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Stacey, this is a beautiful sequence. It's very redolent of our dear city. And lovely Union Square. The market! Nice work. Best, John
I was in 10th grade when I read “A Refusal to Mourn,” by Dylan Thomas. Perhaps like many boys my age, I was stymied by the opening sentence. It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to be a guest-blogger for Ideasmyth, a creative consultancy where Victoria Rowan presides as the fabulous Creatrix-in-Chief. It was in one of my entries for the Ideasmyth blog that I put down some preliminary thoughts on how this Dylan Thomas poem, and that sentence, worked. I then developed those ideas into a short paper I delivered earlier this month at the West Chester Poetry Conference, in a critical seminar on Dylan Thomas led by the excellent and estimable poet R. S. Gwynn, or Sam to those who know him (you can visit his Facebook page here). My blog entry for today includes a few excerpts from that paper. But please bear with me. I love grammar. “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” is Dylan Thomas’s monument to an anonymous girl who perished in the firebombing of London during WWII. If you accept the poem’s denotational gloss, Thomas says that he will never cry or pontificate over the death of this girl. Such is his “mighty vaunt,” as Seamus Heaney called it, but as mighty as it may be, the music of the language is in counterpoint to the title and is clearly the orchestration of a monumental sadness. The sorrow is in the syntax. It is the tortured, hyper-dramatic utterance of a poet keening operatically. I’d like to look at how the orchestration works. The poem is divided into four six-line stanzas, each rhyming ABCABC. Working across these four stanzas are four grammatical sentences, the first of which may be the strangest, most tortured sentence in twentieth-century poetry: Never until the mankind making Bird beast and flower Fathering and all humbling darkness Tells with silence the last light breaking And the still hour Is come of the sea tumbling in harness And I must enter again the round Zion of the water bead And the synagogue of the ear of corn Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound Or sow my salt seed In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn The majesty and burning of the child's death. The round Zion of the water bead! (My friends and I in 10th grade went around repeating this phrase, for no other reason than its odd, emotional conviction.) In basic terms, the sentence says that he will never until the apocalyptic end of time mourn the girl’s death. On the page, however, it’s not that simple. The sentence is 83 words long and top-heavy with a massive adverbial clause (in the excerpt below, it is set off in brackets). The adverbial clause contains 52 words, including a 10-word adjectival modifier nested inside. The grammatical subject of the sentence, “I” occurs in line 10 (highlighted in yellow below),... Continue reading
Posted Jun 20, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Earlier this year I was put to thinking about lines of poetry that meant a lot to me. This began when the poet Gerry Cambridge, who edits a fine, international literary journal in Scotland called The Dark Horse, asked me and several other poets to write brief essays on particular lines that had shaped us. So I wrote a short piece, published now in the current issue of The Dark Horse, about this line from Thomas Wyatt: Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind The line had an effect upon me during my adolescence when I was just starting to see how language could light you up and open the doors of the heart and mind. Of course, all poetry seeks to hold the wind, a thought that imparts beauty to this line. So I wrote my appreciation for The Dark Horse. But in doing so I realized it was impossible to zero in on just one line of poetry. I decided, therefore, to go back and select more lines from other poems that have, in one way or another, put me on the path. … Mark here below How tame these ashes are, how free from lust, That thou mayst fit thy self against thy fall. (George Herbert) So I would have had him leave, So I would have had her stand and grieve, So he would have left As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised, As the mind deserts the body it has used. I should find Some way incomparably light and deft, Some way we both should understand, Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand. (T.S. Eliot) One luminary clock against the sky Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. I have been one acquainted with the night. (Robert Frost) The years to come seemed waste of breath, A waste of breath the years behind In balance with this life, this death. (W. B. Yeats) Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl Under headlands in their windy dwelling Because the Adversary put too easy questions On lonely roads. (W.H. Auden) He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward, in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake. (Elizabeth Bishop) It pleases me to stand in silence here. (Philip Larkin) Out there in Jutland In the old man-killing parishes I will feel lost, Unhappy and at home. (Seamus Heaney) There are more, but that's for another time. Best, John Continue reading
