A few words about the heart for Valentine’s Day.

… [H]ow could I have
Told them what was in me, within my heart, trembling and passionate
Within the labyrinth and caves of my mind, which is
Like every mind partly or wholly hidden from itself?
The words for what is in my heart and in my mind
Do not exist. But I must seek and search to find
Amid the vines and orchards of the vivid world of day
Approximate images, imaginary parallels
For what is my heart and dark within my mind:
Comparisons and mere metaphors: for all
Of them are substitutes, both counterfeit and vague:
They are, at most, deceptive resemblances,
False in their very likeness, like the sons
Who are alike and kin and more unlike and false
Because they seem the father’s very self: but each one is
— Although begotten by the same forbears — himself,
The unique self, each one is unique, like every other one,
And everything, older or younger, nevertheless
A passionate nonesuch who has before has been.
Do you hear, do you see? Do you understand me now, and how
The words for what is my heart do not exist?

Delmore Schwartz, “Narcissus”

A Magazine Poem (Almost All of Its Words Are Taken from a Magazine Article) to Mark the Discovery of Gravitational Waves.

THE MOTION OF THE WIND IN HANFORD

The motion of the wind in Hanford
Or of the ocean in Livingston
Or imperfections in the light
Through fluctuations in the grid…

The jittering of single atoms
Within mirrors
Or distant lightning storms…

Interferences beyond reckoning
In earth’s purest vacuum!

A trillionth as dense
As the atmosphere at sea
Yet somewhat undone by
Miniscule seismic tremors
Or passing cars
Or aeroplanes
Or wolves.

***************************

(In the style of Wallace Stevens.)

“Speeding, without destination, after dark…”

Ravi Shankar, until recently a creative writing professor at Central Connecticut State University, writes about his favorite activity: driving at very high speed until he hits something and/or gets arrested.

I mean, the poem whose first line appears as this post’s title doesn’t really go on to describe

driving with a suspended license, and …evading responsibility for an accident that he fled from… two DUIs, operating with a suspended license, reckless driving over 85 mph…

(And that’s only his driving offenses! He’s also into shoplifting and credit card fraud and other stuff.)

No, no, the poem goes on, dutifully, pretentiously, emptily, to gush about a double rainbow. Shankar’s a bad poet (you can read some of his work here), which one would think would add up to two strikes against the guy in terms of being given permanent employment by a university: He writes bad poetry, and he’s always in courtrooms or jails. And he will always be in courtrooms and jails because there are quite a few cases pending against him. Plus I guess he’s still driving! Whatever.

Maybe he’s a helluva teacher! Hm, let’s see.

No midterm. Paper worth 50% at the end. I had him for a three hour class on Mondays and we always got out early. Did not give too much homework and we had to watch a movie one class. When it came time for the final I felt like I barely knew any of the material. However, if you want an easy 3 credits do good on the paper and go to class.

[He] missed 5 out of 15 classes (yet if you miss 3 you fail) & had us buy 100 dollars worth of books which were barely used (money down the drain). He liked my poems but was pretentious n rude to students whose work he didn’t like. If you go to him for help, he will ignore you.

Cut him some slack. Do you have any idea how many court appearances we’re talking about?

Great class, when he shows up. Had to meet online a few times, poetry is not the kind of class where online classes are really helpful.

Online, films, missed classes, routine early dismissal, no midterm – No wonder Bernie Sanders is calling for free public university education. This should definitely be free.

Maybe Bern can also look into professors assigning a hundred dollars worth of useless books.

And maybe Bern can figure out how this guy – who was promoted while in pre-trial confinement – got promoted.

UD dearly hopes someone recorded the discussion among his colleagues.

He’s a madman, a wildman, a Hunter S. Thompson right here in New Britain!

I love his scofflaw ways!

An artist, a bad boy, our own Robert Lowell…

Robert Lowell?

Robert Lowell went to jail for evading the draft.

He’s thrillingly sketchy, a swaggering anti-bourgeois with a lot to teach us and our students about going against the grain.

