Poet’s Corner by Russell Bittner
Interview with Michael Burch
January’s an opportunity to start over all again—not necessarily a bad thing—but the possibility always remains that a mensual Doppelgänger lurks just behind the curtain or around the corner. Don’t look in this corner, however, as our interviewee for January ain’t no ghost! He’s Michael R. Burch—emeritus of more things than I can even think of, much less master.
As is our habit, Mike deserves a proper introduction by way of his bio before we take on the monster of his poetry. Don’t, however, let the brevity of that bio deceive you; it’s jam-packed with goodies:
Elizabeth Harris Burch
RRB:Mike, let’s talk first about your second child—or eighth puppy if you prefer. In any case, I’d rather not think of THT as your secret lover (although you probably lavish more time, attention and love on that site than most guys spend with their mistresses!). I’m speaking, namely, of The HyperTexts—or, as you and I both know it, THT—which is where I found your poems. MRB:As a young teenage poet, I did more or less “pledge my troth” to Poetry. My Ars Poetica begins: “Poetry, I found you / where at last they chained and bound you / with devices all around you / to torture and confound you / I found you—shivering, bare.” I was upset to learn that many of the things I loved about poetry—meter, rhyme, romance, passion, storytelling—were all out of favor in modern poetry circles. In my own poetry, and through The HyperTexts, I’ve tried to stake out a claim where the best of the older poetic tradition and the best of modernism can be mined together. Of course readers will have to judge how successful I’ve been, but I’ve lavished a lot of time on my “mistress,” with the complete approval of my lovely wife Beth. RRB:We should all be so lucky! I don’t mean to lavish a lot of time on a mistress, but rather to have such an understanding wife. One quick question, Mike, before we start in on some of your poems. Until yesterday, I’d always thought of Calliope as the muse of lyric poetry. However, in reading your essay at THT, “Erato Speared,” I believe you suggested that Erato had and has that role. Am I confused, or am I just ignorant? MRB:Calliope was the Greek Muse of epic poetry. Calliope would be the Muse of Homer, Erato of Sappho. Modern English poetry has increasingly tended toward the lyric, although THT has published two book-length poems: “The Mouse Whole” by Richard Moore, and “Song of a Son of Light” by Ian Thornley. In an interesting coincidence, I was able to introduce Ian to Richard and it turned out that they lived very close to each other, so they were able to meet. When Richard was at the end of his life and living alone in a ramshackle mansion, Ian, a doctor who works with terminal patients, was able to meet with and counsel him. So perhaps the Muses watch over their own, and THT’s poets have the favor of both. At least I’d like to think so! RRB:Thanks, Mike, and now on to your own bit of musing. Give us the skinny, if you will, on “Child of 9-11.” The title, of course, won’t be a mystery to anyone. But I’d like to know what moved you to write this piece before we take a look at it. MRB:Lew Turco said he couldn’t believe someone wrote a poem of that quality so quickly after the death of Christina-Taylor Green. I wrote the poem in a few minutes, thinking of a nine-year-old girl who wanted to get involved in American politics. The first time she attended a political event, she was murdered. While it was nice to have the poem to offer her family, friends and the public, it’s a poem I wish I didn’t have to write. The poem is my pledge to do what I do best—write, edit and publish—with the goal of saving other children from similar fates. I’m a fan of writers like William Blake, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain: they used their pens to change human culture and reform society. I don’t agree with Auden that poetry makes nothing happen. To me, it seems that poetry, music and art make everything happen, in terms of positive social change. Blake, Whitman and Twain said that racism and slavery were wrong. What was once socially acceptable soon became unacceptable. I believe we will eventually ban war and people walking around carrying loaded weapons the way we banned child sacrifice, slavery and children being made to work twenty-hour days at harrowingly dangerous jobs such as chimneysweeps and coal miners. It all begins with people reading poems and novels, listening to songs, watching movies and TV shows and music videos, and deciding that the status quo is unacceptable and creates a world too horrible to bear. We should either change the world for the better—or stop having children—in my not-always-humble opinion. So I write poems like “Child of 9-11” to touch people’s hearts and make them think … to “delight them into wisdom,” to paraphrase Robert Frost.
“Child of 9-11”
a poem for Christina-Taylor Green, who was born
on September 11, 2001 and died at the age of nine,
shot to death ...
Child of 9-11, beloved,
I bring this lily, lay it down
here at your feet, and eiderdown,
and all soft things, for your gentle spirit.
I bring this psalm — I hope you hear it.
Much love I bring — I lay it down
here by your form, which is not you,
but what you left this shell-shocked world
to help us learn what we must do
to save another child like you.
Child of 9-11, I know
you are not here, but watch, afar
from distant stars, where angels rue
the terrible things some mortals do.
I also watch; I also rue.
