Author Archives: Arwen

Jun 30, 2014 Day’s End

Good morning readers,

out-of-order postscript: RIP stage legend and legendary screen villain Eli Wallach (1915-2014). If you don’t like black-and-white movies, check out his tiny spot in 2010’s “The Ghost Writer,” which happens to be an excellent political thriller in any case.
disordered postscript #2: Monday’s Verse will be on hiatus for a couple weeks while I’m out of the country and away from e-mail.
And now on to the poetry. A friend gave me a book called Best Poems of 1923, edited by Thomas Moult, and it is a curiosity. You have poems in the volume that seem waaay older than 1923, just because the diction is foreign, the rhyme schemes so staid, and the themes so… well, cliched? Maybe cliched is not the right word, but there are way more nature, religious, and love poems than you would ever find in a contemporary anthology, or even in a post-WWII anthology. The great thing, of course, is that the collection is not retrospective; these poems were selected in 1923-4. There are familiar names (Frost, Mansfield, Hardy, H.D.), but many more that I’d call forgotten, although that probably only displays my ignorance.
Take Helen Hoyt (1887-1972), for example. She published several volumes of poetry, worked as an associate editor at Poetry magazine, she was the daughter of a Pennsylvania governor, and she had a niece who was also a poet. Perhaps if we’d been around in the 1920s or 1930s we’d have seen some of her poems or been introduced to other poets through her editing and anthologizing. She has 2 love poems in the 1923 collection, and I dig the mood and genderless point-of-view of this one. -ed.
DAY’S END
Drooping were the violets and the roses you had given me;
I carried them against my coat, their heads drooped over.
So we whom love had held against its breast all night,
Whom the city had held against its beating side all day,
Drooped with colors faded, stems without strength.
But very fragrant still were the violets, still dear;
Fragrant and dear the crumpled petals of the roses;
Your darkened eyes, languid hands, dear as before.
We felt no diminution of love, or nearness;
Beautiful and desirable our tired contentment together
As we lingered from street to street to the street of parting.
Precious as any vivid passion our pale quiet.

Jun. 23, 2014 Anna Dunphy

Readers,

it was a good week (well, 2 weeks–sorry) filled with MV reader cameos. I spent a good chunk of Friday and Saturday talking about William Butler Yeats, for reasons not involving poetry.
Yeats, as we may have discussed a time or two here, was a kook. A serious kook. He was an immensely talented person with a broad range of interests, which he pursued in various states of intensity over a long life. And one of his interests was the occult. We all have the internet machine now, so you can read up all you want to on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, its founder, MacGregor Mathers, and Yeats’ eventual disputes with Mathers. Yeats’ great love and Irish nationalist, Maud Gonne, was a member. So was Bram Stoker. The order believed in reincarnation, space-time travel, seances, spells, and other kooky stuff. I’m sorry for using the word kooky but it’s hard to write about this kind of thing without being slightly derisive. I mean come on: They used egyptian symbols, greek gods, the imagery of the cross, latin incantations, and wore hoods and robes. And it’s hard to not laugh out loud when you learn that some bored rich fools still do this crap. But I’m not here to make fun of crap. I’m here to share crappy poetry with you.
So I found a list of former members who were writers, and of course some were better known than others. Still, a decent sampling of Irish, Welsh, English, and American playwrights, poets, novelists, and “historians” have given their permission to wikipedia to list them as one-time members. I mean, I assume wikipedia has their permission, because of course they could object posthumously if they weren’t OK with that.
Among the luminaries was an American singer named Anna Dunphy, who was raised in New York and Cincinnati. She married a rich doctor with a European hereditary title, and so of course even after his death called herself Comtesse Anna de Bremont. She moved to London and in 1888 joined the Order of the Golden Dawn. She also began publishing poems, travel narratives, celebrity biographies (one of Wilde’s wife Constance, for example, also an occultist), and music criticism. My favorite title I found was called “Love Letters in Verse to a Young Musician,” dedicated to pianist Thuel Burnham. I found 3 short pieces to represent her style. The first I like because I got to experience live music 3 times in a great music city last week, so I am completely down with her take on Apollo’s lyre. The second because I don’t know what it means unless it means exactly what it means, in which case it is gross. And the last because it about explains the depth of thinking that goes into this mystical claptrap. To paraphrase Whitman, Do I offend? So I offend. Have a good week! -ed.
HIS TOUCH
Apollo’s lute hath never sweeter sound
Than those rich tones that hold our senses bound.
When in his witching rhapsody of touch
He wraps our souls with extasy around.
THE KISS
Sweet is the kiss of life’s fulfilled desire,
And sweet the kiss that fuels passion’s fire;
But more supremely sweet the last chaste kiss
When two souls meeting on Love’s lips expire!
THE CHAIN
I send my thoughts in waving links of light,
Across the town to chain thine inner sight,
Within the spell that binds us soul to soul
And makes us One thro’ distance of the night.
-1914

