victoria station

Victoria Station in Salem, MA, where the Slam Poetry evening of the Festival took place.

We could not resist the Saturday morning panel entitled “Amy Lowell and Robert Frost Started It,” and so we went.

“It” turned out to be the New England Poetry Club—formerly the Harvard Poetry Society.

The first panelist to speak was a lady director of that venerable club, who read “Patterns” by Amy Lowell, the poet’s most anthologized piece, with its anti-war ending.  It’s a rather long poem, was not read particularly well, and most of us know this poem, anyway.  But it was read.  It is a good poem, and we enjoyed it.  The lady director also felt compelled to read Pound’s awful “Metro” poem—which works neither as haiku, nor as whatever lame substitute it’s attempting to be.  Accepting Pound’s wretched poem as some kind of significant marker begins the slippery slope in western poetry to inferiority masked as progress.  Every time someone praises that piece, a skylark dies, another Keats is killed, a star somewhere goes out.

The New England Poetry Club lady dispersed a few facts: the president of Harvard was Amy Lowell’s brother, and thus the Harvard Poetry Society was born—as an Imagist club, since Imagism appealed to Amy Lowell, (as did Orientalism to all the idle rich in those days.)   Lowell’s quarrel with Pound was skipped over, as was the contemporary haiku/orientalism rage which fed Imagism.

Fred Marchant, the second speaker, picked up on the anti-war theme and treated us to Conrad Aiken’s “Trenches: 1915,” an uncollected poem—too long—detailing the lengthy horrors of trench warfare.  Aiken’s father shot his mother and then shot himself when Aiken was a boy, right outside the poor lad’s bedroom, and this tragedy was used as a centerpiece in Marchant’s presentation of Aiken’s poem—which, it turned out, was imagined, because Aiken never fought in WW I.   Marchant rambled on about how Aiken knew T.S. Eliot; the Selective Service Act of 1917; yellow journalism—his presentation never came into focus.  Aiken, with Frost and Lowell, had been a co-founder of the Club.

Next up on the panel was the jolly, side-burned, X. J. Kennedy, who is best known for light verse, and he was a breath of fresh air, dispensing with all attempts to present The New England Poetry Club in some solemn anti-war light.  F.D. Reeve, (the father of the superman actor) who was Robert Frost’s translator on the latter’s trip to Moscow, was unfortunately unable to attend “They Started It” and Kennedy began by bemoaning this fact.  Then he joked that on the 100th anniversary of both the Titanic sinking and Fenway Park, that the Red Sox (who had been losing) and the Titanic were “both at the bottom.”  Kennedy reached for another anniversary: he had the New England Poetry Club officially at 97 years, but he figured it was about 100 years ago that the Club’s genesis began.

Kennedy’s focus was on Frost, who was “not a joiner,” but managed to be elected Vice-president of the Club in 1917 and President in 1919, without attending a meeting.  Frost, Kennedy, said, was “anti-clique,” and had little patience for Pound and his cliques; Frost preferred to “get outside the clique and appeal to the ordinary reader.”  A concept rather foreign to the pretentiousness of obscurantist modernist poetry.  Pound’s so-called Imagism was just an obvious rip-off of another culture’s then popular-in-the-west-movement: haiku and orientalism, generally.  Frost didn’t have to be part of some manufactured movement to make a name for himself.

X.J. Kennedy, just by his voice and demeanor, was clearly the literary lion in the room; one could tell he was no lackey imposter, no myopic scholar, that poetry burned in his soul—if by nothing else, one could tell by the perfect timing he used in his jokey anecdotes: apparently at a Frost reading, an angry woman, wanting Frost to be a true legislator of humanity, asked Frost whether he really cared about rhyme and spondees and trochees and the various techniques of verse. Frost looked at the woman for a moment and then said, gruffly: “I revel in it!”

X. J. Kennedy was his own thesis—whatever he uttered was interesting, whether it was exclaiming about a great rhyme in a poem (“suffice” at the end of Frost’s “Fire and Ice”), listing the “witty poets of New England: Dickinson, Updike, John Holmes…” or quoting the poet and Harvard fundraiser, David McCord, “By and by,/God caught his eye” (“The Waiter”).  Kennedy joked that “The Waiter” was considered at times to be by ‘anonymous,’ the greatest tribute to a living poet.