A lot of people would just say ‘career criminal’ and drop the guy, but what if they’d said that about Jean Genet?

Despite the university’s effort to keep him, the criminal renown of Shankar reached the stick-in-the-mud state legislature, which has today engineered his exit from the school.

Come to UD’s Poetry Lectures…

… at the Georgetown Public Library on three Saturdays:

April 2
April 9
April 16

Haven’t set the time yet, but it will probably be late morning/early afternoon. Here’s a description:

Lecture One: Winter kept us warm: Poetry as Paradox

In a year that began with a great blizzard in Washington, we’ll look first in this lecture series at what poetry makes of the snow: as an image, a symbol, a mood, a setting. We’ll focus on three poems – T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow,’ and Hayden Carruth’s ‘The Curtain’ – and ask not only what sort of utterance poetry is, but also what it offers us intellectually and emotionally as we experience the power of nature.

Lecture Two: Stirring dull roots with spring rain: Poetry as Life Itself

April is the month of these lectures; April is National Poetry Month; April marks the renewal of life in the spring season. That all sounds great, yet Eliot calls April “the cruellest month.” Our focus in this lecture will be James Schuyler’s exuberantly long poem, ‘Hymn to Life,’ which is set in Washington DC in the spring.

Lecture Three: Flying off into nothing: Poetry as Death

Our final two poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Spring and Fall,’ and Sylvia Plath’s ‘Berck-Plage,’ complete our seasonal exploration of what poetry is, and what it can do by way of clarifying our relationship to our lives in nature.

The Snow Begins.

Just now, with thin innocuous drifts.

I’ll watch the show from a bedroom whose sliding doors give me all I’d like of the white as it falls on the forest.

UD‘s been down with bronchitis for a couple of weeks anyway, so settling in’s no big deal. She’s in a warm bed with tightly layered blankets and a heating pad and her dog Emilia. Three eucalyptus soy candles rest on a small Tunisian plate in front of the window. Eucalyptus is good for the lungs.

My soundtrack: The mad madrigals of the mad Gesualdo (“the highest expression of pain in music”). Eerie chords for eerie snow.

*********************

It’s sticking to the holly leaves and coming down more thickly. They tell me this snowfall’s in it for the long haul. Okay.

Although we worry about outages and treefalls, we’re basically calm. And why not? The setting is sedate to the point of morbid. Our lives are calm, settled lives. Settled far away from peril. The inside/outside contrast puts this protection in high relief.

There’s a poem for that, by Hayden Carruth. Read it here. Read my commentary below.

The Curtain

[The poem will compare the curtain of snow now obscuring and now revealing the reality of the world to the poet’s troubled conscience as he lives his comfortable life, fitfully aware of a world of atrocities.]

Just over the horizon a great machine of death is roaring and rearing.
We can hear it always. Earthquake, starvation, the ever-renewing sump of corpse-flesh.

[From their easeful bed, the poet and his lover can figuratively hear – cannot intellectually escape – the perennial actuality of human suffering.]

But in this valley the snow falls silently all day, and out our window
We see the curtain of it shifting and folding, hiding us away in our little house,
We see earth smoothened and beautified, made like a fantasy, the snow-clad trees
So graceful.

[Suffering is way up over the hill; in their snug valley the lovers now experience the smoothing and silencing of even the sound of suffering by the blanketing snow, which makes the world a beautiful fantasy.]

In our new bed, which is big enough to seem like the north pasture almost
With our two cats, Cooker and Smudgins, lying undisturbed in the southeastern and southwestern corners,
We lie loving and warm, looking out from time to time.

[The camera gradually moves in more intimately on the lovers, placid, with cutely-named cats, on their massive “undisturbed” bed. They watch the snow.]

“Snowbound,” we say. We speak of the poet
Who lived with his young housekeeper long ago in the mountains of the western province, the kingdom
Of cruelty, where heads fell like wilted flowers and snow fell for many months
Across the pass and drifted deep in the vale.

