“The sting of reason / The splash of tears / The northern and the southern hemispheres / Love emerges and it disappears…”

A totally random reminder that not many people write lyrics as well as Paul Simon.

Chinese Checkers…

… as in real actual fact checkers… might have helped here; but, really, in a context of close to zero critical capacity in regard to contemporary American poetry, plus an eagerness for ethnic balance, what do you think is going to happen?

Ol’ Yi-Fen is refreshingly honest:

“As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems, [using as Asian name in place of my all-American name] has been quite successful for me,” [Michael Derrick Hudson] said, noting that “The Bees” had been rejected 40 times under his own name but only nine times under the pseudonym before it was printed by the journal Prairie Schooner.

And then picked up for this year’s Best American Poetry collection.

Will it make Best of the Best?

UD doesn’t think so. UD notes that the poem and the poet have given the poetry world major tsuris. Yi-Fen Chou Michael Derrick Hudson looks headed for inclusion in Least-Liked American Poets 2016.


A far more elaborate Asian-author hoax is discussed here (the discussion includes a quotation from Margaret Soltan UD SOS). It’s also mentioned here, in connection with this latest Let’s Pretend.

Yet more on the Araki Yasusada hoax here. Funny how everyone’s reminded of it.

(My 2000 article on Yasusada is here, but you need to have/buy access.)

(Plus I wrote a follow-up to that piece:

“The Bicameral Mind: Response to Bill Freind’s ‘Just Hoaxing’.” Angelaki 6.3 (2001): 221-24. MLA International Bibliography. Ames Lib. 31 Mar 2008.)


A limerick? Must I?


I cannot help noticing how
When I put words like Yi, Fen, and Chou
At the top of my page
I become all the rage
But everyone’s mad at me now

The Moody Blues

Joseph Brodsky, honored yesterday with a plaque in London, wondered, like Seamus Heaney, if the careful, vulnerable, reflective, poetic voice could make any difference in a cruel, violent, and possibly meaningless world. His poem “A Part of Speech” broods on past (his own past, in Russia), present (he’s now an émigré, finding himself at the moment in Munich), and future (“when ‘the future’ is uttered, swarms of mice / rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece / of ripened memory which is twice / as hole-ridden as real cheese” — which is to say that for the poet the very concept of a future is an absurdity).

This past/present/future suggests a temporally dynamic poem, but “A Part of Speech” is Oblomov in successive sonnets, a chronicle of immobilism:

As regards all that parallel-
line stuff, it’s turned out true and bone-clad, indeed.
Don’t want to get up now. And never did.

That immobilism suggests an answer to the question of poetry’s function: It doesn’t have one.

Or it doesn’t have much of a public function. Consciousness it can do a lot for. The reader’s and the poet’s:

A novel or a poem is not a monologue, but the conversation of a writer with a reader, a conversation, I repeat, that is very private, excluding all others – if you will, mutually misanthropic. And in the moment of this conversation a writer is equal to a reader, as well as the other way around, regardless of whether the writer is a great one or not. This equality is the equality of consciousness. It remains with a person for the rest of his life in the form of memory, foggy or distinct; and, sooner or later, appropriately or not, it conditions a person’s conduct. [A] novel or a poem is the product of mutual loneliness – of a writer or a reader… [V]erse writing [and reading] is an extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe…

From his perch in comfortable Western Europe, the poet recalls silent dead village life in the east, where the poetic voice is a whisper of speech, or not even that, between the sound of the waves, a

wan flat voice
that ripples between them like hair still moist,
if it ripples at all.

He recalls (in a beautiful line) “A nowhere winter evening with wine,” and then evokes all the emptiness of that earlier place (“wind battering the limp grass / that submits to it,” “Silvery hoarfrost has transformed the rattling bell / into crystal,” “rows and rows / of swamp in a pine-wooded territory where no scarecrows / ever stand in orchards,” “a tram rattles far off, as in days of yore, / but no one gets off at the stadium anymore.”). And then we get this marvelous stanza:

As for the stars, they are always on.
That is, one appears, then others adorn the inklike
sphere. That’s the best way from there to look upon
here: well after hours, blinking.
The sky looks better when they are off.
Though, with them, the conquest of space is quicker.
Provided you haven’t got to move
from the bare veranda and squeaking rocker.
As one spacecraft pilot has said, his face
half sunk in the shadow, it seems there is
no life anywhere, and a thoughtful gaze
can be rested on none of these.

