Monthly Archives: March 2014

March 31, 2014

Readers:
No one likes running, but even on bad running days you run into luck sometimes. Yesterday: the sun, a fortuitous desire to be alone and bored, the guy on his way into church who yelled, “Hey, run a mile for me, too!,” and, at about the 3/4 point, graffiti on a pedestrian bridge that read, “KNOTT YOUR PROBLEM.” Since Bill Knott has been far from overused in this forum, I decided we had our subject for today.
Bill Knott (1940-2014) was one of American poetry’s true rebels. He hated the publishing business, so he turned to self-publishing most of his work. Almost all of his collections are available for free via his website. But even when he purposefully removed himself from the “fame” conversation, he was recognized by his peers as a contemporary master. Not all of his poems were pretty or happy, which befits a man with such a horribly sad childhood: early parental deaths, orphanhood, a stint in mental health confinement; later, 2 years in the army. And he could be openly prickly about his outsider status. In 2006 he wrote,
“Mark Strand has the right to write a poem, not me. He went to Yale; he lives on the yacht of his youth. Me, I grew up in an orphanage, no family, no money, no “educational opportunities.” No background, no breeding. Scum like me can’t write poems. After his Ivy League education, C. K. Williams lived in Paris on a trust fund for ten years while he wrote his first book; me, after high school and two years in the army I worked as a hospital orderly while I wrote my first book.”
Nevertheless, he taught for many years at Emerson College, and wrote hundreds of poems, formal and free verse, some personal, some political, almost never experimental, always in a singular voice. I’m printing 2 poems today, and both are about death. The first one makes me think strongly of G.M. Hopkins with its dense, staccato wordplay. The second is a little less… claustrophobic. -ed.

The Closet

(…after my Mother’s death)

Here not long enough after the hospital happened
I find her closet lying empty and stop my play
And go in and crane up at three blackwire hangers
Which quiver, airy, released. They appear to enjoy
Their new distance, cognizance born of the absence
Of anything else. The closet has been cleaned out
Full-flush as surgeries where the hangers could be
Amiable scalpels though they just as well would be
Themselves, in basements, glovelessly scraping uteri
But, here, pure, transfigured heavenward, they’re
Birds, whose wingspans expand by excluding me. Their
Range is enlarged by loss. They’d leave buzzards
Measly as moths: and the hatshelf is even higher!—
As the sky over a prairie, an undotted desert where
Nothing can swoop sudden, crumple in secret. I’ve fled
At ambush, tag, age: six, must I face this, can
I have my hide-and-seek hole back now please, the
Clothes, the thicket of shoes, where is it? Only
The hangers are at home here. Come heir to this
Rare element, fluent, their skeletal grace sings
Of the ease with which they let go the dress, slip,
Housecoat or blouse, so absolvingly. Free, they fly
Trim, triangular, augurs leapt ahead from some geometric
God who soars stripped (of flesh, it is said): catnip
To a brat placated by model airplane kits kids
My size lack motorskills for, I wind up glue-scabbed,
Pawing goo-goo fingernails, glaze skins fun to peer in as
Frost-i-glass doors … But the closet has no windows,
Opaque or sheer: I must shut my eyes, shrink within
To peep into this wall. Soliciting sleep I’ll dream
Mother spilled and cold, unpillowed, the operating-
Table cracked to goad delivery: its stirrups slack,
Its forceps closed: by it I’ll see mobs of obstetrical
Personnel kneel proud, congratulatory, cooing
And oohing and hold the dead infant up to the dead
Woman’s face as if for approval, the prompted
Beholding, tears, a zoomshot kiss. White-masked
Doctors and nurses patting each other on the back,
Which is how in the Old West a hangman, if
He was good, could gauge the heft of his intended …
Awake, the hangers are sharper, knife-’n’-slice, I jump
Helplessly to catch them to twist them clear,
Mis-shape them whole, sail them across the small air
Space of the closet. I shall find room enough here
By excluding myself; by excluding myself, I’ll grow.
-1983