Posted Jun 19, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Well-constructed plain lines have always held a fascination for me. From George Herbert to Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, it’s always thrilling to see depth and beauty in what, on the surface, looks plain and simple, be it in a poem or in lines spoken in a play. To write lines like that requires care and attention to the smallest detail, so that every syllable, every letter, is functioning as part of the whole. Two lines that have always epitomized this for me come from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. They occur in Act V, Scene I (lines 117-118). This is where Brutus, on the plains of Philippi, bids farewell to Cassius, his co-conspirator. They are both doomed: If we do meet again, why, we shall smile; If not, why then, this parting was well made. These two unadorned lines, in modulated iambic pentameter, contain 18 words, with 9 words in each line. Symmetry! All the words are one syllable, except for “again” and “parting.” Each line is a grammatically complete sentence, each is cast as a conjecture, and each begins with the word “if.” When we drill down further, it gets even more interesting. There is the middle rhyme – and this isn’t even a poem! – of “again” with “then,” which holds the lines together, reinforced by the sonic repetition of “why” in each line. Then there is a rich network of consonantal links, mainly “M”s and “W”s. There are three Ms and six Ws: If we do Meet again, why, we shall sMile; If not, why then, this parting was well Made. The understatement of these lines, as both men say goodbye, is profoundly moving. It suggests the noble equanimity of Brutus, even during this fateful moment as each Roman goes off to meet his death. It implies a balance and a stoical restraint, both linguistic and moral, that reflect Brutus’s willingness to follow through on the logical extension of his ideas about life, honor and Rome. It’s the dramatic context, of course, that gives greater power to the lines and creates the option for understatement, but I always marvel over how tightly these two lines are put together and how they work their magic with everyday material. I wanted to find a video clip of this particular scene on Youtube, so I turned to my friend, the poet David Yezzi, who is also a Shakespeare aficionado. (His longer poem based on Macbeth appears in his latest book, Birds of the Air.) We came up with two versions of the scene. Have a look at this segment from the 1950’s film adaptation directed by David Bradley, with Brutus played by Bradley himself and Cassius played by Grosvenor Glenn. It’s around the 2:56 mark in this clip. Apparently, none of the actors got paid for making this film, except for a young Charlton Heston, who played Mark Antony. Here's another version of the scene. The passage starts at 13:48 or so. I was looking for the version directed by Joseph... Continue reading
Posted Jun 18, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
It cost 95 cents at the Gotham Book Mart in New York City in the summer of 1980. It was a second-hand copy of The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, edited by Waldo Frank and published by Doubleday Anchor Books in 1958. On the cover was a rough drawing of black suspension cables and one tower of the Brooklyn Bridge (in lurid magenta and black), with a flock of soot-black birds flying above the cables. On the right side was the dusty orange brick wall of a tenement. The cover art was by Antonio Frasconi, the typography by Edward Gorey. The book was already used when I put down my 95 cents. Now, so many years later, I see it on my bookshelf wedged between John Berryman and Robert Lowell, and it gives me peace of mind to know it’s there, though I’m afraid to touch it for fear it might disintegrate in my hands. I keep it in honor of the effect it had on my life. Back then, when I was twenty, I did not realize that Hart Crane had in many ways failed as a poet. What I did know was that I had not read a passage as rhetorically dense and passionate as this since Donne or Shakespeare: Bequeath us to no earthly shore until Is answered in the vortex of our grave The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise. (from Voyages, Part II) This didn’t quite make sense to me, but the emotional power of the utterance was palpable, and I understood, perhaps without fully understanding, that this had something to do with a supra-human gaze toward the transcendent. I also sensed that this imperative was driven by a kind of ecstatic