Poetry Review: “Flying by Night” by Ted Kooser


Ted Kooser

One of the truisms of American poetry is that some of the most original poetry written in the 20th Century was written by non-professional poets. That is, poets who had their primary careers in fields other than writing or teaching writing. Unencumbered by more traditional poetic relationships and poetic responsibilities, poets like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams were free to push poetry in more original directions.

People who spend a great deal of time together soon begin to think and talk the same. Students follow teachers and follow one another. Soon all are thinking, voting, and writing similarly. Originality is narrowed because experiences, expectations, and perspectives are narrowed – distilled ever down to ones that all in the group can ultimately live with.

The poet or artist working alone is a slightly more free from the webs of socially polite conformity that constrain originality or the sub-conscious group thought/speak that limits language direction. The poet working alone is free to follow any direction of their own making as far as it goes. Even, unfortunately, if it is the absolutely wrong direction. For that reason, the poet working alone may reach either greater heights or greater depths of creativity than any class-trained / writing-group poet.

Poet Ted Kooser, like Wallace Stevens spent most of his working life in the insurance business. His poetry is deceptively simple. The language and images spring from his rural Midwestern sensibility: farm houses and farm fields, yard sales, and towns that still proudly fly a flag and gather Friday nights for high school football games.

“Flying By Night” is one of dozens of great little poems that Kooser has written. In it we see what makes Kooser a great poet: simple words and images coming together to make something beautiful, multi-dimensional, and unforgetable.


Flying at Night

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

Poetry Review: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

ozymandias-300x199While today Percy Bysshe Shelley is generally recognized as one of the shining lights of English poetry, during his own lifetime and for a generation after his death he was not so widely regarded. Most of this lack of appreciation was due to critics disliking his political and philosophical writings.

For early critics, his less “complicated” poems like “Ozymadias” alone were acknowledged and praised. His “rediscovery” at the end of the 19th Century and the end of the Victorian Period  by the Pre-Raphaelites reinvigorated poetry. His influence on Yeats is, of course, significant.

“Ozymandias” is a staple of English 101 classes. In form and content, it is a perfect poem – one easily memorized and gratefully recited. Its many ironic levels are easy to see, and strike a familiar and modern chord.



I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Poetry Review: “Names of Horses” by Donald Hall

Donald Hall

Donald Hall

Donald Hall is, unfortunately, an under-appreciated poet. While his prose works like LifeWork and Ancient Glittering Eyes represent his greatest strengths as a writer, he remains a marvelous poet.

“Names of Horses” is one of my favorite Hall poems. Here Hall remembers the history of his Eagle Pond family farm by remembering the horses that lived and died working the land. Hall’s connection to his family and his family farm is a theme in much of his best writing: poetry and prose.

In “Names of Horses” everything that makes Hall an outstanding poet is in evidence: the carefully crafted yet “spoken” language, the personal and lyrical contextually, and the unbridled Americanism.

I hope you enjoy!

Names of Horses

All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine
clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.

Poetry Review: “Musee De Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Brueghel

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Brueghel

While literary history is filled with American writers becoming British (Henry James, T.S. Eliot) or Continental (Ezra Pound), W.H. Auden represents the reverse. This is one of the things that make him an interesting poet – classic British English becoming Americanized in the hands of a master.

In the same way, he occupies a peculiar artistic in-betweeness – behind him lies the Modern (Yeats, Eliot, Pound) and ahead of him the Post-Modern, the disparate directions and trajectories we think of as contemporary poetry. Auden fairly belongs to neither, and yet seems the master of both.

“Musee Des Beaux Arts” is poetic meditation on a painting and on the concept of good and evil. It is above all a great work by a great poet.

Musee Des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Montana Poems

A volume of my poetry, Montana Poems, is now available in the kindle format from Amazon.com. Three decades in the making and a very low price tag of $2.99. That works out to a tidy little sum of… 10-cents a year!

Just follow this link


For those who have been wondering why I have not been posting here much of late and have been “re-arranging” what is here… this is your answer. My first foray into e-publishing was more time-consuming than I anticipated.

Remember you do not need a Kindle to purchase Montana Poems. Kindle apps are available for  iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, PC, Mac, Blackberry, and Android-based devices, just about every electronic device you can imagine.

Now with that under my belt, I move to the next project: a collection of short stories entitled Montana Noir.

How NOT to Read a Poem

Seven Basic Rules for How NOT to Read a Poem

W.B. Yeats reading

W.B. Yeats reading

1. DO NOT try to unpack the meaning of a poem
Poems are not elaborate, literary puzzles. No matter what some English teachers may have  told you over the years, there are no prizes for being able to “decipher” what a poet is really saying. Poems are born in feelings. Poetry uses compressed and loaded language not primarily to convey meaning but to convey feeling. Meaning in poetry is always secondary.

2. DO NOT think you need to be a trained English Major to read a poem
Poems are one of the first literary forms we enjoy. Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss delight because they are fun to hear and fun to say. Language play is one of our first loves. It can also be one of our last.

3. DO NOT read a poem only once
Most poems benefit from being read twice. If one of those times it is read out loud, so much the better.

4. DO NOT read only a single poem
A poem does not exist in isolation. The best way to read a poem is to read it within the context of a volume of poetry. Each poem you read by a poet helps you to read the next poem by the same poet.

5. DO NOT be intimidated by a poem
Poetry cannot be intimidating for the simple reason that poets have issues: depression, anxiety, insecurity…. Poetry like all art is born in suffering. Read just about any poet’s biography and you will quickly realize that the person who wrote even the most dense poem is too anxiety-ridden to be the least bit intimidating. Chances are if you met your favorite poet, the experience would be completely underwhelming. If the creator is not intimidating, how can their creation really be all that intimidating.

