essay

The Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Ranching

Lasater Philosopy of Ranching by Laurence M Lasater cover photo

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By Stephen Page

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Laurence M. Lasater’s The Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Ranching is progressive and full of common sense.  Old cattle ranching methods are becoming extinct or decimating the ranchers.  Just few examples of Lasater’s new ideas are: selecting cows and bulls by size and productive characteristics, not just coat color; keeping animals only if they are productive (examples, if a bull is not working or a cow aborts, sell the animals, don’t wait for next year as they are just eating grass that could be used for productive animals); and don’t use whips, cattle prods or screams to move animals, in open range just move behind them on your horse, and in the corral use a white flag on a pole (they will move forward)—this stresses less stress the animals, reduces the possibility of them injuring themselves or an employee, and they are easier to handle.  If they are on the way to the butcher, calm animals are higher in weight and have better quality meat—animals when stressed hours before they are butchered have tougher, darker colored meat, that is why sometimes you will see cuts in a butcher shop that are almost black (not always because the meat is old or exposed to air, but often because the animal was stressed out before it reached the butcher.  I read the book as research for my poem project and to improve myself as a rancher.

You can find the book here:

https://www.amazon.com/Lasater-philosophy-cattle-raising/dp/087404037X/ref=la_B001JOU556_1_2_twi_pap_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1513899850&sr=1-2

More on Lasater:

http://www.isabeefmasters.com/Beefmasters/books.html

 

Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

 

 

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Exhortations By Tom Block

letters

Art by Tom Block

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Exhortations By Tom Block

An excerpt From Letters to an Imaginary Friend
 
Anyone who knows you well will know you as a hypocrite.
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Do the best you can, then do better.  Much better.  Even then, it will only be a shadow of what you might have done, if you had really tried your best.
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Just because you can forget, doesn’t mean that the universe will.
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So then: why?  Why do it?  Why bother?  You should be able to answer these questions for every single action.  Can you?
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To see things as they are.  To just keep looking, looking, looking.
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The Hippocratic Oath toward life.  It’s a start, at least – and as difficult as being truthful.  But still: it’s just a start.
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“Why?”  Just that: “why?”  Isn’t the ability to ask that question in such a way that the honest “I don’t know” is the obvious reply?  Isn’t that enough out of life?  Why ask for more?
 
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Sometimes you can’t control yourself – your negative reactions or even physical actions.  Fair enough: you just can’t control yourself.  So avoid the impetus.  Remove yourself.  Don’t send the email.  Don’t flash out on Twitter.  Don’t step into someone’s face. 
Sometimes removing yourself is the best thing – when you know you aren’t up to the challenge.
 
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Hypocrisy: the minute you open your mouth, you’re already deep in it.  Keep your mouth shut!
 
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If “God” and “truth” are the same thing, then how to get at one to find the other?  Patience, silence, correct action, honesty (with oneself).
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David says that we should concentrate on the good – after all, it’s just as real as all the other stuff.  But then what are we to do?  Pat ourselves on the back for a job well done?  Better to concentrate on injustice, mean spirited-ness, hatred and ignorance (a world built out of lies).  Maybe this, at least, can help spur us on to do better.  Or is there some midpoint between concentrating on good or injustice which describes a better course of action?
 
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The idea of being “conscious” – that’s a laugh!  Conscious of what?  And “rational,” also?!  As if.
 
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Everything we can see or feel or imagine: flux.  What lies behind it all?  Stasis.  Not to yearn toward that or try to influence it – just to know it’s there.
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The anxiety in you: it isn’t yours.  It’s the universe’s.  Let it flow through you and return to its rightful place.  Feel it – I’m not saying it isn’t real.  Just be aware of its provenance and its destination.
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It’s not desire (the problem) – desire in itself is not a bad thing.  “Desire” is the fuel that keeps the universe existent.  The desire to “be.”  Our desire is simply an echo of the universal will.  It is where we point our desire that matters. 
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Read things; do things that will make you a better person.  But for God’s sakes – also enjoy yourself!  You were given these senses for a reason.
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Discover what “faith” means for you.  And then live it.
 
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Try to be kind.  Just that: try.  It’s not as easy as it sounds – behind the wheel of a car, in a grocery checkout line, when passing a homeless person.  To be kind: day-after-day, moment-after-moment.
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Does this mark me as a rogue: that my favorite house of worship is a bar?  And why do I feel this way?  Because people in a bar will tell you exactly whey they are there – and actually mean it!  No hypocrisy.
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You’re no better than anyone else.  Know this with certainty. 
 
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Avoid situations which will bring out the worst in you, and gravitate to ones which will bring out your best.  It’s that simple.
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One can never lie if they keep their mouth shut.  So how can I justify writing this?
 
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Don’t ever let fear make a decision for you.
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It’s not what’s “proper.”  After all, as Socrates noted, popular beliefs are like monsters under the bed: only useful to frighten children with.  What’s important is what’s proper for you.
 
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“It’s better to do and regret, than not do and regret” (Boccaccio).  Right?  But where does that leave you when you enter the World of Truth?
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The moment: can you stop there, just there, and enjoy it?  Or at least appreciate it – something come once and never to be seen again . . .
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The agitation that you feel.  Know that it isn’t yours – you are just an organ, something else’s knee throbbing or their heart diseased. 
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To be an alien in your own land.  Right?  Why would you want to be a native and comfortable in a place ruled by “tradition,” popular beliefs, polling information and the “well-bred.” 
 
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Why wait?  Why not start today – now – this very moment.
 
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Don’t believe the wise man.  He knows no more than you do, in your heart.  In fact, don’t believe anyone.  All the answers you need, you already have.  Just buried beneath the offal that society has shoveled onto you your whole life, in the guise of “education,” “the news,” “reality.”
 
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Not pointless.  Not that.  Insignificant, perhaps.  But also absolutely necessary.  Every second, every feeling, every action.  Unique.  Without the individual drops of water, there would be no ocean.  Without each grain of sand, no beach.  The snowflakes taken altogether climb to unimaginable heights.
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The most absurd thing a person can say: “I don’t believe in God.”  Turn away.  Don’t engage.  And think to yourself: “But you’re lucky that God believes in you.”  Though of course, even that is absurd – so just return the subject to solid ground: politics.
 
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Salvation?  Redemption?  Forget all of that – look forward, and just do the right thing from here on out.
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The secret?  To never expect anything in return.  OK – not the secret, but a secret, certainly.
 
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It’s never arrogant to be right.  It is arrogant to be wrong and think that you are right. 
 
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And risk?  Of course – risk everything.  It is called living.
 
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To find it within.  “Within” is the only thing that truly exists, after all.  And to remember that “within” and “above” are synonymous.
 
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Everyone – absolutely everyone who knows anything about anything – says that acceptance is the way.  So why not just accept?
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To move beyond the hope of reward.  And from there, to where the action is the reward. 
 