When X.J. Kennedy tells anecdotes of some poet ‘not selling,’ it’s funny, not a tragedy.  The true spirit of poetry lights up this gentleman.

The irony of this presentation, finally, as it relates to the New England Poetry Club, was the simple attempt to play the anti-war card by the first two presenters: the original Harvard Poetry Society sprang from Imagism; Pound and T.E. Hulme and Richard Aldington and Ford Madox Ford’s Imagism clique in England was anything but anti-war.  Of course, these matters were well beyond the scope of the one-hour panel.  Modernism is not examined anymore—it’s become a white-washed backdrop.  We were just hoping for a little more insight from one of the few panels at the Poetry Festival which advertised some intellectual weight—and not just mindless cheerleading.

That night, at a local restaurant and bar, we caught the Slam Poetry presentation, and aside from the fact that poor acoustics made it impossible to hear some poets, we came away with the following observations;

1. As our 10 year old daughter remarked, “It sounds like comedy, not poetry.”

2. Slam poetry means every type of expression of bad taste and imaginative vulgarity is permissable: every metaphoric combination of nature, society, nerdiness, sex, and bodily function oozes forth from the egotistical show-off at the microphone, every rant and gripe, every filthy, adolescent boast, pours forth.

3. The occasional example of wit and elegance is drowned out by the general tastelessness of the Slam.  The soul of poetry hasn’t got a chance.

As if American culture were not vulgar enough.

The irony here is that poetry, divine poetry, exists to elevate the soul above vulgarity and bad taste; Slam Poetry is not only not poetry, it’s anti-poetry.  Slam Poetry hurts poetry; Slam Poetry is poetry whored out.

The Sunday afternoon Headline Reading featured Frank Bidart reading his long poem, “Ellen West,” which just happened to be his 2012 Scarriet March Madness Tournament entry.  “Ellen West” is based on a case study of a woman with an eating disorder who kills herself.  Bidart belongs to the academic scene, not the Slam, but it seems Slam taste rules academia more than many would like to admit.  What happens to the practice of an art when the line between vulgar interest and art no longer exists?

Also on Sunday, in the atrium of the Peabody Essex museum, we caught a presentation called “Bad Poetry Contest,” which was bad for many reasons, the chief being that so much bad poetry is called good these days that no one knows what “bad poetry” is anymore.  The author who hosted this travesty spent a great deal of time reading from his own published book—of his own bad poetry; a bad poet to begin with, he is marketing his own rejects—which seems to us very telling.



Love said: we may watch the sky
When blue day, and all her bright lights die
Alone, without any trouble;
Or we may watch the same streaked sky as a couple,
With hand trapping ours, as the horizon melts into red,
Love said.

Love said: In all these faces, seek me,
But not in words on tablets, or symbols of fire and tree;
Instead find a face to love, look carefully;
Deep in their thoughts and eyes find your destiny
But recall that votaries break apart as much as they wed,
Love said.

Love said: the busy world despises me
And I flee from its customs and safety,
For I want desire and passion with you
Who ignored me, and you will whisper to me, too,
You who will lie down in my cave, instead,
Love said.

Love said: they think I am the opposite of war,
But since I gazed upon your face, not anymore;
I will arm my eyes with killing darts
And invade the most vulnerable of hearts,
This heart, who lies too passively in bed,
Love said.

Love said: They cannot set aside
Their wants from others, they cannot hide
In power, indoctrination, deception, riches,
Propaganda of bullies, bad taste, vanity, spells of witches,
For they will be hollow—and almost as if they were dead,
Love said.

Love said: Please listen to my voice
In the wind, hear my sighs, and make the choice
To love innocent nature; see my eye, the sun,
Which shines newly, in joy, on everyone;
Make the soft pine-needles and grasses your bed,
Love said.

Love said: if music causes you to swoon
As it dies sweetly in a farther room
When you have swooned in your lover’s arms
Far, far from the world’s alarms,
Rise and fall and fall and rise, and I’ll be fed,
Love said.

