OLD BUT NOT AN ELDER

I’m done phased out
There are only so many updates a hard drive can sustain
Before it’s time for a new model

It’s an odd feeling.
That it’s pretty much all behind me now
And that no one’s going to hire me

Despite my talents
With my age, my gender, my race, my desire to still contribute
Though it were charity to voluntarily yield my place

Get out of the way, voluntarily
Make room for new blood, young blood just starting out
Except I’m not feeling all that charitable

So it is mandated involuntarily
By the system, the machine, rage against the machine
And by the machine, we mean

That young HR professional
Snotnosed, snoot-nosed, or otherwise, who scans one’s Vita,
Or algorithm scanning keywords, number, gender, race

And I am sunk
It is deemed that it is all behind me now
I am old, but not an elder

It is deemed I am an archaism
Were my body’s accusation of age not sufficient for me to accept
With whatever grace or rage I can

And yet I keep going
Learn, study, write, compose, assimilate, with no eye to audition, application
No eye of future performance, career

But to pleasure myself
Onanist used to be the disdainful Biblical word for it all,
I once encountered in a poem by Walt Whitman

It is deemed the word is an archaism
A ghost of art past, haunting schools with rhyme, rhythm, meter, beats, feet
19th-Century poems, representational paintings, liturgical music

At my leisure
I learn, study, write poetry, compose music, pleasure myself
At my leisure and leisure is all I have now

When Wallace Stevens Won the Robert Frost Medal

Robert Frost is so far out there when we consider where poetry is now, my English professor almost decided not to include him in a course on Modern American Poets. In the Modern Period, Robert Frost’s poetry had rhyme, rhythm, beats, feat, and profound themes and sentiment. Since Frost, and in his own age, poetry typically has none of these. OK, maybe theme and sentiment at times. I checked out a journal as a possible place to publish my own poetry. In their guidelines for submissions, they said, “No rhyming poetry.” That’s where we are.

Art, generally speaking, doesn’t rhyme. Visual art doesn’t represent recognizable objects but abstractions; morphs into performance; has become so cerebral that it emulates bare theory. Music went through an atonal period epitomized by Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system of atonality in which anything like melody or harmony is abandoned. Since then, harmony and melody stab at presence in compositions. Along with this general trend in art, abstract poetry finds a place, exemplified by the likes of Wallace Stevens. Abstract poetry is like atonal music. And, in fact, at least one modern composer set Whitman’s I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC to music. (Try finding him/her with Google if you can get past all the posts about Fame.)

Robert Frost was a retrenchment into poetic form that was slip, slipping away. Yet he is still a master poet. With rhyme and rhythm, maybe, indeed, despite rhyme and rhythm Frost’s preeminent place in literary history is firmly established. No course in Modern Poetry can omit Frost.

Beginning with Walt Whitman, poetry loosened the constraints of meter and rhyme. And despite my best efforts at appreciation, it appears to me that Wallace Stevens also loosens the constraint of meaning. In his life, Robert Frost won 4 Pulitzer Prizes, and was awarded 40 honorary degrees. Wallace Stevens won 1 Pulitzer Prize. I chuckle, no, sneer, when I think of Wallace Stevens winning the Robert Frost Medal in 1951.

But today, poetry is more like Wallace Stevens than it is like Robert Frost. Frost was a last gasp of poetic form. At one time, Frost said he would have sold his soul to modernism but for its sameness of sound. Themes created poetic variety for Frost. When one reads poets like Stevens, one can tire quickly of words that deconstruct meaning. Like reading a glossary without definitions. I know of a poet who wrote out in prose a poem about the murder of her parents, then cut it up–either physically or conceptually–and reassembled the story “abstractly.” If one has a story to tell, it is a lie to make it unintelligible in order for it to be art. Then art is a lie.

Whither art? We don’t know. Art must evolve become new;–all things new. We wouldn’t want a steady diet of Rembrandt only–even if it be Rembrandt. We want a new song to sing. But we also want to be able to sing the song.