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Don’t free yourself from anything.  Don’t renounce; don’t turn away.  Take what you learn and apply it more forcefully to everything you do.  We need you here with us! And the better you are (healed), the better we will become.
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Take everything in.  But take everything in with a grain of salt.
 
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Take that sack of barley to the top of the mountain.  Take a pen and draw through the day until dusk turns to blackness.  Walk.  And walk some more.  Spend time turning things off.  Look and keep looking.  Find a silent place.  Can you?  Walk and walk some more.  Maybe in a circle – or maybe not.
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You try to be honest and try to be honest and try to be honest.  But how can you be who you want to be, if you’re honest all the time?
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To travel from moment to moment with an ever-present awareness of Karma, of cause and effect, of interrelatedness.  And then the moments which are unavoidable – in situations which are unpleasant or grating.  How to handle those?  With that awareness?
 
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You keep getting caught up on this idea of goodness (a sweater snagged on a bramble).  “This is good” or “that is good.”  In a universe that is exactly apportioned between “matter” and “anti-matter,” who are we to even worry about such things?  As Rumi noted: there is nothing in the world that is good for one person which isn’t bad for someone else.  Conservation of energy.  Zero sum game.  Infinity.
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You know the answer – you know it!  What you lack is the faith that you know it.  The faith that every moment you know it.
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If every single moment has something to teach you?  Shhhh . . . listen.  Learn.
 
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It doesn’t make sense.  None of it makes sense.  Even the deepest truths espoused by the most profound wisdom thinkers of all eras: they don’t make sense.  So what is to be done?
 
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Why is the premise that “compassion” and “love” are the basis of creation?  The ultimate reason?  What about the more obvious “desperation?”  Anxiety?  The unending violence of the universe?  Not “good.” 
(Fear – that’s why.)
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Only you know what’s right for you.  Only you.  So listen, trust and do it.
 
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You are the passenger, yes.  Of course.  You are also the driver. 
 
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It’s simple.  Far more so than Tai Chi or catechisms or symbol-filled books or the knitted brow of the wise.  And not only is it simple – it’s all around you!  Open your eyes.
 
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Don’t worry about what the payback is.  Just do the right thing.  And when you do the wrong thing (again), think about why you did the wrong thing.  And pay attention this time, for God’s sakes!
 
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Spend more time alone.  That way, you can’t offend anyone.
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TOM BLOCK portrait_1
Tom Block is an author, playwright, 20-year visual artist and producer of the International Human Rights Art Festival. His first book, Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity, which traces the influence of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) on the direction of Jewish spirituality over the course of 1000 years, was published in Fall 2010 in the United States (Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY) and Turkey (Bilim Artı Gönül Yayıncılık Ltd. Şti., Istanbul, Turkey).  His other books include A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God (2012 by Algora Publisher, NY);  Machiavelli in America (2014 by Algora Publisher, NY); Prophetic Activist Art: Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution (2014 by Centre for Human Ecology, Glasgow, Scotland) and his first novel, The Fool Returns (2014 by Anaphora Literary Press, Atlanta, GA). Home Page: Tom Block, Author and Artist | tomblock.com
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Submissions to North of Oxford are open on a rolling basis. We accept submissions of poetry, reviews, essays and commentary. Our complete guidelines are here: https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/about/

Form plus Content equates Meaning: Form follows Content vs. Content follows Form

stephen-page-in-front-of-wheat-photo
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By Stephen Page  
 
            In poetry, form and content are related.  They support each other—they are a part of one other.  Form allows the reader to understand content, and content assists form.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  Meaning is derived not only from what the poet says, but also from how the poet says it.  The debate heard round the poetry world today springs from one question: which is more important, content or form?  For the benefit of the reader of this essay and to keep this paper concise, the term form will include not just the shape of the poem, but also type, style, meter, assonance, alliteration, stanza, syllabics and other language techniques.  Content shall include subject matter, plot, place, characters, narrator, theme, and word denotation.   Poems will fall under two main categories, fixed form and unfixed form.
            Let us begin with a fixed form poem, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:
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                   Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
              Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
              Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
              And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
             
              Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
              And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
              And every fair from fair sometime declines,
              By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
             
              But thy eternal summer shall not fade
              Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
              Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
              When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
                    
                     So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
                     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
 
Without getting too far into the complexities of the sonnet form, and the many different styles, which would take at least ten pages alone, let us cover the basic history and the main techniques.  The sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that most scholars believe originated in Italy.   The word sonnet translates to “little song,” so it should sound musical.  It is traditionally written in iambic pentameter and end rhyme. Shakespeare adapted the Italian “little song” to fit better the English language–since English had fewer rhyming words than Italian, his version has less lines that rhyme.  An intelligent move by an intelligent man.  The lines that rhyme are supposed to be thematically linked, as are the first lines in each of the first three quatrains, the second lines of the quatrains, the third and the fourth.  Thus said, the first three quatrains are stanzaically related.  These first three quatrains are the premise, the argument, or the question brought up in the poem.  The space between the premise and the last couplet is called the Volta, or turning point.  The last couplet is the answer to the premise, or often in Shakespearian sonnets, the moral or the didactic statement.    Considering this, the form requires a poet to consider carefully word choice when creating the poem.  Poets often outline before writing the form, with ideas of word choice and theme for each line.   The rhyme scheme is enough to constrain content, but meter also restricts which words will be used, and the complexity of the line and stanza relations makes the poem a definite content controller.  Contemporary poets have often changed the number of lines, done away with the rhyme, and often loosened up the meter to fit contemporary language, but usually the line and stanza associations, the Volta, and the song-like qualities are adhered.  Here is an example of a contemporary sonnet that follows most of the mechanics of the Shakespearian sonnet, written by an anonymous:
You are a lioness crossing a verdant veldt,
Hungry for flesh, sinewy muscles rippling
Rhythmically beneath a fine yellow pelt,
A bouncing black-tipped tail trailing.
 
In aftermeal, you lounge upon night’s sheets,
Your breath scented with blood-red wine,
Your hair crackling with star-lit cinders,
Your hips and thighs curved as lean cut steak.
 
I dream of evening strolls in Samburu,
Smell the grasses, hear our ravenous growls
For nocturnal meals lying upon rough
Linen scratched by your fine-nailed hands.
 
I hunt in sleep for your carnivorous lips,
And listen for your padding around my den.
 
