Tag: monsters of poetry

Ted Hughes, “Wodwo”


What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then? And picking
bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
me and doing that have coincided very queerly
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here’s the water
again very queer but I’ll go on looking

* * *

Keep reading

First and Last: Stanley Kunitz


Somehow my first copy of Stanley Kunitz’s Collected Works had gone missing, as books are wont to do sometimes. So I was happy to find a nice fresh copy waiting for me on the Half Price Books poetry shelf. I like Kunitz quite a bit because he seems like a simple man. His poetry is not bogged down in the sort of post-modernisms that many of contemporaries practiced. Not a beatnik, nor a neo-formalist, not an imagist, not a confessional poet – just simply a poet, lyrical and accessible in style. In another post I would like to recount his “Reflections” which begin this book, because they very simply describe everything I wish a poet and poetry to be. I’ll give you the first paragraph:

Years ago I came to the realization that the most poignant of all lyric tensions stems from the awareness that we are living and dying at once. To embrace such knowledge and yet to remain compassionate and whole – that is the consummation of the endeavor of art.

So, with that, his first and last:


Dissolving in the chemic vat
Of time, man (gristle and fat)
Corrupting on a rock in space
That crumbles, lifts his impermanent face
To watch the stars, his brain locked tight
Against the tall revolving night.
Yet is he neither here nor there
Because the mind moves everywhere;
And he is neither now nor then
Because tomorrow comes again
Forshadowed, and the ragged wing
Of yesterday’s remembering
Cuts sharply the immediate moon;
Nor is he always; late and soon
Becoming, never being, till
Becoming is being still.

Here, Now, and Always, man would be
Inviolate eternally:
This is his spirit’s trinity.

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I knelled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

First and Last: Donald Hall


I thought it would be a fun experiment to post the first and last poems in a particular poet’s “collected works” edition. I guess in my mind posting the first poem – and by first I mean oldest, and by oldest I mean when the poet was at his youngest – and last poem will show some shift in maturity and sensibility, maybe a shift from optimism to crankiness, maybe the opposite, maybe a shift in formality and prosody, or lack thereof – or maybe it’ll show nothing at all, and that will be fine too. Anyway, the first poet I chose is Donald Hall, because 1) I think Donald Hall is great, and 2) it was the book sitting closest to me. Also the title of the book nicely sums up the project here: Old and New Poems. The funny thing is this book hardly finds Donald at the end of his career – this is a midway-point greatest hits collection if anything. Since this book you could argue Hall has only become more popular – only a couple years ago he was made the poet laureate of the nation.

I find the first poem especially serendipitous as we just got finished with an epic baseball game at the park, and I can see a day like this being remembered from old man “to old man” in the future. It’s also funny that the “youngest” poem in the book is about an old man. The second poem is not actually the last poem – I know first post and I’m already breaking the rules – but the last poem is much to long to transcribe here (yep, almost every poem you find here has been typed by hand by me – hardly any of them exist online). The last poem is the morbidly titled “Praise for Death” and is a glorious thing, so do track the book down if you can. I should note that as these last poems were written in 1989 Hall had been diagnosed with colon cancer and so was looking death squarely in the face, which, cruel as it is to say, usually makes for great poetry. So this is the penultimate poem, and still a bit longish itself. You could probably argue that Hall’s most obvious change is from short form to long form poetry. Let’s see what else we find:

Old Home Week

Old man remembers to old man
How bat struck ball upon this plain,
Seventy years ago, before
The batter’s box washed out in rain.

This Poem

This poem is why
I lie down at night
to sleep; it is why
I defecate, read,
and eat sandwiches;
it is why I get
up in the morning;
it is why I breathe.

You think (and I know
because you told me)
that poems exist
to say things, as you
telephone and I
write letters – as if
this poem practiced

One time this poem
compared itself to
new machinery,
and another time
to a Holstein’s cud.
Eight times five times eight
counts three hundred and
twenty syllables.

When you require it,
this poem consoles –
the way a mountain
comforts by staying
as it was despite
earthquakes, Presidents,
divorces, and frosts.
Granite continues.

This poem informs
the hurt ear wary
of noises, and sings
to the weeping eye.
When the agony
abates itself, one
may appreciate
arbitrary art.