[Maybe a reference to John Greenleaf Whittier, author of “Snowbound,” which narrates a snowbound family passing the time telling each other stories. The lines perhaps also allude to Whittier’s many anti-slavery poems; that is, Whittier was the sort of poet Carruth would like to be – someone whose writing might have some impact on human suffering. “We felt that if we could get enough people to read T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings and William Carlos Williams and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. We felt a genuine vocation, a calling, to try and make this happen. And we succeeded. Today thousands of people are going to colleges and attending workshops and taking courses in twentieth-century literature. Eliot and Stevens are very well known, very well read; and American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It’s pretty obvious that good writing doesn’t really have very much impact on social events …”]


In our kitchen the maple-fire murmurs
In our stove. We eat cheese and new-made bread and jumbo Spanish olives
Which have been steeped in our special brine of jalapeños and garlic and dill and thyme.
We have a nip or two from the small inexpensive cognac that makes us smile and sigh.

[They can stay warm amid the cold; their cozy woodburning stove is softly, aromatically doing its thing. Plenty of food, too, and all their exotic spicy (hot: another form of heat) favorites. Alcohol too of course will warm them, calm them.

This evocation of the delightful private small habits of their private life reminds UD of this passage, from Paul Monette’s essay collection, Last Watch of the Night:

In the moving premonitory memoir of his approaching death from cancer, Donald Hall discovers that what he will miss the most are the dailiest of things. Padding out onto his porch to retrieve the morning’s Globe; a quiet cup of coffee as he peruses the headlines; the dozen small nesting motions that bring him at last to his desk. Finally the picking up of his pen to start afresh. The things of life are so ordinary, the habits so engrained, that it’s stupefying to think of them taken away. One wonders that the universe would bother to kill off such a modestly focused life, circumscribed by hours of quiet on every side.
]

For a while we close the immense index of images that is our lives — for instance,
The child on the Mescalero reservation in New Mexico sitting naked in 1966 outside his family’s hut,
Covered with sores, unable to speak.

[The deeply interior, deeply comfortable scene, the doubly deep warmth inside all that cold, temporarily suspends their awareness – via indexed image rather than personal experience – of the suffering over the horizon.]

But of course we see the child every day,
We hold out our hands, we touch him shyly, we make offerings to his implacability.
No, the index cannot close.

[The poem is an offering to the implacability of suffering; the poem is written out of the poet’s inability to close the index.]

And how shall we survive? We don’t and cannot and will never
Know. Beyond the horizon a great unceasing noise is undeniable. The machine,
Like an immense clanking vibrating shuddering unnameable contraption as big as a house, as big as the whole town,
May break through and lurch into our valley at any moment, at any moment.

[Why don’t we die of our anguish at what human beings do to one another? Not only don’t we die; we live for the most part quite comfortable lives. We survive our knowledge of the suffering of others quite nicely. Maybe someday suffering will spread to the point where it has no other place to go but our own quiet little valley.]


Cheers, baby. Here’s to us. See how the curtain of snow wavers and then falls back.

The genial – even self-celebratory – self-absorption of private life prevails. The snowy curtain that had been drawn aside to give the poet a glimpse of how stark things really are has fallen back, leaving him comfortably numb, with cognac.

Line by Line Through the Poem “Provinces”…

… in memory of C.D. Wright, who died yesterday. The uninterrupted poem can be found here, read by Wright.

The title, “Provinces,” refers on a literal level to provincial places far away from urban centers, and to the remote and – as times passes – frustrated lives lived there. It refers more obliquely to the sensually distant and unused “places” of the aging, lonely, and unloved human body. The poem will be an extended indirect discourse meditation about a speaker’s relationship to his or her sexless and increasingly useless body, shrunken from the world of other people, and shrunken even from the speaker. The poem is maybe also about the speaker’s useless life.

Where the old trees reign with their forward dark
light stares through a hole in the body’s long
house.

Morning breaks, and the old and isolated speaker, sunlight in her eyes, awakens. The old trees will return at the end of the poem.

The bed rolls away from the body,
and the body is forced to find a chair.

