Visionary Poems

November 29, 2022

  Now that we’ve spent a few weeks talking about the sublime in poetry, I thought it would be interesting try out another phrase used to describe some poetry.  I started out thinking I had a fairly clear sense of what i meant by it–poems by Blake, Coleridge, and others in which they present visions.  But then of course I started to question–isn’t every good metaphor a little vision?  How would I define visionary poetry?  How do other people think about it?

I would describe all the poems here as vision poems (the last one is also a little palate cleanser).  I’d love to see your examples, especially of contemporary vision poems, and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.



William Butler Yeats

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.



Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?



Sylvia Plath

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers—-
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice.
They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.

Which is the rector now, is it that man in black?
Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?
Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights in visors,
Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits.
Their smiles and their voices are changing. I am led through a beanfield.

Strips of tinfoil winking like people,
Feather dusters fanning their hands in a sea of bean flowers,
Creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts.
Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?
No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible.

Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat
And a black veil that molds to my face, they are making me one of them.
They are leading me to the shorn grove, the circle of hives.
Is it the hawthorn that smells so sick?
The barren body of hawthon, etherizing its children.

Is it some operation that is taking place?
It is the surgeon my neighbors are waiting for,
This apparition in a green helmet,
Shining gloves and white suit.
Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?

I cannot run, I am rooted, and the gorse hurts me
With its yellow purses, its spiky armory.
I could not run without having to run forever.
The white hive is snug as a virgin,
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.

Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove.
The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything.
Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics.
If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley,
A gullible head untouched by their animosity,

Not even nodding, a personage in a hedgerow.
The villagers open the chambers, they are hunting the queen.
Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever.
She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it.
While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins

Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight,
The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her.
The villagers are moving the virgins, there will be no killing.
The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?

I am exhausted, I am exhausted —-
Pillar of white in a blackout of knives.
I am the magician’s girl who does not flinch.
The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands.
Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.



Galway Kinnell


In late winter
I sometimes glimpse bits of steam
coming up from
some fault in the old snow
and bend close and see it is lung-colored
and put down my nose
and know
the chilly, enduring odor of bear.


I take a wolf’s rib and whittle
it sharp at both ends
and coil it up
and freeze it in blubber and place it out
on the fairway of the bears.
And when it has vanished
I move out on the bear tracks,
roaming in circles
until I come to the first, tentative, dark
splash on the earth.
And I set out
running, following the splashes
of blood wandering over the world.
At the cut, gashed resting places
I stop and rest,
at the crawl-marks
where he lay out on his belly
to overpass some stretch of bauchy ice
I lie out
dragging myself forward with bear-knives in my fists.


On the third day I begin to starve,
at nightfall I bend down as I knew I would
at a turd sopped in blood,
and hesitate, and pick it up,
and thrust it in my mouth, and gnash it down,
and rise
and go on running.


On the seventh day,
living by now on bear blood alone,
I can see his upturned carcass far out ahead, a scraggled,
steamy hulk,
the heavy fur riffling in the wind.
I come up to him
and stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,
the dismayed
face laid back on the shoulder, the nostrils
flared, catching
perhaps the first taint of me as he
I hack
a ravine in his thigh, and eat and drink,
and tear him down his whole length
and open him and climb in
and close him up after me, against the wind,
and sleep.


And dream
of lumbering flatfooted
over the tundra,
stabbed twice from within,
splattering a trail behind me,
splattering it out no matter which way I lurch,
no matter which parabola of bear-transcendence,
which dance of solitude I attempt,
which gravity-clutched leap,
which trudge, which groan.


Until one day I totter and fall—
fall on this
stomach that has tried so hard to keep up,
to digest the blood as it leaked in,
to break up
and digest the bone itself: and now the breeze
blows over me, blows off
the hideous belches of ill-digested bear blood
and rotted stomach
and the ordinary, wretched odor of bear,
blows across
my sore, lolled tongue a son
or screech, until I think I must rise up
and dance. And I lie still.


