Galway Kinnell, a perfectly solid nature poet whose stuff…

… never highly turned UD on, has died. Let’s see what he could do at his best – here’s a lovely poem about death and ruination. As always, UD will mess the thing up with constant interruptions. To see the poem in pristine condition, go here.



All day under acrobat
Swallows [He’s noticing the gyrations the birds make as they fly.] I have sat, beside ruins
Of a plank house sunk to its windows
In burdock [PlanK, sunK, burdocK… with burdock picking up on “bird,” a word maybe floating in our heads with the swallows.] and raspberry canes, [This isn’t going to be “Tintern Abbey.” The setting is ordinary, an ordinary collapsed house in the country.]
The roof dropped, the foundation broken in,
Nothing left perfect but the axe-marks on the beams.

A paper in a cupboard talks about “Mugwumps”,
In a V-letter a farmboy in the Marines has “tasted battle…” [He’s going through old papers lying about – marks of the particular domestic history of the house.]
The apples are pure acid on the tangle of boughs [Great line. Everything in the setting is rotted, old, convoluted – even nature. Nice assonance (apples, acid, tangle), and wonderful meld of purity and rottenness and – I don’t know – Snow White? – in the phrase pure acid as he describes the years of untended growth around the house.]
The pasture has gone to popple and bush. [Great word: popple. It’s a way of saying aspen, but in this ruinous setting there are hints of topple, bobble (the aspen trembles).]
Here on this perch of ruins [Perch feels very close to porch – and on the porch of ruins sounds rather classical, giving a certain dignity and grandeur to the tone.]
I listen for the crunch of the porcupines. [Perch/crunch: these words are very close to one another; and porcupines keeps going the alliteration throughout on the letter P.]


Overhead the skull-hill rises [Skull Hill in Israel is said to be the place where Jesus was crucified, and with the next word in the poem (crossed) we have perhaps a deepening of a religious theme.]
Crossed on top by the stunted apple. [And of course the apple has us thinking about Eden.]
Infinitely beyond it, older than love or guilt,
Lie the stars ready to jump and sprinkle out of space. [This is where I find Kinnell to be a less than stellar, if you will, poet. Older than love or guilt comes out of nowhere and means too much and too little, in my humble opinion. Why broaden your poem out to these big concepts when you haven’t yet done much beyond beautifully describe a scene? I get the idea – we sublunary humans have our major life issues – love, guilt – but the stars are indifferent. As stated, it’s a trite observation.]

Every night under the millions of stars
An owl dies or a snake sloughs its skin, [Basically an extension of the we’re here and minute and transient and the stars are there and vast and permanent – but he’s also reminding us that his theme is ruin. Ruined houses, the ruination/transformation of animal lives.]
But what if a man feels the dark
Homesickness for the inconceivable realm? [But in contentment I still feel the need of some imperishable bliss, as the woman in Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” puts it. Snakes and owls don’t have this problem.]


Sometimes I see them,
The south-going Canada geese,
At evening, coming down
In pink light, over the pond, in great,
Loose, always dissolving V’s-
I go out into the field,
Amazed and moved, and listen
To the cold, lonely yelping
Of those tranced bodies in the sky,
Until I feel on the point
Of breaking to a sacred, bloodier speech. [See now if you ask UD there are far too many adjectives packed in here: south-going, pink, great, loose, dissolving, cold, lonely, tranced, sacred, bloodier. It’s just top-heavy and self-consciously pretty. Much too top-heavy for a description of birds in flight. With sacred the Biblical feel is sustained; but rather than saying he’s breaking into sacred speech, he should probably speak sacred speech.

Recall what Joseph Brodsky wrote:

What interests me is [Auden’s] symptomatic technique of description. He never gives you the real . . . ulcer . . . he talks about its symptoms, ya? He keeps his eye all the time on civilization, on the human condition. But he doesn’t give you the direct description of it, he gives you the oblique way. …[I]f you really want your poem to work, the usage of adjectives should be minimal; but you should stuff it as much as you can with nouns — even the verbs should suffer. If you cast over a poem a certain magic veil that removes adjectives and verbs, when you remove the veil the paper still should be dark with nouns.]


