Identity Politics Among Poets & Friends

Gentle Reader: My deep sorrow around today’s politics is that people are turning on each other. Even more disturbing is poets are turning on poets via elitist and invective posts that may be therapeutic for the writer and “red meat” for like-minded followers but ignore the diversity among us and border on blacklisting.

I’m reminded of Martin Neimoller’s poem (1892-1984) about German intellectuals coming for others including so-called incurables. He was a Lutheran pastor who spoke out against what was happening in his country at the time.

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Who is next in the current waves of political cleansing? Here’s a deeper look into all this:  A Gentle Corrective for Identity Politics

Food for thought?

 

My Emily Dickinson Pilgrimage

IMG_4457Amherst June 2017

Gentle Reader: I’ve been asked to tell about my pilgrimage to Amherst but I had to put that aside until I got a good start on the poems which immediately percolated from that seminal experience. Frankly, I also had to let the emotions subside so I wouldn’t blather on about it here. But I willingly admit that adrenalin was my frequent companion during that visit.

I call it a  pilgrimage because that is the best description in every sense of the word and my activities leading up to it–from planning the extra days tacked onto a business trip, picking up the rental car in downtown Boston amidst hundreds of pre-marathoners doing the same thing, trusting google maps to get me onto the turnpike under construction and enjoying winding roads in western Massachusetts where fast-driving locals did not share my interest in the countryside and historic homes along the way.

From a short 2-day perspective, Amherst is everything you might imagine nestled in the New England setting I’ve described. It’s a quaint small-college town with picturesque shops, and bookstores built around the campus which is seamlessly integrated into the neighboring area.

The Dickinson Homestead and Evergreens next door are not set off or protected in a way that many homes-turned-museums are. The grounds look largely the way they did when Emily lived there. Of course, some small modifications have been made to accommodate people moving about inside and for the museum shop—now in the kitchen.

While the house and grounds have a certain commanding presence due in part to the stately architecture and increased elevation above the street, one could unknowingly drive past because it also blends into the area. Although typical of the era, all the rooms in the house are slightly smaller than I imagined from seeing pictures—including Emily’s room. They’ve done remarkable work restoring and recreating it in her time—especially given the acrimonious split among those carrying on her legacy and the items now in Harvard’s possession.

Her bedroom is—again—smaller than I imagined but the aura there is palpable. Her writing desk is no bigger than 20 x 20 inches square with one tiny drawer underneath. That surface had to accommodate a lamp and an ink well plus pen/pencil and paper. She was known to carry that desk downstairs to the library and sometimes out into the yard to write. During the height of her most prolific writing, one must envision scraps of poems and pieces of paper strewn all around her room.

The cemetery where she and her family are buried (about half a mile cross-country to the north of the house) is also barely protected. There is a small fence around her immediate family’s graves but that is mostly decorative although it does deter people from trampling the area. She was quite clear in writing instructions about her wishes for final disposition: no funeral carriage and she wanted family servants as pallbearers. Her casket was to be carried out the back kitchen door and over land to the cemetery. She was also specific that her brother Austin’s directives were not to supersede her own.

In addition to 1,789 poems, she was a prolific letter writer and deeply expressive in them—hardly characteristic of reclusive behavior although in later life she avoided people and seldom left the house. Still she wrote letters right up until her death. In today’s high tech and truncated technology she still serves as a model for epistolary communication.

I was attracted first to her poetry but her world, her life and her letters are bottomless layers of complexity worthy of study to understand and learn from one of the world’s greatest poets.

Poetry: The Time has Come

Gentle Reader: Yesterday, I spent a fair amount of time re-centering myself after several weeks of work-related busyness which left me out of sorts and, frankly, cranky.

That kind of hubbub was my norm for so many years that I’ve needed time to shift my focus and reprioritize my time. The first step came about 3 years ago during a seminar on work-life balance. As a result, I chose to set aside the early morning hours each day for poetry: writing, revising, study and reading. This has worked well since I’m usually awake around 4-4:30am. A second goal was to take 1-2 poetry workshops or classes each year. bookcase

While I am accomplishing both goals, my morning study has been random and I recently realized it lacked order.

Another breakthrough came couple weeks ago when I moved a bunch of books around and now all my poetry books are in a more accessible place. Looking at them staring back at me, I realize the wealth of poems/poets at my fingertips. I decided to study one poet a week. Yes, there will always be diversions and distractions, but the overall strategy sets me on a path of achievement.

I begin with the list of poets recommended to me for further study and to hone my craft by Ilya Kaminsky, faculty poet I studied with at a Iowa Summer Writers Festival. Some examples he suggested are: Kay Ryan, Frank Bidart, Derek Walcott, Paul Celan, and Yehuda Amichai.

But my plan already starts with the first diversion. The recently released translation by Emily Wilson of Homer’s The Odyssey has caught my attention along with many favorable reviewers. Confession: not sure how I avoided it in school but I’ve never read it. Based on the press buzz, it seems like the time to start both the epic poem and my new goal.

