Stone Whisperer: Poems • Hendrik D. Gideonse

an exception

In offering to do reviews, I haven’t wanted to review free verse poets. The free verse aesthetic dominates poetry and offers ample venues for its writers. Traditional poets, on the other hand, have far fewer choices (if only because editors and critics don’t know how to read or judge traditional poetry). I also, generally, don’t find free verse as interesting or compelling. Free verse is much easier to write than traditional poetry; and that ethos (of avoiding the hard work) generally carries over into all aspects of the form: in its avoidance of metaphor, rhyme, figurative language and, well, all the stuff that takes time, discipline and practice. But, in matters of art, no rule is worth having that can’t be broken. So the challenge is this: not whether Gideonse’s poetry is up to my standards, but whether I am up to his.

plausible deniability

The first feature the reader will notice in Gideonse’s book is not his poetry, but the brief notes that precede each poem. All the notes are explanatory but differ in content. Some are autobiographical, for example, while others offer brief commentaries on a poem’s form or subject matter. What I find so interesting about this experiment is that it raises a whole host of questions: are the poems sufficient without them, are the poems changed with them, are they now a part of the poem? Do the prefatory material and the poem, in effect, create a larger unified work? I suspect Gideonse would argue that the poems are poems and should be read as independent; but, for the first time reader, these poems and their intros will always be inextricably bound. The only question is how the poems will be effected – not whether.

Are the poems enlarged or diminished?

Poets are notoriously cagey about their own poems (knowing that suggestiveness, after all, is at the heart of great poetry). The best poems are a starting point for the imagination, not an end point (which is why political poetry has such a short shelf life). The greatest poems are as unique to each reader as the reader’s themselves – no two will walk off with the same meaning. For the poets themselves, a refusal to comment allows for plausible deniability. Robert Frost derided attempts to read his poem, Stopping by Woods, as a suicide note, but he never out and out denied the interpretation – plausible deniability. Does Gideonse fence in his poems? Each reader will decide for themselves. As for myself: I have always found that knowing something about the poet adds immeasurably to the poem. However, hearing it from the horse’s mouth takes some of the mystery out of it. After all, some of the fun in reading poetry is the riddle – something that the great poet Richard Wilbur puts to masterful use. Some peculiar moments occur, such as when Gideonse’s diminutive four line poem, Symmetry, is preceded by a sizable, 23 lines of explication. One wonders, humorously, if the poem shouldn’t have prefaced the preface.

Having written all that, it’s worth mentioning that some of Gideonse’s prefaces are less revealing than others.

what you will & won’t find

You won’t find much in the way of traditional techniques.

There is very little figurative language, the imagery is thin, and there is little metaphor. Rhyme, even internal rhyme, is scant. There is no rhetorical heightening (as the poet Richard Wilbur refers to it). In fact, there is little that distinguishes these poems from short paragraphs of prose. But these are all stylistic choices – and to point them out isn’t criticism so much as description.

The Press release for Stone Whisperer gives us some background:

Gideonse is the retired (1996) University Professor and Dean (1972-86) of the University of Cincinnati College of Education. He is the former Director of Planning and Evaluation for the U.S. Office of Education Bureau of Research (1965-71), was professional staff to Senator Abe Ribicoff (1971-72), and taught at Bowdoin College (1963-4). He turned his summer home into his fulltime residence in 1998 and thereafter began the transition from academic and policy scholarship to writing poetry. (….)

Then, in the next paragraph, some of Gideonse’s artistic philosophy is shared:

He strives to make his poetry accessible to listeners and readers using introductions, word choice, phrasing, as one reader put it, to avoid the poem becoming something of a NYTimes crossword. Gideonse says, for example, that he doesn’t try to get published in the New Yorker; he’d rather amuse, enlighten, challenge, or encourage recognition and a sense of commonality.

