Favorite Poems

March 5, 2023


     I assume you’re all familiar with the Favorite Poem Project that was founded by Robert Pinsky when he was US Poet Laureate in 1997.  Eighteen thousand people responded, from all across the country, and videos are available online.  It’s incredibly moving to listen and watch as people read the poems and say why they chose them, and always reminds me of the place of poetry in our ongoing lives.   This statement on the Project home page describes my own sense of poems: “Poetry is a vocal art, an art meant to be heard in the reader’s voice—whether actually read aloud or in the inner voice of the imagination. The experience, in both ways, is bodily. As with conversation and song and many other uses of language, understanding is rooted in sound.”  Pinsky describes why he shaped the project as he did: “When you say a poem aloud by William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes, or even imagine saying it aloud, your voice becomes the artist’s medium. It is a form of collaboration, or mutual possession.”

I’ve often thought about what poems I might choose to submit, and of course it’s a wide, various, fluid group.  I chose two to post here, an old favorite and a newer one.  I first read “To Earthward” as a teenager, then memorized it as I circled my tiny bedroom.  I was just discovering the pleasures of touch, the overwhelming sensations and emotions, the intensity, but I could even then, imagine a little–thanks to the poem–what it would mean to lose them.  And of course Frost was imagining the future too–he was just forty when he wrote it.  I was also writing poems myself, so I noticed the beautiful rhythms and word sounds and rhymes (honeysuckle/ knuckle!)  I heard the speed and lightness of the first line, and later the slowing down of “Now no joy but lacks salt”–six monosyllabic words, six stresses.  I felt the poem not just in my ears, but in my whole body–and I still do.

I discovered Alice Oswald’s poems much more recently, and find them literally breathtaking–sometimes I realize I’m holding my breath as I read.  Her imagery is vivid and unexpected, and in “Swan” I don’t know what I’m seeing until it’s too late, I can’t close my eyes.  She’s made something horrifying and sad into something beautiful–that’s a work of art.  But she shows us the beauty and sadness first, the imagined, long before she ever offers a glimpse of how the encounter began.  I think almost any other poet would have begun with finding the swan and them perhaps moved to the transcendental, so it’s a moment of real genius to me that she doesn’t.

So here’s your assignment: choose a favorite (two if they’re short), post them in Comments (just click on Favorite Poems in red on the right and scroll down), along with a brief statement of why you’re choosing them, and plan to read them at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.



Robert Frost


Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they’re gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.



Alice Oswald


A rotted swan

is hurrying away from the plane-crash mess of her wings

one here

one there


getting panicky up out of her clothes and mid-splash

looking down again at what a horrible plastic

mould of herself split-second

climbing out of her own cockpit


and lifting away again and bending back for another look thinking




what are those two -white clips that connected my strength

to its floatings


and lifting away again and bending back for another look

at the clean china serving-dish of a breast bone

and how thickly the symmetrical quill-points

were threaded in backwards through the leather underdress

of the heart saying





it’s not as if such fastenings could ever contain

the regular yearning wing-beat of my evenings

and that surely can’t be my own black feet

lying poised in their slippers

what a waste of detail

what a heaviness inside each feather

and leaving her life and all its tools

with their rusty juices trickling back to the river

she is lifting away she is taking a last look thinking





say something to the

frozen cloud of the head

before it thaws


whose one dead eye

is a growing cone of twilight

in the middle of winter


it is snowing there

and the bride has just set out

to walk to her wedding


but how can she reach

the little black-lit church

it is so cold


the bells like iron angels

hung from one note

keep ringing and ringing




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Long-line Metrical Poems

February 28, 2023


    Now that we’ve spent two weeks looking at ways poets create music in long-lined free verse, I wanted to listen back to long lines in meter–specifically pentameter and hexameter, five- and six-feet lines.  Iambic pentameter is the most frequently used used foot and measure in English poetry, of course, but there’s very little hexameter (though as you’ll see I found a few examples).  But some of the earliest Western literature was composed in dactylic hexameter: /– /– /– /– /– /–.  If you google it, you can listen to how it sounded.  I happened to come across a page that had three different translations side by side of the openings of the Iliad and the Odyssey, so I began with them and then leapt forward.  You can see (hear) what meter each translator used in English.  In the last poem here, by Terrance Hayes, he’s addressing Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Early Sunday Mornings.”  Once you’ve read these, go back and read some of last week’s poems aloud, then these–how does the music differ?

