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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

Four Poems by Julia Nunnally Duncan

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Poetry, Writing on July 26, 2017 at 6:45 am

Julia Nunnally Duncan is an award-winning poet, novelist, short story writer and essay writer who has authored nine books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her works often reflect upon people and events from the past, and she draws inspiration from her Western North Carolina upbringing. She holds an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College and lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter.

The following poems come from Julia Nunnally Duncan’s latest book, A Part of Me, published by Red Dirt Press.

Note:  Julia Nunnally Duncan will read poetry from her latest book, A Part of Me, at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe in the Poetrio event, 3:00 p.m. on August 6, 2017, Sunday. Address: 55 Hayward Street, Asheville, NC. For more information contact Malaprop’s at: 828-254-6734.

Click here to purchase on Amazon

His Song

He sat at the back of the classroom
during the weeks of our course
and remained quiet,
a student older than the rest.
He put forth his best effort
at grammar exercises and essay writing—
the Composition and Rhetoric assignments
that must have seemed unfair
to a man whose life work would be
to install and repair electrical systems.
Yet he was eager to learn,
occasionally staying after class
to ask if he was on the right track.
And when for his process speech
he came in with a guitar
and pulled up a stool,
I feared it would be hard
for him to speak in front of the group.
But after a few words about how to string
and tune a guitar,
he began to sing a country ballad
with lyrics so romantic and a voice so tender
that I blushed.
When he finished his song,
the class was hushed for a moment
and then burst into applause.
All I could whisper was beautiful
and ask, “Where did you learn to sing that way?”
He didn’t say anything,
and his eyes didn’t meet mine.
His face down, he went quickly to his seat
to reclaim his humble place
at the back of the room.
That was years ago,
and though now I don’t recall his name,
that day and his song
will stay in my memory.

 

December Evening

I was young and a little afraid
of the residents at the nursing home
who sat in the dining hall,
awaiting the Christmas treats my church had brought.
A white-haired lady growled, “I don’t want no cake!”
but devoured a hefty piece and would have eaten more
if not for the staff who feared it would make her sick.
They all ate quickly,
then gathered in the common room
where an upright piano stood beside the decorated tree.
I played Christmas carols and familiar melodies—
“Away in a Manger” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
A man stooped over me and crooned perfect lyrics
while others in their pajamas made up words as they went.
And so we spent time sharing food, and gifts, and song,
my fear of them gone,
that December evening forty years ago.

 

Paul’s Prayers

Often the preacher asked my uncle Paul
to lead us in prayer,
and our Baptist congregation grew still.
But when Paul’s baritone voice filled the sanctuary,
those compelled by the Spirit exclaimed Amen.
Paul proclaimed our gratitude for God’s blessings
and begged protection for our boys in foreign fields,
the Vietnam War having spilled the blood
of some from our community.
Two decades before,
Paul had been a young man
serving in North Africa in another war
that mangled his shoulder with shrapnel.
For weeks he lay in a VA hospital
and then fell back into his dissolute life.
But one day he found salvation
and thus began to pray for himself
and for all the rest of us.
Paul knew how to do it well.

 

President Ulysses S. Grant Three Days Before
Death From Throat Cancer July 20, 1885

Maybe because he was a skilled horseman
or that he loved his wife Julia so dearly
or that his last name was the same
as that of my great-great grandfather Samuel Bruce Grant
who also fought in the Civil War,
though on the opposing side—
maybe these are reasons why
I have looked at Ulysses S. Grant
not as an enemy of my Southern ancestors,
but as possible distant kin.
In the photograph
he sits in a rocking chair
on the front porch of his country home,
and he is surrounded by family.
His shoulders are draped in a shawl,
his face looks pale and gaunt,
and his beard has grown gray;
but his shiny top hat
seems a fashionable affront to the disease
that will soon take him away.
While the young girls in the picture look bored,
the women smile lightly,
as if to add an impression of gaiety to the scene.
But it is in Grant’s face—
his weary expression—
that I glean the truth.

Just for the Summer

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on September 14, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following poem first appeared in Images in Ink and, later as a reprint, in Red Truck Review.

