Saturday, July 21, 2012

Writing is hard, poetry is harder.

I've written a lot of stuff in my life, from 30-second TV commercials to a 317-page novel, with stops along the way including a biography, short stories and plays. But I had never taken a serious shot at poetry. Couldn't be too tough, right? A few lines or stanzas, whatever you call them, some vague thoughts, words that don't rhyme at the end of the line, and an esoteric title having no relationship to the real world. The New Yorker publishes stuff like that every week. 

With that in mind, I submitted two poems to a poetry contest recently. One, a very long poem which I called "Echoes in B-Flat." Very cool, I thought: jazz oriented, musical, visual; a sure winner. First line: "The cool blue neon beckons through the window." Hard to stop reading, right?

 The other poem, much shorter...3 stanzas or paragraphs or whatever...I called "Transplant." Intriguing, you must admit. Opening line: "The first time I met her I knew she was not right for him." That's a grabber, for sure, like the start of a Stephen King or John Grisham novel. I could hear the comments now. "I couldn't put it down." "The fastest three stanzas I've ever read." Things like that.

I mailed the poems in, with my check for $15. I was sure I could add "Poetry Winner" to my list of accomplishments. The results were announced two weeks ago. Nothing. Not a prize, not an Honorable Mention. Not even an addendum to the tally, like "The judges were impressed by a new poet... etc etc." 

Maybe I didn't know enough about the art of poetry. So I got a book from the library. "next word, better word: the craft of writing poetry." Yes, the title was all in lower case, an example of how weird the subject is. Author is stephen dobyns. I picked this book because he wrote a poem once which I actually liked a lot, about a guy and his dog going for a late night ride. And the dog talks to him. Hey, it's poetry.

The book is a revelation. It's like opening a tool box and seeing a bunch of tools you've never seen before and, worse, have no idea how to use. These were the tools of poetry. Let me tell what's in there. First, there's this over-arching premise which sounds exquisite, though I haven't yet conquered its meaning.
"What makes human beings different from any other creature is their sense of possibility. We can speculate about things that don't exist..... This, as well as art and metaphor, dream and humor, is a product of the right brain. The left brain can analyze, but it cannot imagine....It cannot hypothesize. A metaphor - and all art is metaphor - presents us all at once with a complete  totality of meaning that we dwell upon and continue to learn from as we consider its implications."

And I was still on page 6 of the introduction. Skipping nimbly ahead to page 90, I encountered this:
"The two main reasons to have line breaks are rhythm and meaning....A poem's rhythm is by and large influenced by the fact that English is a stressed language...But if the line is broken where no punctuation or syntactic pause exists - if the line is enjambed - then we have an artificial pause, a brief hiccup in the flow of the sentence."

The only person I can imagine understanding that is a proctologist.
Next, a thought I can empathize with.
"In a poem, unlike an anecdote, the reader's question - 'what does this mean?' - is not fully answered by its syntactic closure. We have a sense of more, and so we move past the syntactic closure to reread the poem in search of the scope of that 'more.'"

Now I was really on dobyn's side. He knew I didn't have a clue about writing or reading a poem, and I constantly asked myself - or my dog, if she were nearby - "Just what the hell does THAT mean???" Finally I got near the end of the book, scanning much of it, I admit. Then I came across this section, which turns an analysis of a poem into an accurate description of how those scientists in Geneva recently found the Higgs boson, aka The God Particle.
"The first line begins with a trochee and ends with a pyrrhic and spondee; the second ends with a pyrrhic and spondee, the third beings with a trochee... Affecting our sense of what exists and what should exist is our psychology, our belief system, our history and even comparatively superficial factors such as whether we got a good night's sleep."

I understood the "good night's sleep" concept.

So this is a long-winded way of my telling you, Don't expect any more poetry from this writer. I find it much easier to write a novel, a play, the biography of a failedcaterer, than to attempt another conflict between the two sides of my brain. I can't leave you without naming 3 of my favorite poets. They write poems I can understand. I think. They are Stephen Dobyns, Billy Collins, and George Bilgere. I've attached links to Dobyns and Bilgere. A few poems by Dobyns  A few poems by George Bilgere

So you don't have to wonder about my "Transplant" poem, here's how it begins:

"The first time I met her I knew she was not right for him.
Don't get me wrong, I didn't dislike her.
She smiled and laughed and said the proper things.
I just knew she would wear him down, 
a perpetual grindstone on weathered wood.
She was the oddly shape piece of a puzzle that couldn't
possibly fit into the portrait of a complicated man."

I still think it's pretty good. Just not enough metaphors probably.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Smell of Cigars, the Sound of Shuffling

An intersection that is locked into my memory made the news today. The item - on - mentioned a new apartment building to be constructed next to an existing building from 1925. They are to be called The Gotham and The Gotham Annex. "Holy Renovation, Batman, let's check 'em out."

What got my attention was the location of the new Gothams. It's the intersection of Hamilton and Delmar Boulevards, in St. Louis where the city meets the eastern edge of University City. Not a nice neighborhood these days. Definitely on the low end of a long losing streak. 

But back when I was a little kid, Hamilton and Delmar was alive with retail stores, apartments, shoppers, and restaurants. It was also the site of Chester's Pipe Shop. Keep reading, because this is not about pipes and tobacco and old men puffing on their Meerschaums. Chester's is where Dad would head on many a Sunday afternoon. He would tell Mom "I'm going down to the store, check the receipts." (He owned a shoe store on Cherokee Street, with a big Red Goose over the doorway.) Or he'd say "I'm going to visit Minnie and Goldie." Those were two of his five sisters, all of whom had come over on the boat from Russia 30 or more years prior. And, frequently, he would do just that: the shoe store or his sisters.