            Another familiar fixed form is the haiku.  Again, without getting into a book-length explanation of what makes a haiku a haiku, I’ll cover the basics.  A haiku is a “transcendence of the normal self” as Bruce Ross said.  It should be a metaphysical experience, a losing of the ego, a oneness with nature, a capturing of the moment and making it eternal.  It is normally a three-line syllabic poem, with the first and third line having five syllables, and the second line seven.   Somewhere in the poem should be an allusion to season.   Haiku is believed to originate from Japan, and Basho is the most famous of the form users.    With all that in mind, the form restricts the content is some sense—sesonally, thus word choice, and the syllable count, thus the amount of words.  Some of the more learned of writers realize that English is less syllabic than Japanese and more metrical, so those erudites that write haiku often are often lenient on exact 5-7-5.  The problem with most poets is that they think since it is a condensed form, and syllabic, that it is easy to write, but most forget the spiritual aspect, the moment caught in time.  Borges said the thing that make a good haiku is that it “is.”  Another problem with contemporary haiku writers is that they write unoriginally, using the same season seasonal words and images that millions of other haiku writer used, or they write copies of Basho’s and his followers’ poems.  other people think that if you simply use 5-7-5 syllable form it is a haiku.  Here is an example of  one of Basho’s most famous poems:
                        old pond
                        a frog jumps in:
                        water sound
 
In this poem it is most likely summer, though it is not exactly stated, which is intelligent for there are only so many times a writer can say the names of the four season without it becoming old—so a seasoned haiku writer alludes.  The narrator in this poem becomes one with the frog and the water and the keplunk and thus all his surroundings.   He is not himself but a part of everything around him.  As I said, there is a lot of bad haiku being published today, but there are also some good contemporary haiku written, and I recommend to any writer or reader to acquire a copy of Haiku Moment by Bruce Ross to get an idea of the richness of good haiku, and immerse oneself in its particular content-form relation.  Here is a great contemporary haiku, by anonymous again:
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              high above the weeds
 closer to the sun, white
                        yucca plant flowers
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            Now let’s start moving a bit away from formally fixed poems and look at how content and form relate there.  Robert Frost’s second book, North of Boston is wonderful for its time, as it kept many aspects of formal poetry and freed them.  It broke away from fixed rhyme yet kept meter.  It was huge break in the sense that many of the poems are speech poems, or mini verse-plays.   The most popular and mootly his best poem ever is “Mending Wall,” and for good reason.  The famous line ‘good fences make good neighbors’ is derived from it, but the shape of it is that of a wall, and the meter mimics the mending action of a wall, the laying of boulder upon boulder:
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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The word ‘spills’ in the third line becomes a onomatopoeia, the word and the meter of the line sounding like the action of the boulders spilling out in the sunlight.  Another poem that I personally like is, “Home Burial”:
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: “What is it you see,”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and a while he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, “Oh,” and again, “Oh.”
 
“What is it—what?” she said.
 
                                                                     “Just that I see.”
 
“You don’t,” she challenged. “Tell me what it is.”
 
“The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound——”
 
                                “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.
 
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
“Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”
 
“Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.”
 
“Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.”
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
“There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.”
 
“You don’t know how to ask it.”
 
                                                                     “Help me, then.”
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
 
“My words are nearly always an offence.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught
I should suppose. I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk. We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ’twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.”
She moved the latch a little. “Don’t—don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied——”
 
“There you go sneering now!”
 
                                                            “I’m not, I’m not!
You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,
A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”
 
“You can’t because you don’t know how.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
 
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”
 
“I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.”
 
“I can repeat the very words you were saying.
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlour.
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretence of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!”
 
“There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up.
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!”
 
“You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you——”
 
“If—you—do!” She was opening the door wider.
Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—”
 
The shape and meter help emphasize the stairway, or the location and setting, where either one or the other of the characters speaking in the poem are upon.  The shape is like a staircase, with the beginnings of some of the spoken lines tabbed over to the right margins.  And the meter helps in the visualization of the stepping up and down of the characters and moves the plot along.  The white spaces between the two characters lines can be seen as stanzaic but also as sepration between the two characters, as one of them is usually at the top of the stairs and the other at the bottom.  And they are obviously distant spiritually and physically, as they fight and do not communicate well nor comfort one another with words, and the female character has been having one or many affairs.
            Further along the unfixed spectrum we have frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems.  Here is a poem entitled “A Step Away From Them”:
 
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
                         cabs. First, down the sidewalk
 where laborers feed their dirty
 glistening torsos sandwiches
 and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
 on. They protect them from falling
 bricks, I guess. Then onto the
 avenue where skirts are flipping
 above heels and blow up over
 grates. The sun is hot, but the
 cabs stir up the air. I look
 at bargains in wristwatches. There
 are cats playing in sawdust.
  
 
                                                            On
 to Times Square, where the sign
 blows smoke over my head, and higher
 the waterfall pours lightly. A
 Negro stands in a doorway with a
 toothpick, languorously agitating
 A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
 smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
 suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
 a Thursday.
 
 Neon in daylight is a
 great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
 write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
 I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S
 CORNER. Giulietta Maina, wife of
 Federico Fellini, é bell’ attrice.
 And chocolate malted. A lady in
 foxes on such a day puts her poodle
 in a cab.
  
 
                       There are several Puerto
 Ricans on the avenue today, which
 makes it beautiful and warm. First
 Bunny died, then John Latouche,
 then Jackson Pollock. But is the
 earth as full of life was full, of them?
 And one has eaten and one walks,
 past the magazines with nudes
 and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
 the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
 which they’ll soon tear down. I
 used to think they had the Armory
 Show there.
 
                       A glass of papaya juice
 and back to work. My heart is in my
 pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
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O’Hara wrote the poems during his lunch hour while working a nine-to-fiver with a half hour to an hour for lunch, just enough time to go down to the streets, walk a few blocks, take in a bit of the cityscape, pick up a hot dog and sit on a bench to eat and write a brief poem, and return to work.  The poems, like this one, are mostly quick reads. They are this way because they are generally short and written in everyday language.  This allows the reader to read one or two of them on his own lunch hour. And the form of the book itself is small so one may keep it in suit pocket and carry it around at lunch time.  The lines in this poem are turned before they end, to  give the effect of movement, so the reader feels he is moving along the streets, stepping around construction sight barriers, turning on corners.  The stanzas end as if there is a stop on a street corner for the red-crossing sign, then where the narrator steps off the curb to cross or the scene changes O’Hara begins the next stanza on the right side of the page to give a feeling of onwardness.  The language, though simple and everyday, is vivid—rich nouns, sharp verbs—so the effect is that of the reader looking through the eyes of O’Hara and seeing the scenes, not being told what the scenes look like.
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            Somewhere in the middle of the form spectrum, there are semi-fixed poems. like Christopher Bursk’s poem “You Only Get a few Chances to be of Interest to the Gods,” from his book The Improbable Swerving of Atoms:
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                        When you pulled free from the man’s encouraging hands,
when you grabbed for the door,
 
when you left your coat, sweater, schoolbag in the car’s front seat,
when you ran down the street, shirttails flying,
 
when you crouched in the dark of the firs trees you recognized,
when you wiped the spittle from your hands
 
and began to think of how to explain losing
your algebra book, your pocket atlas, your Latin dictionary,
 
you know that you had failed the first real test
of your life.  All the man asked for
 
was a few moments of undivided attention, kindness
in return for kindness.  A kiss.
 