This morning I watched
Milton Norway’s sky blue Ford
Dragging its ass down the dirt road
On the other side of the valley. [Same deal as in other parts of the poem: Sharp moves from sacred to profane and back again. Reminder that we can be brought, by nature’s amazing and moving “speech,” to the verge of something higher, but that we’re basically pretty low.]

Later, off in the woods, I heard
A chainsaw agonizing across the top of some stump
A while ago the tracks of a little, snowy,
SAC bomber went crawling across heaven. [The gross violent noises and marks of the fallen earth – axe-marks on the beams, chainsaw agonizing, and bloodily enough a bomber – bring the poet out of his “tranced” perching on the ruins and back into reality.]

What of that little hairstreak
That was flopping and batting about
Deep in the goldenrod,
Did she not know, either, where she was going? [The poet flits about in confusion from scene to scene, like a fragile butterfly.]


Just now I had a funny sensation
As if some angel, or winged star,
Had been perched nearby watching, maybe speaking,
I whirled, and in the chokecherry bush
There was a twig just ceasing to tremble. [Again, for UD, too precious. Metaphysically vague but emotionally sentimental. A brief supernatural visitation? Not my thing. Too happyface.]

Now the bats come spelling the swallows, [Nice – after the early evening swallows the bats… Spelling is wonderful, as if the bats and the swallows had some sort of understanding about who would stand guard when. Spelling also puts us in mind of the poet himself, spelling out his words.]
In the smoking heap of old antiques
The porcupine-crackle starts up again,
The bone-saw, the pure music of our sphere,
And up there the old stars rustling and whispering. [He concludes by bringing physical and metaphysical together, having solved, thanks I guess to that trembling twig, the problem of his “homesickness.” In our ruined smoking heap of a world (bombed out by the SAC bomber), there is anyway always life again, always the crackle of the porcupine, the whine of the bone-saw (bone reminding us of our specifically human vulnerability.) Heard correctly, those homely crackles and whines and drag-ass Fords are the music of the spheres – or the sphere… our sphere, our sacred earth. All we can hear from the distant stars are rustles and whispers; here, we have the clear articulation of our home — our ruined, bombed out, “tasted battle,” ever renewed home.]

Carolyn Kizer, whose poetry UD has always found a little too “stated” —

… no, not too understated, and not too overstated… Just too stated, too much (like Robert Frost’s) assertively out there… Carolyn Kizer has died, and UD has as a result been reading through her poems with more attention than she’s ever before given them.

Here’s a good one, with a way sly rhyme scheme and a solid, not too stated, point of view. As always, UD will mess up the poem with her comments, so if you want to see it unmessed with, go here:


What the Bones Know 

[There are fundamental truths you know in your bones, not in your mind. There are truths of the body, not the soul; you learn these truths by having a body and enjoying it, as we’ll see as we read the poem.]

Remembering the past
And gloating at it now,

[In particular, remembering the great sex she had. See in this connection – since Yeats is prominently mentioned in this poem – a poem like his A Last Confession, number nine of the poems listed here.]

I know the frozen brow
And shaking sides of lust
Will dog me at my death
To catch my ghostly breath.

[She knows her body; she knows that even as she’s dying – especially as she’s dying? – she will feel sexual desire, because her commitment to life is so intense that she will fight its cessation by drawing upon whatever she has left in her of lust. The vital passions within her will try, in a last desperate effort, to “catch” her becoming-a-ghost breath before death stills it.]

I think that Yeats was right,
That lust and love are one.
The body of this night
May beggar me to death,
But we are not undone
Who love with all our breath.

[Note how cleverly Kizer will deploy her death/breath rhyme throughout the poem. This pair’s first appearance will be in tandem – one line after another. Their next appearance has them divided by one line – the line ending in undone.

Glance down to the two final stanzas. Death and breath are divided by two, and then three, lines. Breath gets the final word, and has therefore it seems gradually shooed death away, kept it at a greater and greater distance.

And note the argument here: Even if I die tonight, I’ll have lived a life in which I fully loved, and so I’ll enjoy a sort of immortality.]

I know that Proust was wrong,
His wheeze: love, to survive,
Needs jealousy, and death
And lust, to make it strong
Or goose it back alive.
Proust took away my breath.

[Boo Proust and all sex-in-the-head mentalists. Not only are they wrong that we’re twisted enervated creatures who need all sorts of perverse inducements to get it up and keep it up; they mess with our simple natural ins and outs. The poet breathes; Proust can only wheeze.]

