the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night


Spring 2011



Shirts of Flame: Poetry in the Space Age
by Robert Klein Engler

Water Tower

Des Plaines Water Tower
Photo by Robert Klein Engler

When I was young I longed for the life of a poet. I imagined it to be an ideal life lived in rooms by the sea, filled with art treasures and muted sunlight, a life of peace and harmony and cello music. My real life was a childhood lived across from a coal yard. It grew to become a life of political strife, wars, unrequited love and drab urban streets. My life became like the life of many men, today. A poet's life can be lived anywhere.

What is it then, the poet's life? Obviously, it must include poetry. Need this life include the disappointment of politics? Perhaps we should begin by asking what is poetry, then go on to see how it fits into a life? Maybe we can answer our question by resorting to a fiction, a fiction that takes us out of this world.

poets from the stars

The universe we see in the science fiction series Star Trek is a politically correct universe. Some forms of life on planets in a distant galaxy may believe still in a religion, but enlightened human beings have given up these superstitions the way they have given up the use of money. Have they also given up poetry?

The Star Trek TV series and motion pictures, offer us an answer to our question, albeit an imaginary answer. The fictional races of Vulcan and Klingon, although far away, may be closer to earth than we think. Mark Wollard writes on pipTalk Forum8, "My brother and I were discussing what Vulcan poetry would be like. Since Vulcans pride themselves on their abilities to suppress emotion, would this affect their poetry?" (1)

They continue, "I imagine Spock (or for that matter, Tuvok) would find much of today's human poetry unnecessarily riddled with "illogical metaphors pertaining to love—an emotion that is highly illogical."

Here is an example of a Vulcan poem without a title:

Precipitation will vary
with the density of clouds;
and my heart remains silent
despite the thunder.

Wollard then offers another untitled poem that makes the reader wonder if they have red wheelbarrows and white chickens on the Vulcan home planet.

In the spring
  trees have leaves.
In the winter
  they do not.

It is evident from these few examples that some Vulcan poetry lacks the "inner necessity" Wassily Kandinsky talks about that is the motive for art. Without that inner necessity which springs from emotion, Vulcan poetry could become the essential abstract poetry. Carried to dizzying heights of abstraction, the point of such poetry would be nothing more nor less than silence.

Klingons are supposed to be quiet when in pain, but after that they mostly growl and yell. The Klingon language was invented by linguist Marc Okrand, for use in the Star Trek movies. This artificial language has many fans and according to the Klingon Language Institute, "In operation since 1992, continues its mission of bringing together individuals interested in the study of Klingon linguistics and culture, and providing a forum for discussion and the exchange of ideas." (2)

If the poem supreme in Vulcan poetry is silence, then the Klingon poem is a shout, a primitive cry that grates the nerves like that scrape of a fingernail down a blackboard. Here is a Klingon poem by aj' cha'DIch Garan, translated into English: (3)

I Found My Heart

Warrior, Warrior, what do you say
traveling the River of Blood alone.

I called to the gods,
I called to my heart.

They would not listen,
In silence the echo traveled.

I called again,
no answer.

I yelled aloud,
in passions rising.
They would not listen.

I challenged them,
They would not listen…


hey sent forth a companion,
she spoke to me of wisdom.
she appealed to my heart.

She spoke to my Klingon Heart,
I found my Klingon heart.

Ugh! There's not blood here, but the rhetorical gore is enough to make a reader turn away. This poem is maudlin, and pretty much like most of the poetry written today by those who, in the words of Kandinsky, further an untrained naturalism.

In spite of its faults, Klingon poetry is seldom criticized. Criticism of Klingon poetry is just too dangerous. To do so is to take your life into your own hands.

Klingons are as defensive of their poetry as Muslims are of the Koran. The warrior poem is written in blood. If you criticize a Klingon poem, it maybe the last poem you read before you die. Simply said, the best of Klingon poetry is aphoristic: "What does not kill me, must have missed me."

We learn from Klingon and Vulcan poetry that like most poetry written today, it is simply dreadful. Vulcan poetry lacks an audience because it is cold and remote. Klingon poetry is ignored because it is blunt and unpolished. It is a battle-ax, not a scimitar.

In short, by translating Vulcan and Klingon poetry into an American idiom, we are left today with the Marxist poem on the one hand and the barbarian poem on the other hand. Love is not logical for a Vulcan or a Marxist. Sonnets are not possible for the Klingon or the barbarian.

poets from this world

Billy Collins was born March 22, 1941. He was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. "He is also a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York and is the Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute, Florida."

