Category Archives: Prose poetry

“Compassion” by Miller and Lucinda Williams

Tonight I want to share a poem that a friend of mine shared with me today. This comes the poet, Miller Williams, who died on New Year’s Day of this year at the age of 84. Miller is the father of Lucinda Williams, the singer/songwriter and this particular poem inspired her new album. I saw Lucinda Williams about a month ago at the Troubadour and she sang the song she wrote based on her father’s poem.

Compassion

Have compassion for everyone you meet,

even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,

bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign

of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.

You do not know what wars are going on

down there where the spirit meets the bone.

Here is Lucinda singing a song based on her father’s poem.

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Dear Mean Voice Inside My Head

I didn’t realize for a long time that you were as active a character in my brain as you are. You were much better then at throwing in a subtle negative comment only occasionally. But now you’ve moved to a new level. You are relentless about tossing in your opinion, which is always counterproductive, whenever you feel inclined, which is often.

I am letting you know right now that I am ready for you to hit the road, ship out, get out of my orbit, vamoose. You are annoying on a good day and a real pain in the ass on a bad one. You know how to take anything that’s good and toss in just the right amount of naysaying to sully the air. You can be a relentless jerk and I am surprised that I have the strength of character to proceed with anything given your proclivity for calling upon shame and fear to keep me firmly under your dominating and negative thumb.

I am not foolish enough to think that I can banish you forever. Even if you are gone, your memory will inhabit the corners of my brain, filling them with the faint odor of stink. But inspite of that truth, go on, get out, take your mean-spirited, ugly old self and find a dark hole to inhabit.

I, instead, will respond to kindness, truth, beauty and love.

Now, go on, unless you can change your colors and shift from black to violet. If that’s the case, then you can stay. I don’t have a need to hurt you even though you can’t say the same to me. Could you do that? Could you discard all that darkness and just enjoy the beauty of a green rolling meadow or a white zigzag of lightning against a dark sky? I have no need to spread the sorrow.

Come here, then, and let me hold you. You are born from pain, I know. Let’s not carry on this heartache anymore. We can coexist if you will let me love you.

I promise love is healing. Trust me and watch.

whisper

 

Healing Through Storytelling

Tonight I read my online students’ Week Two flash stories/memoirs and I literally was sitting at my computer crying. The class is tiny – three woman – a perfect size, really, for a class. They are sharing such deeply personal and painful stories with such grace and beauty, I might have to go upstairs and have one of those “good cries,” as my mother used to call those times when sobbing for a few minutes clears out all the accumulated pain. I am happy to have those stories (and these women) suddenly in my life. I will grow from this class, I can already see. These are women who are past the superficial chatter of youth. They go right to the heart of their experiences and look for ways to move beyond their pain.

I like that about the Story Circle Network classes I teach. Story Circle Network is a community of women who are dedicated to telling their stories. These women (ranging from brand-new writers to professional wordsmiths) are serious about exorcising their demons, and moving on with life. Their stories are not so different from my stories and their healing aids my healing. Such is the power of the written word. Not to say all the writing is serious. I have laughed aloud at many a story I’ve read of my students. It just happens that tonight the stories fall a little close to home and touch some sadness I carry.

Yes, a good cry is in order. I can almost see my mother standing by the stairs, pointing up. “Go,” she would say. “Everybody can use a good cry now and then.”

I expect that’s true.

No, I actually know that’s true.

Okay, off I go.

Here is the website for Story Circle Network if you want more information. It is definitely a fine group of women. The web address is http://www.storycircle.org.

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Charles Bukowski: A Poet Who Knows How to Reach You

Charles Bukowski was 73 when he died. He was a prolific writer and published 60 books of his poems and short stories, in addition to his 6 novels. He was born in Germany, but lived in the Los Angeles almost all of his life. Below is a poem that illustrates his ability to relate to the reader and make poetry accessible.

About My Very Tortured Friend, Peter

he lives in a house with a swimming pool
and says the job is
killing him.
he is 27. I am 44. I can’t seem to
get rid of
him. his novels keep coming
back. “what do you expect me to do?” he screams
“go to New York and pump the hands of the
publishers?”
“no,” I tell him, “but quit your job, go into a
small room and do the
thing.”
“but I need ASSURANCE, I need something to
go by, some word, some sign!”
“some men did not think that way:
Van Gogh, Wagner—”
“oh hell, Van Gogh had a brother who gave him
paints whenever he
needed them!”

