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.
SAILING TO BYZANTIUM
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.
A SUPERMARKET IN CALIFORNIA
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?
THE BEE MEETING
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.
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
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 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,
the heavy fur riffling in the wind.
I come up to him
and stare at the narrow-spaced, petty eyes,
face laid back on the shoulder, the nostrils
perhaps the first taint of me as he
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,
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,
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
come trailing again up the flyway.
In her ravine under old snow the dam-bear
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 rest of my days I spend
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?
DIVING INTO THE WRECK
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
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
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
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
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
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
our names do not appear.
THE VISION TEST
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.
I haven’t read through all of these yet (I recognize most of them), but as another obvious contender, how about Anthony Hecht’s “The Hill”? Which explicitly (maybe too explicitly?) frames its setting as a vision. But it fascinatingly refuses to resolve anything. David Wojahn asked me if I knew it after he read the first draft of my “burning” dream poem. Which leads me to one question at least (and maybe a topic for another week), where does the line fall between vision poems and dream poems? Visions aren’t necessarily dreams and vice versa, but it seems obvious to me that they can intersect at times. And also, it leaves me thinking about writing a narrative poem about the speaker having a vision vs. a poem that just offers the vision straight-up, as it were.
Another Hecht vision poem is “Persistencies,” from The Venetian Vespers, which I can’t find online. But I wrote an essay exploring why I thought “The Hill” is good and “Persistencies” is rather awful — and David agreed with my assessment.
In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur,
I had a vision once – though you understand
It was nothing at all like Dante’s, or the visions of saints,
And perhaps not a vision at all. I was with some friends,
Picking my way through a warm, sunlit piazza
In the early morning. A clear fretwork of shadows
From huge umbrellas littered the pavement and made
A sort of lucent shallows in which was moored
A small navy of carts. Books, coins, old maps,
Cheap landscapes and ugly religious prints
Were all on sale. The colors and noise
Like the flying hands were gestures of exultation,
So that even the bargaining
Rose to the ear like a voluble godliness.
And then, when it happened, the noises suddenly stopped,
And it got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved
And even the great Farnese Palace itself
Was gone, for all its marble; in its place
Was a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,
But no other sign of life. And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone. But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.
And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.
Then prices came through, and fingers, and I was restored
To the sunlight and my friends. But for more than a week
I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.
All this happened about ten years ago,
And it hasn’t troubled me since, but at last, today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.
Such wonderful poems! When I think of visionary, I think, too, of Blake. I think of the prophetic, the oracular, a prescient sense of the future–Yeats’s terrifying “Second Coming” comes to mind. Also maybe this one:
For the Anniversary of My Death
by 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
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
Interesting. This was included in a recent post. I’m thinking about whether I’d describe it as visionary.
The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Those are beautiful, amazing poems, Sharon! I wonder how to think of the word “visionary” to encompass all its meaning. I love the juxtaposition of Yeats and Ginsburg! If I might juxtapose two poets myself, I might suggest Elizabeth Bishop (two poems in particular: The Fish and The Moose) and Larry Levis (and here I’m thinking of Anastasia and Sandman). The “visions” of these poems are different, but powerful. Bishop is extraordinary at detail and form and I just love the whole poetic movie sequence of the bus and the Moose, and the deep dive into the essence of the Fish. But Levis does something… different. Like the sublime, I am not sure I can explain how these poems do what they do.
Bishop links: https://poets.org/poem/fish-2 and https://poets.org/poem/moose
Levis link: https://poets.org/poem/anastasia-sandman
Interesting. I had also been thinking of Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” as a kind of visionary poem.
A contemporary visionary: Maurice Manning. Prospero, sez I.
A Dream of Ash and Soot
Wednesday dusk and Mad Daddy, drenched head
to toe in kerosene, canters up, jerks the reins
and stands high on the speckled rump of his horse,
then winks at trembling Booth, eighteen
in the woodlot and tough as a ten-penny nail:
Yeehaw!! to the dread rattling thunder
I have given fire! –It shore has been some
rough magic, aint it boy? But now I break
my staff and drown my book. Forsooth, you have
your daddy’s country blood! I love you like
a furnace, son! Heigh ho Silver, away!
Then Mad Daddy snickers, strikes a match
on the heel of his boot and turns himself
into a galloping yellow torch. And his flames
reach to Heaven, and a cloud swirls
through the Great Field, and the sun falls down.