love. Sure, many of the poems in the book didn’t make sense in a conventional way, but the integrity of the emotion came through clearly: Down Wall from girder into street noon leaks, A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene; All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn … Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still. (from Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge) The majesty of Crane’s dynamic cityscape was indisputable. The “cloud-flown derricks” turning through the afternoon above a bustling city brought to mind Vergil’s cranes over the dysfunctional Carthage, in the Aeneid. And then the epic line, “Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.” I knew it took ambition to write a line like that. And it took vision. That was what I wanted, something big and pure. Striking, too, was the bitter simplicity—and prescience—of this line: The bottom of the sea is cruel. (from Voyages, Part I) These lines made me want to be a poet. I had to get to the source of those lines, the source of that power, and try to tap into it and draw up language like that from the chthonic depths or pull it down from the sky. This desire seemed to chart a course, clear if wholly impractical. The fact that someone out there (Hart Crane) had taken... Continue reading
Posted Jun 17, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Many thanks to David Lehman and Stacey Harwood for inviting me back as a guest-blogger this week. I recall reading somewhere – maybe someone can help me with this – that ancient druidic rites, or perhaps they were Welsh bardic initiation rituals, included the following. You had to lie in a trough of water on a cold night, wholly submerged and breathing only through a straw, and compose in your head a long poem in a complicated meter. The next morning, you had to emerge from the water and recite your poem. How many could graduate from that school? I earned my MFA in the early 1990s from a reputable institution. I am, therefore, a Master of Fine Arts. Anyone who has earned the degree should take careful note of this particular passage from The White Goddess, by Robert Graves. In my tattered edition, the passage appears on page 457: “Who can make any claim to be a chief poet and wear the embroidered mantle of office, which the ancients called the tugen? Who can even claim to be an ollave? The ollave in ancient Ireland had to be master of one hundred and fifty Oghams, or verbal ciphers, which allowed him to converse with his fellow-poets over the heads of the unlearned bystanders; to be able to repeat at a moment’s notice any one of three hundred and fifty long traditional histories and romances, together with the incidental poems they contained, with appropriate harp accompaniment; to have memorized an immense number of other poems of different sorts; to be learned in philosophy; to be a doctor of civil law; to understand the history of modern, middle and ancient Irish with the derivations and changes of meaning of every word; to be skilled in music, augury, divination, medicine, mathematics, geography, universal history, astronomy, rhetoric and foreign languages; and to be able to extemporize poetry in fifty or more complicated meters. That anyone at all should have been able to qualify as an ollave is surprising…” Best of all is that “appropriate harp accompaniment”! He made no mention of poetry workshops or lying in troughs of water all night. Cheers, John Continue reading
Posted Jun 16, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
As some of you may already know, a massive project has been undertaken called The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project. The goal is to create, accretively over time, the largest database of women poets in the world. We know it took thousands of workers almost 200 years to build the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The Mezzo Cammin timeline is the same idea. Think Sappho to Sapphire. It will be an intellectual edifice built by many hundreds of contributors. A panel was convened again at the West Chester Poetry Conference this June to discuss the progress of the Mezzo Cammin timeline. The project was launched in March 2010 by the poet Kim Bridgford, who is also a professor and director of the West Chester conference. Here’s how it works. Each entry on the timeline includes a photo or drawing, a data sidebar and an essay written specifically for the project by accomplished women poets and scholars. Whenever available, poems or links to poems by the author are included. The timeline project was originally sponsored by Mezzo Cammin, the online journal of formalist poetry by women, also spearheaded by Kim Bridgford. Many essays have been generated for the timeline through seminars held from 2009 through 2013 at the West Chester conference. There are now 46 essays up on the site, with 26 more in the works. The database includes canonical poets such as Sylvia Plath but also