"Over the years, the U. S. magazine Poetry has awarded Collins several prizes in recognition of poems they publish. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts…and in 1993, from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation." Collins is indeed the establishment poet of our age. (4)

Billy Collins has been called, "The most popular poet in America," by the New York Times. He once received a six-figure sum for a poetry book, and is one of the few poets alive today who makes a living off simply writing poetry. Perhaps his poem below is the advice other poets need to join the club.

Introduction to Poetry

—Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Poems about poetry always carry an extra burden as they make their way up the slopes of Mount Parnassus. This poem by Collins is no different, and remains a metaphor weighted with a metaphor. Some say the poem packs too much into little bags. It's not hard to imagine it written in a quiet room by the sea, just before the author changes his clothes for cocktails and dinner.

In fact this poem about poetry never leaves home. When we meet poetry in this poem, she is standing in the doorway to her basement flat wearing a hairnet, flannel bathrobe and fuzzy slippers made to look like bunnies. A cigarette falls from her lips as she reaches for the newspaper.

Billy Collins may be surprised to find that no matter how much professors of criticism from Abu Ghraib University tie a poem to a chair and torture it, a poem won't give away its secrets. Archibald MacLeish said so in "Ars Poetica." He writes:

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb…

A poem should not mean
But be.

But to be or not to be, isn't that the existential question New York sophisticates ponder over Martinis while writing checks to support the reelection of Obama? Next to them could be the New York poet Charles Hanson Towne.

Charles Hanson Towne was an author, editor and popular celebrity in New York. He was invited to many cocktail parties. Few read his articles these days. I have never heard his name on the lips of those sipping white wine at a Chicago cocktail party. Fewer still read his poems. That may be unfortunate, because some of the poems do hold a degree of light.

A hundred years ago this was not the case. Julian Street in a 1914 visit to Chicago remarked that even the young women who gave tours of the grand Marshall Field's department store on State Street knew of Towne's poetry.

Born in 1877, Charles Hanson Towne was a triple-decker poets, a poet with three names. Those three names are an appellation left over from Victorian times, and one that is coming back into style. Style aside, if you want to know the "genteel" poetry Ezra Pound and many of the Imagists rejected, then read Towne.

Yet not everyone who wanted to be modern rejected Towne's poetry. Writing in the New York Times for January 8, 1910, Richard Le Gallienne claims Charles Hanson Towne sings of the city's glamour, pathos and cruelty." Le Gallienne continues, "He has, with simplicity and sincerity rare in poets young as he is…sung the song of the 'Siren City.'

Then, Le Gallienne adds a final note that must seem off key to the poet who struggles along with R. M. Rilke. "Only it is to be hoped that Mr. Towne will not grow too serious."

Towne's poem, "Around the Corner," is an example of what the elites in New York City admired more than 100 years ago. This was a poetry that was written before the Vietnam War, before hippies and before Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

Around the Corner

—Charles Hanson Towne

Around the corner I have a friend,
In this great city that has no end,
Yet the days go by and weeks rush on,
And before I know it, a year is gone.

And I never see my old friends face,
For life is a swift and terrible race,
He knows I like him just as well,
As in the days when I rang his bell.

And he rang mine but we were younger then,
And now we are busy, tired men.
Tired of playing a foolish game,
Tired of trying to make a name.

"Tomorrow" I say! "I will call on Jim
Just to show that I'm thinking of him",
But tomorrow comes and tomorrow goes,
And distance between us grows and grows.

Around the corner, yet miles away,
"Here's a telegram sir," "Jim died today."
And that's what we get and deserve in the end.

A hundred years later, do we still get what we deserve in the end—a poetry for genteel Marxists? The poems of Billy Collins and Charles Hanson Towne are simple and direct, like Vulcan poetry. Unlike Collins, Towne's poems often have a structure the poetry of Collins lacks. In both cases, like the pop singer Justin Bieber, some readers think the fame of these poets exceeds their talent.

Some days, all contemporary poets have to write about, especially if they are women, is home, family and nature. That is the small art they know. Yet, what value is it if a life is just a document to loneliness? That seems a selfish use of talent. To such a question, another replies, "I'd feel a lot better if only I could put my heartache into words."

Others ride the subway to work. Faces in the crowd seem like petals on a black bough. If our fellow riders read poetry, then, they are pulled one way by Vulcans, and another way by Klingons. Like the Vulcan world, the Marxist world is all reason that knows best. Its poetry is simple and direct, to the point of not being poetry at all. If there were a form of literature like Klingon poetry, we on earth would be hard pressed to judge it other than a contemporary performance poem. In turn, Vulcan poetry would mirror the contemporary workshop poem. It seems aliens already live among us.

