Four Things I Learned from the Poetry of Kevin FitzPatrick

It’s taken me a few days to write this post after learning of the death of Minnesota poet Kevin FitzPatrick. After someone dies, someone you know at some level, there’s an emptiness. While it’s impossible to feel emptiness, it may be the first obligation of grief to hold that sense for a little while. Was for me.

I didn’t know Kevin well. We were different sorts, and I myself am quite bad at friendship. But I knew him somewhat, and over time quite a bit as a poet. With some interruptions on my part for over 40 years I’d see him every month in a meeting that sometimes had as many as ten or so writers and sometimes was just Kevin, alternative Parlando voice Dave Moore, and myself. We’d meet in one of our places and those present would break out new work for comment and feedback.

I said we were different sorts. Back in the 1970s I was chiefly influenced by some hermetic and oppositional poetries: French Surrealists and para-Surrealists and those Americans who had read or influenced them. These poets tended to be ecstatic in mood and unafraid to puzzle or offend. Kevin had a different vision — he wanted his poetry to be comprehended and welcomed by ordinary folks, including working people of our parent’s generation. Is that the first or fifth thing I learned from Kevin? No, I’m still learning that one.

Let me speak ill of the dead. In our common youth I thought Kevin was prissy and way too afraid to offend. But we were young men then, and by now my younger self has passed from life to a degree near to what Kevin’s entire non-written life did this week. The way I see it now is that we were both half-right — but his half produced better poetry more often. So, I doubt he learned much from me, but I learned several things from him. You might want to learn some of these things now or later, so I’ll offer four things I learned from Kevin FitzPatrick’s writing today.

Kevin Obit Photo

“You can’t tell a book by looking at it’s cover.” Kevin FitzPatrick edited the urban working-class Lake Street Review, but today’s piece has some farm boots in it.

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Characters

Here’s the first and primary one, a lesson that I often told Kevin I would try to remember. Around the time of his first collection, Midwestern writer Meridel Le Sueur said that Kevin’s poems were poems with other people in them. Given Le Sueur’s life twining activism with writing, this was a fitting observation for her to make about Kevin’s writing. But stop and think for a moment of the poems you write, or even the poems you read or rate highly. How many of them have actual, flesh and blood characters in them? A great many poems, and to wildly generalize, many poems by male poets, have nothing but the poet’s own consciousness reflecting on itself. If something external intrudes on this, it may be nature or incorporeal spirits — or if human, they may appear as masses or classes in sociological case-folders. Kevin’s poems had a range of characters: friends and antagonists, folks that are richly neither, and people who you just run into in life. Kevin himself appeared in his poems, yes, but in many examples the poem was as much about Kevin as the novel The Great Gatsby is about Nick Carraway.

You may think that poetry, with its freedom of language and musical force can dispense with characters, that poetry may be particularly suited to delve into an individual’s own consciousness so otherwise unrepresented in human life. Good poems have been written from that conviction. But is that all  it can be? What a lonely art making itself lonelier would result.

Dialog

Kevin’s use of dialog goes along with the characters. If you’re going to allow them to appear in your poetry and have autonomy, then they need to seem to speak independently. Kevin’s characters were not kept silent, and a good many of his poems had the texture of a compressed short-story, including the effective use of dialog.

Again, I’d argue that we are too exclusive when we talk about the poet’s voice and poetry as self-expression to the exclusion of all else. Yes, the world may be enriched by 100 poets writing in their own voice, saying out-loud or on the page their own individual experience. But if some of those poets would allow other voices to speak in their verse, to join in the choral and antiphonal song that is human experience, we might have at least 200 voices, if not 500, speaking in our poetry. How we speak, how we express ourselves is important. How we listen, what we hear, that too is important. The poet’s ear shouldn’t be cocked for just iambs and trochees.

Work and Workers

Why shouldn’t the world of work appear in poetry? I mentioned that earlier this month in dedicating my performance of a poem by Carl Sandburg to Kevin that Sandburg didn’t shy from talking about folks working, how that felt, what they encountered. FitzPatrick extended that in his poetry with a good degree of specificity. In his poems about encountering agricultural work in his fine final collection Still Living In Town, the specifics and groundedness of farm chores were taken into his poetry.