lesser-known figures such as Enheduanna (arguably the first recorded poet in history) and Christine de Pizan. Many of the essays, especially those on non-English speaking poets of the past, require original research and translation. The importance of the Mezzo Cammin timeline was illustrated recently by a discussion on the poetry board Eratosphere, prompted by Wendy Sloan's essay on Gaspara Stampa. Women poets and scholars interested in writing an essay for the database should contact the essay coordinator, the poet Anna M. Evans ([email protected]), with credentials and a suggested poet. This is at the Washington launch of the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project in 2010. The second photo is of Marilyn Nelson and Sonia Sanchez participating in the women poets roll call. Then there’s the poet George Green. At the West Chester Poetry Conference this June, George read from his new book, Lord Byron’s Foot. His collection aptly won the 2012 New CriterionPoetry Prize. George blends technical skill with pop-culture literacy, the vinegar of satire, literary literacy, the chipotle sauce of unblinkered wit, and sphincter-loosening humor. The poet and regular BAPster David Yezzi posted an entry here in May suggesting that George Green had composed, perhaps, the funniest poem ever written, “Bangladesh.” David’s post was called “The Greening of Bohemia.” I recommend it, and I agree with David to a point, but I would propose that “Bangladesh” is the second most comical poem ever written. The funniest poem ever written in the Age of Man is “Lord Byron’s Foot.” When George read this poem to a packed house at West Chester, I... Continue reading
Posted Jul 12, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Dear David, Thanks for your message, and thanks for this wonderful opportunity to blog for Best American Poetry. I've had a blast this week, and I've been getting a lot of readers and a lot of good feedback. I love "the graves of academe"! If you liked my entry on Poets & Jobs, I'm very honored. It's a subject close to my heart, given that I've pursued poetry assiduously but worked most of my life outside the walls of the college world, while so many of my poet friends have worked inside. Sometimes, you start to develop a complex! So models like Stevens have always been very helpful to me, very reassuring. There are so many other poets with so-called "real jobs" I could have included. Maybe I need to expand this into a bigger essay. I understand why you cherish Creeley's inscription, "To David Lehman, who works for a living"! You've done so many things in your professional writing life, and succeeded in so many ways outside of academia, that I believe you must share my views on this. In my post today, about small animals mistakenly killed by power mowers (see Larkin and Wilbur), I wanted to include my own poem written specifically to address this macabre theme. It's called "Killing Things." But it's due to come out later this year in American Arts Quarterly, so I had to avoid "pre-publishing" it. Perhaps I can send you a copy! Here is a link to my website: With many thanks to you and Stacey, John 917-282-2862 [email protected]
We all make mistakes. This can include killing baby rabbits. For those attuned to this sad sort of thing, there is a macabre sub-genre of contemporary poetry about mistakenly killing small creatures with power mowers. Philip Larkin famously killed a hedgehog while cutting the grass (“The Mower”), and Richard Wilbur clipped off the leg of an unlucky toad (“The Death of a Toad”). In Robert Frost’s poem “The Exposed Nest,” a father and daughter contemplate a cluster of baby birds who narrowly escaped—who knows how—the cutting blade of a mower that was pulled over their hidden nest in a field. In a less-well-known poem by James Wright called “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway,” the speaker observes how speeding cars obliterate the frogs as they try to reach “the green stalk of the field / On the other side of the road.” Some poems are variations on this theme. Richard Eberhardt, for instance, in “The Groundhog,” considers the decaying body of a groundhog in a field. Granted he didn't kill it himself, but he ruminates existentially over the bloated corpse. Then we have William Stafford’s anthology piece, “Travelling Through the Dark.” A driver comes upon the body of a deer hit by a car. It’s by the side of the road at a tricky turn above a canyon. The speaker of the poem stops his own car, gets out, and sees it was a pregnant doe. Realizing the danger to other drivers, he roles the warm, gravid body down a ravine into the river below. We mustn’t forget “Snake,” by D. H. Lawrence. The violence here is no accident, though the speaker in this case doesn’t kill the snake. He hurls a log at it, sending it panic-stricken into its dark hole. To his credit, the speaker immediately regrets what he did and realizes that he missed his “chance with one of the