If a boy is going to be scared of something
that pathetically eager
 
to please, that naked
and exposed, the penis’s trembling
 
entreaties, how can he expect to brave anything
else that the gods might ask of him?
 
Fortitude.  Self-abnegation.  Compassion.  The valor
of  the Latin, the polysyllabic’s
 
magnanimity.  You’d been given and opportunity to prove
you too had a large heart
 
and a deep soul, and you had zipped up your fly
and ran for your life.  
 
 
The poem is in couplets, which has traditions in the heroic couplet, which might be a play on words with the title and theme.  The couplet form is most likely used here for a couple of other reasons.  One, there are two characters in the poem, the main character who is a boy and the pedophile.   Two, the couplet is the duality of the boy’s feeling.  He is feeling disgust at the man and for what has happened, but also arousal at the closeness of the man.  He is aroused and ambiguous about his awakenings to his bi-sexuality.  And he is feeling guilty for not being kind to the stranger to have completed the act—a revelation of his innocence, for the man who preyed upon him is a mentally sick person who should be jailed for his abnormal actions.  The couplets are loosely metered but the line length mostly coincides with the length of the breath and shortens and enjambs where the main character is breathing hard and emphasis is needed on certain words.
            On the far end of the form spectrum, we have, as some might call a misnomer, the prose poem.  B.H Fairchild uses this for his poem “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West,” from the book Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest:
The old roughnecks between jobs drunk in their cars outside the bowling alley; the school teacher in her rented room in live with the mechanic and dreaming of moving to Houston: new front tires for the Dodge, bright yellow curtains for the kitchen windows, a TV; the blood sunset in the corners for my father’s eyes after he worked a lather for two days and nights; 3 a.m., the welder on No Doz and Benzedrine smoking his last Pall Mall, listening to Tammy Wynette, waiting for the driller to show; the way the dust would bronze the window ledges and the kitchen table, a dust devil spinning a trash can in the backyard; the dog house at the rig, the good year calendar with a big-breasted nude blonde  kneeling in a truck tire, the empty bottle of Jim Beam, roustabouts passed out on cots; the little bridge that pain walked between astonishment and horror when John Santos caught his hand in the pipe clamps, his eyes dull as glass marbles afterwards; my mother enrolling me in school in the little town, eh, you’re on of those; a necklace of teardrop trailers on the edge of town, Lester Hill lived in one and went to holy roller meetings with his mom and had nightmares; the brown teeth of the trailer kids; revival meeting at the football fiend on Sunday afternoons, Gimpy Nederland saved from booze for the fourth time, the bankers strolling out of the Petroleum Club cleaning their teeth with toothpicks and loosening their belts; the old men in the back room of the pool hall, the click of dominoes, amber beer bottles glowing in the late afternoon sun; the boy with the green hair and lipstick who hung around the alley; Thomas Johnson, the old ex-Wobbly who hauled mud for the Lacey brothers, skull crushed fro a dropped drill collar; his wife, Luanne, who worked the ticket booth a the theater, got drunk on night and lay down on the railroad tracks; the wildcatter walking into the bank with the bad news, noticing for the first  time the plush carpet, the gleam of polished mahogany, the fragrance of orange peels rising form the hands of receptionists; oilfield kids standing in line at the El Dorado theatre in Snyder to see King Solomon’s Mines; my mother listening to Billie holiday and staring at a photograph of my father; my father with his head in bandages as I cradle in my palm the steel burr they removed from his eye; Lester and I waling the dir road behind the trailer, reciting once again the oath of the Green Lantern: In the brightest of day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight.
 
It is perhaps a prose poem in relation to the title, to represent the decline of high or elevated poetry.  If you notice, it is all one sentence, and a long list of different characters—perhaps a statement that ‘everyone’ is in the same predicament: the whole of western subculture, and even the whole of humanity—their dreams of a fair world and an even break, the return for hard working life, all, all is lost and untrue.
            So as you see, form + content = meaning.  Shape, meter, line length, enjambment, and language sound allow content to be better expressed, in other word, allow the reader to better interpret the poem.  It seems that in poems that lean toward the fixed side of the spectrum the content has to fit into the form, thus content follows form and can even be changed by form.  But in unfixed forms content is less contained by form, in fact content uses form as it chooses to help the content be better expressed and thus understood, perhaps even better enjoyed.  That is not to say fixed forms are not enjoyable, they are.  Through my personal experiences, through what I have read in my life, and through conversations with other authors, when a writer is writing in fixed form content is contained and harder to free, but in unfixed forms, form becomes a tool used at will and is only an extension of content (also said by Creeley and Olsen).  Either way, though, a practitioner in fixed forms will tell you that form is in fact liberating, for the writer learns how to use language in new ways.   I believe, and have heard, that most writers today who write in unfixed form let the poems form themselves as they are writing.  Sometime the poems come out naturally in free verse (another misnomer), couplets, triplets, quatrains, metric, rhyming; though it is mostly in the editing process that form is changed and shaped to help the content be expressed and thus understood and enjoyed.
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Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

 

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF’S POETICS

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By Ray Greenblatt

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In this twenty-first century Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is one of the most famous authors in the world. Her many works have been analyzed; movies based on her life and writings have drawn enthusiastic audiences. Woolf wrote novels and short stories. Her non-fiction included letters, diaries, biographies and book reviews. However, I am interested in what we might call her “fantastical prose,” a form very close to the prose-poem. I have discovered these random pieces in two of her collections, MONDAY OR TUESDAY and THE DEATH OF THE MOTH.

I – MONDAY OR TUESDAY and Other Short Stories (1921)

By definition a short story must have a character or characters, or at least some personified thing, in which we see various human qualities. Also, this personage must go through a series of actions in order for some changes in character to take place. It would be even more enriching to the story to observe a vivid background against  which these movements occur.

We can open our discussion of Woolf’s poetic writing with BLUE & GREEN, a prose piece that comes closest to a poem. It can be quoted in its entirety:

Green

“The pointed fingers of glass hang downwards. The light slides down the glass, and drops a pool of green. All day long the ten fingers of the luster drop green upon the marble. The feathers of parakeets—their harsh cries—sharp blades of palm trees—green, too; green needles glittering in the sun. But the hard glass drips on to the marble; the pools hover above the desert sand; the camels lurch through them; the pools settle on the marble; rushes edge them; weeds clog them; here and there a white blossom; the frog flops over; at night the stars are set there unbroken.  Evening comes, and the shadow sweeps the green over the mantelpiece; the ruffled surface of ocean. No ships come; the aimless waves sway beneath the empty sky. It’s night; the needles drip blots of blue. The green’s out.

