This is The Best American Poetry's Typepad Profile.
Join Typepad and start following The Best American Poetry's activity
Join Now!
Already a member? Sign In
The Best American Poetry
Welcome to The Best American Poetry blog. We launched this blog in January, 2008, to create a place where we and friends can exchange, discuss, and argue about poems and poetry. We soon discovered that it would be even more fun to post about anything that fuels our passions, be it movies or sex or baseball or ballet or cocktails or finance or music, because these are, after all, the same subjects that generate poems. Then we flung the doors open and invited others to join in. And we decided that contributors to the blog need not be poets as long as they share a love of good writing and poetry. The only things we ask our regular and guest bloggers to avoid are personal attacks. You'll find enough of that stuff elsewhere. We celebrate freedom of expression. The opinionS of our contributors are their own and not necessarily those of the blog's editorial team or of other contributors. We welcome comments as long as they keep within the bounds of civil discourse. Our roster of correspondents is always changing. We are large! We contain multitudes! Please visit often.Our roster of correspondents is always changing. We are large! We contain multitudes! Please visit often.
Interests: music, food, finance, cocktails, movies, baseball, sex, poetry, mad men.
Recent Activity
Image
Our great national poet’s concerns during the Civil War apply with striking relevance in our own moment of war and dividedness. Whitman’s humane example and his central trope—the leaves of grass as sign of democracy and renewal—rebuke directly the White Nationalists who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Blood and Soil.” For Whitman, American blood in American soil was not a tribal claim, and for him “the land entire” was the most fitting memorial to the war dead, “South or North, ours all”: ". . . [T]he land entire [is] saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw . . .." In War Memoranda, forthcoming in May in time for the bicentennial celebration of Whitman’s birth, Binh Danh’s photographs of Civil War memorial sites, using the nineteenth-century cyanotype process, evoke at once the past and present. And Robert Schultz’s chlorophyll prints offer portraits of Whitman and Civil War soldiers embodied in the flesh of leaves, physically enacting the central trope of Leaves of Grass—especially when the leaf used has been plucked from a “witness tree” known to have stood on a battlefield during the war. This book of art, poetry, and comment includes a generous selection of Whitman’s poetry and prose, 51 photographs, with essays by poets David Lehman and Stanley Plumly and by scholars Barbara Bair (Library of Congress) and Molly Rogers (author of Delia’s Tears). War Memoranda will be printed in a fine art edition limited to 500 copies and is available for pre-order through a Kickstarter campaign that will end April 2, 2019. Signed copies and original artworks by Danh and Schultz are available as premiums. For more information use the search link http://kck.st/2DvOExn or go to Kickstarter.com and search “War Memoranda.” -- sdl Continue reading
Posted yesterday at The Best American Poetry
Image
Everybody has a tragic story And I have one of those too. Would you like to hear it For a couple of hours on an Economy class flight to LA? Haha that’s what I thought! So let’s talk about money. Just by looking at people It’s hard to tell how much Money they have. Do you Think I have a lot of money? Haha that’s what I thought! So let’s talk about sex. Just by looking at people It’s hard to tell how much Sex they’re getting. Do you Think I’m getting a lot of sex? Haha that’s what I thought! So let’s talk about death. Just looking at people It’s hard to tell whether They’re dead or alive but If you wait long enough You’ll be right eventually The way a stopped clock Is right twice a day. Do you Think I’m alive, or am I dead? Haha that’s what I thought! But what about now? And what about now? Continue reading
Posted yesterday at The Best American Poetry
Image
In the current issue of New England Review, a highly respected journal, the editor prefaces the issue with a note in which she admits to being captivated by Les Miserables by Victor Hugo [left]. But to get into the book she says she had to overcome obstacles. The musical, for one thing. "Also it's from old white Europe -- what news could there be?" This sentence stopped me in my tracks. And I wanted to ask you, dear reader, how you would sum up your reaction: (1) Forget it. She was trying to be clever. (2) The three least appealing words in the language used to be "dead," "poets," and "society." Now they are "old," "white," and "Europe." (3) Forget it. Who, even among readers of lit journals, reads the editor's note? (4) Forget it. She is trying to prove that she's virtuous. (5) Forget it. It's the end of Western Civilization as we know it. (So what else is new?) Continue reading
Posted 2 days ago at The Best American Poetry
Image
