The Language of Trees in Violent Times: Thoughts on the Aesthetics of Nikki Giovanni and Paul Celan By Michael T. Young


Paul Celan, 1967

By Michael T. Young
I recently read the poetry of Nikki Giovanni and that of Paul Celan back to back. The transition from one to the other was jarring. There couldn’t be two aesthetics so different from each other. This contrast set me to thinking about what characterizes them, what vision they each embody and where they diverge and converge. 
For Giovanni, there is a direct line from experience to expression. While she may use metaphors to open a subject, she does not allow metaphors or the music of language to follow its own course distinct from her moral perception. In many ways her aesthetics are determined by her moral or ethical values. This is necessary in a social context where injustice is pawned off as normal behavior. Indirection and even misdirection are what cloak the racism and violence of the American landscape. So, aesthetically, she needs a straight line to uncover it. One can see this compulsion for a direct moral aesthetic in her poem “For Saundra.” It addresses a problem often posed by poets in traumatic times, that is, the question of writing poems about trees. In a famous poem, Bertolt Brecht said it this way:
Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
(translated by H. R. Hays)
Since then, different poets have approached this problem, some in poems, others in prose. George Oppen, a poet well known for putting poetry aside for many years to engage in political activism said, “There is no crisis in which political poets and orators may not speak of trees.” Ignoring the obvious contradiction, it asserts a definite stance. Giovanni addresses this dilemma in her poem. After a neighbor asks her “do you ever write tree poems,” she makes the effort but comes to the opposite conclusion from Oppen:
. . . it occurred to me
maybe i shouldn’t write
at all
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply
perhaps these are not poetic
at all
Also, with a bit of irony, Giovanni asserts this stance in a poem. At another point in the poem, when trying to describe a tree, Giovanni, “peeked from my window/to check the image.” Giovanni doesn’t isolate herself in her writing. She is always looking outward, “to check the image,” to correspond what she writes with what is going on in the world around her. Her poetry is one of witness and disclosure. And this is why, as the poem goes on, it becomes impossible for her to write about trees or any other natural beauty.
Not seeing a tree outside in the New York landscape, Giovanni turns to writing about the sky, but can’t because “all the clouds have winged/low since no-Dick was elected.” For Giovanni, the moral ugliness in the world makes it impossible to take pleasure in natural beauty. The one colors the other and can’t be separated. This fusion requires an aesthetics grounded in a moral imperative, an aesthetics of explicit revelation.
Giovanni’s aesthetic is diametrically opposed to the aesthetic one confronts in Celan. One sees this in a poem Celan wrote in direct response to the Brecht poem.
A leaf, treeless
for Bertolt Brecht:
What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much made explicit?
(trans. Michael Hamburger)
This poem is a bit of an oddity. Rarely does Celan disclose his thoughts or feelings directly. But here we see a kind of ars poetica open in response to Brecht. And what is learned in that aversion to the explicit or direct language is that Celan’s aesthetic is one of indirection. Why is that?
Celan lived through the Holocaust, surviving one of the labor camps, while his parents both died in them. Much of Celan’s poetry evolved out of this trauma. The wound of the Holocaust was forever too raw to directly touch. Metaphor and symbol served as an anesthetic to perform surgery on a deeply wounded psyche. So, whether we read his earlier more imagistic poems and engage his famous “black milk of daybreak” or his later more abstruse proclamations regarding the “Illegibility/ of this world,” we are dealing with forceps and scalpel. As Hamburger translates another of Celan’s lines, “clarity troubles.” Interestingly, just like Giovanni, Celan’s poetry is all about the speaker’s feelings and yet, it is a language meant to remake the very vocabulary of feeling, which is why it is so unusual.
Both Brecht and Celan say, “almost a crime” or “nearly a crime.” Both allow a place for what they would deny because the denial is circumstantial, not absolute. For Brecht, writing about trees during the terror of the Holocaust may be necessary. For Celan, the need to speak or write in the aftermath of it is unavoidable. Giovanni too allows a way for writing to remain with her “perhaps” opening the last stanza. So while Celan’s poems are spare, words squeaking through that “almost,” Giovanni’s poems are bare, exposing the nerves in necessary confrontations in what are, let’s say, “unpoetic poems.” This is not to say her writing is not poetry but that it refuses artifice. Her drive is toward removing all artifice behind which the lie of racism can hide. In a later poem, Giovanni even declares, “This is not a poem.” While it might be said that Celan’s poetry is all artifice, he so drastically alters the typical German language, he wondered about the language he used in his own poems saying, “I am not sure the German I write in is spoken here, or anywhere.”
Strangely, it seems, the very different aesthetics of these two poets here meet, as both would reject an aesthetic of purity, a language of enchantment. It doesn’t seem possible that either poet would agree with Joseph Brodsky when he said, “With a poet, one’s ethical posture, indeed one’s very temperament, is determined and shaped by one’s aesthetics.” Such a yielding to the easy music of the given language would carry these two poets into the very dangers they try to conquer. Just like well-worn tracks on a dirt road, the language we inherit may pull us in the same direction others have taken. For Giovanni, that would be the language of racism and violence. For Celan, it would be the language of the systematic murder of a race, of people he personally knew. But each one is compelled to make or remake their languages in opposing ways to confront the pain and violence of their world. Each one is driven to create a language of confrontation that results in drastically different aesthetics.
Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of War, was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award. His previous collections are The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. He received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award from the New England Poetry Club. Michael’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals including Gargoyle, One, Quiddity, Rattle, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. It has also been featured on Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac.  Michael T. Young