WHEN MY ILLNESS WAS MY LIFE

I was the bipolar poster boy
When my illness was my life:
Super Consumer
Drop-In Center
Support Group
NAMI Organization
Seminar presentations
Academic publications
Consumer community
High functioning.
The eyes of all consumers waited upon me
—We understand one another—
I was my psychiatrist’s favorite
When my illness was my life
And the textbooks labeled me mentally ill, label me
A chapter now closed on the fulness of my life
I can hardly recollect in my life now
Realize that the textbooks still label me mentally ill
My life then, when my illness was my life

My 12-Step community was my life
About which I must keep anonymity
At the level of press, radio, film, and poetry
My only friends
My social life
My whole life
Salvific meetings
Salve
Salvation
Save
And healing persists in the 12-Steps
And I live the principles in all my affairs
But all my affairs are not only in and of
The meeting rooms I attend
All my affairs are not only the 12-Step community

Life does not launch me into recovery
Not as failed life once did
Recovery launches me into life
I must live with, but not by, my illnesses
My illnesses walk with me, will ever walk with me
While I walk this mortal coil
I embrace the whole world that walks among life outside meeting rooms
Life that finds fulfilment among hypergoods that thrive outside meeting rooms
Outside the Consumer Drop-In Center
Recovery, sanity, serenity, meetings, pills
Launch
Launch me
Launch me into fulness of life
This, my life of
Music
Verse
Friends
Amusements
Work
Study
Love
Spirituality
Fulness of life
Life outside the drop-in center, meeting rooms
The illnesses that no longer make me who I am
No longer make life what life is
The chapter closed
Poem concluded
I compose new stories in the fulness of life I live
Write new poetry

Writing Poetry after Youth

Any poet, if he is to survive as a writer beyond his twenty-fifth year, must alter; he must seek new literary influences; he will have different emotions to express. This is disconcerting to that public which likes a poet to spin his whole work out of the feelings of his youth;–T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry

T. S. Eliot wrote this insightful comment when he was 29.  He had written The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but had not yet written The Waste Land.  It is a remarkable comment, since Eliot, himself, hadn’t “altered.”  His own style was still developing and his arguably best work was yet to come.  From my own personal experience, I think that there is something in this observation of Eliot’s.

Some time in my early 30’s my passion for poetry had dried up.  Those strong feelings of youth were being replaced by different motivations.  As Eliot writes, after 25, the poet “will have different emotions to express.”  It is fair to say that in early adulthood/late youth, emotions ruled my life.  But as I aged, deliberation and understanding the large question of how the world works and the still larger question of how the map of living unfolds became increasingly important.  So the verbal filigree of young passion yielded to more contemplative works. 

However, just beginning to tackle different life issues, expression proved a fresh start on language.  So my output was inferior during this period.  I remember a friend who liked my earlier poetry once exclaim to me, “You’ve lost it!”  And I had.  I had mostly lost youth.

But as time progressed, I became accustomed to the challenges that life throws at adults and my writing began to mature, too. I was aware of the loss of my muse in my early 30’s.  I knew that I wasn’t writing very well.  I knew that my friend was right, for then.  In fact, I had almost quit writing altogether; I did precipitously stop writing for long spells.  But I couldn’t stop writing. A new style developed for the new person I was since youth. Of the poems I’ve published, ¾ are “post-30’s” poems;–that is, poetry I wrote after the age of 30.  That which was lost was found! 

Eliot’s style underwent quite an alteration as he aged, as well.  As a literature major once told me, “The jury’s still out on Four Quartets” (1936-1942—when Eliot was aged 48-52).  But the jury returned a verdict on The Cocktail Party (premiered 1949); utter failure.  The difference in Eliot’s later work, compared with that of his earlier work, though, is not only a matter of Eliot’s age.  He had also undergone a religious conversion and meant to express it in his work.  This is a major “alteration!” And even if Eliot’s artistry matched his new spirituality, the critical reception would have been skewed by the counter-religious zeitgeist of the modern age. 

Writing poetry is a dance between grasping language, grasping life, and grasping art.  All this is likely to undergo revision and rewrites with the stages of living one will experience here, and perhaps, hereafter.

