Monday, February 9, 2015

Recalling "The Spine" by Michael Spence

This evening, my Poetry Workshop at the University of Northern Iowa had the pleasure of Skyping with the poet Michael Spence, whose 2014 collection The Bus Driver’s Threnody we are reading for class. In the course of that insightful and invaluable conversation, I brought up Mike’s poem “The Spine,” from his first poetry collection The Spine. When I looked for this poem online to show it to the students, I discovered it’s not available in cyberspace. So, with Mike’s permission, I proudly present that poem to the blogosphere.

The Spine
“The fossilised vertebrae of a large dolphin-like
  reptile dating from 150 million years ago were
  recently discovered in this mining town.”
                                    —Australian travel brochure
The icthyosaur,
Like ancient water

It flashed through,
Dried to dust. A few

Pieces of spine
Dug from a mine

At Coober Pedy
Are the only

Remains. They glint

Blue, purple;
Bits of gold fill

Every crack.
The Jurassic

Faded: the reptile
Changed to opals.


Like those here—
One for each year

I’ve lived—link
What I think

To how I move.
The chord in their groove

Sends what lightning
I have forking

Through my hands
Into the land.

If my traces reach
The distant beach

Of the future,
The bones I stare

At hold my wish:
To start as flesh

And end as jewel.
The line of fossils

Burns—each gem
A star in the stem

Of the Southern Cross.
We gain by loss.

— Michael Spence, from The Spine (1987).

I have a personal relationship with this particular poem because it was, for me, life-changing with regard to my writing of verse. I was an MFA student at Indiana University in 1987 when I found The Spine on a new-book rack in the IU library. I distinctly recall how this poem stunned me, with its bravura off-rhymes—icthyosaur/water, reptile/opals—and its off-kilter dimeter. This poem opened up a new vista for me. I had a moment akin to Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” the library stacks spinning a bit as I stood, leaning on a shelf, reading “The Spine.”

This was during the “poetry wars” of the ’80s, when the New Formalists were bucking the Free Verse establishment and being called Reaganites. I was personally beleaguered, as an emerging neoformalist myself, in a workshop with classmates who reviled work in rhyme and meter. And it was Mike, on paper, who taught me how to write a poem that was tightly formalist but read like free verse to those who expected free verse. I learned from Mike's poems how to be a tightrope walker—and he’s a master, a damn good one. He can slant rhyme and craft meter like a tenor-sax jazz artist, syncopating silence and staccato sequences.

I hope you’ll check out Michael Spence’s work. The Spine, published by Purdue University Press almost 30 years ago, is still in print. His new collection,  The Bus Driver’s Threnody, is a tour-de-force collection of poems about driving a city bus in Seattle. Other books include Crush Depth, a father-son book that includes poems on life in the US Navy, and Adam Chooses, about which Mark Jarman wrote, these “poems, often cunning experiments in traditional form, dramatize the way experience leads to knowledge.”

Michael Spence is the real deal, friends. You’ll enjoy his poetry, I guarantee.

Won’t you comment, please? To comment, look for a blue link below that says Post a comment and click it once. If you don’t see that, look for a red line that starts Posted by Vince, then click once on the word comments in that line.

Ingat, everyone.  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Puptent Poets, 1945 — Intro

A couple-three days ago, I blogged about a book titled Puptent Poets that I lucked upon in a used bookstore. It’s the genuine article, the real thing, from 1945, with old newsprint paper. It’s even got a torn couple of pages where a previous owner had tried to slit two pages apart but probably used a finger rather than the requisite blade. Such character in this particular book I’ve got in my hands. I really ought to put it in an archival plastic sleeve.

The reason I say “the real thing” is that Puptent Poets has evidently been reissued within recent time, sez Amazon. In 2002, to be precise. And with an “improved" cover. (On the left below is the redesigned 2002 cover, on the right the original 1945 cover.) The title of the book is certainly easier to read in the new cover; in the original one, the letters spelling out “Puptent Poets” blend into the map behind them. Nevertheless, I’m still partial to the old cover. Though, undoubtedly, the paper of the reissue will last longer than the paper in my 1945 book. (By the way, Amazon also has for sale the old Puptent Poets.)


I’m subtitling today's post “Intro” because I thought I’d show you the Foreword of the book. The story of how Puptent Poetry came to be is fascinating. (This is in italics because the foreword is italicized in the book.)


