Monday, December 25, 2006

Patrick Kavanagh, "A Christmas Childhood"


One side of the potato-pits was white with frost —
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven's gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw —
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me

To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood's. Again

The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.


My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Mass-going feet
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy's hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.

And old man passing said:
'Can't he make it talk —
The melodion.' I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife's big blade —
there was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary's blouse.


From A Soul for Sale (1947)

In honor of the 'holiday season', as it's called, this week brings some holiday-themed selections. In honor of being on vacation, though, I think I'm going to take the week off from commentary for the most part. Here, in association with Christmas, which might at root be taken as a celebration of the miracle of birth and the hope-filled potential that is childhood, Kavanagh provides a magical vision of innocence. In parallel with both the Garden of Eden and the birth of Christ, the young child's surroundings are depicted as an incarnation of this innocence. This personification/idealization of rural Ireland has a strong presence in Irish literature - not always in a naive way, as Kavanagh's own masterpiece "The Great Hunger" illustrates.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Greg Williamson, "Binocular Diplopia"

I've tried, Lord knows,
To keep from seeing double....

-James Merrill

Life was a blur. Or so he thought. The thing
Was, he'd been diagnosed with a small-time
Astigmatism. Why think otherwise?
But when the doctor told him, "Read the chart,"
And he replied, "Which one?" even the smart
Young nurse said, "Uh oh." As for him, his eyes
Were opened and he saw, for the first time,
That he was seeing two of everything.

This would explain a lot. In stereoscopic
Hindsight he reviewed old patterns of
Mistakes: missed shots, a lifetime of misreading,
Mixed signals (this as the nurse was double-knitting
Her cute brows), false moves, smashed thumbs from hitting
The wrong nail on the head, all finally leading
To how the woman he first fell in love
With turned to myth. But that's another topic.

Meanwhile, the long walk home. Or rather two.
A second one appeared to levitate,
Illusive, epiphanic, and oblique—
Like dual reflections in a double pane
Of glass, or some self-referential strain
Of allegory. Which one, so to speak,
Was true? If seeing's believing, not the great
Sam Johnson could refute it: Both were true.

Twinned like a postcard's double-stamped cachet,
The phone lines added up to musical staves,
With a score of birds; Shell's logo seemed to shine
Like a big con; and everywhere he turned,
His second nature brazenly returned
Equivocations in the plainest sign,
From the pecuniary, JESUS SAVES
To the unwittingly blunt SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY,

As if the world were, after all, a text,
"A book in folio," a hieroglyph.
Here was the uncorrected proof. The elder's
Two thick volumes of belated leaves
And, spiraling in double helices,
Its legendary keys all seemed to tell,
Beside themselves, another tale, as if
These traces were the cryptic analects

Of some long-lost original. (Or flim-
flam! Now get real. this is pure grandstanding.
Look in thy heart, etc.) Double trouble.
Even close introspection was abased.
With two left feet, twin-featured and two-faced,
He saw, head down, foreshortened in a puddle,
Under a critical sign that said, NO STANDING,
Me. (When was it I turned into him?)

So that was that. And he (we'll say) set out
Again, flung open the double doors to find
Her smiling faces, whom he'd fancied for
So long as muse, and girl back home, and quest,
And so much more. Closing his eyes to rest
He saw her image turn from metaphor
To perfect vision, singular, clear, defined,
The one thing he had always dreamt about.


From Errors in the Script (2001)

And here we find a final quasi-riddle poem to end our round=up week. In one sense, the title begins as a riddle (unless you look it up or happen to be an opthamologist), which is then revealed to be the answer to the riddle of the poem. But Williamson [b. 1964] continues to cast his lines further out in multiple directions, exploring other metaphorical resonances for double vision - which might be taken as revision, hindsight, or the way of looking anew I discussed in the first weeks - often with humorous results. As throughout his work, Williamson here is a clever and witty poet, but I believe one whose poetic manner has substance to it, as expressing a cheerful, engaging vision of life's failures and felicities, our shortcomings and the new possibilities and viewpoints which can grow out of them.

(More on Greg Williamson:

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dan Chiasson, "Which Species On Earth Is Saddest?"

When we wake up in our bodies, first we weep.
We weep because the air is thick as honey.

Even the air is a body. Ours is the bottommost
and newest body, nested inside other, older ones

(though the mother’s body is repairing itself now;
there’s no trace of us anywhere on her;

why are we part of every body but our mother’s?)
Die as soon as possible, the Scriptures say.

And many do — or soon enough, as in the tales of
a swollen boy, now years ago, in farthest Africa,

who filled a grove of cherry trees with tears, then
vanished into the grove. He hides behind trees.

That’s death for you. Grief is a cherry grove.
Don’t be born at all. My friend is on fast-forward now

to reach the scene where they erase her childlessness.
She knows she hid that kid somewhere inside of her,

but where? We know nothing else except by learning:
not walking, not eating. Only to cry comes naturally.


From Natural History (2005)

Another variation on the title/riddle poem - here the title poses a question, for which the final lines provide an oblique answer. I think the opening and closing of this poem are wonderfully pitched, with a slow pacing reflecting the layers of honey, the sense of inevitability of the tragic blanket of accruing experience. I'm currently suffering from the slow, honey-like congestion (nasal and mental) of a cold, and need to be getting under covers myself - so I'll have to leave it at that.