“Just for the Summer”

They traveled from the cold forests and towns
of New England and Canada,
spent the night in hotels in Atlanta,
and did not consider
the family they did not have.
They rented Fords and Nissans
and loaded their luggage in the trunk.
They bought maps at gas stations
and ate breakfast in the car.
They sipped their coffee,
blared Bossa nova,
discussed congressmen,
and made faces at locals in rest stops.
They snapped photographs at the Florida border
and rolled their windows down in Crestview.
They pointed at the peaches, oranges, and cotton.
They opined about old black men, overhauls, and fieldwork,
pointed at tractors and trailers,
and prattled about pesticides.
They were many, but they were two in particular.

The two who arrived
and kicked off their shoes,
and filled their blenders with ice,
their cups with gin and rum,
and said, “to hell with sunscreen.”
They walked hand-in-hand down the shoreline,
these two, marveling

at the baby-powder sand,
he chasing crabs,
she waving off seagulls.
They watched the sun sink
until they mistook where they were,
and, thinking back,
embraced,
his arms around her once-little waste,
hers around his once-broad shoulders;
they became
one
in self-supplication, joined
in prayer to themselves.

It was not until the seventh hour
of the third day
of the second month
that the sadness broke in,
through the back window,
in the darkness,
and made off with joy.

He was told in his dream how he should awake,
she in hers how she should die.
On the day when the skies turned black,
and the waves pummeled the shoreline,
and the creatures stirred and scattered,
there they were, facing the darkness,
two people, vulnerable beneath the heavens,
remembering their future, forgetting their past,
knowing that they didn’t know
what cannot be named.
They stood nowhere
and for something not themselves.

When the winds swallowed them,
they could taste their souls in their mouths.

Five Poems by Simon Perchik

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on January 20, 2016 at 8:45 am

Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik is an American poet with published work dating from the 1960s. Perchik worked as an attorney before his retirement in 1980. Educated at New York University, Perchik now resides in East Hampton, New York. Library Journal has referred to Perchik as “the most widely published unknown poet in America.” Best known for his highly personal, non-narrative style of poetry, Perchik’s work has appeared in numerous books, websites, and print magazines, including The New Yorker, Partisan Review, Poetry, The Nation, North American Review, Weave Magazine, Beloit, and CLUTCH.

*
You fold your arms the way this pasture
gnaws on the wooden fence
left standing in water – make a raft

though it’s these rotting staves
side by side that set the Earth on fire
with smoke rising from the ponds

as emptiness and ice – you dead
are winter now, need more wood
to breathe and from a single finger

point, warmed with ashes and lips
no longer brittle – under you
a gate is opened for the cold

and though there’s no sea you drink
from your hands where all tears blacken
– you can see yourself in the flames.

*
You drink from this hole
as if it once was water
became a sky then wider

– without a scratch make room
for driftwood breaking loose
from an old love song in ashes

carried everywhere on foot
as that ocean in your chest
overflowing close to the mouth

that’s tired from saying goodbye
– you dig the way the Earth
is lifted for hillsides and lips

grasping at the heart buried here
still flickering in throats and beacons
that no longer recede – from so far

every word you say owes something
to a song that has nothing left, drips
from your mouth as salt and more salt.

*
Before this field blossomed
it was already scented
from fingers side by side

darkening the lines in your palm
the way glowing coals
once filled it with breasts

and everything nearby
was turned loose to warm the miles
the pebbles and stones brought back

pressed against her grave
– you heat the Earth with a blouse
that’s never leaving here.

*
These crumbs are from so many places
yet after every meal they ripen
sweeten in time for your fingertip

that shudders the way your mouth
was bloodied by kisses wrestling you down
with saliva and rumbling boulders – you sit

at a table and all over again see it
backing away as oceans, mountains
and on this darkness you wet your finger

to silence it though nothing comes to an end
– piece by piece, tiny and naked, they tremble
under your tongue and still sudden lightning.

