surf Bar enjoying the sway of shadows dancing on the tin roof of the dilapidated building across from me.  My eyes slowly panned down to the building’s façade, and the dull, cracked, and rotting planks suddenly struck me as magical. Even the window-unit air-conditioner seemed to me beautiful in the golden light of the afternoon.

A sad thought intruded: I have squandered the vast majority of my life pent in the small room of my consciousness with the venetian blinds slatted shut.  In other words, I have stumbled here and there for the last sixty-six years, lost in self-absorption, rarely noticing anything of interest when actually everything should be of interest.

So I went home and reread Robert Frost’s great poem “Directive,” which begins with the brilliant line, “Back out of all this now too much for us,” which echoes the first line of Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The world is too much with us,” an arena of responsibility and labor where “we lay waste our powers” in the realm of “getting and spending.”

In “Directive” Frost tries to lead us out of that blind little room of our consciousness with its spreadsheets and closed venetian blinds into “a house that is no longer a house/Upon a farm that is no longer a farm/And in a town that is no more a town,” in other words, into a landscape of ruin where folks once lived, a ghost town of sorts.

In soothing tones, the old poet becomes our guru.  He, paradoxically, “only has at heart [our] getting lost”  —  “lost enough to find [ourselves]”  —  guiding us through a grove of trees whose “excitement  [. . .] sends light rustle rushes to their leaves.”  At our final destination, we receive “a broken drinking goblet like the ‘Grail’” our guide has retrieved from “the instep arch/Of an old cedar at the waterside,” a child’s toy he had stolen from a playhouse and hidden in that tree.

He ends the poem with these lines:

“Here are your waters and your watering place.

Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

Here’s the complete poem:

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretence of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You- must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
You see is no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

 

 

Visiting What?

Last week Porter-Gaud honored my colleague Bill Slayton and me by naming us Visiting Writers for 2019, joining such luminaries as Billy Collins, Dori Sanders, and Pat Conroy, to name only three.  Of course, the head of the program chose us not on the merit of our canons but to honor us in the year of our retirement.  To be honest, my publishing history is as thin as Donald Trump’s skin, though I do have both a poem and a short story in anthologies catering to South Carolina writers.

Although Bill and I both felt a bit odd about reading unpublished works to a packed auditorium, the students were quietly attentive and asked good questions when we visited English classes.  One of the highlights for me was having my poem ‘The Grill” projected on a screen and analyzed by the teacher, Dr. Lehman, and his students.

I wrote the poem in the wee hours after having almost burned my house down.  I had placed a charcoal chimney on a log on my deck as I had dozens of times before; however, on this night — perhaps the log had dried out over time– in the course of two or three hours, the log caught fire, igniting the deck.  Luckily, Judy Birdsong and I were sleeping with the windows open, smelled the smoke, called the Folly Beach Fire Department, and they put it out before it could spread to the house.

After they left, knowing that sleep was out of the question, I got on line only to discover that one of my sweetest friends from childhood had succumbed to cancer, so I sat down and wrote the poem, a bitter comment on the transitory nature of life.[1]

Here’s the first stanza:

I’m tearing apart paper,

newsprint, the obituary page,

shredding descriptions of lives:

of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers,

bachelors, partners, husbands, wives,

shredding their black-and-white

faces, their smiles, their stares,

ripping also the memorial verses

loved ones have left,

wadding it up

to fuel my charcoal chimney.

Dr. Lehman and students asked about diction and line breaks.  For example, did I break the first line after “paper” and the second after “page” to create an alliterative and assonant pairing at the end of the line? Why repeat the word “shredding?”

The sad fact of the matter is that what I do I do by instinct.  My ear, not my brain, told me to break the lines there, and “shredding,” like so many words of Anglo-Saxon origin, sounds like what its conveying, the sibilant sound of paper being ripped.  I did, however, consciously add “partners” to my catalogue of decedents to include gays.

Then comes a one-line stanza, quadrupled spaced.

Yet not enough.

Dr. Lehman cut the line and moved it to join the preceding stanza, changing it from this:

wadding it up

to fuel my charcoal chimney.

 

Yet not enough.

 

So here comes the sports page,

the World Cup, accounts of pop flies

 

to this:

wadding it up

to fuel my charcoal chimney.

Yet not enough.

 

So here comes the sports page,

the World Cup, accounts of pop flies

The change actually bothered me, and I asked him to put it back in its proper place.  He told the students that we poets are very meticulous about matters such as these, and I guess I proved him correct.

He then highlighted the following stanza, which he admires most about the poem.

So here comes the sports page,

the World Cup, accounts of pop flies

dropped, paper ripe for ripping,

ripped, balled, stuffed, ready

for the match’s fiery effacement.

“Lots of plosives there Mr. Moore,” he said, and I said, “Yeah, it’s an angry poem. “  I mentioned that I did consciously end the second line with “flies” to sort of simulate dropping a baseball.

Anyway, what I learned about myself is that I’m not very analytical when I write a poem; nevertheless, it might seem as if I am, which suits me.