From the Archives: January 29, 2013 On July 15, 2012, we reported in this space that Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under fame would play the part of Dr. Susan Wheeler in a two-night miniseries based on Robin Cook's 1977 novel, Coma. (Genevieve Bujold starred in the 1978 movie.) That show aired last fall. Now we learn that a character named Lydia Davis [pictured left in Paris 1973] plays a vital role in the pilot episode of Revenge, a successful series now in its second season, about a girl who grows up to avenge her wrongfully disgraced father. The Hamptons are the locale and pretty much everyone is evil, vain, treacherous, and bitchy except for the men who are evil, vain, clueless, and unfaithful as the day is long. There is a hierarchy in this evil queendom, and the queen bee here is Victoria Grayson (played by Madeleine Stowe). The avenger was once named Amanda Clarke; now she is Emily Thorne (played by Emily VanCamp). Stacey said, "imagine what Barbara Stanwyck would do with either of these parts." Joe pointed out that the show is basically "The Count of Monte Cristo" meets summer in the Hamptons. Lydia Davis is Victoria Grayson's best friend, as rich as she is blonde. It was Lydia Davis who gave a Van Gogh to her friend as a token of her esteem, But Lydia Davis [pictured right] is about to be excommunicated from the golden realm for having been caught fucking Victoria Grayson's husband! Who had a fake heart attack! Which was arranged by Emily Thorne! And you the viewer are left wondering about the exact relation between the character of Lydia Davis and the texts created by the author Lydia Davis even as you applaud this new fashion of naming the characters in TV series after contemporary poets. -- DL Continue reading
Posted 4 days ago at The Best American Poetry
Thanks for the great write-up. NLP players wrote some amazing poems.
Thank you, Heidi. Amazing how many notable persons resort to poetry to make sense of their lives or to "set the record straight." -- dl
The fish have "but small respect for Genius which / came clothed in common flesh." Well-said. dl
Terence: Which Behan play waas it that Frank O'Hara thinks of buying in "The Day Lady Died"? DL
Image
Every few years a scholar rediscovers Frank Yerby (1916-1991), the black bestselling author whose most famous novels, including The Foxes of Harrow (1946), The Golden Hawk (1948), The Saracen Blade (1952), and Judas, My Brother (1968) have little or nothing to do with race protest. Yerby won’t fit the standard narrative for African American writers. His work is too melodramatic, too Gothic, too picturesque. Most attention to him is a matter of making him fit or theorizing why he doesn’t.[1] Then he slips into obscurity for another ten years. Yerby also tried his hand at poetry. As an undergraduate at Fisk University he published one of his first pieces, “The Fishes and the Poet’s Hands,” in The Fisk Herald in 1938. This curious poem might be read as a lament that a fascination with the Romantic and picturesque would be at odds with penning protest literature. The Fishes and the Poet’s Hands I They say that when they burned young Shelley's corpse (For he was drowned, you know, and washed ashore With hands and face quite gone—the fishes had, It seems, but small respect for Genius which Came clothed in common flesh) the noise his brains Made as they boiled and seethed within his skull Could well be heard five yards away. At least No one can hear mine as they boil; but then He could not feel his burn; and so I think He had the best of it at that. Don't you? II Now all the hungry broken men stand here Beside my bed like ghosts and cry: “Why don't You shout our wrong aloud? Why are you not Our voice, our sword? For you are of our blood: You’ve seen us beaten, lynched, degraded, starved; Men must be taught that other men are not Mere pawns in some gigantic game in which The winner takes the gold, the land, the work, The breath, the heart, and soul of him who loses!” I watch them standing there until my brain Begins to burn within my head again— (As Shelley's burned—poor, young dead Shelley whom The fishes ate) then I get up and write A very pretty sonnet, nicely rhymed About my latest love affair, how sad I am because some dear has thrown me for A total loss. (But Shelley had me there, All his affairs turned out quite well indeed; Harriet in the river drowned for love Of him; and Mary leaving Godwin’s house To follow where he led—quite well—indeed!) III You see this is ironical and light Because I am so sick, so hurt inside, I’m tired of pretty rhyming words when all The land where I was born is soaked in tears And blood, and black and utter hopelessness. Now I would make a new, strong, bitter song, And hurl it in the teeth of those I hate— I would stand tall and proud against their blows, Knowing I could not win, I would go down Grandly as an oak goes down, and leave An... Continue reading
Posted 5 days ago at The Best American Poetry
Agreed -- the moon is underrated. Thanks. dl
Image