(More on Dan Chiasson:

Monday, December 18, 2006

James Merrill, "b o d y"

Look closely at the letters. Can you see,
entering (stage right), then floating full,
then heading off—so soon—
how like a little kohl-rimmed moon
o plots her course from b to d

—as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door?
Looked at too long, words fail,
phase out. Ask, now that body shines
no longer, by what light you learn these lines
and what the b and d stood for.


From A Scattering of Salts (1995)

Today's poem is a sort of double-layered riddle poem. On one level it is a dramatization of the positioning and shape of the letters in its title, "b o d y". On another, it is a meditation on human life - the span from b birth to d death - and the body's decay during that time. Merrill (1926-1995) was very much occupied with this subject at the time of writing this, his final collection, as he was ailing due to the AIDS virus. The meanings of "o" and "y" remain enigmatic - in parallel with birth and death, they might suggest old age and youth, but that does not seem to fit the use in the poem. "Y", at least, seems to be in part a suggestion of the question "why?" - "unanswered", which lies beyond d/death. If anyone else has ideas of what these might signify, please share.

(More on Merrill here:

Sunday, December 17, 2006

John Ashbery, "Paradoxes and Oxymorons"

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don't have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What's a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren't there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.


From Shadow Train (1981)

This poem was considered for both the ars poetica and title weeks, but it didn't quite fit for either. If (and, most likely, when) I do a "meta" or postmodern week (though a lot of the poetry I've been picking already has been about poetry to one degree or anotherm due to this being, you know, a blog about poetry) it would be in there. But it's here now, so, um rejoice! I don't know Ashbery's work that well, but he is renowned as kind of the father of contemporary poetry in the meta/pomo vein (such that quite a bit of contemporary stuff is derided as being inferior imitations of Ashbery [b. 1927]). But leaving contemporary poetic politics aside, his work is quite interesting for its play with lyric conventions. Here, he toys with the common address of a 'you' assumed to be a real person existing external from the poem (especially a person in some romantic relation to the speaker). The poem also questions whether the 'plain level' of such conventional, 'transparent' language. Instead, Ashbery is in favor of 'play', which is not to be taken as something trivial, but as a serious interrogation of our naive assumptions about the world, and so is "A deeper outside thing". The poem returns in the end to a conventional lyric movement, but where the content of its gestures continues to evade our expectations of poetic meaning. The combination of familiarity and strangeness makes the poem both appealing and challenging, helping and pushing the reader to venture beyond his former patterns of thought.

(Read more on John Ashbery:

Conor O'Callaghan, from "'Hello'"

1 Antediluvian

Those where the days
when Gladstone and Disraeli
were locked on the hustings,
and the Pianola
was all the rage,
and Wild Bill Hickock
was outdrawing the gallows,
and impressions of Mr Longfellow's
The Song of Hiawatha
were selling like hot cakes,
and a fellow's cell number
was a different affair.

Up until that point
our shipshape antecedents
graded the mornings,
the evenings, the afternoons,
'good' heedless of the day
in question, the season,
and were kind enough
to say so, hail or snow,
if only in herringbone tweeds,
in furs, as a matter
of courtesy or course,
if only in passing.

2 It's for You

Blame the blower,
since some kind of formula
for an opening exchange
had to be agreed upon
to get the ball rolling.
And not only for the ears
of polite society,
its upper echelons,
but to trip as readily
from the lips of gigolos
and babes and heathens
and saints and regular Joes.
So, think of the host
of suggested possibilities
grown yellow around the gills
that were dusted down
and duly given the elbow,
that might just as well
have been Hebrew
to the likes of you and me.
Then, think of the 'hillo'
Hamlet shares
with Horatio,
and you're in the general area.
Think of the huntsmaster,
think of the hounds
and a hare's breath,
and you're there or thereabouts.
Think of the troubadour 'hola',
the Huguenot 'salut',
and you're in the same ballpark.
Think of yola as if barked
by the hoodlums of Hanley,
the zealots of Sacramento,
and you're on the right track.
And think also
of Tristram Shandy's "Hollo! Ho!—
the whole world's asleep!—
bring out the horses—',
and you're getting warmer.

4 And the Winner Is...

The finale
failed to draw
enough hoopla
or more-than-usual hullabaloo
to overshadow,
say, the annual grudge match
of Eton and Harrow.
What would follow
the trawl high and low
as good as amounted
to a classless straw poll
whereby it feel to,
laughably, the hillfolk,
the phoneless hoi polloi,
to swallow a winner.
And the word? Oh, you know...
A brace of syllables,
phatic and simple,
like the mating call
of your average hoopoe,
although originally
aspirated as if with an ah
that wasn't just plummy
but ever so.
Imagine inasmuch
as imagination will allow
something as holy
and wholly empty
as any halo,
a halfway house between
a hiccup and a holler,
an alloy
of the heavy-hearted
'halloo, halloo'
Poor Tom howls at the Fool
and an old-fashioned
Honolulu aloha,
a domesticated version
of the hallowed Hallelujah,
only secular and ringing hollow.


