ARC OF LIGHT
At high school we studied poetry, not always with enthusiasm. One young man, whose name I shall conceal from history (not myself, I hasten to add), sat down to do an internal examination and found himself confronted by a question which demanded that he "discuss" a poem.
What poem? No poem was specified. Any poem would do, and we had studied a variety of poems during the year. However, for the life of him, he could not bring a single poem to mind.
There is a military maxim: In adversity, opportunity. Acting in this spirit, Mr. Poetical Ignorance went to work, and duly wrote his examination paper.
The teacher who marked the examination paper found himself confronted by a poem, text given but author unstated, in a regular metrical pattern, complete with rhyming lines. A discussion of the poem followed.
The discussion was perfectly reasonable, nothing wrong with it. But where did this poem come from? Certainly it wasn't anything the class had studied during the year. Judging by the style, it had probably been written in the 1800s -- but by who?
The teacher could not go online and check out the poem on the Internet, because schools did not yet have the Internet. This was back in the 1970, and schools did not yet even have computers. (I did not personally set eyes on a home computer until I was in my twenties, and, even then, it was not something sold in a shop, but, rather, a machine which some genius enthusiast had cobbled together from parts.)
Absent the Internet, the teacher ransacked the resources of the library, consulted colleagues, and, finally, gave up. And came to the student and asked him: Interesting poem, but who wrote it?
To which the student answered, in frank confession:
Confronted by an examination paper demanding that he discuss a poem, but unable to bring to mind even one of the twenty seven billion poems written during the course of human history, this enterprising individual had sat down and had written his own poem on the spot.
Which was not, technically speaking, against the rules. The examination paper demanded that the student discuss "a poem" but did not specify that this poem must be written by someone else. So he got his mark and was credited with a pass for the examination, though presumably he was left in no doubt that his procedure was somewhat eccentric.
From the above, the bias of the education system should be clear. We were taught to study rather than to create, and the study of poetry was the study of dead wood of history, none of it particularly memorable.
Poetry was something you studied rather than something that you did
Additionally, the study of poetry was the study of complexity, and the view implicitly communicated, if nowhere explicitly stated, was that complexity was where it was all at. The more complex poem was the better poem. Nobody said as much in as many words, but that thesis was inherent in the approach being taken by the curriculum.
We were being stepped up through level after level of complexity, to arrive at last ... where? Well, at the incomprehensible, one would imagine. Because if you take complexity too far then that is where you do indeed arrive.
Yes, poems were complex, and that, apparently, was the reason why they were fitting object of study.
I say "apparently" because nobody ever gave us a reason why we were studying this stuff. And that was typical of my schooling. Nobody ever explained why we were doing this.
I sat through one subject in particular, geography, for year after year, without having the foggiest idea of why we were studying it. Fiji is made up of several different islands and there is water in the Great Lakes, lots of it, but who cares, and, anyway, what kind of logic connects islands in Fiji with water in the Great Lakes?
It was only years later, in adult life, when I started constructing maps for the imaginary lands in which my fantasy novels were set, that I suddenly realized that geography is the study of the relationship between human beings and planet Earth, a relationship which is conditioned, above all else, by the existence or non-existence of water.
This is blindingly obvious in retrospect, but it was not obvious to me at the time, in the years I spent trudging through class after class in a subject which was totally opaque to me in that I couldn't really tell how it was any different from the study of a random collection of facts taken from a bunch of almanacs.
Without giving any excuses for what they were doing, then, our teachers inflicted upon us complexity.
Guided by what I absorbed at high school, at the age of seventeen, I conceived of the poet's task as being to master complexity, and, at that age, I certainly turned out some horribly complex and convoluted poetry.l
I remember my English teacher, Ray McCullum, asking me about the term "Argand's plain". What was this, and did it mean something?
Well, yes, it did mean something, and, at that age, when my studies included a course in what was termed "advanced mathematics", I was unable to explain.
This far remote from the experience, I have not the faintest glimmering of what my poem might have been about. I think that, in mathematics, an individual by the name of "Argand" is associated with something called "imaginary numbers", though I can no longer remember why one set of numbers should be thought of as being more imaginary than any other set.
Anyway, there I was, at age seventeen, busy producing poetry just as complex as it was possible for poetry to get, thinking that the more cryptic the referent the better.
The British poet T.S. Eliot and his poem THE WASTE LAND, which I discovered in the public library rather than at high school, must bear a lot of the blame for this.
Still, while Eliot was not inflicted on me by the school system, I think it is nevertheless true to say that poems were approached as intrinsically complicated intellectual instruments. Now, more than thirty years on, I have come to two conclusions. One is that poetry is not necessarily complex. Another is that complexity is not, in itself, a virtue. The corollary of this is that there is nothing necessarily wrong with simplicity and directness.
One of the poems in this collection is TWELVE HOURS DISTANT, a poem written about being twelves hours distant, by air, from my wife and daughter, exiled from Japan by medical exigencies.
