“When I woke up this mornin’/Things were lookin’ bad,” he sang on the first song on his eponymous debut album in 1972 over basic chords. Many songwriters would’ve stopped right there. In the next line, however, comes the kicker: a bowl of oatmeal tries to stare him down — and wins! To be a successful absurdist is to observe a monotheistic faith in precision. On John Prine (1971), the late singer-songwriter got away with zingers less talented artists would’ve pulled their eyeballs out for, couched in melodies as homespun and casual as the prose Prine chiseled as accompaniment. Who else besides perhaps Loudon Wainwright III in the seventies would’ve summed up the depredations into which a heroin addict had sunk with the line, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” in “Sam Stone”? Perfection and inevitability are synonymous — among songwriters Prine made it so. Continue reading
A member of a generation of poets whose early styles metamorphosed into a gnarled stoicism suspicious of gesture, Thom Gunn emigrated from England to write some of the late twentieth century’s intensest love poems; those stylistic involutions matched his acceptance of himself as a poet who could write about his homosexuality. The Man with the Night Sweats remains a benchmark of plague year lit: a collection of eulogies for men whose names only Gunn knew writhing on hospital beds unvisited and unloved. It has offered comfort in the last week. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published New Selected Poems last year. Below is the title poem from the aforementioned 1992 book. Continue reading
Nothing wrong with a poet whose work is the written equivalent of a Bonnard painting or, to cite one of his most anthologized pieces, a baroque wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra. Against James Merrill and Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur can seem quaint, unruffled; the many sharp observations and finely wrought verses are like little machines. But against the likes of “Advice to a Prophet” it’s hard to resist him. Continue reading
I’m grateful to the late Harold Bloom for promoting the poetry of his friends, some of which happened to be excellent. I don’t see Jay Wright, for example, much celebrated. A poet whose subjects weave myths and memories from Africa and the American South, Wright incorporates dialect and alludes to the European tradition into the occasional formalist chill of his stanzas. Below is “The Cradle Logic of Autumn.”
An ideological muddle has made World War I a blank slate for novelists (Pat Barker) and now directors. As there would be twenty-five years later, Allied powers fought a German-led coalition, but without a Hitler or Mussolini as bugaboo what remains is an abstracted horror, a senselessness that scarred a generation. If a series of accidents connected to alliances led to inevitabilities — historians remain divided — then the four years look like the most egregious spilling of blood in history. We remember the victims, not the men in power; Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson do not dwell in the public imagination, for better or worse (often worse), than FDR, Churchill, and Stalin do. The poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon remains as testaments to the terror of trench warfare, in which the machine gun felled thousands of young men like mowed wheat, all for the sake of gaining a few feet of ground. Continue reading
e.e. cummings can layer schmaltz over typographical unorthodoxies with rather too much enthusiasm, but his Christmas poem is a beaut.
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower
who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly
i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid
look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,
put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy
then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud
and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
Cherished for the pointillist specificity of his line, Gary Snyder emerged as one of the more accomplished Ezra Pound acolytes, and perhaps the most popular — I see his collections at Barnes & Noble while James Wright and Charles Wright have to be ordered. This poem’s called “December at Yase.”
You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
“Again someday, maybe ten years.”
After college I saw you
One time. You were strange,
And I was obsessed with a plan.
Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I’ve always known
where you were—
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.
Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.
We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.
I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.
And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my