From Fiction (2005)

This week's theme: Leftovers Round-up, or, Titles the Second. I'm traveling a bit, and won't have access to even the decimated current version of my library, so rather than pick a theme that would require such resources, I thought I'd start a precedent of ending this month at TPQ with a hodge-podge week of poems considered for previous weeks but which, for whatever reason, didn't make the cut. This time, they mostly come from last week's title theme - for the other weeks I had alternative poems by the same poets which I had considered using, but I've decided that I won't repeat a poet within four weeks, so that excluded those.
A couple months ago I went to a reading at NYU by Conor O'Callaghan and his wife Vona Groarke, and it was today's poem that won me over. I love the acrobatic rhyming circling around the titular 'hello' - O'Callaghan said that the H section of his dictionary was well-thumbed by the end of working on it. It could also fit in the first week's category, being a study on one of our most daily words, re-enchanting it through imaginative attention to its anthropological backstory, and by being clever good fun. If you have access to a library or bookstore that would stock such things (unlikely, unfortunately) I highly recommend checking out the rest of the eight sections.

(More on Conor O'Callaghan:§ion=1
three poems:

Friday, December 15, 2006

Patrick Kavanagh, "Epic"

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided: who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting 'Damn your soul'
And old McCabe, stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
'Here is the march along these iron stones'.
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.


From Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (1960)

Once again, today's poem serves as a counterpoint to yesterday's. Here the catapulting, millenia-spanning title is half ironic, half self-justifying; another juxtaposition of Northern Ireland and the Trojan War, "Epic" also throws in World War II for good measure. Rather than deem the similarities implicit, however, the poem questions the significance of any of the events, as part of Kavanagh's examination of the local vs. the universal, his interest in the parish as a microcosm for the world. While the issue of subjectivity versus true import remains in the air, the place of art is asserted as authoritative - just like titling a mere fourteen-line sonnet "Epic".

(More about Patrick Kavanagh [1904-1967]:

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Michael Longley, "Ceasefire"

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the buidling.

Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'

[Hear Longley read this poem:]


From The Ghost Orchid (1995)

This poem illustrates another alternative for the relation between title and poem. Unlike the poems earlier in the week, this one has no riddling quality - as Longley (b. 1939) describes it, it is his rendering of certain lyrically intense moments plucked from the narrative of Homer's Iliad. Though the moments are spaced out and in a different order in the original, the reader is not confused as to the situation, provided a minimal familiarity with the events of the Trojan War (during which the Greek Achilles killed the Trojan Hector, beloved son of Priam, King of Troy).
The title, however, catapults these events - of parley, empathy, respect, admiration, and concession - into a contemporary context. Longley wrote the poem in 1994, during rumours of a possible ceasefire in Northern Ireland, and it was published in The Irish Times just days after such a ceasefire was announced. The poem seems to urge conciliation and empathy, the sense that one's enemies' past tragedies are the same as one's own. It tactfully condemns neither side - indeed, it shows reverence towards the figures, though perhaps also implicating the sense of glory and idealization of the warrior which feeds into violence. It even pays witness to a certain grudging attitude, though in so doing it valorizes Priam's courage to "do what must be done", an act of responsibility to one's kin, which is met with equal humanity; the final couplet is resolutely noble. The temporal jump between the poem's and title's two references - a span of millenia - suggests both the timeless and timely potential of poetry.

(More about Michael Longley, including audio:

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Medbh McGuckian, "On Her Second Birthday"

for Emer Mary Charlotte Rose

In the beginning I was no more
Than a rising and falling mist
You could see through without seeing.

A flame burnt up the paper
On which my gold was written,
The wind like a soul
Seeking to be born
Carried off half
Of what I was able to say.

It seems as though
To explain the shape of the world
We must fall apart,
Throw ourselves upon the world,
Slip away from ourselves
Through the world's inner road,
Whose atoms make us weary.

Suddenly ever more lost
Between the trees
I saw the edge of the forest
Which had no end,
Which I came dangerously close
To accepting for my life,

And followed with my eye a shadow
Floating from hotizon to horizon
Which I mistook for my own.
It grew greater while I grew less,
Gliding like a world, a tapestry
One looks at from the back.

The more it changed
The more it changed me into itself,
Till I regarded it as more real
Than all else, more ardent
Than love. Higher than the air
Of a dream,
A field in which I ripened
From an unmoving, continually nascent
Light into pure light.

My contours can still
Just be made out, in the areas of fragrance
Of its power over me.
A slight tremor betrays
The imperfection of the union
In its first surface.

But I flow outwards till I am something
Belonging to it and flower again
More perfectly everywhere present in it.
It believes in me,
It cannot do without me,
I know its name:
One day it will pass my mind into its body.