Motion and agency belong to the natural, extra-human world, not the speaker’s body. Trees reign, light stares, the bed rolls. (Note also how the sad slow and somewhat creepy feel of the poem is accomplished in part through its simple monosyllabic words, coupled with short lines.) The speaker does not rise from the bed; the bed rolls away from the speaker, who is “forced” by this action to find another object on which to assume motionlessness.

At some hour
the body sequesters itself in a shuttered room
with no clock.

See also her poem, “Privacy” (“Stiller than water she lies / As in a glass dress // As if all life might come to its end / within the radius of her bed”). Wright is interested in the body at rest, alone in some sequestered out of the way (provincial) unchanging (no clock) setting; she is interested, let’s say, in the self in its full starkness, unmixed with the social world, with worldly activity. She wants to examine what we most deeply, most starkly, are, when all of the activity and distraction of life falls away.

When a clean sheet of paper floats by,
the head inclines on its axis.

Again the sense of the self reduced to a passive almost mechanical (axis) being, reflexively swiveling up to look at a sheet of paper floating by… This is a surrealistic, imagistic, symbolic poem, composed of a series of strange descriptions that somehow add up to an existential truth, or to a persuasive existential mood. That piece of paper carries the possibility of life’s meaninglessness, being “clean” and without writing.

It is one of those
common bodies that felt it could not exist without loving,
but has in fact gone on and on without love.

Once more you see the ambition to speak for the destiny of all of us (a common body) as we move away from youthful passion and toward a passionless solitude whose starkness allows us to see the truth of existence. This body is now not merely passive but ghostlike in its persistence despite the end of its affective life.

Like a cave that has stopped growing, we don’t call it dead,
but dormant.

Now we begin a series of lines comparing the “dead” human to a hibernating bear in a cave; but again – weirdly – it’s the inanimate thing that has being (the cave has stopped growing and become dormant). That image of the cave is continuous somehow with the poem’s first lines, which describe light finding a hole in the body as light will fill the hole of a cave. That “long house” of the body aligns it with the long deep habitation that is the cave. The speaker’s body has housed her for a long time in its (increasingly dormant) depths.

Now the body is on all fours, one arm
engaged in pulling hair from a trap, an activity
the body loathes.

Have we moved from the bed to the morning shower, where we get down to pull hair out of the drain? Are we also the bear, caught in a trap and trying to free itself? A loathsome activity either way, reminding the speaker how caught in the private/visceral life she is – no lover, no higher, non-material nature (there’s nothing in the poem to suggest that this solitude has a spiritual component).

When the time comes, the body
feeds on marinated meats and fruits trained to be luscious.

So we move on to lunch, as our human creature “feeds” on highly prepared, highly artificial food — an image that deepens our sense of her passivity. She lies in bed, or sits in a chair, waiting for the meats and fruits provided for her…

Once the body had ambitions — to be tall and remain
soft. No more,

Tall – stretched beyond mere materiality, mere grubbing passivity. Soft – permeable by the world of other people. But that’s over – it’s curled asleep/dead in hibernation.

but it enjoys rappelling to the water.

Every now and then the dried out sterile old body makes its difficult way to natural sources of replenishment.

Because the body’s dwelling is stone, perched over water,
we say the body is privileged.

How lucky we are not to be mere nature! To be able to distance ourselves, protect ourselves from, nature red in tooth and claw. We can look at water; we can rappel down to it when we need it; but we need not be drowned by it. We need not be drowned by passion. (Remember the old Paul Simon song: I am a rock. I am an island.)

Akin to characters
in Lawrence books, its livelihood is obscured.

Then what is the body for? If you are Gerald Crich, you can actually die of not knowing – or denying – your body’s vocation.

It owns
a horse named Campaign it mounts on foggy morns.
That was the body’s first lie. It has no horse
and wouldn’t climb on one.

A send-up of a culture that boasts endless best-selling books called things like The Purpose-Driven Life.

Because the body lives
so far from others, it likes reading about checkered lives
on the metrópoli.

I have my books and my poetry to protect me, sings Simon. I keep my distance in my simple animal existence, but I access the complex (checkered) lives of others through art.

