To Learn to Practice; Bluntly Speaking of My Late Best Man; Less by Half
By: Robert W. Hill
To Learn to Practice
On a crackling cell, Carrie told me
she talks in bed alone into the half-dark,
flicking chimes of breath stir the child’s
first mobile. Instead of crying herself to sleep,
she talks the shapes, every dark thing in the room
to words . . . I know everything, Dad, Jay said
to me when he was her age, two of us driving
down Canal Street, and when I mouthed that
dumb, laborious question, You do? He began
to name them, TREES, LIGHTS, CAR, all
the dim things we needed names for just then.
Nowadays I practice what I knew, saying to myself
alone before I leave the house, That’s over on Hwy. 27,
right? or Didn’t we eat there once in a snowstorm?
or What was the word? or His first name’s like Wretch
but I’ll quietly ignore then conjure up his . . . what?
My children now know more, I think, than I remember.
Bluntly Speaking of My Late Best Man
What does anyone know about
this? He feared the meds.
My mind my only asset without
remembering the wallpaper of
his candor that I, like a Warhol
fraud, photographed, copied,
overlaid, and collagitated in a rant
against our homely vapidity, against
some Dorian hope we hold, that our
deliberated aspect shall allow us
secret simperings or viciousness. He,
gone, whose look undeceived like dawn
unsmogged, rendered to a spirit point.
Struck. Watched. Unmissed for days,
his dog lapping the fetid air beside him.
Less by Half
Half my head is gone. One ear
with Ménière’s, hisses erratically,
launches me to vertigo and puke. One eye
loses ground to a white-wingèd
pterygium, whose kinship to pterodactyl
briefly intrigued my grandson.
Fred once wrote, “You can’t beat a man
when he’s hurt.” If he wins, you suck; if
you win . . . well, you get the point. Fred
also wrote a story called “The Archaeopteryx,”
which we all enjoyed saying aloud at the time.
Fred was very smart; still is, I’m sure. Eschewed
professoriate for the Registrar’s Office.
Odd for one to say, “If I had half a brain,
I’d . . .,” meaning that he’d do something
wiser than he was about to try with a whole
brain. Or, “If you had half a brain, you’d . . .,”
meaning that you (speaking directly) are likely
or about to do something really stupid instead.
My mother used to say things like that.
Robert W. Hill, educator since 1963, making poems, loving wife and family, tending dogs. Despite so much, believing in The People. Born in Alabama, now in South Carolina. Ever grateful to Dickey, Lieberman, Fraser, Davidson, Moore, Stringer, and Smith for their poetic largesse.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
Robert W. Hill:
Some juvenilia, of course. I remember writing rhymed poems in elementary school based on bird pictures in an Audubon Guidebook. I was mostly attracted to certain kinds of birds of prey (I assume boys have that inclination if they care about birds at all at that age)—you know, the one with off-beat names such as osprey, shrike, swallow-tail kite. Imagine my surprise when I found that Larry Lieberman, who would help guide my dissertation on Dickey and Roethke, had a book called The Osprey Suicides—a match made in the wide blue heaven mirrored in a fishing lake, I guess.
I got more serious about it in college, when I entered one of those “send us your poem and ten dollars per volume and we’ll see if we can fit you in” contests. Really awful love poem although it seemed terribly full of deep feelings at the time.
I was actually rather afraid of reading, much less writing, “modern poetry” when I dared myself to write a honors thesis on Herman Melville’s poetry and found Robert Penn Warren’s great essay “Melville the Poet,” in which he declared HM a poetical “king of shreds and patches.” That struck home for me as I began to think of poetry as something of a mixture of languages, almost polyglot, a place of living-word experience in which one could write, “What like a bullet can undeceive!” (“Shiloh: A Requiem”).
And then came Dylan Thomas and the Caedmon recordings of that wildly beautiful Welsh voice, the sheer musicality, of course. But along with that (see “Fern Hill”) Thomas’s willingness to use words in surprising variations of grammar and syntax. Mrs. Foil, my 7th-grade teacher, would’ve been shocked at the comfort I felt both in knowing our language conventions and in subverting them to mysterious poetic purposes.