I awaken I think. Marshlights
reappear, geese
come trailing again up the flyway.
In her ravine under old snow the dam-bear
lies, licking
lumps of smeared fur
and drizzly eyes into shapes
with her tongue. And one
hairy-soled trudge stuck out before me,
the next groaned out,
the next,
the next,
the rest of my days I spend
wandering: wondering
what, anyway,
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?



Adrienne Rich

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.



Mona Van Duyn

My driver’s license is lapsing and so I appear
in a roomful of waiting others and get in line.
I must master a lighted box of far or near,
a highway language of shape, squiggle and sign.
As the quarter-hours pass I watch the lady in charge
of the test, and think how patient, how slow, how nice
she is, a kindly priestess indeed, her large,
round face, her vanilla-pudding, baked-apple-and-spice
face in continual smiles as she calls each “Dear”
and “Honey” and shows first-timers what to see.
She enjoys her job, how pleasant to be in her care
rather than brute little bureaucrat or saleslady.
I imagine her life as a tender placing of hands
on her children’s hands as they come to grip with the rocks
and scissors of the world. The girl before me stands
in a glow of good feeling. I take my place at the box.
“And how are you this lovely morning, Dear?
A few little questions first. Your name?—Your age?—
Your profession?” “Poet.” “What?” She didn’t hear.
“Poet,” I say loudly. The blank pink page
of her face is lifted to me. “What?” she says.
“POET,” I yell, P-O-E-T.”
A moment’s silence. “Poet?” she asks. “Yes.”
Her pencil’s still. She turns away from me
to the waiting crowd, tips back her head like a hen
drinking clotted milk, and her “Ha ha hee hee hee”
of hysterical laughter rings through the room. Again
“Oh, ha ha ha ha hee hee hee.”
People stop chatting. A few titter. It’s clear
I’ve told some marvelous joke they didn’t quite catch.
She resettles her glasses, pulls herself together,
pats her waves. The others listen and watch.
“And what are we going to call the color of your hair?”
she asks me warily. Perhaps it’s turned white
on the instant, or green is the color poets declare,
or perhaps I’ve merely made her distrust her sight.
“Up to now it’s always been brown.” Her pencil trembles,
then with an almost comically obvious show
of reluctance she lets me look in her box of symbols
for normal people who know where they want to go.

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Poems of Daily Life

November 20, 2022




Now that we’ve spent a couple of weeks immersed in the sublime, talking about it and reading poems written out of encounters with it, I’m thinking about the many, many poems I love and would describe as great that are written out of something else.  They’re emotionally powerful, and moving to me, but they don’t seem to speak on the edge of the abyss.  They’re more grounded in things of this world, for the most part, and often on relationships with other people rather than one person alone confronting the overwhelming.

I’d say that emotions in poems cover a wide range, from mild to intense, with what we’ve been describing as sublime at one end.

Here’s a landscape analogy that’s related to what I’m getting at.  I grew up in a valley bordered on the east by the Rocky Mountains and on the west by the Nevada desert.  Both landscapes were awesome and terrifying–people died in both.  When we drove across the desert on the way to California, the emptiness was so overwhelming I hid on the car floor.   But the sight of the mountains was central and powerful, and I missed them when I moved east.  When I took the train home I spent the last few hours staring out the window, desperate for my first glimpse of them.  Westerners are landscape snobs–I needed that scale.  In the east I sneered at the hills people referred to as mountains.  When people said, “Isn’t this landscape beautiful?,” I literally couldn’t see what they were talking about.  If it wasn’t awesome it didn’t even matter.  It took me years of living in it to realize one day, setting out for a hike (walk) with friends: Oh, this landscape is human scale, you can just walk out into it without risking your life.  And for the first time I saw the value in that.

I think the sublime has to do with extremity and intensity, with things larger and deeper than the human scale of things, with situations where one person encounters whatever it is–the void, the abyss, the unfathomable, immeasurable.  I think the sublime is something we can visit but not live in–the intensity would crush us, as Rilke says.  And the solitude.  Most of our lives include relationships with other people.  When it comes to poetry, the awesome/ sublime may be the most powerful, but I think more poems, including many great ones, are written out of our human relationships–that scale, the one with emotions that range from happiness to rage to love to sadness, subtle and nuanced, looked at closely.  I don’t think I’d describe any of Shakespeare’s sonnets as sublime, for example, however beautiful and moving they are.

