Robert Ronnow has published four poetry collections: Janie Huzzie Bows (Barnwood Press, 1983), Absolutely Smooth Mustard (Barnwood Press, 1985, originally published as “White Waits”), New & Selected Poems: 1975-2005 (Barnwood Press, 2007) and Communicating the Bird (Broken Publications, 2012). His collection Long As You're Living: Collected Poems (pdf) may be read online here.

He wrote the poverty manifesto and program manual Few Sheep, Little Corn: Preventing Homelessness & Stabilizing Communities (pdf) and a narrative journal The Day Dreams: A Portrait of the Poet as a Young Trumpeter (pdf).

He has served as executive director of several non-profit social service and environmental organizations. He has also been a forest worker in the western and northeastern U.S. and a public school academic tutor. He plays jazz trumpet. He lived in New York City for twenty years before relocating to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts where he lives with his wife, Margaret Ouellette, with whom he raised two sons, Aaron and Zachary.

Robert Ronnow for Poet's Bookshelf II:

Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
John Milton, Paradise Lost
The Riverside Shakespeare
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Abraham H. Lass, How to Prepare for College
Richard Wilhelm & Cary F. Baynes, trans., The I Ching or Book of Changes
Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival
Jacob Needleman, Money and the Meaning of Life
William H. Harlow, Fruit & Twig Key to Trees & Shrubs
Wendy B. Zomlefer, Guide to Flowering Plant Families
Calvert Watkins, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots
Katherine Washburn & John S. Major, eds., World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse
      from Antiquity to Our Time

Donald Hall, ed., Claims for Poetry
Scientific American
Foreign Affairs

          I think I know, imperfectly, maybe three things from Gary Snyder's "What You Should Know to Be a Poet":  "the names of trees and flowers and weeds," "at least one kind of traditional magic," and "work, long dry hours of dull work swallowed and accepted."

          As an undergraduate at Columbia, I was influenced by Yeats through a seminar taught by Michael Rosenthal in which I first discovered my interest in poetic technique, rhythm and rhyme, why one word rather than another. "Lapis Lazuli" remains a touchstone for me. For another class I read Paradise Lost, for the first time putting aside my narcissism long enough to wrestle challenging syntax and follow the story line. I return to Shakespeare every couple of years less for the wise comedies and hilariously absurd tragedies than for the ultimate poetic benchmark, a virtuosity of language that has yet to be matched. Kenneth Koch's survey course introduced me to Whitman and Dickinson as well as the moderns – Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams – and others who I tried to imitate. I still especially love "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "When I Heard At the Close of the Day," "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Of Mere Being," "Tract," "This Is Just To Say," "Cino" and "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" but I also need Edward Taylor's "Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children."

          In high school, I found Lass' book, full of advice on test-, note- and loan-taking but also containing a list of books that he thought one should read to prepare for college. I spent four years traveling time and space in those novels for which, now that I have little time for fiction, I feel almost homesick: The Admirable Crichton by James Barrie, Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson, Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag, The Last of the Mohicans, The Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, Babbitt, 1984, Ethan Frome, The Good Earth, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Return of the Native, Life on the Mississippi, Cities in Flight, Les Miserables, The Brothers Karamazov, The Golden Notebook, Ulysses. Later I was influenced by the detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

          Shortly after college I ghost-wrote Taoist self-help books for a Tai Chi teacher named Da Liu, badly and not to his satisfaction, and I think that's how I was introduced to the I Ching. I read a lot of Chuang-tzu, too. I admit to having thrown coins (and read tarot cards) but less for divination than meditation. "Ta Chuang: The Power of the Great – Perseverence brings good fortune. Power depends upon the axle of a big cart. If a man goes on quietly and perseveringly working at the removal of obstacles, success comes in the end. Such a man's power does not show externally, yet it can move heavy loads, like a big cart whose real strength lies in its axle." No magic here, how to live in your community; good advice for nations, too.

          I have made my living between two hard anvils, the city and the mountain, neighborhoods and forests. I still reread every five or ten years Jane Jacobs' great analyses of city life and economies: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, culminating in Systems of Survival. I was also influenced by Jacob Needleman's generous, compassionate Money and the Meaning of Life, his concept of the exchange of money as an expression of love and gratitude for services rendered.

          I went to forestry school to make sense of the green mass of nature before my eyes. Harlow's Fruit & Twig Key was my first dichotomous key and stands for the many field guides that help me with that task. Lately I've been developing a plant identification database that cross-references about 40 morphological plant characteristics. Wendy Zomlefer's beautiful Guide to Flowering Plant Families is a bit over my head but it is one of many references on which I depend. I can no longer imagine writing poetry without having names for the natural world. Or without access to the genealogy of words through The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. I feel awe for the universe and humanity's place in it reading Scientific American and optimism for peace and global governance reading Foreign Affairs. I like reading poets on their craft, Donald Hall's Claims for Poetry being a favorite collection of such essays.

