My Faculty Project Poetry Course’s Enrollment…

…has hit 6,000! The course is free – take a look. Enroll.

If you want to look at a sample lecture, I’d recommend Lecture 11, Philip Larkin and W.H. Auden.

Tadeusz Różewicz, Polish Poet, Has Died.

Made numb and nihilistic by his bloody century, Różewicz was as tempted by silence as his great inspiration, Samuel Beckett.

Like Beckett, he relied on a set of vestigial but hardy lungs to cough out his art. He was like the drowning man in Dulce et Decorum Est: He plunged at you, guttering.

This would have to be anti-poetry, since beauty and meaning and compassion were lies, jokes, traps. So a lot of his poems are like this one, which is just an elaborate shield against the onslaught of verse, against the ever-present, degrading temptation toward higher things, toward – as with the philosopher’s stone – the possibility of transforming shit into diamonds.

philosopher’s stone

we need to put
this poem to sleep

before it starts
before it starts

for compliments

called to life
in a moment of forgetting

sensitive to words
it looks to
a philosopher’s
stone for help
o passerby hasten your step
do not lift up the stone

there a blank verse
to ashes


Puts one in mind of the Yeats lines:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Yet Yeats spent all his years futzing with metaphysical solutions, while Różewicz was always Beckettian, always disgusted by life-blandishments. Poetry of his sort risks – as Beckett risked – redundancy, since the variety and intensity of simple natural life —

Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights…

— isn’t available. What’s available are the stripped hard edges of unredeemed actuality. As Jaroslaw Anders points out, Różewicz tried for a sort of Camusian humanism:

Rozewicz’s humanism, his attempt to find a counterbalance to pessimism in “commonplace feelings,” is often strained and unconvincing. It is clear that he does not really like his heroes, or his heroines, of gray existence. He seems to realize that “eat and give birth” is hardly a moral program. It is interesting to observe how Rozewicz tries to resolve the metaphysical implications of his pessimistic vision. In some poems, he seems to come close to nihilism. In “Unde malum?” he calls human existence a “work-related/accident/of nature/an error.”

His poetry is a principled archive of the phobic distrustful forms of being generated by atrocity.

Mother’s Day Poem #2, “Hypostasis & New Year,” by Peter Gizzi…

… is a stranger and more difficult poem than Moritz’s (see the post below this one), but it says similar things about mothers. Both poets go restlessly in search of reality, essence, the thing in itself, imperishable being — hypostasis. Moritz sees its traces in his inexplicable deathless adolescent journals; with the advent of a new year, Gizzi finds himself set on a similar search – for true foundations that might free him into a new bold authentic life.

But his first stanza notes his cowardice:

For why am I afraid to sing
the fundamental shape of awe
should I now begin to sing the silvered back of
the winter willow spear
the sparkling agate blue
would this blade and this sky free me to speak
intransitive lack –

Why is he afraid to be full-throated in his expression of the basic bliss of being? Could he use the blade, the spear, of the willow leaf to cut himself free from repression? Is it just a matter of launching his poem, his song, in praise of nature? If he trusts the poetry, will it lead him to the light?

Of what am I afraid
of what lies in back of me of day
these stars scattered as far as the I
what world and wherefore
will it shake free
why now in the mind of an afternoon is a daisy
for a while
flagrant and alive

Yeah well and if I do happen to gain access to the world of light, to essential being, what if it scares the shit out of me? “What world?” the poet quite reasonably asks. The mind has mountains, says Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it also has light years in it (“stars scattered as far as the I”), and maybe we don’t want to know our own capacities, our deepest and most distant possibilities. What will access to essences “shake free”?

For every icon of flagrant aliveness, there’s this:

Then what of night
of hours’ unpredicated bad luck and the rot
it clings to
fathomless on the far side in winter dark

Hey shadow world when a thing comes back
comes back unseen but felt and no longer itself
what then
what silver world mirrors tarnished lenses
what fortune what fate
and the forms not themselves but only itself the sky
by water and wind shaken
I am born in silvered dark

Maybe all I really evoke when I boldly gain access to awe is the felt disappearance of me from the world, my transformation from a living human form to a thing, an object. The forms not themselves but only itself. I am earthy material; for the moment life is breathed into me; but I am ultimately earthy material only. What I live in this life is not really light but dark occasionally “silvered” by shafts of light.

between the hypostatic scenes of breathing
and becoming the thing I see
are they not the same

You got your basic death anxiety here, babe; courage to poke into the truth is courage to reckon with your ultimate permanent thinginess.