I take enormous pleasure in the poems here, and find all of them moving.  They include transcendent moments and powerful emotions, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as encounters with the sublime. I’ll be curious to see your examples, and your comments.


Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?



Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!



Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.



Lisel Mueller

If an inaudible whistle
blown between our lips
can send him home to us,
then silence is perhaps
the sound of spiders breathing
and roots mining the earth;
it may be asparagus heaving,
headfirst, into the light
and the long brown sound
of cracked cups, when it happens.
We would like to ask the dog
if there is a continuous whir
because the child in the house
keeps growing, if the snake
really stretches full length
without a click and the sun
breaks through clouds without
a decibel of effort,
whether in autumn, when the trees
dry up their wells, there isn’t a shudder
too high for us to hear.

What is it like up there
above the shut-off level
of our simple ears?
For us there was no birth cry,
the newborn bird is suddenly here,
the egg broken, the nest alive,
and we heard nothing when the world changed.



Peter Pereira

Atop an orchard ladder my father
stands half-hidden by the black cherry’s
tangled branches, holding a gasoline-soaked
rag wrapped on the end of a broomstick.
He flicks open his silver lighter, tells us
to stand back as the torch ignites
and he thrusts the burning thing up
where the white nets of caterpillars
tent the upper branch tips.  A terrible
crackling like singed hair
fills the early April evening
as we squeal, and the smoldering
bits of caterpillars fall to the ground.
Weeks later we will eat the spicy
meat of the cherries, not even thinking
of this carnage.  Or if we do, only
as the kind of work that fathers
will do, for their children.



Wisława Szymborska                (trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)

We’re extremely fortunate
not to know precisely
the kind of world we live in.

One would have
to live a long, long time,
unquestionably longer
than the world itself.

Get to know other worlds,
if only for comparison.

Rise above the flesh,
which only really knows
how to obstruct
and make trouble.

For the sake of research,
the big picture
and definitive conclusions,
one would have to transcend time,
in which everything scurries and whirls.

From that perspective,
one might as well bid farewell
to incidents and details.

The counting of weekdays
would inevitably seem to be
a senseless activity;

dropping letters in the mailbox
a whim of foolish youth;

the sign “No Walking on the Grass”
a symptom of lunacy.



Philip Larkin

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.



Kathleen Flenniken

As though we could string pearls into a necklace

of only good moments, between knots of waxed

string. Tonight, a month after the last lilac bloomed,

I finally noticed, and no hothouse could make the bushes

flower again late, early, whatever you call the period

after you’ve lost everything. Still, cells replicate,

shed skin is replaced. We are not who we were.

I’d seen the lilacs, gone through the motions

of breathing in, swirled the scent in the goblet

of my brain but I wasn’t listening until

this evening, after the first warm day in June

when I considered how fine a bunch of lilacs

would be, enough to fill my arms, to hide my face

in their tender, sweet nostalgia for ordinary life.

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More on the Sublime

November 14, 2022


          Well, last week ‘s discussion was sublime, so we might as well have more of that.  Also, I forgot to add poems from the Comments section, so I’m putting them in this week’s post.

As I read more and more of the history of the concept, a couple of issues seem central: the distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, for one.  For another, the location of the sublime–in the world, in the human imagination, or in the encounter between the world and the imagination.  Here are just a few historical landmarks.

Longinus wrote his treatise Peri hypsous, translated as On the Sublime, in the 3rd century, but it was Nicolas Boileau’s translation into French in the 17th century that brought it to the attention of writers and philosophers: Burke, Kant, Hegel, and others, and then to the 19th century Romantic poets who followed them.  Boileau also coined the phrase “Je ne sais quoi,” to describe something that didn’t fall into an existing category.