It likes moving around at night under its dress.

Autoeroticism is better than no eroticism at all.

When it travels, bottles of lotion open in its bags.

All hell breaks loose as it threatens to become “soft” (see earlier line about the speaker’s earlier ambition to be soft, to not be stone) when it nears the world of other people.

Early in March the big rains came — washing all good thoughts
from the body’s cracks and chinks.

You can’t stop the cycles of nature from happening. The world is going to wake up and destroy all of your nice fortifications (see the famous opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: Winter kept us warm...) and to some extent you’re going to have to wake up as well — to the world as it is.

By now the body admits
it is getting on, and yet, continues to be tormented
by things being the way they are.

Who is ever really reconciled to the human condition? You can try living as far away as possible from it, even in a cave, but the light of the world will find you and madden you.


Recently the body took
one of the old trees for a wife, but the union has broken down.

Try the pagan approach; make yourself one with nature. Yet your possession of a mind and a soul and a passion-seeking body will make this an impossible match.


The light has bored out of the body’s long house.

In the first lines, light “stared” into the body; by now – the end of the day – it is boring its way out of the body. This is not merely a mechanical image; it is pretty sadistic. It is painful to be invaded, and then abandoned, by the light of the world, the touch of other human beings.


Fog envelops its stone flanks.

Once more, time for (quoting Yeats) stony sleep.

Still the body
enjoys rappelling to the water.

But this would be the enjoyment of a dream, the unconscious climbing down each night into the realm of fertility, passion.

And it likes the twenty four-hour stores,
walking up and down the aisles, not putting a thing in its basket.

Or you could wake up, any old time, and sleepwalk along the aisles of the stores where your luscious pretend nourishment marinates forever.

UD’s old friend…

Harvey Markowitz, got her this book for her birthday many years ago. She still has it somewhere. He wrote a note to UD on its first page, and UD recalls that this note was amusing.

The bar is an eight hour, nineteen minute flight for UD, so she will not be able to attend the poetry reading.

For Another New Year at University Diaries, a Poem.

Of course a poem. A Philip Larkin poem. Your blogeuse is mad about poetry (Speaking of which: She’ll be giving a series of lectures this April at the Georgetown Public Library on the subject. Dates TBA.), and she agrees with Christopher Hitchens that it’s strange and amazing, the way

[Somehow from Philip Larkin’s drab, resentful life he evolved] his own sour strain and syncopation of Words­worth’s “still, sad music of humanity.”

But let’s not stop at strange and amazing and somehow. Let’s analyze one of his poems! “New Year Poem.” Written not just from the ruins of his life, but from the ruins of Coventry, 1940. The poet has come home for a visit, and he surveys the bombed out city.

Just look carefully at the first few lines to see some of the ways Larkin distills his sour music.

The short afternoon ends, and the year is over;
Above trees at the end of the garden the sky is unchanged,
An endless sky; and the wet streets, as ever,
Between standing houses are empty and unchallenged.

The first thing to notice is the endless use of “end” and variants on associated sounds. Ends, and, end, garden, endless, wet, ever, empty. Eh! That drab shoulder shrugging barely there eh sound resounds in these lines, their mushy muddiness of mood conveyed in the vagueness of that eh, whose opposite can be found in a happy Romantic poem like Wordsworth’s Daffodils, with its bright open vowels, sharp consonants, and exact rhymes. Note that Larkin’s submerged mood can only manage half rhymes, their not-quite-thereness conveying the poet’s self-protective evasion of clarity and sharpness in the face of an emotionally devastating landscape. This is not only the short-afternooned end of a year but the end of an entire humanly constructed world (and there’s more bombing to come). The sky to be sure is “endless,” but this isn’t the visionary firmament of the Romantics. It’s the infinite nothingness that hangs indifferently over an eviscerated, barely standing streetscape.

From roads where men go home I walk apart
–The buses bearing their loads away from works,
Through the dusk the bicycles coming home from bricks–
There evening like a derelict lorry is alone and mute.

