Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ “Between the World and Me” is a powerful book. While reading the last chapter I noticed a rhythmic drive like poetry has. This fits the definition of prose poetry, “a piece of writing in prose having obvious poetic qualities, including intensity, compactness, prominent rhythms, and imagery.” With a little work, I found the form of poetry, line breaks that don’t necessarily follow sentence structure. Here is my imagining of the the last paragraph as poetry. I’ve read it several times at poetry open mics and it works. Last night I redid it with line breaks from memory. It is part of an open letter to his son, Samori. The Mecca refers to Howard University and its community.

I drove away from the house
  of Dr. Jones, thinking of you.
I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori,
  because they must ultimately stop themselves.

And still I urge you to struggle.
  Struggle for the memory of your ancestors.
Struggle for wisdom, for the warmth of The Mecca.
  Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather,
for your name.

But don't struggle for the Dreamers. 
  Hope for them.  Pray for them, if you are so moved. 
But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.
  The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves,
to understand that the field for their Dream,
  the stage where they have painted themselves white,
is the deathbed for us all.  The Dream is the same habit
  that endangers the planet, the same habit
that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.

I saw these ghettos driving back from Dr. Jones's home.
  They were the same ghettos I had seen in Chicago
all those years ago, the same ghettos where my mother was raised,
  where my father was raised.

Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos—
  the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores,
crumbling housing—and I felt the old fear.

Through the windshield I saw
  the rain coming down in sheets.

I’ve never been to Chicago or Howard University. In my own mind/imagination, the image in the second to last stanza is 12th St. in East Austin near Chicon. There are a number of Black churches within a mile of here, though none are visible.

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Covers and Remakes

I certainly enjoy hearing a cover of someone else’s song, but what really excites me is a group or an artist remaking a song in their own imagining.

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

T.S. Eliot

Interestingly, this is a reworking of a meme that goes back at least to 1892. Mature artists take something someone else did and make it their own, i.e. steal it. Joe Cocker did this with most of his hits, e.g. “With a Little Help from my Friends” when done by The Beatles is a mid-tempo pop song, by Joe Cocker, it’s a slow blues or lament.

“Into the Mystic” has wondrously ambiguous lyrics. I enjoyed hearing the original. It’s ever better when done by more mature artists, e.g. the Allman Brothers Band. Even more fun is a re-working is a different style, e.g. Greensky Bluegrass’s bluegrass version. Watching the video, it’s clear they are reworking a number of aspects, bluegrass with fog machines, solid body electric upright bass, and a lead singer that looks like he’s living on the street. This is not Bill Monroe’s bluegrass.

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Dare Devil

He bungee jumped the tallest bridge,
the one in China.  It required
a lot of lies to authoritarian
authorities.  The thrill
was shorter than he expected.
Elsewhere in China, someone built
a higher one.  The authorities
are on to him.  It will be hard.
He's working on it.

For sustanence until then, he
flies a wing suit from whatever
is tall with an unobstructed view.

When time comes, he plans
to ride the thermals
in Hell.

“Dare Devil” first appeared in Austin Best Poetry 2017-2018, available on

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Earth Lords/Spirits

In one of his memoirs, Gary Snyder tells of moving to Kyoto, Japan. After a week or two, he noticed the city was not welcoming him. Kyoto is many things, including the Imperial capital for over a thousand years, but most relevant to his situation, it is a city of three thousand shrines from temples spanning a city block to a simple shrine in a niche on a back alley. After a long day visiting the major shrines and whatever other shrines he passed, Kyoto welcomed him.

Diana Conces, an Austin poet, recently read one of her poems about arriving in New England by air, but not really feeling arrived. After due consideration, she stopped at a road side stand and had a lobster roll with pineapple cole slaw. With a local specialty inside, she had arrived.

Beyond these two examples, how to deal with dislocation of place? Local foods and local gods/spirits/lords differ but both were part of the location’s fame. If I was visiting San Francisco, I’d go for the food to settle in, probably a sandwich of the local salami or cold cuts on sourdough french bread. Best consumed, weather permitting, somewhere you can see or smell the fog and hear the foghorns blow.

In Austin, Texas? Probably walk around Lady Bird Lake, eating a taco while on your way to pay your respects to either Stevie Ray Vaughn’s or Willie Nelson’s statue.

New York City? On my one visit there with my grandparents as a kid, we went by the Empire State Building and peered up at it from the car. Now days? Probably something involving local bagels, a mixed drink, and a Jewish deli.

In Gary Snyder’s case, it’s easy to say he visited the thin spaces where heaven and earth are closer than usual. How do you find the thin spaces in a new location?

