When I first encountered the Beatles (courtesy of another generation's vinyl records, circa 1988), they were in their forties. As of this writing, they are now in their eighties -- both of the surviving members have passed that mark, and George Harrison, the youngest of the four, would have passed it on Feb. 25 this year. Relatively soon, they will all be gone. As for our fascination with the Beatles -- our addiction to their music and their endlessly retold story -- I cannot imagine when it will end. For now, all signs indicate that they will join that select group of artists, from Shakespeare to Mozart to Dickens, who rise above fashion and trends and simply become part of our shared consciousness.
The other week, the Los Angeles Times dubbed them "secular saints" of our time. The Beatles were definitely not saints -- even a polite biography makes that clear -- but it is apparent that our attachment to them goes beyond the music itself. More than any other rock band (frankly, does any even come close?), the Beatles have an uncanny way of sweeping aside the countless stories of infighting, drugs, ego, and infidelity and allowing us to revel in the image they created. Or images, really -- whatever prism we regard the band through, it represents some quality that we yearn for in ourselves. If we want to thrill to an underdog story, we can cue up the movie Backbeat or read the accounts of the band's hardscrabble days in Liverpool and Hamburg. If we want a delirious success story, complete with matching suits and cheeky humor, Beatlemania suffices. We can turn to Rubber Soul for cool introspection, Sgt. Pepper for bold experimentation, side two of Abbey Road for pop music that seems to tap into another universe of wild abandon. If we want them as superheroes, there's the movie Yellow Submarine. And if we want catharsis -- the realization, and maybe the comfort, that even perfect things must shatter -- we can pull up any of the many books and documentaries about the group's breakup.
There's another reason why I think the Beatles' story resonates so much after half a century: namely, because it's so short. The span of time rom Ringo Starr's joining the band in 1962 to the final touches on the Let It Be album in 1970 covered less than eight years. Fans have a right to wish there had been more music in the years after. But we've seen how that that story played out with the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Who and countless other classic rock bands; with few exceptions, it plays like a decade or so of genius followed by a long, slow diminishment. What Calvin and Hobbes is to comic strips, the Beatles more or less are to rock and roll: sometimes close to a perfect entity, an astonishing streak of creativity and invention that simply stopped at its peak. The Beatles never had a personnel change, never held a reunion tour, never put out a genuinely bad album. Their history has the highs and lows, the complex personalities, the sweep and romance of great fiction. The next century can do its best to offer us a story as good.
What if they were still with us, then? In early 2012, as the band's 50th anniversary unleashed a new flood of Beatles merchandise, I found myself gazing at the displays in Barnes & Noble and then wrote the poem "The Beatles at 80" -- a revisionist take on history in which all four members are still alive, long retired as musicians, and venerated now as politicians. It was first published in Poetry Quarterly in 2012, and this week, it appears in the Journal of Radical Wonder. At the time, I thought it was a humorous piece; looking at it 11 years later, it feels more wistful. George Harrison, asked about a possible reunion with the other three, once replied, "The Beatles will exist without us." That will be true soon enough. If those four brilliant, imperfect men were here today, we would thank them for the legend.
My new poem "The Pioneers" appears today in the Journal of Radical Wonder. This piece, along with two previous ones featured in the same magazine ("The Birdwoman Stirs by da Vinci's House" and "Openings"), is part of a manuscript-in-progress. The title is The Birdwoman Stirs by da Vinci's House, and it follows a number of recurring themes: technology, aviation, genius, innovation, daughters. Some of the poems in the collection, like the title piece, are historical fiction. This one is entirely fictional.
On this blog, I find that I have a great deal to say about previously published poems (it may be that, as fond as I am of them, enough time has passed that they feel like the work of a different person), but not as much about new ones. I am fine with that; I once attended a workshop with a master poet who had a rule against introducing poems before sharing them. The reason, he argued, was that the words need to speak for themselves, and anyone who buys a book by Sharon Olds will not have Olds leaning over his or her shoulder and explaining what each poem is about. So, for new pieces on this blog, I will follow the master poet's advice.
I will, however, point out two other fine new pieces that went up in recent days in the Journal of Radical Wonder:
1. Kevin Ridgeway's poem "The Death of the Coppertone Girl" is an intriguing vignette about a woman pictured on a billboard and the series of injustices that are imposed on her. There is an art to short poems (and short lines), and I can imagine Kevin's poem being used in a creative writing class as inspiration.
2. James Crews also contributed an insightful poem called "The Hug," which evokes the early days of COVID and the hesitant time afterward when we began to gather in public again and (literally) open our arms to one another. The final lines describe "the first warm morning of a spring / I thought might never come." That spring seems to have come. May we never take a hug for granted again.
One of the most humbling experiences for a teacher is to try to help a student who wants to succeed, but can't. When I was earning my credential years ago, I had an assignment to serve as a tutor at a local high school, and I wound up paired with a special-needs student who wanted to write a confirmation letter to his bishop. The boy -- his name was Daniel, I think -- had a sweet disposition, an admirable work ethic, and a genuine desire to excel in class and better his prospects in life. He simply could not write. Due to his disability, any attempts to write a coherent message turned into near-gibberish on the page.
