Category: poetry

William Shakespeare

poetry

Sonnet #18

Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

– – –

Monsters of Poetry back again with the Monster of Poetry. This is one of those poems we all think back to from time to time; surely, it’s one of ol’ Bill’s most quotable sonnets. The lines of this poem seem to be a part of our DNA, fused over the centuries by beautiful mutation. What English speaker has never spoken that opening line? What English speaker does not still get a little ticklish feeling when they hear the phrase “the darling buds of May?” Indeed, the poem is so ingrained into our collective unconscious that it has become almost cliche, which is a true tragedy. So I propose to look at this poem with fresh eyes and appreciate it for what it is once more.

Sonnet #18 is thought by many to be one of the world’s most perfect love poems, if not one of the most perfect poems of all time. And with good reason. First off, the poem’s form is impeccable. Or nearly so. It’s a sonnet, clearly: the title “sonnet” simply indicates a rhyming pattern. In this case, abab cdcd efef gg. “Sonnet” also usually, but not always, indicates a certain format. The most traditional of sonnets are broken into three sections. The first eight lines make a statement, and the next four make a counterstatement or an addendum to the first statement. the final couplet is a resolution or conclusion. In #18, we can see this pattern: lines 1-8 tell of the beauty of summer, but also tell that summer’s beauty fades every year when autumn comes. Lines 9-12 state that “you” are not like the summer; you will never fade, because I have immortalized you in song. The couplet offers a romantic conclusion: as long as men live, breathe, and see, they will read this poem, and you will be forever young. Best pick up line ever? I think so.

The real reason for this poem’s immortality lies in its meter. Like nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, #18 is in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a bit magical for poets. An iamb is a “foot” made of one unstressed and one stressed beat: “ta-tum.” The word “compare” in the first line is an iamb. Five iambs together is a pentameter: ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum ta-tum. Many believe it’s the meter that represents most closely the rise and fall of the English language, and thus is best suited to represent English. Shakespeare knew, however, that drama comes when the meter is broken, if ever so slightly. He uses this technique straight away: say aloud the first line. You don’t say “Shall I”, like normal iambic pentameter, you say “Shall I”. Two stressed beats in a row is called a spondee, and Shakespeare knew that to start this poem off right, he needed more force than an iamb would allow. A lesser poet may not have ever made that leap.

The beauty of Shakespeare’s language is that it plays with iambic pentameter; it dances with it. Shakespeare never draws attention to the meter; nowhere in this poem do you feel the meter instead of the words, just like you’d never see the steel beams holding up the building. Nor do the words move flatly along; they are moved by the meter without being controlled by it.

Lastly, this poem is so endearing because it is quietly enigmatic. The person immortalized is, of course, dead. What is immortal is, in fact, the poem itself, which grows with time, as Shakespeare predicted. So the poem is not just about the subject (Actually a young boy, not a woman. Bet you didn’t know that!), but about the poem itself; some would say it’s more about the poem (and the poet’s ego) than anything else. It takes a lot of guts to say your poem will last forever. Funny thing is, he was right.

So there you have it, Sonnet 18, continuing to live on as Shakespeare knew it would.

James Wright

poetry

I’m still in such awe of this poem that I don’t really know what to say about it yet. The magic of it has not yet given way to insight. The funny thing is, I always seem to “forget” about this poem until I read it again. However, I’d probably say this is one of my absolute favorite poems. Every time I read it, it still fills me up like a big good meal. A beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing from the late James Wright. Enjoy.

– – –

A Blessing

Just off the Highway to Rochester, Minnesota
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Galway Kinnell

poetry

Blackberry Eating

I love to go out in late September
among fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

– – –

The other night in my poetry class, we talked about poems like this. Thick, juicy poems, poems that drip, that fill you up like a meal, that leave you drunk like a bottle of red wine. Poems that leave you woozy and red-faced. Poems so filled with language, when you finish reciting them or hearing them recited, you just feel…lost. Drunk. We talked about William Carlos William’s plums, and the way you can feel them, almost, in your mouth. This is something more…this is a prayer to blackberries. Black tends to get a bad rap as a color. Here, the black is so black it has become something more…black’s ability as a pigment is to absorb, and here I feel absorbed, enveloped by the black of the blackberries. I feel buried in the crevices between the little lumps. “The black art of blackberry making.” Ah…

