The Poetry Assessor claims to “determine whether a poem has the characteristics of a professional poem or, alternatively, an amateur poem.”

We at Scarriet decided to have some fun with it.

This poem, which Tom Graves, one of the Scarriet editors, wrote in 5 seconds for The Poetry Assessor scored a positive (professional) score of 2.814.

The Stuff Used

The stuff used to make amends
Cannot be relied upon so easily
When a fire in the pit flames up
With weed-like flames that penetrate
The blue and smoky air.
The semblances die along horizon’s pitch
Which gathers up the birds in its cloudy arms.

Tom Graves

“A Poison Tree” by William Blake scored a negative (amateur) score of -2.67.

Shelley’s famous “Lament” (O world! O life! O time!) received a negative (amateur) score of -3.27.

The whole idea of trying to determine whether Shelley was a “professional” or an “amateur” is simply ludicrous on the face of it.  Yes, Shelley was an “amateur,” and yet many “professionals” have determined Shelley’s poetry to be highly meritorious.  So how can we even begin to say whether Shelley’s poetry is “amateur” or “professional?”

And, what if the “professional,” Shelley, wishes to “let his hair down” and express himself in a more “amateur” manner?  Isn’t this still the work of a “professional?”

The answer, of course, is: yes, yes, it is.

We understand the idea that the Poetry Assessor considers “amateur” those who write poetry of a bygone time, so the excellence of the poetry is not being calcuated so much as contemporaneity, or, to be fair to the Poetry Assessor, excellence within that contemporaneity.  But can past excellence be jettisoned so easily?  If the acknowledged excellence of past poems does not register with the Poetry Assessor, where is the proof that the Poetry Assessor is not simply registering contemporaneity alone?

The answer is: there is no proof.

The interest of any exercise such as this must lie with how parts are integrated by the machinery of calculation; parts are paramount in any calculating process, parts which can never be quite integrated into the whole of a human judgment, and this is understood instinctively.  Further, the miscalculation of a single part’s worth or lack thereof can impact the whole more than it should, and such is how the whole often betrays partial thinking.

We can work backwards in any process which relies on the mechanical integration of parts for success.  In other words, we can make partial changes in poems and see how the Poetry Assessor reacts.

We took the Keats sonnet, “When I Have Fears” and improved its score merely by replacing the word “love” with random substitutions which hurt the overall meaning of the poem.

The Keats poem receives the following score from The Poetry Assessor:  -2.34    A thoroughly amateur poem (of course!)

Now, when we remove the word “love” in line 12 and line 14 in Keats’ poem, and replace it with a random word, “sofa,” the poem’s score improves to -1.55.

A similar thing happens with “Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell.  It receives a very low score: .056, but simply changing the first line from “I love to go out in late September” to “I go out in late September” the poem gets better: .493.

Professionals don’t love.

And if they do, we all know what they are!

This, however, should make us wonder: if the Poetry Assessor, with its contemporary ideas of poetry professionalism, thinks that the more love in poetry, the less professional it is, is the Poetry Assessor leaping to the conclusion that love in a poem is the same as sex in a poem?

Is the Poetry Assessor censoring love for moral reasons, or for professional reasons?

But we shouldn’t be wondering this. Our sort of reasoning is not allowed within professional circles, obviously.  The Poetry Assessor is merely censoring crude, vague feelings even as it rewards the virtue of concrete and specific imagery.  Right?

Galway Kinnell saying, “I love to go out…” is a perfect example of this.  If the poet describes his “going out” in terms that  makes the reader understand its enjoyment for the poet, saying “I love” is superfluous; it’s empty advertisement.

But what if Kinnell wants the assonance of “love” matching “go out…among…fat, over-ripe black…blackberries…”?

Or what if Kinnell wants his “love” to contrast with the darker material the poem gets into later on and the final hint of melancholy in “late September…” (which is how the poem ends)?

Since there is a near-infinite number of ways a poem can apply “love” to a near-infinite number of shades of meaning and sound-meaning, though it might be generally true that “love” as a word is very high on the ‘cliched/empty feeling’ scale, no mechanical assessor can judge a poem based on the generalized integration of generalized partialities.


No matter what we say or do not say,
No matter what we do or do not do,
Night will remain this way.
Night will send forth rumors of the day
Even as beauty covers them, and me, and you.

If Night is producer of the dreams it makes,
Happier than day with all day’s arguments and books,
If the wind sighs or it gently shakes
The moon-lit grasses when the moon light looks

Upon its slaves soothed and kissed by sleep
And blesses them, the saddest are glad
And jealous thoughts drown in thoughts too deep,
For we are passionate.  Then do not call us mad.

For it is of dreams our feelings are made,
And in these dreams nothing is sad,
Our anger melts, and turns into a shade.
Oh, Night today we were very sad

But now you blaze with a thousand fires,
Small, secret and distant—like all our desires.


I love sleep. I cannot wake
From my dreams which contain dreams:
Poison discovered at the bottom of the cup.
My reality is not poisoned by what seems.
Reality is increased by illusion; illusion selects
The island for the island-play.  The boat race
Is world-wide and made for sorrow and wrecks
No sorrow can save; otherwise fate were owned by someone.

