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.

Rilke, New Year’s Eve.


Cy Twombly loved Rilke’s poetry and
often put it in his paintings, as in
Rose V, which quotes The Roses XXVI:

Infinitely at ease
despite so many risks,
with no variation
of her usual routine,
the blooming rose is the omen
of her immeasurable endurance.

(Click on the Twombly to read
these words on the canvas.)


(But for tonight we’ll seek
Our own level in Rilke.
We’ll locate ourselves, not the rose,
Our human placement in the cosmos.

Do you remember those comic post
Cards: YOU ARE HERE? It’s of those
Sorts of things UD speaks
Through Rilkean lyrics.)



(translated by Stephen Mitchell)

The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion
of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.


This translation opts for inexact rhyme to convey our inexactitude, our unpinpointable, virtually inexpressible, form of being. We watch the night divide the world into sky and land and we know we are neither earthen (“the darkened houses”) nor metaphysical (“a star”), but something else. When night sweeps away non-human realms it strands us with drama and clarity in the quandary of our lives, which is to say in the imperative to live them, to assume the burden of their twin conflictual mysteries, their immensity (the conviction they give us of starlike passionate expansiveness) and their fear (the knowledge of fragility – as with the rose: “so many risks” – and of death). The night world leaves us humanly alone to unravel the knot of existence, and the best we can do is accept each opposing entwining strand – stone, star, stone, star – as it arises.

Another translation goes for exact rhyme (a canny job, but rather far from the original text), in which we “cannot be unraveled” at all; yet a third has us left “wordlessly to untangle” our lives.

Whether we can get anywhere with ourselves is, I guess, an open question; but there’s no question that grappling honestly with fear and vulnerability is one of the best things we do. I love Philip Larkin’s night poem, which shares the stars and the trees and the twine with Rilke, but peers more intimately at us – at our most vulnerable:


At one the wind rose,
And with it the noise
Of the black poplars.

Long since had the living
By a thin twine
Been led into their dreams
Where lanterns shine
Under a still veil
Of falling streams;
Long since had the dead
Become untroubled
In the light soil.
There were no mouths
To drink of the wind,
Nor any eyes
To sharpen on the stars’
Wide heaven-holding,
Only the sound
Long sibilant-muscled trees
Were lifting up, the black poplars.

And in their blazing solitude
The stars sang in their sockets through
the night:
`Blow bright, blow bright
The coal of this unquickened world.’


So for me the heart of this is here:

Long since had the living
By a thin twine
Been led into their dreams
Where lanterns shine
Under a still veil
Of falling streams…

There is our fragility, so beautifully expressed, as we first sink into nightly rest and then lie quiet as our minds open on to our dreams. Led into nightly dreamlife by a “thin twine” separating conscious from unconscious, we watch again and again our deepest most private dramas on a stage whose curtains are thin watery veils, and whose lights are little swaying lanterns… How weakly cobbled together it all is! How thin the twines and veils and streams.

Stanislaw Baranczak, a great Polish poet…

… and a kind and good man (UD knew him a little from the Harvard Polish community) has died.

Inspired by the villanelles of Elizabeth Bishop, Baranczak wrote this:

She Cried That Night, but Not for Him to Hear

(To Ania, the only one)

She cried that night, but not for him to hear.
In fact her crying wasn’t why he woke.
It was some other sound; that much was clear.

And this half-waking shame. No trace of tears
all day, and still at night she works to choke
the sobs; she cries, but not for him to hear.

And all those other nights: she lay so near
but he had only caught the breeze’s joke,
the branch that tapped the roof. That much was clear.

The outside dark revolved in its own sphere:
no wind, no window pane, no creaking oak
had said: “She’s crying, not for you to hear.”

Untouchable are those tangibly dear,
so close, they’re closed, too far to reach and stroke
a quaking shoulder-blade. This much is clear.

And he did not reach out — for shame, for fear
of spoiling the tears’ tenderness that spoke:
“Go back to sleep. What woke you isn’t here.
It was the wind outside, indifferent, clear.”


It’s a lot like Stephen Spender’s poem, “The Trance”:

Sometimes, apart in sleep, by chance,
You fall out of my arms, alone,
Into the chaos of your separate trance.
My eyes gaze through your forehead, through the bone,
And see where in your sleep distress has torn
Its path, which on your lips is shown
And on your hands and in your dream forlorn.

Restless, you turn to me and press
Those timid words against my ear
Which thunder at my heart like stones.
‘Mercy,’ you plead, Then ‘Who can bless?’
You ask. ‘I am pursued by Time,’ you moan.

I watch that precipice of fear
You tread, naked in naked distress.
To that deep care we are committed
Beneath the wildness of our flesh
And shuddering horror of our dream,
Where unmasked agony is permitted.

Our bodies, stripped of clothes that seem,
And our souls, stripped of beauty’s mesh,
Meet their true selves, their charms outwitted.
This pure trance is the oracle
That speaks no language but the heart
Our angel with our devil meets
In the atrocious dark nor do they part

But each forgives and greets,
And their mutual terrors heal
Within our married miracle.


Baranczak’s is better, because it’s much less sentimental – “married miracle” is pretty horrible. Language fit for a diamond ring commercial. Yet the poems have in common that common lovers’ moment, when you’re awake and they’re asleep, or half-asleep, and you’re marveling at their utter vulnerability, stripped down in bed, late at night, with terrors and despairs most private, most enduring, most true. These are the moments you realize that for all your long intimacy there’s no getting at the psyche of those “tangibly dear” to you.

