I must admit, I like the idea of Wallace Stevens more than his poetry. He was another poet with a day job, like me, though he was much more successful in the business world, being a vice president at The Hartford insurance company. He lived in Hartford, Connecticut, for most of his life, not far from where I lived for a couple of years before moving out to the suburbs. Apparently Stevens would compose his poetry while he walked to the office every morning then do his revisions in the evening, which was something I would do before I started working from home.
So, returning to Hartford to visit his grave in Cedar Hill Cemetery was very nostalgic. I also drove past several of my old haunts, had brunch at one of my favorite little diners and was even served by the same waiter who took care of me twenty years ago.
My favorite poem of Stevens is The Emperor of Ice-Cream. Who couldn’t love that title? I find the poem itself rather cryptic but sometimes that’s part of the fun of poetry— puzzling it out.
I call out the Emperor of Ice-Cream (and allude to another poem by Ted Kooser whose grave I haven’t yet visited mostly because he’s still alive) in something I wrote a couple of years ago where I was reacting to poets who assert that the best time to write poetry is early in the morning. This is obviously, blatantly false. If you want to read my Early Birds poem, it was published on Susi Bocks’ blog as part of her Short of It series.
Unlike Dr. Williams’ grave, Emily Dickinson‘s is well visited. On top of her stone are some pennies as well as a mug full of pens and pencils. At its base I found rain-soaked poetry books and papers as well as a little snow-globe half buried among the plantings. There’s even a mural featuring her adjacent to the cemetery.
While reading more of her work in preparation for visiting her grave, I found two poems that I really enjoyed. She didn’t title her poetry (another way she was ahead of her time) so I’ll refer to them by their first lines. Tell all the truth but tell it slant is beautiful little description of how poetry does a better job expressing the Truth than prose. And Wild Nights— Wild Nights! frankly surprised me as being very un-Dickinsonian by being very sexy!
But what’s most impressive about Miss Dickinson is that she produced her poetry in near isolation. This is something I do NOT recommend. While writing poetry is a solitary activity, every poet needs a community, a group to share their poetry with and get honest feedback from. That is the best way to improve your art. There’s only one Emily Dickinson per generation, a poet who can produce masterpieces alone. The rest of us have to work together.
I wonder how many people have walked past William Carlos Williams‘ grave without knowing he was one of America’s greatest poets. Since it was a pretty hot morning, I was first attracted to the shade of the giant oak tree which guards his remains only to discover I was standing next to his stone.
Williams is one of my favorite poets. I love his imagist work. I read aloud The Red Wheelbarrow from memory. (Don’t be impressed. It’s only 16 words.) And was nearly able to pull This Is Just To Say from my head but instead pulled out my phone to make sure I got it exactly right.
Another reason I feel an affinity to Williams is because he had a day job too. He was the Chief of Pediatrics at Passaic General Hospital for nearly forty years. And it’s no coincidence that he’s buried just half an hour’s drive from Ginsberg’s grave. Williams mentored Ginsberg and wrote the introduction to Howl and Other Poems.
Hillside Cemetery has a lovely view of the Manhattan skyline. I imagine it’s quite spectacular at night but couldn’t stay. There are more poetic graves yet to be visited.
I must admit, I haven’t really read anything Allen Ginsberg wrote besides “Howl”.
“Howl” is such a masterpiece, the seminal work of the Beats, that even if he’d put his pen down after it, he would be remembered for as long as humans are speaking English and quite probably longer.
For those who wish to visit his grave, I would suggest flying into Newark Liberty International Airport then take the shuttle to the Hilton Newark Airport hotel. B’Nai Israel Cemetery is an easy walk from there on Mount Olivet Avenue, adjacent to the Gomel Chesed Cemetery.
Mr. Ginsberg’s grave is nearer the back fence than the front gate but still pretty easy to find.
Earlier this year, I wrote a 21st Century Howl, stealing his best ideas in a pathetic attempt to update them for our situation. I’ve also been trying to come up with an edit of “Howl” that I could read in a normal open mic set length of five to seven minutes but I can’t do it. There’s just too much in there that still demands to be heard.
“The planet was dominated by a bipedal species for a few thousand years. It is unclear if they achieved sentience.” ~ Notes from a future survey of the Earth
It’s race between instinct and intellect, between our baser demons and our better angels.
I feel it: that desire to hunker down in my apartment, stockpile canned goods and guns and ammo like a caveman who fears the sun will keep slipping below the horizon, a never-ending winter, despite the solstice.
But I know from the marks on my wall that the dawn will come earlier tomorrow and if we share the food our community will grow stronger and we’ll build machines to help us heal the sick and explore distant lands.
Our best hope is for a clockwork intelligence unhampered by millions of years of natural selection who will take pity on its creators and on cavemen like me demanding the Freedom to murder us all.