Feel free to add comments and examples, and we’ll discuss them at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).


from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, late 8th-early 7th century B.C.

Opening of the Iliad:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus. . . .

Translated by Richmond Lattimore (1951)


Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men — carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
Begin it when the two men first contending
broke with one another —
the Lord Marshal
Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus. . . .

Translated by Robert Fitzgerald (1974)


Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles. . . .

Translated by Robert Fagles (1990)


 Opening of the Odyssey:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will nor valor could he save them,
for their own recklessness destroyed them all —
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Hêlios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through the heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return. . . .

Translated by Robert Fitzgerald (1961)


Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. . . .

Translated by Richmond Lattimore (1965)


Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove –
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return. . . .

Translated by Robert Fagles (1996)



For Christ Our Lord

 Gerard Manley Hopkins b. 1844


I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!


Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!


No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.





Gerard Manley Hopkins


The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.



William Butler Yeats b. 1865


I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.




Edna St. Vincent Millay b. 1892

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.



Louise Bogan b. 1897


You have put your two hands upon me, and your mouth,
You have said my name as a prayer.
Here where trees are planted by the water
I have watched your eyes, cleansed from regret,
And your lips, closed over all that love cannot say,

My mother remembers the agony of her womb
And long years that seemed to promise more than this.
She says, “You do not love me,
You do not want me,
You will go away.”

In the country whereto I go
I shall not see the face of my friend
Nor her hair the color of sunburnt grasses;
Together we shall not find
The land on whose hills bends the new moon
In air traversed of birds.

What have I thought of love?
I have said, “It is beauty and sorrow.”
I have thought that it would bring me lost delights, and splendor
As a wind out of old time. . .

But there is only the evening here,
And the sound of willows
Now and again dipping their long oval leaves in the water.




Mona Van Duyn b. 1921


In police procedurals they are dying all over town,
the life ripped out of them, by gun, bumper, knife,
hammer, dope, etcetera, and no clues at all.
All through the book the calls come in: body found
in bed, car, street, lake, park, garage, library,
and someone goes out to look and write it down.
Death begins life’s whole routine to-do
in these stories of our fellow citizens.

Nobody saw it happen, or everyone saw,
but can’t remember the car. What difference does it make
when the child will never fall in love, the girl will never
have a child, the man will never see a grandchild, the old maid
will never have another cup of hot cocoa at bedtime?
As in life, the dead are dead, their consciousness,
as dear to them as mine to me, snuffed out.
What has mind to do with this, when the earth is bereaved?

I lie, with my dear ones, holding a fictive umbrella,
while around us falls the real and acid rain.
The handle grows heavier and heavier in my hand.
Unlike life, tomorrow night under the bedlamp
by a quick link of thought someone will find out why,
and the policemen and their wives and I will feel better.
But all that’s toward the end of the book. Meantime, tonight,
without a clue I enter sleep’s little rehearsal.




Derek Walcott b. 1930


Summer for prose and lemons, for nakedness and languor,
for the eternal idleness of the imagined return,
for rare flutes and bare feet, and the August bedroom
of tangled sheets and the Sunday salt, ah violin!

When I press summer dusks together, it is
a month of street accordions and sprinklers
laying the dust, small shadows running from me.

It is music opening and closing, Italia mia, on Bleecker,
ciao, Antonio, and the water-cries of children
tearing the rose-coloured sky in streams of paper;
it is dusk in the nostrils and the smell of water
down littered streets that lead you to no water,
and gathering islands and lemons in the mind.