And so I make this pledge and vow:
though I may weep, I will not rest
nor will my pen fail heaven's test
till guns and wars and hate are banned
from every shore, from every land.
Child of 9-11, I grieve
your tender life, cut short ... bereaved,
what can I do but pledge my life
to saving lives like yours? Belief
in your sweet worth has led me here ...
I give my all: my pen, this tear,
this lily and this eiderdown,
and all soft things my heart can bear;
I bear them to your final bier,
and leave them with my promise, here.
RRB:Nice work, Mike. Lew Turco had it right. Very “Burchian.” Moving right along, I see that you’ve been cavorting with Erato on this next one, “Love Has a Summer Flavor.” It’s a sonnet, but not (at least that I can see) in the strictest classical sense—i. e., it’s clearly not Petrarchan, nor is it Elizabethan/ Shakespearean or Spenserian. What is your feeling about the liberties one may (or may not) take with sonnets? MRB: I agree with Anthony Hecht, who in his article on the sonnet for Encyclopaedia Britannica said that all canonical forms demand innovation. One of my favorite sonnets, Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” doesn’t fit any of the classical molds. Nor does “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, a truly superior poem. And of course if Shakespeare had obeyed the “rules” set by other poets, we wouldn’t have the Shakespearean sonnet, would we? I always feel free to break any rule in any poem if the poem will improve as a result. Perhaps the only rule that should never be broken in poetry is the rule not to depart from poetic meter and the conventions of language in such a way that the reader’s pleasure is interrupted or lost. I want my poems to read well, to be understood and to bring pleasure. I believe it’s self-evident that flexible rules help and inflexible rules hinder the process of pleasing readers. My main argument against some Eratosphereans is that any kind of slavish adherence to mindless rules is self-defeating for poets. Why should I obey rules that limit the good things I can do, as a poet, to please readers? If other poets insist that good things are automatically bad, because some moron started bossing himself around the way Scrooge bossed around Bob Cratchit, I say, “Bah, humbug!” In effect, that’s what the modernists did when they started bossing themselves around with bizarre edicts like “no ideas but in things” and “less is more” (which soon became “the perfect poem is silence”). The ideas are stupid and limiting. If “no ideas but in things” is correct, we should scrap every poem that expresses abstract ideas directly, such as notions of love, honor, fidelity, etc. We would have to junk the collected works of Shakespeare, “Beowulf,” “Canterbury Tales,” “Paradise Lost,” all the great ballads and dramatic monologues, and ironically the greatest works of modernism: “Leaves of Grass,” “Dover Beach,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Little Gidding,” etc. I find the idea of applying rigid, simplistic formulas to poetry terribly silly. Poets are their own bosses, so why not fire the unfair tyrant and replace him with someone easier to get along with?
“Love Has a Southern Flavor”
Love has a Southern flavor: honeydew,
ripe cantaloupe, the honeysuckle’s spout
we tilt to basking faces to breathe out
the ordinary, and inhale perfume ...
Love’s Dixieland-rambunctious: tangled vines,
wild clematis, the gold-brocaded leaves
that will not keep their order in the trees,
unmentionables that peek from dancing lines ...
Love cannot be contained, like Southern nights:
the constellations’ dying mysteries,
the fireflies that hum to light, each tree’s
resplendent autumn cape, a genteel sight ...
Love also is as wild, as sprawling-sweet,
as decadent as the wet leaves at our feet.
Originally published by The Lyric
RRB:Mike, the elegance of your defense is matched only by the elegance of your last poem. And yet, I see with “What Would Santa Claus Say?” that you also don’t mind employing humor to make the very same point. MRB:Thanks. I think humor can be very enlightening. Some of the best, most acute observations about human nature have been made by stand-up-comedians and satirical poets. Ancient Celtic Kings may have been fearless in war, yet they were anything but when it came to the satires of poets. There’s no defense against a really good SNL skit. I just applied the same type of humor to the greatest enemy of my childhood, the Christian religion, which maintains that: (1) God is “perfect” despite the mess he made of everything; (2) human beings are “born evil” despite the fact that God made them as they are; and (3) Jesus Christ will return to earth like an avenging demon to save puling moralists by “grace,” while everyone with a brain and a fiber of backbone gets cast into an “eternal hell.” It hardly seems fair to me that Jesus would reward people who fawned over him while believing he was such a petty being that he would send billions of people to “hell.” So I set out to write a poem to cast doubt on the whole “believe in Jesus” thingamabob. Why would Jesus save all the hypocritical moralists and send the honest hookers and homosexuals to hell? It makes no sense. The result is a very childlike poem that I think does exactly what I want it to do: make orthodox Christians look like devil worshipers. And I think it’s a nice touch to have creatures of grace—Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny—looking at the monstrous Jesus of Revelation askance.
“What Would Santa Claus Say?”
