Two Poems about Summer

I haven’t been writing much poetry lately, but it wasn’t so long ago that I thought of myself exclusively as a poet. I had always written occasional poems—poetry for special occasions like weddings—but I identified as basically a fiction writer.

I came to love writing poetry, though . . . for the intense use of language,  of course, but also for the experience of writing a poem as opposed to a long work of prose, and most especially for the craft of poetry. I wrote a lot of poems, and they began appearing in print and e-journals, and I even brought out two small collections of poems.

I stopped for a variety of reasons, but mostly it was because I had to write a 300-plus page accreditation report for the school where I was teaching. It not only brought my poetry-writing and -publishing to a screeching halt, but it made me remember how much I enjoyed working in the marathon of the long prose form. So I started back to fiction.

I was reminded of all that this week when I saw a YouTube video by Michael Martin, a great friend and one of the most talented poets I know. In the video (you can watch it here), he reads two poems: his translation of a poem by Virgil and an original poem responding to the translation. Michael and I used to share poems with each other almost every day . . . one of us would churn one out and immediately send it off to the other for a response . . . we inspired and trusted each other.

Michael has continued writing poems, as well as lots of other things, and his video inspired me to drag a couple of my oldies out of the crypt for this week’s blog entry. The title of today’s post says, “Two Poems about Summer,” but of course they’re not really about summer. I picked them because they’re both set at exactly this time of year (August) and because they gave me the chance to revisit a couple of my favorites and share them with you.

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The first one, “Et in Arcadia Ego,” I reworked a bit from its original version, but the second, “Steve Allen Returns to Weekly TV,” is pretty much as it appeared first in the online publication Tryst and then in my first collection, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005). (BTW, that handsome devil on the cover is my grandfather.)

Enjoy.

 

Et in Arcadia Ego

About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position.
    W.H. Auden

Standing waist deep in the water,

my older brother slaps a hand

on the surface of the startled round

blue sunny mouth of the above-ground pool

on the driveway in our back yard

to mark the seconds advancing

in the breath-holding contest.

Beside him, buoyant, his best friend

does a perfect dead-man’s float—

face down, arms outstretched, legs limp

and trailing in the water—

passing ninety-nine one-thousand

as tiny waves slosh over the edges

of the corrugated metal sides

burnishing a dark halo

in the sand cushioning the pool.

 

The day warm, the sky blue and cloudless

in Detroit in 1962.

 

“Aguirre on the mound,” announces

Ernie Harwell from the transistor

on the webbed chair beside the pool

where I am sitting, watching.

“Swing and a miss,” Harwell calls it

and a tinny approving murmur

issues from the ballpark’s August crowd

in the summer of my thirteenth year.

 

At once the door to the porch

off my brother’s second floor bedroom

flies open and our mother, stricken,

thrusts her head out. “Marilyn Monroe

died!” she cries, voice raspy from smoking,

her shocked grief compelling her

to notify someone, anyone, and

we are all she can find right now—

we for whom that churl death is still 

a stranger mocked by a boyish game

(“How long you can hold your breath,”

Death will chide back; “good practice for forever”),

unaware as we are this is how

it enters our lives, with the surprise 

burst of a swinging screen door.

 

Ears submerged but thinking from her tone

she is agitated about him,

the teenager still drifting face down

like a felled log lifts a calming hand

and sends her up an okay sign

while my brother keeps splashing his count—

up to one-hundred-twenty one-thousand—

as the cruel seconds race past.

 

 

Steve Allen Returns to Weekly TV (August 1967)

Lying shirtless and pantless in the heat

of an overwhelming Detroit summer

at the end of my seventeenth year

alone on an unmade narrow bed

watching the Steve Allen Show

through a murk of endless cigarettes

 

on a black and white TV with an unbent

hanger for an antenna, I imagined I dwelt

among the habitues of Hollywood Boulevard

who stopped along whatever path

they were traveling to stare into the red

eye of the camera trained on the street

 

for a slice of southern California life

primed to catch their random amblings

and report the findings out to America

for the amusement of the nation’s viewers

who, like me, laughed along with

the host’s high giggle and comic invention

 

of lives for ladies with shopping bags

bubbling over with ripe oranges

and hose drooping at thick ankles,

and crazy-eyed men with dirty

pants cinched with neckties bunched

around their waists, and young men

 

bare-chested as I was, raving

about the government’s intrusions

into their lives, and now and then

a man wearing, say, a shower cap

might wander down the street at the wrong

time and turn up on snowy screens

 

across the country, his story concocted

for the occasion, and what is amusing

about such desperation, you might ask,

and if you do then you must not be

staring down the maw of your eighteenth

birthday, or understand how

 

the dusk of LA is as desolate

as the cruel deserted nights of Detroit

or how a camera’s glare can peer into

the deepest fears of those who dream

their truest lives into being, or even

how these could converge with your own.

