I am sitting here realizing how hard it is to ask you–a bunch of fifteen-year-old boys–to write iambic dimeter poetry, a form of poetry that is more or less ignored nowadays. I (literally) played around for a couple of hours penning these poems, which are at least minimally worth keeping. (My other attempts were horrid and insipid.
I am sure you will come up with some good stuff, but writing poetry under pressure [aka: last-minute] is like trying to eat Cocoa Kripsies while juggling on a unicycle in beach sand with the tide coming in.
Really–walk around with your phone on record. Get a beat–a rhythm–going. Start talking in iambic dimeter. Sooner or later some words that actually make sense will pop out. Settle for what feels good; otherwise, you’ve made a bad deal–but better than no deal at all.
The crazy thing is that it works. Sooner or later you will have made the world (and your life) a better place.
And then it is worth it after all.
Poems don’t flow out of the soul just because you want them to. They are pried out of the earth with pickaxes and teaspoons…
The Light Within
It’s hard to write
When asked to do
A task this night
That’s hard for you:
The mind goes still;
The light goes dim;
With time you will
Find words within
Here is a three verse one I just wrote with a different rhyme scheme and more use of words that are naturally iambic (each beat does not need to be a single word). Generally, a poem “reveals itself” in the closing stanza or closing lines. Everything else prepares the reader for this moment of insight.
The Jays Cry
The biting cold;
The drifts of snow–
Lone squawks of songs
In sounds we know.
The Jay and me
Both try to see
What’s right and wrong
We scream with words
(To each absurd)
And sing along
To just be heard.
These are not going to win me any poetry prize, but as a poet, at least I have won my own day.
Start with digging…
It has certainly been a long time since wisdom ruled the day. I did get up and run in the rain, and now I am preparing to do some “wrenching” on my motorcycle. I am trying to temper my eagerness to ride with my desire to get everything “right” on the bike–without stretching the bounds of the friendship of the good souls who help and guide me on this quixotic journey of sorts.
Learning to fix motorcycles is a bit like learning music: there is a steady flow of learning curves followed by successes, brief interludes of smug satisfaction, followed by harsh reminders of our inadequacies, and then another learning curve followed by success, more smugness, more inadequacies until, at some point, a compromise is reached; and like Roberto Duran, whispering “no mas…” We grudgingly accept who we are and where we are at, and somewhere in this village of complacency, we feed off the nuggets of wisdom (also known as experience) scattered sparingly around and which sustains us and carries us through the common days of our lives.
My motorcycle, a 1982 Honda “Naked” Goldwing, is beastly and beautiful, but it is still just a thing and not worth throwing good money after bad. The sloth in me would love to bring it down to Duncan or Galen and say, “Have at it. Fix everything that needs fixing. Replace everything that needs replacing. But, leave the polishing to me…” That, however, would be a fool’s errand, and I would be left with an expensive bike that costs way more than it is worth. I am learning this slowly, but I am learning, even as I approach my golden years.
Pieces and parts are pretty cheap, and time, if viewed magnanimously, is infinite. My most valuable resource is friendship and kinship. I seem to always find someone willing to help an old fool with a stubborn problem. Denise often laughs that if I work on the bike long enough in the front driveway, someone will stop by who knows how to fix it. It is an observation that is pretty close to the truth, for I am certainly blessed with a panoply of friends with a myriad mix of skill-sets, attitudes, and inclinations. Luckily, I am a gregarious creature, which is a good thing, for I would be a useless misanthrope, who would more than likely spend my life trying to dig myself out of the holes I’ve fallen in, never seeing the hands reaching down to help me up. In this sense, I am saved by friendships, and I pity the solitary, myopic persons who labor alone–even as I admire and stand in awe of their mechanical skills and problem-solving prowess.
Today, Tom has lent me his shop–a shop full of nifty, rare tools (and a bike lift). Hatrack is coming by to keep me honest, and bless me with his years of mechanical wizardry. Steve, is riding his beloved scooter in today’s driving rain all the way from Boston to ensure that I do things right, not half-ass or halfway. I’ll be there with my new timing belts, carb-syncing tool, and valve adjusters (and links to youtube videos). It is a mix and a recipe for success, so I am sure that today will be a day with a learning curve, successes, and, God Willing, a bit of smug satisfaction.