Death

Going to sleep, I cross my hands on my chest.
They will place my hands like this.
It will look as though I am flying into myself.
-2003

March 24, 2014

Readers:

How’s this for confluence? I spent most of the weekend with the prettiest literature professor in Pennsylvania, who’d spent Friday teaching William Butler Yeats to undergrads. I spent Sunday evening with the only father-daughter MV members, and the question was raised, who is your favorite poet? For me, a likely answer (though I refused to be definitive) is W.B. Yeats. Then I had about 20 minutes of coffee and chat on Monday morning with my old friend from BC days (also a MV member and proselytizer), in the early aughts, when we both spent a fair amount of time reading the poetry and other writings of W.B. Yeats.

I won’t go into great detail about the man today (1865-1939). He won the Nobel Prize in 1923, became a Senator of the Irish Free State in 1922, and wrote the following poem in 1921. That’s a pretty solid 3-year run of excellence. This is a great poem that deploys many of the well-known Yeatsian flourishes; even if you’re new-ish to his work, you’ll enjoy the internal rhyme, assonance, and repetition, along with a great emotional force. -ed.

A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on.  There is no obstacle
But Gregory's wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty's very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there's no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

March 17, 2014

Readers,

There are really only two people I can think of who know a little bit of everything about literary culture and pop culture from Agamemnon up to Warren Zevon. One is Tim Joseph, and the other is Paul Muldoon. The New Yorker of March 3 was a fertile field for MV types, with that lovely poem by Don Paterson, and also an article on ee cummings by Muldoon, the magazine’s poetry editor (the scamp named his column “Capital Case”). The article was an appraisal of cummings’ work and also a review of a new biography, which Muldoon liked, and didn’t like. I learned a lot about cummings. I’ve always known that undergraduates tend to really like his poetry. I learned from the article that women undergraduates tended to really like his poetry, to the point that Cambridge and Greenwich Village neighbors were irked by the gathering throngs. I also learned that cummings was pretty much of a son-of-a-bitch, but really, should we be surprised by that?

I’ve never been all that great at breaking down cummings’ poems–they seem to do a fine job of that on their own. But look at this one, from later in his career, that appears pretty dang normal aside from the weird syntax and hidden referents. And hear all the rhymes! Bonus points to the reader who notices what form we’re reading here (2 weeks in a row)… The question for cummings is often, why the fractured mess, and what does it mean? I thought he provided a great and appropriate response to that general line of inquiry in the program notes to a play of his: “Don’t try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. Don’t try to understand it, let it try to understand you.” Those commas should be semicolons, but hey, it’s cummings, whaddya gonna do?

And remember, for those lunks who will not forgive me for not running an Irish poet on St. Patrick’s Day, Muldoon was born in Portadown, Armagh! -ed.

how many moments must(amazing each

how many centuries)these more than eyes

restroll and stroll some never deepening beach

locked in foreverish time’s tide at poise,

love alone understands:only for whom

i’ll keep my tryst until that tide shall turn;

and from all selfsubtracting hugely doom

treasures of reeking innocence are born.

Then, with not credible the anywhere

eclipsing of a spirit’s ignorance

by every wisdom knowledge fears to dare,

how the(myself’s own self who’s)child will dance!

