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Saturday, 20 February 2010

Blue Evening on Poetry Street



There is a certain urban block in the commercial district of town which I think of as Poetry Street because some years ago the downtown business association subsidized the installation there of three tons of poetry on panels laid into the concrete sidewalk. Neither this project nor other similar gentrification-through-the-arts efforts on the same block have done much to alter its bleak and seedy character, however.

Poetry Street

On Poverty Street, the disinterested
click of Dixie Cups on bakelite trays
reminds me that prose exists.

The winter has been long and hard. It has taken its toll on the transient citizenry. Still there remains a tiny spring of hope in the internal biological clock of everything that lives. One reaches out gratefully to grasp at the slightest of encouraging signs, even when they are illusory.

After a few days of gentler weather early in the week, this evening a cold drizzle returns. Into the wet blue fog the street lighting of the avenue casts an eerie orange-red glow. The ghostly figures of street drifters shuffling and huddling, loitering with and without intent, populate the night much as dark vessels afloat in a polluted river. Small puffs of breath emanating seem to tug the body bundles along. These random shifting configurations, representing what passes for social organization. In such stunned and affectless times, who can know what lies beyond the opaque physical representation.

It was once thought that souls bereft in the underworld could not return across the river Styx.

A bearded white man of indeterminate age approaches the avenue from a side street, howling as he comes. Pedestrians and idlers step aside before him, as in a parting of the waters. Two young blind men, slender, Asian, tapping the sidewalk uncertainly with long white sticks, clinging to one another for support, stop motionless in fear at the corner, their heads swiveling as might those of frightened forest creatures, sniffing at the air. The howling man is on a collision course with them. Standing frozen at the corner where the avenue meets the side street, the blind men are without knowing it directly in his path, blocking the sidewalk. Beneath their feet a cast iron and porcelain enamel plaque sunk into the pavement displays a poem in praise of the California Poppy, designated flower of the Golden State.

Just as he is about to make contact with the blind men, I reach out and gently touch the howling man's arm. He stops howling, his head whips toward me, his eyes appearing to roll back down to earth from some remote planet where life has long since been extinguished. Yo, I say. They can't see you. He looks at me, then at the two terrified and cowering blind men, a split second goes by. Heaven has opened for a moment to bless and protect its own. The bearded man steers around the blind men, crosses the avenue against the flow of traffic, ignoring a red light. When he reaches the other shore, he begins once again to howl. It is an unearthly outcry, reaching up into the night, gradually growing fainter as he moves away from the avenue.

Evening/Sail: Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1970, copyright Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Tate Gallery)
noise absorbed: Larry Eigner, poetry panel from the Addison Street Project


u.v.ray. said...

I knew what the California poppy is - but I had to look up a Dixie cup, just to check what I thought they might be was correct.

A picture is painted well here in this piece, Tom. There's just so many lost and wandering souls in this world.

I have a Haiku appearing on the poetry panels around Syracuse, NY for their poetry panel project this year. The unveiling ceremony is at the town hall on April 8th.

I like the idea of poetry being down there on the streets. It seems to have no real effect, of course.

Like the tree falling in a deserted forest?

TC said...

Thanks very much Ray,

Of course haiku might well be the best form for poetry sunk into concrete.

Or then again, a concrete poem, though that might represent a bit of a redundancy.

(Like those spirits in Horatio Nelson's lead-lined coffin.)

The lost and wandering souls, ah, it is hard not to feel oneself one of them, at times.

In this particular wandering situation I was indeed swirling in a flu-bug fever, so the moment was as in a dream, the intervention came upon me before I had time to calculate how very unwise it might have turned out to be.

I suppose nerve is always like that, it takes one by surprise and seems infinitely foolish later.

Here meanwhile is a Dixie Cup for your trophy mantel, or to do with as thou wilt.

(Something tells me we both know what the Lord Admiral would have used it for, while he was sewing up his sails.)

TC said...

By the by Ray, I am reminded that not everybody was supportive of the poetry panel project when it happened.

It's always been a contentious town, and when the panels were unveiled there predictably arose a mild protest. It was suggested that some members of the downtown business association that had sponsored the installation owned property on the block, and that said property would increase in value with the addition of the poetry panels.

