Archive for February, 2012

Limerick for Ryan Braun

There once was a player named Braun

who should have just peed on the lawn.

His power is not from a needle

so the Commissioner’s thumbs can just tweedle.

Ryan’s brain is as great as his brawn.


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My Time With Walt

A few months ago I ran across a list of the ten best American poems, posted by Jay Parini on the Guardian web site.  He starts with “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman.  I’d read Whitman as a student and recall thinking:  stuffy 19th Century language full of poeticisms and bad odes to Lincoln.  But, here was a Brit saying Whitman’s “Song” was number one in a list of the ten best.  I had to start over with Walt.

I don’t recall where or how I heard about C. K. Williams 2010 book, On Whitman.  It’s a joyous celebration of what moves Williams about Whitman:  his music.  He starts with Whitman’s genius:  where did it come from?  Maybe the King James Bible, maybe Shakespeare; maybe, just maybe from nowhere but inside Whitman’s head and heart and ear. 

Williams discusses Whitman’s biography, his notebooks and revisions, his audacity, his sexuality, the poets influenced by him, and Whitman’s imagination:  inclusive, accepting and exhalting.  “Isn’t this, finally, what all art eternally promises us?  That it will make our own imaginations more encompassing and at the same time more acute?” Williams asks.

Williams drops references like leaves along a path, and I now have a list of about a dozen books, compendiums and scholarly analyses, about Walt Whitman.  However, recalling my original memory of Whitman’s poems, I discovered that I probably read the “death bed” version of 1891-92.  I knew that Whitman tramped about, adding and scribbling, expanding on Leaves of Grass over time, but what I did not know – what my teachers did not tell me – is that Whitman suffered from “the law of elapsed time,” in Galway Kinnell’s words in The Essential Whitman.

Kinnell writes, “All writers know this law:  revision succeeds in inverse ratio to the amount of time passed since the work was written.”  Whitman’s final, self-approved version of 1891-92 is the one that he probably thought addressed the critics, covered for youthful exuberance, seemed more “poetic.”  However, Williams recommends the first, 1855 edition as the greatest poet’s greatest work.  He also recommends Kinnell’s The Essential Whitman, “…a great poet’s personal line-by-line culling and reassembling of the best of the poetry,” and Gary Schmidgall’s Walt Whitman:  Selected Poems 1855-1892.

The thing is, except for these two recommendations, it is not easy to find the early Walt Whitman.  I stopped at a university bookstore and among the five books of Walt Whitman’s poems or Leaves of Grass, the prefaces all quoted from Whitman’s preface to the 1891-92 version as Whitman’s own final version, and that is what followed.  I wanted Walt on my Kindle; the various versions available are not identified by edition.  Reading them, they appear to be the deathbed version.  I finally found the 1855 First Edition version of Leaves of Grass, for ninety-nine cents, by searching the Amazon website first and then clicking on the Kindle version.

So now I have a good handle on which “Song of Myself” to read:

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul.

I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

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Community Poems

The theme for submissions to the 2013 Wisconsin Poets Calendar was “community.”  I submitted three poems and one was accepted.  The following was not.  That makes it perfect for my blog.

Reception at the Chazen Museum of Art

On aurora-rose limestone stairs,

the Director points to the diamond ceiling

and tells a story about an artist who drove

from Milwaukee for the Iron Man Contest.

The genius ladies arrive, wearing earrings

 and bracelets from the Art Fair on the Square,

when a silver case, steaming with dry ice,

enters the door bearing four kinds of

Babcock ice cream from high up on Bascom Hill.

Smoked salmon snakes among chunks of cheese

and spears of chicken satay stand at attention,

naked without their peanut sauce.

A young couple in black cling, oblivious

to the charm of their matching nose rings.

Frozen strawberries, like lost party goers,

float past the ice-maiden in the punch bowl.

Above, Mrs. Pearce, in her yellow shawl,

mocks the crowd below, too busy talking

to abandon their glasses of white wine

and drift upstairs to look at the art.

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The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy



Chinese paintings have writing on them.  Sometimes it is the artist’s name and personal seal.  But the writing can be a philosophical treatise or a kind of journal entry about the painting – the style, the occasion, the artist’s feelings at the time, or relationships with friends or patrons.  Michael Sullivan, in his book, The Three Perfections:  Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy, says that “…the idea that writing and painting belong together is a very ancient one in China.”

The inscriptions may be distinguished as follows:  those written by the painter, those written by friends, and later comments by collectors or connoisseurs.    Sullivan says, “Needless to say, no one would, or should, dare to write on a painting unless his handwriting were accomplished, and the sentiments, however conventional, were elegantly expressed.” 

Friends might add a bit of social history about the painter and the painting, but comments by great critics or connoisseurs would add to the value of the painting.  The Chinese do not see the painting as a complete artistic statement, but “…as a living body, an accretion of qualities, imaginative, literary, historical, personal, that grows with time, putting on an ever-richer dress of meaning, commentary and association with the years.”  Of course, imperial inscriptions were in a class by themselves, sometimes commonplace and sometimes beautiful poems.

Sullivan writes about the interplay between poetry and painting.  A Sung poet wrote that the writings of a famous poet are paintings without form; and a famous painter’s work is a poem without words.  According to Sullivan, “Painting was often called ‘silent poetry,’…and thought of as a way of release of feelings that need not, or sometimes could not, be put into words.” 

During periods of political repression, a painter/poet could not express his opposition in words.  Sullivan sites an example of a painter who expressed his feelings about the Mongol invasion by painting uprooted orchids and adding a very neutral sounding inscription.  Later, scholars added inscriptions interpreting the painting more explicitly than the painter could express himself.

When they could express themselves, painters felt that a landscape without a poem would be without interest.  The painting must be “…developed as it were, like a photographic image, by the poems, before the viewer can become aware of it,” Sullivan writes.  “When painting and poem appear together, the one reinforces the other, taking the idea far beyond the visual or verbal images, and meaning and feeling vibrate in some mysterious way between the two.”

A philosopher may write about truth that is obtained through his experience of the world and especially nature.  A painting, by evoking the images he experienced, is a symbol of his spiritual journey.

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