Preface: Selected Poems 2011

Burgundian Vineyard by Geoff Martin (2009)

    The cover photo "Burgundian Vineyard" (2009) is by Geoff Martin, one of four photographs in my Notes to poem "Vanishing Point" showing roads narrowing to an apex at the horizon.

    Stephen Dobyns was Stanford 2011 Mohr Poet for Winter semester (January 5-March 9, 2011). We had eight students in his Workshop "Occasions of Poetry" (English 192V) as compared to 15-19 students in previous semesters, so we got to turn in a poem each week. Dobyns also assigned essays (Syllable, Context, Closure, and Revision) based on handouts from Poet's Work, Poet's Play (2008) and Next Word, Better Word (2011). Dobyns discussed Philip Larkin's "Poetry's Pleasure Principle", telling us that "poems need to communicate to be successful", and "a poem is emotion written on the page transmitted to the reader". I learned much from Dobyns' insightful critiques in class and on the craft of poetry.

    On New Year's Day, I wrote a response poem "We Are The Function" to Jack Gilbert's "We Are The Junction" from The Dance Most Of All (2009). Father Huerta introduced me to Jack Gilbert in 1987 at his USF talk on Borges, when I didn't know much about poetry. I'm glad that Gilbert's poem inspired my first 2011 poem 24 years later. "Leo Villareal: Big Bang" was written after seeing his art exhibit at San Jose Museum of Art (1-4-2011). "Nine, Page, and Ace of Pentacles" was written taking Kay Ryan's suggestion of using the Tarot cards as launching pads for poems.

    Dobyns' first class assignment was to write a sonnet. I turned in "Platonic Lambda Sonnet" with Notes and Cornford's diagram of Plato's "Soul of the Universe". While writing this sonnet, I realized that Plato's "World Soul" is not something abstract and invisible, but quite tangible when we're walking and breathing, since its shape is our nose in the center of our face! The Platonic Lambda is shaped like a upside-down letter "V" or "Λ" suggesting that the Soul is found on a mountaintop. Most cartoons show spiritual aspirants ascending a mountain looking for a guru to teach them the mysteries of life. "The Valley-Light" was written to suggest the Taoist view that sages reside in the valley where true wisdom lies.

    The book cover art of Henri Atlan's Enlightenment to Enlightenment inspired my poem "Enlightenment to Enlightenment". While magic mushrooms may be linked to the "flower children" movement of the late 1960s with use of hallucinatory drugs, I was curious by the bicycle in Roland Cat's painting beneath the gigantic mushrooms. It dawned upon me that the Wright Brothers owned a bicycle shop in Ohio. Their mechanical ingenuity made them successful at Kitty Hawk and man's first flight. We need the hawk's acuity of vision to be truly enlightened.

    Professor Scott Bukatman's showing of Steinlen's "It Burns!" with a cat's paw waving in blurring motion reminded me of "Balla's Dog" (1912), which I thought was the first to represent art in motion. After learning that Steinlen's drawing (1898) was done 14 years earlier, "20th Century Art in Motion" flowed out. There was a congruence of discoveries in art, dance, literature, music, poetry, and science in the first decade of the 20th century. Dobyns said that poets should not be too obvious, so I deleted the innovators' names, replacing them with lines from their works.

    I noticed the typography on page 196 of Finnegans Wake is in the Platonic Lambda shape (World Soul symbol). Since Joyce is well read in mystical literature, he's surely familiar with this sacred Platonic symbol (page 293). While walking down Palm Drive from Stanford to Palo Alto's Cal-Train Station, it dawned upon me that the road's vanishing point is another image of the Platonic Lambda, inspiring "Vanishing Point", the title for this year's Poems of 2011. For Dobyns' last class, I wrote "The Letter B" squeezing 60 "B"s into this 24-line poem. Dobyns liked this poem the best of the seven written for his class, saying that I had less esoteric references so that readers could understand its meaning.

    "Fourth Birthday Poem was written for my grandniece Sophia's 4th birthday (Notes). Professor Leonard Barkan's Lecture inspired "Michelangelo's Bow" which I linked to the crescent moon and the huntress Diana, Noah's rainbow, and Om the bow in the Mandukya Upanishad. On learning that Michelangelo painted the fresco "God Separting Light from Darkness" in a single working day, I was inspired to complete the Notes to this poem likewise in eight hours.

    After seeing an image of a cat in the eucalyptus tree across from my apartment (March 2010), it took me 16 months to finish the poem "Cat in the Tree" (7-4). Kay Ryan's July 8 email "Thanks for another look into your questing mind" inspired "Mind: Questing or Resting?", comparing the active and contemplative life. A long-time friend's poem "Bright Star" inspired by A Massive Star in NGC 6357 also inspired me to write "Cavern Garden: NGC 6357 Nebula". It was fun finding many animal images in this gigantic nebula of stars 5500 light-years away. I was not aware of links in this poem to Christ symbolism, Buddhist philosophy, and Hindu cosmology, until completing Notes to this poem.

    Finally, "Steve Jobs: Last Words" was written after reading Mona Simpson's "Eulogy" for her brother with his last words before dying "OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW." If we spell "OH" like "O" as in Shakespeare's "O wonderful" then Jobs last words may be rendered "O WOW. O WOW. O WOW." Inverting it in a mirror, we have "OM OM. OM OM. OM OM." So while crossing to the other shore, Steve Jobs was chanting "OM"— symbol of Brahman, the Supreme Consciousness.

    Often when poems flow to me, I may not discern their meaning. When writing "Notes to the Poems" afterwards, I realize many connections that had eluded me earlier. May readers find the poems and notes illuminating as they did to me this year.

                                                              Peter Y. Chou
                                                              Mountain View, December 12, 2011

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
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