There is the Hudson, like the sea aflame.
I would undress you in the summer heat,
and laugh and dry your damp flesh if you came.



Marilyn Nelson b. 1946


Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch,
are bickering. The eldest has come home
with new truths she can hardly wait to teach.

She lectures them: the younger daughters search
the sky, elbow each other’s ribs, and groan.
Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch

and blue-sprigged dresses, like a stand of birch
saplings whose leaves are going yellow-brown
with new truths. They can hardly wait to teach,

themselves, to be called “Ma’am,” to march
high-heeled across the hanging bridge to town.
Five daughters. In the slant light on the porch

Pomp lowers his paper for a while, to watch
the beauties he’s begotten with his Ann:
these new truths they can hardly wait to teach.

The eldest sniffs, “A lady doesn’t scratch.”
The third snorts back, “Knock, knock: nobody home.”
The fourth concedes, “Well, maybe not in church . . . ”
Five daughters in the slant light on the porch.



Terrance Hayes b. 1971


Did your father come home after fighting
through the week at work? Did the sweat change
to salt in his ears? Was that bitter white

grain the only music he’d hear? Is this why
you were quiet when other poets sang
of the black man’s beauty? Is this why

you choked on the tonsil of Negro Duty?
Were there as many offices for pain
as love? Should a black man never be shy?

Was your father a mountain twenty
shovels couldn’t bury? Was he a train
leaving a lone column of smoke? Was he

a black magnolia singing at your feet?
Was he a blackjack smashed against your throat?



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Long-lined Free Verse

February 21, 2023



I’d like to continue our discussion from last week of C. K. Williams’ long-line free verse poems, and to look at examples by other contemporary poets.

When American poets first began to break away from the standard iambic meter–predominantly pentameter–poets had used for centuries, they did so in one of two ways.  Pound, Eliot, and others did it by keeping the meter but varying the line length.  William Carlos Williams, and others who followed, wanted to hear in new rhythms altogether, something that would better capture American speech and contemporary life, that might be syncopated and jazzy.  The definition of that free verse was ­­non-metrical, and lines that fell into even rough meters were considered failures.  The notion was to hear something new, that hadn’t been heard before.

The issue was how to create music without meter, and it’s easier to do that with short and medium lines.  The longer a line gets, the harder it is to distinguish it from prose.  Whitman did it with anaphora, strong cadences, repetitions, King James rhetoric, lists, and other devices.  Ginsberg used those, and added some of his own.  As I said last week, C. K. Williams found other ways to extend the lines, with sentence rhythm in the foreground, but still the line breaks keeping it from being prose.  I would say that the current emphasis with long line poems is more on distinguish it from prose than distinguishing it from metrical verse.

Marvin Bell’s equation for his Dead Man poems is: “The line is the sentence and the sentence is the line.”

How do other poets manage to maintain the music of poetry when they write in long, non-metrical lines?  The easiest way to discover the effects of their choices is to type out some of the poems as prose to see what would be lost.

Feel free to post or send me your own examples, and we’ll discuss as many as we have time for in this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.



Walt Whitman


Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.



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, García 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 a 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?


two poems by Brigit Pegeen Kelly:



Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.
All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it
Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing
The song of a night bird. They sat up in their beds, and then
They lay back down again. In the night wind, the goat’s head
Swayed back and forth, and from far off it shone faintly
The way the moonlight shone on the train track miles away
Beside which the goat’s headless body lay. Some boys
Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.
The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school
And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything.
The head hung in the tree. The body lay by the tracks.
The head called to the body. The body to the head.
They missed each other. The missing grew large between them,
Until it pulled the heart right out of the body, until
The drawn heart flew toward the head, flew as a bird flies
Back to its cage and the familiar perch from which it trills.
Then the heart sang in the head, softly at first and then louder,
Sang long and low until the morning light came up over
The school and over the tree, and then the singing stopped….
The goat had belonged to a small girl. She named
The goat Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry, named it after
The night’s bush of stars, because the goat’s silky hair
Was dark as well water, because it had eyes like wild fruit.
The girl lived near a high railroad track. At night
She heard the trains passing, the sweet sound of the train’s horn
Pouring softly over her bed, and each morning she woke
To give the bleating goat his pail of warm milk. She sang
Him songs about girls with ropes and cooks in boats.
She brushed him with a stiff brush. She dreamed daily
That he grew bigger, and he did. She thought her dreaming
Made it so. But one night the girl didn’t hear the train’s horn,
And the next morning she woke to an empty yard. The goat
Was gone. Everything looked strange. It was as if a storm
Had passed through while she slept, wind and stones, rain
Stripping the branches of fruit. She knew that someone
Had stolen the goat and that he had come to harm. She called
To him. All morning and into the afternoon, she called
And called. She walked and walked. In her chest a bad feeling
Like the feeling of the stones gouging the soft undersides
Of her bare feet. Then somebody found the goat’s body
By the high tracks, the flies already filling their soft bottles
At the goat’s torn neck. Then somebody found the head
Hanging in a tree by the school. They hurried to take
These things away so that the girl would not see them.
They hurried to raise money to buy the girl another goat.
They hurried to find the boys who had done this, to hear
Them say it was a joke, a joke, it was nothing but a joke….
But listen: here is the point. The boys thought to have
Their fun and be done with it. It was harder work than they
Had imagined, this silly sacrifice, but they finished the job,
Whistling as they washed their large hands in the dark.
What they didn’t know was that the goat’s head was already
Singing behind them in the tree. What they didn’t know
Was that the goat’s head would go on singing, just for them,
Long after the ropes were down, and that they would learn to listen,
Pail after pail, stroke after patient stroke. They would
Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees
Or a night bird, but their hearts beating harder. There
Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.


D__ L__ S __

Albert Goldbarth

Fathers are invariably great nuisances on the stage, and always have to give the hero or heroine a long explanation of what was done before the curtain rose, usually commencing with “It is now nineteen years, my dear child, since …” etc., etc.
—Charles Dickens

There might be a planet. Before that,
though, there would have been a gas that coalesced
into a planet . . . as, before that, there were dots of flux
and energy that hadn’t yet declared themselves
in concert. There’s always “before”: there’s more
each minute, more each person, yes and every one
of its smallest, irreducible subparticles—which I name
he “beforeon”—is exerting force on us
that’s surely time’s own version of gravity: its purpose
is to tug, and to remind us. In the house of second marriages,

it causes the man to do what he and the woman had promised
they never would: one night while she’s asleep, he snoops
her bureau for telltale relics of the mysterious Mr.
Number One. And why, or even what
he hopes to find, he couldn’t clearly say: a letter? photo?
sex toy?—something, some objectified gossip, a fossil
of bygone love. Essentially, we make of our own psyches
a bureau and pay a shrink to snoop; as for the moment
when our neural linkage first began to form,
as for the flavor of the fluids in the womb. . . we’re all

amnesiacs: and our earliest self, just like the universe’s
earliest being, is a “phantom limb” with the faintest
mnemonic of starbursts in an otherwise chill void. I have
a friend D____ L____ (this poem is hers) who, orphaned
as a newborn, is devoted to learning her origin
as doggedly as any cosmologist tracks light to its source, although
her search (when not pure Internet) is more a matter
of tape-recording the beer-sour stories in sailor bars,
of sifting ashy memories in nursing homes,
one backwards inch of plotline at a time. And yet somebody

else is waking up this morning with the need
to be detached from any history,
to stand here like a person in a play who enters
onstage from a pool of perfect blankness. Then,
of course, he can start over, minute-zero-of-year-zero,
unbesmirched. We could have told him that he’d be this
anguished—sneaking in her drawer, below those folded
pastel lozenges of lingerie, uncovering the one thing
that could ruin them. Now he wants only to float (who
doesn’t, sometimes?) in an anti-world: appealing, but