He and I tried several strategies, from using colored pencils for different types of sentences to having him recite his words into a voice recorder and then transcribe them. He eventually completed his letter, but largely through my editing and prompting. After my brief assignment, I never saw him again, and I hope, at least, that he found his place in the Catholic faith.
That experience became the inspiration for my latest poem posted in the Journal of Radical Wonder. "One Word," which first appeared in the magazine Cadence Collective and later in the book Angels in Seven, is a fictionalized account of my sessions with Daniel. Actually, it's a third-person piece, with the student now a middle-aged English-learner and his teacher a sympathetic high school girl. Poems have a way of dictating their own reality once the writing begins.
During the occasional times when I get interviewed about poetry, I often receive the question of how long poems take to write. "One Word" is what I refer to as a "speed poem" -- one whose inspiration, composition, and revision cover a short period of time, maybe just a few minutes. Allen Ginsberg famously coined the phrase "First thought, best thought," but I find that poems seldom work that way; most of the ones that I eventually submit for publication go through an arduous process. Every so often, though, that process hits a fast-forward button of sorts. "December," which appears on the Poetry Foundation's website, came out between bites of food at the UCI cafeteria in 2001; "Blues Man," which is featured on the same site, took years of false starts and reworking. Looking at the poems themselves, I would never know which one took longer to write. We can churn out 1,000 words effortlessly or agonize over a dozen; writing is mercurial that way.
In the case of "One Word," I may have benefited from momentum; I wrote it in 2015 during a summer workshop in Cape Cod with Marge Piercy, and the class had just done an exercise about ending every stanza of a poem with the same word. That assignment made me think of Daniel, who had a stubborn idea in mind and sought to find a way to express it. Writing is play for some, work for others. Perhaps I wrote this poem to remind myself of that.
When the rock pioneer Chuck Berry died a few years ago, the Los Angeles Times quoted him espousing his views on living life at an even keel. “One of my realizations is that if you revel over joy, you’re going to ache over pain and get killed over hurt," Berry, who was 75, said. "Your span of feelings are going to go just as far one way as the other. So when something real good comes to you, take it and chew on it. Then when something bitter gets in there, you won’t feel too bad chewing it and smiling, because the other one wasn’t that good, so this won’t be that bad.”
This may be an odd quote to introduce a poem about listening to baseball over the radio. But when I was 12 or 13 years old and a rabid California Angels fan, I experienced more than a few nights reveling over joy and aching over pain -- the second one a bit more common, given the Angels' typical season records back then. For me, there were few more dizzying sensations than lying in the dark with the radio tuned to Bob Starr and Billy Sample on KMPC, sweating through the commercial breaks as a tie game inched into extra innings. As another American legend, Emily Dickinson, once put it, we eventually learn to anticipate men instead of kings. Back then, I wanted kings, and for a budding teenager in Orange County, the Angels' core lineup served that purpose.
It has now been roughly 30 years since that feeling passed, and I am confident that I will never experience it again. The hope and anticipation that I once attached to my home team winning now feels as curious as the attachment I once had to toys -- a hallmark of a younger self that I remember but no longer recognize. In the decades since, I have often wondered about the psychology of sports fandom, and my adolescent belief in the Angels offers a few answers. When I gripped an invisible bat in my hands and tried to will Tim Salmon to hit a walkoff home run, I had an obvious need to feel part of something bigger; if the Angels won, after all, it meant that Orange County -- and I -- had won too. Perhaps I simply craved the sublime, the way we hope for a singer or actor to deliver a great performance.
The only difference is that we don't stop rooting for a singer or actor if they move to another city. If the Angels had played in Pittsburgh or Detroit, I never would have rooted for them; chalk it up to tribalism, or at least vicarious living. To this day, I love the game of baseball, and I would still happily pay to see a major-league team play. But I have grown enough to accept that, whatever the outcome of the game, it is the team's business and not mine. Case in point: In 2002, years after I stopped staking my happiness on the Angels' triumphs, they shocked the sports world by coming from behind to win their first and only World Series. I smiled when I read the headline about Game 7 in the Times. I have barely thought about that moment since.
Even still, in a way, those long-ago nights by the radio are a happy memory -- since, at least some of the time, they amount to a memory of being happy. My poem "Awake," which came out ten years ago in the book The First Thing Mastered, is about a boy listening to a nameless team on the radio, the rest of the world suspended as he waits for a decisive crack of the bat to justify going to sleep. The poem, which started life as free verse, eventually became a villanelle, a rhyming repetitive style used in two of my favorite pieces ("Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas and "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop). Perhaps the lulling rhythm worked for a poem about sleep closing in.
One challenge that I gave myself in writing this poem was to portray a character without using pronouns; the boy is never "he" or "I," but rather defined by emotions, back story, setting, even individual body parts. In adoring his favorite team, he renders himself anonymous. I remember what that felt like.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.