“Men” sustains the eh music as this quatrain leads us further into the city, the poet maintaining his safe sense of non-implication in the distress of Coventry (“I walk apart”) as he observes the city’s demoralized unrushed rush hour. And note that the only “I,” the only human with agency in this stanza, is the poet. For the rest, objects – buses, bicycles, lorries – rather than human beings have presence and agency. People are merely the “loads” coming back from a day at the destroyed factories (or are the buses being used not for human transportation, but to transport fragments from the shattered works?), just as the poet in the vague dusk sees “bicycles coming home” from fallen bricks rather than people riding bicycles. The strange simile in the final line (evening is like a derelict lorry) puts one in mind of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting

This hideously mechanized world, with its armaments factories and its bombs raining down on the armament factories, reduces everything to faltering idling machines. And here the poet is implicated; he and the evening and the lorry are “alone and mute.”

These houses are deserted, felt over smashed windows,
No milk on the step, a note pinned to the door
Telling of departure: only shadows
Move when in the day the sun is seen for an hour,
Yet to me this decaying landscape has its uses:
To make me remember, who am always inclined to forget,
That there is always a changing at the root,
And a real world in which time really passes.

I’ve said so many times on this blog that poetry is our dreamworld, poetry marks the fact of our passing so much of our lives in dream, fantasy, unreality. The vista of Coventry forces upon the poet a salutary recognition of, a bracing awakening to, a real world in which time moves forward and dereliction happens. In a Paris Review interview, Larkin says:

I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time: some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way — making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.

Larkin famously stayed in Hull most of his life and never married and never had children and held onto the same job – and this was his way of trying to make time stop. Instead of doing a lot, he did very little – and correctly noted that neither approach works.

So the coincidence of the big shift into a new year and the shock of a new, blasted Coventry has jolted the poet into recognitions he tries to avoid, and this is useful.

For sometimes it is shown to me in dreams
The Eden that all wish to recreate
Out of their living, from their favourite times;
The miraculous play where all the dead take part,
Once more articulate; or the distant ones
They will never forget because of an autumn talk
By a railway, an occasional glimpse in a public park,
Any memory for the most part depending on chance.

Simply an elaboration upon the dreamlife we live, in which time dies away and the dead are restored and even all the small random unforgettable encounters one has had over one’s life are reassembled and rehearsed.

And seeing this through that I know to be wrong,
Knowing by the flower the root that seemed so harmless
Dangerous; and all must take their warning
From those brief dreams of unsuccessful charms,
Their aloof visions of delight, where Desire
And Fear work hand-in-glove like medicals
To produce the same results. The bells
That we used to await will not be rung this year.

Like the poet who tries to maintain apartness as he walks through a setting that shrieks TIME CHANGE DERELICTION, we elaborate throughout our lives “aloof visions of delight,” where things never change (“the same results”). But this is “wrong.” Coventry Cathedral’s bells will not ring this year. It is a mute ruin.

So it is better to sleep and leave the bottle unopened;
Tomorrow in the offices the year on the stamps will be altered;
Tomorrow new diaries consulted, new calendars stand;
With such small adjustments life will again move forward
Implicating us all; and the voice of the living be heard:
“It is to us that you should turn your straying attention;
Us who need you, and are affected by your fortune;
Us you should love and to whom you should give your word.”

Forget the bubbly – no champagne this year. Just sleep. Changed time doesn’t need us to mark it – all the small, and all the large, alterations will happen regardless.

And now, in his final stanza, the poet admits his implication in all of this, the impossibility of aloofness: “life will again move forward / Implicating us all.” Very much like Derek Mahon’s famous “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” Larkin will end by turning not to buses and lorries and bicycles and phantoms but to the actual people all of these things convey. Don’t evade us, with your straying attention, your “intricate evasions of as.” Write about us as we suffer time and dereliction – give us your word.

Return to …

Spender.