So like Moritz Gizzi will spend the rest of the poem remarking upon the shabby unreadable enigma of the material world, a world whose (again post-industrial) rusting speaks of some once-vibrant, once-lofty world-infancy from which the poet has fallen away.

Things don’t look good on the street today
beside a tower in a rusting lot
one is a condition the other mystery
even this afternoon light so kind and nourishing
a towering absence vibrating air

The tower is an object, part of our conditioned, transitive (see his first stanza; he’s after the intransitive) world; our “rusting lot” (our fortune, our fate, is to rust) is an unconditional mystery, one particularly hard to fathom and tolerate given the flagrant and alive afternoon daisy, not to mention whatever invisible force is making the afternoon light so glorious. How can we handle this impossible duality?

Shake and I see pots from old shake
and I see cities anew
I see robes shake I see desert
I see the farthing in us all the ghost of day
the day inside night as tones decay
and border air
it is the old songs and the present wind I sing
and say I love the unknown sound in a word

Shake yourself into the truth and you see the truth: One’s own transient, insubstantial being, everyone’s brief afternoon (the farthing in us all the ghost of day). So okay, the poet will try to sing both: the old songs and the present wind; and meanwhile why not rest, as the Buddhists say, in the mystery? Why not – instead of restless hypostasis-seeking – find a way to love the unknown sound?

Okay, and finally la mama:

Mother where from did you leave me on the sleeve
of a dying word
of impish laughter in the midst my joy
I compel and confess open form
my cracked hinged picture doubled

I can’t remember now if I made a pact with the devil
when I was young
when I was high
on a sidewalk I hear “buy a sweatshirt?” and think
buy a shirt from the sweat of children
I’m just taking a walk in the sun in a poem
and this sound
caught in the most recent coup

Somewhat querulous question, that. But anyway the target here would be the speaker’s mother, because she gave him life into this weird world of joy and dying, this place where the poet does indeed find the courage to confess, openly, his hopeless entanglement in blissful being and hideous anticipatory thinginess.

The specific, daily place where the poet’s truest consciousness resides is in a kind of lifelong auditory sensitivity to the way in which the tragic night-ghost-decay truth sidles – it’s a humane tolerable pun-like way – into the poet’s high-noon walk. (The hell of the sweat of children.)

Two Poems for Mother’s Day

I’ll start with the easier one. Home Again Home Again by A. F. Moritz describes a person at a comfortable remove from his mother (and father); they’ve become “unchanging,” part of a “long slow time.”

So father, mother, the small shabby town,
its patch of earth going on as though forever: you
forgot them there, where they’d been since you started out
and where you could find them again — as anyone
forgets what he has to lean on
so deeply and heavily that it wounds his side
and the pain seems only himself.

His life isn’t about them anymore; it’s about him. They exist only as the past he “lean[s] on / so deeply and heavily” that he feels it simply as his own present reality – “only himself.” He has accomplished a sort of full absorption of his parents into himself, so that they themselves, as flesh and blood people existing in a specific history, are forgotten.

He lives with this attitude toward them happily enough, until one day he wakes up feeling guilty, ungrateful, as though he’s crushed them in their human particularity for the sake of his own selfish being in the world. So he travels back to their old shabby town in an effort to remember them, to as it were reanimate them, give them their due.

The buildings had leaned still farther
toward the dusty weeds and crumbs of old machines
littered everywhere inexplicably. And now
who will explain them?

The scene is one of enigma and abandon, a ruined post-industrial landscape that can’t explain itself because no one who lived it is alive. People – his parents – had worked here, worked hard, for themselves and for their children. But the meaning of it all – the human motive of it – remains inexplicable.

And check the records:
what is written down says nothing.
The volumes all avoid the one question you have.
They’re like the notebooks you kept in adolescence:
you turn the endless pages and you wonder,
what did I know or feel, how did I live then,
what was this violence and love, this utter newness,
invention that could sing water and light, raging
at the first touch of dying, never mentioning death?
You went back and the bones of your native town
were like that, records from which something had escaped:
a skeletal mill that roofed ghostly technologies
where men once worked, coughed, burnt, bled.

