The photo above? I call it “Large Head of Woman Appears to Float in the Mist in Replica of Japanese Garden Near Lovely But Expensive Restaurant.” The location? I took it yesterday at the Grounds for Sculpture located in Hamilton Township, N.J.
Don’t get me wrong. The Grounds for Sculpture is a stunning place, with hundreds of striking and creative outdoor sculptures, beautiful landscaping and pathways that beckon with a mantra hum …like the one in this photo, also taken yesterday:
It’s a place filled with wit and wisdom and wonder, with the beauty of spirit and the spirit of beauty. I intend to go back some glorious morning in spring and I want to walk there in silent winter snow and I want to hear the soft crackle of leaves beneath my feet as I get lost in autmn on the perfectly unpredictable paths.
Yesterday was a hot day, with thunderstorms rumbling and dark clouds looking so biblical that the experience was nearly humbling…but not enough to resist the temptation to say “Visit the Grounds for Sculpture. But don’t bother sitting through the introductory film in which someone rambles very seriously about experiencing the wonder of art and making it one’s own and other very pretentious prattle that the narrator with her very British accent manages to read without even one little proper giggle.
Here’s the link to the Grounds for Sculpture.
Get past the fact that these folks take themselves just a little too seriously and definitely need a new scriptwriter — and you’ll find it to be a place you’ll want to visit again and again.
P.S. At the entrance to one of the indoor exhibits I found a plaque bearing the best poem I’ve ever read or heard about the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. It was written by my friend BJ Ward just days after the tragedy. BJ read this powerful poem just a few weeks later at one of the readings in the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival series I’d started just a few years before. I remember saying to people at the time that the poets and I had discussed whether it was right to hold the reading series that awful autumn. BJ’s stunning poem made it clear that proceeding with the event wasn’t just right – it was necessary:
For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims
Nothing could have prepared you—
Note: Every poem I have ever written
is not as important as this one.
Note: This poem says nothing important.
Clarification of last note:
This poem cannot save 3,000 lives.
Note: This poem is attempting to pull your father
out of the rubble, still living and glowing
and enjoying football on Sunday.
Note: This poem is trying to reach your mother
in her business skirt, and get her home
to Ridgewood where she can change
to her robe and sip Chamomile tea
as she looks through the bay window at the old,
untouched New York City skyline.
Note: This poem is aiming its guns at the sky
to shoot down the terrorists and might
hit God if He let this happen.
Note: This poem is trying to turn
that blooming of orange and black
of the impact into nothing
more than a sudden tiger-lily
whose petals your mother and father
could use as parachutes, float down
to the streets below, a million
dandelion seeds drifting off
to the untrafficked sky above them.
Note: This poem is still doing nothing.
Note: Somewhere in this poem there may be people alive,
and I’m trying like mad to reach them.
Note: I need to get back to writing the poem to reach them
instead of dwelling on these matters, but how
can any of us get back to writing poems?
Note: The sound of this poem: the sound
of a scream in 200 different languages
that outshouts the sounds of sirens and
airliners and glass shattering and
concrete crumbling as steel is bending and
the orchestral tympani of our American hearts
when the second plane hit.
Note: The sound of a scream in 200 languages
is the same sound.
It is the sound of a scream.
Note: In New Jersey over the next four days,
over thirty people asked me
if I knew anyone in the catastrophe.
Yes, I said.
I knew every single one of them.
from Gravedigger’s Birthday(North Atlantic Books)
Happy birthday to one of our world’s greatest poets, William Butler Yeats, who was born on this day in 1865 and died in 1939. So many of his works have stuck in my mind and moved my spirit: “The Second Coming,” “Easter 1916,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” “Leda and the Swan,” and others.
But this poem, most of all, resides deep in my heart…it resonates and aches and echoes and whispers…
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
On the lighter side…
Here’s the great satirist Tom Lehrer (apparently still alive and kicking, at age 84) with his less-serious take on Yeats:
I’ve got a personal memory of the late, great Ray Bradbury that’s bittersweet — but sweeter and way less bitter than it was at that time. It’s about when the author of “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles,” “Dandelion Wine” and “The Illustrated Man” helped me earn an “A” in an independent study English course I took during my senior year at a college in western New York.
The course required a mini-thesis, no classes, and periodic meetings with the department chairman, a wonderful and wise old gentleman (as in probably in his early 60s – I mean, afterall, I was just 20 years old) named Leo Maloney.
I’d been reading a lot of Nathaniel Hawthorne — specifically, I was captivated by the short story “Young Goodman Brown” and the novels “The House of the Seven Gables” and “The Scarlet Letter.”
And I loved everything I’d read by Ray Bradbury — especially “The Martian Chronicles,” which I still think is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read — and had just read (and really liked) his novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
I got it in my head that there were parallels between those works by Hawthorne and Bradbury.