“look,” he said, “I’m over at this broad’s house today and
this guy walks in. a salesman. you know
how they talk. drove up in this new
car. talked about his vacation. said he went to
Frisco—saw Fidelio up there but forgot who
wrote it. now this guy is 54 years
old. so I told him: ‘Fidelio is Beethoven’s only
opera.’ and then I told
him: ‘you’re a jerk!’ ‘whatcha mean?’ he
asked. ‘I mean, you’re a jerk, you’re 54 years old and
you don’t know anything!’”

“what happened
then?”
“I walked out.”
“you mean you left him there with
her?”
“yes.”

“I can’t quit my job,” he said. “I always have trouble getting a
job. I walk in, they look at me, listen to me talk and
they think right away, ah ha! he’s too intelligent for
this job, he won’t stay
so there’s really no sense in hiring
him.
now, YOU walk into a place and you don’t have any trouble:
you look like an old wino, you look like a guy who needs a
job and they look at you and they think:
ah ha!: now here’s a guy who really needs work! if we hire
him he’ll stay a long time and work
HARD!”

“do any of those people,” he asks “know you are a
writer, that you write poetry?”
“no.”
“you never talk about
it. not even to
me! if I hadn’t seen you in that magazine I’d
have never known.”
“that’s right.”
“still, I’d like to tell these people that you are a
writer.”
“I’d still like to
tell them.”
“why?”
“well, they talk about you. they think you are just a
horseplayer and a drunk.”
“I am both of those.”
“well, they talk about you. you have odd ways. you travel alone.
I’m the only friend you
have.”
“yes.”
“they talk you down. I’d like to defend you. I’d like to tell
them you write
poetry.”
“leave it alone. I work here like they
do. we’re all the same.”
“well, I’d like to do it for myself then. I want them to know why
I travel with
you. I speak 7 languages, I know my music—”
“forget it.”
“all right, I’ll respect your
wishes. but there’s something else—”
“what?”
“I’ve been thinking about getting a
piano. but then I’ve been thinking about getting a
violin too but I can’t make up my
mind!”
“buy a piano.”
“you think
so?”
“yes.”

he walks away
thinking about
it.

I was thinking about it
too: I figure he can always come over with his
violin and more
sad music.

charles-bukowski-smoking

“How?” by Abraham Sutzkever

Today I helped Rachael with a paper for a UCLA literature course and I read some poetry by Abraham Sutzkever, who is considered by many to be “the greatest poet of the Holocaust.” The poem that we read and analyzed is called “How?”

It reads:

How?

How will you fill your goblet
On the day of liberation? And with what?
Are you prepared, in your joy, to endure
The dark keeing you have heard
Where skulls of days glitter
In a bottomless pit?

You will search for a key to fit
You jammed locks. You will bite
The sidewalks like bread,
Thinking: It used to be better.
And time will gnaw at you like a cricket
Caught in a fist.

Then your memory will resemble
And ancient buried town
And your estranged eyes will burrow down
Like a mole, a mole….

Vilna Ghetto, February 14, 1943
Translated by Chana BlochAbraham-Sutzkever-001

This is such a richly evocative poem, which says so much in so few words. The most striking line for me: “Like a cricket caught in a fist.” What a succinct and perfect way to describe a feeling of total powerlessness.

Many believe Abraham Sutzkever deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature. After reading several of his poems today, I concur.

Sutzkever died at 96 in 2010.

Frederick Douglass Facts & A Compelling Poem


I have been working with one of my students on African American poetry. Interesting facts I’ve learned about Frederick Douglass:

1) He was considered one of the most highly regarded African Americans in the 19th century.

2) He was a brilliant writer, speaker, social reformer, and statesman.

3) He was 1/2 white. His father was a slave owner and his mother was a slave.

4) He was born a slave and gained his freedom with the help of his first wife, Anna Murray, who was born a freedwoman.

5)  He had several sons and 2 daughters with Anna. One of his daughters died at age 10. His other daughter was Rosetta, whom the poem below is addressed to.

6) Douglass was the first African American to be on a ticket as Vice President of the United States. His running mate was a woman, Victoria Woodhull, who ran for President on the Equal Rights Party ticket.