Best known statement from Longinus’s On the Sublime: He initially referred to passages in Homer, Sappho and others that stood out from the others on their own power, not because of their language but the greatness of the soul imagining them: “As if instinctively our soul is lifted up by the true sublime; it [the soul] takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.”

In a coda Longinus wrote that literature can be the origin of the Sublime, not only its recorder.

The Romantics, on the other hand, ascribed the Sublime to the world itself.

Edmund Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, described beauty as a matter of proportion, gradation, and serenity that produces pleasure.  The Sublime, on the other hand, is associated with pain, danger, and anxiety.  Our emotion confronting it is one of fear, followed by intense, profound relief; it could kill us, but won’t.  It’s a mattter of danger courted and overcome.  It’s also associated with obscurity, uncertainty, and speed.  And, he said: “Literature can fill one with the exaltation of the unrepresentable.  Painting can’t.”  And right now it seems to me that of course painting can, and that it’s perhaps harder to do in literature.

Immanuel Kant says that humans feel themselves as nothing compared to the natural world, and so their minds shift from transcendental aspirations, and move their commitment from the empirical world to the world of the imagination. Despite all its power, the world [even the universe?] is finite, but the imagination is infinite.  Sounds like Dickinson’s poem to me.

I definitely think that there’s more than one kind of sublime, as you’ll see in some of the examples.  Or maybe you’ll have a different word in mind.

I hope you’ll add your own examples in the Comments section.


from Martha Zweig:


Robert Graves

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed


from Elizabeth Brown;

Great point about “echo” –how the sublime “refers to the human response to an event or encounter, not the event itself.” So much is about perception.

Lately I’ve been thinking of the tenor of silences. There is the silence of despair (as in Celan’s “January”), the sense of “void.” And also, as you point out, the silence of the sublime. How silence can encompass these extremes –how it veers toward the unsayable the way ultraviolet and infared (and beyond) veer into the unseeable.

I love these lines, attributed to Crowfoot, a Blackfoot warrior, in 1890 (His last words):

What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the sunset.



Louise Glück:

There is a moment after you move your eye away
when you forget where you are
because you’ve been living, it seems,
somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky.

You’ve stopped being here in the world.
You’re in a different place,
a place where human life has no meaning.

You’re not a creature in body.
You exist as the stars exist,
participating in their stillness, their immensity.

Then you’re in the world again.
At night, on the cold hill,
taking the telescope apart.

You realize afterward
not that the image is false
but the relation is false.

You see again how far away
every thing is from every other thing.


from Dave Hurst:

My thoughts on the sublime start with one of its alternative definitions as a verb, to sublime, the act of a solid becoming vapor without first becoming liquid. Dry ice does this, but it is also a lovely metaphor for the way poetry (or the experience of something) transforms in us to awe or something similar. A solid (of sorts) becoming vapor (of sorts). I think this is the feeling you are writing about here.

I personally find that feeling in what I can only describe as “quiet” poetry, though I don’t doubt there is an argument for feeling sublime in Whitman or Ginsberg or O’Hara, though I think of their poems as often “loud” (okay, don’t ask me to define it, I guess). But I experience it as in this excerpt from a poem by Li Po (during one of his exiles):

Gibbons call early along the cold river,
the moon among pine shadows already risen

and boundless, how boundless– moonlight,
and the sorrow in a gibbon’s pure cry,

unbearable as I toss my walking-stick aside
and leave the mountains for this lone boat.

Even if the gibbons in the poem are loud, it feels like the poem rests on a stillness that raises the hairs on my neck when I get to that last bit. The “boundless, how boundless– moonlight/and the sorrow” just raises an ache in me, I guess. Maybe that is what I experience as sublime, that ache that expands into yearning of some sort. I guess I find this kind of “quiet” in poems by James Wright, for example, like in “A Blessing.” I find it in some of Larry Levis too, and often in Gary Snyder.




