STEPHEN DUNN V. LOUISE GLUCK IN THE NORTH

Stephen Dunn belongs to the Billy Collins school.  They should go on a poetry-reading tour together. 

The public needs to know: this is modern poetry which is being written for you—and here are the poets who write this kind of poetry. 

It’s not just Collins and Dunn.  One thinks of Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, James Tate, Matthew Dickman, and maybe Louise Gluck, who—without a poem in the Rita Dove Penguin anthology—is one win away from the Final Four.   The public really does need to know who these poets are, the poets who, in every poem, more than anything, want to please the public. 

It’s a given that the public is 1) hard to please, and 2) they need to be led by the nose.  We shouldn’t mourn this fact.  We should just accept it.  But po-biz will not.

Once the public discovered Billy Collins wrote to them and loved them, and he was a safe bet in this regard, Billy Collins and his poetry did alright. 

Collins fell short of being a national phenomenon, but can you imagine if he were young and good-looking?   Who knows?  Poetry might be big again.

I asked a young writer friend of mine recently why he thought people read novels instead of poetry and what he said was: when you’re on the train and you finish a poem (which invariably makes you realize that everyone else not sharing in the beauty and wisdom of the poem you are reading is an asshole) you look up and see all the assholes on the train, but with a novel, you get to keep reading and you never have to look up at all the assholes.

If only poems could last at least as long as a train commute.

First the Louise Gluck poem, and then Stephen Dunn’s:

CELESTIAL MUSIC

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.

We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality
But timid also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
According to nature. For my sake she intervened
Brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
Across the road.

My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality. She says I’m like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness-
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person-

In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
On the same road, except it’s winter now;
She’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
Like brides leaping to a great height-
Then I’m afraid for her; I see her
Caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth-

In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact
That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.
She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
Capable of life apart from her.
We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition
Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering-
It’s this stillness we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.

POEM FOR PEOPLE THAT ARE UNDERSTANDABLY TOO BUSY TO READ POETRY

Relax. This won’t last long.
Or if it does, or if the lines
make you sleepy or bored,
give in to sleep, turn on
the T.V., deal the cards.
This poem is built to withstand
such things. Its feelings
cannot be hurt. They exist
somewhere in the poet,
and I am far away.
Pick it up anytime. Start it
in the middle if you wish.
It is as approachable as melodrama,
and can offer you violence
if it is violence you like. Look,
there’s a man on a sidewalk;
the way his leg is quivering
he’ll never be the same again.
This is your poem
and I know you’re busy at the office
or the kids are into your last nerve.
Maybe it’s sex you’ve always wanted.
Well, they lie together
like the party’s unbuttoned coats,
slumped on the bed
waiting for drunken arms to move them.
I don’t think you want me to go on;
everyone has his expectations, but this
is a poem for the entire family.
Right now, Budweiser
is dripping from a waterfall,
deodorants are hissing into armpits
of people you resemble,
and the two lovers are dressing now,
saying farewell.
I don’t know what music this poem
can come up with, but clearly
it’s needed. For it’s apparent
they will never see each other again
and we need music for this
because there was never music when he or she
left you standing on the corner.
You see, I want this poem to be nicer
than life. I want you to look at it
when anxiety zigzags your stomach
and the last tranquilizer is gone
and you need someone to tell you
I’ll be here when you want me
like the sound inside a shell.
The poem is saying that to you now.
But don’t give anything for this poem.
It doesn’t expect much. It will never say more
than listening can explain.
Just keep it in your attache case
or in your house. And if you’re not asleep
by now, or bored beyond sense,
the poem wants you to laugh. Laugh at
yourself, laugh at this poem, at all poetry.
Come on:

Good. Now here’s what poetry can do.

Imagine yourself a caterpillar.
There’s an awful shrug and, suddenly,
You’re beautiful for as long as you live.

Dunn woos the reader, outrageously.  The last line is not true—but in poetryland it is.  But the line is true, perhaps, because Dunn began by saying, “Imagine.”  Dunn is out there on a limb, like a coach, telling the reader what to do.  He has set up the relationship between writer and reader—in full confidence.

Louise Gluck never woos the reader: she talks plainly and half-hopes the reader overhears.  Which is what most poets do.  Otherwise, you risk being a jerk. The last line of her poem, “The love of form is a love of endings,” is not meant to be outrageous—and only true in poetryland—but actually true.  Therefore, she takes a much greater risk than Dunn.  We accept Dunn’s line immediately, perhaps on account that we know right away that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.  We have to think about Gluck’s last line: Is the love of form really a love of endings?   One understands conceptually what Gluck is saying, and one may even appreciate that “endings” ends her poem—with the two silent, contemplative friends sitting together as night falls.  But in baseball terminology, Dunn hits his pitch perfectly on a line out of the park for a homerun, while Gluck hits a tremendous fly ball that’s a towering pop up, taking forever to come down, for an out.  The jerk wins.

Dunn 99 Gluck 93

Congratulations, Stephen Dunn!   You are in the Final Four!

MERWIN V. WALCOTT IN THE MIDWEST/SOUTH

W.S. Merwin, who just finished serving out his Poet Laureateship, was born in NYC.  But Scarriet put him in the South bracket because Merwin is associated with Robert Graves (early Fugitive) and with Princeton—where Southern Fugitive and Agrarian, Allen Tate, started one of the nation’s first Poetry workshop there in the early 40s.  The New Critics—who sprang directly from the Agrarians in Tennessee—hatched the Creative Writing Industry, and agrarianism, or environmentalism, for some odd reason, is tied up with the origins of the writing workshop industry: think of conservationist Wallace Stegner, the first Writing Workshop director in the west, and his student Wendell Berry, for instance.  Merwin has eco-creds and poet-creds galore, and Merwin has to be seen as part of this early agrarian movement.  When Merwin came of age as a poet in the 50s, the editor everyone worshiped was John Crowe Ransom, the leader of the agrarians/turned New Critics.  Berryman (at Princeton) and Lowell (a student of Ransom and Workshop teacher) were part of this clique, as well. Merwin’s friend Robert Graves preached psychodelic mushroom consumption when he was professor of Oxford in the 60s. American intellectual life and British hippie philosophy cohere in many ways, and Merwin is nothing if not a back-to-the-earth hippie.   The South/Midwest brackett was dominated by black poets this year, because Rita Dove put them in her Penguin anthology.  Now we have Merwin, the one white player in this division, trying to enter the Final Four and win the Midwest/South—against Derek Walcott, the Nobel poet of Caribbean lore.   If 19th century poetry featured introspection, beauty, and the sublime, 20th century poetry was mostly about nature, place and transience.

Walcott sings of the classical, but from the fringes, where his poetry bodies it as if it still exists.  The following is an excerpt from Walcott’s long poem, Omeros, and appears as it does in Dove’s anthology.  “Another River” is Merwin’s.

Good luck, gentleman.  One of you will advance to Scarriet’s 2012 Final Four.

from Omeros, Book VII

I sang of Achille, Afolabe’s son,
who never ascended in an elevator,
who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,

never begged nor borrowed, was nobody’s waiter,
whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water
(which is not for this book, which will remain unknown

and unread by him). I sang the only slaughter
that brought him delight, and that from necessity—
of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.

I sang our wide country, the Caribbean Sea.
Who hated shoes, whose soles were as cracked as a stone,
who was gentle with ropes, who had one suit alone,

whom no man dared insult and who insulted no one,
whose grin was a white breaker cresting, but whose frown
was a growing thunderhead, whose fist of iron

would do me a greater honour if it held on
to my casket’s oarlocks than mine lifting his own
when both anchors are lowered in the one island,

but now the idyll dies, the goblet is broken,
and rainwater trickles down the brown cheek of a jar
from the clay of Choiseul. So much left unspoken

by my chirping nib! And my earth-door lies ajar.
I lie wrapped in a flour-sack sail. The clods thud
on my rope-lowered canoe. Rasping shovels scrape

a dry rain of dirt on its hold, but turn your head
when the sea-almond rattles or the rust-leaved grape
from the shells of my unpharaonic pyramid

towards paper shredded by the wind and scattered
like white gulls that separate their names from the foam
and nod to a fisherman with his khaki dog

that skitters from the wave-crash, then frown at his form
for swift second. In its earth-trough, my pirogue
with its brass-handled oarlocks is sailing. Not from

but with them, with Hector, with Maud in the rhythm
of her beds trowelled over, with a swirling log
lifting its mossed head from the swell; let the deep hymn

of the Caribbean continue my epilogue;
may waves remove their shawls as my mourners walk home
to their rusted villages, good shoes in one hand,

passing a boy who walked through the ignorant foam,
and saw a sail going out or else coming in,
and watched asterisks of rain puckering the sand.

ANOTHER RIVER

The friends have gone home far up the valley
of that river into whose estuary
the man from England sailed in his own age
in time to catch sight of the late forests
furring in black the remotest edges
of the majestic water always it
appeared to me that he arrived just as
an evening was beginning and toward the end
of summer when the converging surface
lay as a single vast mirror gazing
upward into the pearl light that was
already stained with the first saffron
of sunset on which the high wavering trails
of migrant birds flowed southward as though there were
no end to them the wind had dropped and the tide
and the current for a moment seemed to hang
still in balance and the creaking and knocking
of wood stopped all at once and the known voices
died away and the smells and rocking
and starvation of the voyage had become
a sleep behind them as they lay becalmed
on the reflection of their Half Moon
while the sky blazed and then the tide lifted them
up the dark passage they had no name for

Both of these poems are enveloped in nature and celebrate nature, more so than even in the works of Wordsworth— who seems a man standing apart from nature, compared to the effusions of these two poets, who are washed away by the waves.

Walcott is a little more skilled in depicting nature and putting charm in his verses.  Merwin is plainer and writes almost with a hushed address, as if his voice were intentionally small and far away. 

Walcott 81 Merwin 77

DEREK WALCOTT MAKES THE FINAL FOUR!

FOR THE FINAL FOUR: BEN MAZER V. FRANZ WRIGHT

Is 2012 March Madness still going on? Yes.

Ben Mazer and Franz Wright shit out their poems. (That’s just an expression.)  They have no egos.  They are like: here. a poem.

You don’t fuck with Ben Mazer or Franz Wright.  You just read their poems.

You don’t ask them what their poems mean.   You feel the poem travel up the hairs on your arm. 

Hell hath no explanation like the explanation of one of their poems.  You see their poems out of the corner of your brain.

Enough hyperbole: let’s watch this titanic struggle.   For the Final Four!!

Franz Wright:

DEDICATION

It’s true I never write, but I would gladly die with you.
Gladly lower myself down alone with you into the enormous mouth
that waits, beyond youth, beyond every instant of ecstasy, remember:
before battle we would do each other’s makeup, comb each other’s
                   hair out
saying we are unconquerable, we are terrible and splendid—
the mouth waiting, patiently waiting. And I will meet you there
                   again
beyond bleeding thorns, the endless dilation, the fire that alters
                   nothing;
I am there already past snowy clouds, balding moss, dim
swarm of stars even we can step over, it is easier this time, I promise—
I am already waiting in your personal heaven, here is my hand,
I will help you across. I would gladly die with you still,
although I never write  
from this gray institution. See
they are so busy trying to cure me,
I’m condemned—sorry, I have been given the job
of vacuuming the desert forever, well, no more than eight hours
                   a day.
And it’s really just about a thousand miles of cafeteria;
a large one in any event. With its miniature plastic knives,
its tuna salad and Saran-Wrapped genitalia will somebody
                   please
get me out of here, sorry. I am happy to say that
every method, massive pharmaceuticals, art therapy
and edifying films as well as others I would prefer
not to mention—I mean, every single technique
known to the mouth—sorry!—to our most kindly
compassionate science is being employed
to restore me to normal well-being
and cheerful stability. I go on vacuuming
toward a small diamond light burning
off in the distance. Remember
me. Do you
remember me?   
In the night’s windowless darkness
when I am lying cold and numb
and no one’s fiddling with the lock, or
shining flashlights in my eyes,
although I never write, secretly
I long to die with you,
does that count?
 
 
Ben Mazer:
 
THE KING  (parts 29-35)
 
XXIX
 
Why should the aged eagle spread his wing?
I’ll tell you why. Because to watch Santa bring
a billion presents from the frozen pole
all by himself is less than heartening.
He brings them door to door
with Hyperborean speed. You who are converted
are harnessed to his creed though you have skirted
the issue. Who is that dark stranger?
That sickly twisted dying frozen ranger
who captivates the grove where you, too, rove.
I think he is myself! The least sure elf
mixes these patterns and brings them to the slatterns
who place them in dust till Easter on the shelf.
They call him Stetson, I have four sure bets on.

XXX

The chair she sits in like a burnished throne
happens to be the King’s, and is my own.
Maybe I too descend into parody
but not without esoteric clarity.
The least sure elf
is pining to be made into his self,
but I have already explained myself.
Pure tragedy must needs be humourless
and poetry will not be cured unless
its certain tragedy is made refined.
I too among that Harbour Dawn have pined
for quintessential pure lucidity,
perceived the cortex of the trinity,
and each emotion to its word assigned.

XXXI

Manhattan in the rain. I couldn’t speak
when Uncle Sid drove me in from Rockaway.
What did I want? To visit the punk rock shops.
The statue of liberty seemed oxidized and locked,
too fleeting, like shops I only saw when they were closed,
left for another lifetime. What would we have said if we talked?
Head of the Vice Squad. My mind was exploding with vice.
When I came back from England I was lost,
and sat in my Aunt’s house in Far Rockaway
watching Abbott and Costello night and day,
as vacuum cleaner salesmen, rival clans,
detectives, photographers, victims of circumstance.
I pilfered the attic for Pogo and Mark Twain,
ate seven kinds of cereal (she had three sons),
and saw Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch again.

XXXII

Words! How can I deploy a dozen at once
on top of each other, the way I might read a page
backwards and forewards, in one photographic instant,
stretching the tongue in all directions at once,
to say the unsayable, cumulative and percussive
explosions signifying an enduring silence,
one fusion of confluence and inclusion,
packed with the weight, the indivisible density,
of all remembered experience and emotion,
and fraught with primordial defiance of the linear,
stabilizing possibility in one vocable,
one sound of thesis and antithesis,
one word for everything, all words in one,
a form large enough into which to put anything!

XXXIII

Anne Britton. Why do my thoughts always come back to this?
How on the edge and outskirts of the city
high on a hill worthy of Disney, or Seuss, or Mr. Burns,
high on a hill overlooking
what seemed like all the world—
crags and crevices, shadows, and blinkering lights,
some corner where a cobweb spun, where
nobody entered, where in another world
of brick on brick, orphaned, without witnesses
perhaps an old lady—kindly and unobserved—
may have fed animals she talked to,
called names, her heirs—a mildewed carpet
byzantian and worn amid the high mantles
and rafters seen by the impossibly small.

XXXIV

Branches grow in all directions at once.
Their black silhouettes enclose
the opposite of the city that surrounds them—
even then the white air of orphanic pilgrimages.
They dine on spaghetti! The instruments measure gold!
And when in the longing that descends in darkness
they take their cue to motion
(all things are there!) what never happened slows
into familiar memory, and the winds whip
their thousand frames and borders (enticing as lace),
in cross purposes, symphonies of erasure,
expansions of dimension and perspective
extending outwards down every road and lane,
groaning and growing inward, cross hatched by the rain
(whose sudden abundance even now overflows).

XXXV

Spring nights in high school—some legend revealed
as far as all the laundry lines could take you
through a universe of backyards, to a distant and returning star.
Like a cock’s crow plunging beneath the planets
to the mythic origins of what we are.
Revealed! So in celebration we circled
the little town, for all lines are a circle,
coming and going the same, till you grow tall
and strong, worthy of bearing a name:
like shrouds of darkness the points we pierced
with our individual lights, passing and hailing like stars,
until all was uncovered, each one knew each one,
the circle completed, a simultaneity
of all points from A to D to Z

Franz Wright cares that he’s crazy.  And it breaks your heart.  This is why his poetry is successful.

Ben Mazer doesn’t care that he’s crazy.  Actually, he’s not crazy—you are, as you read his poetry.  But that’s the whole point—he’s taking you on a trip, so that when you walk away from his poem, you will be less crazy.  We don’t know how this will play out, yet, in terms of success.

It’s a close contest, but the winner is…

Mazer 70 Wright 67

MAZER IS OUR FIRST POET IN THE FINAL FOUR!

MARILYN CHIN AND HEATHER MCHUGH BATTLE FOR THE FINAL ELITE EIGHT SPOT

Marilyn Chin, a shy kid who went to the University of Iowa, has three poems in Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century poetry.  She has a chance to advance to the Elite Eight in Scarriet’s third annual March Madness Poetry Tournament, which started with 64 of the best living English-speaking poets in the world.  Here’s that third Chin poem from the Dove anthology:

THE SURVIVOR

Don’t tap your chopsticks against your bowl.
Don’t throw your teacup against the wall in anger.
Don’t suck on your long black braid and weep.
Don’t tarry around the big red sign that says “danger!”

All the tempests will render still; seas will calm,
horses will retreat, voices to surrender.

*

That you have bloomed this way and not that,
that your skin is yellow, not white, not black,
that you were born not a boychild but a girl,
that this world will be forever puce-pink are just as well.

Remember, the survivor is not the strongest or most clever;
merlely, the survivor is almost always the youngest.
And you shall have to relinquish that title before long.

The wry humor here is sweet.  Chin has what most poets lack—profound yet unostentatious wit.

McHugh has two poems in the Dove.  Her “What He Thought” is one of the great little-known poems of the 20th century and it gave her a victory over Kay Ryan in Round Two.  McHugh, too, is witty:

After Su Tung P’o

ON THE BIRTH OF A SON

When a child is born, the parents say
they hope it’s healthy and intelligent. But as for me—

well, vigor and intelligence have wrecked my life. I pray
this baby we are seeing walloped, wiped and winningly anointed,

turns out dumb as oakum—and more sinister. That way
he can crown a tranquil life by being

appointed a cabinet minister.

Heather McHugh belongs to that tribe of poets who want poetry to be socially interesting and make us laugh.  Witty poems make us cry and laugh at the same time, as do Chin and McHugh with their poems here.

Chin manages to be more sweeping.

Chin 69 McHugh 65

So here is the Elite Eight—and the matchups for the Final Four!

North: Franz Wright v. Ben Mazer

South/Midwest: Derek Walcott v. W.S. Merwin

North: Louise Gluck v. Stephen Dunn

West: Sharon Olds v. Marilyn Chin

Big names have fallen: John Ashbery, Richard Wilbur, Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan, Mary Oliver, but you had to be there for those contests to see it happen.

Marla Muse:  They happened.

MATTHEW DICKMAN AND SHARON OLDS ARE GROSS! AND THEY ARE FIGHTING IN THE WEST

Dickman and Olds have a popular appeal and are not afraid of gross subjects.  It seems that hiding behind every other poet these days is a gross stand-up comic who talks about stuff other people are too shy to talk about.  The poet (like the comic) who isn’t afraid to talk about the most uncomfortable stuff imaginable (just imagine!) achieves a certain fame.

So this is a battle of the gross poets.  Here we go!

First “One Year” by Olds, then “Slow Dance” by Dickman.  Here’s Olds:

ONE YEAR

When I got to his marker, I sat on it,
like sitting on the edge of someone’s bed
and I rubbed the smooth, speckled granite.
I took some tears from my jaw and neck
and started to wash a corner of his stone.
Then a black and amber ant
ran out onto the granite, and off it,
and another ant hauled a dead
ant onto the stone, leaving it, and not coming back.
Ants ran down into the grooves of his name
and dates, down into the oval track of the
first name’s O, middle name’s O,
the short O of his last name,
and down into the hyphen between
his birth and death–little trough of his life.
Soft bugs appeared on my shoes,
like grains of pollen, I let them move on me,
I rinsed a dark fleck of mica,
and down inside the engraved letters
the first dots of lichen were appearing
like stars in early evening.
I saw the speedwell on the ground with its horns,
the coiled ferns, copper-beech blossoms, each
petal like that disc of matter which
swayed, on the last day, on his tongue.
Tamarack, Western hemlock,
manzanita, water birch
with its scored bark,
I put my arms around a trunk and squeezed it,
then I lay down on my father’s grave.
The sun shone down on me, the powerful
ants walked on me. When I woke,
my cheek was crumbly, yellowish
with a mustard plaster of earth. Only
at the last minute did I think of his body
actually under me, the can of
bone, ash, soft as a goosedown
pillow that bursts in bed with the lovers.
When I kissed his stone it was not enough,
when I licked it my tongue went dry a moment, I
ate his dust, I tasted my dirt host.

SLOW DANCE

More than putting another man on the moon,
more than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,
we need the opportunity to dance
with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance
between the couch and dinning room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet. A slow dance
to bring the evening home, to knock it out of the park. Two people
rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.
A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.
It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting
on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.
Your hands along her spine. Her hips
unfolding like a cotton napkin
and you begin to think about how all the stars in the sky
are dead. The my body
is talking to your body slow dance. The Unchained Melody,
Stairway to Heaven, power-cord slow dance. All my life
I’ve made mistakes. Small
and cruel. I made my plans.
I never arrived. I ate my food. I drank my wine.
The slow dance doesn’t care. It’s all kindness like children
before they turn four. Like being held in the arms
of my brother. The slow dance of siblings.
Two men in the middle of the room. When I dance with him,
one of my great loves, he is absolutely human,
and when he turns to dip me
or I step on his foot because we are both leading,
I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer.
The slow dance of what’s to come
and the slow dance of insomnia
pouring across the floor like bath water.
When the woman I’m sleeping with
stands naked in the bathroom,
brushing her teeth, the slow dance of ritual is being spit
into the sink. There is no one to save us
because there is no need to be saved.
I’ve hurt you. I’ve loved you. I’ve mowed
the front yard. When the stranger wearing a shear white dress
covered in a million beads
comes toward me like an over-sexed chandelier suddenly come to life,
I take her hand in mine. I spin her out
and bring her in. This is the almond grove
in the dark slow dance.
It is what we should be doing right now. Scrapping
for joy. The haiku and honey. The orange and orangutang slow dance.

These poems are not terribly gross, we admit, but they’re not “Annabel Lee,” either.  The images are not pure. She’s got bugs everywhere and she’s licking dust, and he’s got the naked lover brushing her teeth and spitting into the sink.  No, it’s not the gross of stand-up comedy, for Dickman and Olds add heart and sweetness and care: that’s what poets do and comics don’t.  Comics are well-meaning, too, of course; the grossest comic is just trying to figure out life and express life just like the poets and the bitterest and grossest stand-up comic might be even more heart-felt and sensitive.  This is what people think.  This is why it’s always better to be gross—because the sweetness will be implied.  But if you are only sweet, the grossness is never implied.  In fact, if you are only sweet, people will think you are stupid; and they will be right, because why be one thing by being sweet when you can be two things by being gross?  Come to think of it, “Annabel Lee” is gross, too.

In this case, Olds shows the party-boy how it’s done.  Death and mourning trumps the slightly illicit slow-dance.

Olds 79 Dickman 71

WRITING AND RIDING: RICHARD WILBUR BATTLES LOUISE GLUCK

Here is the game.  The contest.  We present the two poems: first Wilbur’s, then Gluck’s:

THE WRITER

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

HORSE

What does the horse give you
That I cannot give you?

I watch you when you are alone,
When you ride into the field behind the dairy,
Your hands buried in the mare’s
Dark mane.

Then I know what lies behind your silence:
Scorn, hatred of me, of marriage. Still,
You want me to touch you; you cry out
As brides cry, but when I look at you I see
There are no children in your body.
Then what is there?

Nothing, I think. Only haste
To die before I die.

In a dream, I watched you ride the horse
Over the dry fields and then
Dismount: you two walked together;
In the dark, you had no shadows.
But I felt them coming toward me
Since at night they go anywhere,
They are their own masters.

Look at me. You think I don’t understand?
What is the animal
If not passage out of this life?

Wilbur (his poem is from Dove’s anthology) is logical and playful—that combination of which formal properties in the verse usually result.  It is a man anxious to be reasonable and understood.  Wilbur responds to the world in visions of happy quantity: the house is a ship. The bird sails through the window.  My daughter is at the typewriter now.

Gluck (not in the Dove) is neither logical nor playful.  She is mystical and serious.  She speaks as people speak when you overhear them; when they are not speaking to you, when they are not trying to explain anything to you, because you are merely evesdropping. 

Wilbur’s poem is earnest and polite; Gluck’s is a cry in the night.

Gluck 69 Wilbur 68

Louise Gluck has upset the master!

