Tag Archive for Poetry Friday

It’s Like Riding a Bike

I basically took the summer off from blogging, so feel a little wobbly about it, my palms sweating on the handlebars, not sure I remember how to do this. I don’t know what happened, exactly, just somehow tired of the “James Preller” corporate thing. Ha. Mostly, I wanted to concentrate on other writings, as I’ve been deep in a new series that I’m writing for Feiwel & Friends. It won’t launch until The Fabled Summer of ’13, but I’ve nearly finished the third book in the series.

NOTE: I just reread this and had a chuckle about that “nearly finished” line. It only signifies that I’m an old pro when it comes to deadlines and editors: a manuscript that has not yet been handed in is always “nearly finished.” Any writer who says otherwise is a fool and a boob.

As for my new series, it feels like I’m that kid behind the snow fort, busily stacking up a supply of snowballs. Can’t wait to fire ’em out there. More on that topic another time.

I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time guy, but I’m now reading three very different but equally remarkable books concurrently: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem, and Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor.

Normally I don’t do that to myself, the three-books-at-once bafflement, but the mixture of long novel, short nonfiction, and poetry seem to complement each other nicely.

I have a long and sordid relationship with poetry, and I’m especially happy to find this sweet collection by Keillor, based on poems featured on “The Writer’s Almanac.”

Writes Keillor in the introduction:

Oblivion is the writer’s greatest fear, and as with the fear of death, one finds evidence to support it. You fear that your work, that work of your lifetime, on which you labored so unspeakably hard and for which you stood on so many rocky shores and thought, My life has been wasted utterly — your work will have its brief shining moment, the band plays, some confetti is tossed, you are photographed with your family, drinks are served, people squeeze your hand and say that you seem to have lost weight, and then the work languishes in the bookstore and dies and is remaindered and finally entombed on a shelf — nobody ever looks at it again! Nobody! This happens often, actually. Life is intense and the printed page is so faint.

Keillor, as curator, has a point of view. He likes poems that tell a story, poems that are direct and clear, that don’t sound too “written.” Poems that communicate. He quotes Charles Bukowski, “There is nothing wrong with poetry that is entertaining and easy to understand. Genius could be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”

And I put a big star in the margin when Keillor described his former English major self — a tender self I identified with, all those lessons that have taken me so long to unlearn, the bad habits of academic thought, “back when I was busy writing poems that were lacerating, opaque, complexly layered, unreadable.”

I have a file drawer jammed full with opaque and unreadable poems.

Now I see that as my writer’s quest, this effort to write clearly (and yet, even so, to write interestingly, to achieve moments of “lift off”), to overcome my own big stupid fumbling ego, those temptations to craft “look at me!” sentences that dazzle and bore readers. Perhaps that’s the great gift of writing for children of all ages. They don’t go for the bullshit. You can deliver any kind of content — really,  there’s nothing you can’t say in a children’s book — but please don’t overcook it.

One last phrase from Keillor, in praise of Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton and, for that matter, all Good Poems:

“They surprise us with clear pictures of the familiar.”

So that’s how I’ve vowed to begin my days, by reading a few poems each morning. To sit in the chair, coffee at hand, and try on the silence. My favorite from today was Charles Simic’s “Summer Morning.”

You might enjoy it, too.

As a final treat, here’s Tom Waits reading “The Laughing Heart,” a poem by Charles Bukowski. Full text below.

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your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

@Charles Bukowski

Poetry Friday: Frank O’Hara, “Why I Am Not a Painter”

Conversational and accessible, Frank O’Hara’s poems read as if he jotted them down on a scrap of paper during lunch break, or told you them as you walked down the hall. Don’t let the surface casualness fool you, the man could write and he did it with care. This is one of my favorites, and one of the best poems ever written about the creative process and its attendant mysteries.

Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Here’s Michael Goldberg’s expressionist painting, “Sardines.”

Lastly, below, Frank O’Hara reading “My Heart,” because it is always a thrill to hear the poet’s actual voice, his pauses and cadences, the sound his own work makes.

Don’t you think?

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Music Video Weekend/Poetry Friday Combo Platter: “Gentle On My Mind”

While I was writing it, if I had any idea that was going to be a hit, it probably would have come out differently and it wouldn’t have been a hit. That just came real fast, a blaze, a blur.”
—John Hartford

Here’s another one of those songs that I recall hearing in my earliest years — a song that was not chosen or selected by me, it was just there, leaking through the airwaves — a song that I only gradually came to recognize as a work of genius. Again: This improbable hit, written in 1967 by John Hartford, struck my tender self as fairly uncool. This was not the hard rock blasting through the walls of my brothers’ rooms. For starters, Glen Campbell had huge success with it and used it as the theme song for his cornball variety show; hell, my grandmother liked Glen Campbell — and she didn’t have teeth! We forget nowadays just how uncool — how reviled — country music was at the time. It was Redneck Music, hillbilly stuff. Those were the people who actually liked the Vietnam War. Or at least so we, the Lords of Popular Opinion, thought.

An aside: It’s another reason how stunning and courageous it was when Dylan went country with “Nashville Skyline”; he was showing respect to a form of music that rockers of the time openly mocked. But we’ll push that big topic aside for another day, the Dylan book I’ll probably never write.