So there we have, mid-poem, the possibility that it’s all nothingness, no life anywhere. At best a mere ripple of it here. Or as Brodsky once said to one of his memoirists: “You know in the end, none of it matters, what happens to you in your life. Not suffering. Not happiness or unhappiness. Not illness. Not prison. Nothing.”

But there’s more poem, so let’s see…

Well, there’s love:

A voice
pitches high, keeping words on a string of sense.
… The heart, however grown savage, still beats for two.
Every good boy deserves fingers to indicate
that beyond today there is always a static to-
morrow, like a subject’s shadowy predicate.

The voice of his lover trills with meaning, and however nihilistic the heart, it seems hardwired to exist in a world of mutuality – a mutuality that promises a future, however “static” that future in fact turns out to be.

And there’s poetry itself (“the pen that puts up these limping / awkward lines”), which can at least hear and record humanity’s voice:

On occasion the head combines
its existence with that of a hand, not to fetch more lines
but to cup an ear under the pouring slur
of their common voice

For after all

What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

The poet concludes that he is “tired of summer,” tired of the warmth of Munich, and drawn to memories of frozen villages. Echoing the famous first lines of The Waste Land, the poet finds that he prefers the nihilistically appropriate eastern winter to the annoyingly lifelike western summer:

If only winter were here for snow to smother
all these streets, these humans; but first, the blasted
green. I would sleep in my clothes or just pluck a borrowed
book, while what’s left of the year’s slack rhythm,
like a dog abandoning its blind owner,
crosses the road at the usual zebra.

And then he concludes the poem with a bracingly realistic definition of freedom:

is when you forget the spelling of the tyrant’s name
and your mouth’s saliva is sweeter than Persian pie,
and though your brain is wrung tight as the horn of a ram
nothing drops from your pale-blue eye.

Freedom is nothing glorious and fine and uplifting and large; it is simply the gradual Oblomovlike forgetting of enslavement. It is the capacity to experience despair – as this poet is experiencing despair – without weeping. The capacity to bear the metaphysical weight of the world – east and west – without collapsing.

A poem, from 1943, by William Jay Smith …

… who has died, age 97.


O flots abracadabrantesques,
Prenez mon coeur, qu’il soit lavé


Look to the heavens, Heliotrope.
Follow the sun. Sun, shine!
The streets are numbered, shelled, and soft:
Eleventh, Olive, Chestnut, Pine.

Mannikins puff pale cigarettes,
club girls clench calypso-colas;
from verdant rooftops yeomanettes
succinctly sigh: Sobre las olas.

You shipped him off address unknown
you shipped him far beyond Endurance
I cannot reach him on the phone
He left me all his life insurance.

Look to the heavens, Heliotrope.
Follow the sun. Sun, shine!
The streets are numbered, shelled, and soft:
Eleventh, Olive, Chestnut, Pine.


The epigraph is from Rimbaud, a very grotesque poem of his in which “the poet’s heart is puking over the poop of a ship.” He asks the waves – the magical, transformative, abracadabra, waves – to take his heart and wash it, clean it, make it no longer a heart that has been “depraved” by a depraved world. So let’s say that Smith has taken from Rimbaud the idea that the world is so nauseating and sordid (he’s writing this poem in the midst of yet another war) that our desperate desire to escape it becomes downright suicidal. Maybe it’s better to be dead.

The poem itself – a brilliantly condensed, weirdly suggestive and associative lyric – seems to address a soldier killed in the war (You shipped him off…), a young man to whom the poet softly and sympathetically speaks.

You, a young plant, a lover of the light, a follower of the sun – as you lie there dead, look up in the sky and see that sun. Follow it heavenward, to a cleansed realm of light. Throw off your casket (Pine), your dead body, your “shelled” body (bombed, eviscerated), and leave the degraded world, the realm of finitude and division, where the streets, like your days, “are numbered.”