This, to my mind, is as effective as anything else I have written, and it is the fruit of more than thirty years spent practicing the art of poetry. It is a direct statement, simple rather than complex; the simplicity and the directness would both, I think, have been beyond me at the age of seventeen.
On publishing my poetry on the Internet, something I started to do in 2002, I found that, when I got feedback from the big wide world, it was the poems which were simple and direct that made the most impression on people.
In particular, out of the blue I received a request from a man who wanted to read my very direct and simple poem, OUT FISHING, at a funeral. The funeral was to be for a man who had been a great fan of fishing, and my correspondent wrote that he thought the poem would be appropriate for the occasion. I e-mailed back to say that I would be honored.
I was honored.
Although I did publish poetry here and there over the years, as the bibliography to this collection will make clear, for many years many of my poems simply sat in my files untouched. It seemed unlikely that publishing them would ever be a commercial reality, and, on top of that, it was the wisdom of the world that poetry, in the modern world, does not have an audience.
So the poems sat there, unpublished. And, as Sylvia Plath says, "Nothing stinks like a heap of unpublished writing".
Then I started posting poems on the Internet, not seriously expecting that anyone was necessarily going to read them. Still, I had space on the website, and the poems were already in my computer files, so to make the necessary pages was very little work, so why not?
And I found that, hey, there is an audience for poetry, after all. Not a huge audience, but there are people out there looking for poems, as an analysis of my website statistics shows.
If you have the right website package, then your website will offer you log files showing, amongst other things, what search terms have been used to find your website, logs which can be analyzed with convenient programs such as Webalizer or Analog.
The analysis of the log files shows me what search terms people have been using to find my site, and the search terms are often for simple things such as "poem about fish" or "poem about snails" or "poem about sodium".
(There is no "poem about sodium" on the website or in this collection, but the field of "poems about sodium" is not wildly competitive, so the search, very naturally, leads the searcher to my poem SODIUM THIOSULPHATE.)
People look for the poems, they find the poems, they read the poems, and, in some cases, they link to the poems, or e-mail me for permission to reproduce the poems on their own websites.
In other words, there is an audience out there for poetry.
The average citizen of the world, true, does not wander into the bookshop with the idea of buying a book of poetry, so it is probably true that, in the commercially crowded environment of the bookshop, where space is at a premium, publishing poetry is not economically possible.
However, poetry does, nevertheless, have a readership.
And, thanks to the miracle of print-on-demand, putting together a book for publication becomes economically possible even if the anticipated audience is only half a dozen people or so.
Before I sat down to put together the ARC OF LIGHT collection, I already had a website, a computer, word processing software, the graphics manipulation software I needed to make the covers and, for cover art, a vast reservoir of my own photos of Japan to choose from.
Given that this was so, and given that, for this book, I chose not to buy an ISBN number, the unique identifying number by which books make their identities known to bookshops and libraries, the extra financial outlay involved was precisely zero.
There was time involved, of course. But, being marooned as I was in a period of convalescence following chemotherapy and radiation therapy, I had no economic use for the time. If I had found some use for my time other than putting together this book, the number of hamburgers I could afford to buy would not have increased.
Publishing my own book of poems, were it to be financially burdensome, would be a luxury I would be entirely unable to afford at this stage of life, when I have the financial responsibilities of being a family man confronting me. But, with the technology being what it is, I am able to publish via lulu.com, under a deal which gives me my own free shopfront on the lulu.com site.
(The payoff for lulu.com is that they get a cut of the sales, if there are any sales.)
Print-on-demand seems to be the answer for publishing books which are not going to go out and conquer the world, but which, nevertheless, still have their audience, even if the audience may be as small as half a dozen people on the whole planet. The book exists only as a computer file until someone decides they want to purchase a copy, and then a big machine prints out a copy, which is packaged up and shipped off to the customer.
This is a very elegant solution to the problem of proliferating books, a diminishing bookstore clientele and ever-increasing competition for the twenty-four hours which each of us is granted in any given day.
Obviously, if you've written a poem on sodium thiosulphate, that subject is not going to take you to the top of the best seller list. But, even so, there is a niche in human civilization for just such a poem, and the economies of print-on-demand technology make it possible for the poem to find its niche.
This book, then, is being published on a rock-bottom budget, a budget of zero dollars. Though, that said, it's a product of affluence: as stated, I already have the computer, the software, the photos, the files and the website.
That said, for anyone prepared to put in the time required to master the modest technical skills required, the age of universal publishing has arrived.
(One thing that has helped lead me to this conclusion was a blog I read online which was written by a homeless person in the United States. This guy was living on the streets, but he had access to the public library, and there was a computer there which was hooked up to the Internet, and he was able to get free space online and publish his ongoing account of his life to the world. "I just can't get my stuff published" is no longer an excuse!)
So what is it, exactly, that I am publishing, in this, the age of universal publishing? Well, very oddly assorted collection of items, everything from a light-hearted piece of levitational hedgehogs to some grimly barbed passages on the topic of war.
But what all these poems had in common was that they satisfied me. These are the poems that I wanted to have in the book that I would end up holding in my hand, and that is the reason for their inclusion.
