measuring his need

So I’ve been discovering the amazing poetry of John Matthias. The book I’m reading (only book I was able to find in a library) is Northern Summer: New and Selected Poems 1963-1983 and I highly, HIGHLY recommend getting it, reading it etc. He’s damn, damn good. Here is one of the poems.

John Matthias: You Measure John

For posterity you measure John.
For the catalogue
you measure with a tape
his works
and recognize yourself as woman
among women
in the life of this man John, his death.

You measure for the catalogue
the pictures
and their frames
thinking of the others
measuring his need
measuring his pride (who could not
please himself)
measuring his gypsy caravans of children
as he went away to paint, badly,
the famous and the rich.

No, you do not like Augustus John.
Measuring the thickness
of a new biography you offer me
I think –
not. You tell it simply
and with no embellishments yourself.
It is an old story:
some man damages the lives of women
who would love him.
There are various excuses.
One is art.

Partir. / De toute façon partir

Henri Michaux – Le jour, les jours, la fin des jours (Méditation sur la fin de Paul Celan)

Sans qu’ils parlent, lapidé par leurs pensées
Encore un jour de moindre niveau. Gestes sans ombres
A quel siècle faut-il se pencher pour s’apercevoir ?
Fougères, fougères, on dirait des soupirs, partout, des soupirs
Le vent éparpille les feuilles détachées
Force des brancards, il y a dix huit cent mille ans on naissait
déjà pour pourrir, pour périr, pour souffrir
Ce jour, on en a déjà eu de pareils
quantité de pareils
jour où le vent s’engouffre
jour aux pensées insoutenables
Je vois les hommes immobiles
couchés dans les chalands
De toute façon partir.
Le long couteau du flot de l’eau arrêtera la parole.

The poem of my life

A poem by Adrienne Rich from the sequence “Twenty-One Love Poems”. This is poem #2

I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming.
Much earlier, the alarm broke us from each other,
you’ve been at your desk for hours. I know what I dreamed:
our friend the poet comes into my room
where I’ve been writing for days,
drafts, carbons, poems are scattered everywhere,
and I want to show her one poem
which is the poem of my life. But I hesitate,
and wake. You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . . .
and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carried the feathered grass a long way down the upbreathing air.


My wounded beauty

Frank O’Hara: Mayakovsky

My heart’s aflutter!
I am standing in the bath tub
crying. Mother, mother
who am I? If he
will just come back once
and kiss me on the face
his coarse hair brush
my temple, it’s throbbing!

then I can put on my clothes
I guess, and walk the streets.

I love you. I love you,
but I’m turning to my verses
and my heart is closing
like a fist.

Words! be
sick as I am sick, swoon,
roll back your eyes, a pool,

and I’ll stare down
at my wounded beauty
which at best is only a talent
for poetry.

Cannot please, cannot charm or win
what a poet!
and the clear water is thick

with bloody blows on its head.
I embrace a cloud,
but when I soared
it rained.

That’s funny! there’s blood on my chest
oh yes, I’ve been carrying bricks
what a funny place to rupture!
and now it is raining on the ailanthus
as I step out onto the window ledge
the tracks below me are smoky and
glistening with a passion for running
I leap into the leaves, green like the sea

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

Mark Doty reading

The great poet Mark Doty reads his poem, “A Display of Mackerel.” Click here for the video. I strongly recommend you get Doty’s ‘new and selected poems’ volume Fire to Fire. Here is the poem read in the video just linked.

Mark Doty: A Display of Mackerel

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity

barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
Iridescent, watery

prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,

think sun on gasoline.
Splendor, and splendor,
and not a one in any way

distinguished from the other
—nothing about them
of individuality. Instead

they’re all exact expressions
of the one soul,
each a perfect fulfilment

of heaven’s template,
mackerel essence. As if,
after a lifetime arriving

at this enameling, the jeweler’s
made uncountable examples,
each as intricate

in its oily fabulation
as the one before
Suppose we could iridesce,

like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer—would you want

to be yourself only,
unduplicatable, doomed
to be lost? They’d prefer,

plainly, to be flashing participants,
multitudinous. Even now
they seem to be bolting

forward, heedless of stasis.
They don’t care they’re dead
and nearly frozen,

just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were living:
all, all for all,

the rainbowed school
and its acres of brilliant classrooms,
in which no verb is singular,

or every one is. How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.

Incredible Light

Not owning the Collected Poems edited by Michael Davidson, I rely on bits and pieces scrounged online for my fix of Oppen, such as this here.

George Oppen: The Forms of Love

Parked in the fields
All night
So many years ago,
We saw
A lake beside us
When the moon rose.
I remember

Leaving that ancient car
Together. I remember
Standing in the white grass
Beside it. We groped
Our way together
Downhill in the bright
Incredible light

Beginning to wonder
Whether it could be lake
Or fog
We saw, our heads
Ringing under the stars we walked
To where it would have wet our feet
Had it been water

They love each other. There is no loneliness like theirs.

In a dark time, I reach sometimes into my shelves for Wright and poems like this

James Wright: A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

I am tired, Beloved

As I was ordering the Selected Poems as published by the Library of America, edited by Honor Moore, I was moved to quote this poem

Amy Lowell: The Letter

Little cramped words scrawling all over the paper
Like draggled fly’s legs,
What can you tell of the flaring moon
Through the oak leaves?
Or of my uncertain window and the bare floor

Spattered with moonlight?
Your silly quirks and twists have nothing in them
Of blossoming hawthorns,
And this paper is dull, crisp, smooth, virgin of loveliness
Beneath my hand.

I am tired, Beloved, of chafing my heart against
The want of you;
Of squeezing it into little inkdrops,
And posting it.
And I scald alone, here, under the fire
Of the great moon.

Love craved and despised and necessary

This, from Bidart’s fantastic 2008 collection Watching the Spring Festival, which, like all of Bidart’s work, I cannot recommend highly enough.

Frank Bidart: Valentine

How those now dead used the word love bewildered
and disgusted the boy who resolved he

would not reassure the world he felt
love until he understood love

Resolve that too soon crumbled when he found
within his chest

something intolerable for which the word
because no other word was right

must be love
must be love

Love craved and despised and necessary
the Great American Songbook said explained our fate

my bereft grandmother bereft
father bereft mother their wild regret

How those now dead used love to explain
wild regret

“I’m in love”

I am awhirl with the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes which I hadn’t discovered before today. The following is vaguely unrepresentative of her work, as far as I can see, but I like it nonetheless. it’s from her first collection Emplumada (1989), which I recommend highly, from what I’ve seen so far. It may be the fact that I talked about Rita Dove’s career today, but this book seems to me to do what Dove’s early poetry does, but less obviously veiled by workshop craftsmanship. The poems dealing with the Chicano experience are stronger than the tender love poems of which I quote one, so don’t be misled by my choice.

Lorna Dee Cervantes: The Body as Braille

He tells me “your back
is so beautiful.” He traces
my spine with his hand.

I’m burning like the white ring
around the moon. “A witch’s moon,”
dijo mi abuela. The schools call it

“a reflection of ice crystals.”
It’s a storm brewing in the cauldron
of the sky. I’m in love

but won’t tell him
if it’s omens
or ice.

Your name was not in my language

I am currently nursing, let’s say, an obsession, with Frank Bidart’s slim but excellent work. This is from his first collection, Golden State, which can be found in In The Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90, which I recommend highly.

Frank Bidart: To My Father
I walked into the room.
There were objects in the room. I thought I needed nothing
from them. They began to speak,
but the words were unintelligible, a painful cacophony…
Then I realized they were saying the name

of the man who had chosen them, owned them,
ordered, arranged them, their deceased cause,
the secret pattern that made these things order.
I strained to hear: but
the sound remained unintelligible…
senselessly getting louder, urgent, deafening.

Hands over my ears, at last I knew they would remain
inarticulate; your name was not in my language.

As if there were someone / to dream of

I am new to the work of John Wieners, so here goes, uncommented, from the so far interesting Selected Poems, published by Black Sparrow Press that seem worth a recommendation.

John Wieners: Realization

Where has that old spark gone
this sickness could come on?
What use in pretending
our dream of love undone

Old farms await to take us in
to their disease
under rotting apple trees

Going from one drugstore to the next
in snow, as if there were someone
to dream of, these things not so,

but left alone, with mother
that is always lonely, to deny all dreams –
the penance of middle age.

“I lost my poems.”

There was a horrendous moment for me a while ago, and I was reminded of one of my favorite poems, this untitled poem by Ingeborg Bachmann. You can find it in Ich weiß keine bessere Welt, a gorgeous posthumous collection of poems and drafts, selections of which should be part of any English selection of Bachmann’s work.

Meine Gedichte sind mir abhanden gekommen.
Ich suche sie in allen Zimmerwinkeln.
Weiß vor Schmerz nicht, wie man einen Schmerz
aufschreibt, weiß überhaupt nichts mehr.

Weiß, daß man so nicht daherreden kann,
es muß würziger sein, eine gepfefferte Metapher
müßte einem einfallen. Aber mit dem Messer im Rücken.

Parlo e tacio, parlo, flüchte mich in ein Idiom,
in dem sogar Spanishes vorkommt, los toros y
las planetas, auf einer alten gestohlenen Platte
vielleicht noch zu hören. Mit etwas französischem
geht es auch, tu es mon amour depuis si longtemps.

Adieu, ihr schönen Worte, mit euren Verheißungen.
Warum habt ihr mich verlassen. War euch nicht wohl?
Ich habe euch hinterlegt bei einem Herzen aus Stein.
Tut dort für mich, Haltet dort aus, tut dort für mich ein Werk.

“No Man Frightens Me.”

A friend, who’s quite a talented poet himself, asked me about great contemporary British poetry and I was frankly a bit at a loss. I welcome suggestions, but among living British poets significantly younger than Hill and Harrison, both of whom were born in the 1930s (and both of whose work I love greatly), I can’t find any that really capture or hold my interest. Here is a poem by celebrated poet Jo Shapcott, which reminds me strongly of several older poets (some lines of it read like a straight Plath pastiche, for example). Mind you, it’s not bad, but, you know?

The version below is taken from On my tumblr, I also posted a video of Shapcott reading the poem (click here), a version that differs slightly from the one I am posting here.