The later Yeats was right
To think of sex and death
And nothing else. Why wait
Till we are turning old?
My thoughts are hot and cold.
I do not waste my breath.

[The heart of the argument lies here: My thoughts are hot and cold. Hot and cold. Sex and death. Frozen brow and shaking sides. Yeats didn’t want us to think of sex and death like the Proustian mentalists; he wanted us to be mindful of both always, unafraid of the realm of both always, running our passions full blast hot and cold. Here’s Yeats:

[T]hough it loved in misery
Close and cling so tight,
There’s not a bird of day that dare
Extinguish that delight.

The Georgetown Library has asked UD…

…to offer a poetry course next March through April, and she has happily accepted. Each session will be a close reading of an important poem. I’ll start with Romantic odes, then move on to Victorian, modern, and postmodern poetry. So there will be a dual focus: Changes in poetry from era to era, and intensive analysis of style and content.

As the date approaches, UD will announce details to any of her local readers that might be interested.

So, if you scroll about halfway down this Washington Post page…

… you get to the announcement of UD‘s talk on Charles Wright at the Georgetown branch of the DC Public Library this afternoon (1 PM, 3260 R St. NW).

Here’s how I suggest you do it on this beautiful Saturday:

The library is just down the street from the famous Dumbarton Oaks gardens, which open today at 2:00. So take in my talk, and then stroll over to the gardens.

Then I’ll let you have a late lunch of your choosing among the many cafes of Georgetown.

A Dearth of Replications

Th’ expense of paper in a wasteful game
Is just inaction; and, till repeated, work
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, full of murk;
Printed no sooner but distrusted straight,
Past reason shunted; and, no sooner read
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to keep researchers fed;
Vast in results; but replication? No,
Fed, feeding, and in quest to feed, extreme;
A bliss in proof; unproved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a scheme.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun submissions that lead men to this hell.

Philip Larkin, whose birthday is today, was in his own dry curious way a transcendentalist…

… He was a man always breaking disappointedly away from a realm whose human and material compensations were not merely inadequate but somehow personally humiliating to him. Many of his great poems follow the same emotional trajectory – creeping intimacy with another human being, or with a particular geographical location, and then a quick appalled exit. His eyes lifted, in poem after poem, from the blandishments of the social world, the seductions of other people and of the simple stuff of bounded, grounded, earthly life (marriage, children, travel, money…), to “sun-comprehending… high windows,” “long french windows,” “a strong / Unhindered moon,” “arrogant eternity.”

There was always a pane of glass that compelled him, a higher clearer region from whose vantage point sublunary life was

[F]athers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres …

That arrogant eternity was in part about Larkin’s version of artistic transcendence: His poetic vocation made him literally and figuratively immaterial – both indifferent to (contemptuous of) money (money lies about the purchasability of meaning and happiness), and happy to be anonymous, “unhindered” by a world that wanted to make him poet laureate (he turned down the offer). Religious transcendence, like money, was a lie, but unlike money it was a rather pretty one, in a shabby/chic way:

That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die.

And even a past-it church can impress:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

Religion’s robe is tattered, but it’s still a robe.

His sense of his sordid life as transcended by his art served Larkin only for a few years; middle age, for him, meant the poetic grappling with the end of his poetic energy, so that the “brightness and the plain/ Far-reaching singleness” of the unhindered moon’s “wide stare” gradually became

a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young

His inability to maintain his “arrogant” social “singleness” gradually informs him that

Only the young can be alone freely.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
Beyond the light stand failure and remorse…

In place of his awareness of himself as an unassailable self-sufficient aesthetic self flying by the nets of marriage and children —

Why did [Dockery] think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.


Something is pushing them
To the side
of their own lives.

— he now has a mind that “blanks at the glare” given off not by the high windows of eternity but by the frank and simple fear of crashing up against death:

[I]t stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.

The world more and more is a sort of menacing, automated, sepulcher:

[T]elephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

It’s the same mood evoked in Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel:

A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn.