So, if you love your poetry like a NYTimes crossword, Gideonse is not for you. But who ever thought that anti-establishment poetry would be the poetry that amuses, enlightens and encourages recognition? (For sure, the New Yorker Poetry editors seem to covet what I like to call cosmopolitan kitsch – a sort of turtleneck urbanity. ) But that a poet should feel the need to “defend” the simplicity of his poetry says something. So… Gideonse invites us to judge his poetry not by the standards of the language poet, the surrealist or conceptual poet, but by the degree to which he amuses us, enlightens, challenges, and connects with us.

the poetry

Gideonse’s title poem comes first and, like Frost’s The Pasture, one senses that Gideonse favors this poem both as an introductory poem , an invitation, and as a philosophical summing up. In the poem’s prefatory material, he writes: “Balancing Stones is a relatively new pastime for me, yet it has been an ever-present, quasi-meditative endeavor for more than a decade. I had done it, large stones and small, over and over…

Just as with stones, Gideonse could be decribing the writing of his own poetry.

…she asked hiim
How he’d balanced all those hefty, jagged rocks
On their narrowest points,
To stand however briefly as silent sentinels on crag and ledge,
Full of stored energy subject to release by a breath of wind,
The brush of the herring gull’s wing…

Are we to think of his poems like those rocks, hefty and jagged, balanced on their narrowest points? And are his readers like the wind or the wing of the herring gull, momentary visistors who will release the stored energy within them?

Readers may find that Gideonse later poems don’t quite live up to the sentinel-like imagery of this first poem – the flinty, almost desolate imagery of crag and ledge. In truth, that first impression is very different from the quotidian subject matter of some of his poetry, such as Still Type A, a laundry list of mundane chores with a gently humorous punch line.

But Stone Whisperer nevertheless displays what Gideonse, at his best, is capable of – building a poem on a central metaphor, symbol or parable – the allegorical poem. Many of the greatest poems in the English language are allegorical poems (poems of allegory or parable), such as Frost’s Birches or Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci. It’s one of the few traditional techniques that modern poets haven’t completely discarded, but I still wouldn’t mind seeing more.

Another, in a similar vein, is the poem On a Twisted Sledge Norwottuck’s Called to Rest. Gideonse writes: “Senior year at Amherst I took my fiance for a hike and spring picnic… It was on that hike I saw the rusting sledge impaled by a heavy stand of laurel and set myself the challenge of writing a poem whose rhyme scheme evoked the timeless spirals of creation and decay.” It’s unclear whether this poem was written much later, remembering the hike and the sledge, or written while Gideonse was, presumably, in his twenties. In any case, the poem is one of the few in which Gideonse experiments with more traditional techniques. My own guess is that this is a youthful poem. One finds many of the mistakes associated with younger poets when they first try their hand at rhyme. Notice the grammatical inversion in the second line:

The earth calls back her own,
The straight now gray grain ages grown

The grammar, contorted for the sake of the rhymes own and grown, somewhat confuses the meaning of the line. Worse yet, two lines later one finds the sort of linguistic contrivance that makes more experienced poets cringe.

Iron bleeding into wood and ground
(How dragged here, left near this peak so deep.

And so the poem goes on. Gideonse’s traditional technique, at least in his youth, left something to be desired. In fairness to Gideonse (and to all of us and our youthful poems) I’m glad that he included it. Many poets relegate youthful folly to the oblivion of a shelf or desk drawer. For all its youthful eagerness (and I am assuming that this was a poem written in his youth) the poem shares the same love of detail that readers will find in his later poems (along with some of its drawbacks).

the imagery

Gideonse’s poems are rich with an eye for color, contrast shape, shade and detail.