Jo Shapcott: Thetis

No man frightens me. Watch as I stretch
my limbs for the transformation, I’m laughing
to feel the surge of the other shapes beneath my skin.
It’s like this: here comes the full thrill of my art
as the picture of a variegated
lizard insinuates itself into my mind.
I extend my neck, lengthen fingers, push
down toes to find the form. My back begins
to undulate, the skin to gleam. I think
my soul has slithered with me into this
shape as real as the little, long tongue in my mouth,
as the sun on my back, as the skill in absolute stillness.
My name is Thetis Creatrix and you,
voyeur, if you looked a little closer, would see
the next ripples spread up my bloody tail, to bloom
through my spine as the bark begins to harden
over my trunk. Already I’m so much of the oak
I lean everything towards the black oxygen
in the black air, I process delicious gases
through my personal chemistry, suck moisture
from the earth to a pulse so slow you can’t detect it.
Next tigress. Low tremendous purrs start at the pit
of my stomach, I’m curving through long grass,
all sinew, in a body where tension
is the special joy and where the half-second
before a leap tells it all. Put out a paw
to dab a stone, an ant, a dead lamb. Life,
my life, is all play even up to the moment
when I’m tripped up, thrown down, bound,
raped until I bleed from my eyes,
beaten out of shape and forced to bring forth War.

Short note on J.D. McClatchy

Two or three days ago, I raved to a friend about two poets I admire greatly, Richard Wilbur and J.D. McClatchy. It was easy picking a few excellent canonical poems by Wilbur as samples of his work. But McClatchy? He doesn’t appear to receive the attention and praise that his work deserves. I happen to believe that McClatchy is one of the last great poet-critics that we have. His essays on poets and poetry are always insightful and on point. I specifically recommend his 1998 collection Twenty Questions. He’s done impressive work as an editor (among many other things, he edited the Library of America selection of Longfellow’s work). And he’s a poet in the tradition of the great ones like James Merrill to whom his voice seems especially indebted. Below, a poem from Hazmat, a sometimes uneven but really excellent collection of poems published 2004. I took the poem from the excerpts offered by Random House. I strongly recommend this book, and its predecessor Ten Commandments (1999). McClatchy, like Merrill, writes brilliantly on love and loss, on desire and the allure of beauty. Well, as I said, I admire McClatchy greatly. What about you?

J.D. McClatchy: Pibroch

But now that I am used to pain,
Its knuckles in my mouth the same
Today as yesterday, the cause
As clear-obscure as who’s to blame,

A fascination with the flaws
Sets in-the plundered heart, the pause
Between those earnest, oversold
Liberties that took like laws.

What should have been I never told,
Afraid of outbursts you’d withhold.
Why are desires something to share?
I’m shivering, though it isn’t cold.

Beneath your window, I stand and stare.
The planets turn. The trees are bare.
I’ll toss a pebble at the pane,
But softly, knowing you are not there.

Que pourrais-je répondre à cette âme pieuse?

Reading Lowell today, some of his poems reminded me of Baudelaire, and specifically, his excellent early-ish poem Mother Marie Therese, which put me in mind of this Baudelaire poem. Clicking on this link, you can find various translations of it (including one by Lowell), which all have their faults but, together, will give you a decent sense of the poem, if you can’t read French. And now enjoy:

Charles Baudelaire: La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalouse

La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalouse,
Et qui dort son sommeil sous une humble pelouse,
Nous devrions pourtant lui porter quelques fleurs.
Les morts, les pauvres morts, ont de grandes douleurs,
Et quand Octobre souffle, émondeur des vieux arbres,
Son vent mélancolique à l’entour de leurs marbres,
Certe, ils doivent trouver les vivants bien ingrats,
À dormir, comme ils font, chaudement dans leurs draps,
Tandis que, dévorés de noires songeries,
Sans compagnon de lit, sans bonnes causeries,
Vieux squelettes gelés travaillés par le ver,
Ils sentent s’égoutter les neiges de l’hiver
Et le siècle couler, sans qu’amis ni famille
Remplacent les lambeaux qui pendent à leur grille.
Lorsque la bûche siffle et chante, si le soir
Calme, dans le fauteuil je la voyais s’asseoir,
Si, par une nuit bleue et froide de décembre,
Je la trouvais tapie en un coin de ma chambre,
Grave, et venant du fond de son lit éternel
Couver l’enfant grandi de son oeil maternel,
Que pourrais-je répondre à cette âme pieuse,
Voyant tomber des pleurs de sa paupière creuse?

Man hands on misery to man.

So this is a well known poem, almost a cliché, but I might do something tomorrow that might make me very unhappy for pretty fucked up reasons, and had a discussion with my sister about it tonight, and although we’re different in so many ways, and 8 years apart in age, we have the same fucked up instincts when it comes to other people. Well, I’ll rethink it tomorrow. But this evening, this poem sounds pretty on point. If you live in or near Bonn, Germany, I’m inviting you to a cup of coffee tomorrow or the day after 🙂 How’s that. Coffee and a Philip Larkin poem.

Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Pascal’s infinite, perfect, fearful sphere

From Lowell’s Notebook 1967-68, which I am trying to finish a paper on, this poem

Robert Lowell: Mania: 1958

Remember standing with me in the dark,
Ann Adden? In the wild house? Everything –
I mad, you mad for me? And brought my ring,
that twelve-carat lunk of gold there . . . my Joan of Arc,
undeviating then from the true mark –
robust, ah taciturn! Remember our playing
Marian Anderson in Mozart’s Shepherd King,
Il Re Pastore there? O Hammerheaded Shark,
the Rainbow Salmon of the World, your hand
a rose – not there, a week earlier! We stand. . . .
We ski-walked the eggshell at the Mittersill,
Pascal’s infinite, perfect, fearful sphere –
the border nowhere, your center everywhere. . . .
And if I forget you, Ann, may my right hand . . .

What is perfect love

Poem 9 from J.V. Cunningham’s collection To What Strangers, What Welcome. I quote from the fantastically edited The Poems of J. V. Cunningham, with a great introduction and great notes, all done by Timothy Steele. Read this. Read this.


Innocent to innocent,
One asked, What is perfect love?
Not knowing it is not love,
Which is imperfect–some kind
Of love or other, some kind
Of interchange with wanting,
There when all else is wanting,
Something by which we make do.

So impaired, uninnocent,
If I love you–as I do–
To the very perfection
Of perfect imperfection,
It’s that I care more for you
Than for my feeling for you.

“Your mouth / and the sea will taste of each other”

One of my favorite love poems. It fits this Friday. Then again, it doesn’t. Well, it’s complicated (isn’t always). If you haven’t read Hacker now, please do so. An excellent poet. A good place to start would be the Selected Poems 1965-1990, a slim but magnificent volume.

Marilyn Hacker: Somewhere In A Turret

Somewhere in a turret in time,
castled and catacombed in but
still on a tan street that
ends with a blue-and-white gingerbread house,
those rooms are still filled
with our pictures and books. On the sill
our black-and-white cat hums after a fly.
It is getting light. When we come in,
no one will ask you to leave, no one will send me away.

Nobody lives in the present, time
has textures past and future that
tongues taste at, fingers feel for.
The present happens in rooms
I am not in; past rooms
are only momentarily
empty, if I knew how
to turn around, I would cross the threshold smiling.
No one would ask me to leave, no one would send me away.

Don’t think I’m trying to ignore the time
I piled my things into a cab and left
a note for you and one for the dinner guests.
Those rooms have new tenants. You and I
may never share a closet or a towel-rack
again. We contrived it. I am still
surprised waking up without you every morning.
But I can’t camp out in your house or you in mine.
People would ask me to leave. People would send you away.

Still, I am an optimist. Sometime
we may be sitting, maybe near the ocean
on a cliff, and under the blown spray
get tangled in each other’s fingers and hair;
and in that arbitrary future, your mouth
and the sea will taste of each other.
It is so easy to make things happen
like a freeze shot ending a movie
so you don’t leave, and I don’t go away.

But you know about words. You have had time
to figure out that hardly anyone
came back to bed because of a poem.
Poems praise and protect us from
our lovers. While I write this
I am not having heartburn
about your indifference. We could walk
into any room.
You wouldn’t ask me to leave. I wouldn’t send you away.

“знать, что ты живешь на свете”

Voilà, a poem by Анатолий Штейгер, a poet I enjoy greatly.

Здесь главное конечно не постель
Порука – никогда не снится твое тело,
И значит не оно единственная цель
Об этом говорить нельзя – но наболело.

Я бы не брал теперь твоей руки…
Упорно не искал твоих прикосновений,
Как будто невзначай волос, плеча, щеки –
Не это для меня всего бесценней.

Я стал давно грустнее и скромней…
С меня довольно знать, что ты живешь на свете,
А нежность и все то что в ней и что под ней,
Привыкла ничего ждать – за годы эти…

Как мало все же нужно для любви
Чем больше отдаешь, тем глубже и сильнее
Лишь об одном молю и день, и ночь – живи
А где и для кого – тебе уже виднее.

I chanced another world to meet

After having capped an excursus into the work of Walcott last week, I am back on my Metaphysical Poets-trip. Today, the great Thomas Traherne.

Thomas Traherne: Shadows in the Water

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

‘Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk:
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed;
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
‘Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Duns Scotus’s Oxford

Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped & poisèd powers;

Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural, rural keeping — folk, flocks, and flowers.

Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;

Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.

Bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it.

If you’re wondering why there are so few new reviews here, this is what I’m currently writing about. If you have good suggestions as to what books to read, I’m always open for further suggestions. It’s the tale of the Prodigal Son which you can find in Luke 15:11-32, and it qualifies for my “poem of the day” tag, because it’s the King James Bible version, which is sublime as always. There is really no other text like the King James Bible. Get a copy, they are cheap and ubiquitous. Or use a link like this. Trust me. Read this as poetry. It’s deeply, thoroughly astonishing.

11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:

12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.

13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.

14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.

15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.

16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!

18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,

19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.

22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:

23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:

24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.

26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.

27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.

28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.

29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:

30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.

31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.

32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee

A friend sent me a link to this poem today, and it reminded me of the fact of how fantastic a piece of poetry the King James Bible is. Enjoy.

Psalm 139

1 O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me.
2 Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising;

thou understandest my thought afar off.
3 Thou compassest my path and my lying down,

and art acquainted with all my ways.
4 For there is not a word in my tongue,

but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.
5 Thou hast beset me behind and before,

and laid thine hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
7 Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?

Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:

if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning,

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
10 even there shall thy hand lead me,

and thy right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me;

even the night shall be light about me.
12 Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee;

but the night shineth as the day:
the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
13 For thou hast possessed my reins:

thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:

marvelous are thy works;
and that my soul knoweth right well.
15 My substance was not hid from thee

when I was made in secret,
and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect;

and in thy book all my members were written,
which in continuance were fashioned,
when as yet there was none of them.
17 How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God!

How great is the sum of them!
18 If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand:

when I awake, I am still with thee.
19 Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God:

depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.
20 For they speak against thee wickedly,

and thine enemies take thy name in vain.
21 Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee?

And am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred:

I count them mine enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart:

try me, and know my thoughts:
24 and see if there be any wicked way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

Prevent my need, Someone

I have declaimed a few Berryman sonnets tonight, all from the delightful Sonnets to Chris. Below a particularly nice one, one of my favorites, for obvious reasons, a late one, too, Sonnet 115.


As usual I am up before the sun
begins to warm this intolerable place
and I have stared all night into your face
but am not wiser thereby. Everyone
rattles his weakness or his thing undone,
I shake you like a rat. Open disgrace
yawns all before me: have I left a trace,
a spoor? Clouding it over, I look for my gun.

She’s hidden it. I won’t sing on of that.
Whiskey is bracing. Failures are my speed,
I thrive on ends, the dog is at my door
in heat, the neighborhood is male except one cat
and they thresh on my stoop. Prevent my need,
Someone, and come & find me on the floor.

Donal Óg

An anonymous eighth-century Irish poem translated by Lady Gregory:

Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory (trans.): Donal Óg

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

“Twenty-five. Celibate.”

Reposted (from 1984), on the NYRB page, this fine poem by James Merrill. Enjoy.

James Merrill: Casual Wear
Your average tourist: Fifty. 2.3
Times married. Dressed, this year, in Ferdi Plinthbower
Originals. Odds 1 to 910
Against her strolling past the Embassy

Today at noon. Your average terrorist:
Twenty-five. Celibate. No use for trends,
At least in clothing. Mark, though, where it ends.
People have come forth made of colored mist

Unsmiling on one hundred million screens
To tell of his prompt phone call to the station,
“Claiming responsibility”—devastation
Signed with a flourish, like the dead wife’s jeans

“There is nothing more to say”

Taking notes today on Delmore Schwartz and trying to find out where Weldon Kees’ papers are located, I was reminded of this unjustly neglected American poet. Below one of his best known poems.

Edwin Arlington Robinson: The House on the Hill

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

The wood, the weed, the wag

One of the great English sonnets.

Walter Raleigh: Sir Walter Raleigh to His Son

Three things there be that prosper up apace
And flourish, whilst they grow asunder far,
But on a day, they meet all in one place,
And when they meet, they one another mar;
And they be these: the wood, the weed, the wag.
The wood is that which makes the gallow tree;
The weed is that which strings the hangman’s bag;
The wag, my pretty knave, betokeneth thee.
Mark well, dear boy, whilst these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild,
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot,
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.
Then bless thee, and beware, and let us pray
We part not with thee at this meeting day.

Wall me up alive / in my own body

Although I greatly enjoy Margaret Atwood’s novels and especially her essays, I am of two minds about her poetry. What do you think? Below one of her best known poems:

Margaret Atwood: Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing

The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look–my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

It was not sex

I feel that Thom Gunn is an underrated poet these days, certainly he doesn’t seem to receive the attention that his excellent work deserves (but there is an excellent new book on Gunn’s poetry out by Joshua Weiner, which I highly, highly recommend). Get the Collected Poems, published by FSG. Trust me. They are worth your money and time. Below a poem I enjoy a lot.

Thom Gunn: The Hug

It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

Here at the edge of darkness

Here’s a poem by Rita Dove

Rita Dove: Adolescence II

Although it is night, I sit in the bathroom, waiting.
Sweat prickles behind my knees, the baby-breasts are alert.
Venetian blinds slice up the moon; the tiles quiver in pale strips.

Then they come, the three seal men with eyes as round
As dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines.
They bring the scent of licorice. One sits in the washbowl,

One on the bathtub edge; one leans against the door.
“Can you feel it yet?” they whisper.
I don’t know what to say, again. They chuckle,

Patting their sleek bodies with their hands.
“Well, maybe next time.” And they rise,
Glittering like pools of ink under moonlight,

And vanish. I clutch at the ragged holes
They leave behind, here at the edge of darkness.
Night rests like a ball of fur on my tongue.

I wondered ever too what my fate would be

John Berryman: The Search

I wondered ever too what my fate would be,
woman & after-fame become quite unavailable,
or at best unimportant. For a tooth-extraction
gassed once, by a Russian woman in Detroit,

I dreamed a dream to end dreams, even my dreams:
I had died – no problem: but a mighty hand
was after my works, too, feeling here & there,
& finding them, bit by bit.
At last he found the final of all one, & pulled it away, & said ‘There!’

I began the historical study of the Gospel
indebted above all to Guignebert
& Goguel & McNeile
& Bultmann even & later Archbishop Carrington.

The Miracles were a stumbling block;
until I read Karl Heim, trained in natural science;
until I had sufficiently attended to
The Transfiguration & The Ecstasy.

I was weak on the Fourth Gospel. I still am,
in places; I plan to amend that.
Wellisch on Isaac & Oedipus
supplements for me Kierkegaard.

Luther on Galatians (his grand joy)
I laid aside until I was older & wiser.
Bishop Andrewes’ account of the Resurrection-appearances
in 1609 seemed to me, seems to me, it.

I studied Titian’s remarks on The Tribute-Money.
Bishop Westcott’s analysis (it took him 25 years)
of the first eighteen verses of St. John
struck me as of a cunning like Odysseus’.

And other systems, high and primitive,
ancient & surviving, did I not neglect,
sky-gods & trickster-gods, gods impotent,
the malice & force of the dead.

When at twelve Einstein lost belief in God
he said to himself at once (as he put it later)
‘Similarly motivated men, both of the past & of the present,
together with their achieved insights,
waren die unverlierbaren Freunde’ – the unloseable friends.

The early bees are assaulting the flowers

This poet I only recently discovered through an excellent essay by John Berryman on anglophone post-WWII poetry. His work is remarkably slim, but stunningly excellent. This is probably his most well known, most anthologized poem (the last line of each stanza is indented. Click here for a correctly spaced version of the poem):

Henry Reed: Lessons of the War

To Alan Michell

Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria


To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.

No theory

As I am drafting a literary theoretical essay, I was reminded of this short but fantastic poem by the criminally underrated David Ignatow.

David Ignatow: No Theory

No theory will stand up to a chicken’s guts
being cleaned out, a hand rammed up
to pull out the wriggling entrails,
the green bile and the bloody liver;
no theory that does not grow sick
at the odor escaping.

Look, it’s a she!

This one is a slightly longer Bishop poem (my favorite poem of hers). If you like it (and the other Bishop poems here) you might want to get the Library of America edition of Bishop’s work. It’s worth every penny.

Elizabeth Bishop: The Moose

For Grace Bulmer Bowers

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches,

through late afternoon
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

down hollows, up rises,
and waits, patient, while
a lone traveller gives
kisses and embraces
to seven relatives
and a collie supervises.

Goodbye to the elms,
to the farm, to the dog.
The bus starts. The light
grows richer; the fog,
shifting, salty, thin,
comes closing in.

Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens’ feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles;

the sweet peas cling
to their wet white string
on the whitewashed fences;
bumblebees creep
inside the foxgloves,
and evening commences.

One stop at Bass River.
Then the Economies
Lower, Middle, Upper;
Five Islands, Five Houses,
where a woman shakes a tablecloth
out after supper.

A pale flickering. Gone.
The Tantramar marshes
and the smell of salt hay.
An iron bridge trembles
and a loose plank rattles
but doesn’t give way.

On the left, a red light
swims through the dark:
a ship’s port lantern.
Two rubber boots show,
illuminated, solemn.
A dog gives one bark.

A woman climbs in
with two market bags,
brisk, freckled, elderly.
“A grand night. Yes, sir,
all the way to Boston.”
She regards us amicably.

Moonlight as we enter
the New Brunswick woods,
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb’s wool
on bushes in a pasture.

The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .

In the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
–not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus:
Grandparents’ voices

talking, in Eternity:
names being mentioned,
things cleared up finally;
what he said, what she said,
who got pensioned;

deaths, deaths and sicknesses;
the year he remarried;
the year (something) happened.
She died in childbirth.
That was the son lost
when the schooner foundered.

He took to drink. Yes.
She went to the bad.
When Amos began to pray
even in the store and
finally the family had
to put him away.

“Yes . . .” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes . . .”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half groan, half acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”

Talking the way they talked
in the old featherbed,
peacefully, on and on,
dim lamplight in the hall,
down in the kitchen, the dog
tucked in her shawl.

Now, it’s all right now
even to fall asleep
just as on all those nights.
–Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches; it sniffs at
the bus’s hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or, safe as houses).
A man’s voice assures us
“Perfectly harmless. . . .”

Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
“Sure are big creatures.”
“It’s awful plain.”
“Look! It’s a she!”

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

“Curious creatures,”
says our quiet driver,
rolling his r’s.
“Look at that, would you.”
Then he shifts gears.
For a moment longer,

by craning backward,
the moose can be seen
on the moonlit macadam;
then there’s a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

The experience of repetition as death

Adrienne Rich: A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

My swirling wants. Your frozen lips.
The grammar turned and attacked me.
Themes, written under duress.
Emptiness of the notations.

They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds.

I want you to see this before I leave:
the experience of repetition as death
the failure of criticism to locate the pain
the poster in the bus that said:
my bleeding is under control

A red plant in a cemetary of plastic wreaths.

A last attempt: the language is a dialect called metaphor.
These images go unglossed: hair, glacier, flashlight.
When I think of a landscape I am thinking of a time.
When I talk of taking a trip I mean forever.
I could say: those mountains have a meaning
but further than that I could not say.

To do something very common, in my own way.

I read this poem in the delicious volume of selected poems The Fact of a Doorframe. The poem was originally published in The Will to Change (1971). Both books are highly recommended.