So let this self-indulgent post end a week of self-indulgence, so I can go back to my little life as an English instructor.  I will leave you, however, with the complete poem:

 

The Grill

In memory of Paul Yost 1955-2014

I’m tearing apart paper,

newsprint, the obituary page,

shredding descriptions of lives:

of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers,

bachelors, partners, husbands, wives,

shredding their black-and-white

faces, their smiles, their stares,

ripping also the memorial verses

loved ones have left,

wadding it up

to fuel my charcoal chimney.

 

Yet not enough.

 

So here comes the sports page,

the World Cup, accounts of pop flies

dropped, paper ripe for ripping,

ripped, balled, stuffed, ready

for the match’s fiery effacement.

 

And that poor chicken! Hatched, harried,

pecking its food among hordes,

pulled from transport crates,

shocked for the throat cutter’s convenience,

plucked, eviscerated.

 

This one’s also been

deboned, yet not sold soon enough,

skewered by butchers along with

aging onions and overly ripe peppers.

 

* * *

 

After its scraping, red and black,

slightly rusted, the grill stands ready,

top open, at attention.

 

I place the chimney

upon the barred metal, pour in

the briquettes, and torch the

shredded lives of others,

their wins and losses,

and watch the smoke

rising into the dissipation

of the silent, cloud-shifting sky.


[1]What we didn’t know at the time was that Judy, too, had cancer that would be diagnosed at the end of the month.

The Ballad of Old Buck Roberts

 

 

For years and years he lived right here

in a tent on the edge of Folly.

He brewed his beer and wrote his poems

in the shade of a stunted loblolly.

 

He played at working construction,

could drive a nail I guess,

but what Buck was really good at

was downing his Inverness.

 

He’d have a drop in the morning,

he’d have a drop at noon,

he’d have a drop at midnight,

‘neath the light of a winter moon.

 

The cold on Folly ain’t that bad

(unless you stay in a tent),

but Buck would hum all through the night,

shivering but still content,

 

content because his poems would clack

from that old Underwood,

clack-clack-clacking, like a woodpecker,

on the edge of the stunted wood.

 

The VA doctors warned him

to change his lifestyle soon,

but Buck was a stubborn cuss.

He loved the light of the moon.

 

They found him dead inside a shed

on the side of Folly Road,

and in his hand he held a poem,

the last one he ever wrote:

 

            Drunk me some wine with Jesus [it read]

            At this here wedding in Galilee.

            He saved the bestest for second

            And provided it all for free.

           

            So I quit my job on the shrimp boat

            To follow Him eternally,

            No longer bound by them blue laws

            Enforced by the Pharisee.

 

            And we had us some real good times

            Till them Pharisees done Him in.

            Ain’t got no use for the religious right

            After I seen what they done to Him.

 

            Then when Saul Paul stole the show

            I sort of drifted away.

            Cause he never quite did understood

            What Jesus was trying to say.

 

            Paul was like a Pharisee,

            Cussing this, cussing that,

            Giving the wimmins a real hard time,

            Gay bashing and all like that.

 

            So I stay at home most nights now

            Trying to do some good,

            Offering beggars a little snort

            Whilst praying for a Robin Hood.

 

            Drunk me some wine with Jesus,

            It was the bestest day I ever seen.

            Drunk me some wine with Jesus,

            Partying with the Nazarene.

 

I can think of worse things

to have in your hand when dead

across the bridge on Folly Road

inside an old tool shed.

 

 

Hanging Out with Bob Dylan’s Namesake (or the Dangers of Memorizing Dylan Thomas)

Each winter, our English Department requires students to memorize a poem that’s at least the length and girth of a sonnet.  We select whom we consider the best, and they compete on grade levels to represent the freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior classes in front of three judges and an auditorium packed with their peers.  We call the competition Porter-Gaud Outloud, and once students reach the finals, they’re spot on.  Believe me, choosing the ultimate winner is difficult.

I, too, memorize a poem out of solidarity, and even though I’m renowned (yes renowned, dammit!) for having put to memory veritable library shelves of verse, I’ve discovered this year that if I’m not all that familiar with a poem, I have trouble memorizing it.

Now, if it’s a poem I know well, like Yeats’s lament “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” I can memorize it in no time and spit it out like a Gatling Gun:

Now all the truth is out,

Be secret and take defeat

From any brazen throat,

For how can you compete,

Being honor bred, with one

Who were it proved he lies

Were neither shamed in his own

Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;

Bred to a harder thing

Than Triumph, turn away

And like a laughing string

Whereon mad fingers play

Amid a place of stone,

Be secret and exult,

Because of all things known

That is most difficult.[1]

 

Last year, I did “Adam’s Curse,” a poem of forty lines, and had it down in a day.

This year, however, I’ve chosen a poem I’ve read only a dozen or so times, Dylan Thomas’s “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” a hyper-Romantic ditty suitable for someone bound to drink himself to death at the Chelsea Hotel at the age of thirty-nine.  I chose it because I’ve always dug the lines

Nor for the towering Dead

With their nightingales and psalms.