The phones ring, the lights burn, the world churns on. It has no need of us, and is for all its intricate workings uncaring. We after all are passing through – for us, it’s a rented world, a hotel world (the hotel offers “headed paper, made for writing home / (If home existed) letters of exile”) – and the world has its permanent work of worlding to do. That’s the true self-sufficiency – the world as such. The spinning top. Larkin was more than ordinarily aware of his own peripherality, his Kafkan alienation, his coming invisibility, his faint impress on a world about to white him out. He was remarkably generous with his curiosity, anxiety, and despair about his existential condition, and was even able to make this condition sing.

UD is proud to announce that her poetry MOOC…

… has broken 7,000.

A reminder: An updated and expanded version of one of her MOOC lectures will form the basis of her remarks at the DC Public Library, Georgetown branch, on Charles Wright, who’s the current poet laureate. Date, time: Saturday, September 13, at 1:00. Open to the public.

And here’s a description of the upcoming talk:

America’s newest poet laureate, Charles Wright, has said this about his new job: “”I will not be an activist laureate… I’ll probably stay here at home and think about things.” Unlike most of his predecessors, Wright has no particular social or political agenda. His poetry is contemplative; he seems to write most of it while gazing, at night, toward the hills around Charlottesville, Virginia (he’s a professor at the University of Virginia). And what he writes – in long broad American lines, like Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg – expresses the strange metaphysical place in which a lot of contemporary people find themselves, drawn toward belief in God and the meaning and consolation such belief offers a life; yet profoundly skeptical, profoundly bound by earthly life.

I’ll offer, along with general thoughts about Charles Wright and his place in American poetry and culture, a close reading of one of his most famous poems, Black Zodiac, among whose lines I find this one most illuminating, suggestive, and beautiful:

We go to our graves with secondary affections,
Second-hand satisfaction, half-souled,
star charts demagnetized.

“Everything’s fine here! How are you?”

“Well,” replied La Kid, “everything’s fine but I’m running around getting ready to go to the Galway Races. Can you call back tomorrow?”

La Kid‘s outing gives UD an excuse to feature this poem about the event, by Yeats.


Here where the course is,
Delight makes all of the one mind,
The riders upon the galloping horses,
The crowd that closes in behind:
We, too, had good attendance once,
Hearers and hearteners of the work;
Aye, horsemen for companions,
Before the merchant and the clerk
Breathed on the world with timid breath.
Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,
We’ll learn that sleeping is not death,
Hearing the whole earth change its tune,
Its flesh being wild, and it again
Crying aloud as the racecourse is,
And we find hearteners among men
That ride upon horses.

So of course it’s really a complaint; and not too far off from what ol’ UD‘s always on about – it’s easier to excite people with sports events than with poetry (or, to go to the subject of universities, with the thrill of thought about poetry, or thought about anything else worth thinking about). Commercialism and bureaucracy rule now, and you can’t expect timid clerks and merchants to get a charge out of being confronted with challenging aesthetics and metaphysics… But take heart! Although we live in an unpoetic world now, sleeping isn’t death – it’s a kind of preparation, a hibernation… Because the basic truths about human beings never change – our earthy flesh is wild, and ultimately in search of the unfettered “delight” of art as much as the delight of the races.


And here’s La Kid herself,


with her man Ed Fitzgerald,
at the races. It looks sunny!

UD will talk about America’s current poet laureate …

Charles Wright, at the DC Public Library, Georgetown branch, on Saturday September 13, at 1:00.

Father’s Day Fugue State

For Father’s Day, a UD favorite. D. Nurkse, much of whose poetry captures the life is but a dream problem… We so often sense that even (especially?) in the most important things we cannot (will not?) lift ourselves out of a perceptual, intellectual, emotional fog…

A lot of modern poetry seems located right there, in fact, in the thick of the fog, with the poetic voice sort of questioning itself about why it remains fogbound. Poetry, as they say, is the tunnel at the end of the light… But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— / It gives a lovely haze! If the haze is looked at with care. Paradox? Yes. We both protect ourselves from the truth, from the worst, by aestheticizing it (art heals, softens, shades), and at the same time, with the same aestheticizing gesture, expose ourselves to the truth, the worst.

Almost all art,’ [Ted] Hughes writes to American artist Leonard Baskin , ‘is an attempt by someone unusually badly hit (but almost everybody is badly hit), who is also unusually ill-equipped to defend themselves internally against the wound, to improvise some sort of modus vivendi… in other words, all art is trying to become an anaesthetic and at the same time a healing session.’ The artist is the person who because he is so much in need of anaesthetics – and is therefore tempted to trade in them – must also, ‘at the same time’ be able to resist them.