Love said: Don’t be afraid; not even death
Can steal the medicine of my breath,
Or hush my lips, or put out my eyes,
Or silence the music of my million sighs;
I am the path on which all things are led,
Love said.

Love said: I hate philosophy,
Pardon all my talk, please, please forgive me!
I want to be near you, so come here,
And I want to share everything, even if it’s a tear,
But most of all I want you to come to my bed,
Love said.


The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, hosted part of the fourth annual Salem Poetry Festival

The first event we attended at the Salem Poetry Festival was at the House of the Seven Gables: “Song As Poem/Poem As Song.”

(We looked for the “Robert Burns, Poet Laureat, or Original Folksinger/Songwriter?” but it had moved to a new location, and Jackie, wearing her orange Salem Poetry Festival T-shirt, couldn’t find it for us, either.)

“Song as Poem/Poem as Song” had promise, but it was ruined by the presenters—who read prosey poems of their own which had no song-like qualities at all; these efforts were supposed to evoke a similar feeling to a few original songs sung by a fellow with a guitar, helped by a female vocalist.  But they did not. The poetry and song felt miles apart.  There was no reading of the song lyrics as poems—nor were poems sung as songs: it was simply a display of ego—a poet or two reading their own poems, a songwriter singing his songs, and the twain shall never meet.  The participants traded a few lame remarks: Poet: “I am jealous of the songwriter’s harmony!”  Songwriter: “To be naked with just words, now that’s what I admire!”   Perhaps the worst moment was when a black poet read an angry poem over the improvisational, sweetly jazzy playing of the event’s songwriter/guitarist, a stoic guy in a knitted cap:—the poem so didn’t fit the music, it was embarrassing.

A nerdy poet kept reading his own work as the audience wondered what it had to do with song.  The nerdy poet’s poetry had lines like, “I want to take you in my arms and call you an asshole” and “if it was a false god, it was a cool one.”  The nerdy poet read two poems on the warm, fuzzy feeling and comraderie you get after going to a live music concert; apparently the post-concert vibe “bled into the street” as he and his friends talked about it.  Wow.

The nerdy poet made a stab at theory: songs, he said, can repeat a beloved’s name with effectiveness, but a poem can’t.  Joan Hunter Dunn came to mind, but the nerdy poet was on a roll.  We let him be.

Later that evening, the Friday Headline Reading rolled out a local Dylan-esque musician (who was good, but unfortunately did an awful song called “Lloyd Schwartz”) then Princess Cheng, a young Asian slam poet, spouting hyperbole the way those slam poets do, before the Headline readers, Major Jackson, Maggie Dietz, and Robert Pinsky, did their thing.  Jackson dropped rap group names in his poetry, Dietz cute and domestic, gave us an elegy for her mother, a poem comforting demoted pluto, a found poem from her young son’s observations on God (“God’s a bird, I think”), and a poem called “Demolition Derby,” with the lines “oh, America!” and “mosh pit of metal.”

Pinksy, with his great, determined, exact, lisping voice, was a wind-storm of pedantry…every poem sailing along on a harmony of facts…history, etymology,  more history, more etymology…language compared to petroleum…cultural mixing the big theme…”I’m against purity,” Pinsky proudly announced.  We’re all blended!  No ethnic type!  Which is good, I suppose.  Pinksy, the anti-standup comic.  The weight of Pinsky’s pedantry slowly and irrevocably crushed the audience in its vise.  By 9 pm, everyone rushed out of the grand Peabody Essex museum atrium to breathe.  Mr. Pinsky, historian, wise man, poet-declaimer, had nearly killed them.

Looking for more punishment, we went back to the Festival on Saturday for a “State of Poetry” panel in a beautiful gallery in the Peabody Essex.  The beautiful art was silent, but we might as well say a few things about what went on.

The first panelist to speak, a Mass Cultural Council guy, condescendingly bored the audience with ‘how to submit your poems,’ etc.  Some even walked out at that point.  He warned about the big companies that accept any poem one sends them—so that one can then pay a fee to be in their big book of poems—but  he had nothing to say about all the other contests.  He really had nothing to say at all.  He had a big, deep, booming voice, though, and boomed for about 15 minutes.  The “state of poetry,” indeed.

