Monthly Archives: June 2013

June 23, 2013: THE DAY LADY DIED (Frank O’Hara)

Dear readers,

I’m running a poem today from Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems,” because I feel very fortunate after having lunch with on old friend–and founding MV member–in an old city. The book was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights imprint, in 1964, in San Francisco–a city I have the very good fortune to be visiting tomorrow. The poem focuses on July 17, 1959: can anyone explain that? Heck, can each reader take a stab at one of the allusions littering this poem? And then can one final reader, once we’ve exhausted the names, historical terms,, place names, products, and foreign words, explain to me why it’s not terribly elitist? Then we’ll have a good sense of the the thing. It’s an easy read, though, and if walking around big cities is your thing, a mental sorbet. -ed.

THE DAY LADY DIED

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes

it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun

and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)

doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres

of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue

and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT

while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

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June 18, 2013: THE GOOD NEWS (David Yezzi)

Yes Rich (et. al.),

That is what I do, I steal the ball and I run with it. Or perhaps, worry a bone to pick.

You made a good point about Collins when you said, “I wish I could do what he does.” I feel exactly the same way. What he does doesn’t seem at first so complicated, and yet… we didn’t do it. One can look at the expression and think, Oh, that’s not very unique, that’s commonplace, anyone could do/say/think that. But sometimes it’s a real gift to put something just the way it needs to be, nothing else. For those interested in just a little more on “Snow Day,” do a word search within this little interview, sent by alert reader Sara Cohan. In it the interviewer describes how Collins reads the “catalogue of primary schools,” and he explains how he came up with those names!

Now as for Yezzi, I knew that I was taking a small quotation potentially out of context (didn’t even read the Sullivan piece Rich referred to), and it’s possible I created a bit of a straw man. I did want to give him a fair shake, and that’s why we looked at Collins to at least understand where Yezzi was coming from, but I’m not sure I succeeded. I think I might have focused too much on topic and theme, whereas on a re-read I see that Yezzi was focused a lot on ironic detachment, on a sort of political de-fanging of the poetic expression. I still disagree, but… let’s let bygones be bygones and really be fair to the guy by reading some of his poetry! This will get us back to our theme of formal verse because, surprise, surprise, David Yezzi (b. 1966) writes formal verse. I swear, everyone who takes broad pot-shots at the “state of contemporary poetry” is a new formalist. Yezzi can’t be all that bad a guy, because he went to school in Pittsburgh (Carnegie-Mellon). He’s been a teacher and a poetry editor, and has some nice publications to his credit. I definitely liked some of the samples I found; he writes about normal stuff like having friends, being itchy, not being able to understand strangers… nothing earth-shattering, nothing that attacks all the moral problems of this our modern world. Here’s one with with a piquant little mystery tucked into the middle. If anyone wants to have a stab at the rhyming techniques, have at it! -ed.

THE GOOD NEWS

A friend calls, so I ask him to stop by.

We sip old Scotch, the good stuff, order in,

some Indian—no frills too fine for him

or me, particularly since it’s been

ages since we made the time.

Two drinks in, we’ve caught up on our plans.

I’ve sleepwalked through the last few years by rote;

he’s had a nasty rough patch, quote unquote,

on the home front. So, we commiserate,

cupping our lowballs in our hands.

It’s great to see him, good to have a friend

who feels the same as you about his lot—

that, while some grass is greener, your small plot

is crudely arable, and though you’re not

so young, it’s still not quite the end.

As if remembering then, he spills his news.

Though I was pretty lit, I swear it’s true,

it was as if a gold glow filled the room

and shone on him, a sun-shaft piercing through

dense clouds, behind which swept long views.

In that rich light, he looked not like my friend

but some acquaintance brushed by on the train.

Had his good fortune kept me from the same,

I had to wonder, a zero-sum game

that gave the night its early end?

Nothing strange. Our drinks were done, that’s all.

We haven’t spoken since. By morning, I

couldn’t remember half of what the guy

had said, just his good news, my slurred goodbye,

the click of the latch, the quiet hall.