In “Introit & Fugue,” Nurkse enters (introit means entrance) into the ‘fugue state’ which is the defensive semi-awareness of the wound, and then lingers, looks, describes, the inside of the tunnel…

Introit & Fugue

After death, my father
practices meticulously
until the Bach is seamless,
spun glass in a dream,
you can no longer tell
where the modulations are,
or the pedal shifts
or the split fingerings . . .

if he rests
it’s to wind the metronome
or sip his cup of ice . . .

but who is the other old man
in the identical flannel gown,
head cocked, listening
ever more critically,
deeper in the empty room?

That interrogative that ends the thing, that question as to the identity of another old man in a room that’s actually empty, is quite typical of Nurkse, who among many foggy poets is for UD the most interestingly foggy. (I suppose for some readers Prufrock is the Frogmore of Fog, and UD certainly admires Prufrock, but there’s a lot to say about fog.) I wonder whether the other old man is the poet himself, the poet reckoning with himself both as his father’s son (indeed he has grown “identical” to him) and as an old man, as the thing his father became. The poet realizes, in this tableau, just how close he himself is to death (deeper in the empty room) even as he clings to life – life understood as the retention of our restless critical capacity, our lack of peaceful “seamlessness.” On this side, we still struggle; we are not at one with ourselves (split fingerings); in death, the poet’s father attains the delicate perfection of “spun glass,” the capacity to spin about with, and to draw coherence and continuity from, the madly note-studded Bach. On this side, we’re still in the light; on his side, the poet’s father is in the tunnel; and in a fugue state the poet follows him there, enters the empty room of the grave, where his father’s lifetime struggle with Bach (UD probably likes this poem because her own father struggled all his life with Bach) infinitely plays itself out.

So, this shows you what a really good poem can do. It can enter that weird glancing realm of knowing without realizing, seeing while refusing to see, cobbling dreams in order to prompt a scene you won’t script when you’re conscious.

We’re not allowed to forget that the poet’s father is dead. That spun glass becomes a creepy cup of ice in the second stanza… His father is on ice, no softening the matter here… But he’s after all engaged in a kind of counterpoint with his son – the fugue form featuring, usually, two musical voices in harmonic relationship with one another. And so this poem is the wound and the bow, the wound of age, loss, and mortality as well as the soothing lyric itself – the lyric not as vulgar “anaesthetic,” which the great poet resists, but as the honest evocation, the laying out for what it’s worth, of the agonizing, clarifying, transcending, dream tableau.

Wright Berth

Charles Wright, a UD fave (see her analysis of Black Zodiac here), is the new US poet laureate.

If you read through some of the poems on this page, you’ll see one strongly recurrent theme, and one strongly characteristic technique. Like Don DeLillo – he’s about DeLillo’s age, looks quite a lot like him, and presents to the world a very similar laconic diffident serious and almost shy demeanor – Wright is a lapsed but still gasping (grasping?) metaphysician. Both were raised Christian; both have long since ceased to believe. But both retain, in a visionary way, “the glowing shards of things which have continued to dazzle at me,” as Wright puts it. DeLillo notes the retention within his atheist self of eschatological seriousness:

[One of my characters] needs to know that people out there believe in all the old verities, the old gods. These things keep the planet warm. But she herself is not a believer. I think there is a sense of last things in my work that probably comes from a Catholic childhood. For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects. I think for a Catholic these things are part of ordinary life.

Both writers see a planet warmed by a glow from somewhere, warmed by a transmission from a force that feels like an ultimacy. They’re always sticking their speakers or characters in metaphysically charged settings – the desert in novels like The Names and Point Omega (the latter novel features a main character who “sit[s] and reflect[s] on grand subjects such as time, extinction and the attainment of what Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point: a zen-like state of relinquished consciousness.”), and, in Wright, the foothills of the Appalachians at dusk, with the natural world pouring down its dazzle and the poet conscious of the pathetic nothingness, in this rich and self-sufficient context, of the human. Here’s a short, echt-Wright poem, Vesper Journal. Note the teasingly prayerful title, plus the contrast between non-human living things, which lyrically accept the “tiny,” “half-grain” nature of the earth, and restless miserable metaphysically-grasping humans who can only, poem after poem after poem, lament that “language, always, is just language.”

