Beaten Over The Head

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I’ve got a very old, rustic wood plaque with a poem called Desiderata on it, one of the best motivational poems ever written, with lots of great advice like “go placidly amid the noise and haste”, advice that applies very well to where I live (Los Angeles) and I sometimes find hard to follow.

I was cleaning out the garage today and knocked it off the wall. It hit me on the head. Hurt like the dickens. So I have now literally been “beaten over the head” with it. Do you think someone is trying to tell me something?

The poem is below in case you haven’t read it. It’s definitely worth your time.

The only line I take exception with is “. . . listen to others, even the dull and ignorant.” I mean, it may be true that some people are dull or ignorant or both (a few come to mind, actually), but it makes Max sound a bit on the arrogant side. Other than that, this poem is pure gold.

Desiderata
by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, (c) 1952

Poem from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s The Joy of Less

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The sole purpose of many of the things I do in life is to annoy my wife (in a fun way.) It’s kind of a hobby. For instance, doing my Al Jolson imitation drives her nuts. Or singing Nights in White Satin at full volume. Or pranking her with rubber spiders on fishing wire hanging from ceiling fans. I once put a full-sized, foam rubber alien at the bathroom window and said, “I thought I heard something in the yard. Can you take a look?” When she opened the window, that alien accessed her primal scream. It was downright blood-curdling. I was proud of her, though, because she punched it right in the nose. However, because I had propped it up with a metal rake in it’s lower back, it just bent backwards and sprung forward to its original position again, which made her scream a second time. I got pummeled but it was worth it. 

She also can’t stand it when I stop at yard sales. She never knows what she’s going to find in the house on a Saturday afternoon. I once replaced the couch with a purple chaise lounge, hoping she wouldn’t notice. When she came home, I just said “what?” like nothing had changed. It didn’t go well for me. 

She calls the stuff I buy “tacky junk.” I call it “eclectic home decor.” So to annoy her further, I wrote a poem a few years ago about my love of yard sales. It was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s book The Joy of Less. I hope it gives you a chuckle, and reminds you of the junk collector in your family. (There’s always one.) 

Slightly Bent Flugelhorn, Best Offer

God, please save me from garage sales.
Whenever I see one, it just never fails.
I always have to stop and look around
at all the junk laid out on the ground.

Oh, the excitement! What might I find?
What treasures await? It boggles the mind!
It’s usually worthless, but you just never know!
I might find an authentic Vinnie Van Gogh!

We’ve all heard the stories about some typical fool
who paid ten cents for some tacky, cosmetic jewel
then a week later, the same guy found out with a thrill
that it was Cleopatra’s ring and it’s worth twenty mil’!!!

Doesn’t that make you just want to puke?
I mean, don’t we deserve to have such a fluke?
It’ll happen to me, though folks say it can’t.
Someday, I’ll score an original Rembrandt!

But so far, I’ve only bought stuff I don’t need
like a mountain of books I can’t find time to read,
old clothes that are already starting to fray
and old records that are too scratched to play.

I have tons of toys (though my kids aren’t yet born.)
I’ve got a stuffed iguana and a bent flugelhorn,
a velvet painting of Elvis that nobody can stand
and a baseball mitt that doesn’t quite fit my hand.

I have a cymbal-banging monkey, an old tambourine,
a lava lamp, some hula dolls and MAD magazines,
a banged-up surfboard and a magic eight ball.
I’ve got enough stuff to start my own mall!

My den looks like the set of Sanford and Son.
I know I should stop but it’s just too much fun!
Some people like neatness but I’d be in a funk
if I wasn’t surrounded by cool, kitschy junk!

Searching through old boxes gives me such pleasure.
It makes me feel like a pirate searching for treasure!
It’s prob’ly wishful thinking but I know that someday
I’ll find something to sell for big bucks! I just may!

But half the joy of garage sales is passing the time
with old folks and children and neighbors of mine.
Just shooting the breeze like folks did in the past
is less common now that the world moves so fast.

I have no excuse. I guess I’m a hopeless case
but I run into garage sales all over the place!
My home’s filled with junk. My family’s in a huff.
I’ve got to have a sale to get rid of this stuff!!

