Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from 6+ years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on September 30, 2013.
I pass time working on the blog that is to replace this one, and pushing lines of verse around on metaphorical pages. In short, I have been waiting for inspiration.
A restless reader by nature, I have been even more restless these day than I am used to. Dozens and dozens of new books are started but soon abandoned. The only book I have managed to start and finish these past few months is a biography of jazz saxophonist Lester Young. A good one that I will review soon.
It has been a season of re-reading: Yeats and Whitman and Shelley and Keats and Hopkins and Seamus Heaney and Hemingway.
Laying out those writers on paper now, it is clear I am searching the familiar-past for a way forward: returning to my literary roots.
It has also been a season of jazz and blues.
At work I listen to Lester Young and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Lester Young has become a bit of an obsession of mine (and I have had many). I have long loved Coltrane and Stan Getz but knew Young only by reputation. I knew he was influential, but did not know why.
Chancing upon an article somewhere last spring, I came across the fact that Young had lived in Minneapolis for a time, and long considered the Twin Cities a safe home of sorts.
That jazz had roots outside of New Orleans and Chicago and New York was an unexpected surprise. That my adopted home for 25 years was one of those places, made me want to know more.
It has been said that the saxophone of all musical instruments comes closest to “mimicking” the human voice. Lester Young called playing, “telling stories.” Jazz, like poetry, is born in the emotion of a moment. It is the expression of an inexpressible feeling.
Listening to Lester Young, you know that he has a soul like Keats or Whitman. His “sound” is at once ethereal and all too human.
And so another summer has passed. This one spent with Lester Young and a few old poetic friends. What the future hold for blogging and writing is unclear. But I know I do not go empty handed. I carry with me the gift of giants.
In the debate over whether Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature, I have long been in the camp that has said he does. Artificial distinctions between Literary and Non-Literary works have not made sense to me in a very long time.
As I have written here several times:
The distinction between literary and genre fictions (mysteries, westerns, fantasy, and sci.fi.) is largely an artificial one. Those who still insist on making anachronistic literary distinctions do it for the same reason that all snobs make such declarations, self-aggrandizing assholery.
The only distinctions that can legitimately be made in literature are between good writing and bad writing and good stories and bad stories. When a work of fiction [or poetry or song lyrics] takes hold of your imagination, when the language continually invites you to turn pages [keep listening] the writer has done his or her job. When the book [poem or song] haunts you and you can remember it years and years later, the writer has written a masterpiece.
Bob Dylan has written many masterpieces. Lines and images and stories that stay with us decades after we first hear them. Songs that do what literature is supposed to do, change the way we experience the world.
Some of my own favorite Dylan songs (in no particular order):
- “I Shall Be Released”
- “Tangled Up in Blue”
- “All Along the Watchtower”
- “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
- “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”
- “Not Dark Yet”
- “Gotta Serve Somebody”
- “Forever Young”
- “Like a Rolling Stone”
- “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”
Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from 6+ years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on August 12, 2010.
At first blush, the marriage between Ovid, that most latin of poets, and Ted Hughes would seem as unlikely a match as any you could imagine. Not in ability, of course, but in language and temperament.
Hughes as a poet has always seemed to me one of the most earthy, physical, and Anglo-Saxon of all contemporary poets. Classical Ovid and the dactylic hexameter (the poetic meter form used in classical epic poems such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad, often called the “heroic” hexameter) would seem to be polar opposite of Hughes. Yet Hughes pulls it off, creating one of the best books of poetry I have read in a very long time.
When I think of Hughes I think of poems like “February 17th” which is about a farmer struggling to help a still-born lamb to be delivered to save the mother. Such lines as these seem so earthy, so removed in style and substance from what we think of when we think of the heroic:
The corpse that would not come. Till it came.
And after it the long, sudden, yolk-yellow
Parcel of life
In a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups –
And the body lay born, beside the hacked-off head.
Yet in these lines we also see what Hughes does best, perhaps better than anyone ever: he sees and gives voice to the natural and nature in a way simultaneously factual and mythic.
In Tales from Ovid, Hughes picks and chooses which of Ovid’s many stories he wants to translate and re-tell. His choices include some of the most violent and disturbing stories that Ovid wrote: ‘Echo and Narcissus,’ ‘Bacchus and Pentheus,’ and ‘Jove’s rape of Semele’. But in the same way that the language of “February 17th” transfigures the brutality and tragedy of a still-born lamb, in Hughes’s poetry even Ovid’s most violent stories and images become transcendent as in these lines from the story of Semele:
Her eyes opened wide, saw him
And burst into flame.
