I Begin my Path to Poetry, Part II

Shortly after I retired, someone observed that I wrote free verse. Not sure what they meant, I looked up the definition and examples of it. During this “research,” I discovered Harriett Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine and the Imagist movement. In 1917, she published The New Poetry, in which she and others breaking with Victorian poetics defined Imagists’ verse as poetry written with directness, simplicity, sincerity, individual and nonconforming diction, rhythm, and precise emotion. Since then, many have called this classic free verse.

Although my favorite poet changes with each poem I am working on, Wendell Berry, Ted Kooser, Gary Snyder, and R. S. Thomas stand above all others as favorites.

Among their common attributes that attract me are their sense of place, their concern for threats to the natural world and indigenous subcultures, and their apprehension over increasingly negative relations between society’s aspirations and the environment. As writers, they think globally, but write regionally, expressing in their own ways the spirituality of nature and worrisome environmental crises.

Wendell Berry (b. 1934). Farmer-writer and environmental philosopher, Berry lifts his readers into the spirituality of man and his natural environment. He understands the various meanings and implications of humankind’s dominion over all living things. At the same time, he is committed to agrarian values and to solving problems of living in the reality in which he finds himself, using nature as his model. A quotation from Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 (1998) that I take to heart is “a poem need not be just a fabric of printed words to be laboriously raveled out by students or critics, but is (or can be) written in a speakable and hearable language, the integrity of which begins and ends in the quality of the music.”

Ted Kooser (b. 1939). Former U.S. Poet Laureate (2004-2006) and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Kooser is retired from a career in insurance. For most of his life, he has lived in rural Nebraska, writing primarily short, often imagistic poems that focus on ordinary people living on the Great Plains and coping with such mundane tasks as spring plowing, using a hearing aid, or surviving a hot summer night (Flying at Night, 1985). Kooser writes slowly, revises relentlessly, and is always searching for clarity and freshness.

Gary Snyder (b. 1930). Pulitzer Prize winner and ecological conscientiousness leader, Snyder was a college roommate of future Beat poets Lew Welch and Philip Whelan. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, he worked for the United States Forest Service in the headwaters of the Skagit River in the North Cascades Mountains, just east of my family home. It was while a fire lookout on lonely mountaintops that Snyder began to develop his poetic voice. This voice continued to mature during his multifaceted life including stints in a logging camp on an Oregon Indian reservation; as a longshoreman in San Francisco; living with Jack Kerouac; sharing a cottage with Allen Ginsburg; studying Japanese, classical Chinese and Amerindian anthropology at University of California-Berkeley; as deckhand on a fuel freighter in the Pacific; and climbing mountains and studying Zen in Japan.

Although identified with the original San Francisco Beat Poets, Snyder saw “beat” as a state of mind temporarily shared by the group before each of them went their separate ways. In the early sixties, he combined his knowledge of Asian and Amerindian cultures and their traditional relationship with nature with his global experience into a comprehensive worldview: “Humanity is but a part of the fabric of life—dependent on the whole fabric for our very existence.” (“Four Changes” in Turtle Island , 1974) Subsequently, Snyder established the benchmarks for America’s ecological conscientiousness movement and has earned recognition as the foremost ecological poet of the latter twentieth century. He continues to practice sustainable living in the Sierra Nevada foothills and expanding his concepts of ecological conscience to a larger community.

To Snyder, art is the cultivation of dreams and imagination, and poetry is a variety of song expressed in spoken words. He frequently composes without conventional meter or intentional rhyme, time, place, or punctuation. His one-word lines evoke my imagination.

R. S. (Ronald Stuart) Thomas (1913-2000). Anglican priest and Anglo-Welsh poet, Thomas is probably the most dissimilar of the foursome. He was reared, educated, ordained into the Church of Wales, and lived out his career and retirement in Gwynedd, Northwest Wales.

The Welsh and their landscape were Thomas’s life passions. He chose to exemplify his personal philosophy by living an almost monastic existence with his wife and son in a small cabin near Aberdaron.

Thomas’s writing style evolved from lyrical narrations of hillside farmers written in loose traditional forms to more metaphysical subject matter written in freeform. Never nostalgic or romantic, his poetry was a harsh and vivid portrayal of Welsh life as he saw it.