(c) Mark Rickerby

For Haters of Rhyme

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I once spent a night in a cave at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. I had run out of money after six months of bouncing around Europe and the Greek islands and was waiting for my flight home in a few days. Because I was in my twenties, I was too naive to feel scared, but I did feel lonely that night. It’s hard not to in a dark cave, even with the city bursting with light and excitement. (It was a Saturday night.) There was even a hot air balloon festival not far away, so the night sky was filled with illuminated, multi-colored balloons. 

I had wandered through the city before going to the cave, attended a concert, had dinner, saw the Plaka (old section) one last time, but finally snuck under the chain link fence surrounding the Acropolis, snuck past the guards and their German Shepherds, laid out my sleeping bag in the cave, lit a candle, and started to fall asleep when I heard . . . bats. I tried to sleep anyway but the thought of waking up to one of them sucking on my jugular vein made sleep impossible. So I sat up again and took out a book of poetry that was so tattered from touring Europe with me, the pages were falling out. 

The book was called The Best-Loved Poems of the American People. Most of the poems rhymed because they were written by poets from the Romantic Period such as Longfellow, Dickinson, Byron, Keats, Shelley – the biggies. These poems made sense, had messages, and were perfectly constructed. I came to respect rhyming poetry because of them. Many of the answers to the greatest questions of life were in those poems. I wasn’t alone in that cave at all. They were with me. Their words sang, just as they did for the boys in Dead Poet’s Society in the cave they found on the school grounds. The words dripped from my tongue like honey. They helped me “suck the marrow out of life.”

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But not everyone has the same respect I developed for rhyming poetry. In fact, I recently posted a rhyming poem on Facebook and was told by someone that rhyme should be limited to lullabies and Hallmark cards. This person probably likes or at least respects the legendary poets above, but feels somehow that what they accomplished should no longer be attempted, and to do so, in her words is “stupid” (both writing rhymes and rhyming poetry.) Yes, stupid. She made this comment about a very serious poem I wrote (see my previous post called Journey to God) and a very silly poem called Yoga Makes Me Fart. Everyone got a kick out of it except . . . her. Both poems were deemed to be “stupid” by this self-proclaimed writer and connoisseur of the arts.

That’s another thing about pseudo-intellectuals. They think it’s low-brow to say words like “fart.” But a rhyme with a very long history, most notably by Roald Dahl in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, goes –

A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men.

So I like offending snobs. In fact, I enjoy it immensely. Normally, I would calmly discuss my reasons for enjoying and writing rhyming verse, but since this person decided to break out the S word, I decided to write a poem especially for her. Of course, it was a rhyming poem – you know, just to annoy her some more. Suffice to say the gloves were off. I don’t suffer the S word very well, I’m afraid, especially from someone with no literary accomplishments. Besides, rhyming poetry has been used to expose blowhards and nincompoops for centuries, too. It’s a fine tradition.

The fact is, I have no tolerance for someone with no discernible talent, someone who hasn’t faced and surmounted the struggles the acquisition of talent demands, yet somehow feels qualified to pass judgment on works of great passion by someone who has. If that sounds arrogant, so be it. A little arrogance can and should be wielded sometimes in life, but only when battling those who are arrogant with no foundation. The only thing I could find that she has written is a self-published book called Witless. You know, because Clueless was already taken. I’m not kidding. You can’t write this stuff.

I was also baffled by how someone can hate something as harmless as rhyming. Some people need to choose bigger causes for their lives. You know, ending world hunger and like that.

If she ever comes across this poem, her arrogance and self-delusion will probably lead her to conclude that she really got to me for me to write all this about her, like that old Carly Simon song You’re So Vain (you probably think this song is about you.) But, of course, it isn’t about her at all. It’s about art, expression, and smacking down anyone who attempts to suppress it in any of its forms. It must be done, but artfully. I laughed myself sick writing the poem below. I enjoyed it. And that’s the main purpose of art of any kind. Enjoyment. The subject of the poem probably won’t enjoy it quite so much.

So here’s a little nonsense. I hope it entertains. And if you start to feel sorry for the subject of the poem at any point, just remember, she deserved it.

The Ballad of Lucy Calhoun

This here is the ballad of Lucy Calhoun.
A bitter, cantankerous, mean, old buffoon.
What happened, you ask, to blacken her heart?
Poems that rhyme and people who fart.

“Rhyming is for lullabies!” she’d often say,
Unfazed that the masters all wrote that way.
No, rhyming of any kind gave her the fits.
Longfellow and Dickinson were a couple of twits. 