This poem is here.
Could it be someplace
else? Every question
is the wrong question.
The only answer
saunters down the page
in its broken lines
strutting and primping.

It styles itself not
for the small mirror
of its own regard –
nor even for yours;
to fix appearance;
to model numbers;
to name charity
“the greatest of these.”

All night this poem
knocks at the closed door
of sleep: “Let me in.”
Suppose all poems
contain this poem,
dreaming one knowledge
shaped by the measure
of the body’s word.

* * *

One thing I notice the older poet writing about more and more is, obviously, death. Hall at this point was older, yes, but not of an age to truly face death – however the world had presented him with this cancer, and thus he was forced to accept death prematurely, only to go on living and writing up until the present day. I can’t imagine the effect this has on a person, but the poetry, just two poems, tells us that the person goes from crisp, somewhat weightless, formal (iambic tetrameter) “poetry’s poetry” based on a simple theme to a more casual and rustic exploration of global, universal themes. Poem not as poem but as container of life. I’ll leave you with that, make of it what you will. My well’s run dry on this post so I’ll be back another time.



Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

– – –

Perhaps I’m too young to be drawn to Yeats’ older poetry. Perhaps every once in awhile one gets preoccupied with growing old, even when one is young and shouldn’t be considering such inevitabilities yet. Either way, I rest assured that I have an equal fascination with the poetry of Yeats’ younger years, the poetry that is so accurately described in the first stanza of this poem.

Like the previous Yeats poem I presented, this poem provides a sharp contrast between the poetry of his younger days and of his elder days. However, the sentiment is reversed: in “Wild Swans” Yeats yearns for his youth and laments what has befallen him through the years. In “Sailing to Byzantium” Yeats is hardened; he dismisses youth – his own youth and youth in general – as fanciful, singing and embracing each other, listening to music and reveling in the sunshine. “This is no country for old men,” he intones, almost like a commandment or a biblical verse. He feels mocked by the younger generations. He feels useless, “a tattered coat upon a stick,” and so he decides to leave.

He heads to Byzantium, a city he studied and revered. He believed that Byzantium in the sixth century was the perfect time and place to be an artist, and so he wishes to be gathered into Byzantium’s “artifice of eternity,” where his useless body and heart will be stripped away and he will become an unnatural being of pure art (drawing on the root of the word “art” which is “artifice” or “artificial”), a golden bird placed on a golden bough, singing of past, present, and future.

As he grew older, Yeats became more and more preoccupied with death, and with his own death. “Sailing to Byzantium” is a slap in the face to death, his way of outsmarting nature and its inevitabilities. Nature cannot kill something that is not natural; becoming art/artificial is Yeats’ formula for immortality. And it worked, for here we are reading and discussing him.

Naturally, Yeats chooses a solid, artificial style to enhance his theme. The poem is in iambic pentameter, which is generally accepted to be the meter closest to normal English speech. But it is not the same as normal English speech – anyone who has seen Shakespeare performed knows that. The relationship is much like a bird on a treebranch compared to a golden bird on a golden bough. The meter is quite old as well; perhaps Yeats feels a kinship with it.

I’ve enjoyed reflecting on this poem after reading the novel No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and seeing the movie. The connection is a philosophical one. Both texts have at their base one broad idea: the rejection of nature. Yeats sees sorrow in nature; there is fun to be found in youth, mockery to be found in old age, and death waiting at the end. McCarthy’s vision of nature is essentially the same, although he outlines it in a much more violent manner. In the book a serial killer named Chigurh roams the Texas border country; his goal is to kill one particular man, Llewelyn Moss, who has stolen a couple million dollars from the scene of a drug deal gone bad, but Chigurh ends up killing another dozen or so people along the way, some of them simply for guessing wrong on a coin toss. The sheriff tracking Chigurh muses toward the end of the novel that it’s not Chigurh who’s evil, but the land itself. Nature is the spring of violence. The sheriff, Bell, is an old man too; like Yeats he sees recklessness in youth, marveling as he reads the paper and walks down the street at the things kids these days think up to do to themselves (piercings, pink hair) and to others (murder for fun). As the narrator for the book, Bell becomes the novel’s golden bird, singing out the times, and he lives on as art. I like to imagine Yeats and Bell hanging out in ancient Byzantium, trading stories and feeling, at last, some freedom.