        Throughout the Mediteranean Theater of war, it is respectable to be a poet.
        Men in uniform who might once have regarded poetry as a matter for “long hairs” and “softies,” are writing poems themselves and, what’s more, signing them.
        Truck drivers are no less inclined toward the muse than the company cook; a machinegunner will dash off a verse during the lull of battle; the stony-faced topkick is producing love lyrics, and there’s a laureate in every company. As one CO remarked:
        “It's a wonder we get any work done.”
        The birth of the Puptent Poet took place more than two years ago when The Stars and Stripes, Mediterranean, in its first issue published in Algiers, opened its columns to soldier verse.
        It was a modest beginning. A mail censor named Lt. Gillespie turned in a few stanzas on the theme that he had accidentally slashed up one of his own letters while censoring company mail. The next issue contained a cynical, anonymous verse berating the thick mud of Oran.
        It may not have been apparent at the time, but the two versifiers had set a pattern for two years of Mediterranean poetry. From the beginning, the poetry department of The Stars and Stripes was open to all ranks. Furthermore, no one had to be a great poet, nor even a very good one to break into print.
        Poems came in faster than the editors had dared to hope. From Casablanca to the sand-swept wadis of Tunisia, soldiers struck out boldly, discovering first that some thing were better said in poetry than prose and, second, that The Stars and Stripes would publish what they wrote.
        Critical standards set by newspapers in the United States were never adopted. Poetry critics were not allowed on the premises. What went into the paper was the best of the Army's verse-making that day, or that week. If the meter was wobbly and the rhymes eccentric or missing, no one got excited.
        In two years of Puptent Poetry, no great war poet has revealed himself. What the Puptent Poets department has provided is a kind of open forum whose only requirements are a poetic leaning and an interest in writing about the war as well as living it. The result has been about 1,000 published poems in a little more than two years, and about 15 times that figure filed or returned to the writer with a note of regret.
        Returning these notes and encouraging the Puptent Poets to try again has given Cpl. John Welsh, III, of Washington, D. C., a steady job as chief poetry editor and has made him one of the busiest correspondents in the theater.
        Together with Cpl. Charles A. Hogan, of Trenton, N. J., who served as poetry editor of the Naples edition before going to France in a similar capacity, Cpl. Welsh compiled this the first Stars and Stripes Puptent Poet anthology.

                                                                                —The Editors

Here’s the first poem in the book; I’m guessing this sonnet has pride of place, on a page by itself, because it also functions as a kind of intro.

Hatred’s Yield

I’ve seen “the crosses row on row,”
I’ve seen the graves at Anzio.
In Flanders fields men cannot sleep—
Their faith, the world found hard to keep.
Versailles’ fate was slyly sealed
Before earth’s gaping wounds had healed,
And now again rows of crosses
Mutely tell of nations’ losses.
In how many fields,
In how many lands
Will soldiers die by soldiers’ hands?
Until at long last mankind yields
To truth and reason’s studied choice
Ignoring hatred’s strident voice.

                    —Pvt. Jack P. Nantell

When I was researching the poetry of the Vietnam war for my book Radical Visions, I often found references to poems in Stars and Stripes — just references, mostly, not actual quotations of poems — and usually scholars would say those poems were gung-ho, pro-war, unlike, say, the best work of Wilfred Owen. Well, looking at this poem that’s walking point in Puptent Poets, it would seem this scholarly viewpoint is a bit off the mark, at least in the WWII context. While Private Nantell is no Wilfred Owen, antiwar sentiment is shared by the two poets.

Nantell’s sonnet starts off in the manner of John Clare, in couplets or pairs of rhymed lines. In the poem’s opening, Nantell displays quite a bit of acumen about WWII’s political relationship to WWI. At the beginning of line 9, at the volta or turn employed by Petrarch in his Italian sonnet, the form of the poem changes in a savvy-filled switch to an envelope quatrain (abba), used often by Petrarch. And then Nantell returns in lines 13 and 14 to Clare’s couplets. My point is a simple one: Nantell is no slouch in his “sonnet-ing”; this private knows his prosody. One revealing gesture occurs in the line “soldiers die by soldiers’ hands”; since there is no identification here of the various sides of friend and foe, Nantell is suggesting that soldiers are soldiers, regardless of which side they fight on — a theme that is parallel to WWI verse by Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and others. Nantell, he the man.

Okay, enough analysis. As the book’s Foreword says, “Poetry critics were not allowed on the premises” when Puptent Poets was being put together in the Mediterranean editorial offices of The Stars and Stripes. As in my previous post about this anthology, I’ve made no corrections to either the poem or the foreword. Watch for more on Puptent Poets soon.

Won’t you comment, please, friends? Look for a blue link below that says Post a comment and click it once. If you don’t see that, look for a red line that starts Posted by Vince, then click once on the word comments in that line.

Ingat, everyone.  

Note: the first post about the Puptent Poets anthology can be read here.

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