The song has aged extremely well. “Gentle On My Mind” has been covered by everybody, including hipsters of all varieties. One of my favorite versions, not available on Youtube, is by Mark Eitzel, formerly of the San Francisco-based band, American Music Club. Fans of the song might want to track down Eitzel’s version off his covers CD, “Music for Courage & Confidence.” Available on iTunes for 99 cents.

Another favorite artist, Lucinda Williams, recorded it for the odious movie, “Talladega Nights” (it played while the credits mercifully rolled).

Scroll down a second and take a look at those insane, long-winded lyrics. What a mouthful. How does a singer deliver all that? You get those incredible rolling lines, a sense of naturalistic movement aided by Hartford’s artful use of enjambment. The lyric moves and flows like the Mississippi River that John Hartford loved as a child. There’s surprising turns of phrase everywhere, flashing moments that grab my ear: ‘It’s not clinging to the rocks and ivy planted on their columns now that bind me/Or something that somebody said because they thought we fit together walking.”

I love that crazy collision of almost archaic poesy crashing against the syntax of the common tongue; “something that somebody said” indeed. As my buddy Craig Walker used to say, “It’s the damnedest thing.” And I’m sure he must have loved that song, because Craig loved those moments whenever high art and low art met. After all, his favorite movie was “Five Easy Pieces.” But again, thinking of Craig, I digress.

Here’s a few versions for your enjoyment (or mine, I suppose).

Dean Martin:

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Jim Ed Brown:

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John Hartford & Glen Campbell:

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Elvis Presley:

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It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind

It’s not clinging to the rocks and ivy planted on their columns now that bind me
Or something that somebody said because they thought we fit together walking
It’s just knowing that the world will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you’re moving on the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind

Though the wheat fields and the clotheslines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s crying to her mother cause she turned and I was gone
I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I’m blind
But not to where I cannot see you walking on the backroads
By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurgling, crackling cauldron in some train yard
My beard a roughened coal pile and a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands round a tin can I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re wavin’ from the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
Ever smiling, ever gentle on my mind

Poetry Friday (Thursday Edition): Kristen Wiig reads from “the early poems” of Suzanne Somers

I’m loving Poetry Friday. I hope the head honchos let me into the club — I so need to be included in “the roundup.” I actually have a pretty strong collection of slender volumes of verse from my days in NYC when I was passionate about poverty poetry. People like Jack Spicer, Hilda Doolittle, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, Ken Irby and many, many more.

But for today, well, today is special.

Today you get the underrated genius of Suzanne Somers, as read by Kristin Wiig of Saturday Night Live.

A thighmaster . . . and a poet!

Are you ready to celebrate Poetry Friday? Can you think of anything better?

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I soooo need this book. My favorite is the second poem, “Extra Love,” which begins at the 2:30 mark. Don’t miss it.

Looking at the book cover, and that title, I suddenly have this crazy idea that it — the book cover — should get married to this album cover:

Remember that one? Peter Frampton’s “I’m In You.” Clearly they belong together. Peas in a pod.

Yuck. I’ve been slimed.

Here’s a customer review that I found on Amazon of Touch Me: The Poems of Suzanne Somers:

Working at a bookstore back in the late 80s, we had a copy of this book in stock. The other booksellers and I would sometimes take it down from the shelf and read aloud one of Suzanne’s terrible poems… and double over with laughter! So bad, they’re very very funny. When it came time to return it to the publisher as unsold, my co-workers and I refused to part with it. Another time, a woman overheard one of our readings, thought the poems were as hysterical as we did, and wanted to buy our store’s only copy. We talked her out of it; we liked keeping the slim volume on the shelf, where we could take it down whenever we needed a laugh. Eventually, I moved on. Reminded of this book recently, I found it through Amazon’s used book services and now have a copy of my own. I post quotes from it on my FaceBook page, giving Suzanne full credit of course, and leave some of my friends begging for more. Get it; you won’t regret it. Favorites include “I Wore My Green Sweater Today,” “Organic Girl,” and “Sometimes I Want to Be a Little Girl.”

Okay, okay, settle down folks. I know you need more, more, more. Here’s “Organic Girl” by poet Suzanne Somers:

Organic girl dropped by last night

For nothing in particular

Except to tell me again how beautiful and serene she feels

On uncooked vegetables and wheat germ fortified by bean sprouts–

Mixed with yeast and egg whites on really big days–

She not only meditates regularly, but looks at me like I should

And lectures me about meat and ice cream

And other aggressive foods I shouldn’t eat.

“Teachers Make A Difference,” performed by Taylor Mali

I understand that in some exotic cultures poetry — actual poetry — is celebrated on Fridays. For example: here, and here, and here. This week I decided to play along. But with a difference. Here at JamesPreller.com, we’re all about winning. So I’m getting a head start.

Seriously, if you know a teacher, you might want to share this.

Here’s slam poet Taylor Mali answering the question, “What do teachers make?”

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From the incredible TED site:

Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, having himself spent nine years in the classroom teaching English, history, math and SAT test preparation. He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world, and his New Teacher Project has a goal of creating 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion and perseverance.”