I read this beautiful poetry analysis today in the Wall Street Journal and, since I didn’t feel like I could possibly write anything any better about this poem, I’ll just present the article in lieu of my own analysis. I don’t know much about Philip Larkin, aside from the fact that he was poetry royalty in Britain, perhaps the most famous contemporary British poet. After reading this beautiful poem and the analysis of it, Well, I think I’ll be picking up the next book of his I can get my hands on – which is really what a good poem and a good analysis should do – make you pick and read more poetry. Enjoy.

– – –

The Explosion

On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
In the sun the slagheap slept.

Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
Shouldering off the freshened silence.

One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark’s eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.

So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open.

At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
Scarfed as in a heat-haze dimmed.

The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face–

Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed–
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,

One showing the eggs unbroken.

– – –

The Poet’s Alchemy

December 8, 2007

One evening during the Christmas holidays of 1969, Philip Larkin (1922-85), the pre-eminent British poet of his generation, watched a television documentary on the mining industry and its inherent dangers for those in the trade. The program, critics believe, provided the “trigger,” the emotional source, for one of his greatest narrative poems, “The Explosion.”

It is an artful and telling connection because it validates Larkin’s own thoughts on the process of poetry, how poetry happens. Briefly explained, it is a process in which a poet, so impressed with an experience or image, is compelled to construct a verbal device, a poem, that will reproduce his emotional concept, recurrently, in anyone who cares to read it anywhere, anytime.

Larkin’s composition time for “The Explosion” was relatively brief. He already had a sense of the mining culture, for he had read D.H. Lawrence’s writings of life in a mining village. The poem was completed early in 1970, just weeks after the mining documentary was broadcast. It is composed in the same meter as Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” though Larkin said he was not aware of this when he created the poem. Published by the Poem-of-the-Month-Club later that year, it was included in “High Windows,” Larkin’s last collection of verse, released in 1974. The reception of the book was extraordinary, considering that it was a collection of poetry. Thousands of copies were sold in the first weeks, another edition rushed into print and Larkin, who was at the time a prominent figure in British poetry, became — in the words of a reviewer — “a national monument.”

As a poet, Larkin was influenced by the novelist-poet Thomas Hardy, who also focused on intense personal emotion, avoiding sentimentality or self-pity. In a similar assessment, Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobelist, believes that there is a “crystalline reality” in Larkin’s poetry that “refuses alibis” about the conditions of contemporary life. With “The Explosion,” Larkin achieves this in a mere 25 lines in eight three-line stanzas and a single, almost isolated, final line. For all its concision, it’s an ingenious accomplishment, a masterpiece of poetry.

In the poem’s first stanza, Larkin begins with an everyday interpretation of the early morning of the disaster. It is cast with a colloquial slant and a neat alliterative end, though there is a sense of the ominous: “On the day of the explosion/ Shadows pointed towards the pithead:/ In the sun the slagheap slept.”

Images of a new day and a rugged camraderie appear in stanza two as we follow the men to the mine. The poem’s journey is beginning: “Down the lane came men in pitboots/ Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe smoke,/ Shouldering off the freshened silence.”

In stanza three, there is a pause in the poem’s movement, an interlude, I’ll call it, that suggests innocence. Along the lane a young miner chases rabbits, loses them but returns to his group with a nest of lark’s eggs that he has found and tenderly returns: “Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.” The use of the “lark” is perhaps Larkin’s narrative signature or emphasis of the playfulness within the stanza.

Then the poem’s pace quickens to its true theme of understanding and accepting our common destiny, which a great poet’s work has the capacity to convey. In “The Explosion,” Larkin pairs death and fatalism, love and beauty, and explores man’s affinity with the environment.

The ensuing stanzas include memorable lines, essential to the poem, with layered depths of meaning, underscoring T.S. Eliot’s suggestion that a poem can communicate before it is understood. “Through the tall gates standing open” is a stark image of a void, an abyss. And then the explosion, reduced to a shudder by Larkin: “At noon, there came a tremor; cows/ Stopped chewing for a second; sun,/ Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.”