7) After Frederick Douglass’s wife died, he married a white woman, Helen Pitts, who was the editor of a radical feminist newspaper. They remained married until his death 11 years later.

8) Douglass’s children were upset by his marriage to Helen.

African American poet Evie Shockley wrote the persona poem below. Shockley is a contemporary poet who also teaches at Rutgers University.

from The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass
BY EVIE SHOCKLEY
June 5, 1892

Dear Daughter,
Can you be fifty-three this
month? I still look for you to peek around
my door as if you’d discovered a toy
you thought gone for good, ready at my smile
to run up and press your fist into my
broken palm. But your own girls have outgrown
such games, and I cannot pilfer back time
I spent pursuing Freedom. Fair to you,
to your brothers, your mother? Hardly.

But
what other choice did I have? What sham,
what shabby love could I offer you, so
long as Thomas Auld held the law over
my head? And when the personal threat was
ended, whose eyes could mine enter without
shame, if turning toward my wife and children
meant turning my back?

Your mother’s eyes stare
out at me through yours, of late. You think I
didn’t love her, that my quick remarriage
makes a Gertrude of me, a corseted
Hamlet of you. You’re as wrong as you are
lucky. Had Anna Murray had your
education as a girl, my love for
her would have been as passionate as it
was grateful. But she died illiterate,
when I had risked my life to master language.
The pleasures of book and pen retain
the thrill of danger even now, and you
may understand why Ottilie Assing,
come into our house to translate me into
German, could command so many hours,
years, of my time—or, as you would likely
say, of your mother’s time.

Forgive me,
Rosetta, for broaching such indelicate
subjects, but as my eldest child and
only living daughter, I want you to
feel certain that Helen became the new
Mrs. Douglass because of what we shared
in sheaves of my papers: let no one
persuade you I coveted her skin.
I am not proud of how I husbanded
your mother all those years, but marriage,
too, is a peculiar institution.
I could not have stayed so unequally yoked
so long, without a kind of Freedom in
it. Anna accepted this, and I don’t
have to tell you that her lot was better
and she, happier, than if she’d squatted
with some other man in a mutual
ignorance.

Perhaps I will post, rather
that burn, this letter, this time. I’ve written it
so often, right down to these closing lines,
in which I beg you to be kinder, much
kinder, to your step-mother. You two are
of an age to be sisters, and of like
temperament—under other circumstances,
you might have found Friendship in each other.

With regards to your husband—I am, as
ever, your loving father—

Frederick Douglass
Evie Shockley, “from The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglas” from the new black. Copyright © 2011 by Evie Shockley. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Source: the new black (Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

Our Flawed Selves

Today, while helping one of my students, I read several poems by Vievee Francis, who I have mentioned before on my blog. Her book Blue-Tail Fly is a series of persona poems about various figures ranging from before the Mexican American War until after the Civil War.

One of those characters is Abraham Lincoln. One historical fact that I learned today based on research I did in conjunction with reading these poems: Abraham Lincoln was a racist.

Lincoln is quoted as saying in his debates with Stephen F. Douglas in 1858:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

And yet, Lincoln did more personally than any other president to bring about freedom for African-Americans.

Black people at that time knew what Lincoln’s racist views were, but they also watched as his actions affected their lives in ways they had never dreamed possible.

Vievee Francis, who is African-American, has a touching poem that deals with this.

“Nigger Pine.”

After the funeral of President Lincoln

Whether he loved us or not –
we draped black ribbon

across our windows and doors.
Our long faces, Lord, how we wailed.

Would he have had us remain,
or sail off to some namesake colony?

No matter; forlorn, we mourned,
even as we recalled the “nigger”

his tongue wagged to the press –
into his wife’s hot ear.

Perhaps our brows would never have met,
Perhaps our visage he disparaged

As much as his misshapen jaw,
Still, he resisted the lies of unwieldy romance

Preferring practical solutions
to peculiar situations

No, he did not proclaim love for us. The old ones say
in some African tribes there is no word

For love—only action, deeds, and duty
may say what the mouth will not.

“Nigger Pine” was the common term for the scrub trees that grew on the blood-engorged battlefields.

I cried after reading this poem. Those last two stanzas moved me deeply. We are all imperfect, but it’s true: Lincoln’s “actions, deeds, and duty” said “what the mouth will not,” and his actions – not his words – made all the difference.