Plainsong v 2

Years ago, when I was at Rice, I had a roommate named Fred who was very musical — he played the piano and guitar  and had a powerful but sweet tenor voice.   One evening, he claimed to me that he could sing anything, absolutely anything.  I challenged him and offered a textbook øn differential equations.  He opened it, and immediately began to sing the text beautifully, turning phrases like: ” the partial of y with respect to the partial of x” into lovely sounds.

I thought of Fred when I wrote the following song/poem.  It is meant to be sung (or chanted) aloud.


Once, I sang,
And the people came,
And they smiled at me and said:
“Sing, sing some ore.”

No more song.
My voice has lost its music,
And now the people are
Deaf, deaf to me.

I cannot hum.
Life has a hum
I cannot hear, or understand.
Noise, noise to me

I need song.
I must find a way
To rejoin that harmony
Lost, lost to me.

Old. Grown old.
Oh tell me, God
Why life must needs be linear?
Bend, bend a little.

I’ll be a child!
A child can laugh, a child can cry
If I can cry, the I can
Sing, sing some more.

My Father’s Face

I wrote the first version of this poem around twenty years ago in San Antonio, Texas. My late wife, a city councilwoman at the tine, was attending a National League of Cities convention, and I had accompanied her.

My father and stepmother drove up for the day from their home in Kingsville, about 180 miles to the south.   I hadn’t seen him for the best part of a year, and I was shocked by the change. True, he had grown more and more sedentary since he retired, but, despite some heart trouble, he had always seemed vigorous and healthy. He was almost eighty now, and for the first time he looked his age. His gait was halting; he needed a cane; and he seemed to have lost his interest in life’s pleasures.

The poem is a sonnet, the form that I usually turned to in those days to document troubling emotions. I was trying to understand what was going on.   What I didn’t know until after he died a few years later was that his heart condition was much more serious than he had been letting on to the family. (My father was a master of denial).   What I didn’t suspect until I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, was that he may have shared the condition. The “sudden, pointless stops” described in the poem were one of my major symptoms before I received treatment.   It would have been just like my father to notice new symptoms in his body and never bother to tell his doctors.



My father’s face looks like a rumpled sock;
His feet are slippered; in his hand a cane.
His gait is slow, with sudden, pointless stops.
I cannot watch him without shock.
“I’ve chosen this,” I expect him to explain.
Instead, he finds the nearest chair, and plops.
And I think: “Is this my fate? To live by pill?”
“To sit and wait for passing time to kill?”

And yet, when he begins to think,
I see the brilliant person that I knew.
When ideas clash, he does not shrink
From combat; he takes the field anew.
And when he looks at death, he does not blink.
He faces it; considers it his due.

Peace March

In 1969, I was working for System Development Corporation in Santa Monica, in the job I wound up in after I was almost sent to Vietnam.   (I’ll write about that and about the complicated mix on anti-war revulsion and sense of duty that I felt at the time in conjunction with a forthcoming poem).  1969 was the year I first felt free to publicly express my feelings about the war.  For the previous two years, I had worked at Air Force facilities in Massachusetts and Florida.  In an odd way, I had fulfilled the tour of duty that I had almost spent in Vietnam, and I began to involve myself politically in the anti-war movement that had begun to sweep the country the previous year.  I took to wearing a black arm band at work, and when I heard about the nationwide October 15th Peace March, I joined the one that marched from Santa Monica to UCLA.   At the end of the march, we were treated to a rather banal speech by Candace Bergen, in her pre-Murphy-Brown days.   It wasn’t exactly inspiring, but what the hell; she was beautiful.

Song for the October 15th Peace March

Verse 1:

I went out marching on that day.
Ten thousand people led the way,
Then more joined in, and more, and then
We marched as ten times ten times ten.
And we’ll keep on marching, if it takes us years;
Til someone listens, someone hears.

Chorus 1:

Well, when you get old and gray,
You can’t hold a candle – for peace.
When you get old and gray,
You can’t hold a candle – for love.
But if everyone else lit one little candle,
We’d have one hell of a light.

Verse 2:

My mother called me up next day,
And I really hadn’t much to say,
So I told my mother what I’d done,
And she said: “Is that what you believe in, son?”
“Sure,” I said, “Has been for years.”
She always listens, but never hears.

