First, a short poem:
Burnt Sausage by Paul Kleiman
It’s 11:00 a.m.
And the sausages are burning
Sitting on the couch
Hearing the pages turning
Thank you. That covers both Poetry, and Sausages, so the title pays off.
I was going through my notebook, scouring for anything to write about today, and came across that poem, which was written as a reminder to myself, a note. Not poetry, but there it was as you see above, and since I had nothing to go with, it seemed a good place to start. And once I get started, look out!
Poetry is a very rich and important literary form, full of beautiful imagery, wordplay, creative syntax, rhythms and even melodies. It’s also very silly.
After graduating from college with an English degree (nothing screams “money” like a B.A. in English Literature), and deciding not to go right into law school, I thought I’d try my hand at an expensive masters degree to see if I was Ph.D. worthy. I went to NYU, because they accepted me, and my loan money. I spent one month with these stuffy Comparative Literature professors with the elbow patches (literally) and pipes (the good old days, where students and teacher alike could smoke in the classroom!). Boring. And for me, boring means receiving a C. So I dropped to avoid damage to my already only slightly impressive academic record.
At the time, I also was in a band and writing songs. And working. For a while as a U.S. Customs Inspector (yes, that’s right, a lawman. I think I just got my material for next week’s post), an English tutor, all sorts of stuff to support my musician habit. I talked to my adviser about the boring part, and soon I was in another division of the Graduate School of Liberal Arts at NYU pursuing: a songwriting degree! Another financially rewarding field… for like 2% of songwriters.
Now this sounds fun, a Masters in songwriting, but really it’s hard. Music theory (to which I had minimal exposure and was thrown into graduate school level courses) and orchestration, which required learning the piano. So I could write down songs using notes on a staff. Who am I, Bach, or something? Which in large part explains why my graduate degree is a J.D. and not an M.A. or Ph.D. M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E.
On the other hand, I went from reading poetry, to writing it. I ended up in a poetry writing seminar taught by Galway Kinnell. There were only 12 seats and a lot of people wanted it for some reason (more later), so you had to be accepted by Prof. Kinnell. I never wrote a poem. Ever. So I wrote three and submitted them. Which goes to show, most young poets suck at poetry, as I made up three poems in a night and got in, and they didn’t. Either that or it’s all subjective. Or maybe it all just sucks, as some might argue. Really, I promise, they weren’t that good.
I had never read much modern poetry before, and the stuff in college was like Shakespeare, Tennyson, Yeats, Whitman. I didn’t much like modern. Too free-form after all that rhyme and stanza. So we get the Norton Anthology of Poetry as one of the books for the class, which is pretty much the standard collection of all the important poets since the beginning of poetry. And I’m flipping through it, and who is in there? Galway Kinnell.
Galway was born the same year as my dad. He was an Irish-American poet and he lived that way for a long time all over America and Europe. Drinking, smoking, women… and then, he went sober and after that started teaching, settling in New York City when a poet could afford an apartment there. A year after I studied with him, Galway won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. And I got to call him “Galway.” And until I opened that book, I had no idea that my professor was one of the most important contemporary American poets. Literally, who knew?
Some poets are so prolific and brilliant it’s kind of scary, like Shakespeare. He wrote so many poems that he kind of got tired of breaking it into sonnets so he wrote it all in long plays that are just freaking brilliant. In the late 20th century, Galway and his contemporaries, Alan Ginsburg, W.S. Merwin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who came through my line at US Customs once… true story. This was when I was taking Galway’s class. I’ll never forget the shock on his face when he realized this young authoritarian law enforcer was in fact a poetry geek taking a seminar with his colleague) brought poetry into the modern age, along with women like Sylvia Plath who wrote beautiful and kind of depressing poems, but they were mostly shorter, so that was good for our bi-weekly poem memorization. And Maya Angelou? Anyone? We’re talking some great stuff here. It was an awakening to one (me) who had ignored contemporary poetry.
But poetry is still silly. Sometimes on purpose, like Ogden Nash. What a great name, right?
A Word to Husbands by Ogden Nash
To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.
But also poetry is just goofy sometimes, when left in the wrong hands. In school they used to teach the iambic pentameter thing, which is what Shakespeare used a lot (although he messed around with it quite a bit) and is a rhyme and rhythm scheme, as such:
Da dum da dum da dum da dee
Da dum da dum da dum da tree
Okay, so that’s how almost everyone used to write poems, like greeting cards. Which was formal and sounds dumb and made a lot of people not like poetry to begin with, which is unfair to poetry and also to those people. Thankfully, while rhyme is still a thing in poems, modern poetry has moved away from conventional rhyme and rhythm and stanza forms and is much more free-flowing and uses the sounds of the words and the cadence of the lines or sentences, rather than rhymes. to great effect.
Still, it must be pointed out that although poetry is very difficult to be good at, and is an incredibly rich and enjoyable literary form (try going to a reading sometime. Very transporting.), one of the most surefire ways to get on public assistance is to become a poet. Let’s face, it’s not a job. The best poets make some money from their poetry. And they still need to work, hence Galway Kinnell, he of prizes and books and readings and so on, was sitting in a room with 12 poetry geeks, mostly young no-nothings like myself, talking about poems. He was a good teacher. And a great poet. Here’s one of his most famous poems written during the Vietnam War.
Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond by Galway Kinnell from Body Rags ©1968
And I hear,
coming over the hills, America singing,
her varied carols I hear:
crack of deputies’ rifles practicing their aim on stray dogs at night,
sput of cattleprod,
TV going on about the smells of the human body,
curses of the soldier as he poisons, burns, grinds, and stabs
the rice of the world,
with open mouth, crying strong, hysterical curses.
See what I mean. Definitely not silly. He wrote one about a pig, Saint Francis and the Sow, it’s beautiful. That’s real literary talent. I have some of my old poems somewhere in a folder. I might inflict another one on you someday, but for now, it’s just burnt sausages. Instead, here’s some pretty pictures of flowers and nature and stuff.
So what have we learned? Usually I say not much but today, we learned a little about poetry. Very little. You heard of a poet you might never have heard of, and maybe you’ll read some more of his poems. And you learned that I kind of scared Lawrence Ferlinghetti once, because he really, really didn’t trust authority figures. And that even though poetry may be silly, or even dumb, it’s also worth taking a second look at. I know I did.
I don’t really write poetry anymore, except by accident. Thanks for reading and have a marvelous week!