Until she suddenly woke up and saw the light
While suffering with the flu one night.
She sat up and, with a horrible start,
Let out a prize-winning, head-spinning fart.

It was so loud and mighty, it expelled a bug
That had lived there for decades, fat and snug.
It landed on the floor and let out a shriek.
Then Lucy passed out and slept for a week.

When she finally awoke, she walked to her table
And discovered that she too was finally able
To write flowing verse with heart and soul
Now that that insect was out of her hole.

Like the Grinch, her heart grew three sizes that day
And she vowed to forever write this new way
And stop driving everyone out of their wits
With babbling free verse that nobody gets.

Now that she had a bug-free rear end,
She said, “I’ll never again harass or offend.
Instead of being a jealous, hateful, old cow,
I’ll learn how to write, too, starting right now!”

And the poetry Grinch, forever-after,
Respected rhyme that rippled like laughter
And said, “Maybe I was dead wrong before.
Maybe rhyming poetry is a little bit more.”

And because her cold heart had unfurled,
She finally got published in the real world
The Romantic poets hadn’t gotten it wrong.
Her mediocrity was her greatest foe all along.

Thus ends the ballad of Lucy Calhoun.
A stern warning for egos that are over the moon.
Before calling the works of another the worst,
Prove yourself their intellectual equal first.

Journey to God (poem)

 

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I know most won’t read this because it is very, very, very long, so to the one or two who do, pat yourself on the back for not being afflicted with the A.D.D. the Internet has stricken 99% of the adult world with. I really opened a vein for it, so I think it will be worth your time. Thanks.

And to those who think a rhyming poem can’t be profound, please get out your Ouija board, contact Hank Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Bob Frost and Billy Shakespeare (et al) and take it up with them. 

Journey to God

An old man passed away one night.
He’d had a good, long life.
and all that he regretted
was leaving his beautiful wife.

To others, her glory had faded
as the years had claimed their fee
but to him, she was just as lovely
as she was at twenty-three.

He saw his high school sweetheart
and remembered her sweet, shy smile.
He saw his bride in a gown of white
walking toward him down the aisle.

He saw her asleep in a hospital bed
as she cradled their newborn child.
He saw her quiet and thoughtful,
then passionate and wild.

He was so possessed by thoughts of her,
he hardly noticed he had passed.
He was still alive in spirit
and all his pain was gone at last.

He was surprised at how easy it was to die,
like shedding worn-out clothes
but even more to see himself below
as his spirit slowly rose.

He felt no urge or instinct
to return and get back in
for he knew the body on the bed
was never really him.

It was always just a vehicle,
now broken down and old.
What he’d walked around in all his life
was just a vehicle for his soul.

He had to laugh for, being dead,
he had never felt so great.
He couldn’t help but realize
this was a natural state.

Death was not the end of life,
just one more stanza in the poem.
It was not a sad departure
but a return to his true home.

But the cries of his dear wife
would not let him leave this plane.
He could not bear to leave her
while she was in such pain.

He saw her cry and hold him
as he lay still in their bed
and heard her whisper, “Rest, my love”
as he floated overhead.

He wanted to hold her and let her know
that he was free from pain.
He wished he could tell her not to cry
for they’d soon be together again.

But the wall between life and death
proved too thick and strong to breach.
The woman he’d held every day of his life,
for now, was out of reach.

So he cried, too, thinking of her
so frail and helpless there,
alone with his lifeless body
in the home they used to share.

Though at first he was elated
to be free of that painful shell,
he longed to return to tell her
that his soul was alive and well.

So as he floated like a feather
through the purple, misty air,
his sorrow and loneliness mounted
and he fell into despair.

When from far away, through the haze,
a strange melody reached his ears,
sung by a chorus of angels
to soothe and calm his fears.

He followed the voices, clear and sweet,
and could hardly believe the sight.
Radiant beings with glowing eyes
were guiding him toward the light!

“Do you remember me, John?” one of them asked,
“We were buddies in World War Two.”
“Do you remember me, John?” another voice called,
“You used to call me Grandpa Lou.”

“Hey, John! It’s me! Your brother, Joey!
I came here when you were ten.
I’ll bet you never thought
you would hear my voice again.”

This went on for hours and hours,
spirits wanting to say hello;
reunions with those he had loved so well
in the world and the life below.

His emotions were tossed seeing those he had lost
in the maelstrom of earthly life
where often the good are taken too soon
and heartache and sorrow is rife.

