Blogging offers a forum for musing about the craft of writing and the events that surround us in a very frustrating and yet exciting time, as we are faced with many issues similar to those of the 1960s: A government that lies to us, neo-colonial incursions into other countries, repression of ideas and serious threats to the well-being of the human race, while offering bread and circuses at home in the form of rampant materialism. A groundswell of protests against authority again reflect the response that was given by youth in the 1960s. Writing once again can explore those moods and present an alternative.
By Clive Matson
Wonderment and curiosity fuel the poems in Greed: A Confession. “Things can’t be what they seem,” puzzles Didi Goodman when, after a windstorm, an unusual golden light fills her driveway. She discovers the hue comes from yellow leaves blown to the ground, their color enhanced by a moon that’s no longer blocked by the leaves.
Nature supplies a kaleidoscope of topics: a frog that freezes in winter and thaws for spring; a bird concealed in a variety of shapes but, without awareness, the eye discerns where it is; the confusion of lights at dusk, which is star, which porch light, and which the jeep on a mountain track; a raptor’s boundless world where a morsel of flesh is pin-pointed, “one unlucky pigeon on a wire.” Add a cricket, bones, swallows, hummingbirds, dusk, a burr, a burned-out house, and many more, even paintings of landscapes.
At the core of these poems are natural ironies, or disjunctures, or improbabilities that inspire awe, bafflement, and even disbelief. The poems are frames through which we view this magic. Goodman creates clear windows, often tinged with humor, especially when an event runs counter to intuition. The title poem traces the poet’s curiosity to childhood delight in toads, in berries, and in coins on a laundromat floor. She calls her impulse “greed,” which shows how completely the draw toward wonderment dominates and propels her poetic life. That draw, however, is healthy, enriching, vibrant, and brings to light intricacies of the world.
The poet first needs the acuity to notice an event. Curiosity compels her to observe it over time, and this gives the magic a chance to reveal its machinery. With that the poet’s initial goal is achieved. Such immersion elicits an insight, though, often placed at the poem’s end, on some parallel in history, or in human experience, or in mythology. Swallows are “like skiffs on the sea”; hope changes “as easily as water, once, to wine”; we could be salamanders that “ sprout such tiny, useless hands”; we are like cattle facing “wide-spaced slats of change, unable to risk a step.”
Goodman uses a variety of forms, most often the sonnet, and that’s testament to this form’s flexible power. Rhymes and half-rhymes are embedded in her sentences and not often rung, but when it serves to ring them, she will. The tone is generally cool, reflecting her intent to be accurate and to reveal an event, not to exclaim over it. A personal passion ripples through the pieces on Jerusalem, implying longer stories one hopes Goodman will explore. But throughout most of Greed: A Confession the poet’s interest is in discrete happenings. This stipulates that her language be tailored to each topic, and communicate clearly. That she does so in an accessible, conversational style, while fulfilling her forms’ often intricate requirements, is remarkable.
Goodman chooses subjects from our lives, too. She treats vision, aging, memory, desire, and illusion with interest equal to what she gives fauna and flora. Her metaphors, reversing the usual order, then come from the physical world. The heart finds a simile in the Luna moth, “poised for flight, perched on the edge”; the poet’s love varies as much as the “Shostakovich Preludes Opus 34”; a birthday takes on the urgency and “whistled lunacy” of a robin’s song; minute ancestral forces reappear in the present, opening “a sudden canyon at your feet.”
Didi Goodman is a scientist of natural history, which, in these poems, includes human experience. The poet shows us how to see in ways that are revelatory. The pleasure she takes in this process displays itself, with characteristic irony, in “A Certain Joy,” where her persona meets death and comments, “How the sun glints on the beautiful curve of your blade.”
(With help from Sally Bolger and Jack Litewka)
By Clive Matson
“Oh put down thy vanity man the old man told us under the tent. You are over-run with ants.” .” – John Wieners, from “A poem for early risers,” The Hotel Wentley Poems (Auerhahn Press, San Francisco: 1958), page 12.
Many lines from John Wieners have taken up permanent residence in my psyche. They’ve been exact and revelatory for more than fifty years, and the intelligence that came up with his words is mysterious. But the process is not.
Ezra Pound wrote “Pull down thy vanity” in Canto 81, and Wieners must have started there. A friend read the Canto while we were camping in Baja California in remote mountains, and that’s significant. For me, the clutter that inhabits awareness falls away in the presence of nature.