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Six Sure-Fire Ways to Kill Your Writers’ Group

I rarely take part in writers’ groups anymore. I totally get their usefulness—writers need support from peers, they need responses to their work from actual readers who won’t just say they loved it, a sharp reader can point something out that a writer might not have thought of, and so on. A good writers’ group can be beneficial, no doubt.

In large part, I don’t do it because it’s not how I work best. When I came of age as a writer, I learned to do most of my work alone. I wrote projects to order and under pressure of deadline; there wasn’t the time or the opportunity—or the expectation—to get other writers’ perspectives on what I was doing. My boss—or the client—had the final say.

In larger part, though, my avoidance of writers’ groups comes from my having run or taken part in so many of them over my careers as a writing teacher and writer. The other day, I  estimated how many writers’ groups I’ve been part of over the years. I came up with the semi-astonishing figure of roughly 1,200 groups over twenty-plus years, both inside and outside the classroom.

That’s 1,200 groups of writers, ranging in number from three to thirty, where people responded to each other’s stories, poems, novel drafts, or essays. I was either an active participant or a facilitator helping the writers themselves carry the conversations.

I was deep into collaborative writing, see. The whole being the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage” thing, to use one of the more ridiculous clichés of education that still makes me gag.

I thought a lot about the subject. I took courses in how to run writers’ groups. I attended workshops in how to do it. I even gave workshops for my colleagues and others in the benefits of writing groups and how to work with them.

In all that time, I saw how and why groups could be valuable. But I also saw what could go very wrong. In particular, I came to learn that certain behaviors will kill a writers’ group dead. If you’re a member of a writers’ group and you want to make your partners miserable, try some of these out:

Screen-Shot-2016-08-28-at-6.07.19-PM1. Everybody’s a Critic.

Interpret “critique” to mean “criticize mercilessly” (instead of, say, “offer careful judgment about”), and criticize the hell out of the workshopper (the one who reads or presents a piece for discussion). Pick every single nit you can find, from structure to grammar, regardless of what stage the draft is in. Find fault, instead of reflecting your responses to the piece back to the author, who can then make decisions about how well she/he framed the writing in preparation for revising.

It also helps if you gang up on the writer with other members of the group.

2. Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Understand that your other main job as participant (besides telling authors what they did wrong) is to tell the writers what they need to do to improve the work. Regardless of your own experience of literature and writing, don’t be shy about telling the author what to do with a particular work. The wronger the advice, the louder you should insist on it.

3.Tu Casa Es Mi Casa.

Take over the author’s writing completely. Pay no attention to an author’s intentions, but respond to a piece of writing based on how you would have written it yourself. Don’t give the author any chance to make decisions about what to do or change based on how well you got what she/he was saying. This works especially well if you’ve never written anything like what the author is sharing.

4. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 1.

Don’t mention any of the strengths of the piece, and don’t bother telling the author what you liked or appreciated about the work, or thought the author did well. Your job is to focus on the bad parts. The good parts are already good, aren’t they? Why talk about them?

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Besides, agents and editors aren’t going to go easy on a writer, so why should you? You’re helping to toughen up the workshopper. Writing group as WWF Smackdown!

5. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 2.

Never mind articulating any questions you have about the piece, or points of confusion you wonder about, or interesting places where you’d like to hear more details; these might be too helpful. Your criticisms are enough.

6. I Object!

When you’re the workshopper, defend your draft loudly and vociferously. Don’t bother trying to learn from your partners’ responses and get ideas for revision, but instead show them how wrong they are in their appraisals of your work. If you have to explain or defend what you said, it just shows how little your responders get you (and how much smarter you are).

If you try all these strategies in your next writers’ group, I promise your group mates will develop some very special feelings for you.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself doing any of these, you might try to back off from them and maybe—just maybe—your writers’ group will be more enjoyable, and a whole lot more useful.

Brutal Reviews of Classic Books

As part of my efforts at getting my name out in the world, I’ve often asked (begged? cajoled? pleaded with?) my readers to write reviews of my books after they’ve read them. Most of us have done that at one time or another, right?