PHIL LEVINE AND STEPHEN DUNN BATTLE IN THE NORTH

Phil Levine and Stephen Dunn may be the two living poets most dedicated to the poem as a critique of life/art.   All the critics would agree, and the two poems by these two poets in today’s contest are perfect examples of the poem as critique, with formal qualities in short supply, with content completely driving the form—which hardly exists, so vital is the content itself.  What happens when the content is so important that it overwhelms the form?  We might say, ‘you get prose,’ or we might say, ‘you get the sort of excellent poem which Levine and Dunn produce.’  Take your pick.

But when we say “critique of life/art,” that duality, ‘life/art,’ is important; we don’t use it lightly.  Art is easy to critique, obviously, compared to really having something philosophically astute to say about life, and many of our half-wits pride themselves on their critique of life, when they are really saying things about art. As poets, they write—in their poetry—against a certain style of poetry—and are often mistaken as poets who write poetry which is a critque of life.  Write what you know, goes the Writing Workshop mantra; the poet simply writes (in a ‘critique of life’ style) on poetry.

Think of how easy it is too critique Romanticism, for instance; to say it is hyperbolic, take-drugs-contemplate-flower-weep-over-love poetry. And to oppose it to a certain kind of “Classicism,” to which you, though modern, belong.  This critique (of Romanticism) pretty much sums up the position of Yvor Winters, early Poetry Workshop teacher at Stanford, and briefly associated with the Fugitives. 

We can trace this influence easily: from Winters to his student at Stanford, Donald Justice, and then to Stephen Dunn, who studied under Justice at Syracuse, and Phil Levine, who was a younger classmate of Justice’s at Iowa, when they studied together with Robert Lowell—who studied with Fugitive poets Ransom and Tate. Which leads us back to Winters and early ‘classical’ Modernism centered around Pound.  Here is the rather small world of  Modernism and its Winters Classicism growing out of Justice at Iowa and the world of the American Poetry Workshop, anti-Romantic to its core.  People often talk about ‘the Workshop poem’ and what its characteristics are.  It has no characteristics; it is defined by what it is not: as far away from Shelley as it is possible to be.

The following is Levine’s “Simple Truth” and the title betrays everything.  Notice how it attempts to be a critique of life, when it really is a critique of a certain kind of poetry.  It doesn’t want to be that kind of poetry (“elegance, meter or rhyme”) and it doesn’t even realize it is wholly defining itself by what it is not. For what are we to make otherwise of a poem exploiting the taste of butter in the back of one’s throat that we can’t express in words as a critique of life?  Oh the woman who sold me the potatoes was from Poland!  Really?  This is schmaltz, not poetry.

THE SIMPLE TRUTH

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

How his friend Henri “began to kill himself” is passed over quickly for the more important “a simple pinch of salt.”  To get away from “elegant” poetry, Levine skips what really involves a critique of life—not that ‘a critique of life’ is what poetry should be, necessarily, but this is certainly how poets like Levine are marketed.  “Can you taste what I’m saying?” Levine asks in his poem.  Uh, no.  This is prose rising up out of the poetry patch to ask that we join in praising the poetry patch. This is what Keats, in his letter on the primrose, said poetry should not do.  There is nothing wrong with the earth and the things Levine is praising.  It’s the statement that earth must be opposed to elegance which doesn’t belong.  It’s not a poetic sentiment—and not even a good prose one.  We know that Levine’s school of poetry needs to say whatever it needs to say in order to reach its poetic conclusion—but the individual statements, and what they imply in the poem still need to be accounted for.  It’s not polite to stop a poem in the middle, but that doesn’t mean the reader won’t do it, anyway, if something is fishy—even if the poet (I’m just talking, here…) doesn’t realize it.

Here’s the thing about poetic prose, and wanting to write prose that’s poetic.  Prose that wants to be poetic is like having your cake and eating it.  You want to be poetic, but you also don’t want to be poetic.  You want to hit the ball smack in the middle of the bat with a nice loud crack! but you also want to have the ball dribble off your bat, too.  In the same swing.  So when you are talking in a less elevated fashion, as if you are just telling a story, and you throw in a few details just to set the scene—they are not that important so don’t pay too much attention to them—you are asking the reader to be of two minds, and this is a lot to ask of the reader: know when I’m being poetic and know when I’m not!  This sounds like a simple request, except that in a poem every syllable contributes to the whole effect, whereas in prose, entire words and phrases contribute to perhaps a dozen effects that are not even aware of each other, and this difficulty increases exponentially as prose proceeds.  What is seized upon by the poetic sensibility while reading poetry is meant to be quickly discarded while reading prose.  How can this be done simultaneously while reading one text?

The illusion that prose is poetry is aided by the fact that both exist in time—we proceed from one step to the next in both prose and poetry.  But temporality merely organizes prose; poetry is constantly acting on temporality to re-organize it.  To confuse these two functions is to lose the sense of poetry—while thinking one is gaining it—in perusing prose.

Back to the game.  Here is how Dunn counters Levine:

STORY

A woman’s taking her late-afternoon walk
on Chestnut where no sidewalk exists
and houses with gravel driveways
sit back among the pines. Only the house
with the vicious dog is close to the road.
An electric fence keeps him in check.
When she comes to that house, the woman
always crosses to the other side.

I’m the woman’s husband. It’s a problem
loving your protagonist too much.
Soon the dog is going to break through
that fence, teeth bared, and go for my wife.
She will be helpless. I’m out of town,
helpless too. Here comes the dog.
What kind of dog? A mad dog, a dog
like one of those teenagers who just loses it
on the playground, kills a teacher.

Something’s going to happen that can’t happen
in a good story; out of nowhere a car
comes and kills the dog. The dog flies
in the air, lands in a patch of delphiniums.
My wife is crying now. The woman who hit
the dog has gotten out of her car. She holds
both hands to her face. The woman who owns
the dog has run out of her house. Three women
crying in the street, each for different reasons.

All of this is so unlikely; it’s as if
I’ve found myself in a country of pure fact,
miles from truth’s more demanding realm.
When I listened to my wife’s story on the phone
I knew I’d take it from her, tell it
every which way until it had an order
and a deceptive period at the end. That’s what
I always do in the face of helplessness,
make some arrangements if I can.

Praise the odd, serendipitous world.
Nothing I’d be inclined to think of
would have stopped that dog.
Only the facts saved her.

It is easy—and necessary—to extract Dunn’s critique of life here: life is ruled by “facts.”  The narrator cannot save his wife.  Only the accident of “facts” can.  But Dunn is confusing the “facts” of his poem with life—more than just “facts.”  Dunn, like Levine, is confusing life and art; he thinks he is talking about life—reducing it to “facts”—but he is really talking about his poem, and its “facts.”  This “confusion” is not unusual, and as far as Dunn’s poem goes, this “confusion” is perfectly acceptable, since Dunn is telling us a real story about something that happened in his life—and putting it in “a poem.”  Dunn is conscious of this and says it explicitly: I will take what my wife says and put a period on it. But it’s a “deceptive” period, Dunn says, and here he is, again, imitating Levine (they are from the same pessimistic school) in criticizing not life, but a certain kind of poetry, a poetry “of elegance” which puts “deceptive periods” on things. 

Dunn 83 Levine 82

W.S.MERWIN V. RITA DOVE

President Obama has Rita Dove going all the way in his Scarriet Poetry Tournament office pool.

Rita Dove will have to defeat M.S. Merwin in the South/Midwest Bracket’s semi-final to make it into the Elite Eight.  Her Penguin 20th Americna Poetry anthology has been the centerpiece of this year’s Scarriet March Madness Tourney—stretching its excitement and thrills into June.  Dove has three poems in her own controversial Penguin anthology and has barged into the Sweet 16 by knocking off young black poets.  Trashed by critics Helen Vendler and William Logan, Dove stands proud thanks to the success of her poems in Scarriet’s Tournament.  But she’ll have to beat the distinguished poet W.S. Merwin to advance.  Merwin brings this poem (from Dove’s anthology) to the table:

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

We always feel slightly miffed at Merwin’s lack of punctuation—for whom does it serve?  Does Merwin (like a child) feel no punctuation adds poetic mystique to his work? 

The idea of Merwin’s poem is an interesting one—the unknown anniversary of one’s death—and he gives it a fairly cursory treatment.  We are not thrilled by this poem, but we don’t dislike it, except for the reason mentioned above.

Rita Dove picked the following poem of hers for inclusion in her Penguin anthology of poems of the 20th Century:

AFTER READING MICKEY IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN FOR THE THIRD TIME BEFORE BED

I'm in the milk and the milk's in me! ...I'm Mickey!

My daughter spreads her legs
to find her vagina:
hairless, this mistaken
bit of nomenclature
is what a stranger cannot touch
without her yelling. She demands
to see mine and momentarily
we’re a lopsided star
among the spilled toys,
my prodigious scallops
exposed to her neat cameo.

And yet the same glazed
tunnel, layered sequences.
She is three; that makes this
innocent. We’re pink!
she shrieks, and bounds off.

Every month she wants
to know where it hurts
and what the wrinkled string means
between my legs. This is good blood
I say, but that’s wrong, too.
How to tell her that it’s what makes us—
black mother, cream child.
That we’re in the pink
and the pink’s in us.

This is a lovely poem, but we have no idea what “That we’re in the pink/and the pink’s in us” is supposed to signify.  Except for the charm of a mother and young child glimpsed, we have no idea what this poem is trying to do.  Is it pleased with itself that it is somewhat risque’ in content?  We are baffled.

Sorry, Mr. President!  You lose the office pool!

Merwin 88 Dove 69

HERE WE GO: NOBEL VERSUS SLAM! DEREK WALCOTT TAKES ON PATRICIA SMITH!

Derek Walcott, Nobel prize winner, is very well represented in Rita Dove’s Penguin anthology.  We go outside it, for a lyric by Walcott on oneself:

LOVE AFTER LOVE

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Here’s one of those poems which expresses a simple idea—loving oneself—and makes us stop and think: why hasn’t this been done before, or more often? 

Self-love, like vanity, is to be avoided, but here Walcott embraces it.  But so that self-love doesn’t seem like vanity or boorishness, he is clever to contrast it with a love affair (the “love letters” and “desperate notes”)—and so the poem doesn’t seem silly, but poignant, when it says, “Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another.”

The chief problem with the poem is its imagery, which is plain.  We have trouble picturing it dramatically.  How is the person feasting at the end, exactly?  Are they feasting on the love letters?  If so, how are they escaping their old lovers, in order to focus on the self?  Or is the command to “feast on your life” meant ironically?  The idea of the poem is clear, but its dramatic realization is somewhat vague.

Patricia Smith, a four-time National Slam Poet Champion, is not represented in Dove’s anthology.

In the following poem, Smith embraces the iconography that is Aretha Franklin:

ASKING FOR A HEART ATTACK

Aretha. Deep butter dipt, burnt pot liquor, twisted sugar cane,
Vaselined knock knees clacking extraordinary gospel.
hustling toward the promised land in 4/4 time, Aretha.
Greased and glowing awash in limelight, satisfied moan
‘neath the spotlight, turning ample ass toward midnight,
she the it’s-all-good goddess of warm cornbread
and bumped buttermilk, know jesus by his first name.
carried his gospel low and democratic in rollicking brownships,
sang His drooping corpse down from that ragged wooden T,
dressed Him up in something shiny, conked that Holy head of hair,
then Aretha rustled up bus fare and took the deity downtown.
They coaxed the DJ and slid electric untill the lights slammed on,
she taught Him dirty nicknames for His father’s handiwork.
She was young then, thin and aching, her heartbox shut tight.
So Jesus blessed her, He opened her throat and taught her
to wail that way she do, she do wail that way don’t she
do that wail the way she do wail that way, don’t she?
Now every time ‘retha unreel that screech, sang Delta
cut through hurting to glimpse been-done-wrong bone,
a born-again brother called the Holy Ghost creeps through that.
and that, for all you still lookin’, is religion.

Dare you question her several shoulders, the soft stairsteps
of flesh leading to her shaking chins, the steel bones
of a corseted frock eating into bubbling sides,
zipper track etched into skin,
all those faint scars,
those lovesore battle wounds?
Ain’t your mama never told you
how black women collect the world,
build other bodies onto their own?
No earthly man knows the solution to our hips,
asses urgent as sirens,
titties familiar as everybody’s mama
crisscrossed with pulled roads of blood.
Ask us why we pray with our dancin’ shoes on, why we
grow fat away from everyone and toward each other.

Smith is not shy about telling us how good a singer Aretha Franklin is (“extraordinary gospel”) nor shy about telling us what “is religion.”  Nor shy about addressing Franklin’s weight issues.  We are not terribly certain why she is not more shy on these matters, or exactly what these three issues have to do with each other.

Walcott’s poem is too shy.

Smith’s poem is not shy enough.

Walcott 60 Smith 59

DARKNESS AND LIGHT: FRANZ WRIGHT V. MARY OLIVER

We all make mistakes.  Mary Oliver has had a brilliant career as popular nature poet, but she unfortunately published “Singapore,” betraying a fatal elitism.

But Oliver advanced to the third round in the East Bracket with her poem, “Singapore,” in a controversial win over Robert Pinsky, a poet of equal parts vast, heart-felt erudition and self-indulgent, lisping bore. The Oliver poem embarrassed us highly; the Pinsky poem bored us—with a slight grating sound.  The Oliver poem won.

Franz Wright has a dark, spirtual, melancholic swagger that is irresitible, and his poetry has been nearly as successful recently as Oliver’s mystical, motherly, environmentalism.

  OLD STORY

First the telephone went,
then
the electricity.

It was cold,
and they both went to sleep
as though dressed for a journey.

Like addictions condoned
from above, evening
fell, lost

leaves waiting
to come back as leaves–
the long snowy divorce. . .

That narrow bed, a cross
between an altar
and an operating table. Voice

saying, While I was alive
I loved you.
And I love you now.

Franz Wright is the poet of love—wearing black.  

Mighty good stuff.

Mary Oliver pleases in a more far-flung manner:

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting 
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Franz Wright offers comfort from the broken body of himself; Oliver comforts with the natural fabric.

Oliver says, “Look at the sunrise in your door!”

Wright says, “Love me, stumbling on your threshold.”

Oliver is quick to give New Age advice.  Wright is broken, and past that.  That’s why Wright is better.

Wright 90 Oliver 77

CAN BILLY COLLINS SMOKE BEN MAZER?

After it has been read, a novel can feel less substantial in a reader’s mind when compared to a brief poem—if the novel’s focus is narrow, and the poem’s is wide.

America buys more novels than poems because we don’t trust our minds.  We need the concrete fact: I read 288 pages—and it was a ‘good read.’  The author took me somewhere.  I had a good time with him.  He bought me dinner, and then took me home. 

The poet and his one-page poem, however, barely murmur hello.  How rude is that?

It is true, that aesthetically, the novel which persists in keeping theme and plot narrowly tied up in a small, dim room, so that no chapter, character, or minor observance can move without bumping into one other, is usually a winner.  Novels we read in an afternoon, that unwind from a single spool, novels we can picture nearly all at once, like The Great Gatsby, have that narrow vision we like.  Compared to a novel like that, a one-page poem can be haphazard, sprawling, and damn confusing.

The confusing one-page poem is a wretched thing, and yet so many poets persist in it—why?   The poet suffers from penis-envy, perhaps; he’s not a novelist, so he’s going to make up for it by bulking up his little poem with as many facts as possible.  Poets used to view facts as the enemy.  What happened?  Why are poets now so in love with facts?  You can say, with a sly, Ashbery grin, well they are not really facts, but this doesn’t alter the aesthetic impact, the stylistic impression, the final result in the mind of the reader.

The ‘revolution’ of 20th century poetry can be summed up thusly: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story!   The result, a hundred years later, is the Ashbery poem.  With all its myriad little facts indifferently mixed together in a funhouse mirror tale, the Ashbery poem  perfectly realizes that cry: Death to Victorian rhyming poetry that tells a moral story! 

But at Ashbery’s back I always hear: Auden—who kept jabbering away like a Victorian, even as he walked in the cool, modern idiom, even as he awarded Ashbery the Yale Younger.  Sometimes fine resemblances, more than the major distinctions, do us the most good.  Auden—if you read his early obscure poems you see Ashbery—perfected that indifferent voice which pipes in with facts, not in the Victorian, earnest, writing-a-novel-in-a-poem sort of way, but carelessly, so that facts pour in and shape the poem, rather than the poem shaping the facts. 

Isn’t this the major difference, after all, between the Victorian poem and the Ashbery poem?  In the Ashbery poem, the facts shape the poem; in the Victorian poem, the poem shapes the facts.  But still…the modern experiment can only go so far—and how far did it really go?  Too far, because didn’t it kind of kill poetry’s public, as American poetry now survives on creative writing workshop students reading one another? 

The poets cannot rhyme—the Victorians did that.  The poets cannot tell moral stories—the Victorians did that. 

But the best aesthetic revolutions should tell us what we can do, not what we can’t do.

Look at this poem by Auden.  It features two characters: the ambitious Victorian and the indifferent Modern.  It pre-dates Godot by 15 years.  It’s a novel-in-a-poem:

Who’s Who

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.

With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

The Moderns decided to chuck the “long marvelous letters” of the Victorian era, and replace them with blueprints of cryptic psychological truth.  Auden is careful not to reveal the gender of the indifferent Modern.  Maybe it’s Byron writing to Larkin?  Or Byron writing to Auden, himself?

Enough yapping.  Let’s rumble.   Collins v. Mazer.

Collins may seem like a zombie Victorian rising from the grave, but he’s just another version of that Modern who refuses to answer that Victorian’s “long marvelous letters.”  Collins is us.  Ashbery is us.  Just another modern version of that indifferent character in Auden’s “Who’s Who.”  Collins is enjoying his little world.  Note the wry reference to the 19th century:

 THE BEST CIGARETTE

There are many that I miss
having sent my last one out a car window
sparking along the road one night, years ago.

The heralded one, of course:
after sex, the two glowing tips
now the lights of a single ship;
at the end of a long dinner
with more wine to come
and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
or on a white beach,
holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.

How bittersweet these punctuations
of flame and gesture;
but the best were on those mornings
when I would have a little something going
in the typewriter,
the sun bright in the windows,
maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
I would go into the kitchen for coffee
and on the way back to the page,
curled in its roller,
I would light one up and feel
its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.

Then I would be my own locomotive,
trailing behind me as I returned to work
little puffs of smoke,
indicators of progress,
signs of industry and thought,
the signal that told the nineteenth century
it was moving forward.
That was the best cigarette,
when I would steam into the study
full of vaporous hope
and stand there,
the big headlamp of my face
pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

“holding one with fingers still wet from a swim” is glorious.   This is what the poets should be giving us today, instead of X, Y, Z on a blackboard.

Collins foregrounds the writing process itself in the second half of the poem, and this reflexivity is a Renaissance trope.  Collins is no Victorian, but he travels backwards a lot.  But this is what poets do.  The modern (post-modern, etc etc) poet is, in truth, an oxymoron.  Collins is obsessed with clarity.  (The future, i.e., the modern, is never clear.) That, alone, puts him above most of his contemporaries, who hint at everything, who struggle to say something so differently that obscurity results—because they think this makes them more literary, or more intelligent. 

Collins may be guilty of hinting too much in this poem: the locomotive trope may be too clever for its own good, ostentatiously following its tracks over a cliff.  Invoking 19th century progress is not exactly done in a joking manner; Collins, the first-person poet, is always so good-natured that the reader can relax (what’s wrong with that?)—and not worry about catching anxious irony and mockery.  One puff of smoke equals another puff of smoke.  The humor is gentle and self-effacing.  There’s no reaching after “long marvelous letters.” 

We have touched on a number of themes and they all come together in Ben Mazer’s poem—by which he hopes to pull off a miracle, and advance to the fourth round in Scarriet’s 2012 March Madness Tournament: defeating Ashbery, Heaney, and now, Billy Collins:

THE IMPERIALIST GOES TO INDIA
 
Hey, you look just like your facebook photo.
No, you don’t! I read your pores like a map
of everything that’s wrong with the world,
plus everything that’s right. Fields and fields
of daffodils and roses and poppies extending
all the way to the edge of the unshorn
virgin territories unexplored by balloon.
What is the word for this? It wells up
like silence in my groin and chokes
up in my throat like consonants
depleted of syllables. Ooooooooo
then nothing. I sit by a roadside
and have my fortune told. My lines speak triumph
but the voice that cloaks them is ominous.
I may have left Omaha and Idaho
to come to this, but I have fallen in love
and will not leave this till death wrenches me.
Like a librarian without a library
my love shines, she is loved by everyone!
Even small animals adorn her Madras
silks, would gladly die for her.
She cleans her perfect teeth with poppy seeds
and looks on me with a pure look of love.
What is it I see on the other side of myself?
I see, I see, a thousand monkeys
looking through a glass that separates
me from you—I see you trying
to penetrate the glass, but I can’t hear your words.
What are you saying? This drama is intense,
too much is swarming over the old castle walls.
Is this what my aunt meant back in Omaha?
Believe in yourself. Do what you love.
I thought that I had power, held the strings
to my own destiny, and those of others.
Or is that all a dream, will I awake
to find I loved what I already knew.
 
There is more anxiety in Mazer’s first-person—and there is something terribly endearing about the poem’s anxiety, because it’s so sad, without being complaining or hysterical, and it has hidden, nuanced humor: “plus everything that’s right.”  The icy humor of the post-modern.  plus everything that’s right.
 
How a poem ends is 90% of a poem’s success.  We like how Mazer’s poem ends—with a poignancy that sums up the feeling of the entire poem. 
 
By comparison, Collins’ ending feels too clinical: that comparison of train tracks to lines of poetry—we don’t like it!  It spoils a nice poem.  Puffing smoke like a locomotive, the industrious poet is a clown, here, and humor is the way we might say goodbye to our romantic cigarettes.  The poem is certainly winning.  But does it win against Mazer?
 
Oh my God…not another upset…
 
It is possible…?
 
Mazer 80 Collins 78
 
MAZER WINS AGAIN!!!!

ROUND 3 BEGINS: BILLY COLLINS V. BEN MAZER

Collins: The 2010 Scarriet Tourney Champ and still in the hunt in 2012

Two years ago Billy Collins won it all: the Scarriet/BAP March Madness Tourney, and last year Scarriet/APR crowned Philip Larkin—only because one of Larkin’s best poems happened to be published in APR.

This year, the recent Penguin Anthology of 20th century American poetry, edited by Rita Dove, was the book used by Scarriet, but we confined the tourney to living authors and we did draw from a few poets not included in the anthology, because we figured: look, it’s missing Plath and Ginsberg, so we allowed ourselves that license.

The best poems in the Dove come from dead poets—in fact, when it comes to good poems, or famous poems, the latter half of the book is falling off a cliff: where are those “best-loved poems?”  The last 50 years haven’t produced any. They don’t exist anymore.  It isn’t that good poems are no longer being written; it’s that we lack an apparatus to compile and display poems that stick in the public consciousness.  What’s missing is salesmanship that relentlessly pushes The Famous Poem.  The Big Poem lifts all boats, but the sea itself is dry.  The boats have been cut up for firewood and set aflame, that individual poets might warm their hands.

Part of the problem is that editors  no longer know what The Famous Poem is.

The novelists are writing the famous poetry—yes, poetry is still earning its keep—in novels.

And if the poets accuse the novelist by saying, That’s not poetry! who is going to take the poets seriously?  The poets who have been saying poetry isn’t poetry anymore for at least 50 years?

So the irony.   Poetry still sells: but in Booker Prize-type novels.  Of course this is embarrassing to the poetry anthologists and to poetry in general.

Here’s what happened: it was laid out by Harold Bloom in the New York Review 25 years ago—if you are a poet, you must choose either Emerson or Poe as a model, (Bloom said it explicitly, just like that) and (according to Bloom, with the weight of the New York Review’s taste behind him) you better not choose Poe.  Emerson’s children are Whitman and Williams, Poe’s, European prose masters and poets who write the pure fire of meter and rhyme, like Richard Wilbur or Seamus Heaney.  But of course rhyme is not something one simply chooses to do—one must do it very well to have an impact.  To even slightly fail at rhyme is to crash and burn.  Line-breaks in prose never prove disastrous—it always works, in its way.   One cannot demand poets perform a formalist high-wire act; and if they don’t want to do it, why make them get up there?  Most poets are happier performing line-breaks on the ground.  You can’t make someone risk their life for their art.  You can’t tell someone who lives in a valley to climb a mountain.

The bigger problem, however, is that the whole idea of The Famous Poem has been abandoned.  Here’s a universally admired poem has been replaced by You might like this one.