BRONTOSAURUS HEAD

The head of the Brontosaurus erupted in debate spewing money
Sufficient to make some paleontologists’ living for a generation
Disputes between Diplodocus and Apatosaurus founded careers
Like echoing museums and marble floors endowed at great expense
By Foundation money dug up from trusts held of bones in marble mausoleums
Bequeathing Jurassic skeletons cast in plaster (priceless petrified bones coffered)
Camarasaurs and Albertasaurs petrified along with zooplankton and algae’s
Fossilized extract fueling the Canadian economy in that same province holding
The Tyrrell Museum’s complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton with its detached head
Heavy as unintelligible words detached from syntax and evacuated of the themes
Wallace Stevens faulted Robert Frost’s poetry for—poetry made neither a living—
Who spilled words on paper like colors on an abstract painting’s canvass evacuated
Of recognizable content, more art history than paleontology, also palaeontology—
Unrecognized by spellcheck as an extinct word dug up and displayed in a muse

PLOUGHMEN DIG NOT FOR ME

Businessmen do not drink my wine
The man in the suit has not bought a new car
From any profit he made off my dreams
Though dreams I have, have dreamed, dream

I’ve imbibed conventional wisdom’s grasp on the vitality of dreams
That dreams make a life out of otherwise existence
Aethereal dreams awaken into materiality, matter’s reality;–all real
Nobody can doubt the reality of a dream and live

One doesn’t dream in terms written by dollars and status
Defined in the lexicon legislated by ledger books
Businessmen withdraw from intangibles that weigh golden hopes
Dream reality resists materialism and yet materializes

Whole symphonies deconstruct as ones and zeros in a cloud somewhere
And Bach’s C-Moll Passacaglia is pulses of air
But digital scans and air differentials don’t explain to ears
The mystery that is a melody—even if construed through standing wave proportions

Sometimes my pen dreams in ink dots materializing on a musical staff
The keys on my piano reverberate beats my heart feels
Manifesting the immaterial into the physical world
While air waves question what they, themselves, are doing

At other times, words grow out of my consciousness
Planted in ink and tree pulp tending to a poem’s making
My pen glides across the blank, white sheet in dark lines
To become a dream of some distant reader in my mind: a virtual reality

Nobody pays me for my dreams.  No.
I grunt and sweat under a heavy timeclock on my back
No ploughman digs earth for me
I’ve dug my own footings on which the whole world is built for me

My grandmother told me I wasn’t very good at making money
When I was an impoverished grad student
Even now, I don’t make much money, nor have creditable prospects
Yet I’m good at making, dreaming, making dreams live

Making for me is as making money for businessmen
I’m good at living without much money, without much interest in making money
Dreams pay me more than dollars, when I have money
I lack really for nothing but dreams fulfill

REMEMBRANCES OF ICONIC CHICAGO

I remember old, green copper and concrete lighthouses,

Green algae seaweed patched concrete water level lighthouse bases,

Water-worn wooden posts standing at angles in front of them

We floated past on the Chicago River tour boat that afternoon

They render in my mind more than

 

the iconic Chicago skyline,

the angular, massive, stainless-steel Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park,

the Aquarium,

The Sears Building we went up in to the observation floor,

The Green Mill Speakeasy where Al Capone used to hang,

 

As does the folk art that covered the walls on all three floors in The House of Blues

A shrine, it seemed

I remember one set depicts images of folk shot with bullet holes, bleeding

Every folk in the paintings shot, in that African-American artwork’s neighborhood

I remember the second-floor stage with nine world religions symbols across and above it

Symbols captured in language in the central iconic image above the stage

 

UNITY IN DIVERSITY

ALL ARE ONE

 

The burning heart on the ground-floor stage curtain

Iconography like the Catholic Sacred Heart

(Yes, I remember, too, the disappointing blues band there in iconic Chicago)

Taking home rather the impression of a visit to a shrine

 

As does a black man at Buddy Guy’s who remembered me from The House of Blues last night

Joined us at our table tonight, with funny jibes, japes, and jabs

While his wife smiled and shook her head sometimes

 

As does the personal appearance of Mayor Lori Lightfoot on the 4th of July

At an outdoor concert in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park early evening

Seeing her more memorable than the event itself

And now in Canada we see Mayor Lori Lightfoot on TV and smile at each other

 

(Maybe the free Picasso “Untitled” in Daley Plaza)—Carol liked it perhaps the best

 

Of course, I remember the patient, eager, hour’s wait to get into the Art Institute of Chicago

Paying extra for a special exhibit I now forget

Waiting in line to just view certain paintings:

“Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare,” by Monet

“American Gothic”

And me being the only one in a whole exhibit room of early Christian art

(Part of me is glad that the proximity of religion

Hasn’t let Christian art be considered art in the same sense as Monet’s Impressionism)

 

Carol and I talk about what we remember

We talk about the trip

Things that meant, what Chicago meant

Chicago meant

Criticism, Opinion, and Contemporary Art

OK.  I have difficulty appreciating contemporary art.  I had difficulty appreciating disco music.  In the mid ’70’s it was disco or punk.  I had difficulty appreciating both the Bee Gees and Sid Vicious.  So in the mid ’70’s, I opted out of pop music.  For musical enjoyment, I retreated into the world of classical music in my protest/hermitage from pop culture.  And in large part, I’m opting out of contemporary art.  This includes conceptual art, much poetry, and fiction.  I can bear some contemporary music, probably because of all the arts, I understand music best.  But even in “music,” conceptual art such as John Cage is past my willingness to try to like.

Innovation gives birth to new art forms.  In high school, I didn’t understand Jackson Pollock, but like him now.  Fair to say, though, I wouldn’t hang his work in my condo.  My parents didn’t like rock music–disco or other any other form.  But I would argue that rock pushed an envelope that needed to be pushed.  And I’ll say that some classic rock is great in a pop sort of way.  I certainly wouldn’t want a world with only Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra.  So whatever contemporary art thinks it’s doing, it may be advancing the arts.  (Isn’t that generous of me?)  Few appreciated the Impressionists in their day.  But they did the art world a great service in moving painting beyond Gustave Moreau.  Maybe there’s something in the art that came through town which consisted of folding chairs interspersed with speakers through which a dreamy woman spoke about her dream of crows dying.?

A while back, I thought that my ideas about art were bona fide criticism.  I thought that my understanding of art constituted a critical stance and I thought that others should heed my critical positions.  But I now see that as ego.  My critical stance is really opinion.  I’ll validate my opinion that much in contemporary art is not worth my time.  But I won’t say that it’s bad art.  All I can say is that I don’t like it, don’t get it, don’t wish to take the time to get it.  What passes for art today may well be advancing forms that the children of my generation will love.  Or it might be like disco, and die out.  I don’t know.  Don’t think anyone can know.  What I can know is that my position is opinion.  I’d like to think it critical theory and call down the Harpies of the art world on everything I don’t like.  A few months ago, I would have.  Now, call it humility, maybe, but my preferences are mine alone.  Which frees me up to shrug off what I don’t think deserving of my time.  And to laud those who are doing things I don’t get.

LEONARDO’S SONNETS

The artist who painted the Mona Lisa composed

Sonnets

Leonardo is not known for his verse

Though you might be able to find them on Amazon

I don’t know if anybody read them in his day

So why write sonnets no one would read

When you are a painter?

And he designed

Bombs, sculptures, a flying machine

None of which materialized

I don’t think his flying machine would work

Did all this conspire in the painting of

The Mona Lisa

Thought by many to be THE GREATEST PAINTING

Two Narratives about English Literature

My Ph.D. is an interdisciplinary degree in Religion and Literature.  When I was in school, there were only two Religion and Literature departments in universities: U Chicago, and U Virginia.  Religion and Literature is a strange major that neither discipline wants.  Religion departments don’t understand why one of their students would study literature.  And I have been called an “interloper” by a professor in the English department.  The reason I wanted to study Religion and Literature is due to my conviction that literature conveys meaning.  Most sacred literature, including the Bible, is written in literary forms (also the Rig Veda, the Koran, and the Songs of Milarepa).  Many of the prophets use poetry and metaphor, the Psalms are lyric poems, and much of the other books are stories.  It was, and is, my belief that Hemingway says something about life, about reality, and about meaning or the lack thereof in existence.  So did T.  S. Eliot.  So did Samuel Taylor Coleridge–especially in his famous poem, THE EOLIAN HARP.  And Coleridge certainly said something about existence and thinly disguised religion in THE RHYME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER.  But I need to be clear, I was not interested in religious literature.  Rather, I sought statements about life in all literature.  I suppose I was making a Swedenborgian connection not everybody would make.  Swedenborg writes, “All religion relates to life, and the religious life is to do good.”  So for me, statements about life are religious statements.

