This week's poem from:
The Kingdom of Possibilities
By Tim Mayo
Frame of Reference with Sun Breaking Through
If the truth be known, I lied about the sun: how its
light shafted through the parting clouds as if
an unknown entity were blessing the landscape below,
the curving rows of grain molded to the hill’s shape,
how the field dipped out of sight then rose again
from an unseen vale climbing like the pelted back
of some animal yet to be classified: phylum
Even the landscape I made up
cobbling together parts of Breughel with memories
of a child’s book, The Farmer in the Dell, Old MacDonald,
the perfect rows of corn corduroying into the horizon,
and somewhere midfield and off-center to the left
a red tractor tries to gain the top of the hill.
Back to the sun:
I could have just left it there,
the high drama of its shafts stabbing
inspiration into the brown and green land,
demonstrating how divine intervention
plays out its not so subtle hand,
and you could have gone home,
rolled down your bed for the night
and pulled up the covers against the dark
knowing that the unconsciousness of sleep
was still safe, and the brush strokes
of my hand were benevolent, as always,
but I have left clouds, instead, and you must
sort through the sky as best you can.
One way to read Tim Mayo’s “Point of Reference” is as a commentary on the study and practice of literature today: on the canon, and the contemporary jettisoning of the canon for lesser known, more inclusive, works. The canon’s long history of interaction with the Divine provided a central point of view that everyone trained in the western classical tradition could accept or dispute. The contemporary desire to eradicate the tradition for the inclusion of other paths and voices is a decentralizing force stripping away traditional notions of what “good” and “great” literature is. Readers who value the canon and the canon’s interaction with the Divine as part of their point of reference find it unsettling when the canonical traditions are stripped away and devalued. As a poet who obviously has studied the canon, Mayo has created his own song of Innocence and Experience here with his two landscapes, one of the Ideal and the Divine, vs. the natural and mundane world where without such an ordering principle, life is more difficult to “sort through.”
The first stanza’s landscape, with the references to Breughel (and hence Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”) and the “rows of corn corduroying into the horizon” represents the lost Ideal, some bucolic, pastoral wonderland filled with plenty and light where even the vales can be neatly filed in orderly categories. This is the place of fantasy, the Ideal that we hold every autumn against that only exists in art or recalled in softly glowing “memories of a child’s book;” the good and orderly that we often tend to seek. For literature, the Ideal gave readers parameters through a simple comparison of the new work with the old. If the newly created book or poem fit the rules or broke the rules in interesting ways, then the work might be designated important. If the play or novel was not easily classified, then the work was most likely excluded, as has been the case with many works by women or writers outside the dominant norm.
The second stanza, which is an unmaking of the first, toys with our doubts, our fears and our uncertainty in this not-so-perfect world. This stanza provides an adult world where the stories from our childhood may not sooth us as we lie down to sleep, and where “divine intervention” may not clearly show “its not so subtle hand.” Where what we have been taught does not always explain the world we see around us. A world where the creator’s hand might not be “benevolent, as always.” Instead, the stanza represents a world filled with doubt and unclear motives. The only thing certain about the unmade landscape is the clouds that one must “sort through . . . as best you can.” For literature, the current inclusive, subjective acceptance of a wide variety of work as important has had a similar consequence of creating a great quantity of “clouds” that must be sorted through. Without the centralizing force of the canon, who is to determine the “good” when none of the traditional rules still apply? Since questions of what makes a poem good have changed dramatically in the last one hundred years, especially since the rise of modernism, it’s not surprising to find a poet struggling with the topic in his work and coming to the final conclusion, as the speaker states, that each of us “must sort through the sky as best you can” even without that secure frame of reference.
Q & A with Poet Tim Mayo
Q: Since I’m talking about the canon in this reading of you poem, I’m going to ask you about your education in literature and writing. Has your experience been “classical” or “non-traditional”? Is there a particular poem or poet whose work brought you to poetry?
Tim Mayo: I don’t remember getting interested in poetry until I was a sophomore in High School. I remember that one poem I showed to my English teacher was an imitation of Sandburg’s poem about the fog creeping in on little cat’s feet––or however it goes. I was in a military school in northern Indiana at the time, so Sandburg makes sense. Soon after that I left military school and went to a very progressive school in Western Massachusetts which emphasized the arts. It was at that point that I really began to read poetry and came across the two poems which probably I first fell in love with: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Howl.” So, although I don’t think of my own work as being eclectic, I seem to have always read eclectically, and my tastes in poetry seem to be wide enough to answer your question by saying “non-traditional.” It’s interesting that I’ve given you two longish poems and I never write long poems (never say never), but these drew me to poetry and I still hold them dear to me, but now along with so, so many others.