The second guy was an outgoing New England PEN director, and he inspired the audience with: poetry is how one fights the ugly American politics of the corporations.  “I’m not read or reviewed by the magazines that count,” he said wistfully at the start, but once he launched into his anti-corporation paean, he had the audience in the palm of his hand.  One could tell this theme  makes poets very happy and comforts them.

We were confused by one thing: the panel made it clear that selling a lot of things was something only evil corporations did, and yet there was all this talk about how you had to get out there and sell as many of your poetry books as possible: traveling the country and reading from your book.  The confusing advice was: Hate corporations, but turn yourself into one.

The PEN guy, touting his optimistic “small-is-beautiful’ theme, also said a Knopf or an FSG “just prints your book” and doesn’t give you the attention you’ll get from a small press.  But is this really true? A large publisher “just prints your book?”   Aren’t the big guys interested in selling?   We have to conclude the PEN guy lets his emotions get in the way of his understanding

The third panelist, after reflecting on how “he couldn’t pay his rent” after graduating with an MFA, maintained the best route to poetic bliss was to form a group of friends based on similar ancestry.  He mentioned Cave Canem a lot, and was looking to do the same with his own particular group.   “Community is important.”  More important than the poetry?

The fourth panelist represented women and she talked about how she found a really nice hotel on the Oregon coast for a woman poets’ retreat.  A delightful idea.  The Oregon coast is lovely.

They even had time for questions.  “What about the eco-system of performance, as opposed to publishing?”  The panel was caught a little off guard by this question: well, what of performance?  The response was that publishing is performance.  The woman panelist said one of her poems was on a shower curtain.  The PEN guy pointed out that Leonard Cohen—who performed—was a poet.  PEN had just given him an award, in fact.  Performance, publishing, it’s all good.  The Mass Cultural Council guy said, “you must enjoy selling books and giving readings!”  Sell, sell, sell, said the anti-corporation panel.

Someone asked why every book of poems is “a project” now, with a theme, a topic, an angle, instead of simply a  ‘book of poems.’  Everyone agreed this was an American phenomenon and the reason for it was because publishers were looking to market books of poems the way they market other genres, like fiction.  Those damn corporations, again?  A book entitled “Poems” doesn’t sell.   The phrase “culture of the poetry contest” arose as a way to explain why every poetry book has to have a theme.

But on reflection, what does a book’s theme have to do with contests?  What in the world has theme to do with it, really?

Is a “theme” the last refuge of the fool?  It isn’t exactly like the pugnacious fellow who gruffly asks, “What’s your (selling) point?” (what’s your theme?) when there may be many valid points at play, each full of nuance. The issue is two-fold: 1) the inability to judge poems as poems without a “theme” to latch onto.  And 2) the habit of fitting every product with a theme, which, over time, needs to become narrower, until we find the example of the fellow with the Ph.D. who has no general knowledge of anything.

Perhaps the only book of poems one should trust is the one entitled, simply, “Poems.”

But we stray from our point.

(to be continued)


Soft thy lips, softer than the grass;
Kiss me softly and let the hours pass.
Love belongs to vows and promises, alas,
But thy kisses are greater, by far
Than love giving speeches to a star;
Thy kisses are greater than love and its throngs,
Greater than towers, circuses and songs.
Give me your lips again—I am never done!
God Himself shall go—when your kisses come.

—Marla Muse


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:


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!


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.


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.


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.


Matthew Dickman goes for the last Round One spot.

Joy Harjo knows Rita Dove from their student days at Iowa, and she has two poems in Dove’s anthology.  Harjo and Matthew Dickman, the celebrity twin, look to snare the last place in First Round play, as the West, and now all four brackets, are decided. 

Harjo brings a short poem from the Penguin anthology:


My house is the red earth; it could be the center of the world. I’ve heard New York, Paris, or Tokyo called the center of the world, but I say it is magnificently humble. You could drive by and miss it. Radio waves can obscure it. Words cannot construct it, for there are some sounds left to sacred wordless form. For instance, that fool crow, picking through trash near the corral, understands the center of the world as greasy strips of fat. Just ask him. He doesn’t have to say that the earth has turned scarlet through fierce belief,  after centuries of heartbreak and laughter—he perches on the blue bowl of the sky, and laughs.

