Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat



The following are a couple of poems of sorts I have written in the past few months, and for some reason I had the thought of sharing them with the world. I make no pretensions to poetic genius, and welcome all cold and ruthless critique of my word-smithing. But only if you are nice about it.


And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
And all the fallen will stand upright again
When we all are gathered in.
And all the fragments thrown to the wind
Will be winnowed and set right again.

I am earthborn yet have been birthed
In the watery blood-washed womb.
Jesus grabbed my arm and turned my shoulder
And He stood me on my trembling feet
From the redwash clay whence I came.
For these many years under a faltering sun
Have I plowed in my father’s furrows
And broken through to heaven’s hold.
Drawing near to death He drew me back
My sight shorn down and gathered to a point.

My eyes are turned now to the eastern stage
Where rises the fire-flung colours of the breaking
Final evensong the herald of a dread epiphany.
I see the blood-wrung riders in the gathered dawn.
I see the spiraling choir frothing through the sky.
The sound of justice drawing near is broaching.
The air is heavy with the end:
Whirlwind loosed on the trembling earth
Whirlwind loosed in the hiding hearts.
I unafraid listen for the coming of that looming Day
When all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

Ode for the Southern Great Plains

Trees not lonely but pulsing orbs
In the breathing brown soil undersky
Unfound reeling horizion bounds
Unbeaten for scope and span
Heavens held up gainsay their weight
Roiling beyond the beckoning strand
Where meets the fleeing field and over
Gold flecked-through rolling robe
The holt-cloaked wending watervein
Intone some secret of earth and wold
All is bound under water air fire
What eye and mind cannot contain
The Holy Spirit over all alone
Filling the far-flung out rising
Upwards by distance lands

Untitled American

I am an untitled-American side street wanderer
I do not wish I had another wish left to spend.
My passport fell from my hand in a broken city
I waded in through the muddied waterroad.
Heaven is always above and somewhere within
And the road goes by the ten thousand things.

Oxen watering on the terrace wander down,
I am looking up at lonely stars through
The lost city haze and wondering whether
I could see you again on the dusty roadside
With the pomegranates and woven rice paddies
Our hiding place in the far flung out fields.

Over in me no mountain falls far enough
No valley winds its neck into the clouds
High enough to bower me in its womb
No strange tongue or rhyme will heave
Me through and under forgetting night

I am still thinking of you while I watch
The last bus leave for the purpled embassy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jonathan, I enjoyed reading your poems..I love you very much! your momma

2:05 PM  
Blogger the unworthy seraphim said...

Dear Jonathan you asked for ruthless critique. So since that is what you want for Christmas, I will honor that request, God helping me. Maybe mama won't kill me outright.

If you wonder about my qualifications…I’m a certified English teacher, scored in the 98th percentile on my NTEs, have a GRE verbal skills rating in the 91% percentile, have taught both high school and college level Creative Writing classes, graduated with Honors in Creative Writing, and have pretty much made my living for the past decade and a half by writing for government and educational institutions. In my experience the only critiques that have been useful to me are those that savaged what I wrote, but did so fairly, dispassionately, and ruthlessly. So long as it was fair and reasoned, I could learn from it. Not all the critiques I got were right…some flew very wide of the mark for one reason or another…but enough of them found bone that that I could learn better what was solid in what I wrote what was not. With your kind permission I will lay into your first proffering.

Ditch the “and alls”, at least the first set. What you are aiming for is strong repetitions that reinforce your desired verbal cadence, that echo and harmonize with later elements. The first “and all” forces an initial dactyl on a line that reads more fluidly and forcefully on its otherwise natural iambic feet. Read the first line with and without the “and all” to see. “And all” forces “trees of the field” and “clap their hands” into single breath units, which is not in itself necessarily bad…but it is not the cadence that works best for the imagery and sense of rising tension you are trying to create. “trees of the field” and “clap their hands” as a breath unit is too leisurely…like a little waltz…very sweet and dainty. It softens what should not be soft. Samuel Clemens once said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.

In the second line all the “and all’ need not go…and can remain to establish a more forceful cadence. “Upright again” thus far is not a problem and works well enough…but trouble looms ahead.

Third line: consider a repositioning of this line or one like it if you want it at all. Where it stands, it breaks the dramatic build of your stanza without sufficient reason. The rhetorical beat of a triple image works well in English, indeed in most Indo-European languages (Of the people, by the people, for the people; blood, sweat, and tears; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). And you were building just such a triple image: the trees, the fallen, he fragments. But that image is interrupted by your brief escatological interlude. I’m not saying such interruptions are necessarily wrong….they can be effective, but their presence as an interruption must be purposeful and resonate within the larger poem.

The ending of the line also works against the ending of the second line. Yes, there is rhyme of sort, but it is weak. Weak repetition of sound and weak rhyme very often rob the words they are “paired” with of their strength. Do you want a rhyme in this place? If so, why?

Fourth Line: reconsider the “and all”…one of the two words needs to go, but I won’t say which one. The rest of the line has a cadence problem that could be fixed with some stronger word choices of the appropriate sense and sound.

