In The Beginning

April 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

In the beginning there was only the holy darkness,
and in that darkness there was a moment of chaos,
and the darkness shattered,
and a great buzzing occurred, a sound that was not there before,
and all the beings in the holy darkness thought that they knew
all about the accident, knew what, and why, and wherefore…
and they were righteous.

When the darkness shattered shards of light scattered
and the righteous believed they could see, truly see,
and they began to dictate, and rule, and control those who were born after
the days of holy darkness.

The righteous believed they could see
never understanding that the light was an illusion
and the noise was a lie.
The truth, the enlightenment, was back in the darkness
Where chaos always lived
where there was no sight
where the silence was as heavy as flesh.

What Are We Doing Here

April 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

Even in the light of day the stars are shining down on us.

The sun cascades behind the horizon as if the earth is as
flat as the celestial mysteries hidden far beyond our clouds.

No one knows the mountain, shown in the half moon light that crosses
over the river, one passing the other like a mirror reflecting a casual glance; no one knows that mountain.

A dog barks.
I sight a deer in wild bamboo—

What is it doing here?

How to Read A Poem

March 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

I first began a blog in 2008. It wasn’t this one. Back then I had no idea what I wanted to do with this whole blogging thing (still don’t, but I’m getting closer to the idea). I have about four separate blogs, a ridiculous mess, and I’m putting things into order. For the next few posts on this blog I’ll be transferring some post that were written in 2008, and posted elsewhere. 

In 2002, I had taken a poetry course with a teacher named McDowell at Portland Community College. I actually dropped the class. That had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with me. The following post is from notes I had taken while attending his course. I can’t take credit for all the information, and if I had his full name I would post it here. If anyone happens to know his full name send it my way, and I’ll update this and credit it properly. The notes were all taken by me (by hand even) and they are also adapted into my own language and examples, but the ideas are McDowell’s.

HOW TO READ A POEM

  • Read it all the way through.

What if you don’t get it? Its form is strange, the language isn’t familiar, the imagery is abstract- forget about it- don’t stop reading. Just let it go and read it all the way through from beginning to end- try to relax your mind and just read.

