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19 minutes reading time (3890 words)

No. 94: Red Letter Poems 3.0: Serious play

UPDATED Jan. 21: Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s poet laureate, sought submissions in February 2020 from Arlington residents to contribute to "a rather unconventional, utterly delightful way to inject poetry into the everyday." It was to remain secret until its debut during April’s National Poetry Month. Then the coronavirus hit. In June 2021, he offers Red Letters 3.0.

PUBLISHED:  I was asked to write an essay for Askold Melnyczuk’s Arrowsmith Journal about what I learned from the first year of the Red Letter Project.  It also became a meditation about the relationship between poet and reader.  If you’d like to take a look, here is a link – arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices -- and you’ll also be able to check out the variety of marvelous literary projects that appear under Askold’s Arrowsmith imprint.  Enjoy!

Steven RatinerSteven Ratiner / David Andrews photo 

The Red Letter Poem Project

The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our separate homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.” 

Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.

Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?

So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: Knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?

The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.

Two of our partner sites will continue reposting each Red Letter weekly: at YourArlington and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene.  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to: steven.arlingtonlaureate at gmail.com.

In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

 

Red Letter Poem #94

During an interview I did with the late poet Seamus Heaney, he commented: “…Poetry is born out of the superfluity of language's own resources and energy.  It's a kind of over-doing it.  Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry…This extraness may be subtle and reticent.  Or it may be scandalous and overdone.  But it is extra...”.  But as Western writers have learned from the sensibility at the core of much Asian poetry, it’s possible to achieve that sense of extra by doing, not more, but less.  The poet Aram Saroyan made that principle central in his career.  I find it curious that, while he is the award-winning author of numerous works of fiction, biography, memoir, drama and, of course, poetry, he is perhaps most famous for a poem consisting of a single word – a piece that became one of the most controversial poems in history. 

Son of the novelist William Saroyan, Aram’s literary education began early and, during the 1960’s – a time of revolutionary experiments in verse – he began exploring minimalism and concrete poetry, influenced by poets like Robert Creeley and Louis Zukofsky.  Minimalism aims at achieving the maximum compression of a literary experience – not only making every word count, but every line break, punctuation mark, meaning-making device at the poet’s disposal.  The practice of concrete poetry extends far beyond the stereotypical ‘tree poem in the shape of a tree’ some of us remember from school projects; it was concerned with the visual field of the page and how the arrangement of letters and words created different forms of significance.  As the poet remembers the occasion of this groundbreaking piece, he had a friend visiting his Manhattan apartment who was anxious to head downtown to Le Metro Café, a spot where avant-garde artists and musicians hung out together.  But Aram, whose nimble mind was continually turning over possibilities, had an idea simmering, and could not leave before he’d come to a decision.  Once the notion took shape, he sat at his Royal manual and typed this single word in the center of a blank page: 

lighght 

Then they left for the café.  Aram was 22 years old at the time; his life was about to be irrevocably changed. 

As the poet himself has written: “The difference between “lighght” and another type of poem with more words is that it doesn’t have a reading process…Even a five-word poem has a beginning, middle, and end. A one-word poem doesn’t. You can see it all at once. It’s instant.”  In this piece, he crafted an image that is experienced, much like a painting or photograph, rather than decoded.  And yet a part of our minds still wants to plumb it for meaning.   What did that doubling of the unpronounced gh do to the way we interpret the word?  Is there more pulsing radiation?  More silence?  Something like an elongated sunbeam?  Or are those two g’s staring out at us like eyes from a face, bathed in light?  Is it, perhaps, simply the sort of exuberant play most had schooled out of us during our so-called educations? 

The story might have played out with far less drama except for the convergence of art and politics.  The poem was written in 1965, the very year a new federal agency was born: the National Endowment for the Arts.  A year or two later, the NEA created its first Literature Program and selected the noted writer/editor George Plimpton to assemble a poetry anthology.  At Robert Duncan’s recommendation, Aram’s poem was among the ones he included.  Each contributor was awarded $750. – one third going to the magazine that first printed the poem, and the remainder to the poet.  But this meant that – to a certain sort of mind – this poet was being paid the princely sum of $500. per word!  And that got under the skin of a few conservative Senators like William Scherle and Jesse Helms, and they used this outrageous waste of money as a cudgel for attacking the young arts organization.  Years after it was written, Ronald Reagan would still disparage the lighght poem as a symbol of elitist posturing.  It seems our culture wars have deeper roots than we may have imagined. 

