Monthly Archives: July 2011

July 18, 2011 Coole Park, 1929

Dear friends,
Thanks for the amazing weekend; nuff said. Ms. Shahjahan noted her displeasure that, having taken time and thought away from her hectic schedule, no one else had followed up on her ruminations on form. So we’re giving it another shot today, still sticking to my “Heaney conversation” masterplan.
I’ll only note that Yeats actually has an aphorism that strikes precisely at what Heaney is getting to with his comments on Keats here. I forget its exact wording, so I’ll omit it for now. The Yeats poem copied below is not a favorite–Heany describes it well, kind of humorously–and we should recognize that it’s one written in reflection, in fact probably in nostalgia for 1929, but clearly from a later vantage. All those names mentioned, and some unmentioned, would be familiar to most readers of late 19th into 20th century Irish lit, the “revival” period. Feel free to pick up the thread with opinions on Gwynn, Heaney, Yeats… or Shahjahan.
Also: How much better would we all be at our lives if we were willing to put in thirty-eight attemps at something before accepting that it is done well? -ed.
DOD: Over the years, you have often quoted Keats’s observation, “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” Is that just a young poet’s perspective?
SH: Well it doesn’t mean–and it didn’t mean for Keats–that the actual labor of composition or the working on the poem is an involuntary natural function like sneezing. You have to work. One of the best books I discovered early on, when I’d begun to write, was Jon Stallworthy’s Between the Lines, about Yeat’s manuscripts. A poem like “Coole Park, 1929,” thirty-two lines long–a middle-range Yeats poem; a cruising-altitude poem where he’s not breaking any sound barriers–takes thirty-eight pages of drafts and yet he had only a few of the lines to begin with. If you have stanza form, whatever the stanza form is, whether it’s a sonnet or couplets or quatrains or whatever, you can work at that–and work with it–because the stanza form immediately calls up all other stanzas in the language. To some extent, you’re playing variations or singing in a chorus. The quick free verse poem sometimes happens quickly; but, oddly enough, my experience is that the poem comes more quickly if there is a form.
I meditate upon a swallow’s flight,
Upon a aged woman and her house,
A sycamore and lime-tree lost in night
Although that western cloud is luminous,
Great works constructed there in nature’s spite
For scholars and for poets after us,
Thoughts long knitted into a single thought,
A dance-like glory that those walls begot.

There Hyde before he had beaten into prose
That noble blade the Muses buckled on,
There one that ruffled in a manly pose
For all his timid heart, there that slow man,
That meditative man, John Synge, and those
Impetuous men, Shawe-Taylor and Hugh Lane,
Found pride established in humility,
A scene well Set and excellent company.

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
The intellectual sweetness of those lines
That cut through time or cross it withershins.

Here, traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand
When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone,
And dedicate – eyes bent upon the ground,
Back turned upon the brightness of the sun
And all the sensuality of the shade –
A moment’s memory to that laurelled head.

July 12, 2011 God’s Secretary

Two years ago a friend gave me a copy of POETRY magazine, and it was a real treat because, although of course I’d known so many things about the flagship journal since high school, I’d never seen or read an issue! The friend passed it on because there was an interview with Seamus Heaney at the back, and he wanted to know what I thought. Well I don’t know what I think, but it now seems appropriate to use Mr. Heaney’s answers as a way to introduce a theme for our reading, and then read a poem that fits into that theme, and let our readers help me know what to think. We’ll be doing that over the next few weeks. So here’s his answer on formal poetry (the interviewer is Dennis O’Driscoll), followed by a sonnet by “new formalist” R.S. Gwynn, whom we’ve discussed on this forum before. Do you like formal poetry? Do you find form distracting, or do you find yourself not noticing? Is form a crutch, or the opposite? Finally, if Heaney is right, where does this poem succeed–can you see it moving by its own logic, not just the logic of the stanza template? (Note, by the way, that Heaney’s answer completely discounts the existence of the Shakespearean sonnet form–cracks me up…) -ed.

DOD: You mentioned earlier that a poem will come more quickly if there is a form. Would you be offended to be called a formalist?

SH: I wouldn’t be offended but I think it would be a mistake. “Formalist” to me sounds like a kind of doctrinaire position. I totally believe in form; but quite often, when people use the term, they mean shape rather than form. There’s the sonnet shape, fair enough, but it’s not just a matter of rhyming the eight lines and the other six; they happen to be set one on top of each other like two little boxes, but they’re more like a torso and pelvis. There has to be a little muscle movement, it has to be alive in some sort of way. A moving poem doesn’t just mean that it touches you, it means it has to move itself along as a going linguistic concern. Form is not like a pastry cutter–the dough has to move and discover its own shape.


Her e-mail inbox always overflows.
Her outbox doesn’t get much use at all.
She puts on hold the umpteen billionth call
As music oozes forth to placate those
Who wait, then disconnect. Outside, wind blows,
Scything pale leaves. She sees a sparrow fall
Fluttering to a claw-catch on a wall.
Will he be in today? God only knows.

She hasn’t seen His face–He’s so aloof.
She’s long resigned He’ll never know or love her
But still can wish there were some call, some proof
That He requires a greater service of her.
Fingers of rain now drum upon the roof,
Coming from somewhere, somewhere far above her.

July 5, 2011 The Woman Sawed in Half

Here’s a real American hero: Rohana McCormack, Indianapolis resident from 1980 until her death last month at age 84, was a religious seeker–a talib, if you will–who tried baptist, hindu, buddhist, and muslim faiths before converting, at age 70, to judaism. At the same time, she was a member of subud, an Indonesian sect founded in the 1920s that urges followers to find and surrender to the divine force within all. And yet her oldest son reports that he was raised quaker, with a unitarian influence. Now I’ll tell you what that seems to me: ubercrazy. But it also strikes me as kinda uberAmerican. I guess I’m glad to live in a country where someone can do all that. And, of course, publish poetry in obscure journals!
Here’s a poem she published in the small-press, west-coast journal KAYAK. I hope you enjoy at least half of it. -ed


In the crystal gaze of a dream I call Houdini,
you are my destiny.  There’s no escape.
Night after night I’m the woman sawed in half,
your Beatrice intact, Purgatorio by day.
At your mercy, sorcerer of my heart,
the vampire girl becomes a frantic bat
in contact only by sonar, just out of reach.
Your so-called better half, I’m subject anytime
to find myself within your magic ambiance.
You keep me under your hat always ready
to leap into your warlock arms, a woman.
Inside your cape I cling, a velvet mouse,
or flutter from your sleeve, a pretty dove.
At your Svengali glance, I become the girl
with Trilby eyes who steps inside your cabinet,
Presto! a Chagall I rise in a bridal bouquet
of veiled light, drifting until, on signal,
I sing out sweetly from the balcony.
Deaf to all applause, I awake no worse for wear.
While I dandle at your side bedazzled
by your urbane patter, you distract all eyes
from pulleys and wires to materialize an elephant.
Swept off my feet, in the grip of this leathery beast,
I make a drunken exit, waving and smiling.