Reed Whittemore 1919–

Stephen Dunn’s poem, “What They Wanted,” describes a conversation between an “I” and a “they” of which almost nothing is known—these two blank personal pronouns carry the emotional weight in this poem, a device commented on once by Shelley in his A Defense of Poetry:

A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his coneptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry.

As we might expect, Shelley’s prose is as wonderful as his poetry, and to immerse oneself in Shelley’s mind is to realize how paltry and small the modernist commentators are. Stephen Dunn’s extraordinary lyric, “What They Wanted,” is precisely described by Shelley’s prophecy.  In Stephen Dunn’s poem, as worthy as anything by Donne, grammar alone evinces “moods of time, differences of persons, and the distinction of place” and without any limiting, mawkish ‘look these are flower petals and they resemble and symbolize faces at a metro station!’ Stephen Dunn’s poem participates in the “eternal, the infinite and the one.”

MARLA MUSE: When one comes up with an arresting image like petals on a wet, black bough, well, what is one to do with it?

Compare it to faces at a metro station, of course!

MARLA MUSE: Of course!

And then your friends can put your little poem in a textbook, and students from all over can learn that you changed the western world with your song.

MARLA MUSE: And therefore you did!

And also be sure that your friends publish here and there in passing commentary what a churlish little creep Shelley was…

MARLA MUSE: That particular comparison, between Shelley and themselves, they would rather not contemplate…

Nor do they have to, since only “the new” is glorious, and Shelley is so old…

MARLA MUSE: Be sure you call Shelley a blackguard and keep him guarded…

In a dungeon.  And give the key to Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler.

MARLA MUSE: Bloom had an early affection for Shelley, probably because Bloom resented Eliot’s hold on American letters, and what better way to annoy Eliot than to champion Shelley, but Bloom’s hatred of Poe, who is the American Shelley, makes no sense at all.  American Letters is mad, I’m afraid.

Don’t be afraid, Marla.  Without Woodman, we’ll still carry on.

MARLA:  Of course!  The egotistical sublime has nothing to fear from the egotistical whine…

Stephen Dunn’s “What They Wanted” is magnificent, but Reed Whittemore’s “Smiling Through” is a masterpiece of sentimentality and one of the most moving poems ever written; the stoic nostalgia, the grim joy, the open eye staring through the mist, as memory aids the theme in reticent, perfect touches; we read this poem like watching a master paint or sculpt wrapped in the purest nonchalance of otherworldly skill; we trip down the staircase of Whittemore’s poem and stop at each landing in tears. The poem begins:

Who are these figures in the street?
They are my friends.
They are wearing armbands.
They are marching along with my coffin, and smiling

The clear yet misty point of view is established at once and never wavers.  The poem encloses us in its cobra grip.

Both Whittemore and Dunn do this; their poems invoke a unique setting, equal part real and unreal, and never waver from an aesthetic purpose in which setting, mood, and speech harmoniously contribute to the shining dimensionality of its end.

Either of these works are strong enough to play in the final, but one must be eliminated here.

With heavy sorrow we announce the Whittemore loses.  Dunn made one perfect pass at the end, and won 58-57.

Thus our last Sweet Sixteen place is filled.  Congratulations, Stephen Dunn!



  1. Mark said,

    May 3, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    I understand what you’re trying to say here Tom but you are aware that nowhere in Station of the Metro does Pound say the petals “resemble” or “symbolize” the faces, right?

    At no point does Pound take the bough and “compare it to faces at a metro station”

    I know you have a tendency to not bother reading things before you comment on them but Station of the Metro is only two lines long. Did you get halfway through and give up? 🙂

    I understand why someone would make the connection you’re making but you’re reading something into the poem that literally is not there (either explictly or (arguably) implicitly).

    I’m suggesting here that you’re misreading the poem… but maybe you already know that.

    Also I don’t really see Poe as “America’s Shelley.” Obviously neither of us are Poe scholars (since neither of us have been following the scholarly works on Poe that are coming out during the Poe Renaissance that’s been going on for the last 20 years) but the two writers really couldn’t be more different.


  2. wfkammann said,

    May 3, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    “An image,” he says, “is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. It is the presentation of such complex instantaneity that gives a sudden sense of liberation that we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art. It is better to produce one image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.”


    The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;
    Petals on a wet, black bough.

    This Haiku is at once modern and timeless.

    Grand Central Station at rush hour. A flood of humanity across the great hall. The energy of thousands of lives caught in an instant. Inspiration.

  3. "Sweet 16" support said,

    May 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    What They Wanted

    They wanted me to tell the truth,
    so I said I’d lived among them,
    for years, a spy,
    but all that I wanted was love.
    They said they couldn’t love a spy.
    Couldn’t I tell them other truths?
    I said I was emotionally bankrupt,
    would turn any of them in for a kiss.
    I told them how a kiss feels
    when it’s especially undeserved;
    I thought they’d understand.
    They wanted me to say I was sorry,
    so I told them I was sorry.
    They didn’t like it that I laughed.
    They asked what I’d seen them do,
    and what I do with what I know.
    I told them: find out who you are
    before you die.
    Tell us, they insisted, what you saw.
    I saw the hawk kill a smaller bird.
    I said life is one long leavetaking.
    They wanted me to speak
    like a journalist. I’ll try, I said.
    I told them I could depict the end
    of the world, and my hand wouldn’t tremble.
    I said nothing’s serious except destruction.
    They wanted to help me then.
    They wanted me to share with them,
    that was the word they used, share.
    I said it’s bad taste
    to want to agree with many people.
    I told them I’ve tried to give
    as often as I’ve betrayed.
    They wanted to know my superiors,
    to whom did I report?
    I told them I accounted to no one,
    that each of us is his own punishment.
    If I love you, one of them cried out,
    what would you give up?
    There were others before you,
    I wanted to say, and you’d be the one
    before someone else. Everything, I said.

    Stephen Dunn

  4. Nooch said,

    May 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Sweet 16,
    Still unblighted—
    On the lips and tongue
    First time recited.

    If hell is other people
    (Or at least how they make us feel),
    Heaven is other other people
    With whom we would dance a reel.

  5. Poem support said,

    May 15, 2011 at 9:25 pm


    (Hope delivers the eulogy)

    He was always so interestingly wrong.
    I loved him, in fact for years couldn’t live
    without him, he who helped crystallize
    what I thought by being so opposed to it.
    But it’s time to rejoice.
    Some of the invisible roads
    that run parallel to the great boulevards
    can be seen now; the era of darkness-
    as-illumination has passed. It was useful
    while it lasted, but how nice to discover
    that so few of us count on negatives
    these days to preserve what we hold dear.
    My friends, if you can think of me
    as such, take heart. Meaninglessness
    has ended its long run at the Palace.
    Already, a few of us mere specks
    in the universe have begun
    to insist on our importance.
    May the odors of lilac and laurel waft
    across the river, and float over his grave.
    The great nihilist is dead. He’ll rise again
    when needed. He always has.
    But those of you standing now,
    having turned your backs to me in protest,
    how right that you honor him so.
    It’s the kind of negation that he, I suspect,
    would have thought might lead somewhere,
    might even have thought was hopeful.

    Stephen Dunn

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