Keats 1Fanny Brawne.

Towards John Keats’s Third Collection of Poetry by Byron Beynon

Two hundred years ago in July 1820, John Keats’s third book of poems “Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems” was published by Taylor and Hessey, of Fleet Street, London.

His two previous collections “Poems” (1817), and “Endymion” (1818), had either been ignored or reviewed with savage scorn. This third collection contained most of the major work and is rightly considered his greatest collection.

The eighteen months or so leading up to the book’s publication had been for Keats a rollercoaster of different emotions, with the death of his brother Tom from TB, anxiety over money, personal illness, interspersed with periods of calm, inspiration, and fresh landscapes. However, he managed to create in a relatively short time (between January and September 1819) a body of work which challenged comparison with those of John Milton in his maturity.

This outpouring of major poetry in 1819 produced “The Eve of St Agnes”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to Psyche”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “La Belle Dans sans Merci”, “Lamia”, and “To Autumn”. Poetry full of atmosphere, with wonderful delicacy and reserve. It was also a time when his older brother George had already left England and emigrated to America, he’d also met the love of his life Fanny Brawne, not forgetting he had to catch up on and digest several scathing reviews of his previous collections.

These reviews, as John Barnard points out in his book on Keats, were the product of “snobbery and class-consciousness….”. He also noted that “Keats’s aspirations had touched a nerve. Keats represented a threat.” Undaunted Keats would have the strength of mind to continue with his writing.

In his journal letter to his brother George and his sister-in-law Georgina written during December/January 1818/1819 Keats recalled:

“The last days of poor Tom were of the most distressing nature; but his last moments were not so painful, and his very last was without a pang – I will not enter into any parsonic comments on death – yet the common observations of the commonest people on death are as true as their proverbs. I have scarce a doubt of immortality of some nature o (r) other- neither had Tom….. Sometimes I fancy an immense separation, and sometimes, as at present, a direct communication of spirit with you.”

George had sailed in June 1818 from Liverpool to Philadelphia, onto Pittsburgh, then to Illinois territory, and the frontier settlement of Henderson in western Kentucky. After several years he eventually moved to Louisville. By the early 1830s, with a successful lumber mill and flour mill, he prospered, and built a large house in Louisville in 1835.

Keats, after the death of his brother Tom on 1st December 1818, moved into Wentworth Place, (now called Keats House), Hampstead with his friend Charles Brown. He had been writing and working on the poem “Hyperion” but put it to one side as the year drew to a close due the stress of his brother’s illness and death.

It was also in his journal letter to George on the 16th December 1818 that Keats first mentions Fanny Brawne:

“Mrs Brawne who took Brown’s house for the summer, still resides in Hampstead – she is a very nice woman – and her daughter senior is I think beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange – we have a little tiff now and then- and she behaves a little better, or I must have sheered off.”

Two days later, on the 18th he wrote “shall I give you Miss Brawne? She is about my height- with a fine style of countenance of the lenghthen’d sort – she wants sentiment in every feature-she manages to make her hair look well- her nostrils are fine- ……her full-face which indeed not full but pale and thin without showing any bone – Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements….”

Through the encouragement of friends like Charles and Maria Dilke, Keats decided that  a change of scene might do him good, and by mid January 1819 he travelled and stayed in Chichester, and then onto Bedhampton, to the old Mill House, where he wrote “The Eve of St Agnes” (January/early February 1819). It was another friend, Isabella Jones, who probably suggested to Keats that he should write this poem, a short romance, based on a legend. He had also been working again on the poem “Hyperion”, but the going was slow, and he finally abandoned it before or during April 1819. In mid February he began something new, the unfinished “The Eve of St Mark” where he pictures a cathedral town on a Sunday evening. At the time he worked on this poem he was suffering from a sore throat and was confined to his rooms.