From Marconi's Cottage (1991)

In contrast to yesterday, today's poem's title announces the solution to its riddle - without it, one might suspect this was a pregnancy poem, but it would be hard to be certain, given McGuckian's fiercely challenging metaphors. That accessibility makes this among the better introductions to McGuckian (b. 1950), whose strange syntax and imagery demands and seduces an agility and plasticity of readerly response that goes far beyond more mainstream lyric practice. Whereas Plath's metaphors were striking for their application - easily intelligible, though they challenged conventional positive views of motherhood - the entire universe of McGuckian's poetry seems, in one way, alien to the prose of everyday life. But though it is strange, it is also an evocatively convincing articulation of the metaphysical experience of pregnancy and motherhood. The first several stanzas suggest an obscure, as-yet-unrealized potential being formed, the imagery echoing gestation, the womb, the accreting fetus, the interdependent connection building towards schism. The poem also expresses the mother's sense of how her life has changed, her sense of investment in and dedication to the life of her daughter, the shift of the center to that other life. This goes beyond just sentiment to a metaphysical sense of identification with that other life, a sense of living through it, in a dual selfhood, the dependency of the child being at the same time a dependency of the mother, which will culminate in transfer: "One day it will pass my mind into its body."

(More about Medbh McGuckian:

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sylvia Plath, "Metaphors"

I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.


From The Colossus (1960)

This poem moves us into the riddle territory of this week's theme; in fact, its title does not provide a clue so much point to the fact that its various images take the place of something else. The solution to the riddle is 'a pregnant woman' - the metaphors being a mix of inventive images and figures 'pregnant' with meaning. In case you hadn't noticed, the first line refers to the number of syllables (9) in each of the poem's nine lines, reflecting the nine months of pregnancy. Not also other subtle (or not so subtle) hints - a house is something that a person lives in (like a womb); the red fruit is also like the womb; the fifth line's coy allusion to having 'a bun in the oven'. While some of this cleverness is slightly cloying, that effect reinforces the muted grotesquerie of many of the images, as the pregnancy is almost something monstrous, as it is also mixed with the potential for sickness and rotting ("a bag of green apples") and an undercurrent of doom ("the train there's no getting off").
At the same time, the title suggests another level, playing off the traditional trope of comparing writing and giving birth. Metaphors are indeed a way of giving birth to new meaning; and if it's not going to far, I'd like to point out the conceptual similarity, the root "meta" meaning "beyond", and that a metaphor involves two parts, the imaginative potential of one being dependent on the concreteness of the other.
Plath's poems often draw upon the dark, traumatic, violent, even sado-masochistic - so it seems appropriate that her metaphoric pregnancy of creation would be conceived as something gortesque, sinister, perhaps uncontrollable.

(More about Sylvia Plath [1932-1963], including a few additional poems:

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ted Hughes, "The Thought-Fox"

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.


From The Hawk in the Rain (1957)

This week's theme: titles. That is, poems whose titles play a particularly prominent role, where the lack of the title would leave the reader comparatively adrift. Some may be riddle poems, where the title is necessary for understanding. In others, such as "The Thought-Fox", it may be that the poem is easy enough to follow, but where the title lends an achieved clarity to the whole meaning - sums it up. Or it may be that a title, by implication, catapults a poem from one context to another.
"The Thought-Fox" carries us forward from last week's theme, the ars poetica, as in the conclusion it is made clear that the poem narrates the imaginative experience of its own composition. As such, it might also bear comparison with the Frank O'Hara poem of the first week, both being poems of the present tense, though in highly contrasting voices.
Hughes' poem is remarkable for the union of the ideal (imagination, "Thought", poetry) and the real in the figure of "The Thought-Fox" - the title's very hyphenation a sign of its hybridity. The description of the appearance of the thought/fox, from something dark and obscure to something vivid, immediate, confrontational, is deftly controlled, Hughes pacing the revelation ("that now / And again now, and now, and now") and at the same time keeping the reader's attention rapt with sensory details ("a lame / Shadow lags by stump"). The final stanza is a superb climax and denoument: the vivid sense-words of the first line are reinforced by the clustering of stresses and consonants: "sudden sharp hot stink of fox" - the fox's sudden, physical appearance - which is immediately inscribed in a mental, but no less striking, realm - "the dark hole of the head." The final two lines then take a step back, revealing the narrative to have been a vision, during which time nothing in the "real" world happened, except for the writing of the poem.
The term "cinematic" is sometimes used to describe such effects. Indeed, Hughes controls our vision the same way a director/cinematographer controls our gaze through careful selection of shots. But we should be wary of implying that poetry is imitating film, when tropes similar to a pan or zoom or close-up or establishing shot have been part of poetic form for millenia.

(More about Ted Hughes [1930-1998]:

Friday, December 8, 2006

Sinéad Morrissey, "Reading the Greats"

Is it for their failures that I love them?
Ignoring the regulation of Selected Poems,
with everything in that should be in —
all belted & buttoned & shining —
I opt instead for omnivorous Completes.
For their froth. Their spite. For avoidable mistakes:
Larkin on Empire, say, or Plath on Aunts.

The thrill of when they dip, trip up, run out
of things to write about before they start,
is the consolation of watching
a seascape suddenly drained and stinking
of flies & fishheads & bladderwrack.
And the tide impossibly distant. And no way back.
Yes, I love them for that.


