Monthly Archives

August 2016

Book-Length Poems: The Sequel

August 27, 2016

I got so many responses to the previous post I set out to make a list for easy reference, but you can do that for yourselves simply by reading through them.  I thought of many more myself: Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Martha Collins’ Blue Front, Kathleen Flenniken’s Plume, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll,  Steven Cramer’s Clangings, all of Linda Bierds’ books.  I would also add a book labeled fiction, Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic: each of its stunning eight chapters is really a prose poem.  People listed the classics, epics, novels in verse, character portraits, books driven by obsession, books driven by research–of course these categories overlap.  Book-length poems are a way to have our cake and eat it too: the intensity of lyric combined with time to meditate, ponder, go through a range of emotions.  I think the hardest part of writing out of research is transforming the results into music, into poetry.  I’m deeply wedded to the 20th-century idea that a poem is not a description of the world, but a world in itself, so the modern and contemporary books here that most compel me are the ones that transform their raw material into something else, that spin straw into gold.  I’m less moved by the ones that don’t accomplish that alchemy, that are closer to social commentary or history than to poetry.  Long or short, I want the music of poetry, I want to feel as if the top of my head is taken off.  My uncle, a mining engineer, described the process of assaying for gold that my great-grandfather would have followed: First he would have heated an ore sample (the raw material) and reduced it a lead “button.”  Then this would be heated in a little dish called a cupel that would absorb the lead and leave just a bead of whatever gold and silver had been in the raw material.  I think my favorite poems of any length are the ones that have done that refining and reducing, getting rid of the dross, until only the essence remains.  My own list of favorite book-length poems would feature those that have the same tautness and economy as a short lyric, where the white space between lines is as eloquent as the lines themselves.  Any thoughts about the possibilities and difficulties of writing good book-length poems?

Book-length Poems

August 25, 2016

cdwright-coverI love book-length poems: the long arc, the immersion, some of the pleasures of a novel combined with the repetition of images, the hypnotic pull forward.  Like living in a house instead of a series of rooms, maybe.  A world in a book.  As Stevens said, a planet on the table.  Some of my own favorites, right off the top of my head: C. D. Wright’s Deep Step Come Shining, Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris and Faithful and Virtuous Night, Derek Walcott’s epic Omeros, Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish.  What comes to your mind?

from Lloyd Schwartz: Bishop, Friendly Song

August 19, 2016

from Lloyd Schwartz:

“So interesting to compare Strand’s translation of ‘Don’t Kill Yourself” with Bishop’s. They actually overlap in several lines. They are both very close to Drummond (my preference too). Personally, I prefer Bishop’s (it’s actually in a number of places more colloquial), but I think Strand’s is better in a couple of places.”


Carlos, keep calm, love
is what you’re seeing now:
today a kiss, tomorrow no kiss,
day after tomorrow’s Sunday
and nobody knows what will happen
It’s useless to resist
or to commit suicide
Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself!
Keep all of yourself for the nuptials
coming nobody knows when,
that is, if they ever come.
Love, Carlos, tellurian,
spent the night with you,
and now your insides are raising
an ineffable racket,
saints crossing themselves,
ads for a better soap,
a racket of which nobody
knows the why or the wherefore.
In the meantime you go on your way
vertical, melancholy.
You’re the palm tree, you’re the cry
nobody heard in the theatre
and all the lights went out.
Love in the dark, no, love
in the daylight, is always sad,
sad, Carlos, my boy,
but tell it to nobody,
nobody knows nor shall know.

trans. Elizabeth Bishop

SB to LS: I like her colloquialism, especially the contractions, but I prefer Strand’s diction: wedding, terrible racket, earthy, upright.

Lloyd: Drummond’s “Cancao amiga” was extremely famous and popular. It was not only on the money (the Brazilian equivalent of the dollar bill), with a picture of Drummond leaning over his desk and writing the poem on the other side of the bill, it was also set to music and recorded by the great Brazilian jazz singer Milton Nascimento. My own translation–my first translation of a Brazilian poem–was the opening poem in Cairo Traffic:

FRIENDLY SONG (Canção Amiga)

by Carlos Drummond de Andrade

    I'm working on a song
in which my own mother sees her image,
    everyone's mother sees her image,
and it speaks, it speaks just like two eyes.

    I'm traveling along a roadway
  that winds through many countries.
 My old friends—if they don't see me,
  I see them, I see and salute them.

    I am giving away a secret
  like someone who loves, or smiles.
     In the most natural way
  two caresses reach each other.

  My whole life, all of our lives
    make up a single diamond.
  I've learned a few new phrases—
    and to make others better.

     I'm working on a song
      that wakes men up
    and lets children sleep.