In fifth grade my mother finally let me go to the Concord Music store and buy a “45” single. I bought Johnny Cash’s version of “Ring of Fire” written by his future wife June Carter and Merle Kilgore, a noted country songwriter of his day. There was no doubt in my mind back in 1966 what was the best song ever written. I pretty much feel the same way now.
“Ring of Fire” is about as simple and perfect as a song gets. It uses three simple chords, two verses, and two choruses, yet it is a profoundly moving and enduring testament to the power, mystery, and allure of falling, failing, and floundering in love. Only an absolute misanthrope would fail to sense the power of this song.
As you try to write your own songs, it is worth looking at and listening to and reflecting upon:
Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bound by wild desire
I fell in to a ring of fire
I fell in to a burning ring of fire
I went down,down,down
And the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns
The ring of fire\
The ring of fire
The taste of love is sweet
When hearts like our’s meet
I fell for you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild
The verses are two rhymed couplets of between 6-8 syllables per line. The song starts with a statement: “Love is a burning thing” and likens that love to a physical ring into which the author, “bound by wild desire” is drawn towards—come what may. I often wondered why the unknown character did not leap or jump, but rather “fell” into the burning ring. Perhaps it symbolizes the inescapable nature of wild, untamed and unthinking love, or perhaps it is just a play on the phrase falling in love. However you take it, it works.
The chorus musically rises in a crescendo—much like the flames that grow “higher and higher” as the protagonist falls deeper and deeper in love. It employs the time-honored technique of parallelism and tri-colon usage with its repetition of “down, down, down” with “burns, burns, burns” and employs only a single rhyme scheme with “fire” and “higher.” This love affair totally consumes the main character as it drags him or her inexorably deeper into the burning pain and complexity of love. I don’t always know whether to sing the couplet phrases of “ring of fire” as a warning, a lament, or an ecstatic vision.
The second and final verse totally shifts the tone of the song into something more akin to a narrative reflection—a reflection wizened by experience telling us only that the “The taste of love is sweet/ when hearts like ours meet.” The final couplet of the song describes the predicament of love as laconically spoken as any phrase in literature: “I fell for you like a child” followed by the problem of love: “Oh, but the love went wild.”
Did it grow wild and kill the love or is love a wild part of our nature that cannot be tamed or controlled? Is that love lost when the fire runs its course? “Ring of Fire’ does not tell us much more. We fill the gaps with our own tanglings with love. Is that enough?
I’ve been singing this song for over forty years, and I still don’t know the answer, but I can agree and know from experience how easy it is for the love to go wild.
I am constantly asking my students (and myself) to reflect on the literature they, and I, read. As I have grown older—and not necessarily wiser—I find myself only reading literature that I am sure will prod me out of my intellectual and emotional torpor, like a lizard basking in the newfound warmth of spring. Right now it happens to be The Brothers Karamazov, a book I first read as an eighteen-year-old literary newbie. It might have been the first time I didn’t turn away from a book because of the daunting length of the text and the panoramic sweep of life it covers. It is now a completely new experience, though it still resonates with the young and restless soul that even now permeates the fibers and sinews of my aging and ageless self. That book made me think.—and forced me to think beyond and into my myopic experience of life thus far.
In short, I could not read without responding. The reflections of my mind needed an outlet, so I found myself arguing and assenting in long rambles in notebook journals or with anyone who would listen to me, argue with me and/or explore with me. In that way the novel became—and still is— a part of me. The more I wrote about what I read the more I knew the book. By knowing what I knew (and did not know). I realized that only by exploring through reflection could I answer through an essay.
Most of us have to write essays about subjects we know precious little about; hence, our essays have the taint of soured milk—still milk, but hardly worth drinking…
Our teachers mark us down for inserting the “I” voice into our writing as if “we” don’t really exist—as if there must always be proof beyond ourselves that “knows” more than we know—as if that is something we don’t already intrinsically know. To me, a good essay reeks of what we know, what we have explored and what we are seeking to know, and it is a damn pity when a teacher robs us any part of that triad.