Aram eventually published whole books of minimalist pieces, including many one-word poems.  Here are a few favorites of mine: 

j;u;n;g;l;e 

and I can’t help but see the eyes, the paws of those beasts hiding in the underbrush. 

Or this one: 

Picassc 

–  and this inventive spelling depicts, what?  An open eye? A Cubist mouth? A simple refusal to play by the old rules (the very spirit of his famous artist-subject?)  

Aram even has a poem that the Guinness Book used to call the shortest poem ever written – but, dear reader, I’ve run into a problem in trying to share it with you here.  The image he created is the single letter m except made with three humps.  Aram told me he was “doing paste-up work in the mid-Sixties at Academy Typing Service in New York. This was before computers allowed you to correct any mistake digitally. You had to correct a typing error by cutting it out of a typescript and pasting in a correct version. As I remember, a big m was part of a layout and I thought: how would it look if I added an extra hump.”  It seems the html code just can’t handle this as an image and issues a blank space in its stead.    But here is a link to a wonderful article where you can see the Saroyan m and read more about its significance: https://briefpoems.wordpress.com/tag/aram-saroyan/ 

This one-letter word-sculpture just tickles me to no end.  Am I seeing doorways or mountains?  Is this the depiction of the labial sound simply drawn out in pleasure?  Or, as one writer suggested, are we witnessing the cellular creation of the alphabet, as primordial m and n first pull apart to create their separate selves?  

These are playful experiences, to be sure – but they’re what a painter-friend terms serious play, her definition for all art-making.  Their purpose is to stretch the boundaries of how we well-trained humans use language as a window on the world – or as a mirror that reflects the inner workings of our own minds.  And, in recent years, after Ugly Duckling Presse and Primary Information released the poet’s Complete Minimal Poems, Aram’s poems began attracting interest from a whole new generation of readers and writers who were, perhaps, less bound by the strictures I inherited from my high school English teachers many years ago.  Few creatures on this planet seem to possess complex and systematic language; and none but we humans have created our diverse writing systems for preserving that speech, that burgeoning thought.  I love how this poet devised his wholly unexpected ways of reminding us of the extra that Mr. Heaney praised, lurking within even the simplest of words. 

Want to feel the very neurons tingling as you wade into and begin to decipher one of Aram’s minimalist pieces?  I’ll close with another favorite of mine: 

Poem Recognizing Someone on the Street

e y ? h
e ? h e
h e y !
                                                 ­­–– Aram Saroyan

 

Red Letter Poem #93

Freud thought of art-making as a raid on the unconscious – a way to drag parts of our dreamlike (or nightmarish) processes out into the sunlight where they might be, if not fully understood, then at least experienced and, when necessary, defused.  And though I also find beauty in simple descriptives, and strength in the straight-forward voice, some of my favorite poems resemble waking dreams replete with images that seize the attention and meanings that are tantalizing but veiled.  And so it is with Bruce Bond’s new piece “Redactions. . .” from his forthcoming collection Invention of the Wilderness (Louisiana University Press.)  As in a dream, everything at first glance seems strangely connected and navigable – but then the questions erupt and certain phrases detonate (with shock as well as delight), and we keep moving toward what is just out of reach.

When I saw the poem’s title, I wondered whether this referred to the last presidential debates (well, scrums would be a better word) where, curiously, the health of our environment was rarely mentioned.  Or is the ‘last debate’ the ongoing conflict between those who fear irrevocable changes to our global climate and those who disbelieve the dire predictions of scientists?  Is the ‘blindness’ mentioned in the opening lines literal or metaphoric?  An affliction or a self-inflicted wound?  (Perhaps, like me, you heard an echo of your mother’s voice, warning you about running with scissors.)  Then come those gut-punch images (darkness falling “like a head into a basket”) and those disembodied voices littering the scene – and I begin to intuit the landscape through which I’m traveling.  The poem offers no easy answers because, frankly, there are none.  But perhaps, emerging from such a waking dream, I will feel inspired to ask better questions – of myself, of those who make decisions in my name.