More than anything this is an example of wordplay in its highest form, and a showing of the power repetition has in language. His words are mostly polysyllabic, or else long monosyllables, like “black” itself, a word that stretches out from its vowel, as absorbent as its namesake. And then words like “September,” “overripe,” “prickly,” “ripest,” “unbidden,” “peculiar,” “startled” and “language.” Big words full of tongue motions. (Compare again to Williams; his poem is far simpler in its language, and that is where its success lies.) Kinnell goes so far as to single out particular words that remind him of blackberry eating, “strengths,” “squinch,” and “broughamed.” What’s unique about these word choices is that none of them have anything to do remotely with eating: “strengths” we understand; “squinch” is similar to squint; “brougham” is a horse-drawn carriage. Here Kinnell has made a separation between a word’s sound and its meaning, a rare feat. He has found sounds that remind him of blackberries, not word-meanings. This is the sort of thing poets try and fail at their whole lives. In this case the success is palpable, and it’s delicious.

Percy Shelley

poetry

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – “two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lips, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.” –

– – –

This is a beautifully sublime poem, quiet and powerful. With only few words Shelley brings the scene and the idea to vivid life, walking the line between narrative and lyric poem.

Shelley was a member of the same movement that spawned Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lord Byron, Keats, etc. – the Romantic Movement. Wordsworth’s poem a couple weeks ago illustrated one aspect of Romanticism: reverence toward Nature, and the power of Nature over the human spirit. Shelley’s Ozymandias, in a quick sonnet (with a beautiful interlocking rhyme), takes on another major aspect of Romanticism: the use of History to inform the present. The Romantics loved the Classical Era: they found strong kinship in the ancient Romans and Greeks, races of philosopher/warrior/poets. The Romantics (the word itself containing “Roman”) looked back into history, and found people who were strong, spiritual, loving, and in tune with the world. At the same time they often disdained of non-Greeks and non-Romans, finding them brutish. They were very interested in filling in a direct line of philosophical succession from England to Rome to Athens.

Here Shelley writes of Ozymandias – not a Greek or Roman – and his broken statue, alone and forgotten in the desert – Egypt or some place equally exotic. The statue’s location seems even further away with the use of a proxy to tell the story, a “traveller from an antique land.” Shelley finds in Ozymandias’ statue traces of tyrrany; “Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!” Ozymandias calls to mind a dictator contemporary to Shelley, whose attempt to become the King of Kings through “mighty works” became a “colossal Wreck;” Napoleon. Calling Ozymandias the “King of Kings” may also be a direct insult to Christians, who have used the same title for Jesus. The irony of it is that nothing is left of this King of Kings except his broken statue.

In the end we find that Humanity is trumped by Nature – anything we create can be destroyed, all to quickly washed over by sand and time.

Jack Kerouac

poetry

Excerpts from On the Road

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.

What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

– – –

Today is Old Jack’s birthday, so I thought I’d give him the honor of being today’s Monster of Poetry. You’ll notice that today’s selections are not, technically, poetry. But they are. There’s a point where anything crosses a certain line and becomes poetry. Prose, essays, drunk emails, the menu at your favorite restaurant. Even what you eat at the restaurant, or an eyelash on a cheek, or a home run and a cracked bat. Kerouac knew this. Many great writers have gone through life reading and watching and writing great, well-loved things, but never wrote poetry. Jack couldn’t help but be a poet. When you hear how his friends talked about him, they all knew he was something special, a human like no other. He saw the deepest life in anything, and he knew how to pull it to the surface. His way of writing, spontaneous prose, was an attempt to access that deep purity and make it available to everyone. This was his gift. It’s also what poisoned him in the end. Because when he reached down deep, deep, deep, he found that in the heart of things is a great joy, but also a great melancholy. And he said, “I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.” He knew this deep joy and sadness permeated us all. He drank himself to death as a way, he thought, to enjoy life; a part of me thinks he really drank to push down the painful feeling of knowledge. The rest of us have only just begun to understand him. Happy Birthday, Jack.

William Wordsworth

poetry

The Tables Turned

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless–
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

– – –

Spring is a tricky thing here in Minnesota – on days like today the heart and mind are confused. The air is warm and filled with water; the breeze is cool and not stinging; the sun is bright, but not hot; you can hear the sounds of ice melting and icicles breaking and falling. But, on the ground rests a solid foot and a half of snow. Your body doesn’t know what to think.

Wordsworth is the poet of springtime; one would believe fall and winter never found him in the Lake District. Spring is Nature (Wordsworth & Co. loved the capital-N Nature) at its most fertile, at its smelliest and soggiest. Nature is more Natural in Spring. So when I catch whiffs of it in the air, I like to read a little Wordsworth in hopes of nudging the planet forward.