Rule of thumb: when clearing out weak repetitions: Eighty percent of the time, it is the first instance that should go. Just be aware though that sometimes it is the second appearance that is undermining you. It is a question of where the particular emphasis provided by that word needs to fall for optimum impact.

Fragments….I’m not sure this is the right word? Does it really “speak” to “winnowed” Is there a “lungs-air” “berry-pie” “plow-field” kind of reprecosity between them? Also is it specific enough. You can make a cake with flour, butter, eggs, and sugar or you can make a cake with “ingredients.” Which tells you more, draws you into the making more? Is the labor of winnowing the natural prelude to “setting right”.

Then there is the again, in, wind again thing. If you are not trying for rhyme you haven’t succeeded, and if you are how is this near rhyme and repetition serving your poem? And if you want it, what must be done to make it served better?

Maybe an additional agriculturally themed line to allow a little further expansion of your central image would help.

Skipping down a few lines: “Jesus grabbed my arm” and pulled you up, then in the same stanza you have switched to an other subject, “Father” whose furrows you plow (plough if you want an older spelling) The you drew near to death and He drew you back…. If it weren’t for the conventions of punctuation the reader would not know if you were speaking of your father or God. Keep your aural sense clear unless the ambiguity is deliberate and works.

Spiraling choir frothing: I didn’t know angels could get epilepsy.

Redwash: do you mean redwash, or redwashed

Stood me….on…from: reconsider your use of prepositions for best effect

My eye are turned: weak and passive where you don’t want or need weak and passive. Find a more active construction.

Unafraid listen: why the transposition from normal order?

Sound of justice: lacks specificity: is that like the gentle breathing of lambs in their fold, the tramp of boots on blacktop, or the shrill of cicadas on a hot breezeless summer night?

Coming…looming. Why not just “looming’? Coming is distant, looming is immanent. Which is more forceful? More in sync with the mood and tone you are trying to accomplish?

3:28 PM  
Blogger the unworthy seraphim said...

I just noticed a few typos in my post, but there doesn't seem to be an edit feature. Lesson no. 2 proofreading is tedious but necessary and like shampooing it needs to be done more than once. Lather rinse repeat.

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like unworthy seraphim is focusing a bit too much on the negative and is ignoring the positive. This is the first time I've been to your blog: could you really be 20 years old? You should keep writing poetry. The sort of thing seraphim criticizes (to the extent he's right, which I think he mostly is) will tend to disappear, you'll find the right word, the right rhythm, more often, and you'll start producing good work. The poems as they stand are interesting and promising. I think any creative writing teacher (save seraphim) would rejoice to see a student producing such serious unusual poetry. You have a gift; cultivate it -- if not in poetry then in other kinds of writing.

BTW have you heard Charlie Peacock's song 'Rachel Weeping'? It uses apocalyptic imagery similar to yours, to very good effect. It's on his album strange language.

PS I found the unworthy seraphim's CV most impressive, especially his work writing for government institutions. I find reading government documents one of the great joys of my life. Keep it up, seraphim!

9:07 AM  
Blogger the unworthy seraphim said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:35 PM  
Blogger the unworthy seraphim said...

In my defense...which is probably the vainity of self-justification, I wrote very sharp critique...just as Jonathan asked. It is not that I did not notice his accomplishment...the things he did well and got right, but rather other than the warm tinglies of personal affirmation, little useful would have been gained by a fluttery pat on the back. His desire for a blood in the water critique I take as mark of maturity, the proper attitude of someone who wanted to write better not just have his ears tickled for making an effort. Any student I had who wanted to see how much honest shredding their work could stand up to has my respect and admiration. They will more likely go on to be artists and not self satiesfied dabblers.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Seraphim- I wasn't too deeply wounded by your critique; actually I really appreciate giving your time and effort- that's flattering enough! Would you be interested in critiquing my prose sometime?

Anonymous- don't be too harsh on Seraphim; overly warm affirmation is probably too prevalant in modern education. And Lord knows I'm an egoist anyway; blogging encourages it I think... But thanks for the kind words- and I'll probably keep writing poetry, though I don't plan on giving up my day job...

12:55 PM  
Blogger the unworthy seraphim said...

Dear Jonathan,

Sure I don't mind at all. Just be patient with my response times.

You can contact me for that at unless you want to publish here for comment.

As for egos I know for sure what it is like to have it slapped around a little. Years ago in my college days I had a odd in the extreme friend, who was for all that a talented piano player who liked ragtime. Music was his major of course.

Once I sat on with him on a piano stool while the played some ragtime piece (his favorite genre) and when he finished I commented, "that was good." He looked at me and with all the contempt he could muster short of being downright hateful he said, "How would you know?"

That stung. But as I thought about it occured to me that he was right. How would I know? I knew if I liked it or not but I had no right to an opinion on how good his performace of the piece was since I could not play, did not know the conventions of ragtime, and had no significant musical training or knowledge to serve as a foundation for that opinion.

So while I wish he had shown a bit more tact, it was a valuable lesson I learned that day nonetheless, namely that a right to an opinion (at least one that matters) is earned, not given, and there are some things I have no right to an opinion on whatsoever.

My ego (read vanity) was discomfeted, but that's not a bad thing from time to time.

9:50 AM  

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