All the history of grief

Archibald MacLeish: Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown–

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind–

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea–

A poem should not mean
But be.


Idiots, paralytics, parasites

Elizabeth Bishop: Pink Dog

Rio de Janeiro

The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.

Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair . . .
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.

Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent. Where are your babies?

(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
while you go begging, living by your wits?

Didn’t you know? It’s been on all the papers,
to solve the problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.

Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.

If they do this to anyone who begs,
drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
what would they do to sick, four-leggéd dogs?

In the cafés and on the sidewalk corners
the joke is going round that all the beggars
who can afford them now wear life preservers.

In your condition you would not be able
even to float, much less to dog-paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible

solution is to wear a fantasia.
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a-
n eyesore. But no one will ever see a

dog in mascara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?

They say that Carnival’s degenerating
—radios, Americans, or something,
have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.

Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!

It is the poems you have lost

William Empson: Missing Dates

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

Empson. ‘Nuff said. If you haven’t, so far, read this book or that one. You really can’t not read them. There’s a new-ish Empson biography out, written by John Haffenden, but I’m slightly wary of Haffenden’s work these days. Any of you read the biography?

Where ignorant armies clash by night

For a chapter I am currently drafting, I’ve been reading (and rereading etc.) this poem by Matthew Arnold. I’m not a huge fan of his poetry (however much I love his essays), but this is a gem.

Matthew Arnold: Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand.
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

(Text copied from here)


You can’t go wrong with Hart Crane. I love especially his early-ish poetry, like this poem I already posted, or the one below. Generally speaking, however, Crane is one of the most consistently amazing American poets I know. Buy his Collected Poems which is a slim and affordable little book. Or buy it as a present.

Hart Crane: Chaplinesque

We will make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

For Time is / nothing if not amenable.

Elizabeth Bishop: The Shampoo

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
— Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

The chronic inattention / Of our lives

I love browsing the internet and finding songs or poems one knows but has almost forgotten, like this 1979 poem by John Ashbery.

John Ashbery: Late Echo

Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about.
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.

Beehives and ants have to be re-examined eternally
And the color of the day put in
Hundreds of times and varied from summer to winter
For it to get slowed down to the pace of an authentic
Saraband and huddle there, alive and resting.

Only then can the chronic inattention
Of our lives drape itself around us, conciliatory
And with one eye on those long tan plush shadows
That speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledge
Of ourselves, the talking engines of our day.

Between scattered clumps of weed

Thom Gunn: Fennel

High fog, white sky
Above me on the bouldered hill
Where I
Stumble between head-high
And scattered clumps of weed
–Fennel, of which I once thought seed
Made you invisible.
Each forms a light green mist
–Feathery auras, though the look deceives
For looked at closely they consist
Of tiny leading into tinier leaves
In which each fork in sharply separate.
Yet tender, touched: I pinch a sprig and sniff,
And it reminds me of
The other times I have pinched fennel sprigs
For this fierce poignancy.
I stand here as if lost,
As if invisible on this broken cliff,
Invisible sky above.
And for a second I float free
Of personality, and die
Into my senses, into the unglossed
Sweet and transporting yet attaching smell
–The very agent that releases me
Holding me here as well.

Hiding the Pints

Been doing some reading/thinking on this poem lately. Any thoughts?

Elizabeth Bishop: The Prodigal

The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs’ eyes followed him, a cheerful stare–
even to the sow that always ate her young–
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind the two-by-fours),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.

But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern–like the sun, going away–
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats’ uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.

Of things invisible to mortal sight

Thus begins Book 3 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost which I am currently rereading for which seems like the millionth time. And it’s still amazing.

Hail holy light, ofspring of Heav’n first-born,
Or of th’ Eternal Coeternal beam
May I express thee unblam’d? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from Eternitie, dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
Or hear’st thou rather pure Ethereal stream,
Whose Fountain who shall tell? before the Sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,
Escap’t the Stygian Pool, though long detain’d
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes then to th’ Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend,
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit’st not these eyes, that rowle in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs,
Or dim suffusion veild. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,
Smit with the love of sacred Song; but chief
Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath
That wash thy hallowd feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor somtimes forget
Those other two equal’d with me in Fate,
So were I equal’d with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris and blind Mæonides,
And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal Note. Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature’s works to mee expung’d and ras’d,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

(Due to my laziness, I copied the text copied from this source, instead of typing it up. I do want to add however, that I strongly recommend reading the poem in the Longman Annotated version, edited by Alastair Fowler)

I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk

Robinson Jeffers: Hurt Hawks


The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,

No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.

He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.

He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,

The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.

You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.


I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk;
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.

We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance.

I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

Yes, more Gwendolyn Brooks.

Below, one of Gwendolyn Brooks’ soldier sonnets from the sequence “Gay Chaps at the Bar”, published in her first collection, the amazing A Street in Bronzeville. Harper has recently reprinted her Selected Poems in a beautiful slim paperback. Please get it/read it already or I’ll keep posting stuff.

Gwendolyn Brooks: The Progress

And still we wear our uniforms, follow
The cracked cry of the bugles, comb and brush
Our pride and prejudice, doctor the sallow
Initial ardor, wish to keep it fresh.
Still we applaud the President’s voice and face.
Still we remark on patriotism, sing,
Salute the flag, thrill heavily, rejoice
For death of men who too saluted, sang.
But inward grows a soberness, an awe,
A fear, a deepening hollow through the cold.
For even if we come out standing up
How shall we smile, congratulate: and how
Settle in chairs? Listen, listen. The step
Of iron feet again. And again wild.

Lust drove men to greatness

Below, Marilyn Chin’s probably most anthologized poem. Chin is one of the most interesting contemporary American poets. I recommend specifically her 2002 collection Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.

Marilyn Chin: How I Got That Name

an essay on assimilation

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.” Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paperson
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse–for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
My mother couldn’t pronounce the “r.”
She dubbed me “Numba one female offshoot”
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
in sublime ignorance, flanked
by loving children and the “kitchen deity.”
While my father dithers,
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash–
a gambler, a petty thug,
who bought a chain of chopsuey joints
in Piss River, Oregon,
with bootlegged Gucci cash.
Nobody dared question his integrity given
his nice, devout daughters
and his bright, industrious sons
as if filial piety were the standard
by which all earthly men are measured.


Oh, how trustworthy our daughters,
how thrifty our sons!
How we’ve managed to fool the experts
in education, statistic and demography–
We’re not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning.
Indeed, they can use us.
But the “Model Minority” is a tease.
We know you are watching now,
so we refuse to give you any!
Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots!
The further west we go, we’ll hit east;
the deeper down we dig, we’ll find China.
History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach–
where life doesn’t hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow,
but whether or not our new lover
in the final episode of “Santa Barbara”
will lean over a scented candle
and call us a “bitch.”
Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
We have no inner resources!


Then, one redolent spring morning
the Great Patriarch Chin
peered down from his kiosk in heaven
and saw that his descendants were ugly.
One had a squarish head and a nose without a bridge
Another’s profile–long and knobbed as a gourd.
A third, the sad, brutish one
may never, never marry.
And I, his least favorite–
“not quite boiled, not quite cooked,”
a plump pomfret simmering in my juices–
too listless to fight for my people’s destiny.
“To kill without resistance is not slaughter”
says the proverb. So, I wait for imminent death.
The fact that this death is also metaphorical
is testament to my lethargy.


So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,
married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong,
granddaughter of Jack “the patriarch”
and the brooding Suilin Fong,
daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong
and G.G. Chin the infamous,
sister of a dozen, cousin of a million,
survived by everbody and forgotten by all.
She was neither black nor white,
neither cherished nor vanquished,
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry–
when one day heaven was unmerciful,
and a chasm opened where she stood.
Like the jowls of a mighty white whale,
or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla,
it swallowed her whole.
She did not flinch nor writhe,
nor fret about the afterlife,
but stayed! Solid as wood, happily
a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized
by all that was lavished upon her
and all that was taken away!

Intimacy / is like hard liquor.

J.V. Cunningham: Interview With Doctor Drink

I have a fifth of therapy
In the house, and transference there.
Doctor, there’s not much wrong with me,
Only a sick rattlesnake somewhere

In the house, if it be there at all,
But the lithe mouth is coiled. The shapes
Of door and window move. I call.
What is it that pulls down the drapes?

Disheveled and exposed? Your rye
Twists in my throat: intimacy
Is like hard liquor. Who but I
Coil there and squat, and pay your fee?

This is the second poem from the sequence “Doctor Drink” (1950). It’s taken from the marvelously edited The Poems of J.V. Cunningham. It’s a slim book that contains all of Cunningham’s poems and they are all amazing. Cunningham is one of the best poets of his time, and yet not nearly well enough known.

Expert and Desperate

Thom Gunn: The Feel of Hands

The hands explore tentatively,
two small live entities whose shapes
I have to guess at. They touch me
all, with the light of fingertips

testing each surface of each thing
found, timid as kittens with it.
I connect them with amusing
hands I have shaken by daylight.

There is a sudden transition:
they plunge together in a full-
formed single fury; they are grown
to cats, hunting without scruple;

they are expert and desperate.
I am in the dark. I wonder
when they grew up. It strikes me that
I do not know whose hands they are.

The Crazy Woman

As I might have said before, one of my favorite poets.

Gwendolyn Brooks: The Crazy Woman

I shall not sing a May song.
A May song should be gay.
I’ll wait until November
And sing a song of gray.

I’ll wait until November
That is the time for me.
I’ll go out in the frosty dark
And sing most terribly.

And all the little people
Will stare at me and say,
“That is the Crazy Woman
Who would not sing in May.”

I am a dry man whose thirst is praise

Wendell Berry: Water

I was born in a drouth year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul.
Fear of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.

via, via

Our lives, half gone

Wendell Berry: Kentucky River Junction

to Ken Kesey & Ken Babbs

Clumsy at first, fitting together
the years we have been apart,
and the ways.

But as the night
passed and the day came, the first
fine morning of April,

it came clear:
the world that has tried us
and showed us its joy

was our bond
when we said nothing.
And we allowed it to be

with us, the new green


Our lives, half gone,
stay full of laughter.

Free-hearted men
have the world for words.

Though we have been
apart, we have been together.