Pound’s poem contrasts what one loves with what vanity has built. “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage” he proclaims, and references classical Greek, 19th century Spanish, and early American history. But Canto 81 is not easy to understand. This reader gets more involved with Pound’s stance than with his material.
Wieners brings Pound’s insight to street level. It’s a common refrain, of course, from Bible school and Ecclesiastes (1:14 and throughout) “All is vanity and vexation of spirit” probably down to many of our parents’ exhortations. But look at the subtexts: Ecclesiastes puts us in a house of worship for a sermon and Pound puts us in oratory awe, hearing a sage rail at the culture. John Wieners talks to us.
Wieners distills to usefulness a line that doesn’t ordinarily reach outside its literary circle. Why put us in church or in the library, why give us any word that doesn’t communicate directly? Wieners’ work has brevity and clarity. No need to add to the clutter! “The small fires I burn in the memory of love.” “Held as they are in the hands of forces they cannot understand.” “Who has opened the savagery of the sea to me.” ‘The poem does not lie to us, we lie under its law.”
Keeping the anachronism “thy” in Wieners’ lines on vanity gives them a single, cavernous echo from the Old Testament. That one reverberation is all that’s needed. “You are over-run with ants” backs up the dictum with a physical sensation; it doesn’t need to be phrased “Thou art over-run…,” which would put us back in church. It comes as a small surprise that “Canto 81” contains an ant: “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.”
Wieners brought the ant from its obscure setting and made it an apt correlative in the body, working just as he did with the arcane “Pull down thy vanity.” What about “the old man told us under the tent”? Is this Wieners taking an appreciative snapshot, or is it a dig at Pound? In any case the image brings the reader into the realm of revivalist tents and country preachers. This grounds us with a thump.
Most of Wieners’ couplets have literary or folklore sources. “The scene changes” and a variety of others are from William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”; “My middle name is Joseph and I walk beside an ass on the way to what Bethlehem,” the Bible and William Butler Yeats; “God love you, Dana, my lover,” Irish folk sayings and the Bible, as well as “The small fires I burn in the memory of love” and many others. “I do not split I hold on to the demon tree.” I suspect this is taken from somewhere in the hip lexicon.
Inversions and anachronisms in service of what Wieners intends are frequent in Hotel Wentley.“When green was the bed my love and I laid down upon.” This phrasing gives the lyricism a mythic tenor. Equally instructive might be “I am engaged in taking away from god his sound.” Conventional phrasing, like “I’m engaged in taking god’s sound away from him,” would not demonstrate the aural resonance Wieners claims.
Wieners wrote Hotel Wentley in one week, on an amphetamine run. That could be evidence of the drug’s ability to aid focus, but one could also lament amphetamine as a contributor to chaos in the remainder of Wieners’ life. The drug created neither Wieners’ wisdom nor his refining. Both are evident in poems from before 1958, and, curiously, many of the lines in Hotel Wentley are distilled from Wieners’ earlier poems
It’s startling that, instead of the Wieners’ line above, I remembered “Held in the hands of forces we cannot understand.” This is a Wieners-like revision of his own words. The line comes from “A poem for painters,” in which paintings in an Edvard Munch exhibition are templates for some of Wieners’ most brilliant stanzas. My inadvertent revision brings those words out of the museum, and out of the clutter, into the palpable present. This process is natural, or is natural with me, and we may all do it: turn literature into something useful. I suspect the extreme daring and vision and entitlement in using this process so extensively for writing Hotel Wentley is unequaled anywhere in literature.
In this discussion, the practical is presented as essential to poetry. Many people have asked, “What makes good poetry?” Not easy to answer, with today’s entrancing personalities and spectacular intellects. Poetry should be passionate and clear; it should cut through the clutter; and it should be useful in living. This smacks of “Gebrauchtmusik,” music for public events, of the nineteen-twenties and thirties that gave us Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith. It’s a stretch to view Wieners’ poems as parallel to Gebrauchtmusik, unless we accept that events in consciousness are equivalent to external events. A difference is that musicologists and connoisseurs judged whether the compositions were useful. Wieners’ lines show their usefulness over time, staying as cornerstones, or guides, or signposts in our minds. The judgment is made organically, and internally, by our psyches.
I’m reminded of a professor’s question, in 1959 at the University of Chicago, which became my signal to leave the university: “Why did Milton write Paradise Lost?” I raised my hand. “It’s the tug-of-war between good and evil,” I offered. “Life is like that.” I wanted as clean a relationship with literature as with mountains and valleys.