Larkin cast stanza six alone in italics, distinguishing it from the rest of the poem. It is more than a dramatic turn; he is separating the miners from their suffering, their previous state: “The dead go on before us, they/ Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,/ We shall see them face to face — “

The remaining two stanzas are Larkin’s images of visions — the bright visions of the miners’ wives. “Plain as lettering in the chapels/ It was said, and for a second/ Wives saw men of the explosion.” In the final stanza, a model of euphony, the poet transforms the miners as they appear in the vision as golden, sanctified figures: “Gold as on a coin, or walking/ Somehow from the sun towards them.”

The poem concludes with a vision of renewal and hope. The lark’s eggs that were found and returned by the young miner now reappear in the poem in the hands of a miner in the group walking out of the sun: “One showing the eggs unbroken.” The darkness of the pit from which they have emerged is lit for an instance by Larkin’s pure poetry.

James Fenton, former professor of poetry at Oxford, lectured there on Larkin’s poetry, writing that it expresses the common experience and “that it has its origin in the commonplace.” To that statement add the sheer pathos of Larkin’s poetry and you have “The Explosion.” Worth listening to is Mr. Fenton’s excellent reading of the poem for “Poets Night,” an audiocassette produced by FSG Penguin Putnam.

Tall, bald, bespectacled and gloomy, Larkin has been called a curmudgeon and worse. He was indeed an accomplished complainer, though his countenance, if the novelist Martin Amis is correct, was of “a mournful, priestly gaze.” Larkin, often self-critical, famously said that deprivation for him was what daffodils were for Wordsworth.

Larkin was a university librarian, novelist and jazz critic, writing monthly reviews for the Daily Telegraph. The reviews were published in a book called “All What Jazz.” He was the leading voice of what was to be called “The Movement,” a group of young British writers who rejected the prevailing fashion for neo-romantic writing. Larkin was a lifelong friend of the novelist Kingsley Amis (Martin’s father) from their university days. In response to Larkin’s detailed suggestions, Amis heavily revised “Lucky Jim,” his hugely popular novel.

Larkin received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1965, though for health reasons he declined the honor of Poet Laureate of England in 1984. He died of esophageal cancer on Dec. 2, 1985. Biographers tell us that his last words were “I am going to the inevitable.” At his funeral in Westminster Abbey, a combo played the music of Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet, about whom he had written a poem.

Mr. Amelia, an essayist and former public-relations executive, resides in Dagsboro, Del.




The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

– – –

This is one of my favorite poems by someone who used to not be one of my favorite poets. Yeats is the sort of poet you hear your parents grumble about having to read and recite when they were schoolchildren. I imagine it was these rote lessons that made so many folks find poetry and certain poets unappealing. (The dictionary entry for “rote” is telling; the sample phrase is this: a poem learned by rote in childhood. There is something so sad about that!)

Mentioning Yeats especially seems to bring a certain look of distaste to the faces of many. Conversely, people my age would be hard-pressed to name but a single Yeats poem. We were spared the memorizations, but we seem to have been spared poetry altogether. Until taking an Irish literature class senior year of college, I really could’ve cared less about Yeats. I can’t remember ever reading Yeats in school until then, but my impression was always that he was a bit of an old grouch. (He is, but it makes for good poetry.) It’s a shame, though – not only is Yeats’ repertoire filled with incredible, beautiful poetry, his place in English literature and thought deserves to be appreciated. We don’t need to deal with all of that right now, as I’ll surely be presenting more Yeatsy offerings in the future. The simple point is this: I’d like people to read a Yeats poem without looking like they’re sucking on a lemon.

To that end, “Wild Swans” seems like a good place to start. Yeats’ poetry and his life as a poet have two distinct eras. In his younger years and in his first published poems, Yeats was an image-heavy post-Romantic, his books filled with lyrical descriptions of the Irish countryside and his home, County Sligo. These were the poems that made him famous in Ireland; their use of Irish myth and patriotic themes provided fodder for the growing Irish Independence movement. The books Responsibilities and Wild Swans at Coole signaled a sea change; as he entered his late forties and early fifties, his poetry became less playful and quite serious. Wild Swans especially, published in 1919, contains frequent meditations on death, old age, and the loss of youth and love. The poem “Wild Swans at Coole” encapsulates this latter-day heartache in the lyricism of his younger days, making it the perfect tipping point for his career.