*
It had an echo – this rock
lost its hold, waits on the ground
as the need for pieces

knows all about what’s left
when the Earth is hollowed out
for the sound a gravestone makes

struck by the days, months
returning as winter: the same chorus
these dead are gathered to hear

be roused from that ancient lament
it sings as far as it can
word for word to find them.

“Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities,” by Simon Perchik

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Essays, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Writing on December 30, 2015 at 8:45 am

Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik is an American poet with published work dating from the 1960s. Perchik worked as an attorney before his retirement in 1980. Educated at New York University, Perchik now resides in East Hampton, New York. Library Journal has referred to Perchik as “the most widely published unknown poet in America.” Best known for his highly personal, non-narrative style of poetry, Perchik’s work has appeared in numerous books, websites, and print magazines, including The New Yorker, Partisan Review, Poetry, The Nation, North American Review, Weave Magazine, Beloit, and CLUTCH.

Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple. There are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many.

It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers move back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.

Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader. To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction. Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.

This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. Thus, one of the many definitions of poetry might be: Poetry: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated. To be made whole, to heal, the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn’t know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That’s where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan…confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning. It’s just that it takes prose to tell you this.

This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it’s the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.

To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated, disparate idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable one. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile disparate views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. (See Lawyer Poets And That World We Call Law, edited by James R. Elkins, Editor [Pleasure Boat Studio Press]; see also Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins [The Legal Studies Forum].)

The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, M.D., who, in Brain Storms: A Study of Human Spontaneity, writes:

If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people’s ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.

Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, writes:

One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.

Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in The Lives of a Cell, describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known facts, he writes:

In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty. If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, 1 per cent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win…

Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn’t it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?

In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9 a.m. I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.

For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:

Walker Evans     Farmer’s wife

Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth? Sorrow?

Not too bad looking. Plain dress

This description went on and on until I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled “On Various Words” from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:

Words — bricks and mortar

Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,

building the ant hill,

not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished

it’s too big. Like can’t tell what Earth looks like if you’re on it.

This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I’m reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I’m trying to reconcile what a migrant’s wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the aforementioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.

Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.

No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.

Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract. Abstraction and music are soulmates and poetry is nothing if not music. For each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He’s the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.

Perhaps marrow is what it’s all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain until it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader’s brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a “gut feeling,” with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.

Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry’s trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.

Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it’s just for those who need it, when they need it.

Five Poems by William Bernhardt

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Poetry on May 27, 2015 at 8:45 am

William Bernhardt

William Bernhardt is the bestselling author of more than forty books, including the blockbuster Ben Kincaid series of novels, the historical novel Nemesis: The Final Case of Eliot Ness, currently being adapted into an NBC miniseries, a book of poetry (The White Bird), and a series of books on fiction writing. In addition, Bernhardt founded the Red Sneaker Writing Center, hosting writing workshops and small-group seminars and becoming one of the most in-demand writing instructors in the nation. His monthly eBlast, The Red Sneaker Writers Newsletter, reaches over twenty thousand people.

Scratches

This is how it begins:
scratches on signs, on blocks
on a white page. Then the
scratches start to dance. They
recombinate, they collect sounds
they call your name.
Like so much in childhood
they are ciphers, full of secrets
but once you learn the dance
the mysteries of this world
and more, are revealed.
You learn to read.

You learn:
manners from Goldilocks
curiosity from George
gluttony from Peter
nonsense from Alice.
You set sail with Jim Hawkins, raft with Huck
And row with Mole.
Love is eternal, Catherine tells you
But so is madness, says the first Mrs. Rochester.
Jeeves helps you laugh
poetry helps you cry
Atticus shows you how to do both, with courage.

Not only have the scratches shaped the world
they have shaped your world.
They have taught you how to see.
Now you need never be afraid.

Now you will never be alone.
In the darkest night
in the deepest solitude
The scratches will call to you.
You will open the covers.
They will reach out their arms and say,
You thought you were the only one?

 

AIB 13

I was prepared for the Awkward Age
the physical changes, personality,
frustration, exasperation, even rage—
but not for this.