And now there’s a stanza about that world left behind, with its indifferent partying semi-human (mannikin) cigarette and club girls who lean back in their chaises and briefly note the absence of the dead man (Over the waves extends the Rimbaudesque waves).

And now the voice shifts, and a mother or a wife angrily mourns his loss, and again an image from the sea appears in a reference to the famous ice-entrapped ship, Endurance. He could not survive the extremity to which he was subjected, and his survivor cannot fathom the distance now put between them.

Note how, like T.S. Eliot and many other modernists, Smith melds very high spiritual language (Look to the heavens) with very low modern/commercial language (He left me all his life insurance). The party girls, and his survivors, remain in a dark degraded world, while the heliotrope twists toward the sun.

And now this strange unsettling little song repeats its first verse, presses on the dead soldier its insistence that he cleanse himself entirely of this world, and ascend.


That was one way of putting it, to quote Eliot. Like most great highly compressed lyrics, this one is wide open to interpretation.

To Mark Philip Larkin’s Westminster Stone

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it hourly for two days or so.
Maybe at last, a Philip Larkin fan,
I must be satisfied with life sucks, although
Morning and night as this verse began
His other old familiars were on show:
Don’t reproduce. Money and fame are rot.
Death scares my pants off
and the Lord knows what.

What did he but enumerate old themes,
First Yeats-inspired (as all close readers know),
Then, through The Movement, all our shattered dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
The ways that poetry turns into prose;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, loving this bridesmaid who poked at brides.

His masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that his life is gone
He must lie down within Westminster’s heart.
At the pantheon of the poet’s art.

The remedy for bad poetry is good limericks.

The London Review of Books publishes, in its June 4 issue, a rivulet of consciousness by the poet Craig Raine. “Gatwick” expresses the thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season (speaking of which, read this if you want a good poem about being a dried up old guy), and readers are not only grossed out by this dirty old man poem, but they rightly note that in any case it’s a very bad poem. (Nothing wrong with its subject matter, by the way. Great prose as well as poetry has been written about being horny.)

The poet’s passport control agent at the airport tells him she studied his poetry. He writes:

We are close. We are both grinning.
We have come
together by a miracle.
Two sinners simultaneously sinning.
In passport control. No shame.

Miracle? Sinning? Where in this grubby meandering poem is there anything to justify language like that? Nor does it come across as ironic, as it might in, say, T.S. Eliot. It’s just there, lazily wanting to lift the meaning of the encounter, and of the poem, to someplace higher than the merely horny.

Rather than just complain about the LRB printing this poem, one reader wrote a limerick about it.

There once was a poet who went
To very great lengths to invent
An excuse for his boner
Which shamed its poor owner
And turned his shorts into a tent.

Now that’s great poetry.

The Poetry Foundation lists UD’s MOOC…

… on its Learning Lab page.

A poem by Yvor Winters for Memorial Day


Who should dare to write their praise
Do so in the plainest phrase.
Few names last, where many lie;
Even names of battles die.
These will stand for many more:
Wake, Bataan, Corregidor,
Attu, and the Coral Sea,
Africa, and Sicily;
Callahan, who ran his ship
To the very cannon’s lip.
Men, devoid of name and hour,
With direction gathered power;
Stripped of selfhood, each must be
Our hostage to Eternity.

“… all / I tried to overcome but I could not— …”

It’s true that from the time UD discovered the poet Franz Wright (who has died), she has failed to understand his renown. The son of James Wright, who wrote the much-anthologized “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” Franz Wright always seemed to UD like a hapless royal born to a crown he doesn’t want and doesn’t fit — an Edward VIII needing a Wallis Simpson to take him away from it all.

Franz Wright never abdicated poetry, and his misery in that rarified life shows in every line. William Logan’s takedown of Wright’s work is brutal (Wright dropped a line to Logan in response to it: “I do not wish to kill you or hurt you, and so I beg you to get away from me, without delay, if you realize we are in the same room somewhere.”), but comes pretty close to UD’s own sense of the writing. In just the first paragraph of an essay about Wright, Logan manages to work in the following adjectives:


All of which seem apt. To them UD would add unpoetic, in the sense that Wright’s language never astonishes or delights. Most of his poems are truncated lines of prose, bleats of anger and sadness. Sometimes a line will shine out with a sort of Joe Orton quality of rage glossed to the point of hilarity –

sorry, I have been given the job
of vacuuming the desert forever.