Trying to sleep, I cannot
take my mind away.
The bright day

shines in my head
like a coin
on the bed of a stream.


You left
your welcome.

via, via


Elizabeth Bishop: The Unbeliever

He sleeps on the top of a mast. – Bunyan

He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper’s head.

Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast’s top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.

“I am founded on marble pillars,”
said a cloud. “I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?”
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.

A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was “like marble.” He said: “Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly.”

But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, “I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”

It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

William Empson: Villanelle

It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

What later purge from this deep toxin cures?
What kindness now could the old salve renew?
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

The infection slept (custom or changes inures)
And when pain’s secondary phase was due
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

How safe I felt, whom memory assures,
Rich that your grace safely by heart I knew.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

My stare drank deep beauty that still allures.
My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

You are still kind whom the same shape immures.
Kind and beyond adieu. We miss our cue.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

A god breathed from my lips.

James Merrill: Days of 1964

Houses, an embassy, the hospital.
Our neighborhood sun-cured if trembling still
In pools of the night’s rain . . .
Across the street that led to the center of town
A steep hill kept one company part way
Or could be climbed in twenty minutes
For some literally breathtaking views,
Framed by umbrella pines, of city and sea.
Underfoot, cyclamen, autumn crocus grew
Spangled as with fine sweat among the relics
Of good times had by all. If not Olympus,
An out-of-earshot, year-round hillside revel.

I brought home flowers from my climbs.
Kyria Kleo who cleans for us
Put them in water, sighing Virgin, Virgin.
Her legs hurt. She wore brown, was fat, past fifty,
And looked like a Palmyra matron
Copied in lard and horsehair. How she loved
You, me, loved us all, the bird, the cat!
I think now she was love. She sighed and glistened
All day with it, or pain, or both.
(We did not notably communicate.)
She lived nearby with her pious mother
And wastrel son. She called me her real son.

I paid her generously, I dare say.
Love makes one generous. Look at us. We’d known
Each other so briefly that instead of sleeping
We lay whole nights, open, in the lamplight,
And gazed, or traded stories.

One hour comes back—you gasping in my arms
With love, or laughter, or both,
I having just remembered and told you
What I’d looked up to see on my way downtown at noon:

poor old Kleo, her aching legs,
Trudging into the pines. I called.
Called three times before she turned.
Above a tight, skyblue sweater, her face
Was painted. Yes. Her face was painted
Clown-white, white of the moon by daylight,
Lidded with pearl, mouth a poinsettia leaf.
Eat me, pay me—the erotic mask
Worn the world over by illusion
To weddings of itself and simple need.

Startled mute, we had stared—was love illusion?—
And gone our ways. Next, I was crossing a square
In which a moveable outdoor market’s
Vegetables, chickens, pottery kept materializing
Through a dream-press of hagglers each at heart
Leery lest he be taken, plucked,
The bird, the flower of that November mildness,
Self lost up soft clay paths, or found, foothold,
Where the bud throbs awake
The better to be nipped, self on its knees in mud—
Here I stopped cold, for both our sakes;

And calmer on my way home bought us fruit.

Forgive me if you read this. (And may Kyria Kleo,
Should someone ever put it into Greek
And read it aloud to her, forgive me, too.)
I had gone so long without loving,
I hardly knew what I was thinking.

Where I hid my face, your touch, quick, merciful,
Blindfolded me. A god breathed from my lips.
If that was illusion I wanted it to last long;
To dwell, for its daily pittance, with us there,
Cleaning and watering, sighing with love or pain.
I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights
Even of degradation as I for one
Seemed, those days, to be always climbing

Into a world of wild
Flowers, feasting, tears— or was I falling, legs
Buckling, heights, depths,
Into a pool of each night’s rain?
But you were everywhere beside me, masked,
As who was not, in laughter, pain, and love.

“To teach thee, I am naked first”

John Donne: To His Mistress Going to Bed

Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hills shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love’s hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Received by men; thou, Angel, bring’st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are as Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them:
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus arrayed.
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see revealed. Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife, show
Thyself: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence:
To teach thee, I am naked first; why than,
What need’st thou have more covering than a man?

“Somebody loves us all.”

Elizabeth Bishop: Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
–this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color–
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:

to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

Bishop. Student in Cologne/Bonn? Join this course. It’s pretty awesome, because I’m there, and it’s about Bishop, who’s purty awesome, too. (this fills my “awesome” quota today).

a youth who loves me

Walt Whitman, “A Glimpse”

A GLIMPSE, through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room, around the stove,
late of a winter night–And I unremark’d seated in a corner;
Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and
seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;
A long while, amid the noises of coming and going–of drinking and
oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little,
perhaps not a word.

This is from the Calamus sequence in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A post on the Merrill list this afternoon reminded me of it. These are all magnificent poems.

“God is the poetry caught in any religion”

Since posting this poem by Les Murray I have not been able to stop reading Les Murray’s Collected Poems. So here is another one.

Les Murray: Poetry and Religion

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.

A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier’s one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either. It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it a religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds – crested pigeon, rosella parrot –
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

Nearly everything / they say is ritual

Les Murray: The Mitchells

I am seeing this: two men are sitting on a pole
they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise
I think for wires. Water boils in a prune tin.
Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white

bursaria blossom, under the noon of wattles.
The men eat big meat sandwiches out of a styrofoam
box with a handle. One is overheard saying:
drought that year. Yes. Like trying to farm the road.

The first man, if asked, would say I’m one of the Mitchells.
The other would gaze for a while, dried leaves in his palm,
and looking up, with pain and subtle amusement,

say I’m one of the Mitchells. Of the pair, one has been rich
but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat. Nearly everything
they say is ritual. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.

Thursday, the Literature Nobel is going to be announced, and I’m rooting for a poet. Personally, I am hoping for John Ashbery, but why not Australian giant Les Murray? The poem below is from his staggering Collected Poems, an unbelievably great collection of poetry.

when my father had been dead a week

Donald Hall: White Apples

when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear
I sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes

as promised, a poem by Jane Kenyon’s husband.

God does not leave us comfortless

Jane Kenyon: Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

I came to Kenyon via her husband, Donald Hall, a poet I admire deeply (I’ll post one of his poems tomorrow). Kenyon’s own work is very interesting, and I do own her Collected Poems, where I took this poem. However, I’ll admit freely that I have trouble connecting to the lilt of her work sometimes. I do recommend reading Kenyon, though. Her voice is strong and her command and use of form is intriguing. I find myself frequently moved by her work, but for personal reasons more than anything else.

Poems on translating Poetry (2)

Евге́ний Евтуше́нко: О ПЕРЕВОДАХ

Не страшен вольный перевод
Ничто не вольно, если любишь.
Но если музыку погубишь,
То это мысль всю переврет.
Я не за ловкость шулеров,
Я за поэтов правомочность
Есть точность жалких школяров
Но есть и творческая точность.
Не дай школярством себя стеснить
Побольше музыки, свободы!
Я верю в стихи
Не верю в просто переводы.

poems on translating poetry (1)

Zbigniew Herbert: On Translating Poetry

Like a clumsy bumblebee
he alights on a flower
bending the fragile stem
he elbows his way
through rows of petals
like pages of a dictionary
he wants in
where the fragrance and sweetness are
and though he has a cold
and can’t taste anything
he pushes on
until he bumps his head
against the yellow pistil

and that’s as far as he gets
it’s too hard
to push through the calyx
into the root
so the bee takes off again
he emerges swaggering
loudly humming:
I was in there
and those
who don’t take his word for it
can take a look at his nose
yellow with pollen

this, translated by Alissa Valles, is from the stupendously amazing Collected Poems 1956-1998.

You are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them.

Elizabeth Bishop: In the Waiting Room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
–“Long Pig,” the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities–
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts–
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

I love this poem. Who doesn’t? It’s one of Bishop’s best known poems and rightly so.

That garrulous presence we sometimes call the self

Richard Howard is rightly acclaimed as a major American poet, yet he is among those titans of contemporary writing whose name or work is unknown even to passionate purveyors of poetry. He never quite achieved the prominence of poets like Merrill, Bidart or Merwin. I took the poem below from his book Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003, published in 2004, which I strongly recommend to everyone interested in good poetry. At a first glance, Howard can seem less original than Merrill or Bidart, but his poetry sings with a very unique voice and his obsession with art and artists and his vision of them is compelling. Like Merrill, Howard has an excellent command of form and his language is fluid and supple yet always acute and alive. Reading Howard is an inspiring, uplifting experience like no other. Too much? No. He’s really that good. Inner Voices is almost shockingly great. Buy it. Read it.

Richard Howard: At Sixty-five

The tragedy, Colette said, is that one
does not age. Everyone else does, of course
(as Marcel was so shocked to discover),
and upon one’s mask odd disfigurements
are imposed; but that garrulous presence
we sometimes call the self, sometimes deny

it exists at all despite its carping
monologue, is the same as when we stole
the pears, spied on mother in the bath, ran
away from home. What has altered is what
Kant called Categories: the shape of time
changes altogether! Days, weeks, months,

And especially years are reassigned.
Famous for her timing, a Broadway wit
told me her “method“: asked to do something,
anything, she would acquiesce next year –
“I’ll commit suicide, provided it’s
next year”. But after sixty-five, next year

is now. Hours? There are none, only a few
reckless postponements before it is time…
When was it you “last” saw Jimmy? – last spring?
Last winter? That scribbled arbiter
your calendar reveals betrays the date:
over a year ago. Come again? No

time like the present, endlessly deferred.
Which makes a difference: once upon a time
there was only time (…as the day is long)
between the wanting self and what it wants.
Wanting still, you have no dimension where
fulfillment or frustration can occur.

Of course you have, but you must cease waiting
upon it: simply turn around and look
back. Like Orpheus, like Mrs. Lot, you
will be petrified -astonished- to learn
memory is endless, life very long,
and you – you are immortal after all.

the hot slow head of suicide

Laura Riding Jackson: Death as Death

To conceive death as death
Is difficulty come by easily,
A blankness fallen among
Images of understanding,
Death like a quick cold hand
On the hot slow head of suicide.
So is it come by easily
For one instant. Then again furnaces
Roar in the ears, then again hell revolves,
And the elastic eye holds paradise
At visible length from blindness,
And dazedly the body echoes
“Like this, like this, like nothing else.”

