Just a poem today, one I really love from the April 2013 issue of Poetry.

For once, her was just my father.
We drove to the Computing Center
in a Monte Carlo Landau
not technically ours.  Lexington,
1977.  That fall.  The color
had settled, too, undone
orange-brown and dull yellow,
crimson.  And it was something,
yet not, the pile of leaves
just a pile of leaves.  Sorry to think
what thinking has done to landscape:
He loved punched cards,
program decks and subroutines,
assembly languages
and key punch machines.
Even my father looked small
next to a mainframe.
The sound of order;
the space between us.
We almost laughed, but not for years –
we almost laughed.  But not.  For years,
the space between us,
the sound of order
next to a mainframe.
Even my father looked small.
And keypunch machines,
assembly languages,
program decks and subroutines.
He loved punched cards,
what thinking has done to landscape –
just a pile of leaves.  Sorry to think,
yet not, the pile of leaves
crimson.  And it was.  Something
orange-brown and dull yellow
had settled, too, undone
1977, that fall, the color
not technically ours, Lexington
in a Monte Carlo Landau. 
We drove to the Computing Center,
For once he was just, my father.
Randall Mann, from Poetry (April, 2013)

Something about April always makes me think of sestinas, don’t ask me why.  I love that this poem, which is neither a formal sestina nor a pantoum, but a cross between them perhaps, moves from the large (the relationship between fathers and sons) to the small (father standing next to the mainframe, punch cards) and then back again.  Both sestinas and pantoums rely on words or phrases repeated in strict, orderly fashion; they process words, you might say, the way a computer processes the data fed in.  Our relationships might work much the same way.

I also love the way that the phrase “the sound of order” echoes Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

I’m about 10,000 words behind where I should be to reach my Camp NaNoWriMo goal for this month.  Wish me luck, fellow campers.

Earlier this week in my Research: Deep and Wide post, I wrote about the importance of reading for breadth as well as depth. I referenced quotes from two poets, Susan Howe and Kathleen Ossip, as examples of both kinds of research. It turns out (small world!) that someone forwarded my post to Ms. Ossip, and then this happened:


Of course I immediately whipped up a scathing but hilarious response that alluded to Bukowski’s “poetry readings” and taunted academics about needing to get out a little more. Then I put it aside for a bit while I cooled off; that’s the advice I give my clients when they’re busting down barn doors and I try to abide by it myself.

I’m glad I did, because I’ve revised my response some and this is it.

First, permit me to point out, Ms. Ossip, that I never held you up as a role model for lawyers. For one thing, lawyers work really hard, even during the summer. (So this is still a bit snarky, but much, much less than it was originally.) I used your quote to suggest that good ideas often originate from disparate information absorbed over time. I drew it from a longer quote in which you were discussing how you researched your collection, “The Cold War,” a copy of which I actually have on a shelf in my living room. I liked it, which is part of the reason I was so pleased to see you quoted in Jeff Skinner’s book. Here’s proof:


I included Mary Ruefle’s “Madness, Rack and Honey” in the photo so that a) it would be clear that I wasn’t using a stock photo and b) it would be clear that I am an actual, honest to God consumer of poetry. I go to work, earn money, pay my mortgage and use what’s left over to buy books of poetry and the Kenyon Review. And stuff.

If you read any of the other posts on my blog, you saw that I use literature and poetry pretty frequently. I’ve managed to cobble together a little knowledge of poetry despite not having obtained an M.F.A., I enjoy it, and I like to share it. I believe there is a place for poetry outside of academia, or at least I hope there is. Maybe I should ask you that question. Is it still okay for folks like me to say things about poetry? Or is that a privilege reserved to the faculty room?

Also, maybe you forgot that there are lawyers (and doctors, and clerics, and spinster women in Amherst) who write poetry. Maybe you are even familiar with some of them: Wallace Stevens, Lawrence Joseph, Edgar Lee Masters, Archibald MacLeish. Joseph doesn’t practice, but he’s not an academic either because he only teaches at a law school. And let us not forget Ernest Hemingway, who was not a lawyer or a poet but who did, I understand, chase ambulances at one time. I don’t include myself in that company by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just saying that there is some precedent for lawyers mixing themselves up with poetry. We’re not as boorish as you might think. We don’t even require animal sacrifice at ABA-accredited law schools anymore, although it’s still available as an elective.