Poets are the weariest sailors.  You might see one
Or you might never see one.  What do you know of the world?
Have you wrestled with hopes, sorrow, envy,
Fought beyond all senses, steered with sails furled
Because the stream’s underground?  Have you seen the sun
Furiously stand still while you had to hold the world?
Or sailed with sailors about to mutiny?
Forced to return or they would cut your throat?
But most important, did you have the mind
To make your sufferings more than sufferings?
I dreamed you sailed in a wooden, perfumed boat.
You were asleep, I think, and this pen was at your throat.


But Most Of All, I Love

You will see me absent-mindedly failing to be
Aware of creatures talking directly to me,
And you think: have I the right to be this free?
Should I be allowed to flounder in revery
Even as pious company surrounds me?
Oh, but you know, I focus enough.
But most of all, I love.

You might see that I am ill-equipped
To fight my battles; I am too tight-lipped
And sometimes my clothes are ripped;
My leaves have fallen, my towers tipped,
My useful items have been counted and shipped,
But I know hat and shirt and dress and glove.
But most of all, I love.

You wanted me to stay awake
And adore you at night for the sake
Of a coward’s morning when we take
The train to the same place and fake
A fondness for every drink we slake.
Instead I sleep and wake to song drifting down from above.
But most of all, I love.


The flesh is gone, and so are you,
But so much that was not flesh spread and flew—
Thought, for instance.  You might still live, is that not true?

You don’t reply, nor has any that’s dead—
Nothing seen, that was here, and now has fled,
Nothing manifested. Only a body that sleeps, then crumbles, becoming its bed.

Now you become earth and rivers and air,
The tiniest you, invisible, spread everywhere,
No longer a person, who can speak, or love, or care.

But what if you still are?  Since the invisible
Hides behind what we cannot comprehend, until
We see what was dead, with life, suddenly overfill,

Whatever caused being before there was being,
Invisible to all dreaming and seeing,
Might be cruel, incomprehensible, but freeing

For all that rages in this material stuff
Is more, much more, than enough,
For whatever God-like sighing sighs when the seas are rough,

And whatever calmness that lives
In eternity—what takes, hopefully, also gives,
To balance death’s cruelty with returning loves.

Haven’t I almost convinced my mind
That silence and doubt are kind?
Oh world!  Will you…unwind?


I studied poems all day
On Super Bowl Sunday.
My revenge on American crass,
My hatred of the Pittsburgh Steelers,
Is found in a poem.

And now it’s getting dark.
I almost made it through another season
Without getting my head taken off
By a poem.  I could hit
You at a hundred miles an hour
And it wouldn’t harm you,
Read as you are in things
That make no difference (oh but they do).

But life keeps getting lived
Outside the poem.
The sun’s going down—depressing!
The murmuring TV sets are on.
Remember when games were played during the day?
Perhaps I’ll watch the second half
Before I go to bed
Just to re-connect with humanity
And to see who wins.

My those poems seem so
Indifferent in my mind now.
Perhaps you might talk to me
About whatever happens to come to mind?


In a book aptly titled Iowa, (the death star of foetry?) the following lines are proffered by the Blog Harriet bully and poet Travis Nichols:

His thin story happened then while coat and pant cuffs flapped around a step-father and half sister. The memories true or not against him seem to be turning to steam, as I turned, all the while thinking of chewing out alone eventually through the ghostly meats.

We’ve seen far better work scribbled extempore from our English Comp. students.  Does this pitiful poetry excerpt from Mr. Nichols explain his Harriet Blog bully behavior?  Are they related?

Of course they are.

When high becomes low and low becomes high,
Distinctions end and all’s one: beauty’s truth and the foul-smelling lie.

Today the reigning pedagogy is to aspire to a niceness that sees goodness and beauty in everything; the result is a universe created by the mind of David Hume, where bodily sensation and doubt are all that exist, where the old enchantments and the old heroics and the possibility for new enchantments and new heroics, fade away in a welter of darkness, despairing laughter and confusion.

Scientific truths do exist; the David Humes of the world have not done away with them, and self-pity and doubt is not my message even as I point out the sorry state of certain contemporary niceties of culture.   Travis Nichols’ wretched intellectual character is finally of no importance, nor does it finally matter how the Poetry Foundation chooses to run Blog Harriet, which seems to be successfully aping Ron Silliman’s cut-and-paste service at present.

Morals cannot finally be about morals, nor poetry about poetry.  All attempts at moral self-analysis (whether universal or local) are too little, too late, for doubt never leads to anything but more doubt; rising from the ashes is a better strategy than accepting partial criticism; if wrong is not entirely overthrown, that wrong only comes back stronger; it needs but one small doubt of its wrong to succeed.  Small exceptions bedevil every moral design, and their smallness is what allows them to ruin our chance for a heaven of happiness on earth, or in the poem.

So Plato was right to make beauty and the good the same in every aspect of mind and body; the good person can make bad poetry, for the good is more important than poetry at last, but just as true is that the bad person cannot make good poetry, and this is true not because poetry is important in itself, but only because poetry allows beauty and the good to separate for a moment, so that we know ourselves, which is to know happiness: for happiness is why the self, and the self’s ability to make poetry, exist.

