Tag Archives: poetry

496. Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

There is something about blogging that I didn’t expect when I started. Since these posts are opinionated, but not totally opinion, I find myself doing research from time to time to keep my facts straight. That means I occasionally learn things I would never otherwise have known.

It’s a major bonus.

I was aware of Bob Dylan’s selection by the Nobel committee, and his reticence regarding the event, but I didn’t know the full outcome. I wanted to make an off-hand comment about it in another post, but didn’t want to make a fool of myself, so I checked out the facts.

The Nobel committee awarded Dylan the prize for literature last October “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Can a song be true literature? I would say yes, although rarely; about as often as a poem is or a novel is. Does Dylan’s work rise to that level of gravitas. Again, my answer is yes; the only other songwriter who comes to mind who worked at that level was Leonard Cohen. Paul Simon just misses the cut.

Dylan took a very long time replying to the committee, fueling speculation that he would refuse the honor, but he finally complied, and eventually provided his Nobel lecture, which is the only requirement attached to the prize.

His lecture was also my prize for checking out the facts. It is superb. I’ve provided a link below.

The lecture, actually more of a biographical essay, is written in the same intelligent but not over-educated voice that we hear in his songs. This is entirely appropriate; it is pure Dylan. He tells of the early impact of Buddy Holly, and then of American folk, then shifts to a personal analysis of three classic books, Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey. He presents their complexity, their unflinching view of the rough truths of life, and the manner in which each makes statements which require the readers engagement. Much in these books is not spelled out and nailed down, just as much in his songs is not. These three books are offered for their influence on Dylan’s work.

I found the essay intelligent and moving, and instead of providing a blow by blow, I recommend that you use the link below to read it for yourselves.

I will only quote one short passage, from near the end:

Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard.

I hope you will take the time to read the whole essay. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go dig up some of those old LPs I bought while I was in college during the sixties. He has a rough voice and I don’t like his harmonica playing, but oh, those words!

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490. Morning of the Gods

Other lands; other skies.
       Not of earth.

Lands of red sky and green sea;
Lands of gray sky and silver forests.
Lands as endless as the sands,
       and nameless as the waves of the sea.

Watch realities shift into one another,
                     Slip by, slip by, slip by,
Like fleeting images seen
       in a nightride through chaos.

Come with me then, to where consciousness ends.
Where experience missed,
       sets an iron boundary on our lives.

Come to a land of red sky and green sea,
And a land where the gray sky
       locks hands with the elfin forest.

Come with me to a land that has no name.

#            #            #

Today, this is a poem, because I shifted its order, set it into lines, and tweaked where needed. It started as the opening paragraphs of a novel. Slide on over to today’s Serial, and see the original.

480. Mairi at Culloden

272 years ago today, the last battle took place on British soil. Followers of Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) met British forces under the Duke of Cumberland on Culloden moor. Like all battles, it was a confusing, bloody mess, but it had the virtue of being decisive. The reprisals which followed brought highland culture largely to an end.

The mists of nostalgia roll over the Battle of Culloden, casting it in a romantic light as the last day of Scottish independence from the English. Sorry, but it was nothing like that. There were Scots on both sides of the fight. The “champion of the Scots” was the grandson of a deposed British king, born in Rome and raised in France, now fighting to regain his grandfather’s throne in London. The highlanders who followed him were despised by the lowland Scots who fought on Cumberland’s side — but the lowlanders’ descendants now claim clan membership and wear kilts — even though kilts hadn’t been invented yet in 1756.

I would have sworn that I would never write about Culloden, until I saw a brief note in an article about the history of oats in Scotland which described the actions of a Scotswoman who sat down beside the road leading from Culloden and cooked oat cakes for the soldiers, knowing they would need food to survive. Her simple and humane reaction to the conflict moved me to write this poem.

Mairi sat down by the side of the road

The night was filled with the sound of men
And the moan of wind in the heather,
As Mairi’s kinsmen went south toward the field,
That Charlie had set for the meeting.

Three sons of Mairi came out of her hut
And kissed her cheek as they left her
With Ross the youngest trailing along
To see what the battle would bring.

