A Pickpocket of a Poet Rips Off Wallace Stevens

circa 1940: A pickpocket at work in New York. (Photo by William Davis/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

accompanied by a labored window unit

 

A motion, the sea voice fluttering, a cry

understood word for word, a summer sound,

tilting in the air, perishing, erased by rain.

 

A serenade, a night wind sigh, out of the spirit

of black waves, the virtuoso ocean

drowning out a song.

 

The wind blowing, a metaphysician

in the dark, a woman, drunk,

dancing a stumble on the shore.

 

Dee Dee Ramone, master of the mamba,

tell me in a doo wop how to get from East Erie

to the Commodore Club. All I know

it’s way above of the Crosstown.

Dee Dee Ramone

 

My Open Letter to Teenagers

Edward Onslow Ford
Applause 1893 (detail of plinth)

Perhaps the least valid complaint coming from you teenagers is that you’re misunderstood.

No, Emerson or Madison or Grayson, lots of us old farts understand you perfectly well, understand that you’re a jambalaya of bubbling hormones and live in a culture of increasing fragmentation.

We understand that you want to break away from the constraints of reading closed heroic couplets and solving quadratic equations. We understand that peer pressure is attempting to crush you into a little container of counter-conformity.

In fact, we understand you better than you understand yourself, because we’re aware of that unconscious fear that you’re repressing: chances are you’re not going to become a ballerina or a pro bowl quarterback; chances are you’re not going to really love your job; not to mention, your looks will fade, your body will thicken, and what faith you have been granted or have summoned will be severely tested.

In other words, ultimately, if you’re lucky, one day you’re going to fall in and out of love, fall in and out of love, perhaps replicate your DNA, and eventually grow old and die.[1]

Your mind refuses to acknowledge your mortality because we’re talking a million years in your perceived future, but the OverYou — the Empire of Your Being, that Universe where unknown to the-lowercase-you armies of white blood cells are attacking a virus and your pituitary gland is spitting out somatotrophins – that OverYou knows life’s story from the inside out, and your adolescent angst is part of the story, as was your birth, as will be the getting old and dying part.

Still, as Richard Wilbur put it in his poem “The Undead,” your pain is real.[2] Perhaps it’s too easy to forget how real. When I was a teenager, my roiling hormonal stew bubbled forth in a severe case of acne; flakes of dandruff trailed from my jive strut like flung confetti. My romantic crushes felt like an earthquake had left me pinned in wreckage.  Everything seemed a matter of life or death.

I did stupid shit — stared into mirrors, cut school, mocked decent people, spent a very un-fun night in the Summerville jail. I would have been so much better off trading in my anger for curiosity, to see everything as art: the unwinding of the formula beneath my #2 lead pencil as poetry and the strict tick-tock of iambs in closed heroic couplets as formulae.

In other words, I would have been so much better off taking a sledgehammer to the claustrophobic acrylic confines of my egocentricity.

This is my advice, teenagers, impossible as it may be. Ditch the loser “lower case you” that you mistakenly perceive as yourself – get over yourself, or better yet, beyond yourself  – and delve into study. Do your homework and while doing so, look for connections. Wonder why all the big beards in the Civil War and the shaved heads in the ‘50s. If a required novel bores you, analyze why that is – is it because Holden’s a whiner or that his slang outdated? Remember it’s the lowercase you Holden doing the talking. Ask yourself what’s going on beneath the surface.[3] At movies, be stingy with your suspension of disbelief, and if the movie succeeds in making you forget about the lowercase you, ask yourself how it managed to bewitch. Not only should you read the footnotes, you should go wander off and get lost in them. Let footnotes lead you astray, not the cool kids beloved of the herd.

Houdini yourself out of Blake’s mind-forged manacles. Find fun in the mundane. In other words, power wash the doors of perception, cleanse them of preconceptions.

If you do so, hypocrisy won’t piss you off nearly as bad, and waiting rooms will become spaces of wonder.

Waiting Room by George Tooker

By the way, you gave find more of my parenting advice: here


[1] Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,

Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams

And our desires. Although she strews the leaves

Of sure obliteration on our paths,

The path sick sorrow took, the many paths

Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love

Whispered a little out of tenderness,

She makes the willow shiver in the sun

For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze

Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.

She causes boys to pile new plums and pears

On disregarded plate. The maidens taste

And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

(Wallace Stevens, excerpt from “Sunday Morning”)

[2] [. . .]Thinking

Of a thrush cold in the leaves

Who has sung his few summers truly,

Or an old scholar resting his eyes at last,

We cannot be much impressed with vampires,

Colorful though they are;

Nevertheless, their pain is real,

And requires our pity.