Because poetry cannot finally be about poetry (and thus the cry, “it’s about the poetry,” when uttered, is always wrong); poetry exists as poetry only when it furthers the Good, i.e., the happiness of others.  The unhappy person cannot make others happy (unless they are making a divine sacrifice—good luck with that) and this is why Travis Nichols bullying others when Blog Harriet was a truly interactive blog (he chose to censor intelligent contributions based on his simplistic sense of ‘playing nice’) will translate into wretched poetry written by Travis Nichols.

This is not a matter of morals so much as physics.  This is pure science, yet we still live in the dark ages in this respect, because we still believe bad people (or simplistically nice people) can write good poetry.  They cannot.

This is the great moral dilemma.  If bad people cannot write good poetry, how shall the bad person be made good, for only with poetry, in the sense Shelley meant: imaginatively going out of oneself and identifying with others, can a person be made good?  The answer is nothing  less than: the child must be given no chance to not become a poet, to not be imaginative.  There is no vocation that is not poetic, no training that should not be poetic.  Imagination, as Shelley understood, subsumes all.

And this is why Letters should be as free, open, uncensored, and democratic as possible;  why poets should not be allowed to hide behind their professional reputations any more than critics should be allowed to scorn behind a critical veneer; and why pedantry of a professional turn should never be allowed to censor, regulate, and proudly reject the amateur.  And this is not because everyone should be nice, or no one should have to wear, or not wear, shoes.  It is because the poetry is the method to be nice, and to know nice, just as unity and consistency are tests for truth.  Do biographies confute this?  Do great poets sometimes have foul reputations?  Check the reputation—it is most likely a lie.  If a great poet was deemed guilty of personal wrong, check the ‘wrong;’ was the poet wrong, or were the worldly opinons and actions of the poet’s surrounding accusers wrong—perhaps in ways not immediately known?  Or, if the poet is a vile person, check the poetry—is it really good?   Of course this throws us back upon a world of the uncertaintities of individually flawed judgments, which is precisely why we need to give those individual judgments as much freedom, as possible.

Systems and institutions act as gate-keepers to keep riff-raff out and royalty in, but what if the royalty are also riff-raff?  What if there’s no need for gate-keepers because the ‘gate’ no longer has any validity?   Even if we agree that private property is sacred and civil authority necessary, do we also agree that critical health in Letters requires the same sorts of safeguards?  Or not?  Do the necessary safeguards to property and civility also apply to poetry?  I would think not.  Why then, do so many poetry professionals, who are the first to clamor for revolutionary justice when it comes to issues of property and civil reform, put up walls when it comes to freedom of speech where they live?   It’s easy to pretend to ‘fight a system’ (the American capitalist one, for instance) when that system is so vast that the ‘fight’ is not finally having any affect at all, except verbally and abstractly.  But as soon as freedoms begin to rattle personal, aesthetic, and pedagogical windows of the actual place where the poetry professional lives, the ‘revolutionary avant-garde theorist’ quickly transforms from 1792 Wordsworth to 1845 Wordsworth, from revolutionary to conservative, and so conservativism forever reigns, from tradition to police action to police action.  There’s always one side that needs another side put down.   The cause of this is easy to see, but difficult to change, because it relates to the cause itself, the ultimate failure—on all sides of the social, religious, politicial spectrum—of the imagination.  In our minds, the other side is always wrong.

This is what we saw in 2010 at Blog Harriet and Silliman’s Blog:  Poetry professionals shut the door on speech.  

Scarriet may not have the clout of a Poetry Foundation or a Ron Silliman.

But we’ll still be here, talking.


Out of the shadow the shadow came
With two things only: the sentence and the name.
No, it wasn’t yours, and that was a shame;
Still I have them written: the sentence and the name.

I walked up to you; you were shy and tame,
But soon it came down to the sentence and the name.
I wrote you a poem, but this was not your game.
Now I have just these: the sentence and a name.

You made yourself clear; difficulty’s not to blame;
I understood the sentence; I understood the name;
Now I understand you’re gone, lost, lost to fame!
By writing that one sentence, and affixing your dear name.



The poem that came to me last night
Has yet to be put into words—
There was insufficient light,
The flickering fell into halves, then thirds;
I could not see to write.

The subdivided sun questioned itself into nothing
And I crouched alone in the darkness.
Still, there was a tickle climbing up my spine,
As if a tickle might lead to a thought,

A thought to a plan, a plan to a crime:
Murderer, stay—I led you here—to be caught.


Spectator sports: sentimental, beastly, and ubiquitous.  Society uses it for crowd control.

I don’t want to stay up until midnight watching a baseball game when I have to work the next day.  Spectator sports, with its reproduced fantasy leagues, are overwhelming, and splintering, our society, producing a cultural wasteland of gamblers and superficial, passive consumers.

Last night, as I was walking past restaurant/bars with TVs, most had some meaningless football game on—even as the Giants were playing to win the pennant.

When I was kid in NYC, the world series was on during the day, and everyone followed this one event; the LA Dodgers might have been playing; it didn’t matter if the teams were not from New York; the world series was on, and every store-front TV broadcast the games; you could hear the world series on every AM radio as you walked down Broadway, or through Central park.