But there were two others he struggled to see
till he finally grew panicked and sad.
He said, “Wait a minute! Somebody tell me –
where are my mom and my dad?”

His brother whispered, “John, don’t worry.
They’re here and they’re happy you came.”
Then he saw them, bathed in golden light,
and their faces were just the same.

He cried with joy as he hugged them and said,
“Oh, I have missed you so.”
For years, he wished he could see them again.
Now, he could not let them go.

He was happy to hold them, to look in their eyes,
and laugh as they had before.
He was relieved that death is no different from life.
There’s just no pain anymore.

He told them he’d grown to appreciate
all that they’d done and said,
and as nice as it was to tell them now,
wished he’d told them in life instead.

But like most, he denied the fact of death
and refused to believe they could die.
He never allowed it to enter his mind
as the months and the years flew by.

Till he found himself standing beside their graves
and it finally sank in they were gone.
He was angry at God who allowed death to be.
It all seemed so senseless and wrong.

“Why are we given these feelings?” he had cried,
“And love that grows deeper with time?
If we’re bound to lose it all in the end,
then creating this world was a crime.”

And just the way he had wished
he could soothe his wife’s dismay,
his parents heard his anguished cry
and wished the same that day.

For they had already found their way home
to the fountain from which we all spring.
They had freed themselves of their mortal shells
and their souls had taken wing.

Now here he was, with them again,
and his joy could not be contained.
If only he’d known death was only a door,
his faith would never have waned.

“If you want to swim in the ocean,” they said,
“Just think it and you will be there.
Your body can’t slow you down anymore.
You’re as light and free as the air.”

“Remember those Sunday’s down by the sea?
Those summers that seemed without end?
Just close your eyes and imagine that time
and we’ll all be back there again!”

But he worried that God would not let him stay
and that all this was too good to last.
He feared that he would be banished
for his faltering faith in the past.

But his family and friends just smiled and said,
“John, you have nothing to fear.
A few things they said about heaven down there
are far from the truth up here.”

They said you had to go to church
for God to hear your prayer
but God can hear the softest whisper
anytime and anywhere.

You search for Christ was constant.
You fought for your faith since birth.
And the kindness you always showed in life
is the sole measure of anyone’s worth.

God doesn’t demand blind submission
or condemn you for questions or doubts.
It’s men that said God was vengeful,
a dictator who bullies and shouts.

You thought you needed pure faith
or God wouldn’t hear your call
but the times God tried to help you most
were when you had no faith at all.

You thought that sins were punished
with torture and endless pain
but the threat of hell is not for God
but for the church’s gain.

We don’t need a hell to burn in
or a devil to torture our minds.
Judgment takes place in our conscience
when we’re shown God’s vast design.

It’s not only the enemy of man
who compels us to do wrong.
Good and bad are side by side
within us, all along.

It all comes down to choices –
light or dark, right or wrong,
and they make or break our happiness
in life below and life beyond.

Every sin comes back to haunt us,
no matter how big or how small
and the pain we caused in earthly life
returns to us, after all.

We each have our own individual hell
and a battle none but us can fight.
Millions of souls are still spinning out there,
trapped in perpetual night.

For until they cure their own blindness,
in darkness their souls will bide.
God doesn’t force us to come back home
but patiently calls us inside.

Some men look at evil
and label it “God’s will”
but God gave life, and death for rest.
Only men can kill.

And some say God is dead
or he was never really there.
How else, they ask, can one explain
so many unanswered prayers?

How else can one explain
the pain and horror on the earth?
This has been the central question
since the dawn of mankind’s birth.

But like a mortal parent,
raising a baby all alone,
God did his best to teach us
then left us on our own.

And like a meddling father
who a child would push away,
God can’t live our lives for us
and he can’t cushion the way.

To take every hint of pain from life
would remove our right to choose.
If you really stop to think it through,
we’d gain less than we’d lose.

Some see the misery of human life
and ask God what it means
but the only way He could end it
would be to make us all machines.

So God does not stop evil,
though it hurts Him to let it be.
He can’t both rule with an iron hand
and allow us to be free.

The place that folks call “hell”
where sinners meet their fate
is distance from the light of God
and time to contemplate.

For once you feel God’s presence,
all your pain and sorrows cease.
All your questions then are answered
and your heart is filled with peace.

