Posts Tagged ‘narrative poetry’

Al-Andalus: Latest Collection of Narrative Poems

Continuing the style I began with Women at the Well and Land of the Four Quarters, in this collection of narrative poems I give voice in dramatic monologues to the Moriscos, who from 1492 to their final expulsion from Spain in 1609, struggled to preserve their culture and language within a dominant Christian society. Conversion did not spare them from this fate. Some of the characters are historical; some of them imagined and a few are characters taken from Miguel Cervantes’s monumental novel Don Quixote in two parts, which appeared at the time the final solution to the Morisco problem would be implemented.  In history there are many examples of ethnic cleansing; this is but one of them. Because the policy continues around the world today, I was impelled to write about the Moriscos.

In Al-Andalus, I create an English version of the Arabic poetic form called the muwashshah.  Here is one of them in which the Alhambra speaks:

Arabesques and colored tiles tell my tale.Al-Andalus Cover

The vanished Moor built on a grand scale.

 

Songs once sung do not die when done

But linger in the air to arise like the sun.

The silence whirs as if silk is being spun

In graceful script and architectural detail

That Ferdinand and his men dare not assail.

 

Enclosed in alcoves rhythms of the lute

Pulsate accompanied by the plaintive flute.

Banished the kohl-eyed beauty but not mute.

In the Alhambra yet is heard the houri wail

Though her plea to stay is to no avail.

 

The silence holds sad melody like a bee

Preserved in amber, its buzz in quiet key

Resounds beyond the present century.

Those who came before leave a pollen trail

Though their time was filled with constant travail.

 

My name corrupts the Arabic word for red

That came out as Alhambra when it’s said

By Spaniards drinking of our fountainhead.

Within these halls although my voice be frail

Those well-tuned will hear a whispered tale.

 

Carlos the King spent a six-month honeymoon

Ensconced in my walls, like a girl in a swoon

Applauding the dances to tambourine tune.

Granada, tu tierra está llena de lindas mujeres

Is the Spanish song my walls echo nowadays.

In 1492 the Spanish Jews were first given the royal ultimatum to either convert to Christianity or suffer forced deportation. In 1523, Carlos V reneged on the terms of the 1492 surrender, which granted religious and cultural freedom to the Moslems of Granada, serving them the same ultimatum the Jews had received. Mass baptisms of the Moors ensued. The prohibitions against wearing Moorish clothing, practicing Islamic customs and speaking Arabic were suspended for forty years, purportedly to allow for cultural and religious assimilation. Under Philip II the mandates were re-imposed resulting in the rebellion of the Moriscos in the War of the Alpujarras 1568-1570. After the defeat of the Moriscos, Philip ordered the dispersal of the surviving Moriscos to other regions of Spain—a strategy to prevent a concentration of Moriscos that would be capable of armed revolt again. Throughout the sixteenth century the converted Moriscos were suspect. Religious and secular leaders feared they were a third column within the country conspiring with the Ottoman Empire to reconquer Spain for the Islamic world. After decades of debate and suspicion, Philip III ordered the final expulsion of Spain’s Moriscos in 1609. Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra witnessed this process. Indeed, he was writing the second half of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha during this removal and must have seen caravans of Moors under guard being marched to the sea ports for transport to North Africa.

In recent history Moslems have returned to Spain. They arrive in boats from North Africa. It remains to be seen whether in this century the efforts at peaceful co-existence will succeed. Can an amalgamation of cultures result?

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Tribute to Saul Alinsky, Community Organizer

Le Penseur, Museé Rodin, Paris by Innoxious/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Le Penseur, Museé Rodin, Paris by Innoxious/CC-BY-SA-2.0

The long narrative poem I began in May 2012 available in paperback and e-book editions. The title is taken from a quote of Rabbi Hillel, which Saul Alinsky learned as a boy and sought to adhere to throughout his life that ended suddenly in 1972 on a sidewalk in Carmel, California at the age of 63.  Hillel counseled: “Where there are no men, be thou a man.” The cover image of Rodin’s The Thinker is a reminder that Alinsky kept on his desk a figurine of the famous sculpture.  The community organizer was expert in using the Socratic method to get people to think about how they could change their lives.

Be Thou a Man is a biography written in formal verse telling the story of Saul Alinsky’s work as a criminologist, social activist, and community organizer–a legacy that Barack Obama drew from in his own work in Chicago. I correct the misconceptions surrounding Alinsky’s name, which some political figures like Newt Gingrich have tried to associate with the far left, socialists and communists. The truth is Alinsky was none of these, and more accurately espoused a grass-roots, democratic process to problem-solving. Because of views I expressed in a Letter-to-the-Editor, I  was associated negatively with Alinsky, the insinuation being that because my roots were in Chicago, I was contaminated by Alinsky’s radicalism. My knowledge of the man was vague, so I began to read everything I could find out about him and learned he was no more a radical than the Founding Fathers. In Alinsky’s vocabulary radical is not a derogatory term, but one he proudly adopted. Alinsky did not belong to any political party, but rather fell into the conservative camp in his opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which he termed a “prize piece of political pornography.”