He was now heading towards a golden period when the great odes of late April and early May would come. Back in London, on 11th April Keats took a walk across Hampstead Heath and met Mr Green an acquaintance from Guy’s Hospital in conversation with Coleridge, he joined them on their walk and as Keats said “In those two miles he (C) broached a thousand things……Nightingales, Poetry, – on Practical Sensation- Metaphysics- Different genera and species of Dreams….”

Soon after he wrote “Fancy”, and then on 21st April the ballad “La Belle dame sans Merci” (not included in his third volume). Within another nine days he had completed “To Sleep”, two sonnets “On Fame” and then “Ode to Psyche” the first of the great odes which was written by 30th April. “Ode to Psyche” proved to be a valuable springboard, within two or three weeks all the five remaining odes except “To Autumn” were written. His mind open and restored again with a fluency of purpose after a period of uncertainty and anxiety.

His friend Charles Brown wrote that “Ode to a Nightingale” was written soon after “Ode to Psyche” and composed in a single morning, he described the time of composition as lasting “two or three hours”. Brown also wrote:

“In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continued joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of papers in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.”

Richard Holmes in his essay on Keats reflects on the poet’s survival in popular imagination via the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and how in the twentieth century “Scott Fitzgerald revealed a lifelong obsession with Keats, which produced not only the theme and title of “Tender is the Night” (1934), but also inspired his late pedagogic attempt to become a literature professor, as movingly recounted in Sheilah Graham’s “College of One” (1967), which began when Fitzgerald started reciting Keats to her as they drove back from a Hollywood film premier in his ancient Ford.”

Between July and September 1819 Keats stayed in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, he would also move to Winchester, working on the play “Otho the Great”, and the poems “Lamia” and “The Fall of Hyperion”. That July, Keats who was by then engaged to Fanny Brawne, wrote to her from Shanklin:

“My Sweet Girl,

Your letter gave me more delight, than any thing in the world but yourself could do; indeed I am almost astonished that any absent one should have that luxurious power over my senses which I feel. Even when I am not thinking of you I receive your influence and a tenderer nature steeling upon me. All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me: or rather breathe in that dull sort of patience that cannot be called Life. I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe it it, …I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else – I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.”

At Winchester, in September he wrote the sensuous and richly powerful “To Autumn”, and on the 19th he wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds and mentioned:

“How beautiful the season is now- How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it…I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now- Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm- this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”

During the winter of 1819/1820 and back in Hampstead, Keats became unwell. His increasing ill health would continue throughout 1820, and his doctor ordered him to go to Italy, hoping that a warmer climate would aid his recovery. In July his third book, after revisions, was published by Taylor and Hessey. With an intuition for sound Keats had produced a body of work unmatched by a poet who had not quite reached the age of twenty-four. As RS White stated in his “John Keats – A Literary Life” the poet did have the “satisfaction of seeing into print a new volume of his poems, containing mainly the fruit of his astonishing creative output in 1819, its title emphasising the romances:”. White further adds that “the 1820 volume is a sublime artistic success, comparable to Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge in its significance for literary history.”

By September, along with Joseph Severn, Keats set sail for Italy on the Maria Crowther. There in Rome, on the 23rd February 1821, the 25 year old poet died from TB. Joseph Severn later reflected “Nothing seemed to escape him, the song of a bird and the undernote of response from covert or hedge, the rustle of some animal, the changing of the green and brown lights and furtive shadows, the motions of the wind.”

When I lived in London I took advantage of visiting the restored house in Hampstead where Keats once lived and wrote several of his poems and letters. On display inside were first editions of his three books of poetry. These books were once owned by his good friend Charles Brown, and they bear his signature. They were originally issued in drab grey paper covers but Brown had them re-bound in leather to match other books in his library. All three volumes went out of print and they were not available again until 1840. However pirated editions appeared in Paris in 1829 and also in Philadelphia in 1837.

For further reading and sources on John Keats:

John Keats: The Complete Poems edited by John Bernard Penguin Books 2006

Letters of John Keats: A selection edited by Robert Gittings Oxford UP 1986

John Keats by Walter Jackson Bate Harvard UP 1963

John Keats by Robert Gittings Penguin Books 1979

John Keats by Nicholas Roe Yale UP 2012

This Long Pursuit by Richard Holmes William Collins 2016

Keats and his Circle – An Album of Portraits compiled & presented by Joanna Richardson

published by Cassell London 1980

John Keats A Literary Life by RS White Palgrave/MacMillan 2012


Byron Beynon lives in Swansea, Wales. His work has appeared in several publications including North of Oxford, Poetry Wales, The London Magazine, San Pedro River Review, Poetry Salzburg, Agenda and the anthology Moments of Vision (Seren).  Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press) and the Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions)







Montpellier – Echoes from a French city

Musee Fabre.jpeg

by Byron Beynon

Montpellier is where Paul Gaugin brought Vincent van Gogh in an attempt to cheer-up the fading spirits of the Dutchman. Late in 1888 both men travelled by train from Arles to spend the day in this southern French city, they came especially to see the works of Gustave Courbet and Eugene Delacroix inside the Musée Fabre. Vincent would soon write a letter to his brother Theo about the visit in the second half of December 1888.

