UD Brings on the Exuberant at…

… the DC Public Library.

Island in the Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poet Philip Levine has died.

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

NYT obit.

Rilke, New Year’s Eve.


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

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

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


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

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



(translated by Stephen Mitchell)

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


So for me the heart of this is here:

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

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

Stanislaw Baranczak, a great Polish poet…

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

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

She Cried That Night, but Not for Him to Hear

(To Ania, the only one)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Mark Strand on Donald Justice:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The poet Mark Strand…

… has died.

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

Aloft, incumbent on the dusky air…

A Miltonist travels aboard El Al.
Cabin’d about with ultra-Orthodox,
With trembling men made mad by fear of God,
Men rampaging th’aisles in search of seats
Uninfected by the smells of women,
Th’English professor protects the seat
Beside him, which the flight crew had promised
Would remain unoccupied. A frenzied
Searcher after unpolluted places
Is now, alas, upon him, and he must
Assert his right to what has been promised.

“Fleeing the woman seated next to me,”
The searcher says, and gestures to sit down.

“Though short of my making a full-fledged scene,”
The Miltonist later recalls, battle
Did ensue, a most unseemly hubbub
Resolved when the crew found another seat
Equally purified of the She-Stain.


Justify the ways of God? Milton can.
But who can justify the ways of man?


My poetry MOOC just broke 8,000.

UD will offer a class on poetry, open to the public, at the Georgetown Branch…

… of the DC public library (3260 R Street NW) next March and April. It will meet on Sunday afternoons. Each week will be devoted to a close reading of a particular sort of poem. Here’s a rough outline:

week one: introductory remarks
week two: Romantic poem
week three: Victorian poem
week four: modernist poem
week five: postmodern poem
week six: comparisons, Romantic, Victorian, modernist, postmodern poems
week seven: concluding remarks

Details in a bit.

Aimez-Vous Brahms?

This post is an addendum to my recent post about the poet Galway Kinnell.

If you’re going to write a music-of-the-sphere and music-of-the-spheres poem, here’s a better way to do it than Kinnell’s. It’s by an old UD favorite, James Schuyler. I’ve gone to the trouble to make it a seasonally appropriate choice.

As always, I’ll interrupt the poem constantly with my commentary. Go here for the poem unmussed.



Under the French horns of a November afternoon [Just start in on the idea that sometimes, some seasons, earthly days introduce themselves so beautifully they seem positively symphonic. Say French horns to convey the high-style baroque rarity of these particular earth-tones. Don’t talk about how moved you are by the music of the globe, the way Kinnell does…. Nice assonance, too – all those ers.]
a man in blue is raking leaves [So this poem will be an extended bit of the poet’s consciousness as he gazes, in autumn, at an ordinary sight – a man in blue (overalls? jeans? in blue as in set beneath a brilliant blue sky?) raking. Like many imagistic poems, this one will follow the thoughts of a speaker as a particular image dominates and complicates his thought. Call it stream of consciousness or interior monologue if you’d like.]
with a wide wooden rake (whose teeth are pegs
or rather, dowels). Next door
boys play soccer: “You got to start
over!” sort of. [Sort of. Or rather. This is hip relaxed New York School verse – see also Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery – which will capture the vague immediacies of world-apprehension, the mind-ramble of a poet.] A round attic window
in a radiant gray house waits like a kettledrum. [The sun is obviously shining brightly – the gray of the house has been made radiant – so we can gather that the man in blue is certainly a man in a blue sky. The poet works his music of the sphere metaphor with the round window as a kettledrum awaiting its entry after the horns.]
“You got to start . . .” [Repeating this phrase, the poet conveys his continued musing over it. It has obviously attracted his attention and thought. Is he thinking of the earthly as well as human imperative to keep going? The seasonal renewing recurrences of the globe, and our own felt commitment, despite all setback and time-passage, to persisting and thriving?] The Brahmsian day
lapses from waltz to march. [So now he is gathering up his unattributed instrumental references into a particular composer. His mind has wandered – lapsed – from stray instrumental sounds to a specific instance of instrumental music: something by Brahms. And we’re picking up steam here as we go – from the slower waltz to the snappier march, early afternoon to full midday, as the poet sits and muses.] The grass,
rough-cropped as Bruno Walter’s hair, [The sweet, silly, random, way-charming feel of the New York School poem. Start with an absurdity but a truth – hanging around a residential street on a beautiful autumn day can make you so symphonically blissful that you’ll start hearing French horns – and then just keep going, push it deeper and deeper as your free mind and spirit play with those instruments and their associations.]
is stretched, strewn and humped beneath a sycamore
wide and high as an idea of heaven [I don’t think we’re in modernism anymore. Here’s TS Eliot that same day, a few hours later:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…]