The language of Wordsworth’s poetry is Romanticism at its best – and it should be, he invented it. Bill Wordsworth is prone to exclamations and interruptions – no one loved a “!” like he did. He paints with a great deal of color; his poems are filled with yellows and greens and browns. He is prone to hyperbole – his poems generally start off small and dull but end up in a world that bears only little resemblance to ours. And he loves using big chewy words like “beauteous.” What a great word!

For me, Wordsworth never seems old or dusty, like so many poets do – there’s a freshness to his lyrical style that I just love to soak up. It feels so invigorating, comforting. This is sweatshirt poesy. This poem is perhaps the most self-explanatory of any that I’ve presented so far. It’s message is simple: get off your ass and go outside. He says it a little better, I’ll admit, but that’s about the long and short of it. Looked at a little more closely, this poem advocates a back-to-nature style of living; Wordsworth is saying that a life close to Nature is the life most worth living, and that everything we need to live is already inside us. Science and Art are unnecessary excesses (yet Wordsworth addresses the topic through poetry, an artform). “Our meddling intellect / mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things.” There’s a bit of a pagan bent to the whole thing: linnets and throstles are full of wisdom, and not mean like preachers. “Sweet is the lore which Nature brings.” Wordsworth insisted a number of times that he was not a “Nature worshipper,” but it’s clear here that he advocates some sort fo communion with the world; the more like animals we act, the more like humans we become.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

poetry

Recuerdo

We were very tired, we were very merry –
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable –
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hilltop underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry –
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry,
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry,
We hailed “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

– – –

I don’t know much about Edna Millay. Although she’s quite popular and her name is well known, I never read much of her work in school – at least that I remember. But we’ve read a number of her poems in my weekly poetry class, and this poem, Recuerdo, struck me in particular. I went out and picked up her Selected Poems. Her life in poetry started very quickly; she won a contest in 1917 with the poem Renasence, and a member of the audience to which she read offered to pay Edna’s way through Vassar College. There she studied and wrote, but was never one for academia; apparently Edna was quite a feisty gal. I read a story that the dean wanted to expel her, except the she was such a fine poet. When she left Vassar she moved to Greenwich Village, still under patronage, and was quickly wrapped up in what Fitzgerald called “The Jazz Age.” She went to all the parties and was well loved; indeed, she was quite beautiful, with fiery red hair and a wit to match. She had men practically proposing to her by the ends of her readings. But after years on the circuit she became ill and retired to the country, quietly living and writing the rest of her years.

Back to Recuerdo (which means “I remember” or “I record” in Spanish). It has a very simple rhyme: aabbcc. In fact most of Millay’s poems rhyme, a choice that made her work accessible, popular, and entertaining. (Meanwhile the avant garde was working toward very different goals – remember the Imagists?) Much of her poetry too is metrical – Recuerdo is lightly attached to (forgive me) “dactylic tetrameter,” meaning four sets of three-syllabled “feet.” In this way it makes the poem much like a waltz, – or – the swaying of a ferry. But some of the lines have one syllable too many – the definition of that lovable word “sesquipedalion.”

Recuerdo resonates with that end-of-the-night euphoria, that combination of exhaustion and absolute joy. There is only a slight sense of the actual events of the night – a hilltop, a fire, the moon – the poem focuses on the shaggy feeling of going home. They cross on the ferry eating apples and pears, vivid, crisp fruits, sensory anchors to hold us in the poem as Edna takes us swaying on the water. One can see her and her companion munching away on a basket of apples – it’s such a sensual moment. The most radiant image, though, is the “bucketful of gold.” I picture a big ladle dipping into the ocean. The sun seems at once both warm and crisply-cold like water. The last stanza finds them pouring that bucket out onto the streets of New York, giving their euphoria away as fruit and newspapers and change. A moment of beauty ending with a moment of charity.

Bob Dylan

poetry

Tangled Up in Blue

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’,
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red.
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough.
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through,
Tangled up in blue.

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess,
But I used a little too much force.
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best.
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder,
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue,”
Tangled up in blue.

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell.
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix.
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind,
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue.

She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer,
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear.
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same,
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath,
She studied the lines on my face.
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe,
Tangled up in blue.

She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type.”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you,
Tangled up in blue.

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs,
There was music in the cafes at night
And revolution in the air.
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died.
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside.
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn,
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew,
Tangled up in blue.

