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

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

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

 What if Lessing’s common sense is generally correct?

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Phil Levine


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

–C. Eady

Levine 79 Eady 75


Now that I know you love me,
Now that I know love is good,
I no longer need to stand by the sea
But desire says that I should.
Now I know your helpless cries
And your pleasures and your pain
Are like the cloudy moon that flies
After spring has kissed the evening with rain—
Oh, the pursuit and the goal are the same!
The named is the same as the name!
My pleasure is yours, and our pleasure is pain.
Love is insurmountable, for none love,
None have ever loved!  They pursue other things,
And we, driven in the storm with these weak wings,
Fall in the forbidden love we chose—
When we could have said, ‘no’ and obeyed those
Not mad from love—at least the kind that looks in your heart and knows.


Kay Ryan—looking for the final spot in Sweet 16

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

he thought, but did not say.

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

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

Here is Ryan’s entry:


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

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

McHugh 90 Ryan 80



The poet Gary Snyder—and mountains.

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


(after a wild party)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Chin 87 Snyder 71


Sharon Olds: the frankest poet ever?

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

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


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

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

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

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

Olds 99 Soto 83


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

You must offer her what’s left

of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish

you must put aside

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

her eyes moving from the clock

to the television and back again.

I am not afraid. She has been here before

and now I can recognize her gait

as she approaches the house.

Some nights, when I know she’s coming,

I unlock the door, lie down on my back,

and count her steps

from the street to the porch.

Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,

tells me to write down

everyone I have ever known

and we separate them between the living and the dead

so she can pick each name at random.

I play her favorite Willie Nelson album

because she misses Texas

but I don’t ask why.

She hums a little,

the way my brother does when he gardens.

We sit for an hour

while she tells me how unreasonable I’ve been,

taking down the pictures of my family,

not writing, refusing to shower,

staring too hard at girls younger than my sister.

Eventually she puts one of her heavy

purple arms around me, leans

her head against mine,

and all of a sudden things are feeling romantic.

So I tell her,

things are feeling romantic.

She pulls another name, this time

from the dead

and turns to me in that way that parents do

so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.

Romantic? She says,

reading the name out loud, slowly

so I am aware of each syllable,

each consonant resembling a swollen arm, the collapsed ear,

a mouth full of teeth, each vowel

wrapping around the bones like new muscle,

the sound of that person’s body

and how reckless it is,

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

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

Dickman 88 Hass 79


I see the word, forget, everywhere I look:
The label of the bottle, the title of the book.

The wine I drink is called forget.
The people gone, I find a pet,
And all of life is to forget.

The sun is here but the sun must set;
I’d describe the sun, but I forget.

Think of the love and visions met—
No, I cannot, for I forget.

The wealthy ones always bet
On better methods to forget.
That’s all the wealthy really get.

This moment that moment must forget.
I cannot let my memory fret.

Must we die? And everything forget?
Well—the answer is: not yet.
Until then, forget, forget.



Are those poetry prizes?

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

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

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

Nerdy poets hate competition.

Jocks live for it.

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

Jocks rush in where nerds fear to tread.

Revelry greets the midnight year of poetry.

The spear and banner of poetry is raised anew.

The Homeric cry penetrates the dusty halls of academe.

Shelley’s sighs melt the walls of scholarly modernism.

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

Seamus Heaney, that metaphor doesn’t work.


Seamus Heaney, that metaphor doesn’t work.


Seamus Heaney, that metaphor doesn’t work.

So anyway, Scarriet’s in trouble.

The National Basketball Association is coming after us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The NBA suit has us a little uneasy, however.



Having courted sleep, to watch her go away,
She came to him unasked in the middle of the day.

“Why were you unkind in the channels of the night
When I longed to sail along beneath your dreams so bright?”

“Why were you not there when everything was still—
But the scratching of the wind by the window sill?”

“Why were you unloving when I was full of care,
With my bed and my pillow and all the darkness there?”

“I called for your comfort: where’s your arms, your shawl?
I called you every hour, past midnight and all.”

Sleep replied, “Young man, it is rude of you to blame
Sleep, who has no arms, Sleep, who has no name,

Sleep, who is but you when you have no strength to call
The one who really loves you, and you don’t love at all.”

Standing by the river, he thought about his sin,
When sleep came upon him, and he fell in.


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

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

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


1. Cuvier

Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful

blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.

A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary

crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles

of geometry I’d thought
impossible. Few will

ever see what I see
through this microscope..

Cranial measurements
crowd my notebook pages,

and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers

signify aspects of
national character.

Her genitalia
will float inside a labeled

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

oh yes I say

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

I say nothing

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

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

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

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

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

A close game—Merwin advances, 68-67.

The four Sweet 16 winners in the Midwest/South:

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


Terrance Hayes in Santa Fe, 15 November 2006

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

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

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

This is the devil’s pact the poets made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Dove 67 Hayes 55



Solemn-thoughted love prepares
For a long love; she stares
Into the widening ring
Of spinning spring
And sees winter cares,
So deep and serious is she.

From the rocky brook she sees
The flight, beneath the boughs, of the bees
And learns their route—
Circuitious as a tune for a flute—
That ends in near flowers
Up until the latest hours.

Her look travels as far
As the house with forty windows, and its car,
Encircled by oaks and willows meant to keep
Privacy from harm, where a silent soul can weep
Awake, and awake, drift that way into sleep.

Solemn-thoughted love goes out
To where the crowds shout
And stays hidden to inspect life:
Shouting husband and shouting wife
And the children, too, raising their voices
To make hollow, shrill sounds and hollow choices.

Solemn-thoughted love wants to write
The poem, but cannot,
For the picture fades from sight—
She reflects, but cannot get it right—
The simplest dimensions of a yard
Falters—she picks up
A pencil—but it is too hard!

Solemn-thoughted love lies down
And, almost slumbering, listens for the sound
Of love, but love cannot be heard
In air or earth, in farm, or bird
Scratching, or flying to get free.
Her eyes saw love once—and it was me.

I saw this view:
Evening distance, shadowy, blue
Bleeding into misty hills which fell
Gradually into middle distance
And then, what I knew—
Close and distorted, but you.


Derek Walcott: How major is he?

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

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


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

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

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

Does this work? 

We do not think it does. 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Walcott 67, Trethewey 58


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

He calls himself a god,

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

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

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

my hair

is it moving?

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

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

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

Smith 81 Komunyakaa 79


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

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

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


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


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

Which is worse?  You be the judge:

Mary Oliver goes first:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Pinsky counters with this reminiscence:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oliver 57 Pinksy 56

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


Franz Wright fans gather excitedly for the big match.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go, men in black!

Wright 75, Tate 73


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Here Collins may have met his match, however. 

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

But it’s not.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collins 69 Howe 68


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

How did he do it, ladies and gentlemen?

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

Oh, we can’t believe it!

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

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

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

Mazer 88, Heaney 86



The Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney: highly favored to kick Ben Mazer’s ass

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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