Yes, let us concede a dialectic. Many readers (and poets) go to poetry to escape that everyday grind, to celebrate the exceptions of romantic love, cosmic visions, rare events worthy of celebration. Fine. But why can’t poetry inform and illuminate what we are doing for a third or so of our lives?

Rural-Urban

Between the rural-urban divide is a great place for a poet to sit and write. I spoke of Kevin’s final collection from 2017, Still Living in Town  above. In America, there’s an increasing division in outlook between those living in cities and those living in rural areas and small towns. Kevin’s poems in that collection, including characters, dialog, and those work-a-day issues, also allow us to see different locations and outlooks as he travels between his urban house, his capitol city office job, and a small farm.

How few travel between those worlds with open eyes, ears, and hearts and write verse about it! Kevin FitzPatrick did that in his final book. As I said above, I learned things by how Kevin approached his poetry and characters, but it’s important to also make clear that he’s not just a  “poet’s poet,” but also a rewarding and entertaining writer to read. Books from the publisher of Still Living in Town  are not available from the large, easily linkable mail-order booksellers — which depending on how you feel about such things may be a feature not a bug. Here’s a link to the WorldCat listing for FitzPatrick’s 2017 book which includes library availability and the ISBN number that might aid in ordering from your favorite indie bookstore.

OK, should there be my customary Parlando audio piece at the end of this post? With some trepidation I’ll offer this one, my performance based on an early version of a poem destined for Still Living in Town.  It’s an old recording from 2013. Shortly after I recorded it, Kevin heard it and thought I misinterpreted the song. As I said, we were different sorts, though over the years I like to think we grew closer from our shared love of what poetry could do. Kevin said I missed the poem’s point; it was about the difference between the urban and rural cultures he was observing and writing about. He’s right, I undersold that element, seeking instead to stress how a customer service interaction went sideways from mistrust and was eventually resolved. I think he also might have reacted to my edgy, angsty delivery and music. Kevin was a calm, dry speaker in performance, and the speaker in this performance isn’t. It’s also important to know that “Returns”  is just a piece of a greater work that took him several years to write. This isn’t the most singularly impactful poem Kevin ever wrote, just one in his series that I happened to perform one day because I liked the vignette, and that I had handy to put here today.

A few bits of scene-setting before you click on this performance: Kaplans* was a clothing store specializing in utilitarian work clothes and outerwear that was located then on Minneapolis’ famous working-class-to-under-class Lake Street. Wheeler Wisconsin where the scene shifts to in the conclusion is a town of 300. Tina, the deus ex machina of the poem’s story was Kevin’s partner who decided to buy an 80 acre farm which Kevin commuted to every weekend during the time of the book.

Player gadget to hear it below for some, and if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play it.

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* The first winter I spent in Minneapolis, it was at Kaplans that I bought my first pair of Sorel boots, that genius Canadian design that has a waterproof leather and rubber outer boot with an inner insulating liner made of compressed wool. If you ever have to stand in -20 F cold and wait on a bus that might not run on-time, the un-frostbitten scansion of my poetic feet recommend them.

The Subway

I think I’ve established that I like examining lesser-known Modernists, or even writers who weren’t always considered part of the Modernist movement. Now today I may cause a few literarily knowledgeable readers to throw up their hands and do a spit take. Why? Yes, today’s piece is a sonnet, but we should note that not all Modernists rejected rhyme, and after all this is also a piece of down-beat gritty urban experience. Just look at the opening two lines:

Tired clerks, pale girls, street cleaners, business men
Boys, priests and harlots, drunkards, students, thieves…

A litany that wouldn’t be out of place in the Unreal City a few years later. It could sound like the opening of a piece by Whitman or even Lou Reed as it starts out. As it continues, it doesn’t stint on the darkness literal and figurative. Those subway riders are riders, without agency. With fixed tracks underground they go their “sunless way” with “reluctant feet” as our Modernist Dante tells us. When I first read this* having seen the author’s name before reading, my thought was “Could the writer of this piece be misattributed?”

Go ahead, go to the bottom of the post and listen to the performance I put together using this early 20th century New York City poem about ordinary and agentless people lost in underground darkness. It’s less than 3 minutes long. Hear it first without knowing who wrote it.