          Over the past five years I have been compiling for my sons (and myself) a personal anthology of poems that are meaningful to me. I call it Whole Wide World and it now contains over 700 poems by about 350 poets. During this time I've read, cover to cover, some 60 poetry anthologies. American and other English-language poetry alone would easily fill the back of Pound's postage stamp but I have been especially grateful to translators for widening my world. Translations from World Poetry and other anthologies are now among the most prominent peaks in my mental landscape: poems by Borges, Brecht, Cardenal, Cavafy, Deschamps, Gustaffson, Hafiz, Zbigniew Herbert, Hikmet, Ibaragi, Itaikkunrurkilar, Jammes, Juarroz, Leopardi, Li Kuang-t'ien, mac Lenini, Paulinaq, Pavese, Rilke, Siamanto, So Chongju, Vallejo, Vidya, and the top bard, Anonymous. These and the English-language poets make a community across time and graves. Plants, poems: riches our financial advisor doesn't count. Good and simple a man as he is.

from Poet's Bookshelf II: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art, Peter Davis and Tom Koontz, eds., Barnwood Press, Seattle, 2008.

                           Review of New & Selected Poems by Robert Ronnow

Reviewer: Lewis Turco -

Robert Ronnow, New & Selected Poems / 1975-2005, Seattle: Barnwood Press, 2007, 195 pp., ISBN 978-0-935306-52-1 (alk. Paper), $18.95.

            Back in 1983 I wrote (in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook),

            How to describe Robert Ronnow's Janie Huzzie Bows? It's impossible, but one must try. Take a look at that title: how does one read it? What does it mean? The poems are the same way — they prance along the edge of making sense. One can even follow them for a while, and then they drop off the edge into the swivel-eyed where you stand before a mirror staring cross-eyed at one of two noses. These are mad, enjoyable poems if one enjoys disorientation, getting dizzy on language. Ronnow puts some meaning back into the term "experimental," but he knows what he's doing, and he does it terrifically well. This is certainly "catastrophe theory" poetry. It is also a fascinating first book.

            Now, in 2007, we have Ronnow’s New and Selected Poems that includes pieces from his second collection, Absolutely Smooth Mustard, which was published by The Barnwood Press in 1985 as White Waits, and two other collections apparently never published as individual books, Brother Death, and Belonging to the Loved Ones. It seems odd that a poet as accomplished as Ronnow is has had to wait (or, perhaps, just waited) twenty-three years to bring out a substantial collection.

            His first book was anything but formal, but his second paid much more attention to traditional elements of versification, though he was certainly no slave to traditional forms. He did use rhyme and meter, though, and he called some of his poems “Chinese Sonnets,” but the only thing sonnet-like about them that I can see is their length: fourteen lines, and one can hear the ghost of pentameters behind them. If they seem a bit tamer than the earlier poems, they are nevertheless well written and entertaining in a sort of philosophical way, the philosophy being a combination of existentialism and pragmatism: “Despair / leads me to talk too much about myself rather than / be transcendent,” he admits.

            In a poem such as “Change,” he goes back to being formally inventive, as he was in Janie Huzzie, and it’s still fun to follow him around to see what he’s going to do next. He does quite a number of different things in his writing, as he has done in his life: He lived in New York City for twenty years, but he was also a forester and director of social service and environmental organizations. A jazz trumpeter, he now lives in the Berkshires with a wife and two sons. Personally, I’m very pleased to have become reacquainted with a poet whose work is both idiosyncratic and based in the best elements of a literary tradition.

                                                                                               July 17, 2008

                                       Review in Pedestal Magazine, Issue 52

New & Selected Poems/1975-2005
Robert Ronnow
The Barnwood Press
ISBN Number: 9780935306521

Reviewer: Alice Osborn

          Given the numbers of years that Robert Ronnow has been writing and publishing his poetry, it’s remarkable that New & Selected Poems/1975-2005 is his first comprehensive poetry collection. While poetry is his main creative outlet, Ronnow is also a jazz trumpeter, which makes sense given his use of lines that imitate polyrhythm, blue notes, and nontraditional forms. He doesn’t stick to traditional approaches, creating unique patterns and rhythms while inserting clever enjambments and stanza breaks. In lesser hands, these poems would be chaotic, but Ronnow is able to make the various disparaties coalesce.