What’s important about the Universally Admired Poem is that it, more than anything else, defines poetry for us all.  Defining it on a blackboard (or writing on a blackboard, ‘A poem can be anything’ or ‘A poem ought to have a political agenda’) is all well and good—but it really is the poetry, or the poem, that shows us what poetry can do, what poetry is.  What else can tell us, but the poem that is universally admired?

“Universally admired” might stick in some people’s craw—but what does that say about their craw?  How can “universally admired” be anything but good?  Yet there will be those—you know who you are—who will object to that phrase, and who will fear its implications.

In Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project Anthology, published in 2000 and titled America’s Favorite Poems, with American poets and poets from other countries, Poe, Shelley, and Billy Collins are excluded. (Rita Dove, who published Pinsky in her anthology, was included in Pinsky’s book).   These are quibbles, perhaps, but excluding those three poets seems a bit…crazy.

But back to Collins versus Mazer.  Perhaps we don’t live in a ‘Poetry Anthology Age’ and there’s no hope of producing popular poets anymore.  It seemed for awhile that Billy Collins was poised to become another Robert Frost in terms of notoriety, but the Robert Pinskys of the world perhaps don’t want it to be so.

We know this: Mazer will need to be at his best to advance past Collins!  

Mazer has already upset Ashbery—and Heaney!   Can he do it again?

MARGARET ATWOOD V. STEPHEN DUNN: THE LAST SWEET 16 SPOT!

And the final Sweet 16 spot belongs to…

Atwood is Canadian, so she’s not represented by Dove’s Penguin anthology of 20th century American poetry;  Dunn’s got a couple of poems in the Dove, including this one:

ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE

He climbed toward the blinding light
and when his eyes adjusted
he looked down and could see

his fellow prisoners captivated
by shadows; everything he had believed was false.
And he was suddenly

in the 20th century, in the sunlight
and violence of history, encumbered
by knowledge. Only a hero

would dare return with the truth.
So from the cave’s upper reaches,
removed from harm, he called out

the disturbing news.
What lovely echoes, the prisoners said,
what a fine musical place to live.

He spelled it out, then, in clear prose
on paper scraps, which he floated down.
But in the semi-dark they read his words

with the indulgence of those who seldom read:
It’s about my father’s death, one of them said.
No, said the others, it’s a joke.

By this time he no longer was sure
of what he’d seen. Wasn’t sunlight a shadow too?
Wasn’t there always a source

behind a source? He just stood there,
confused, a man who had moved
to larger errors, without a prayer.

Stephen Dunn writes poems with confidence: let’s write the allegory of modern man using the allegory of Plato’s cave: why not?  Dunn talks himself into—and then out of—great rhetorical challenges, and that, it would seem, is the secret of his compositional method.  Ballsy talking.  More poets ought to practice this method.  It’s certainly better than the aesthetic tip-toe method or the obscure to prove I’m smart method.
Margaret Atwood has a similar kind of forcefulness in her poems; it’s the voice of the ultra-confident knower, confident that a poem will be enough to cow all objection.  It’s a poem—it doesn’t have to know a lot, but sounding wise is more than half the battle in sounding poetic.

IS/NOT

Love is not a profession
genteel or otherwise

sex is not dentistry
the slick filling of aches and cavities

you are not my doctor
you are not my cure,

nobody has that
power, you are merely a fellow/traveller

Give up this medical concern,
buttoned, attentive,

permit yourself anger
and permit me mine

which needs neither
your approval nor your surprise

which does not need to be made legal
which is not against a disease

but against you,
which does not need to be understood

or washed or cauterized,
which needs instead

to be said and said.
Permit me the present tense.

This is a love poem, but sounds, even in its wisdom, a little too hectoring.  “Love’s not love which alters when it alteration finds,” Shakespeare said, and this is what Atwood is doing: chasing down love’s bad habits, trying to make love behave. You’re objecting too much, Ms. Atwood.  If your lover wants to “fill a cavity,” let them, Shakespeare would say.

The Dunn’s  a little too obvious, as is the Atwood.

Dunn 74 Atwood 71

DANA GIOIA TAKES ON LOUISE GLUCK, ROUND 2 NORTH

Dana Gioia: not Dove material

Neither Gluck nor Gioia are represented by Dove in her 20th century poetry anthology.

Looking over Dove’s book, one is struck how prevalent rhyme is in the first 25% of the book (Masters b. 1868 through Roethke b. 1908 ), and then how it dwindles (Bishop b. 1911 through Sexton b. 1928) over the next 25%, and finally disappears altogether over the last half (Rich b. 1929 to Terrance Hayes b. 1971), as if no one rhymed in the second half of the 20th century to the present.

All the more interesting is the fact that all the poems known by the public, from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to “Emperor of Ice Cream” to “Prufrock” to “Waste Land” to “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” to “We Real Cool” to “Her Kind” rhyme.  Has a famous American poem been written in the last 50 years?  All those Workshop poems—and nothing has caught on.  All those poems not tied down by meter and rhyme—and not one has caught on.

The public no longer exists which simply takes pleasure from poems and celebrates that fact; today publishers are the last ones who can make a poem famous—and the publishers haven’t a clue, since rhyme makes them uncomfortable for reasons  too numerous to mention.

Here is New Formalist Dana Gioia’s poem, languishing on his website, but brought out here to fight for Sweet 16 in the Scarriet 2012 Tournament:

THE ANGEL WITH THE BROKEN WING

I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
The one large statue in this quiet room.
The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.

The docents praise my elegant design
Above the chatter of the gallery.
Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts—
The perfect emblem of futility.

Mendoza carved me for a country church.
(His name’s forgotten now except by me.)
I stood beside a gilded altar where
The hopeless offered God their misery.

I heard their women whispering at my feet—
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadows up the wall,
And I became the hunger that they fed.

I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.

For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.

There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.

Louise Gluck, Yale Younger Judge 2003-2010, did not make it into Dove’s book, for whatever reason—we might point out that none of her Yale choices have made an impact (think of Auden picking Rich, Merwin, Ashbery, James Wright, Hollander, and Dickey). Here’s her poem:

A FANTASY

I’ll tell you something: every day
people are dying. And that’s just the beginning.
Every day, in funeral homes, new widows are born,
new orphans. They sit with their hands folded,
trying to decide about this new life.

Then they’re in the cemetery, some of them
for the first time. They’re frightened of crying,
sometimes of not crying. Someone leans over,
tells them what to do next, which might mean
saying a few words, sometimes
throwing dirt in the open grave.

And after that, everyone goes back to the house,
which is suddenly full of visitors.
The widow sits on the couch, very stately,
so people line up to approach her,
sometimes take her hand, sometimes embrace her.
She finds something to say to everbody,
thanks them, thanks them for coming.

In her heart, she wants them to go away.
She wants to be back in the cemetery,
back in the sickroom, the hospital. She knows
it isn’t possible. But it’s her only hope,
the wish to move backward. And just a little,
not so far as the marriage, the first kiss.

Both of these poems are better than the majority of poems by living poets in Dove’s anthology.  Helen Vendler tried to make Dove’s shortcomings all about Wallace Stevens, but the real issue is editors lacking the courage to forget everything else and choose the best poems.  Gluck’s poem has a formal quality: there’s a lot of empty talk about how content is form, but here’s a real example: the poignant traveling backward of the widow.

We admire the Gioia more, but the Gluck gives us an emotional jolt: the heartbreaking “Just a little, not so far back as the marriage, the first kiss.”  Bravo, Ms. Gluck.

Gluck 72 Gioia 70

RICHARD WILBUR BATTLES ALICE OSWALD IN ROUND 2 NORTH ACTION

 
Richard Wilbur—about 75 years ago.
 
According to G.E. Lessing (1729-1781), painting depicts one moment with many bodies, while poetry depicts one body in many moments, and each genre fails if they attempt to invade the other’s territory. Homer, Lessing says, did not waste energy trying to be a painter; action was paramount, description limited. Lessing goes so far as to say painters should depict soft rather than stiff clothing to better infer bodily movement in the immediate past or future. For Lessing, the poet who describes, or paints, is didactic, and the didactic is not poetic.  The poet should describe one body, or one part of a body.  Prose is better at mere description—poetry is concerned with illusion. The eye can take in many parts simultaneously—for the poet to attempt this with description is a waste of labor. Action, sequential action, is the poet’s domain. Lessing’s theory, to the moderns, must seem hopelessly narrow (as Poe, the anti-didactic critic and poet, is often viewed).

 But it can be argued that the eclectic and highly sophisticated modern temper has lost the ability to understand nature’s simple truths or grasp the common sense argument of a rigorous scientific mind such as Lessing’s.

 It cannot be denied that modern poetry has lost both the innocent public and the objective, scientific reader.  The freedom of the modern poet has led to a cul-de-sac of obscurity, the ‘everything’ of the modern poet has turned to ‘nothing’ in many eyes, and the moderns’ touted ‘difficulty,’ to hopeless looseness, even to its many sophisticated followers.

 What if Lessing’s common sense is generally correct?

Richard Wilbur may be the last living classical poet.  We don’t know if Lessing is an influence, but reading Wilbur’s poetry, one almost senses he must be.  Rhyme can be used for all sorts of things; Wilbur is known for his rhyme, but the respect he’s earned is for more than rhyme, though it might be difficult to separate that out.  It might help to read Wilbur with Lessing in mind.
 
Wilbur has three poems in Dove’s anthology, but one of our readers, Robert Bagg, pointed us to the grand “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra.” 
 
“Love Calls Us To the Things Of This World” (in the Dove’s anthology) is always anthologized and it is not, we think, one of Wilbur’s best.  It’s good, but it has a lot of flaws.  So we are breaking our Penguin Anthology rule (a silly rule, we admit)  in honor of this still living poet born in 1921, by including a poem not in the anthology.
 
Wilbur does write  Homerically—he never describes something but there is some kind of action involved. Lessing would probably say that “Love Calls Us To the Things Of This World” is not a complete action—and is thus a failure.  “Baroque Fountain” succeeds partially by Lessing’s classical rules—too meditative, too busy, Lessing would probably say.
 
Wilbur is the favorite here against Alice Oswald, who is a sentimentalist—for those kinds of poets are still given respect in Britain. (Billy Collins is a funny sentimentalist, which is not the same thing.)
 
Here is Wilbur’s poem:
 
A BAROQUE WALL FOUNTAIN IN THE VILLA SCIARRA
 
Under the bronze crown
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet   
      A serpent has begun to eat,
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down
 
            Past spattered mosses, breaks
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills   
      The massive third below. It spills
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes
 
            A scrim or summery tent
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.   
      Happy in all that ragged, loose
Collapse of water, its effortless descent
 
            And flatteries of spray,
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease,
      Watching, about his shaggy knees,
The goatish innocence of his babes at play;
 
            His fauness all the while
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh   
      Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile
 
            Bent on the sand floor
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come
      And go in swift reticulum,
More addling to the eye than wine, and more
 
            Interminable to thought
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all   
      Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,   
Must it not be too simple? Are we not
 
            More intricately expressed
In the plain fountains that Maderna set
      Before St. Peter’s—the main jet   
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest
 
            In the act of rising, until   
The very wish of water is reversed,
      That heaviness borne up to burst   
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill
 
            With blaze, and then in gauze   
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
      Illumined version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stones its own applause?
 
            If that is what men are
Or should be, if those water-saints display   
      The pattern of our aretê,
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre,
 
            Spangled, and plunging house?
They are at rest in fulness of desire
      For what is given, they do not tire
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse
 
            And riddled pool below,
Reproving our disgust and our ennui   
      With humble insatiety.
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow
 
            Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this   
      No trifle, but a shade of bliss—
That land of tolerable flowers, that state
 
            As near and far as grass
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand   
      Is worthy of water: the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.
 
Wilbur does not merely describe the fountain.  We follow—perhaps not always perfectly—a movement of sorts. 
 
Wilbur has not reached major poet status; he’s an embarrassment to most moderns and  post-moderns, perhaps with good reason.  There used to be a public for Wilbur, but it was killed around the time he was born. Or maybe Wilbur’s work is too ‘busy’ to appeal to a wide audience.  In poetry circles, WC Williams is mentioned 1,000 times for every mention of Wilbur. Williams’ one advantage?  He’s not as ‘busy’ as Wilbur. “The Young Housewife” has a certain Homeric quality in terms of action, clarity and emotion, but Williams doesn’t pass the Lessing test, either.
 
Alice Oswald’s poem has movement, but its delight is miles away from Wilbur’s Homeric grandeur.  “and when” propels the poem and it is sweet the way “and when” becomes “which is” at the end.  When ideas make the poem move, this only makes the poem move closer to didactic prose—at least this is what Lessing would say.  Moderns make ideas so central so often in their poems, they are probably not conscious of how unlike the old poetry, the poetry Lessing would have admired, they are. 
 
Can Oswald’s humble poem, like David, slay Goliath?
 
WEDDING
 
From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions . . .
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.
 
Wilbur 89 Oswald 66

NORTH BRACKETT LOOKS FOR SWEET 16: PHIL LEVINE V. CORNELIUS EADY

YOU CAN HAVE IT

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labours, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors’ appointments, bonds
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then the bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.

–Phil Levine

I’M A FOOL TO LOVE YOU

Some folks will tell you the blues is a woman,
Some type of supernatural creature.
My mother would tell you, if she could,
About her life with my father,
A strange and sometimes cruel gentleman.
She would tell you about the choices
A young black woman faces.
Is falling in with some man
A deal with the devil
In blue terms, the tongue we use
When we don’t want nuance
To get in the way,
When we need to talk straight.
My mother chooses my father
After choosing a man
Who was, as we sing it,
Of no account.
This man made my father look good,
That’s how bad it was.
He made my father seem like an island
In the middle of a stormy sea,
He made my father look like a rock.
And is the blues the moment you realize
You exist in a stacked deck,
You look in a mirror at your young face,
The face my sister carries,
And you know it’s the only leverage
You’ve got.
Does this create a hurt that whispers
How you going to do?
Is the blues the moment
You shrug your shoulders
And agree, a girl without money
Is nothing, dust
To be pushed around by any old breeze.
Compared to this,
My father seems, briefly,
To be a fire escape.
This is the way the blues works
Its sorry wonders,
Makes trouble look like
A feather bed,
Makes the wrong man’s kisses
A healing.

–C. Eady

Levine 79 Eady 75

HEATHER MCHUGH AND KAY RYAN IN SWEET 16 DUEL IN THE WEST

Kay Ryan—looking for the final spot in Sweet 16

Heather McHugh, who defeated Rae Armantrout in the first round, has two poems in Rita Dove’s anthology and we were happy to discover this one:

WHAT HE THOUGHT

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the mayor, mulled
a couple matters over (what does it mean
flat drink asked someone, what does it mean
cheap date?). Among Italian literati

we could recognize our counterparts:
the academic, the apologist,
the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib—and there was one

administrator (the conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone narrated
sights and histories the hired van hauled us past.
Of all, he was the most politic and least poetic,
so it seemed. Our last few days in Rome
(when all but three of the New World Bards had flown)
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?)
to whom he had inscribed and dated it a month before.
I couldn’t read Italian, either, so I put the book
back into the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans

were due to leave tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant, and there
we sat and chatted, sat and chewed,
till, sensible it was our last
big chance to be poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked
“What’s poetry?”
Is it the fruits and vegetables and
marketplace of Campo dei Fiori, or
the statue there?” Because I was

the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn’t have to think—”The truth
is both, it’s both,” I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest to say. What followed
taught me something about difficulty,
for our underestimated host spoke out,
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statute represents Giordano Bruno,
brought to be burned in the public square
because of his offense against
authority, which is to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government, but rather is
poured in waves through all things. All things
move. “If God is not the soul itself, He is
the soul of the soul of the world.” Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him
forth to die, they feared he might
incite the crowd (the man was famous
for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask, in which

he could not speak. That’s
how they burned him. That is how
he died: without a word, in front
of everyone.
And poetry—
(we’d all
put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on
softly)—
poetry is what

he thought, but did not say.

We find this profoundly moving.  It nearly brought us to tears.

Kay Ryan has two brief poems in the Dove anthology.  Ryan crushed Cole Swensen to advance to Round 2 play against Heather McHugh for Sweet 16, but she’s up against a great poem.  McHugh favors whimsy and word-play, like Ryan, but in this contest McHugh brought something entirely different.

Here is Ryan’s entry:

BESTIARY

A bestiary catalogs
bests. The mediocres
both higher and lower
are suppressed in favor
of the singularly savage
or clever, the spectacularly
pincered, the archest
of the arch deceivers
who press their advantage
without quarter even after
they’ve won, as of course they would.
Best is not to be confused with good
a different creature altogether,
and treated of in the goodiary–
a text alas lost now for centuries.

Ryan delivers with her usual wordy wit, but it’s not enough to overcome McHugh’s onslaught.

McHugh 90 Ryan 80

MARILYN CHIN v. GARY SNYDER: WE ALMOST HAVE OUR SWEET 16…

The poet Gary Sndyer—and mountains

Marilyn Chin has three poems in Rita Dove’s new Penguin anthology and she defeated one of the Dickman twins (Michael) to get here.  She tries to knock off Gary Snyder with a late night mood piece from the Dove book:

COMPOSED NEAR THE BAY BRIDGE

(after a wild party)

1)
Amerigo has his finger on the pulse of China.
He, Amerigo, is dressed profoundly punk:
Mohawk-pate, spiked dog collar, black leather thighs.
She, China, freshly hennaed and boaed, is intrigued
with the diaspora and the sexual freedom
called bondage. “Isn’t bondage, therefore,
a kind of freedom?” she asks wanly.

2)
Thank God there was no war tonight.
Headbent, Amerigo plucks his bad guitar.
The Sleeping Giant snores with her mouth agape
while a lone nightingale trills on a tree.

Through the picture, I watch the traffic
hone down to a quiver. Loneliness. Dawn.
A few geese winging south; minor officials return home.

“Minor officials return home” is supposed to sound wistfully, yet coldly, heart-breaking in this modern Chinese American poem. We think it does.  We like it.

Gary Snyder has also been awarded three poems in the Dove.  Snyder escaped Sherman Alexie to advance to this contest with Chin.  In the world of poetry, Snyder is pretty famous, and here is the kind of poem (from Dove’s anthology) he is famous for:

MID-AUGUST AT SOURDOUCH MOUNTAIN LOOKOUT

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

Compared to Marilyn Chin’s poem, this just sounds like male bragging.  I don’t need no cities. I drink cold snow-water.  We also don’t understand the lack of punctuation.

Chin 87 Snyder 71

CROWDED PROSE: SHARON OLDS AND GARY SOTO IN A SWEET 16 BATTLE

Sharon Olds: the frankest poet ever?

Rita Dove gave Sharon Olds two poems in her anthology: Olds is easy to anthologize: pick an Olds poem and you’ve got Olds.  Some of the poets in Dove’s book feel poorly represented, but Olds’ two poems are her.  Olds’ first poem beat Li-Young Lee in a close contest.  Here’s the one she hopes will defeat Gary Soto:

THE LIFTING
 
Suddenly my father lifted up his nightie, I
turned my head away but he cried out
Shar!,
my nickname, so I turned and looked.
He was sitting in the high cranked-up bed with the
gown up, around his neck,
to show me the weight he had lost. I looked
where his solid ruddy stomach had been
and I saw the skin fallen into loose
soft hairy rippled folds
lying in a pool of folds
down at the base of his abdomen,
the gaunt torso of a big man
who will die soon. Right away
I saw how much his hips are like mine,
the long, white angles, and then
how much his pelvis is shaped like my daughter’s,
a chambered whelk-shell hollowed out,
I saw the folds of skin like something
poured, a thick batter, I saw
his rueful smile, the cast-up eyes as he
shows me his old body, he knows
I will be interested, he knows I will find him
appealing. If anyone had ever told me
I would sit by him and he would pull up his nightie
and I would look at him, at his naked body,
at the thick bud of his penis in all that
dark hair, look at him
in affection and uneasy wonder
I would not have believed it. But now I can still
see the tiny snowflakes, white and
night-blue, on the cotton of the gown as it
rises the way we were promised at death it would rise,
the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything.
 
If art succeeds as art, there is one thing it is required to have: perspective.
 
It is the last thing any artist, any painter, any poet, masters.
 
Perspective is expressed geometrically in painting and grammatically in poetry.
 
The poem above relies on phrases which establish arcs of space and time, such as “lifted up…I turned my head away…he cried out…so I turned  and looked…If anyone had ever told me I would…and he would…I would not have believed it…But now I can still see…the way we were promised…would rise…would fall…would know everything.
 
Modern critics take for granted the way various and complex uses of grammar contribute to the physical, formal qualities of a poem—especially the modern prose poem in the Whitman tradition.  The impact of Olds’ poem relies as much on her use of “would” as on her strict content: the father’s naked, dying body which elicits a certain naked disgust.
 
Grammar, or intricate speech, simultaneously explains and distances any subject in powerful poetic ways.  One might call this style, or method, crowded prose.  The density of intricate grammar, the crowding  into a small vessel (“would” repeated over and over) is similar to the effect of meter and rhyme—which works (when it does work) in that similar crowding manner of “fine excess.” (Keats)
 
Soto has three poems in Dove’s anthology.  He battles Olds with this one:
 

BLACK HAIR

At eight I was brilliant with my body.
In July, that ring of heat
We all jumped through, I sat in the bleachers
Of Romain Playground, in the lengthening
Shade that rose from our dirty feet.
The game before us was more than baseball.
It was a figure–Hector Moreno
Quick and hard with turned muscles,
His crouch the one I assumed before an altar of worn baseball cards in my room.

I came here because I was Mexican, a stick
Of brown light in love with those
who could do it–the triple and hard slide,
The gloves eating balls into double plays.
What could I do with 50 pounds, my shyness,
My black torch of hair, about to go out?
Father was dead, his face no longer
Hanging over the table or our sleep
And Mother was the terror of mouths
Twisting hurt by butter knives.

In the bleachers I was brilliant with my body,
Waving players in and stomping my feet,
Growing sweaty in the presence of white shirts.
I chewed sunflower seeds. I drank water
And bit my arm through the late innings.
When Hector lined balls into deep
Center, in my mind I rounded the bases
With him, my face flared, my hair lifting
Beautifully, because we were coming home to the arms of brown people.

Soto’s poem describes (“eight” “July” “I came here” “Father was dead”) without perspective—his poem is a flat list of items: a game is played, “bases are rounded,” “balls are lined into deep center” but we don’t really see it happening in any context; time and space do not come alive for us: the poem is mostly rhetoric.

 
Olds 99 Soto 83

ROBERT HASS V. MATTHEW DICKMAN FOR SWEET 16 IN THE WEST

Robert Hass has a few poems in Dove’s anthology and the following poem, with its provocative title, makes mysterious references in a strange, zen-like calm.  Hass plays the Wise Man in his poems of ‘third generation Modernist difficulty’ drifting over a California landscape.  He’s easy with sex, strong with colors, tactiles, and relationships.  He comes across as fatherly and frank in his poems, but draws a feminine mystery over them as unselfconsciously as he can.  Hass is a hippie stiffened into mandarin.  His poems are likely smarter than you are.  But here’s the poem:

THE PORNOGRAPHER

He has finished a day’s work.
Placing his pencil in a marmalade jar
which is colored the soft grey
of a crumbling Chinese wall
in a Sierra meadow, he walks
from his shed into the afternoon
where orioles rise aflame from the orchard.
He likes the sun and he is tired
of the art he has spent on the brown starfish
anus of his heroine, the wet duck’s-feather tufts
of armpit and thigh, tender and roseate enfoldings
of labia within labia, the pressure and darkness
and long sudden falls from slippery stone
in the minds of the men with anonymous tongues
in his book. When he relaxes, old images
return. He is probably in Central Asia.
Once again he is marched to the wall.
All the faces are impassive. Now
he is blinded. There is a long silence
in which he images clearly the endless sky
and the horizon, swift with cloud scuds.
Each time, in imagination, he attempts
to stand as calmly as possible
in what is sometimes morning warmth,
sometimes evening chill.

We don’t really know what to think of this poem. 

Meanwhile, Matthew Dickman (he and his brother are absent from Dove’s book and 5 years younger than the poets in them) answers with a poem about which one cannot help knowing what one thinks. 

It is as if the next generation, the poets just under 40, are finally saying, ‘you know what? Life is too short to be difficult.  The Dickmans belong to this fey, W.H. Auden, Victorian, neo-romantic, prissy punk rock, school. 

Hass writes poems that no mature judgement could call bad, even though this requires that none will ever sincerely think them good. 

