Reed Whittemore 1919–

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

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

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

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

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

MARLA MUSE: Of course!

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

MARLA MUSE: And therefore you did!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Let’s get this winners and losers business out of the way…

Here are the winners:


LISA LEWIS (d. John Ashbery) Responsibility
WILLIAM MATTHEWS (d. James Wright) Good Company
GILLIAN CONOLEY (d. Robert Creeley) Beckon
CAROLYN CREEDON (d. James Tate)  litany
GREGORY CORSO (d. Stanley Kunitz)  30th Year Dream
DORIANNE LAUX (d. A.R. Ammons)  The Lovers
LESLIE SCALAPINO (d. Jack Spicer)  that they were at the beach
BARBARA GUEST (d. Larry Levis) Motion Pictures: 4


KAREN KIPP (d. Robert Lowell)  The Rat
JACK HIRSCHMANN (d. Robert Penn Warren*) The Painting
EILEEN MYLES (d. Frank O’Hara)  Eileen’s Vision
WILLIAM KULIK (d. Czeslaw Milosz)  Fictions
SHARON OLDS (d. Robin Becker)  The Request
TESS GALLAGHER (d. Richard Hugo)  The Hug
STEPHEN DOBYNS (d. Jim Harrison)  Allegorical Matters
AMY GERSTLER (d. Norman Dubie)  Sinking Feeling


JACK MYERS (d. Seamus Heaney)  The Experts
PHILIP LARKIN (d. Joseph Duemer)  Aubade
BILL KNOTT (d. Robert Bly)  Monodrome
EDWARD FIELD (d. Donald Justice)  Whatever Became of Freud
MAURA STANTON (d. Anne Carson)  The Veiled Lady
ALAN DUGAN (d. Hayden Carruth)  Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton
HOWARD NEMEROV (d. David Ignatow)  IFF
MICHAEL PALMER (d. Yusef Komunyakaa)  I Do Not


ALLEN GINSBERG (d. Howard Moss) The Charnel Ground
DONALD HALL (d. Douglas Crase)  To A Waterfowl
RICHARD CECIL (d. Robert Hass)  Apology
JOY HARJO (d. Sylvia Plath)  A Post-Colonial Tale
JAMES SCHUYLER (d. Stephanie Brown)  Red Brick and Brown Stone
REED WHITTEMORE (d. Heather McHugh)  Smiling Through
STEPHEN DUNN (d. Sam Hamill)  What They Wanted
CAROL MUSKE (d. Charles Bukowski)  A Former Lover, A Lover of Form

* Robert Penn Warren resigned from the tourney

MARLA MUSE: Some of the losers I really don’t want to say goodbye to; the Milosz, the Justice, the Dubie, the McHugh…

The Bukowski…there’s something holy about his work, a wry honesty that few poets evince…I was thinking about the qualities that go into writing good poetry, both the New Critical qualities of the poem itself and those qualities the poet as a human being must have…

MARLA MUSE: The poet must say the right thing at the right time.

Or seem to.  Because in real situations in life, that’s a good quality to have: to be able to say the right thing at the right time, but for the poet, “time” can be years as they work on the poem, which distorts the meaning of that ability, the ability to say the right thing at the right time: if someone really has that ability in life, to really say the right thing at the right time, they wouldn’t need to fake it in a poem…

MARLA MUSE: Oh, you’re getting all Plato on me…life is real, poetry is fake

But isn’t it true, Marla, that ‘saying the right thing at the right time’ is not the same thing in life, as it is in poetry…poets can wait for the right time to pass, but in life, you can’t…the room is silent, and life calls for something to be said then, but to be a poet you can slink away and say something later…it doesn’t have to be at the right time

MARLA MUSE: The right time in the poem?

Yes, when you failed to say the right thing at the right time in life…

MARLA MUSE: But if we’re talking about qualities, the person who can say the right thing in a poem is probably the person who can say the right thing in life…

No, because if you can say the right thing at the right time in life, there’s no motivation to do so in a poem, for the poem is a shadow…life doesn’t let us wait years…

MARLA MUSE: But it does.  You are trying to connect life and poetry, you are trying to connect two things, and you can’t, and therefore you are saying nothing…

Am I?  So I shouldn’t have asked my original question: what qualities in life match those qualities in the poet…

MARLA MUSE: What about not fearing to go into an underground mine?  Does that help a poet?  To risk your life for somone else, does that have anything to do with being a poet?  I think we can only look at the poem.  I think the New Critics were right…

But Marla, you are beautiful!  How can you say something like that?

