Newspaper Column

The Berkeley Times

As appeared in the Berkeley Times on April 23, 2015:

ON WORDS: “POETRY FLASH” AT MOE’S

O little corporation alone in the
Manger, who will keep the nipping wolves at bay?
You can hear, at night, the unions howl, the taxmen
Circling in the woods…

Pure sarcasm! The atmosphere downstairs at Moe’s Books is hushed, almost reverential, but these lines are biting. Poet David Shaddock speaks in an understated but crisp, clear style.

His teacher, the late Denise Levertov, “was both an activist and a mystic…I try, in her honor, to keep politics as one of my themes.”

Then Shaddock ventures into lyrics related to a cancer scare.

There were orange poppies and forget-me-nots
Vernal pools with a chorus of croaking frogs…
…how we listened
For hours to the bullfrogs and spring peepers
Convinced that we’d found the ur source of music.

The second reader, John Oliver Simon, gained notice during the 1964 Free Speech movement, with brilliant, direct poetry, in the manner of Gary Snyder. Biting eco-consciousness comes from Simon, too.

A nicotinoid is poisoning the bees
plumed from the mammary glands of cropdusters…

Then Simon considers passion.

Hot sexuality is the epoxy
that hooks our life stories as we do-si-do
with sweet smiling strangers out of Genesis
no marriage stays voluptuous forever
we usually react to this news badly…

At Moe’s Books, a landmark four stories at 2476 Telegraph Avenue, the staircase displays photos of the original 1959 building. That was a quaint time. Cody’s Books was the center for poetry but, since its demise in 2006, that role migrated to Moe’s. The setting seems to suit both poets: you can feel generations of tradition.

What’s magical about the eleven-syllable line? I wonder, which the poets reveal they’re using. Simon skirts the issue. “David Shaddock will probably excommunicate me from the eleven-syllable church.”

Ah-hah! A game within the game.

These poets may have a rivalry, a call-and-response. And they’re both writing sonnets. Are such poems arcane or dry? Not the slightest! The poets give intimate slices of their lives and we’re rewarded with the sense of how our lives are all similar. The audience, 25 or so white elders, sighs, and applauds.

The richness of the evening shows why sonnets persist for centuries. Sonnets fit the Western mind, demanding exact thinking in fourteen lines: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

That’s High School Logic 101. I have my own syllogism, since paying such close attention is tiring. Thesis: I’m hungry. Antithesis: no more fast food. Then I recall a possible gluten-free snack on the Avenue. Synthesis: good pizza.

Formal poetry is not, I suspect, a trend in Poetry Flash readings. I could be wrong! View the next week’s readers at poetryflash.org and find out.