History books don’t help, because they don’t tell you what you’ve come to find out, which is what our deepest, most alive, impulses mean. Returning to the town is like rereading your adolescent journals. In both cases, you just don’t get it. You see ruins of youth, so this means there must have been youth. You see skeletons, smudged marks, faded papers of youth and industry and intensity, now-dead locations where once a certain hyperactivity prevailed:

violence and love
invention that could sing water and light, raging
at the first touch of dying, never mentioning death

But what was this frenzy? What was its cause? Where did it go?

And that way they had permitted the long pageants
of the children. And their mothers — whose images,
vague, identical, stalk by in the nights,
each one sorrowing and serene, her starved, enamelled,
hard flesh torn, her dress the blue of late dusk,
the heaven behind her a work of flat blinding gold.

Well, they worked like dogs for their children, to permit their long pageants, their happy lives. Children who now, like the speaker of the poem (notice that his “you” gradually slides into “I”), find their dreams stalked by iconic sacrificing mother images – mothers who starved themselves into early deaths (blue of late dusk) in order to “work” a golden heaven for their children.

And that was the personally “inexplicable” vibrancy of the adolescent poet himself; it was a pageant purchased for him by the ghostly industry of his father and mother.

Poem #2 coming up.

So take two poems by Vijay Seshadri…

… who has won the poetry Pulitzer. Take “Bright Copper Kettles” and “Three Persons.” They’re both halting little dances to the music of time, or, if you like, rivulets of consciousness from a poet afloat in the present and at the same time darkly encroached upon, occasionally even flooded by, that old catastrophe.

His life will start to break apart eventually. Then he will die. He wouldn’t mind knowing something about that. He wouldn’t mind knowing more about his strange relationship to his condition of knowing something about that. So in the first poem, its title taken from the treacly Sound of Music song, his favorite thing is consort with the dead, since they know all and can enlighten him as to what awaits. They come to him in dreams, and

I like it so much I sleep all the time.
Moon by day and sun by night find me dispersed
deep in the dreams where they appear.
In fields of goldenrod, in the city of five pyramids,
before the empress with the melting face, under
the towering plane tree, they just show up.
“It’s all right,” they seem to say. “It always was.”

This is no night of living dead absurdity; they don’t menace him. Why would they?

They’re dead, you understand, they don’t exist. And, besides,
why would they care? They’re subatomic, horizontal. Think about it.
One of them shyly offers me a pencil.
The eyes under the eyelids dart faster and faster.
Through the intercom of the house where for so long there was no music,
the right Reverend Al Green is singing,
“I could never see tomorrow.
I was never told about the sorrow.”

The right Reverend has no fore-knowledge of life’s breaking apart and then the end of life; no dead people ever told him about it. The poet however has puzzled out a path to the dead, and they have broken the silence of his mind with the knowledge the Reverend lacks. The poet’s rapid eye movement as he dreams registers his excitement about what he is about to understand.

Yet the poem ends not with sage words from the dead, but with one of the dead shyly (earlier the poet has called the dead in his dreams “diffident” and “polite”) offering the poet a pencil. How to interpret the gesture? Perhaps something like this. Wake up! You’re horizontal all the time, just like us, because you’re so desperate to know what awaits. Death is … eh… I dunno… It’s another condition; like life. Both are all right – in the sense that both are, and there’s little point in acts of resistance. You, however, at the moment, write. You’re a poet. Allow me to be bold enough to suggest that you should just keep doing what you’ve been doing: Recording what it feels like to be a human being in the middle of your journey.

The second poem also ends with a pencil. Here the speaker fixates not on the dead dead, but the alive dead. He contrasts himself, a vital successful sort of person, with losers, slow people, people you leave behind when you make it. While you stride about organizing with an electric clipboard / your big push to tomorrow, you can’t avoid thinking about those you’ve left in your dust, people “coaxing” their “battered grocery cart[s] down the freeway meridian.” You see yourself, others see you, as a mythic, storied figure striding life like a colossus; but the loser has a special insight into the truth of you (and here the poem begins to merge with the one we just looked at; this is a poet drawn to has-beens because he knows that having-been is the ineluctable human truth, however we delude ourselves about that):

He doesn’t see you as a story, though.
He feels you as his atmosphere. When your sun shines,
he chortles. When your barometric pressure drops
and the thunderheads gather,
he huddles under the overpass and writes me long letters with
the stubby little pencils he steals from the public library.
He asks me to look out for you.