lords of life.” Why do we write these poems? It’s a symptom, I think, of modernity and our guilt over pulling ever further away in our mechanized lives from the natural world. I’m riveted by these poems, particularly Larkin’s and Wilbur’s, because I had the misfortune in my early twenties of mistakenly going over a baby rabbit with a massive power mower in a horse pasture. I still think about it, and it fills me with dread. The worst thing was, when I found the rabbit, it wasn’t dead yet. I’ve written a poem about this called “Killing Things.” It’s due to come out later this year in American Arts Quarterly, thanks to the poetry editor there, the sculptor and poet Meredith Bergmann. (To respect editorial policy, I won’t include the poem here.) I’d like to end with a supposition. It seems clear to me that Larkin and Wilbur, with their power mowers, are reaching back to a very ancient image from the Latin poets: the wild flower at the edge of a meadow inadvertently "touched" by the plow. The image comes from Catullus XI (To Furius... Continue reading
Posted Jul 10, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
The shenanigans of Eros aren’t unrelated to the comings and goings of the Muse. We know in a thousand different ways the upending power of desire, but the link between desire and inspiration is not always self-evident. The poet Robert Graves wrote a long treatise on the Muse, called The White Goddess. It’s among the strangest books ever written. In one of his more straightforward passages, Graves writes that, “poetry is rooted in love, and love in desire, and desire in the hope of continued existence.” This is a kind of poet-friendly, procreative Platonism. Graves equates poetry with our wish not to die, and in the middle of his equation are desire and love, but desire comes first. Plato would probably have agreed with Graves here. Physical beauty arouses our desire because of the excellence inherent in it. (Sexual orientation in this regard is irrelevant.) Our desire to get close to carnal excellence puts us on a path, so Plato’s theory goes, toward higher forms of excellence—ethical, intellectual, spiritual. When confronted with uncommon beauty, a male asks, how good a man must I be to be worthy of this excellence? What must I do, how hard must I work, what must I believe in, how must I conduct my life? But it all begins in the beer hall of the physical. Plato, the philosopher, moves upward from Eros toward the sublime. Graves, the poet, lingers with Eros back on the footpaths of the earth, among the trees and birds. But Eros, in both cases, is the starting point. How do we talk about Eros? And how do we talk about the actions of the Muse? The words and phrases that describe the erotic happen to be the same that apply to poetic inspiration: pleasure, a deep satisfaction, mystery, unknowing, a chance encounter, the unpredictable, a letting go, a giving over, a giving into, a reception, a forgetting of the self, and the getting of a gift. The points of correspondence, I hope, are clear. When the Muse enters your room, you obey. You are filled with an uncanny sense of abundance. You give in and over, abandoning the internal regulators. If things go well, you’re left with the feeling of having been touched inside and inevitably by… an angel or a succubus! For a poet, the result is the same. The problem, though, is that the Muse is transitory. Poets want her to stay, but she doesn’t. It’s in her nature to come and to go. When she comes, you are grateful, and you work as best you can to satisfy her. When she leaves, you try to call her back. You try through futile stratagems to persuade her to return. But gifts and pleadings mean nothing to the Muse. When she wants to come back, if she does, she will. It’s the poet’s task to be alert, trained, and ready. To talk about the Muse is to talk about where poems come from, and how. They come to us... Continue reading
Posted Jul 10, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Yesterday, I wrote about the question of poetry and employment. Today’s posting is closely related. If you’re a poet, what do you do with yourself? Consider poor Francis Thompson, an English poet from the late 1800s who was not wealthy but who nevertheless, to his own grave disadvantage, sought no means of work at all. Wikipedia refers to him charitably as an ascetic. The voice below is neither Thompson’s, nor mine, but Philip Larkin's. The quoted text is from Larkin’s essay on Thompson, called “Hounded” (from Required Writing, with a foreword by David Lehman!). Because my sense of humor is rather dark, these passages always have me doubled-over. Here’s Larkin (the book he’s referring to is J. C. Reid’s Francis Thompson: Man and Poet, London: Routledge, 1959): “This book is fascinating because Thompson is fascinating, with all the fascination of character produced to excess. Born in Ashton-under-Lyne in 1859, the son of a Catholic-convert doctor, he had a happy