Blue

The snub-nosed monster rises to the surface and spouts through his blunt nostrils two columns of water, which, fiery-white in the centre, spray off into a fringe of blue beads. Strokes of blue line the black tarpaulin of his hide.  Slushing the water through mouth and nostrils he sings, heavy with water, and the blue closes over him dowsing the polished pebbles of his eyes.  Thrown upon the beach he lies, blunt, obtuse, shedding dry blue scales. Their metallic blue stains the rusty iron on the beach.  Blue are the ribs of the wrecked rowing boat. A wave rolls beneath the blue bells. But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.”

Green: where are we? It might be beside a tropic ocean: parakeets, palms, sand, rushes. But marble and mantelpiece disturb our focus. Is the viewer in her living room, perhaps imagining a seaside scene. “The green’s out” is an awkward sentence, for what purpose?

Blue: we are more sure now of the ocean location: beach, water, boat, wave. This connects with the “green” stanza. However, the striking final line is no longer connected with home: “But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.” What could this shift mean? This is indeed an imagistic prose-poem with little overt meaning.  Are the sea and fish sacred? Is the home as well?

The sentences could be readily arranged into poetic lines of two stanzas.

The prose piece of writing MONDAY OR TUESDAY is even more stream-of-conscious. This time it is about real life, but without characters or plot. A heron in flight frames the writing by appearing at the opening and closing:

“Desiring truth, awaiting it, laboriously distilling a few words, for ever desiring –(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—for ever desiring—(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm)—for ever desiring truth. Red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry ‘Iron for sale’—and truth?”

This prose-poem captures the busy—if not dizzying—daily life of an Edwardian city. Today’s poetry uses simpler words; Woolf employs weighty wording such as: asseverate, conglomerate, laboriously, divergently. “For ever desiring” becomes a refrain to discover the motivation for all this urban turmoil. Parentheses and dashes connect series of words, phrases, even sentences to replicate this activity.  As in the last mentioned poem, semi-colons could rope off individual poetic lines.

Rather than the sea or city, THE STRING QUARTET explores what emotions music can stir in a person:

“’But the tune, like all his tunes, makes one despair—I mean hope. What do I mean? That’s the worst of music! I want to dance, laugh, eat pink cakes, yellow cakes, drink thin, sharp wine. Or an indecent story, now—I could relish that. The older one grows the more one likes indecency. Hah! hah! I’m laughing. What at? You said nothing, nor did the old gentleman opposite . . .But suppose—suppose–hush!’”

“The boat sinks. Rising, the figures ascend, but now leaf thin, tapering to a dusky wraith, which, fiery tipped, draws its twofold passion from my heart. For me it sings, unseals my sorrow, thaws compassion, floods with love the sunless world, nor, ceasing, abates its tenderness but deftly, subtly, weaves in and out until in this pattern, this consummation, the cleft ones unify; soar, sob, sink to rest, sorrow and joy.”

“The green garden, moonlit pool, lemons, lovers, and fish are all dissolved in the opal sky, across which, as the horns are joined by trumpets and supported by clarions there rise white arches firmly planted on marble pillars . . . Tramp and trumpeting. Clang and clangour. Firm establishment. Fast foundations. March of myriads. Confusion and chaos trod to earth.”  The alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are powerful.

The audience member—we can suspect Woolf—has mentally floated far away on the music, because a string quartet does not consist of horns, trumpets nor clarions.  Her soul and her thoughts are truly stirred. We can only wonder if with discreet flashlight she jotted down these lines. Or did Virginia Woolf have a compendious memory that would hold all these feelings until she arrived home.

In A HAUNTED HOUSE you might detect two ghosts, but they live up to their wispy personas, not developing, only remaining ghostly observers.  If a plot exists it is nebulous: the ghosts return to see if their past home is intact:

“’Here we slept,’ she says. And he adds, ‘Kisses without number.’ ‘Waking in the morning—‘ ‘Silver between the trees—‘ ‘Upstairs—‘ ‘In the garden—‘ ‘When summer came—‘ ‘In winter snowtime—‘ The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.” “Heart” becomes a key word for Woolf because it leads to love.

“Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering, the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.” Certain words stress the ghostly couple’s quest–stooping , long, faces.

“’Safe, safe, safe,’ the heart of the house beats proudly. ‘Long years—‘ he sighs. ‘Again you found me.’  ‘Here,’ she murmurs, ‘sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—‘ Stooping , their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. ‘Safe! safe! safe! ‘ the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry ‘Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart?’” Can you detect  subtle rhymes at work in that passage?

Life, a pulse, the heart, and love. The ghost couple recall their love and search for it in the present living tenants of their house. This theme of the search for love will become a central one for Virginia Woolf in most of her future writing.

II –  THE DEATH OF THE MOTH and Other Essays (1942)

One year after Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941 and twenty-one years after her first collection of short fiction, her husband Leonard published a book that included some pieces which did not fit the definition of essay. Again, they resembled poetry parading as prose, i.e. prose-poetry. An essay is a discussion of a central topic proceeding logically from point to point. Woolf has a topic, but rather she flows with feelings that shadow logic. Many of her writing qualities are still embedded in these later pieces, but her theme of living life and loving fully becomes clearer.

In EVENING OVER SUSSEX Woolf seems to hover like a spirit over the countryside. As a poet often does, using personification she compares Sussex to a woman: “Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the outline of her face remains.” Now the human comparison shifts to: “The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed over by a thin lucid lake of brown air, in which they and their redness are drowned. It was still too early for lamps and too early for stars.”

Woolf is not attempting to analyze Sussex as an essayist would do step-by-step. This prose writing is like a lyric poem, which attempts to catch and hold a single impression. Here beauty of a landscape, or even a person, is momentary: “The fields are mottled, marbled—one’s perceptions blow out rapidly like air balls expanded by some rush of air, and then, when all seems blown to its fullest and tautest, with beauty and beauty and beauty, a pin pricks; it collapses.” Notice poetic word repetition.

At most she predicts the future for Sussex, and the world in general, in her conclusion: “’ I think much grossness will have evaporated. Things will have been scorched up, eliminated. There will be magic gates. Draughts fan-blown by electric power will cleanse houses. Lights intense and firmly directed will go over the earth, doing the work. Look at the moving light in that hill; it is the headlight of a car. By day and by night Sussex in five centuries will be full of charming thoughts, quick, effective beams.’”  Fanciful, positive and poetic ideas! Especially with a world war looming.

We could theorize that the piece THE DEATH OF THE MOTH is an intellectual analysis of the natural functions of life and death. However, any structure is minimized by effective use of poetics. As this prose-poem opens: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us.”

For Woolf the moth held a spirit like any living thing: “That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.” Yet, the life force in a moth is as powerful as the same life force in a human being.  Notice her poetic usage of a connector and the verbs: “One is apt to forge all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.”