June 2, 2014 To a Poor Old Woman

Dear readers,

Two things today: Let’s throw it open for discussion on the topic of moving away from an e-mail based platform for MV. My position has been that people will not go to a blog, and I only hold that position because that’s what readers have told me over the years. If it comes into your inbox you can ignore or delete a message, and I am sure some of us do that some of the time. On the other hand, I believe there’s a core of people for whom NOT having to take an affirmative step means they’ll actually read the poem (eventually). The proposal of a blog-based platform presents a choice between 2 imperfect situations: Readers feeling less inclined to share a response, or readers being less likely to see any response, because they wouldn’t visit a blog on a regular basis.

Of course I’ve never had a blog, so this is where I can take some instruction from others on this list. But I will also ask: Is your engagement with the poem not enriched by some reader’s response, no matter what the response? Would others’ experience not mirror your own if you were the person sharing? I’ve yet to read the commentary that was without merit, and that’s over 17 years, and a lot of short, funny, and even “pointless” comments. Everyone has an out on this list–all you gotta do is tell me “I quit.” And I’ve regularly asked people if I have their preferred e-mail address for this forum. So, and this is just me talkin’, I don’t see clogging up people’s inboxes as a factor.

Number 2: God I love the Poetry Foundation’s website. Great mini-bios, or long bios, great introductions to major poets’ entire output, thematic articles, and clean version of tons of major works. And you can word search for things like… enjambment. So let me run another WC Williams poem, and this time I’ll let the editorial staff of the PF do the appraising. Poem first, selected explication below. Is Stephen Burt’s attentive reading too grand? Williams really liked plums, I guess–that’s what I’m taking from the poem. -ed.

TO A POOR OLD WOMAN

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

Comforted
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

…Not only did Williams work to see a more egalitarian America, but he also worked to hear it, to make a new American sound from spoken language. Whitman modeled his democratic free verse on the long lines he found in the King James Bible (for example, in the Psalms): he described nineteenth-century America in end-stopped lines and sentences whose cadence—however unlike Longfellow’s or Tennyson’s—grew from centuries-old English roots. Williams invented free verse of a whole new sort. Unlike Whitman’s works, a Williams poem is usually short-lined, irregular in cadence, and dependent on frequent enjambments, where line breaks at phrase ends are the exception rather than the rule. Williams did not do it all himself—as early as the late 1910s, fellow poets were publishing similar verse in the same magazines—but among all those allies, he had the best ear and most often found the best uses for the defiantly un-English, un-Biblical, demotic patterns he heard. His constant exposure to immigrants’ speech, his own trilingual background (his mother spoke French and Spanish at home), and the procession of working-class patients he encountered as a New Jersey doctor likely helped.