Like nothing – a similarity
Without resemblance. The prophetic eye,
Closing upon difficulty,
Opens upon comparison,
Halving the actuality
As a gift too plain, for which
Gratitude has no language,
Foresight no vision.

This is taken from the momentuous The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader, edited by Elizabeth Friedmann.

We / Die soon.

Gwendolyn Brooks: We Real Cool

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

a contenporary classic. This is probably Gwendolyn Brooks’ most well known poem. Brooks herself is one of last century’s best American poets. Read her Selected Poems, please.

Master, mammoth mumbler

Robert Lowell: Ford Madox Ford

The lobbed ball plops, then dribbles to the cup….
(a birdie Fordie!) But it nearly killed
the ministers. Lloyd George was holding up
the flag. He gabbled, “Hop-toad. hop-toad, hop-toad!
Hueffer has used a niblick on the green;
it’s filthy art, Sir, filthy art!”
You answered, “What is art to me and thee?
Will a blacksmith teach a midwife how to bear?”
That cut the puffing statesman down to size,
Ford. You said, “Otherwise,
I would have been general of a division.” Ah Ford!
Was it warm the sport of kings, that your Good Soldier,
the best French novel in the language, taught
those Georgian Whig magnificoes at Oxford,
at Oxford decimated on the Somme?
Ford, five times black-balled for promotion,
then mustard gassed voiceless some seven miles
behind the lines at Nancy or Belleau Wood:
you emerged in your “worn uniform,
gilt dragons on the revers of the tunic,”
a Jonah – O divorced, divorced
from the whale-fat of post-war London! Boomed,
cut, plucked and booted! In Providence, New York …
marrying, blowing…nearly dying
at Boulder, when the altitude
pressed the world on your heart,
and your audience, almost football-size,
shrank to a dozen, while you stood
mumbling, with fish-blue-eyes,
and mouth pushed out
fish-fashion, as if you gagged for air….
Sandman! Your face, a childish O. The sun
is pernod-yellow and it gilds the heirs
of all the ages there on Washington
and Stuyvesant, your Lilliputian squares,
where writing turned your pockets inside out.
But master, mammoth mumbler, tell me why
the bales of your left-over novels buy
less than a bandage for your gouty foot.
Wheel-horse, O unforgetting elephant,
I hear you huffing at your old Brevoort,
Timon and Falstaff, while you heap the board
for publishers. Fiction! I’m selling short
your lies that made the great your equals. Ford,
you were a kind man and you died in want.

One of several poems Lowell wrote for his friend, the great novelist Ford Madox Ford. This staggering one was published in Life Studies, and recently reprinted

To slash me shocked

John Berryman: “I didn’t.”

I didn’t. And I didn’t. Sharp the Spanish blade
to gash my throat after I’d climbed across
the high railing of the bridge
to tilt out, with the knife in my right hand
to slash me knocked or fainting till I’d fall
unable to keep my skull down but fearless

unless my wife wouldn’t let me out of the house
unless the cops noticed me crossing the campus
up to the bridge
& clappt me in for observation, costing my job –
I’d be now in a cell, costing my job –
well, I missed that;

but here’s the terror of tomorrow’s lectures
bad in themselves, the students dropping the course,
and Administration hearing
& offering me either a medical leave of absence
or resignation – Kitticat, they can’t fire me –

This is an untitled poem by John Berryman, written on Jan 5, 1972. This version is from my copy of Henry’s Fate & Other Poems, 1967-1972. In Mariani’s biography (Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman), he also quotes the poem, but in Mariani’s version it says “shocked” instead of “knocked” in line 5

Thoroughbred mental cases

Robert Lowell: Waking in the Blue

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)

What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbert and ginger ale–
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
the hooded night lights bring out “Bobbie,”
Porcellian ’29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig–
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

Say no to yourself.

Richard Hugo: Degrees Of Gray In Philipsburg

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs–
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

If you don’t know Richard Hugo, you have no idea how much you are missing out on. This poem, originally published in The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (1973), is reprinted in one of my favorite single volumes of poetry, Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo, which I urge you to acquire. Richard Hugo is an amazing, important, great poet. Read him. Please.

God’s querulous calling

Ted Hughes: Theology

“No, the serpent did not
Seduce Eve to the apple.
All that’s simply
Corruption of the facts.

Adam ate the apple.
Eve ate Adam.
The serpent ate Eve.
This is the dark intestine.

The serpent, meanwhile,
Sleeps his meal off in Paradise –
Smiling to hear
God’s querulous calling.”

By the way: in his Letters (Faber & Faber, ed. Christopher Reid), which I am currently delighting in, Hughes says he’s written this poem “under a […] invocation of power” and he “could never have written [this poem] normally.”

Wrestling with (my God!) my God

One of my favorite poems in any language by one of my favorite poets (here is Lowell’s take).

Gerard Manley Hopkins: (Carrion Comfort)

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.

Cheer whóm though? The héro whose héaven-handling flúng me, fóot tród
Me? or mé that fóught him? O whích one? is it eách one? That níght, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

(quoted after The Major Works, edited by Catherine Phillips (Oxford World’s Classics))

A caricature, a swollen shadow

Delmore Schwartz: The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me

“the withness of the body” –Whitehead

The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
–The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
the scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

Love like anger in the night

J. V. Cunningham: To My Wife

And does the heart grow old? You know
In the indiscriminate green
Of summer or in earliest snow
A landscape is another scene,

Inchoate and anonymous,
And every rock and bush and drift
As our affections alter us
Will alter with the season’s shift.

So love by love we come at last,
As through the exclusions of a rhyme,
Or the exactions of a past,
To the simplicity of time,

The antiquity of grace, where yet
We live in terror and delight
With love as quiet as regret
And love like anger in the night.

What to say about this incredible poet? You read the poem. It’s from The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, a great, great volume of poetry, edited by Timothy Steele. You should get it. You can buy it here or elsewhere.

Heaven is not like flying or swimming

I’ve spent quite some time with this poem today. Isn’t it marvelous?

Elizabeth Bishop: Seascape

This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as angels,
flying high as they want and as far as they want sidewise
in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections;
the whole region, from the highest heron
down to the weightless mangrove island
with bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings
like illumination in silver,
and down to the suggestively Gothic arches of the mangrove roots
and the beautiful pea-green back-pasture
where occasionally a fish jumps, like a wildflower
in an ornamental spray of spray;
this cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope:
it does look like heaven.
But a skeletal lighthouse standing there
in black and white clerical dress,
who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better.
He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet,
that that is why the shallow water is so warm,
and he knows that heaven is not like this.
Heaven is not like flying or swimming,
but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare
and when it gets dark he will remember something
strongly worded to say on the subject.

The bleak sunshine shrieks its chipped music

Allen Tate: Death Of Little Boys

When little boys grown patient at last, weary,
Surrender their eyes immeasurably to the night,
The event will rage terrific as the sea;
Their bodies fill a crumbling room with light.

Then you will touch at the bedside, torn in two,
Gold curls now deftly intricate with gray
As the windowpane extends a fear to you
From one peeled aster drenched with the wind all day.

And over his chest the covers in the ultimate dream
Will mount to the teeth, ascend the eyes, press back
The locks while round his sturdy belly gleam
Suspended breaths, white spars above the wreck:

Till all the guests, come in to look, turn down
Their palms, and delirium assails the cliff
Of Norway where you ponder, and your little town
Reels like a sailor drunk in a rotten skiff.

The bleak sunshine shrieks its chipped music then
Out to the milkweed amid the fields of wheat.
There is a calm for you where men and women
Unroll the chill precision of moving feet.

Allen Tate is, these days, an enormously underrated poet. If you look at this year’s big literature awards and look at the poetry shortlist, chances are, most (in some cases: all) the poets there are a far cry from Tate’s poetic sensibility. Not to mention Tate’s quality, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. If you have any interest at all in formal poetry, you cannot, you absolutely cannot miss Allen Tate’s Collected Poems 1919-1976, reprinted by FSG. A short but deeply, deeply impressive books. Some of the poems there are among the best written during the past century, for example The Swimmers. Read Tate. He’s a marvelous, tremendously important poet.

Spare me from my mind

Sidney Keyes: Ulster Soldier

Rain strikes the window. Miles of wire
Are hung with small mad eyes. Night sets its mask
Upon the fissured hill. The soldier waits
For sleep’s deception, praying thus: O land
Of battle and the rough marauders lying
Under this country, spare me from my mind.
This year is blackened: as your faces blackened
Turn to the bedrock, let me not be rotted:
My limbs be never shackled in the roots
Of customary sin, as yours are bound
With oak and hawthorn. Spare me from my mind.
We come of a very old related race –
Drivers of cattle, kings, incendiaries,
SIngers and callous girls; we know the same
Perplexities and terrors – whether to turn back
On the dark road, whether to love
Too much and lose our power, or die of pride:
The fear of steel, or that the dead should mock us –
These trouble our proud race. Protect me now.

The wind cries through the valley. Clouds sprawl over
This exiled soldier, sprawling on his bed.
Sleep takes the bartered carcase, not the brain,
It’s only love could save him from his mind.

Omagh, 13 April 1942.

Sidney Keyes, in my experience overshadowed by the admittedly marvelous work of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, is one of my favorite poets. His work, while limited due to the circumstances of its creation, is burning with an interesting strength, pulsating with recently acquired learning and freshly lived experience. Keyes’ Collected Poems (Carcanet) is a slim volume that contains a fascinating search for the right language, the right forms. There are odd similarities of this poetry to the few excellent passages in Lowell’s precocious Land of Unlikeness, I think. Below, “War Poet”, Keyes’ most famous poem. Seriously. Try and get your hand on his work.

Sydney Keyes: War Poet

I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me;
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town.

March 1942.

Toga’d, furred, blear, brittle, grey.

Edwin Morgan: Pilate at Fortingall

A Latin harsh with Aramaicisms
poured from his lips incessantly; it made
no sense, for surely he was mad. The glade
of birches shamed his rags, in paroxysms
he stumbled, toga’d, furred, blear, brittle, grey.
They told us he sat here beneath the yew
even in downpours; ate dog-scraps. Crows flew
from prehistoric stone to stone all day-
‘See him now.’ He crawled to the cattle-trough
at dusk, jumbled the water till it sloshed
and spilled into the hoof-mush in blue strands,
slapped with useless despair each sodden cuff,
and washed his hands, and watched his hands, and washed
his hands, and watched his hands, and washed his hands.