My earlier draft came from an insecure, defensive place, because, yep, I do write poetry myself, and it isn’t pleasant when someone you look up to mocks you on Twitter. (Although in fairness and for the record, my post went out to my 2,200+ followers, and yours to your 250. I’m resonating with somebody, apparently.) Then it dawned on me: I’m a rarity in the world of poetry. I have money to buy stuff. And it’s my actual money, not a grant or a fellowship or a gift from Yaddo. I get to write what I want without using up the limited financial resources available to support writers based in academia. The fact that I have built a little audience for my writing means that I get to share poetry – not mine, because I’m not that arrogant, but poems and poets that I really like – with people who don’t subscribe to the Kenyon Review. The last time I checked, that is a good thing, as Martha would say. I’m going to keep doing it. That’s WTF.

I have not been working as diligently as I should on my legal haiku for this year’s ABA Ross Essay Contest.  I’ve spent about ten minutes on it, mostly trying to come up with the right image to convey.

Part of the problem is that I am not a fan of haiku in general, at least not as an English verse form.  English writers began trying to work with haiku in the mid-twentieth century and adopted the 5-7-5 syllable convention we still use today, even though it doesn’t really convey the effect of the form in Japanese.  Authentic Japanese haiku uses morae or on, which are phonetic sounds, not syllables.  A haiku in Japanese is therefore usually more stark than one in English.

Authentic haiku generally presents two vivid images superimposed against one another by means of a kireji, or cutting word.  The effect is sometimes that of a Zen-style koan, a concept Western-trained thinkers often struggle with.  We like things to fit together neatly and we like our loose ends tied up; we really don’t know what to do with the sound of one hand clapping, thank you very much.  Additionally, Japanese haiku employs a kigo, which is a word that corresponds with a season.  There is a long list of kigo: a certain word for rain signifies an autumn rain, for example, while another word means a summer rain and so on.  We simply don’t have that sort of rich linguistic tradition to draw on in English.

For these reasons, I believe the most successful English haiku are those that attempt the spirit of the haiku and ignore the 5-7-5 convention altogether.  Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro is one famous example:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

The imagery of the petals pressed wetly against a knotted branch is the essence of springtime.  Contrast that with the “apparition” of the faces sliding by as a train enters or departs the station.  And Pound uses sound masterfully here: the “a” sounds in apparition, faces, petals and black; the “o” in crowd and bough; the “e” in these and petals.  I love this poem.  But it is not, technically speaking, English language haiku because of the 5-7-5 rule.

This one, by Richard Wright, respects the syllabic rule and works beautifully:

Whitecaps on the bay;
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.

It doesn’t achieve the shift in perception or understanding that haiku generally strives for, though.

My initial efforts at writing a legal haiku have not been promising, to say the very least.  It’s hard to find a good, concrete image from something as abstract as law.  I thought I was on to something when I started playing around with Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.  I figured Stevens was a lawyer and a blackbird is a natural for haiku.  What I got down on paper was:

The lawyer-poet’s
Essential fallacy
Thirteen ways of looking
At a policy.

Awful.  I know.  It was going to be a series of haiku building on that theme.  I suspect my first mistake was the theme itself, which isn’t visceral enough for haiku, and my second was trying to force the rhyme.  So I’m going back to the drawing board, although I think I might have the bones for something else there.  A lyric, maybe.

In any event, I am feeling a little discouraged, and so I have taken up my dog-eared copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  I turn to one of the passages I highlighted in college and note with a smile – every time, without fail – just how much the yellow has faded.  These are the lines I’m holding on to today:

Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.  To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.

From Letters to a Young Poet, Ranier Maria Rilke (trans. M.D. Herter Norton) W.W. Norton & Co. (1962)

I believe I have the deep humility part down now, Herr Rilke.