From The State of the Prisons (2005)

To end this week considering the nature of poetry, its purpose, and the proper role of the poet, something a little lighter to keep things in perspective. Sinéad Morrissey (b. 1972) is an excellent poet from Norther Ireland who I got to see read and meet while in Belfast (she has been associated with the Queen's English department for a few years now). Though I would not class this as one of her exemplary poems, it does express a feeling I share, of the 'rewards' of reading Complete Works rather than Selected volumes - the chance to see that even 'the greats' are at times not-so-great. For those who write, it's encouragement to keep trying; for others as well, I think, a reminder that are heroes are really normal people, just like us, who sometimes fall short of the mark, just like us, and that, contrapositively, we are capable of reaching great heights, just like them. Whether in success or failure, poetry is a testament to our shared humanity - and hopefully inspiring, for all that.

(More about Sinéad Morrissey:

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Seamus Heaney, "Digging"

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.


From Death of a Naturalist (1966)

This poem mines a similar vein to yesterday's - that of the poet's personal conception of his own poetic activity, with implications of how that poet and activity are related to society. Throughout his work, Seamus Heaney (b. 1939) exhibits an interest in the characteristic (Northern) Irish obsessions with "rootedness", lineage, and tradition in a general sense. Here these common threads are particularized using Heaney's own rural experience, made vivid by his evocation of the sense and deft crafting of sound - "the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge / Through living roots awaken in my head." As with Neruda, a history of political oppression and unrest lurks behind the poem (though it was written before the beginning of the late-twentieth-century Troubles in 1969), as well as a question of value of poetry compared to the productive labor of farm work - these matters of course highlighted in the bookending first and last stanzas. In [his own] defense {of poetry}, the poet suggests it as a force of connection with his lineage and tradition, as in other poems in the next couple collections he will "dig up" history. A more critical reading, however, might begin by noticing the acknowledgment of the break, the sense that Heaney is not following in his fathers' work, that for all the "rootedness" of the poem's imagery, the roots in the penultimate stanza are cut. The gender valence of the poem also begs mention - not just the patrilineal conception of lineage and tradition, but phallic and sexual nature of the pen/gun/shovel, and the question of whether such activity may be a violence upon the land.
These readings certainly complicate the assured authority of the voice and the position professed. What the final judgment is - of the poem's "meaning", what we ought to think of it, or what we ought to think of Heaney for writing it - I can't tell you. I guess reading poetry is also a bit like digging - we uncover many layers in our work, but each only tells part of the story of the land and what might grow from it.

(More about Seamus Heaney: - audio)

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Pablo Neruda, "Deber del Poeta" / "The Poet's Obligation"

A quien no escucha el mar en este viernes
por la mañana, quien adentro de algo,
casa, oficina, fábrica or mujer,
o calle o mina o seco calabozo:
a éste yo acudo y sin hablar ni ver
leego y abro la puerta del encierro
y un sin fin se oye vago en la insistencia,
un largo trueno roto se encadena
al peso del planeta y de la espuma,
surgen los ríos roncos del océano,
vibra veloz en su rosal la estrella
y el mar palpita, muere y continúa.

Así por el destino conducido
debo sin tregua oír y conservar
el lamento marino en mi conciencia,
debo sentir el golpe de agua dura
y recogerlo en una taza eterna
para que donde esté el encarcelado,
donde sufra el castigo del otoño
yo esté presente con una ola errante,
yo circule a través de las ventanas
y al oírme levante la mirada
diciendo: cómo me acercaré al océano?
Y yo transmitiré de la ola,
un quebranto de espuma y arenales,
un susurro de sal que se retira,
el grito gris del ave de la costa.

Y así, por mí, la libertad y el mar
responderán al corazón oscuro.


To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea's lamenting in my consciousness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn,
I may be present with an errant wave,
I may move in and out of windows,
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves,
asking "How can I reach the sea?"
And I will pass to them, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself,
the grey cry of seabirds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

(Translation by Alastair Reid)


From Plenos Poderes / Fully Empowered (1962)

Today we move part way from a critical and metaphysical consideration of poetry to something more social and personal. Wallace Stevens' ideas verge in a way on solipsism - not that he would think our mental experience is all there is of reality, but perhaps that it is all there is of my or your reality anyway. Neruda (1904-1973) was staunchly opposed to such a position, at least in terms of a theory of poetry and the role of the poet. During large portions of his career, Neruda was a fiercely political poet, writing entire books about the Spanish Civil War, the colonization of South America, and the struggles of Communism ... he was even a senator and diplomat for his native Chile. But Neruda was also a very personal lyric poet - he is perhaps best known for his first book Veinte Poemas de Amor y un Canción Desesperada / Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair and for his many odes to the simple, "elemental" things in life, such as an artichoke, a pair of socks, a lemon, or a suit.
I selected "The Poet's Obligation" as a mid-point between these two relations to poetry. On the one hand, the sense of social responsibility and a public role for poetry - as expounded in poems such as "The Invisible Man" - is evident in the titular "Obligation" or 'duty', and in the references to work - the office and factory - as well as imprisonment. Poetry is depicted as being a liberating force - but in this case that liberation is not strictly political, but more metaphysical, being symbolized as a reconnection with the elements.
One the other hand, this is not a discussion of poetry in the abstract, but of the poet's relationship with it - something explored more explicitly in poems such as "Poetry" and "Bread-Poetry" - poetry is a mode of communication that mediates between him, his experience, and the world, as well as between him and society, and between society and the world. But throughout there is the clear presence of the personal "I" of the poet, so that in the final it is the poet himself, and only implicitly poetry, which mediates between "freedom and the sea" and "the shrouded heart."
Though the stance taken here may seem authoritative, to the point that Neruda can come off as arrogant, he struggled with the issue of the poet's obligation throughout his life. His Communist impulses made this all the worse - or, perhaps, it was his sense of duty that disposed him towards Communism - as he had trouble reconciling poetry with the value of physical/industrial labor or political action. In one poem (I do not have it to hand at the moment) he questions whether his life would have be to more purpose had he made just one broom rather than his many hundreds of poems.