These qualities are most effective in a poem like Come Spring…

Each year framed a perfect case
Of dandelion lawn in spring –
As Barbara D. would say,
Millions and millions of yellow dandellions –
A molten flow of sunny fire before the door
So solid each year it could only light the
Darker corners of any soul who saw it…

This is Gideonse at his best. The reader won’t find much in the way of extended metaphor, the poetic conceit, or any of the other more complex forms of imagery (such as one might find in Robert Frost’s poetry). The metaphorical description of dandelions in the “molten flow of sunny fire” is, to me at least, an all too rare occurrence. Gideonse’s feel for imagery is very matter-of-fact, unadorned, and almost entirely visual. If we separate imagery into Visual, Aural, Smell, Taste, and Touch, Gideonse is an almost exclusively visual poet. For instance, nowhere in this otherwise lovely poem, does Gideonse mention the smell of dandelions , the touch of them, their texture, moistness, or softness. There is nothing aural. We don’t hear, feel or taste the wind. But in this respect, Gideonse isn’t all that different from other poets I’ve reviewed – like Annie Finch.

That said, there are exceptions. Gideonse’s senses come to life in his erotic poetry. It’s not too hard to guess at what makes this poet’s heart race. The reader enters a different world. Consider Dandelion Seed Puffs:

The silky sepia tones of your skin,
Sensuous curve on curve,
So smooth, were my fingers tongues,
They would slide over you
As easily as an infant downs Junket.
When we held each other in late evening
And finally in early morning’s quiet and warmth,
We were two dandelion puffs
One interweaving with the other…

Or First Fruit:

Inclining lightly to my right
I turned your face toward me
And touched your yielding lips with mine.
An instant later I saw myself
Raising up my chin
Lest one ripe drop of liquid plum
Thus burst upon my mouth
Race down my neck untasted.

Or First Kisses

Playful?
But of course!
Yet unlike any kiss I’d ever given
Or taken before,
They were a velvet hook,
A honeysuckle flute
Summoning the bee in me.

While the imagery is still primarily visual, Gideonse is engaged with more than the plain fact of what he sees. Some readers may wish for more poetry on the same sensual plane (I do), but the straightforwardness of Gideonse’s imagery is in keeping with his stated desire to offer a poetry that is, above all, ‘accessible and that ‘encourages recognition’. And if there’s any other flaw in Gideonse’s heavy reliance on one sense, it’s that so much visual detail and observation sometimes has a “grocery list” quality to it.

Now they crouched together above the frame,
They seek to measure, fit, cut, raise,
and enclose in just one month.
One hand clasps tape,
a second the square,
a third holds post on beam,
a fourth scribes on the line
defined by the post’s edge… [Love Abuilding]

Leading used to be important to me.
Command was almost second nature,
Intelligence a knife,
Or sometimes glue,
Or leverage or spring a rusted thread,
Or move a boulder from here to there,
And words were Archimedean levers… [Pancake]

This former maker of rockets and stars;
A man of fancy;
A present-day gardener of rock,
Who cultivates his granite
And grows his obelisks and spires, his steps and pavers,
And schools still smaller stones to curves and spiral forms
That hold his flowers, squash, and more, tight to the living stone
And finds water for their lives in quarry filled;

Whose youngest child will etch and polish,
Or work with feathers, silver, shells and such…. [How Much More Do You Need to Know?]

They were finely calibrated sets
Of archeologically defined – and precisely recalled – strata.
The chairs cradled the lanky, solid frame
Whose life force smoldered for ideas and words,
And the worlds those words defined,
Or shook,
Or split,
Or built,
Or canted ever slightly out of whack,
Or blew to smithereens. [Tendrils]

It’s not that the individual poems don’t justify the writing, but the pattern reveals a habit of thought that will appear again and again. It’s the voice of the poet in intimate conversation, one who doesn’t feel compelled to finish the story, but relishes the journey and considers the evening young. I sometimes wish for the single, well-placed image – the image that startles and powerfully suggests – but I appreciate Gideonse’s obvious enjoyment in the richly superfluous.

poetic asides

And that brings me to the way these poems are written. If these were narrative poems, such piling on would sink them. A good narrative depends on momentum (especially poetry), and episodes of syndetic and asyndetic descriptiveness are the death of narrative flow. Gideonse’s poems aren’t narrative. They’re not confessional. Each one is more like an avuncular aside – one might call it Anecdotal Poetry. There is a thread of geniality and comfortable humor that strings these poems together, so much so that the entirety of the book has the feeling of a life told in anecdotes – accepting, unguarded and even intimate. Here is how Dictionary.com defines the anecdote: A short account of a particular incident or event of an interesting or amusing nature, often biographical. And that simple, short definition, ably describes the majority of Gideonse’s poems.