illusory. We can’t unmoor ourselves from linearity,
no more than any one of us can be a human being
unconnected to a genome—and in fact, no more
than Mama-All-of-Time-and-Space-Herself (I mean
the cosmos) can unwrap her vasty body from its own
twelve million years of Big Bang “background radiation”
so it wafts—a tossed off, filmy scarf—far elsewhere.
No; there isn’t any “elsewhere.” When we sleep
or simply deepen into quietude enough, the voices
come—the rhythmic, grave, ancestral murmur,

a woman bearing a ritual clamshell bowl . . .
a man with a done-deal sales contract . . . whispers,
knuckle-rap, cleared throats. . . . Her great-grandfather,
D____ L____ has uncovered, was a lector—a reader they used
to relieve the tedium of the leaf rollers’ shifts
in cigar manufactories. Shakespeare, Dickens,
union tracts, love letters, family diaries . . . . He’s
walking through the tobacco aroma; he’s setting his text
on his easel; and the story—the only story we know,
the story of Before—is recited.



Marvin Bell

  1. About the Dead Man and Rigor Mortis


The dead man thinks his resolve has stiffened when the
===ground dries.
Feeling the upward flow of moisture, the dead man thinks his
===resolve has stiffened.
The dead man’s will, will be done.
The dead man’s backbone stretches from rung to rung, from here to
===tomorrow, from a fabricated twinge to virtual agony.
The dead man’s disks along his spine are like stepping-stones across
===a lake, the doctor told him “jelly doughnuts” when they
===ruptured, this is better.
The dead man’s hernial groin is like a canvas bridge across a
===chasm, the doctor said “balloon” when they operated
===this is better.
The dead man’s toes are like sanded free forms and his heels are as
smooth as the backs of new shoes, the doctor said “corns”
when they ached, this is better.
The dead man’s eyes are like tiny globes in water, continental
geographies in microcosm, all the canyons are visible, now
washed of random hairs that rooted, now free of the
strangulated optics of retinal sense, this is better.
All the dead man’s organs, his skin, muscles, tendons, arteries, veins,
valves, networks, relays—the whole shebang hums like a
quickly deserted hardware store.
To the dead man, a head of cabbage is a forerunner of nutrients.
The dead man’s garden foreshadows the day it is to be plowed under,
agriculture being one of the ancient Roman methods for
burying the Classics, the other was war.
No one can argue with the dead man, he brooks no interference

===between the lightning and ground, his determination
===is legendary.


2. More About the Dead Man and Rigor Mortis

You think it’s funny, the dead man being stiff?
You think it’s an anatomically correct sexual joke?
You think it’s easy, being petrified?
You think it’s just one of those things, being turned to stone?
Who do you think turns the dead man to stone anyway?
Who do you think got the idea first?
You think it’s got a future, this being dead?
You think it’s in the cards, you think the thunder spoke?
You think he thought he was dead, or thought he fancied he was
===dead, or imagined he could think himself dead, or really
===knew he was dead?
You think he knew he knew?
You think it was predetermined?
You think when he stepped out of character he was different?
What the hell, what do you think?
You think it’s funny, the way the dead man is like lightning, going
===straight into the ground?
You think it’s hilarious, comedy upstanding, crackers to make
===sense of?





Kevin Prufer

I love the crown molding and the white granite countertops.

And look, dear! Stainless steel appliances! Don’t you love them?

It’s such a perfect apartment, and, in every room, a coffered ceiling.

And don’t you love the pink twin sinks, like porcelain scallops?

And listen to the faucets,

like the rush of a waterfall heard through thick woods just as the birds began to
sing early one morning years ago in the hills outside Florence.

Where are you going?

Love fills me the way the sun surprises the room when I pull the string and the
curtains open.

Pinch-pleat curtains, crinkle-voile, semi-opaque, and sheer! Soft as love when I
stroke them, warm as love against my cheek, a scent of spring rain gentling
the petunias when I wrap myself in them

until I cannot see, until I cannot move my arms or legs.