          This former forest worker, non-profit executive director, hitchhiker, and freight train hopper published four previous books: Janie Huzzie Bows, Absolutely Smooth Mustard, Brother Death, and Belonging to the Loved Ones. Often experimental, political, sexual, emotional, but most of all surprising, the standouts from these books are included in this collection, along with new pieces. His titles are almost always evocative and engaging. Consider “America the Seeing-Eye Dog,” “God is correction, feedback and bifurcation,” “Plate Tectonics Versus Gamma Ray Bursters,” and my personal favorite, “Polar Bear Mugs Wino.” He also enjoys stepping into pop culture by making references to such films as It’s a Wonderful Life, October Sky, Moonstruck, Star Wars, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

          Ronnow is equally at home walking the streets of Harlem or hiking along the edges of the Grand Canyon. Within his urban space, trains, subways, and kitchens are prominently featured, while within his natural world, the poems burst with his obsessions concerning death, bones, mountains, big skies, and birds. He has been heavily influenced by W.B. Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli,” which also attaches itself to bird and mountain imagery, as well as the philosophy of Jane Jacobs—that cities drive economic development. In many instances, Ronnow connects these urban and natural narratives within the same poem.

Ronnow and Death

          From his earliest published work, Ronnow displays a fascination with death. For example, in this poem, “This looks like jump to me,” from Janie Huzzie Bows, the speaker imagines the metaphysical travels of a kitchen cockroach, illustrating Freud’s belief that there are only two instincts, the will to survive and the will to procreate.

               You are a cockroach

               So you die. but now the big hands are gentle
               and you receive a respite of thoughtlessness
               and the garbage grave has warm chicken bones
               and you don’t care what happens to you
               or the oldest species of proud recalcitrant insects
               or procreating it or foraging a grubby kitchen sink

               for food. the joy of making life is new. let go,
               and through the night be carried carelessly along.

          In “Late Summer,” from Brother Death, Ronnow mulls over what might be the best time to die. The speaker decides on late August as this timing would, he thinks, be the easiest on his wife: autumn could be for grieving, and spring could be for rebirth. Calculating, yet emotional, the poem gives a nod to the notion that funerals are essentially for the living.

               I would choose to die in late summer.
               So that my wife would have autumn, intense,
               to grieve by,
               snowy bandages with which to bind the wound,
               and spring to reawaken into.
               Summer to remember that she’s loved.

The Personal and the Political

          Ronnow frequently blends the personal and political in his work, often equating justice with greatness. In “Avoiding beautiful September,” from Belonging to the Loved Ones, the speaker ponders the circle of life, wondering if his individual actions matter in the large scope of things.


               The personal is boring
               as are my ruminations on the war.
               What I need to do I can’t try:
               wander without shelter in the backcountry.
               Or go deeper into the polity,
               join a committee or a party.


               We take the long view
               that as individuals drop
               from sight, new enthusiasts
               will associate. Legs
               give out, lungs collapse,
               but we do not let the circle lapse.

               every merchant, traveler.
               My sons will take on cares,
               which toys are theirs,
               as their parents grow
               older. Slowness brings us
               to our goal: do one thing well.

               By that what is meant?
               Don’t be a dilettante.
               Not having found the greatness
               of a single, clear description,
               definition, the greatness comes in
               doing everyday what’s known.

          In “The snail will get to Easter just as soon,” from Belonging to the Loved Ones (the title from a ballad by Eustace Deschamps), Ronnow merges elements from Wayne Gretsky’s line, “A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be,” and William Faulkner’s quotation, “The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past” to come up with the clever line, “The past is skating to where the puck will be.” The poem is about the futility of man exerting his control over the universe.

               No greater tragedy than the death of your children.
               Yet you live on, eyes drained of color. Old,
               you make plans. To know the names of every flower
               in the temperate zone. Every bird by its song.
               Just as you’re about to reach your goal, a tipping point
               comes along: a nuclear detonation or it gets too cold.
               The past is skating to where the puck will be.

Poetry Matters

          In “Can poetry matter,” one of the new poems in the collection, Ronnow discusses publication versus the art of writing, and how poetry teaches us how to live in the world.

               In the debate between accessible and difficult poems
               Poets’ poems and poems for people
               Only the single poem and private reader matter

               Both kinds and anything between can matter or not
               Solid or made of air, a vase or heavy clay ashtray
               One word repeated or many like a lei

               An acquired taste, like wine, and like wine
               Not sustenance, yet men die with their miseries
               Uncut without it, news and mere matter

               I advise everyone to keep a personal anthology of poems that matter
               Or not. Perhaps it should be novels. Stones, insect wings,
               Feathers, Birds you’ve seen, People loved.