I remember getting a new baseball glove for my birthday, one for a lefty, and it was signed by Tom Seaver, who was a righty.  OK, that was cool.  I wasn’t a Mets fan, either, but that was alright.  It was my glove, and, after all, I was a Tom.  I never thought the glove would get worn in, but eventually it was perfect.  The gift of a glove was accidental and tactile; my father probably took the last lefty glove available at the store: Tom Seaver, well, OK, I’ll take it.  But it served, even though it wasn’t the ideal choice.

There weren’t fantasy baseball teams, but there was Strat-O-Matic baseball, played with dice; again, more tactile.  My group of friends in upper Manhattan, (we played a lot of sandlot sports in Riverside park) all played Strat-O-Matic baseball.

There was more sandlot, and less official leagues, when I was growing up.   As amateurs, we were our own refs; designed our own plays, rules, nicknames, teams, and boundaries.  Today, kids spend their lives in grown-up run, official leagues starting at a very young age.  Is this why, despite all our modern technological innovations, we think outside the box even less, now?  Is this one of the reasons why we have less imagination, and top-down, corporate, thinking is the guiding philosophy more than ever?

Sports was just as ubiquitous in the U.S. in 1965 as it is today; boys were not poets; they were sports fans; this was as true then, as it is today.   But baseball was the game, and baseball had an equal amount of blacks, whites, and Latins; today there are more choices, but also more divisions; there are more specialilzed, isolated differences that separate and alienate—and are often sources of subtle resentment.

There’s more technology and communication today, but more segregation and separation.  How did that happen?  Hockey is still white.  Baseball is losing blacks.  Basketball and football—especially defenses—are almost entirely black.   People can blend into their specialized tribe, and the choice to do so is a ‘good.’  This is good, right?

Can we blame technology and the 100 plus cable channels?  Sometimes I think we’re too quick to blame technology.

We’ve always had a choice to pay attention to X, rather than Y, no matter how many cable channels there are.

The question is: why did those bars put on that meaningless football game, instead of the game that might decide the pennant?  Who made that choice, and why?

I think it has something to do with the fact that we don’t feel like a whole society anymore, but I don’t know if you can blame that on 100 cable channels; whatever the reason, there’s an increasing sense that we are separate, competing sectors who resent each other along political, social, cultural, and class lines.

Take a classic division: white collar and blue collar.   One could certainly argue that back in 1965, there was one channel showing sports, the world series, and white collar and blue collar together watched the world series.

Now, with more choices, the blue collars, let’s say, make the decision to watch football, because it’s a rougher and tougher game, while the white collars, who are more cerebral, choose to watch baseball.  Maybe these decisions are not made consciously, but they are made, and the choices available due to technological advances end up driving people apart, emphasizing, and even increasing all sorts of differences.

My Dad was a New York Giants fan, so I became a Giants fan, too, even though they played in San Francisco—and I lived in New York.  So began my disdain for home town rooters; my worldly, open-minded sophistication was born in a banal choice: which team do I support?  San Francisco had stars like Marichal, McCovey, and Mays, but never won a championship, and so a disappointment deepened whatever was already there.  Did all this make me a writer?

Even though society today is more fluid, more mobile, and there are more choices and more channels of communication today, fans seem to be  fixated on a home team, or on one team over others, more than ever.  Why is this?  Why, with all these cable channels, are people more rigid, more tribal, and more separated?

But before we die in a nostalgic, sentimental swoon, we should bring things back to reality.  What is the nature of professional sports, really?

Sports rewards arrogance and teeth-baring and cheating.  Sports is war.  It belongs to the god Mars.  People like George Will, the ‘literary’ sports writers for certain city papers, the nice old men who write those smarmy books on the game, the network broadcasters who try to come across as intelligent, perceptive, good-humored, reasonable gentlemen, falsely glaze over, for the more civilized members of their audience, what the game really is: the unsportsmanlike raiding of the best players on poor teams by rich teams (in the name of ‘player freedom’), the headhunting by pitchers who increase their value by letting the batter know: I will kill you, not to mention all the vicious, evil stuff that goes on behind the scenes, the illegal drugs, the fixing and throwing of games, the gambling, and organized crime pulling strings—and that’s just baseball.

The NFL is obviously a thousand times worse.  Every pro player, in every contact sport, numbs themselves to the horror, and they really don’t care who wins; they’re happy to survive (even as they please the coach and the crowd by willing to maim and be maimed on every play) and bring home that large paycheck.  There are no heroes.  A player sticks out his bat…oh, look what I did, I hit a homerun!  But at the end of the day, all that matters is the big bucks the players make.  Meanwhile, fans with miserable lives believe that it matters.  Can you say, “Plato’s Cave?”

In the playoffs this weekend, if the Yanks or Phils sneak in, what a tragedy. Big bank accounts with hired guns back in the world series.  No offense to Philly and Yankee fans—they are from those cities, so obviously they can’t help it.

But then baseball gets what it deserves.

Ever since the late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, in the 1970s, purchased world-champion superstars from the Athletics, turning his team into world champions because of those purchases, the game was essentially ruined.   The Curt Flood clause, which introduced the nutty idea that players are ‘free’ to play where they want to play, handed the game over to the money men.

Baseball touts the exceptions, in which teams with low budgets, the Marlins, the Twins, win it all, but that doesn’t change the overall reality of the harsh inequity.   A team which has been awful for years, like the Royals or Pirates, cannot afford to keep a good player, a Johnny Damon, or a Jason Bay; they go elsewhere for more money.