“Gaugin and I went yesterday to Montpellier to see the museum there and especially the Brias room. There are a lot of portraits of Brias, by Delacroix, Ricard, Courbet, Cabanel, Couture, Verdier, Tassaert, and others. Then there are pictures by Delacroix, Courbet, Giotto, Paul Potter,

Botticelli, Th. Rousseau, very fine. Brias was a benefactor of artists, I shall say no more to you than that. In the portrait by Delacroix he is a gentleman with red beard and hair, confoundedly like you or me…..” In the same letter he goes on to say that “ Gaugin and I talked a lot about Delacroix, Rembrandt etc. Our arguments are terribly electric, we come out of them sometimes with our heads as exhausted as an electric battery after it has run down.”

Alfred Bruyas was indeed a benefactor of the arts and friend to artists, and his narcissism for having dozens of portraits of himself commissioned was defended by Vincent. After the trip, tensions grew between the two artists.


          Today visitors still enter the gallery, which houses paintings, drawings, sculptures, video library, and a fine selection of books and magazines. The building is settled near a wide esplanade with plane trees  and fountains, in the heart of the city. During the seventeenth century it was a Jesuit college, then a mansion before being enlarged when Francois Xavier Fabre (1766-1837), a former pupil of David, donated in 1825 his collection of paintings to his native city, and by doing so gave his name to this tall, wise building. Inside there are paintings by Rubens, Berthe Morisot, and Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870), who was born into an affluent Montpellier family of wine-growers, but who was tragically killed in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. He began a career in medicine before turning to painting. He was, by all accounts, very well liked. He helped his impoverished artists friends, and in 1868 Bazille moved to a studio in Paris which he shared with Renoir.

Sadly he was killed during an attack on Beaune-la-Rolande. His father made the journey there to find the body of his son. For ten days he dug in the snow-covered battleground, eventually he found the body and hauled it back to Montpellier himself, on a peasant’s cart.

Portrait of Baudelaire (1)

         You can also see the portrait of CharlesBaudelaire painted in 1847 by Courbet, the poet with his black hair cut short, smokes a pipe, concentrating his mind on the pages of a book which rests on a table.

My first visit to France’s seventh largest city was in 1991, the following year I lived there for six months. I arrived by train, on the ultra-rapid TGV, to one of the country’s oldest protected stations,built in 1844. With a cosmopolitan population of over 270,000, a healthy mix of European youth, North African, American (there is an American library), many are students studying at the university, and the faculty of medicine, the oldest stillopen in the world. A papal bull, dated 26th of October 1289, announced the creation of the University of Montpellier, together with the medical, law, and arts faculties. Here the old, historical areas, with their narrow, shaded, antique streets exist in relative harmony with modern developments despite the angry graffiti and polluting traffic.

Since the 1960s which saw an increase in population, the council, led by Georges Freche decided to create a new neighbourhood called l’Antigone, a living area to provide accommodation and housing with relatively low rents for the people, it was the task of the Catalan architect, Ricardo Bofill, to extend this area of the city. Close by is the Polygone, a shopping centre with cafés, restaurants, and a plethora of shops.

Cathedral St Pierre.jpeg

         One view of the city can be taken from the top of the Corum, a complex used for conventions and opera. To the north you can see the cathedral of St.Pierre, its twin, cylindrical towers stand like rockets about to be launched, also the orange-tiled roofs of the old quarter where on summer evenings, a young medical student named Felix Platter used to sit, playing his lute. He once wrote in his diary “I can see the town, spread out, as far as the sea, which I can sometimes hear in the wind”. If the Corum offered me a good view , the most popular meeting place for locals and visitors alike is the Place de la Comédie, with its fountain of the Three Graces. The three smiling girls embrace, gazing at people of all ages, passing by with their thoughts and with purpose.

Montpellier was first mentioned as far back as 985. By the year 1204 the crown of Aragon belonged to the city, eventually it was bought back by the French. It has witnessed the coming of Arab and Jewish scholars, a garrison, the French Revolution, the wine industry, a university, trams, underground parking and the new technology, pharmaceutical and research laboratories.

