AND WHAT IS BLUEGRASS But Poetry Set To Music?

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An old sergeant I knew in the Army of long ago would often tell us underlings,  “There are three ways to do something: The right way, the wrong way and the ARMY way. For me, there is always the POET’S way!

(That same sergeant could freeze a charging elephant with his stance and stare! A certain master artist (“Lynn” in Rick Cornish’s facebook posts) can communicate the deepest of emotions by her uncanny ability to invite us into the souls of her animals through their eyes. )

Most often, since I write mostly poetry, I am interested in the POET’S way, and the Poet’s way involves a greater use of “figurative” language – that is language that is NOT meant to be taken literally.  It is said that poetry is the art of SOUND and SENSE (“Sense” meaning EVOKING the senses, primarily through imagery and other figurative language.)

Much of my poetry is an attempt at establishing a sense of time and place and to do that with the greater freedom that poetry allows.  I can exaggerate, understate and lie without worrying too much about literal truth.  In poetry, a butterfly landing on a temple bell can make it ring. In prose, that’s more difficult.

This is not to diminish the story telling ability of the novel, short story or essay. A good writer of either prose or poetry can create a profound sense of a time and a place. In my attempts to tell my personal history, which goes back to the 1930’s on rural Georgia farms during the Great Depression, I am always attempting to evoke in the reader the SENSE of particular people and places of my life story. This allows me to use the tools of poetry to EVOKE, to explore the SENSES, while telling the sometimes literal but mostly figurative stories I want to provide.  Always, to my great pleasure, poetry allows me the freedom to lie in words (while being truer than true) in the final work.

My son Joe, who teaches Screen Writing and Creative Writing at a university in Colorado, and I were recently discussing our favorite essay assignments.  He liked mine, which was this: “Write about a place you know well, as seen at two different times or under two different circumstances.”

I liked the assignment because it brought about so many different kinds of responses.  Some students wrote about how a place is different when you return to it, even if the return is after only a few hours or a day.  Others wrote about places from early childhood memories and would discuss favorite spots or buildings, perhaps an old barn, a swimming hole or an apple orchard.  

But some of the most heartfelt essays came from memories of places that included favorite people, usually family members and other local characters.    Quite often, the subject of an essay would be a grandparent in his or her favorite activity. More than once, this would be a grandmother, dressed in a colorful apron and cooking in a kitchen filled with old-fashioned pots and pans and – most importantly – wonderful smells!

Of course, the second part of the essay would be a more recent description of that kitchen without the grandmother, who perhaps in the essay had recently died.

I have taught just about everywhere and just about every subject.  The most recent twenty-five years of teaching was right here in San Francisco, where I taught English and Creative Writing at a private high school for young women.  There, I read and commented upon a lot of essays! Since I was also writing and publishing poetry, I came to realize that I was often responding to my own writing assignments, except my response was in poetry.

My first book could be the result of the assignment.  Once I decided to write of the world I knew in my first eighteen years, I knew it would be a book of poems and I knew that, since it WAS poetry, I would not be constrained by a requirement for LITERAL truth. I would attempt to EVOKE the sense of the place of my childhood.

The resulting book,  “The Riceboro Poems, A Biography of Place” (Riceboro was the tiny town on US 17 where I was residing for the last two years of high school.) tried to provide a snapshot of the mostly rural places and people of my early years.  If it succeeded, I reasoned, it would provide my family with a better sense of ME.  I was concerned that the good and bad of our early family was becoming lost.

One example of evoking through poetry instead of describing through prose is included at the bottom of these pages. “The Burning” (later the title of another book a few years later) is about an incident when I was ten years old when my mother accidentally burned me as she was preparing dinner. We were living far from any doctor in a small tenant farm house at the end of a long and narrow, twisting road, with creeks to ford, etc.  To reach a doctor, my stepfather borrowed a logging truck to take me out to the main road, a wider county road now paved, where a local farmer drove me to Clyo, Georgia, the nearest town and doctor.

The burn was painful, of course, and there were few options for treatment by this rural country doctor, but he cleaned me up and sent my mother down the road to purchase a packet of LIME and a can of LINSEED OIL.  He prepared a poultice by mixing the two and told my mother that she would have to keep a poultice on the rather extensive burn until it healed.

I believe now that the purpose of the poultice was to protect the injury from the near certainty of infection from flying insects (Some day I will write a long piece on the mosquitoes, flies, horseflies, deerflies, chiggers, ticks and other life threatening marauders of Georgia.) Healing took a long time and was painful, but it gradually became just a long summer dream.  Although my mother was distraught, I never blamed her then, nor since.

In the literal story, there were no neighbors and thus no neighboring women who would come to fan me, as the poem would have you believe.

Many years later as I began to write the poem, I knew that it had to be about the burning and the dreamlike healing, and NOT about pain or casting blame and not about feeling sorry for myself.  In this poem, only the literal FACTS of the burning and treatment are LITERALLY true.  

Here is the poetry telling of The Burning incident as I attempt to get the reader to EXPERIENCE the event. It tells a parallel figurative story while attempting to EVOKE the real one. Thus, it is figuratively true.

THE BURNING                

By accident
my mother burned me
like the perch and pike  
she earlier had salted,
breaded, dropped in grease to brown
then blacken in her cast iron skillet
handed down and gifted
for her wedding everyone
pretended to remember.

When she moved to empty out
still sizzling residue,
I was there
between the turning and the
turn.  I think she said my name,
then afterward stayed silent
for all her years remaining,
not whispering, not ever
telling.

On my pallet quilt in daylight
I would dream my fever dream
to cool me where I burned,
my chest, my ribs a-blazing
from the trickling oil.

I lay and would not blame her
nor complain to neighbors
coming there to heal me with
cool poultices
of lime and linseed oil.
(I loved their sweet nurse-
whispering in tongues.)

My mother had them fan me
all that long hot summer
with their green palmetto fans,
while blue flies droned…
and I would sleep.                

(One August evening,
winds from far-off storms
took down our front yard trees.)
While I was healing
she would thank them,
making for them each
one print dress in standard size
and bold and yellow pattern.

When coolness came,
I moved from inside me
back to the kitchen
and the stove,
for her return
with apron on
to light the fires
and be my mother cooking.

Today I have forgiven me
as I touch my chest
where flesh of my burned
flesh is calm,
where blemishes remain,
yet ridges sloughed away
by slow-doctoring time
and lime, and linseed oil.

Everything is softened,
all the poultices,
the whispered tending,
all the fevered dreams
on pallets
where I would sleep
and cool to life
by green palmetto fans.

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