And like Joe Orton, you get the feeling that above all it was his peculiar quality of masculinity, rather than a painful family inheritance, that did the guy in. That note to Logan, and Wright’s repeated rageful variants in his poetry on all I tried to overcome but could not, convey his hair-trigger frustration with the human condition. He was the perfect opposite of a Buddhist.

On those occasions when Wright does calm himself, the result is rather a nice poem, like this one:

Thoughts of a Solitary Farmhouse

And not to feel bad about dying.
Not to take it so personally—

it is only
the force we exert all our lives

to exclude death from our thoughts
that confronts us, when it does arrive,

as the horror of being excluded— . . .
something like that, the Canadian wind

coming in off Lake Erie
rattling the windows, horizontal snow

appearing out of nowhere
across the black highway and fields like billions of white bees.


First the blunt admission that behind all of it – behind most of it – is his rage at having to die, “the horror of being excluded.” The “And” with which the poem begins signals that this insight about death comes at the end of a long familiar stream of consciousness on the subject: Having isolated himself in a farmhouse and started meditating, he winds up where he always does when he gets serious — the relentless endpoint of death, and the equally relentless effort to transcend it, to come to terms with it, to reconcile oneself to it. When you actually look at death, you see not death but our long repression of it, the “force we exert all our lives” to deny it (in Wright’s case, this meant a whole hell of a lot of drinking and drugging). After the word “excluded” comes both a dash and an ellipsis as the poet sort of gets to the end of what he can do with the wholly unmanageable subject his meditative mood has conjured.

The pause also introduces the second half of this classic little lyric, with its near 50/50 mix of metaphysics and nature, idea and metaphor. Thoughts impossible to clarify dissolve into the view out of his window; mentally overwhelmed, the poet moves his perception to the world outside:

the Canadian wind

coming in off Lake Erie
rattling the windows, horizontal snow

appearing out of nowhere
across the black highway and fields like billions of white bees.

Or, as Philip Larkin puts it, when the reality of your own extinction hits you, and hits you hard,

The mind blanks at the glare…
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Vast horizontal snow, white bees, blanked mind, clayey skies — choose your sudden bitter cold appalled visitation image. Choose “The Dews drew quivering and chill.” Etc.

Whee! Ten Thousand.

UD‘s poetry MOOC has now enrolled 10,000 students.

Natural Superannuation

M.H. Abrams, whose Natural Supernaturalism illuminated Romantic poetry for generations of literature students, has died at the amazing age of 102.

Here’s a passage UD has always liked, linking Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens:

[The] Romantic endeavor to salvage traditional experience and values by accommodating them to premises tenable to a later age has continued to be a prime concern of post-Romantic poets. Stevens expressly identified the aim “of modern poetry” as the attempt to convert the setting and agents and language of Scripture into

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.

Among modern poets none stays so close to some of Wordsworth’s formulations as Stevens does…

Shall she not find, he enquires about his protagonist in “Sunday Morning,”

In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself…
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?…
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

Stevens represents the musing in solitude of a modern woman as she savors the luxuries of her Sunday breakfast in a brilliant un-Wordsworthian setting of sun, rug, coffee and oranges, and a green cockatoo. In these subdued lines, however, we recognize something approximating the high argument of the Romantic poet who (while “Beauty – a living Presence of the earth” waited upon his steps) proclaimed the power of the mind of man to realize an equivalent of “Paradise, and groves / Elysian, Fortunate Fields,” by the “consummation” of a union with the common earth which will require of us “nothing more than what we are.”