Rainer Maria Rilke     (1911, trans. Edward Snow)


Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders?  And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed
in his stronger existence.  For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains
to destroy us.  Every angel is terrifying.
And so I check myself and swallow the luring call
of dark sobs.  Alas, whom can we turn to
in our need?  Not angels, not humans,
and the sly animals see at once
how little at home we are
in the interpreted world….



Weldon Kees     (about 1950)

I have seen it in the green tree
For a long time now,
In the shapes on pavements, oiled

And streaked with rain, and where
Hands have touched at doors,
Over the roofs and streets,

On face after passing face
I have watched it spread,
At the edge of the sky at noon

Until it stains the dead
Weeds in some empty place
And saturates the sun

–As though one had pulled a string
In an unfamiliar house,
Of a dim light, darkening.



James Wright     (about 1960)

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.



Heather McHugh     (about 1990)

For Fabbio Doplicher

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. The Italian literati seemed
bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
what does “flat drink” mean? and the mysterious
“cheap date” (no explanation lessened
this one’s mystery). Among Italian writers we

could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one
administrator (The Conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone
narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic–
and least poetic– so
it seemed. Our last
few days in Rome
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn’t
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans

were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked

“What’s poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori

or the statue there?” Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn’t have to think– “The truth
is both, it’s both!” I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
about difficulty,

for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. “If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world.” Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die

they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.

That is how they burned him.
That is how he died,
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry–

(we’d all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly)– poetry

is what he thought, but did not say.











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The Sublime in Poetry

November 7, 2022

I think this is the concept we’ve been circling in recent discussions of silence in poems, fragments, and immensities in time and space.  Here are some of the associated words and phrases that come to mind: awesome, terrifying, engulfing, infinite, transcendent, beyond our understanding, beyond words, ecstasy, the invisible, the uncanny.

The origin of the concept in western tradition is usually traced to a first century work On the Sublime, by Longinus,  who defined it as “the echo of greatness of spirit” in the creator of the art, rather than in a balance of technical elements in the writing. He offers examples from Homer, and, for the intensity of the emotions described, Sappho’s ode (fragment #31) about her longing for a woman she loves who’s with a man.

“Echo” is a crucial word here–the sublime refers to the human response to an event or encounter, not the event itself.  Sublime doesn’t describe the landscape Turner painted, but his response to it–and in turn the viewer’s.

In western literature, the sublime is most associated with the Romantic poets, including Blake, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, among others.  Wordsworth described it as “The mind trying to grasp at something towards which it can make approaches but which it is incapable of reaching.”

Many of my own experiences of the sublime have happened when I was listening to music, from Glenn Gould playing Bach to the Budapest Quartet playing Beethoven to k.d. lang’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Or when I was on the edge of the land, facing the ocean,  or surrounded by stars in the desert.  Looking at Jackson Pollock’s paintings, or Mark Rothko’s.  In his book Mark Rothko: from the Inside Out, his son Christopher Rothko says, “The classic works…articulate the language of the sublime….They are essentially the painted expression of what it is to be human and alive….”

And of course I find it in poetry.  I’ve included a few examples here that I’d consider examples of the sublime.  I’ll be very interested to hear about your own experiences of it in different situations, and especially to see poems that make you feel it.

I found this Helen Vendler talk, Emily Dickinson and the Sublime, illuminating.

The images above, left to right: paintings by Mark Rothko and JMW Turner, first photo of a black hole, ocean wave and sailboat.



John Keats


When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain,
When I behold upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance,
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I may never live to see thee more,
Never have relish in the faerie power
Of unreflecting Love–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think,
`Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.




Emily Dickinson


The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—




Robert Frost


Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it–it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less–
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.




Wallace Stevens


She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.



W. S. Merwin


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



Alice Oswald


Amphibious vagueness
neither pool nor land
under whose velvet
three rivers spring to their tasks

in whose indecent hills
tired of my voice
I followed the advice of water
knelt and put my mouth

to a socket in the grass
as if to an outlet of my own
unveiled stoneliness
and sleepless flight

they say the herons used to hang
like lamps here giving off gloom
now walkers float
on the wings of their macs

to this weephole
where you can taste
not water exactly


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