Wright’s technique, a long free-verse line that weaves about from slangy prosaic chat to intensely Romantic nature description to baldly metaphysical reflection, captures modern consciousness as it registers both its capacity to feel awe and its inability to make awe meaningful. Wright is unlike the steadily Episcopalian Richard Wilbur, who tells an interviewer

I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy, that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that is my attitude. My feeling is that when you discover order and goodness in the world, it is not something you are imposing — it is something that is likely really to be there, whatever crumminess and evil and disorder there may also be. I don’t take disorder or meaninglessness to be the basic character of things. I don’t know where I get my information, but that is how I feel.

For Wright, we can’t even impose it anymore; we can only mull over earlier poetic (and theological) efforts to impose it. All of Black Zodiac (note the title – the blacked-out heavens) is a backward glance at the poet’s precursor cosmologists – Dante, Milton – and an insistence that these “masters” leave the poet alone in his “dwarf orchard” to work out his shrunken relationship to the cosmos. Language isn’t a medium anymore, a way through to hidden cosmic truths; it’s “an element, like air or water.” (Wright takes this last phrase from Wallace Stevens.) The human voice, our words, our poetry – these aren’t vehicles toward something metaphysical. They are simply the material, life-sustaining environment in which we move every moment of our lives. We are condemned to live out our lives trying to get the better of words (that latter phrase is from T.S. Eliot’s East Coker), knowing that we never will, but knowing also that they are all we have.

More on Sylvia Plath’s “Berck Plage”

(Earlier posts here and here.)

The natural fatness of these lime leaves!—-
Pollarded green balls, the trees march to church.

The voice of the priest, in thin air,
Meets the corpse at the gate,

Addressing it, while the hills roll the notes of the dead bell;
A glitter of wheat and crude earth.

What is the name of that color?—-
Old blood of caked walls the sun heals,

Old blood of limb stumps, burnt hearts.
The widow with her black pocketbook and three daughters,

Necessary among the flowers,
Enfolds her lace like fine linen,

Not to be spread again.
While a sky, wormy with put-by smiles,

Passes cloud after cloud.


Earlier, in her poem Berck Plage, Sylvia Plath described the ocean creep[ing] away, many-snaked, with a long hiss of distress. Now she looks up, and describes the sky, wormy with put-by smiles.

This is a world frozen in the act of becoming posthumous; on the beach we hear and see the recession of things – the sky holds faintly curved imprints of vanished smiles (the smiles of Cheshire Cat nurses who pretend to keep you alive and then vanish with a knowing smirk when you die), while the sea, oceanically insidious, is not worms but snakes, a hideous Medusa whose receding hiss hiss hiss whispers the sickening recurrence of life, suffering, and death.

The idea of futile recurrence is significantly softened in “Dover Beach,” where, standing on the coast across from Berck Plage,

you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery…

Here the sound is still tonal. It even has cadence. It’s about lyric sadness, not cold-blooded anguish. And we still own it – it hasn’t hardened into mythology yet. We share it with the ages, with Sophocles.

Matthew Arnold’s speaker looks behind him, into his hotel room, at his beloved; he turns and looks outside his window at a “fair” and “sweet” scene. Plath’s poem features not lovers but obscene exhibitionists stared at by an

onlooker, trembling,
Drawn like a long material

Through a still virulence…

The observer in Plath’s poem sees no beauty; she doesn’t even see any motion. Or if it’s motion, it’s worms moving on the bodies of the dead. It’s germs doing their slow work of undoing us – a still virulence – and all we can do is gape at the obscene semi-hidden desiccating procedure. That Cheshire cat is the grin of a skull, and the lovers, swallowed up by the sea, are becoming

white sea-crockery,
What cupped sighs, what salt in the throat….

UD is interested in beaches as poetic settings…

… and a few posts ago she began to look at Sylvia Plath’s Berck Plage, which places the poet on that broad strand beside “the sea… this great abeyance.”