MARLA MUSE: Are we talking about poetry?

Thomas Brady is never talking about poetry, is he?

MARLA MUSE: Well, Tom, sometimes you do…

I’m thinking about that Bukowski poem, the car headlights, the remark by the mother, and the son’s joking, half-shameful, half-boastful response, and all the various parts in that Bukowski poem—isn’t the good poem when all those parts cohere?

MARLA MUSE: Bukowski lost! Why are you talking about him? Ah, you are recalling that debate you had…when you used the word “incoherent”…clever boy…you’re a New Critic, after all…

Yea, but the New Critics themselves were such narrow-minded, creepy—

MARLA MUSE: They hated the Romantics, that’s all, but that’s why you’re here, Tommy boy…

But right now this is not about me…congratulations, poets!


Reed Whittemore, no. 6 seed in the West and Heather McHugh, 11th seed in the APR March Madness tournament, both bring haunting poems to their contest, Whittemore’s poem painting a mind helpless in the body, McHugh’s a mind helpless out of it—hers surrendering a hand, his surrendering his life within a coffin; yet both somehow manage an uncanny joy within an endless sorrow.  Both poets pour genius over us; it’s an honor to contemplate these poems.

Smiling Through

Who are these figures in the street?
They are my friends.
They are wearing armbands.
They are marching along with my coffin, and smiling,
Pleased to be taking me to the boneyard,
Wishing me well and dreaming of all the brave toasts to me
That they will make when they have disposed of me.

And who are these figures in dozens of windows upon the street?
They are my strangers.
They are happy too.

Yes, everyone is happy, even I,
Smiling in my box in the new world that is mine and theirs,
Wearing my old tuxedo.
It had a dull time when I was living.
It was always hanging in closets dreaming of ballrooms.
At last it has found its niche.
Its lapels shine. It is happy.

And now they have lowered and left me.
Alone at last.
I have infinite riches in a little room.
I travel much here.
And other quotations.
Also I have my smile, I have my body, I have my body fluid.
I look at my ceiling,
Which is very low and pasted with my past.
There is my mother in a yellowing snapshot,
Wearing her blue traveling suit and beret
And standing smiling into the sun beside a lifeboat
On The Duchess of Richmond.
And there is my father beside the very same lifeboat.
He is wearing a wrinkled white suit, shading his eyes,
But where am I? Oh yes I am there too, by the lifeboat.
I am busy being sixteen,
With my hair slicked back and my sullenness showing,
Asking, Why are there people broadening me with travel?
But I am smiling also, thinly. It is de rigeur.

Yes, and my old dog Totty is there, the samoyede,
But not by the lifeboat.
He is sitting beside me, a child in a gravel driveway,
And he is grinning, ear unto ear, down the long years.

So here we are, happy. But quiet. For it is quiet.
If I were to breathe, the sound of breathing would be like the sound of waterfalls.

If I were to move, the rustling would frighten the cemetary caretaker in his ugly stone house.
If I were to speak—ah, but I am speaking.
It is a trick of mine, to speak as I speak without speaking.
Almost as good as to die as I die without dying.
So I am lying here. Why am I lying here?  What is my state?

So hard to know sometimes. And so I am smiling.

–Reed Whittemore (1919-)

After You Left

It is better to say ‘I am suffering’
Than to say ‘This landscape is ugly.’ -Simone Weil

From the piling’s kelp I drew
the five blunt fingers of a starfish.

First I thought the creature
less than handsome, less of a hand

than I expected it to be, too rigid,
with a stumpy gray asymmetry of grasp. It hadn’t

kept its grip, so maybe it was dead? It took
a while for me to look, after I claimed to see:

I turned the matter over, and beheld
its thousands of minute transparent

footlets, feelers, stems,
all waving to the quick, and then

the five large radials beginning
gradually to flail

in my slow sight
and then (in my thin air)

to drown. I’d meant
to send it, as a gift

to you who were my missing part, so far
inland. Instead

to a world the sighted have no rights to,
to the dark that’s out of mind, I made

myself resign it,
flinging the hand from my hand.

–Heather McHugh

MARLA MUSE: The economy of the McHugh poem is breathtaking.

Both of these poems are remarkable. This is one of those contests where you hate to see a winner.

Whittemore 77, McHugh 76

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