and when he’s plucked such mysteries as men

do not conceive–let ocean grow again

-1961

March 11, 2014

Dear readers,

for a couple months now I’ve been gorging on Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers during my long drives. There’s nothing like “Roadrunner” for those nights when it’s dark and cold and barren and you’re weary, bombing through Ohio or West Virginia or Pittsburgh with the radio on. I only have the one CD, but luckily it’s a comp CD made for me by an old Boston friend, so it has about 23 songs from all throughout their discography. Lately I’ve been dumbfounded over and over by “Floating,” a lilting dream piece about the bliss and terror of being alone out on a raft. It immediately came to mind when I read “Wave” by Don Paterson in last week’s New Yorker.
Don Paterson (b. 1963) is a Scot from Dundee. His bio tells me he’s an “accomplished jazz guitarist,” which is bizarre, and he’s also the only poet to have won the T.S. Eliot prize twice. He could be called a formalist as he does often hew to rhyme and meter, but that’s not what I noticed first about this poem (usually a sign of skillfully done form). We might also notice that this poem’s a sonnet. What I liked about it was the intense psychological internality of it, even though it’s ostensibly from the point of view of a person-less natural phenomenon. And for all that, it’s still a kick to read. -ed.
WAVE
For months I’d moved across the open water
like a wheel under its skin, a frictionless
and by then almost wholly abstract matter
with nothing in my head beyond the bliss
of my own breaking: how the long foreshore
would hear my full confession, and I’d drain
into the shale till I was filtered pure.
There was no way to tell on that bare plain
but I felt my power run down with the miles
and by the time I saw the scattered sails,
the painted front and children on the pier
I was no more than a fold in her blue gown
and knew I was already in the clear.
I hit the beach and swept away the town.

-2014

March 3, 2014

It’s a twofer Monday.When I saw the list of names in T.S. Eliot’s “Naming of Cats” I couldn’t not hear Lou Reed’s “Beginning of a Great Adventure” in my head, although maybe it’s because I happened to hear that song at about 6:30 am on Sunday. I always listen to the list of baby names he provides, and I have always thought it was so funny–still, you catch one or 2 you haven’t noticed before each time you hear the tune. So today, two absolutely towering figures in American 20th century writing, in their rather more playful moods. -ed.

THE NAMING OF CATS

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

-1939

BEGINNING OF A GREAT ADVENTURE

It might be fun to have a kid that I could kick around
a little me to fill up with my thoughts
A little me or he or she to fill up with my dreams
a way of saying life is not a loss

I’d keep the tyke away from school and tutor him myself
keep him from the poison of the crowd
But then again pristine isolation might not be the best idea
it’s not good trying to immortalize yourself

Beginning of a great adventure
Beginning of a great adventure

Why stop at one, I might have ten, a regular TV brood
I’d breed a little liberal army in the wood
Just like these redneck lunatics I see at the local bar
with their tribe of mutant inbred piglets with cloven hooves

I’d teach ’em how to plant a bomb, start a fire, play guitar
and if they catch a hunter, shoot him in the nuts
I’d try to be as progressive as I could possibly be
as long as I don’t have to try too much

Beginning of a great adventure
Beginning of a great adventure

Susie, Jesus, Bogart, Sam, Leslie, Jill and Jeff
Rita, Winny, Andy, Fran and Jet
Boris, Bono, Lucy, Ethel, Bunny, Reg and Tom
that’s a lot of names to try not to forget

Carrie, Marlon, Mo and Steve, La Rue and Jerry Lee
Eggplant, Rufus, Dummy, Star and The Glob
I’d need a damn computer to keep track of all these names
I hope this baby thing don’t go too far

I hope it’s true what my wife said to me
I hope it’s true what my wife said to me, hey
I hope it’s true what my wife said to me

She says, “Baby, it’s the beginning of a great adventure”
“Babe, beginning of a great adventure”
take a look

It might be fun to have a kid that I could kick around
create in my own image like a god
I’d raise my own pallbearers to carry me to my grave
and keep me company when I’m a wizened toothless clod

Some gibbering old fool sitting all alone drooling on his shirt
some senile old fart playing in the dirt
It might be fun to have a kid I could pass something on to
something better than rage, pain, anger and hurt

I hope it’s true what my wife said to me
I hope it’s true what my wife said to me
I hope it’s true what my wife said to me
She says, “Lou, it’s the beginning of a great adventure”

-1989