Mairi took oats from the pantry shelf,
There was not enough to please her,
So she dragged in a sack from the loft of the ben,
Took peats, and salt, and her griddle.

Then Mairi went down to the side of the road,
Built a peat fire and kneaded the grain,
Heated her griddle and cooked fat cakes,
To stack for the coming of day.

“They will come,” she said, “in the morning,
And all through the rest of the day,
Strutting proud or running scared,
Theyʼll be hungry either way.”

The oat cakes sizzled; the smell was fine;
She flipped them and stacked them and listened
To the musket fire from Cumberlandʼs men
And the deeper roar of his cannons.

The cries that went up as the claymores flashed
Were too distant for Mairi to hear,
But Ross would come back from where he watched
To tell how the Scotsmen had fared.

Then a sudden wind, and the fire flared up,
She shivered as pain rushed through her.
Three quick shocks in her empty womb,
And her heart in her breast went numb.

Her hands dug deeper into the oats,
And flew at the task of the kneading,
The stack of bannocks at her side grew tall
For she knew now that they would be needed.

Then Ross came running from the battlefield
He could only come out with a groan.
But Mairi knew without any words
That his brothers would not return.

******

The first man she saw was limping hard
With his leg bound up in a rag.
A highland face, with matted red hair,
He was lean as an iron bar.

A hungry man with a strangerʼs face;
Mairi gestured to the cakes.
He picked one up, took a bite, and sighed.
“God Bless you,” he said, and moved on.

The second man was a stranger, too,
He said, “Mother, it was awful.”
“Eat,” she said, “and move along,
I’ll pray that you find safety.”

The third was young, more a boy than a man,
With face flat and eyes that were dry.
Half held up by a second youth
Who coughed along along at his side.

“Take cakes and eat,” Mairi started to say.
But the coughing youth shook his head.
“I thank you, Mother, but let them go
To living men instead.

My friendʼs bled dry; thereʼs a ball in my lung;
Weʼre as dead as the ones behind.
Just show us a hidden place to crawl in,
And a quiet place to die.”

Mairi worked on, with a clenched up heart
While Ross fed peats to the fire,
Saving the lives of the fleeing men,
For hungry men soon tire.

All through the morning and the afternoon,
Those who lived to flee streamed by them,
Mairi rolled dough in her aged hands
As she mourned for the dead and the living.

For even these battered and tattered men,
Who would leave the field still living
Had lost more than battle, kinsmen, and sons.
A whole way of life had died with them.

And Mairi knew, with foresight clear,
That the winners would fare no better.
That the losers had lost, and the winners would lose,
All except for the rich and the English.

Then the last cake was gone, and Ross was gone,
Sent on with the last survivor.
Up past the river and into the hills.
To hide for a while in the heather.

Down the road she saw them, a mile away,
The Redcoats at last were coming,
Marching proud with bloody swords.
                Mairi stood up and put out the fire.

478. Poetic Writing

           People, I think, read too much to themselves; they should read aloud from time to time to hear the language, to feel the sounds.
          Homer told his stories accompanied by the lyre, and it was the best way, I think, to tell such stories. Men needed stories to lead them to create, to build, to conquer, even to survive, and without them the human race would have vanished long ago.
                               Louis L’amour  The Lonesome Gods  pp. 115-116

I am writing this on February 12th, to publish on April 9th. All the slots until then are filled with posts about teaching and space exploration, all tied, more or less, to my teaching novel that is winding down over in Serial.

I have also been reading The Lonesome Gods, for the umpteenth time, where I ran across the quote above. It was timely, since I just stayed up late last night finishing a poem that has been rattling around my computer for about five years, and placed it into a post. It will come out next week, keyed to the anniversary of the event that inspired it.

Old fashioned rhyming poetry can be wonderful, but it often suffers when the poet has to fight to fit content to rhyme. Modern poetry doesn’t seem like poetry at all to me. I often like it for what it has to say, but if you can retype it into your computer minus the return-key strikes, and turn it into a good opening paragraph for a story that never got written, how is that poetry?

Everyone in the world disagrees with me on this, but that’s okay. I’m used to that.