I’d also been reading a lot of literary history, criticism and theory and had been struck by what I’d read somewhere about something referred to as the “numinous,” which I understood and explained as a sense of mystery and foreboding and impending disaster, an unnamed fear, an uneasiness that can’t quite be explained, a dark presence that you can’t quite put your finger on but the sense of it keeps you awake at night.
I detected and felt that in the works of both men, especially in Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which combines gothic elements with sweet nostalgia for childhood innocence in a story revolving around the appearance in a small midwestern town of a mysterious traveling carnival headlined by the strange Mr. Dark, and Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the story of young man who sets off at sunset into the dark woods around Salem, Massachusetts, leaving behind his wife Faith as he embarks on a mysterious mission.
That became my thesis, which was titled something like “Things That Go Bump in the Night: Examples of the Numinous in Works by Ray Bradbury and Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Here’s the sweet part of the memory: Somehow I came upon a mailing address for Bradbury,, somewhere in California, I think in Los Angeles. With all the cockiness and gumption I could muster (which was a lot of cockiness and gumption), I wrote to Bradbury and explained my thesis.
And, about a week later, the great man wrote back!I’ve lost — or at least can’t find — the letter. But in it, I remember, he talked about how others had cited such influences as Herman Melville and Edgar Rice Burroughs on hiswork. But, he said, no one had really ever mentioned the influence of Hawthorne — and, Bradbury said, as a youngster he had loved and devoured the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne. So, yes, he said, I was right on target in detecting the dark and mysterious presence of Hawthorne in his work.
I incorporated most of Bradbury’s letter into my thesis paper. I got an “A” for the paper and the course. How could I not?
The bitter part? I was 20. I wrote poetry. I had made a connection with a great, famous writer. So I wrote back to him, sending him a copy of my thesis — and well as a sampling of two or three of my poems.
A few weeks later, another envelope arrived from Ray Bradbury. In it were copies of my two poems — marked up and edited heavily with red pen. To put it mildly, Bradbury ripped my poems to shreds. OK, fine. But what really got my goat was that he’d also enclosed one of his own poems — “When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” I think it was called, and cited it as an example of a well-crafted poem, a poem I could learn from and use as a model.
Sorry, I still think Bradbury was a great fiction writer in his early years but that he was never anything more than mediocre as a poet.
So…20-year-old me took up my own red pen, marked up my copy of “When Elephants Last…,” and mailed it back to Bradbury.
I never heard from Ray Bradbury again.
Now, of course, that exchange of poems doesn’t mean nearly as much as the great works of fiction the man left behind. I was bitter about his comments about my poems. Now I think it’s funny — even though I still don’t think he was right.
So rest in peace, Ray Bradbury, where gentle rains fall upon the red Martian hills, or perhaps someplace where three suns rise and three suns set, in all their glory, three times a day, over lush green hills, where you sit at your typewriter banging out beautiful fiction and not-to-great but heartfelt poems..
Find your way to Highland Park, New Jersey, on Thursday, July 14, and you’ll find me at the publication party celebrating the publication of friend and colleague Steve Hart’s first novel, “We All Fall Down.”
Steve’s new small-press imprint is based at his used-book and films emproium Nighthawk Books on Raritan Avenue in Highland Park, where the publication party will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. – with the added attraction (as if you needed more reason to attend than the opportunity to buy a signed copy of Steve’s novel) of music by the talented Matt DeBlass.
The new literary enterprise, called Black Angel Press (www.blackangelpress.com) is making its debut with three books: Steve’s novel “We All Fall Down” (which just got a thumb’s up in the book-review column of the New York Post); “Blips,” a collection of well-wrought poetry by John Marron; and “19th Nervous Breakdown: Making Human Connections in the Landscape of Commerce,” a provocative and entertaining book by Joseph Zitt, a work based on his experiences working for the Borders bookstore chain.
Take time to welcome this new literary enterprise — which, if all goes according to plan, will soon be publishing one (and maybe two )novellas by Nicholas DiGiovanni. It’s true! There’s even a very talented artist already working on ideas for the covers of planned editions of the novellas “Rip,” a modern-day tongue-in–cheek retelling of the Rip van Winkle story, and “The Dogs of Arroyo,” a spooky parable set in Puerto Rico complete with santeria gods who hold sway in the rain forest at night and are not happy that the island has become an economic colony of that big country to the north.
But that will be then and let’s get back to now: Thursday, July 14, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Nighthawk Books in Highland Park, N.J. a party celebrating the release of the first three books by Black Angel Press. I’ll be there and I hope you’ll all try to be there too.
