Learning to say ‘Amen!’

 

I’ve spent a total of five weeks in the San Francisco area during the last year, and I’ve managed to visit the city itself only four or five times. Briefly put, I’ve only glimpsed the city; I haven’t really seen it.

I’ve seen — or sensed — some of the problems people have with what venerable journalist Herb Caen called Baghdad-by-the-Bay. Most of all, it’s too expensive to live there — real-estate values are beyond the reach of even the relatively affluent, thanks in large part to the dot-com companies like Google and Apple. What’s more, the San Francisco celebrated in Scott MacKenzie’s song is long-gone — if it ever really existed….George Harrison of The Beatles took one look at the Haight  and got the hell out of there, and after one glorious summer the place became a hellhole filled with homeless, strung-out teens with wilted flowers in their hair.

But, still, there’s something about San Francisco and California. I’ve joined the other tourists and taken a ride on the city’s famed cable cars, all the while humming the Rice-A-Roni theme song. I’ve walked along the waterfront, looking out at Alcatraz or up at the suspension bridge to Oakland. I’ve stood  on the steps where Mario Savio jump-started the Free Speech movement in Berkeley — although I’ve seen Berkeley’s bums, young and old, who are but a sad echo of the old counter-culture. I’ve crossed the Golden Gate and visited John Muir’s redwoods. I’ve sipped coffee at a café in North Beach. I’ve huddled with the ghosts of the Beats in the poetry section upstairs at City Lights. I’ve looked out at the Pacific — and, while I can’t explain the difference, I have no doubt that there’s something very non-Atlantic about the Pacific.

I’ve driven along the coastal highway to Big Sur. I’ve never seen any place so beautiful in my entire life, and I found myself wishing I could travel back forty years and have a fling with beautiful Joni Mitchell, or travel back fifty years and get drunk with Jack Kerouac, or travel back sixty years and talk about Rimbaud and Celine and Anais Nin with Henry Miller, or travel back more than eighty years and spend idle hours sloshing through the tidal flats at Monterey with John Steinbeck — and witnessing the awful oppression of the farm workers at Salinas.

I think what it amounts to is that I’ve seen enough of San Francisco and the California coast to know that at the very least I’d like to see more. And I certainly will. I didn’t leave my heart in San Francisco — but I did leave a little piece of it. After all, how could I ever forget — and how could I ever be unchanged after reading it — the quote at the entrance to the Henry Miller Memorial Library in the town of Big Sur: “It was here in Big Sur I first learned to say Amen!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Verse-case scenarios

Friend and fellow traveler (and fellow Writers House literary agency client) Steve Hart posts this tout of the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival (the link to his Web site’s over there in the right-hand column, listed under FRIENDS): Mark your calendars for the eleventh annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, which this year is spread over two days late in October. The setting is lovely and the poets — all chosen by a couple of the marquee names from previous festivals — are bound to be worth hearing.

Last year’s featured poet, for the 10th annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, was the great Robert Pinsky, the two-term U.S. poet laureate, who was the featured poet at the very first event in 1998. Steve Hart wrote this excellent essay in the aftermath of Pinsky’s reading last year:

How I impersonated Robert Pinsky

October 6, 2007

You couldn’t ask for a better or more generous ambassador of poetry than Robert Pinsky. I got to stand up close and watch him in action yesterday, during a reading and signing session at a bookstore cum museum called The Book Garden just up the street from the Delaware River, and I can tell you he’s the one to study if you want to see how a master does the job.

Speaking to a group of about eight people before going on to the evening’s 10th anniversary edition of the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, Pinsky was low-key, often very funny and disarmingly gentle in the way he handled questions.

Robert Pinsky
Robert Pinsky

One woman brought up Robert Frost telling someone to “just read what’s there” instead of searching for hidden meanings in his poems, and Pinsky gave back a bit of gossip (the theatrical nature of Frost’s rustic sage routine, and how it played into the suspicion of intellect that Pinsky considers one of America’s most unattractive traits) before going into an explanation that showed Frost was at least partly right — there are always depths to plumb in a work of art, but the academic tendency to strip-mine for them shouldn’t block one’s appreciation for the lovely surface.

He also told a funny story about a writers gathering at which a woman mistook him for Russell Banks and asked him to inscribe her copy of Continental Drift. Pinsky, ever the sport, wrote “I’ll never forget the wild times we had on the beach at Maui” and signed it “Russell.” Later on, the woman evidently encountered Banks and realized her mistake. Banks, also a sport, added his own inscription about Maui, and signed it “Robert.”