The rhyme and meter are both complex but rambling. Written (mostly) in iambs (flat syllable + accented syllable, or -‘), the first and third lines of each stanza are tetrameter (-‘-‘-‘-‘), the second, fourth, and sixth lines are trimeter, and the fifth line is pentameter. But the prosody is hardly exact, and little syllables find their way in throughout. The rhyme scheme is ABCBDD. The end result is a poem that seems to move slowly and unsteadily, but with purpose, perhaps like an older man walking around a lake. One of Yeats’s greatest assets as a writer was his liberal use of rhyme and meter, and the way he manipulated both to reflect the meaning of the words themselves.

As for the subject of the poem, well, Yeats had every right to feel dejected and melancholy. Coole is the estate of Lady Gregory, his patron and friend, the woman who first gave him his start. Simply being at Coole takes him back to his early years, when the world lay open to him. Now it is autumn, and “all’s changed” since he was last here, 19 years ago. “Wild Swans” was written in 1917, and the years 1916-17 were not great for Yeats. The Irish rebellion against the British failed miserably, the Easter Rising resulting in the execution of many of the leaders of the Irish movement. World War I was reaching its bloody climax.

During these years love eluded Yeats; the infamous Maud Gonne rejected him for the last time, as did her daughter; after much persistence he landed a woman named Georgie, who was half his age, and for the first few years of marriage he was quite unsure about the relationship.

By contrast, the swans Yeats watches at Coole are all paired off, “unwearied still, lover by lover.” These swans, he knows, are mated for life, blissfully united, flying in the air, swimming in the water, together. They almost seem to mock him. They have no cares or worries, there are no executions or wars in their world. Yeats, however, wanders the lake at his life’s definite low point, his goals (minus poetry, of course – that would only continue to get better. Unfortunately the most interesting poets are always miserable.), love and a free Ireland, have eluded him. The only things he has are memories, which are brought into fine, painful focus by his surroundings and his beautifully ignorant companions.



One By One

One by one the teardrops fall as I write you
One by one my words come falling on the page
One by one my dreams are fading in the twilight
One by one my schemes are fading fast away

One by one the flowers fading in my garden
One by one the leaves are falling from the trees
One by one my hopes are vanished in the clouds clear
One by one like snowflakes melting in the breeze

One by one my hair is turning gray
One by one my dreams are fading fast away
One by one I read your letters over
One by one I lay them all away

One by one the days are slipping up behind you
One by one the sweetest days of life go by
One by one the moments stealing out behind you
One by one she’ll come and find not you or I

One by one I hear the soft words that you whispered
One by one I feel your kisses soft and sweet
One by one I hope you’ll say the words to marry
One by one to one by one forever be

– – –

The thing most people don’t understand about Woody Guthrie is that he was a truly incredible and advanced wordsmith, an American poet of the highest order. Woody Guthrie is known more as a “songwriter,” which is like a poet, but somehow cruder, more base, less academic. Really, though, a song is nothing more than a poem you can dance to. Still others know Woody as a populist, an advocate for justice and “the little guy.” For some he’s simply a bum from Oklahoma.

It’s become one of my quests in life to help Mr. Guthrie’s image and raise him up to where he belongs, a place occupied already by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and the like. The Pantheon of American Poets. I know that he’d rather be kicking around in Frost’s back alley playing harmonica, but he deserves to be remembered justly.

An example of his poetic prowess: “One By One.” An example of why he’s not remembered as a great poet: nobody ever heard or read “One By One” besides maybe his family, until the singer Billy Bragg, with the help of Wilco, recovered some of his unpublished work and put it to music on the incredible Mermaid Avenue records. I can tell you now, that if people had read this poem while he lived – and if he hadn’t died so young – he would be read in homes and schoolhouses the country over. As it is, it’s hard to find any of his work in print (despite the best efforts of Bragg & Co.), minus his autobiography and the new book of his artwork.