In the conclusion, Woolf wants us to even witness the moth’s death, as we must all experience our own and loved ones’ deaths: “It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings.; nothing, I knew had any chance against death.”

STREET HAUNTING is sixteen pages long but still not an essay nor even a short story. Not one character is developed nor is there a plot. The structure is composed of wandering observations, which Woolf makes poetically and beautifully. She employed this technique long ago in the 1921 collection when she became a ghost in A HAUNTED HOUSE or concertgoer in THE STRING QUARTET.

STREET HAUNTING has a sub-title: “A London Adventure” but that adventure becomes various forms of lifestyles she collects as she strolls:

“The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful.”

“The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.”

“Here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them.”

“How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings  and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.”

Then the shops: “The carnal splendour of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple steaks; the blue and red bunches of flowers burning so bravely through the plate glass of the florists’ windows.”

“They lie close to those shop windows where commerce offers to a world of  old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men, of hobbling dwarfs, sofas which are supported by the gilt necks of proud swans; tables inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit; sideboards paved with green marble the better to support the weight of boars’ heads; and carpets so softened with age that their carnations have almost vanished in a pale green sea.”

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

Woolf is skillful at combining nature and human imagery. She concludes this poetic piece by saying that to know all types of people and their vitality is the keenest kind of pleasure: ”One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?”

I mostly allowed Virginia Woolf to speak for herself because it is nearly time to conclude the review; and vividly, originally, elegantly does she write poetic prose.

In her prose-poetry Virginia Woolf has explored the love of house, music, city, nature, love of life itself. However, most of her life she was pursued by a figurative “water wraith,” which drove her to an early death. In contrast to the other written pieces we have explored, I offer the prose-poem OLD MRS. GREY which deals directly with death:

“There are moments even in England, now, when even the busiest, most contented suddenly let fall what they hold—it may be the week’s washing. Sheets and pyjamas crumble and dissolve in their hands, because, though they do not state this in so many words, it seems silly to take the washing round to Mrs. Peel when out there over the fields over the hills, there is no washing; no pinning of clothes to lines; mangling and ironing; no work at all, but boundless rest. Stainless and boundless rest; space unlimited; untrodden grass; wild birds flying; hills whose smooth uprise continue that flight.” Is Woolf hinting at heaven?

“The fire looked like a small spot of dusty light feebly tying to escape from the embarrassing pressure of the pouring sunshine.” A striking poetic image.

An old woman has come to the end of her life and can go no farther now nearly blind: “And now at the age of ninety-two they saw nothing but a zigzag of pain wriggling across the door, pain that twisted her legs as it wriggled; jerked her body to and fro like a marionette. Her body was wrapped round the pain as a damp sheet is folded over a wire. The wire was spasmodically jerked by a cruel invisible hand.”

All that the woman could see out her front door: “The morning spread seven foot by four green and sunny. Like a fling of grain the birds settled on the land. She was jerked again by another tweak of the tormenting hand.”

The image of the wire used in washing is continued. She only wants eternal rest but life forces will not allow it: “So we—humanity—insist that the body shall still cling to the wire. We put out the eyes and the ears; but we pinion it there, with a bottle of medicine, a cup of tea, a dying fire, like a rook on a barn door; but a rook that still lives, even with a nail through it.”

By definition poetry capitalizes on rhythm, imagery, intensity. Prose does not: fiction spins out a tale, while an essay analyzes a topic. No writer of short stories or essays would have time or use space as Virginia Woolf did in her poetic musings. Yes, when she wanted, her stories and novels, her biographies and reviews were clearly shaped and developed. Yet she was also a poet who—oddly to us perhaps—chose never to publish even one chapbook of poetry.

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To learn more visit: http://www.virginiawoolfsociety.co.uk/index.html

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Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

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POETICS IN THE FICTION OF DYLAN THOMAS

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By Ray Greenblatt

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Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) wrote this collection of ten short stories in 1940.  The characters from A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1952) are here but more fleshed out: Dan Jenkins (“The Fight”), Jack Williams (“Peaches”), the Protheros (“Old Garbo”). And Thomas’ poetic style is revealed in the prose as well: vivid imagery, alliteration, purposeful run-on lines, many adjectives, humor, strong emotions from joy to sadness. In most of these stories Dylan is his own narrator; we even observe him growing from his pre-teens into a young man in his twenties. How much is made up we don’t really know and will leave to the critics, yet the stories are intriguing.

Thomas writes impressionistic stories about his life (or at least about a boy named Dylan) in Wales. “Peaches” is about Dylan staying on his Aunt and Uncle’s farm with his rich friend Jack for two weeks in the summer.

“He sang all the way to Gorsehill in an affectionate bass voice, and conducted the wind with his whip. He did not need to touch the reins. Once on the rough road, between hedges twisting out to twig the mare by the bridle and poke our caps, we stopped at a whispered ‘Whoa,’ for uncle to light his pipe and set the darkness on fire and show his long, red, drunken fox’s face to me, with its bristling side-bushes and wet, sensitive nose.”

“Uncle looked twice as tall as Annie. He could have carried her about under his coat and brought her out suddenly, a little, brown-skinned, toothless, hunchbacked woman with a cracked sing-song voice.”

Jack’s mother pays the Aunt and Uncle money to board Jack, but she is a snob. When they offer her what they think a treat of canned peaches, she abruptly turns them down. After she leaves, Uncle, who has been drinking heavily, curses her out. Jack hears and phones his mother to take him home.

Despite all this, Dylan loves the farm: “There was nowhere like that farm-yard in all the slapdash country, nowhere so poor and grand and dirty as that square of mud and rubbish and bad wood and falling stone, where a bucketful of old and bedraggled hens scratched and laid small eggs.”

“I felt all my young body like an excited animal surrounding me, the torn knees bent, the bumping heart, the long heat and depth between the legs, the sweat prickling in the hands, the tunnels down to the eardrums, the little balls of dirt between the toes, the eyes in the sockets, the tucked-up voice, the blood racing, the memory around and within flying, jumping, swimming, and waiting to pounce.”

In “A Visit to Grandpa’s” Dylan’s grandfather is becoming senile. In bed he imagines he’s driving a carriage: “He was sitting straight up in bed and rocking from side to side as though the bed were on a rough road; the knotted edge of the counterpane were his reins; his invisible horse stood in a shadow beyond the bedside candle. Over a white flannel nightshirt he was wearing a red waistcoat with walnut-sized brass buttons.”

When he does drive a cart, it is as if the pony is a powerful team of steeds: “On the last day but one of my visit I was taken to Llanstephan in a governess cart pulled by a short, weak pony. Grandpa might have been driving a bison, so tightly he held the reins, so ferociously cracked the long whip, so blasphemously shouted warning to boys who played in the road, so stoutly stood with his gaitered legs apart and cursed the demon strength and willfulness of his tottering pony.”