This has to be one of the reasons baseball is less popular.

The fixing of games in the NFL is a real problem.  Poets instinctively know that if a referee makes one bad call in a crucial situation, this will affect the game’s result.  The play in football is confusing, rules governing holding and pass interference are very gray, and thus, in broad daylight, through calls and non-calls, results of games can easily be steered in a certain direction, for a definite result.

The NFL has a large audience, just as Pro (fake) Wrestling does, and the former has increasingly come to resemble the latter, even though most NFL fans don’t realize how fake and fixed their game is; fans see inexplicably bad calls by refs, and shake them off; they want their game to be ‘real,’ so they say to themselves, ‘refs are human; they make mistakes.’  Oh, yes, refs are ‘human’ alright.  Trillion dollar sports planners understand that  to sell their product they need good guys and bad guys,  ‘hero quarterback’ story-lines and  dynasties, and if some very visible stars feature disgusting or even criminal behavior in their personal lives, if some ‘genius’ coaches cheat to win, well, in the corporate business of ‘bread and circuses,’ that’s all the better.  The sports market will do anything to ‘win.’

It’s Mars, baby, it’s Mars.

A sport played by an individual, such as tennis, is a safer bet to be fair.

Perhaps they should invent a new game of baseball and football which can be played in front of spectators with a team of one.



All wisdom dies.
The schoolboy who round the school yard flies,
Yelping with his mates,
Will own and legislate the world
By the time I, not that old today,
Make peace with the fates.

To grow a little older
In a slow and pleasant way,
Even when sunny days
Hold bad news,
Is the best we can ask
Of our pleasant god,
Our pleasant muse.

All wisdom dies.
We inherit a life of lies,
And so we imitate and flatter.
Only this child will matter,
Frowning by the school yard fence
At the others’ indifference.

Grief multiplies
Until the long line of your family dies
For the sake of these happy blanks:
Children who play under no shadow
And give no thanks.

Three apple pies.
Old and free, I can have them all. But who dies
For them? Who will lead his mates?
Tomorrow he will own all the pies:
And they who impurely love
Will aid the one
 who hates.


long last line.jpg

The natural pond is never a perfect mirror.
Madame stares into her still mirror,
Holding her face still to examine it.
She wonders, which angle do they most admire?
Once, there was one who fell in love with her profile.
She turned. And lost him.
Another would have loved her head were it a blur,
So taken was he by her complexion, her eye’s fire, her hair.
She turned and turned.
She finally turned elsewhere.
Dancing on her inmost eye,
They are all two dimensional now,
Like spots of light on a pond.
But he who loved her profile once,
That gaze on her
And the arc which disappointed him–
The palpable turning which ruined the trust
Between her ear face and his facing eye–
Has the depth of eye, face
And face which turned– alas! to eye
And saw the amazing change–
The man who quickly looked away.
That perfection he knew is all the depth she knows.
She almost saw what he saw in the corner of her eye,
The look askance like peeping dawn,
The beginning of a look
Which will see too much by noon.
She could not see how he saw her.
But he told her the whole madness later, outside their spot on the Champes d’ Elysses.


All these poets seem indifferent and cold,
Boring!  Black and white!
They put their love in monuments
Of stone, frozen, it seems, long ago
By outer space without limit; they strive
To put words together, like spark and dark.
If perfection is darkness, they go that way.
For them, nothing has to be alive.
They spurn the hot-blooded day;
Day will melt their monuments.
They take whatever their readers know
And present it as if it were their wisdom,
Whispering and dropping slowly
Into deception and valley,
A perception of soft, sweet glow,
Passion intellectualized!

I brought flowers once to Karla Karrar,
A girl I barely knew, invaded her
Backyard after wandering the hills
For flowers that were almost weeds;
Among weeds, I found strange flowers.
Those were thoughtless thrills;
I was young and could discount them;
I was no poet, then.
Ah, that is one anxious memory.
Now I hope you’ll be able to tolerate me;
I am the book jackets you see, the blurbs and the vanity,

I am the poet now.
I am going to give you love and I am going to give you flowers.
Will you watch as they are depicted as that
For you, right here, in verse, for the next two and three quarter hours?



How would it be if I loved any heart,
Any mouth, any hands, any ears,
Tasting kisses of whatever lips pursued my lips
And I pursued this universal love for years?
How would this condition me to grasp what is mine
In this moment, my Eurydice, before, in the dark
Your face disappears forever?

Shall I surrender to what philosophers know:
All flesh is one, as I turn and watch you go?


As a boy I learned to accept the fishes’ death.
On fishing trips with my grandfather I silently hoped the fish
Would live.  After a long drive from the lake,

When the trunk was opened,
The pickerels would still be breathing,
Their gills quivering in the murderous air.
I sensed my grandfather’s indifference;
My sorrow brooded without sound on my lips.

The pity I felt
for the fish who solemnly lazed in streams,
Inscrutable monsters who lived in the flood!
My pity moved against me like a flood,
Weakening everything but memory,
Death disguised in dreams,
Dreams of dream lakes, peering within.

Fishing in dreams, fish
Of strange dimensions, the writhing
Of colors hidden partially by the dark.