childhood—indeed, too happy: after the nursery fantasies of dolls and his toy theatre, adult life was an anticlimax. An attempt to enter the priesthood was foiled by the percipient Fathers at St. Cuthbert’s, Ushaw, and he was sent instead to study medicine at Owens College. Daily he went by train to Manchester, to please his father, but once there he spent his time wandering about, reading and sleeping in Manchester Public Library, and watching cricket, in this way pleasing, or at least not displeasing, himself. Every so often he failed an examination. Incredibly, he kept this up for six years, and would no doubt have been content to spend the rest of his life travelling backwards and forwards on this misunderstanding if his father had not lost patience, and demanded at last that his son go to work. It was too late. Thompson had already found the answer to growing up: laudanum. “Sooner than work, he quitted Ashton for London. Whether this sole decisive action of his life was simply an evasion, or whether it was in its pitiful, maimed way a gesture of independence, its consequences were terrible. Between 1885 and 1888 Thompson lived as miserably as any English poet before or after. Begging, selling papers or matches, running errands for a kind of bookmaker, spending what money he had on laudanum while he ate vegetable refuse in Covent Garden and slept on the Embankment, it is unbelievable that any many of sensibility could have voluntarily endured it—voluntarily, because his father sent him an allowance of seven shillings a week to a reading room in the Strand. But to collect it would have required conscious exercise of the will, a recognition of reality, a degree of self-discipline. Thompson preferred to starve. “[He] just wanted to escape crushing responsibilities like getting up in the morning. Though there had been some talk of a literary career at home, he wrote nothing—certainly no poetry—and it was not until a tentative and long-disregarded contribution to Merry England had aroused the curiosity and compassion of... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
All jobs seem real to the people who have them, but poets like to make distinctions. They refer typically to “real” jobs when talking about employment outside of academia (illogical though that may be). I’m a poet, and I’ve been told that I have a real job. I work as a senior financial editor at a Brazilian investment bank. Despite an urge early on to enter the teaching profession, for which I had some talent, I went down another road. I had to support my family in Manhattan. By the year 2000, my black beret and cape were gone, but the calling was still with me, so there was nothing for it but to change my way of thinking about the literary life. Over the years, through friendships with many poets and writers, I’d come to see that the only thing that mattered in a so-called literary life was generating literature, and in this case, writing poems. No surprise, then, that I’ve been fiercely interested in major poets who lived “unliterary” lives. We all know the usual suspects. Wallace Stevens was trained as a lawyer and spent most of his working life as an executive for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. The guy won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955, and he was offered a position at Harvard, but he turned it down. He chose to stay at his job. He liked being a vice president. He was often seen walking along the leafy suburban streets of Hartford in a suit, mumbling to himself. We know what he was doing. In 1917, when he was 29, T. S. Eliot signed on with Lloyd's Bank in London as a clerk in the Colonial and Foreign department. He would stay for eight years. The writer Lisa Levy, in her article called “A Peaceful, but Very Interesting Pursuit” (The Rumpus, January 31, 2012), notes that Eliot thought himself very fortunate to have found this job, and she quotes from a letter he wrote to his mother in 1917: “I am now earning £2 10s a week for sitting in an office from 9:15 to 5 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in the office… Perhaps it will surprise you to hear that I enjoy the work. It is not nearly so fatiguing as schoolteaching, and is more interesting. I have a desk and a filing cabinet in a small room with another man. The filing cabinet is my province, for it contains balance sheets of all the foreign banks with which Lloyd’s does business. These balances I file and tabulate in such a way as to show the progress or decline of every bank from year to year.” It’s both riveting and appalling to hear Eliot speak with such affection about his filing cabinet. Yet in the midst of such a life he conceived The Waste Land, which was published in 1922. Eliot didn’t leave the bank until 1925, when he went to join the publishing house Faber and Gwyer (later... Continue reading
Posted Jul 8, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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