Translated from the Portuguese by Lloyd Schwartz

Mark Strand’s translations of Carlos Drummond de Andrade

August 17, 2016

As is always the case with poetry, one thing leads to another.  After I posted Marvin Bell’s poem, several people mentioned Mark Strand’s wonderful translations of Drummond’s poems.  (I’ve seen him referred to as Drummond, as Drummond de Andrade, and as de Andrade; I’m going with Drummond.)  This is my favorite short description of him:

“Mr. Drummond’s bald, equine, bespectacled visage appears on T-shirts and book bags in Brazil, and one of his poems, “Canção Amiga” (“Friendly Song”), was printed on the 50 cruzados bill.  (We American poets can only dream.) Since 2002 there has been a statue of him on the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, his adopted hometown. This statue faces away from, not toward, the ocean. This was a witty decision (he was an inward poet) that annoys the unintelligentsia, who want him spun around.”

Drummond was one of the greatest of Brazilian poets, and English translations by Elizabeth Bishop and Mark Strand brought him notice in America.  You can find wonderful photos and paintings of him online.  I’ll say more about Mark Strand’s own elegant, mysterious, funny poems in a future post, but for now I’ll just include his translation of Drummond’s poem “Don’t Kill Yourself.”


Carlos Drummond de Andrade


Carlos, calm down, love
is what you are seeing:
a kiss today, tomorrow no kiss,
the day after tomorrow is Sunday
and nobody knows what will happen
on Monday.

It’s useless to resist
or to commit suicide.
Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself.
Save all of yourself for the wedding
though nobody knows when or if
it will ever come.

Carlos, earthy Carlos, love
spent the night with you
and your deepest self
is raising a terrible racket,
saints in procession,
ads for the best soap,
a racket for which nobody knows
the why or wherefor.

Meanwhile, you walk
upright, unhappy.
You are the palm tree, you are the shout
that nobody heard in the theater
and all the lights went out.
Love in darkness, no, in daylight,
is always sad, Carlos, my boy,
don’t tell anyone,
nobody knows or will know.

trans. from the Portuguese by Mark Strand

from Looking for Poetry: Poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Rafael Alberti, and Songs from the Quechua, trans. Mark Strand


I also want to add a link to an essay by Carol Muske-Dukes that she wrote not long after Mark Strand died, “A Piece of Paper,”  and published in a special issue on Strand of West Branch Wired, at Bucknell University.  It’s a beautiful and moving portrait, and mentions Strand’s translations and a series of very funny poems on the art of translating.

Marvin Bell’s “Poem after Carlos Drummond de Andrade”

August 13, 2016

I’ve been thinking about this gorgeous poem since I wrote the post about Szymborska, and about the photo of her smoking so blissfully, chosen after she knew she was dying of lung cancer.  Bell’s poem is the most powerful embodiment I know of the inseparability of life and death, of the knowledge that there’s no way to embrace one without embracing the other.

Poem After Carlos Drummond de Andrade

     “It’s life, Carlos.”


It’s life that is hard: waking, sleeping, eating, loving, working and

dying are easy.

It’s life that suddenly fills both ears with the sound of that

symphony that forces your pulse to race and swells your

heart near to bursting.

It’s life, not listening, that stretches your neck and opens your eyes

and brings you into the worst weather of the winter to

arrive once more at the house where love seemed to be in

the air.


And it’s life, just life, that makes you breathe deeply, in the air that

is filled with wood smoke and the dust of the factory,

because you hurried, and now your lungs heave and fall

with the nervous excitement of a leaf in spring breezes,

though it is winter and you are swallowing the dirt of

the town.

It isn’t death when you suffer, it isn’t death when you miss each

other and hurt for it, when you complain that isn’t death,

when you fight with those you love, when you

misunderstand, when one line in a letter or one remark in

person ties one of you in knots, when the end seems near,

when you think you will die, when you wish you were

already dead–none of that is death.

It’s life, after all, that brings you a pain in the foot and a pain in the

hand, a sore throat, a broken heart, a cracked back, a torn

gut, a hole in your abdomen, an irritated stomach, a

swollen gland, a growth, a fever, a cough, a hiccup, a

sneeze, a bursting blood vessel in the temple.

It’s life, not nerve ends, that puts the heartache on a pedestal and

worships it.

It’s life, and you can’t escape it. It’s life, and you asked for it. It’s life,

and you won’t be consumed by passion, you won’t be

destroyed by self-destruction, you won’t avoid it by

abstinence, you won’t manage it by moderation, because

it’s life–life everywhere, life at all times–and so you

won’t be consumed by passion: you will be consumed

by life.


It’s life that will consume you in the end, but in the meantime . . .

It’s life that will eat you alive, but for now . . .

It’s life that calls you to the street where the wood smoke hangs,

and the bare hint of a whisper of your name, but before

you go . . .


Too late: Life got its tentacles around you, its hooks into your heart,

and suddenly you come awake as if for the first time, and

you are standing in a part of the town where the air is

sweet–your face flushed, your chest thumping, your

stomach a planet, your heart a planet, your every organ a

separate planet, all of it of a piece though the pieces turn

separately, O silent indications of the inevitable, as among

the natural restraints of winter and good sense, life blows

you apart in her arms.


You can hear Marvin Bell read this poem on youtube, 13:45 in.