4,999 Students in UD’s Poetry MOOC…

… which, if I’m not mistaken, is one short of 5,000. The number continues to grow at a healthy pace, and UD is thrilled.

If you’ve found any of UD‘s posts on poetry – of poetry – of interest, you’ll find at the link a systematic presentation of her take on the form.

Carting it Away at Bainbridge State

Higgledy piggledy
Natalie Higley’s
Wanted for theft
Of unusual things.

Hand saws and tractors and
Lumber extraneous…
And they’ve charged her with RICO
‘Cause she worked in a ring.

(UD thanks polisciprof.)

A Valentine’s Day Poem About Iris Murdoch’s Love for Raymond Queneau.

(UD wrote and posted this poem a few years ago. She thought she’d re-post it.)



“Listen – I love you in the most absolute sense possible.”
Iris Murdoch, letter to Raymond Queneau, 1952.

Listen! Of all the senses of love, the most absolute
Is this one, where I’m young and you’re older, married,
And we drift through cities foreign to us both,
Cities still ruined, and speak French,
And stand on bridges trembling over foul water.

The most absolute sense possible of love – listen -
Is this one. A charming ex-surrealist.
Une fille épatante.
They climb the hills near
Innsbruck and talk about his psychoanalysis.
Irishwoman. A little bun. She loves Kierkegaard.

In the most absolute sense, listen, I love you.
Others can listen in after we’re dead and
Figure out what that means. Read all about it.
Letters journals novels memoirs.
Somewhere I say you have a very beautiful head.

I love you in the most absolute sense possible.
Are you listening? My heart, beating on a bridge
In Austria, and among all the questions in my head
This one is absolutely answered. I would do anything
For you… Come to you at any time or place…

After you die, I affect a calm farewell:
He was a natural, absolute philosopher -
Some statement of the sort was expected of me.
But listen. In the most absolute sense possible,
Love pulses and pulses and pulses.

Poem for New Year’s

(The last section of John Logan’s The Bridge of Change.)




Who can stand these juxtapositions of person and place and time? I walk across the Bridge of Change where I have so often watched by the towers of the Conciergerie. Now, water laves a little higher up the stair from the River to the Quay, hiding some of the steps from me. Boats nudge at the edge. I walk along the Boulevard past the great gold and blue corner clock, the ornate wrought-iron gate and fence of the Place of Justice (its name changed from the time of kings), past the shadow and spire of Sainte Chapelle. I cross the Bridge of Saint Michel into the Latin Quarter. But I do not look for the Street of the Cat Who Fishes or the Street of the Harp. I turn right, wandering a bit, and suddenly, as if by chance, find myself at this street, and here I will wait, for it is our street, Rue Gît le Coeur: Here Lies the Heart.

UD now talks about a series of modern …

… New Year’s poems. She’ll start with this one. It’s in the form of a New Year’s letter to a friend.

Modern poets bring a number of intriguing ideas and feelings to New Year’s. I’m not saying these ideas and feelings necessarily add up to what UD (consult her taste, at length, here) calls a great poem. But they tell you something about us, in 20… uh… 14.


Letter to GC has the slangy fragmented musing down in the dumps thing characteristic of many of our time’s poems. Although it begins

I say most sincerely and desperately, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

it really has little to do with the turn of the year. No references to the weather, to the passage of time, to resolutions, to change, to renewal, to failure to renew, which tend to be the established New Year’s themes. Rather, the poem has to do with the poet’s familiar, year-round, right on the edge of psychological menace, unhappiness. She writes desperately and is in a desperate place:

Having rowed a little farther away from the cliff
Which is my kind of religion
Adrift in the darkness but readying oars
How can there be too many stars and hands, I ask you

She starts her letter to her friend with the precise coordinates of her mental instability as the year begins, the good news being that she finds herself, at this turning point, a little farther from falling off of a cliff than she has been. Yet so unstable is her condition that she has made a kind of religion of staying afloat despite her fragile “adrift in the darkness” reality.