This week we welcome Heidi Seaborn as our guest author. Heidi is the author the award-winning debut book of poetry Give a Girl Chaos {see what she can do} (C&R Press/Mastodon Books, March 2019), Poetry Editor for The Adroit Journal and a New York University MFA candidate. Since Heidi started writing in 2016, she’s won or been shortlisted for nearly two dozen awards including the International Rita Dove Award in Poetry and published in numerous journals and anthologies including The Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Penn Review and Nimrod, a chapbook and a political pamphlet. She graduated from Stanford University and is on the board of Tupelo Press. Find out more about Heidi at heidiseabornpoet.com. You can follow her on Twitter @heidiseaborn1 , Facebook and Instagram. Read her poem "What It's Like to Fall in Love" here. Welcome, Heidi. -- sdl Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. ---from The Dead by James Joyce And here's an adaptation, for John Huston's beautiful film of the same name: A note on craft, also from The Dead. Consider how seamlessly he conveys information about family history and relations in this one paragraph: Gabriel's eyes, irritated by the floor, which glittered with beeswax under the heavy chandelier, wandered to the wall above the piano. A picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet hung there and beside it was a picture of the two murdered princes in the Tower which Aunt Julia had worked in red, blue and brown wools when she was a girl. Probably in the school they had gone to as girls that kind of work had been taught for one year. His mother had worked for him as a birthday present a waistcoat of purple tabinet, with little foxes' heads upon it, lined with brown satin and having round mulberry buttons. It was strange that his mother had had no musical talent though Aunt Kate used to call her the brains carrier of the Morkan family. Both she and Julia had always seemed a little proud of their serious and matronly sister. Her photograph stood before the pierglass. She held an open book on her knees and was pointing out something in it to Constantine who, dressed in a man-o-war suit, lay at her feet. It was she who had chosen the name of her sons for she was very sensible of the dignity of family life. Thanks to her, Constantine was now senior curate in Balbrigan and, thanks to her, Gabriel himself had taken his degree in the Royal University. A shadow passed over his face as he remembered her sullen opposition to his marriage. Some slighting phrases she had used still rankled in his memory; she had once spoken of Gretta as being country cute and that was not true of Gretta at all. It was Gretta who had nursed her during all her last long illness in their house at Monkstown. -- sdl Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Image
Our correspondent in London reports on the mood over there now that Theresa May's plan for Brexit has suffered a second defeat in Parliament -- a defeat that has been characterized as "significant," "crushing," "major," and "catastrophic." Here's Leon's dispach. DL Dear David The Oxbridge elite can talk of little else than Brexit -- how to manage it. The country is more politically divided than ever I can remember it to be. If the vote to leave the EU was a harbinger of the Trump election, what in the States could mirror the chaos now prevailing here as the House of Commons rejects every proposal brought to it by PM May? Are people fed up with Theresa May [pictured left]? Hard to say. She inherited this mess from her predecessor, who called for a referendum on exiting the European Union, thought for sure the move would be defeated, was stunned when it wasn't, and promptly resigned. There is something very sympathetic about Ms May and how she has conducted herself, remained calm and carried on. She has shuttled back and forth between London and Brussels with proposals and modifications of proposals -- it's like H. Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy but his worked better. Of course what May has in her favour is that Labour is led by Corbyn, whose anti-Semitism is so blatant that some members of his own party have abandoned it. The wonder is that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the longtime leaders of Labour, tolerated Corbyn, but that may be explained by the fact that he was an obscure backbencher who posed no threat to them or to Labour. Poor Theresa lost her voice yesterday and there you had the perfect metaphor for her. No doubt she will continue her Sisyphean struggle to figure out how the UK can sever its European ties in a reasonable way. A "hard" Brexit with an abrupt cancellation of all existing compacts and trade agreements -- and with the probability of a "hard" border between Northern Ireland (which is part of Britain) and Ireland (which is part of the EU) -- would be unconscionable. But we could be heading that way. Dublin, Frankfurt, Paris, and New York have benefited from the uncertainty surrounding financial institutions centered in London. The blow to London's banking preeminence in Europe is real though probably not fatal. At high table at Balliol the other night one wit commented that he had heard there was "Brexit envy" in the United States. This was greeted with laughter, for I wager that there is absolutely no one anywhere who envies us this sad spectacle. But now, dear David, I am anxious to know how this whole debacle is getting discussed in America. -- Leon >>> <<< Dear Leon, I wish I could say that Americans are discussing Brexit options with great passion or with at least the sort of intense and amused curiosity that I recall in London, where I was, during the Anita Hill hearings. The general indifference to... Continue reading
