Monthly Archives: July 2013

July 22, 2013: A MAYFLY (Paul Muldoon)

I already bragged to some of you that I got a chance to see one of my favorite live bands last weekend. They have a song called “Mayfly,” which was indeed a part of their set. It rhymed and had rhythm, go figure. The band is Scottish, but here’s Ulsterman Paul Muldoon’s version, which adds an article to the title.

What would a poetry set on formal verse be without a contribution from Muldoon (b. 1951)? Look closely, he’s written a sonnet in rhyming couplets here, neither Italian nor English. Call it an Irish sonnet. He throws in an extra challenge for himself with a bob-and-wheel technique, tying the end of alternating lines back into the next line’s beginning. And the entirety is packed with allusions that fly quickly over my head. Little help here?

Note: MV will be on travel hiatus for the next two weeks. See you on Monday, August 12—by which I mean, of course, the nearest Tuesday or Wednesday… -ed.


A mayfly taking off from a spike of mullein

would blunder into Deichtine’s mouth to become Cuchulainn,

Cuchulainn who had it within him to steer clear

of a battlefield on the shaft of his own spear,

his own spear from which he managed to augur

the fate of that part-time cataloguer,

that cataloguer who might yet transcend the crush

as its own tumult transcends the thrush,

the thrush that’s known to have tipped off avalanches

from the larch’s lowest branches,

the lowest branches of the larch

that model themselves after a triumphal arch,

a triumphal arch made of the femora

of a woman who’s even now filed under Ephemera.


July 15, 2013: I DREAMED THAT I WAS OLD (Stanley Kunitz)

Dear readers,

Don’t have a lot of time to expand on today’s poem, but for formality, well, it’s 3 ABAB quatrains, with a loose-limbed rhythm that seems to skip around among 4- to 6-beated lines. And there’s some nice internal rhyme. It’s by Stanley Kunitz (“inky zeal stunt”), who did die old, very old, but wrote this out of his younger self. I can’t quite figure out a date for it; it’s from a selected poems that was revised and re-published from about 1930 to 1978.

Later in his career Stanley Kunitz shifted away from formal verse–but hey, when you start publishing in the 1920s I guess you start with the classics, right? -ed.

I Dreamed That I Was Old

I dreamed that I was old: in stale declension

Fallen from my prime, when company

Was mine, cat-nimbleness, and green invention,

Before time took my leafy hours away.

My wisdom, ripe with body’s ruin, found

Itself tart recompense for what was lost

In false exchange: since wisdom in the ground

Has no apocalypse or pentecost.

I wept for my youth, sweet passionate young thought,

And cozy women dead that by my side

Once lay: I wept with bitter longing, not

Remembering how in my youth I cried.

July 9, 2013: #189 (Francesco Petrarca)

Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (1304-1374), stands out for his ability to examine the individual consciousness, to portray the human capacity for being bound by time and resisting time. Lyric poetry is an ideal locus for this struggle, and when it comes to formal verse, we may have no better teacher. Patrarch’s forms were repetitive yet restlessly inventive, and, most importantly for us, he mastered the tight, ornate form of the sonnet (It. sonetto-“little sound”). English poets of a later century then adapted this form to their own vernacular, making it the most recognizable of all English verse forms.

You could write miles about the sonnet. I’ve compared it to the necktie: so small, so rigidly constrained, yet admitting of enough freedom that the good ones really do stand out.

Petrarch’s most famous sonnets are love songs, the great majority of them written for his eternal muse, Laura. Let’s take a look at one, #189, that plumbs his soul perhaps even a little deeper. Here is his original, followed by 3 translations, printed in order of their composition. –ed.

Passa la nave mia colma d’oblio

per aspro mare a mezza notte il verno

enfra Scilla et Caribdi, et al governo

siede ‘l signore anzi ‘l nimico mio;

à ciascun remo un penser pronto et rio

che la tempesta e ‘l fin par ch’ abbi a scherno;

la vela rompe un vento umido eterno

di sospir, di speranze et di desio;

pioggia di lagrimar, nebbia di sdegni

bagna et rallenta le già stanche sarte

che son d’error con ignoranzia attorto.

Celansi I duo mei dolci usati segni,

Morta fra l’onde è la ragion et l’arte

Tal ch’ I’ ‘ncomincio a desperar del porto.