While generally things work out for the best, occasionally we do get a review that shows a reader was, shall we say, singularly unimpressed with our creative initiatives. The blogs are filled with advice on how to deal with bad reviews . . . some say don’t read them, some say read but disregard them, some say imagine the reviewers in their underwear, and so. My own way of dealing with the problem is to remind myself that even the best got lousy reviews, and it didn’t stop them.

Here’s a selective listing (culled from the Internet) of twenty scathing reviews of books that are now considered classics of literature. Most reviews were published contemporaneously with the books they review. They range from the snarky to the morally outraged, and they’re a good reminder that not every book is to every reader’s taste . . . and reviewers, like everybody else, are sometimes not very good at what they do.

Enjoy, have a laugh—and then get back to work!

 

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“Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” —The London Critic, 1855, on Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” — Thomas Wentworth Higginson

 

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“The final blow-up of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent. . . . This is a penny dreadful tricked up in fancy language and given a specious depth by the expert manipulation of a series of eccentric technical tricks. The characters have no magnitude and no meaning because they have no more reality than a mince-pie nightmare.” —The New Yorker on Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

 

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“It was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction.” —Chicago Times Herald, 1899, on The Awakening by Kate Chopin

 

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“Miss Willa S. Cather in O Pioneers (O title!!) is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist.” —Dress and Vanity Fair Magazine

 

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The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.” —L.P Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925, on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

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“Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” —James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847, on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

 

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“That a book like this could be written—published here—sold, presumably over the counters, leaves one questioning the ethical and moral standards…there is a place for the exploration of abnormalities that does not lie in the public domain. Any librarian surely will question this for anything but the closed shelves. Any bookseller should be very sure that he knows in advance that he is selling very literate pornography.”  —Kirkus Reviews, 1958, on Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.” —New York Times on Lolita

 

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“A gloomy tale. The author tries to lighten it with humor, but unfortunately her idea of humor is almost exclusively variations on the pratfall. . . .Neither satire nor humor is achieved.” ⎯Saturday Review of Literature, 1952, on Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

 

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“Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” —Le Figaro, 1857, on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

 

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“Never have I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters, we will let them pass, but the third, the fourth the fifth the sixth – merely the scratchings of pimples on the body of the boot-boy at Claridges.” —Virginia Woolf on Ulysses by James Joyce

“The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it … save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.” —New York Times on Ulysses

“[Ulysses] appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine… I have no stomach for Ulysses.“—The Sporting Times, 1922

 

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“This is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And bear in mind that I’ve read John Grisham.” Susan Cohen on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With That Dragon Tattoo in the Charleston City Paper

 

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“I have two recommenda­tions. First, don’t buy this book. Second, if you buy this book, don’t drop it on your foot.” The New Yorker on Chesapeake by James Michener

 

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“Occasional overwriting, stretches of fuzzy thinking, and a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.” —Atlantic Monthly on Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 

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“[Kerouac] can slip from magniloquent hysteria into sentimental bathos, and at his worst he merely slobbers words.” —Chicago Tribune on On the Road by Jack Kerouac

“That’s not writing. That’s typing.” —Truman Capote on On the Road

 

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“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and  hit her over the skull with her own shinbone!” —Mark Twain on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

On sonnet chains, mercy, and wisdom

In one of my former lives, I was professor of English and, toward the end of my career, dean of the faculty, at Marygrove College in Detroit. In 2012, a few years before I retired, I was invited to be a speaker at the baccalaureate ceremony for the graduating seniors—a kind of run-up to the Commencement Exercises that would happen in another few days. 

The catch was, my invitation was specific: my contribution would be to offer a reflection on a reading from the Gospel of Luke, which was to be the evening’s reading at the Catholic college’s mass for the graduates.

At first I thought it was a prank. My friends who had invited me couldn’t have picked a more inappropriate faculty member for the job. What could I—non-Christian, confirmed atheist, stubborn pusher-against of the institution’s core (and often more honored in the breach than the observance) religious values—possibly have to say about the Gospel of Luke?

When I realized my friends were serious, I started to take the request more seriously. The more I thought about it—and read and thought about the section of Luke that formed the evening’s reading—the more I warmed to the idea. 

I decided to accept the invitation. I thought it might be a way to invite the students to take a brief look backward at their education, and forward to the rest of their lives. My challenge would be to walk the line between meditating on the spirit of the Gospel to an audience of true believers without violating my personal beliefs—or more properly, lack of beliefs. 

