Thursday, August 21, 2008

Poem of the Journey

it’s been a long day driving another long hot day another heat wave even after I promised myself not to drive so long so far in one day on this trip unlike last trip still I am retracing my route from eighteen months ago when dad was still alive and I drove out west that cold january I am retracing my path as far as devil’s tower wyoming until I veer south through wyoming one of my favorite places and on into the deep southwestern desert utah nevada arizona and eventually to the pacific ocean where I will dip my toes into the water toes that were wading in the atlantic ocean a brief month ago the things I carry with me from ocean to ocean traveling across the face of the world to be washed in both waters salt tear waters and sunlight

when I crossed the missouri river today the land changed as it does from eastern verdant farmland to hillock and hummock bare grassland rangeland but I still don’t feel like I’m out west yet I expected to feel a sense of arrival all I feel is a sense of farewell

when will I feel home that sense of being in my proper place settled rooted strong I don’t know it’s beyond imagining for now I just keep traveling on across earth face and into the day’s end when will I've arrived in the west when will I fell home again home in the west at the ocean at the shoreline birds wade and dance

sunflower fields everywhere on the plains tall growing golden in the later afternoon sun dancing in the endless wind the strong and heavy katabatic wind that flows from the rocky mountains done to the great plains and across to the riverine and great lakes country of my original home although the west is my home too the mountains and passes and high country of these states from north to south each bigger than the last each requiring more endurance than the last to cross

lakota territory Indian hills circle powwow fancy dancers under the united states flag the sun on the hills and now in the late night wind and stars and the smell of mown hay powwow country the circle including everyone even the youngest dancing the pole dance the circle walk everyone under one sun no one ever ignored or left to be mocked boy fancy dancing polio on crutches painted and feathered like coup sticks and poling himself across the dancing ground

on the road vision
expanding across open prairie—
a great blue heron

South Dakota
at last I feel on the road
that openness
the windy sky
heavy with clouds

endless wind and sky,
fields of golden sunflower:
South Dakota

sun goes down
then comes up again
driving over rolling hills

I am writing some haiku-like poems as I travel, sometimes writing them without stopping driving, in a little notebook with a dragon on the cover. It’s a metal cover, a hard case that means I can carry it anywhere without damaging it. I don’t care if these are formally haiku; I find myself caring less and less about form, and more about content. Perhaps this is a product of aging, of maturing as a poet. Not that I pay no attention to form, but rather than the content matters more.

Denise Levertov writes in a 1991 essay in her collection New and Selected Essays:

We have long assumed that it is an aesthetic truism to assert the indivisibility of form and content—but there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in the statement, after all. Perhaps it needs to be reformulated, to say that although inadequate formal expression always diminishes or distorts content, yet form itself can be perceived, admired, and experienced as pleasure or stimulus even when the reader’s attention is not held by content. Thus, while content cannot be fully appreciated without a fusion with form equal to its task, from can be apprehended and absorbed in and of itself. The assertion of indivisibility does not cover this contingency. At all events, I as a younger poet was often drawn primarily to the structure or technique of poems I read, and paid less attention to what was being said; whereas the older I grow the more I find myself concerned with content, and drawn towards poems that articulate some of my own interests. This primary importance given to what doesn’t imply a loss of interest in how; if a poem strikes me as banal, trite, flabby, pretentious or in any other respect badly written, I’m unlikely to read further no matter what its subject matter.

In one respect I differ with Levertov above, as I was never once principally interested in form over content at any time in my career as a sometime poet, not even when young. This is especially true for me perhaps as I am always most strongly drawn to content in poems that is transformative, spiritual, shamanic, or mythopoetic and archetypal. I was interested in possibility, and I took validation from certain poets who were writing the sort of thing I was hearing in my head, but had not yet felt permitted to write. (Jean Valentine was important to me for this reason.) In form-as-form itself, though, I was only peripherally interested. Not even in haiku, which is the dominant form I use, other than those I myself have invented, or discovered, or developed. I admire perfection in haiku, and in haibun, and I emulate a certain kind of self-complete totality of vision in these forms—that point at which the content and form do complement and complete each other. Perfection in haiku and its cousin forms is as much aesthetic and spiritual as it is technical. There are many great haiku that move into the sublime; not by ignoring the formal constraints, but by transcending them, by synergy, by being something more. Lots of poets still get stuck on technical form, and never move towards its apotheosis.

What we can take from Levertov's proposed adjustment to the theory of the unity of form and content is the perhaps bitter realization that bad execution always kills a poem, whereas great content can’t always save a poem purely on its own. Good execution, or performance if you will, makes or breaks a poem, regardless of content. This is true even if the content is something that under normal circumstances would intrigue and inspire me. Nothing kills a buzz like banality and clichés.

I care less about form than ever, except again for those forms I’ve developed on my own, and haiku. I keep expanding the palette, but I also keep my distance from normative poetic formal values. Few things interest me less than academic arguments over the technicalities of bad poetry. I cannot claim any special knowledge in any of this, or any special aesthetic insight; I stumble along like the rest. What I do know is that I find myself more often than not in the pathfinder or inventor role, rather than the duplicator or imitator of tradition. I’ve often been accused by being experimental in my writings; I don’t dispute that, nor do I take as pejorative, although sometimes it has been proffered as such. My point is that it doesn’t matter, and I write wherever the poem itself wants to lead, and don’t care beyond that about the technical details. I don't mind being called experimental, in other words; my race isn't with the critics, or with some other poet liking or disliking a poem because of personal style or taste. It doesn't bother if they do or don't.

As I spin out across the Great Plains towards the Rocky Mountains, the wheels endlessly humming on the asphalt, the one thing I need to know is that I can still be in love with this land. So far I am still numb, still unkempt, unconnected. maybe I'm moving too fast, and I need to catch up with myself. Maybe it's the continuous exhaustion. Of the list of things I can find to care most about, finding myself again, out of the long void of losing myself, is paramount.

old days when indian boys raced barefoot across the trampled grass sprinting horses crossing the sea of grass old days when the girls raced also old days when everybody won something respected for something praised for something

sea of grass ocean of grass step out into the midnight wind I hear voices calling old ancestor voices my father's voice my mother's on the midnight wind a distant sigh the dream of roads and somewhere behind the moon a lost edge of the world tirelessly rising into the sun

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