I am the first reader for this collection, the one who must be satisfied. And I, for what it is worth, have been satisfied. Putting together this collection of poems has been a very emotional trip down memory lane, and items which may seem unbearably slight to the wider world may have a deep significance to me which is not necessarily conveyed either by the poem itself or by the notes which form part of the TABLE OF CONTENTS.
And if you don't like the result? Fair enough. Perhaps you'd be happier reading ACID TANKS AND OTHER ENTERTAINMENTS by Saddam Hussein al Tikriti or IN PRAISE OF BUNKER BUSTERS, by George W. Bush. I have no argument with that. The world is big enough and various enough to accommodate all tastes.
The poems in this collection were written in various years between 1975 and 2005; the dates of publication, given in the bibliography, do not indicate the date of composition, as some very early poems were not published to the world until later in my life.
To give a kind of coherence to the collection, the poems are arranged, roughly speaking, in autobiographical order.
First, in order for the author to be able to go online and upload his poem collection to the Internet, the world has to be created, hence the collection opens with GENESIS. Then that business of the Garden of Eden is dealt with in ADAM.
A few more poems follow to set the scene, these being DRAGON, THE KRAKEN WAKES and MEN WITHOUT AMNESTY, establishing the existence of a world with mythology and horror at its fringes.
That done, the author's life gets rolling, with the important business of getting out of bed in the morning, stroking the cat, going to school on the school bus, watching a dead animal being dissected in the science lab, studying crystals and so forth.
The poems then start dealing with the big city and the wider world. Then, after some assorted poems, including one about levitational hedgehogs, there is a sequence of war poems.
The war poems take us from the Homeric age, the age of the Trojan War, the war between the Greeks and the Trojans (or, if you prefer, between the Argives and the Trojans) through to the business of training for war in the modern age.
My generation never went to war, which is something to celebrate rather than to regret. Even so, we grew up in the shadow of war, in the days of the Cold War, and the poem I REMEMBER is about that experience, the experience of living in a world which was never free from the shadow of nuclear annihilation.
The poem NAGASAKI is a final reaction to my personal pilgrimage to the museum at Nagasaki which remembers the atomic bomb, an experience to which I had an intense emotional reaction.
The poem is not argumentative but, rather, is an attempt to freshly envision my culture's response to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. You might not like the result, but, if so, you are free to write your own poem to dispute the vision which is mine.
Speaking of being argumentative, you can, if you want, construct a watertight intellectual justification for doing exactly what it is that you want to do. However, if your unassailable logic leads you to construct a justification for incinerating entire civilian cities, complete with their populations of men, women and children, then I suggest that perhaps you might consider the possibility that you have abused the potential of the human intellect.
I went first to Nagasaki rather than Hiroshima for the simple reason that, in my first expedition of exploration in Japan, I chose to get on the train in Tokyo, travel all the way south as far as the train went (eight hours, with one change of trains) and then, starting at Nagasaki, to work my way back slowly to Tokyo.
I found the atomic bomb museum at Hiroshima to be much grander than the one at Nagasaki, and what it gained in size it lost at the human level. In the humbler environs of the museum that I visited at Nagasaki, it was easier, in the context of displays of very humble relics, to get to grips with the human consequences of what had happened.
Even so, the very direct message which the Hiroshima museum tried to communicate to the world made its point with me: this could be your city.
From NAGASAKI, the collection moves into the modern age with a pair of poems about war here, war now. The first, SEX METAL, is about the war all set up and ready to go. The second, A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A WAR, is about the war in progress.
There might have been more war poems, but then my first child, long planned, was finally conceived, and, about the same time, I fell seriously ill.
And so, naturally enough, the collection ends with a series of poems about illness, about facing death, and about becoming a family.
That, then, is the arc of the collection, all the way from Genesis through to final annihilation. Rather an ambitious arc for such a slender collection of poems, you might think. But, then, this is work product of thirty years or so of my life, and my ego would be unsatisfied by any arc less ambitious.
Each poem is a statement, designed to be complete in itself. In the TABLE OF CONTENTS I've glossed each poem with a few words, providing just a little context where appropriate. In particular, it would be difficult to make sense of the poem TONGA unless you were explicitly told that it was about a peacetime medical aid mission made to that Third World country by a military unit.
I glossed other points, too, as I went along. It's obvious to me that mention of "April" puts in the autumn, the fall, but this, of course, is a southern hemisphere perception, and, in the northern hemisphere, in April it is spring that is on the move.
So, up to a point, I have, in the TABLE OF CONTENTS, glossed things which might otherwise be needlessly confusing to a reader who is not located in the same geographical and cultural position as myself.
However, that said, I do see the poems as being, in essence, self-sufficient statements, needing no supporting framework of footnotes or explanations.
If the world changes out of all recognition to the point where a reference to Nagasaki, say, becomes cryptic and incomprehensible, then that situation will have changed. But, ego notwithstanding, I do not expect these poems to last for that long.
My ambition, in terms of survivability, is more modest. It would be my hope that my daughter might read them at some day in the future, in some time after I am gone, and remember me.