Recently in Poetry and Poets Category

Ash Wednesday


"Disgrace not the throne of your glory;
remember your covenant with us, and break it note." Jer. 14: 21

from "Ash Wednesday"
T.S. Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Read the whole thing here

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But the real point is . . . Whitman


from Proust Was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

But Whitman also knew that his poems were not simply odes to the material body. This was the mistake that his Victorian critics made; by taking his references to orgasms and organs literally, they missed his true poetic epiphany. The moral of Whitman's verse was that the body wasn't merely a body. Just as leaves of grass grow out of the dirt, feelings grow out of the flesh. What Whitman wanted to show was how these two different substances--the grass and the dirt, the body and the mind--were actually inseparable. You couldn't write poems about one without acknowledging the presence of the other. As Whitman declared, "I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems."

Sometime back on the Disputations blog, there was a lengthy interchange about the resurrection of the body, in which Tom repeatedly stated (and, I've come to acknowledge, correctly) that the resurrection of the body dealt with the real body that we experience and in some mysterious way ARE right now. That is to say that what we have now will be the real body we have at the resurrection. And this makes perfect sense if the body is more than a container, but is in some way the vehicle and the reality of much of what we are.

I know, that doesn't make any real sense, and I'll have to think it through further to say something more like what I mean. The bottom line is that the body helps to define the mind and the mind the body and moving our present intellect, and perhaps even spirit to some new conveyance would in a very deep way violate who we are. God would not do that because He loves us as we are and loves who we are--without our bodies we are not that same person.

Or so it would seem that Whitman says--and there is much to agree with in the hypothesis.

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So well known, it is nearly trite. And, of course, it is quite untrue--however, it is a nice reminder when we need help staying the course--when the choice is anger or despair, at least anger gives us the momentary energy to continue on.

William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

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A New Poem


I knew that someday the image would make sense, the experience would have meaning.

Fox Ascending

The other day
I saw a fractal
oval white cloud
nailed to the bleached
blue sky like a day-
old fox corpse clinging
to a farmer's fence.

An imagist poem juxtaposing images separated in time by 25 or so years--one of a brilliant white oblong/oval cloud that sat suspended and motionless in the sky, seeming isolated and alone, nothing about it but long stretches of blue sky. And then a barbed wired fence surrounding a farmer's field in western Virginia near West Virginia. On it a row of foxes. I was told that it was a practice designed to keep other foxes away. But if so, it did not seem efficacious as there were already several there. But then, I don't have the wisdom of experience, so I couldn't presume to say. Either way, it has found its way into a hundred different poems. This is the first in which I thought it successful. (Not that the poem is--it needs work--overly burdened in the first few lines and plodding--I have to think more about the cloud and see if I can distill it more.)

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I was speaking with a friend about Billy Collins last week. This person pointed out that there is remarkably little substance in some of Mr. Collins's poetry. And that is a fair evaluation. Some of them are sheer fluff--not the stuff of eternity, hardly, one might say, the stuff of fifteen minutes.

However, it is important to bear in mind that for a poet every poem stands in the same place as a novel does for a novelist. That is not to imply equity of effort and endeavor, but rather the fact that each new poem rises to the surface and it is a tabula rasa, ripe and ready to move into meaning or into play. While some of Mr. Collins's poems are undoubtedly slight--they play and they show us play in a wonderful, liberating way--there is play with language, image, and individual words. Is it profound? Probably not, but it is meaningful and it does give a sense of diversity to the poems--it reflects mood and moment--there is no attempt to hide from what is happening at the time the poem is written, nor is there the false pose of many classic poets that seeks to enshrine poetry in a kind of unbreakable plastic case.

I would rather a thousand Billy Collins's with his occasionally excesses and underplays, than ten other lofty, portentous, and ultimately pretentious poets.

Yes, some poems are slight--but in what I have read so far, they are more than balanced by poems that make sudden turns and poems that, while slight at the surface slip in past the defenses to make a statement. That is poetry of worth--poetry that means despite the fact that we have all of our defenses up.

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I Can Sympathize


from The Selected Poems of Wang Wei
tr. David Hinton

The Way It Is

Faint shadow, a house, and traces of rain.
In courtyard depths, the gate's still closed

past noon. That lazy, I gaze at moss until
its azure-green comes seeping into robes.

Yep, been there, done that, and I have the souvenirs still here about my person.

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Ballistics--Billy Collins


This newest collection of the poetry of Billy Collins highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of his ability. The notable poems in the collection deal with the details of everyday life and illuminate the human experience in such a way as to surprise and delight us. This is the final effect of poetry. There should be a little aha, an amused laugh, or a sudden piercing insight--not necessarily of anything terribly important, but just a way of looking at something that hadn't been considered before.

As a poet, Collins has a way of hijacking his own poems and taking them off to some other place. For example, in the poem "Dublin," there are exactly two stanzas devoted to anything about Dublin, the remainder being dedicated to an exhibit of the Codex of Leonardo. This is not a bad thing--it is part of the poet's rhythm and surprise. And when it works, it works wonderfully well, to help you see things in a different way.

Sometimes the very good may be a trifle overplayed as in this example from "Despair."

Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to the great
tenth-century celebrator of experience,

Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
could hardly be restrained,
and to his joyous counterpart in the western provinces,

While it provokes a laugh and certainly rounds out the point of the poem, it may be over the top. (Note, may be. I like the poem so much that I'm not certain I'm willing to admit that point yet.)

The poems that speak most to me are those that highlight the magic implicit in everyday life. I quoted in an earlier entry from the poem "Tension." Poems such as "Searching," "Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant," and "Looking Forward" are other examples. The middle poem also indulges in a bit of subject-hijacking I spoke of earlier.

References to previous poets abound. Bloom, if he chose to direct his attention this way would relish the anxiety of influence so obvious in some selections. For example, the title "The Idea of Natural History at Key West," and an explicit mention in "August" reveal the influence of Wallace Stevens. In "No Things" we are threated by a "Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker's coat." Ovid, Paul Valéry, Charles Lamb, Juan Ramon Jiminez, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, Amy Lowell, and (I think) Randall Jarrell all make guest appearances as well.

A collection worth some time and attention--at time humorous and slight, humorous and gigantic, but almost always joyous with a real sense of play and delight in language that should be a Poet's hallmark.

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I can't tell you how liberating it is to be able to say that you have been wrong.

I've been wrong before, and I'll be wrong again, and it's wonderful to be shown how wrong I am because I have the new delight of finding what I have so long been missing. I wish more people relished the experience of being wrong and the liberating joy of seeing the light. Of course, it can be a bit like opening your eyes first thing in the morning to the shock of the overhead lights being turned on. But after that initial shock and pain has faded, how delightful to be able to see.

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