Bruce is the author of (hold onto your hats, my fellow poets) thirty collections of poetry, including three new ones on the way; beside Invention…, we can look forward to Choreomania (Madhat Press), and Liberation of Dissonance (which received the Nicholas Schaffner Award for Literature in Music).  I was not surprised to learn that Bruce is a classical and jazz guitarist which, I assume, can’t help but strengthen both the musicality of his voice and the improvisational quality of his line.  He’s the Regents Emeritus Professor of English at the University of North Texas in Denton, and has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission on the Arts.

Redactions from the Last Debate

When I was a child, one eye went blind
and then, in sympathy, the other.

Twins again with their own twin code.
Scissors, with your spectacles, tell me, 

are they open or closed.  Are you no
less eyeless, the moment you are used. 

Was that you at my window, the chirp
of the screw that holds your blades together.

Was it God who said, let there be light,
and darkness fell like a head into a basket.

Like a floe in the arctic with a heap of cellular phones.
I fear we fear the wrong connections. 

The earth on the radio blows a plume
of smoke into the room, blackening the ceiling. 

The flies in the icecap long to be released.
What is any fly without the open air,

any blade of grass without the pasture.
When I swear that I am here, the field

there, wind everywhere among the shivers,
a slant of light through the window casts

a thousand tiny threads, a thousand hooks.
I see them, cut them, and the oceans rise.

     –– Bruce Bond

 

Red Letter Poem #92

It is a strategy poets have employed since antiquity: to proceed by contraries – and Thomas DeFreitas uses it to bountiful effect in this poem from his first full-length collection, Winter in Halifax (Kelsay Books.)  The poem is an eloquent prayer for the most pedestrian of things (the Harvard Square hangouts of his youth.)  It uses the formal rhymes and entanglements of the villanelle while ushering us chockablock past the odd shops and cold facts of teenaged street life.  It clearly portrays a landscape where a part of the speaker’s heart is anchored – and yet the history and personality of that devotional voice is veiled behind his catalog of landmarks. . .except in those moments when the emotional tenor of the images rises into a higher register (ah, the “ink-sleeves” on those “ghost-white arms”!)  And then we may feel, for a moment, a curious kinship: we were all young once; the world was baffling and new; and we cared so passionately for this fragile existence that sometimes we too wished for some intercession, some clarifying force that would offer its blessing.

There is another category under which Thomas’ poem sits in my mind: it hints at the ubi sunt motif.  Derived from the Latin phrase: Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt? ("Where are those who were before us?"), it represents a kind of nostalgia for people and places that proved to be (what a shock to our young psyches!) just as susceptible the forces of ephemerality as we.  A generation before Thomas inhabited these very streets, I remember hitchhiking up to Cambridge in the summer of 1969, the first stop on a cross-country odyssey.  Harvard Square was famous then for its artistic and intellectual scenes, and boasted an array of unique businesses.  But this holiday, when I made my annual shopping trip to the Square, I was stunned to see how its gradual transformation had been dramatically accelerated by the economic effects of the pandemic.  There were several empty storefronts – an unimaginable occurrence, here in one of the most valuable commercial districts in the Northeast!  Parts of whole blocks were being gutted for restoration, and the quaint shops that had been fixtures for decades will be replaced by luxury chains.  Even in this college town, the dozen or more bookshops I used to browse endlessly in my younger days had been reduced to a precious few.  I experienced a ghostly sense of history being hollowed out and erased – and I stopped to imagine how downtowns all across our nation might be undergoing similar changes. 

May the “Mother of winter roses” and that “spare-change Madonna” take pity on us all, and reassure that the future will not think too harshly of us and the choices we’ve made when, in the coming years, some undergrad poet writes his or her own ubi sunt?     

Our Lady of Cambridge

Virgin of Harvard Square, gendering grace,
watch over Holyoke Center, the Garage,
Chameleon Tattoos, and the nose-ring place.

Pray for the pink-haired waif of mournful face
and ink-sleeves on both ghost-white arms. Take charge
(Mother of winter roses blushing with grace)

of Raven, Grendel’s, Peet’s; and, just in case,
tend to hungry undergrads at the large
Palace of Pizza near the nose-ring place.