  • Read it again but this time read it out loud.
Poetry like plays are meant to be heard. There are always exceptions to every rule and form but just go with this one for the purpose of the exercise. Of course, some poets may feel that their poem is meant to only be read but so much poetry is meant for the mouth, the sounds that the words make can sometimes reveal meaning that the quiet mind may have missed. I hated Shakespeare till I had a very passionate theatre professor teach a course on Shakespeare. It was an acting course, but he could not impress more that Shakespeare was meant to be heard not read. Once I began reading it out loud slowly without attempting to “Act” it I finally began to understand much of the language.
  • Word by word
A trick in writing poetry is the idea of taking away- Imagine that the poet’s first draft is filled with tons of words swimming aimlessly on the page, with each reread the poet scoops out each unnecessary word that may take away from or slow down the meaning of the poem. There is a definite art to this and I am often awed by the work of a clean and crafted poem. How does the poet find the perfect word or image to convey a thousand meanings or one single thought or idea where so many others end up writing three sentences to try and say the same thing? So what’s this mean? If you don’t know a word look it up. That word, that one word could be a secret key in the telling of the poem besides it can help increase your vocabulary.
  • Look for the Imagery
I love imagery. For me it’s what grounds the poem. The poet is putting the reader right there in the place of the moment, the feeling and the action- read this bit from Dylan Thomas’s “After the Funeral”
I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare
Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain;
And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.
To me that description is so vivid- I can see her hands, her face and also get an idea of the kind of woman she was in life. I’ve never considered myself to be a poet or much of a reader of poetry but the type of prose writing I enjoy reading and writing are often filled with the vivid imagery.
  • Read for Organization
Who is speaking? Who is the poem addressing? Is there a pattern? What is the pattern, does it have anything to do with the meaning? What is the tone? How are all of these elements put together? Take the puzzle apart.
I’ll be honest with you, this is pretty much where I stop and my mind decides I’ve had enough of breaking the poem apart. Unless forced by a grade, I’ve often neglected this part of the process, but if you love poetry and you want more out of the poem going through this process can be very rewarding. When I read the Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  by Randall Jarrell with these questions in mind I felt like so much was revealed to me. I knew the poem was about war- but after reading it with these questions I saw the birth in the poem the purely sad and tragically empty affects of an individual position within a war and what it does to a body. The visual image of there being so little left a person physically that what is left can be washed away with water. That’s powerful.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in it’s belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
  • Read for Technique
The craft of the writer. Metaphor, simile, personification, metonymy, meter, rhyme scheme, adaption, adaption of sound to sense and use of symbols.
If I didn’t get through step five you know for sure I didn’t get through step six unless assigned for a course. My mind fought this process until I took a course with David Biespiel at Portland State University. As a teacher he had a way of making poetry come down from it’s lofty elitist cloud of flutes and angels, and stand on the ground in dirty work boots and a human voice of any color, any gender, any class, and suddenly I could see technique. If you happen to live in Portland, Oregon and have the money and the time I recommend taking a course with him at The Attic (or any of the teachers there) or if you are a student at PSU and he is teaching a course you should take it. He has a wonderful way of removing the fear out of the poem. “Poetry is for the working class”.  He’s a pretty great poet too. Still, that doesn’t mean I am such a disciplined reader that I always look to find the techniques, but if you want to explore your poem at this level like I mentioned in the above step you can make some very rewarding discoveries.
    • Read it with all the above– I’m just going to quote McDowell’s bullet point here:
  • Often a poet will go through dozens of drafts of a poem before allowing it to be read by anyone else, much less published. Dylan Thomas often went through 80 or 100 drafts. You can be assured that if you are alert, you’ll gain more from another reading. Poems aren’t like newspapers, to be read once and then tossed into the recycling bin. Each year you’re a different person; you’ll find that when you return to poems read years before, the good poems will seem to be telling you exactly those things you learned in the interim; they’ll seem like different poems. Every poet, every age, every country, every emotion, every climate, every language, every temperament produces different types of poetry. If you don’t like a poem, do it the justice to find out what about it you don’t like, and then move on to a different kind of poem.
I’d just like to add: if you want to figure out why you don’t like a poem take the time to figure out why you don’t like it, but if it doesn’t appeal to you don’t strain yourself to find out why- maybe you just don’t like it. If you are new to poetry find a poem you like and put your love into discovering why you love it, and then if you go on to be a lover of poetry maybe one day you will stumble across that poem you turned away, and perhaps this time you will see it differently. In the interim maybe you’ll learn some new things that make you feel that you want to put your energy into finding out why it doesn’t appeal to you or maybe you still just don’t like it. What I’d like to emphasis is don’t let go of the idea of poetry even if you’ve read a hundred poems and you never liked them maybe somewhere out there is a poem with your name on it. Remain open to the art form, one day it will speak to you and to you alone.
Speaking of difficult poetry I’ve often struggled with Sylvia Plath stumbling over her metaphors. Most of the time I feel I miss the meaning, but even getting one poem is incredibly rewarding to me so I’ll leave you with one I “got”.
Mirror

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me.
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

The Lunch Affair

January 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

It had always begun the same,
innocent enough,
it began with coffee.

Before you knew it
innocent strolls,
sidewalk banter and office breaks.

Office breaks turned
to confessions,
of love over lunch

Peruvian Chicken with steamed rice.
The chicken was good,
but the love was served too late.

It had made us sick
All of us, even
the ones not invited to lunch.

The Night Out

December 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

I owe you a night out,
And hey,
I apologize
I’m the one who said
we should drink like
Bukowski.
You should see the list
of restrictions I’ve put together
for myself:
I broke all the drinking ones.
Thanks for keeping me
straight
you settled all the bills
and the taxi—that took me home.
So thanks for the night.
I owe you one.

Window Watching

December 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Through the window pane I watch them eating.
Through the curtains,
the silver grey curtains,
that sweep the floor like ballroom gowns
swirling confetti as they spin. They
were a gift
those curtains.
Music is playing in the background
and everyone is dancing to a well worn tune.

I stand here day and night
through every season.
Frost bitten in deep bitter snow
or sunk into hot August mud. Locusts
beating against my breast. Gnats trapped in
eyelashes and I can barely blink at the life
in front of me.

I watch the children grow,
the new and old marriages,
vacations planned, bought, and taken,
baseballs, ballet slippers, baking and sewing,
visits from relatives, in-laws, divorce and death,
not necessarily in that order;
domesticities of the modern life.

Same as it ever was- the song sang- same as it ever was- the song sang- same as it ever was-
the groove gets deeper and deeper and yet it all stays the same
was it ever the same as it ever was?