To get away from the centre I used to walk to the Peyrou with its eighteenth-century water tower, and the St.Clement aquaduct, the Arceaux, which brought water to the city. The cool air is reviving along with the panoramic views of the Mediterranean sea to the south and the mountains of the Pic Saint Loup to the north.

Nearby is the statue of Louis XIV, the Sun King, made of bronze it almost sank in Bordeaux harbour before arriving in Montpellier in 1718. There is also a botanical garden within easy walking distance from the Peyrou, created during the reign of Henry IV in 1593, with its exotic, ancient trees and plants. It is an oasis of green in the city. The poet Paul Valéry who had married the niece of the painter Berthe Morisot, enjoyed the peace here and wrote “we are going where you would go, if you were here, to the ancient garden where……all those people who meditate, worry or who talk to themselves go, as water goes to a river, and of course they meet up.”

In these gardens, one October afternoon, I met some students from the Netherlands. They were visiting Montpellier for a couple of weeks in order to improve their French, and were also doing a survey, asking questions about their homeland, the first question they asked me was to name at least one Dutch artist! “Vincent van Gogh “ I answered, “who came here by train with his friend and brother-in-art Paul Gaugin.”

 Sources and books for further reading

The Letters of van Gogh  edited by Mark Roskill (Fontana edition 1979)

The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe (Chatto&Windus 2006)

Impressionism by Tamsin Pickeral (Flame Tree Publishing 2007)



Byron Beynon lives in Swansea, Wales. Collections include Cuffs (Rack Press) and The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions). His selected poems appeared in 2018 (Bilingual: English/Romanian – published by Bibliotecha Universalis/Collectiile/ Revistei “Orizont Literar Contemporan”, translations by Dr Monica Manolachi, University of Bucharest)



White Picket Fence by Tom Block


It sits quietly in my closet the third closet the one I don’t really use coiled into itself clasped tightly.  Perfect for the house of a cat or small dog.  It served a short purpose on a small stage in a filthy corner of the City one time a long time ago — suburban suffocation and impassable boundaries and whatnot — but like my old soccer cleats (which I also still have for some reason) there it sits coiled like a calcified snake, waiting.

I remain certain.

Certain that it will someday uncoil again come back to life and reattach itself to a small dance presentation which balloons like a frog’s bellows to become a large dance production spilling out beyond the confines of the little picket fence patiently waiting in the closet that I almost never use.

(Dust seeping.  Time creeping.  Forget.)

There are extra pillows and blankets in there, as well (wrapped tight in plastic) for the guests who almost never come and pile upon pile of bubble wrap waiting patiently to wrap paintings which are sold or given away or sent to an exhibit.  They never go anywhere — they sit stolidly on the walls their impastoed crevices capturing the falling motes and the bubble wrap unmoved waits on the shelf dowager above the floor where the little picket fence sits corkscrew.

I can’t place it.

This happens: things arrive with great purpose and some fanfare and suddenly they are   but another piece of dusty infrastructure undergirding a life which is not uncoiling as it was certainly meant to.

I went out last night — without my picket fence — and time slowed almost to a standstill and I moved syrup through the East Village evening and entered an empty North African restaurant and sat at the blue-tiled bar all alone in the careening interior empty tables hopefully set and waiting and I listened and reflected and listened and sat and then I asked the bartender how long the song had been playing — it was by the French producer St. Germain.

I was certain that he and the empty restaurant and the world had joined my wave and that he would say “seventeen hours” or “forever and forever,” but he looked into his phone and said: “seven minutes and twenty four seconds.”

I nodded, as if I understood.

See, this is why we need picket fences: small or large or simply metaphorical.  To contain the endless possibilities which might take us too far away, beyond the point of no return.  The picket fence — dumb, solid, familiar —tells us what is “ours” and what isn’t; what is “here” and what is there.

Without the picket fence?

Well — a tiny grain of pepper in the vast stew of existence.

(New Jersey.  A state filled with picket fences which is itself a picket fence.

A place so mundane so absolutely solid that it becomes a container to hold the necessary — and properly exclude the unnecessary.

A garden state enclosed and encompassing.

A place where biographies are written which move with certainty from birth though life to death.

A mystical metaphor hiding buried within an innocuous land mass


Tom Block is an author/artist who can be found at Tom is the founding producer of the International Human Rights Art Festival.

STONES OF ARAN: Labyrinth by Tim Robinson

Stones of Aran
By Ray Greenblatt
I took the ferry beneath a gray sky through a choppy sea to Aran. When I arrived in the small harbor surrounded by a scattering of buildings, I thought the island was almost all stone. Stones of Aran by Tim Robinson taught me that I had to stay awhile and really look at what was around me.
Robinson and his wife arrived in 1972. He was a British artist but was soon to fall in love with Aran and become a self-taught cartographer of the island. His writing shows that he also had a highly competent prose style and a poetic sensibility.
He wrote Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage in 1986. The second and final volume, Stones of Aran: Labyrinth, was finished in 1995. Since my trip there was made in 1996 and both books are similar, I will focus on the latter. In the course of Stones of Aran, Robinson explores the geology, the history, and the life-styles of the islanders. First we will meet the man who dedicated those many years to an island no more than nine miles by two miles in area.
I – The Author
Tim Robinson loves to write and nature often inspires him: “Somehow this is not so bad on winter days, with the rain splattering on the window and the oil-heater singeing my shins, but on a still, hot afternoon it is sometimes unbearable. The intensely alert silence of the garden, the white emptiness of the road going by the gate, the wide amnesia of the world toward me—and then the sudden fidget of a blackbird in the shadow under a bush, exactly ‘the sound of the clapping of one hand’. Turns of words cunningly composed to disorientate the mind reveal their banality.” (297)
He also shows great imagination, sentence control, and use of word play: “The last of the daylight, sodden with porter, eased itself out of the door, but the creature of sticks and crumpled brown paper behind the bar showed no inclination to replace it with the cheer of a lantern. Three or four elderly islanders on a wooden bench along one wall looked down as if observing the occasional involuntary shiftings of their boots on the concrete floor, glanced from under their brows at the stranger on the bench opposite, looked down again, left the silence to thicken, broke it with a brief sardonic interchange about the old sack that had been thrown over the vomit left in the corner from the previous night, let their eyes stray across the stranger again.” (141)
His wife and he fixed up their humble cottage: “The bedroom has become our secret retreat too, from both nature and society. With the wooden shutters on the inside of the window closed and a blanket stuffed into the crack between them, our Tilly-lamp can tell no one we are at home, and even when the wind gets one fist down the chimney and the other somehow into the wall-cupboard, it cannot buffet us here, while the oil heater toasts the dampness into a cosy fug and we lie on the floor examining with voluptuous lingerings a newly arrived parcel of books.” (295)
Sometimes he was able to “read” the land: “I used to browse from field to field here as if leafing through a well-loved anthology, or find myself caught wordless in the middle of a page by the disappearance of a question-mark, a lizard’s tail, into the margin. If the text frequently held me up with obscurities, long practice gave me great fluency in its grammar, though perhaps memory flatters in showing me drifting across this terrain as little impeded by stones and thorns as a cloud-shadow.” (236)
From his writing but especially his map-making, Robinson establishes himself in this close-knit community. He is also able to objectify and laugh at himself: “Yes, we all have our ad-hucksterish ways of living off the stones of Aran, and it is a good thing we have the daily bread of nature’s beauty to supplement them . . .they give us identities too, they validate our going up and down the hill in the eyes of society . . .But now I have an island nickname . . .I am Fear na Mapai, the man of the maps, and that is why I am on this hill.” (178)
II – The Stones
The island of Aran is composed of limestone. In the stones are many fossils: “A nautiloid, a cephalopod mollusk related to the modern octopuses and squids, and to the extinct belemnites whose conical shells are to be found here and there in the Aran rocks. Many species of nautiloids, some with straight or curved shells, others with coiled shells like this specimen, inhabited the waters from which the limestone was deposited. Their shells were divided by thin partitions into a number of compartments, the outer of which was occupied by the animal itself while those farther back were full of gas and functioned as buoyancy-chambers.” (339)
Not only are there stone surfaces under foot but many stone walls: “To cross a wall without bruising one’s shins or jolting one’s spine, one should look for stones that run right through the wall and stick out on either side, and step up and over on these as on a stile, refraining from leaning out from the wall or clutching at the topmost stones to lever oneself upright, but keeping one’s centre of gravity as close to the wall and as low over its top as possible.” (13)
A closely scanned boulder may teach us things:  “There is something of the classroom or examination-hall about the crag this boulder stands in; everything here is well lit, separated out, reduced to essentials, so that if we cannot understand, it is our fault. The boulder itself, pedagogical on its podium, demands clarity of thought: observe this, comment on that, deduce the other. A few long straight fissures draw elementary geometrical figures on the blackboard-smooth pavement.” (241)
Many holy people came to Aran over the centuries, none so famous as St Enda in the fifth century who arrived on a stone boat: “Thinking now of how this invisible tower sings in the winds of history, in a spacious antiphony with those other towers . . . of the monasteries founded by alumni of St Enda’s foundation. I do in imagination what I never did while living in Aran—climb down into that stone drum, lie there among the herbs, looking up at swallows darting through the vanished rooms piled above me, and try to remount the cloudy centuries, from the last known abbot of Aran back to the coming of St Enda himself.” (57)
That chapel Robinson imagines might be the remains of this one: “The arch dividing the nave from the chancel is Romanesque, as is the lovely, slim, round-headed lancet window-light in the east gable. The chancel is a little narrower than the nave at ground-level and has been fitted onto the east end of the older building between its antae, but it has projecting parapets along its eaves bringing it out to the full width of the rest, probably added in the fifteenth century. These ragged crenellations give the church a romantic air.” (358)
Around these mostly ruined churches are significant slabs with inscriptions: “Despite their great age, such Early Christian cross-inscribed slabs, of which there are about twenty to be seen in and around Aran’s churches, have the freshness of works from the first decade of modern abstract art, and in one or two of them Kandinsky would have recognized a spiritual fervour behind the ingenuous charm of their oddly balanced crosses and circles.” (49) The tombs are classified as: passage, portal, court, and wedge tombs. On Aran are only the wedge: “The Wedge-shaped Gallery Graves have one main chamber, sometimes with a small portico or antechamber and a small closed rear chamber, and usually decreasing in height and width from front to rear.” (231)
Robinson wonders what prayer can accomplish beside these ancient holy places: “But how can one pray for a soul of whom one knows so little? Only a believer in a vast essentialist bureaucracy of the hereafter can send up a prayer labeled with a name and a date of decease, and be confident that it will be credited to the right account. The secular equivalent is more difficult.  These people, Sara, John, Patrick and the rest, have gone beyond hearing; they will not answer to our historical echo-soundings, and the pious best we can do—for ourselves, not for them—is to inform ourselves enough to understand something of them and their times, and so, by reflection, of ours.” (33)
Dun Aonghasa is by far the most popular tourist attraction; it has been called a citadel, castle, cathedral, even a city. Yet, archaeologists to date debate its antiquity—it could go back to 2500 B.C.– as well as true function.  Robinson tends to agree with Prof. Etienne Rynne who writes: “When visiting Dun Aengus, therefore, . . . the visitor should conjure up an image of druids, ollavs, bards, kings and nobles, all processing formally through the Dun’s impressive entrance, some to perform rituals on the stage-like platform, some to assist in the innermost enclosed area, and others to stand on the surrounding terraced wall chanting incantations or singing sacred songs while viewing the solemn proceedings taking place against the dramatic backdrop of the wild Atlantic ocean whose waves sonorously thunder against the rock-face  far out of sight below.” (395) I was duly impressed by its grandeur hulking on a cliff that plunged three hundred sheer feet!
III – Flora, Fauna, Phenomena
Robinson is constantly amazed at the variety of plant life on such a small northern island: “The lesser spearwort, and wet tangles of bogbean, the tiny white marsh bedstraw, lady’s smock and marsh pennywort. The water speedwell roots in the muddy bottoms of little holes a foot or so below ground level.” (92) The nearly extinct corncrake bird lives on Aran: “To us the plaintive creaking of the corncrake, repeated as endlessly as the distant whispered thunder of waves falling on the beach, was part of the natural pulse of the night.” (351)
The farmers develop the knack and rhythm of planting; here they are cutting rye: “And yet every stage of the harvest is visually charming—the area of stubble or bare ground, decorated with the lines of fistfuls, slowly widening through the day as the standing crop dwindles, the sheaves each belted with a twist of straw, the plump stacks of sheaves topped off with an upside-down sheaf like a huge sun-hat, the donkey waiting to carry the stacks one by one to the outhouse.” (18)
Their tools are also important; here a farmer is planting potatoes with a spade: “The handle itself was grey, its varnish worn off long ago, and smooth, fed by the copious spittle with which Seamaisin lubricated his hands. The left-hand bottom corner of the blade was worn into a large quarter-circle, and before tackling the second trench he took the spade over to a granite boulder that sparkled in the wall, and sharpened it until its edge gleamed like a scimitar.” (260)
The author learned many skills from weaving to ponyriding. He even learns to milk a cow: “I got the knack of it to some degree, and then there were many dawns in which the cow’s overhang sheltered me from the drifting rain while I participated in the ancient insanitary magic of milking a cow in Aran, dipping my finger and thumb into the milk to lubricate her warty teats, cursing her when she suddenly let fall a splatter of dung, dipping into the milk again when I had finished to make the sign of the cross on her haunch.” (252)
After a time of proving himself with the islanders, he made many friends. This is a countrywoman who lives nearby:  “She was an ample, soft, welcoming person; remembering her, I think of well-risen bread. In between stuffing a chicken and boiling potatoes and making tea for me and eating biscuits, she would bring me out to the little area at the back of the house, half flagged, half grassy, with hens and kittens and the interesting weeds she wanted me to see, the pair of us bobbing over them like hens.” (411)
Robinson is exhilarated by the view from the highest point on the island: “Above and around all the vast circus of the elements one commands from the top of this climb is the protective envelope of sky, the delicate translucent skin of the globe. Its depths are of many intersuffusing layers, visible and invisible; the tenderness of its bending down to and wrapping over the horizon is often clear to the feeling eye. Sometimes dull, bruised by departed gales, sometimes glowingly reminiscent of kind weather.” (182)
On Aran the night seems absolute and controlling: “Sometimes in the dark all things reveal the secret we keep from ourselves by daylight and lamplight, that below the skin of what we see of them they are fathomless pools of potential appearances; it is as if other creatures’ deeper vision of them takes priority and forces itself on our own eyes. And we too are objects of those alien visions; our self-recognitions are shaken.” (183)
It can be exhilarating when the author bikes home: “If the rain is not blinding us it is an exciting ride. For the first mile, the road takes the outside edge of one of the great steps of the island’s northern flank, and the ground falls away so sharply on the right that it feels as if one were riding the crest of a huge breaker. Often a winter sunset exploded by the last of the gale into ragged purples and oranges comes flying to meet us from the western skyline; we know that our chimney draws well in such winds and a glowing fire will greet us with the proposal of long hours of reading.” (204)
“Here one is in intimate contact with a world withdrawn into the past. Seeing it revealed thus in its obsessional, finicky, obsolete way is touching, and at the same time illicitly exciting. If there is haunting here, it is not that some returned frequenter of these fields is peering into our time, but that I myself am trespassing back through gaps in walls of the past.” (193)
I missed a lot on my trip to Aran. Since then I have learned to look closely. My Scots-Irish wife and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth pointed out a variety of colors in a seemingly drab autumn landscape after the bright flourish of leaves. In Stones of Aran Tim Robinson has walked me over nearly every square foot of the island in close to one thousand pages: around the coastline in Pilgrimage and down the central spine in Labyrinth. He states what truly applies to himself: “Not everyone is as sure of the necessity of their own life-world as the poet, whose mirror-lined skull brings the reflections of formative years to a focus of definitive brightness.” (410) For his writing I will always be grateful.
Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.

The Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Ranching

Lasater Philosopy of Ranching by Laurence M Lasater cover photo


By Stephen Page


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:

More on Lasater:


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




Exhortations By Tom Block


Art by Tom Block


Exhortations By Tom Block

An excerpt From Letters to an Imaginary Friend
Anyone who knows you well will know you as a hypocrite.
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.
Just because you can forget, doesn’t mean that the universe will.
So then: why?  Why do it?  Why bother?  You should be able to answer these questions for every single action.  Can you?
To see things as they are.  To just keep looking, looking, looking.
The Hippocratic Oath toward life.  It’s a start, at least – and as difficult as being truthful.  But still: it’s just a start.
“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?
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.
Hypocrisy: the minute you open your mouth, you’re already deep in it.  Keep your mouth shut!
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).
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?
The idea of being “conscious” – that’s a laugh!  Conscious of what?  And “rational,” also?!  As if.
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.
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.
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. 
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.
Discover what “faith” means for you.  And then live it.
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.
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.
You’re no better than anyone else.  Know this with certainty. 
Avoid situations which will bring out the worst in you, and gravitate to ones which will bring out your best.  It’s that simple.
One can never lie if they keep their mouth shut.  So how can I justify writing this?
Don’t ever let fear make a decision for you.
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.
“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?
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 . . .
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. 
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.” 
Why wait?  Why not start today – now – this very moment.
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.”
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.
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.
Salvation?  Redemption?  Forget all of that – look forward, and just do the right thing from here on out.
The secret?  To never expect anything in return.  OK – not the secret, but a secret, certainly.
It’s never arrogant to be right.  It is arrogant to be wrong and think that you are right. 
And risk?  Of course – risk everything.  It is called living.
To find it within.  “Within” is the only thing that truly exists, after all.  And to remember that “within” and “above” are synonymous.
Everyone – absolutely everyone who knows anything about anything – says that acceptance is the way.  So why not just accept?
To move beyond the hope of reward.  And from there, to where the action is the reward. 
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.
Take everything in.  But take everything in with a grain of salt.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
If every single moment has something to teach you?  Shhhh . . . listen.  Learn.
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?
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.)
Only you know what’s right for you.  Only you.  So listen, trust and do it.
You are the passenger, yes.  Of course.  You are also the driver. 
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.
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!
Spend more time alone.  That way, you can’t offend anyone.
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 |

Submissions are Open

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:

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

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:
                   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:
              high above the weeds
 closer to the sun, white
                        yucca plant flowers
            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:
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.
 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.
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.
            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:
                        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.

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