This is possibly the best known living Scottish poet, and this poem is from an overwhelming volume/sequence of poems called “Sonnets from Scotland”, published in 1984. These poems, along with a huge number of others, can be found in Edwin Morgan’s Collected Poems , which you can buy here and which I fully recommend. It collects all of Morgan’s poetry up to 1990 and fills almost 600 pages of brilliant, musical, experimental, tragic, funny poetry. This poem, following up on a legend that would have Pontius Pilate’s birthplace be Fortingall, is serious, funny and devastating at the same time. It’s almost perfectly balanced, I think. I almost swooned woith admiration when I read it the first time. This balance few of Morgan’s poems are, but they are all good, and quite a few are very good. Very, very good.

I have spent a lot of time recently re-reading specifically the Sonnets from Scotland, because these past weeks I have done some more reading and thinking about the whole post-war sonnet issue I briefly mentioned here re: the Tony Harrison poem. Writing and thinking about Lowell’s Notebooks and Berryman’s Dream Songs has led me to all other kinds of poetry, with apparently similar goals, comparable spiritual and artistic visions, but executed in completely different manners. Within the next month I may follow up this babble with something more substantial. By the way, except for criticism on Berryman on Lowell, I have done little secondary reading on this. I welcome any recommendations.

John, we used the language as if we made it

Robert Lowell: For John Berryman

I feel I know what you have worked through, you
know what I have worked through – these are words…
John, we used the language as if we made it.
Luck threw up the coin, and the plot swallowed,
monster yawning for its mess of pottage.
Ah privacy, as if you wished to mount
some rock by a mossy stream, and count the sheep –
fame that renews the soul, but not the heart.
The ebb tide flings up wonders: rivers, beer-cans,
linguini, bloodstreams; how merrily they gallop
to catch the ocean – Hopkins, Herbert, Thoreau,
born to die like the athletes at early forty –
Abraham lived with less expectancy,
heaven his friend, the earth his follower.

This is from Lowell’s enormous and perennially underrated long poem Notebook, more precisely, from the first permutation, Notebook 1967-68, which would morph into the 1970’s Notebook first and then split up into History and For Lizzie and Harriet. In the Collected Poems you’ll only find the latter two volumes. FSG has, however, just put out a new edition of Notebook 1967-68, with an introduction by Jonathan Galassi. Highly, highly recommended.

It’s always what we don’t fear that happens (Rita Dove 1)

Rita Dove is a staggering poet. The poem she’s reading in the clip above is from her 2000 collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks. Her most recent publication is the long poem Sonata Mulattica, a stunning performance, a historical drama about a black performer stricken from the records of history. It’s written in short, effective poems written with an eerie eye for detail, sound and nuance. The book as a whole is highly recommended, as is every book by this excellent poet. However, the best place to start is probably still the epochal, and Pulitzer-winning Thomas and Beulah. You can get it here. Trust me. Below is the full text of the poem she reads out aloud above:

Rita Dove: Black on a Saturday Night

This is no place for lilac
or somebody on a trip
to themselves. Hips
are an asset here, and color
calculated to flash
lemon bronze cerise
in the course of a dip and turn.
Beauty’s been caught lying
and the truth’s rubbed raw:
Here, you get your remorse
as a constitutional right.

It’s always what we don’t
fear that happens, always
not now and why are
you people acting this way
(meaning we put in petunias
instead of hydrangeas and reject
ecru as a fashion statement).

But we can’t do it – naw because
the wages of living are sin
and the wages of sin are love
and the wages of love are pain
and the wages of pain are philosophy
and that leads definitely to an attitude
and an attitude will get you
nowhere fast so you might as well
keep dancing dancing till
tomorrow gives up with a shout,
’cause there is only
Saturday night, and we are in it –
black as black can,
black as black does,
not a concept
nor a percentage
but a natural law.

To remind you of ‘ow us gaffers used to talk

Tony Harrison: The Queen’s English

Last meal together, Leeds, the Queen’s Hotel
that grandish pile of swank in City Square
Too posh for me, he said (even though he dressed well)
if you wern’t wi’ me ah’d nivver dare!

I knew that he’d decided to die
not by the way he lingered at the bar
not by the look he’d give me with one good-eye
nor by the firmer handshake and the gruff ta-ra
But when he browsed the station bookstall sales
he picked up ‘Poems from the Yorkshire Dales’

‘ere tek this un wi’ yer to New York
to remind you of ‘ow us gaffers used to talk.
It’s up your street in’t it? ‘ahh buy yer that!

The broken lines go through me speeding South –

As t’doctor stopped to oppen woodland yet…
wi’ skill they puttin wuds reet i’ his mouth

This poem is by a poet I’m just trying to discover and sort out in my head. It’s quoted from the Selected Poems (Penguin), and is from the sequence School of Eloquence. (Addendum: I’ve no idea how to do it with the wordpress interface, but the last line should be slightly indented!)

Harrison in general is fascinating, but the poems in School of Eloquence are nothing short of stunning. In them, Harrison shows himself to be one of the select groups of extraordinary poets who have written a sequence of sonnet or sonnet-like poems, which is grafted to the poet’s own unique voice. John Berryman’s Dreamsongs or Robert Lowell’s Notebook (including the stunning revisions in History and For Lizzie and Harriet),Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland, Ted Berrigan’s melodious Sonnets or even Geoffrey Hill’s incredible Mercian Hymns (though these are different in significant ways). I think that McHale’s project of discovering the postmodern long poem failed because he didn’t see or care about this pattern of songs that arose at roughly the same time. These are all flabbergasting achievements, although I haven’t read enough of Tony Harrison’s work to properly read and assess his work. But even from the little I have read, I can’t but recommend this excellent poet.

Sinuous mind of love

Jennifer Moxley: Into the Bedroom

Certainly deluded wisdom and all

those strewn packages from Christmas,

“scholar’s disorder” keeps me covered

under this comforter thinking of us.

There there Erasmus, sinuous mind of love

in all its fibres off to Paris to see

what’s become of an antique world.

Cut me a bolt of satin Vermeer

sing deep your told conviction,

lace up trussed up laughing feet

then turn your head and listen:

the parakeet doth chirp, the Moon

remarks my memory

and I am bending draped to brass

in pain and folly trembling.

There are so many so-so poets around, highly praised, selling well. In this context it is refreshing to discover a poet like Jennifer Moxley, one of the five best poets of her generation, who is an interesting thinker as well as a brilliant and moving wordsmith. The poem above is from her 1996 debut collection Imagination Verses, where you can see her trying out words, subjects and her place in a complex world. As a poet, she is constantly getting better. You can buy the 2006 reissue of Imagination Verses here, or her best book so far, the 2007 collection The Line here. If you are interested in contemporary poetry at all, you can’t possibly bypass Moxley’s extraordinary work

You’re healed then / from the night

Mary Oliver: Morning at Great Pond

It starts like this:
forks of light
slicking up
out of the east,
flying over you,
and what’s left of night –
its black waterfalls,
its craven doubt –
dissolves like gravel
as the sun appears
trailing clouds
of oink and green wool,
igniting the fields,
turning the ponds
to plates of fire.
The creatures there
are dark flickerings
you make out
one by one
as the light lifts –
great blue herons,
wood ducks shaking
their shimmering crests –
and knee-deep
in the purple shallows
a deer drinking:
as she turns
the silver water
crushes like silk,
shaking the sky,
and you’re healed then
from the night, your heart
wants more, you’re ready
to rise and look!
to hurry anywhere!
to believe in everything.

Mary Oliver is one of the great living American poets. Her work shines with an extraordinary poetic sensibility, a unique sense of how lines and rhythms work. This poem is from her 1983 collection American Primitive, one of her best books, but she continues to write intriguing poetry. Her three most recent collections explore a strong spirituality and epiphanies that seem close to mysticism. It’s strong work, maybe her strongest in years.

A visit behind the eyes

I’ve got notes on Mona van Duyn in my notebook somewhere but so far, nothing substantial. Here’s one of my favorite poems of hers. It’s complex both in terms of form and content. A great poem.

Mona Van Duyn: Into Mexico

Past the angular maguey fields, a ride on the optic nerve,
we come to the first rest stop, and the visit begins.
It is what I have always wanted; to follow the first signs
in another language makes me weak with joy. I am brave
out back in a courtyard, by a shack that might be the toilet,
when bulging senoras bump me on the back and shoulder me.
If they look at me I do not know what they see,
since even metaphors are changed. Overhead in the heat
the skinned, outrageous body of some animal hangs from a line.
Is it rotting, or drying? I’ve never smelled its rawness before.
Yes, there is a stool in the shack, and soiled toilet paper
in a waist-high pile beside it. Water is in a can.

I touch the paper on the roll, it is rough, it is like . . . nothing else.
I am behind the eyes at last. It is as if one could by-pass
love, when the other eyes parry with a picture of one’s own face,
and never arrive at marriage, either true or false,
when eyes glaze and minds are more private than ever,
but could stop in between at a point where no one
can stop. To be in one’s first foreign country, in approximation,
is to be in you–or to feel what it must be like to be there.

Now it is one long agony of taking-in. From the bus
I can see inside the palings, or tin, or straw of a shelter,
and all pots, braziers and pallets are unfamiliar.
At the first market, walking in through the restless
yellow of bananas, I will go to such furnishings and handle them.
Country dogs here are yellow also, with a long body.
And all the time I have lived as if you were like me.
Now, here, I am released from that stratagem.

In the city I would never have expected a glassy hotel
to rise between little sheds of pink and orange cement,
nor men to pull down their pants and squat in the vacant
lot downtown. Sweet rolls–I am trying to taste them all,
but it will take weeks–are named for creatures and the parts
of creatures, Snails, Cheeks, Noses, Ears, Dogs.
What is that snarled bouquet of herbs a little boy drags
toward home, making a green sweep of the streets?
A woman kneels on the pavement all day to sell
six pyramids of seven cracked walnuts each.
I tongue a clay cup that tastes of dark and starch,
and buy eggs singly, since the price of one is marked on its shell.
Each noise, each name, is enchanted and necessary.
I drift in bed, astonished by faintness and nausea and chills.
I would never have felt this way–is this the way it feels?
Thousands of black beans shine near sweet potato candy.