You are only wrong when your facts are wrong, distorted by prejudice or bigotry, or so steeped in self-indulgent arrogance that your words fail to resonate with any kind of lasting ring—like a drum without a skin or a harp without a string.
You are equally wrong when you simply spin words into a song without music, or you pen words without meaning and foundation in your own heart—without the essence of the real and palpable you to speak with a clarity that helps others to see and feel and experience “your” experience.
A reflection is simply your recreation of your inner experience of experience. In reflecting we see our warts and blemishes clearly until those imperfections are diminished by the truth and sincerity of our search for meaning and substance to give voice to that search—and that search should extend beyond yourself. No doubt, if you wondered something, someone else wondered the same thing—and maybe even wrote about it.
Keep exploring until your inkwell is dry and your head is emptied.
And only then should you write your essay…
There is not a rubric for reflective thinking and writing. All I can ask is that you be aware of what you are thinking and feeling and to ask yourself why you are thinking and feeling that way. After almost any good meal, none of us really struggles to find words to express our satisfaction with the meal; likewise, if what we eat is pretty horrible, we can also readily find the words to express our dissatisfaction.
But it is never as easy with intellectual satisfaction or dissatisfaction because we are seldom as clear as to why we like or don’t like a piece of literature. Maybe it is because it is our intelligence on the line. Food is pretty straightforward. If you hate peppers, anything made with peppers is distasteful—and few people will judge you harshly; however, if you don’t like poetry…well, you are either ignorant, bigoted or stupid—or at least other more well-read people will smugly feel that way about you, even as they feign politeness.
Not many more nights like this, warm enough to sit outside on the back porch. The kids and Denise long asleep. Usually, during the school year, this is my “time” to catch up on schoolwork–grading, posting the assignments for the week and playing the general catchup game that is the reality for most teachers. I think…
I consider myself a good teacher. I certainly love what I do and what I teach. My school is extremely supportive of “most” everything I do, and it has the resources to help me do what I want to do in class. If I ever feel any angst, it is in the fact that I teach at a wealthy private school that strives to be in touch, but we are not in so many ways. We are working on increasing our diversity; we recognise the various traditions of a myriad of cultures; we teach good moral values; we demand decency and respect in all circumstances, and our pedagogy and curriculum is enlightening, empowering and prepares kids well for…
And that is where my questioning of myself begins. As much as I want to think that I prepare my students for “life,” I fear that in most cases their very access to a privileged lifestyle is all they really need to succeed. I look at my own kids–all doing very well at what they do. I have four in public high school, one in a public college and another who graduated from a public college, and one, Tommy, a 7th grader at my school, but it has always nagged on me that I could not give them what is common practice with my own students who take private music lessons, who hire tutors at any turn or bump in the road, who travel the world and give presentations on safaris they have been on, or service projects to remote villages, or who simply and unaffectedly talk about second homes on the Vineyard, or Nantucket, or St. John–or ski houses in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. They are good kids and not bratty, self important of in any way unkind.
We honor diversity in a staggering way, yet our hands are never dirtied by true diversity. There are no girls. No children with severe handicaps or special needs. We struggle to find the right fit for black and Latino students to bus out of Boston to our wealthy suburban town.
They are simply wealthy and their options in life are blessed and informed by a quiet acceptance of this blessing. Most of us wish we were more wealthy than we are, so perhaps we are in no way better–just unlucky that the fate of our lineage began some mill town or any hard-scrabble homestead around the world.
So I teach, and I sing, and I give lessons and tutor, build things, dig gardens and write and somehow I help create a pretty good life for my family. The irony is that I am always leaving them to give to other kids what I wish they could have.
And I help create a better life for my students. I hope. But it is just strange to me that my life is so far removed from the lives of those I teach. Maybe that is why I demand my students find the enduring universal themes in literature, if only to help them see that they are not special–that no one is special, and we are all inextricably linked by a common DNA of humanity. I entice them with stories of my academic failures, my reckless odyssey through life. I share my poetry and my songs as if it is the only gift I can “really” give them.