Posted Mar 13, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Great post. "The Fake Answer" would make a good title for a book -- or at least a poem or prose poem. I finished "The Poetry Lesson" last night. Loved every minute Enjoy Britain if that's where you're going and report on the mood in that Brexit-begoggled . -- DL
Image
(in memory of Edward Tayler, pictured left) Of all the Elizabethans we studied in Ted Tayler’s fabled senior seminar at Columbia, Fulke Greville towered above the rest of the masters of witty conceits extravagantly spun out for maximum meaning and beauty of design and moral truth. Greville could write about despair with the best of them, with reports from “down in the depth of [his] iniquity." But the chances are he got his kicks, too, as I infer from the poem in Caelica which chronicles the history of a hard-on: “All my senses, like beacon’s flame.” This amazing and amusing poem treats the subject of manly arousal gone to waste. “There stand I with Arctic pole,” but the night is unconsummated because the lady has fallen asleep during the fellow’s poetic yawn seduction speech. The poem begins with "all" and ends with "lies," and the lesson not only opposes truth to action but also endorses what can be called a moral empiricism: "None can well behold with eyes But what underneath him lies.” Now there’s a closing couplet for you. -- Reminder: Memorial tribute for Edward W. Tayler is scheduled for 3 PM on Friday, March 15, 2019, at Low Memorial Library (rotunda) on the Columbia Univesity campus Continue reading
Posted Mar 11, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Image
Columbia professor George Stade died of peneumonia on February 26. He was eighty-five, a mainstay of the Columbia English department for nearly forty years, blessed with good looks and athletic ability in addition to brains. Here's a link to the Washington Post obit. George was a great guy, easy to talk to, who knew an awful lot about modern literature but never put on airs. He was also exactly right about the fate of English departments in the US. “There are those people who see literature in traditional ways, which includes historical circumstances, and there is a school that wants to see literature as a symptom of all the evils of society.” Beyond nostalgia and the memory of an excellent teacher, I have a special reason for remembering George with great fondness. It was he who suggested that I write my PhD dissertation on the prose poem in America and England. He made the suggestion in a casual conversation on the fourth floor of Hamilton Hall, and I grasped its rightness instinctively. I spent much of the next four years reading widely as the subject demanded --Baudelaire and Poe; Rimbaud, Max Jacob, Francis Ponge, and Henri Michaux; such antecedents of the prose poem as the King James Bible, Macpherson's Ossian, and Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell"; theories of prose and verse as propounded by Coleridge, Shelley, T. S. Eliot, Paul Valery, Owen Barfield, and Christopher Ricks; full-length books of prose poetry by William Carlos Williams and Geoffrey Hill. My dissertation had individual chapters on four writers -- Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, W. H. Auden ("The Orators," "Caliban to the Audience," and "Vespers"), and John Ashbery ("Three Poems"). And I began to translate Baudelaire's Spleen de Paris. All that was your doing, George, and I wish I could turn back the clock and spend an afternoon with you talking about this project when it was new. You'd have made me improve it. I see all its defects, but in my own defense I was teaching full-time for three of the four years when I wrote "The Marriage of Poetry and Prose." I should have dedicated it to you. -- David Lehman Continue reading
Posted Mar 11, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Thinking about what's difficult in poetry makes me want to talk about a book I've been reading with great pleasure, Susan Howe's SOULS OF THE LABADIE TRACT, which New Directions published in 2007. The contexts of these poems are complex ones, but Howe's book artfully establishes the grounds of her inquiry. She begins with two bits of prose, the first describing the Puritan preacher and writer Jonathan Edwards, and how he'd ride through the wild country of Western Massachusetts thinking through his essays and sermons, and scribbling on scraps of paper which he'd pin to his clothes, using their location as a mnemonic device. It's a beautiful figure of the poet, wearing words in the wilderness, clothing the body in fragments of text. Then Howe offers a riveting ars poetica, a description of her research time in the library at Yale, the crumbling books of American language, fragments of history. Such dislocated bits of speech float up even through her prose. "Often walking alone in the stacks,' she writes, "surrounded by the raw material paper afterlife, my spirits were shaken by the great ingathering of titles and languages. This may suggest vampirism because while I like to think I write for the dead, I also take my life as a poet from their lips, their vocalisms, their breath." The vocalisms and breath of the dead are indeed present in the short poems that follow, each a small rectangle of text in the center of the page composed of six to eight lines. There's a strange and exhilarating feeling of space between words and phrases, as if these fragments had sifted out of those library stacks, out of the gathered words and yellowed books our