-2007

June 13, 2013: SNOW DAY (Billy Collins)

Dear readers,

I hope some of you didn’t find that stool pulled out from under you last week when I once again failed to show up for work. Continuing, to the third leg:

What rankles me the most about Yezzi’s position, as encapsulated in the Sullivan piece, is that it takes us out of it. As we’ve discussed many times in this group, a poem is kind of a thing-not-thing. It’s lines on a paper, it might be a historical artifact, but it exists most richly in some kind of indefinable space between the paper and the reader. And for me to read what may be a quite staid, even a thematically banal, poem in the context of a world that Yezzi says challenges the very foundations of this “condescending sop,” and to not then turn that challenging world onto the poem… well then, perhaps I, in my own banality, have failed. Now: this is not to say that every poem can just be sort of bad and boring, and I must “make it good.” No, it is to say that there are good poems on all types of topic, and within all emotional registers, and if a poem is good, it will typically open itself to the world, even if just a little. A good poem has to have a little richness, a little nuance, a little subtext, a little rhythmic refraction that snaps the reader into its take on things–even boring things. A bad poem, well, as Helen Vendler has said, a bad poem just fails to become a poem.

So let’s look back at the Billy Collins poem (I reprint it after the sign-off, for anyone who wants to refresh themselves). I hope you all agree that it’s a decent example of what Yezzi rails against. And yeah, one could take issue with it, and with another hundred or so of Billy Collins’ poems, by saying that, shoot, it’s not that challenging, these are ruminations I’m inclined to, it’s just that I’m not a clever poet, no one cares about school closings, school closings pale in comparison to other stuff on the news channel, funny descriptions of dogs do not BIG IDEAS make. Well, all those things are tru–no, I can’t say it. All those things are not true.

His description of a dog is a big idea. Look back: “I will put on some boots/ and step out like someone walking through water,/ and the dog will porpoise through the drifts.” Did he really just say that? The dog will “porpoise.” That’s crazy. Did anyone else stop at that word? I stopped, briefly, because it made me shake my head in astonishment, but then I continued, quickly, because the verb made perfect sense there. One of the poet’s jobs–perhaps the most elementary–is description, and Collins nails it there, and in a unique way. I’ve certainly never seen porpoise used as a verb before. His choice performs 2 magic tricks: cross-species description ( a metaphor, I guess), and noun-into-verb. And it works not only in this poem; I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see a dog playing in the snow again without thinking “porpoise.” In that tiny instance, and in instances going forward, the poet has used language in a way that changes the way I look at the world. That’s a big thing, not a small thing. And it’s still just plain funny.

Then I look at the list of schools that lulled Dalia into somnolence. I really liked it, right away. I thought the names of the schools were purposefully precious, kind of like baby-talk, and I found the cumulative effect hilarious. But of course that’s just taste, and one could like it or not like it. Looking back, though, it is kind of strange–what is that full 2-stanza list doing in an 8-stanza poem? People sometimes wonder that about the “catalogue of ships” in Homer’s Iliad, which appears in Book 2, and believe me, is way more tedious than the list of school closings. I’m no expert on the catalogue of ships, but I remember it playing sort of a historical or persepectival function: THIS is how many armies are fighting, and this is how far the reach of the conflict. It’s also just a tried-and-true epic trope, and Virgil and Milton adopted it, too. So why not Collins? He’s playing around a little bit, I suspect, but the joke goes perfectly with the martial theme he sets up at the beginning (a “revolution” of snow) and draws to a clever close (“which small queen is about to be brought down”). The theme is not really all that insistent, I see it in the opening, the catalogue, and the closing, and there are little snippets of vocabulary throughout that keep it alive. But he’s also copied Homer’s paratactic style in stanzas 2, 5, & 6, and somewhere off in my memory is the idea that Homer described the mustering Greek armies as a blanket of snow later on in The Iliad.

So this poem is for nerds, sure, but the point is, there’s a lot there. And some of it is in the in-between, in the wolrd the reader brings to the poem. Rather than being crabbed in worldview, it’s actually epic in scope, while coming from a limited, commonplace point of view. It succeeds in doing what a poem should do, perhaps despite its subject matter or point of view. It would be easy to write a terrible, cliched poem on the same subject. David Yezzi would hate that poem. He’d be right to. But he’d hate it because it’s a bad poem, not because it’s symptomatic of some failure of contemporary poetry to engage with the real world. Bad poems should make everyone mad.

I’ve left large swaths of “Snow Day” untouched. I’m curious to know what other readers find exciting or disappointing there. I’m curious to know if I’ve missed Yezzi’s point–which is certainly possible. -ed.

SNOW DAY

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.

-2001