Tag: american

Sam Shepard, “He changed the canaries”


He changed the canaries
Fed the Mule
Stood transfixed for ½ an hour
Every morning
He changed the canaries
Fed the Mule
And stood transfixed for ½ an hour
He never planned on standing transfixed for ½ an hour
It just happened
Every morning
Maybe it was the pause in finishing feeding the Mule
The momentum running down
There seemed to be a natural momentum
From changing the canaries
To feeding the Mule
It just happened
Every morning
It was the pause
After feeding the Mule
That stunned him
A Giant Pause
He even knew what the next thing was
He knew it very clearly
He knew the next thing was feeding himself
After feeding the Mule
But he couldn’t move
He stood transfixed for ½ an hour
Staring at the desert
Sometimes staring at his bottle house
Sometimes staring at the well pump
It depended on which direction he happened to be facing
When the transfixion struck him
It got to the point where he looked forward
To standing transfixed for ½ an hour
It was the high point of his morning
Change the canaries
Feed the Mule
Stand transfixed for ½ an hour
Homestead Valley, Ca.

~ ~ ~

From his fantastic book Motel Chronicles.

James Wright


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.

Jack Kerouac


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.

Edna St. Vincent Millay



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.

Walt Whitman


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


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.

Carl Sandburg



Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,

Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

– – –

Carl Sandburg is one of my favorite poets, and if ever I were pressed to answer definitively who my absolute favorite poet is, I’d probably go with Carl here, although that answer is debatable. While it may be tough to give such a finite answer on that question, it’s clear that Sandburg has, stylistically at least, inspired me more than any other poet. This poem alone (the first poem of his first collection, by the way) has been a singluar inspiration to me; you need only look at the fifth line to see evidence of this.

His words rest and work on the page in no clear style; they run the gamut from single-word lines to breathless prose-like stanzas than come from an even older source, Walt Whitman. The idea is that Mr. Sandburg gives his words enough time and space to work their magic as they need. While this may seem a simple choice of style, to me it reflects Sandburg’s (and Whitman’s, for that matter–but we’ll get to him another week) deeper nature, and the overall aim of his poetry. While so many poets are shrugged off as elitists (oftentimes rightly so), Sandburg is one of the last populist poets, a perpetually dying but not dead breed. He is a middle-class poet, a democratic poet; and if we buy into a certain idea of America as a scrappy, give-’em-hell, hard-working country, well, then Carl Sandburg is our poet laureate, once and always. Take Chicago here. To Sandburg Chicago is the archetypal American city, a Midwestern city built on back-breaking, nasty work. Slaughterer, maker, builder, transporter, thresher. But the Chicagoans seem happy with this work, laughing “under the terrible burden of destiny”; they are satisfied to work every day to the best of their abilities. Because to work is to be alive and be American, and that can’t be taken away. Sandburg’s poetry is filled with proud people working and living in scenes of adversity. Your average poet witnesses a scene and makes it introspective; the poet infers something about himself/herself. As a populist Sandburg turns these scenes not inward but outward. Sandburg sees in the worker in Chicago not something of himself but something of America: “under his ribs the heart of the people.” This worker is emblematic of a whole nation. The same can be seen in his biography of Lincoln; that president’s success was a direct result of his utter Americanness.

Back to his words on the page. He treats language in a democratic fashion. He is unattached to any preconcieved idea of how a poem should run, and he is willing to write in a way that gives each word what it needs to work, as opposed to subjecting his words to arbitrary formalities like rhyme and meter. He writes with an infectious exuberance, a call-to-arms tone. He is fond of adjectives, words of emphasis, words that elevate an noun in stature–and he issues them like punches, little jabs all in a row. He is also fond of repetition as a device to heighten the connection to a poem; he uses some form of “laugh” 8 times in the last half of the poem. An exploration of the rest of his work reveals great usage of another word: “we.” All good Big Lebowski fans recall The Dude’s (quite the populist himself) speech on the “Royal We”, many people speaking through one; here Carl Sandburg gives us something similar, but decidedly less pompous: simply, “We.” As in, of course, “We the people.”

Emily Dickinson


“The feet of people walking home”

The feet of people walking home
With gayer sandals go–
The Crocus–til she rises
The Vassal of the snow–
The lips at Hallelujah
Long years of practice bore
Till bye and bye these Bargemen
Walked singing on the shore.

Pearls are the Diver’s farthings
Extorted from the Sea–
Pinions–the Seraph’s wagon
Pedestrian once–as we–

Night is the morning’s Canvas
Death, but our rapt attention
To Immortality.

My figures fail to tell me
How far the Village lies–
Whose peasants are the Angels–
Whose Cantons dot the skies–
My Classics veil their faces–
My faith that Dark adores–
Which from its solemn abbeys
Such resurrection pours.