I was prepared to smile knowingly, thinking
This too shall pass.
And we will always love each other, I tell myself
as much as it is possible to love anyone
right?

You are in your room, alone, with a book.
Who showed you how to read?
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
My questions are greeted with
monosyllabic replies, grunts,
eye rolls, withering glares, sarcasm—
the lowest form of human discourse—
and finally the screaming:
Why can’t you just leave me alone?

Here’s why:
I still remember reading you Charlotte’s Web
taking you for long walks in the rain
through the San Juan Mountains
hand-in-hand
watching you sneak downstairs after bedtime
so we could watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer
coming to the choir loft
midway through the service
so you could sit on my lap.

The Awkward Age is supposed to be
awkward for you, not me. I should
be the parent
but instead I’m a marionette
with tangled strings, a poor sap trapped
in Shelob’s web
and you are the elusive hummingbird
who hovers in midair for a short time
and then skitters away
faster than my eye can follow.

 

Baden-Baden

As it turns out, the Black Forest
looks nothing like Black Forest cake.
And the gambling resort town of Baden-Baden
looks nothing like Las Vegas, thank God.
Men do not wear shorts in the casino,
hairy legs shouting, “Show me the eight!”
The only sex shop—Erotik World—is discretely tucked away on a
Side street,
not advertised on a video monitor larger than the state of Rhode
Island.
And there is not a Starbucks on every corner.
Yet.

The others in my group say this is just like an American resort town,
a tourist trap, which snares the unsuspecting
with offers of soft ice cream and bottled water
that will restore your youth.
But they are wrong.
Where is the venture capitalist
as proud of his swelling belly
as he is of his adolescent wife
with her high-pitched giggle, blonde ringlets, and denim-short-
shorts?
Where are the other captains of industry,
the ladies of the evening?
Where is the young father with the baby carrier on his back?
or the mother herding her enormous go-forth-and-multiply brood
the sullen teenager clutching a skateboard
the elderly couple holding hands as they return to the KOA
Kampground
the high roller who is secretly
a middle-management operations officer at a cardboard box factory
the alcoholic artist
the Elvis impersonator?

It feels good to get away from what is familiar
to force yourself into a new environment
to think new thoughts in new places,
I muse, as I sit at a table in the ice cream café
recalling the life I left behind
and the faces
and wondering if there is really any difference
as I wait for the rest of the group to arrive
at the Baden-Baden McDonald’s.

 

Paulette

We hover throughout dinner
a witty bon mot, a quotation
from the sonnets, a well-told
anecdote
pelicans skimming the surface
of the water
but never touching it.

 

Dinah and Me

My cat hates my girlfriend
and the one before her, and the one
before her. She crouches on the carpet
stalking with evil emerald eyes
the usurper who has claimed what is hers,
the attention, the affection,
the lap she warms while I work,
her side of the sofa.

Perhaps this is why they never last.
Who could feel at ease
with the furry wrath
bearing down upon them, the sculpted brow
and sanded tongue, watching, marshaling
her eldritch incantations
to wrest the interloping gluts from
her side of the sofa.

One never hears of Casanova’s cat.
Romeo brought no feline fury to that fateful balcony.

Perhaps it’s not the cat.
Could be the charred chicken piccata I cook
determined that this time I will get it right
or the gold-plated Scrabble set,
the giant portrait of the kids on the hearth,
the Judy Garland records—
or something else entirely.
I prefer to think it’s the cat.

And late at night
when the children are tucked in and sleeping safely
and the house is lonesome with silence
and I have barricaded myself with
a hot cup of green tea, a puzzle,
a book on the bedside,
and the long tendrils of the sycamore tree
scratch at my window pane
I am grateful for the rumbling goddess
keeping watch on my shoulder.

Three Poems by Kevin Heaton

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on January 21, 2015 at 8:45 am

Kevin Heaton

Kevin Heaton lives and writes in South Carolina. His work has appeared in a number of publications including Guernica, The Freeman, Raleigh Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Adroit Journal, and The Monarch Review. He is a Best of the Net, Best New Poets, and three-time Pushcart Prize nominee.  Visit his website.

