Monthly Archives: April 2013

Apr. 29, 2013: SNOW DAY (Billy Collins)

My train of formal thought was interrupted by a reader’s comment, so let’s run with it. Formal verse will always be there.

2 weeks back our own Rich Murphy re-posted a withering appraisal of “contemporary poetry” that he found on an Andrew Sullivan blog. Let’s look back:

David Yezzi provides

a searing critique of what he claims is the shallow optimism of contemporary poetry:

The spectrum of subjects for poetry should be as broad as the spectrum of human emotions, which is not to say that all emotions are equally admirable, only that we exclude consideration of them at our peril.

How did the main effects of poetry ever boil down to these: the genial revelation, the sweetly poignant middle-aged lament, the winsome ode to the suburban soul? The problem is that such poems lie: no one in the suburbs is that bland; no reasonable person reaches middle age with so little outrage at life’s absurdities. What an excruciating world contemporary poetry describes: one in which everyone is either ironic, on the one hand, or enlightened and kind on the other—not to mention selfless, wise, and caring. Even tragic or horrible events provoke only pre-approved feelings.

Poetry of this ilk has a sentimental, idealizing bent; it’s high-minded and “evolved.” Like all utopias, the world it presents exists nowhere. Some might argue that poetry should elevate, showing people at their best, each of us aspiring to forgive foibles with patience and understanding. But that kind of poetry amounts to little more than a fairy tale, a condescending sop to our own vanity.

I want to attack this reading, and it seems to me there are many ways to do so. For one, he could be flat-out wrong about the content of “contemporary poetry.” Or, he could be right about its content, but wrong in his opinion that such content is necessarily impoverished. Or, he could have a perspective problem: he notices the content and rages against it only because of some kind of projection, finding disagreeable only what’s disagreeable within himself. Or, the fault in his critique could lie in its hyperbole: the poems “lie,” the world they envision is “excruciating,” the poetry is a “condescending sop.”

I’m going to choose option one–that virtually every sentence he writes is demonstrably false–but I’m going to pick up my hammer next week. For now, and in the interest of conversation, I think it’s fairest to try to understand what he’s talking about. And let’s be honest: he’s talking about Billy Collins.

I like Billy Collins. Many readers of this forum like Billy Collins. Many readers across the country like Billy Collins–way more than like any other “contemporary poet.” There’s probably a quasi-intellectual backlash against Billy Collins; I don’t know. There was one phrase Yezzi used that I like a lot, “the winsome ode to the suburban soul.” It may be that Collins does that as well as any American poet. He might even gladly wear the mantle. Here’s one that I hadn’t seen before, that I think illustrates what we’re talking about. Does this burn your britches? -ed.


Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,

its white flag waving over everything,

the landscape vanished,

not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,

and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,

schools and libraries buried, the post office lost

under the noiseless drift,

the paths of trains softly blocked,

the world fallen under this falling.

In a while, I will put on some boots

and step out like someone walking in water,

and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,

and I will shake a laden branch

sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,

a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.

I will make a pot of tea

and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,

as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,

the Ding-Dong School, closed.

the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,

the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,

along with—some will be delighted to hear—

the Toadstool School, the Little School,

Little Sparrows Nursery School,

Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School

the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,

and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,

These are the nests where they letter and draw,

where they put on their bright miniature jackets,

all darting and climbing and sliding,

all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard

in the grandiose silence of the snow,

trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,

what riot is afoot,

which small queen is about to be brought down.


Apr. 22, 2013: from THE WASTELAND (1922) (T.S. Eliot)


I don’t want to ignore Rich Murphy’s food for thought from last week, which I do truly appreciate. But at the suggestion of another, unnamed reader, I will re-print some T.S. Eliot today, before we run out of April Mondays. The excerpt here (I rejected the reader’s initial suggestion of running all of The Wasteland–what?!) will perhaps stand as a stark rejoinder to the poems David Yezzi disdains in his mini-tirade. It should also stand a stark reminder that T.S. Eliot was in the habit of saying things that are demonstrably FALSE. April is the cruelest month–where did this guy live, Boca Raton?

No, he lived in London, and edited for Faber & Faber when he wasn’t writing some of the most important verse and opinions on verse for the first half of the 20th century. So: get out your dictionaries and enjoy! -ed.

from THE WASTELAND (1922)


APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering 5
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 10
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie, 15
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, 20
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock, 25
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. 30
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu,
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; 35
They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, 40
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Öd’ und leer das Meer.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe, 45
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations. 50
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water. 55
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
Unreal City, 60
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. 65
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae! 70
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again! 75
You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

Apr. 15, 2013: SOMETHING THERE IS THAT DOESN’T LOVE A.. (Stephen Chaplin)

Dear readers:

I wanted to run a second poem by our good friend the rhyming letter-to-the-editor champion, Stephen Chaplin. After finding his poem on sleep a few weeks, ago, I did a name search within the NYTimes and found another letter from 2003. This one looks like it made it into the print edition. Like most letters, it was responding to a prior article, this one a piece on poet laureate Louis Gluck, in which the writer had opined that contemporary poetry had a smaller audience in large part “because in most respects it is marvelously useless and because it is unmarketable.” Mr. Chaplin could brook no such conclusion. His response, below, rhymed. But I have to say, A. I do not agree with Mr. Chaplin, and B., I don’t think his position and that of the writer are opposed positions. The quote and the poem basically pose a question to poetry’s audience, so I’ll leave it to you all to chime in… and I thought since we’d done some elementary, strict analysis of form lately, this would be a good min-run of poems and commentary where folks could share their thoughts on formal verse. As Lou Reed once wrote, “Those were different times/ All the poets studied rules of verse/ And the ladies rolled their eyes.” And now? –ed.


What maladies of late

suffer our poets

that render their verses obscure?

What remedies, you say,

might this fester allay

to capture its former allure?

Perhaps: Essence of assonance,

with couplets of rhythm

and measures of rhyme are the cure!

-Nov. 7, 2003

Apr. 8, 2013: EX-BASKETBALL PLAYER (John Updike)

My apologies for last week’s gap–and on the first day of national poetry month, to boot. I hang my monitor in shame.

With an epic battle between the universities of Louisville and Michigan on tap for tonight, I offer you the lyric below from an unexpected source, John Updike (1932-2009). I can hear you all inhaling sharply and exclaiming, “The novelist John Updike? NO!” But it’s true. He considered his career as a writer to have begun when The New Yorker accepted one of his poems for publication back in 1954. That was followed by a short story, and his association with the magazine endured, and helped establish his position as a, perhaps the, major writer of American fiction in the 2nd half of the 20th century. I say that, of course, without ever having read more than about 10 words by the man.

But this is a lovely poem, richly observed, faithful to the sights, sounds, and intimate memories of small-town Pennsylvania (where Updike was from). At the very least we can say the form is uncluttered, providing no obstacles to what I assume was Updike’s goal of plainspokenness. -ed.

Ex-Basketball Player

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,

Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off

Before it has a chance to go two blocks,

At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage

Is on the corner facing west, and there,

Most days, you’ll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—

Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,

Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.

One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes

An E and O. And one is squat, without

A head at all—more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.

He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46

He bucketed three hundred ninety points,

A county record still. The ball loved Flick.

I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty

In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,

Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,

As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,

But most of us remember anyway.

His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.

It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.

Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,

Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.

Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods

Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers

Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.