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Monday’s Verse 11/12/2018

Dear readers,

you’ve probably followed some commemorations of WWI this weekend. I couldn’t help but find one of the WWI poets for our reading today. We’ve read several of them (mostly British, but some American) over the years, but can’t recall if we’ve looked at Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) before. He was also a composer, and even before enlisting in WWI, had suffered nervous breakdowns. He was wounded twice in the war, the 2nd time by poison gas.

WWI is seen as definitive break with the world that came before, partially because of new technologies (machine guns, tanks, poison gas) that made the horrors of combat more vivid (Along with, of course, the scope of the war). And the WWI poets, faced directly with that imagery, pushed writing about the battlefield past the patriotic complacencies of prior war poetry.

This example, however, retreats a bit from the responsibility of the poet to depict the horrors of the battlefield. It is, instead, a stately sonnet (ABBA ABBA CDE CDE) that speaks unironically about the skill, might, mettle, and honur of the craft, and of the military action. Unless I’m reading it wrong — this is my first time with Ivor Gurney since using a big anthology for Brit Lit in about 1992. Have a good week,

ed.

TO THE POET BEFORE BATTLE

Now, youth, the hour of thy dread passion comes;

Thy lovely things must all be laid away;

And thou, as others, must face the riven day

Unstirred by rattle of the rolling drums,

Or bugles’ strident cry. When mere noise numbs

The sense of being, the sick soul doth sway,

Remember thy great craft’s honour, that they may say

Nothing in shame of poets. Then the crumbs

Of praise the little versemen joyed to take

Shall be forgotten; then they must know we are,

For all our skill in words, equal in might

And strong of mettle as those we honoured; make

The name of poet terrible in just war,

And like a crown of honour upon the fight.

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Monday’s Verse 11/6/2018 — election day special

Dear friends,

take time to vote, and take time to smell the roses, and then take 3 minutes for poetry. I really apologize for my inattention to the listserv the past couple weeks! Things happened, mistakes were made.

Jericho Brown published his first volume in 2008, and it won the American Book Award. He’s since published a second, placed poems in many of the top journals, and has been teaching creative writing at Atlanta’s Emory University. But I think today’s poem is the first time he’s appeared in Poetry Magazine. There are depths and layers to this one, using an extended metaphor of Achilles’ relationship to his lover and fellow soldier Patroclus from the Iliad.

Not knowing many of Mr. Brown’s poems, I don’t know if he worships assonance in all his work as much as in this example. I tend to like poems that look like this — really long at first glance, but really, not much more than a sonnet in total, with its consistently short lines. Three, four, or five words each, pretty much. And you still get a lot of internally rhyming syllables packed into those short segments. It’s sort of the opposite of Homer’s dactylic hexameter. He evokes some of Homer’s epic themes, but then leaves them be (in my reading). I think he’s more concerned with the personal in this poem — what is it to be in one’s own skin, what is it to put on another’s armor? And is their word play? Yes, there is word play. Have a field day. -ed.

TROJAN

When a hurricane sends

Winds far enough north

To put our power out,

We only think of winning

The war bodies wage

To prove the border

Between them isn’t real.

An act of God, so sweet.

No TV. No novel. No

Recreation but one

Another, and neither of us

Willing to kill. I don’t care

That I don’t love my lover.

Knowing where to stroke

In little light, knowing what

Will happen to me and how

Soon, these rank higher

Than a clear view

Of the face I’d otherwise

Flay had I some training

In combat, a blade, a few

Matches. Candles are

Romantic because

We understand shadows.

We recognize the shape

Of what once made us

Come, so we come

Thinking of approach

In ways that forgo

Substance. I’m breathing —

Heaving now —

In my own skin, and I

Know it. Romance is

An act. The perimeter

Stays intact. We make out

So little that I can’t help

But imagine my safety.

I get to tell the truth

About what kind

Of a person lives and who

Dies. Barefoot survivors.