(Richard Wilbur, excerpt from “The Undead”)

[3] Hat tip to David Connor Jones

Lunch at a Truck Stop with Wallace Stevens

FSA/8a34000/8a344008a34421a.tif

 

Lunch at a Truck Stop with Wallace Stevens

We are the mimics. Clouds are pedagogues.

A big but delicate man,

he doesn’t flirt with the waitress,

a comely gal in calico,

but orders brusquely:

meat loaf, mashed potatoes, sweet peas,

piping hot biscuits fresh from the oven.

 

The fluttering napkin looks small in his hand

as it parachutes upon his lap.

When the grub arrives, he bows his head,

Closes his eyes, and says,

“Tink a tank a tunk a tunk tunk.”

Opens those eyes, raises that head,

and smiles amid the clatter of saucers and cups.

old_21_truck_stop_1950s

On the Utility of Memorizing Poetry

illustration by David Rowe from "Financial Review" website

illustration by David Rowe from “Financial Review” website

Each year, our English Department requires all students to memorize a poem of at least fourteen lines and recite it in front of their classes.

Students choose the poems they recite, so the first step in the process is for them to read poems in search of a ditty or two that strike their fancy. Obviously, it forces them to read poetry.  Of course, every year a student asks if he can recite song lyrics instead, and I say no.

I explain that very few song lyrics can stand alone on the naked page without musical accompaniment. I recite these lyrics from Dylan’s “To Ramona (which, of course, I’ve memorized):

From fixtures and forces and friends

Your sorrow does stem

That hype you and type you

Making you feel

That you gotta be exactly like them

I’d forever talk to you

But soon my words

Would turn into a meaningless ring

For deep in my heart

I know there is no help I can bring

Everything passes

Everything changes

Just do what you think you should do

And someday maybe

Who knows, baby

I’ll come and be cryin’ to you.

And then I recite these lines from Yeats, which, again I know “by heart.”

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.

The difference is palatable.

Of course, the question of why memorize comes up. What’s the purpose? You’ll just forget it anyway, etc. I explain that in times of despair that poetry can provide solace by articulating powerfully the human condition, which has remained essentially the same over the course of centuries.

Ben Jonson’s dead son is my brother-in-law’s dead son.

My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.

Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

Oh, could I lose all father now!

I tell them that possessing a storehouse of poetry in the record collection of their minds can also come in handy at cocktail parities. Why rely on your own feeble wit when you can conjure TS Eliot?

On November the 9th, one of my colleagues asked me what I thought, and I said,

“I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.”

If he’d asked me how I felt, I would have said, “like ragwater, bitters, and blue ruin.”

Anyway, this year, I’ve decided to memorize a poem myself, and I have chosen Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

Call the roller of big cigars,

The muscular one, and bid him whip

In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress

As they are used to wear, and let the boys

Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

 

Take from the dresser of deal,

Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

On which she embroidered fantails once

And spread it so as to cover her face.

If her horny feet protrude, they come

To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

What in the hell does that mean? Here’s one cool, jazzy take from Kenneth Lincoln:

So a wench is dead, stretched out cold at the ice cream party. The dresser deal “knobs” transpose to “horny” bunions, glass to skin calluses. No empty jar lies here, rounding the wild, but a woman’s body in its cool opaque skin, thickened from walking the earth. Her “horny feet” index a prosaic, if bewitching reality, bunioned and “dumb” as the “slovenly wilderness”: feet are the earthen root, nonetheless, the vulgate “base” of a poetic meter iambically shamanic. She embroidered “fantails” on her bedsheet, her tail-end art. Those curlicues may rover her face, if they cannot mask her feet, which grounded her in reality, finally in death. So, for a fourth and final call, “Let the lamp” of nature “affix its beam,” the sun its sundown flame, as the seeing eye celebrates an inner light in mortal darkness, a comeback optics of imagining sunrise reborn at sunset.

[snip]

With rhyming comic finality (come/dumb/beam/cream), the refrain rides on a boisterous iambic pentameter, “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” The fourteen syllables curdle in a spondee (as with the twelve-syllable, shaggy last line of “The Snow Man”). There’s a youthful break in the pace, a jump-rope skip completing the Falstaffian form. From bunioned foot to embroidered fantail, earthly base to fanciful end, this elegy resists loss by making art of what seems to be, seeing what is, delightfully. It is an act of the imagination at a wake; the final test, to return to childhood joy in “cream” made of “ice” (Carolina “aspic nipples” sweetened). A concupiscent summer is whipped up from winter’s absence, the snow man’s “nothing” curdled by sweet belief.

So, fast-forward to that future cocktail party where some jackass is plastering lipstick on some political or theological or philosophical pig.

Simply say, “Let be be the finale of seem/The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”

Chances are his rejoinder won’t be in “boisterous iambic pentameter.”

emperor-illustration

Evening All Afternoon

6150464_orig

 

I don’t know why these lines from Wallace Stevens have always moved me so:

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

The day before yesterday, a student at my school, a junior, a beautiful impatient boy, died.