University of Louisville Singalong

LOUISVILLE U

folks you’ve heard of scandalous schools
history is full of scandalous schools
but you ain’t heard nothing til
you’ve heard about louisville

it’s a place that’s crawling with thieves
has a board that trustees try to leave
till you’ve seen dorm rooms rockin’ with whores
you ain’t even darkened their doors

they call the campus louisville u
what a fucked up campus can do!
it’s the lowest graduatingest, med school on probationest
school the world ever knew

the ed school dean’s in the pen
med’care fraud hits again
pitino petrino mcgee
sexy sexy whooooeeeeee!

they keep their audits on the down low
about their bank accounts nobody knows
secret foundations funnel the cash
the u of lou has made itself absolute hash

lots of low-lifes among their teams’ lads
and even the president’s paid to be bad
so here’s my warning to you
keep away from louisville u

Franqui Francisco Flores-de Freitas.

A well-born drug-runner whose name is two poetry lectures in one: Alliteration and iambic pentameter.

The Future Course Unfolds

THE FUTURE COURSE UNFOLDS

Wired, fake, and weaponized
The future course unfolds
On vast autumnal campuses
Of russet tones and golds

The lit professor eyes her flanks,
Her subject matter Brownings.
She makes her students versed in blanks
And fine machine gun mountings

The front rows rifle through their text
Back text beside their rifle
“It’s Sorrows of Young Walther next
Read or face reprisal.”

Glockean Rights are all the rage
In fields of poli sci
The classroom has become a stage
On which you live or die

To Chapel Hill’s fake courses
And laptop domination
Add in a military force
To public education

For the last few spooky days, I’ve been looking for a really scary poem.

It’s been difficult, probably because, as Nadezhda Mandelstam writes, “The fear that goes with the writing of verse is about … our mysterious awe in the face of existence.”

Frightening poems don’t typically narrate frightening things. That’s Stephen King’s job. They’re more about evoking one human being’s basic awe/terror at being itself.

And while this is scarier than a prom queen with telekinetic powers, it’s also harder to convey.

***********************

Here’s the winner of UD‘s Scariest Poem contest. It’s by Weldon Kees.

***********************

Homage to Arthur Waley

Seattle weather: it has rained for weeks in this town
The dampness breeding moths and a gray summer.
I sit in the smoky room reading your book again,
My eyes raw, hearing the trains steaming below me
In the wet yard, and I wonder if you are still alive.
Turning the worn pages, reading once more:
“By misty waters and rainy sands, while the yellow dusk thickens.”

************************

It’s a moment. A passing moment only, but one profoundly under construction for awhile, during those weeks of Seattle rain. You move through a gray mothy setting like that for weeks without responding much, but it’s working on you latently; within you the Seattle rain has been guttering and muttering, until a random moment comes when you’re sitting around reading a book and the morbid stream suddenly finds an outlet.

Since you’re recording a brief moment, a flash of fear, your poem will be brief. Since you’re conveying your flinty emotionally suppressed modern consciousness, you’re going to write casually and neutrally, as if sketching a few notes: Seattle weather: — That colon after the phrase tells the reader You’re not getting expansive descriptive lyrics out of me. If you want Romantic brooding upon damp weather, read Wordsworth.

Indeed, breeding moths and gray summer echoes T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land: breeding lilacs out of the dead land. But Kees’ later modernism will dispense even with the ironically recycled motifs of Romanticism (lilacs) that you find in Eliot.

On the poem’s title, by the way: You and I probably have no idea who Arthur Waley might be; he could be a fiction, like the fictive personality “Robinson” who appears in many Kees poems… But the poet will conclude the poem with a line apparently taken from the work of Waley, so maybe he’s real. Don’t know yet.

This poem is an homage, and on top of that, it’s a direct address to this Arthur Waley: reading your book. And reading it again. Like the Seattle rain, that book has been working on the poet. He reads its “worn pages” repeatedly.

*************************

This is also a claustrophobic poem. Driven in by incessant rain, the poet exhibits a double interiority – he’s inside a room, and he’s inside a book. His dialogue is with a fellow writer, a specter – “I wonder if you are still alive.” He is talking to words on a page, or to a ghostly projection of whoever wrote those words. The larger nimbus of obscurity he’s evoking throughout the poem (“smoky room”) deepens yet more the sense that we’re in a mysterious and somehow malign world in which people are driven in on themselves.