Damned heroes, each

Corpse lit on a pyre.

Patroclus died because

He could not see

What he really was inside

His lover’s armor.

-October 2018

Monday’s Verse 10/15/2018

Dear readers,

quickly this morning, no time for small chat, is a poem by Richard Blanco — you can look him up because he has been at least an inaugural poet, but was maybe also poet laureate for a bit? I forget. But in this 20-year-old poem I hear not only the bilingual symbols of ethnic american poetry, but also Wallace Stevens. Enjoy. -ed.

CONTEMPLATIONS AT THE VIRGIN DE LA CARIDAD CAFETERIA, INC.

Que será, el café of this holy, incorporated place,

the wild steam of scorched espresso cakes rising

like mirages from the aromatic waste, waving

over the coffee-glossed lips of these faces

assembled for a standing breakfast of nostalgia,

of tastes that swirl with the delicacy of memories

in these forty-cent cups of brown sugar histories,

in the swirling froth of café-con-leche, que será,

what have they seen that they cannot forget—

the broad-leaf waves of tabaco and plantains

the clay dust of red and nameless mountains,

que será, that this morning I too am a speck;

I am the brilliant guitar of a tropical morning

speaking Spanish and ribboning through potions

of waist-high steam and green cane oceans,

que será, drums vanishing and returning,

the African gods that rule a rhythmic land

playing their music: bongó, bembé, conga;

que será, that cast the spells of this rumba,

this wild birthright, this tropical dance

with the palms of this exotic confusion;

que será, that I too should be a question,

que será, what have I seen, what do I know—

culture of café and loss, this place I call home.

-1998

Monday’s Verse 10/1/2018

Dear readers,

100 years ago, people sometimes thought that things were totally falling apart. We’ve talked about this, even specifically about "things fall[ing] apart," within the past few months. Among the most stunning things about William Butler Yeats’s (1865-1939) "Leda and the Swan" was that he wrote it in response to a magazine editor’s request for a poem on the subject of the Russian revolution. And Yeats, weirdo that he is, came up with this. It was published in The Dial in 1923.

I was way into Greek mythology when I was little. Like, waaaaay into it. Never mind that I didn’t understand exactly what rape was, I also couldn’t get my head around how this bird was supposed to attack and subdue a grown woman. All these physical descriptions and action words that Yeats uses brought it to my mind in a way I could never have imagined before. It’s actually frightening, not fantastic. And it’s still recognizably a war poem, but in Hegelian-mythic terms, fitting with WBY’s cosmic visions of cones and cycles. At the same time, it feels like being human — caught up in the white rush of existing moment to moment. Have a good week. -ed.

LEDA AND THE SWAN

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, He holds her helpless breast upon his breast. How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body, laid in that white rush, But feel the strange heart beating where it lies? A shudder in the loins engenders there The broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead. Being so caught up, So mastered by the brute blood of the air, Did she put on his knowledge with his power Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Monday’s Verse 9/24/2018

Dear readers,

I’ll tell you one thing Robert Herrick had right back in the 1700s or whenever: old time is still a-flying. Hence my Tuesday afternoon version of MV. Everyone loves formal poetry, so let’s have some more! Featuring yet another villanelle (an article tells me it’s for "rustic" in Italian? Is that right? Seems counter-intuitive, but… who am I to say?), by one Joyce Sutphin (b. 1949) of general prairie fame. Her poems tend to present a pastoral scene and then puncture the pretty picture with pain, because her name is an anagram for "it punches joy." Anyway, here’s a bio provided by the Poetry Foundation, and a cool poem. -ed.

Joyce Sutphen grew up on a farm in Minnesota. She earned a PhD in Renaissance drama from the University of Minnesota, and has taught British literature and creative writing at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota. Her first collection of poems, Straight Out of View (1995), won the Barnard Women’s Poets Prize. Subsequent collections include Coming Back to the Body (2000), a Minnesota Book Award finalist, Naming the Stars(2004), winner of the Minnesota Book Award, and First Words (2010).She has received a McKnight Artist Fellowship and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship and was named Minnesota’s Poet Laureate in 2011.

