A Lesson In Voice And Tone
I generally share my poems with a few friends before I mail them out. A sample audience, as it were. Because of this, I’ve been asked how I came to write the enclosed, as the voice and tone are different from poems I’ve written lately. Perhaps the following note, written to a friend and editor, Mike Simms, may be of some interest. I enclose my poem, and the influences to which I refer.
In the immediate, I was responding to Mike’s comment that my poem sounds “like Charles Bukowski goes to Vietnam.”
It’s funny you should say that. I was just reading Bukowski early this morning. I wanted to find and forward a poem of his, “The House”, to my wife, Phoebe. She counts Bukowski in a category she denominates “Literary Pigs.” Henry Miller. Gregory Corso. And like that. Anyway, I sent her one of his poems. Phoebe is perfectly comfortable with the concept of loving the writing and shooting the writer.
Maybe something in that working class thing stuck. As I wrote my poem, I had to decide which way to go with the voice, middle class or working class. For example, the original read “nonetheless”, which I finally decided to change to “anyhow”. And so on. Something about the situation seemed to call for the working class voice — but with a specific requirement. The voice needed to couple a tone that carries a certain dignity with a crude vocabulary. A requirement that just cries out for The Tieman Touch.
At the very end, I was actually thinking of the ending of Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait”. Thinking ‘How does he make that 50 year shift in two or three lines?’, to which question I just answered ‘He just does.’ So I just did.
I also just watched last night the 1979 movie version of All Quiet On The Western Front. For a long time after my war, I couldn’t bring myself to read that novel. I think I finally read it toward the end of my junior college days. I still think it’s one of the great anti-war pieces.
The situation in my poem is, of course, a real memory.
there was this guy I used to talk to
in Nam a Vietnamese
corporal just like me only gook
most the time I couldn’t understand
a word the fuck said but for all
his accent I liked his slant
eyed ass anyhow
so this one day
he disappears so I figure
he’s in the bush
hunting the little evil people until
the next month
I see he got hunted
shows up without a left leg
nobody talks to him
I mean me too
all I could do was for a second
just stare and go
forty years after the war
and all I can do is still stare