My favorite type of poetry is rhythmic, without slavishly following a pattern. Think Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, or Rabindranath Tagore. I follow their lead, without aspiring to their quality. I am a novelist by moral necessity. Poems just come to me, and not too often.

My favorite type of prose is poetic in its rhythms. L’amour often reaches that peak, but not consistently. The quotation above, about poetic language, doesn’t rise to poetry. The opening paragraphs of Bendigo Shafter do:

          Where the wagons stopped we built our homes, making the cabins tight against the winter’s coming. Here in this place we would build our town, here we would create something new.
          We would space our buildings, lay out our streets and dig wells to provide water for our people. The idea of it filled me with a heartwarming excitement such as I had not known before.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the content is the American Dream. Also from The Lonesome Gods, this passage strikes me as poetic:

And now I was back to the desert, back to the soaring mountains behind my house, back to the loneliness that was never lonely, back to the stillness that held silent voices that spoke only to me.     p. 202

When I was a new writer, I rested my fevered brain between writing sessions with Louis L’amour, because his westerns were completely different from the fantasy and science fiction I was writing. I learned a lot about poetry from him, along with a lot of cautionary tales about clunkers. I’ll spare you examples of those.

What he says in the top quotation is good advice for writers. Always read your own work aloud.

My writing goes roughly this way. First comes a draft that probably needs a lot of help. The second time through, I translate it into English — that is, I turn beagn into began, and Thmoas into Thomas. Feel free to skip that step if you don’t have dyslexic fingers. Then I run the spell checker. Finally I read it slowly, softly, and always out loud. By this time, my eyes have seen the page several times, but my ears are hearing it for the first time.

The ears will catch what the eyes miss.

462. The N Word

Another version of this post, with the same poem, appeared as 86. N —-

The N—– word. Everybody in America is afraid of it. Including me.

I could write it out plainly. In fact, I feel a little foolish writing a letter followed by dashes, especially since I used it in a post just a week ago, and will again in the poem below. But if I spelled it out, I would feel like a little kid cussing in front of his parents, then pretending he didn’t know they were there.

I grew up white in a community which had no blacks. So how do you learn to hate or fear someone you never see? Easy. You listen to your parents and their friends, and absorb their attitudes.

I didn’t come to hate, in part because my parents didn’t hate. But they did fear. If you study black-white relations in America, it is amazing how much fear there is on both sides. I certainly had my share, and I hated having it. But I couldn’t shake it, until I wrote and published this poem. It didn’t cure me, but it helped.

          Mother Tongue

               I saw a calf born.
His mother, in her need to clean him,
Knocked him over on his first rising,
And on his second rising.

In her need to make him safe,
she drove him to his knees.

               Words are like that –
A mother tongue that overwhelms us,
That makes us what we are,
and sometimes, what we should not be.

*****

When I see a black man, I hear “nigger”
Spoken sharply in my father’s voice.
I step back, my eyes grow tight,
Suspicion fires my blood,
And for one moment he is my enemy.

Then reason returns,
And I am shamed.

It is my father’s fear.
I would leave it in my father’s grave,
If I could . . .,  but I cannot!

I can only drive it down;
And bury it deep in shameful, hollow places.

Symphony 67

“It’s not fair.”

“Why do I have to be fair?”

Tony Caraveli was probably the only one enjoying the exercise. He had a pile of candy and he liked confusion. He shouted out, “Because the school board will get you for it.”

Neil had to grin. “Tony, you have a beautiful sense of how things really work. You are right. The school board would get mad at me. But what if I chose to ignore them?”

“You won’t.”

That part of the conversation wasn’t going where Neil wanted it to go, so he turned back to Stephanie who was still standing in the aisle looking like Liberty Leading the People. He asked, “Why do I have to be fair? Is life fair?”

“Yes,” she said defiantly.

He raised his eyebrows and invited the rest of the class to comment. They all but shouted Stephanie down, and the essence of their opinion was that life was not fair. “All right,” he said, “I want you to think of one time when life was not fair to you.”

Almost every hand went up. Neil waved his arms and said, “Wait! Just wait. I want you to take three minutes to think of the very worst way life has been unfair to you. Now think!”