Look up, the ads in the subway cars say it all. Maybe there is a drumbeat coming from an all-too-loud iPod. That's the Klingon getting out. The roar of the train could be a Klingon poem, too. Outside, the racket of the city it is stilled. Because country club silence is valued among the cultural elites, most poetry today is in the Vulcan style there. Among the lower orders, however, some performance poets write like Klingons while others have the raw emotion of a Rock concert with the leftover blood of battle. It is too raw to be eaten with white wine. At the very least this Klingon poetry cannot be mistaken for greeting card verse.

from earth to the stars

The poetry of T. S. Eliot is both complex and remote. What politics there is, is conservative politics. Eliot argues that the modern world is complex and alienating, so a modern poetry, if it is to be a successful and serious art, must reflect the conditions of modern life. What does this say about Collins and Towne? Are they worthy of their reputation, prizes and critical praise? Will Collins end in obscurity like Towne? Among them all, it seems only Eliot believed in the resurrection of the dead.

What then of those 21st century poets who have an inner necessity to speak of the God who makes the heavens and the earth? This is not a speaking encouraged by the Marxists or the Vulcans. Even the heroic deeds of the pagan Greeks, and their polytheism, like the Klingon gods, end in a falling down into darkness.

James Cummins writes that when the poets marched on Washington, they shouted, "What do we want? Immortality! When do we want it? Now!" Cummins does not tell us if anyone in power there listened. In modern office buildings, the windows cannot be opened to the rumble in the street. (5)

The tide of Western civilization moves in and out. "The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled." Now, on that shore, when we stir the ashes of homoeroticism, we find the leftover jewels of poetry.

Constantine P. Cavafy went searching for these jewels in Alexandria and T. S. Eliot found them at Little Gidding. He writes in the "Four Quartets,"

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
     We only live, only suspire
     Consumed by either fire or fire.

This is too much emotion for the Vulcan and too much weakness for the Klingon. Yet what creative writing program on this earth teaches an undergraduate to write like this? His shirts are from Banana Republic not from flame. The Marxist and the jaded thirty-something with his iPod on the subway turn away from hope. Eliot, who admired irony in literature, should find it ironic that today a poetry of faith is alien to so many.

In seeking to make the alien familiar, we must not be mislead by the changing winds of conservative and liberal politics. Matt Peterson reminds us, "The example of Walt Whitman serves to illustrate how elastic these terms can be—Whitman was a pro-war, and, as Cantor reminded me, pro free-market. Today, this would make him conservative, but in his day, it must be pointed out, and in fact my friend Martin did point out, those were fairly radical positions…the Republican Party itself, which Whitman supported, was the 'radical' party in that it sought to overthrow the old 'conservative' slave-holding society." (6)

We may have to do the hard work of history and reading to understand Eliot's mixture of poetry and politics. We may disagree with Eliot's answers, we may wonder at his seeming hypocrisy, and we may question his art, yet in the end, his contributions to poetry are significant no matter what side of the Atlantic we cast our lot.

The meaning and place of beauty in our lives, the impermanence of all good things that Eliot sensed, and the attempt at firstrate poetry to point towards the divine, these are all lessons Eliot teaches. He points us in the right direction, the direction towards what it means to be whole, in body and soul, having a unified sensibility.

Can we imagine these days, while chatting at the country club or gay bar, the inner necessity that gave rise to an intolerable shirt of flame or to Nicetas of Remesiana's "Te Deum," written more than a 1,000 years ago? There were troubles back then, too, but no penicillin. Authors waved from the shore as the poetry ark sailed by.

Maybe a damp cell is a good place to find a word that rhymes with orange. Boethius, the last of the Romans, lived in such a cell for a year and wrote poems we remember, today. King Theodoric ordered Boethius killed in 525, and the bishop could do nothing to stop it. Boethius "had followed the advice of Plato that the wise should go into politics lest the good be destroyed by bad citizens…" (7)




Robert Klein Engler lives in Des Plaines, Illinois and sometimes New Orleans. Many of Robert's poems and stories are set in the Crescent City. His long poem, The Accomplishment of Metaphor and the Necessity of Suffering, set partially in New Orleans, is published by Headwaters Press, Medusa, New York, 2004. He has received an Illinois Arts Council award for his "Three Poems for Kabbalah." His article, What's Left For Poetry, recently appeared in the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. If you google his name, then you may find his work on the Internet. Some of his books are available at Visit him on the web at