In this new American free verse, the line break became Williams’s great, virtuosic instrument and “To a Poor Old Woman” is a bravura performance. Its repeated independent clause, “They taste good to her,” becomes something like a scientific experiment: line breaks vary, while the rest of the language (the same words in the same order) remains constant. We thus see the power that enjambment can exert over sentence sound and meaning. The first iteration works as a sort of control group showing the sentence whole, as a line without enjambment (“They taste good to her”). They taste good, rather than bad; Williams can see, and we see with him, how much she enjoys them. The second iteration (“They taste good / to her”) suggests that they might not taste good to us (unless we are poor); her hunger leads her to rate the plums more highly than we would. And the next restatement (“They taste / good to her”) could imply that, while they may taste good, they look ugly (spotted, bruised, discolored, or half-rotten). The break after “taste” also emphasizes “good,” so that we ask what good means, what might be “good to her.” The last line repeats the sentence without enjambment. In between comes more description, as in a cinematic close-up: to know more about what “good” means to her, we have to look longer at her.

…In recordings of Williams reading this poem and others, he does not pause at line breaks, but uses them as marks of emphasis. To hear him read these lines is to see how enjambments allow him to choose among the potential meanings and tones for his key words. Such lessons in listening also become lessons in democratic sympathy. Listening to these lines about this woman means paying sustained attention to her by listening to language she might use (all common monosyllables, repeated) and thinking about what she enjoys and how she might feel. For Williams, the neglected syllables, the “common” and too often overlooked words in our language, correspond to the “common” people and to common pleasures: as we attend to one, we defend them all.

Nov 18, 2013

Readers,

Sharon Olds’ anagram–“hard on loss”–is apt when you consider some of the chief topics of her poetry. The homonym for said anagram is apt if you consider the title of a certain Sharon Olds poem we’ve read twice before. Well here’s a piece of hers that I heard on the radio this weekend, and is timely for anyone expecting a family reunion of sorts over Thanksgiving. Two memories presented here, tied neatly with a simply metaphor and a wonderful closing image. I guess if you hold a bee by the wings enough times, sooner or later you’re gonna get hurt.

Sharon Olds was born in 1942 and has won a handful of American literary prizes. Those still toiling away in obscurity will be heartened to learn that she published her first book of poems at age 37. For every reader who loves her poems, there is a reader who condemns them as self-indulgent and sensational. She lives in New York. -ed.

First Thanksgiving
When she comes back, from college, I will see
the skin of her upper arms, cool,
matte, glossy. She will hug me, my old
soupy chest against her breasts,
I will smell her hair! She will sleep in this apartment,
her sleep like an untamed, good object,
like a soul in a body. She came into my life the
second great arrival, after him, fresh
from the other world—which lay, from within him,
within me. Those nights, I fed her to sleep,
week after week, the moon rising,
and setting, and waxing—whirling, over the months,
in a slow blur, around our planet.
Now she doesn’t need love like that, she has
had it. She will walk in glowing, we will talk,
and then, when she’s fast asleep, I’ll exult
to have her in that room again,
behind that door! As a child, I caught
bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds,
looked into their wild faces,
listened to them sing, then tossed them back
into the air—I remember the moment the
arc of my toss swerved, and they entered
the corrected curve of their departure.

-2002

October 9, 2012 Scaffolding

Founding member Sara Cohan came to my rescue last week, forwarding on the below Seamus Heaney (anagram: eyes as humane) poem for our reading pleasure. This is from his very first collection, but I’d never read it before. I think Sara had noticed my flagging energy, what with no poem last week, and since I was out of town yesterday and consequently tired to tears today, the gimme is much appreciated. In brief, what can we note about this selection? Rhyming couplets. The typical Heaney harmonies–look at the middle stanza in particular, a happy marriage of alliteration and rounded vowels. And is anyone giving that final word a second look?

-ed.

SCAFFOLDING

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints,

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done,
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

 

-1966

September 17, 2012 Umbrage

“Erudite but never obscure,” reads a blurb on the dustcover of Ben Downing’s debut collection, released some 9 years ago. The linguistic play in the selection below lives up to that praise, and seems likely to please some MV readers–particularly those who enjoyed Dan Groves’s dissection of “goodbye” a few weeks ago. Downing goes to the dictionary of etymology for inspiration on this one. It could be an epic, but he’s distilled the concept and its moral import down to 5 couplets–rhyming ones, no less!. -ed.