A KIND OF VILLANELLE

I will have been walking away:

no matter what direction I intended,

at that moment, I will have been walking

Away into the direction that you now say

I have always intended, no matter what my

intention was then, I will have been

Walking away, though it will not be clear

what it was that I was leaving or

even why, it seems that you will say

That always, I was walking away,

intending a direction that was not towards

you, but moving away with every step,

Or, even when I pretended to be walking

towards you, only making the place

for my feet to go backwards,

Away, where I will have been walking,

always away: intention and direction

unknown, but knowing you will always

say I will have been walking away.

-2000

Monday’s Verse 9/17/2018

Dear readers,

We talked about sestinas a couple weeks ago and then accidentally veered into villanelles. Who doesn’t love a villanelle? Nobody with eyes and a heart, that’s who. There are 2 villanelles so firmly entrenched in the pop-literary culture that I have a feeling you’ll feel the rhythm and repetition of this one pulling you there, even though it comes 50-odd years later. This one was curated by Rita Dove for the NYTimes weekend edition, and is by Adam Gianelli, a "younger" poet (I have no idea what this means, often with writers born past 1970 I can’t find a "born in" date, but in any case he seems to have relatively recently finished an MFA and has essays and a book of translations published, but no complete volume of poems. Anyway he’s an Oberlin grad, as are some of my favorite people, so I’ll say that puts him in good company. Lots of clever near-rhyme here.

Enjoy the repetition, and enjoy your week! -ed.

ON A LINE BY PROUST

Silent now, the yellow house with its host
of hiding places is gray. The true paradises
are the paradises that we have lost.

We threw the geese bread, stiff as toast,
crenellating the loaf; we watered the irises.
Those days are silent now. Without a host

the herb garden is overgrown. Like a ghost
mint lingers on the ground. Rosemary, basil, chives
were my paradises. I have lost

the rows that stretched, when as the tallest
I strode before the class — or toward the apse,
where into the silence the priest raised the host

above his head. And now like the Eucharist,
(like madeleine-laden tea) the taste of Orange Julius
contains the paradises we have lost.

Those who called at me call from bed, dear Proust,
or turn away to peck at sleep. Their memories
are silent now, and I, the only host
of the paradises we have lost.

-2018

Monday’s Verse 9/10/2018

Hey all,

I did not mean to skip last week, nor to blow through Monday without seeking some decent poetry and 5 spare minutes to cut, paste, and hit "send." I apologize for the lame intro today, but I saw this article on the poetry foundation site about poems to read when you’re stuffed in a locker–sort of a back to school thing–and it’s delightful. I encourage you to take a look, they kind of run the gamut. In the blurb about today’s poem, by J.V. Cunningham, the editor writes:

"

Here’s a poem with the bootstraps cure for dejection: a dubious affirmation of self-love. Cunningham’s speaker figures that any love outside the self can escape our control before escaping us altogether: what heart but the one you own will steadfastly follow your fickleness? Terse, smart, and sour, this is nevertheless one of Cunningham’s more poignant pieces. At first glance he comes off as a crusty old bird, but there’s a wealth of nimble wit in his brief poems. They’ll set up shop in your brain and provide hours of amusement on dateless Saturday nights.

"

The idea of a guy named "JV" writing a poem to read while stuffed in a locker has a pleasing, downbeat humor, doesn’t it? And here it is. Have a good week! -ed.

from DR. DRINK, #1

In the thirtieth year of life

I took my heart to be my wife,

And as I turn in bed by night

I have my heart for my delight.

No other heart may mine estrange

For my heart changes as I change,

And it is bound, and I am free,

And with my death it dies with me.

-1960