Q: How do you view the canon as part of your growth and development as a writer? In another poem from the book, I saw a bit of resistance to (and eventual embrasure of) the confessional mode, you seem to concentrate more about these issues of “how to write” as a subject matter than many contemporary poets whose works I’ve read. Why do you feel this is an important subject for you?
Tim Mayo: When I was younger, except for imitating poets, I had no sense of the canon. Today, I would guess I am in the process of trying to become a part of it, but if we are all governed by (and we seem to try to be) Ezra Pound’s precept “Make it new,” then we are all trying to write against the canon or some sort of tradition we label as being old hat. Although even as I say that I think of what one of my teachers Liam Rector said about trying to recognize and honor through your art the poets who preceded you. I think I am just stumbling along. There are some of my poems which at least begin as direct descendants of other poems, but then they seem go their own way or speak antiphonally to that poem out of which they grew. Compare the first two lines of “The Loneliness of Dogs” to “Musée des Beaux Arts” or read “At a Walmart in Southern New Hampshire” and then read Ginsberg’s “In a California Super Market.”
As for the confessional mode, which really is a ball and chain around the ankles of most poets writing today, I have taken the path of writing about what I know. This has meant that my poems are often anecdotes coming from something I have experienced and internalized to a point that the experience has an emotional weight and meaning for me. I don’t think I can write about something which doesn’t have that. But my intentions in writing about anything which has happened to me is not to recount my life, but hopefully to find and convey to the readers what it is about that particular experience which resonates for me and make it resonate for them as well. I’m looking to try and make universal observations out of individual and specific anecdotes. Boy does that sound highfalutin. The poem I think you referred to in your question “The Confessional Poet’s Confession” does poke fun at that confessional mode, but at the same time makes a serious confession and observation about how we (us poets––or actually anyone) often never look beyond our own personal pain to recognize the experience of others and be aware that we aren’t the only people suffering out there. It does happen to twist the joke into a serious (at least serious sounding) confession of what seems to be the speaker’s fault in a failed relationship. I’m not sure I want to say more about it.
Why do I write about writing? I guess it has something to do with a wish to be able to say or describe something, a phenomenon, so exactly that everyone just says, “Yes! That’s it!” That doesn’t really answer your question, but I think it is the wish that I might be able to do it someday in a poem. That how “it” was expressed would seem so absolutely right, no one could or would want to think of an alternative way to express it. Of course this is idealism, sheer fantasy or just the impossible at best.
Q: Who do you look to as “good” poets whose work you admire and might emulate?
Tim Mayo: Of the living poets whom I admire, there are many more than I can list. In any case here are a few. I put Charles Wright and Stephen Dunn pretty much at the top of the pile. This in itself is a quandary. For example, I am an atheist and Wright, I would say, is not, but I admire his meditations on all this as well as his sheer mastery of the line, his marriage of imagery and sound. As for Dunn, I think it is his poignant observations of secular life and the psychological truths he manages to splay open that I like. He is very deft at revealing these things. Ted Kooser can bring things to a heightened vivid description, but not so much about psychological things as making physical observations (Delights & Shadows). I am also a fan and devotee of many other poets. Mary Oliver, though to me I come away thinking she is writing the same poem over and over. I mean we all do that (my writing about writing is probably just that), but we usually try to disguise it (I obviously didn’t), and pretend we have a wider range than we have. She doesn’t which in some ways is very honest, but her complacency about it may not necessarily make for great art. You could say Wright is writing the same poem over and over, but I don’t seem to get bored with him, if he is. I also like Robert Haas. I studied under Henri Cole and love his work. As I do with other teachers of mine, April Bernard, Ed Ochester and the late Liam Rector whose work I’ve just begun to appreciate. I love the passion of Martín Espada. How he can make poetry out of politics which is something very few poets can do. I’m not much for making a hierarchy, I love so many different poets for so many different things, and I think if you do, then it is easier for you to see new paths to follow as an artist. Not that I am necessarily following any new paths, but I might start to soon.