Dickman writes poems without any mature judgement in mind, and doesn’t care that any one might think his poems are bad, and this frees up the possibility of once in a while his poems being good.  The following is a tour de force of pleasant freak-out:

GRIEF

When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla  
         
you must count yourself lucky.

You must offer her what’s left

of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish

you must put aside

and make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed,

her eyes moving from the clock

to the television and back again.

I am not afraid. She has been here before

and now I can recognize her gait

as she approaches the house.

Some nights, when I know she’s coming,

I unlock the door, lie down on my back,

and count her steps

from the street to the porch.

Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,

tells me to write down

everyone I have ever known

and we separate them between the living and the dead

so she can pick each name at random.

I play her favorite Willie Nelson album

because she misses Texas

but I don’t ask why.

She hums a little,

the way my brother does when he gardens.

We sit for an hour

while she tells me how unreasonable I’ve been,

taking down the pictures of my family,

not writing, refusing to shower,

staring too hard at girls younger than my sister.

Eventually she puts one of her heavy

purple arms around me, leans

her head against mine,

and all of a sudden things are feeling romantic.

So I tell her,

things are feeling romantic.

She pulls another name, this time

from the dead

and turns to me in that way that parents do

so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.

Romantic? She says,

reading the name out loud, slowly

so I am aware of each syllable,

each consonant resembling a swollen arm, the collapsed ear,

a mouth full of teeth, each vowel

wrapping around the bones like new muscle,

the sound of that person’s body

and how reckless it is,

how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.

The “living and dead” pile makes the poem.  It’s a bizarre poem, but feels true.

Dickman 88 Hass 79

NBA FILES SUIT AGAINST SCARRIET FOR MARCH APRIL MAY MADNESS COMPETITION

Are those poetry prizes?

NBA Comish: “Scarriet is luring away our viewers during the NBA Playoffs – instead of watching LeBron choke at the free-throw line, they’re online parsing poems from the Dove anthology.”

Athletes worry their salaries will drop as fans abandon sports for poetry.

It began with concussion fears in football and hockey, and now Scarriet, stealing the March Madness trademark, has insinuated itself into basketball fandom, and like Orpheus, playing on the flute of Rita Dove’s poems, Scarriet has upset the delicate balance between nerds and jocks.

Nerdy poets hate competition. 

Jocks live for it.   

But now that Scarriet has said it’s OK for poets to compete with each other in a battle to the death—but in a critical atmosphere worthy of Samuel Taylor “Yo-Opium” Coleridge—all bets are off. 

Jocks rush in where nerds fear to tread. 

Revelry greets the midnight year of poetry. 

The spear and banner of poetry is raised anew. 

The Homeric cry penetrates the dusty halls of academe.

Shelley’s sighs melt the walls of scholarly modernism.

Scarriet tapes “LOSER” on the forehead, or hoists into the cheering sky, distinguished and unknown poets alike, disrupting the mouse-quiet respect of the po-biz order.

Seamus Heaney, that metaphor doesn’t work.

BUT I HAVE A NOBEL IN LITERATURE!!

Seamus Heaney, that metaphor doesn’t work.

BUT I AM A HARVARD PROFESSOR!  I HAVE WON NUMEROUS PRIZES!

Seamus Heaney, that metaphor doesn’t work.

So anyway, Scarriet’s in trouble.  

The National Basketball Association is coming after us.

Meanwhile, Marcus Bales doesn’t think our site is popular, and for reasons expressed here in LA MAL TROLL SANS MERCI:

O what can ail you, moderator,
Alone and palely loitering?
The posts have withered from the site,
And crickets sing.

 O what can ail you, moderator!
So haggard and so woebegone?
The spam filters all are full
And the router’s on.

 A lily on your avatar –
Is that significant? Have you
Gone all seventeenth century now
It’s just we two?

 “I met a troll here on my site
Who stalked us and would not abstain;
His views were libertarian
And his words profane.

 I banned him and he reappeared;
I banned his ISP and he
Returned again and brought along
Sock puppetry.

 I traced him through the internet
It took my nights, it took my days,
For sideways he appeared to bend
Through a maze.

 I saw dark kings and princes too,
Dark as darkness in a hole;  
They cried `La Mal Troll sans Merci
Is still your troll!’

 I saw their starved lips in the gloom
With horrid warning gaped wide;
I disconnected and found myself
Service denied.

 I’d found him in a foreign land
Where money rules, and laws are few –
And wouldn’t you know, he got me banned
For trolling too.

 And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though posts have withered from the site,
And crickets sing.”

We don’t mind trolls.   We’re all trolls in the eyes of somebody.

Scarriet has readers.  That’s important.  But we always welcome comments, too.

The NBA suit has us a little uneasy, however.   

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER V. M.S. MERWIN

Merwin hunts for Sweet 16 in the Scarriet March Madness 2012 Tournament

M.S. Merwin ousted Kevin Young in a close match and Elizabeth Alexander narrowly defeated Carl Phillips.  Both now go head-to-head for the final Sweet 16 spot in the Midwest/South.

Alexander is well-represented in Dove’s anthology.  “The Venus Hottentot (1825)” refers to a real 19th century event, a sad event involving wealthy and scientific Europeans and an African.  The poet is more anxious to speak for the victim; the first part in which the scientist speaks feels tossed-off.

THE VENUS HOTTENTOT (1825)HEr

1. Cuvier

Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful

blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.

A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary

crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles

of geometry I’d thought
impossible. Few will

ever see what I see
through this microscope..

Cranial measurements
crowd my notebook pages,

and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers

signify aspects of
national character.

Her genitalia
will float inside a labeled

pickling jar in the Musée
de l’Homme on a shelf

above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”

Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.

2.

There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.

I am called “Venus Hottentot.”
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: A boon!
Master’s brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk

dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar-studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.

That was years ago. London’s
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
“Is it muscle? bone? Or fat?”
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, “The Only
Scholar of His Race.” He plays

at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is Prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.

“The Ball of Duchess DuBarry”:
In the engraving I lurch
towards the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.

Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak

English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid brother. I miss good sun,
miss Mother’s sadza. My stomach

is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjure my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts

and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence, I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian

archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have not forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up

from this table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.

The historical facts in this case are interesting, but in poems of this kind, the question must always be asked: what is it that makes the presentation interesting?  The historical facts, or the poem?  And here we must say the facts.  The attempt at the end to add some drama doesn’t really work: the notion of a “black” heart that is both “geometric” and “unnatural” seems both too obvious, and too much of a stretch.

M.S. Merwin is given four poems by Dove in her anthology.   The following, unlike Alexander’s, is personal, plain, but it, too, burdens itself with a rather heavy moral—though in Merwin’s poem it does unfold in a somewhat subtle manner. 

.YESTERDAY

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my fathers hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
have to
just because I’m here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I dont want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

“I don’t want to keep you” and “I got up and left him then” both have more than one meaning in the psychological climate of the poem, which feels very sad, very angry, very WASPy.

The poems evince a certain amount of skill, but they both finally prove unsatisfying. 

A close game—Merwin advances, 68-67.

The four Sweet 16 winners in the Midwest/South:

Rita Dove, Derek Walcott, Patricia Smith, and M.S. Merwin.

TOPIC-ISM: RITA DOVE V. TERRANCE HAYES

Terrance Hayes: fighting to stay in the Tourney against Penguin Anthology editor, Dove

Poetry can now be about anything, and poetry can now be prose: this is what the ‘modern’ revolution in poetry wrought.

If you can’t write good prose, maybe you can line-break your prose into what might pass as good poetry.

This is the devil’s pact the poets made.

In the 20th century, the poet: uniquely skilled to write poetry was replaced by the topic: what is the poem about?

This occured on both high-brow and middle-brow levels: scholars determined that Byron and Keats and Shelley and Wordsworth were all “Romantic poets” who wrote about “Nature,” and publishers of anthologies divided up their books into categories or topics: Nature, Children, Modernity.

The scholars gradually turned publishers (poetry was soon sold out of, and to, academia) in a self-fulfilling prophecy: poets became less and less interesting to the public as topics took over—the one poet star, Frost, was enveloped by ‘New England Nature Poet’—and academia stepped in to sort out the mighty influx of topics and topic-ism: poets were no longer important; the topics they were writing about were. Ezra Pound, the poet, and Wordsworth, the poet, no longer existed: all that mattered was ‘Nature poet’ and ‘Modern poet’ and to ‘modern people’ why shouldn’t the ‘Modern poet’ because of the vastly interesting ‘topics’ he addressed, be as interesting?  And why shouldn’t topic-ism also be interesting: let all sorts of interesting topics bloom!  And topic-ism needed prose, since prose is better at covering all sorts of nuanced topics, and topic-ism also needed experimental speech, since the topic of a poem was naturally elevated by scholarship to a highly self-conscious level.  The old poets, in this New Order, not only did not exist, they were clumsy and uncouth, old-fashioned, and trapped in topics like ‘Romanticism.’  The unique poet disappeared beneath the avalanche of ‘topic.’

Books of poems are now sold as books on a certain topic, not as books of poems by a poet who writes good poetry.  Good poetry is not even permitted as a term; the topic is all in the eyes of both scholars and publishers.

This is what Helen Vendler was trying to say when she strenuously objected to Rita Dove’s anthology in the New York Review.  Vendler complained there were too many blacks in Dove’s book and also that there were too many poets—that the 20th century did not contain that many good poets.  She was wrong because she put it wrongly: the issue is topic-ism, which haunts us all.

Topic-ism is why poets choose topics with fanatical care and then write dully on them in the safety of lineated prose.  A certain pertinancy-of–topic triumphs—and little else.

In the following contest, between black poet Rita Dove (b. 1952) and black poet Terrance Hayes (b. 1971), the Penguin anthology editor and her youngest poet duel in Scarriet March Madness with poems in the Penguin anthology.

Hayes writes of a 1970s movie starring Diana Ross, which, according to his mother, does not adequately portray Billie Holliday—described by this supposedly insightful poem in a highly cliched manner:

LADY SINGS THE BLUES

Satin luscious, amber Beauty center-stage;
gardenia in her hair. If flowers could sing
they’d sound like this. That legendary scene:
the lady unpetals her song, the only light

in a room of smoke, nightclub tinkering
with lovers in the dark, cigarette flares,
gin & tonic. This is where the heartache
blooms. Forget the holes

zippered along her arms. Forget the booze
Center-stage, satin-tongue dispels a note.
Amber amaryllis, blue chanteuse, Amen.
If flowers could sing they’d sound like this.

———————————————–

This should be Harlem, but it’s not.
It’s Diana Ross with no Supremes.
Fox Theater, Nineteen Seventy-something.
Ma and me; lovers crowded in the dark.

The only light breaks on the movie-screen.
I’m a boy, but old enough to know Heartache.
We watch her rise and wither
like a burnt-out cliche. You know the story:

Brutal lush. Jail-bird. Scag queen.
In the asylum scene, the actress’s eyes
are bruised; latticed with blood, but not quite sad
enough. She’s the star so her beauty persists.

Not like Billie: fucked-up satin, hair museless,
heart ruined by the end.

————————————————

The houselights wake and nobody’s blue but Ma.
Billie didn’t sound like that, she says
as we walk hand in hand to the street.
Nineteen Seventy-something.

My lady hums, Good Morning Heartache,
My father’s in a distant place.

So we learn that Diana Ross was not a perfect Billie Holiday.  (I’m sure she wasn’t.) Who to thank?  Hayes’ mother?

For her own poem, Dove, the editor, has chosen a good topic, gets herself inside it, and sympathetically expresses in prose what we would expect.  There is a certain skill in painting/depiction in the poem, and the feeling is not too overwrought:

CLAUDETTE COLVIN GOES TO WORK

Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail
because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and
give it to a white person. This is the second time since the
Claudette Colbert [sic] case...This must be stopped.
---BOYCOTT FLIER, DECEMBER 5, 1955

Menial twilight sweeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth. Here and there
a fickle brilliance—lightbulbs coming on
in each narrow residence, the golden wattage
of bleak interiors announcing Anyone home?
or I’m beat, bring me a beer.

Mostly I say to myself Still here. Lay
my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
before flipping the switch. I like the sugary
look of things in bad light—one drop of sweat
is all it would take to dissolve an armchair pillow
into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until
it’s dark enough for my body to disappear;

then I know it’s time to start out for work.
Along the Avenue, the cabs start up, heading
toward midtown; neon stutters into ecstasy
as the male integers light up their smokes and let loose
a stream of brave talk: “Hey Mama” souring quickly to
“Your  Mama” when there’s no answer—as if
the most injury they can do is insult the reason

you’re here at all, walking in your whites
down to the stop so you can make a living.
So ugly, so fat, so dumb, so greasy—
What do we have to do to make God love us?
Mama was a maid; my daddy mowed lawns like a boy,
and I’m the crazy girl off the bus, the one
who wrote in class she was going to be President.

I take the Number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train
and then I’m there all night, adjusting the sheets,
emptying the pans. And I don’t curse or spit
or kick or scratch like they say I did then.
I help those who can’t help themselves,
I do what needs to be done…and I sleep
whenever sleep comes down on me.

Dove 67 Hayes 55

WALCOTT V. TRETHEWEY IN MIDWEST/SOUTH BATTLE FOR SWEET 16

Derek Walcott: How major is he?

Derek Walcott has 8 full pages in Rita Dove’s anthology, and a Nobel Prize.  Walcott’s pen sees the whole world, the colonized and the colonizers; he rhymes with a wide pen, almost as if he were  pre-classical on a rocky island; but we also get the post-Romantic, fully modern in the crying city.  Walcott comes close to putting all the elements together not just of a major poet of our time, but a major poet for all time.  Perhaps only time will tell.  We feel the elements are there: sound, image, vastness, vision, but it rarely comes together; each realized poem has its own humble shape and purpose, and large elements only partially help.  Walcott lacks the warmth and passion of a Tennyson, for instance, the gleaming finish of a Poe, the exquisite playfullness of a Byron or a Burns, the force of a Homer, the acrobatics of a Pope, the haunting uncanniness of a Dickinson, but one almost feels that Walcott could be any of these things.

In a contest like March Madness, only the brief poem’s individual moment advances against the competition—a major poet is only as strong as the weakest part of some anthologized lyric.  The following by Walcott was reprinted by Dove:

A FAR CRY FROM AFRICA

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa, Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
‘Waste no compassion on these separate dead!’
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?

Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilizations dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

Does this work? 

We do not think it does. 

What can the reader possibly feel about, “How can I face such slaughter and be cool?”  This is for the passionate podium, not the poem. 

This is not to say this issue is not large and important, but the poet is diminishing it by turning it into explicitly helpless and hopeless rhetoric.

“How choose?” the English-speaking poet asks, but this sounds dangerously close to self-pity.    It seems he is saying “I hate some who speak English, and I speak English, so what am I to do?” and this may be interesting. but the self-pitying dilemma, as he is putting it, is not interesting.

Lines like “The gorilla wrestles with the superman” take us out of the poem.  If Walcott is trying to be like Yeats, he should know that Yeats confines himself in his short poems to a single subject or image; one cannot simply say out of the blue: “The gorilla wrestles with the superman” in a poem filled with all sorts of other things.  The rhetoric of the paragraph-by-paragraph essay is not fit for the rhetoric of the line-by-line poem, and this law operates whether you are rhyming or not.  Or whether you have a Nobel prize, or not.

Natasha Trethewey has three poems in Dove’s anthology, and this is one of them:

HOT COMBS

At the junk shop, I find an old pair,
black with grease, the teeth still pungent
as burning hair.  One is small,
fine toothed as if for a child. Holding it,
I think of my mother’s slender wrist,
the curve of her neck as she leaned
over the stove, her eyes shut as she pulled
the wooden handle and laid flat the wisps
at her temples. The heat in our kitchen
made her glow that morning I watched her
wincing, the hot comb singeing her brow,
sweat glistening above her lips,
her face made strangely beautiful
as only suffering can do.

The equation of “strangely beautiful” with “suffering” is interesting, but we don’t know if it rises to a truth, unless we use “strangely beautiful” to mean anything we like.

Whereas Walcott’s poem fails in its large scope, Trethewey’s can’t help but feel somewhat small by comparison.

We’re afraid Trethewey’s short lyric is not enough to overcome the flawed poem of a Nobel winner.

Walcott 67, Trethewey 58

YUSEF KOMUNYAKAA VS. PATRICIA SMITH IN MIDWEST/SOUTH

 
Patricia Smith, Slam Champion, looks to advance to Scarriet’s Sweet 16
 
Yusef Komunyakaa is well-represented with four poems in Dove’s anthology.  This is one of them:
 
TU DO STREET
 
Music divides the evening.
I close my eyes & can see
men drawing lines in the dust.
America pushes through the membrane
of mist & smoke, & I’m a small boy
again in Bogalusa. White Only
signs & Hank Snow. But tonight
I walk into a place where bar girls
fade like tropical birds. When
I order a beer, the mama-san
behind the counter acts as if she
can’t understand, while her eyes
skirt each white face, as Hank Williams
calls from the psychedelic jukebox.
We have played Judas where
only machine-gun fire brings us
together. Down the street
black GIs hold to their turf also.
An off-limits sign pulls me
deeper into alleys, as I look
for a softness behind these voices
wounded by their beauty & war.
Back in the bush at Dak To
& Khe Sanh, we fought
the brothers of these women
we now run to hold in our arms.
There’s more than a nation
inside us, as black & white
soldiers touch the same lovers
minutes apart, tasting
each other’s breath,
without knowing these rooms
run into each other like tunnels
leading to the underworld.
 
Komunyakaa’s Vietnam experiences figure largely in his poems.  “We fought the brothers of these women we now run to hold in our arms” is the meat of this poem and this is pretty meaty, but there’s also this relationship, too: “soldiers touch the same lovers minutes apart,” as well as the “black & white” theme.  That’s a lot of powerful material for one lyric poem, and the rather dry, matter-of-fact, prose telling of it perhaps makes it easier to get all the necessary information in, but then this makes the poem finally feel like something that either needs to be expanded into an essay, or condensed into a song, to have a real impact. 
 
Patricia Smith is not in Dove’s anthology.
 
Perhaps because Patricia Smith is a championship Slam poet, her poems always have a strong dramatic voice.  A dramatic voice is always an advantage; we cannot think of when it would not be.  It would sure help Komunyakaa’s poem, which sounds hum-drum—even though its subject matter is not. 
 
Some academic readers, however, resent too much drama in the voice of the poet, even though as Scarriet has been saying recently, Slam and modern academic poetry are much closer than anyone might suppose. 
 
Edgar Poe wrote that Taste, occupying a middle ground between Truth and Passion, was poetry’s turf.  The modern temper tends to find Taste trivial, or even oppressive—but the modern temper is perhaps wrong. 
 
Slam’s chief fault is to run roughshod over Taste, and we’re afraid Smith’s gossipy rendition of the Medusa myth, with its references to screaming, seems inconsequential, even with its dramatics.
 
MEDUSA
 
Poseidon was easier than most.

He calls himself a god,

but he fell beneath my fingers
with more shaking than any mortal.
He wept when my robe fell from my shoulders.
I made him bend his back for me,
listened to his screams break like waves.
We defiled that temple the way it should be defiled,
screaming and bucking our way from corner to corner.
The bitch goddess probably got a real kick out of that.
I’m sure I’ll be hearing from her.
 
She’ll give me nightmares for a week or so;
that I can handle.
Or she’ll turn the water in my well into blood;
I’ll scream when I see it,
and that will be that.
Maybe my first child
will be born with the head of a fish.
I’m not even sure it was worth it,
Poseidon pounding away at me, a madman,
losing his immortal mind
because of the way my copper skin swells in moonlight.
 
Now my arms smoke and itch.
Hard scales cover my wrists like armour.
C’mon Athena, he was only another lay,
and not a particularly good one at that,
even though he can spit steam from his fingers.
Won’t touch him again. Promise.
And we didn’t mean to drop to our knees
in your temple,
but our bodies were so hot and misaligned.
It’s not every day a gal gets to sample a god,
you know that. Why are you being so rough on me?

I feel my eyes twisting,
the lids crusting over and boiling,
the pupils glowing red with heat.
Athena, woman to woman,
could you have resisted him?
Would you have been able to wait
for the proper place, the right moment,
to jump those immortal bones?
Now my feet are tangled with hair,
my ears are gone.
My back is curvingand my lips have grown numb.
My garden boy just shattered at my feet.
Dammit, Athena,
take away my father’s gold.
Send me away to live with lepers.
Give me a pimple or two.
But my face. To have men never again
be able to gaze at my face,
growing stupid in anticipation
of that first touch,
how can any woman live like that?
How will I be able
to watch their warm bodies turn to rock
when their only sin was desiring me?

All they want is to see me sweat.
They only want to touch my face
and run their fingers through my . . .

my hair

is it moving?

This poem seems little more than Medusa making an obligatory apology to Athena.  The “my hair, is it moving?” at the end comes as neither a surprise nor an insight; the poem feels like an school-exercise in a mythology class: a good one, but not one to write home about.  There is certainly a flair to things like “jump those immortal bones,” and one can’t help but laugh at the feverish pitch of the rhetoric, and enjoy the poem’s sprit, in spite of its cartoonish designs upon us.  Medusa is all over the map: I couldn’t resist him, but he wasn’t that great, he “wept” when he first saw me naked, I won’t sleep with again, promise, sorry to defile your temple but our love-making was so hot.  It’s hard to believe Medusa as a realized character.  The poet just seems to be putting anything and everything into her mouth.

Marla Muse:  Again, I think we have a very close game.

Yes, Marla, it’s Academic smoothness v. in-your-face Slam. 

Smith 81 Komunyakaa 79

MARY OLIVER AND ROBERT PINSKY CLASH IN THE EAST, ROUND TWO

Pinsky: 3 poems in Dove’s Penguin anthology and favored to advance to Sweet 16

Mary Oliver and Robert Pinsky look to advance against each other with poems that pander to the ‘little people.’ 

Rita Dove reprinted both of these disasters in her Penguin anthology.

Why?

Perhaps because these poems pass as some kind of honest exploration of class consciousness?  

Uh…no.

Oliver and Pinsky’s poems are ‘holier-than-thou’ and tell the reader exactly how they should feel about what they are feeling as the poet, in fact, feels nothing.

Which is worse?  You be the judge:

Mary Oliver goes first:

SINGAPORE

In Singapore, in the airport,
a darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something
     in the white bowl.

Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain
     rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and
     neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
     which is dull enough.
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as
     hubcaps, with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop
     and fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

Why can’t this woman I am big enough to pity be a bird?  

Thank you, Mary Oliver, on the verge of advancing to Sweet 16.

Robert Pinsky counters with this reminiscence:

THE QUESTIONS

What about the people who came to my father’s office
For hearing aids and glasses—chatting with him sometimes

A few extra minutes while I swept up in the back,
Addressed packages, cleaned the machines; if he were busy

I might sell them batteries, or tend to their questions;
The tall overloud old man with a tilted, ironic smirk

To cover the gaps in his hearing; a woman who hummed one
Prolonged note constantly, we called her “the hummer” —how

Could her white fat husband (he looked like Rev. Peale)
Bear hearing it day and night? And others: a coquettish old lady

In a bandeau, a European. She worked for refugees who ran
Gift shops or booths on the boardwalk in the summer;

She must have lived in winter on Social Security. One man
Always greeted my father in Masonic gestures and codes.

Why do I want them to be treated tenderly by the world, now
Long after they must have slipped from it one way or another,

While I was dawdling through school at that moment—or driving,
Reading, talking to Ellen. Why this new superfluous caring?

I want for them not to have died in awful pain, friendless.
Though many of the living are starving, I still pray for these,

Dead, mostly anonymous (but Mr. Monk, Mrs. Rose Vogel)
And barely remembered: that they had a little extra, something

For pleasure, a good meal, a book or a decent television set.
Of whom do I pray this rubbery, low-class charity? I saw

An expert today, a nun—wearing a regular skirt and blouse,
But the hood or headdress navy and white around her plain

Probably Irish face, older than me by five or ten years.
The Post Office clerk told her he couldn’t break a twenty

So she got change next door and came back to send her package.
As I came out she was driving off—with an air, it seemed to me,

Of annoying, demure good cheer, as if the reasonableness
Of change, mail, cars, clothes was a pleasure in itself: veiled

And dumb like the girls I thought enjoyed the rules too much
In grade school. She might have been a grade school teacher;

But she reminded me of being there, aside from that—as a name
And person there, a Mary or John who learns that the janitor

Is Mr. Woodhouse; the principal is Mr. Ringleven; the secretary
In the office is Mrs. Apostolacos; the bus driver is Ray.

