Poetry and 52 Cards

In On Poetry Glyn Maxwell gives a writing exercise where you draw from a deck of cards. Each suit prompts a social situation; each value prompts a setting. Draw a card. Write a stanza. Repeat. Or not.

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Dear Mrs. R—

Dear Mrs. R—,

Do you remember—more years ago than either of us would like to consider—when I was a mixed up kid trying to figure out my next steps after having lost all hope of going to the one and only—and private and expensive—college I had applied to? You encouraged me to apply to HBCUs, and I ended up enrolling at Florida A&M University. That was an exciting time. I became turned on to the idea of doing something unusual (for a hitherto conservative, and rather insulated middle class white boy). An adventure! I’d get to see how other people lived and experienced the world. I’d gain perspective and challenge the closed minded people I’d grown up with. There are a lot of words to describe me at that time, but let’s just stick with “Naïve” with a capital “N.”

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Keats: To My Brothers

Tonight I read this occasional poem which John Keats wrote on the 17th birthday of his brother, Tom.

To My Brothers

Small, busy flames play through the fresh laid coals,

And their faint cracklings o’er our silence creep

Like whispers of the household gods that keep

A gentle empire o’er fraternal souls.

And while, for rhymes, I search around the poles,

Your eyes are fix’d, as in poetic sleep,

Upon the lore so voluble and deep,

That aye at fall of night our care condoles.

This is your birth-day Tom, and I rejoice

That thus it passes smoothly, quietly.

Many such eves of gently whisp’ring noise

May we together pass, and calmly try

What are this world’s true joys,—ere the great voice,

From its fair face, shall bid our spirits fly.

November 18, 1816

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In the following, “C” is me. “X” is an unnamed friend and confidant. I badly want to edit this for readability—at times it feels like I’m riffing on “ways” and trying to see how many times I can use the word. But I’m letting it stand as is, as it captures a moment of thought in conversation.

C: Some days my loneliness percolates to a point where it feels like a tangible presence, or rather “anti-presence” would be truer. It’s more, rather than less, a thing because I can see it and know that there’s not an answer to it. It’s not a thing that my wife or my kids, or you, or my few other friends and numerous acquaintances can touch. I’m not even reaching out right now for you to say or do anything about it. Just saying it to externalize it so that it isn’t just in my head or me talking to myself in a journal. It’s just there. And I’m just here. Stating it helps detach from it a little.

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Memorizing Mandelshtam

Re-reading Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry, I took special note of this following passage, which appears just before a section break.

A memorized poem can be passed to you intact. I think this makes the written poem unique, in terms of our relationship with its materials—by which I mean the black (something there) and the white (nothing there). The Stalin regime could destroy Osip Mandelstam, but not the poems his widow Nadezhda had learned by heart. That’s something and nothing showing their true colors.

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Casaubon’s Incredulity and Negative Capability

I first made note of this passage of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum in 2005. The narrator is Casaubon.

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom. When I was ten, I asked my parents to subscribe to a weekly magazine that was publishing comic-strip versions of the great classics of literature. My father, not because he was stingy, but because he was suspicious of comic strips, tried to beg off. “The purpose of this magazine,” I pontificated, quoting the ad, “is to educate the reader in an entertaining way.” “The purpose of your magazine,” my father replied without looking up from his paper, “is the purpose of every magazine: to sell as many copies as it can.”

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John Clare, Loss & Gain

On a surprise (forgotten) day of PTO, I learned of John Clare—I am Jack Randall now. I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly. As I read his verse and am confronted with his dismay at the destruction of the wild places he loved—this was the 19th c.—I am filled with sadness and nostalgia for how far this has gone in 200 years.

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Poetic Urges

I’m filled with this longing—again—to be taken up with writing and reading poetry. It will pass, a momentary urge. But where does this urge come from? To be known? Who knows poets but other poets? And it seems unlikely that I’d find publication when I haven’t put the time in. I haven’t read, I haven’t written in years. But that can all change. And let’s say I stop chasing an ideal and just start working at it. What might that get me?

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