“My life sags on me,
Regrets bow my shoulders.
If I think of the past,
Shame shrinks my heart.
Days not seized, things not done:
People not loved, books not written, friends not seen – So many.
The future terrifies me: how will I live?”
This excerpt from one of English teacher Ron Bell’s poems, “After Po Chu-I,” is an imitation of the original by the ancient Chinese poet Po Chu-I.
Bell wrote the poem several years ago after reading classical Roman, European, Chinese and Japanese poems.
“I noticed similar ideas and themes in these traditions,” he said.
“That got me thinking about the relevance of these themes in the mind of a contemporary person. The idea I thought about was how literature shapes a person’s consciousness, essentially.”
Inspired by classical poetry, Bell reinterprets his poems in a modern context.
“I’m interested in the tradition of literature and what it means culturally, so I’m interested in how the themes of ‘classical’ literature relate to modern culture,” Bell said.
“(‘After Po Chu-I’) captures the essential idea and feeling of the original poem, while modernizing the content.”
Bell’s passion started in high school, after he read poetry by French poets (Baudelaire and Rimbaud, for example) and modern American poetry.
He also read a book by poet Weldon Kees, who would later become a subject of his doctoral dissertation.
As an undergraduate at CSU Fresno, Bell took a class from Philip Levine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
Bell said Levine’s ideas about poetry included simple language, directness and subjects rooted in “real life.”
Levine taught Bell not to use elaborate metaphors or symbols, and instead to write about experience in a direct way, using the language of ordinary speech.
“It’s not the only way to write,” Bell said. “I didn’t always agree with him, but it’s hard to get him out of my head, and I find myself following a lot of his principles.”
“A dead hummingbird
falls at my feet in the yard –
soft, light as a breath.”
In Bell’s untitled haiku, he recalls the day when a hummingbird flew into his window and broke its neck, as he stood a few feet away. Afterwards Bell picked it up.
“I was happy that I could do it and come up with something meaningful,” Bell said.
Even though Bell likes to write haikus, he said haikus aren’t his favorite type of poetry.
“I don’t have a favorite,” he said. “I’m just trying to experiment with different things.
“I’ve read tens of thousands of poems in my life. I’m trying to educate myself in literature. Which (type) is my favorite isn’t my concept.”
Bell said he is interested in poetry because literature teaches him about being human.
He said it also helps develop his self-awareness and consciousness.
“Those things are what matter in life – aesthetics, self-awareness, inner growth,” Bell said.
“Everything else is just stuff you throw away in the end.”
One of Bell’s favorite poems is “The Darkling Thrush,” a simple ballad by Thomas Hardy.
The poem follows a man contemplating the universe on the night of Dec. 31, 1899. As the new century is about to begin, the man hears a bird sing.
“It shows the power of simplicity combined with rhyme and meter to make an emotional effect,” Bell said.
Although it’s one of his favorite poems, he said he can’t pick an absolute favorite.
“Poetry isn’t like candy,” he said. “You don’t just have a favorite one.”
Another poem Bell wrote, “My Georgic Virgil in CA,” is a long narrative, based on his father’s life and death as well as Bell’s own memories.
Bell said the memories are somewhat fictionalized because the narrator is a fictional character.
Bell said that in any poem the reader has to feel the emotion and the idea in one synthesis.
“(The emotion and idea) work together,” Bell said. “Often good poems are really simple, not metaphorically deep.”
“Drunk, we feel kinship with it all,
Sober, we only feel a fool.
We can only hope
That death and drunkenness are akin.”
And good poetry, he said, should “make you feel like you blew the top of your head off.”
Although Bell has submitted poems to the SCDS literary magazine, The Glass Knife, he does not share most of his poems because they are for his “own educational process.”
That’s why many of Bell’s students haven’t known of their teacher’s passion to write.
After reading an excerpt from “After Po Chu-I,” junior Emory Shi said the poem has a wonderful flow.
Shi also said the poem is very symbolic and poetic at the same time.
“I also like his word choice,” Shi said.
Senior America Lopez said she knew Bell taught a creative writing class and wrote poetry for that class, but, until now, she never knew he was a poet in his free time.
—By Ulises Barajas