Her whole body lit up
With the glare
That explodes the lamp –
In that splinter of a second,
Before her blazing shape
Became a silhouette of sooty ashes
The foetus was snatched from her womb.
Ovid’s stories are of change, metamorphosis. In the late 20th and early part of the 21st century, it is a theme that seems most relevant… and obviously one that attracted Hughes the poet/prophet. But beneath the theme of change runs the deeper current of love. Ovid, even in the most violent and brutal of his stories, is always writing about love. It is after all love (sometimes broken and warped love in the form of lust and jealousy) that creates the action between the gods and the people in these familiar stories. Certainly in the late 20th and first part of the 21st century the theme of love remains as relevant as when Ovid first penned these stories centuries ago.
Autumn has returned to the North Country. Changing leaves, lengthening shadows, and days and nights of cool, dry air. For most of us who live here, it is the best time of year: brief and beautiful.
In the quietness between posts here, I work, I rewrite, I submit, and I watch time unfurl.
Submitting work has always seemed to me more work than writing. It is why I have seldom done it over the years. It is certainly less rewarding.
This time around though, I have promised myself that I will be intentional about submitting things. Working through decades of poems, I edit and re-write.
It is work for mornings, when things are quiet and still. And since mornings are brief, it is work that takes time. Words laid down decades ago are not easily moved.
Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from 6+ years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on July 26, 2011. This was the first book review in the series “Poets on Poetry.”
The best way to learn about poetry is to read poetry… and to read poets talking about it. With that in mind, over the next few weeks,MontanaWriter will be highlighting a number of books that feature poets talking about poetry, beginning with Poetry and Ambition: Essays 1982-88by Donald Hall.
The greatest challenge in reviewing a collection of essays written for different occasions, audiences, and publications is trying to say a few things in general about a number of potentially mutually exclusive particulars. Do you highlight each individual essay? Do you group them thematically and talk about them that way? Or do you go a different route altogether? Regular readers of MontanaWriter will no doubt be less than surprised to find that I am choosing the last option.
I first read, Poetry and Ambition (according to my note on the inside front cover) in the summer of 1996. In the summer of 1996, I was an at-home dad with a one and a three-year-old. During the days I would have been doing the parenting thing and during naps editing and writing bible studies and training materials. In the evenings then I had a part-time telemarketing job I went to a few nights of the week.
I would have been reading these essays then… during breaks at work, and in my cubicle waiting for calls to come in. Donald Hall was helping me to keep my sanity. Poetry has always been that for me.
Picking the volume off the shelf, I look now at lines I underlined and highlighted 15 years ago:
“I see no reason to spend you life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.”(cf. the title essay, “Poetry and Ambition”)
“…you have to realize, the countryside is full of people who who do what they want to do. The suburbs are full of people doing what they hate to do, because they need to in order to maintain their debts.” (cf. part of Hall’s response to question in “An Interview with Donald Hamilton”)
“No excellent poem is immediately receivable, even in silent reading.” (cf. essay “Public Performance/Private Art”)
“Sometimes when people praise the sound of verse, they are dismissed as anti-intellectual.”(cf. essay “Naming the Skin.”)
“The writer of genius is the writer who fails most at what he or she tries hardest to accomplish.” (cf. essay “Theory X Theory”)
“…what a wonderful autobiography [Phillip] Larkin could write, about a life in which nothing has happened: always the most interesting biography.” (cf. essay “Deprivation’s Laureate”)
“‘Poetry is the supreme result of the entire language,’ says Joseph Brodsky. Poetry is what language is for, what language exists to move toward.” (cf. essay “The way to Say Pleasure”)
There are 19 essays in Poetry and Ambition. Read together they flush out Hall’s substantial understanding of the creative process, poetry and poetic language, the role of poetry in society, and the contributions of individual poets. Included are essays on William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Philip Larkin and on modern Irish poetry. The excellent title essay is inspiring. The essay “Public Performance/Private Art” is a wonderful treatise on the business-end of writing and performing poetry.
My favorite essay, though, is the one entitled “About ‘Names of Horses.’” In it he provides background to his poem called “Names of Horses.” But more than that, he provides background into the creative process and an entre into reading and appreciating one particular poem. A poem that is now one of my favorite Hall poem’s.
I could easily add many dozen more lines to those I highlighted above… or a dozen notes I made in margins and in the back of the book on blank pages. Hall is that good a writer and this is that good a book.
My newest Western short story, “Better Tombstones,” is available now at Frontier Tales.
You can find my other Western short stories here:
- The Best of Frontier Tales, Volume Three: Available Here
- “Box Canyon” at The Western Online
- “Cottonwood Death” at Frontier Tales
- “Montana is Big” at The Western Online