Posts Tagged ‘verse novel’

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.

Please Trespass Here

I read both novels and poetry. Sometimes I combine the two and read a verse-novel (a rare find). An excellent example of a full-length verse-novel that I recently reread is Darlington’s Fall by Brad Leithauser. It leaves me wondering why it did not receive more acclaim than it did.  The novel I just finished reading is 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. Wanting to know about this writer, I read that he died before the novel was published and that he wrote poetry first, but turned to novels to earn money when he had children to feed. That got me to thinking about other novelists who also wrote poetry. Margaret Atwood, D.H. Lawrence, Erica Jong, Herman Melville, John Updike, and Sherman Alexie come to mind. If my readers can suggest others, please share them and offer your opinion of how well they do in each genre. There is also Sylvia Plath, primarily a poet, who wrote her one novel The Bell Jar. And, of course, Tolkien included verse in the form of songs in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy.

From writing poetry, I trespassed into the land of fiction, writing novels and short stories.  In my latest poetry book, Please Trespass Here, I have collected all the poetry I have written since 2001. The collection is divided into five sections: Settings, Characters, Motifs, Novenas for Grandmother, and Playground. The topics span world events in the first decade of the 21st century mixed with humorous takes on daily life and nature. Themes turn to the criminal mind and to literary figures. The title invites the reader to trespass into the poet’s territory and be rewarded, among other things, with sightings of moose, a great grey owl, and a bear.  After completing this poetry book, I have set poetry aside for the time being to begin a new novel. I will never entirely abandon poetry, for I get great pleasure from crafting a poem’s lines and stanzas.

I invite those who only read novels or anyone who left poetry behind when they left school to trespass on the territory of poetry. The rhythm and imagery that jump out at you in your favorite prose passages thrive in the concision of poetry. I offer here the title piece:

 Please Trespass Here

Please Trespass Here Book Cover

The tempo of summer simply slows

Like subtle flutter of warbler wings.

A grasshopper lurches in the lawn,

While I loll, open book, on the deck.

Nothing as serene as a printed page

Spread to the sun in perfect marriage

Of mind and matter—the world soul

Emerson thought of long ages ago

Before my mountain home was born.

Unwelcome cowbird lands on the feeder.

Today I am content to see the intruder.

There’s room for crossbill and grosbeak,

Prettier by far than this dusky wayfarer

Who neither reads nor admits of signs.

Ample is the hour, ample is the sky

For vagrant cloud and flagrant crow.

No circle more sacred than black soil

And no world larger than this moment.