Poems about Music

January 2, 2019

I think that poetry aspires to the power of music: the ability to convey thoughts and emotions directly, head to head and especially heart to heart: wordlessly. And yet poets love words and language, so we make our music out of those. Out of those and lines and white space. It’s very difficult, and almost paradoxical, to write poems about music, when music speaks so beautifully for itself, but I can think of a few poems that manage it. Here’s a favorite of mine, by the Swedish poety Tomas Transtromer (translated by Robert Bly). I hope you’ll post your own favorites, with some commentary about why you chose them.


After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

For the New Year

December 31, 2018

Amidst all the noise, this quiet welcome.

W. S. Merwin

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

PETER EVERWINE: “A Radiant Clarity, a Luminous Stillness”

November 27, 2018

Peter Everwine, the wonderful poet and lovely man, died on October 28th of this year. It’s a big loss, most immediately to the Fresno poetry community, and also to the wider community of poets and writers. In the wake of his death, there’s one grace note, one gift of good timing. Peter’s last reading, on September 12 at Respite on the River, was beautifully filmed and is available here. Peter was a banjo player as well as a poet, and the film opens with a trio of musicians, including Megan Mohigian–who told me about Peter’s death, sent me the link to his reading, and introduces him here. The reading itself begins at 6:22.

My semester as Distinguished-Poet-in-Residence at Fresno State was one of the best times I had during my years of teaching as a visiting writer, and meeting and spending time with Peter was one of the highlights. The poetry community there centered on Phil Levine and his lovely wife Franny, Connie Hales, Chuck Hanzlicek, and Peter, and radiated out from there to include other poets and writers, students in the program, and others just drawn to the conversation. I’d read and loved Peter’s first book, Collecting the Animals,early on, and the man behind the poems turned out to be charming, funny, sly, warm, lovely. In the copy he gave me of his book Working in the Song Fields: Poems of the Aztecs, he wrote “for Sharon–These songs–not Monk or Mingus, but no moldy figs either. Much love, Peter.” The subtitle above comes from a blurb by Ed Hirsch on the back of from the meadow: Selected and New Poems, published in 2004, and I can’t imagine a better description of his work. I’m including a couple of favorites here, but I urge you to watch him in person. And stay to the end to see a beautiful picture of Peter as a young man playing the banjo.


When Mrs. McCausland comes to mind
she slips through a small gap in oblivion
and walks down her front steps, in her hand
a small red velvet pillow she tucks
under the head of Old Jim Schreiber,
who is lying dead-drunk against the curb
of busy Market Street. Then she turns,
labors up the steps and is gone . . .

A small story. Or rather, the memory
of a story I heard as a boy. The witnesses
are not to be found, the steps lead nowhere,
the pillow has collapsed into a thread of dust . . .
Do the dead come back only to remind us
they, too, were once among the living,
and that the story we make of our lives
is a mystery of luminous, but uncertain moments,
a shuffle of images we carry toward sleep—
Mrs. McCausland with her velvet pillow,
Old Jim at peace—a story, like a small
clearing in the woods at night, seen
from the windows of a passing train.


We opened closets and bureau drawers
and packed away, in boxes, dresses and shoes,
the silk underthings still wrapped in tissue.
We sorted through cedar chests. We gathered
and set aside the keepsakes and the good silver
and brought up from the coal cellar
jars of tomato sauce, peppers, jellied fruit.
We dismantled, we took down from the walls,
we bundled and carted off and swept clean.
Goodbye, goodbye, we said, closing
the door behind us, going our separate ways
from the house we had emptied,
and which, in the coming days, we would fill
again and empty and try to fill again.

Drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”

October 23, 2018

Ever since I first read Bishop’s “One Art,” I’ve suggested that the villanelle form be retired, like a star basketball player’s jersey. That’s my way of saying that her poem feels like such a perfect mesh of form and content, how could anyone write a compelling one in its wake? I can’t read it–to myself or in a class–without choking at the end. The tension between the emotions and the form’s restraint exactly balances the two. There is great grief but no self-pity, no blame (except of herself), and nothing that makes me feel as if I’ve intruded on something too private, despite the powerful emotions.

The poem is a perfect translation of personal experience into art, and the result is so seamless it never occurred to me that there was any intermediate stage until the drafts were published in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, edited by Alice Quinn. The first draft is the most surprising, closer to notes than to a poem, and full of all the ranting and whining that are so beautifully left out of the last draft. By the second draft, she starts to work with elements of the form, and it begins to take shape as a poem. I’d read discussions of the drafts, but never all the drafts themselves, because they appear in the book as typescript with indecipherable handwritten changes. But last year I came across an essay online that prints them all legibly and also discusses them in thoughtful and interesting ways. It’s from a blog I want to point you to, bluedragonfly10. The writer uses only her first name, Beth. The blog began in 2007 and continued until 2013, with nothing since. Beth is a writer, artist, and teacher, lived or lives in Colorado, and is incredibly smart about literature. Her essay on Bishop’s drafts is the best thing I’ve read on them, and the only complete printed versions I’ve found so far. (I’d be interested to know if there are others.) I highly recommend you read around in her entries–I’ve just started myself, and they’re fascinating.