Political Correctness

I found myself left behind in a redwood
cathedral, super glued at the hip to a silenced

pleader clenching an empty gel pen between
two toes; signing to a songless nuthatch

like a near-quit fetus, hoping for hearsay
about supposed things. Alongside a burl altar:

Sadducees, Pharisees, and tax collecting
Publicans were soothsinging psalms,

and casting the bejesus out of daylily shadows.
Seems the pendulum always swings too far

the other way from splintered klaverns.
All I’d really hoped for was to remain—
sincerely me.

Combovers

Am I being candled for a more elevated
pigeon hole? One where all the double yolks
have been sifted?

That bushel of premium persimmons
I canned last October puckered, turned
festy, and burped their lids.

Or, perhaps I belong down here in this din,
among the wig hats drying out around
this old country store potbellied stove.

With the vichyssoise leeks and alimony
dads moving towards less eccentric
complexities; no longer in denial

about penetrating sources of light. Among
counselors readying their toupees
with that spotless, store bought pomade.

The Senate Has No Clothes

From across the Rappahannock, on the fulcrum
of lint-filled fault lines, the last massas rime into
the chalcedony recesses of their waxing dementia.
Perhaps you’ve seen them there: naked, unpolled,

grazing in full ungabled sun, mazing postbellum cane
fields for locoweed and orphaned sugar tit, crazing
hardscrabble, clogging to the cracked-cowbell jingle
of a sharecropper’s pocket change. Or at night,

nosing through deer droppings for musk covered
persimmon pits, rooting through lichen-labeled rows
of weeviled cotton stubble for plowed under overseer
dollars—swapping them to carpetbaggers for peonage

and jiggers of snake oil in those folded Nebuchadnezzar
poker faces like fourth kings in the second dynasty
of Isin—their puckered pie-gaffers papping out old banjo
tunes in the garbled pig latin of piney truffle tubers.

 

Red Birds at Law Building, A Poem by Jason Morgan

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on October 15, 2014 at 8:45 am

Jason Morgan is a New Orleans native and grew up mostly in Louisiana and Tennessee. He attended the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (BA, History and International Studies) and the University of Hawai’i-Manoa (MA, Asian Studies: China focus), and is now ABD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Japanese history). He has attended or conducted research at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, Nagoya University, Yunnan University in Kunming, PRC, and the University of Texas-San Antonio. He’s currently on a Fulbright grant researching Japanese legal history at Waseda University in Tokyo. His topics include case law during the Taishou Period, and the broad contexualization of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial.  His scholarly work has appeared, or is scheduled to appear, in Modern Age (on American labor history), Japan Review (two reviews of Japanese history monographs), Education About Asia (two reviews of Japanese history textbooks), Human Life Review (on Griswold v. Connecticut; review of book on Catholics and abortion), Metamorphoses (translation of Tanizaki Jun’ichirou’s Randa no Setsu), Southeast Review of Asian Studies (on Japanese translation work), and in book form (two translations of Mizoguchi Yuuzou on Chinese intellectual history; translation of Ono Keishi on Japanese military financing in WWI and during the Siberian Intervention). He has also written for the College Fix and College Insurrection.

Red Birds at Law Building

It is astonishing that we
live in the same world, yet in two
I see the same things that they see,
do (almost) everything they do

but they sit on a sill and sing
outside today’s exam in law:
these are two very different things,
two very different kinds of awe

Pantry, 1982

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on July 30, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

 

This poem first appeared in The Echo.

 

A box of cereal, stale, ants running

Up the side, two brown bananas that

 

He says cleanse the pores

(If rubbed thoroughly),

 

An unwrapped chocolate bar

And a plethora of cans, unopened:

 

In a locked pantry, Little Maddy sits

Plucking the stems

 

Off Granny-Smiths. Just ten more

Minutes. Maddy, weary, wondering

 

Just when daddy would come home.

Time: the pantry is unlocked

 

And out comes light

And apples and, lastly, Maddy.

