Elegies are a funny business. Your job is to say something about the missing person — the missing and the person — in some combination. I’m personally committed to the short lyric poem, which asks furthermore that one finds short, immediate, and melodious things to stand for a life and loss. Proportions like that risk absurdity. I decided with this piece to run into that risk.
Absurd proportions in elegies can work. I think of Frank O’Hara’s pair of marvelously effective elegies “A Step Away from Them” and “The Day Lady Died,” which spend nearly their entire compressed length talking about the persona and the living activities of the mourner.
Do we expect Bunny Lang or Billie Holiday to rise up and slap O’Hara’s face or utter a sharp remark? “Who cares about your malted or gift shopping, your cracks about Puerto Ricans or African poets. I just died!”
Buy and large, we don’t object. Mundane specifics and little noticings go on after loss for the living. One wonders if the dead (if they have consciousness) miss them as much as the most luminous moments of their lives. And in the end, don’t those little tarrying things mock death most thoroughly?
The performance you can hear below is from last March, live in my studio space with the Dave Moore that’s also in the poem. I continue to tinker with the poem, a few lines or phrases may not be done yet. Go ahead and listen now at the bottom of the post if you’d like to experience the poem and the performance without further discussion from me. The rest of this post is unnecessary to that.
Other performances from this session were featured back in March 2022, and are available via our archives
The optional part begins here…
This poem is an American Sonnet, which means we hold the truths self-evident that we can change elements of the sonnet form. I wanted to set the opening, as many of Kevin’s poems did, firmly in working-class lives with old cars that work if you know what to do.
There are small differences in the above version that post-dates the live performance you can hear below.
Stanza two introduces elements of the typewriter in the title obscurely. Even though the title will prepare the most alert readers to what the object is, my expectation is that most readers are not oriented to the world of the poem yet. The typewriter serves as a generalized symbol here, though with a specific in-joke. In Real Life Kevin used a typewriter to present his poems well into this century. We’d gather to discuss work and exchange drafts each month and Kevin would hand us not some variety of computer printed high-resolution pages, but copies made with carbon-paper on his typewriter. I’d sometimes joke: “Kevin, mine’s from down in the stack. Could I have a darker one closer to the top?” All that’s missing from the poem today — except to Kevin’s family and friends who might hear or read it. Kevin’s place was always quite neat, nothing left out and un-put-away, so I don’t think I ever saw his typewriter, but I think it was a later generation electric typewriter. Yet, the one I present in the poem is more OG, one with an open keyboard with exposed metacarpal levers beneath the lettered key tips. Back when I took a typing class we called them “manual typewriters” (as opposed to the electric models that we had just one seat-row of in the classroom) and they metaphorically are our skeletal writing hands within the poem’s second stanza.
Kevin wrote an elegy, included in his final collection “Still Living in Town” for Katie, the incongruous farm-dog poodle that appeared in several poems in that collection. In it, Kevin struggles to bury the dog in frozen farm ground. Kevin’s poem is an Old Yeller-sized tear-jerker in reader effect, but he undercuts it with humor and anger that intensifies that effect. Here too the proportions are absurd, and that poem of Kevin’s has mechanics that are strange if one stops to look at them. I start the third stanza tipping my hat to that poem of his. I do worry that that connection is lost on the casual reader of this single poem of mine, but it may be enough in the self-contained world of the poem that it indicates that if we are burying Kevin’s typewriter we would choose a meaningful place. I’m trying to adjust the balance here between the missing person and the persons doing the missing.
My feeling/judgement/plan is that last line in that stanza works by strange underlayment of associations with several typewriter brands. Even now in the 21st century I fear this may already be footnote material as typewriters recede into history. These brand-names reeled off say this is a “royal” burial, “underwood,” of the mythical messenger Hermes, and finally the Mount of Olives significant to the Abrahamic religions.
Maybe this is a poem for folks my age — or the very diminished audience of those even older. Perhaps they are the only ones who have the shared experience to “Do not ask for whom the return bell tolls…”
Now why did I go through these other few paragraphs here? The planning and intent and selection I talk about is immaterial to the poem as an object. The reader or listener either gets what I put there and left out, or they don’t. I did this partly out of my nearsighted pride in my craft. More than one reader of this has commented “It seems like a dream.” Well, yes, there was imagination involved. Work at writing or any art long enough and your imagination may become trained, and your appreciation of imagination’s useful moments sharpened. But in the end the poem succeeds as an object based on craft. I’m unsure of my level of craft, but I continue to try to use it.
You can hear the LYL Band’s performance of “Burying the Writer’s Typewriter” with a player below. Don’t see a player? This highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Just so that there be no mistake, I admire Frank O’Hara and these two poems. And if you’ve got a moment, follow the hyperlink for “A Step Away from Them” as it leads to a nice short appreciation of that poem by Rod Padgett.