Keep the Yard safe and sage. Make it your space.
Send down, María, pardon from the stars;
expand this city’s heart! Lady of grace,

shelter the sleepers crouched in church doorways
against the cold; protect the crowds in bars,
the punks in the Pit and at the nose-ring place.

Gather us all in your clement embrace;
hasten with healing for our wounds and scars.
Bless Newbury Comics, bless the nose-ring place,
spare-change Madonna, prodigal of grace!

     –– Thomas DeFreitas

 

Red Letter Poem #91

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/ and never brought to mind?”  It was my mistake: I was too young when I first heard the song to grasp what the Scots poet Robbie Burns was aiming at; perhaps I just couldn’t detect that dangling question mark, requiring a listener’s response.  But early on, I thought the word should was prescriptive and tried to make myself believe that moving beyond memory was the path to freedom.  It’s an unsurprising reaction; children who’ve experienced early loss are simultaneously burdened by the past and gratefully imprisoned within the bright rooms of memory’s palace.  But often kindled within such individuals is a passionate desire to fashion new structures that might safely house all the incomprehensible voices echoing inside the green and permeable self.

Frank Bidart is one of the most acclaimed American poets; his virtual trophy case is burgeoning with prestigious honors, including the Pultizer and Bollingen prizes, and the National Book Award.  His 11th collection, Against Silence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) appeared recently.  I’m fairly sure that when Frank first ran across Walt Whitman’s line, “I am large.  I contain multitudes,” he instantly nodded in assent; his 50-year body of work is crowded with the voices of people – remembered, imagined – that inhabit the metropolis of his consciousness.  These are characters he, by turns, discovered, conjured, nurtured, or preserved – all within his supple lyrics and sprawling monologues. 

It seems to me the poems are intended to simultaneously separate himself from and fully embrace the upsurge of these unbridled energies.  Reading his work cannot help but make me aware of the many rooms in my own self into which I’ve rarely ventured.  So, in 1999, when I directed a massive poetry/music/dance/art project to celebrate the new Millennium, I asked Frank if he’d let me make a video-poem of his “For the Twentieth Century,” to be included with the performances.  So generous with his time, he welcomed me and my crew into his Cambridge apartment which, I was surprised to see, was filled floor-to-ceiling with books, video tapes, and audio recordings.  It was as if he was the self-appointed archivist of our cultural era, preserving artifacts of the past that formed his imagination so they would always remain accessible to his further explorations.

And so here, his poem celebrates the technology of a century that, while perfecting the most awful war-making machinery, also managed to create the means by which the voices of poets, the performances of musicians, and even the slapstick antics of classic movie comedians, would have lives that extended far beyond that of their mortal selves.  Talking with him in his private spaces, hearing his voice bring this poem to life, I began to more fully understand how precious memory really is – how even the simplest moments of our waking day are inextricably wedded to older times, distant voices which our minds sustain (and which sustain us in turn.) 

When, later on, I discovered that Burns’s famous song was actually preserving and elaborating upon lyrics that had been fashioned a century earlier, I felt grateful now to be able to offer my own response to the Scotsman: yes – we will preserve and cherish moments of our remembered past, and pass along what we can to the generations that follow.  For the sake of our culture and all that makes us human, we’ll happily press the play button, reread a few favorite poems and raise “a cup o’ kindness yet” as another year slips into the rearview and we turn to face the oncoming brights.   

For the Twentieth Century

Bound, hungry to pluck again from the thousand
technologies of ecstasy

boundlessness, the world that at a drop of water
rises without boundaries,

I push the PLAY button:—

. . .Callas, Laurel & Hardy, Szigeti 

you are alive again,—

the slow movement of K.218
once again no longer

bland, merely pretty, nearly
banal, as it is

in all but Szigeti's hands

                                    

Therefore you and I and Mozart
must thank the Twentieth Century, for

it made you pattern, form
whose infinite

repeatability within matter
defies matter—

Malibran. Henry Irving. The young
Joachim. They are lost, a mountain of

newspaper clippings, become words
not their own words. The art of the performer.

                                    –– Frank Bidart


See poems from No. 84 to 90 here >>


This poetic outreach was updated Jan. 21, 2022.

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