 

Daddy reaches

For the two rotting bananas,

 

Notes can upon unopened can,

Unwraps the chocolate bar,

 

Smears chocolate on his fingers,

Stops, thinks how unlikely it is

 

For apples to lose their stems.



Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and the Literary Quality of his Prose

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Poetry, Rhetoric, Writing on June 11, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s writings are known for their literary qualities.  The Class Poet at Harvard, the son of a famous poet, and a lifelong devotee of Emerson, Holmes often rendered his judicial writings in poetic prose.  Consider the following lines from Gitlow v. New York, which I have reformulated as a poem:

 

                 Gitlow v. New York[i]

                 A Poem[ii] (1925)

Every idea

is an incitement.

It offers itself for belief

and if believed

it is acted on

unless some other belief

outweighs it

or some failure of energy

stifles the movement

at its birth.

The only difference

between the expression

of an opinion and an incitement

in the narrower sense

is the speaker’s enthusiasm

for the result.

Eloquence may set fire

to reason.

But whatever may be thought

of the redundant discourse

before us

it had no chance of starting

a present conflagration.

 

The plain, raw idioms and variable feet in these lines resemble those characteristically employed by Stevens and William Carlos Williams. Holmes’s language here is similar in tone and rhythm to Williams’s in “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which was published just two years before this dissent. Holmes’s alliterative use of the letter “n” emphasizes mobility, momentum, and ignition: “incitement,” “energy,” “movement,” “incitement,” “enthusiasm,” “conflagration.” These nouns suggest provocation, stimulus, instigation; they are tied to ideas themselves, as in the line “every idea is an incitement,” hence the correspondingly alliterative “n” sounds in the words “expression” and “reason.” The metrical regularity of “Every,” “offers it…,” “for belief,” “failure of,” “energy,” “stifles the,” “at its birth,” “difference,” “narrower,” “Eloquence,” and “had no chance” accents the activity associated with thinking insofar as these dactylic words and phrases pertain to ideas or beliefs. Holmes follows a series of dactyls with spondaic feet just as he describes the possibility of combustion: “Eloquence [stress / slack / slack] may set fire [stress / stress / stress / slack] to reason [stress / stress / slack].” It is as though he wishes to create the sense of building pressure and then of sudden release or combustion. Two unstressed lines abruptly interrupt the heightened tension; the first appears with the transitional conjunction “But,” which signals a change in the tone. Holmes appears to reverse the intensity and calm his diction as he assures us that the “redundant discourse,” a phrase made cacophonous by the alliterative “d” and “s” sounds, has “no chance of starting a present conflagration.” A sudden move to iambic feet and hence to a lightened tone rounds out these lines and suggests that Holmes has smothered or extinguished whatever energy had been building with the three-syllable feet. These lines have become some of the most famous in American constitutional history most likely because of their memorable qualities, which contributed to the eventual vindication of the dissent.

Be that as it may, feet and meter are basic to English speech and writing and may be displayed in many other legal writings by less able judges and justices. It would be difficult to prove that Holmes deliberately set out to invest these lines with literary features, at least those pertaining to alliteration and feet. Holmes no doubt had an ear for language and probably intended to employ alliteration, rhythm, and rhyme in his writings, but how far does his intent extend?  Does the scanning exercise above give Holmes too much credit and attribute to his writings undeserved praise?  There is no empirical way to answer this question, but the speculation is, I think, worth the time.

 

[i] Gitlow v. N.Y., 268 U.S. 652 (1925).

 

[ii] My addition.

 

Lines to Holmes

In America, Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Poetry, Writing on May 14, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

Lines to Holmes

A canon of rules and principles,

embodied in individual cases,

aggregated by judges

from different courts

and with different ranks,

makes up the common law system.

Perhaps the better way to put it

is that the common law is a canon

unto itself.

Rules and principles

that regulate people

are always engaged in a struggle for existence,

always subject to challenge and subversion

by the trends and movements of culture.

Tested by their ability

to obtain to society

and to yield constructive results,

they compete with one another

and become canonized

only if they prove

fit to survive the test of time,

the onslaught of new technologies,

which necessitate new approaches

to lawyering.

This is the law of the law

today as always.

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