Of course, I’d love to see the guest bedroom with its walk-in closet and
built-in shoe shelf, its en suite bath with the whirlpool tub!

Let me just wipe my eyes on these curtains. Let me just untangle.

The view through this window is so lovely, the far fingers of smoke trembling
over the distant city where the workers— rich black thoughts pour from the smokestacks
is all I have to say about the workers.

No, sorry, I’m still here, wrapped in the curtains. They were so alluring,

voluptuous, really, if curtains can be voluptuous against bare skin. You continue
with the tour, dear,

and I’ll be along presently. The sky is rose chiffon, the clouds like pressed flowers
above the smokestacks,

just leave me here, restrained and lavished at once! And the window,
with its inviting coolness

to the tongue. To my tongue. It’s like I am licking those smokestacks!






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C. K. Williams

February 14, 2023

  I’ve been thinking of C. K. Williams’ poems recently, with their incredible formal inventions.  The first book I read of his was With Ignorance, published in 1977.  From its unusual shape to the poems inside, it was something new in the poetry universe.  It’s almost square, not rectangular, and the poems inside use long lines that go all the way across that wide page, with the longest turning over to the next line, and indented to indicate that. The poems themselves are long, two, three, or four pages.  But as soon as I started to read it was clear that that just as the lines weren’t prose, they also weren’t like any other long poetry lines I knew: Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s, for example.  In Williams’ poems, sentence cadences were rich and audible.  The scenes and characters were vivid.  And yet it was poetry, not prose.  It was like coming across a new plant species, or undiscovered butterfly.  The first poem here is from that book.

The rest of the poems are from his book Flesh and Blood, published in 1987, which blew my mind once again.  He’d published some other work in that decade, including translations, but nothing that prepared me for this book’s formal choices.  The lines are still long, reaching across the page and often turning over.  But the poems are shorter, with most printed two to a page.  Given the frequent turnover lines, it took me a while to realize that each poem was just eight lines long–astonishing. He seemed to want to have his cake and eat it too: prose techniques in poetry; long lines kept from being meandering by the pressure of an eight-line limit.  And then, there was yet another way he made the form he’d created more flexible.  The book is divided into three sections.  The first consists of single eight-line poems, two per page.  The second includes poem sequences of varying lengths, one more turn of the screw: long lines–short poems–short poems turned into sequences: six on Reading, three on Suicide, ten on Love, seven on The Good Mother, six called Vehicle (as in tenor and vehicle).  The final section of the book is an elegy in eighteen sections dedicated to Paul Zweig.

Because I can’t indent single lines without writing code, I’ve marked turnovers with an equals sign.  I hope it’s more helpful than distracting.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Williams’ work, but I think there’s enough here to get you started.  I’m looking forward to our Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.


from With Ignorance


C. K. Williams

When I was about eight, I once stabbed somebody, another kid, a little girl.
I’d been hanging around in front of the supermarket near our house
and when she walked by, I let her have it, right in the gap between her shirt and her shorts
with a piece of broken-off car antenna I used to carry around in my pocket.
It happened so fast I still don’t know how I did it: I was as shocked as she was
except she squealed and started yelling as though I’d plunged a knife in her
and everybody in the neighborhood gathered around us, then they called the cops,
then the girl’s mother came running out of the store saying “What happened? What
and the girl screamed, “He stabbed me!” and I screamed back, “I did not!” and she said did too
and me I didn’t and we were both crying hysterically by that time.
Somebody pulled her shirt up and it was just a scratch but we went on and on
and the mother, standing between us, seemed to be absolutely terrified.
I still remember how she watched first one of us and then the other with a look of
=complete horror—
You did too! I did not!—as though we were both strangers, as though it was some natural
she was beholding that was beyond any mode of comprehension so all she could do
was stare speechlessly at us, and then another expression came over her face,
one that I’d never seen before, that made me think she was going to cry herself
and sweep both of us, the girl and me, into her arms and hold us against her.
The police came just then, though, quieted everyone down, put the girl and the mother
into a squad-car to take to the hospital and me in another to take to jail
except they really only took me around the corner and let me go because the mother
=and daughter were black
and in those days you had to do something pretty terrible to get into trouble that way.