There is a life behind me,
but I can’t see it
my face is glued to the window
“that life, that life is the right life…righteous…televised…”
If only I could turn around,
toss my envy into the compost
beside the perfect house, and turn around
see the many roads that reach out into the horizon.

There is a life behind me
I know because I can feel the sun
on my shoulders, urging me to move,
there is a life behind me, but
my eyes are glued to the Norman Rockwells, and the
American Dream,
if only I could turn around,
but all I can do is close my eyes
and feel the tears of the seasons.
the seasons are always hot
even in the winter.

I stand in the window as the sliver curtains
are drawn, once again, and the chatter never fades,
and I wonder,
will they ever get new curtains?
When they do will they see me standing here
or will I finally be gone?

Joyce Johnson: Let’s Dance to A Female Beat

December 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

When I first created this blog I had also created a couple of pages that I devoted to literary time periods that inspire and influence me. In particularly I wanted to highlight people from those periods that are often neglected in the tombs of praise. I had been feeling for quiet some time that I wanted to elaborate on those people whose names I wrote on those pages: Good Poetry- The Beat Women and The Harlem Renaissance. This blog is ultimately about poetry and poets, and my own play with poetry, but since I’m focusing on movements, I will also dedicate some time to non-poets too. 

I decided to create a series of essays or articles on each of the people listed on the pages elaborating on their lives as writers or artists. I also want to follow with a second essay on why that writer was important to me personally. I’m starting my series off with Joyce Johnson a writer from the second generation of Beat Writers. I hope you’ll enjoy the exploration with me. 

 

joycejohnson

Joyce Johnson is probably best known for her 1983 memoir, Minor Characters, in which she writes about her brief, but significant, two year relationship with writer and poet Jack Kerouac, during 1957 and 1958.

In 2012 she published a third book with Kerouac as the subject; The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, this time a biography. The focus of this biography is on his life experiences, upbringing, and the detailed practices and habits that lead to his writing style that created, not the man Kerouac, but Kerouac the writer. Although, she has written three books on Kerouac: one a memoir, one a collection of letters they wrote to each other, and one a biography, Jack Kerouac is not the sum of all her writing.

Young Joyce Glassman, as was her name before her marriage to Jim Johnson, was with Jack Kerouac on the evening of 1957 when together they read the New York times review of On the Road. The review that was to change Jack’s life forever. This moment was a turning point in the world of literature and defining moment for a generation without a name. The point that took a normal guy who had been palling around with his quirky friends writing and “experiencing life” all hoping for that great work, but never knowing or realizing that he and they would be rocketed into a fame or infamy, depending on how you view it. But, more than his lover and more than the “woman who was with him on the night he became famous”, Joyce should be remembered as what she was, and that is a writer of the Beat Generation. She is from the second generation of beat writers and artists. If there are  beat enthusiasts and purists who only view her as a chronicler of the Beats and their time, that is fine because it is still a valuable contribution to a time period; if not essential. Only having one perspective does not allow us the richness or a history of a time. Yet, Johnson was more than just a chronicler of the men of the beat era. She gives us a view into the world of women (mainly white women) during the 1950’s. Women who did not want to follow in the footsteps of their mothers, women who wanted to be more than the confines of their gender, confines that were created by the society in which they were raised.

When I was at college in the early 1950s, we didn’t have much liking for the period we were in.

Joyce wrote in her 1994 forward of the 1994 edition of her book Minor Characters.

In the late 1950s, young women-not very many at first—once again left their homes rather violently. They too came from nice families, and their parents could never understand why the daughters they had raised so carefully suddenly chose precarious lives. A girl was expected to stay under her parents’ roof until she married, even if she worked a year or so as a secretary, got a little taste of the world that way, but not too much. Experience, adventure— these were not for young women…  Those of us who flew out the door had no usable models for what we were doing. We did not want to be our mothers or our spinster schoolteachers or the hardboiled career women depicted on screen…  If you want to understand Beat women, call us transitional— a bridge to the next generation…

