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poems

W. S. Merwin

March 15, 2019

William Merwin was one of my first poetry heroes. I loved his poems and he seemed to me a model of a life devoted to poetry. I also admired the fact that half of his published work is translation of other poets into English–an invaluable gift. He had the equivalent of perfect pitch for language, so that when he began to write unpunctuated poems, and then poems with caesuras, they weren’t hard to follow. The absence of visual clues simply means you have to lean in and listen more closely. One of my favorites is “Strawberries,” in which the speaker describes a vision after his father’s death, one that includes a boy driving a wagon loaded with strawberries, and then a dream when he finally falls asleep. Near the end of the poem he wakes from the dream:

up in the morning       I stopped on the stairs
my mother was awake     already and asked me
if I wanted a shower       before breakfast
and for breakfast she said        we have strawberries

And this opening of the poem “Yesterday,” a dialogue between two men talking about their fathers that could be an opera duet, music made of words and white space:

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father….

Another favorite is “Fly,” featured on this blog June 21, 2018.

I was lucky enough to know Merwin a little. I first met him in the early seventies when he came to Boulder, Colorado, to stay with the poet Bill Matthews. I opened the door one day, and there he was standing on the step, smiling, his face surrounded by dark curls. He had a small cloth bag slung over his shoulder, everything he’d brought with him. He was smart, kind, funny, supportive. Over the years we had some lovely conversations. I was delighted when I met Paula, who was a loving companion but didn’t take any guff. I’m glad they had so many years together.

He had a beautiful reading voice, hypnotic. I have it on vinyl, tape, and cd, and I’m sure you can find it all over youtube. I’m going to be going back to favorites, and to poems I haven’t read (I joked that he could write faster than I could read), but right now I’m inevitably hearing his beautiful poem “For the Anniversary of my Death.” The first time I read it I thought, “Oh! Why did I never think of that?” Because I’m not W. S. Merwin. Please share your memories and favorite poems here.

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

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.

ALLEGRO

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.

TO THE NEW YEAR
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.

A SMALL STORY

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.

AFTER THE FUNERAL

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.

HOW TO LOSE THINGS/?/THE GIFT OF LOSING THINGS

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

THE ART OF LOSING THINGS
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
intelligent)
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:

ONE ART

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.