Sonnet for Tax Day

Methinks I see some crooked mimic jeer
And grace my muse with this fantastic tax,
Turning my papers, asks “what have we here?”
Making withall some filthy antic face.
I fear no audit, IRS or CIA,
Nor shall my filing one exemption lose.
Think’st thou my wit shall keep the scofflaw way
That ev’ry bracket low invention goes?
Since returns thus in bundles are impress’d,
And ev’ry cheat doth dull our satiate ear,
Think’st thou my sum shall in those rags be dress’d
That ev’ry dowdy, ev’ry trull doth wear?
Up to my pitch no comm’n assessment flies:
I scorn all earthly dung-bred scarabies.

UD Brings on the Exuberant at…

… the DC Public Library.

Island in the Works

There’s the Merrill poem; and there’s the amazing photographs.

In “Island in the Works,” James Merrill has the emergent volcanic island speak for itself, describing its desire to exist.

From air seen fathom-deep
But rising to a head –
Abscess of the abyss
Any old night letting rip
Its fires, yearlong,
As roundabout waves hiss.

Already you can sense that he’ll play with a comparison between the birth of a poem and the birth of an island – both express depths rising into a head. This head, inspired, has let rip the fire of creation… Abscess of the abyss – Merrill’s love of wordplay is there, as is the theme, sounded throughout the poem, of ambivalence in regard to things coming to a head, coming into being, things being given language, location, lore. Isn’t nothing, or a thing without names (the island before we name it, map it), better than an ugly routine humanized protuberance?

Jaded by untold blue
Subversions, watered-down
Moray and Spaniard…

It was wild and free in its original expulsion of itself from nothingness, but in time the island becomes “jaded,” watered down by history, usage.

Now to construe
In the original
Those at first arid, hard,

Soon rootfast, ramifying,
Always more fruitful
Dialogues with light.

How to generate a new poem, a new creation, a fruitful dialogue with the world? How to get back, each time you try as a poet to create, to that original generative intensity?

Various dimwit under-
graduate types will wonder
At my calm height,

Vapors by then surmounted
(Merely another phase?)
And how in time I trick
Out my new “shores” and “bays”
With small craft, shrimpers’
Bars and rhetoric.

Dimwit because they have no sense of the underlying agonizing forces out of which the poet writes, out of which the creation construes itself. All they see is the calm height of a formal construction (natural, aesthetic); to them poetry is a shrimpy “small craft” whose clarity has seemingly surmounted any “vapors” of artistic torment.

Darkly the old ones grumble
I’ll hate all that. Hate words,
Their schooling flame?
The spice grove chatted up
By small gray knowing birds?
Myself given a name?

Thoughtless youth, in love with novelty and amusement, will enjoy the new Key West; older observers will understand how language waters down, trivializes, the thrilling mystery of all things being simply existent. A world of words drowns essential fires and puts in their place schooling flames – makes a tepid world of meaning and moral instruction. Worst of all, this subverting diminishes the island itself by giving it a name.

Waves, as your besetting
Depth-wish recedes,
I’m surfacing, I’m home!

The island announces its moment of creation, its victorious struggle with the waves’ depth (death) wish in regard to it. The poem, in spite of everything, emerges into being, finds the surface of the page.

Open the atlas. Here:
This dot, securely netted
Under the starry dome.

My head full of vaporous stars has done it, has finished the poem and securely dotted every i. You can find it here, in the atlas known as my Selected Poems.

(Unlike this page – no sooner
Brought to the pool than wafted
Out of reach, laid flat
Face-up on cool glares, ever
So lightly swayed, or swaying…
Now who did that?)

But that atlas, that physical book tricked out with rhetoric, is the cooled-to-calmness post-poem… the posthumous poem, if you like… It is the poem detached from the fire of the living Merrill, the poem subject to mapping, criticism, vulnerable to cool glares in the same way the molten proto-island is subject to the cool of the water and the glare of the sun as it is forced to make something of itself, as the world insists on making something of it. Once written, the poem falls out of the poet’s fervent grasp, and all of the private intensity that produced it wafts away.

Still, some mystery clings even to this watered-down, public document. It “sways,” moved by some unknown force (Now who did that?) – and this must be the force of inspiration itself, the massive seismic fires that rip through the poet’s head and ultimately generate one more wordblack wordscape.

The poet Philip Levine has died.

Here’s a post I wrote about him awhile back.

NYT obit.

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