Unfortunately for me then, and now, the keepers of English literature do not think that literary art is about meaning-making.  I’m not at all sure what English literature does or is for them.  But two narratives point to what literature does or is, today.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, where the University of Virginia is located, I ran into a fellow student from the English department in a bar.  I asked him what he was writing about in his dissertation.  He said he was writing about the process by which the Mona Lisa became thought of as the greatest painting.  He alluded to T.S. Eliot’s remark that Hamlet “is the Mona Lisa of literature.”  He said that in his dissertation he makes a lot of that remark by Eliot.  We were on friendly terms, and I was interested in his doctoral work.  But I wondered why someone in the English department was writing about how the Mona Lisa became thought of as the greatest painting.  I think that my colleague was writing critical theory.  Making judgments about the value of art is something critics do.  But I thought that what he was writing on would be more appropriate in the art department than in the English department.  This was due to my presuppositions about English literature.  You see how out of sync I was, and am still?

My second narrative isn’t direct personal experience.  It is a conversation I had with an English professor at a charming coffee shop where I live now.  She has a friend who won an award, she thought, for a poem her friend wrote.  My acquaintance at the coffee shop related her recollection of the process her friend went through in writing the poem.  She said that her friend wrote out in prose a narrative about her parents’ murder-suicide.  She may have also included the guilt she felt as their child.  Then, the poet either physically or conceptually cut up the narrative into phrases and segments.  Then she rearranged the parts out of sequence, out of grammatical order, and the final product is unintelligible.  The final product is called a poem.  My acquaintance at the coffee shop said she was unable to read the poem.  And she believes that her friend won an award.

I think that these two narratives show what is going on in humane letters.  Criticism plays a prominent role in English literature.  That’s what my first narrative says.  Although criticism didn’t really come of age until the 17th Century, it seems to be alive and well, today.  Deconstruction, which I thought was a passe brand of philosophy, dominates contemporary literature.  That’s what my second narrative says–I think.  For I think that disassembling and reassembling a story is a form of deconstruction.  I’m guessing here, I I may be wrong.  But what I do think, is that the poem in question is a lie.  If a narrative is first written out in prose, that is the truth being expressed.  Cutting it up and rearranging the parts into an incomprehensible word salad is a lie.  Why rearrange the sentence fragments?  Or, more importantly, why write out the story in plain English first?  Isn’t the plain English story the reality and the cut-up poem a falsification of the story?  And I don’t think that rearranging words into salad is art at all.

Finally, the subject matter of the so-called poem is also telling about the direction in which contemporary art is going.  Of course her art would be about something horrible.  Contemporary art is not allowed to be about happy, pretty, joyful subjects–especially about the glory of God and God’s works.  Only a few years back a movie called No Country for Old Men won several Academy Awards.  That movie is about a serial killer.  The movie narrated him murdering people.  He got away with his killing as Woody Harrelson, the sheriff, was also murdered.  (A generation ago The Sound of Music cleaned up at the Academy Awards.)  Another acquaintance of mine at the same charming coffee shop told me about her experiences in art school.  She said that someone made a painting of an animal torn open.  Then, the artist covered the frame in pig’s blood.  I went to the art gallery in the city I live in now.  There was a display composed of about 20 speakers on stands, with folding chairs set among them.  I sat on a chair, and there was an audio loop of a woman describing a dream of crows dying.  No eagles soaring upward into the sky.  No baby crows hatching into life.  No hummingbirds and flowers.  Crows dying.

I come up with these ideas about art because I still believe that art makes statements about life.  I believe, too, that my view of art is disjunct from how the contemporary keepers of art view it.  I have already expressed my inability to appreciate contemporary art.  And, indeed, my disinclination even to try.  I have made a decision, though, that in my artistic endeavors, I will express my own vision of art.  I will not attempt to assimilate contemporary trends.  And whether there is an audience or receptivity for what I do is not of my concern.  I think that artists who matter, held similar positions about creativity.  Critics debated Frost’s value all his life.  Andrew Wyeth never was considered a real artist.  And Hemingway’s mother never liked his fiction, nor did Gertrude Stein.  Of course, I’m not situating myself in such august company.  I’m just saying.

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