Friday, October 27, 2006

Samurai Song by Robert Pinsky

I’m drawn to the speaker’s relentless spirit here, and drawn to how the poem echoes and enhances that spirit. Just as the speaker evokes discipline, the poem embodies discipline on the part of the poet. It features three-line stanzas (tercets) with near-identical line lengths, and is written almost entirely in a “when…then” structure. The poet keeps the reigns tight on this poem. Additionally, the poem’s undecorated language (no strong, specific images) echoes a lifestyle that’s sparse and focused on absolutes.

Monotony is a big risk with a poem like this, considering the repetitive “when…then…” structure. Think about how redundant the poem would get if all of it were organized like the second stanza, with each line containing a complete “when…then…” thought. To combat this, Pinsky uses line breaks to keep the reader off-balance.

Samurai Song
By Robert Pinksy

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted sleep.

Robert Pinsky was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1940. He is the author of six books of poetry and is currently the poetry editor of the weekly Internet magazine Slate. Pinsky teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University, and in 1997 was named the United States Poet Laureate

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

...Three Blind Mice by Billy Collins

No poem last week as I was on vacation. This week’s poem by Billy Collins is light and accessible. Collins is a rare poet: charismatic, attention-loving and even funny. He has appeared numerous times on NPR. I saw him read in San Francisco a few years back and the crowd (of maybe 300?!) treated him like a rock star. He’s quite the poetry celebrity. You’ve probably never heard of him though, which says a lot about poetry celebrity.

Collins' work is clear, clever, and often moving. You’ll notice that there isn’t much complexity to his style, and I wouldn’t consider his work to be musical, but I think it’s enjoyable. And he’s found a way to appeal to a wider audience, something few poets have been able to achieve lately. A friend of mine once pointed out (exasperated) that he writes all of his poems in his house, usually in his bathrobe. This is true. But he has an active imagination.

I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakey’s Version Of “Three Blind Mice”
By Billy Collins

And I start wondering how they came to be blind.
If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sister,
and I think of the poor mother
brooding over her sightless young triplets.

Or was it a common accident, all three caught
in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?
If not,
if each came to his or her blindness separately,

how did they ever manage to find one another?
Would it not be difficult for a blind mouse
to locate even one fellow mouse with vision
let alone two other blind ones?

And how, in their tiny darkness,
could they possibly have run after a farmer’s wife
or anyone else’s wife for that matter?
Not to mention why.

Just so she could cut off their tails
with a carving knife, is the cynic’s answer,
but the thought of them without eyes
and now without tails to trail through the moist grass

or slip around the corner of a baseboard
has the cynic who always lounges within me
up off his couch and at the window
trying to hide the rising softness that he feels.

By now I am on to dicing an onion
which might account for the wet stinging
in my own eyes, though Freddie Hubbard’s
mournful trumpet on “Blue Moon,”
which happens to be the next cut,
cannot be said to be making matters any better.

Billy Collins was born in New York City in 1941. He served as the Poet Laureate in 2001 and is the author of several books of poetry.

Art Blakey
Freddie Hubbard

The End and the Beginning by Wislawa Szymborska

This week, a war poem from Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska.

The End and the Beginning
Translated by Joanna Maria Trzeciak

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won't
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it's not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we'll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
reasons and causes,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

Wislawa Szymborska was born in Western Poland in 1923 and endured the Nazi occupation during World War II. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996.

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

This Robert Hayden poem is best know for its portrayal of a son's late understanding of his tough-loving father. Notice how Hayden uses sound to enhance the poem's content. The first stanza is loaded with alliteration (blueblack, weekday weather, banked fires blaze) and rhyme (black/cracked, ached/labor, banked/thanked), which highlights the hard, thankless labor, and also the anger, that Hayden is describing. As the house warms and the speaker comes to his realization, Hayden smoothes the music of the language accordingly.

Those Winter Sundays
By Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden was raised in a poor neighborhood in Detroit. He had an emotionally tumultuous childhood and was shuttled between the home of his parents and that of a foster family, who lived next door. In 1976, he became the first black American to be appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (later called the Poet Laureate). He died in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1980.

What Work Is by Philip Levine

Philip Levine writes a lot of narrative poetry, which, unlike a lyric poem, moves forward through time and tells a story. Narrative poems also often incorporate a less dense and "poetic" language than lyrics. You'll notice the conversational style of What Work Is--it reads like a monologue. Also notice the juxtaposition of blue-collar imagery and emotional openness--a hallmark of Levine. He's tough and sensitive, ladies.

What Work Is
By Phillip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.

Philip Levine was born in Detroit in 1928. Here's an excerpt from a review that sums up his work: "Levine writes gritty, fiercely unpretentious free verse about American manliness, physical labor, simple pleasures and profound grief, often set in working-class Detroit (where Levine grew up) or in central California (where he now resides), sometimes tinged with reference to his Jewish heritage or to the Spanish poets of rapt simplicity (Machado, Lorca) who remain his most visible influence."