Landscape as Poetic and Sacred Architecture

Eons ago, a retreating glacial blade gouged a region through the center of North America known as the Great Plains. It left a vast and rugged beauty, an endless sky, and from it came peoples that are also enduring, pragmatic and spare.

Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state.

                                                            Dakota a Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris

Eons ago, a retreating glacial blade gouged a region through the center of North America known as the Great Plains. It left a vast and rugged beauty, an endless sky, and from it came peoples that are also enduring, pragmatic and spare.

More recently, German architect Gottfried Semper wrote the book The Four Elements of Architecture (1851) and about that time, the U.S. and Canadian Homestead Acts were passed. Thousands of people, including my ancestors, came to start new lives and prove their land claim. Unknown to those homesteaders, Semper’s four building techniques (the hearth, walling, roofing, and terracing) were essential to more than rudimentary shelter. The principles also applied to establishing communities, building houses of worship, and implanting a culture of respect for a place that was sometimes bountiful and unforgiving.

Long before President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition through this region (1804), fur-traders and indigenous peoples built structures that sustained life. Each preserved sacred sites and held a deep reverence for this area. The natural evolution beyond survival mode brought building designs that reflected vernacular traditions and the practical realities dealt by the harsh extremes of bitter winters and blistering summers.

Now these descendants of homesteaders– like me, whether we live in small towns, big cities, or maybe still live on “the home place,” continue that fierce love of the land and the dome of sky overhead. It has inspired writers and poets like Willa Cather, Tom McGrath, Ted Kooster, Larry Woiwode, and Kathleen Norris. Here, I’m frequently reminded the curvature of the earth is all that stands between me and infinity.

Section Line Communion

The Abbey’s sanctuary
transforms before me. A gravel
road carpets the center aisle.

Dust
of sacred relics cloud
around my ankles.

Grain
the bread of life ripens
in the pews to my right and left.

Shelterbelts
form choir stalls lined with monks
praying silently in the shadows.

Pelicans
in pearled vestments
circle their vaulted blessing.

The Profit Mountains
piled on the prairie
offer an altar in the sunrise.

Acknowledgement: This article originally appeared in Faith & Form, Vol. 49 No. 3, 2016 (faithandform.com) and is reprinted here with permission.

On “A Quiet Passion” Emily Dickinson

Random thoughts after seeing the movie, A Quiet Passion, about the life of Emily Dickinson.

Gentle Reader: Here are some random thoughts after seeing A Quiet Passion, a movie about the life of Emily Dickinson.

-The set, scenery, costumes, and casting are extraordinary.
-Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Emily is world-class. It helped me create my own image of her. Nixon’s voice-over of poems throughout the film adds that cerebral dimension and fits both Emily and each scene.
-The special effect of advancing time via aging characters during a photo sitting is mesmerizing.
-For those who know Dickinson history, some factual inaccuracies in the script and character portrayals are bothersome and perhaps misleading for anyone wishing to study more.
-The movie character of Vryling Buffam had to represent many women because she was insignificant in Emily Dickinson’s life.
-For how important Carlo (her Newfoundland) was over 15 years of Emily’s life, he should be visible–somehow.
-Also missing is the important subtext of bisexual relationships widely accepted as true.
-Regardless my impressions, the film does much to advance Emily Dickinson and all poets. I am elated that it was nominated for an academy award.
-Finally, the reviews are fair, for the most part, but rarely written by women. What’s up with that?

Who is Responsible for this Mess? We the People!

Gentle Reader: We, the people of the United States of America, have an ancestral longing for selfless and competent leadership. Those who carved this country out of the failures they left elsewhere intended that it be so. Here we are today with what has evolved from the freedoms they designed and some that would make them cringe. We have, instead, spawned a culture rampant with selfishness, both entitlement and victim mentalities, hyper-individualism, and hyper-partisanship abounds.

As a result, we have anything but selfless and competent leadership in our nation’s capital and capitol. The near future harkens little improvement in the 2016 election. We asked for and received a wider field of candidates. We asked for and received representation from outside the beltway and those who bring fresh perspectives. Yet, a sweeping, 180-degree view of all the candidates is revealing. Some might be selfless but are clearly incompetent. Others are considered by observers as competent but are anything but selfless. Many in the pool are intent to manipulate whatever they are able to achieve their goals. The end justifies the means.

History going back to ancient Roman emperors is littered with leaders such as these. Many came to power without benefit of free and open elections but many of  those who were elected had serious faults. Today’s dilemma is nothing new as history repeats itself. Through the grooming process of state and local elections, we have encouraged and condoned those who represent less than the most honorable traits.

Political parties have moved their philosophy and platforms to the extreme edges of reason and created litmus tests meant to exclude all candidates except those willing to sign their pledge of fanaticism.  We, the electorate combined with the failures and blatant bias of the media, bear much of the blame. Now, the wished for and wider field representing broader perspectives is scorned by pundits, cynics, and the media. Surely, we deserve this scenario, this pool of candidates and, ultimately, who we elect.