Frequently he would do neither, and head to Chester's Pipe Shop for an afternoon of gin rummy with several friends. He took me with him once. I walked into the store, looked around, and was surprised that it was dark and empty. Just lots of pipes and cans and pouches and things I didn't recognize. Dad didn't smoke a pipe. He didn't smoke anything. We headed to the back of the store, through a doorway, into a lighted room filled with smoke. Cigar smoke. I remember the smell. It filled every corner. I was afraid to take a deep breath. The center of the room was dominated by a large round table. 

Around the table sat a lot of men, maybe 5 or 6 or 7. It seemed they all were puffing on  stogies of one length or another. I recognized three of the men. Sid Ginsberg and Jack Golberg and Nat Kornblum. I called them Uncle Sid, Uncle Jack, Uncle Nat, though none of them were related. But that's how I was told to address them. I also noticed lots of black telephones in the room. Very unusual, I thought, until I found out a few years later it was a big bookie operation. Mom didn't like these men. Worse than that: she hated them, thought Dad was too good for them. They not only smoked but drank whiskey and used bad language. Mom was better than that and thought Dad was too. 

But gin rummy with his buddies was important to Dad. That one time he took me, he stayed for only a short time. He told me to go look around at the pipes while he "took care of some business." I sat in the front room, listened to the chatter, heard lots of dirty words, the shuffling of cards. They told jokes with words I didn't understand, came to the punch line, and the room would explode with their laughs. To this day, the pungent odor of a cigar takes me back to Chester's. I wish I knew some of those jokes.

When we got home, Mom said, "You've been to Chester's." Dad claimed he just stopped by to drop off a pair of shoes. She said, "I can smell it all over you. That doesn't happen in two minutes." Dad mumbled some response, offered no argument. It was part of their ritual. That was my only visit to Chester's. But every time I passed it, over the years, the neighborhood in decline, Dad long since given up gin with his pals, I recall - fondly - how he had found this haven of friendship and recreation, and a place to display his awesome gin rummy talents. I don't even know if the building is still there, but I somehow suspect the Sunday afternoon games still go on in another dimension, cigars and all.

I was never able to beat Dad at gin. To this day, when my wife and I play gin rummy, she invariably mentions how good a player he was, how quickly he played his cards, and how impossible it was to beat him. I would have liked one more visit to Chester's with him, and some insight into how to win at gin.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Those Gutsy Boys in Blue

I finally figured out this thing about the U.N., and why they are so ineffective when it comes to stopping violence. It’s not bravery or motivation or physical skills. They’ve got that, and I admire them for it. The reason is their blue hats.

Did you ever notice those cute little toppers? All U. N. “Observers” wear these little blue hats when they wade into a conflict or danger zone or places that most of us wouldn’t go within a hundred miles of. Sometimes they wear helmets. Even their jeeps and trucks are emblazoned with that same blue.
It’s a powder blue, a robin’s egg blue, a blue as cheerful as the sky on a beautiful day in May. The U. N. Blue makes you want to hug and kiss and skip through fields of flowers. It makes you want to say, “I’ll have a popsicle, please.” It does NOT make you want to sheath your machete, lower your AK-47, disconnect the bomb or the booby trap. It certainly doesn’t make you want to give up your cause and go home to sit around the fire.

You need a better color if your intention is to intimidate. You need Black. Or Olive Drab. Or Brown. Or Gray. If you want Blue, you’ve gotta go with DARK Blue or NAVY Blue or STEEL Blue or MIDNIGHT Blue. 

The U. N. Blue is about as intimidating as the uniforms of the Redcoats of 1776, the French pantaloons of a couple centuries ago, and a long parade of military styles, including these two characters at the left. Maybe bright colors did a lot to heighten the morale, like when they marched in parades or advanced twenty abreast into battle. But they also made for tempting targets. The British Redcoats discovered that when they came up against the Rebels, who tended to dress down. 

Of course war was different back then. "To the Colors" actually meant more than the flag, I assume. Just take a look at this guy in a blue hat - with a feather, no less. I'm betting he didn’t make it out of his tent. But he looked great the night before at The Ball.

Berets, actually, are okay. It's the color, not the style. You know about the Green Berets. But did you know that the style and color originated with the British Commandos in WW2? Then it was picked up by Australian, French and Dutch Commandos. The U.S. Army Special Forces took a liking to that style and used it in Nam, with veterans made up from WWII and Korea. Even John Wayne got into the act. He said the beret was more comfortable than a cowboy hat and he could fold it up and stick it in his back pocket when he went bar hopping.

If the U. N. wants combatants to listen up to their Observers, they could take a lesson from this guy. This is intimidation at its finest. Doesn’t even matter if his gun is loaded. You know he means business, and you sure as hell better back away. 
So that's my advice for the U.N. Oh, one more thing.That word "Observer." It doesn't do a lot for me. It certainly doesn't compare with "Commando" or "Special Forces." It's not even as strong as "Referee," who at least can blow a whistle and stop play.

The Observers have a difficult and frustrating job. Striving for World Peace is not easy. But at least they could take a first step and dress for the part. I urge you to write Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the UN, and tell him to pick a better color. He lives on Sutton Place in New York City. You can also tell him I have a brother-in-law in the hat business who will give him 30% off all orders over $100,000 if he orders before the end of July.