          Ronnow integrates his varied interests into his poems. He also seems to be a man and poet whose personal convictions and writing passion are not mutually exclusive. Ronnow follows the muse of his beliefs and instincts; he wisely goes where they tell him, as this collection illustrates.

                                                                                                                   June-August, 2009

Book Review: New & Selected Poems / 1975-2005 by Robert Ronnow

Reviewer: Christy Corp-Minamiji for Blogcritics

Poetry exposes itself to the interpretation of the audience. More than any other written form, the poem turns itself inside out, deriving meaning and value through the reading rather than the writing. Through the specific, the personal, poetry seeks the universal. A successful poem pulls the reader from his own experience into the personal truth of the poet and then expels the reader into the universe to become part of a greater truth. The successful poet, therefore, must write from the intensely personal space of self without a consciousness of that self.

In his New & Selected Poems/ 1975-2005, Robert Ronnow’s greatest successes in the achievement of the universal lie in his most specific details. In “Sub-atomic particles,” he says it himself: “Mustache, cowboy hat/ horse whisperer, gulag master/ Odysseus, King Lear/ salvation in the details.” Much of Ronnow’s work finds “salvation in the details.”

Reading through New & Selected Poems/ 1975-2005, one gets a sense of the evolution of Ronnow as an artist and as a man. His early poems, while specific and vivid in their imagery, are undermined by the sense that the creator of those pieces is a young man very conscious of himself and his place in the world. The sense of outside influence is also more perceptible early in the book. Stanzas from the first poem “Janie Huzzie Bows” practically scream e.e. cummings:

            everybody looks. Janie Huzzie’s dressed in white.
            naturally the crowd glowers i pipe up
            winking in every direction i slither away
            mostly virtuously.

The consciousness of self intrudes upon the more sensual passages in Ronnow’s poetry as well. While his language is frank and earthy, certain passages left me with the sense, not of a celebration of the sexual act, but with the sense of a man bragging of conquest. Though in “The Canopy of Stars,” Ronnow confesses that “Women are not inspired to love me,” he then comments that “This/ must be an oversight on the creator’s part./ Even in my beard I’m built handsomely as other men.”

The juxtaposition of this commentary on loneliness against the next poem “Absolutely Smooth Mustard” in which he “remember[s] passionate nights with some of the women/ I’ve known” jars. Though both poems reveal the writer’s solitude of the time, the sense that the poet feels somehow entitled to the company of multiple women carries through both poems. Yet, the salvation is in the details. “Absolutely Smooth Mustard” begins with the delightful lines “There is absolutely nothing to do. Some people/ fall in love. I go have a cheese sandwich/ with mustard…” The banality of the cheese sandwich as an alternative to love is taken over the top into absurdity as the throwaway “with mustard” is tacked onto the third line.

Ronnow reserves his most lyrical and compelling lines for his descriptions of nature. In these stanzas, he paints with a fine brush, expanding the poems into the universal with minute details:

            The crows have been
            in conference, again.
            A jay, blue, pokes
            a hole through reality.
            There I find the sumacs
            fruiting and the male sex organs
            of the Queen Anne’s lace.

These lines from “Under-sky sleeping, bone keeping” ground the reader in place. The specific sense of place – senses of place, rather, the stanzas are rich with sound and texture – allows the reader to feel with the poet that “…these mountains/ are my grave. A good grave/ to go to.”

Details ground the poems in the universal when Ronnow strays into the realm of the general. His explorations of death, love, and politics have the feel of someone striving toward a larger truth, but falling into the trap of general proselytizing. In “The Rwandan dead” the specific wrenching details of the “Rwandan dead/ bobbing naked at the base of waterfall…” are lost in subsequent lines that proclaim “…Peace/ is a great blessing. Fools/ worship war.” He resumes contact with the specific and saves the poem with the stanza

            The Rwandan dead
            had dalliances and alliances.
            It is the indignity of their exposure
            and the decay of their former lives.
            How disposable, mere mulch, fertilizer
            for wild vegetation.

I preferred his exploration of the human condition through the descriptions of the canyon dwelling Anasazi in “Blackbrush.”

            fish canyons
            then, shallower, dinosaur swamps
            now, dry, rock gardens.

            Explain the human history with water:
            did the Anasazi visit neighbors
            along the canyon rims and deep within…

Explaining the human history with water takes a detail seemingly specific to an indigenous, desert-dwelling people, and expands into the much larger reliance of history on basic human needs.

Ultimately, New &Selected Poems/ 1975-2005 deepens and grows more interestingly rich as it progresses, and one is left with the feeling that Ronnow’s development as both a poet and a man is ongoing. May this be said of all of us.

                                                                                                                                  October, 2009

                                                              Ronnow's Favorite Movies (pdf)