I shall end this two-part essay as I began Part I: My path to poetry has been neither deliberate nor direct. Its wandering may be followed through “A Path Lately Taken,” “My Parents’ Dreams,” “Selected References,” and “Acknowledgements,” all in the back matter of Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009.

I Begin my Path to Poetry, Part I

        My path to poetry has been neither deliberate nor direct. Its wandering may be followed through “A Path Lately Taken,” “My Parents’ Dreams,” “Selected References,” and “Acknowledgements,” all in the back matter in Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009. Here, I briefly note signposts along the way.

I first sensed rhythm and music, and the use of words that eventually shaped my poetry in the nursery rhymes my mother taught me, and in the naptime stories in Good Housekeeping magazine she read to my siblings and me.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the origin of words, their use, and in writing them down. My mother said that from the time I could talk I asked questions and persisted until I was satisfied with the answers.

After I learned to read, I became an insatiable reader. In spite of limited family resources, I was encouraged to read by my mother and my teachers. Still, today, I can flash back to the adventure stories and children’s classics I read during a summer of limited activity while I was recovering from undefined rheumatic fever.

Through my college years, I did not like poetry because I was not supposed to. I was unaware that it existed in the very essence of nursery rhymes; the playground chants, jingles and teases I so enjoyed; the patriotic and celebratory songs I sang off-key and at the top of my lungs; and in the school band and glee club music that was a big part of my life.

I write in a straightforward style, striving for precise imagery and letting story and language dictate mode, stanza, and line. Epiphanies, symbolism, philosophical assertions, and layers of complexity may or may not arise as I write. Beginning with the known, I try to give a poem life and spirit by imagining the unknown. Form flows out of content. Sometimes this is conventional, other times it is free verse.

I write to communicate in plainspoken English, and to express myself in poetic speech that which I have read, heard, remembered, or ought to have remembered in a manner described by Wendell Berry in his essay “The Responsibility of the Poet” (What Are People For? Essays).

Once I reimagine a notion, I draft notes, research, compose verses, edit, “sleep on it,” rewrite, redraft, edit, “sleep on it,” sometimes repeating this cycle forty or fifty times for years until I am satisfied.

I find the following tools crucial to writing poems: (1) read it aloud as I write; (2) observe audience comments and body language when reading publicly; (3) record and listen back to public readings; and (4) keep an attitude that a poem is always a draft.

Listening to CD’s and watching DVD’s of either the author or a trained interpreter reading are invaluable to understanding a poem. More and more digital recordings are packaged with books. With the growth of the World Wide Web, audio poetry has become the new medium. Three sites with extensive selections are The Poetry Archives, www.poetsarchives.org, The Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org and PBS NewsHour Poetry Series, www.pbs.org.

Anticipating Blackburn College Homecoming

        I’m looking forward to the Blackburn College (IL) Homecoming, October 1-3, and our class’ 55th reunion. I wonder if I will recognize my classmates I haven’t seen since Helen and I were there five years ago.
        When I read my poetry to a “pretty-good” sized audience in 2000, all I could do was send a home-printed copy to those who wanted. This time, I will have Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 with many new and different poems with me.
        Once again I anticipate reading to a “pretty-good” sized audience. I know that they will, as the president of Whatcom Writers and Publishers said in the most recent newsletter, enjoy poems that “are wonderfully different and quiite beautiful!”

(If my classmates remember me reading in 2000, will they recognize me in 2010? Photo on the right was taken in the Concrete [WA] Theatre, last month.)

What was my childhood like?

    A question frequently asked little known poets, is “what was your childhood like?” Briefly, this will give you some idea:
    I was born during the Great Depression and came of age in the forties. Until I left the Upper Skagit River Valley for college, I lived in an isolated world of rural poverty and wartime constraints. Much of the time, our home was log cabins without electricity, plumbing, or running water; and were heated with wood split by hand. The families of most of my classmates at two-room Rockport (WA) School lived in similar circumstances.
    The situation in Concrete (WA) where I attended 7th-12th grade was somewhat better.
    Our culture was primarily one of loggers and Native Americans, enlarged by the multi-national cement plant workers in Concrete.
    My father worked incessantly as a logger and subsistence farmer supporting us and dreaming of the day that he would own land. My mother dreamt of her children being educated so they would not repeat our life of survival.
    It was during these years that I learned to appreciate the common and the ordinary, the people around me, the landscape, and to dream of life beyond the valley.