AT LAGUNITAS WITH OTHER POEMS
I hope that you were able to find something back there that resonated.
I have not constructed a great number of poems over the last sixty years or so, and the majority that I did construct have since been abandoned ¯ many, indeed, obliterated. This is about all that’s left: all the news that’s fit to print, poem-wise.
I tend to work at poetry in phases, with many years in between. My five principal books and the majority of several hundreds of articles have been almost entirely about camera history and how to use cameras productively. Hardly poetic! Looking back, I can identify only three intensively active periods of making poems: the first during my college years and on into the early years of graduate school before I had to get into producing my dissertation; the second in the years that centered on the early 1970s; and the third beginning last year, in 2006. There have been a few short outbreaks in between, but they were exceptional.
And I’ve done a great deal of revision. Remaking. One of my earliest poems, the one that opens this collection, “Again and Always and the Stars”, has been completely recomposed three times, even though its first incarnation did actually, if retroactively unfortunately, see print about 1950; and these various attempts at “Again and Always and the Stars” have even spun off an entirely other poem, “As If”. If I don’t have it right yet, it’s not for lack of trying!
Something I’ve wanted to get off my chest for a long while: I grew up in school with teachers who persistently contrasted “poetry” and “prose”. That’s no real contrast; those pundits were too ill-acquainted with their subject to realize that the “opposite” of “prose” is not “poetry”, but “verse”. Prose and verse are simply two mechanisms for using standard words and grammar to approach your subject matter, two forms of the same language, so to speak. As I see poetry, it’s in some way a slightly different “language”. One can express poetry in verse, and most poets usually do so most of the time, but one can also express it in prose: you’ll find occasional examples in the work of some of the finest novelists.
I don’t believe you should try to create a statement as “poetry” if you can say it just as well (or even better) in prose. Teachers who assign their students to write a paragraph of prose telling just what a specific poem “is about” don’t understand this fact. Nor do a great many of this world’s versifiers.
Poetry is a means of fitting together words and grammar and anything else that is available in ways that enable the poet to use augmented language to transmit messages when standard language all by itself fails. Poetry is, in a way, a mode of deception: a mode that fools you into thinking in the way that the poet thinks, without explicitly telling you just how to do so. The person who hears or reads a poem is assumed by the ever-struggling poet to have some sort of receptive sensibility. On his own, it’s quite likely that the audience member wouldn’t have been able to verbalize what the poet has created, but once that statement exists the poet believes, hopes anyway, that his listener-reader will get the point. Thus trying to “summarize” a poem in prose is always going to miss the core of the poem. It’s what isn’t said explicitly that counts.
And when one sits down (or whatever posture one assumes for the task) to create a poem, the conception may come as verse, or it may emerge as prose. Either medium can serve the poet’s purpose. For example, in this collection, the poem “In State” came to me right from the start as something that had to be expressed in prose: in its current “final” form it is very little changed from what I originally made it: it’s in prose, but I think it’s a poem.
More complex has been the construction of “Decline of a Falstaff”. Again, from the start, my conception included some prose sections, like those of the activities (or whatever they are) in the barroom, but I also needed to have parts in verse. What I have wound up with is a poem (at least I think it’s a poem) that incorporates blank verse, rhymed verse, free verse, and prose in order to achieve its effect. Prose is just as vital to it as are the other elements.
And, indeed, there’s a lot more free verse in the poems throughout this book. My conception of creating free verse comes in part from my times as a very inconsistent jazz musician: when one improvises in jazz, one has to be aware of the underlying rhythmic and chordal structure of the piece of music on which he is elaborating in his improvisation. So it is too with free verse: creating free verse is very much akin to jazz improvisation. There is a felt rhythmic structure on top of which the poet pits counter-rhythms; there is a chordal structure of meaning and context and even word choice which controls the directions in which he “plays the notes” of his poem. If that basis of rhythms and chords and words isn’t present as he works his way, his free verse will not be very compelling.
For an example: “Poem for John Meem”. I was very fond of John, and greatly admired him both for his architectural style and for his work at preserving and renovating New Mexico’s old Spanish Missions. I gave him this poem for Christmas, and he wrote me a long letter of appreciation. But he pointed out one adjective
that didn’t properly describe the noun with which I had associated it. The adjective was only one syllable, and there was another one-syllable adjective that would have meant what I should have intended; but when I tried the substitution something sounded wrong.
It was as if, on my saxophone, I had played a C-sharp when the harmonic structure called for a note in the F-diminished chord, a D-natural or a B-natural for instance. That whole section of the poem had gone out of tune, so to speak: I had to do something else. Eventually I recomposed three lines, rather than just a single word, simply to correct both the poem’s fact and its sounds. Only then did it come out, as I felt, “right”. (And neither adjective made it to the finalized version.)
All this leads to another suggestion. When you read a poem to yourself, try to hear it as well as see it. Pay attention to how it would sound if spoken aloud, as well as to what it says. Speak it aloud if you want. The sounds a poem makes are, or anyway should be, a very important part of the poem’s means of communication. Sound, not just structure, is one of the elements that can often help us to distinguish poetry from prose.
Finally, a more personal word about sonnets, of which there are also quite a few here, with various rhyme schemes (and one in what is essentially blank verse). For whatever reason, I enjoy trying to make sonnets. The necessary word is “discipline”. Sonnets force the poet to take a highly disciplined approach to his subject matter. Sometimes the sonnet structure is a help in organizing what one has to say; sometimes the necessity to find appropriate rhyming words, particularly in a Petrarchan sonnet with its two sets of four rhyming words apiece, frustrates one’s intentions for a while. Occasionally a long while, like forever. A good sonnet is often very hard to construct; you should see all the ones I’ve discarded over the years! I hope that you’ve found one or two here that work between you and me.
You thought you were getting a volume of poems, and instead you’ve wound up with a long diatribe on one man’s view of the “poetic art”!
Many friends and colleagues have given me help and encouragement during this long span; and occasionally some few have cooperated by telling me, of one or another effort, “That one stinks!” I thank you all. Especially I want to mention Professor Thomas P. Haviland from my undergraduate days, and also particularly Anne Howard, a fellow student way back then who has produced a number of children’s books since; and Alice Briley, Jeanne Bonette, Marcia Muth, and Jody Ellis from the times when I was active in the New Mexico Poetry Society.
I have not kept very good records of when and where or even if many of these poems have been published. The majority, quite likely, have not been published at all until now. Regardless, I should thank the editors and publishers of the periodicals and books who accepted and printed what I had written. Here are ones of which I retain notes: The New Mexico Magazine, The Sunstone Review, Encore, The American Pen, South and West, Encanto, The Pennsylvania News, The American Bard, Sandscript, and AD 1950; as well as KNME-TV, on whose channel I once was invited to give a reading.