The professor replied, “That’s a good answer, but it’s not the one I’m looking for.” Milton identified with the devil, he explained, and God was the king of England, with whom Milton had a long quarrel.
My answer, like the answer embedded in Wieners’ poems, is more useful.
(With help from Sally Bolger, Vince Storti, and John Paige.)
(A Response to Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”)
By Clive Matson
Inequality is what we have, I think, as I walk to the market, wondering if my strategy to give every beggar something will work, if there’s sufficient change in my pocket. I’m not looking forward to meeting deadened eyes. “Inequality for All” is Robert Reich’s film and the title suggests he realizes what we’ve got.
He also knows that democracy doesn’t work without a strong middle class. His film repeats the image of a bridge with two stanchions, like the Golden Gate, and the cables between them represent, over time, the stock market, levels of income, political trends, and social forces. These all follow an almost identical arc from one stanchion to the other, from the 1929 crash to the 2008 crash. After the 2008 crash, the forces follow the same arc into the present. Reich, with the goal of reversing the inequality, proposes ways to strengthen the middle class. His fleeting mention of Occupy and the one percent shows he may know how extreme the inequality is.
The major forces will continue, though, even if the laws Reich suggests are enacted. Reich likes capitalism, and doesn’t see the obvious: corporations don’t follow the laws. They listen to their stockholders. Inequality will increase, and we’ll have another crash before long, likely a worse one. The system needs its ceiling lowered and its floor raised. A lot. Capitalism can be as vigorous as it likes, within serious constraints.
After the ’29 crash Roosevelt created Social Security, vast public programs, and taxed the rich at more than 90 percent of their income over 250 thousand dollars. For the ceiling, the tax should be reinstated to at least 90 percent of all income over one million or so, and all, I wrote all and I mean all, loopholes closed. In addition, the annual 15 percent profit and 10 percent expansion that stockholders expect of corporations should be outlawed. Something much less, 5 percent and 5 percent as the ceiling, would reduce day-to-day pressure immensely. Profit from selling a business should be limited by that 5 percent, too.
I like the cheap taco shop next to the elegant hair salon in my neighborhood, the tattoo parlor next to the organic ice cream shop next to the shoestring gallery. I don’t like the poverty. I don’t like the begging, the depression, the outright pain, the depravity. “The system does not work, ask someone who isn’t.” (1) And the system has no compassion. Corporations, including the health care industry, the educational system, and the insurance companies, spend much of their resources getting around the few compassionate laws that we do have.
Raise the floor? Strengthen Social Security, make education free at all levels, health care free for all, create vast public programs. No work to be done? Hah! Ride a bike through our broken-up streets, notice the abandoned buildings and businesses and empty lots, for starters. And institute a guaranteed annual income. You object: won’t people cheat? Well, they cheat anyway. Or, where’s the money? There’s plenty of money. And if everyone’s bringing in a living wage, duh, they’re all spending money and small businesses thrive. Neither happens now.
There’s much more to do. Take the profit out of war, for instance: make zero profit mandatory. And the shell game of giving Pakistan and others billions of dollars so they can buy our military hardware? That shifts taxpayer money within this country to military corporations within this country. No compassion there. We’re all together in the same boat, hasn’t everyone noticed? The wealthiest 85 people earn 1 trillion, 648 billion dollars, as much as the bottom half of the planet, 3.5 billion people, whose average annual income is 470 dollars and 86 cents.(2) And, of course, those 85 get much of their money from the 3.5 billion. This is so much worse than “obscene” we don’t have a word for it. “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them,” Pope Francis quotes, “and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.” (3)
The movement to raise the minimum wage is a tiny beginning and any increase would be compassionate. Am I writing about justice? Yes, but there’s no real justice without compassion. In the struggle for the survival of our species, greed is far, far ahead of compassion. Even if everything I suggest is done right away, I mean now, we’re only setting the table. Or I should say, we’re only getting ready to clear the table. The mentality that got us here, the trance that is this culture, must change. Drastically.
Compassion is at the root. And I haven’t brought enough change. The lady asking for money is someone I’ve seen before, and she looks worse, bloodshot, rheumy eyes. Every bone in her body speaks of a losing fight to stay healthy and to stay alive. Inequality is what we’ve got, and will get, without a surge of compassion taking over, everywhere. System-wide.
1 – Bumber sticker from 1980 on the West Coast
2 – These figures are from an Oxfam report, January 20, 2014.
3 – Bob Burnett’s column “Pope Francis: 2013 Politician of the Year,” December 27, 2013.