She needs a lot of help: stars to guide her in the dark, and helping hands from other rowers on the same “wide water, without sound” on which Sunday Morning‘s riser perilously floats.

The rest of the poem will discuss a major modern malaise: self-consciousness. The Romantics could write things like

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time

but we’re too cool, too hip for (as Dana Levin writes in her penultimate line) the drama of feeling. These days, feeling itself is a problem – a personal problem, and therefore also an aesthetic problem. We can’t write Blakeian poems anymore, but we’re still subject to the same intense emotions as the Romantics. How, then, to write? How to convey our emotions verbally?

We can convey our events; we can say in poetry what happened.

We are getting such lovely flourishes from our poets
Fathomless opportunities for turning literacy into event

We have much more trouble conveying our true feelings. The poet can say at the beginning of the poem that she sincerely wishes CG a happy new year; but that’s Hallmark sincerity. What presents itself to the poet as a problem is expressing her personal, deep, and authentic feelings in her poetry.

I would be disingenuous if I said “being understood” were not important to me
Between the ceiling of private dream and the floor of public speech

So here she assumes the voice of someone like John Ashbery – not lyrical but discursive… Even rather absurdly self-consciously over-discursive (those quotation marks around being understood which dissolve the possibility of being understood even as they write being understood). And note the tortured negative, and the tortured subjunctive, feel of the line… We’re very far from sincere direct address. Yet where, between inexpressible obscurantism and inauthentic social chatter, can the poet locate the language of emotional authenticity?

It is impossible to say just what I mean!


The imagination and its products so often rebuff purpose
And some of us don’t like it, and want to make it mean
I would never shoot you, even if you were the only meat around

This is the modern poet impatient with the obliqueness of the modern poem, the modern sensibility. She wants her poems to mean something, dammit, not just dance cleverly around things, the way she, in her religion, dances around that cliff. Why futz with fancy language no one’s going to understand? You wanna tell someone you love them, you say I love you so much that even if I were starving and you were meat I wouldn’t shoot you.

Humor… humor’s one way to go… A joke being, as Nietzsche said, an epigram on the death of a feeling …

Anyway, I empathize with your lower division semester (which sounds
kinda Dante, to me)

The poet commiserates with her professor friend’s upcoming teaching in a lower division (and as with the work of Charles Wright, she references Dante – true religion, if you will – in that skittish clever modern way she says she’s kinda trying to avoid); and she does confess, as her poem ends,

I want to be approved of, so much
Despite the image I’ve been savoring, the one of the self-stitching wound
Yes, I want to write that self-healing wound poem, the one with
cocoon closed up with thorns

It’d be great if she were, say, Andy Warhol; but actually she writes because she’s vulnerable and wants love and approval and understanding. She is very far from being a closed up cocoon.

So – a post-romantic lament at the turn of the year… These days, as she says… these special year-end days prompt thoughts of our current, particular, predicament.

Simile for the Snow

Trying to keep going a fire which wants to hiss more than flame, UD turns from the hearth to her snowy windows and thinks There must be a poem for this. She thinks of Wallace Stevens – The Snow Man – but she has read and thought about that poem for a long time, and she wants a different poem, a newer poem, about the snow. Something after Stevens.

She finds this:

In Whose Unctions
By Greg Glazner

After Stevens

By now the snow is easing
the live nerves of the wire fence
and the firs,
softening the distances it falls through,
laying down a rightness,
as in the spackled whites,
the woodgrains of a room’s hush
before music,
before a lush legato in whose unctions
the excruciations ease,
as in the first
thick arrhythmics from the hardwoods
of the late quartets,
whose dense snow of emotion,
whose violins and cellos,
desiring the exhilarations of changes,
turn loose an infusion
of wintry music, all sideslip and immense descent,
repetitions, evolutions
salving down into the still air,
the wound,
the listening.


The listener in the snow, in the Stevens poem, is “nothing himself,” and “beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” So this is a deathly white, a ghost’s stillness, in which even for the non-ghost the blank that underlies the living world exhibits itself when the world is blanketed.