– – –

The story of Emily Dickinson is well known; the irony of her hermetic existence is that she has become one of the most well-known and widely read American poets. While she lived most of her adult life alone in Amherst, MA, she was a woman of fancy, imagination, and intense passion, writing over 1,700 poems and thousands of letters to her many friends–most of them she never saw. Simple lyrics like “The feet of people walking home” glow with a language of utter fascination.

Dickinson’s introverted life gave her an utterly unique perspective on poetry. While most major poets are associated with this movement or that style, Dickinson is nothing more than Dickinson. Her use of punctuation, especially the Em Dash (–), is highly irregular, especially for the late 1800s–not until the Beats in the 1950s did any group of poets use the dash so heavily. Yet her use of capitalization carries a Classical sentiment, recalling a time when all nouns were capitalized. Her poetry is beautifully ignorant of the wordniness of her contemporaries, such as Whitman. She writes in a short, terse lyric style that was all but out of fashion in her time, with the exception being the rising star in Ireland, W.B. Yeats.

The em dash reveals her passion and conflict. It’s a symbol of time, and often a symbol of epiphany; a moment when time pauses and the writer loses control, as if writing automatically. The writer enters a state of realization. Dickinson, it seems, spent many of her days in this fashion.

William Carlos Williams


This Is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

– – –

Well five weeks into my new segment and I’m already messing up. I missed MONSTER Sunday. I’ve had a lot of poetry on the brain (I’ll fill you in later) but I’ll admit, the football playoffs didn’t help much either. Go Bears. So, it seemed fitting to pick a poem of embarrassment from Mr. Williams. On the outset it seems like a simple poem, which was indeed part of the point. The language is clear and concise, there is no meter, nor any rhyme, nor any simile, metaphor, alliteration, or any such poetic nonsense. Yet this poem, along with the early works of H.D., Ford Maddox Ford, D.H. Lawrence, and especially Ezra Pound, formed a serious sea change in the world of poetry: the Imagist movement, generally considred to be the founding movement of Modern poetry. Like so many things in the 20th Century, Imagism was reactionary: it was a reaction to the increasingly copious and melodramatic works of Victorian poetry, a prime example being Lord Tennyson, the Monster of Poetry from two weeks ago. The young Imagist writers found the poems of Tennyson etc. to be dinosaurs, lumbering around excessively, roaring from hillsides. So they decided to work on an extinction plan. Their idea was simple: treat the “thing” directly; use no word that does not contribute directly to the treatment; focus the poem’s tone on music rather than on arcane systems of rhyme and meter. Essentially, let a poem be an image, a single image or an immediate juxtaposition of images, and let it speak for itself with no guiding hand of the poet’s morality. It does sound refreshing, doesn’t it? The irony is that the purveyors of Imagism spent volumes articulating this theory in all of its political and social ramifications, which goes to show that all Art has baggage, and that the less art says, the more it carries. The Japanese write haiku for haiku’s sake; the Europeans do it and add all this extra shit to it.

Now that I’ve thoroughly ruined this glorious poem for you, let’s go back and take another look. Baggage aside, this is a fantastic study on the power of language. First thing is the word “plum,” which must be one of the most beautiful words in the English language. It’s such a round word, the “p” rising to the “l” and dipping down to the soft “u” and the fuzzy “m.” It’s a word that recalls perfectly the object it represents. This poem wouldn’t be the same if it were “guavas.” “Plum” also recalls a color, purple, and connects to “probably” in the next stanza. “Icebox” gives the poem a crisp feel. By the time you get to “so sweet/ and so cold,” by God, you can practically taste those plums in your mouth. I’ve probably read this poem hundreds of times, and it never loses its magic.

Extra MONSTERS OF POETRY Fun! Do your own This Is Just to Say mad-lib!!

Robert Frost


This week’s entry comes from playing a little word association with last week’s poem; “Frost at Midnight” to Robert Frost. I must admit, I never studied Frost much, and I know little about his work. He’s quite famous, of course; one of only a few Modern poets to achieve real fame in his lifetime. Poets used to be famous. These days they’re hard to come by. Most folks would be hard-pressed to name a major poet working today.

This post comes to you on another late snowy night, just a couple nights after the Winter Solstice, which recieves an oblique reference in tonight’s poem. While Coleridge’s poem is a tremendous exercise in complimentary imagery, stacking sights and sounds and ideas right on top of one another, Frost’s poem and his poetry in general tackle the problem of lyrical simplicity: how to pack volumes of information and sentiment into four little stanzas. But this is where Frost excelled. Many would argue that a good lyric is harder to write than a good epic. Even the rhyme scheme of tonight’s poem is deceptively simple, yet quite complex: aaba bbcb ccdc dddd. This is called a Rubaiyat. The lyric asks much of the reader, and yet asks nothing: one could read a simple Frost lyric and see nothing more than beautiful imagery and fine wordplay. But the same reader is greatly rewarded if they decide to delve deeper into the world implied in the poem. This is a beautiful poem, one made for the quiet winter night. Enjoy.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.