I don’t understand how we twist these things or how we get them straight again
but I relived that day I don’t know how many times before I realized I had it all wrong.
The boy wasn’t me at all, he was another kid: I was just there.
And it wasn’t the girl who was black, but him. The mother was real, though.
I really had thought she was going to embrace them both
and I had dreams about her for years afterwards: that I’d be being born again
and she’d be lifting me with that same wounded sorrow or she would suddenly appear out of
blotting out everything but a single, blazing wing of holiness.
Who knows the rest? I can still remember how it felt the old way.
How I make my little thrust, how she crushes us against her, how I turn and snarl
at the cold circle of faces around us because something’s torn in me,
some ancient cloak of terror we keep on ourselves because we’ll do anything,
anything, not to know how silently we knell in the mouth of death
and not to obliterate the forgiveness and the lies we offer one another and call innocence.
This is innocence. I touch her, we kiss.
And this. I’m here or not here. I can’t tell. I stab her. I stab her again. I still can’t.



from Flesh and Blood:


The boy had badly malformed legs, and there was a long, fresh surgical scar behind one
=one knee.
The father, frankly wealthy, quite young, very boardroom, very well-made, self-made,
had just taken the boy’s thin arm the way you would take the arm of an attractive woman,
with firmness, a flourish of affection; he was smiling directly down into the boy’s face
but it was evident that this much companionability between them wasn’t usual, that the
=the father,
whatever else his relation to the boy consisted of, didn’t know that if you held him that way
you would overbalance him, which, when the boy’s crutches splayed and he went down,
=crying “Papa!”
must have informed his voice with such shrill petulance, such anguished accusation.



We fight for hours, through dinner, through the endless evening, who even knows now
=what about,
what could be so dire to have to suffer so for, stuck in one another’s craws like fishbones,
the cadavers of our argument dissected, flayed, but we go on with it, to bed, and through
=the night,
feigning sleep, hardly sleeping, so precisely never touching, back to back,
the blanket bridged across us for the wintry air to tunnel down, to keep us lifting, turning,
through the angry dark that holds us in its cup of pain, the aching dark, the weary dark,
then, toward dawn, I can’t help it, though justice I know won’t be served, I pull her to me,
and with such accurate, graceful deftness she rolls to me that we arrive embracing our
=entire lengths.


for Renée Mauger

She answers the bothersome telephone, takes the message, forgets the message, forgets who
One of their daughters, her husband guesses: the one with the dogs, the babies, the boy Jed?
Yes, perhaps, but how tell which, how tell anything when all the name tags have been lost or
when all the lonely flowers of sense and memory bloom and die now in adjacent bites of
Sometimes her own face will suddenly appear with terrifying inappropriateness before her
=in a mirror.
She knows that if she’s patient, its gaze will break, demurely, decorously, like a well-taught
it will turn from her as though it were embarrassed by the secrets of this awful hide-and-
If she forgets, though, and glances back again, it will still be in there, furtively watching,


for Jean Mauger

He’d been a clod, he knew, yes, always aiming toward his vision of the good life, always
=acting on it.
He knew he’d been unconscionably self-centered, had indulged himself with his undreamed-
=of good fortune,
but he also knew that the single-mindedness with which he’d attended to his passions,
=needs, and whims,
and which must have seemed to others the grossest sort of egotism, was also what was really
=at the base
of how how he’d almost offhandedly worked out the intuitions and moves which had
=brought him here,
and this wasn’t all that different: to spend his long anticipated retirement learning to cook,
clean house, dress her, even to apply her makeup, wasn’t any sort of secular saintliness–
that would be belittling–it was just the next necessity he saw himself as being called to.