“My eyes raw” – The only dry things in this poem are the poet’s eyes as he reads and reads the worn pages. The world storms without; within, the poet, in a protective, banked-in mode, reduced to mere debilitated sight, seeks repeatedly to focus on poetic fragments that seem to convey something of great value to him.

The “trains steaming” in the “wet yard” are let’s say the poet’s fevered – angry? – consciousness rolling through a hopelessly mysterious outer world.

I wonder if you are still alive. In the pulled-back, depressive, barely-there atmosphere of this poem, that line can be read not merely as a direct address to Waley’s ghost, but as self-inquiry. Am I still alive? (For readers who know about Kees’ mysterious last days – or were they his last? did he commit suicide? his body was never found – this line will be especially eerie.)

Now, with his last line, Kees quotes directly from the text he keeps rereading:

By misty waters and rainy sands, while the yellow dusk thickens.

Let’s look that up, shall we?

Waley was indeed a real person, an important translator of Asian poetry, and part of the Bloomsbury set. Ezra Pound was among the first to publish his translations. He was also a close friend, as it happens, of T.S. Eliot. (The woman with whom Waley spent his life is described, wonderfully, as “the veteran of three failed Platonic and vegetarian liaisons.”) Kees’ final line, the line that gathers up the symbolic hints of his poem and takes them to a conclusion, is taken from one of the poems Waley translated.

Doubly interiorized, intersubjective, interpoetic on three different levels (Waley is himself translating the work of yet another poet), intercultural (west and east), intertextual… Homage to Arthur Waley‘s got it all if you’re looking for ontological creepiness, for a fully evoked sense of the frightening convolution of the world, the self, and other selves. (Want more? Don’t even go there…) With great recurrent effort, the poet begins to sense and admire (“homage”) the capacity of Waley’s rendering of his own ghostly poetic precursor’s effort to articulate the horrible ominous fact of the curtain of the world becoming more, not less, occluded (“My eyes raw” – those rainy sands making the yellow dusk are throwing sand in the poet’s eyes) as we mature toward the end of our existence. The yellow dusk thickens. Life narrows. The veil of rain darkens.

“The sting of reason / The splash of tears / The northern and the southern hemispheres / Love emerges and it disappears…”

A totally random reminder that not many people write lyrics as well as Paul Simon.

Chinese Checkers…

… as in real actual fact checkers… might have helped here; but, really, in a context of close to zero critical capacity in regard to contemporary American poetry, plus an eagerness for ethnic balance, what do you think is going to happen?

Ol’ Yi-Fen is refreshingly honest:

“As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems, [using as Asian name in place of my all-American name] has been quite successful for me,” [Michael Derrick Hudson] said, noting that “The Bees” had been rejected 40 times under his own name but only nine times under the pseudonym before it was printed by the journal Prairie Schooner.

And then picked up for this year’s Best American Poetry collection.

Will it make Best of the Best?

UD doesn’t think so. UD notes that the poem and the poet have given the poetry world major tsuris. Yi-Fen Chou Michael Derrick Hudson looks headed for inclusion in Least-Liked American Poets 2016.

*******************

A far more elaborate Asian-author hoax is discussed here (the discussion includes a quotation from Margaret Soltan UD SOS). It’s also mentioned here, in connection with this latest Let’s Pretend.

Yet more on the Araki Yasusada hoax here. Funny how everyone’s reminded of it.

(My 2000 article on Yasusada is here, but you need to have/buy access.)

(Plus I wrote a follow-up to that piece:

“The Bicameral Mind: Response to Bill Freind’s ‘Just Hoaxing’.” Angelaki 6.3 (2001): 221-24. MLA International Bibliography. Ames Lib. 31 Mar 2008.)

********************

A limerick? Must I?

Okay.

I cannot help noticing how
When I put words like Yi, Fen, and Chou
At the top of my page
I become all the rage
But everyone’s mad at me now

« Previous PageNext Page »

Latest UD posts at IHE

Archives

Categories