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Which is happy to report Bill Boys is already at work on the Columbus convention

Verle Heljeson asked me to give a talk on craftsmanship in poetry at the Ann Arbor banquet. So I did. Now I want something to print, and there is still this speech. So here it is, more or less, depending on how much space it takes.

A poem begins with an idea, an experience, an emotion, a touch of fantasy, a bit of whimsy. The poet wants to hold it, to share it, so he must give to his fragile, intangible thought words that will express it and preserve it. He must choose words with care, for a poem is a little thing without room for many words to rattle about in. So he gathers up a handful from the richness of our language, and from them he picks the one which speaks most clearly what is in his mind.

If he is going to use rhyme, he must avoid the words that only seem to rhyme. If he has a pattern of rhythm, as he generally does, he must find the words which will fit into it. And he must seek out the words and the metre which match the mood he would create: words that go tumbling and laughing along; or march on past in ordered rows; or plod, plod, plod, tired, sad. And somehow he must put them together so they speak, even while they are singing. He will use the tools of his trade – the figures of speech, the color words, alliteration, assonance, even a jarring word or an inversion that breaks and stresses a line. And he will not plead poetic license, knowing the best poets use, and that rarely, the small, expensive license.

For this is craftsmanship, and craftsmanship is always costly in terms of time and loving labor. So at last the poet will give to his readers, his listeners the verses that make them share his laughter or tears or beliefs or dreams. They did not know – they could not say – until a poet-craftsman revealed to them a half-hidden, dimly understood part of their own being.

The speech ended with a few examples of hackmanship on the part of the Walrus and myself. But the chief trouble I have with my speeches is that if nobody else listens to them, I do. I always end up with the conviction I should try out what I recommend just to see if it does work. In this instance it was not so much a matter of never having tried it before – I had – but of wanting to try it again because I truly enjoy playing with words. The desire was coupled with a vacation trip to the Caribbean which obligingly supplied a few ideas to work on.

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San Juan is a large city bustling with business and all the racket which accompanies it. The noise carries on over into the night, particularly as the big hotels swing into action. But it is also a city of homes and trees, and where the trees are the coqui or tree frog is at home. He is no larger than a thumb nail, but at night –

San Juan Nocturne

The city is hot tonight.
Its restlessness mounts and spills
Into sound. A jazz band shrills.
At every traffic light
Impatient horns repeat
“You fool, it’s green at last!”
Dogs bark. The noisy blast
Of fans rebukes the heat.
And underneath, yet somehow breaking through above,
A tiny tree frog pipes his tinkling tune of love.

While in San Juan we dined at El Convento, a 400 year old convent now made into a hotel and dinner club. The dining room with its high windows and ceiling might well have been the chapel. Flamenco dancers performed where the nuns would have prayed. Surely there is something there to catch the imagination.

El Convento

1568: Ave Maria! Plena gratiae –
Busy fingers let the beads slip past.
Radiant faced, serene, with eyes downcast
Nuns pray to know the joy of heaven at last.

1968: Hello, Dolly! Well, hello, Dolly –
Crystal and silver, music’s rhythmic beat,
Click of castanets, the stamp of feet:
Heaven can wait while life is still so sweet.

We went on to the Virgin Islands. While we were driving through the sub-tropical vegetation, there popped into my mind an old cartoon of an Englishman in formal dress sitting down to dine in the jungle. What had seemed funny then, suddenly made sense.

Ah, yes,
For dinner in the jungle, better dress.
You know the path we hacked some months ago?
Today there’s really nothing left to show.
The vines reach down, the bushes push on past –
Neglected things go primitive so fast –
A linen cloth is good, and candlelight
At night.

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Louise Lincoln and A. Walrus
Published at Columbus, Ohio 43209
With the usual assistance of Alf Babcock,
Cranford, N. J.

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