Chorus 2:

Well, as we all marched along,
We all held a candle – for peace.
Well. as we all marched along,
We all held a candle – for love.
And when all of us lit just one little candle,
We had a hell of a light.



Palimpsest – a Sonnet

Someone asked me the other day if a poem I had marked as autobiographical was “true”.   I replied that it was, like most autobiography, fiction based on a true story.   The same holds true for the following verse.   Here is its true story.   I was standing behind a pretty woman named Barbara at work as she bent to get a drink from a water fountain.  Unfortunately, she pressed the button too hard, and water squirted down the front of her blouse, soaking it.  She immediately turned to me with a smile and asked: “Do you think I’ll mildew?”   The rest is fantasy.

Your name is missing when I search the net;
Your features arefading when I search my heart.
I’ll always remember – when last we met,
We pledged our love, and then we broke apart.
What if I’ve lost you? What if you’ve died?
So much to tell you, so much we’ve missed,
Such years of yearning.  Why haven’t I tried
Harder to find you, to prove you exist?
The first time I met you, you made a jest,
And I thought: finally, someone I fit.
My heart was like parchment, a palimpsest
To be cleaned and invaded by your gentle wit.
I let you go;  I flinched; you went away.
Now I must find you; I’ve something to say.

To The Fair

Here I go again.   I said here that I didn’t write songs, and yet here is yet another verse turned into a song, this one from the early 70’s.

My mother made me take you out
She said that you were very sad,
Because your mother and your dad
Had perished in a roundabout.
And so I met you at your place
And smiled at you and took your hand.
You didn’t smile, but I understand;
I saw the sorrow in your face.

Chorus 1:
Oh, do you remember when I took you to the Fair,
To the Fair?
And how we got together there?

Verse 1:
Oh, do you remember the Ferris Wheel?
That great circle of seats and steel.
Oh, do you remember the Teddy Bear,
And hoards of people everywhere,
And Cotton Candy?

Repeat Chorus 1

Verse  2:
Oh, do you remember the racing game?
The plunger-pulling racing game,
And the ceramic leopard that I won –
You said you hadn’t had such fun
Since bumper-cars.

Repeat Chorus 1:

Verse 3:
Oh, do you remember the strength machine?
How I, reluctant, far from keen,
Picked up the hammer, rang the bell?
After that, we said we might as well
Head on home.

Chorus 2:
Oh, do you remember when I took you to the Fair
To the Fair?
And how you smiled at me there?

On the Music of Verse

I can neither sing, nor play a musical instrument.  I am devoid of musical talent, just like the rest of my family.  Now, it is true that my mother could play the piano, although since she was completely tone deaf, I’m not sure that counts.   My sister briefly imagined that she could play the drums, and I’m quite sure that that doesn’t count.  My father simply ignored all matters musical.

Despite my family background, I yearned for music and musicality.   Then when I was about ten or so, I fell in love with the musical possibilities of verse…with scansion, the pattern of stress in a poetic line,  with meter, the units of that pattern, and, above all, with rhyme, the similar sounds that can be chosen to end the lines of a poem.  I admired blank verse as well, poetry with meter, but no rhyme, but it seemed to me in those days that even the sublime work of Shakespeare didn’t have the same capacity to stick in the mind as subtly-rhymed verse.   For me, the word “subtly” was important – the less you noticed the rhyme, the better.

As I grew older, I began to see the expressive possibilities that were inherent in other ways of writing poetry, and you will find elsewhere in this blog more mature work that digs deeper than my youthful work; poetry written when I was no longer intoxicated with rhyme.  But I have never stopped yearning for the deep satisfaction that comes with a successful fit of rhyme.

The following poem, from 1970, is just that, a successful fit of rhyme, although the rhymes are perhaps not as subtle as I would have preferred.  Still I found it satisfying, and I was particularly pleased with the unusual rhyme scheme:

I wonder if I should give the rhyme scheme a name?…No, it doesn’t need one, and neither does the poem.

“In Fall, the wood’s my favorite red.”
The youthful nature lover said.
“I like the orange and yellow, too,”
“But red’s the color, seems to me,”
“That every leaf was meant to be.”
I turned to leave the youth alone,
When underfoot, a sudden stone
Pierced the leather of my shoe.
It bled a bit; I plucked it out,
“The same,” I said, “For stones, no doubt.”