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Down by the dying park, on the bench,
sits a man with a story.  It's heavy.
He tells the story to anyone
who comes within earshot, even
the pigeons.  At first, he had bread
to toss.  They came and he told
the story to them.  They don't come
any more.  He no longer brings
the bread.

After a person heard the story,
you could see him brighten a bit.
After a bird, less so.  The air,
hardly at all.  At this rate,
it will take a long time
to tell the story down
to something he can carry.

This poem originally appeared in Austin Best Poetry 2017-2018, available on

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Level of Difficulty

Poetry contest winners are frequently about violent, traumatic, scary circumstances. I could imagine or make up such, but the result probably wouldn’t ring true. Why spend time and money pursuing something that’s unlikely?

My wife and I recently sponsored a contest in the local poetry society’s annual contest. It was partly a reaction to too many perennial winners that live elsewhere. We called it the “Poetry of Presence” contest and restricted it to the greater metro counties, hoping for poems like those in the anthology of the same name.

All entries were on the topic as stated, not necessarily as we expected. Several poems in the anthology are about grief, but none are really dark. One of our entries was quite dark, major depression. One fit the wonderful subtitle of Gathering Storm Magazine, “the Dark, the Light, and Everything In Between”. The darkest poem was skillfully written, but hard to like.

It is a challenge to write authentically about dark experiences. Horror stories are a different category. Judging a poetry contest, like judging gymnastic and diving contests, difficulty has to be taken into account. We chose to declare a tie for first place, the dark and the light. Everything in between took second. Another light poem third.

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Krister Stendahl on Religous Pluralism

Krister Stendahl, Harvard Divinity School professor, later Bishop of Stockholm, while famous among theologians for his writings on the Apostle Paul, is more widely known for his three rules of religious understanding:

  1. When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for holy envy.

By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith. (from Wikipedia)

In the eyes of God, we are all minorities. That’s a rude awakening for many Christians, who have never come to grips with the pluralism of the world.

Krister Stendahl

Holy Envy is the title of Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest book. It is excerpted in the Christian Century in My holy envy of other faith traditions.

Holy envy alerted me to things in another religion that were neglected in my own.

Barbara Brown Taylor
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LeGuin on Dystopia

Earlier I wrote about several of Ursula K. LeGuin’s books in Dystopias with Light Visible. In Words Are My Matter (an excellent collection of her essays about writing, book reviews, etc.) she says:

Dystopia is by its nature a dreary, inhospitable country. To its early explorers it held all the excitement of discovery, and that still fills their descriptions, keeping them fresh and powerful–E. M. Forester’s “The Machine Stops,” Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But for the last thirty years or more, Dystopia has been a major tourist attraction. Everyone goes there and writes a book about it. And the books tend to be alike, because the terrain is limited and it nature is monotonous.

Ursula K. LeGuin

She admits that she doesn’t do negative book reviews for first-time/beginning writers. Established writers coasting on their reputation are fair game. Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea is such a book. He is a professor of creative writing at Stanford. In her review she skewers it for all writing style and no substance/content.

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Hazards of Self-Education

For the relentlessly curious and those moving faster than the speed of communication (a metaphorical sound barrier), self-education is a necessity. As someone with an education in programming and who often worked just behind the cutting/bleeding edge I’ve experienced both sides. Formal education, at least up to the graduate level, is largely Just In Case education. No one knows the future, so here are a lot of things that might be useful. After we leave school, learning is largely Just In Time, what programmers call Page Fault Learning: work until you hit something you don’t know, stop, take it into memory from wherever you find it, and continue.

In a conversation with the son of a friend, he complained about having to learn biology in high school. He didn’t need to know that. He was going to be a bicycle mechanic. He is now a doctoratal level computer scientist across town. We both are 1800 miles from where that conversation took place.

The down side of self-education is that our education has holes in it, sometimes serious holes. At best it means “re-inventing the wheel”, except of course we aren’t the original inventor and may have a false sense of ownership.

Indeed, one of my major complaints about the computer field is that whereas Newton could say, “If I have seen a little farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants,” I am forced to say, “Today we stand on each other’s feet.” Perhaps the central problem we face in all of computer science is how we are to get to the situation where we build on top of the work of others rather than redoing so much of it in a trivially different way. Science is supposed to be cumulative, not almost endless duplication of the same kind of things.

Richard Hamming
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The Third Self: Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. She has also written many essays on poetry and the artist’s task. Maria Popov’s Brain Pickings is an excellent way to learn about writers and their writings. The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life is marvelous advice for the working writer: beginner, aspiring, or fully engaged.

As a latecomer to writing and poetry, I know I need education and an MFA is not it. Essays like in The Third Self, Mary Oliver’s Advice on Writing, and The Effortless Effort by Jane Hirshfield are helpful. They are reminders or articulations of what I already know about the writer’s/artist’s path.

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