They couldn’t wait. They couldn’t stand it. They twitched; they seethed; they bubbled. It was like watching a pressure cooker. Finally Neil said, “Okay.”

This time, every hand went up, but Neil simply got to his feet and began distributing paper. “I want you to write down what you just thought of,” he said, and a collective sigh rolled through the room. 

“Mr. McCrae,” Bob Thorkelson whined, “can’t we just tell you? Please.”

Neil shook his head.

“Please!”

“Write it.”

They knew from long experience that there was no appeal to the command to write. They took up their pencils and within seconds the room was silent except for the scratching of graphite on paper.

Meanwhile, Neil got his tape deck out from under the desk and put the Garfunkle tape in it. He had already cued it to the second cut on the back side. When most of the students had laid their pencils aside and raised their hands again, Neil said, “Since it’s a party, I thought we’d have some music.”

“Mr. McCrae,” Tanya wanted to know, “don’t we get to read our papers?”

“Later.”

The class couldn’t decide whether to be upset at having to wait or happy at the thought of getting music instead of work. The last few students put down their pencils and Neil started the tape. Garfunkle sang with sweet melancholy.  Without the music, the words would have meant little. With the music, it became a lament for loneliness and abandonment that even eleven year olds could understand.

Mary was an only child,
Nobody held her, nobody smiled . . .

After the last chord had died away, Neil shut off the machine and began to rewind. Laura Diaz said in a small voice, “Mr. McCrae, can we hear it again?”

A dozen of the students added their appeals to hers.

“Sure,” Neil agreed. “First let me give you these. I typed up the words and ran them off so you could understand them better.”

This time through about half of the children followed the printed sheets as the music played.

“That was neat!”

“Yeah, but sad.”

“Neat but sad is exactly what I think of it,” Neil agreed. “Does anybody want to hear it one more time?”

They did, and it carried them to the break. more Monday

================

ASIDE: I have too much respect for other writers to print the lyrics of Mary Was an Only Child without permission, but you can find them on line. Better still, you can hear it on YouTube.

450. Centuries Are Nothing to India

It is a new year, and once again I find myself in India. Metaphorically that is, in my latest novel.

I went to college as a biology major and quickly switched to Anthropology. Everyone in the Biology department wanted to study DNA and I wanted to study ecology. It was 1966 and I was about ten years too early.

Once in the Anthropology department, I quickly found myself drawn to Indian studies. That is, South Asian studies, not the study of American Indians, as they were called before the days of political correctness.

I also found that common terminology doesn’t fit the larger world. What Americans call the Middle East is neither middle nor eastern. It is West Asia. East Asia is China and Japan. South Asia is Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka I fell in love with all the parts of South Asia, and never made it to any of them in the flesh. The Viet Nam war got in the way, and then novel writing got in the way.

I have visited variant Indias three times now in novels. A Fond Farewell to Dying (Pocket/Timescape, 1981) was set in a future following nuclear war and rising of the waters, in which India is the last nation having a modern, scientific culture. America is reduced to backwardness while Europe and northern Asia are blasted by nuclear fallout. David Singer, having renamed himself Ram David Singh, has left America to become a scientist in India, where he perfects a type of mechanically derived immortality which gets him into no end of trouble.

During my years of Indian studies, I ran across Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Sunset of the Century. I was so taken by it that I quoted part of it when I wrote A Fond Farewell to Dying, and quoted a shorter piece of it as the sub-title of this website.

Here is what I quoted in Fond Farewell:

Be not ashamed, my brothers, to stand before the proud and the powerful.
With your white robes of simpleness.
Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul.
Build God’s throne daily on the ample bareness of your poverty.
And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.

That last line is probably my favorite quotation of all time. I posted the complete poem two years ago. Tagore wrote it on the last day of the nineteenth century, looking back at centuries of oppression and forward to a new century of freedom.

India showed up again in Cyan but I won’t give out any spoilers on that.

My latest novel The Cost of Empire is a look at an India just beginning to push for independence in a steampunk flavored alternate universe. Rabindranath Tagore is an off-camera character, as the cousin of one of the main characters who has a habit of quoting him. I’ll let you know when it is finished.