UMBRAGE
Taken, given:
friendships riven.

From shadow or shade,
it instantly puts paid
to hard-won clarities
and causes us to freeze
up with unearned righteousness;
it makes us less.
How much better to combat it.
We should take umbrage at it.
-2012

September 10, 2012 Games

Dear readers,

I swear we ran this poem before, but looking back I can’t seem to find it. Perhaps I read it and then forgot to include it earlier in the year. Jack Gilbert’s collected poems was recently reviewed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette–with much pride, since Mr. Gilbert is a native Pittsburgher. An earlier (March) review in the New York Times said that “Reading Mr. Gilbert’s finest poems is like shaving with a razor that just nicks your skin. There’s a slight imperfection in the blade. There’s a bit of blood.” He was born in 1925 and has lived his life outside of the spotlight, even though his first book made a splash. He vagabonded around Europe, and has taught sporadically, also lived in San Francisco during the beat era, without adopting their aesthetics or social stance. He has also toured foreign countries as a poetry lecturer for the Department of State–how do I get that gig?!

Enjoy this pithy observation from one of our undersung lions. -ed.

GAMES

Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.

-1982

July 2, 2012 November for Beginners

From one former poet laureate to another: Rita Dove served in the post from 1993-4. Her work is noted not only for its political import, but also a lyricism and simple beauty. Many of her poems and characters seem easy to talk to. This one, however, had me stumped a bit. Who’s the we she’s speaking from? And this poem, too, brings us an examination of seasons, or seasons changing. Those of us the hotlands can welcome its mention of snow and wind. -ed.

NOVEMBER FOR BEGINNERS

Snow would be the easy
way out—that softening
sky like a sigh of relief
at finally being allowed
to yield. No dice.
We stack twigs for burning
in glistening patches
but the rain won’t give.

 

So we wait, breeding
mood, making music
of decline. We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,
memorizing

 

a gloomy line
or two of German.
When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool. Pour,
rain! Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!

-1981

June 25, 2012 A Set of Seasons

Dear readers,

Donald Hall has been writing poetry since he was 12. He was born in 1928. So he’s been writing poetry since about 1940. Wow, imagine the changes in a writer’s landscape since then. At Harvard, Hall studied alongside Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery. He’s written a fair amount of what could be called nature poetry, and his early work had a strongly formalist bent–lots of rhyme and even line lengths. He was appointed the U.S poet laureate in 2006.
Since I’ve been MIA for about 3 weeks, I was looking for something to mark our entry into–calendrically speaking–summer. The poem here, written in the mid-1950’s, is a general reflection but has a summery feel. -ed.
A SET OF SEASONS
He suspects that the seasons
Are not as they should be. How
Should he know that seasons
Are not to be suspected?
This gelatin of air
And splendid haze infers
Mistaken complements
To circumstance and phrase.
How should he come to know?
And how to score the seasons,
When he is making them
As red as grass, backwards?
Sir, the beginnings of pleasure
Erupt from the green and the red,
Scored in the head as grass,
Seasonal, unsuspected.

May 14, 2012 Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons

Dear readers,

In “Blue Monday” Diane Wakoski (b. 1937) describes love as a banker, remember? He wears a blue business suit and a fedora, and also black patent leather shoes and a moustache. In today’s poem–and who would think we’d find a mother’s day poem from Diane Wakoski, of all people?–all that remains is the moustache, which she spells “mustache.” Moustache is the preferred spelling, people–although she somewhat redeems herself by using the pleasing plural option at one point.