On the day of the unveiling event small quarter-page printed fliers appeared on the block, neatly placed between each set of poetry panels. "Hey poets and poetry lovers, next time don't pimp poetry for rich people's property values," the fliers read. A manager of a theatre on the block removed them and tore them up, sharpish. Bits of the fliers could later be found in the street and pieced together. I still had a teaching job at the time. One of my students presented me with some found scraps.

u.v.ray. said...

The council want to put a sculpture here in little old Uttoxeter. And what a hoo ha that's causing!

My own Haiku is one of 16 that will appear in the poster panels downtown Syracuse. Not set into concrete. People can then purchase copies of the posters - it raises money for the local arts department at the university. It's a project run by a poet called Herm Card who teaches there.

I am told in this case it's quite a popular scheme.

I just made a reply to you regarding Nelson on my blog.



Nice to see this 'account' of such drama on Addison, clash between words in bronze (?) plaques in concrete and real people (here 'memorialized'!) walking, almost crashing into each other, above/across them. I didn't know about those paper "fliers" that appeared between the panels on the sidewalk when they first went up -- yes, a seemingly "bleak and seedy character" to that street. . . .


grey whiteness of clouds above shadowed
ridge, song sparrow calling from branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

characteristics of physical,
defined phases follow

flatness, that both present,
each difference which

sunlit white cloud to the left of point,
shadowed canyon of ridge across from it

Carol Peters said...

Appreciate this, Tom. Reminds me of Oppen's "Song, The Winds of Downhill"

. . . Who
so poor the words

would with and take on substantial

meaning handholds footholds

to dig in one's heels sliding

hands and heels beyond the residential
lots the plots it is a poem

which may be sung
may well be sung

- Carol

Mishari said...

How very odd, Tom. It was only a few days ago, in a rather childish bit of point-scoring, that I included Witter Bynner in a list of once-lauded poets that no-one now reads or has heard of. I'm ashamed to say, I'd never heard of him.

And here he is, on your poetry street. Was he a local boy? Is there some connection? Or perhaps you were one of the people approached to advise in the choice? At any rate, a strange bit of synchronicity in a typically powerful and touching piece.

I can smell Spring in the air here, too. The daffodils are making an entrance, ditto the crocuses (crocii?) and the birds are more numerous (or just more visible) and busier singing and preening. Thank God. It's been the bitterest winter in decades.

Christine Young said...

Not only is that beautifully written, the title "Blue Evening on Poetry Street" is like a brief poem in itself. I have a love-hate relationship with some poetry, but I am a lover of essays.

TC said...


Well, I take it you've been there and seen it.

Indeed, it is a "shadowed canyon" of far less appealing character than the one you have made so familiar to us.

TC said...


Ah, the poem is always sliding beyond the residential and commercial lots, heels dug into the mud of life that will never stop flowing.

Lovely of you to come, many thanks.

(I've now had a pleasant trip to your blog.)

TC said...


Well, we remember what the poet Marianne Moore once wrote of poetry: "I, too, dislike it."

Thanks very much for stopping by. I've been over to your spot and immediately fell in love with that sweet little jungle cat.

TC said...


Pleasant about the crocus and the daffs and the chirps at last.

Here we are in the second wave of spring flowers, the brave early narcissi having given way to daffodils, jonquils, & c., though winter has not yet done with us and even as I type this the storms are returning, further extending a long wet winter. Those of the streets feel it worse of course, being exposed and vulnerable.

Witter Bynner (since you ask) was a New York native (b.1881), raised in New England and educated at Harvard, who came West to teach English at Berkeley in 1918. After a year he was fired for serving alcohol to one of his students. In Berkeley he met the Chinese poet Kiang Kang-hu. This decisive encounter led to Bynner's work as a translator of Chinese poetry, an endeavour which in turn strongly influenced his own verse. In California he lived relatively openly as a gay man, rare for that era. Thereafter he left Berkeley to travel in China. Later he settled in Santa Fe, living with one of his former Berkeley students. There is considerable gossip relating to Bynner's stormy relationship with Mabel Dodge Luhan, cultural doyenne of Santa Fe. (She accused him of singlehandedly introducing homosexuality to New Mexico.) Bynner and his partner traveled to Mexico with D.H. Lawrence and Frieda, whom they had met through Luhan. They appear as the fictionalized characters Owen and Villiers in The Plumed Serpent. Bynner lived in Santa Fe the rest of his life. His adobe home there is now a gay bed & breakfast.