Joyce Kilmer in uniform

Is this something of a belated Memorial Day post? Today’s author would die serving overseas in the U.S. Army during WWI.  But stop reading and skip down to the bold-faced section at the end for a chance to hear the audio piece first.

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OK, now let’s take off the Masked Singer costume: the author of the sonnet that I used as the text for today’s audio piece is Joyce Kilmer. I expect two responses to that information: “Huh?” and“What!”   The former “Huh?” might be from my younger readers, as this is less likely a poet they’ve run into in our present century. That was not always so. Those my age or older will likely associate Kilmer with a single poem which was once so well-known and liked that it became a point of contention with many educated folks. That poem was “Trees,” the one that begins “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree.” My first High School English teacher Terry Brennan explained that he had had a High School teacher who had recited it while bodily enacting the “lifts her leafy arms to pray” part of Kilmer’s “Trees”  poem. I believe he told us this to establish that he was not going to inflict a similar pedology on us (thanks Terry for that, and much more!) A columnist I liked to read in the Des Moines Register as a teenager, Donald Kaul, loved to pillory Kilmer’s “Trees”  as a crime against better culture.**  They had a point. “Trees”  was ripe enough with pleasant sentiments that it likely did its part to help kill off the pathetic fallacy in modern poetry, but let’s start with its first publication: in Poetry  magazine in 1913, in an issue of that important publication for new verse that also included certified Modernists Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, and Skipwith Cannell, the later a favorite of the Others  circle.

And speaking of Others  magazine, Kilmer was in New York as a young poet in the years before WWI, rubbing elbows with those who would be associated with that city’s fearless avant-garde. Orrick Johns mentions him as someone he knew in those days. When Poetry’s editor Harriet Monroe published her anthology The New Poetry  in 1917, Kilmer and his poem “Trees”  is included alphabetically between poems by Orrick Johns and Others’  founder/editor Alfred Kreymborg. Kreymborg in his interesting memoir Troubadour  recounts that Kilmer was one of the few “actual writers” he was acquainted with in his earliest days as a poet. Kilmer read some of Kreymborg’s short free-verse poems and suggested “You ought to divide those lines and make them rhyme—there’s poetry in them” which Kreymborg considered encouragement. Kilmer was working then for Funk and Wagnall’s, the dictionary people, and even gave Kreymborg some assignments for the dictionary which paid the young man $10, his first check for writing anything.

But all that is circumstantial Modernism. Besides “Trees”  the Kilmer verse I’ve found online is almost entirely religious in nature, and it doesn’t come close to threatening Gerard Manley Hopkins’ gravity and vitality in that regard. If there are other poems that Kilmer wrote that are like “The Subway”  I haven’t seen them.

Why did that “Trees”  poem stick? Trees may not be the Internet Cat Pictures of nature poetry, but readers do seem attracted to those stately greenhouse-gas-absorbing plants. And there’s more: unlike Great Britain, Kilmer was just about the only U. S. poet killed in WWI.***  In England a young poet like Rupert Brooke could gain public attention that persisted after the war even if he was only one poet-casualty out of several of his countrymen. In America, the “Trees”  man received the whole pension, and a large East Coast military base was named Camp Kilmer and served as the place where many of the Greatest Generation embarked and returned to America for WWII.

Did you jump down to here in order to listen to the song I made out of this early 20th century American poem about the New York City subway? If so, there’s a player gadget for some of you, and for the rest, this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab/window to play the piece. After you listen to the song you can return to the rest of the post to find out what “Modernist” wrote the lyrics.

 

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*I first read this poem over at the Fourteen Lines blog, which, as you might guess, likes to present shorter poems in the sonnet range. This link is their post about this poem, and it also includes the much more widely-known “Trees.”

**Even later in his career, satirist Kaul couldn’t help but get one more lick in against Kilmer and his poem “Trees.”   Kaul also didn’t like girl’s basketball, which I and Iowa were in agreement was a mistake on Kaul’s part.

***The other name that comes to mind was Alan Seeger, the “I Have a Rendezvous with Death”  poet who died ahead of the U.S. participation in the war fighting with French forces. His nephew was Pete Seeger, as Pete liked to point out at times.