We like the “driving, reading, talking to Ellen,” in particular.

Oliver’s poem is more ridiculous, but Pinsky’s is boring—which is the worse offense.

Oliver 57 Pinksy 56

We now have our 4 Sweet 16 winners in the East: Ben Mazer, Billy Collins, Franz Wright, and Mary Oliver!

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS? FRANZ WRIGHT BATTLES JAMES TATE!!!

Franz Wright fans gather excitedly for the big match.

James Tate and Franz Wright, born in the booming, volatile middle of the 20th century, grew in the intellectual climate of the partying 1970s when the Iowa poetry workshop took control of poetry and America went from heroic and expansive to bureaucratic and self-pitying.  Well, America was never heroic and expansive, except when we were fighting the British; since Emerson, American intellectual life has been solidly and politely apologetic and anti-heroic. 

Sometime between the insanity that was WW I and the insanity that was WW II, American poetry became an Africa, and Paul Engle became our Cecil Rhodes. 

The basic elements of literary life are pretty simple when it comes to savvy male poets like Tate and Wright.   Tate and Wright would make great clowns, or fools, in a Shakespeare play: Tate, sarcastic, Wright, sad.  The Romantic poet, or Hamlet—which the modern poet has never escaped—was pathetic/heroic; our contemporaries like Tate and Wright are merely pathetic, and of course I don’t mean pathetic in the modern, slangy sense, but aesthetic pathos.   But pathos is never enough: with Tate, the heroic has been replaced by a rueful humor and Tate’s poetry is wicked, fast, and fun, written on-the-run and off-the-cusp and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t and where’s-the-next-party-anyway?  Franz Wright chooses a different path; the nerdy kid not invited to the party, Franz broods on his poems, he writes them slowly and contemplatively and instead of adding something else to pathos, he’s crazy enough to think that he can keep up the romantic trope and do the pathetic/heroic—in a grand, vengeful, wise-man, nerdy sort of way.

Wright and Tate were only given one poem in Rita Dove’s recent Penguin anthology—which they both triumphed with in Round One, but now their selections must come from elsewhere as they attempt Sweet 16. 

Note here how Wright plays the Romantic pathetic/heroic card.  You can see the heroic in the adjective “vast” and in the stunning image of Romantic-era Walt Whitman at the end of the poem.  Sure, the pathetic exists here, too, but Wright is one of the few contemporary poets who goes for the Romantic heroic trope as well.

WHEELING MOTEL

The vast waters flow past its back yard.
You can purchase a six-pack in bars!
Tammy Wynette’s on the marquee
 
a block down. It’s twenty-five years ago:
you went to death, I to life, and
which was luckier God only knows.

There’s this line in an unpublished poem of yours.
The river is like that,
a blind familiar.

The wind will die down when I say so;
the leaden and lessening light on
the current.

Then the moon will rise
like the word reconciliation,
like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.

With Tate, we are fully in the 20th century—no Romantic heroism for him.  This poem reminded me of Becket’s Godot,  and note the pathos combined with the rueful humor:

SUCCESS COMES TO COW CREEK

I sit on the tracks,
a hundred feet from
earth, fifty from the
water. Gerald is

inching toward me
as grim, slow, and
determined as a
season, because he
has no trade and wants
none. It’s been nine months
since I last listened
to his fate, but I
know what he will say:
he’s the fire hydrant
of the underdog.

When he reaches my
point above the creek,
he sits down without
salutation, and
spits profoundly out
past the edge, and peeks
for meaning in the
ripple it brings. He
scowls. He speaks: when you
walk down any street
you see nothing but
coagulations
of shit and vomit,
and I’m sick of it.
I suggest suicide;
he prefers murder,
and spits again for
the sake of all the
great devout losers.

A conductor’s horn
concerto breaks the
air, and we, two doomed
pennies on the track,
shove off and somersault
like anesthetized
fleas, ruffling the
ideal locomotive
poised on the water
with our light, dry bodies.
Gerald shouts
terrifically as
he sails downstream like
a young man with a
destination. I
swim toward shore as
fast as my boots will
allow; as always,
neglecting to drown.

“as fast as my boots will allow; as always, neglecting to drown” captures the whole pathos essence of James Tate and the replacement of the Romantic pathos/heroic with the Modern alternative of pathos/self-deprecating humor.

Here is the origin of Slam poetry—as written poetry evolves into stand-up comedy before a live audience.  

Pure poetry is something that is read by one person alone, and there is no design upon that person except that they enjoy a poetic experience, far removed from everything else, and, hopefully, in some way superior to that ‘everything else.’ 

Slam poetry, which, ironically, truly developed out of the poetry workshop atmosphere, and not the tavern, embraces the ‘everything else,’ stoops to it, revels in it, and the ‘live poetry’ experience is all about one person’s design on another, whether to impress a teacher in a worshop seminar, or to get laid in a bar.  Of course reading poems aloud in bars or in the street might seem like something which has always occured and has nothing to do with academics, but this, I maintain, is a romantic falsehood, and the people who go to bars and walk down the street in bygone days had the good sense to know that poetry does not belong in bars—only drinking songs do.

Wright is obviously infected with Slam (his reference to Tammy Wynette) but the irony here is that his reference to Whitman is Slam pathos, too.  Whitman is not pure poetry.  He, too, has designs on us.  Walt was the first Slam poet, before the horror of Slam existed. Whitman has become a circus in himself, and now represents the same cheap, honky-tonk Slam poetry atmosphere which the schools unconsciously promote.

But Wright’s a smart poet, and his “examining a tear on a dead face” is an attempt to reverse this Slam trend and bring Whitman back to some Romantic semblance of heroicism and feeling.

Tate tells better jokes, the guy with boots who “neglects to drown” is brilliant, and perhaps Wright is just sorry and pathetic, but we need to give Wright points for his brooding insights and sensibility. 

Go, men in black!

Wright 75, Tate 73

BILLY COLLINS AND MARIE HOWE IN SWEET SIXTEEN SMACKDOWN!!

Billy Collins has a popular appeal which annoys the poetry avant-garde—who have no popular appeal.  The reason, the sophisticated say, is that the populace is simple and Collins is simple, and thus the appeal.  But this is too simple. 

A Collins poem is vivid.  That’s his secret.  A Collins poem is first constructed as an objective thing in space, with a certain size and shape.  The poem proper is Collins describing the first poem.  Collins makes his poems twice.  The first constuction exists as a visible three-dimensional object, with light and atmosphere, and all that makes a visible object visible as a visible entity. The second construction is the poem—a translation of the first vision.

It has nothing to do with Collins’ easily understood ideas.   Difficult ideas belong to philosophy, not poetry, for obvious reasons. 

Comforting ideas are dismissed as easy ideas, but this is a gross error.  Philosophy was never meant to comfort—it has to do with the understanding only.  But when ideas do comfort, this is a rare and profound pleasure, like beauty, and poetry is the ideal place for comforting ideas, and to express comforting ideas takes skill and vision.  Authentic comfort requires the sort of vision which produces the vivid effects we get in Collins’ poems.

The following poem, in which Collins banks on advancing to the Sweet 16, is comforting and moral, but note how these qualities exist,  not in the telling, or in metaphor, or in any rhetorical tricks, but in the purely visual aspect of the poem:

THE DEAD

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

Collins is underestimated by those who fail to see his poems, and also by those who mistake comforting ideas for easy, or trivial ones.

Here Collins may have met his match, however. 

The following poem by Marie Howe may seem like a Billy Collins poem.

But it’s not.

Collins’ poems exist vividly in time and space, such that their existence precludes the need for metaphor.

Marie Howe’s poem is disturbing/comforting and it all revolves around a metaphor.  The poem is strange, and it’s not fully realized in the way the best Collins poems are.  It does not feel that it is necessary that we be comforted in this manner.  That’s the difference.  The great poem feels strange but inevitable; the almost-great poem always feels strange rather than inevitable.

WHAT THE ANGELS LEFT

At first, the scissors seemed perfectly harmless.
They lay on the kitchen table in the blue light.

Then I began to notice them all over the house,
at night in the pantry, or filling up bowls in the cellar

where there should have been apples. They appeared under rugs,
lumpy places where one would usually settle before the fire,

or suddenly shining in the sink at the bottom of soupy water.
Once, I found a pair in the garden, stuck in turned dirt

among the new bulbs, and one night, under my pillow,
I felt something like a cool long tooth and pulled them out

to lie next to me in the dark. Soon after that I began
to collect them, filling boxes, old shopping bags,

every suitcase I owned. I grew slightly uncomfortable
when company came. What if someone noticed them

when looking for forks or replacing dried dishes? I longed
to throw them out, but how could I get rid of something

that felt oddly like grace? It occurred to me finally
that I was meant to use them, and I resisted a growing compulsion

to cut my hair, although in moments of great distraction,
I thought it was my eyes they wanted, or my soft belly

—exhausted, in winter, I laid them out on the lawn.
The snow fell quite as usual, without any apparent hesitation

or discomfort. In spring, as expected, they were gone.
In their place, a slight metallic smell, and the dear muddy earth.

What are these scisssors and why do they want to be used?  The poet tells us the scissors feel like “grace,” but do they to the reader? They accumulate, then they are put outside, snowed on, and when the spring mud appears, they are gone.  It’s a very interesting poem, but it feels slightly more odd than necessary.  Is it nature triumphing over man-made things?  In that case, maybe the poem does feel necessary.  But in that case does it feel a little too easily done?

Collins feels like the master who creates a comforting mystery with a few strokes.  Howe is the mannerist who follows in the master’s footsteps, though in this poem she is perhaps equal to him.

Collins 69 Howe 68

MAZER UPSETS HEANEY! MAZER UPSETS HEANEY!

Ladies and gentlemen, for the second time this spring, Ben Mazer has stunned the world of sports by defeating a heavily favored opponent in the 2012 Scarriet March Madness poetry contest!   First, John Ashbery, and now Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney goes down. 

How did he do it, ladies and gentlemen?

This was no obscure poem by Heaney—but his most anthologized piece!  “Digging!”  Universally praised and reprinted!

Oh, we can’t believe it!

How was Heaney’s poem vulnerable?  This is a Nobel Prize winner’s most famous poem!  How did it lose?

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
 
[Has there ever been an opening two lines as powerful as this?  Don't shoot! The pen resting!  It rests---between my finger and my thumb.  Oh poet! with your finger and thumb!  Oh writer with your instrument! O snug, squat pen!  Please, please, don't shoot!]
 
Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.
 
[O savage digging in the flowers!  gravelly and rasping, the sound!]
 
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
 
[O coarse boot!  O hard potato! ]
 
By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.
 
[God is invoked!  Shades of Milton!  A spade!  Think of it!  A spade!]
 
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
 
[Sloppily corked milk!  And digging!  The salt of the earth invoked!  Manly!  Wild!  Savage!  Sweaty!  Good turf!  Sods heaved! ]
 
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
 
[O tragedy!  "I've no spade"! ]
 
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
 
[O God!  "I'll dig with it."  Just like that!  With my squat pen, I'll dig! ]
 
How was Mazer able to stop this onslaught???
 
With this sad sea-dream: 
 
 
That hulking rooftop like a leviathan
still unexpectedly sails into view,
its byzantine tilework faded red and grey
like boxes within boxes visible from the sea,
at summer’s start eluding the goswogii.
Woodberry’s copy of his life of Poe
emerges from the flood, a constancy
that nobody will buy year after year.
Poe was born in Boston. In aught nine
Bruce Rogers did the job and Eliot
did shameful things that never will be known
on out of town trips. Something in the fog
grins like a skeleton beneath the cracked
continuity of what seemed like time.
Fall is spring-like. The fresh violins
of new arrangements lift the tortured heart
to hope, reflected light, the heart laid bare.
Poems are but evidence of poetry.
Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all –
and choose your death at sea by thirty-three.
And once in winter heard the Archduke Trio
performed by friends in the conservatory.
Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.
The museum closes in a timeless wave
of unutterable rhythms, lashed by rain.
The sea’s maw beckons to the life it spawned.
The white sheen of a sun pierced spray of fog
as we drop down the hill to the cliff’s edge
pierces the crowd out of time’s slow parade
that hits us like old music or a dream,
billowing out between their stupored legs,
the hot dog zeppelins and powder flags,
as if unseeable, but the grey ghost
of that hellion rowing with an iron crowbar
peers out through banjo chinks in the ragtime
that’s near but sounds as if it’s far away,
the certainty of death past the breakers.
 
 
There is a continuity here, in terms of sea and approaching land and glimpsing earth’s large buildings and contemplating with a self-conscious pathos the accomplishment of the human soul:  Poe’s “heart laid bare,” the sly reference to Eliot, and the reference to Christ: death at thirty-three, though it’s Hart Crane, too…this passage is especially rich:
 
Poems are but evidence of poetry.
Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all –
and choose your death at sea by thirty-three.
And once in winter heard the Archduke Trio
performed by friends in the conservatory.
Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.

The musical use of “t’ and “r” sounds is beautiful and uncanny: “poetry,” “mysterious,” “search,” “thirty-three,” “winter,’ “Archduke Trio,” “conservatory,” “moderate,” “contemporary,” and “admirer,” “admire,” those two words emphasizing the “r” music in a wonderful little coda.

Mazer 88, Heaney 86

HERE COMES SWEET 16: ROUND TWO BEGINS IN THE EAST!

 
The Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney: highly favored to kick Ben Mazer’s ass
 
The  first Second Round Scarriet March Madness contest has Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, the old Irish lion, facing off against the young—and hungry—Ben Mazer.
 
Second seed Heaney beat Carolyn Forche 65-61 in the first round, while Mazer won a thriller against no. 1 seeded Ashbery in triple overtime, 102-101.
 
In other East play, Billy Collins advanced against Carol Ann Duffy, 90-77 and will play Marie Howe, who won a close contest with Jorie Graham, 63-60. 
 
Franz Wright, who dominated Geoffrey Hill, 58-42 will dance with James Tate in round 2; Tate won handily against Paul Muldoon, 71-51. 
 
Rounding out the East, Round Two: Robert Pinsky, who destroyed Charles Bernstein, 80-47, matches up against Mary Oliver, who had little trouble knocking off Charles Simic, 67-53.
 
Heaney brings his most anthologized piece, “Digging,” against Mazer in Round Two, a poem built around pen and spade.
 
DIGGING
 
Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
 
Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.
 
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
 
By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.
 
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
 
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
 
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
 
The poet’s boast, “I’ll dig with it,” sounds confident, perhaps because the very act of writing about one’s ancestors (who dig!) simply accomplishes the boast.  Or perhaps it’s because the poet compares his pen to a “gun” in line 2?  The whole thing is almost too perfect—except for the “squat pen.”  Are pens “squat?”  Well, they must be in this poem.  We wonder if the son was ever given a shovel by his dad and told, “Dig with this!” 
 
Mazer counters with the following:

DEATH AND MINSTRELSY

“Our references have all aged a little
as we were looking at them, not noticing.”  —John Ashbery

That hulking rooftop like a leviathan
still unexpectedly sails into view,
its byzantine tilework faded red and grey
like boxes within boxes visible from the sea,
at summer’s start eluding the goswogii.
Woodberry’s copy of his life of Poe
emerges from the flood, a constancy
that nobody will buy year after year.
Poe was born in Boston. In aught nine
Bruce Rogers did the job and Eliot
did shameful things that never will be known
on out of town trips. Something in the fog
grins like a skeleton beneath the cracked
continuity of what seemed like time.
Fall is spring-like. The fresh violins
of new arrangements lift the tortured heart
to hope, reflected light, the heart laid bare.
Poems are but evidence of poetry.
Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all –
and choose your death at sea by thirty-three.
And once in winter heard the Archduke Trio
performed by friends in the conservatory.
Although I am only a moderate admirer
of your poetry, there is not a single other
contemporary poet who I do admire.
The museum closes in a timeless wave
of unutterable rhythms, lashed by rain.
The sea’s maw beckons to the life it spawned.
The white sheen of a sun pierced spray of fog
as we drop down the hill to the cliff’s edge
pierces the crowd out of time’s slow parade
that hits us like old music or a dream,
billowing out between their stupored legs,
the hot dog zeppelins and powder flags,
as if unseeable, but the grey ghost
of that hellion rowing with an iron crowbar
peers out through banjo chinks in the ragtime
that’s near but sounds as if it’s far away,
the certainty of death past the breakers.

Mazer’s poem is about a lot of things; there are lines in this poem which are about a lot of things. 

Heaney’s poem is not about a lot of things.  Heaney’s poem can be reduced to, “My dad was a peat moss farmer, but I’m going to be a writer: I’m going to dig with my pen.”  

Mazer’s poem cannot be reduced.  I think this style of poetry really began with early Auden, who awarded the Yale Younger to John Ashbery, and Mazer captures the idea with this line: “Poems are but evidence of poetry.”  The poetry is what we’re really after and poems, in their discreteness, can never be more than “evidence” that poetry has been there.  The style might be summed up thusly: I’m too intelligent to write mere poems, but my intelligence is very much attracted to poetry, and I find, with my intelligence, I’m able to produce poetry without it sinking into a poem.

Heaney wins with the primitive war cry, “I’ll dig with it” but loses—because after the poem registers its cave man meaning, with its men digging in the ground, the reason laughs: ‘who cares that these men dig in the ground?’  A poem has been crafted, but without poetry, for the soul cares not for the primitive manual labor of the poem.

The soul cares for, “death past the breakers” and “near but sounds as if it’s far away.”  One can hold up to examine, over and over, “Mysterious kitchens you shall search them all” to the light.  And it will look new from every angle…

And so poetry—which represents the soul’s pleasurable respite from discrete reality—is worshiped by the poets who are no longer interested in poems.

The game between Heaney and Mazer is close.  We have no idea who will win.

The game’s on the TV, which is high up on the blue wall and there’s a lot going on below… the beer’s flowing…

Marla Muse:  It’s making me nervous.  I can’t look!

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE 32 POETS MOVING ON!

Enrique Simonet’s “Judgement of Paris”

They fought, they battled, they elbowed, they rebounded, they shot, they sweated, they passed, they jumped, they fell into seats trying to save a ball going out-of-bounds.  You know what they did.   Here’s the winners and their margins of victory:

East:

Ben Mazer (d. Ashbery 102-101, 3 OT)
Seamus Heaney (d. Carolyn Forche 65-61)
Franz Wright (d. Geoffrey Hill 58-42)
Billy Collins (d. Carol Ann Duffy 90-77)
Marie Howe (d. Jorie Graham 63-60)
Robert Pinsky (d. Charles Bernstein 80-47)
Mary Oliver (d. Charles Simic 67-53)
James Tate (d. Paul Muldoon 71-51)

Summary:  The beasts are in the East: Collins, Heaney, Pinsky, Oliver, Tate, Franz Wright, plus the upstart Ben Mazer, who has an aura of invincibility after knocking off Ashbery in triple overtime—but only one can survive to enter the Final Four!

South/Midwest:

Yusef Komunyakaa (d. A.E. Stallings 81-75)
Derek Walcott (d. C.D. Wright 91-47)
Patricia Smith (d. Mark Doty 80-69)
Rita Dove (d. Sandra Cisneros 64-60)
W.S. Merwin (d. Kevin Young 78-72)
Elizabeth Alexander (d. Carl Phillips 79-76)
Natasha Trethewey (d. Andrew Hudgins 69-68)
Terrance Hayes (d. Charles Wright 67-54)

Summary: the veteran Merwin is the only white poet to move on in this brackett.  Walcott is the Nobel Prize Winner, Patricia Smith, the Slam wild card, and Rita Dove, the Anthology editor.

North:

Philip Levine (d. Joanna Klink 88-67)
Richard Wilbur (d. Anne Waldman 101-70)
Dana Gioia (d. Brenda Shaughnessy 78-66)
Margaret Atwood (d. Bin Ramke 70-68)
Stephen Dunn (d. Glyn Maxwell 89-83)
Louise Gluck (d. Peter Gizzi 67-62)
Alice Oswald (d. Frank Bidart 55-54)
Cornelius Eady (d. Mark Strand 65-59)

Summary: Old school Richard Wilbur has to be the one to watch, after his dismantling of Waldman; also favored, the highly accessible Atwood, plus the imposing Dunn and Levine.

West:

Robert Hass (d. Cathy Song 67-63)
Sharon Olds (d. Li-Young Lee 79-77)
Gary Snyder (d. Sherman Alexie 80-72)
Heather McHugh (d. Rae Armantrout 66-54)
Kay Ryan (d. Cole Swensen 90-59)
Gary Soto (d. Ron Silliman 81-60)
Marilyn Chin (d. Michael Dickman 90-78)
Matthew Dickman (d. Joy Harjo 88-67)

Summary: Kay Ryan and Sharon Olds are strong women in this brackett; Gary Snyder has the savvy and experience to go all the way, and don’t count out young Dickman.

The raw numbers: 44% of the 32 poets still in the hunt are white males, and  41% are women.

The third annual Scarriet March Madness Tournament is using a different rule this year: winning poets bring a new poem with them into the next round.

Previously, Lehman’s  Best American Poetry, and Stephen Berg’s American Poetry Review were Scarriet sources; this year it is Dove’s 20th Century Poetry anthology (Penguin), with some exceptions (mostly British), and all living poets.

MARILYN CHIN VS. MICHAEL DICKMAN IN THE WEST

Marilyn Chin brings her best-known poem into round one

Marilyn Chin has 3 poems in Dove’s anthology and the following poem is slowly becoming a 20th century classic:

HOW I GOT THAT NAME

I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin.
Oh, how I love the resoluteness
of that first person singular
followed by that stalwart indicative
of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g
of “becoming.”  Of course,
the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paper son
in the late 1950s
obsessed with a bombshell blond
transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”
And nobody dared question
his initial impulse—for we all know
lust drove men to greatness,
not goodness, not decency.
And there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic white woman
swollen with gin and Nembutal.
My mother couldn’t pronounce the “r.”
She dubbed me “Numba one female offshoot”
for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die
in sublime ignorance, flanked
by loving children and the “kitchen deity.”
While my father dithers,
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash—
a gambler, a petty thug,
who bought a chain of chopsuey joints
in Piss River, Oregon,
with bootlegged Gucci cash.
Nobody dared question his integrity given
his nice, devout daughters
and his bright, industrious sons
as if filial piety were the standard
by which all earthly men are measured.

*

Oh, how trustworthy our daughters,
how thrifty our sons!
How we’ve managed to fool the experts
in education, statistic and demography—
We’re not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning.
Indeed, they can use us.
But the “Model Minority” is a tease.
We know you are watching now,
so we refuse to give you any!
Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots!
The further west we go, we’ll hit east;
the deeper down we dig, we’ll find China.
History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach—
where life doesn’t hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow,
but whether or not our new lover
in the final episode of “Santa Barbara”
will lean over a scented candle
and call us a “bitch.”
Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
We have no inner resources!

*

Then, one redolent spring morning
the Great Patriarch Chin
peered down from his kiosk in heaven
and saw that his descendants were ugly.
One had a squarish head and a nose without a bridge
Another’s profile—long and knobbed as a gourd.
A third, the sad, brutish one may never, never marry.
And I, his least favorite—
“not quite boiled, not quite cooked,”
a plump pomfret simmering in my juices—
too listless to fight for my people’s destiny.
“To kill without resistance is not slaughter”
says the proverb.  So, I wait for imminent death.
The fact that this death is also metaphorical
is testament to my lethargy.

*

So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,
married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong,
granddaughter of Jack “the patriarch”
and the brooding Suilin Fong,
daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong
and G.G. Chin the infamous,
sister of a dozen, cousin of a million,
survived by everbody and forgotten by all.
She was neither black nor white,
neither cherished nor vanquished,
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry—
when one day heaven was unmerciful,
and a chasm opened where she stood.
Like the jowls of a mighty white whale,
or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla,
it swallowed her whole.
She did not flinch nor writhe,
nor fret about the afterlife,
but stayed!  Solid as wood, happily
a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized
by all that was lavished upon her
and all that was taken away!

Identity is the subject here, and one could cynically intone: one more exploitation of identity by an ethnic poet!

But the workshop mantra of ‘write what you know’ has long since steamrolled the ‘moon/june’ school: research the outside world and how it relates to yourself and write as honestly about yourself as possible—and this is obviously what Chin has done.  What makes this poem remarkable, what makes it so much better than other examples of the confessional genre, is the sensitivity and honesty displayed.  We sense pity, but not self-pity.  The poem is felt, not calculated.  The triumph of the poem is almost as simple as that. 