(More about Pablo Neruda:

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Wallace Stevens, from "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven"


The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.
The poet speaks the poem as it is,

Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks

By sight and insight as they are. There is no
Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
The statues will have gone back to be things about.

The mobile and immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees

And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembiling the presence of thought
Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,

In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
the town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.



If it should be true that reality exists
In the mind: the tin plate, the loaf of bread on it,
The long-bladed knife, the little to drink and her

Misericordia, it follows that
Real and unreal are two in one: New Haven
Before and after one arrives or, say,

Bergamo on a postcard, Rome after dark,
Sweden described, Salzburg with shaded eyes
Or Paris in conversation at a café.

This endlessly elaborating poem
Displays the theory of poetry,
As the life of poetry. A more severe,

More harassing master would extemporize
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasions of as,
In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness,
The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.


From The Auroras of Autumn (1950)

One could hardly talk about the theme of ars poetica without quoting Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Arguably, the entirety of Stevens' writing is about poetry itself - or, more widely, about the relationship between the imagination and reality. I could have picked any of a hundred poems from his collected works, as you can tell simply from the titles of some of the other major contenders: "The Idea of Order at Key West", "Poetry is a Destructive Force", "The Poems of Our Climate", "Of Modern Poetry", "Men Made Out of Words", "Notes toward a Supreme Fiction", "The Solitude of Cataracts", "The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract", "A Primitive like an Orb", "The Plain Sense of Things", "The Planet on the Table", "Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself" etc. etc. etc. But I chose these sections because his later, meditative mode is often undervalued, and certainly less anthologized than his earlier works.
This later moder finds Stevens pursuing the style and form of, as he calls it in "Of Modern Poetry", "The poem of the act of the mind." Not only is the poem not paraphrasable, but it is also not seperable from the experiences of composition - this is a poetry of process, the very process of the mind encountering "reality," which is to say all that we can know: "Part of the res itself and not about it," "words of the world are the life of the world." Perception, rather than being unreal, is reality for Stevens: "reality exists / In the mind ... Real and unreal are two in one". Poetry, then, being perception/imagination/the mind in process, is not an imitation of reality, but is real experience itself: "the theory / Of poetry is the theory of life, // As it is, in the intricate evasions of as, / In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, / The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands"—not mere physical "reality," but life in its lived fullness.

(More about Wallace Stevens, including audio:

Monday, December 4, 2006

Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica"

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
the leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.


This poem takes its Latin title from a treatise by the poet Horace, and gives us our theme for the week: "The art of poetry." It seemed appropriate that, before we got going in earnest reading poems, we take a look at the whole business of what a poem is and what it's for.
MacLeish's poem, though purporting to state directly what a poem should be, in fact takes upon itself a demonstration of the indirect means that are central to the mode of poetry; as Robert Frost put it, "All the fun's in how you say a thing." The thesis here is given in the pithy, memorable final stanza: "A poem should not mean / But be." To be textbook about it, MacLeish (1892-1982) is asserting the proverbial inequality between a poem and a paraphrase of its content - beyond that, there's the connotation of a metaphysical distinction between language that is merely a tool for conveying some message or accomplishing some end, and a special arrangment of language that has some being and life of its own, as Heidegger might have it. One way of thinking about it might be as the difference between, say, the icon of an orange in a supermarket (a sign telling you "oranges here") and an impressive painting of an orange (which makes you really attend to the nature of an orange) - or even, perhaps, an orange itself. A poem is a thing rich in qualities deserving of attention and appreciation, not a mere expression of "meaning."
The first section cleverly uses paradox to get at this point, casting the poem as "mute", "dumb", and even "wordless" to mitigate the significance of statement. Instead, it suggests the significance of form, aligning the poem with "palpable" objects and also motion: "the flight of birds." The section section takes the emphasis on form to the next level, suspending the normal syntax of statement and using repetition to create stasis. The final section suggests the metaphorical way of meaning through imagery as well as form; the poem does not mean x by statement y, is not "equal to", but works by substitution of one thing for another thing; thus, I read those middle couplets as glosses of symbols, whose significance is expansive, multiple, and manifest, as opposed to the denotational signs of simple words.
These matters are at the heart of the challenges and joys of reading poetry. Much teaching of poetry, along with a good bit of human nature, makes us seek for a bottom line: 'what does it mean.' But the meaning, the content, is inseperable from the form, so we must attend to the way the thing is said. Which requires a great deal of attention, which is difficult. But this is also the reason why poetry is so powerful, why it can be so rewarding. A poem is not a puzzle whose only pleasure is the picture that appears when all the pieces fall in place; it is more like a garden, full of beauty and stimulation at all levels, from the dew on a petal to the graceful line of an entire vista - and it is right that one attend to the details around one before trying to take in the entire expanse. A poem should be appreciated not just for what it might mean, but for all it can be.