In Glazner’s post-Stevens snow-listening, things are different.

Here rather than nihilism’s exhibitionist, the snow is a balm, an unction, a salving. The snow isn’t the fallen snow of Stevens; it’s snow still falling, making the world whir with motion rather than settling on and crusting the boughs of trees.

And even if this snow does settle, it’s an easing of jangled nerves, a softening, and a rightness, rather than a death revealed.

The poem now begins to explore its rich central simile: The snow is falling

as in the spackled whites,
the woodgrains of a room’s hush
before music,

From exterior to interior, we consider the white flakes inside the grained wood of a music room where a string quartet is about to perform. As the snow “rights” the world, the spackled – repaired – wood, the wood whose gaps have been closed by white spackles, “rights” the room, makes it beautiful, and softens it – diminuendos it – in preparation for the sound about to be made. The snow, like the softened grained wood, is a kind of preconditioning, a preparation of the world for life. The softened world of the music room exists to put into relief

a lush legato in whose unctions
the excruciations ease

The snow eases the

live nerves of the wire fence
and the firs

Our live-wire life, excruciatingly jangly, is soothed and righted by the gorgeous descents of snow and music.

as in the first
thick arrhythmics from the hardwoods
of the late quartets,

Clever, no? The wood of the musical instruments, part of the interior “wood” which is the music room, opens with a lush somewhat harsh sawing, if you will, of the opening notes of, say, Beethoven; though UD is made to think of Jacqueline Du Pre’s Elgar Concerto. The thick heavy profundo from the cello’s wood, not yet part, in these opening notes, of a detectable rhythm, changes us as we listen to it, breaks in a special way the silence of the room. This

dense snow of emotion,
whose violins and cellos,
desiring the exhilarations of changes,
turn loose an infusion
of wintry music, [is] all sideslip and immense descent

Now we explicitly draw them together, the snow and the tones, the tones generating a thick, dense covering over of our ordinary jangliness with becalmed snows of emotion (or if you prefer, music hath charms to soothe the savage breast); but doing more than the literal snow because these tones are “formal,” allowing “the exhilarations of changes.” This beautiful sound is

salving down into the still air,
the wound,
the listening.


This poem reminds me that my favorite poetry collection title is James Merrill’s The Fire Screen, because that’s what art is – the thing we have in order not to perish of the truth, the thing that strategically protects us from the worst even as it finds ways to bring us the worst, or at least to make us feel the furnace blast of the worst. In the Stevens poem you get the truth without shading; in Glazner’s you have the snow screen, the art screen.

Poem for a Beautiful Halloween Night: William Allingham’s “Autumnal Sonnet”

Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods,
And day by day the dead leaves fall and melt,
And night by night the monitory blast
Wails in the key-hold, telling how it pass’d
O’er empty fields, or upland solitudes,
Or grim wide wave; and now the power is felt
Of melancholy, tenderer in its moods
Than any joy indulgent summer dealt.
Dear friends, together in the glimmering eve,
Pensive and glad, with tones that recognise
The soft invisible dew in each one’s eyes,
It may be, somewhat thus we shall have leave
To walk with memory,–when distant lies
Poor Earth, where we were wont to live and grieve.


UD‘s poetry MOOC now has more than four thousand students. She’s thrilled. Not just by that number, but by the thoughtful questions and comments her students regularly add to the course’s main page.

I was raking maple leaves this afternoon…

… a clear October afternoon, and at one point a full sun was overhead and leaves were swirling down. I put down my rake and lay on the lawn to feel the sun and see the leaves swirling, and everything really was clear: the bright sky, each sharp leaf with red, green, and a bit of rot on its surface landing neatly on the lawn. You rake the leaves down to the street, and every few hours a green truck comes and carts them away, and this too is clear – a nice clear system of gathering and disposal.

Hyperclarified days are rare. This one made me think of Conrad Aiken’s poem, The Room.