Before I learned to fish, when sex
Was only something disguised in dreams,
I dreamed of two creatures,
One fat, one long, fighting to the death
In a wooden container of water, barely large enough to hold them.

I founded my religion in a pond.
You could see a boy hunched over on summer days
Salamanders hiding in the slime.

I feared for the safety of worms
We used for bait.  Fish devoured worms, and so I felt
Less pity for fish, and then less pity for all.

I stood frozen once, when I saw a minnow
In the mouth of a snake.

Does anyone know what anything is just before it happens?
I remember feeling sex for the first time.
Poetry hinted at sex; sounds of words
Saying what was underlying, as when serpents
Sense what the child knows, or when the child knows
The unkind are near by.

Here’s the brook, the forest, the hungry trout,
The dream of sex which is not sex,
The hungry sweetness of desire,
The sunlight, the mist, the mad-life child.

You returned from the woods with your books,
You brought your books back; poetry failed you;
Poetry in books was too full of silences;
The blades of grass were louder.

Sex, the adolescent feeling sex,
Suddenly coming for the first time
While just lying on the bedroom floor, alone;
You live with it, marry it,
It keeps you company,
And poetry, lying before you in piled books,
Becomes your companion too.

If we could get back
To the dream of sex which is not sex,
The meadow, the arms, the face,
The whispers, the explanations, mother, father,
Brother, sister, the conquering, the sand,
The water, the coughing, the poetry;
The light just above you as you look up;
You’re a fish, swimming towards him,
The boy in the boat with his grandfather;
He is listening to his grandfather tell a joke;

You will interrupt, you will startle the line;
You will be pulled up on the boat;
You will die; you will die, slowly,
And the boy will no longer know what to think.
But the idea was to die for him.
The idea was to save his life.


Could it be Aneri loves me?
Should my despised sentimentality
Newly shadow me and mock me?
Would I then, on my knees, forgive
Rhyme and passion, crying, “Now this is how I wish to live?”

Would I see love’s haughty spell
Consign my former haughtiness to a sentimental hell
Where Aneri waits, her sweet secret to tell?
Now she tells the muse my doubting is forgiven,
For I am not in hell; rhyme’s precisely heaven.

Certainly lovely Aneri
Would be happy and rarely
Would she and I fail to see
The lovely muse inventing, for love’s sake, rhyme
In this place, this time.


My soul I despise.
For where does it dwell?
In the jungle of sighs.
I cannot realize
The sound of the bell.
The bell’s tolling note
Musically floats
Askance of me,
In a nebulous key,
In sunset and sunrise,
Daily, strange, nightly, wise.
My soul I despise.
For where does it dwell?
Oh, it does well
In the jungle of sighs,
In the sad hearted jungle of sighs.

She is good and she is true.
Now what do I do?
Her soul I despise,
For my soul stays,
In my days upon days,
In the jungle of sighs.
With a language of sighs
I do what I do.
With a language of sighs
I pretend to be true,
In a language of sighs
Which breathes and swells
And hums over valleys
And liquid dells,
And laughs to discover
Ignorance all over,
Fortuitous disorder,
And the undaunted valleys
And the broken bells.
My speech it dwells
With languishing lies
In the jungle of sighs.

And I grope and I gasp—
I pray it will pass,
The fever that darkens,
The pleasure that hearkens
Too fast—too fast!
But I know forever the fever will last,
(Yes I know forever the fever will last)
I know this as well
As I know my own past.
Oh, the bell! The bell!
What can it tell?
That I could know faster,
That I could see well!
That I might love it!
That music to master,
That knowledge might touch it!
Old, old bell!
Oh, melodious bell,
Do you know where I dwell?
With the senseless throng.
Then send me a song
Past these hideous trees,
Traveling long!
Longer than starting, hesitating breezes,
Longer than life’s uncovered diseases.
I lie at my ease—at my ease!
I breathe the scent which lingers in trees,
That will not relent—
Oh torturous spell!
Inside my tent
I drink at my ease,
I find the disease
My conscience and cry.
But my soul is outside,
My soul I despise,
For with it I dwell
Away from the bell
In the jungle of sighs.




My oblivion won, my sleep wins and my death
Will lose to oblivion too,
So a blank page to leave words
Is more interesting to me than you,
Unless you can be a record
To what I think and do,
A partner to defeat oblivion
Before it smooths out eternally the false and true.

Some, their life materially feeble,
Project their dreams onto gods,
Trading their individuality for authority
And the mindless rituals of their religion,
Converting their smashed selves into happy pawns
Who dream an afterlife with feasts draped on heavenly lawns,
And who can blame them for wanting simple perfection?

But I have huge desires, The New Yorker, the internet and TV.
The simple rabble will never understand
The intricacy of what I say.
They cannot possibly know my character
In their rice boats covered in mist,
Or in their cold tents surrounded by hot sands stretching far away.



A few years ago, San Francisco Renaissance poet Landis Everson was yanked out of obscurity in California by an ambitious young poet and editor from Cambridge, MA: Ben Mazer.  Ben’s not an intellectual, but he’s ambitious and he’s got a nose for the scene and writes poems as good as anyone alive today and he’s also a musician and eccentric and personally intense;  he’ll write the most famous poets in the world and get them to blurb his work.  Thanks to Ben Mazer, who writes for the defunct-while-it-waits-for-more-funding Fulcrum, Landis Everson of Jack Spicer’s circle came back to us for awhile.