Men bent the words of Jesus
To control the multitude.
They took his divine message
and made it low and crude.

Men have always struggled for power,
from the caves to the streets of L.A.
Why wouldn’t they twist the word of God
and tell us we need them to pray?

The ring kissing, Hail Mary’s, and rosary beads,
right down to the Pope’s princely nod,
at best, is only good theater,
a bureaucracy between man and God.

You see, God is not some tyrant
who needs a chain of command.
You find God in the eyes of the aged
and in a baby’s hand.

You find God in a sunset
so pretty it makes you cry.
You find God in every warm embrace
and in a lover’s sigh.

You find God in generosity,
and in the meek and mild.
You find God in any gentle soul
who kneels to help a child.

You find God in the soft, pink light
when a new day has begun
and in the flower by the window
as it opens to the sun.

And yes, you find God in the dying
as the light fades in their eyes
and their spirit slowly slips away
to its true home in the skies.

God is in every one of us.
We can feel it when we’re young.
Then we’re snatched up by the world
and into the fray we’re flung.

We grow cynical and weary
and forget all that we once knew
when the peace and joy God gave us
has lost its native hue.

Oh, if only they knew, John! If only they knew!
What a wonderful world they might win
if they could only see past their differences
to the spirit that dwells within.”

He was shocked by these new revelations.
His mind spun around and around.
The chains that tethered his spirit in life
Lay shattered in pieces on the ground.

His parents said, “Welcome to heaven.”
He felt a peace he never thought he would know
and though his mortal life had just ended,
it seemed like a long time ago.

Then a hush fell all through the firmament.
Impossible colors filled the air, far and near.
His peace grew so deep, he sobbed out loud
and his mother whispered, “Look! God is here!”

– Mark Rickerby

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The Other Side of Solitude (story poem)

When I was in high school, I had a very serious intention to work just enough to save money for a boat, load it with various vegetable seed packets, a few fishing poles, and enough supplies to last a lifetime, find a tropical island and abandon mankind altogether. The idea persisted for years, especially when I was working at jobs I didn’t care for or sitting in traffic breathing carcinogenic fumes. So I wrote this poem to put the idea to rest once and for all. The peace of solitude is delightful only temporarily. The spirit withers and dies without at least one other soul to share our lives with.

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I was on my way to work a while back,
just trying to earn a few lousy bucks.
I was running late again, as usual.
Why? Because L.A. traffic sucks!

To make matters worse, I was dog tired
and “dog tired” is the perfect description
because my neighbor’s mutt barked so much,
I couldn’t fall sleep without a prescription.

On weekends, when I might have caught up on sleep,
I was kept awake by all the neighborhood brats
screaming their heads off and bouncing balls.
The little suckers were always driving me bats!

Oh, and let’s not forget the other city sounds
like sirens, garbage trucks and leaf blowers,
chainsaws, car horns, and low-flying planes,
loud neighbors, jackhammers, and lawnmowers!

Noise

I would tell you all about my wonderful job
but it was so bad, you just might start crying.
It was the most mind-numbing job imaginable.
If I described it, you’d think I was lying!

Coming home, stuck in traffic, as usual,
my mind would drift to my “happy place”,
an imaginary island where I would go
to escape from the city’s rat race.

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There, palm trees swayed in gentle tradewinds.
There was white sand and a turquoise-green sea.
But the greatest thing about my fantasy island
was that there was nobody else there but me!

I would daydream about exploring the tidepools.
My job could be inventing new kinds of fun
like surfing, diving, playing with dolphins,
and laying around under the tropical sun.

I was so lost in my fantasy, I didn’t see
the streetlight changing from yellow to red.
The next thing I knew, I was spinning around
and when I woke up, I thought I was dead.

A nurse was looking down at me, smiling.
She said, “Hello, there! How do you feel?”
The next greeting I got was from Mr. Pain.
Let me tell you, the agony was unreal.

It took me over six months to walk again.
By then, I was more convinced than ever
that the city would be the death of me yet
so I made a plan I thought was real clever.

I would quit my job, clear out my savings,
sell my house and everything else that I own,
then buy a small boat and some fishing poles,
find that island and live my life all alone.

I’d had it with struggling and busting my hump
at a lousy job that held no meaning for me.
Who says I have to contribute to progress?
The stupid hive wouldn’t miss one less bee.