Like yourself (and that’s another thing about Baranczak’s poem – it’s as much about his convoluted unsharable cosmic grief as it is hers) the lover is essentially adrift in a separate sphere. In the wilds of her own consciousness.

Mark Strand on Donald Justice:

[T]he work for which he will be remembered is of course his poems whose principal beauty lies in the wistful articulation and sad acknowledgement that little or nothing survives the great drama and effort that is life. Sorry news

Sorry news while my train crawls up the coast on a cold day.

It’s like Pyongyang in this car, internet connection-wise; I told YouTube to take me to The Essential Nina Simone, and it’s … you know… chewing over the matter …

Oh, okay, black screen with … An error occurred; please try again later on it… With Learn More on it…

I’m trying to learn more! (Once again Trenton New Jersey this is Trenton New Jersey.) Why do you think I’ve tried to summon her husky dusky wistful articulation and sad acknowledgement?

Donald Justice was a jazz musician too – poet, painter, jazz musician. Let’s see if I have enough connection to grasp hold of Nostalgia of the Lakefronts.

Yes. Here it is, a most affecting and difficult poem.

Cities burn behind us; the lake glitters.
A tall loudspeaker is announcing prizes;
Another, by the lake, the times of cruises.
Childhood, once vast with terrors and surprises,
Is fading to a landscape deep with distance—
And always the sad piano in the distance,

Faintly in the distance, a ghostly tinkling
(O indecipherable blurred harmonies)
Or some far horn repeating over water
Its high lost note, cut loose from all harmonies.
At such times, wakeful, a child will dream the world,
And this is the world we run to from the world.

Or the two worlds come together and are one
On dark, sweet afternoons of storm and of rain,
And stereopticons brought out and dusted,
Stacks of old Geographics, or, through the rain,
A mad wet dash to the local movie palace
And the shriek, perhaps, of Kane’s white cockatoo.
(Would this have been summer, 1942?)

By June the city always seems neurotic.
But lakes are good all summer for reflection,
And ours is famed among painters for its blues,
Yet not entirely sad, upon reflection.
Why sad at all? Is their wish so unique—
To anthropomorphize the inanimate
With a love that masquerades as pure technique?

O art and the child were innocent together!
But landscapes grow abstract, like aging parents.
Soon now the war will shutter the grand hotels,
And we, when we come back, will come as parents.
There are no lanterns now strung between pines—
Only, like history, the stark bare northern pines.

And after a time the lakefront disappears
Into the stubborn verses of its exiles
Or a few gifted sketches of old piers.
It rains perhaps on the other side of the heart;
Then we remember, whether we would or no.
—Nostalgia comes with the smell of rain, you know.

So if little or nothing survives, if the lakefront itself disappears, we do what we can, while we still live, to recuperate – or, say, aestheticize – what life we have had, have been able to have. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, Lolita! Humbert’s obsessive love letter keeps the two of them going… Or think of that curious novel The White Hotel, with its evocation of memory real and unreal, untraumatic and traumatic – the utopian hotel where every woman opens her breasts to suckle every man… a world of vital perpetually renewed love … This is the world we run to from the world.

When it’s young the world glitters, cities burn bright, and we run toward that. Cruises, prizes. Loud speaking. And then distance, distance, distance, three uses of the word one after the other, the whole poem obsessively repeating the same words as the poet circles and circles the life that he had, the great drama and effort.

Ah. YouTube has finally granted me some music. A few plucks of Anoushka Shankar… Constant interruptions as the train (We’re pulling in to Newark.) lists…

Harmonies, when it’s all behind you, blur and become the drone (says Justice) that pulls everything she plucks down to One…

Or the two worlds come together and are one
On dark, sweet afternoons of storm and of rain,
And stereopticons brought out and dusted,
Stacks of old Geographics, or, through the rain…

Privileged moody moments, then, when you see in stereo, past/present; but this only when the world itself shuts down (dark afternoons, storm, rain) and, quieted and still, lets play out the geography of past and present. And then the artist can perform her utopian replenishment… As in: The frost performs its secret ministry…

To anthropomorphize the inanimate
With a love that masquerades as pure technique

What if Heathcliff were an artist! Instead of puling and wasting away (“Cathy! Come back!”), he’d take his insane life-force and make her live again through whatever technique he let himself be taken by.

There are no lanterns now strung between pines—
Only, like history, the stark bare northern pines.

We brilliant it up with lanterns – folk art – decorative art – to go with gestures of purer artistic technique – but little or nothing survives the effort. So what. Embellishment as a kind of kiss of life is what we do.

And after a time the lakefront disappears
Into the stubborn verses of its exiles
Or a few gifted sketches of old piers.
It rains perhaps on the other side of the heart;
Then we remember, whether we would or no.
—Nostalgia comes with the smell of rain, you know.

All gone. Stubbornly, though, from exile, we write verses or paint pictures about it; and that’s our form of life-abundance, life-replenishment — the aestheticization of the existence we loved.

Or no – there’s also that involuntary memory about which Proust wrote. Prompted unbidden by a taste or by the smell of rain. We have that too.

The poet Mark Strand…

… has died.

Here’s Part One, and here’s Part Two, of a close reading UD did of his poem My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer.

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