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Review of 'Poems 2008,' by Robert Trent Jones, Jr.
We all know that Robert Trent Jones, Jr. (Bob to his friends) is one of the greatest names in golf course design. But did you know he's also an accomplished poet? With an education from Harvard and Stanford, you can bet he couldn't avoid classical literature. Moreover, Jones has a broad and deep fount for inspiration that draws on T.S. Eliot and Percy Bysshe Shelley, a vivid imagination, vibrant vocabulary and years of world travel.
His 2008 book has some great poems about golf, love and life, ordinary pleasures, and classical tributes to history and literature. While mostly free verse, there is the occasional foray into metered verse or rhyme schemes.
Let's explore a different side of this complex man. We'll save the golf poems for next time. For today, let's discuss his classic poems and travel verses.
It's well known Jones is an oenophile, so his second poem in the collection, "Wine," which anthropomorphizes his favorite beverage in a ribald manner:
Corked sunlight, Dionysus' gift,
Carmine nectar quenching the gods' thirst.
Caress the awaiting chalice.
With a sensual pop the embedded cork
reveals his sweet sleek smoothness.
Jones slowly but smoothly begins erotic courtship: "caress the chalice," "a sensual pop," "the embedded cork." But he's just getting started:
The ripe cork slowly expands,
Plump with loving promise.
"Ripe" and "plump" speak for themselves. Finally, Jones brings the poem to a literal climax. Note the frenetic pace and forceful word choice:
Breathe the deep ambrosian fragrance,
Let the tongue go speechless
As it tastes immortality.
Now, quaff her down.
Now while she pleads a virgin's breath.
Now, before mortal air turns her to vinegar.
The choice of the pagan god, Dionysus, the metaphoric use of the Olympian nectar "ambrosia," and the pounding, sexually-syncopated rhythm make the poem at once heathen and classical. Eliot made liberal use of mythology in his work as well. As a small critique, one more line would have made it a sonnet.
Also note that Jones correctly observes a complicated (and usually butchered) rule of punctuation. Jones properly formed the singular possessive of the noun "Dionysus," but probably not why you think. Most people and newspapers - especially the New York City press, botch this rule every day. Even if the last letter is "s" (hereafter "ess") you form the singular possessive of nouns by adding "apostrophe-ess," so it's "Jones's poems" not "Jones' poems." I'll cite two notable exceptions. The first is for ancient names like "Jesus" or "Isis," so it's "Jesus' tunic" and "Isis' temple." Dionysus, as we all know, is an older name than Jesus. For the record, the second exception is "if the possessed noun also begins with 'ess' and you would therefore have three 'esses' in a row, you may elide the second 'ess,' just as in speech, so it's "Barry Bonds' subpoena" and Roger Clemens' steroids," but it's "Bonds's lawyer" and "Clemens's lies."
Anyway, let's examine another free-verse poem I rather like, "Ice Brother Bear":
I see my silhouette reflected there,
Through the frozen mirror of my ice brother bear.
I embrace my brother's cold encasement
But cannot unlock him from earth's basement.
Raising high my Viking sword
I strike a blow for lord Thor.
The ice block splits its frozen visage,
Releasing his perfectly preserved visage
Once again, Jones channels mythology, this time Norse. He also evokes another Eliot motif, a cold, icy and barren landscape waiting for the spring. Jones's almost cinematographic word choice then turns the camera eye from one duty to the next: from depicting the lifeless arctic crypt to the shattering of the ice block, which both literally and metaphorically brings spring, a motif also explored in "The Grail Legend," a source of inspiration for Eliot's "The Waste Land":
How much softening can you bear
Now you face spring's brutal terror
Listen to the song of the wind
Hear the voices of the hind
Sing to the music of cascades
As time flows through your decades
Life is the soul's holiday
Valhalla will greet you on another day.
It's an interesting poem and the right length: long enough to cover what's necessary, but short enough to keep your attention. With such old school romantic motifs and inspirations, it really should be metered, for example:
My silhouette reflected there
Frozen! My Ice Brother Bear.
Frosts embrace his cold encasement
I must release him from Earth's basement.
Raising high my Viking Sword
I strike a blow for Thor the Lord.
The ice block splits his frozen visage
Releasing is preserved image.
Free verse is usually fine for modern works, but for a heroic epic such as this - a short one to be sure, but in that vein - would feel more antique and read more dramatically.
Jones is actually quite good when he follows meter. Take, for example, "Fiji":
A flower fair
In Neptune's hair
Born from the deep burst free
An emerald isle
on a turquoise tile
In the midst of a tropic sea
Awaiting you and me.
See? Get in, get out, take a bow and wait for the applause to die down before reading the next one. Greek gods, creation myth, a shining jewel and a lovely sing-song refrain with a big cheer at the end. Bula! Right back at ya, Bob.
Indeed, his endless travels provide a deep treasure chest for Jones. In "Dalmatia," after casting his thoughts "into the moonless night" and his emotions into the "olive black sea" whose "swells swallowed" him and "wombed me rhythmically," he was:
Awakened by lovely light
I surface on the morrow
Without a shard of sorrow.
In "Africa" he extols Yellow, yellow, yellow Africa as the womb of all life:
Her Cape, backbone of the earth,
With mountains rising from two turbulent seas
Africa, whose plates were wrenched from Latin America,
Gemini continents. Once joined twins of Mother Earth….
….Her rhythms reverberate in every rib,
Beneath the drum skins, life's pulse resonates
From timeless hands.
Jones's strength in his travel poems and traditional work comes from a classical education. In "Poems 2008" he includes a reprint of Shelley's master work, "Ozymandius," then writes several derivative poems of his own following Ozymandius' theme of the fall of man through hubris and vanity - even on the golf course as the game makes fools of us all.
We'll explore his golf poems in our next installment.
By the way, for those of you scoring at home, Ozymandius is an ancient name. It's the Greek name for Ramses II, the pharaoh who Moses battled during the Exodus.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.