Already, in this first line, you see and hear her genius, the way great and abeyance share the long A, and the way the word abeyance has bay in it… And as for its meaning: The poem will mourn and rage at the way we manage our hideous human fate by living always in abeyance, indeed by being drawn in particular to places like beaches because there our effort to put a damper on thoughts of our barely pulled together lives moving toward disintegration is eased. We go to the beach because at the tranquilizing seaside world we find a living objective correlative of our efforts to pacify ourselves, to infantilize ourselves out of fear of debility and death. It’s as if nature itself, beside the ocean, wants us to calm down and easefully lie to ourselves about our harsh fate.

Why is it so quiet, what are they hiding?
I have two legs, and I move smilingly..

A sandy damper kills the vibrations;
It stretches for miles, the shrunk voices

Waving and crutchless, half their old size.
The lines of the eye, scalded by these bald surfaces,

Boomerang like anchored elastics, hurting the owner.
Is it any wonder he puts on dark glasses?

What Philip Larkin, in an uncharacteristically upbeat poem, calls the miniature gaiety of seasides, is in Plath a sinister “hiding,” a mere front. What’s being hidden behind the soft small setting of the shore? The wearing of sunglasses there only underlines the hidden sinister aspect of a location where we’re lulled into lying about the suffering misshapen existence in which we’re actually stuck.

Yet at Berck Plage all we have to do is look up at the vast hospital complex fronting the strand to know our precise status:

On the balconies of the hotel, things are glittering.
Things, things—-

Tubular steel wheelchairs, aluminum crutches.
Such salt-sweetness. Why should I walk

Beyond the breakwater, spotty with barnacles?
I am not a nurse, white and attendant,

I am not a smile.

She’s looking not at hotels but at the hospitals of Berck, many of which specialize in traumatic physical injury. Jean-Dominique Bauby found himself in one of those buildings among “broken-winged birds, voiceless parrots, ravens of doom, who have made our nest in a dead-end corridor of the neurology department.” So at Berck Plath found her perfect coincidence: the ultimate sunlit palliative for our condition, and an immediately adjacent anguish.


To be continued.

Am about to go out to dinner with our crowd.

“Intertextuality” is the pretentious Lit Crit word for the dependency of texts upon other texts…

… for the way in which the meaning we’re deriving from reading any one particular text – a poem, a short story – has as much to do with the somehow related texts we’ve already read as it does with the text we’re right now taking in… We bring to the reading of any “new” work a lifetime of encounters with precursor works, and this readerly past is always in play in any readerly present. Literary experience, from this point of view, is personal pastiche, consciousness-patchwork, the piling up of language then onto language now, a remembrance of written things past.

And this is a marvelous thing, if you ask UD, because it’s not merely about the pleasure of feeling one’s reading become enriched over … well, over years of reading. (A similar sort of operation occurs with the act of re-reading.) It’s also – more intimately – about discovering one’s personal truths through intuiting one’s literary recurrences. By this I mean that if you live long enough and read long enough you notice yourself circling certain poems, novels, pieces of music (this doesn’t have to be just literary, obviously); and that if you think about your own recurrences you can sort of intuit important things about yourself.

UD‘s using weasel words (sort of intuit…) for the knowledge literature yields because she believes, along with James Merrill, that art is as much about a sort of saving oblivion, a tactical and beautiful evasion of life’s stark truths, as it is a vehicle of those truths. Iris Murdoch calls art “close dangerous play with unconscious forces.” Play, you see. We all know there’s something childish about the pretend business of stories and, well, plays… They aren’t reality; they’re fable and metaphor and wild and crazy imaginings… And yet of course as cultures and individuals we tend to derive our most serious understandings of reality from these unreal entertainments; and this is arguably because they give us these truths in the only form most of us can accept them. Make them too stark and we look away; aestheticize them and we’ll give them a look. We’ll maybe even (this is Aristotle, on catharsis) allow ourselves – vicariously – to undergo the ultimate emotions relative to human fate while we’re engrossed in a dramatic tragedy on stage…

It’s all push and pull, I mean to say. Art – our experience of art – enacts at once our embrace and our evasion of difficult truths. And indeed our personal intertextual history, our particular eccentric reading life, can tell us a great deal about what we’re personally up against, what we’re resisting by way of existential instruction. Our reading history can tell us about our peculiar internal cost/benefit economy, about the complicated ways in which each of us works to sustain energy and happiness throughout our lives.