Through that window — all else being extinct
Except itself and me — I saw the struggle
Of darkness against darkness. Within the room
It turned and turned, dived downward. Then I saw
How order might — if chaos wished — become:
And saw the darkness crush upon itself,
Contracting powerfully; it was as if
It killed itself: slowly: and with much pain.
Pain. The scene was pain, and nothing but pain.
What else, when chaos draws all forces inward
To shape a single leaf? . . .

For the leaf came,
Alone and shining in the empty room;
After a while the twig shot downward from it;
And from the twig a bough; and then the trunk,
Massive and coarse; and last the one black root.
The black root cracked the walls. Boughs burst the window:
The great tree took possession.

Tree of trees!
Remember (when time comes) how chaos died
To shape the shining leaf. Then turn, have courage,
Wrap arms and roots together, be convulsed
With grief, and bring back chaos out of shape.
I will be watching then as I watch now.
I will praise darkness now, but then the leaf.


The mind, as it turns forward in time, struggles darkly with darkness. I was thinking, all afternoon, about the deaths of people I loved, or loved and hated, or whatever. But anyway diving downward into that chaos which is my own hopeless reckoning with darkness. Not “convulsed with grief” – not courageous enough for that, but certainly wrapping arms and roots together and watching my thoughts.

Watching through the mind’s window whose insistence on seeing it through, seeing through it, makes “all else… extinct.” The effort of drawing up out of chaos, says Aiken, is painful, but there it is, the completed multifarious leaf, shining its edges against the lawn. Ultimately there are cracked walls and burst windows – a painful, earth-altering awakening. Generative, enlightening, painful.

The one black root… the black root
: This underlies the clarifying and there’s no denying it. Chaos resumes after the epiphanies; but “remember… how chaos died / To shape the shining leaf.” The one thing and then the other; darkness, light. As you enter into chaos again – the chaos of every vague and grieving life – remember the natural pattern at play, the contraction and expansion. Let the chaos be, live with it, and eventually once again the light will break. Praise both: the darkness and the leaf.

Poet, Professor, Activist…

Kofi Awoonor was killed in the terrorist attack in Kenya.

Ol’ UD gets a nice mention in this piece…

… about MOOCs.

My MOOC on poetry, by the way, now has 3,764 students. Feel free to give it a whirl.

Seamus Heaney has died.

Colm Tóibín remembers him.

UD writes about one of his poems here.


Heaney’s charming translation of a ninth century Irish poem reminds UD of Auden’s translation of the poem, set to music by Samuel Barber.

Poets&Writers Magazine features UD in an article…

… about MOOCs.


More attention.

“[I]n college I was learning that Dostoyevsky, James, Proust, George Eliot—as well as novelists as different as Jane Austen and Laclos—were major texts for secular moral instruction. We used to think that, at any rate, if you’d read enough French novels, you had no right to whimper, in the middle of some erotic, social, and spiritual catastrophe you’d prepared for yourself, ‘How could this happen to me?’”

John Hollander, a clever poet who has died, at the age of 83, said this clever thing in a 1985 Paris Review interview.


Dartmouth boy stands at the foot of the bed,
Drops on a woman his little gold thread.
Hush! Hush! Stop him who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

God bless rummy! I know that’s right.
Wasn’t it fun drinking rum tonight?
The beer’s so cold, and the rum’s so hot.
Oh God bless vodka – I quite forgot.

I know it will make her get even more sore
If I pull out my pecker a little bit more.
It’s a beautiful red and it hasn’t a hood.
God bless my pecker; it’s so damn good.

It’s so damn good as I stand by the bed
And pull it out further right over her head
And I shut my eyes and I squeeze my hose
And I wet the woman from head to toes.

Oh Thank you God for a lovely day
And what was the other I had to say?
I said “Bless Rummy,” so what can it be?
Oh! Now I remember it. God bless Me.

Dartmouth boy stands at the foot of the bed,
Drops on a woman his little gold thread.
Hush! Hush! Stop him who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

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