No-one Likes Poems.

My father said, “I don’t like poetry.” But he recited whole stretches of Shakespeare and odd fragments he learned at school. They shaped his thought and ferried it forward until he died, more than threescore years after his schooling ended. And Dad loved song, singing sea shanties to us through the hours of boat trips and long drives in the country. Dad imagined song was not verse and persuaded himself he ‘didn’t like poems.’

Many feel the same: confronted with verse they shrink and expect to be baffled by this often complex, always dense mode of expression.

Some poems however are quite straightforward. In First Class at Leeton Public School, Mrs Paulette announced, “Today we will learn a new poem. It is ‘Ding, Dong, Dell.'” I raised my hand: “I know that poem already.”
“Good, Howard. Please recite it for the class.”

“Ding, dong dell,
Pussy’s in the well:
How can you tell?
Go and have a smell.”

“Howard, leave the class immediately.”

Whether in the original version, that features Little Tommy Thin as the malefactor, or in the Howard version in which putrefaction proceeds, the lines race along in straight lines from straightforward beginning to clear ending. The charm is in the music and in the energy-packed compactness. Next to a picture and a graph, a poem is often the most efficient mode of conveying experience.

If you are like me, you might be daunted by lengthy poems. Try this one, a shorty:
I, Too, Sing America
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I know too little of American verse, but the phrase, ‘I sing America’ rings a bell. I think it was Walt Whitman who wrote a poem by that title. Here the poet claims American folk memory – together with Emily Dickenson, Whitman is said to be the most original of American poets – and with graceful economy and marvellous power, protests against his exclusion to the kitchen of America, ‘when company comes.’
If you like that, try the even shorter, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

I found both poems in ‘The Great Modern Poets’, edited by Michael Schmidt (Quercus). The CD enclosed inside the front cover features all the poets – from Yeats T S Eliot to Plath – reading their own work. Langston Hughes sings his lines with a jazz rhythm and in an accent faintly redolent of the Caribbean. Buy the book, listen to the CD and weep for beauty.

You are Invited

Once upon a time a redheaded warbler sang a song to a crowd of people gathered to hear her and readings from a book about two redheaded twins. As she sang the crowd chewed on antithetical foods – carrots and Jaffas, small, red spheroids of joy.

The singer was Clare Bowditch, songwriter, mother of twins-plus-one, social activist, actor, philosopher and articulate introspector.

The reader was Howard Goldenberg, author, marathon runner, marathon eater, marathon talker. He read (affectingly) from his new book, a novel about “Jaffas” and his identical twin “Carrots”, two boys who grow with souls enmeshed. One is kidnapped and the two must struggle to find how to lo live as individuals. The author makes them and their parents suffer; he makes the reader suffer; and after adventures in the Aboriginal outback (in ‘country’), Howard allows all (or almost all) to trace an arc of redemption.

The crowd had come to Readings in Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, not to eat lollies, nor to chew on root vegies, but to hear and see Clare, to be near her in the intimate space (one of Melbourne’s sacred sites) of Readings bookshop.

Why Clare? Becauser of her twins? Because of old friendship between singer and author going back to her teen years? Because the singer – like the boys in “Carrots and Jaffas” lost a sibling in early childhood? Because of red hair?

The true reason is the Bowditch heart, the same that pulled in the crowd. The heart that can say, “I’ve had enough claps” and “I’ve always drawn from the pool of suffering for my art.”

As Emily Dickenson says: I like a look of suffering/because I know it’s true.

Clare Bowditch sings true songs. In the same way “Carrots and Jaffas” is a true story.

Did I say the event has taken place? That part was not true. It is still to come:

READINGS HAWTHORN, THURSDAY 22 MAY AT 6.30 FOR 7.00 PM. ALL WELCOME

This Consciousness that is Aware

A few days ago I wrote and posted a poem. It dealt, narrowly, with a contemplated stroke. More broadly, I suppose more deeply too, it is the certain fact of my one day death that I interrogate.
It is a big question, or set of questions, for me. I am sure it is for others too.
My feelings were pressing, my need to express them was strong. Poetry was the needed medium.
This morning I awoke (still alive), moved limbs (no motor stroke) and opened a volume of poetry. The book fell open at this poem of Emily Dickenson, a poem I had not previously known. I read the work (no central stroke) and understood Emily had addressed similar questions.

“This Consciousness that is aware”

This Consciousness that is aware

Of Neighbors and the Sun

Will be the one aware of Death

And that itself alone

 

Is traversing the interval

Experience between

And most profound experiment

death

Appointed unto Men-

 

How adequate unto itself

Its properties shall be

Itself unto itself and None

Shall make discovery.

 

Adventure most unto itself

The Soul condemned to be-

Attended by a single Hound

Its own identity.

Emily Dickenson

 

After reading and considering, I recalled how Death (Emily always capitalises and personifies her erotic forces) is the subject, her opposite actor, in many, many poems. Many poems, but never too many. Such is the subject and such is the poet.
It was my great friend (and the greatest critic of this blog) who observed of my writing a couple of decades ago: “You realise, don’t you Howard, that everything you write is part of the process of coming to terms with your own death?”