You’ll notice that Ms. Wakoski’s plan of attack here is very similar to what we see in “Blue Monday”–fiercely free verse, with the use of indentation to set off voices and themes. Long sentences, piled-up clauses, repetitions… she snaps her subject into focus through a long, multi-perspectival approach, sort of like driving all around a farmhouse before finally figuring out where the driveway is. Critic Marjorie Perloff says Wakoski “strives for a voice that is wholly natural, spontaneous, and direct. Accordingly, she avoids all fixed forms, definite rhythms, or organized image patterns in the drive to tell us the Whole Truth about herself, to be sincere.” I’d bet there are many among us who can relate to the emotional base of this poem. And double-special MV greetings to member Meg Harry, who gave birth to twins last week! -ed.

THANKING MY MOTHER FOR PIANO LESSONS

The relief of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
as if you were walking on the beach
and found a diamond
as big as a shoe;
as if
you had just built a wooden table
and the smell of sawdust was in the air,
your hands dry and woody;
as if
you had eluded
the man in the dark hat who had been following you
all week;
the relief
of putting your fingers on the keyboard,
playing the chords of
Beethoven,
Bach,
Chopin
         in an afternoon when I had no one to talk to,
         when the magazine advertisement forms of soft sweaters
         and clean shining Republican middle-class hair
         walked into carpeted houses
         and left me alone
         with bare floors and a few books
I want to thank my mother
for working every day
in a drab office
in garages and water companies
cutting the cream out of her coffee at 40
to lose weight, her heavy body
writing its delicate bookkeeper’s ledgers
alone, with no man to look at her face,
her body, her prematurely white hair
in love
         I want to thank
my mother for working and always paying for
my piano lessons
before she paid the Bank of America loan
or bought the groceries
or had our old rattling Ford repaired.
I was a quiet child,
afraid of walking into a store alone,
afraid of the water,
the sun,
the dirty weeds in back yards,
afraid of my mother’s bad breath,
and afraid of my father’s occasional visits home,
knowing he would leave again;
afraid of not having any money,
afraid of my clumsy body,
that I knew
         no one would ever love
But I played my way
on the old upright piano
obtained for $10,
played my way through fear,
through ugliness,
through growing up in a world of dime-store purchases,
and a desire to love
a loveless world.
I played my way through an ugly face
and lonely afternoons, days, evenings, nights,
mornings even, empty
as a rusty coffee can,
played my way through the rustles of spring
and wanted everything around me to shimmer like the narrow tide
on a flat beach at sunset in Southern California,
I played my way through
an empty father’s hat in my mother’s closet
and a bed she slept on only one side of,
never wrinkling an inch of
the other side,
waiting,
waiting,
I played my way through honors in school,
the only place I could
talk
       the classroom,
       or at my piano lessons, Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary always
       singing the most for my talents,
       as if I had thrown some part of my body away upon entering
       her house
       and was now searching every ivory case
       of the keyboard, slipping my fingers over black
       ridges and around smooth rocks,
       wondering where I had lost my bloody organs,
       or my mouth which sometimes opened
       like a California poppy,
       wide and with contrasts
       beautiful in sweeping fields,
       entirely closed morning and night,
I played my way from age to age,
but they all seemed ageless
or perhaps always
old and lonely,
wanting only one thing, surrounded by the dusty bitter-smelling
leaves of orange trees,
wanting only to be touched by a man who loved me,
who would be there every night
to put his large strong hand over my shoulder,
whose hips I would wake up against in the morning,
whose mustaches might brush a face asleep,
dreaming of pianos that made the sound of Mozart
and Schubert without demanding
that life suck everything
out of you each day,
without demanding the emptiness
of a timid little life.
I want to thank my mother
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning
when I practiced my lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,
will get lost,
slide away,
into the terribly empty cavern of me
if I ever open it all the way up again.
Love is a man
with a mustache
gently holding me every night,
always being there when I need to touch him;
he could not know the painfully loud
music from the past that
his loving stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I
am alone;
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,
liking the sound of my lesson this week,
telling me,
confirming what my teacher says,
that I have a gift for the piano
few of her other pupils had.
When I touch the man
I love,
I want to thank my mother for giving me
piano lessons
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
in mind;
            of the beauty that can come
from even an ugly
past.