Before Joyce ever met Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsburg she was already living a “Beat” life. Raised in New York city, at the age of eight her parents moved to Manhattan on West 116th street. Their apartment was around the corner from where William and Joan Vollmer Burroughs had lived, and where years before they had hosted many gatherings and parties for the young Kerouac, Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, Lucien Carr and other friends both males and females. You can portend it was some kismet coming together a serendipitous connection of place or you can call it New York city, but unbeknownst to little Joyce and her parents she would know some of these apartment dwellers for better and for worse. It wasn’t some romantic influence of their neighborly association that influenced Joyce Glassman. Joyce was too young to know the Burroughs, and most likely they were not passing on the street as Joyce would only have been eleven years old at the time. It was Joyce’s own curiosities and drives that would compel her to defy her parents and sneak down to Washington square to watch the street artists and musicians. It was her own distaste with the conformities of identity put upon her as a girl. It was Joyce who decided to have an affair with one of her professors, it was Joyce who took a risk by having sex and ended up getting pregnant, and it was Joyce who decided to have an abortion. It was Joyce’s decision to drop out of school, to live on her own, and to find her own path. And, it was Joyce who wanted to be a writer, and who decided in 1955 to write a book called Come and Join the Dance; all of this was before ever being introduced to anyone that was called a Beat. There were no beats at the time, only restless people who did not want to conform to their society, and who wanted to feel free to live and experience life as they wanted- not icons, but normal people with a passion that many humans experience.

Joyce began writing Come and Join the Dance in 1955 while she was working as an editor at various agencies in New York. It was her dear friend Elise Cowen who she met at Bernard College that introduced her to Allen Ginsburg. It was Allen that thought Joyce would be a good match for Jack, who was returning from a hiatus in Florida, and it was Allen who set up the blind date which became the one of the main the subjects in Joyce’s memoir, Minor Characters. If you read Minor Characters and only focus on the relationship of Jack and Joyce than you’d be missing the essence of the book and playing into the ironic title. Jack Kerouac doesn’t enter the text until a quarter through the book. He is mentioned as an entity as a being that we the readers will anticipate, but his actual arrival is not until a hundred and twenty-eight pages in. The truly compelling character in the story, prior to Jack and Joyce’s first date, and after, is Elise Cowen. It is Elise who is in the shadows in the background unintentionally directing all of the interactions of these people who will become icons and muses, majors and minors in the world of literature and art; the projections of fantasies of later generations who wished they could have been there too. Like Joan Vollmer before her, Elise’s obsessional love toward a man who did not and could not want her, she was the string that tied them all together.

One can easily claim that Jack Kerouac did not intend nor want to be famous. It is also easy to claim that Joyce Johnson and other women from the time period are only riding on the coattails of that unwanted fame, but to do that is to ignore the quality of the actual writing. Joyce Johnson’s contribution is fundamental to the generation as are the other women from that time period. They give us different perspectives on what was happening, and it is only the current generations’ identities that place the labels and the judgments. Minor Characters was initially read and became popular because people were interested in knowing more about Jack Kerouac, but it did not win the 1983 National Book Critics Award or the 1987 O. Henry Award because of Jack Kerouac, It was Joyce Johnson’s who won the awards because of the writing, because it is an interesting and well written memoir. She wrote the book not Kerouac. She wrote before this book was published, and she continued to write after it was published. She did not emulate Kerouac’s writing or the writing of the other men from that time period she wrote in her own voice, and on her own terms.

To be “beat” to be beatific was to be free. A group of individuals who did not want to buy into the new consumerism and cliche that was postwar America; people who wanted something else something not provided by the illusion of the American dream. Joyce Johnson had that individualism innately within her and she was willing to risk the same (if not more) consequences as men that would come with attempting to live her own life the way she wanted- freely and without conformity. As Amiri Baraka said:

The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked.*

This desire would not end with the beat generation, as evident that it continues on today as it has in earlier societies and time periods. We all stand on the shoulders of those who come before us, and one gender, sexuality or race should not be the judicial bases of the quality of a work art or literature, those categories should only be viewed as another perspective. The quality stands on it’s own regardless of who or what brought it to us.

The women and people of color who contributed to the beat generation may be considered the Minor Characters to the great generational play written by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and William Burroughs, but as Gregory Corso said:

“Three writers does not a generation make”.*

Joyce Johnson was a Beat Writer from the Beat Generation and what she brought to the era and the generation is a perspective of dimension in a world that was already dynamic, and that is beatific.

Joyce Johnson’s work:

Writings:

Come and Join the Dance, 1962
Minor Characters, 1983
In the Night Cafe, 1987
What Lisa New: The Truth and Lies of the Steinberg Case, 1989
Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 2000
Missing Men, 2004
The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac

Editing:

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse
Blues People: Negro Music in White America By LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
Revolution for the Hell of It by Abbie Hoffman
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic

*What is Beat? Beatdom.com