Friday, August 25, 2017

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

"Tears," She Said

"Tears," she said, "They distill it from tears."

So they'd said, but what exactly were they talking about?

Memory? Some sense of obligation? A sense of loss?

Something to be sorry for? Perhaps to be sorry about?

In school she'd read about lachrymatory vials—

what was that ancient hoarding of tears all about?

Were the tears to be saved your own or someone else's?

Were the vials to be held—even hidden—or passed about?

Were bottled tears kept as relics of love's saints?

What miracles were tears supposed to bring about?

What could make tears worth saving even a little while?

Warm, they had weight; tepid, they were about nothing.

The last time she cried was so long ago, she tried again.

Cried just because it seemed to be about time.

"Tears, she said, "They distill it from tears."

She knew exactly what she was talking about.

— John Calvin Rezmerski (1942-2016)
from Breaking the Rules: Starting with Ghazals 

(Redwing MN, Red Dragonfly Press, © 2010)

I can't find a photo of this poet which I can be sure is copyright-free, but you'll find photos of him at various of the links I'll use in this post. 

Here instead is an image of the book this poem comes from: a fascinating book which a friend sent me, knowing that I love ghazals and sometimes try to write them. I so enjoyed it that, previously unacquainted with Rezmerski, I Googled him to see what else he had written and was sorry to learn that he died only last year. 

The obituaries variously describe him as having been a Professor, a lecturer or Writer-in-Residence at Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, Minnesota. (I imagine it's possible to be all three.)

Regardless of label, he seems to have made an important contribution. The StarTribune says:

Rezmerski, known to his friends as “Rez,” spent more than 30 years at Gustavus, teaching courses in creative writing, journalism, literature (including science fiction), linguistics and storytelling. He also wrote or contributed to some 20 books of poetry, including “Dreams of Bela Lugosi,” “What Do I Know?” and “Held for Questioning.”

Friends say he was an extraordinary coach and mentor to students.
He was not celebrated for his skills as a lecturer, or for his ability to generate lots of heat and enthusiasm in his classes,” said Larry Owen, a longtime friend and colleague at the school. “But nobody in the department was better at one-on-one with the students, helping them write and think and read."

In the introductory notes to this book he gives the clearest and most succinct summary of the rules for writing ghazals that I've ever seen:
  • The poem should contain five to fifteen couplets.
  • Each couplet should stand alone—no enjambment from one couplet to another.
  • Each couplet ends with some form of the same word that ends the other couplets.
  • Each couplet should contain a rhyme that occurs before the final word.
  • Lines are ordinarily long, and all lines should be about the same length—some scholars insist on a fixed syllable count.
  • The final couplet should contain some reference to the poet's identity—often using his name.
  • The poem should progress by association from couplet to couplet, not using narration, logical progression, or discourse. However there is a related form called the nazm, which permits such structural progression.
  • The basic theme of ghazals, traditionally, is love, often love of God, often expressed in mystical language or imagery.
He goes on to note that 'Western poets who have adopted the form have most often disregarded most of these rules, using only the couplet structure and the associational progression.' Rather than being critical of this practice, he takes it further, saying, 'I decided to use the ghazal form as a starting point for playing against the rules, and for playing with organic form, language and subject matter ... to write a book of ghazals and quasi-ghazals, in which the poems depart deliberately from the rules, rather than simply ignoring them.'

He has a lot of fun doing so! It was hard to decide which poem to choose for you. In some the word-play is delightfully witty. Others are full of intellectual enquiry. One is beautifully erotic. In the end I picked this one for the practical reason that the lines fit in the space without having to be broken (in some poems the lines are VERY long) and also because it shows him adhering, but in his own way, to most of the rules — which is broadly typical of these poems, though in some he departs much further.

Some of his books are still available from Amazon, though only in paperback or hard cover, not in Kindle. More books are available at his website, along with a selection of poems which can be read there.

Details of his personal and professional life are given in this obituary

Here he is on YouTube doing a reading. He was engaged with poetry to the last, giving what turned out to be his final reading only a few weeks before he died. 

PS Heaven help me, I have decided that 'Something sense of obligation' in second stanza had to be a misprint, so have altered it to 'Some sense of'.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright).


  1. A wonderful poem and poet, Rosemary, who sounds like a gifted teacher and mentor, as well. I love that he remained an active poet to the end. I hope to do the same.

  2. I love this interrogation of tears. In the end, the critical knowledge can only be gained experientially. Perfect! Thanks.

  3. A powerful poem share, Rosemary. I feel the sadness in it really...of all the tears not cried. And the instructions for writing a ghazal could not be clearer. Thanks, Rosemary!

  4. Appreciate this, Rosemary

  5. This was a beautiful poem to share, Rosemary.

  6. Glad you all enjoyed it! The idea of breaking rules has always appealed to me, in many contexts. (Evil grin.)

  7. An impactful piece and an edifying introduction to a fascinating form.

  8. I also like breaking the rules. You have intrigued me and I'll have to do more exploring. Thank you, Rosemary,


  9. The rules for this form really clearly laid out. Thanks for the beautiful poem by this poet. A very edifying first time read on my part

    Much love...

  10. I was planning on actually doing poetry pantry this week...but today my apartment flooded again and we evacuated to a shelter....this time my car is ok but my apartment is not. 😳I hope tobe nack soon 🌻


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