The evening began with a very cleverly staged performance of Pinsky’s “To Television” (from the collection Jersey Rain) conceived by David Kucher of the River Union Stage and his remarkably poised and talented son. Pinsky read old poems and new ones from his upcoming collection Gulf Music. He also talked up the Favorite Poem Project and its three associated books, the latest of which includes a DVD of favorite poems being read. The festival is the dreamchild of writer and editor Nicholas DiGiovanni, and even though I was present when he organized the inaugural festival (also with Pinsky as the headliner), this was the first time I’d been able to attend one. My loss — I’ll bend heaven and earth to get to them all from now on.

My brush with a felony rap came at the Book Garden, where one of the customers saw me standing by the cashier in my shades and black shirt and assumed I was Robert Pinsky. She even went to so far as to say that I looked nothing like my jacket photo.

“That’s the plastic surgery,” I told her.

“I think you’re joking, but I’m not sure,” she said.

“Well, after that Mafia threat, I had to do something,” I said.

She then held up a copy of Gulf Music. “My goodness, this is expensive,” she said. “Why are the prices on poetry books so different?”

“We’re paid by the line,” I said. “Prose books, the pricing is by the word.”

“Now I know you’re kidding,” she said, and I fessed up.

After dinner, I trailed some friend as they drove out to the Unitarian Universalist church in Kingwood Township, where the festival was being held. Earlier that day, I had developed a fixation on Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, and I was playing it over and over during the drive through the dark-blue twilight hills of Hunterdon County. Suddenly the Jeep braked, and as I followed suit, I saw the silver shapes of deer flashing through the Jeep’s headlights and vanishing into the dark farm field to our right.

Talk about the perfect visual accompaniment to that song. There was so much poetry in the air that day, I guess even nature wanted to get in on it.

And for making it possible to experience all of it, all I can say to Robert Pinsky, Nick DiGiovanni and everyone else connected with the festival is — thank you.

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Also checking in with his impressions of last year’s Delaware Valley Poetry Festival was my colleague Gene Racz:

Feeling run down and worn thin, I was hoping to refresh myself last Friday with a little art … presented first-hand by a true artist.

My wife understood, but my 9-year-old twin boys were confused as to why I was so uptight about getting down to the Old Stone Church in Baptistown to hear former poet laureate Robert Pinsky speak.

Reading their body language, I could almost hear the thoughts of my boys in the backseat. Reading their
minds, my father’s intuition came up with the following: Why is daddy running so hard at the start of the
weekend? What the heck is a poet Laurie-at anyway? Why did daddy yank us cold out of a heated backyard
soccer game? Why can’t we stop for a soda? Why is daddy now lost somewhere near Frenchtown? For the sake of art beloved children, for the sake of art.

Turns out, Pinsky was fabulous. The 60-something Long Branch native and Rutgers grad read some of his poems, took questions and spoke candidly about his poetry. He served up a flood of insights into his lifelong love affair with words and spoke of his appreciation for silence and demonstrated how breaks and pauses help create the music of good verse. Confident yet vulnerable, masterful without airs, Pinsky exuded a warmth and deep sincerity that made the poetry reading feel more like an uplifting sermon. I half expected him, in minister-like fashion, to stand outside the church door and shake the hand of each member of the audience as we filed out.  He didn’t. The poetry was the benediction.

Henry Miller once wrote that, “”Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life.” At 43, I still don’t really have a clue as to what that significance is. All I know is that I’m still struggling to slow down a little and appreciate the beauty that’s right in front of me. The commonplace surrounding us can grow stale and cold.
Pinsky said he likes to look up words in the dictionary that he already knows … or thinks he already knows. He revels in discovering meanings he was unaware of – meanings that have been hiding, all the while, in plain sight.  As Miller wrote: “”The artist does not tinker with the universe; he recreates it out of his own experience and understanding of life.”

Poetry is one way to deepen our awareness and understanding of life. Pinsky spoke of poetry as being a
most personal art form. That’s because the medium of poetry is not a TV screen, a CD or a canvas. The
true medium of poetry is ultimately us, the readers, who filter the poet’s words through our own minds and
hearts.  Pinsky’s words have power, and his poems invite us to get more intimate with the world which is
always right at hand.

Poet and essayist Katha Pollitt put it well when she wrote that Pinsky’s poems give a sense of “”getting at the depths of human experience, in which everything is repeated but also always new.”

Pinsky argues that poetry has a strong presence in American culture. The finest moment of the evening came when one of my boys looked up at me as were filing out of the church and said, “”Hey dad, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.”

You don’t get to be poet laureate for nothing.