The narrative poem is divided into the seven decades of the twentieth century in which Alinsky lived. In the final section, “Missive from the Underworld,” Saul Alinsky speaks from hell to the people living today and comments on current American conditions. The poem concludes with this stanza delivered in his voice:

From out hell’s friendly flames I can spy

the middle class contract, reduced to fears

of foreclosure, not able to get by:

I strike the match to rears of financiers.

From torrid lips I fire furious blast

of liberty’s bugle rousing the caste

whose reservoir of patience has run dry,

their fair share the super-rich have siphoned

off—in protest they march, all toughened,

on Wall Street, the middle in gear at last.

To hell with humdrum chain gang plaints

or Can’t-Win-For-Losing blues anymore

for We’re The People the document paints

paramount, those the Union was made for.

I once said on earth the angles abound;

hear me frolic with angels under ground.

You may ask why on earth write the biography in formal verse? Any numskull knows poetry doesn’t sell. Nobody reads poetry in the United States anymore. Poets don’t have an audience outside of barroom poetry slams. Are you joking?  You’re beating your head against a brick wall.

This poet has a thick skull. I wrote my tribute as a long narrative poem because I wanted to.  I decry the state of poetry as the reserve of the academics.  I still cling to the notion that narrative poetry in the past has appealed to a broad base of general readers and it can again, for narrative poetry is the mode to capture a larger readership for poetry. Published poetry today is either filled with obscure, self-absorbed, abstract images accessible only to its creator or written in prosaic lines. I am a literature major and confess to either not getting most of the poetry I read in Poetry or other prestigious literary magazines or being so bored with the pedestrian lines of prose arranged as poetry that I can’t finish reading the poem. I wrote my tribute as a long narrative poem because I like reading verse-novels such as Byrne by Anthony Burgess and Darlington’s Fall by Brad Leithauser. These are wonderful book-length narrative poems. I enjoyed the challenge of writing Be Thou A Man as a narrative poem. Above all I wrote it in formal verse, because poetry is the best form to praise great men.

Slants on Writing Poetry for a General Readership

For many years I did what many aspiring poets did: submit and have individual poems published in small literary and/or academic magazines.  I have bought my share of sample copies of these magazines and have lamented the poetry often did not align with my personal canon of excellence. I usually found three or four petunias in the onion patch.   These magazines are largely published and read by other poets.  The general reader abandoned poetry books long ago.   Through my experience with performance poetry and readings in the 1980’s and the ho-hum prose arranged like poetry on the page in magazines, I began to ponder how the general audience could be revived for poetry in the United States.  Poetry’s audience was not imperiled in Russia or other European countries. I concluded that American poetry readership had shrunk to fellow poets and academics because so much of the poetry being written in the latter half of the twentieth century was highly personal, obscure and downright unmusical.  The lyrical and meditative modes predominated, yet when I looked at the popularity of poetry in earlier centuries, I realized the narrative or dramatic line had created a wide readership.  Longfellow’s long narrative poems and Robert Browning’s persona poems came to mind. Collections like Tennyson’s In Memoriam grouped around the one theme of grief captured a general public.  In the twentieth century I saw Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body (winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1929) carrying forward the popular narrative and dramatic tradition in poetry.  As a teenager, these poetry books fueled my love of poetry. I contend poetry is a natural love that somewhere in the process of growing up gets covered over with mud, for children naturally love their nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss’ books and everyone, young or old, loves a song.  Poetry has only to be read aloud or recited in order for an audience to measure its worth.  The ear discerns the cadence of the lines, the poem’s rhythms and other pleasing sound effects.

In the late 1980’s I began to write series of poems centering around one theme, narrative poems or dramatic monologues, that could be collected in one volume.  Of course, I continued to write individual poems born of my own experience, observation or emotions, but I wanted to strive beyond the purely personal to develop story lines in my poetry that might appeal to a wider public of general readers.  During this period, books like Derek Walcott’ s Omeros and Pamela White Hadas’ Beside Herself furnished my models. My poetry books are a result of this approach to writing thematic collections of narrative poetry.

In the last decades, healthy signs of an expanding readership for poetry beyond the confines of university writing programs and a circle of academic poets have appeared.  Performances of cowboy poetry, rap and poetry slams abound around the country.  Poetry is widely published in many fine online magazines such as Pedestal. Readers increasingly turn to the internet to read. I do not lament this trend from print to electronic format. Poetry will regain a general readership when the decision for what is good is fully back in the hands of the reader and not a coterie of academic poets in the habit of showcasing each other’s work. I look forward to the day when the majority of our great poets may again be bank clerks, pediatricians, insurance agents, stevedores and even tax collectors. There is something about writing poetry that makes it a way of life rather than a way of earning a living (a topic to develop more.) The haven of academia eluded me, but I do not regret that I spent thirty years working for a government agency (which will remain nameless). The position exposed me to all walks of life, occupations, ages, and socio-economic groups.  Yes, out of the classroom into the open public arena!  I see the poem sprouting feet and walking out the Ivory Tower. “I Hear America Singing,” as beloved Walt Whitman sang in rolling cadences.