So now I’m goin’ back again,
I got to get to her somehow.
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now.
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenter’s wives.
Don’t know how it all got started,
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives.
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same,
We just saw it from a different point of view,
Tangled up in blue.

– – –

I was hard-pressed to find the best Dylan poem to introduce him as a Monster of Poetry. I ultimately decided on Tangled Up In Blue because, besides being one of his finest and most well-loved songs, it is, lyrically, the most successful melding of the two sides of Bob Dylan.

Bob’s biography is simple and fairly well known. Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, MN, he grew up in Hibbing, leaving after high school for the Twin Cities to study and start playing his folk songs. He was antsy to leave the Midwest, as many often are, so he left for New York, where he played in the local folk clubs and met his hero, Woody Guthrie, as he lay dying in his hospital bed. He was discovered by Columbia Records. He made four folk records but his fifth, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home launched Dylan’s controversial career as an electified blues/rock’n’roll musician. In 1966 he crashed his motorcycle, nearly dying. When he started making music again, it was of a simpler sort: folk-country on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline; muddy blues with The Band on Planet Waves. It was as if his earlier career and rise to stardom had never happened, as if he were learning to play music all over again. Similarly his lyrics had changed, morphed into a more personal, confessional style. The height of this New Dylan was Blood On The Tracks which many say is his best album. Tangled is the leadoff track.

Many associate Dylan with a certain weirdness, one that’s hard to pinpoint. Part of Dylan’s poetic education came from the Surrealists and the Imagists; he was a disciple of the Frenchmen Baudelaire and Rimbaud – both very strange guys – as well as TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. But he’s acknowledged repeatedly that his one true hero was Woody Guthrie, balladeer and rambler. Guthrie, though highly political, essentially was a storyteller. While the surrealism of Dylan tends to form the most lasting impression, a true study of his catalog reveals that he too is but a simple storyteller. Here in Tangled Up In Blue the story could not be simpler (or could it? I’ll get to that in a minute), and it’s as old as time itself: poor boy wants rich girl; rich parents don’t want poor boy; poor boy leaves forever. It’s written in vivid tones, filled with rich words and phrases: “if her hair was still red,” “great north woods,” “dark sad night,” “I just kept looking at the side of her face / in the spotlight so clear,” “glowed like burnin coal,” “she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe.” And there’s a bit of surreal imagery in there, lines on slaves, mathematicians, carpenter’s wives, 13th century Italian poetry, a topless bar (where he looks only at her face).

And of course there’s that gorgeously enigmatic line, “tangled up in blue.” Tangled up in blue…boy, it’s hard to really say what that means. The words “tangle” and “blue” each have good and bad connotations. In poetry “tangle” is often used to describe a woman’s curly hair, or a situation one is gladly involved in. But it also means a hopeless mess, and it evokes pain, like thorny rosebushes. “Blue” is a calm, comfortable color; sky blue; but it’s also “the blues.” The phrase’s connotation depends on what you think of the first verse; is he dreaming about the woman he’s lost forever, or the woman he’s lost but will soon find again? “Lord I’ve paid some dues gettin through;” does that mean he’s at the end of his trials or still in the midst? And then there’s “We’ll meet again someday on the avenue.” Either way, “tangled up in blue” is a striking, beautiful line, one of my favorites in all of literature/music.

And while the story seems Guthriesque, something about it doesn’t add up. Lindsey and I have debated this point a bit. The middle verses hang together pretty well, but the verse starting with “Montague Street” seems to be non sequitur. The first verse implies two young people together; the second implies an older couple, with him rescuing her from a divorce. The last verse makes it seem like he’s still searching for her; yet he seems to have found her, topless, a few verses back. It might be that each verse is a snippet from a different story. I dunno. Here Dylan’s Guthrie and Surreal sides collide. What we get is a story, yes, one full of pain and joy and evocative, glowing language, burning like coals, as he says. Yet the story is subtly surreal and decidedly nonlinear; and thus, decidedly Dylan.

Walt Whitman

poetry

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

– – –

Whitman is often seen, and rightly so, as the founder of modern American poetry. He is, as I noted in the entry on Carl Sandburg, a populist. He is in love with America. More to the point, he is in love with the American people. As a Long Islander by birth he was a lifelong New Yorker – a city which is a microcosm of America, especially in the 1800s, when you could go to both the “countryside” in Harlem and the financial district downtown. But he traveled extensively, both across the country and the world. In the Civil War he was a nurse, and his war poems express a deep love of love and human life.

