Monthly Archives: September 2014

Sept 29, 2014: [‘Often rebuked, yet always back returning’]


I realized recently, lying awake one night, that in my zeal to keep this forum current, I’ve been neglectful of “the ancients” lately. And by lately, I mean, oh, the past couple years. By ancients I might mean actual greek and latin poets, but also your Shakespeares, your Miltons, your Popes, your Tennysons, your Donnes… basically all those rhyming pre-20th century men and women. I’d love to take suggestions for readers’ favorite underused classic poets for future reading.
Today, since yesterday was my first day of work at a new old job, in a new old location, I wanted to print something about the idea of return. I found a poem by Emily Bronte (1818-1848), that I’d never seen before. Cripes, she only lived to be 30? That’s sad.  Although she’s a canonized English author, there aren’t many reliable sources for the details of her life. She only published a handful of poems while alive, under a pseudonym, and her sister Charlotte revised and published more after Emily’s death. Both of them supported themselves by teaching, although they seemed to view it as hard labor, and not a vocation. Emily died of consumption after refusing medical treatment, labeling it “quackery.” The wild romanticism and melancholy seen in their other works are present here. -ed.

[‘Often rebuked, yet always back returning’]

Often rebuked, yet always back returning
    To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
    For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;
    Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
    Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
    And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
    The clouded forms of long-past history.

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
    It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
    Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
    More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
    Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

Sept 22, 2014: Pittsburgh Is

Dear readers,

Last week saw the release of a new batch of MacArthur Foundation fellows, and 2 people on this reading list were not terribly surprised to see that Pittsburgh-based poet Terrance Hayes was among the genius honorees. They went to grad school with Terrance back in the 90’s, and I think one of them may even have been dunked on by him at one point. I remember Terrance being good at a lot of things–and nice. Early reports out of Pittsburgh–where I’m writing from–is that bookstore owners and fellow poets couldn’t be happier for Mr. Hayes.
Those on this list for the past couple years will remember his name: he’s the author of “New York Poem” and “Ghazal-Head,” from past editions, and I’ve previously noted that he’d won several prestigious writing awards. None as big as the MacArthur, though.
In the 90’s, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran poems in its Saturday edition. I found a couple archived versions of Hayes poems from his grad school days, and I thought the one below was perfect for this week–a week that also sees the PIrates (“Bucs,” in local and poetic parlance) inching toward a second straight postseason berth. May they meet–through hard work, creativity, and just a little luck–the same heights as today’s featured poet. -ed.

‘Pittsburgh Is’

A large woman gabbing at the bus stop.
She mistakes me for someone who gives a damn,
For a native son of her gray industrial breast.
She blesses her Bucs, her Steelers,
Her father, God rest his soul, was a Penguins fan.
She mistakes me for someone who gives a damn,
Her blue scarf twisting like the mad Monongahela,
Her blue face lined like a jitney’s street map.
I’d tell her I’m not from this place;
These severed grumpy neighborhoods,
These ruthless winter tantrums,
But her long-winded stories have numbed me.
She is persistent as snow, as boot slush & Thinsulate,
As buses rumbling like great, metallic caterpillars.
She lights a cigarette & it means:
Spring will burn quick & furious as a match,
Summer will blaze.
She tells me, Nobody’s a stranger in Pittsburgh.
And maybe I believe her. I believe her,
My frosty, fairy, foster-Mamma,
My stout, blabbering metaphor.

Sept 15, 2014: Almost Like the Blues

Dear readers,

Sorry for the one-day delay. It’s rhyme time! Today’s poet was born on Sept. 21, 1934 (happy 80th birthday!) in Canada, and his name is an acronym for “one lord, he can.” That’s right, it’s songwriter Leonard Cohen. He’s a folksinger, although folksinger might not quite cover it, and his songwriting is spoken of with an awe reserved for the likes of other cult faves like Laura Nyro, Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, John Prine, etc.
His new album, Popular Problems, drops the day after his 80th birthday. Not bad.
He’s also published more than 10 books of poetry, dating back to the 1950s. This one, from last week’s New Yorker, reads exactly like a Leonard Cohen song. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Nice exact rhyme scheme, and a helluva turn on his theme in stanza four. The New Yorker site has an option to hear him reading the poem. Folk junkies will note the similarity between his title and a famous piece from another folk songwriter-poet god. -ed.
I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape

Their villages were burningThey were trying to escapeI couldn’t meet their glancesI was staring at my shoesIt was acid, it was tragicIt was almost like the blues
I have to die a little
Between each murderous thought
And when I’m finished thinking
I have to die a lot
There’s torture and there’s killing
There’s all my bad reviews
The war, the children missing
Lord, it’s almost like the blues

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot
My father said I’m chosen
My mother said I’m not
I listened to their story
Of the Gypsies and the Jews
It was good, it wasn’t boring
It was almost like the blues

There is no G-d in heaven
And there is no Hell below
So says the great professor
Of all there is to know
But I’ve had the invitation
That a sinner can’t refuse
And it’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues

Sept 8, 2014: Tate’s treatment of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus


Several times in the past we’ve printed poems that “deal with” or are inspired directly by a piece of visual art, usually a painting. I’m thinking of William Carlos Williams and Charles Demuth (The Great Figure 5), Luke Fischer and Paul Cezanne (The Bathers), and others I may be blanking on at the moment.
And today we have Dali being given the ol’ versifying once-over by … Salvador Dali! This summer I got the chance to see one of my favorite paintings, the surrealist master’s “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus.” I was a greek myth nut when I was little, and a surrealism fan in high school, so getting to see this painting live and in person at age 21 was an experience that really thrilled me. Those feelings came back this summer. But you learn something every day, and I had not previously known that when Dali first exhibited this painting in 1937, he displayed it with his own explanatory poem. Since it is meant to be explanatory, I’ll leave it at that.
The wall text made mention of disgust, desire, and anxiety, but I gotta say, I’m not sure I see that in either painting or poem. Then again, I’m a little bit of a positive polly. Painting copied below–if it doesn’t show through in your message, a google search will take you there. The Tate Gallery webpage has a nice little treatment. -ed.
in his immobility,
absorbed by his reflection with the digestive slowness of carnivorous plants,
becomes invisible.
There remains of him only the hallucinatingly white oval of his head,
his head again more tender,
his head, chrysalis of hidden biological designs,
his head held up by the tips of the water’s fingers,
at the tips of the fingers
of the insensate hand,
of the terrible hand,
of the mortal hand
of his own reflection.
When that head slits
when that head splits
when that head bursts,
it will be the flower,
the new Narcissus,
Gala – my Narcissus

Sept. 2, 2014: PULLMAN PORTER (Robert Service)


you may be right in expecting a Seamus Heaney poem for today, but while acknowledging a great loss–and foreshadowing next week–we must forge on with our scheduled work. Last year on this holiday we read the poem by Philip Levine, the one where the speaker also waits in line to see if he’ll have a day’s work at Ford, and yet somehow cannot express sympathy for his brother, the one who works all night on the line, and then rises before noon to practice German opera. Today it’s a trainline porter who reads Auden and Eliot in his spare time.

How many people read that the Pullman porters strike of 1894 was the occasion for the creation of Labor Day? The president ordered in 12,000 federal troops to crush the strike, the power of the employers and the government were upheld in court (national labor relations and the right to collective bargaining were not made law until the 1930s), and in response to what was in many ways a horrific reality, legislators at least took highly symbolic, and empathetic, action.

So when I found a poem featuring a porter, I knew it was right for today. Robert Service was, as he labels himself in this poem, a humble bard of boys and barmen. He spun adventure yarns and comedic character sketches in rhyming couplets and quatrains. He was quite popular in his time (1874-1958). There’s no indication of any past of labor strife in this piece–just subtle class and race condescension! -ed.

Pullman Porter

The porter in the Pullman car

Was charming, as they sometimes are.

He scanned my baggage tags: “Are you

The man who wrote of Lady Lou?”

When I said “yes” he made a fuss —

Oh, he was most assiduous;

And I was pleased to think that he

Enjoyed my brand of poetry.

He was forever at my call,

So when we got to Montreal

And he had brushed me off, I said:

“I’m glad my poems you have read,

I feel quite flattered, I confess,

And if you give me your address

I’ll send you (autographed, of course)

One of my little books of verse.”

He smiled — his teeth were white as milk;

He spoke — his voice was soft as silk.

I recognized, despite his skin,

The perfect gentleman within.

Then courteously he made reply:

“I thank you kindly, Sir, but I

With many other cherished tome

Have all your books of verse at home.

“When I was quite a little boy

I used to savour them with joy;

And now my daughter, aged three,

Can tell the tale of Sam McGee;

While Tom, my son, that’s only two,

Has heard the yarn of Dan McGrew ….

Don’t think your stuff I’m not applaudin’ —

My taste is Eliot and Auden.”

So as we gravely bade adieu

I felt quite snubbed — and so would you.

And yet I shook him by the hand,

Impressed that he could understand

The works of those two tops I mention,

So far beyond my comprehension —

A humble bard of boys and barmen,

Disdained, alas! by Pullman carmen.

Sept 2, 2014: LOUISA ADAMS

I hope everyone had a relaxing weekend.

Sometimes, something just pops into your mailbox, and saves you from scrambling for a poem over lunch…
A colleague on one of my message boards noted today that the U.S. Consul to Russia for the past 3 years, Bruce Turner, has resigned his post. And to celebrate his time in Russia, he self-published a book of poems focused on his time there. I read a few of them. This guy is internal rhyme crazy! For those of you who enjoyed the Tiney poem and other tight-rhymers, I think you’ll enjoy this little history lesson. -ed.
If her distinguished father eventually
returned to America after being sent
as its minister to the Russian Empire
during the time of Napoleon’s thrust to
Moscow from which soldiers on both
foes’ sides died on the battlegrounds
before his folly was crushed, fate was
no less sinister with the diplomat’s sole
daughter, extinguishing her flame while
she was just an infant and leaving but
a tiny casket behind as a husk to rust,
alone in an ocean of foreigners among
the burial mounds of St. Petersburg.
Yet proof she was not forgotten by her
family then and those later begotten lies
in the quest, realized two hundred years
after at their behest, to hew into a stone
her appellation and lifespan counted away
from home to pave in longevity a child’s
passage despite its earthly brevity, if not
to undo, then at least to lighten the sentient
bones of the descendants of her progenitor
for whom her candle once burnt brightly
with such allure and the signal promise
a longer while to endure and accompany
her forebear on his path as history stirred.
-August, 2014