Gideonse’s poetic aim is, I think, to engage without pretense.

The price paid for that lack of pretense? I can’t help notice, sometimes, the smarmy rhetorical flourishes, the gratuitously inverted grammar, the unambitious imagery and language, but it isn’t helpful to criticize the poet for what he or she doesn’t attempt. Better to ask if they’re true to their own standards. And to that extent, I think Gideonse accomplishes his goals. He speaks with clarity, honesty, and openness. His effort strikes me as that of a man who warmly invites the reader into his life and the inspiration drawn from it.

Gideonse doesn’t chase new ways to be new (as Frost put it). And his poetry is exactly the kind that editors, the self-appointed guardians of poetry’s quote unquote highest standards, summarily reject (preferring the unimpeachably generic). And it’s for poetry like Gideonse’s that self-publishing is essential and necessary for the health of modern poetry.

Shape Poetry

I’ve noticed that googlers frequently come to my blog expecting to find shape poems – could it be the name of my blog? It’s among the forms I haven’t properly discussed. Happily, Gideonse playfully offers a shape poem – humbly the first of its kind, I think.

Mycelium: My Town

I would harvest for the
people the outcomes of close attendance to the surround
and careful meditation thereon, but it’s like knowing there are mycelia
down there somewhere beneath the composting mulch of public
need and desire and
trying to guess when
mushrooms’
caps will
first break
through, in what
shape, what color,
and where.

Stone Whisperer P·O·E·M·S
by
Hendrik D. Gideonse

$17.95

The Gandalf Press
Available at Amazon.com

2 responses

  1. I learned a whole bunch last week when I read this first review of my first volume of poems. And I mean that as high praise, indeed; Gillespie lives up to his advance billing as an intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful, and careful observer of poetry on the contemporary scene. Of great importance to me (and every writer committed to improving his craft), he grounds his observations on the text and when he speculates on motivation or stance it always rests on what he sees in front of him on the page.

    He skewers my work where it is deserved (see below). But he also “gets” what I think I have been about and that is deeply gratifying. It is an affirmation that is appreciated all the more because he is seeing the work for the first time, unlike those of my writing group colleagues who have seen the poems (and the poetry) evolve even as they have come to know me very well over the years (which Gillespie has not).

    Interpret the above, therefore, as my answer to Gillespie’s opening question whether he is up to my standards given that he makes an exception in reviewing a volume of free verse when his rule has been to stick to poetry which uses meter, rhyme, and figurative language. My answer? A strong and appreciative YES!

    I knew when I first contemplated the idea of (mostly) brief explanatory comments preceding each poem that I was undertaking a departure from usual practice. I waged a protracted deliberation about introductory comments or concluding, purpose and intent, as well format that would support and hopefully not detract from what I thought I was about. In the end, I listened to the feedback I had received so often when reciting my poetry that brief introductions were very helpful to the listeners. But, in preparing the volume, as Gillespie suggests, a host of new questions arose I had to try and answer. A few of the poems I wanted to include as examples of both my craft and life were so “embedded” in experiences which went far beyond the poems themselves, I concluded more extensive introductions were almost mandatory. (Hence the 23 lines of explication Gillespie notes for one four line poem, or the full page of explanation Gillespie could have cited for a poetic form of discussant’s remarks in an academic forum.)

    Gillespie’s right on the mark with his observations. A host of issues get raised by the approach I took but he engages with them in a reflective manner I found both fair and satisfying.

