I have probably said this in other places in these little “lectures,” but I believe that poetry should be part of my daily life. I do not want to live a life where I live in the prose world for forty hours a week or more and then live in the poetry world for five hours. In this way, I am a religious devotee of poetry. Just like the Devout Christian wants to live like a Christian 24/7, or the Muslim wants to live a life for Allah 24/7, I want to live in the world of metaphor and rhythm and meaning every second of my life. Of course, that is not possible. For one reason, I would starve. The world does not pay you to live in poetry (unless you are one of the very, very rare folks who teaches at a major university and has graders and assistants to do your daily chores while you write poetry). For another, I have to be responsible to my family. Wives and children can be understanding if you have your head in the cloud sometimes, but sooner or later they want you to be present with them, to remember to pick up the dry cleaning and listen to their joys and woes at school or work.
So my compromise has been to try to find the poetry in my daily existence and to be open to being knocked over when I perceive the moment of poetic meaning in washing dishes, or grading papers, or driving my truck, or writing lectures for on-line poetry class.
So this poem began to grow when I sat in my study one night. I had recently written a couple of poems about the death of my step mother and her funeral. And I said to myself, I want to write a generally happy, upbeat poem—what can it be about? One poem that was in my mind was my “The Other Writers Block.” I liked the “voice” in that poem, and I liked the size of that poem.
So I thought about the things I had been doing—going to the doctor’s office, reading this book of selected poems by Jaroslav Seifert, whom I had never heard of before, but which I bought at Book People, because that is what poets do: they buy books of poetry and read them. (If you want to keep your pump primed for writing, keep reading: keep words, good words, flowing through your head. If you keep the words of pop songs and television in your head, that is what will be in your head.)
So the facts of this poem are true. The nurse did say this to me; she did kind of give me the eye. I have exaggerated her weight, somewhat.
Where did the idea of nostalgia come from? One is that I did know that “nostalgia” and “home sick” were related, but in the process of writing the poem over several days, I did look up the word again to double check. And I am a hater of nostalgia—I hate the fact that Ronald Reagan and George W Bush allude to a time and place in American that never existed—Reagan’s beautiful fifties, remember, was the age of government and corporate persecution of liberals. It was a time of great overt racism. It was a time a great overt sexism. It was a time of great overt US intervention in the politics of free nations. Bush and Reagan are nostalgic not for the fifties but for fifties television—”Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best.” So you can see that for me the word “Nostalgia” comes loaded with a lot of political baggage.
Still this was a poem that I had to discover my way through. One of the major developments was that the stanza that begins “If I am nostalgic,’ was written as the second stanza. But in reading the poem over when it was about finished—I think I had all but the last two stanzas written—I knew that I had gotten to a point in the poem too early. I needed more background, more discussion of my life now. I also needed some more humor and I needed some more feeling. In other words, the rhythm of ideas was off.
A poem such as this is really a kind of essay in verse. It has an introduction, several points it makes, a couple of sub-points, and then comes to a conclusion that tries to wrap things up. The trick to essays and the trick to a poem such as this seems to me is the sprinkling of the subpoints that return in some different form in the conclusion. It is like a piece of music in which the main orchestration is violins and reeds, but occasionally there is a flute and harp. Then at the end, the flute and harp trade places with the violins and reeds or at least become equals with them.
So the rhythm and rime of this poem is to return where I began, but with a slightly different perspective. So there is the nurse and the idea of health, then the idea of beauty and sex appeal, then the present life and the repetition of a strange analogy (the starlet being the first, the dog being the second—the poem is ridiculous at this point). Then the theme is announced and then there are references to the past (which rhymes with the references to the present in stanza two), then food references (candy, not healthy), cravings and gluttony. In stanza four, the theme is returned to, then the cliches of nostalgic pastoral poetry—the far, far past. In stanza five, back to the beginning and the nurse and the present. “Sweet” rhymes with candy and watermelon and M&Ms.
Then for some reason, I turn the nurse into a pig—ham and snout, etc. I think it came from the gluttony idea and the health idea.
The last stanza then repeats the ideas in the poem. The final analogy of “symptoms” and “pathologies” rhymes with the nurse and health concerns. I did a little Shakespearian things with the noun “symptoms” by turning it into a verb in this sentence.
The big surprise in the poem for me was the line ending stanza five “to a place crimes go unrepeated.” It began as ” crimes go unrepented.” But that doesn’t fit thematically. I wrote it and now have changed it to “to a place where time goes unrepeated.” Adding “time” keeps to the nostalgia theme, and nostalgia is the desire to repeat time. But I also changed it because when I first wrote “crimes” I was thinking of my past with my parents and American’s past. But where it stands at the end of the stanza about the nurse, it also becomes about affairs.
I do have this long sequence of poems “Clear Direction to Some Place Else” that is about an affair after I had separated from my first wife and before we divorced, and as a poet that writes about the poetry in his own life, I could not have a line that seems like a renunciation of that affair. I was wide awake going into it and I am wide awake after it. I do not want the woman I had the affair with ever to think I repent of it.
So I hope I am on my way to a place where time goes unrepeated. I will leave the judgment of crimes to someone else.
Anyway, this is simply a poem constructed out of random thoughts and events that can be summed up as an attempt to “Be Here, Now.” Home is now; Home is here. Home is not somewhere in the past, even for me in that affair. In the past there are beautiful days and horrible days. But I am here, now, in these beautiful days, and in these horrible days.