He writes in a distinct style, one that was quite unique at the time. It’s harder to see in his shorter works but his longer poems, such as “Song of Myself” or “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” lack any real prosody (that is, formal rhyme and meter), instead coming out as a strange prose/poetry hybrid, gangly, long-limbed. His books are thick, dense tangles of adjectives and exclamations, like walking through a forest or a crowd. It’s rare that one gets a palpable sense of a poet just by looking at the layout of his books, but in the case of Whitman it is so. On the surface his word choice seems anchored in the vernacular, the conversational – but in reality his sensibility is highly refined. You don’t hear “filament” and “gossamer” bandied about every day. But his lack of formality and his apparent tone make his poetry approachable to “the masses,” whose who would not normally read poetry. And this approachability seems to be a defining American trait – at least we wish it to be. Whitman wanted to be read by those he wrote about. And he was – by the time of his death he had quite a following.

What’s most memorable about Whitman is his boundless love and emotion. Think of the famous “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman wailed on the death Abraham Lincoln. His poems reveal a huge arc of emotion, written plainly, with frank language. Fear, joy, lust, love in all its forms, sadness, envy, and most controversially, homoeroticism. He relishes living these emotions – he indulges in them equally – and he appreciates the necessity of emotion and pain more than any other poet. As I said before his works are filled with adjectives and adverbs and other modes of description. Whitman was a walking thesaurus, a true master of words, and he was never hesitant to show it. He uses exclamations (“O my soul!”), repetition, and anaphora (the repetition of a single word or phrase to begin a series of lines) to heighten emotion. Whitman is boasting about himself and his subjects – the boast being another American trait. Being both boastful and approachably humble is the essential paradox of Americanness, and it’s within this paradox that Whitman thrives.

John Berryman

poetry

Sonnet 115

All we were going strong last night this time,
the mots were flying & the frozen daiquiris
were downing, supine on the floor lay Lise
listening to Schubert grievous & sublime,
my head was frantic with a following rime:
it was a good evening, and evening to please,
I kissed her in the kitchen – ecstasies –
among so much good we tamped down the crime.

The weather’s changing. This morning was cold,
as I made for the grove, without expectation,
some hundred Sonnets in my pocket, old,
to read her if she came. Presently the sun
yellowed the pines & my lady came not
in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down & wrote.

– – –

I decided this week to get all classical on yo’ ass. Sort of. While the subject and style is decidedly modern, the form is old skool: the sonnet. More specifically, the Petrarchan Sonnet, one of the oldest poetic forms still recieving serious attention today. Indeed the sonnet is perhaps the most well-known poetic form, behind perhaps the ballad. A Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet is broken into two stanzas, an octet (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octet and the sestet are meant to be different thematically; traditionally, the sestet is meant as a response to or commentary on the theme presented in the octet. Berryman’s separation here is similar, but different. I’ll get to that in a minute. The sonnet form simply specifies a rhyme pattern; in the case of the Petrarchan sonnet, this is a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a for the octet, and c-d-e-c-d-e or c-d-c-c-d-c for the sestet. Berryman’s octet is perfect, but he plays with the sestet somewhat: c-d-c-d-e-e, which more closely resembles an English sonnet with its ending couplet (and even this isn’t quite right, with “not” and “wrote” being half-rhymes at best).

But to look exclusively at his questionable rhymes is to miss the exquisite and mournful beauty of this poem. I feel as if I’m giving away the ending by reprinting this poem: this is the final sonnet of the book Berryman’s Sonnets, a book chronicling the author’s attempts–unsuccessful, as we can see–to win over “an Excellent lady wif whom he was in wuv.” (That line is from the book’s introduction.) In real life Berryman’s muse was the wife of one of his grad students, and the Sonnets charts their affair from giddy beginning to guilty end. The octet finds Berryman hopeful and wistful; he’s drunk at a party, watching “Lise” on the floor. He uses warm words like “ecstasies,” “sublime,” “supine,” “good,” “strong.” They kiss in the kitchen and he halfway believes “the crime” will continue on into a real relationship; in reality the kiss is one of farewell. The ninth line signals transformation: “The weather’s changing.” Berryman has collected all he’s written and he waits for her; she does not come. He is “cold,” “old,” “yellowed.” By the end of the book and this poem you really do want the two to end up together, despite the sordid nature of their love; yet one is not surprised when they part ways with a kiss. As we all know, heartbreak makes for great poetry. Perhaps the broken nature of the final couplet’s rhyme is entirely appropriate.