Here’s the first draft of “One Art,” followed by the final version. You can find everything in between in the bluedragonfly10 blog post. Seeing the process gives me hope, and makes me more willing to write the bad stuff on the way to the better stuff.


One might begin by losing one’s reading glasses
oh 2 or 3 times a day–or one’s favorite pen.

The thing to do is to begin by “mislaying.”
Mostly, one begins by “mislaying”:
–these are almost too easy to be mentioned,
and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up
in the most obvious place, although when one
is making progress, the places grow more unlikely
–This is by way of introduction.
I really want to introduce myself–I am such a
fantastically good at losing things
I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.

You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost
I mean lost, and forever two whole houses,
one a very big one. A third house, also big, is
at present, I think, “mislaid”–but
Maybe it’s lost too. I won’t know for sure for some time.
I have lost one long [crossed out] peninsula and one island.
I have lost–it can never be has never been found–
a small-sized town on that same island.
I’ve lost smaller bits of geography, like
a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay.
Two whole cities, two of the
world’s biggest cities (two of the most beautiful
although that’s beside the point)
A piece of one continent–
and one entire continent. All gone, gone forever and ever.

One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one average-sized not especially–exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
(except for blue eyes), (only the eyes were exceptionally
beautiful and
But it doesn’t seem to have, at all…the hands looked
the fine hands<

a good piece of one continent
and another continent–the whole damned thing!
He who loseth his life, etc…–but he who
loses his love–never, no never never never again–

And the final version:


The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Gwen Head and Dragon Gate Press

September 30, 2018

I learned recently that the poet and publisher Gwen Head died in April of this year. It’s a sign of the times that I found out through amazon. I’d ordered a Laura Jensen book I’d lost somewhere along the way, Memory, that was published by the press Gwen founded, Dragon Gate, in 1982. It came from an independent seller, and when I saw the return address, Dragon Gate, my eyes filled with tears. The press had long been shut down, and I’d been out of touch with Gwen after we’d both moved away from the northwest and Gwen’s own memory had begun to fail. I contacted the seller, who has most of what’s left of the Dragon Gate inventory, and he told me about her death. My online search for mentions of Gwen and her own poetry books, and of Dragon Gate and its publications, confirmed how quickly the poetry universe I’ve known is disappearing under the avalanche of the present.

There will be a memorial for Gwen at Open Books in Seattle next February, but for those of you who don’t know her or the press, I want to offer a little introduction here. I’d be grateful if those of you who did have a connection to her would pass along any stories you have.

Gwen published four volumes of poems: Special Effects (1976) and The Ten Thousandth Night (1979) in the Pitt Poetry Series; Frequencies (University of Utah Press, 1992, which included selections from the first two books in addition to new poems); and Fire Shadows (LSU, 2001). Amazingly, you can find them all for sale online.

Gwen founded Dragon Gate press in the early eighties, to publish poetry and short fiction. She did an enormous amount of research in advance, and set it up in her home in Port Townsend, Washington (Scott Wolf’s Gray Wolf was once in part of that same house, so it must be embedded with poetry). She published books by Laura Jensen, Linda Gregerson, Richard Blessing, Henry Carlile, Joan Swift, Richard Ronan, Jim Simmerman, Katharine Hake, John Woods, Jeanne Murray Walker, Anthony Piccione, and many others. All small presses are labors of love, and Dragon Gate was no exception: she provided a home for good work that might not have made its way into the world without her generosity.

Here’s Gwen’s poem “Rain” from Frequencies. I also recommend a beautiful pantoum in the same volume, “The Swans of Saigon.”


Rain is the original stereotype,
billions of identical units, each intent
on the din of its own tiny bit of information:
about ice crystals, say, at forty thousand feet,
wind shear, or the pollen count
on the Siberian tundra.

It begins like a sprung nerve, twitching.
An invisible junco lands
on the laurel. Then a flock of them.
Something plays the ferns like a marimba.
It continues, in Satie’s directions, monotonously, whitely–
like a nightingale with a toothache.
But this is more accurately rodent weather:
a clatter of nails and tail-tips on roof and walls,
the sour smell of a sickroom,
fear of bites while sleeping.

Awake and needing something, I go downtown.
Rain draws the maimed in thunderous masses
out into the slick streets as if to a shrine.
The dwarfs, the obese, the amputees, the mumblers, the dropsical
old women whose feet would make fine umbrella stands
crowd stupefied beneath the gray fountain
to be healed or drown,

and my taxi driver, taking a wrong turn, asks, “Lady
why do you look so sad?
You must be some kind of artist.”