Here’s something I wrote last week, inspired by a span in the Massachusetts Berkshires called the French King Bridge. Somehow a couple of glasses of cheap merlot told my mind and memory that it was called the King Philip Bridge…Anyway…the poem’s not good…it may be awful…but I want to post it anyway…it’s sort of a historical document. N.B. One reader of the poem speculated that the narrator (and hence, perhaps, the writer) was contemplating “taking the plunge” and my answer was no, not literally, for both the speaker of the poem and its writer have a terrible fear of heights…so, not literally, but maybe symbolically and maybe figuratively…do not be afraid…
it might be called
King Philip Bridge
although the name
except it’s got a name
and she told me
she had stopped there once
when police were searching
for two people
who had jumped
to their future off
this majestic bridge
and now she had stopped
on her way here
and had taken such photos
such beautiful photos
that she cited Ansel Adams
and I thought not nearly so
but told her yes
I could see it
could see what she meant
and it was no lie
and I’m thinking amid the beauty
and the karma and the zen
where did those poor souls go
there was irony that day and night
that day I’d asked her to let me know
if she had arrived safely
and she’d said no
but then she did
she let me know
that she was alright
and more irony that night
on the night when night
became the darkest night
that young girl came with me
to Zen and to Karma
and one human being
was kept alive thereby
for at least one more day
and perhaps one night
or was this in my mind
i think it was in my mind
perhaps it’s only
in my mind
the bridge was named I believe
after an Native American chief
that sort of king
a redskinned king
not a paleface king
a king with no castle
without a home
a real king
such beauty yes I saw it
in her photographs
as I drove two weekends past
to Boston on the pretence
of seeing old friends
but really to see her
and I thought of her as I drove
along the Mohawk trail
and over that bridge of beauty
that bridge of sorrow too
with its white granite towers
and i think that perhaps
her photos and the driving
and the talk of poor people
who took the plunge
to who knows where
the talk of how she stood
so high and on slippery walks
in order to snap and snare
such beauty that Ansel
would answer YES this is it
that somehow this YES
that this witnessed
form these words
So today I’ll seek
that haunted span
and overcome my fear of heights
and plumb the depths of sorrow
and look way down
and look far up
because love gasps
and love grasps
and love drowns
in that place where current
where current runs strong
and helicopters hover
and wait at the gate
for when the next knave
knocks upon love’s
New Jersey’s got a great poetry tradition, both in terms of individuals and institutions.
If you’re talking great poets, let’s talk New Jersey poets Walt Whitman and Williams Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, for starters, and let’s add such current luminaries as Robert Pinsky (born, raised and educated in N.J.), Paul Muldoon and C.K. Williams and Yusef Komunyakaa (all three teach at Princeton), National Book Award winner Gerald Stern of Lambertville, and other outstanding Jersey-based poets including B.J. Ward, Maria Gillan and the great Joe Weil (sprung fully formed from the loins of Elizabeth, N.J.)
If you’re talking about poetry, how about the spectacular Geraldine R. Dodge Festival – and a much smaller event called the Delaware Valley Festival, held yearly in two small towns, Frenchtown and Stockton, along the Delaware River.
I started the festival back in 1998 when then-U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky agreed to be the featured poet, joined by New Jersey poets (including Weil and my friend, the poet Charles H. Johnson) associated with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The festival’s debut was a huge success — and we were off and running, as subsequent festival featured the likes of Louise Gluck (who became our nation’s poet laureate herself a few years later), Pulitzer winner Muldoon, Stern, Diane Wakoski, Gillan, Thomas Lux, Stephen Dobyns, Pinsky again (for the 10th anniversary) and, last year, former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer winner the great Rita Dove.
As my life has taken a new direction I’ve decided to end my involvement with the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, handing over the reins to the capable hands of Frenchtown-based poet Skye van Saun, who will continue to work on with my talented friends and colleagues Keith Strunk and Laura Swanson of River Union Stage.
One of my last acts as coordinator of the event was to recruit this year’s featured poet, Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Schultz.
On the bill with Schultz are New Jersey poets Cat Doty and Linda Radice. Admission is free but donations are welcome. Seating is limited and first-come, first-served. For more information, call 908-996-3685 or visit riverunionstage.org.
Why am I writing about this now? Because the 13th annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival will take place Friday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m., at Prallsville Mills in Stockon, N.J. If you’re anywhere near New Jersey, it’s practically a can’t-miss event if you’re a lover of poetry and literature.
And, yes, I know I misspelled “festival” as “festive(al)” in the title of this post. That’s what’s known as poetic license!