Bynner's final years were less than happy. In the mid-Sixties he suffered a stroke among other emotional and physical disasters. In 1987, after uttering perhaps the most wrenching last words I have ever come across -- "other people die, why can't I?" -- he did indeed mercifully die.

As to the choice of the 126 poems inscribed on the panels, No, I had nothing to do with it. They were selected by a UC poet and former US poet laureate, Robert Hass. The disposition of the panels somewhat resembles dinner party seating arrangements. But then in this country arts management decisions always reflect invisible social stratifications, with coteries and cabals exerting a certain silent influence. Like the larger society around it, Poetry Street has its little neighbourhoods of elites and ghettos. My own panel, I am told, is located in a neighbourhood also populated by Ohlone Indians, street poets and Country Joe McDonald. It is perhaps appropriate as well as somewhat ironic that the only poem of mine that has thus become permanent is also permanently wrong, with the spacing misrepresented in such a way as to spoil the effect by missing out a pause before the final line. I learned this from some of my students who went to look. After hearing of the error, I decided never to go and look at the panel. Thus all I have said here about the arrangement comes from hearsay, albeit probably reliable as the reports have been alas numerous. When on that block anyway I am usually watching not the pavement but my back.

Mishari said...

Thanks for the exegesis, Tom. Obviously, I knew who Mabel was and I even read The Plumed Serpent as a teenager (along with most of Lawrence's work. I was heavily under the influence of Henry Miller at the time and Miller adored Lawrence).

I'm sorry to hear that the bastards fucked up your poem, although I'm happy to learn that Country Joe is the poem's neighbour. I've always had a soft for him.

I've seen him interviewed a number of times in documentaries on the 60s, West Coast music, the 'hippie' phenomenon, etc. etc. and he always came across as a down to earth, sharp-eyed and sardonic observer.



Yes, I've been there and seen it -- in fact am "in" it (poem of mine that is), way down at the end of south side of street (near entrance to parking garage), yes, as far from the central 'conversation' one could get (as in seating at a dinner party). And you too, I take it. Thanks for account of Witter Bynner, didn't know any of that.

TC said...


Well, this makes me think of the title of our friend UV Ray's blog, Writing from the Fringes... and there was also Beyond the Fringe, as I recall.

Christine Young said...

Thank you Tom. Don't you just love that cat? She (I think of the cat as a she) has soulful eyes. I found her on the internet years ago and I copied and pasted her on to my old AOL homepage. I’ve had her ever since. The AOL homepage fell into an abyss of some sort, but I was smart enough to put the kitty on my hard drive.

Thank you for stopping by my blog. It is my first Blog. I have so much that I have written in a file cabinet that I am now endeavoring to put on line. Also, I have a lot to learn about blogging and navigating the wide world of the net.

My favorite book of poetry is The Best Loved Poems of the American People and my favorite poem to date is Longfellow's The Day Is Done.

“Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

“And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.”

TC said...


I'm no naturalist, but I do love cats, and my guess is that that one of yours is an ocelot.

Christine Young said...

That's interesting. An Ocelot. I really never knew what kind of cat it was. I'll have to check it out.

TC said...

To those who come late upon this post, there may appear some mystery as to why Witter Bynner is being discussed in the comments. It's because this post originally included a photo of the Witter Bynner poetry slab from Poetry Street.

A while after the post went up, there were some cranky noises from the Grand Eminences involved with this project, evidently distressed that I indicated some dismay over having my poem "set in stone" with a dumb typo incorporated.

Berkeley, town of Kindness and Caring.

And then...the image of the Witter Bynner slab mysteriously disappeared.

In its place I have put up an image of another poem-slab, this one from Larry Eigner.