OK, one is tempted to say, your house is the red earth; yea, sure.  And I’ll ask the crow.  About what, again?  And he laughs.  Sure.  Whatever you say.

Marla Muse: This poem seems to be coming from some sacred place that I just can’t get with.

Paris, New York…it’s a rejection of centrality—

Marla Muse:  Sure, it’s easy to see what the poem is saying.  I just don’t think it’s a good poem.

Because of what it’s saying?

Marla Muse:  What it’s saying and how it’s saying it. 

Let’s see what Matthew Dickman brings to the contest:


The skinny girl walking arm-in-arm
with her little sister
is wearing a shirt that says
and I want to,
I want to put my bag of groceries down
beside the fire hydrant
and whisper something in her ear about long division.
I want to stand behind her and run
a single finger down her spine
while she tells me about all her correlatives.
Maybe she’ll moan a little
when I tell her that x equals negative-b
plus or minus the square root
of b-squared minus 4(a)(c) all over
2a. I have my hopes.
I could show her my comic books
and Play Station. We could pull out
my old D&D cards
and sit in the basement with a candle lit.
I know enough about Dr. Who
and the Star Fleet Enterprise
to get her shirt off, to unbutton her jeans.
We could work out String Theory
all over her bedroom.
We could bend space together.
But maybe that’s not what she’s asking.
The world’s been talking dirty
ever since she’s had the ears to listen.
It’s been talking sleazy to all of us
and there’s nothing about the hydrogen bomb
that makes me want to wear a cock ring
or do it in the kitchen while a pot of water boils.
Maybe, with her shoulders slouched
the way they are and her long hair
covering so much of her face,
she’s asking, simply, to be considered
something more than a wild night, a tight
curl of pubic hair, the pink,
complicated, structures of nipples.
Maybe she wants to be measured beyond
the teaspoon shadow of the anus
and the sweet mollusk of the tongue,
beyond the equation of limbs and seen
as a complete absolute.
And maybe this is not a giant leap
into the science of compassion, but it’s something.
So when I pass her
I do exactly what she has asked of me,
I raise my right hand and make a V
the way Vulcans do when they wish someone well,
hoping she gets what she wants, even
if it has to be in a galaxy far away.

OK, why not?  This reminds me of a Billy Collins poem.  Dickman’s poem has definite parts—which are coherent within an overriding theme—and it’s amusing.  It seems we ought to expect a poem to deliver the goods this way every time, right?  At least this much ought to be expected.

Matthew Dickman gives us a night of stand-up comedy with a free drink, or two.   Joy Harjo gives us a lecture about what we ought to like, and no free drinks.

Who do you think should win?

Is there any high-brow consideration that can save Joy Harjo?  Any at all?  We are told the crow is laughing.  Will that do it?


Dickman 88, Harjo 67


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:


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:


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

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


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 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

and forgettable

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


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:


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:


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

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


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


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:


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:



A career in vestige management.

A dream job
shifts in salience.

I’m so far
behind the curve
on this.

So. Cal.
must connect with

to manufacture
the present.

the new in-joke

bar-code hard-on,

a catch-phrase
in every segment.


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



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.


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:



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.


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.


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


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


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


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:


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:

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.


Robert Hass has three poems in Rita Dove’s anthology


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,

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 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:


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: 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.”


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!



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.

I love sweets,—
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
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
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,
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
an art; skill;

miles distant from the usual soprano’s
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
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
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

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;

… 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
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—


.            .            .

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

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:
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: 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:


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:


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
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: 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:


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.


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


The Morning Light Discerns The Trees

The morning light discerns the trees
Which, massed in darkness on crooked knees
Fed my melancholy and my sorrow
Continuous, I thought, long past tomorrow,
As I stumbled through the evening wood
Pondering grace and genius and good,
Those infinite twisted limbs of growth’s agony and accident—
Painful struggle without understanding—this is what the forest meant
Last night, before the morning light
Bled through the sky. Can my melancholy die?
Can I see all sorrow is illusion
By the mere appearance of the sun?


Bin Ramke: forever linked to 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  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:


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:”

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


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,
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:


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


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:

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


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:


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):
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 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:


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!


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

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