Perhaps they will only remember me for teaching them comma rules or how to whittle a bird out of a scrap of pine.
My teachers could have ridden with Jesse James
For all the time they stole from me…
~Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America
Today it was a temple built into the mountainside west of West Lake. Mr. Toe drove us out there. In most ways I just follow Rob and Dave on their side adventures. They seemed to have read the guidebooks, figured out a reason to go. And then we go. Sometimes Arvin or Sherry tell us where we should go, and if we agree (which we always do) we are led, tutored, fed and returned home with rarely a finger touching a wallet. With meals of endless courses, strange foods, many toasts. Nothing ever to regret.
Tomorrow Dave and Rob are heading to Shanghai. I had/have no real interest in going. I fear it would put my head in a death spiral of confusion. Hangzhou itself has already left me dizzy and unsure of my step. It is fun, however, to listen to them plot and plan like it is some navy seal mission that must be completed in an eight hour time frame—and it does. They are groping for China in every real and palpable way they can. The day after tomorrow is our next to last day teaching at the Wahaha School. And then we head home. Our bellies filled by different feasts from roadside stalls.
It seems so long that we have been here. Maybe because we have been working every day and have been busy every day (except for the day of the great typhoon—which did not end up being so great) but at least a day off. I miss Denise and the kids and wonder how/why so many people I know can just leave homes with an alacrity and insouciance of stoic acceptance of fate. I know it is always obligation and not desire, but I wonder if they feel that same knot—that same unsettled feeling. Or maybe we are just not used to being apart, like swans bound by common strands of DNA. We have had the same wallet for close to twenty years. Our doors have no locks. Our keys are always in the cars. Our town is more than small. It is like a single carat sliced from the larger gem of humanity. We cannot walk a hundred yards without stopping to speak to someone we know. Our lives enmeshed like strands in a warp of dense twine–Pithy. Strong. Immutable.
Every night here I sit on a sixth floor balcony of a thirty story luxury apartment building maybe smoke a bad Chinese cigar, read, write, and think—all the while in awe of the cityscape spread in front of me. My time here is pretty much uninterrupted time. It has given me time with few concerns or obligations, and so I have been experimenting with my writing by heading down what may seem—at first blush—a pretty strange path. In my first China entry, I tried to elevate the level of a of a journal entry simply by using a more elevated, slightly maddened poetic voice:—calculated images, a healthy dose of double dashes, an inner voice that was/is as weak and reflective as I was and am: jet-lagged, isolated, searching for meaning and reality beyond the obvious.
In my second piece, I let it all hell break loose. In a calculated way I tried to recreate my head with all of its diasporas, phobias, and non-sequiturs intact. An astute or simply intuitive reader might take me to task for borrowing from James Joyce/Walt Whitman in Ullysses and Leaves of Grass. Another might think it pure self-indulgent blather; while another might just think it strange, pointless and illogical. The irony for me is that it is as deliberately crafted a piece that I have written in a long while. I am strangely protective of the words as if those words are dull and imperfect children—loved because they are the progeny of my spirit.
Whether heaven or hell, I write out of habit and a conscious choice to recklessly probe the edges of what is true and unfettered writing of self. I am acutely aware of the limitations of my intellectual depth and breadth, so I am constantly searching for what is real in the moment, for no one can rob me or question the validity of who or what I am. I can never capture this present experience of returning to China in a traditional narrative (like this). My head is to atwhirl in a broth of synaptic sensing. This entry is not mine—it is yours: a dumb-downed story that is genuine, but incredibly lacking in totality—a counterbalance to the excesses of completely letting go. It is a making of sense, not a recreation of actual experience because the “actual” is a disparate flotsam of immediacy. In any given moment I am here and there leaping forward and back through the incongruous totality of everything I am and was and long to be. Every word typed to this page immediately places these words into a distant inviolable past, though physically counted only in milliseconds.