6. DO NOT keep a poem to yourself
When you find a poem you like, share it with another. Better yet, buy a volume of poetry with that favorite poem in it and give it to another as a gift. A favorite poem is one of the greatest gifts you can give to another.

7. DO NOT avoid buying books of poems
The more poetry books you buy, the more you will read. The more poetry books you read, the more comfortable and enjoyable poetry will be for you.

(citation:  Seven Basic Rules for How NOT to Read a Poem,
copyright © Mark Hinton)

Music Monday: “Laughing with God” by Regina Spektor

September is in full swing. Autumn has arrived… and whether we like it or not Winter is just around the corner.

I  liked “Laughing With” the very first time I heard the song, I was leaving work on the way to one of the many obligations that seem to fill my life these days and it came on the Current.

When I finally got home that evening, I googled Regina Spektor and the song and downloaded it to my iPod.



Book Review: Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan

Trout-Fishing-in-AmericaIn the summer of 1984, I drove my brother’s 1964 Galaxy 500 (Deluxe Sport Coupe) 1713 miles from Dillon, Montana to Saginaw, Michigan with only one companion – a beat up paperback edition of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. The radio was original with the car. In eastern Montana and western North Dakota I could seldom pick up stations. I entertained myself by pulling over every once in awhile and reading a chapter or section of Trout Fishing in America. It was the perfect kind of book to do that with.

26 years later, I have another battered edition of Brautigan’s classic – the same faded salmon border, the black and white photo of Brautigan and a friend in front of the Benjamin Franklin statue. Reading it is like hearing an old song you once listened to on AM radio… I am carried back to that summer and the trip east from the mountains and streams of Montana to the failing heart of the American Rust Belt.

To call Trout Fishing in America quirky is to considerably understate the point. It is part short story collection, part prose poem, and part 1960s time capsule. The very name “Trout Fishing in America” morphs from character name, to hotel name, to book title, to the very act of fishing itself.

I tried several Brautigan books in the years immediately following my Trout Fishing in America summer. But none ever measured up. That is understandable… because nothing could ever measure up. The other Brautigan books always seemed like pale attempts to recapture youthful magic.

Rereading Trout Fishing in America in 2010 at the age of 50, some things hold up well, other parts fall altogether flat. Some parts that seemed to me once magical creativity now have the characteristic of gimmicky oddness. It remains, however, a book everyone should have on their resume. At least everyone who has ever been young, trout fished, and lived in the West.


Book Review: A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano

HanoNFL Football is a sport that is much better on television than in person. The concentrated bursts of action between long periods of inactivity are enhanced by instant replay, color commentators, and beer commercials featuring scantily clad women. Anyone who has ever watched an NFL football game in person knows that  inevitably fans at the game end up watching the game on the stadium jumbotron as if they were home in their livingrooms anyway.

Not so with baseball which is best experienced in person. (The next best option, of course, being radio.) Television ratings for the two sports bear this truth out.

In 1954, writer and editor Arnold Hano took in a baseball game and wrote a book about it. The fact that the game he went to was Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, that Willie Mays made “The Catch,” and that Hano is a wonderful and observant writer, has created one of the 10 best books about baseball ever written– a true “classic” in every sense of that over-used word.

From his perch in the bleachers, Hano gives an inning by inning narration of the first post-season game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. In Hano’s capable hands the game takes on mythic proportions with all-time great Willie Mays and his catch of Vic Wertz’s long, long drive taking center stage.

Like a novelist, Hano lets us get to know the characters of the drama that enfolds before him: Mays, Wertz, Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Sal Maglie…. His understanding of baseball is thorough, his prose is wonderful and evocative, his insights about the game enlightening, his passion for both the nuances and the grand gestures of a game quite evident.

In A Day in the Bleachers, one great game in 1954 with the greatest of all great catches has clearly found its great witness.


Book Review: Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann

“There’s nothing wrong with the Little League World Series that locking out the adults couldn’t cure.”  ~Mike Penner, Los Angeles Times

DohrmannIn 2000 George Dohrmann wrote a series of articles for the St. Paul Pioneer Press that ruined University of Minnesota basketball for me and a lot of Gopher fans… while winning for himself a Pulitzer Prize. In Play Their Hearts Out, Dohrmann has done the same thing now for amateur youth basketball, following a team of kids from Southern California and their monomaniacal coach over a number of years to write this highly readable and compelling book about a game that had to stop being fun for most of the participants well along the way.

Penner’s quote about the Little League World Series (that was once upon a time limited to just the championship game being broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but has this summer (2010) become a daily staple on ESPN) applies equally well to the youth basketball Dohrmann followed from the inside for a number of years to research this book. Youth basketball would be much better for those who play it if adults– parent, coaches, and corporate sponsors– were locked out of the gyms.

Sports is big business. Maybe more so at the amateur level than even the professional level. Shoe companies and colleges lavish gifts on amateur coaches and player representatives. The goal is to find the next LeBron and the millions that go with him. The methods used Dohrmann learned are all too often intimidation, manipulation, and exploitation.

Basketball is a simple game. That is the myth. It is popular in the inner-cities because it is so cheap to play. You need hardly any space or equipment, only a ball and a hoop and blacktop heroes are born.

The reality is much more complicated. Sports have always been seen as the “way out” in America for the underclass. In the early part of the 20th Century the sport was baseball. The sons of coal miners and share croppers fought cleat and nail to get out and make the show. Before Jackie Robinson, of course, it was a color-divided dream they chased….

The youth basketball that Dohrmann describes is born of the same desperation that has always given America its sports heroes… and is tainted with the same under and overtones of race and class.

Dohrmann has done a great service with this book. Whether it will make a difference when so much money and hope is on the line… only time will tell. We can only hope.