Adolescents are more or less flat-liners when it comes to perspective. In my acne-ridden days, I remember all too well stupidly thinking all too much depended on something that might happen at 4th period, or not, or after school, or not. Breaking up equaled deserts of vast eternity.

Back then, I was eaten up with Romanticism, could not imagine the longer view that year piled upon year provides, could not imagine the joys of a post-adolescent life, of discovering an intellectual passion in college, of meeting and marrying a soul mate, of producing children, of singing lullabies to them:

When you wake, we’ll paddy-paddy cake

And ride the shining little pony.

Today, weather-wise, it was evening all morning and evening at noon and even evening early in the afternoon. Outside my classroom windows, at nine a.m. the dense cloud cover made the morning look like nightfall. It was so dark streetlights were illuminated.

I was teaching Wallace Stevens. The students seemed to get it. “It’s like a cubist painting,” one of them said. “Different perspectives.” They had momentarily forgotten.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.

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The Mother of Beauty

I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.”

Petronius, The Satyricon.

From man’s blood-sodden heart are sprung
Those branches of the night and day
Where the gaudy moon is hung.
What’s the meaning of all song?
“Let all things pass away.”

Yeats “Vacillation”

 

Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

shapeimage_2

In the catalogue of alienations we Late Empire citizens suffer – estrangement from nature, God, our neighbors, ourselves – our estrangement from death is often omitted. We no longer encounter death on a daily basis. Most of us don’t raise chickens to wring their necks, pluck their feathers, excise their entrails. When our loved ones die, we no longer remove their clothes, wash their corpses, and dress them for one last family photo in the parlor.

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Of course, our lack of exposure to death makes it much easier to lock it away down deep in the cellar of our consciousness, which might not be such a bad thing given that nothing’s more life negating than death obsession. On the other hand, our isolation from the cold hard facts our ancestors dealt with – butchering animals, infant mortality, etc. – might have contributed to a delusion many seem to suffer, i.e death is unnatural.

A few years ago, an acquaintance’s father, a man approaching ninety, was lying comatose in a hospital. Each day, on Facebook this acquaintance updated his father’s situation, which, not surprisingly, was rather uneventful – the opening and closing of an eye, a sense from a nurse that the old man experienced discomfort when bathed. My acquaintance and visitors read the Bible to him aloud as they sat and prayed for a miracle. This acquaintance battled his father’s physicians who wanted to transfer him to hospice care while the son perceived opening an eye as a harbinger of “the complete recovery” for which he so ardently prayed.

Most of the Facebook commentators were essentially enablers writing messages like “Sounds very encouraging!!! The doctors could be totally wrong……the body can heal in ways that only God knows” or “That’s great. God is in controll” (sic) or “God is the ultimate physician:-).”

A contempt for science and doctors ran through those Facebook posts, and the commentary that followed. No wonder people don’t believe in evolution or global warming if they believe a comatose man dying of an infection brought on my the removal of a cancerous lung tumor could very well attain a complete recovery and enter robustly into his ninth decade.

dead doe in a frozen pond in North Carolina

dead doe in a frozen pond in North Carolina

However, much more horrible than death would be eternal life in an ever aging husk of a body. Not only did the Sibyl at Cumae consider it a drag (see above), but we also have corroborating evidence from Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale.” When a trio of churls accost an ancient man and ask him why he still has the gall to remain alive, he replies,

Not even Death, alas! my life will take;
Thus restless I my wretched way must make,
And on the ground, which is my mother’s gate,
I knock with my staff early, aye, and late,
And cry: ‘O my dear mother, let me in!
Lo, how I’m wasted, flesh and blood and skin!
Alas! When shall my bones come to their rest?

Why, I wonder, would such devout Christians want to forestall the eternity of bliss that awaited that good man? And the father was a good man, a great provider devoted to his family and his God.

The answer, of course, is love.  Most of us love our parents.  We don’t want them to go.  I miss my own father’s sardonic witticisms, my mother’s hoarse cackle of a laugh. My acquaintance devotedly loved his father and didn’t want to think of living life without him.

Is that so wrong?

[cue Evangelical voice]: Let us turn to Ecclesiastes 3:1-4.

To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose under heaven.

A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted . . .

Like I said, our aged loved ones’ passing is melancholy, and we miss them when they’re gone. I have had a couple of dreams about my mother recently, and I awake missing her. Nevertheless, her time had come, and she was rather fortunate given that she didn’t have suffer for long the feebleness that Larkin descries in “The Old Fools.”

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don’t (and they can’t) it’s
strange: Why aren’t they screaming?

Yep, there are worse things than death.