One starves for this journey, I think, a simple sensing of what is
not thou, not it, but you–a visit behind the eyes
where the map bulges into belief, relief, presents sea,
mountains, macadam, presents a strange and willful country.

Softer than a moan

John Berryman: The Song of the Tortured Girl

After a little I could not have told –
But no one asked me this – why I was there.
I asked. The ceiling of that place was high
And there were sudden noises, which I made.
I must have stayed there a long time today:
My cup of soup was gone when they brought me back.

Often ‘Nothing worse now can come to us’
I thought, the winter the young men stayed away,
My uncle died, and mother broke her crutch.
And then the strange room where the brightest light
Does not shine on the strange men: shines on me.
I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch.

Through leafless branches the sweet wind blows
Making a mild sound, softer than a moan;
High in a pass once where we put our tent,
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.
– I no longer remember what they want. –
Minutes I lie awake to hear my joy.

An early poem, from John Berryman’s first collection The Dispossessed (1948), which you can now find in the Collected Poems 1937-1971. Even if you already own one of the many editions of the Dream Songs, this volume, edited by Charles Thornbury, is an indispensable volume, if you’ve got any interest in modern American poetry. “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”, one of the best American poems of the 20th century alone is worth the price of admission. Buy it. Read it.

The custom that imprisons.

Robert Lowell: Five Hour Political Rally

A design of insects on the rug’s red acre,
one to each ten feet like the rich in graves;
the belly is like a big watermelon seed,
each head an empty pretzel, less head than mouth,
the wings are emblems, black as the ironwork
for a Goya balcony, lure and bar to love –
the darkeyed and protected Spanish girls
exhibited by the custom that imprisons.
Insects and statesmen grapple on the carpet;
all excel, as if each were the candidate;
all original or at least in person;
twenty first ballerinas are in the act.
Like insects they almost live on breath alone:
If you swallow me, I’ll swallow you.

This is from the odd and astonishing sequence of sonnets that make up Lowell’s History.

let none live here but those who will die here

Ko Un: New Year’s Day

This is the loneliest spot in the country on New Year’s Day.
I’ve spent the whole long winter here,
devoid of everything.
It’s been a week already since the boats stopped running.
Chuja Island goes on getting smaller
until sad eyes cannot see it.

Don’t overturn the glass from which you drank.
Once you’re past thirty,
you can make friends with an empty glass.

Tell me, wind: what can I hope for on New Year’s Day on this remote island?
After some tedious, very tedious reading
by the light of a small oil lamp,
I mutter a single drunken line
but vowels alone cannot make it audible
as far as that widower’s tomb out there.

So, wind: let none live here but those who will die here.
Endurance is the greatest journey of all.
Even if the boats are completely overwhelmed by the gale,
I’m going to set out, though I’ve got no overcoat.

Tell me again, wind: what more can I hope for on New Year’s Day?
From the guts of a boarding house, coughs flee
one after another, that’s all I can hear…
One day, they’ll return, transformed into the local dialect.
Ah, New Year’s greetings, buried alive by Cheju Island’s wild whirlwinds.

From Songs of Tomorrow, Green Integer’s collection of Ko Un’s dazzling poetry, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach. Green Integer, whose motto is “Pataphysics and Pedantry”, is an amazing publisher, who keeps providing a stage and a voice to poetry in translation. Without them, I would have had no chance of finding this extraordinary poet. Read Ko Un. He’s worth every bit of your attention.

gnawed like bears

Amy Clampitt: Thermopylae

Where the bay flashed, and an unrecorded number
of the Persian troops, whip-flicked into the spear-
clogged hourglass of the pass, were impaled and fell
screaming from the precipice to drown, the mirror

clogs: geography too gathers dust, though busloads
of us (sandaled Germans mostly), hankering for
an attar or a foothold, a principle that still
applies, a cruse of oil, a watershed no rain erodes,

find small inkling of what was staved off here,
or saved. A calcined stillness, beehives, oleanders,
polluted air, the hung crags livid; on the little hill
(beneath, the bay flashed as men fell and went under

screaming) where a stone lion once stood in honor
of that grade-school byword of a troop commander
Leonidas, we ponder a funneled.down inscription: Tell
them for whom we came to kill and were killed, stranger,

how brute beauty, valor, act, air, pride, plume here
buckling, guttered: closed in from behind, our spears
smashed, as, the last defenders of the pass, we fell,
we charged like tusked brutes and gnawed like bears.

One of my very, very favorite American poets. Her collected poems are wondrous. Please, go and get yourself a copy. I cannot imagine a reader of poetry who would not be enraptured by the beaty and craft of Clampitt’s work.

It is marvellous to wake up together

Elizabeth Bishop: “It is marvelous to wake up together…”

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
to feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightning struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one’s back
All things might change equally easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

late 1930s-early 1940s

This uncollected poem cannot be found in Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems. To find it you’d have to pick up the Quinn-edited Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box, towards which I have some reservations (as indicated here). OR you can go directly to the authoritative Bishop volume, the recently published Library of America edition, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz. It contains her prose as well, and a smattering of letters. Bishop’s prose is an integral part of her work and if you consider reading more of Bishop’s, I highly, strongly recommed the LoA edition, which you can buy here.

I want to be good to myself

Tonight I found this poem by a young poet in this 2008 New Yorker issue. It touched and moved me immensely, though for reasons that I suspect to be private, but it’s also good poetry, in many ways, though not entirely my cuppa. In this review, John Stoehr traces Dickman’s literary lineage back to Kenneth Koch, who I also have reservations about. This New Yorker profile is about both Matthew Dickman and his twin brother Michael, who is also a poet (and sounds far more interesting). Both are certainly worth checking out. Now, for the poem:

Matthew Dickman: Troubles

Marilyn Monroe took all her sleeping pills
to bed when she was thirty-six, and Marlon Brando’s daughter
hung in the Tahitian bedroom
of her mother’s house,
while Stanley Adams shot himself in the head. Sometimes
you can look at the clouds or the trees
and they look nothing like clouds or trees or the sky or the ground.
The performance artist Kathy Change
set herself on fire while Bing Crosby’s sons shot themselves
out of the music industry forever.
I sometimes wonder about the inner lives of polar bears. The French
philosopher Gilles Deleuze jumped
from an apartment window into the world
and then out of it. Peg Entwistle, an actress with no lead roles, leaped from the “H” in the HOLLYWOOD sign
when everything looked black and white
and David O. Selznick was king, circa 1932. Ernest Hemingway
put a shotgun to his head in Ketchum, Idaho
while his granddaughter, a model and actress, climbed the family tree
and overdosed on phenobarbital. My brother opened thirteen fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body
until it wasn’t his body anymore. I like
the way geese sound above the river. I like
the little soaps you find in hotel bathrooms because they’re beautiful.
Sarah Kane hanged herself, Harold Pinter
brought her roses when she was still alive,
and Louis Lingg, the German anarchist, lit a cap of dynamite
in his own mouth
though it took six hours for him
to die, 1887. Ludwig II of Bavaria drowned
and so did Hart Crane, John Berryman, and Virginia Woolf. If you are
traveling, you should always bring a book to read, especially
on a train. Andrew Martinez the nude activist, died
in prison, naked, a bag
around his head, while in 1815 the Polish aristocrat and writer
Jan Potocki shot himself with a silver bullet.
Sara Teasdale swallowed a bottle of blues
after drawing a hot bath,
in which dozens of Roman senators opened their veins beneath the water.
Larry Walters became famous
for flying in a sears patio chair and forty-five helium-filled weather balloons. He reached an altitude of 16,000 feet
and then he landed. He was a man who flew.
He shot himself in the heart. In the morning I get out of bed, I brush
my teeth, I wash my face, I get dressed in the clothes I like best.
I want to be good to myself.

Beauty bleak and far from ours

Richard Wilbur: Elsewhere

The delectable names of harsh places:
Cilicia Aspera, Estremadura.
In that smooth wave of cello-sound, Mojave,
We hear no ill of brittle parch and glare.

So late October’s pasture-fringe,
With aster-blur and ferns of toasted gold,
Invites to barrens where the crop to come
Is stone prized upward by the deepening freeze.

Speechless and cold the stars arise
On the small garden where we have dominion.
Yet in three tongues we speak of Taurus’ name
And of Aldebaran and the Hyades,

Recalling what at best we know,
That there is beauty bleak and far from ours,
Great reaches where the Lord’s delighting mind,
Though not inhuman, ponders other things.

Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems 1943-2004 is one of the very best books of poetry published in the last decade. Wilbur is a dazzling, controlled, dignified poet. The poem above was first published in Mayflies (2000). You can also hear the poet read it, if you click here.

Right, Right

Eleanor Ross Taylor: Yes?

The dollar mark said
my shoe was long enough
and wide enough and happy
enough which was enough for
me. But it was not enough
for my foot. What did he care
for a happy shoe?
I gave him my left ear.
The right one I kept for
myself and in it I heard

right, right

I’m very excited about discovering this poet. After finding her on the shortlist of some prize I checked her out and loved what I found. I ordered her book tonite, in the meantime, found the above poem in the Blackbird Archives where you can also find this excellent essay on the poet,

Summer is late, my heart

Stanley Kunitz: As Flowers Are

As flowers have wars that the philosophic eye
Stoops to behold, broils of the golden age
When honey dropped from the trees, and the bees perform
Their educated dance, we find our skins
In which to parable the act of love,
Contending, as at first, that the world might move.

Perfection caught in amber of our days
Jewels the life; on the offended thread
We hang the instants of the souls’ surprise
When it is ravished by the absolute god,
Who comes in any shape that he may choose
But the expected one: as flowers tell lies.

Your lazy tongue that makes me think of bells
And soft Mediterranean afternoons
(As flowers shoot stars) rings out its heaven-changes
Till souls and gods pick clover in your lines
And what I carry through the giant grass
Mocks the profession of the comic ants.

Summer is late, my heart: the dusty fiddler
Hunches under the stone; these pummelings
Of scent are more than masquerade; I have heard
A song repeat, repeat, till my breath had failed.
As flowers have flowers, at the season’s height,
A single color oversweeps the field.

Another one of the best post WWII American poets. His lamentably slim (274 pp) Collected Poems (buy em here) should be read by everyone interested in the craft and magic of good poetry.