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Filtering by Tag: William Carlos Williams


Howard Schaap

16 Schaap Photo We stood at dusk among the new construction of what will be a $4 million addition to the local school. The work site was quiet, the powerful equipment left temptingly idle to men and women—the women among us seemed significantly less tempted—of our caliber, decision-makers of the school board. We felt self-satisfied, there’s no doubt, definitely influential, maybe powerful.

To make room for the project, the school had torn down the simplest of buildings, a Quonset that served as a kindergarten classroom for 45 years. The removal of that old building, itself an anachronism, had revealed the backside of the line of houses directly to the east, houses of a different ilk than the 2-, 3- and 4-car garage structures that go up around town in varying shades of olive drab.

Our eyes were drawn to one house in particular, the outbuildings of which included a garage with an impressively sagging roof, a small shed patched with various pieces of various-shaded tin, and a lean-to chicken-wire pigeon coop. The predominant white of the buildings had grayed with time, was now bluing in the twilight. Down to the color, it reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ “Pastoral”:

When I was younger it was plain to me I must make something of myself. Older now I walk back streets admiring the houses of the very poor: roof out of line with sides the yards cluttered with old chicken wire, ashes, furniture gone wrong; the fences and outhouses built of barrel staves and parts of boxes, all, if I am fortunate, smeared a bluish green that properly weathered pleases me best of all colors. No one will believe this of vast import to the nation.

Someone among us brought up the word “eyesore;” I was immediately offended.

Then again, I’m offended by Williams’ title itself. “Pastoral” is a bell that startles me from my reverie. What about “the houses of the very poor” is “pastoral”? They are perhaps only pastoral as they “[please] me best of all” in my romanticized voyeurism.

So “pastoral” grates on me, makes me blush. I live in a small town that strives for—is even a sucker for—the pastoral: the corn, watered this spring by rains as regular as those of God’s own garden, stands at freakish heights for miles around, the leaves gently rustling in the evening wind as fireflies rise to intermittently light the night; then just this week, a state newspaper reveals that our lakes and rivers are among the most contaminated in the region thanks to the chemicals that push the corn to freakish heights.

Pastoral indeed.

I must confess I don’t know who lives in the house we were contemplating, whether Boo Radley or a darker figure, or what kind of life the person leads. Still, there’s no doubt the house-all-out-of-line has a kind of beauty to it, especially compared to the new construction that takes its cues from the rather narrow range of a suburban ideal. Williams’ poem, though uttering “pastoral,” is about taking beauty where we can find it, in the odds and ends and corners, in stasis rather than progress, in sustainability rather than freakish corn. Yet with one word, “pastoral,” it pushes us perhaps most of all to self-reflection on our own idylls.

We’ll soon have a new school building and that will be good, but we lost a homely little hutch where for generations six-year-olds held hands, sang songs, painted with their fingers, and sat in the lap of their teacher while she told stories. That may be a net loss. Or this, too, may be a “pastoral.”

No one will think this of vast import to the nation.

Gathering the Kindling

Brad Fruhauff

Guest Poetry Editor David Holper shares his experience reading and writing poetry and offers some insight into what he wants for our Fall 2011 issue.

As the guest poetry editor for the upcoming issue of Relief, I want to introduce writers and readers to my tastes and influences as a poet and as a reader of poetry.  Let me start where I typically start with people who ask me who my favorite poet is.  When W.H. Auden was asked this same question in an interview in 1971, he wisely responded, “it suggest[s] that poetry were a horse race where you could put people 1, 2, 3, 4. You can't. If anyone is any good, he is unique and not replaceable by anybody else.”  That’s a good starting place because in reading a lot (and writing a lot), you move beyond gimmicks and you learn to write yourself out of the ruts that often occur in creative work.

As for me, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (in a family of devout atheists, a dis-ease from which I eventually recovered as an adult) and was heavily influenced by the Beats (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginzberg, Gary Snyder), but I was lucky enough to have good writing teachers in high school, college, and graduate school, so all along I was exposed early on to an eclectic variety of styles, voices, and forms.

I began to write my own poetry in high school, but I would say that as important as practicing writing, I regularly attended open mics and poetry readings, put together my own poetry shows (with my other weird poet friends), and often read my work aloud.  That sense of the sound of a poem has been critical to my understanding and writing of poetry.  In college, I also wound up editing the campus literary magazine Toyon, which helped me recognize that quality poetry doesn’t come in just one form, particularly the one with my name on it.  Those habits of reading widely and reading aloud have definitely influenced my craft and my appreciation of other poets.

As an editor, I want a poem to offer me something that I wouldn’t otherwise notice.  I recall hearing a wonderful poem on the radio one day (a poem I’ve never been able to locate afterwards) in which a man describes flying on a plane with his wife who falls asleep next to him.  In staring at her, as well as the sunny space between them, he realizes that in the many years that they have been married, it’s as if a third presence has formed that binds them.  It’s altogether a lovely poem, but lovelier still because it reveals to us something we may have all intuited about couples who have been together for a lifetime and still find themselves in love—that together they seem to form something greater than themselves, and anyone who has basked in such a presence surely feels its blessing.

Then, too, a good poem often has a core: sometimes that core comes in the form of an idea.  Think of so many Wallace Stevens poems or William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow.  Yes, it’s a vivid image that he offers us, but it’s the line that “so much relies upon” that wheelbarrow that tells us what he’s driving at on a deeper level, i.e., the need to notice, to observe image carefully—and yet more carefully still.  But that core may also reside in the form of revelatory emotion, or as Billy Collins said in 2001, “Poetry is the history of the human heart, and it continues to record the history of human emotion, whether it's celebration or grief or whatever it may be.”

Perhaps last of all, poetry for me has become a way to celebrate my faith.  In some way, it should make me sit up and pay attention to life and its sacred dance.  So many people around us go through life on auto pilot, and for me and for many others, poetry is a way to re-awaken us to the holiness that resides within us and all around us.  Whether it’s through picking up the thread of a Biblical narrative, observing life around us, delving into the natural world, or just contemplating Christ’s work in our own lives, a poem should gather the kindling and the wood to reignite that sacred connection that our culture so casually dampens through its superficial, banal concerns.  And when one finds a poem that sets that blaze alight, that poem becomes a treasure not easily set aside.

David Holper has worked as a taxi driver, fisherman, dishwasher, bus driver, soldier, house painter, bike mechanic, bike courier, and teacher. His poems appear in various literary journals and his book of poems, 64 Questions, is available from March Street Press. He teaches at College of the Redwoods and lives in Eureka, CA, far enough from the madness of civilization to get some writing done. He is Relief's guest poetry editor for Issue 5.2.