Michael Dickman—not in Dove’s anthology—belongs to the ‘surreal confessional’ school.  He writes a lot about his west coast lower middle class neighborhood, generally gross stuff, sweaty seductions, the death of his older brother; the following poem is more a flight of fancy, but still recognizably his:

MY AUTOPSY

There is a way
if we want
into everything 

I’ll eat the chicken carbonara and you eat the veal, the olives, the
    small and glowing loaves of bread 

I’ll eat the waiter, the waitress
floating through the candled dark in shiny black slacks
like water at night 

The napkins, folded into paper boats, contain invisible Japanese
    poems 

You eat the forks,
all the knives, asleep and waiting
on the white tables 

What do you love? 

I love the way our teeth stay long after we’re gone, hanging on
    despite worms or fire 

I love our stomachs
turning over
the earth 

There is a way
if we want
to stay, to leave 

Both 

My lungs are made out of smoke ash sunlight air
particles of skin 

The invisible floating universe of kisses, rising up in a sequinned
    helix of dust and cinnamon 

Breathe in 

Breathe out 

I smoke
unfiltered Shepheard’s Hotel cigarettes
from a green box, with a dog on the cover, I smoke them
here, and I’ll smoke them 

There 

There is a way
if we want
out of drowning 

I’m having
a Gimlet, a Caruso, a
Fallen Angel 

A Manhattan, a Rattlesnake, a Rusty Nail, a Stinger, an Angel
    Face, a Corpse Reviver 

What are you having? 

I’m buying
I’m buying for the house
I’m standing the round 

Wake me
from the dash of lemon juice,
the half measure of orange juice, apricot brandy,

and the two fingers of gin
that make up paradise 

There is a way
if we want
to untie ourselves 

The shining organs that bind us can help us through the new dark 

There are lots of stories about intestines 

People have been forced to hold them, alive and shocked awake 

The doctors removed M’s smaller one and replaced it, the new
    bright plastic curled around the older brother 

Birds drag them out of the dead and abandoned 

Some people climb them into Heaven 

Others believe we live in one
God’s intestine! 

A conveyor belt of stars and saints 

We tie and we loosen 

Minor
and forgettable
miracles

Michael Dickman is fond of cute line-breaks, learned from Cummings or Williams or someone; don’t poets realize cute line-breaks are so 1929?   This poem was published recently in The New Yorker—which come to think of it, has the whiff of 1929 about it, that anxious, aging, desperate-to-be-hip, rich people’s magazine. 

Michael Dickman is charming; he talks in his poems as if he’s a self-confident guy trying to impress someone so that he might get laid: make her sad, but also make her laugh.  When poems no longer have a formal interest, nor serve any strict moral purpose, all they can do, really, is be weirdly funny: intestines! ha ha.  The key is weirdly funny; if they were just funny, they would seem too much like jokes, and not enough like poems.  Surely this is not thought of consciously by Dickman, but something similar must live in his efforts—and is revealed in his poem’s result.  What Michael Dickman is feeling and thinking is often exquisite, and one can see it dance in a little flame before it puffs out in a black string, a burned wick of cool line-breaks, subsiding into a writhing, crinkly banality.  What did you say, again?  we ask.  The poem dares not be as cool as its author. That’s Dickman’s problem. 

Marilyn Chin, however, has spoken with somewhat more substance.  Her poem is not ashamed of her, even when she attributes her father’s (and all men’s) “lust” to his success. 

Chin shames us in her poem, Dickman, himself.  The former is finally more charming.

Chin 90, Dickman 78

RON SILLIMAN TAKES ON GARY SOTO IN WEST BRACKET FIRST ROUND BATTLE

A younger Gary Soto, long before his 2012 March Madness contest with Silliman

Rita Dove chose one of Ron Silliman’s poems, “Albany,” for her Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.  Silliman is a crazy white poet who runs a blog—which used to have reader comments but now no longer allows them.  Gary Soto is Mexican.  He has three poems in Dove’s anthology, Silliman, just the one.

Time destroys us: we get old and die.  Time reveals truth: effects spring from prior causes.  Poetry belongs to time: it is a temporal art, and its temporality belongs to the sober truth of time the destroyer: the deception, the life, the poem must end.

The question is: does it just end, or does it end? 

This might be the chief difference between the so-called “quietist school” (old-fashioned poetry, in Silliman’s mind) and whatever Silliman deems “new.” 

Quietist poetry embraces temporality and always has the end in mind.  The Silliman poem below has no temporality; it just ends; Silliman is afraid to look into the truth of things, the life of things, the death of things, the ending of things—and why shouldn’t he be afraid of the death of things?  We are all afraid of this; even Shelley, who wrote “all that endures is mutability,” but poets like Silliman are so afraid they ignore the role of poetry itself, which is to not be afraid.  This is why poetry scares so many people; poetry is braver than we are. The poet himself is sometimes so afraid, that his poems are afraid, too, and they flee temporality and run to the safey of being round objects without end—which is precisely what Silliman’s poem is:

ALBANY

for Cliff Silliman

If the function of writing is to “express the world.” My father withheld child support. forcing my mother to live with her parents. my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can’t afford an automobile. Far across the calm bay stood a complex of long yellow buildings, a prison. A line is the distance between. They circled the seafood restaurant, singing “We shall not be moved.” My turn to cook. It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up. The event was nothing like their report of it. How concerned was I over her failure to have orgasms? Mondale’s speech was drowned by jeers. Ye wretched. She introduces herself as a rape survivor. Yet his best friend was Hispanic. I decided not to escape to Canada. Revenue enhancement. Competition and spectacle. kinds of drugs. If it demonstrates form some people won’t read it. Television unifies conversation. Died in action. If a man is a player, he will have no job. Becoming prepared to live with less space. Live ammunition. Secondary boycott. My crime is parole violation. Now that the piecards have control. Rubin feared McClure would read Ghost Tantras at the teach-in. This form is the study group. The sparts are impeccable1 though filled with deceit. A benefit reading. He seduced me. AFT, local 1352. Enslavement is permitted as punishment for crime. Her husband broke both of her eardrums. I used my grant to fix my teeth. They speak in Farsi at the comer store. YPSL. The national question. I look forward to old age with some excitement. 42 years for Fibreboard Products. Food is a weapon. Yet the sight of people making love is deeply moving. Music is essential. The cops wear shields that serve as masks. Her lungs heavy with asbestos. Two weeks too old to collect orphan’s benefits. A woman on the train asks Angela Davis for an autograph. You get read your Miranda. As if a correct line would somehow solve the future. They murdered his parents just to make the point. It’s not easy if your audience doesn’t identify as readers. Mastectomies are done by men. Our pets live at whim. Net income is down 13%. Those distant sirens down in the valley signal great hinges in the lives of strangers. A phone tree. The landlord’s control of terror is implicit. Not just a party but a culture. Copayment. He held the Magnum with both hands and ordered me to stop. The garden is a luxury (a civilization of snail and spider). They call their clubs batons. They call their committees clubs. Her friendships with women are different. Talking so much is oppressive. Outplacement. A shadowy locked facility using drugs and double-ceIling (a rest home). That was the Sunday Henry’s father murdered his wife on the front porch. If it demonstrates form they can’t read it. If it demonstrates mercy they have something worse in mind. Twice, carelessness has led to abortion. To own a basement. Nor is the sky any less constructed. The design of a department store is intended to leave you fragmented, off-balance. A lit drop. They photograph Habermas to hide the harelip. The verb to be admits the assertion. The body is a prison. a garden. In kind. Client populations (cross the tundra). Off the books. The whole neighborhood is empty in the daytime. Children form lines at the end of each recess. Eminent domain. Rotating chair. The history of Poland in 90 seconds. Flaming pintos. There is no such place as the economy, the self. That bird demonstrates the sky. Our home, we were told, had been broken, but who were these people we lived with? Clubbed in the stomach, she miscarried. There were bayonets on campus. cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just want to make it to lunch time. Uncritical of nationalist movements in the Third World. Letting the dishes sit for a week. Macho culture of convicts. With a shotgun and “in defense” the officer shot him in the face. Here, for a moment, we are joined. The want-ads lie strewn on the table.

Gary Soto, like Silliman, writes of the past, and he does it this way:

ORANGES

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted -
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickle in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickle from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
About.

Outside,
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

Poetry is a recitation of a memory—is this what poetry, finally is?  Memories do not live in our minds in a strictly linear way, especially as we tend to forget the details—memories revolve around a theme, and go forwards and backwards in our minds.  Memories can also be a search for a theme—and again, time can get all mixed up.

But the poem, materially, must march forward—both in content and form.  This is the poem’s face, and this fact can’t be faked with excuses such as: my memories of this event are all scrambled up, so why shouldn’t my poem be scrambled up? 

This is not to say that just because a poem proceeds in one direction that it will be a good poem.  But this is the minimum of what it has to do.

The poem can be scrambled, but then your poem will not have a face.

A person does not have to have a face.  But we would prefer one.

Soto 81, Silliman 60

KAY RYAN AND COLE SWENSEN DANCE IN THE WEST

Swensen: just switched digs from Iowa to Brown; also resides in Paris

Cole Swensen is not in Dove’s anthology.  Too much crazy white girl poetry out there.   Here’s Swensen’s poem, reprinted on The Academy of American Poets’ website, called “Ghost:”

erodes the line between being and place becomes the place of being time and so the house turns in the snow is why a ghost always has the architecture of a storm The architect tore down room after room until the sound stopped. A ghost is one among the ages at the edge of a cliff empty sails on the bay even when a ship or the house moves off in fog asks you out loud to let the stranger in

It is always nice when an artist can be impressionist and expressionist at the same time.  Why not?  The Impressionist painter takes care that we understand what the object is, even in its impressionistic rendering—and this care eventually lost authority, as the fashion of expressionism/abstraction set in. 

The poets, however, unlike the painters, do not have a clear ‘art history’ time-line to go by, simply because poetry is not bound by painting’s more material rules. 

Poets need to decide for themselves, with each poem, whether they are going to be an Impressionist painter in 1872 or an Expressionist painter in 1915, or what have you.

Poets of a radical nature make their own art history with each poem, and not only the radical poets: writing a sonnet, or writing a poem about love, for instance, these sorts of things which do have a clear tradition in poetry, even then, the coloring of impressionist or expressionistic effects in any particular poem never need obey strict ‘art history’ rules.

The trouble with Swensen’s poem is that it isn’t clear when the poem is being impressonistic and when it is being expressionistic—the poem needs to make the reader aware of this in the poem; the poem can’t take it for granted, or hope that in vagueness the effect will somehow work.  We don’t know, for instance, whether the “stranger” at the end of Swenson’s poem is being used as an expressionist device, or an impressionist one, and we wonder, too, about every feature of the poem, the “snow,” the “architecture,” the “house,” the “being,” the “place,” none of these elements exist for us visibly or emotionally, since the poet has ignored every possible choice pertaining to line, shape, tone, color, and mode.  Swensen has been happy to be impressionist and expressionist at once—without understanding what she is doing.

Kay Ryan, according to Dove’s anthology, “has been a part-time teacher of remedial reading and English” at a small college since the 1970s.  She’s also won some major awards and was US poet laureate from 2008 to 2010.  Dove reprinted two of Ryan’s short poems about animals in her anthology.  “Turtle” goes to the dance:

Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmt,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing towards the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing-case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
she’s often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. She lives
below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
will change her load of pottery into wings.
Her only levity is patience,
the sport of truly chastened things.

Ryan brings to the reader both an object and memorable language that adorns that object—by this alone, Ryan is worlds ahead of Swensen.  Every poet should have a musical ear—this alone gives the poet a powerful tool in which to navigate and eventually solve the impressonist/expressonist problem above.   Ryan adeptly signals to us when she is being expressionist (line 1) and when she is being impressionist (line 2)—and when she is being both (the last 3 lines of the poem).

Slow and steady wins the race.

Ryan 90, Swensen 59

RAE ARMANTROUT AND HEATHER MCHUGH CLASH IN THE WEST

Heather McHugh writes poetry with word-play.

Heather McHugh has two poems in Dove’s anthology.  Armantrout was not included.  Dove doesn’t have much patience, as we mentioned earlier, with the Language Poetry crowd, or crazy white people’s nonsense, as we might put it.  This poem of McHugh’s, which will do battle with Armantrout, seems to have been selected by Dove for its political content:

LANGUAGE LESSON 1976

When Americans say a man
take liberties, they mean

he’s gone too far. In Philadelphia today I saw
a kid on a leash look mom-ward

and announce his fondest wish: one
bicentennial burger, hold

the relish. Hold is forget,
in American.

On the courts of Philadelphia
the rich prepare

to serve, to fault. The language is a game as well,
in which love can mean nothing,

doubletalk mean lie. I’m saying
doubletalk to me. I’m saying

go so far the customs are untold.
Make nothing without words,

and let me be
the one you never hold.

We can’t say we like this poem; the reference to tennis: “court, serve, fault, love” is perhaps a reference to Philadelphia Freedom, Elton John’s 1975 song? and the meaning of “hold”—why in the world does this matter?  The whole thing strikes us as jejune. 

Rae Armantrout is in a position to advance against this weak effort.  Let’s see what she counters with:

MANUFACTURING

1

A career in vestige management.

A dream job
back-engineering
shifts in salience.

I’m so far
behind the curve
on this.

So. Cal.
must connect with
so-called

to manufacture
the present.

Ubiquity’s
the new in-joke

bar-code hard-on,

a catch-phrase
in every segment.

2

The eye asks if the green,

frilled geranium puckers,
clustered at angles

on each stem,
are similar enough

to stop time.

It has asked this question already.

How much present tense
can any resemblance make?

What if one catch- phrase
appears in every episode?

Does the language go rigid?

The new in-joke
is a pun
pretending to be a bridge.

“Does the language go rigid?”  Yes, I suppose it does.

Armantrout and McHugh are the same age, and their publishing history, professonial lives, and style of poetry are similar.

McHugh 66, Armantrout 54

GARY SNYDER V. SHERMAN ALEXIE

Sherman Alexie: will try to advance in the West against the no. 3 seed.

Gary Snyder, who always wanted to be an Indian, takes on Sherman Alexie, who is an Indian.

Obviously this is putting it crudely: ethnicity can be as crude as sexism—these things are what poetry tries to escape.

Not expressing oneself, one is an individual; as soon as one expresses oneself, one loses all individuality. 

In the following poem, Gary Snyder, the poet, the expressive one, let’s someone else do the talking.  It’s probably Snyder’s most anthologized poem, perhaps the one poem, slaving all those years, earning all those awards, that he was meant to write, who knows?  It’s in Dove’s anthology with a couple others, which are more haiku-like.  Snyder is like Williams and Creeley, and pound for pound, foot for foot, he might be more consistently enjoyable to read than those guys; Snyder might be a little underrated.

HAY FOR THE HORSES

He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
    behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
    sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
— The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds —
“I’m sixty-eight,” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”

This poem needs no commentary we suppose, and yet, like Columbo lazing himself out of a room, we might turn back and just ask one thing.  If one put that memorable speech at the end of this poem in a paragraph and  one read it just as dialogue in some novel, would it have the same weight?  Probably not.  And if it doesn’t, aren’t we fools to be impressed by speech because of the way the words happen to be printed?  Aren’t we sacrificing our Milton to the printer’s devil?

Or would only the devil ask such a question, knowing that our humanity is nothing but a way to cut cloth, and to persist in such a question would lead us to hate all cutting and all cloth?

Sherman Alexie counters Snyder with the following, found in Dove’s book:

WHAT THE ORPHAN INHERITS

Language

I dreamed I was digging your grave
with my bare hands. I touched your face
and skin fell in thin strips to the ground

until only your tongue remained whole.
I hung it to smoke with the deer
for seven days. It tasted thick and greasy

sinew gripped my tongue tight. I rose
to walk naked through the fire. I spoke
English. I was not consumed.

Names

I do not have an Indian name.
The wind never spoke to my mother
when I was born. My heart was hidden

beneath the shells of walnuts switched
back and forth. I have to cheat to feel
the beating of drums in my chest.

Alcohol

“For bringing us the horse
we could almost forgive you
for bringing us whisky.”

Time

We measure time leaning
out car windows shattering
beer bottles off road signs.

Tradition

Indian boys
sinewy and doe-eyed
frozen in headlights.

This poem is obviously speaking to a lot and speaking legitimately, but it feels too conscious of itself to have much of an effect on those not caught up in the circumstances which the poem describes.

Snyder 80, Alexie 72

NO. 2 SEED SHARON OLDS TAKES ON LI-YOUNG LEE IN THE WEST

Madness rages on: Li-Young Lee battles the tenacious Sharon Olds in first round West action

Sharon Olds and Li-Young Lee both have two poems in the Dove anthology.

Olds is famous for frank portrayals of the body:

THE LANGUAGE OF THE BRAG

I have wanted excellence in the knife-throw,
I have wanted to use my exceptionally strong and accurate arms
and my straight posture and quick electric muscles
to achieve something at the centre of a crowd,
the blade piercing the bark deep,
the haft slowly and heavily vibrating like the cock.

I have wanted some epic use for my excellent body,
some heroism, some American achievement
beyond the ordinary for my extraordinary self,
magnetic and tensile, I have stood by the sandlot
and watched the boys play.

I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around

my belly big with cowardice and safety,
my stool black with iron pills,
my huge breasts oozing mucus,
my legs swelling, my hands swelling,
my face swelling and darkening, my hair
falling out, my inner sex
stabbed again and again with terrible pain like a knife.
I have lain down.
I have lain down and sweated and shaken
and passed blood and feces and water and
slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have
passed the new person out
and they have lifted the new person free of the act
and wiped the new person free of that
language of blood like praise all over the body.

I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,

I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.

Olds’ poem is an announcement—even as it describes a grounded, sensual act from a personal point of view;—personal in the most grounded, and yet expansive sense, and its rhetoric is nothing if not expansive, since what it describes is common and without narrative; it is, as she says, a “brag” and to include Whitman and Ginsberg is brilliant, because these, too are ‘announcement’ poets, poets of brag and rhetoric, but also grounded by personal, sensual content, but without story or even philosophical—the poetry is entirely social, a sensual secret revealed in an almost banal fashion: simply announced, or told. The “language of the brag” is plain, descriptive, first-person; there’s no poetic language calling us away from the mere content of the rhetoric.  Olds gets this so well, and it’s uncanny how honest she is about competing with maleness—and the poem’s triumph is her (female) triumph. 

Li-Young Lee enters the dance with this poem:

EATING TOGETHER
 
In the steamer is the trout   
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.   
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,   
brothers, sister, my mother who will   
taste the sweetest meat of the head,   
holding it between her fingers   
deftly, the way my father did   
weeks ago. Then he lay down   
to sleep like a snow-covered road   
winding through pines older than him,   
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
 
Lee’s poem ushers in death instead of birth, but does it not with a brag, like Olds, but with a series of simple images:  yet the “snow-covered road winding through pines older than him, without any travelers, and lonely for no one” is profound and so anti-sentimental that it makes one sit up arrow straight in one’s mind.  That “snow-covered road” travels both forwards and backwards in the poem, and is quite extraordinary.
 
Marla Muse:  I’m sensing a very close game.
 
Yes, Marla.
 
Olds wins, 79-77.

HOW THE WEST IS WON: FIRST SEED HASS PLAYS SONG IN FIRST ROUND

Robert Hass has three poems in Rita Dove’s anthology

SONG

Afternoon cooking in the fall sun—
who is more naked
                               than the man
yelling, “Hey, I’m home!”
                   to an empty house?
thinking because the bay is clear,
the hills in yellow heat,
& scrub oak red in gullies
that great crowds of family
should tumble from the rooms
                 to throw their bodies on the Papa-body,
                            I-am-loved.

Cat sleeps in the windowgleam,
                       dust motes.
     On the oak table
   filets of sole
stewing in the juice of tangerines,
  slices of green pepper
      on a bone-white dish.

Robert Hass brings that California, naked, Eastern, hippie vibe better than anyone.  Robert Hass should have been in food, had he not been a poet.  His most famous poem repeats the name of a berry several times—after a bit of philosophical rumination.  He writes about politics, too, but he’s a happy guy.  “Who is more naked than a man yelling “Hey, I’m home!” to an empty house” is fantastic, but one almost wishes this were the entire poem, or that he had found a way to add a few different lines in order to make the poem more iconic, like “Red Wheel Barrow” or “I Knew A Man,” because it has that kind of potential.  But then one gets the idea a guy like Hass wouldn’t torture himself over something like this: “slices of green pepper on a bone-white dish” is finally too pleasing to a guy like Robert Hass.  Like most modern poets, he believes a glossy food magazine’s contents work great in a poem—a poem can say anything!  No Poe-aesthetics for him.

Cathy Song is famous probably because she was the youngest poet in the Norton Anthology for many years.  She has one poem in Dove’s anthology:

THE YOUNGEST DAUGHTER
 
The sky has been dark
for many years.
My skin has become as damp
and pale as rice paper
and feels the way
mother’s used to before the drying sun   
parched it out there in the fields.
 
      Lately, when I touch my eyelids,
my hands react as if
I had just touched something
hot enough to burn.
My skin, aspirin colored,   
tingles with migraine. Mother
has been massaging the left side of my face   
especially in the evenings   
when the pain flares up.
 
This morning
her breathing was graveled,
her voice gruff with affection   
when I wheeled her into the bath.   
She was in a good humor,
making jokes about her great breasts,   
floating in the milky water
like two walruses,
flaccid and whiskered around the nipples.   
I scrubbed them with a sour taste   
in my mouth, thinking:
six children and an old man
have sucked from these brown nipples.
I was almost tender
when I came to the blue bruises
that freckle her body,
places where she has been injecting insulin   
for thirty years. I soaped her slowly,
she sighed deeply, her eyes closed.
It seems it has always
been like this: the two of us
in this sunless room,
the splashing of the bathwater.
 
In the afternoons
when she has rested,
she prepares our ritual of tea and rice,   
garnished with a shred of gingered fish,
a slice of pickled turnip,
a token for my white body.   
We eat in the familiar silence.
She knows I am not to be trusted,   
even now planning my escape.   
As I toast to her health
with the tea she has poured,
a thousand cranes curtain the window,
fly up in a sudden breeze.
 
We cannot escape the pity for the aged mother and the dutiful daughter—it does us good, then, to get the comic relief of breasts “like walruses,” but even then we don’t laugh; we’re not permitted to laugh. So we remain a little disgusted in the midst of our pity. This poem reads almost like the way a Western audience would expect a modern Eastern poem to read: the “rice paper,” the “cranes,” the family piety, the duty.
 
Hass 67 Song 63
 
And here’s the whole field in the West:

WEST

1. Robert Hass
2. Sharon Olds
3. Gary Snyder
4. Rae Armantrout
5. Kay Ryan
6. Ron Silliman
7. Michael Dickman
8. Matthew Dickman
9. Joy Harjo
10. Marilyn Chin
11. Gary Soto
12. Cole Swensen
13. Heather McHugh
14. Sherman Alexie
15. Li-Young Lee
16. Cathy Song

MARK STRAND AND CORNELIUS EADY VIE IN LAST NORTH BRACKET FIRST ROUND PLAY

Mark Strand: the handsomest poet ever?

Mark Strand (Yale, Iowa) is best known for poems which affect a kind of strange existentialism—and we don’t believe they are aging too well.   When first published, they had a haunting quality, but they are losing their dimensionality with time, and now seem rather flat on the page, like a person dressed up in a ghost costume in the dark who now just seems like a person dressed up in a ghost costume in the light.

Dove reprints two of his poems and both seem the same, and both seem rather dull.  This one is called “The Prediction:”

That night the moon drifted over the pond,
turning the water to milk, and under
the boughs of the trees, the blue trees,
a young woman walked, and for an instant

the future came to her:
rain falling on her husband’s grave, rain falling
on the lawns of her children, her own mouth
filling with cold air, strangers moving into her house,

a man in her room writing a poem, the moon drifting into it,
a woman strolling under its trees, thinking of death,
thinking of him thinking of her, and the wind rising
and taking the moon and leaving the paper dark.

This seems excessively flat, even pointless.  It must have horrified Strand when he first wrote it, imagining a woman (he probably loved) thinking of her future death—but the poem has no moral or formal interest whatsoever.  It’s just somebody saying, “boo!”  the wind rising and taking the moon and leaving the paper dark.   Strand is being intentionally banal, in keeping with some late 20th century fad (probably cooked up at Iowa).

Cornelius Eady (b. 1954) has 3 poems in Dove’s anthology.  According to Dove, Cave Canem, which Eady co-founded, is “an organization fostering emerging African-American poets that has become an instrumental force in twenty-first century American poetry.”