    Gillespie’s focus on the first poem, Stone Whisperer, which gave the volume its title, was enlightening. I thought it was a good poem to lead off with, both because I thought it well crafted but also because it captured an important set of dimensions about my life. What I confess I wasn’t aware of until he lent it focus was the extent to which it was emblematic of the approach much of the rest of the poetry in the volume takes. That was a “good catch; it has given me something to think about it as I continue my efforts.

    Gillespie’s comments on “A Twisted Sledge” could not have been more trenchant. Yes, it was an early effort in my life. Yes, it was a bit forced and “left something to be desired.” But it was me at that time and I chose to present it as I had written it, and probably should have said so in the introduction. (It would have been interesting, however, if Gillespie had compared “Twisted Sledge” to “Dmitri’s,’ the third of just three poems in the volume with a structured rhyme scheme, in that case, symbolic of the two pairs of couples referenced in the poem. It was written within the past ten years; I like to believe it’s a better example of Gillespie’s preferences.)

    This is a good place to comment on the weight Gillespie’s assigns to rhyme and meter, and the discipline he clearly feels it imposes on the writer. “Free verse, “ he says, “is much easier to write than traditional poetry. . .[the ethos of free verse is] avoiding the hard work. . .” Even as part of me rebels at hearing the struggle I have engaged in as I’ve tried to become at least competent in writing what I consider poetry is “avoiding the hard work,” I have to admit that the structure of a sonnet or (even more damning ) a villanelle is enough to drive me crazy. In fact, when Gillespie some weeks ago posted a new villanelle on PoemShape I was inspired to try writing one of my own because it seemed suited, as structure, to an insight I had had as I carried out my Class Secretary responsibilities for Amherst’s Class of ‘58. I got into it deep; I even dreamed about it twice (which helped cement the villanelle’s basic structure in my brain!), but I had to give it up, finally, as a lost cause, though I have not yet successfully crafted a satisfactory free verse expression. The point isn’t that free verse isn’t hard work; it’s just another kind of hard work. I liken it to my inability to “get” tweeting. It’s a mode of expression that my youngest son (36) seems to have mastered that just passes me by. It’s almost like a different language form. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate sonnets or villanelles; they’re just not the kind of work I want to do. But what I do want to do is work, too, and it would be nice to see it recognized as such. Finally, at one point Gillespie notes, not unfairly, that “there is little to distinguish these poems from short paragraphs of prose.” I’ve wrestled with that on more than one occasion. And I’ve come down on the side of thinking of them as poems, presenting them on the page and at readings as poems, and solving the resulting rhythmical and phrasing puzzles the format generates for me. (And consider, as well, who would come to hear a writer present “short paragaphs of prose”??)

    Gillespie accurately ascribes to me a mental frame that looks kindly on lists. I’m indebted to the observation. I was not unmindful of it. And he’s obliged me to think on it some more. Thanks!

    Likewise, his review makes much (maybe too much?) of the dominance of the visual among the
    senses available to us. Admittedly, the visual is a very strong element in my writing. A lot of my poetry could be understood as attempts to write things in a way that enables others to see things I have seen and profited from or enjoyed or been wowed by. But there is skin in my poems, and taste, and sound, and smell as well. But I’m grateful for the observation, for it tells me I have some work to do here, too.

    What tells me that what I have presented has in the main “worked” as I would have hoped is when Gillespie concludes that my poetic aim is “to engage without pretense” (although I’d quibble with some of the words he employs to suggest at what price) and when he quotes Frost (almost as satisfying a reference as seeing my volume displayed at one bookstore directly facing a volume by Pablo Neruda!) by saying I’m not chasing new ways of being new. This all tells me Gillespie has understood what I’m trying to do. I am pleased with and profited by his review.

    • The reviewer reviewed. :-)

      I meant to comment on Dmitri’s but the poem slipped through my fingers… darn it. And Hendrik, keep working on that Villanelle. Don’t give up. They practically write themselves once you’ve written the crucial couplet.

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