I mean, really, “Once below a time”; “So it must have been after the birth of the simple light / In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm / Out of the whinnying green stable / On to the fields of praise”—It was sheer magic to me, but in reading Thomas, Melville, Dickey, Roethke, Dickinson, Eliot, Bishop, Frost I came to realize the simple humanity of these people, men and women who practiced—yes, practiced—the language arts the way athletes practice their seemingly superhuman skills.
My first “published” poem came out in Arlington Quarterly when I was 27, following the death of Edwin Shirley Godsey, a fine poet at Converse College. And so on . . .
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
I always liked the jingly quality of nursery rhymes and their illogical plot lines, the discovery of the fact that goofy sounds were irrationally appealing, as with music. And then came Robert Louis Stevenson and such poems as “I Must Go Down to the Sea Again,” which seemed vaguely adult as well as childlike.
As an adult who had come to want to write poetry, I was lit up by these poems, among others: “Fern Hill,” Dickey’s “The Firebombing” and “The Performance,” “ Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73: That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold,” Dickinson’s “I Heard a Fly Buzz” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Hughes’s “Dream Deferred,” Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Emerson’s “Hamatreya,” Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa,” Marlowe’s Jubilate Agno “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry,“ Eliot’s “Prufrock,” etc.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
As for contemporary poets, I try to stay in touch with the not-so-famous-but-really-good-ones such as Gregory Fraser (“The Coward,” “Ars Poetica,” “Strange Pieta”), Eric Smith (“Black Hole Factory,” “The Mercy Dancers,” “Tyrannosaurus Sex”), Mary Moore (“The Angel of the Knowledge of Death,” “Chimera,” and her Amanda poems), David Bottoms (“Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump,” “Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt,” “Calling Across Water at Lion Country Safari”), Chad Davidson (“Consolation Miracle,” “Cockroaches: Ars Poetica,” “This Is the Cow”), Art Stringer (“Asbestos Brocade,” “At the Precipice Bar and Grill,” “Honeysuckle Engagement”), Austin Hummell (“Helen’s Cordial,” “Sunday Morning Percodan,” “The Desertion of Nouns”).
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
Placing butt in chair. Revising. Remembering. Especially lingering over phrases, words, or even sentences that struck me as interesting that day. Trusting that writer’s block is an illusion. Reading earlier drafts. Revising. Drafting prose explanations to myself about what I think I meant in this or that passage. Revising. Playing recklessly with forms, lineation, stanza divisions. Nothing I’ve written is holy until it seems so. Revise.
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
Rarely do I set out to write a fixed form. I do from time to time try to stretch my muscles with a sonnet, a sestina, a ghazal, terza rima, but more often my forms emerge by pushing stuff around. I have found that I sometimes go through phases of stanza lengths. Having a vocal music background, I think I have always been governed by the breath of line-lengths. Reading aloud is crucial to my final decisions about form. (Sidebar: I remain puzzled by poets who seem in public readings to prefer muttering their words, as if they are hoping to be overheard. Galway Kinnell used to say that a poet should feel the words like a taste in the mouth. If you don’t physically love your words, why would anybody else?)
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
I think you have to learn to listen to yourself, to hear how you actually talk but also to hear how you think words to yourself. Most people, I believe, aren’t very conscious of how they sound to others and even less conscious of the deep, mysterious language they use inside their own minds. Poets have to do both.
What is your editing process like?
As I’ve said, pushing stuff around. Listening for the right sounds. As Dickey said, the rightest words in the rightest order. I’ve come to appreciate very much the virtues of computer word-processing for revision. I never throw anything completely away. And, to be honest, sometimes editing involves seeking the opinions of trusted, knowledgeable readers—my wife and poet-friends, with whom I share drafts that I think are almost done.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
Usually—but not always—when it’s published. Over the years, however, I have come to appreciate Valéry’s (much corrupted) remark, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”