In one of those creative decisions that seemed to come from nowhere, I crafted my reflection in the form of a sonnet chain (a collection of sonnets where the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next). Today I’m not sure why I picked that form; I’m not even sure I could have said then. Maybe I thought it would be best to write an extended meditative poem in short hops.  

I was reminded of the project when a good friend reminded me last week that the school’s 2019 Commencement had just taken place. I don’t do much with poetry anymore, but I thought posting the poems along with this introduction as this week’s blog would make an interesting entry. And maybe it would help get me back to thinking about poetry again.

Either way, it’s a look into a part of my writing background that was important at one time. Hope you enjoy it.

BTW, please check back this Thursday May 23rd, when I’ll host an interview with Joan H. Young, award-winning Michigan author of the essay collection North Country Cache and two mystery series, the Anastasia Raven cozy mysteries and a series for children.

The Day is Fulfilled: A Meditation on Luke
Dedicated to the 2012 graduating class at Marygrove College, Detroit

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
—Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls us to the Things of This World”

1
On the pavement by the side of the road
a man walks—no, not walks: staggers, stumbles,
does a slack jitter step down the sidewalk,
hops about to preserve his feet beneath him
(assuming there are feet somewhere inside
those laceless tatters that once were spanky brogans)
as rush-hour traffic thickens, occludes
near the corner of 8 Mile and Woodward
on an overcast weekday in May, warm,
windy, threatening rain, the sun a distant hint
behind a scrim of clouds, a promise, really, or
reminder. And as you idle at the stoplight
on your way to somewhere, late, your mind absent,
you see him halt, stand, and fix you in his gaze.

2
He halts, stands, and fixes you in his gaze
if gaze there is in eyes that squint, almost closed,
through the soupy blue haze of exhaust, seasoned
with the sweet scent of gasoline; he could be
blind for all you know, looking not at you
but in your direction, puffy-eyed, bruised,
his head a mass of greasy hair and tangled beard,
lanky frame monkish in a hooded coat
stiff with dirt and britches of a startling
cranberry hue, his shape narrow as a nail;
and don’t think I mistake this ragged man in such an
altered mental state for Jesus, though you may,
but I wouldn’t advise it because now
he’s fastened upon you, and here it comes—

3
He’s fastened upon you and here it comes—
“Yo, chief! Got something for me today?”
At least that’s what you think he says, words gleaned
from the sustained confusion of traffic,
the hiss of tires, the shriek of faulty brakes
behind you, as if you’ve often seen him
before, and maybe you have, and you think
about how much there is in this world,
and how little; how close we are, and how
impossibly far apart. And you think
you hear music, floating in the air, remote,
the roar of city buses, the thunder of trucks
unable to veil the strains of a tune
you can’t quite catch but you’re sure it’s there.

4
You can’t quite catch it but you’re sure it’s there—
and “Yo, chief!” he says again, and this time
you hear him plainly, this cumbersome twitchy
bird-man. And you start to believe that you do
have something for him: because all at once
you recognize that face, that snarled beard, that
in-your-face query; and you intuit
the heartbreak that brought him to this corner;
the despair that keeps him reeling down the sidewalk;
whatever illness it was that stripped the flesh
so fully from his spare lurching frame. Luke,
evangelist, patron saint of healers,
artists, students, tell us how we know him,
teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.

5
Teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.
Teach us how we know, what we owe each other.
Move the spirit upon us, finally, that
makes us love the least and most among us.
For we must love, we know this in our hearts.
Such is, surely, the central lesson mastered
from your rigorous years of study, which
we assemble here to celebrate today,
paused not at the end of your education,
but its beginning; for now are you primed
to learn to love the world in earnest, and spread
a gospel of your own of mercy and wisdom,
hope and liberation, your truths suffused with
that music whose soft melodies you hear.

6
That music whose soft melodies you hear—
gentle, distant, undulating on the wind—
now swells, crescendos. Listen: It is the air filled
with the rustling wings of angels wheeling
overhead in the dusk; it is the murmur
of departed spirits who swim through the sky
as they watch over us. It is the inspiration
which some call god, or Christ, or whatever
immense mystery we feel that impels us
past the insufficient sight lines of our world.
It is the bright summons of the sparrow
calling us to fulfill our days’ enduring duty
to bless the sacred weighty world beyond
the pavement by the side of the road.

copyright 2012 by Donald Levin