This then is my apology, not my anthem. Please accept these travelogues as such. I am not trying to be vague or cloy or trying to wrap myself in mystery. It just is, as Thoreau once wrote, indivisible from its essence. I am not obsessed, but I am convinced that the only test of words lies not in the sowing, but in the reaping. If somehow you—my rare reader—will linger a bit longer in my fields because you sense a greater bounty coming, then I have succeeded.
My temptation is to talk about the people here—the ones who have embraced us with utter and complete magnanimity—as somehow representing the people of China. That would be so easy and convenient for me, but, really, all of us are just slices off the roast of life. The awkward politeness and sculpted awarenesses of our first days here has evolved through Darwinian mutations into something that is not cultural, but rather true friendships honed by the wheel of hospitality, but sourced out of the well of humanity.
Tomorrow night, Arvin—a forty-something science teacher who has made it a life mission for us to appreciate the antiquity of China (and not to measure it by polluted, overgrown, chaos of everyday life China)—has invited us to his house tomorrow night to have dinner with his parents. He wants us to see a China that is not toasting us in city restaurants, bars or classrooms, but rather in a home in a small village—a single stretch of family eager to welcome us through the over-sized door of hospitality.
My fear is that he will spend more than he has and that he will micro-criticise every action he makes and every natural imperfection that is the reality of anything called “home.” He is a man who is impossible not to love, who is insecure in any given moment that his goodness is misplaced or misunderstood; though, to me, it is never misguided. He is a man whose young eight year old boy is everything—as in every thing—to him, which snares both the magnificence and myopia of China.
The one child policy. [Although now they will allow two children, but few it seems are making that leap.]Everyone here gets, accepts, lives, and accepts the logic of the one child policy, but the manifestations implies an approach to cultural norms that has never in the history of earth been put into continual practice and decreed by law upon untold millions of people. All of my students here are “only children,” and in varying degrees they act like only children, but more so their parents are acutely aware that their child is their only child. There one shot at legacy; hence, there is little room for error. As Shakespeare wrote: “That’s the rub.” We—parents of the world—are constantly measuring our success as parents through the success of our children. I do it all the time! but here it is being taken into an uncharted sea whose shoals are dredged by the unyielding claws of a proud and ancient culture lorded over by the insensate paws of massive government.
My rambling asides over (at least for now) I am over-joyed to be invited to Arvin’s home. So much of my time in in China in 1981-1982 was spent in people’s homes—mostly just squares of mud, brick, clay, and tin set in sprawled alleyways; common latrines, and a single pots and pans set on small coal stoves to prepare the feast. I miss that simplicity. When I returned home, I spent close to ten years in an equally small log cabin with an outhouse and a kitchen with only one pot and one pan, though I could have scavenged an entire kitchen from the swap shop at the town dump. Arvin’s home may well be the face of the new China: the China that is reinventing the yardstick; the China that is emerging and sometimes bursting out of a generation resting under leaves like the cicadas now chattering in maddened choruses in every grove of trees.
I am speechless and stunned by the skyline of the city. I really can’t comprehend the reality. I drive the streets and crane my head in disbelief and can only wait for time to give context and some infantile understanding that justify the claustrophobia of words cluttered and pressed together. These are the new temples swathed in carbon haze that will be gone long before time has recycled them into something new, not the truly ancient temples carved out of the hillsides along West Lake—not the homes of godly emperors served by scores of eunuchs, peasant farmers, concubines and foot soldiers. I do not feel as if I am embedded in a new dynasty. I only sense the impermanence of something inherently unsustainable. The skyscrapers seem more like Towers of Babel that pale in comparison to the mud homes of my memory.
I am exhausting myself. My head right now is only one of many on the Hydra of my self. In a few short hours I need to be in front of my students who only need to know that I care about verb tenses and sentence structure. Any success I have as a teacher is how well I have learned to wear the proper head at the proper time, so my students will never sense or fear the fulness of the monster in front of them. My teacher head is only a toothless rag of fur and broken appendages that they can stuff in their backpacks and carry through life—if only to shape dreams that help them sleep at night. Dreams stretched in every horizon.
If teacher is not also a dream, he or she is no better than a book carried, shuffled across hard desks, a vague remebrance— as listless as beach sand.