After he is found missing, the townsfolk discover him on a bridge on the way–he claims–to be buried, although he is still hale. “Grandpa did not answer, but inclined his face to the river wind, so that his beard was set dancing and wagging as though he talked, and watched the coracle men move, like turtles, on the shore . . . For a moment grandpa reflected, then: ‘There’s no sense in lying dead in Llanstephan,’ he said. ‘The ground is comfy in Llangadock; you can twitch your legs without putting them in the sea.’”

Dylan dominated in the first story and Grandpa in the second. However, in “Patricia, Edith, and Arnold” a new child is introduced. The story told in the third person involves adults: two maids who are friends are supposedly loved by one young man. When together they question him; he chooses Patricia. But she declares that he has lied to her friend Edith and spurns him. Meanwhile, the young boy Patricia takes care of has no idea what is going on with these adults, as he plays:

“He backed the Flying Welshman from the washhouse to the open door of the coal-hole and pulled hard on the brake that was a hammer in his pocket: assistants in uniform ran out with fuel; he spoke to a saluting fireman, and the engine shuffled off, round the barbed walls of China that kept the cats away, by the frozen rivers in the sink, in and out of the coal-hole tunnel.”

Yet he senses that something is going on: “He knew that this was an afternoon on which anything might happen; it might snow enough for sliding on a tray; uncles from America, where he had no uncles, might arrive with revolvers and St. Bernards; Ferguson’s shop might catch on fire and all the piece-packets fall on the pavements.”

Yet he does not understand the actions, let alone feelings, of adults: “When who comes? He threw the snowball high into the silently driving fall. Edith’s crying in the deadened park was clear and thin as a whistle, and, disowning the soft girls and standing away from them in case a stranger passed, a man with boots to his thighs, or a sneering, bigger boy from the Uplands, he piled snow against the wire of the tennis court and thrust his hands into the snow like a baker making bread. As he delved and moulded the snow into loaves, saying under his breath, ‘This is the way it is done, ladies and gentleman.’”

“The Fight” is, in my opinion, the funniest story because Dylan gets inside a boy’s imaginative head. He fights with an unknown boy named Dan. “I threw a stone at his face. He took off his spectacles, put them in his coat pocket, took off his coat, hung it neatly on the railings, and attacked . . . I was down in the dust, hot and scratched and biting, then up and dancing, and I butted the boy in the belly and we tumbled in a heap. I saw through a closing eye that his nose was bleeding. I hit his nose. He tore at my collar and spun me round by the hair.”

Dylan earns the badge of a black eye. “He said I had the best black eye in Wales, perhaps it was the best black eye in Europe; he bet Tunney never had a black eye like that . . . That afternoon I went to school with an eye-shade on. If I had a black silk sling I would have been as gay and desperate as the wounded captain in the book that my sister used to read, and that I read under the bedclothes at night, secretly with a flash-lamp.”

They immediately become friends and Dylan goes to Dan’s house for the day. “He was a composer and a poet too; he had written seven historical novels before he was twelve, and he played the piano and the violin; his mother made wool pictures, his brother was a clerk at the docks and syncopated; his aunt kept a preparatory school on the first floor, and his father wrote music for the organ.”

In Dan’s home they meet several eccentrics at dinner. “Mrs. Bevan smiled at her, assured, and began to eat. She was grey-haired and grey-faced. Perhaps she was grey all over. I tried to undress her, but my mind grew frightened when it came to her short flannel petticoat and navy bloomers to the knees. I couldn’t even dare unbutton her tall boots to see how grey her legs were. She looked up from her plate and gave me a wicked smile.”

By the fifth story “Just like Little Dogs” Dylan is now a lonely young man during the Depression. “The night before, quick little scarecrows had bent and picked at the track-line and a solitary dignified scavenger wandered three miles by the edge with a crumpled coal sack and a park-keeper’s steel-tipped stick. Now they were tucked up in sacks, asleep in a siding, their heads in bins, their beards in straw, in coal-trucks thinking of fires, or lying beyond pickings on Jack Stiff’s slab near the pub in the Fishguard Alley, where the methylated-spirit drinkers danced into the policemen’s arms and women like lumps of clothes in a pool waited, in doorways and holes in the soaking wall, for vampires or firemen.”

He meets two sad men who had to marry their wives. The judge in their paternity suits states that they acted “just like little dogs.” They stand in the dark doing nothing like Dylan as a train passes. “It tore over us, the arch bellowed, the wheels screamed through our heads, we were deafened and spark-blinded and crushed under the fiery weight and we rose again, like battered black men, in the grave of the arch. No noise at all from the swallowed town. The trams had rattled themselves dumb. A pressure of the hidden sea rubbed away the smudge of the docks. Only three young men alive.”

He suddenly realizes that his life could become theirs. However, he feels a perverse pleasure. “I was a lonely nightwalker and a steady stander-at-corners. I liked to walk through the wet town after midnight, when the streets were deserted and the window lights out, alone and alive on the glistening tramlines in dead and empty High Street under the moon, gigantically sad in the damp streets by ghostly Ebenezer Chapel. And I never felt more a part of the remote and overpressing world, or more full of love and arrogance and pity and humility, not for myself alone, but for the living earth I suffered on.”

The elements of loneliness and the sea begin to play larger roles in Thomas’ remaining stories.  In “Who Do You Wish Was with Us” Dylan and his friend Raymond have the feeling of hiking free in nature. “We went on up Sketty Road at a very great speed, our haversacks jumping on our backs. We rapped on every gate to give a terrific walker’s benediction to the people in the choking houses. Like a breath of fresh air we passed a man in office pin-stripes standing, with a dog-lead in his hand, whistling at a corner. Tossing the sounds and smells of the town from us with the swing of shoulders and loose-limbed strides, half-way up the road we heard women on an outing call.”

They get to the shore. “Laughing on the cliff above the very long golden beach, we pointed out to each other, as though the other were blind, the great rock of the Worm’s Head. The sea was out. We crossed over on slipping stones and stood, at last, triumphantly on the windy top. There was monstrous, thick grass there that made us spring-heeled, and we laughed and bounced on it, scaring the sheep who ran up and down the battered sides like goats.”

Amid this exhilaration Raymond cannot keep down his inner turmoil. He says: “’I used to hold my father down on the bed when he had fits. I had to change the sheets twice a day for my brother, there was blood on everything. I watched him getting thinner and thinner; in the end you could lift him up with one hand. And his wife wouldn’t go to see him because he coughed in her face, Mother couldn’t move, and I had to cook as well, cook and nurse and change the sheets and hold father down when he got mad. It’s embittered my outlook.’”

