Tag Archives: poetry

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.


“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?”


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.

448. The Good King

Merry Christmas and why are you on the internet when you should be sitting by the Christmas tree?

Christmas is my favorite holiday. Of all the masses of Biblical knowledge I accumulated in my religious childhood and youth, the story of the Nativity is the only part that still moves me to joy.

I particularly enjoy Christmas carols, even the unsingable ones. However, I never understood the appeal of Good King Wenceslas until I saw and heard it in the movie Miracle Down Under, where it is sung by a poor family and some swagmen to the accompaniment of a washboard. Then I understood the bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-bump non-melody as something that could be handled even by coarse voices without instruments.

I also paid attention to the lyrics for the first time. The King is watching over his people, and when a poor man is spotted gathering wood for his fire, the King goes to his hut with food. The final few lines are particularly moving, despite their awkwardness as they are tacked on as a sort of “moral of the story”.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
    wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
    shall yourselves find blessing.

Not bad. Even today, we could use a President who understands that simple message.

Symphony 54

“I can not only read it, I had to memorize it once. That is one tricky lady up there.”

The passage wasn’t in English, quite. It was tantalizingly familiar yet basically unreadable. It went:

Hear me, Auld Hangie, for a wee,
An’ let poor damned bodies be;
I’m sure sma’ pleasure it can gie,
               Ev’n to a deil,
To skelp an’ scaud poor dogs like me,
               An’ hear us squeel.

The piece consisted of the ten most difficult of the poem’s twenty-one verses.

Anne Marie announced, “You have only one minute left. Are you half finished?” The audience laughed uneasily.

Carmen said, “What is this?”

Neil whispered, “It’s a poem by Robert Burns, Address to the Deil.” When he pronounced deil correctly with a slight stop between syllables that told of the missing letter, Carmen recognized that it meant devil. “It’s half in Scots and half in antiquated English. Burns sometimes wrote in English, sometimes in his native tongue, and sometimes he mixed them up. My grandfather is a real fan of Burns. When I was growing up, he said that any Scotsman, even an expatriate, had to learn his Rabbie Burns. So I did.

“Hang on to your wallet, Carmen, this gal is going to start selling snake oil any minute.”

And, indeed, she did. After most of the teachers had confessed that they could make little out of the passage, she arranged them in groups and let them discuss the material. In that way, they were able to tease much of the sense out of it, though they were still wide of the mark on those words which were simply outside their experience. They could figure out from context that gie was give and hame was home, but no amount of reasoning could tell them that douce meant sweet. They took skelp to mean scalp, when it really meant to strike.

This, Anne Marie went on to say, was what was wrong with the teaching of reading in California by the old methods. The teachers had now experienced just the kind of frustration a Chicano, or Viet Namese, or Maung child feels when trying to read English. It was one thing to read when you knew most of the words, but when you know half or less than half, the frustration is immense. Her solution was group reading and discussion so that the strong readers could help the weak ones to understand.

By this time, Neil was drumming his fingers on the table and twitching in his seat. Carmen put her hand over his and said, “Shh. What’s wrong?”

“Can this woman be that stupid?” Neil whispered. “Can she really believe that she has proved anything?”

Carmen tried to hide a smile. Strangely, it was a breakthrough for them that she could laugh at him. She said, “Anne Marie’s a hard-sell artist, but listen to her. She has a lot of valuable things to say.”

“Maybe,” Neil thought, “but I doubt it.”

Eventually the morning wore away. Lunch was being provided and they all adjourned to a nearby banquet room. Carmen stopped half a dozen times on the way there to speak to friends from other schools. When they entered the banquet room and looked around for a place to sit, Anne Marie Chang motioned across the room to them. Carmen said something unladylike under her breath, added, “Now were stuck!”. She waved back brightly.

Carmen introduced Neil to Anne Marie and explained that he was taking Gina Wyatt’s place. “Neil has been teaching high school literature classes. This is his first time with sixth graders, so the framework is all new to him.” more tomorrow

436. Thank You

This is for Thanksgiving, but posted a day early. After all, who looks at their computer while the Macy’s Parade is happening?

If you grow up Christian, God never leaves your bones, even if you lose your faith.

Thank You

Thank you.
Even if you aren’t there, thank you.

We need you so badly,
That it almost makes you real.

Thank you for peace.
We have precious little of it;
Help us appreciate the days we have.

Thank you for bodies that are often without pain;
Help us remember those days, when the pain comes.

But most of all —

For the days when our lovers sit beside us,
Close enough for a reached-out hand,
Thank you.