CROWS IN A STRONG WIND

Off go the crows from the roof.  
The crows can’t hold on.
They might as well
Be perched on an oil slick.

Such an awkward dance,   
These gentlemen
In their spottled-black coats.   
Such a tipsy dance,
 
 As if they didn’t know where they were.   
Such a humorous dance,
As they try to set things right,
As the wind reduces them.
 
Such a sorrowful dance.
How embarrassing is love
When it goes wrong
 
In front of everyone.
 
The poem has punch, bouyancy, immediacy. 
 
Eady’s poem violates beginner’s rules: don’t write “such” or “how” for emphasis.
 
But this doesn’t hurt the poem at all.
 
Eady 65, Strand 59
 
The first round is over for the North Bracket.
 
One more bracket to go for the first round of play: the West.  Stay tuned!

FRANK BIDART BATTLES ALICE OSWALD AS NORTH PLAY CONTINUES

Bidart has a long poem in Dove’s anthology and is favored to advance.  Was friends with Lowell and Bishop.

Frank Bidart writes poetry that feels like a different genre.  He violates THE POEM.   Or something like that.  He gets 11 pages in Dove’s anthology for his poem, the most of any poet in that anthology, which makes him the greatest poet of the 20th century.  Or something like that.  It’s really hard to talk about Frank Bidart.  His poetry is so intense.  Bring it, Frank.

ELLEN WEST
I love sweets,—
heaven
would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream …But my true self
is thin, all profileand effortless gestures, the sort of blond
elegant girl whose
body is the image of her soul.—My doctors tell me I must give up
this ideal;
but I
WILL NOT … cannot.Only to my husband I’m not simply a “case.”But he is a fool. He married
meat, and thought it was a wife..            .            .Why am I a girl?

I ask my doctors, and they tell me they
don’t know, that it is just “given.”

But it has such
implications—;
and sometimes,
I even feel like a girl.

.            .            .

Now, at the beginning of Ellen’s thirty-second year, her physical condition has deteriorated still further. Her use of laxatives increases beyond measure. Every evening she takes sixty to seventy tablets of a laxative, with the result that she suffers tortured vomiting at night and violent diarrhea by day, often accompanied by a weakness of the heart. She has thinned down to a skeleton, and weighs only 92 pounds.

.            .            .

About five years ago, I was in a restaurant,
eating alone
with a book. I was
not married, and often did that …

—I’d turn down
dinner invitations, so I could eat alone;

I’d allow myself two pieces of bread, with
butter, at the beginning, and three scoops of
vanilla ice cream, at the end,—

sitting there alone
with a book, both in the book
and out of it, waited on, idly
watching people,—

when an attractive young man
and woman, both elegantly dressed,
sat next to me.
She was beautiful—;

with sharp, clear features, a good
bone structure—;
if she took her make-up off
in front of you, rubbing cold cream
again and again across her skin, she still would be
beautiful—
more beautiful.

And he,—
I couldn’t remember when I had seen a man
so attractive. I didn’t know why. He was almost

a male version
of her,—

I had the sudden, mad notion that I
wanted to be his lover …

—Were they married?
were they lovers?

They didn’t wear wedding rings.

Their behavior was circumspect. They discussed
politics. They didn’t touch …

—How could I discover?

Then, when the first course
arrived, I noticed the way

each held his fork out for the other

to taste what he had ordered …

They did this
again and again, with pleased looks, indulgent
smiles, for each course,
more than once for each dish—;
much too much for just friends …

—Their behavior somehow sickened me;

the way each gladly
put the food the other had offered into his mouth—;

I knew what they were. I knew they slept together.

An immense depression came over me …

—I knew I could never
with such ease allow another to put food into my mouth:

happily myself put food into another’s mouth—;

I knew that to become a wife I would have to give up my ideal.

.            .            .

Even as a child,
I saw that the “natural” process of aging

is for one’s middle to thicken—
one’s skin to blotch;

as happened to my mother.
And her mother.
I loathed “Nature.”

At twelve, pancakes
became the most terrible thought there is …

I shall defeat “Nature.”

In the hospital, when they
weigh me, I wear weights secretly sewn into my belt.

.            .            .

January 16. The patient is allowed to eat in her room, but comes readily with her husband to afternoon coffee. Previously she had stoutly resisted this on the ground that she did not really eat but devoured like a wild animal. This she demonstrated with utmost realism…. Her physical examination showed nothing striking. Salivary glands are markedly enlarged on both sides.
January 21. Has been reading Faust again. In her diary, writes that art is the “mutual permeation” of the “world of the body” and the “world of the spirit” Says that her own poems are “hospital poems … weak—without skill or perseverance; only managing to beat their wings softly.”
February 8. Agitation, quickly subsided again. Has attached herself to an elegant, very thin female patient. Homo-erotic component strikingly evident.
February 15. Vexation, and torment. Says that her mind forces her always to think of eating. Feels herself degraded by this. Has entirely, for the first time in years, stopped writing poetry.

.            .            .

Callas is my favorite singer, but I’ve only
seen her once—;

I’ve never forgotten that night …

—It was in Tosca, she had long before
lost weight, her voice
had been, for years,
deteriorating, half itself …

When her career began, of course, she was fat,

enormous—; in the early photographs,
sometimes I almost don’t recognize her …

The voice too then was enormous—
healthy; robust; subtle; but capable of
crude effects, even vulgar,
almost out of
high spirits, too much health …

But soon she felt that she must lose weight,—
that all she was trying to express

was obliterated by her body,
buried in flesh—;
abruptly, within
four months, she lost at least sixty pounds …

—The gossip in Milan was that Callas
had swallowed a tapeworm.

But of course she hadn’t.

The tapeworm
was her soul

—How her soul, uncompromising,
insatiable,
must have loved eating the flesh from her bones,

revealing this extraordinarily
mercurial; fragile; masterly creature …

—But irresistibly, nothing
stopped there; the huge voice

also began to change: at first, it simply diminished
in volume, in size,
then the top notes became
shrill, unreliable—at last,
usually not there at all …

—No one knows why. Perhaps her mind,
ravenous, still insatiable, sensed

that to struggle with the shreds of a voice

must make her artistry subtler, more refined,
more capable of expressing humiliation,
rage, betrayal …

—Perhaps the opposite. Perhaps her spirit
loathed the unending struggle

to embody itself, to manifest itself, on a stage whose

mechanics, and suffocating customs,
seemed expressly designed to annihilate spirit …

—I know that in Tosca, in the second act,
when, humiliated, hounded by Scarpia,
she sang Vissi d’arte
—“I lived for art”—

and in torment, bewilderment, at the end she asks,
with a voice reaching
harrowingly for the notes,

“Art has repaid me LIKE THIS?”

I felt I was watching
autobiography—
an art; skill;
virtuosity

miles distant from the usual soprano’s
athleticism,—
the usual musician’s dream
of virtuosity without content …
—I wonder what she feels, now,
listening to her recordings.

For they have already, within a few years,
begun to date …

Whatever they express
they express through the style of a decade
and a half—;
a style she helped create …

—She must know that now
she probably would not do a trill in
exactly that way,—
that the whole sound, atmosphere,
dramaturgy of her recordings

have just slightly become those of the past …

—Is it bitter? Does her soul
tell her

that she was an idiot ever to think
anything
material wholly could satisfy? …

—Perhaps it says: The only way
to escape
the History of Styles

is not to have a body.

.            .            .

When I open my eyes in the morning, my great
mystery
stands before me …

—I know that I am intelligent; therefore

the inability not to fear food
day-and-night; this unending hunger
ten minutes after I have eaten …
a childish
dread of eating; hunger which can have no cause,—

half my mind says that all this
is demeaning

Bread
for days on end
drives all real thought from my brain …

—Then I think, No. The ideal of being thin

conceals the ideal
not to have a body—;
which is NOT trivial …

This wish seems now as much a “given” of my existence

as the intolerable
fact that I am dark-complexioned; big-boned;
and once weighed
one hundred and sixty-five pounds …

—But then I think, No. That’s too simple,—

without a body, who can
know himself at all?
Only by
acting; choosing; rejecting; have I
made myself—
discovered who and what Ellen can be …

—But then again I think, NO. This I is anterior
to name; gender; action;
fashion;
MATTER ITSELF,—

… trying to stop my hunger with FOOD
is like trying to appease thirst
with ink.

.            .            .

March 30. Result of the consultation: Both gentlemen agree completely with my prognosis and doubt any therapeutic usefulness of commitment even more emphatically than I. All three of us are agreed that it is not a case of obsessional neurosis and not one of manic-depressive psychosis, and that no definitely reliable therapy is possible. We therefore resolved to give in to the patient’s demand for discharge.

.            .            .

The train-ride yesterday
was far worse than I expected …

In our compartment
were ordinary people: a student;
a woman; her child;—

they had ordinary bodies, pleasant faces;
but I thought
I was surrounded by creatures

with the pathetic, desperate
desire to be not what they were:—

the student was short,
and carried his body as if forcing
it to be taller—;

the woman showed her gums when she smiled,
and often held her
hand up to hide them—;

the child
seemed to cry simply because it was
small; a dwarf, and helpless …

—I was hungry. I had insisted that my husband
not bring food …

After about thirty minutes, the woman
peeled an orange

to quiet the child. She put a section
into its mouth—;
immediately it spit it out.

The piece fell to the floor.

—She pushed it with her foot through the dirt
toward me
several inches.

My husband saw me staring
down at the piece …

—I didn’t move; how I wanted
to reach out,
and as if invisible

shove it in my mouth—;

my body
became rigid. As I stared at him,
I could see him staring

at me,—
then he looked at the student—; at the woman—; then
back to me …

I didn’t move.

—At last, he bent down, and
casually
threw it out the window.

He looked away.

—I got up to leave the compartment, then
saw his face,—

his eyes
were red;
and I saw

—I’m sure I saw—

disappointment.

.            .            .

On the third day of being home she is as if transformed. At breakfast she eats butter and sugar, at noon she eats so much that—for the first time in thirteen years!—she is satisfied by her food and gets really full. At afternoon coffee she eats chocolate creams and Easter eggs. She takes a walk with her husband, reads poems, listens to recordings, is in a positively festive mood, and all heaviness seems to have fallen away from her. She writes letters, the last one a letter to the fellow patient here to whom she had become so attached. In the evening she takes a lethal dose of poison, and on the following morning she is dead. “She looked as she had never looked in life—calm and happy and peaceful.”

.            .            .

Dearest.—I remember how
at eighteen,
on hikes with friends, when
they rested, sitting down to joke or talk,

I circled
around them, afraid to hike ahead alone,

yet afraid to rest
when I was not yet truly thin.

You and, yes, my husband,—
you and he

have by degrees drawn me within the circle;
forced me to sit down at last on the ground.

I am grateful.

But something in me refuses it.

—How eager I have been
to compromise, to kill this refuser,

but each compromise, each attempt
to poison an ideal
which often seemed to me sterile and unreal,

heightens my hunger.

I am crippled. I disappoint you.

Will you greet with anger, or
happiness,

the news which might well reach you
before this letter?

Your Ellen.

Bidart’s poem is based on a German doctor’s book published in the 1950s about his patient.  Bidart dramatizes the woman’s plight by speaking through her.  It reads very quickly.  We are interested in the situation and sympathize with the woman.  The ideas are clear and cogent.  We just find ourselves asking, “But where is the art, where is the poetry?” and feeling vaguely ashamed for doing so.
Alice Oswald is not in Dove’s 20th century American poetry anthology because she’s English.
We offer her poem simply called:
SONNET
I can’t sleep in case a few things you said
no longer apply. The matter’s endless,
but definitions alter what’s ahead
and you and words are like a hare and tortoise.
Aaaagh there’s no description — each a fractal
sectioned by silences, we have our own
skins to feel through and fall back through — awful
to make so much of something so unknown.
But even I — some shower-swift commitments
are all you’ll get; I mustn’t gauge or give
more than I take — which is a way to balance
between misprision and belief in love
both true and false, because I’m only just
short of a word to be the first to trust.

Oswald’s sonnet considers the doubts lovers commonly feel; “short of a word” is very nicely done.

Marla Muse: This is like Walt Whitman v. Thomas Hardy.  I don’t know how to size this one up.

It’s an offensive team vs. a defensive team, Marla.  Differences are never as great as they seem.

Marla Muse:  But Oswald and Bidart are doing such different things!

Not really.  They both are presenting women who have lost faith.  Whitman, who had faith, is actually much different than both of them.  What Bidart presents is harrowing: a detailed a record of an actual person’s profound insanity.  Oswald’s poem, too, records the painful trial of doubting love.

Marla Muse: Yes, I see what you are saying; there are regions of thought where many dare not to go—why should they?  It causes pain and suffering.  How much suffering—even in a poem—should one experience?  And how many people, or artists, do we trust to take us to the regions of suffering?

Not many.  Unless we are suffering so much ourselves that we are numb.

Oswald 55 Bidart 54

A nail-biter. Almost painful to watch.

PETER GIZZI BATTLES LOUISE GLUCK IN THE NORTH

Peter Gizzi: The baleful stare of the lyric genius?

Neither Gizzi nor Gluck are in Dove’s anthology, but both are in the 2012 March Madness Dance.

Gluck recently retired from her role as Yale Younger Judge, so she might feel a bit lonely these days.  (Carl Phillips, the current judge, is in Dove’s anthology.)

Here is Gluck’s poem that hopes to advance:

A MYTH OF DEVOTION

When Hades decided he loved this girl
he built for her a duplicate of earth,
everything the same, down to the meadow,
but with a bed added.

Everything the same, including sunlight,
because it would be hard on a young girl
to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness

Gradually, he thought, he’d introduce the night,
first as the shadows of fluttering leaves.
Then moon, then stars. Then no moon, no stars.
Let Persephone get used to it slowly.
In the end, he thought, she’d find it comforting.

A replica of earth
except there was love here.
Doesn’t everyone want love?

He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone in the meadow.
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.

Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—

That’s what he felt, the lord of darkness,
looking at the world he had
constructed for Persephone. It never crossed his mind
that there’d be no more smelling here,
certainly no more eating.

Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn’t imagine;
no lover ever imagines them.

He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end, he decides to name it
Persephone’s Girlhood.

A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed. He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you

but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end
you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.

Leave it to a modern interpretation of a popular myth to drain all the excitement and adventure and heroism and humanity out of it.

Gluck’s Persephone is victimized in the most horrific way; she’s strangely absent, and yet, occupies the whole poem—she’s the mere object of Hades grim calculation: “duplicate of earth…with bed added” could not be more terrible.  But the final: not “I love you,” but “you’re dead” is perhaps even worse.   Hades is the entire soul of the poem.

We might congratulate Ms. Gluck on her portrayal of Hades.  Or—not.

Peter Gizzi is a lyricist of the odd.  He writes odd poems, like this:

CHATEAU IF

If love if then if now if the flowers of if the conditional
if of arrows the condition of if
if to say light to inhabit light if to speak if to live, so
if to say it is you if love is if your form is if your waist that
pictures the fluted stem if lavender
if in this field
if I were to say hummingbird it might behave as an
adjective here
if not if the heart’s a flutter if nerves map a city if a city
on fire
if I say myself am I saying myself (if in this instant) as if
the object of your gaze if in a sentence about love you might
write if one day if you would, so
if to say myself if in this instance if to speak as
another—
if only to render if in time and accept if to live now as if
disembodied from the actual handwritten letters m-y-s-e-l-f
if a creature if what you say if only to embroider—a
city that overtakes the city I write.

This poem doesn’t make any sense.

It is difficult to read.

If one were to listen to this poem in a relaxed setting, one might possibly believe it were the most wonderful poem in the world.

It is difficult to reconcile these three statements—which may be the reason why modern poetry is such a puzzle to so many.

Gluck 67 Gizzi 62

GLYN MAXWELL V. STEPHEN DUNN

Glyn Maxwell: the fist of erudition

Glyn Maxwell’s a Brit, so he’s not in Dove’s anthology, but he’s seeded no. 5 in the North Bracket.  Maxwell’s a tough and thoughtful bloke.  His poems always feel like they’re saying something of world-importance, while being local, too.  The British know how to do that.  The following is not one of his real ambitious poems, but one can still sense the hammering intelligence:

THE ONLY WORK

In memory of Agha Shahid Ali

When a poet leaves to see to all that matters,
nothing has changed. In treasured places still
he clears his head and writes.

None of his joie-de-vivre or books or friends
or ecstasies go with him to the piece
he waits for and begins,

nor is he here in this. The only work
that bonds us separates us for all time.
We feel it in a handshake,

a hug that isn’t ours to end. When a verse
has done its work, it tells us there’ll be one day
nothing but the verse,

and it tells us this the way a mother might
inform her son so gently of a matter
he goes his way delighted.

Maxwell’s speech lacks elegance.  He’s no Larkin, or Yeats.

One gets the idea Maxwell has a lyric soul—but he doesn’t have the lyric touch.

He’s one of those poets where you say to yourself, “Oh I like what you said,” and then immediately afterwards, “but couldn’t you have said it a little better?”

He writes like a boxer, or a village explainer.  He makes weighty pronouncements—that one may or may not feel like hearing.

“The Only Work” is one of those plain poems that yet have a harmony of sound.  Maxwell is a formalist who plays it down.

He tries here to write The Universal Poem, and it’s not a bad attempt.

Stephen Dunn, Maxwell’s American opponent, is plain-speaking, too, more so than Maxwell, but he, too, tries to be melodic when no one’s looking.  Dunn is a poet who sighs and says this is the way it is and if you set out to disagree (“no, there’s more! no, this is not the way it is!) he may just win you over.  Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown. That kind of sums up the feeling in Stephen Dunn’s poetry.

TUCSON

A man was dancing with the wrong woman
in the wrong bar, the wrong part of town.
He must have chosen the woman, the place,
as keenly as you choose what to wear
when you dress to kill.
And the woman, who could have said no,
must have made her choice years ago,
to look like the kind of trouble
certain men choose as their own.
I was there for no good reason myself,
with a friend looking for a friend,
but I’m not important.
They were dancing close
when a man from the bar decided
the dancing was wrong. I’d forgotten
how fragile the face is, how fists too
are just so many small bones.
The bouncer waited, then broke in.
Someone wiped up the blood.
The woman began to dance
with another woman, each in tight jeans.
The air pulsed. My hands
were fidgety, damp.
We were Mexicans, Indians, whites.
The woman was part this, part that.
My friend said nothing’s wrong, stay put,
it’s a good fighting bar, you won’t get hurt
unless you need to get hurt.

The American wins.

Dunn 89 Maxwell 83

BIN RAMKE AND MARGARET ATWOOD COLLIDE IN NORTH BRACKET FIRST ROUND ACTION

Bin Ramke: forever linked to Foetry.com and poetry contest favoritism?

Neither Bin Ramke nor Margaret Atwood are in Dove’s anthology of 20th Century American Poetry: Atwood, no. 4 seed in the North, because she’s Canadian, and Ramke, 13th seed, because life has never been the same since he was brought down by Foetry.com.  Life must have seemed good when Mr. Ramke won the Yale Younger in 1978.  He teaches at the University of Denver and edits the Denver Quarterly.  He published the following in 1989:

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

I was young once, at least, if not beautiful.
And what is beauty anyway? The light off snow
is pretty. I was young once, as young as any.
After all, she thought, to know the edge
of truth or of mountains, you need to lie or fall.
 
Everyone has an inner life, O careless love,
it’s as simple as that. That’s why they hurried
to marry before the month ended—fear of June.
She would avert her eyes from the magazines’
special issues with brides on their creamy covers.
 
He worked to replace her money he’d squandered.
Then came a time of last intimacy, her injections,
when once a week he’d puncture with the silken needle
her arm, her condition worse with age, her pain
made him wince and call her Dear; her alluring allergies.
 
From where they retired all views were distant,
nothing true or tender at hand. Mountains to the west
like pets kept for good weather or loneliness
and the need for cold to gloat upon.
They would sometimes think of history together,
 
of the choked passes which killed, of the grasses of summer
when water was rare and expensive as illicit love.
With the interstate smooth as needles gleaming beneath
the snow-slick peaks, they would think of pioneers
lost and together, alas, two by two, with beds as baggage.
 
Another edge to be cut on. She loves the little
line of houses or trees in landscapes, the thin
horizons hugely bearing the weight of drama
and of sky with its tooth of cypress or steeple.
And he, while he turned the wheel and tuned the radio,
 
what was on his married mind? He remembers often,
these latter days, the cousin he first loved,
her marriage to an ugly man when he lit the candles
and wore the little suit his mother made,
and he cried for her because she was only beautiful.
 
He remembered riding in the car from the library,
having taken a book on Freud because his cousin
was studying Freud, and such studies were forbidden
his Catholic childhood. And riding in the back seat
as his father drove he read about the fountain pen
 
as phallic, the ink seed of Onan spilled, and he
grew sick and felt the frisson of guilt and glory.
And she was married to an ugly man, but the world
conspires to avert its eyes, and the needle-sharp
peaks hover behind them as the little dashes of white
 
lines spurt out beneath their car on the highway home,
a little line like spoor marking their path, so easy
to retrace, ready made, like everyone’s. So there’s
no need to look, just live long, since youth is truer
than beauty, Love; long life and many children.
 
We can only say this poem is strange, with moments of interest.  Poems either cohere or they do not.  This one does not.  Poets in that absurd and genocidal century, the twentieth, decided—a great many of them—that to make a poem cohere, one needed only to add details of a somewhat unique nature, slightly connected to each other in some odd manner, in prose that depended on a certain amount of dazzling alliteration, and that was it.  It was—and is—a very odd practice.  It is almost psychotic—a poetry that defers to experience, which, in order to be articulated, has to feed on the poetry, as if experience were something meant to suck in the reader in a perplexed state and devour him.  To read Bin Ramke is to be eaten alive—by a psychological anecdote in a landscape.
 
Let’s see if Margaret Atwood can slay the monster, Bin Ramke, with his “ink seed of Onan spilled:”
 
A SAD CHILD

You’re sad because you’re sad.
It’s psychic. It’s the age. It’s chemical.
Go see a shrink or take a pill,
or hug your sadness like an eyeless doll
you need to sleep.

Well, all children are sad
but some get over it.
Count your blessings. Better than that,
buy a hat. Buy a coat or pet.
Take up dancing to forget.

Forget what?
Your sadness, your shadow,
whatever it was that was done to you
the day of the lawn party
when you came inside flushed with the sun,
your mouth sulky with sugar,
in your new dress with the ribbon
and the ice-cream smear,
and said to yourself in the bathroom,
I am not the favorite child.

My darling, when it comes
right down to it
and the light fails and the fog rolls in
and you’re trapped in your overturned body
under a blanket or burning car,

and the red flame is seeping out of you
and igniting the tarmac beside your head
or else the floor, or else the pillow,
none of us is;
or else we all are.

We don’t know what to make of this poem, but Atwood is not coy like Ramke—she has something to say to the reader—in this case a child who is sad.  It is a piece of advice in images out to prove sadness cannot exist.  Atwood deserves credit for attempting to bring good into the world. 

Atwood 70, Ramke 68

MORE MADNESS FROM THE NORTH BRACKET: GIOIA V. SHAUGHNESSY

Brenda Shaughnessy is thrilled to be in Dove’s anthology—and Scarriet’s 2012 Tournament

Dana Gioia is not in Dove’s anthology.  Gioia’s essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” (1991) is better known than his poems.

PITY THE BEAUTIFUL

Pity the beautiful,
the dolls, and the dishes,
the babes with big daddies
granting their wishes.

Pity the pretty boys,
the hunks, and Apollos,
the golden lads whom
success always follows.

The hotties, the knock-outs,
the tens out of ten,
the drop-dead gorgeous,
the great leading men.

Pity the faded,
the bloated, the blowsy,
the paunchy Adonis
whose luck’s gone lousy.

Pity the gods,
no longer divine.
Pity the night
the stars lose their shine.

This poem reminds us of the poet Heine—how the German’s lyric sweetness supports bitter irony.  Nice job, Mr. Gioia!

Brenda Shaughnessy (b. 1970) is the youngest poet in Dove’s 20th century poetry anthology.

She has two poems reprinted by Dove.  She’s banking on the following poem to advance her to the next round:

POSTFEMINISM

There are two kinds of people, soldiers and women,
as Virginia Woolf said. Both for decoration only.