Elegy on a Toy Piano by Dean Young

While this poem isn't about 9-11 directly, Dean Young invokes the tragedy to celebrate life and someone he cared for deeply. In some ways, this strikes me as a more appropriate memorialization of the day than those I've seen or read lately. The poem reminds me of the Auden poem I sent earlier in that it's quirky and playful but wrought with sadness. The connections between some of Young's images are tenuous, but they're there--the poem will reward you if you give it a few careful readings.

Elegy on a Toy Piano
for Kenneth Koch

You don’t need a pony
to connect you to the unseeable
or an airplane to connect you to the sky.

Necessary it is to love to live
and there are many manuals
but in all important ways
one is on one’s own.

You need not cut off your hand.
No need to eat a bouquet.
Your head becomes a peach pit.
Your tongue a honeycomb.

Necessary it is to live to love,
to charge into the burning tower
then charge back out
and necessary it is to die.
Even for the trees, even for the pony
connecting you to what can’t be grasped.

The injured gazelle falls behind the
herd. One last wild enjambment.

Because of the sores in his mouth,
the great poet struggles with a dumpling.
His work has enlarged the world
but the world is about to stop including him.
He is the tower the world runs out of.

When something becomes ash,
there’s nothing you can do to turn it back.
About this, even diamonds do not lie.

Dean Young was born in 1955 in Columbia Pennsylvania. He splits his time between Iowa City and Berkely, CA. He's married to the novelist Cornelia Nixon.

San Sepolcro by Jorie Graham

Jorie Graham is one of the more well-known contemporary poets, and this is a great poem. She moves deftly from strand to strand--from a landscape to the mind, to a painting, to the act of birth--and the moves seem natural. How and why she weaves those strands together is one of the poem's rewards. In her more recent books, Graham's poems are harder to follow, so if you like this one, I'd start with the early stuff. Erosion is a terrific book.

San Sepolcro
By Jorie Graham

In this blue light
I can take you there,
snow having made me
a world of bone
seen through to. This
is my house,

my section of Etruscan
wall, my neighbor's
lemontrees, and, just below
the lower church,
the airplane factory.
A rooster

crows all day from mist
outside the walls.
There's milk on the air,
ice on the oily
lemonskins. How clean
the mind is,

holy grave. It is this girl
by Piero
della Francesca, unbuttoning
her blue dress,
her mantle of weather,
to go into

labor. Come, we can go in.
It is before
the birth of god. No one
has risen yet
to the museums, to the assembly

and wings--to the open air
market. This is
what the living do: go in.
It's a long way.
And the dress keeps opening
from eternity

to privacy, quickening.
Inside, at the heart,
is tragedy, the present moment
forever stillborn,
but going in, each breath
is a button

coming undone, something terribly
finding all of the stops.

Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950 and spent her youth in Italy.

The painting is here

San Sepolcro
Piero Della Francesca


As you might know, in a haiku, the first line must contain exactly five syllables, the second line must contain seven, and the third five. While filling out the syllable count in a haiku is pretty easy, writing a complete poem in such a short span is difficult. A good haiku is like a bell strike: quick, but deeply resonant. As you'll see in the poems below, a haiku can be beautiful (Buson), "deep" (Basho) or even kind of funny (Issa). Those below don't accede to the syllable count because they're translated from the Japanese.

This sort of poetry, in which a certain number of syllables is required per line, is called syllabic verse. The American poet Marianne Moore wrote in syllabic verse, but gave herself far more challenging (and somewhat arbitrary) constraints. Each stanza of a Moore poem might call for the following number of syllables per line: 17, 11, 8, 4, 6, 19, 7. Why would you bother? Most poets will tell you that they write more effectively with some constraints (formal or topical). Syllabic verse has no other constraints and does not need to rhyme. In my experience, it tends to have a mechanical or artificial feel to it. I'm not sure why--it may be that the poet's forced awareness of the form during composition somehow imprints itself on the poem.

Here are haiku from three Japanese masters, translated by the American poet Robert Hass. If you like these, I'd recommend picking up Hass' anthology, which you can buy here:

A field of mustard,
no whale in sight,
the sea, darkening.

Even in Kyoto--
hearing the cuckoo's cry--
I long for Kyoto.

New Year's Day--
everything is in Blossom!
I feel about average.

From Macbeth (V,v,19)

The poem of the week comes a day early as I'm off to Puerto Rico tomorrow. Most of you probably know this famous passage from Macbeth. If not, I'm excited for you--it's really stunning. If you've only ever found Shakespeare annoying and difficult to follow, you're not alone, but I think it's worth your while to try reading him again. Because even the most cranky and pretentious academics agree that Shakespeare was as brilliant as your high school teacher said he was. Reading Shakespeare is unquestionably difficult, initially, but if you read slowly and work to untangle the linguistic knots, it's worth your while. And, of course, it gets easier as you read more. To give you an idea of the richness and suggestiveness of Shakespeare's language, I swear you can find at least a half dozen actual movie titles buried in Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. William Faulkner pulled a major theme (and his title) for The Sound and the Fury from the passage below.