I knew a gay Boston poet, Antonio Giarraputo, who went to Harvard with Frank O’ Hara, knew Robin Blaser, when Blaser worked at Harvard’s Widener library and Jack Spicer, when Spicer worked at the rare book room at the Boston Public Library and John Wieners from around town, because Tony moved in his circles.  Tony had lots of stories about them.

I rented a room in his Coolidge Corner, rare-book-african-art stuffed apartment during the last decade of his life and made some tapes of his reminicences, which I have somewhere.  Tony spoke his mind.  To John Ciardi, when John said he was going to translate Dante, “But, John, you don’t know Italian!”  Tony did, and several other languages fluently besides; he also sang opera, and once John Wieners told Tony he wasn’t wanted by his circle by writing Giarraputo a note: “Renaissance Man, go home!”  Tony was too blunt, too classical, too ‘old school,’ for the ‘revolutionaries’ of the San Francisco Renaissance.   Tony was put off by O’ Hara cruising the men’s room at Widener.  Tony was a proud Harvard graduate, a Fulbright scholar, and he fought in World War II, at D-day.

When I knew Tony, in the last years of his life, he was an overweight diabetic who lolled about watching his favorite TV show, “All in the Family,” passionately hating on Archie Bunker (Tony was a die-hard Democrat) the tough Irishman who represented the bullies who picked on Tony when he was a sensitive kid of Sicilian immigrants from the slums with a bricklayer father who hated the fact his son wrote poetry.  Tony used to boast that he was a bigot: “I hate everybody.”  He was a erudite bigot: he could tell you what was wrong with the Florentines, and what was wrong with the Venetians.  But Tony walked the walk.  He wasn’t a professor, or a poet who won prizes; his career was teaching black kids in the Boston public schools, and he started local poetry clubs to which every street urchin was welcome: and they all came, and eventually the mayor of Boston proclaimed an Antonio Giarraputo Day.

I wasn’t wild about Tony’s poetry in English; most of it was too ‘modern-zen’ for my taste: he returned the favor by ridiculing my love of Poe.  I once came upon some exquisite lyrics in Italian (metrical, rhymed) he wrote.  “Tony, these are beautiful!”  Tony just waved his hand, “Oh, those…”

It was rare that Tony went to a party, but when he did, he was the life of it.  He was sad most of all in his last days because he mourned how the gay lifestyle was unkind to the old and the ugly.  He did not remember O’Hara, Blaser, Spicer, and Wieners kindly; personally he couldn’t stand them.  I can still hear the way he spat out their names.  Did Tony give into bitterness and self-pity to a certain extent?  He was traumatized by his war experience; I didn’t know him when he was young, so it’s hard to say where he was coming from.  Maybe he was jealous.  I don’t know.  Perhaps that’s why Tony is forgotten and no poem of his can be found on the web, except the one below, which I happen to have, and am keeping alive.

Tony always meant to write a book on Cambridge and Boston’s poetry bohemia of the 40s and 50s.  Tony, however, was a gregarious lyric poet, not a meticulous scholar, and he burned-out teaching public school in Roxbury, where they “pelt you with rocks and bury you,” as Tony would say. The book was never written (though there must be notes somewhere) and a lot of history was lost forever.   Tony predicted that when he died, the “vultures will descend.”   They did, scooping up his rare books and art collection and his personal papers.  I had moved out, by then, and sadly remember how his writing life just disappeared.

Epitaph for an Unknown Soldier
(St. Lo, Normandy, 7/17/1944)

First of the fallen angels I have known,
I came upon you in obscurity
and found your arms embracing all the sky
as life escaped you.  In the midst of dull,
engulfing battle, thunder and black flame,
this peace is terrible.  Your eyes are glacial lakes;
your lips are dry: you are still beautiful.

I twist my helmeted neck to meet your gaze,
but stand dark, unreflected in those lakes
now frozen by an age which has no end.
I bow and hover, too afraid to touch,
unable to breathe life on wrinkling lips,
to see them tremble–and return to pain.
I bend to drink your death, and numbly wish
to halve my useless living and to share
what I have too much of, if you have none.

Antonio Alfredo Giarraputo


“When Ron complains about formalism, he disses the thought and technical tricks as boring and weak. That’s fine—most ambitious stabs at rationality fail.
But when he tries to compliment a poem filled with non sequiturs and irrational metaphors and puerile little turns, he waxes about its glorious invention.
–Curtis Faville, on Silliman’s blog, Norma Cole post, July 16
Je ne suis pas censé aimer ceci

The children will explain this
(we adults have given up)
you try if you like
praise for your friends
never ends, never ends
fellow: traveler
starfish foot, my summer house
what the children imagined it would be
it was

what is sheer magic for one
is precious & pretentious to another
you blubbered before
the drunk driver killer
you are not
onto something new

Oh Paris, London
Oh well

Your work is being eclipsed by my life

—Thomas Brady

: Well

Eating and shitting pearls, we
tell each other stories, listening for difference

A starfish sits on your foot, an effect of fog in London
or Paris

There is a thin film of dust on the leaves. We
eat this dust

Life is eclipsed by work, an island of fire in the
burning sea, consolation of desire

The invisibilities would live inside the well
dropping their arms

“with such grace” untimely in our summer house

“As for sleep”

the space refuses rationalization

—Norma Cole

This is a poem that will, I think, resist attempts at explication. Action is minimal: telling stories, eating dust, listening (an action so slight, at least from outward appearance, we might miss it entirely). There are the great foreign cities of Westciv, but there is an island also, a very isolate thing, related here to work & to desire. And there are moments of sheer magic: the starfish that sits on your foot, the creatures that cannot be seen but which we know (as only children can) live inside the well. There is an entire infrastructure invoked by that noun, as by island in the previous couplet, and neither have anything to do with London / or Paris. Tho they might with summer house. When I read that final line, I hear it both in a mathematical & a psychological sense.