Now that is too kind. It’s technical: virgins and wolves.
We have choices now. Two little girls walk into a bar,

one orders a shirley temple. Shirley Temple’s pimp
comes over and says you won’t be sorry. She’s a fine

piece of work but she don’t come cheap. Myself, I’m
in less fear of predators than of walking around

in my mother’s body. That’s sneaky, that’s more
than naked. Let’s even it up: you go on fuming in your

gray room. I am voracious alone. Blank and loose,
metallic lingerie. And rare black-tipped cigarettes

in a handsome basket case. Which of us weaves
the world together with a quicker blur of armed

seduction: your war-on-thugs, my body stockings.
Ascetic or carnivore. Men will crack your glaze

even if you leave them before morning. Pigs
ride the sirens in packs. Ah, flesh, technoflesh,

there are two kinds of people. Hot with mixed
light, drunk with insult. You and me.

This must be that new genre, Creative Non-fiction. 

The poet begins by quoting Virginia Woolf and then launches into a rumination on the roles of men and women, or “virgins and wolves,” in terms of power relations. 

The implication, surely, is that there can be virgin wolves and wolfish virgins, but Shaughnessy chooses not to anchor her poem in a narrative; she gives us a series of witty observations that are never quite fully explained—if they were, her poem might be mistaken for an essay.  But we’re not sure about this—or any number of things she’s apparently trying to say. 

There’s no doubt she’s thoughtful on the subject of nature and gender, but the fruit of the poem itself seems a little unripe.  The point at the end is a grand one: “You and me” are finally the “two kinds of people,” but how she arrives at this seems tenuous, at best.  The material seems to handle her, not the other way around; the ‘non-fiction’ part appears to slam her poem to the ground.  How many poets succumb to this?  I’ll make my poem interesting with charged things written in essays and newspapers, or discussed with anxiety in bedrooms.  The non-fiction rides the poem. It always feels like an act of desperation.  The poet is rarely in control.  It’s the Muse’s punishment.

Gioia 78, Shaughnessy 66

RICHARD WILBUR FACES OFF AGAINST ANNE WALDMAN

Anne Waldman has to bring her best against No. 2 Seed Richard Wilbur.

Richard Wilbur belongs to Robert Lowell’s generation.   He has been publishing poetry for over 60 years, fought in War World Two and went to Harvard, which is what most poets did back then.  He’s never stopped rhyming.

Cottage Street, 1953

Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs. Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me,

Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or lemon, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.

It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless.

I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.

How large is her refusal; and how slight
The genteel chat whereby we recommend
Life, of a summer afternoon, despite
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.

And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and-eighty summers of
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love.

Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.

This may be one of the most remarkable poems of the 20th century: short-lived Plath, portrayed as absolutely helpless and condemned, stands at the center, judged by an icy craftsman—at mid-century and in the middle of his long life, echoing the early-century demeanor of a T.S. Eliot.

The bookends of the poem are the 19th century, in which the hostess, Edna Ward, and her “Canton” were born, and our century—we who read the poem by the still-living poet.  The reference to Canton, China embodies a great deal: anglo/american imperialism and condescending modernist art; the poem is more than just a cliched portrait of the “conservative 1950s.”  

This is probably Wilbur’s best poem.  It was good of Dove to include it, and she probably did so because Plath herself is not in the anthology.  The frightening ghost of Plath appears in Wilbur.  (Ginsberg, who is missing from the Dove, also appears in someone else’s poem.)

Anne Waldman is not in Dove’s anthology, which is mostly bereft of crazy-ass white people poems.  Which we think is a good thing.

But here Waldman, a second-generation Beat, goes up against Wilbur with this, and it might as well be a poem about a poet, too:

A PHONECALL FROM FRANK O’HARA
 
I was living in San Francisco   
My heart was in Manhattan
It made no sense, no reference point   
Hearing the sad horns at night,   
fragile evocations of female stuff   
The 3 tones (the last most resonant)
were like warnings, haiku-muezzins at dawn
The call came in the afternoon   
“Frank, is that really you?”
I’d awake chilled at dawn
in the wooden house like an old ship   
Stay bundled through the day
sitting on the stoop to catch the sun
I lived near the park whose deep green   
over my shoulder made life cooler   
Was my spirit faltering, grown duller?
I want to be free of poetry’s ornaments,   
its duty, free of constant irritation,   
me in it, what was grander reason   
for being? Do it, why? (Why, Frank?)   
To make the energies dance etc.
My coat a cape of horrors
I’d walk through town or
impending earthquake. Was that it?   
Ominous days. Street shiny with   
hallucinatory light on sad dogs,
too many religious people, or a woman   
startled me by her look of indecision   
near the empty stadium
I walked back spooked by
my own darkness
Then Frank called to say
“What? Not done complaining yet?   
Can’t you smell the eucalyptus,
have you never neared the Pacific?   
‘While frank and free/call for
musick while your veins swell’”   
he sang, quoting a metaphysician   
“Don’t you know the secret, how to   
wake up and see you don’t exist, but   
that does, don’t you see phenomena   
is so much more important than this?   
I always love that.”
“Always?” I cried, wanting to believe him   
“Yes.” “But say more! How can you if   
it’s sad & dead?” “But that’s just it!   
If! It isn’t. It doesn’t want to be
Do you want to be?” He was warming to his song   
“Of course I don’t have to put up with as   
much as you do these days. These years.   
But I do miss the color, the architecture,   
the talk. You know, it was the life!   
And dying is such an insult. After all   
I was in love with breath and I loved   
embracing those others, the lovers,   
with my body.” He sighed & laughed   
He wasn’t quite as I’d remembered him   
Not less generous, but more abstract   
Did he even have a voice now, I wondered   
or did I think it up in the middle   
of this long day, phone in hand now   
dialing Manhattan
 
This poem seems self-indulgent and gas-baggy, and the poet obviously is horribly depressed in the poem, and Frank O’Hara, while proffering wisdom, is less than he was.  The immersion in the place and the life Waldman gives us has its value, of course, but when the messenger is miserable and not rising to anything particularly memorable, the details therein are easy to forget and discount.
 
 Wilbur 101 Waldman 70

NORTH BRACKET ACTION BEGINS!

Let’s get this party started: current U.S. Poet Laureate and no. 1 Seed Phil Levine knocks heads with Joanna Klink

Before we get to the Levine/Klink contest, here’s the North Bracket:

1. Philip Levine
2. Richard Wilbur
3. Dana Gioia
4. Margaret Atwood
5. Glyn Maxwell
6. Louise Gluck
7. Frank Bidart
8.  Mark Strand
9. Cornelius Eady
10. Alice Oswald
11. Peter Gizzi
12. Stephen Dunn
13. Bin Ramke
14. Brenda Shaughnessy
15. Anne Waldman
16. Joanna Klink

Levine has 4 poems in the Dove anthology.   He goes with the first one in Round One:

ANIMALS ARE PASSING FROM OUR LIVES

It’s wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.
 
I’m to market. I can smell
the sour, grooved block, I can smell
the blade that opens the hole
and the pudgy white fingers
 
that shake out the intestines
like a hankie. In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble,
suffering children, suffering flies,
 
suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see. The boy
who drives me along believes
 
that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife
 
discovering television,
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.
 
Animals die, and they are murdered by humans, is what the poet, taking on the persona of a pig, is telling us in his poem, anticipating that we—”consumers” of pigs or poems—will not be able to look, or care to look, at pig-or-poems-of-truth.  The poet, perhaps, overestimates the importance of his truth in his poem.   Formally, the poem sparkles with a certain swiftness—we go from “jog” to “pig” in a wink, and we cannot deny the poem has a certain pull on us.
 
Joanna Klink, born in Iowa City, Iowa, and Jorie Graham’s former babysitter, defends herself with this poem (from Dove’s anthology):
 
SPARE
 
Shoulder me up. Drink careless down, for flinching
 
ask, break, call skimming, be slight then, be soon.
 
Would, wire air back to you, would. Would wind you
 
still, lift clear to you sitting. Sheeted around you
 
would care, could single you somehow, warm for floor-
 
weight own hurt to you, sinking. Though your arms hold:
 
just sun. I can’t bring you. So tire to me quickly,
 
dumb solving cushions. Would spare wrists to you, skimming.
 
What sudden gives, what bent back look lifting (not my legs
 
here on me, nor the still sitting). For glass bowl bent over
 
caring. Keeps clear to tasting but warm to me, singing.
 
What serves then slips (orange, cold-orange, cannot spare
 
breaking). What shouldn’t bend, what part offer, what fruit
 
sweet to flinching. Though cold cancels can sit can
 
reach. Does not know. But holds. But holds out, feeling.
 
This poem sounds like some kind of hidden declaration of love; about sex, perhaps?  A torrid affair, a hopeless love affair…we’re not sure. 
 
Levine 88, Klink 67

TERRANCE HAYES BATTLES CHARLES WRIGHT IN MIDWEST/SOUTH FIRST ROUND PLAY

Terrance Hayes is the final and youngest poet in Dove’s anthology

Hayes was born in South Carolina and received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.  He now lives and teaches in Pittsburgh.  The poem he hopes to advance in the tournament with is “At Pegasus:”

They are like those crazy women
who tore Orpheus
when he refused to sing,

these men grinding
in the strobe & black lights
of Pegasus. All shadow & sound.

“I’m just here for the music,”
I tell the man who asks me
to the floor. But I have held

a boy on my back before.
Curtis & I used to leap
barefoot into the creek; dance

among maggots & piss,
beer bottles & tadpoles
slippery as sperm;

we used to pull off our shirts,
& slap music into our skin.
He wouldn’t know me now

at the edge of these lovers’ gyre,
glitter & steam, fire,
bodies blurred sexless

by the music’s spinning light.
A young man slips his thumb
into the mouth of an old one,

& I am not that far away.
The whole scene raw & delicate
as Curtis’s foot gashed

on a sunken bottle shard.
They press hip to hip,
each breathless as a boy

carrying a friend on his back.
The foot swelling green
as the sewage in that creek.

We never went back.
But I remember his weight
better than I remember

my first kiss.
These men know something
I used to know.

How could I not find them
beautiful, the way they dive & spill
into each other,

the way the dance floor
takes them,
wet & holy in its mouth.

The MFA programs are obviously teaching their students about mythology and metaphor.  Take a modern event in your life and compare it to Greek myth.

To see your life through another’s eyes, or through an historical lens, broadens your view, extends your sympathy and scope, and helps to share and increase knowledge.  All well and good, but broad pedgogical formulas which happen to correspond to writing strategies tend to produce poems which are formulaic, not passionately informed, or felt, and, finally, not that interesting, beyond a unique biographical fact, or two.

“At Pegasus” (night club/horse of myth) begins with metaphor and mythology in fine ‘writing class’ style: “They were like those crazy women who tore Orpheus when he refused to sing.”

“They” turns out to be dancers at a gay male dance club, and there follows comparisons, not to “crazy women who tore Orpheus,” but to an innocent and youthful experience the poet had with a friend named Curtis who gashed his foot on a beer bottle and had to be carried out of a swamp, a swamp with maggots and tadpoles “slippery as sperm.”  

The poet is at the club “just for the music” but, he adds, he has “held a boy on my back before.”  

And that’s it really: the poem is a series of metaphoric equivalences, beginning with the “crazy women who tore Orpheus,” which never finds its equivalence. 

Live by the myth metaphor, die by the myth metaphor. 

Hayes does a pretty good job of making a dionsyian dance club feel friendly in an earthy, non-judgemental, kind of way, but the whole thing finally seems too much like a writing class exercise.

Charles Wright is a highly regarded poet who doesn’t have any highly regarded poems, popular poems, anyway, that people remember.

Dove has given him 3 poems and four full pages in her anthology.  The first poem is very brief:

REUNION

Already one day has detached itself from all the rest up ahead.
It has my photograph in its soft pocket.
It wants to carry my breath into the past in its bag of wind.

I write poems to unite myself, to do penance and disappear
Through the upper-right-hand corner of things, to say grace.

Marla, I don’t know what to make of this poem.  Can you help?

Marla Muse: It sounds like the poet expects his poetry to do many things for himself.  And why would you say those things, if you don’t show the reader how you are doing so in the poem itself? 

It sounds like he’s describing a mystical experience: some future day in his life is moving backwards, and the wind is carrying the experience back.

Marla Muse: Yea.

Terrance Hayes wins, 67-54.

Here are the final results in the Midwest/South:

Kumanyakaa d. A.E. Stallings

Walcott d. C.D. Wright

Patricia Smith d. Doty

Dove d. Cisneros

Merwin d. Kevin Young

E. Alexander d. C. Phillips

Trethewey d. A. Hudgins

T. Hayes d. C. Wright

Now onto the North Bracket!

ANDREW HUDGINS AND NATASHA TRETHEWEY KEEP THE ACTION GOING!

Trethewey, a professor at Emory, invited to the dance as a 10th seed

Natasha Trethewey, born in Mississippi, has 3 poems in the Dove anthology, and won a Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2006 at the tender age of 39.

Race figures large in Dove’s collection, and Trethewey’s “Flounder” is no exception:

Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
you ’bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.

Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,

circling them just above water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here then there between
the sun spots and the shadows.

This is how you hold the pole
to cast the line out straight.
Now put that worm on your hook,
throw it out and wait.

She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up

reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
’cause one of its sides is black.

The other is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.

Trethewey relies on the metaphor of the flip-flopping flounder to tell the reader something about how she feels being a mixed race person, and the subject is also introduced by her black Aunt Sugar in conversation.  The scene is nicely done, the poem is easy to understand, and what exactly the metaphor is conveying does not have to be understood, since the raw fact of  physical type is always a mystery.  Flounders are much stranger to us for their shape than their color, but never mind: the tyranny of the metaphor gets its way.  The flounder serves its purpose.  The parts of the poem are not integrated, but how could they be?  How can a sequence of random events, “rolled her nylons down,” “spitting tobacco juice,” “jerked the pole straight up,” “tried to fight back,” have anything to do with I am half-black?  It can’t.  Poetic unity is lost because the poem apes fiction.  

The poem might said to be successful, anyway: the child in Trethewey’s poem recognizes: I’m this and then I’m that; I’m not one person, but two.  Which is tragic, for no one wants to be divided, and the poem imparts this knowledge nicely.  Kudos to Ms. Trethewey.  And if photographs of the poet are any indication, two races mingle very nicely in her person.

Andrew Hudgins, no.7 seed in the Midwest/South, has a couple of poems in Dove’s anthology; he is her age, and like her, attended the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.  His poems are plain-speaking, but there’s an urgency to them:

We Were Simply Talking

We were simply talking, probably work, or relatives
or even Christmas presents, when the car slid
and I corrected, fishtailed and I corrected, then we were gone,
sliding sideways into the grill of a diesel tractor, also sliding,
and in that instant I was ready to die.
I saw my wife and was overjoyed that I had married her,
though our marriage was already falling apart,
and I loved the car, a brown Toyota, loved
being warm in the car while it was white, cold, bitter
out in the world we’d lost control of. I loved
every molecule of breath I wasn’t taking,
and for the moment I forgave myself every sin
and failure of my life, including this
ridiculous and undignified early death.
The car snapped backward into a frozen ditch.
I sat speechless, shaking, my wife speechless also,
and a man pulled up, a salesman: You folks okay?
Suddenly the radio roared, and by the car
a dog barked wildly and, yes, we were fine.
Fine. We were fine. But what was “fine,” I wondered,
and why do we always, always have to speak?

There’s no metaphor in this poem that sticks out, saying, ‘Look at me!  Do you understand my equivalence?’

Hudgins’ poem is simply an explanation of an event, and then that odd question at the end, “why do we always, always have to speak?” and one intuits that the poet’s marriage is “falling apart” because of speech, and because of ordinary life which calls for speech, etc and that here is this moment experienced with his wife which he wants to keep pure—he doesn’t want to say, “We’re fine” to a stranger.  And this is all said without really saying it, and that gives the poem, and its last line, its power.

Hudgins’ poem doesn’t signal what its saying, but Trethewey’s does, but then the ‘whole room’ knows what Trethewey is doing; one cannot believe everybody in the room would understand the Hudgins.  Who, Trethewey or Hudgins, has done the more artistic thing, and done it more cleverly?  One cannot help but feel that for every person moved by the Hudgins, another would say, “Speak? Of course we have to speak, silly!”  And for every person moved by Trethewey’s metaphor, another would feel, “Oh, it’s just too obvious!”

Trethewey 69, Hudgins 68

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER BATTLES CARL PHILLIPS IN THE MIDWEST/SOUTH

 
Elizabeth Alexander, who rocked Obama’s inauguration, hopes to advance in Scarriet Madness play
 
Rita Dove’s anthology has amply provided the poet Elizabeth Alexander, Department Chair of Black Studies at Yale, with 6 pages of 3 poems.  Alexander’s poem which meets Carl Phillips in Madness action is short one: 
 
EQUINOX
 
Now is the time of year when bees are wild
and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped
loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants
in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.
I have found their dried husks in my clothes.
 
They are dervishes because they are dying,
one last sting, a warm place to squeeze
a drop of venom or of honey.
After the stroke we thought would be her last
my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped
 
a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,
walked outside, and lay down in the snow.
Two years later there is no other way
to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light
as an empty hive, and she is breathing.
 
Metaphor is the chief—perhaps the only—device which we might call poetic used by the poet in “Equinox.”   The metaphoric equation is complex and the whole poem is essentially the explanation of it—which is a problem.  When, after September bee behavior and its effects are described in the first half (8 lines) of the poem, and we are introduced to the other half of the equation, “After the stroke we thought would be her last,” we do experience a kind of dramatic shift, but we also experience an equal sign in a mathematical formula, and the final “she is silent, light as an empty hive” stings us with its associative logic. 
There is no doubt that analogy, metaphor, and comparison are central to poetic rhetoric, but when the equivalence is strained, strange, or overly complex, (my love is like a steamship, for instance) there is a danger of the metaphor eclipsing all the movement of the poem.   like a steamship, you say?
 
Elizabeth is a smart poet and fights against metaphor-drift by giving us hard facts: “my grandmother…slapped a nurse across the face” and “walked outside, and lay down in the snow.” 
 
But unfortunately, lines like “I have found their dried husks in my clothes” are too transparently laid on for the metaphoric effect in a manner that suggests it is only the metaphor that is driving the poem.  The best analogies seem either accidental or inevitable, not programed or manufactured. 
 
This may seem harsh, as if we are attacking the poet’s sacred imagination.  But we must push ahead and ask: what does the grandmother have to do with the bees?   Bees sting while dying—and the dying grandmother slapped the nurse.  “One last sting,” as Alexander puts it, and this is all well and good, but in the poem we are being instructed about bees—they are not a part of the drama of the poem (the grandmother dying is) and thus the specter of the didactic rears its ugly head.  “I found their dried husks in my clothes” is an attempt to naturalize the lecture, but the attempt only calls more attention to the trick.
 
The poor grandmother: we only see her dying—and compared didactically to a “dried husk” and an “empty hive!” 
 
Carl Phillips (he has 2 poems and 3 pages in the Dove anthology) is a few years older than Alexander.  His poem completely avoids the metaphor issue: he asks a series of questions of what to do with real things.  His poem is also about death:
  
AS FROM A QUIVER OF ARROWS
 
What do we do with the body, do we
burn it, do we set it in dirt or in
stone, do we wrap it in balm, honey,
oil, and then gauze and tip it onto
and trust it to a raft and to water?
 
What will happen to the memory of his
body, if one of us doesn’t hurry now
and write it down fast? Will it be
salt or late light that it melts like?
Floss, rubber gloves, and a chewed cap
 
to a pen elsewhere —how are we to
regard his effects, do we throw them
or use them away, do we say they are
relics and so treat them like relics?
Does his soiled linen count? If so,
 
would we be wrong then, to wash it?
There are no instructions whether it
should go to where are those with no
linen, or whether by night we should
memorially wear it ourselves, by day
 
reflect upon it folded, shelved, empty.
Here, on the floor behind his bed is
a bent photo—why? Were the two of
them lovers? Does it mean, where we
found it, that he forgot it or lost it
 
or intended a safekeeping? Should we
attempt to make contact? What if this
other man too is dead? Or alive, but
doesn’t want to remember, is human?
Is it okay to be human, and fall away
 
from oblation and memory, if we forget,
and can’t sometimes help it and sometimes
it is all that we want? How long, in
dawns or new cocks, does that take?
What if it is rest and nothing else that
 
we want? Is it a findable thing, small?
In what hole is it hidden? Is it, maybe,
a country? Will a guide be required who
will say to us how? Do we fly? Do we
swim? What will I do now, with my hands?
 
The poem asks questions from start to finish about an anonymous dead person, but at the end of the poem the questions asked on behalf of a “we” suddenly lurch into “What will I do now, with my hands?”  The loss has infected the speaker, but rather strangely and obscurely: why hands?  In the latter half of the poem, forgetfulness and rest take center stage as the memorial task hinted at in the beginning, (“hurry now and write [the memory] down”) is left behind. 
 
One feels a little that the questions go on too long, and they are too abstract.  It feels a little bit: what’s the point, here? 
 
Elizabeth Alexander 79 Carl Phillips 76
 

KEVIN YOUNG VERSUS W.S. MERWIN!

Kevin Young, Dove anthology youngster, hopes to advance in Scarriet’s March Madness.

Marla, this is an exciting Midwest/South brackett match-up: Old v. New.   A white, establishment poet, born in 1927, W.S. Merwin, takes on Kevin Young, a black poet born in 1970!  I can’t wait!

Marla Muse: What-eva.

Why so glum?

Marla Muse: (sigh) Just bring on the poetry.   Black and white doesn’t interest me…

Ebony and Iv-o-reeeee…

Marla Muse: Quit it.

M.S. Merwin knew Robert Graves, studied at one of the first Writers Workshops at Princeton in the 1940s, was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger in 1952, knew Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and chucked punctuation in New York in the 1960s.  In 2010 he was chosen as U.S. Poet Laureate.  He lives in Hawaii and is very eco-friendly.

Dove has included one Merwin poem with punctuation and three without.

The question, how important is punctuation? is an interesting one.  Edgar Poe thought it very important—not just in terms of grammar use, but for poetic expression.  

We might ask: does exactitude help, or hinder, anything we are trying to do?  Surely exactitude must help, and therefore, punctuation must be good.

Even here in the poem with punctuation, Merwin’s use of it is dull: he only uses periods and a few commas—almost like he was already wishing it away.

AIR

Naturally it is night.
Under the overturned lute with its
One string I am going my way
Which has a strange sound.

This way the dust, that way the dust.
I listen to both sides
But I keep right on.
I remember the leaves sitting in judgment
And then winter.

I remember the rain with its bundle of roads.
The rain taking all its roads.
Nowhere.

Young as I am, old as I am,

I forget tomorrow, the blind man.
I forget the life among the buried windows.
The eyes in the curtains.
The wall
Growing through the immortelles.
I forget silence
The owner of the smile.

This must be what I wanted to be doing,
Walking at night between the two deserts,
Singing.

A lute with one string describes Merwin’s poetry very well.  He plucks his notes very deliberately.  Let me establish this visual.  Let me establish this fact.  Clearly.  However, making sense individually, they don’t quite make sense together.  And this is the poetry.  Unable to reject the clarity of the individual impressions, the reader is forced to accept the less than clear fact of the whole, which becomes, by nature of its liquid transformation, the poem.

Ordinarily, the poet would resist parts losing clarity in the whole—and punctuation is useful precisely in this resistance.   Merwin, however, has a different idea; he wants his poem to be unclear, as in a dream.

In this poem, by Kevin Young, we notice many things: like the Merwin, there’s a lot of verbs, a lot of action, to keep the interest; a place is established, with someone traveling through that place.  Secondly, in both poems, the indicative mood is played for all its worth.  Declarative sentences reign.  Thirdly, Young’s punctuation is more creative.  Fourthly, Young’s imperative mood gives his poem direction and momentum, as well.  Fifthly, Young’s landscape is real, unlike Merwin’s.

QUIVIRA CITY LIMITS

for Thomas Fox Averill

Pull over. Your car with its slow
breathing. Somewhere outside Topeka

it suddenly all matters again,
those tractors blooming rust

in the fields only need a good coat
of paint. Red. You had to see

for yourself, didn’t you; see that the world
never turned small, transportation

just got better; to learn
we can’t say a town or a baseball

team without breathing in a
dead Indian. To discover why Coronado

pushed up here, following the guide
who said he knew fields of gold,

north, who led them past these plains,
past buffaloes dark as he was. Look.

Nothing but the wheat, waving them
sick, a sea. While they strangle

him blue as the sky above you
The Moor must also wonder

when will all this ever be enough?
this wide open they call discovery,

disappointment, this place my
thousand bones carry, now call home.

Young’s poem is dream-like, but no dream.  Merwin’s is dream-like and definitely a dream.

Both poems show skill, but they finally feel light.   Young’s poem feels a little lecture-y. 

Merwin wins 78-72.

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