ancestors have become. Howe's especially interested in the Labadists, a group of 17th century utopians of whom almost nothing remains, seeking the faint echoes of their presence, and her tracing of a kind of ancestry leads her to the doorstep of none other than Wallace Stevens -- who also was interested in tracing his ancestry, and who seems one of the most potent of the souls that ghost Howe's own poetics. A group of poems that bear Stevens' address as a title have the odd sense of being whispered, half-overheard conversations with spirits of the past. And, as in Stevens' own poems, they try to worry out the nature of beauty. This poem might be spoken by Stevens in his study, or by Howe in her own study, or Howe looking into Wallace Stevens' window on Westerly Terrace in Hartford. Face to the window I had to know what ought to be accomplished by precedecessors in the same field of labor because beauty is what is What is said and what this it -- it in itself insistent is Those last three lines are such a ringing esthetic credo. Like all Howe's work, they ask for full engagement, inviting the reader work out the relations between these words and lines, relations which are not fully determined... Continue reading
Posted Mar 11, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
I've just gotten home from school (I'm a guest teacher at Cornell University in Ithaca this semester) which means I've walked a bike-path through the woods, still ice-coated from this weekend's storm. It's amazing. When the wind blows the trees crackle, with a sound that's a bit like hissing oil in a skillet and a bit like the sound that that the highest lick of seawater makes as the tide comes in and sinks into dry sand. I like this walk and it's a good time to sort through the conversation and events of the workshop I've just taught. Today we were looking at poems by Terrance Hayes from WIND IN A BOX. My workshop's centered on the poetic sequence, so we're interested in poems composed in groups, or longer poems in sections. I think my students were slightly frazzled by the daylight savings timeshift today, and I was feeling sort of spun-around myself, because right before class I'd been reading an essay by Charles Harper Webb in the current issue of THE WRITERS CHRONICLE. Webb's essay concerns difficulty in poetry, which he thinks there's too much of; I paraphrase here, but he seems to feel that many poets write for an elite group of other poets who appreciate coded gestures and opaque language that may be incomprehensible to the general reader. The thing that startled me about the article was that Webb says that such poetry has turned away from "natural human taste." Whoa. It's clear that it's in the nature of human beings to make things, but as to calling what we make "natural" or "artificial" -- well, that's a scary business. Webb feels that poems that are readily understood by the general reader (he cites Billy Collins and Sharon Olds as examples) are natural, and that more demanding work isn't; astonishingly, Webb identifies the general reader as someone who'd probably like A Prairie Home Companion. I could talk about what I disagree with in this position for several weeks worth of blogging, but suffice to say that the presumption inherent in calling any kind of art "natural" is unnerving, because of course it implies that whatever the critic doesn't care for will go tumbling into the abyss of the other category. "Natural" has a long history of ugly usage. There are plenty of states remaining where I could be arrested, if the authorities so desired, for my private practice of "unnatural acts," and one doesn't have to look far back in time to find the ways in which what was presumed to be "natural" for women or for people of color was in fact simply an expression of the prejudices of the moment. "Natural," as they say, pushes my buttons. I can only be grateful that poets refuse to take such a position seriously. The two greatest of American poets were, of course, practioners of disparate poetics practically incomprehensible in their own time; how long did it take Whitman and Dickinson to find their audience? Should they... Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you for this -- and for a sterling two-week stint. -- DL
Image
Welcome to Ashberyland! a digital theme park of exclamatory pedagogy where YOU get to read the poems and judge them and pick out the ones you like the most while the ghost of Ashbery lingers on a cloud looking down on us benevolently -- DL Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Image
A memorial tribute for the late Edward Tayler, Columbia's great Renaissance man (and my mentor), on March 15, 2019, a Friday, at 3 PM in the rotunda of Low Memorial Library on the Columbia campus. Ted taught Shakespeare, Milton, Elizabethan and seventeenth-century poetry and changed minds, if not lives, in his brilliant seminars and lectures. He was quite a fellow, compact (5'4), agile (a varsity wrestler as an undergraduate at Amherst), witty and quick on his feet, and he believed that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide everything in two and those that don't. Read more about him here Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Image