[Oh – and Schuyler has in fact now gone directly to heaven – the immense and lovely sycamore puts him in mind of the vastness and loftiness of heaven – but he will cut off at the knees any impulse to get late Romantic about that (the music it prompts in the brain can be late Romantic, but the language the modern poet brings to the phenom will be modern).]

in which Brahms turns his face like a bearded thumb
and says, “There is something I must tell you!”
to Bruno Walter. “In the first movement
of my Second, think of it as a family
planning where to go next summer
in terms of other summers. A material ecstasy,
subdued, recollective.” [And this is how he will cut it off: He will conclude his poem with a fantasied exchanged between composer and conductor about Symphony 2, Movement 1. This is total adorable imaginative freedom on the part of the poet; the appeal and insight of this poem will not be poignantly, longingly, metaphysical – as in Kinnell – but rather it will reside in the hilariously alive play of a creative mind. Notice indeed how subversive of Romanticism Schuyler’s piece is: Brahms himself is eager to downplay the heavy-breathing significance of the movement, insisting to the conductor that he interpret it rather as expressing simple happy domesticity: a family planning a summer vacation: a material ecstasy. Bound, delightedly, to the earth.] Bruno Walter
in a funny jacket with a turned-up collar
says, “Let me sing it for you.”
He waves his hands and through the vocalese-shaped spaces
of naked elms he draws a copper beech
ignited with a few late leaves. [So, Brahms, you mean in this passage where you go lalala duhduhduh bahbahbah… Walter takes up his baton and waves his hands and sings it for us and creates a picture, the sort of picture the late romantic setting has conjured in the head of the poet… Sound, word, song, image, merge in this materially ecstatic synesthesia.] He bluely glazes
a rhododendron “a sea of leaves” against gold grass. [A magician, the conductor lifts his wand and sets the world late romantically alight, makes a poetic phrase of a rhododendron.]
There is a snapping from the brightwork
of parked and rolling cars.
There almost has to be a heaven! [The poet always brings us back to the immediate local reality: The polished metalwork of the cars on the street and at the curbs gives a gloss to the music/scene – the ordinary machinery of modern life also has its radiance to contribute to the earth-symphony.] so there could be
a place for Bruno Walter
who never needed the cry of a baton.
in a small, dusty, rather gritty, somewhat scratchy
Magnavox from which a forte
drops like a used Brillo Pad?
Frayed. But it’s hard to think of the sky as a thick glass floor
with thick-soled Viennese boots tromping about on it.
It’s a whole lot harder thinking of Brahms
in something soft, white, and flowing. [You can record Bruno/Brahms for the ages on your scratchy old Magnavox which by now creates a painfully rough sound. It might be authentic, but it doesn’t transport you. Material, yes, but too material, too thick-souled. On the other hand, it’s just as non-transporting to try to turn the composer and conductor into angels. We don’t do angels around here.]
“Life,” he cries (here, in the last movement),
“is something more than beer and skittles!” [Well, this is pure Schuyler. Of all modern poets, he seems to UD the one most committed to trying to express the sheer weird pulsating bliss of being alive. The crazy running around French horny finale in the Brahms is completely full of beans, after all.]
“And the something more
is a whole lot better than beer and skittles,”
says Bruno Walter,
darkly, under the sod. I don’t suppose it seems so dark
to a root. Who are these men in evening coats?
What are these thumps?
Where is Brahms?
And Bruno Walter?
Ensconced in resonant plump easy chairs
covered with scuffed brown leather
in a pungent autumn that blends leaf smoke
(sycamore, tobacco, other),
their nobility wound in a finale
like this calico cat
asleep, curled up in a breadbasket,
on a sideboard where the sun falls.

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.

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