This great song by Leonard Cohen — “Dance Me to the End of Love” — provides a perfect musical accompaniment to “The Nails,” the piece by the new U.S. poet laureate, W.S. Merwin, which I posted earlier today. Listen to Cohen while reading Merwin — and make sure one of your hands is holding a beer for you to cry in…
He’s dazed. He’s sad. He feels an empty ache. He’s suffered a terrible loss. He’s remembering like it was just yesterday – and it was just yesterday. He’s struggling to remember – and yet he can’t forget. He’s striving and struggling to find words to describe what’s he feels – the deep pain — what it is, or who it is, he mourns — but he’s making a damned good attempt.
Here’s an all-time favorite poem by the new U.S. poet laureate, W.S. Merwin:
I gave you sorrow to hang on your wall
Like a calendar in one color.
I wear a torn place on my sleeve.
It isn’t as simple as that.
Between no place of mine and no place of yours
You’d have thought I’d know the way by now
Just from thinking it over.
Oh I know
I’ve no excuse to be stuck here turning
Like a mirror on a string,
Except it’s hardly credible how
It all keeps changing.
Loss has a wider choice of directions
Than the other thing.
As if I had a system
I shuffle among the lies
Turning them over, if only
I could be sure what I’d lost.
I uncover my footprints, I
Poke them till the eyes open.
They don’t recall what it looked like.
When was I using it last?
Was it like a ring or a light
Or the autumn pond
Which chokes and glitters but
It could be all in the mind. Anyway
Nothing seems to bring it back to me.
And I’ve been to see
Your hands as trees borne away on a flood,
The same film over and over,
And an old one at that, shattering its account
To the last of the digits, and nothing
And the blank end.
The lightning has shown me the scars of the future.
I’ve had a long look at someone
Alone like a key in a lock
Without what it takes to turn.
It isn’t as simple as that.
Winter will think back to your lit harvest
For which there is no help, and the seed
Of eloquence will open its wings
When you are gone.
But at this moment
When the nails are kissing the fingers good-bye
And my only
Chance is bleeding from me,
When my one chance is bleeding,
For speaking either truth or comfort
I have no more tongue than a wound.
I’ve never met the poet Ruth Stone, but I know people who know her — as far as I know, at age 95, Ruth’s still writing her strong, beautiful, passionate poetry up there in Addison County, Vermont.
Mind you, I know that Ruth’s had a harder go of it than most, certainly including me. Her husband committed suicide in 1959 — she raised their children alone, and her beautiful love poems, as an anonymous writer on Wikipedia puts it so aptly, are all written to a dead man.
Lots of trouble sleeping lately…dozing off around midnight, but then waking up at 3 or 4 a.m., with such a whirring mind that I just cannot sleep…finally dozing off, thank you, as I look out the window of this room and see the sky is already brightening…as I hear birds already beginning their morning matins…So yesterday at 4 a.m., trying to distract my mind from memories and musings by reading myself back to sleep, I came upon this poem by Ruth Stone, the last poem in her collection “In the Next Gallery,” published by Copper Canyon Press in 2002:
The poem is called “Mantra.” Here’s the first stanza:
When I am sad
I sing, remembering
the redwing blackbird’s clack.
Then I want nothing
except to turn time back
to what I had
before love made me so sad.
Maybe that’s what I need to do to get some sleep…adopt this mantra…turn time back to what I had…when the sky began to brighten and the birds began to sing but I was asleep and I was at peace.
I’ve written before about Maria Mazziotti Gillan, who’s one of my favorite poets — and favorite people. Maria, who has read several times at the annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, writes provocative, emotional, touching poems which address simple, basic issues — love, friendship, aging, illness, ethnicity — in spare, simple, powerful language that elevates, invigorates and inspires listeners and readers.
Maria runs the master’s program in creative writing at SUNY-Binghamton. She’s founding editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She’s mentored and encouraged dozens and dozens of New Jersey poets. I could go on and on, and just might, except it might be best to let you hear it for yourself.
Here’s a link to a recent video of a recent reading by Maria:
Here’s a YouTube video of Maria reading three of her poems:
And here’s a list of dates, times and locations for a series of readings Maria is giving during October in Connecticut.
10/19/09: Southern Connecticut State University, 501 Crescent Street, New Haven, Ct., 7 pm.
10/20: Middlesex Community College, 100 Training Hill Rd. Middletown, Ct. 12:30 pm.
10/21: Central Connecticut State University, 1615 Stanley St. New Britain, Ct. 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
10/21: Manchester Community College, 161 Hillstown Rd. Manchester, Ct. 8 pm.
10/22: University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford, Ct. 12:15 pm.
10/28: St, Joseph’s College, 1678 Asylum Ave, West Hartford, Ct. 7:30 pm.
10/29 Wesleyan University, 229 High St, Middletown, Ct. 8 pm.
If you live anywhere near the Nutmeg State, try, try, try really hard to attend on her appearances. You will leave feeling better about life than you felt before you heard Maria’s beautiful, powerful and stirring poems.