My galy charged with forgetfulness

Thorrough sharpe sees in winter nyghets doeth pas

Twene Rock and Rock; and eke myn enemy, Alas,

That is my lord, sterith with cruelness;

And every owre a thought in rediness,

As tho that deth were light in such a case.

An endless wiynd doeth tere the sayll a pase

Of forced sightes and trusty ferefulnes.

A rain of teris, a clowde of derk disdain

Hath doen the wered cordes great hinderaunce,

Wrethed with errour and eke with ignoraunce.

The stares be hid that led me to this pain,

Drowned is reason that should me confort,

And I remain dispering of the port.

(trans. Thomas Wyatt, 16th cent.)

Charged with oblivion my ship careers

Through stormy combers in the depth of night;

Left lies Charybdis, Scylla to the right;

My master—nay my foe sits aft and steers.

Wild fancies ply the oars, mad mutineers,

Reckless of journey’s end or tempest’s might;

The canvas splits ‘gainst the relentless spite

Of blasts of hopes and sighs and anxious fears.

A rain of tears, a blinding mist of wrath

Drench and undo the cordage, long since worn

And fouled in knots of ignorance and error;

The two sweet lights are lost that showed my path,

Reason and art lie ‘neath the waves forlorn:

“What hope of harbor now?” I cry in terror.

(tr. Thomas Bergin, 20th cent.)

My galley, loaded with forgetfulness,

rolls through rough seas, at midnight, during winter,

aiming between Charybdis and sharp Scylla;

my lord, ah no, my foe, sits at the tiller;

each oar is wielded by a quick, mad thought

that seems to scorn the storm and what it means;

an endless wind of moisture, of deep sighs,

of hopes and passions, rips the sails in half;

tears in a steady downpour, mists of hate,

are loosening and soaking all the ropes,

ropes made of ignorance, tangled up with error.

The two sweet stars I steer by are obscured;

Reason and skill are dead among the waves;

And I don’t think I’ll ever see the port.

(tr. David Young, 2004)

July 2, 2013: BEFORE EATING (Gerald Stern)


here’s one from wild-and wooly, Pittsburgh-born, late-blooming, NJ poet laureate, “Dr. Ten Lagers,” National Book Award-winning Gerald Stern. While in SF I had the chance to sit down for an hour or so in the City Lights bookstore and peruse some of my favorites. This is from his recent collection Save the Last Dance, and I was pleased to find a poem by a known free-verser that is perfect for our section on formal verse. I think there’s a little something for everyone in these rhyming couplets! Enjoy, -ed.


Here’s to your life

and here’s to your death

and here’s to coughing

and here’s to breath.

Here’s to snowfall

here’s to flurry,

here’s your hat,

what’s your hurry?

Here’s to judge,

here’s to Jewry,

here’s to beer,

here’s to brewery.

Leave me alone,

I want to worry;

make me lamb chops,

make me curry.

Here’s to Voigt,

here’s to Bidart,

here’s getting off

to a running start.

Here’s to Dove,

here’s to Levine,

here’s to the graveyards

in Berlin and Wien.

Here’s to Gilbert

who learned it from me,

here’s to the ninety-foot

Christmas tree

he fell on his head from

shortening his height,

here’s to the grimness

of his grim night;

and I could go on for

forty pages,

listing my joys

and listing my rages,

but I should stop

while I’m still ahead

and make my way

to my own crooked bed;

so here’s to the end,

the final things,

and here’s to forever

and what that brings,

and here’s to a cup of

coffee in the winter

and here’s to the needle,

and here’s to the splinter.

And here’s to the pear tree

I couldn’t live without,

and here’s to its death

I wrote about

from 1966

to 1972,

a kind of root

from which I grew,

and here’s to the fruit–

I like that too,

bruised and juicy

through and through,

and here’s to the core

oh most of all

and how I chewed it

from Mall to Mall

and how I raddled

the stem in my teeth

as if it were wind

against a red leaf;

and here’s to the wind

and here’s to your eyes

and here’s to their honey,

dark as the skies

and here’s to the silk roof

over your head

and here’s to the pillows

and here’s to the bed

and here’s to your plaid robe,

and here’s to your breast,

and here’s to your new coat

and here’s to your vest

and your fine mind and its desire

as wild and crazy as the fire

we saw burning going home in the dark,

driving by and wanting to park,

but stopped by sirens and flashing lights–

wild nights, wild nights,

a pine tree in the other lane,

cones exploding in my brain.