There are hundreds of islands out in the Pacific
and a few that haven’t been found by Marriott yet.
The next thing I knew, I was at the helm of my boat
with only a map but no job, no boss, and no debt!

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I sailed for months and searched high and low.
I saw many islands that looked perfectly fine
but on almost every one, I saw human beings,
and I’d had enough of them for one lifetime.

I was starting to become very annoyed and frustrated
when off in the distance, through my brass telescope,
I saw a fertile, green island that looked deserted!
I shouted with joy and my heart swelled with hope.

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I anchored my boat and paddled the raft to shore,
then explored the whole island from side to side.
It was a true paradise full of peace and tranquility.
It was so beautiful, I just broke down and cried.

The next few months were harder than I had expected.
I had to build a hut that could withstand all the seasons.
But on nights when the wind would rattle the walls,
I wondered why I left and had to search for the reasons.

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Finding food was hard, too. The fish didn’t always bite.
I was so unskilled with a spear, I felt like a putz.
I got so hungry one time, I almost went crazy.
I mean, one can only eat so many damn coconuts!

Still, anything was better than sitting in traffic
doing two miles an hour in a square, metal tomb,
wasting my life at a job I truly detested
and seeing nothing but my own little room.

I felt like a modern-day Robinson Crusoe
living a simple life by my own blue lagoon.
I thought about my neurotic boss back in L.A.
working himself to death; that pathetic buffoon.

At long last, I found the peace and quiet I’d sought
while lying in the sand, surfing, tanning and such.
I enjoyed it for a while, but I gradually realized
that you can even have peace and quiet too much!

Businessman on Deserted Island --- Image by © Paul Barton/Corbis

The more time passed, the more I fought to remember
all the reasons I had run from the world of man.
I’d spent a year of my life struggling to survive
with nothing to show for it but a hut and a tan.

This caused me great sadness and confusion
because for years, I had dreamed of this place.
Who would have thought that after only a year,
I would be longing to see another human face?

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I missed conversations, and even the arguments,
though they had once caused me so much dismay.
I even missed the sounds of the bustling city,
the great din and clamor, and children at play.

I missed reading the newspaper in the morning,
though the pain there drove me out of my mind.
But how could I stop caring about my human family
or pretend that I’m not a part of mankind?

What was more noble? More virtuous and wise?
To hide there and ignore humanity’s plight?
Or to add my voice to the battle against evil?
To get dirty and bloodied in the good fight?

I spent a few months trying to convince myself
that I was just going through a homesick phase
but I started finding it harder to sleep at night
and a terrible loneliness enveloped my days.

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Finally, the peace on the island grew much too dark
so I pulled up my anchor and headed for home.
I had learned the first truth God Himself did of man –
That it’s not good for anyone to live all alone.

After six weeks at sea, the harbor approached.
The town was throbbing with life, garish and loud.
I docked my boat, and with a heart full of joy,
blended back into the crazy, wonderful crowd.

Top 25

To Rhyme or Not To Rhyme

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A war has been raging for decades. It’s a war we don’t hear about on the news. Like religion and politics, it isn’t discussed in civilized company. This war is not fought with guns and bombs, it’s fought with pens. It is the horrible, ghastly war between . . . rhymers and non-rhymers. The iambic pentameter crowd versus the free verse crowd. No prisoners are taken and no mercy is shown by either side.

All kidding aside, I like them both, but only if both are ultimately understandable. “Ultimately” meaning after two readings. If the poem is so abstract that only the writer gets it, the writer failed, not the reader.

The free verse army says rhyming poetry is childish and unsophisticated, largely as a result of syrupy poems in Hallmark greeting cards. And let’s face it, they usually are. It’s hard to rhyme well (without sounding like a nursery rhyme) and tell a good story that accesses emotion.

The rhyming crowd argues that it takes as much or more talent to write a meaningful, emotionally impactful poem that also rhymes and has meter, structure and rhythm than it does to write one that has none of that. To them, criticizing rhyming poetry is like saying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost and even Shakespeare (who wrote a heck of a lot of sonnets) were a bunch of nincompoops.

Here’s a good example of a rhyming, emotionally moving poem. The story behind it is almost as good as the poem itself.