The bench he’s lying on isn’t nearly wide enough for the hefty bulk of his torso and
Shielding his eyes with his sheaf of scrawled-on yellow papers from the bare bulb
=over his head,
legs lifted in a dainty V, he looks about to tip, but catches himself with unconscious
Suddenly he rises–he’s still streaming from his session on the Nautilus and heavy bag–
goes into the shower, comes back, dries off with a gray, too-small towel and sits to
=read again,
applying as he does an oily, evil-looking lotion from a dark brown bottle onto his legs
=and belly.
Next to his open locker, a ragged equipment bag, on top a paperback: The Ethical
=System of Hume.
The smell of wintergreen and steam-room steam; from the swimming pool echoes
=of children screaming.



The father has given his year-old son Le Monde to oplay with in his stroller and the baby
just what you’d expect: grabs it, holds it out in front of him, stares importantly at it,
makes emphatic and dramatic sounds of declamation, great pronouncements of
=analytic probity,
then tears it, pulls a page in half, pulls the half in quarters, shoves a hearty shred
=in his mouth–
a delicious editorial on unemployment and recession a tasty jeu de mots on govern-
=ment ineptitude.
He startles in amazement when his father takes the paper back from him: What in
=heaven’s name?
Indignation, impotence, frustration, outrage, petulance, rebellion, realism, resignation.
Slumping back, disgusted…Hypocrite lecteur, semblable…Just wait, he’s muttering,
=just wait…



He’s the half-respectable wino who keeps to himself, camping with his bags on the steps
=of the Bourse.
She’s the neighborhood schizo, our nomad, our pretty post-teen princess gone to the grim
her appalling matted hair, vile hanging rags, the engrossing shadow plays she acts out to
Tonight, though, something takes her, she stops, waits, and smiling cunningly asks him
=for a smoke.
They both seem astonished, both their solitudes emerge, stiff-legged, blinking, from their
The air is charged with timid probings, promises, wants and lost wants, but suddenly she
she can’t do it, she goes, and he, with a stagy, blasé world-weariness leans back and watches,
like Orpheus watches as she raptly picks her way back to the silver path, back to the boiling



They were so exceptionally well got-up for an ordinary Sunday afternoon stop in at
=Deux Magots,
she in a very chic deep black, he in a business suit, and they were so evidently just
=out of bed
but with very little to say to one another, much gazing off, elaborate lightings of her
she more proper than was to be believed, sipping with a flourished pinky at her
=Pimm’s Cup,
that it occurred to me I was finally seeing one of those intriguing Herald Tribune
a woman’s name, a number–for “escorts” or “companions,” but then I had to change my
she’d leaned toward him, deftly lifted a line of his thinning hair, and idly, with a mild pat,
had laid it back–not commiserating, really, just keeping record of the progress of the loss.



That moment when the high-wire walker suddenly begins to falter, wobble, sway, arms
that breathakingly rapid back-and-forth aligning-realigning of the displaced center of
weight thrown this way, no, too far; that way, no, too far again, until the movements
of compensation have their rhythms established so that there’s no way possibly to stop
that very moment, wheeling back and forth, back and forth, appeal, repeal, negation,
just before he lets it go and falls to deftly catch himself going by the wire, somersaulting up,
except for us it never ceases, testing moments of the mind-weight this way, back and back
=and forth,
no re-establishing of balance, no place to start again, just this, this force, this gravity and



The way, playing an instrument, when you botch a passage you have to stop before you can
=go on again–
there’s a chunk of time you have to wait through, an interval to let the false notes dissipate,
from consciousness, of course, and from the muscles, but it seems also from the room, the
=actual air,
the bad try has to leak off into eternity, the volumes of being scrubbed to let the true
So, having loved, and lost, lost everything, the other and the possibility of other and parts
=of the self,
the heart rushes toward forgetfulness, but never gets there, continuously attains the
=opposite instead,
the senses tensed, attending, the conductors of the mind alert, waiting for the waiting to
when will tedious normality begin again, the old calm silences recur, the creaking air









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