So for instance whenever I’m at the beach I think about my peculiar defensive relationship to a particular poem – Berck-Plage, by Sylvia Plath. It’s been important to me over many years not to understand this poem, to find it an impervious verbal surface. Yet I keep circling it – or it keeps circling me… When I was writing, a few years ago, about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I suddenly realized that its author, Jean-Dominique Bauby, encased in locked-in syndrome at a hospital on the French Atlantic coast, is gazing from its balconies at Berck-Plage. And then – odd coincidence – my friend and colleague Tom Mallon not only reviewed this book for the New York Times, but began by noticing the same Plath/Bauby intertextuality:

“This is the tongue of the dead man,” Sylvia Plath wrote in “Berck-Plage,” her poem set in a French hospital complex by the Channel coast. “How far he is now, his actions / Around him like livingroom furniture, like a decor.” A year and a half ago, following a catastrophic stroke and weeks of deep coma in that same hospital, Jean-Dominique Bauby gradually “surfaced” into a new existence as a victim of “locked-in syndrome,” mentally alert but deprived of movement and speech.

So… the poem insinuates itself, erodes my resistance, especially of course when I’m at the beach. It pressed itself upon me, an obscure intertext, when I read Bauby (I read him here, years ago, at Rehoboth Beach); and now it’s back again on a beautiful day on the Atlantic shore, and I’m listening to the YouTube I linked you to earlier in this post, of Plath, with her flat angry voice, reciting it.

The core problem, I suppose, is that this particular poem (I adore almost all of Plath’s poems) is insufficiently evasive; it is out there in the way of reality itself, and, really, who wants that? In “Berck-Plage” there’s nothing tempering Plath’s disgust and horror at our painful lives and our dreadful deaths; she simply contrasts the happy-making aspect of vacation beaches, the fully sunlit life, the smooth-limbed physical joy of children at the supreme play of beach play (On my morning beach walk today, I paused as a young boy streaked across the boardwalk in front of me on his way to the sand. BEACH! he shouted. BEACH!), with the disfigurement and debility that await us.

These children are after something, with hooks and cries,
And my heart too small to bandage their terrible faults.

We can do nothing for one another as our weak fallible selves devolve toward the end; we are all too small-hearted and afraid.

The scene shifts, in the poem, from the beach to a man’s deathbed. The poet looks at the dead man:

This is what it is to be complete. It is horrible.
Is he wearing pyjamas or an evening suit

Under the glued sheet from which his powdery beak
Rises so whitely unbuffeted?

They propped his jaw with a book until it stiffened
And folded his hands, that were shaking: goodbye, goodbye.

Now the washed sheets fly in the sun,
The pillow cases are sweetening.

He’ll be unstuck from the bed just as the lovers she’s seen at the beach “unstick themselves” after “obscene,” hidden sex. Once he’s gone he’s gone and it’s just a matter of resweetening his pillow cases for the next case.

They are flying off into nothing: remember us.
The empty benches of memory look over stones,

Marble facades with blue veins, and jelly-glassfuls of daffodils.
It is so beautiful up here: it is a stopping place.

“Berck-Plage” is a beautiful stopping place. Only one doesn’t want to stop.

An atypical, wonderful poem by Maya Angelou…

… who died today.

Awaking in New York

Curtains forcing their will
against the wind,
children sleep,
exchanging dreams with
seraphim. The city
drags itself awake on
subway straps; and
I, an alarm, awake as a
rumor of war,
lie stretching into dawn,
unasked and unheeded.

This small lyric lacks the florid, sentimental feel of a lot of her other work (prose, poetry, music). In its place there’s the held-back powerfully suggestive contents of an interesting consciousness. A consciousness coming to consciousness in the big city, feeling the drag of sleep against the imperative to wake, feeling the temptation not to get up and struggle, not to take up arms in life and try to fight your way to clarity, to fight against the world’s injustice. And feeling too the larger futility of being “unasked and unheeded” by a world of passive indifferent strap-hangers. Yet she will “force her will” on the world, will be the winds of change, a “rumor of war.” The line “lie stretching into dawn” is wonderful, especially the word “stretching,” implying as it does not just physically stretching as one awakes, but increasing in understanding.

The poem puts UD in mind of a famous Henry James statement:

Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong: beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.

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