The prince and the pauper; the poet and… the poet. The loser turns out to be wielding the same pencil the winner’s got in his hand. Here’s his special knowledge; here’s why he’s worried about the poet’s welfare: They are equally vulnerable to the gathering thunderheads.


UD would say that these poems are variations on Lear’s

Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel…

Encounters with the wretches, though, disclose something rather odd, and moving: He asks me to look out for you.

April: Hymn to Life

James Schuyler’s great, endless poem, “Hymn to Life,” is all about April, the way the world’s sudden sharp-edged surging back to life stirs us – but stirs us, says Schuyler, to this:

Life, I do not understand.

Stirred, shaken, clueless in the surge. But the poet in “Hymn to Life” endlessly registers – sings – the way the world looks, the surge of bliss inside him, the suffering that shadows it. Here is an excerpt.


Press your face into the
Wet April chill: a life mask. Attune yourself to what is happening
Now, the little wet things, like washing up the lunch dishes. Bubbles
Rise, rinse and it is done. Let the dishes air dry, the way
You let your hair after a shampoo. All evaporates, water, time, the
Happy moment and — harder to believe — the unhappy. Time on a bus,
That passes, and the night with its burthen and gift of dreams. That
Other life we live and need, filled with joys and terrors, threaded
By dailiness: where the wished for sometimes happens, or, just
Before waking tremulous hands undo buttons. Another day, the sun
Comes out from behind unbuttoned cloud underclothes — gray with use —
And bud scales litter the sidewalks.


The poem speaks in the whispered self-prompting of the lyric; this is a consciousness urging itself toward clarity, regretting but forgiving its lack of clarity. Hyper-clarified April days bring on a sense of inner/outer paradox: the mind doesn’t understand the world that seems to press an obvious immediacy of understanding of the real right into the poet’s face. Any idiot could see the world and life for what they are! And so he urges himself on to take it, to press his face into not the death mask but the life mask that forms around his face as he braves the April chill. How can you be so dense and shadowed when it’s all over you, smack in your face, the life-blast? April is the ultimate come-on, and God forbid you’re like Eliot’s wasted man, calling it cruel because it fucks with some weird little ontological ice age you’ve got going. Be in tune with the living world and let things be without troubling them with your efforts to understand what life is. And don’t even try to understand your crazy dreams from “that other life” where you’ll wake up, dammit, just as “tremulous hands undo buttons.” So maybe your dreams won’t recompense you; but the clouds unbutton, leaving a world so lit up you can see “bud scales” all over the sidewalk. Not buds; the particular tiny scaly leaves that cling to the buds, protecting them as they slowly flower. That’s how precise the light lets your vision be; and that’s how intricate and intense the world’s effort is to nurture and replicate itself into full bloom.



The trees leaf out and bloom. You
Suddenly sense: you don’t know what. An exhilaration that revives
Old views and surges of energy or the pure pleasure of
Simply looking…

But these burgeoning days are
Not like any others. Promise is a part of it, promise of warmth
And vegetative growth. “Wheel me out into the sun, Sonny,
These old bones that creak need it.” And the gardener does not
Come back: over the winter he had a heart attack, has to take it
Easy. You see death shadowed out in another’s life. The threat
Is always there, even in balmy April sunshine. So what
If it is hard to believe in? Stopping in the city while the light
Is red, to think that all who stop with you too must stop, and
Yet it is not less individual a fate for all that. “When I
was born, death kissed me. I kissed it back.” Meantime, there
Is bridge, and solitaire, and phone calls and a door slams, someone
Goes out into the April sun to take a spin as far as the
Grocer’s, to shop, and then come back. In the fullness of time,
Let me hand you an empty cup, coffee stained. Or a small glass
Of spirits: “Here’s your ounce of whisky for today.”

… Life, I do not understand.

Longtime readers know that UD likes tracking down uses of ‘April is the cruelest month’ in the popular press.

Here are a few that have appeared in the last couple of weeks.

“April is the cruelest month,” the poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote. Could it be he suffered from allergies?

April is the cruelest month, as they say, and you can expect problems to ensue when Microsoft is expected to cease supporting the nearly 20-year-old operating system.

It was T.S. Eliot who said “April is the cruelest month.” But then, he probably never got a tax refund.