Dylan, of course, has heard all of this before. All they can do for relief is imagine what friends they would like to have at the beach with them. “”I wish Gwilym was here, too,’ I said. ‘I’ve told you about him. He could give a sermon to the sea’ . . .’I wish my brother was with us,’ Ray said. He climbed on to the flat of the rock and dried his feet. ‘I wish Harry was here. I wish he was here now, at this moment, on this rock’ . . . A wind, cornering the Head, chilled through our summer shirts, and the sea began to cover our rock quickly, our rock already covered with friends, with living and dead, racing against the darkness.”

Drunkenness also plays a part in the next two stories of an adult Dylan Thomas. In “Old Garbo,” he is a cub reporter who admires Mr. Farr, an ace journalist. “He was the senior reporter, a great shorthand writer, a chain-smoker, a bitter drinker, very humorous, round-faced and round-bellied, with dart holes in his nose . . . He might have been a mincing-mannered man, with a strut and a cane to balance it, a watch-chain cross the waistcoat, a gold tooth, even perhaps a flower from his own garden in his buttonhole.”

They go drinking together. “I leant against the bar, between an alderman and a solicitor, drinking bitter, wishing that my father could see me now and glad, at the same time, that he was visiting Uncle A. in Aberavon. He could not fail to see that I was a boy no longer, nor fail to be angry at the angle of my fag and my hat and the threat of the clutched tankard. I liked the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam at the corners.”

In the bar a Mrs. Prothero (called Old Garbo because she is the antithesis of the actress in every way) buys drinks for everyone. “ [I] thought of the long legs and startling faces of the chorus girls I had seen walking arm in arm, earlier that week, up and down the streets in the winter sunshine . . . their hair raven-black or silver; their scent and paint reminded me of the hot and chocolate-coloured East, their eyes were pools.”

Since her daughter supposedly died in childbirth, her cronies had raised some money for her. When Old Garbo learned her daughter had lived but the grandchild died, out of embarrassment she jumped off a bridge. However, neither Dylan nor Mr. Farr was sober enough to cover the suicide for the newspaper.  “Two small men, Mr. Farr and his twin brother, led me on an ice-rink to the door, and the night air slapped me down. The evening happened suddenly. A wall slumped over and knocked off my trilby; Mr. Farr’s brother disappeared under the cobbles. Here came a wall like a buffalo; dodge him, son.”

“One Warm Saturday” an overly romantic young man on vacation sits on the beach in a depressed state. “The young man sat alone with the shadows of his failure at his side . . . The young man, in his wilderness, saw the holiday Saturday set down before him, false and pretty, as a flat picture under the vulgar sun . . . He thought dramatically in his isolation, to an old shame and pity; outside all holiday, like a young man doomed for ever to the company of his maggots, beyond the high and ordinary, sweating, sun-awakened power and stupidity of the summer flesh on a day and a world out.”

Soon after, he falls in love with a woman beside the beach who seems to return his love. “It was the calm, unstartled certainty of her bearing before his glance from head to foot, the innocent knowledge, in her smile and the set of her head, that she was defended by her gentleness and accessible strangeness against all rude encounters and picking looks, that made his fingers tremble . . . Like a confident girl before a camera, she sat smiling, her hands folded, her head slightly to one side so that the rose brushed her neck. She accepted his admiration. The girl in a million took his long look to herself, and cherished his stupid love.”

A group of them, heavily drinking, go to the woman’s room. “He saw her as a wise, soft girl whom no hard company could spoil, for her soft self, bare to the heart, broke through every defence of her sensual falsifiers. As he thought this, phrasing her gentleness, faithlessly running to words away from the real room and his love in the middle, he woke with a start saw her lively body six steps from him, no calm heart dressed in a sentence, but a pretty girl, to be got and kept. He must catch hold of her fast.” However, when Dylan goes to find a toilet, in his drunkenness he gets totally lost and cannot find his way back to her.

We observe the same theme of a man trying to prove himself but failing in “Extraordinary Little Cough.” Dylan and three other boys go camping by the sea.  “Four boys on a roof—one tall, dark, regular-featured, precise of speech, in a good suit, a boy of the world; one squat, ungainly, red-haired, his red wrists fighting out of  short, frayed sleeves; one heavily spectacled, small-paunched, with indoor shoulders and feet in always unlaced boots wanting to go different ways; one small, thin, indecisively active, quick to get dirty, curly—saw their field in front of them, a fortnight’s  new home that had thick, pricking hedges for walls, the sea for a front garden, a green gutter for a lavatory, and a wind-struck tree in the middle.”

There they meet two other school chums and three girls. The story is mostly about how young people interact. “I could have swept the ground with my cap, kissed my hand gaily, called them senoritas, and made them smile without tolerance. Or I could have stayed at a distance, and this would have been better still, my hair blown in the wind, though there was no wind at all that evening, wrapped in mystery and staring at the sun, too aloof to speak to girls.”

And yet, Dylan is not the major character since so many people abound in this story. It is mostly about George Hooping, one of the four boys, nicknamed “Little Cough” for his surname. He is the odd man out trying to prove himself but is always the butt of a joke. I feel that Dylan Thomas is starting to change direction again with his stories.

After exploring pre-teenage boys then young men, he is now interested in groups.  Also, the number of poetic descriptions lessens and dialogue grows. The last story “Where Tawe Flows” will illustrate the point. Four men (again Dylan is one of them) meet regularly to write a book, titled “Where Tawe Flows,” in which each of them tells a story in very bare language.:

“’It wasn’t the doctor’s death, but where and how he died,’ said Mr. Evans. ‘He died in a bed-sitting-room in the arms of a certain lady. A woman of the town.’

‘Kiss me!’ Mr. Roberts said. ‘Seventy-five years old. I’m glad you asked us to remember his age, Mr. Evans.’

‘But how did Mary Phillips come to live in Bellevue? You haven’t told us that,’ Mr. Thomas said.

‘The William Hugheses wouldn’t have the niece of a man who died in those circumstances—‘

‘However complimentary to his manhood,’ Mr. Humphries said, stammering. ‘“

The use of dialogue Thomas had perfected in his numerous radio broadcasts and movie scripts. Perhaps these elements in the later stories hint toward Dylan Thomas wanting to write a full-length novel, something he never had the time to do.

Dylan Thomas died so young, but in his short life he excelled in poetry and short fiction. One hears echoes of James Joyce in Thomas’ emotional display of young characters’ feelings of love.  Thomas would undoubtedly have read this Celtic forerunner whose work began to dominate the world in 1916 with his first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Yet, Thomas’ prose in turn influenced American writers who came after him. J.D. Salinger, in Europe during World War Two, could have read Thomas. Salinger employed American colloquialisms used by the young as Thomas did the British. And another echo is heard in the writing of John Updike who attended Oxford in 1954, just after Thomas’ death. Updike often describes the woodlands and the sea in his work against which young people interact. We can only conjecture what further influences Dylan Thomas might have disseminated to the literary world had he lived longer.

You can find books by Dylan Thomas at New Directions http://www.ndbooks.com/author/dylan-thomas-d/

 

Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI