Poetry is to language what a fine brandy is to grape juice. It is refined, distilled, and concentrated. It has strength and potency and at the same time it’s subtle. A poem invites deliberate contemplation and promises to tantalize, awaken, satisfy and warm and, at the same time, to provoke leaving behind an echo that never completely fades. Michael Langley, the great Northern Irish poet nails this:
“One of the duties of the writer or the poet is to use words with precision. I think what poetry does, is it uses words at their most precise and their most suggestive. And one word out of place, and the poem’s dead. It’s shocking, but that’s true. And the poets — our poets are custodians of the language. I mean, that sounds very grandiose, but I do believe it.”
The first poem I remember writing was for an assignment that Mrs. Terry, my impossibly thin, tall and kind third-grade teacher assigned. It went like this:
My dog and I are happy
My dog and I are gay
I love to take him for a walk every Saturday
I’ve written hundreds since. I try to cull the herd every year or two so out of hundreds, I have probably kept 25 that made the cut. Other than Haiku, I abandoned rhyme and cadence years ago for the unfettered region of free-verse but there are a lot of consistencies with my 1963 effort-the principal one being the evocation of an ideal that may or may not be empirically “real” while remaining essentially “true”. In point of fact, I am not sure that Rufus the dachshund was either happy or gay—used here in its classical meaning as a state of joy. I also know for a fact that I was often preoccupied with playing Superman, roller skating or trying to ditch my best pal Tim’s sister on most Saturdays and likely missed a lot of walks. BUT, that silly little scrap of 9-year old composed doggerel can snap me back to Lemon Street in the Anaheim California of the early 60’s. I can smell the mustard weed in The Field across the street and remember our impatience waiting for the light to change on Ball Road with hot bare feet on the sidewalk, pulling a red wagon full of pop bottles we had snagged from the trashcans behind the buildings we called “The Apartments” to turn in for 3 cents a bottle, the loot used for Cherry Mash, Big Hunk and Payday candy bars that would sustain us for a weekend of adventure as we boldly trespassed in the orange grove behind John’s house and achieved levels of grass stains on our Sears and Roebuck jeans that no consumer laundry soap could ever completely erase.
If well written prose offers us a beautiful walk, a hike full of adventure, vistas, challenging climbs, hidden glades for resting and a new destination over the next rise. Poems are all of that delivered in a dance, adding leaps, spins, sweeps, impossible physicality, sensual and decadent or spare as an arctic wind.
I write my own poems for me. They are my friends. They are like potent hallucinogens with the power to grant visions of the past imagined adventures I’ll never have, or ones I have forgotten. Go and find Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Richard Blanco, Rumi, and Basho. Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare are waiting for you. Walt Whitman is crooking his finger like an American Gandalf, saying this time “You SHALL pass! Come with me.” Don’t be afraid. Here’s one for the road to get you on your way.
©B. Allen 1981
Over-crusted, dull patina
The masts stand hard
Tendon guys taught
yielding such tension
only to the power of cloth
Even this languid flap
hot, soughing summer air
Even this nosing out for some zephyr
locked to her course, the sails
search themselves for plenty
Every knot, seasoned testimony
Brave crewman, Lost for want of any ship
Just the rigging, palm on crossed trusses
Pride, remembered on a darker day
Her skipper paid the dear price
Now, never leaving, I alone captain
Thunder the silent command!
Joining cream billow to billow
Soaring, steering by lost minutes
I raise my head for warm corn and home