I’ll go ahead and provide the text:

In my craft or sullen art

Exercised in the still night

When only the moon rages

And the lovers lie abed

With all their griefs in their arms,

I labour by singing light

Not for ambition or bread

Or the strut and trade of charms

On the ivory stages

But for the common wages

Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.

 

You can hear Dylan doing it himself here.

The thing is, I keep mucking something up, like substituting “practiced” for “exercised” or swapping out a “nor” for an “or” or dropping the line “On the ivory stages.”

The good news is that I’ll have it down by the due date of February 25, but the bad news is that now I have Thomas’s rhythms and peculiar diction looping non-stop in the tape deck of my mind.

There’s only way to exorcise these voices, and that’s to write some doggerel, and because misery loves company, I’m sharing it with you:

 

 

From the Juke Box of Dylan Thomas

In my scratched and dented car,

With a broken right tail light,

I drive to and fro from bar to bar

Squandering a day that turns to night.

Not for the dead left in my wake I drink,

Nor for the lasses who have broken my heart,

But for the tunk-a-tunk-tunk, rinky dink dink

Of lovely pints on a luscious lark.[2]


[1]How apt a poem for the Age of Trump.

[2]If I weren’t channeling Thomas, the last line would be “Of yeasty brews on a beer-slopped bar.”

Reefer Madness

A member of the SC Medical Association and Attorney General Alan Wilson experimenting on a marijuana user

Alas, I find it necessary yet again to haul down from the attic James Petigru’s way-too-often quoted description of my native state:

South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.

What prompts today’s revival of Petigru’s apt observation is Attorney General Alan Wilson’s idiotic proclamation that marijuana is “the most dangerous drug” in America, edging out, it would appear, crystal meth, cocaine, crack, heroin, and [drum roll] aspirin.

[1]

 

Here are some 2017 numbers from the CDC:

According to the Centers for Disease Control, using data available for analysis on September 5, 2018, there were a reported 70,652 deaths attributed to drug overdose in the US for the year ending December 2017. Some deaths were still under investigation. The CDC projects that the total for 2017 will be 72,222.

Of these:

Opioids were detected in 47,863 reported deaths, and are predicted to be involved in 49,031 deaths.

Synthetic opioids, excluding methadone, were detected in 28,644 reported deaths, and are predicted to be involved in 28,644 deaths.

Heroin was detected in 15,585 reported deaths, and is predicted to be involved in 15,941 deaths.

Natural and semi-synthetic opioids were detected in 14,553 reported deaths, and are predicted to be involved in 14,940 deaths.

Cocaine was detected in 14,065 reported deaths, and is predicted to be involved in 14,612 deaths.

Psychostimulants with abuse potential were detected in 10,420 reported deaths, and are predicted to be involved in 10,703 deaths.

Methadone was detected in 3,209 reported deaths, and is predicted to be involved in 3,286 deaths.

Here’s what the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology has to say about marijuana:

Tetrahydrocannabinol is a very safe drug. Laboratory animals (rats, mice, dogs, monkeys) can tolerate doses of up to 1,000 mg/kg (milligrams per kilogram). This would be equivalent to a 70 kg person swallowing 70 grams of the drug—about 5,000 times more than is required to produce a high. Despite the widespread illicit use of cannabis there are very few if any instances of people dying from an overdose. In Britain, official government statistics listed five deaths from cannabis in the period 1993-1995 but on closer examination these proved to have been deaths due to inhalation of vomit that could not be directly attributed to cannabis (House of Lords Report, 1998). By comparison with other commonly used recreational drugs these statistics are impressive.”

What prompted Wilson’s injudicious misrepresentation of the facts was not a call for the legalization of marijuana in South Carolina but merely the introduction of legislation “that would allow patient’s to obtain it with a doctor’s prescription.”

More from Wilson’s press conference:

[Users employ] words like stoned, high, wasted, baked, fried, cooked, chonged, cheeched, dope-faced, blazed, blitzed, blunted, blasted, danked, stupid, wrecked — and that’s only half the words they use,” Wilson said. “Are these consistent with something that describes a medicine?”

Now that’s what I call scientific!

The truth of the matter is that your chances of croaking, bellying-up, kicking the bucket, cashing in chips, joining the invisible choir, buying the farm, and shuffling off the mortal coil are infinitely greater from a perfectly legal prescription of OxyContin than it would be from medical marijuana.

I’m in no way advocating the use of marijuana but merely pointing out the inanity of our public officials, how the Republican Party ignores science in formulating policies.

Speaking of gateway drugs, I’ll leave you with this:

 

 

On the Slave Ship Lollipop

I used to stuff my face with candy

when I was a little boy,

couldn’t cop enough Mary Janes,

would kill for an Almond Joy.

 

Then I graduated to the Real Thing – Coke.

I was popping five cans a day,

plopping nickels and dimes upon the counter

under caffeine and sugar’s sway.

 

Now I’m hooked on heroin,

am little more than a thug.

Wish I’d known then what I know now –

that sugar is the gateway drug.


[1]According to a recent study, “Taking a daily aspirin is far more dangerous than was thought, causing more than 3,000 deaths a year.