The Fight between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, oil on panel, 1559 It's Shrove Tuesday, and while New Orleans may have Mardi Gras, we here in Pennsylvania Dutch Country have Fasnacht Day. What is a fasnacht, you ask? It is a kind of super-doughnut, made with potato flour, sugar, and lard. Don't scoff. They are terrific. They are only sold one day a year - today, the day before Ash Wednesday. Historically, they were the last gastronomic hurrah before Lent, a way to use up all the sugar and lard in the pantry before forty days of fasting began. As you might imagine, they are not health food. No one, as far as I am aware, has ever calculated the calories in a fasnacht. Really, it's better not to know. What distinguishes fasnachts from ordinary doughnuts is their muchness. They are heavier (potato flour and lard will do that) and usually significantly bigger. They have a wonderfully crispy outside and a decadently soft inside. They come in many varieties - glazed, powdered, filled - but my favorite are ones that are simply dusted with granulated sugar. Heaven. Fasnachts are serious business here in the Susquehanna Valley. Advertising begins weeks ahead of time, and bakeries and supermarkets open early to handle the rush. When I went to the grocery store to pick up ours today, there were extra tables outside, piled high with fasnachts of all complexion wafting their yeasty aroma through the chilly air, enticing any reluctant buyers (not that there are many of those). And if you think you'll just pick up your dozen on the way home from work, think again: by suppertime, there is not a fasnacht left to be had for love nor money in York County. So, while the good people of rural Pennsylvania are not ones for gaudy beads, jazz music, and excess alcohol, they do have their moments of over-indulgence. Ah, fasnachts! How we love you! Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Image
GRASS The river irises Draw themselves in. Enough to have seen Their day. The arras Also of evening drawn, We light up between Earth and Venus On the courthouse lawn, Kept by this cheerful Inch of green And ten more years—fifteen?— From disappearing. James Merrill, from Selected Poems, ed. J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) Peering and Disappearing: On James Merrill’s “Grass” Like the French Symbolists he admired, James Merrill was fascinated by nuance — in tone, subject, and technique alike. “Grass,” the first poem in Merrill’s Late Settings, (1985), epitomizes this fascination even as it serves, like many of his opening poems, as a succinct foreshadowing. As the volume’s title hints, much of Late Settings makes an elegiac music, and “Grass” begins appropriately at sunset, when the irises close for the day. As darkness begins to fall, however, the speaker and his friend respond rather defiantly, and they themselves “light up” on the lawn of the village courthouse. It soon occurs to the reader that they are thumbing their noses not simply at the passing of another day but also at the law the courthouse represents, since it must be a joint that they light. Hence the drawing in or reduction of the other irises (the surprising pun is a hallmark of Merrill’s lyrical mode) and the shortness of the cigarette as well as the hue of its contents (a “cheerful / Inch of green”). Nor is it just the law of the land they would scoff at. Although quite different from Dylan Thomas’s villanelle with its notorious refrains—“Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light”—this poem, too, urges vitality in the face of the dark law of death. But this poet is hardly enraged. If, as the line from Isaiah that lays down that law has it, “All flesh is grass”—well, then, here’s to grass! What better representative of inspiration? Merrill defines more narrowly the life he celebrates by situating himself and his friend precisely between the earth that will cover them (the lawn at hand is of course closely mown) and the planet Venus. The planet named for the goddess of love lights up right along with the two friends — or lovers, we must now say. This mini-elegy, which is also a lark of a love poem, blends whimsy with dead serious recognition. So, too, the rhymes are a matter of wit and nuance. If we want to be technical, they go like this: a1b1b2a2 / b3b2 b2 (+ a)b3 / cb2b2c. But even such fussy notation misrepresents the sonic delicacy. The c rhymes are rhymes because of their accented penultimate syllables (“cheer-“ and “-pear-”), just as the word “Venus” rhymes, because of its first syllable, with “seen” and “between,” “green” and “fifteen.” The final unaccented syllable of “Venus” rhymes barely with the whispering ends of “irises” and “arras.” (For any literary reader, that “arras” with its inevitable echo of Hamlet... Continue reading
Posted Mar 3, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Image
Mind Mind in its purest play is like some bat That beats about in caverns all alone, Contriving by a kind of senseless wit Not to conclude against a wall of stone. It has no need to falter or explore; Darkly it knows what obstacles are there, And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar In perfect courses through the blackest air. And has this simile a like perfection? The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save That in the very happiest intellection A graceful error may correct the cave. -- Richard Wilbur Continue reading
Posted Mar 1, 2019 at The Best American Poetry