While popular opinion (mine too) has it that Hamlet is Shakespeare's greatest play, Literature scholars tend to prefer King Lear. Scholars of the Theater hold up Macbeth as, at least structurally, the perfect play.

Here's the context: Macbeth is on the castle walls, under siege by his enemies, and has just learned that his wife has killed herself. He knows that his murderous attempt to win power has collapsed. He is surprisingly stoic and accepting, resigned to the barren futility of life.

From Macbeth (V,v,19)

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

William Shakespeare 1564-1616

You, Andrew Marvell by Archibald Macleish

Poets today who write in form (with a meter and a rhyme scheme) will often try to hide/temper the form so that the poem doesn't sound like a Hallmark card. This poem's form--four-beat lines (And here face down beneath the sun) with end rhymes--tends to strike the contemporary ear as very Hallmark. Macleish makes it work though, using slight rhythmical shifts and no punctuation to present a slow and stately music, which highlights (and even embodies) the relentless "coming on...of night." I love how the poem's images are sharp and exotic, but its scope is global and eternal. It makes me think of one of those space shots of the earth: you imagine the earth teeming with history and civilization, but also see that it's just a big ball rolling and rolling along.

You, Andrew Marvell
By Archibald Macleish

And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth's noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:

To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow

And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on

And deepen on Palmyra's street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
high through the clouds and overblown

And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls

And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on…

Archibald Macleish (1892 -1982 ) was born outside of Chicago, studied at Yale and was first in his class at Harvard law school (smarty!). He volunteered as an amblulance driver during World War I and later served as an artillery captain. After the war, he quit law because it distracted him from his poetry.

Andrew Marvell

since feeling is first by E.E. Cummings

As promised, here's a happier poem, inspired by the terrific Cummings poem "i carry your heart with me" read last Friday at Sean and Ranah's wedding. Cummings is always playful with language and, though he doesn't do it here, was known for freeing his text from the left margin. You might notice how he uses line breaks to pace the poem.

since feeling is first
By E.E. Cummings

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a far better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Cummings (1894-1962) discovered an original way of describing the chaotic immediacy of sensuous experience. He played games with language and form and put forth a deliberately simplistic view of the world, giving his poems have a gleeful and precocious tone. He was born in Cambridge, Mass., attended Harvard and studied Art in Paris.

Stop All the Clocks... by W.H. Auden

You might remember this poem from “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and I have to warn you: it’s a sad one. If you’re in a good mood today (like I am), it should provide a little verklempt moment. If you’re down, it might doom you to a night of Jeff Buckley and Ben & Jerry’s. Anyway, I think it’s well worth knowing. And next week’s will be happier, I promise.

Stop All the Clocks...
by W. H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden was born in York, England, in 1907. As a young man he was influenced by the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, as well as William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Old English verse. In 1939, he moved to the United States, where he met his lover, Chester Kallman, and became an American citizen. He is considered a virtuoso of formal (metrical and rhyming) verse. He died in Vienna in 1973.

A Clear Midnight by Walt Whitman

Even in this short poem you get a sense of Whitman's sweeping and powerful voice. If you haven't read Whitman before and you're intruiged, you should pick up Leaves of Grass.

A Clear Midnight
By Walt Whitman

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson
done,Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the
themes thou lovest best,Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Walt Whitman grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island in the 1820s and 30s. While a student of the classics, his style was perhaps most influenced by cadences in the Bible. His work was unique for its time and "free," contrasting starkly with the rhyme and metrical regularity of most poetry of the period.

The Day Lady Died by Frank O'Hara

In honor of my weekend trip to New York, here's a Frank O'Hara poem. It's an elegy for Billie Holiday which plays out how a moment of recognition and intense emotion can punctuate the everyday. Hope you enjoy.

The Day the Lady Died
By Frank O’Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille Day, yes
it is 1959, and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in East Hampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega, and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatere and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.

Frank O'Hara became one of the most distinguished members of the New York School of poets, which also included John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. O'Hara's association with the painters Larry Rivers, Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns, also leaders of the New York School, became a source of inspiration for his highly original poetry. He attempted to produce with words the effects these artists had created on canvas.

Elegy for Jane by Theodore Roethke

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was born in Saginaw, Michigan. As a child, he spent much time in the greenhouse owned by his father and uncle. His impressions of the natural world contained there would later profoundly influence the subjects and imagery of his verse. Stylistically his work ranged from witty poems in strict meter and regular stanzas to free verse poems full of mystical and surrealistic imagery. At all times, however, the natural world in all its mystery, beauty, fierceness, and sensuality, is close by, and the poems are possessed of an intense lyricism.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Song On the End of the World by Czeslaw Milosz

Translated by Anthony Milosz

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels' trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.

Czeslaw Milosz was born to on June 30, 1911, in Szetejnie, Lithuania (then under the domination of the Russian tsarist government). He spent most of World War II in Nazi-occupied Warsaw working for underground presses. In 1980, Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.