This poem took my breath away when I first read it. Its tone reflects total confidence with the language. Cole knows how ungainly, how proselike, that truncated or Paris looks. In fact, that is precisely what she is after, something to offset the starfish magic, to lend the poem its dreamlike quality (hence, many lines later, sleep). That distance, could we but capture it, would indeed be the difference between the real & the remembered, between shitting pearls & islands of desire. Do I hear Olson here?

Offshore, by islands hidden the blood
jewels & miracles

The very first words of The Maximus Poems come very close to “: Well,” perhaps more so in spirit than as actual reference. It is only at the end of Cole’s poem that I realize both why the colon in the title as well as the absent article. This is not The Well, which it might have become in any lesser hands. Rather, the world of memory & desire, of stories, even of work, lead inevitably to it, an object or trope from childhood endowed with the powers of youthful imagination. That is why (& how) life, work & stories are entangled here, and why sleep is posed as “untimely” – this is about dream, not rest.

This is one of those poems that lets you know its writer could do / can do anything. I stand in front of it much the way I did the first time I saw the great Jackson Pollock No. 1 at the National Art Gallery in DC, tears streaming down my face just to realize that somebody could do this, that I live in a world where such grace is possible. Against all odds. Against tent cities in Haiti, fighting in Darfur or the valleys of Afghanistan, the poisoning of the entire Gulf of Mexico & the utter prevarication that inundates us the instant we turn on “the news.”

I read poetry, have read poetry my entire adult life, since I was 16 years old, precisely because from time to time I will come across something like this, which throws everything I know into relief. And I wonder if I am alone in “getting” just what a great poem this is. I hope not.

Going backward from “: Well” toward the beginning of this book, it seems apparent that Cole had been building up to such utter clarity for several years, more than I had recognized back when I lived in San Francisco & would see Norma regularly at readings & other literary occasions. And reading the remainder of Where Shadows Will, it’s evident that she has gone forward in her mastery. She has had health problems in recent years, but if there has been any diminution in her powers as an artist, it sure is not evident in this book. It makes me hungry to know what comes next.

—Ron Silliman


I remember—as if it were a dream!—that sad day when I sat
Alone during the holiday in the summer upon a wooden seat
In a deserted cafe near my home, thinking of friends and relatives
Somewhere else in the sun, bored, beside a television, themselves, too,
In retreat from the world and its festivities—the leisure programmed by the day.
The newspaper rang out its old headlines of tragedies new in silence beside me,
And I ordered another coffee from the waitress who seemed sad like myself
And far away, like myself, from where she was.  But the coffee was coffee
And the sun came into the open door and the windows like it always has,
Oblivious in its majesty to all human, temporary ill.  Summers before had found me
Like this, away from celebration and sun, feeding on my thoughts in solitude,
Trying to be ageless and bright and constant like the sun, defying time with time
Doing nothing.   I was remembering.  And remembering my remembering.
But I feared the night, the night when I would have to confront the moon,
The moon, entrancing with her subtle light, her deft rule over the darkness
When I would go to my bed and sleep and dream a dream which, I was sure,
Would forsake the dream I dreamed during the day when I was happy to sit and recall
Things under the sun.  I was afraid that dream would tell a secret about my life
And time and my place in it among things, intending to be
Part of my fate with others, partners in making me feel that
Nothing will stand in for me or come again or let me sit in relaxed and hopeless
Melancholy dreaming in daylight about others’ sad lives.  No, I feared the night would
Look me in the face in the middle of my dream as I lay oblivious on my bed
And tell me to rise and walk to the end of the world to confront myself at the end.
Protect me from this dream, O constancy!  Let me remember back!
Let me not look forward to where subtle fate is pushing me with its want, its love
In night time ecstasies!  I remember there was nothing I could do then
To make others happy, to reach out to them in their lonely, sunny days!  I remember
Many things quite well and my exquisite leisure well, well, well!  I am already having
Trouble remembering the waitress’s face.  And the moon’s face.  But not my dream.
It is night.  And almost time for the dream.  And I am so tired.  Can it be I will
Remember forever?  I want to remember forever!  I will do well, perhaps, to remember.
Oh Fate, be kind to me!  Did I not serve you with my passivity and my secrecy?
Was I not indifferent, like you, to the sun?  Did I not obey you with sleep
And did I not remember your cruelty?  Look at me now as I write this!  I am dreaming!
I am somewhere else!  Everything is far away!  See, subtle Fate, I obey you!   The sun, Fate.  The cafe.

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