(More about Archibald MacLeish:

Friday, December 1, 2006

Richard Wilbur, "The Beautiful Changes"

One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne's Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.

The beautiful changes as the forest is changed
By a chameleon's tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.

Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things' selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.


From: The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947)

To conclude the week, this delicate poem by the eminent Richard Wilbur (b. March 1 - we share the same birthday! - 1921), whose work has been criticized by some (I believe unfairly) for being too positive, as well as too formally deft. Last year I wrote an essay partly on Wilbur's (and, in comparison, Wallace Stevens') sense of the vitality of imaginative transformation. This may serve as a segue into next week's theme: the Ars Poetica, or a poem dealing with the art and purpose of poetry (Wilbur's own extended meditation on the subject, the masterpiece "Lying", may make an appearance ... we'll see!).
In this poem the composition subtly reinforces the sense of transformation - as Blake wrote, "The eye altering, alters all" - from the "turns" of the line-breaks in the first stanza, to the unconventional use of select nouns and verbs throughout: "the slightest shade of you / Valleys my mind", "a mantis, arranged / On a green leaf", and, of course, "The beatiful changes". Though Wilbur would generally not be taken to use modernist defamiliarization, his work and this poem perhaps reveal the wide applicability of such notions as that expressed by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky: "Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony." For Wilbur, such "a second finding" is one of "wonder." Such wonder is a transcendent potential, always present in everyday "things" ... "The beautiful" that changes - when we engage with the world, or when we read poetry - is at once our perception and ourselves.

(More about Richard Wilbur, including audio:
(More poems by Richard Wilbur:

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Louis MacNeice, "Train to Dublin"

Our half-thought thoughts divide in sifted wisps
Against the basic facts repatterned without pause,
I can no more gather my mind up in my fist
Than the shadow of the smoke of this train upon the grass -
This is the way that animals' lives pass.

The train's rhythm never relents, the telephone posts
Go striding backwards like the legs of time to where
In a Georgian house you turn at the carpet's edge
Turning a sentence while, outside my window here,
The smoke makes broken queries in the air.

The train keeps moving and the rain holds off,
I count the buttons on the seat, I hear a shell
Held hollow to the ear, the mere
Reiteration of integers, the bell
That tolls and tolls, the monotony of fear.

At times we are doctrinaire, at times we are frivolous,
Plastering over the cracks, a gesture making good,
But the strength of us does not come out of us.
It is we, I think, are the idols and it is God
Has set us up as men who are painted wood,

And the trains carry us about. But not consistently so,
For during a tiny portion of our lives we are not in trains,
The idol living for a moment, not muscle-bound
But walking freely through the slanting rain,
Its ankles wet, its grimace relaxed again.

All over the world people are toasting the King,
Red lozenges of light as each one lifts his glass,
But I will not give you any idol or idea, creed or king,
I give you the incidental things which pass
Outward through space exactly as each was.

I give you the disproportion between labour spent
And joy at random; the laughter of the Galway sea
Juggling with spars and bones irresponsibly,
I give you the toy Liffey and the vast gulls,
I give you fuchsia hedges and whitewashed walls.

I give you the smell of Norman stone, the squelch
Of bog beneath your boots, the red bog-grass,
The vivid chequer of the Antrim hills, the trough of dark
Golden water for the cart-horses, the brass
Belt of serene sun upon the lough.

And I give you the faces, not the permanent masks,
But the faces balanced in the toppling wave -
His glint of joy in cunning as the farmer asks
Twenty per cent too much, or a girl's, forgetting to be suave,
A tiro choosing stuffs, preferring mauve.

And I give you the sea and yet again the sea's
Tumultuous marble,
With Thor's thunder or taking his ease akimbo,
Lumbering torso, but finger-tips a marvel
Of surgeon's accuracy.

I would like to give you more but I cannot hold
This stuff within my hands and the train goes on;
I know that there are further syntheses to which,
As you have perhaps, people at last attain
And find that they are rich and breathing gold.


From: Poems (1935)

Thursday finds us getting rather deep into the thick of things. "Train to Dublin" meditates on all the themes that we have found explored in the week so far - O'Hara's antipathy towards stasis and enthusiastic search for a mode of art adequate for the vibrancy of the passing now, Muldoon's energetic naming of things, ranging among the cosmopolitan variety of the modern everyday, and Levine's confrontation and acceptance of the darker side of life, the challenges and frustrations that are as essential as joy, and the melancholic vitality of the insatiability of our hunger for life.
I find many of the lines of this poem simply exquisite. There's the interplay of the rhythms, consonant repetitions, and syntax in the opening stanzas dealing with the train. There's the passivity and artifice of the idols in the train in contrast to "living for a moment, not muscle-bound / But walking freely through the slanting rain, / Its ankles wet, its grimace relaxed again." Then there's the generosity of the voice in the repeated "I give you"'s of the second half of the poem, reminiscent of Levine's "Eat" in the ambivalence that carries through. "And I give you the sea and yet again the sea's / Tumultuous marble" is for me one of the finest things anyone has ever written about the ocean - it has become the gloss or kind of mantra in my own life, often recited to myself when thinking of or visiting the sea. And, finally, the final stanza - how perfectly it expresses the in a meditative mode the manic lust for life. The aching desire to experience everything in the entire world, and the sincere gratitude, even in the failure to do so, for that portion we have experienced.