TS Eliot thought April the cruelest month, though it is possible the American-born poet had never heard of squeaky-bum time, which this season seems set to take place in March. At least that is true at the top of the Premier League, where Chelsea and Tottenham reach 30 games at the weekend.

“All poems are elegies at their core, she often said.”

That’s from the New York Times obituary for Maxine Kumin, who died last month. And here you’ve got – at least from where I’m sitting – your basic glorious early spring evening, the sun casting a green glance back at the deer paths in the garden, and the look couldn’t be less elegaic. But give it to a poet – give an evening like this to a great poet – and there’s likely to be elegy at the core.

Babette Deutsch said Delmore Schwartz was “haunted by the noise time makes,” and time makes quite a rumpus in transitional seasons.

Perhaps no poet of his period so skillfully depicted the threat of change in humankind and what he termed “the wound of consciousness.”

So here, in “Calmly We Walk Through this April’s Day,” he strides through the present – a spring present – tormented by the future. Outwardly calm with his lover along the streets of New York City —

Metropolitan poetry here and there,
In the park sit pauper and rentier,
The screaming children, the motor-car
Fugitive about us, running away…

— he could almost be Frank O’Hara, except for that “fugitive,” a word, early in the poem, suggesting a world of time “running away” from him even as he tries to capture it. The year, he reminds himself, is 1937, and this is a poem of numbers – how long people lived before they died; how long it’s been since people died. So there’s a fine bumping springlike world out there and he’s walking in it, but his mind, his wounded consciousness, is altogether elsewhere, in being-toward-death. His parentheses alone at first carry the morbidity, the thoughts that torment him. Gradually, though, these thoughts escape the brackets and spill out onto the April street:

(This is the school in which we learn …)
What is the self amid this blaze?
What am I now that I was then
Which I shall suffer and act again,
The theodicy I wrote in my high school days
Restored all life from infancy,
The children shouting are bright as they run
(This is the school in which they learn …)
Ravished entirely in their passing play!
(… that time is the fire in which they burn.)

My early naive schooling had me a theodicist, finding a transcendence that eluded the blaze in which time burns the self. Now when I look at children I see them as heedlessly brief, entirely engrossed in play even as time’s flame heightens around them.

His final stanza:

Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

He can’t believe it; he can’t understand it… It’s so bizarre that he has to perish, and that every voluptuous New York City April moment is really a tutorial in believing it. The more intensely life flashes, the more intensely that flash shows itself to be the fire in which we burn. So he ends with a faint prayer that as long as he subsists he may do so with a restorative memory at least able to retain the reality of his having been, his having had a past.

So much the same sort of language appears in poems that describe, like Schwartz’s, moments of intense beauty, of emotional intensity, shared between two people. In Louis MacNeice’s The Sunlight on the Garden, things don’t flame; they freeze. The sunlight fails.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Same elegy at the heart of intensest being; same intrusion of despair into joy. MacNeice is more stoical, more tight-lipped, than Schwartz, but it’s the same being-toward-death he’s sharing with his companion. We cannot stop the mortal process.

The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

Ted Hughes’s September teases us at the beginning with a passionate love that maybe does suspend time and the awful reckoning with fire or ice.

We sit late, watching the dark slowly unfold:
No clock counts this.
When kisses are repeated and the arms hold
There is no telling where time is.

It is midsummer: the leaves hang big and still:
Behind the eye a star,
Under the silk of the wrist a sea, tell
Time is nowhere.

In our own heedless bliss, the dark comes on “slowly,” and indeed “there is no telling where time is.” Infinity lies within us: behind the eye a star / under the silk of the wrist a sea. Time is nowhere. Great!

But now the long embrace is over; they stand up.

We stand; leaves have not timed the summer.
No clock now needs
Tell we have only what we remember:
Minutes uproaring with our heads

Like an unfortunate King’s and his Queen’s
When the senseless mob rules;
And quietly the trees casting their crowns
Into the pools.

Pretty ugly, that. Not just some abstract flame or frost, but a double beheading, a vicious wiping out of what’s going on in their excited skulls right now. They are making memories, and they know it; each minute kissing and embracing and watching the slow dark is a minute retained in memory… This/that marvelous evening… Remember that marvelous evening? It’s the same memory for which Schwartz prays at the end of his poem. It’s all we have.

Nature of course couldn’t care less – the trees will quietly, efficiently, as they have forever, cast off these two.

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.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Latest UD posts at IHE