What would Santa Claus say,
about Jesus returning
to kill and plunder?
For He’ll likely return
on Christmas day
to blow the bad
little boys away!
When He flashes like lightning
across the skies
and many a homosexual
when the harlots and heretics
are ripped asunder,
what will the Easter Bunny think,
RRB:Your next poem, “Something,” is anything but humorous. Would you mind giving us some background to this one? MRB:This poem came to me from out of the blue; it was the first poem I ever wrote that didn’t rhyme. I can’t remember much about it except that I had the image of wisps of vapor rising into the night air—as well as a sense of loss—and the rest of the poem seemed to write itself. Years later, I dedicated the poem to the children who lived (or didn’t live) through the Holocaust.
(for the children of the Holocaust)
Something inescapable is lost—
lost like a pale vapor curling up into shafts of moonlight,
vanishing in a gust of wind toward an expanse of stars
immeasurable and void.
Something uncapturable is gone—
gone with the spent leaves and illuminations of autumn,
scattered into a haze with the faint rustle of parched grass
Something unforgettable is past—
blown from a glimmer into nothingness, or less,
and finality has swept into a corner where it lies
in dust and cobwebs and silence.
RRB:A very moving piece, Mike. And “Cædmon’s Hymn”? MRB:Cædmon may have been the first English poet, although he was writing in a far more Germanic version of English than what we speak today. According to the venerable Bede, Cædmon was an illiterate herdsman who was given the gift of poetic composition by an angel. That may sound hard to believe, but I was tone-deaf until my late forties, then one day while I was praying I heard my voice change and suddenly I could sing! It was an interesting experience because when I sang I heard what I call a “cathedral voice,” but when I taped my voice it was much improved but nowhere near as heavenly. It seems my middle-aged vocal cords can’t match my new gift, but I’m still very happy to have it. I once made a pilgrimage to Whitby, the English fishing village where Cædmon is buried, and wrote poems in his honor.
(circa 658-680 AD)” (a loose translation)
Now let us honour heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the might of the Architect and his mind-plans,
the work of the Glory-Father. First he, the eternal Lord,
established the foundation of wonders.
Then he, the first Poet, created heaven as a roof
for the sons of men, holy Creator,
Guardian of mankind. Then he, the eternal Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth: Master almighty!
RRB:And this next piece is certainly a playful little thing…. MRB:“Willy Nilly” is written in the playful (but not particularly happy) spirit of Robert Frost’s “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee / and I’ll forgive the great big one on me.” Plato and other philosophers suggested that an evil, amoral or incompetent being (the Demiurge) created the material universe. Christian Gnostics then decided that the schizophrenic god of the Old Testament (Yahweh/Jehovah) was the Demiurge/Devil; they said Jesus was the representative of a truly good god who was correcting the Creator’s mistakes. Deciding that the Creator is responsible for his own mistakes gets man off the hook for “original sin” and allows us to laugh at “God” and his follies as well as at ourselves.
(for the Demiurge aka Yahweh/Jehovah)
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You made the stallion,
you made the filly,
and now they sleep
in the dark earth, stilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You forced them to run
all their days uphilly.
They ran till they dropped—
life’s a pickle, dilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
They say I should worship you!
They say I should pray
so you’ll not act illy.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
RRB:You and Robert Frost. You both nailed it. And what about “How Long the Night”? MRB:This is one of my favorite older poems, but none of the other translations I’d read seemed to quite do it justice, so I fine-tuned the meter a bit. I like my version best of the ones I’ve read, and it’s a quite a thrill to think that I may have played a part in making the poem appeal to future generations of readers. (I hope someone does something similar with my best poems a few hundred years from now.)
“How Long the Night”
(Anonymous Old English Lyric, circa early 13th century AD – a loose translation)
It is pleasant, indeed, while the summer lasts
with the mild pheasants' song ...
but now I feel the northern wind's blast—
its severe weather strong.
Alas! Alas! This night seems so long!
And I, because of my momentous wrong
now grieve, mourn and fast.
RRB:Yes indeed, Mike. We can all hope that something we write today will still have enough life a hundred years from now for some new poet to take a crack at it. And now, for your last piece of the evening, “Sweet Rose of Virtue.” MRB:This poem is another of my favorite older poems. William Dunbar is one of those ancient splendors who is becoming less and less accessible to modern readers. I tried to make my translation accessible while keeping it as lovely and mesmerizing as the original. Hopefully readers will like what I did.
“Sweet Rose of Virtue”
by William Dunbar [1460-1525] – a loose translation
Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.
Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but bitter rue.
I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such terrible pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.
RRB:I believe they did, Michael—except when your rose was “merciless” and had “no odor but bitter rue.” I want to thank you for tonight’s interview. It’s been both enjoyable and enlightening. MRB:Thanks, Russell. It was my pleasure.