(More about Louis MacNeice [1907-1963]:

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Philip Levine, "The Simple Truth"

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat," she said,
"even if you don't I'll say you did."
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.


From: The Simple Truth (1994)

I'm afraid I had a hard time picking today's poem. I'd decided to extrapolate this week's theme from Monday's poem, without giving what would come afterwards any forethought; and, to make matters worse, I only have the small, Belfast portion of my library currently lodging with me (so you must also forgive a potential Irish bias in the weeks to come). I'd thought of what I wanted for Thursday and Friday, but it took a while to come to this poem. Also, because I haven't thought about it in a few years, I just found a copy on-line, and it's late, I don't have much in the way of considered commentary to provide, but here goes.
"The Simple Truth" offers a slightly darker, grittier approach to the vitality of the everyday. Beginning by savoring the simple things in life, there is an ominous undercurrent ("boiled them in their jackets", "dried fields", "dark furrows", etc.) of the difficulties that also attend our lives. Though it exalts the immediacy of sensory experience and of certain essential human concerns - food, love, truth, death - there is also a sense in the poem of such things being overwhelming, too much to be eaten raw, too raw to be assuaged through expression. To experience the world in all its naked immediacy is to face both these sides of life, that both choke and sustain us. Every day of our lives is a struggle to meet this experience, to be true to it, accepting and savoring its mix of sweetness and bitterness.

(More about Philip Levine [b. 1928], including audio:
(More poems by Philip Levine:

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Paul Muldoon, [Untitled]

As we zoomed past Loyola and Tulane
I could think only of my nephew, Dillon,
born two days ago in Canada.
‘Let him,’ I heard, ‘let him be one ignited by the quaint

in this new quotidian: a mound
of coffee beans in the ‘Café du Monde’;
the New Orleans School of Cookery’s

monious gumbo; a dirigible of Paul Prudhomme
floating above the Superdome;
let the Prince of the Quotidian lead an alligator

along the banquette of Decatur
yet let him not, with Alejandro O’Reilly,
forget the cries of the bittern and the curlew.’


From: The Prince of the Quotidian (1994)

Continuing this first week's theme of embracing the vitality of the quotidian, this poem is an ode and mimetic invocation of cosmopolitan variety: our globalized marketplace, the ‘Café du Monde’. It comes from a collection titled The Prince of the Quotidian, which documents the one-month success of a New Year's Resolution to write a poem a day. It is not among his best poems (those will no doubt come eventually), but the eccentric, daring rhymes, along with the loose use of the sonnet form, is characteristic Muldoon (b. 1951). The vibrant language reflects the dazzling array of objects that are part of everyday modern life; t the same time, the poem does its best to fit that abundance into the order of the rhyme scheme. "Quotidian", though meaning 'everyday' and 'mundane,' in its polysyllabic latinate excellence reflects the world of objects at once common and exotic. The final couplet offers a turn, exhorting this international (Irish-Canadian) child born unto plenty not to forget his heritage (the bittern and curlew are birds that figure prominently in Irish literature) - in the same way, the poem itself has incorporated a world of references while remaining (marginally) faithful to the traditional sonnet form.

(Paul Muldoon homepage, with audio:

Monday, November 27, 2006

Frank O'Hara, "Having A Coke With You"

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluoresent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I'm with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o'clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it's in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven't gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn't pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it


From: Love Poems (Tentative Title) (1965)

I've picked this as the first poem of The Poetic Quotidian, partly because of my having recently moved to New York, partly because of its vitality, and partly because it anecdotally illustrates the everyday and social aspects of poetry to which this site is dedicated.
Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) is a champion of spontaneity in poetry. Many of his poems were dashed off as notes to friends or, as in his collection Lunch Poems, were written during his lunch hour (he worked for many years at the Museum of Modern Art), incorporating whatever he saw and did and felt.
This particular poem was introduced to me by my friend (and fellow poet) Lewis. It's still Lewis' voice that I hear when I read the poem. Read it to someone else, and perhaps it will be your voice that will forever speak the words of O'Hara in their head!
I don't see how anyone can help but be won over by the manic enthusiasm of this oddball profession of love: "partly because of my love of you, partly because of your love of yoghurt". I also find the poem exceptionally vivid, both utterly original and true in its engagement with the world: "the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary" ... "as still / as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary".
As when one is in love, he sees the details of the world afresh - I've often since encountered "a tree breathing through its spectacles". The poem is a frenzied exaltation of the vitality of love, of living things, in juxtaposition with the static stoniness of statuary and perhaps even art - the poet himself frenetic in trying to capture something that is antithetical to being captured: "some marvelous experience / which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it". Poetry is much like love - it causes us to see the wonder of the everyday world, and we feel compelled to share it.

(More on Frank O'Hara: - with audio)