Immediately it’s easy to see that Woody had a flair for repetition. He understood and loved the sounds of words, and he knew a good phrase when he heard it. In “One By One” the anaphora is, naturally, “One by one…” which gives the poem real heft, but also slows it down in time. The sense of the phrase is slow, but reading it over and over also makes the poem move slower, in a strict, quiet rhythm. The poem is indeed one of silence. Teardrops fall, hair turns gray, leaves fall, flowers die, words are written down, not spoken. The sweet days of life – a summery metaphor – slip into the silence of autumn. The only real sounds are whispered words, in the last stanza. The poet here is not grief-stricken, but he is melancholy and verging on hearbreak. He sees life moving by as he waits and waits for his love to answer his marriage proposal. A less deft hand would have turned this subject into the stuff of melodrama, but here Guthrie handles it with delicacy, and he preserves each moment beautifully.

Wilco turned these words into a classic song, and more than a couple people have remarked that it’s one of the finest songs ever written. The group shows a real understanding of the words and turns it into a somber tune driven by piano, organ, and a steady, expecting, beat. Jeffy Tweedy’s voice is quiet and doused in reverb. I have to a agree, it’s one of my all-time favorite songs, and all-time favorite poems.

Wilco – One By One 



September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

– – –

Well this is a happy one, isn’t it? If the date that is is the poem’s title doesn’t ring a bell, it’s the day Germany invaded Poland: the first day of World War II. So I’d say Mr. Auden has right to pessimistic as hell.

The power and anger of the poem is immediately evident, and it is completely sustained throughout. Up until the Modern period of poetry, most poets who began a poem with such violence and pessimism usually concluded with a ray of hope, however small. The power of Good, Hope, Charity, Justice, Poetry, etc. over all. Not so in this poem. The poem begins in a dive, with the narrator “uncertain and afraid.” Throughout you can find the language of dejection and weariness: rubbish, grave, neutral, blind, offence, evil, trash, dead, dumb, lie, defenseless, beleaguered. “Faces along the bar/Cling to their average day,” Auden says.

In his anger he seems to condemn all creatures:

– The tyrants who cause war (including under this category various nations (Germany, of course), the Church, dictators, supporters of democracy, landlords, “Important Persons.”

– Those who are apathetic to the world around them, those in “stupor.” The neutral skies, the average men, societal conventions, “the conservative dark.” He finds the “romantic lie in the brain/Of the sensual man-on-the-street” equal to “the lie of Authority.” Those who live in a “euphoric dream” look into a mirror and see Imperialism’s face.

– And finally the optimists, people like him who blindly hope for the future and happiness. In the first stanza he finds hope to be “clever,” cute but pointless. Optimism and hope are “defenseless,” unable to match, let alone defeat, the terror of the world. The messages that the “Just” flash to one another are nothing but ironies. At the end of the poem, he refers to himself as an “affirming flame,” “beleaguered by the same/negation and despair.” He is but one more useless point of light.

This poem exists in a number of transitional spaces. Auden, a Brit, has recently moved to New York City. In the poetry of this time period you can see influences of both schools of poetry, American and British. The Americans play a little looser with language, while the British are more conservative. Before his move to America, Auden was notorious as a liberal poet, and he believed he would be better suited as an American than as a Briton. The Americans are future-thinking, full of big helpings of liberalism, optimism, and Romanticism. The British wallow in the past, quote ancient Greeks, and are generally stoic and mild.

You can see in this poem that Auden is attacking both sides of the Atlantic: the phony, unrealistic Americans and the neutral, apathetic British.

By bringing past, present, future, abstract, and concrete together, Auden has created a sort of Modern/Traditional hybrid. As a British poet, he started as a conservative in poesy and prosody, although a liberal in mindset. Here we can see him breaking from that tradition and embracing a more radical, poetically liberal and Modern form (or formlessness).

Which is exactly what this poem is about: the traditions and values of people clashing with the realities of the world, and the resulting fear and apathy. As I said at the beginning, it’s hard to find redemption in this poem, and maybe Auden thinks we’re all doomed. At least, he did on this day. But the underlying message is to face challenges head on; to avoid melancholy, to avoid retreat from the world, to avoid needless optimism, and focus on what’s at hand. Sometimes I hate this poem and others like it for this attitude, because I prefer my natural state to be optimism. But sometimes it’s necessary to get nice pragmatic a kick in the ass. However you look at it, this is a terror-filled beauty of a poem, and one that deserves to be remembered in times of crisis.

William Shakespeare


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


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.