A friend of mine found it at the bottom of an old box in his parents’ garage. He asked his dad about it. He said the author was a man named Vernon Watson, who performed in theaters around London in the 1930’s and 40’s. He would sing, dance, tell stories and recite poems. A little bit of everything. The audience would start out laughing and end up crying, or vice-versa. He performed under the name Nosmo King, and thought up that name one night while looking at a “No Smoking” sign in one of the theaters. Here it is. I dare you not to get choked up.

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Providence

Have you ever been broke? Just broke to the wide?
With what you stand up in and nothing beside?
Living on scraps the best part of the week
When you can get them, and with nowhere to sleep?

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I’ve been like that on a cold winter’s night
When the streets were deserted and nothing in sight
But a slow-moving bobby whose job is to see
That the public’s protected from fellows like me.
Who get put inside to answer in court
Why they’re wandering around without means of support.

It always strikes me as a queer sort of joke –
To pick on a man just because he is broke.
Do they think he enjoys wandering around in the rain,
Soaked to the skin with a dull, aching pain
Through his stomach, forgetting his last decent meal
And just praying for the time when he’s too numb to feel.
Life isn’t worth much when you get to that state –
Of just waiting to die and nowhere to wait.

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I remember the time, it’s a long while ago,
When I stood on a bridge with the river below.
The last food I’d had was two days before
And I never expected I’d need anymore.
That night was the worst that ever I’d known,
With a dirty, wet fog that chilled to the bone.
I set my teeth hard and I set down my heel
On the rail that my hands were too perished to feel
When a sniveling pup came out of the fog
And whimpered at me, just a scrap of a dog.
Bedraggled and dirty, like me, just a wreck,
With  a sad, little face on his poor, scraggy neck.

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A few seconds more and I would have died
But he licked my hand and I just sat down and cried.
I wrapped up the poor little chap in my coat
And carried him off with a lump in my throat.
I took him along to the one place I knew
Where they’d give him a bed and a biscuit or two.

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They didn’t seem keen on taking him in
But the sergeant-in-charge gave a bit of a grin
When I told him, “The dog could do with a meal.”
He said, “I’ll fix him up, but how do you feel?”
It may be perhaps that the sergeant had seen
the state I was in, I wasn’t too clean.
The hunger and cold that I’d suffered all day
Exhausted my limits and I fainted away.

Well, they fed me and slept me gave me two bob.
The following day, they found me a job.
I’ve worked ever since and I’ve put a bit by.
I’m comfortable now and I don’t want to die.
I’ve a nice, little house in a quiet, little street
With a decent-sized garden that’s always kept neat.
I’ve worked there a lot when I’ve had time to spare
And I’m so proud of one little corner that’s there,
With the pick of my flowers ‘round a little old stone,
That stands in a corner, all on its own.
It bears an inscription, not very grand.
The letters are crooked, but you’ll understand –
That I wasn’t too steady, I couldn’t quite see,
At the time that I carved it, quite recently.

These are the words I carved on the stone –
“Here lies my friend when I was alone.
Hopeless and friendless, just lost in a fog,
God saved my life with the help of a dog.”

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~ Vernon Watson AKA Nosmo King, 1930

 

11. Homeless

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The photo of the dog’s tombstone was actually made by a friend of mine as a prop for a filmed version of this poem we made. (I played the homeless man.) The words on the stone are a little different because I wrote it from memory and didn’t have this – – –

A YouTube video uploaded by someone who had one of Vernon’s old 78’s. (For you youngsters, 78’s were vinyl LP’s that pre-dated 33’s and 45’s.) His diction and delivery is very heightened and melodramatic, as was the style of the time. His voice reminds me of Boris Karloff’s quite a bit. Oddly, the version I have also has a few more lines than Nosmo’s recorded version. Enjoy!

End of the Road (love poem)

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I once walked through a forest,
deep and cool and wild,
filled with awe and wonder
as if I were just a child.

I once stood on a mountain.
Ancient winds flew through my hair.
It seemed the world around me
had become a silent prayer.

But despite the roads I traveled
and all the ground I gained,
this empty place, this darkness
in my spirit, still remained.

I’ve walked a thousand lonely miles
and crossed stormy oceans blue
searching for a feeling
that I’ve found right here with you.

And I could tell a thousand stories
of what the earth, to me, has shown
but all the beauty of this world
falls far short of your own.

For there is no greater wonder
nor peace that I have found
than holding you in darkness
with your heart the only sound.

Your laughter heals my deepest sorrow
and your eyes, so kind and warm,
have become this torn ships refuge
from a bitter, raging storm.