Of the dead poets. There are too many, and I’m going to leave out many who are important to me as I have done with the living, but here we go. I do see Dickenson and Whitman as the true mother and father of American poetry. Everything we seem to have and do comes from them. I love Keats’s lushness of sound and imagery, Donne’s ability to construct conceits. I love Auden, Yeats, Shakespeare, of course, and to go American again, Williams, Hart Crane though the latter is too reckless with his poems. I don’t think he ever developed a unifying sense of a poem. He never lived long enough for that to possibly happen. I wouldn’t try to emulate Williams. I think his legacy writing in American speech patterns both freed us from the artifice of 19th century diction which you see a bit of in Hart Crane, but it ended up leading us down the path (through no fault of his own) to where we emulate speech so much in our poems, it’s hard to recognize them as poetry and it’s hard to insert anything which is startling vis à vis lush sound combinations (because people don’t talk that way) and it is hard to write something with truly startling imagery (also because people don’t talk that way) and well wrought metaphors or conceits since that is something which doesn’t happen in normal speech, because normal speech is not well thought out nor planned. But most of all this emulation of speech has lead to a total break down of any sense of line and stanza. I confess I may well be as guilty of this as anyone else. However, when I open a literary journal, I can read a poem in tercets or quatrains where syntax and sense have absolutely no correlation with the poet having organized the poem in either tercets or quatrains. The poet doesn’t even seem to be writing against them, he/she seem more to be writing and just cutting them up in lines that he’s gathered into threes or fours because that’s how he/she “feels” the poem should be. A little too much feeling one’s way through the poem. This I find to be also true for the way poets organize the line unit in a lot of poems. The reasons why a line ends where it does mystifies me at best in many poems I read. Again I don’t necessarily exclude myself from this. I struggle trying to justify to myself why the line should or should ot end where it does (the curse of open poetry/free verse) and I am probably in the end just as guilty as those I am criticizing.
Q: Of course there are many ways of reading “Frame of Reference,” and another of the interesting ones is that the poem plays with ideas of truth and trust between the writer and the reader, and also of the writer’s ability to be both creator and destroyer for the small space of the poem. So, how did this poem come into being?
Tim Mayo: As I mentioned I am an atheist and this poem seemed to develop out of an imagined one way conversation between God and some poor indivisible mortal under God. This was my governing impulse behind the poem, but it came out more as an artist (of which you can think of God as an artist) creating something designed to keep you wondering, hence the final couplet.
I think your mention of “trust between the writer and the reader” strikes a chord. I have always tried when I am writing to imagine that one of my readers whom I will reach is someone who is not “literary” and who may have very little experience with poetry. So I try when I make allusions to something literary in a poem that it doesn’t occupy a place in the poem where the reader comes away not understanding the gist of the poem because he doesn’t know what I was referring to. Oddly enough my poem “The Third Little Pig” may the big exception to that principle. I doubt the poem can be understood if you don’t know the story, but a poem based on “The Three Little Pigs” is very different from one based on some obscure reference to a lesser known work which only someone with an academic background would pick up on even though the principle is the same. I have had several people come up to me after either having read my book or after a reading I’ve given and said “I don’t usually read or like poetry, but your poems got to me.” Those comments mean a lot to me, but so does praise from the community of the well read. What can I say? I want it all.
Q: Any other thoughts on poetry?
Tim Mayo: I guess in the end it all boils down to what we think poetry is for. To me it must on some level delight the reader not through just a clever verbal manipulation, but also on a deeper more thoughtful level through metaphor and imagery. I think it also needs to provide some sort of comfort and satisfaction. Not the kind of comfort which says everything will be all right, but the kind which says to the reader you’re not alone in your troubled thoughts, that there’s at least this one other person who wrote this poem who has also experienced the same anguish you have. Or close to it. As for satisfaction, well, I think of that as the reaction the reader has when he/she says “yes, that’s it!”
Three More Poems to Note:
"Naming the Emotions"
Tim Mayo holds an ALB, cum laude, from Harvard University and an MFA from The Bennington Writing Seminars. His poems have appeared in Atlanta Review, Arbutus , Avatar Review, Babel Fruit , Big Toe Review , The Chrysalis Reader, Del Sol Review , 5 AM, Inertia Magazine, Mannequin Envy , Poet Lore, The Rose & Thorn Literary E-zine ,Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac.
Among the awards his poetry has garnered are two International Merit Awards from Atlanta Review; he was also a finalist in the 2007 WinningWriters.com War Poetry Contest and twice nominated for the 2008 Best of the Net Anthology. In 2000 he was a semi-finalist in the “Discovery/The Nation Poetry Contest and has been awarded two fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center’s annual Vermont Artist’s Week.
His chapbook The Loneliness of Dogs (Pudding House Publications 2008 ) was a finalist in the WCDR 2008 Chapbook Challenge in Ajax, Ontario, Canada, and his most recent publication The Kingdom of Possibilities (Mayapple Press) was a semi finalist for the 2009 Brittingham and Pollock Awards, a finalist for the 2007 Main Street Rag Award and lastly, a finalist for 2009 May Swenson Award. He is a former member of the Brattleboro Literary Festival author committee and lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.
For more about this poet see his webpage: Tim Mayo and at his Red Room Author Page
Purchase information: Mayapple Press and elsewhere on the web.
Upcoming on Pages Rustle: work from Carol Levin's Red Rooms and Others