Monthly Archives

March 2018

Close Encounters with the Poem Itself

March 29, 2018

I had a very interesting conversation with two writer friends yesterday that eventually led me to an insight about what I want from poetry and other arts–in the very same way that working on a poem leads me to discover my own thoughts and feelings.  The discussion began with the recent flood of revelations about the sexual misbehaviors of many male writers, and the response by some to boycott their work.  I strongly disagree with that response–it strikes me as censorship and a moral litmus test–but I understand what triggers it.  I was appalled by the sexism of the poetry world I stepped into in about 1970, and saw a lot of offensive behavior, then and afterwards, by poets whose work I admired and loved.  Sometimes I took a break from reading their poems, but I always went back eventually and found a way to focus on the work rather than the life of the writer.

All of my early readings of contemporary poetry were encounters with the poems themselves, because I knew nothing of the poets’ lives.  I first read Sylvia Plath’s poems before I’d ever heard her name, let alone anything of her life and death, for example.  The same was true for Elizabeth Bishop, and many others, and I’m grateful that I started with the work.  My first literary approach to reading a poem was New Criticism, which reinforced my own focus on the poem itself, not the life of the poet.  I’ve added some layers to that in the years since, but that will always be my foundation and primary lens.  I’m as susceptible to curiosity and juicy gossip as anyone else, but I think what I learn about a writer’s life gets between me and the work far more often than it illuminates the work.  It becomes a kind of noise I have to tune out.  Of course there are exceptions–Colm Toibin’s On Elizabeth Bishop brings in snippets of the life to make insightful comments about individual poems, and especially the power of what she leaves out of them.  The biographies I’ve read of her don’t do that, and instead fill my head with irrelevancies I have to wash out when I read the poems.

Because what I want when I’m absorbed in a poem–and this is the heart of the matter–is an uncluttered encounter between me and the work of art.  I turn to art to leave behind the noise of everyday life and get in touch with something deeper, an experience that lets me return to daily life changed, enriched, challenged, seeing things in new ways.

Robert Frost was my first poetry love, and an enduring one.  When I read him as a child and then a teenager, what spoke to me was the darkness and loneliness: “My sorrow when she’s here with me/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be….”  And especially, since I lived in a desert landscape, “Desert Places”:

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.

The last line took my breath away: How did he know?  How did he know?

When we were college seniors, a friend and I decided we were going to make a pilgrimage from Utah to New England to meet Frost the following summer.  Even though it was a fantasy, I was devastated when he died that January, before I could meet him.  It was only years later that I realized what a disaster it would have been if we’d managed to make the trip, somehow find him, and try to introduce ourselves to the man himself.  I think that’s a perfect example of the point I’m trying to make here: my deep connections were with the speaker of the poems, not the writer of them.  They were powerful, and touched on something true and real, things we did indeed have in common that would only have been obscured by the realities of daily life.  I want a tryst, a téte à téte, not with the poet but with the poem itself.


March 6, 2018

I was talking to a friend about moments of magic in poems, a kind of conjuring that goes beyond craft and is inexplicable.  The first example that came to mind was the ending of Frank O’Hara’s’ “The Day Lady Died,” which brings tears to my eyes and makes me suck in my breath every time I read it.  It’s something about the way past and present are simultaneous, but it’s more than that, more than the sum of the parts.  Then I thought of an Alice Oswald poem, “Body,” that does something similar.  I was going to add two or three more poems that leave me awestruck, but then I noticed that both of these poems are about the border between life and death and I decided to include just the two of them in conversation with each other.

I hope you’ll add poems whose magic takes your breath away, whatever their topic.



Frank O’Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing





Alice Oswald

This is what happened
the dead were settling in under their mud roof
and something was shuffling overhead

it was a badger treading on the thin partition

bewildered were the dead
going about their days and nights in the dark
putting their feet down carefully finding themselves floating
but that badger

still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted
was shuffling away alive

hard at work
with the living shovel of himself
into the lane he dropped
not once looking up

and missed the sight of his own corpse falling like a suitcase
towards him
with the grin like an opened zip
(as I found it this morning)

and went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
water might keep its shape