Tag Archives: Poetry

‘Was man made stupid to see his own stupidity?’

Responsible for popularizing the Beats, Richard Eberhart isn’t much read for his own verse, which is a pity. “The Fury of Aerial Bombardment,” inspired by his WWII service, encapsulates his gifts: a talent for the mordant phrase, rhythmic control, and concision.

You would think the fury of aerial bombardment
Would rouse God to relent; the infinite spaces
Are still silent. He looks on shock-pried faces.
History, even, does not know what is meant.

You would feel that after so many centuries
God would give man to repent; yet he can kill
As Cain could, but with multitudinous will,
No farther advanced than in his ancient furies.

Was man made stupid to see his own stupidity?
Is God by definition indifferent, beyond us all?
Is the eternal truth man’s fighting soul
Wherein the Beast ravens in its own avidity?

Of Van Wettering I speak, and Averill,
Names on a list, whose faces I do not recall
But they are gone to early death, who late in school
Distinguished the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl.

Happy Veteran’s Day.

‘It fill the sky to beat on an airy shell’

Long neglected, Léonie Adams wrote a chiseled verse that, published at modernism’s peak, hearkened to a Pre-Raphaelite splendor. Her friend Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower” bore a heavy debt to Adams’ “The Bell Tower,” posted below.

I have seen, O desolate one, the voice has its tower,
The voice also, builded at secret cost,
In temple of precious tissue. Not silent then
Forever – casting silence in your hour.

There marble boys are leant from the light throat,
Thick locks that hang with dew and eyes dewlashed,
Dazzled with morning, angels of the wind,
With ear a-point to the enchanted note.

And these at length shall tip the hanging bell,
And first the sound must gather in deep bronze,
Till, rarer than ice, purer than a bubble of gold,
It fill the sky to beat on an airy shell.

Happy November.

‘All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home…’

Part of the generation of poets that included Plath, Berryman, and other unfortunates for whom the psychiatric treatment available at the time proved insufficient, James Wright mastered a craggy, long-limbed verse at the end of which was a noun that glimmered like welcome fruit. I like this bit from the NYT’s 2017 review of a biography: “n 1969, after a horrible fight with his wife, he opened his journal and started drafting a plan to update his will, return to his native Ohio and commit suicide. But partway through he became absorbed in the writing itself, recasting sentences as lines of verse. A few would find their way into his Collected Poems, which received the Pulitzer Prize three years later.” In Wright we have an American example of W.B. Yeats’ adage “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Continue reading

‘My loved, my long-lost breeches!’

Too often do I share rather grim poems. Remembered these days as the father of the Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote popular poetry in the mid nineteenth century, some of which was camp, like “The September Gale.” As Hurricane Dorian intensifies to a Category Five, we need the laffs, man.

I’m not a chicken; I have seen
Full many a chill September,
And though I was a youngster then,
That gale I well remember;
The day before, my kite-string snapped,
And I, my kite pursuing,
The wind whisked off my palm-leaf hat;
For me two storms were brewing!

It came as quarrels sometimes do,
When married folks get clashing;
There was a heavy sigh or two,
Before the fire was flashing,
A little stir among the clouds,
Before they rent asunder,–
A little rocking of the trees,
And then came on the thunder.

Lord! how the ponds and rivers boiled!
They seemed like bursting craters!
And oaks lay scattered on the ground
As if they were p’taters
And all above was in a howl,
And all below a clatter,
The earth was like a frying-pan,
Or some such hissing matter.

It chanced to be our washing-day,
And all our things were drying;
The storm came roaring through the lines,
And set them all a flying;
I saw the shirts and petticoats
Go riding off like witches;
I lost, ah! bitterly I wept,–
I lost my Sunday breeches!

I saw them straddling through the air,
Alas! too late to win them;
I saw them chase the clouds, as if
The devil had been in them;
They were my darlings and my pride,
My boyhood’s only riches,–
“Farewell, farewell,” I faintly cried,–
“My breeches! O my breeches!”

That night I saw them in my dreams,
How changed from what I knew them!
The dews had steeped their faded threads,
The winds had whistled through them!
I saw the wide and ghastly rents
Where demon claws had torn them;
A hole was in their amplest part,
As if an imp had worn them.

I have had many happy years,
And tailors kind and clever,
But those young pantaloons have gone
Forever and forever!
And not till fate has cut the last
Of all my earthly stitches,
This aching heart shall cease to mourn
My loved, my long-lost breeches!

Happy September.

David Berman — RIP

No critic is a sage, so David Berman revealed himself to me as a poet first. When I found his collection Actual Air for a buck in the reduced section of my satellite campus bookstore exactly a decade ago, I bought it on a condescending whim — “how good can a poetry collection by a rock guy be?” Then I read “Grace”:

As one who, reading late into the night,
When overcome by sleep, turns off the light
And yields whatever he can sense by sight

To what the gates of ivory or of horn
Will send him, sightless as a child unborn,
To goad, amuse, remind, reveal or warn,

So may I turn a light off and embrace
With resignation, better still with grace,
The dreamless sleep that all awake must face.

The toughness of these tercets — their understanding of art as a supreme fiction that makes sense of air, light, life — reminded me of Wallace Stevens, after whom Berman named the volume. Thanks to Berman’s laconic, self-effacing drawl, Berman under the Silver Jews moniker released a few albums that are the American equivalent of The Fall: an American vernacular accommodating itself to absurdity indistinguishable from tragedy.

Their masterpiece American Water (1998) is too well-named. The album’s first line — “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” — tipped the hat to an approach as attuned to the rhythms of the vernacular in American poetry and song as Cole Porter and John Ashbery. Collaborators and fellow travelers like Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich understood that Berman was the real thing: skeptical of the transcendental likes of Patti Smith and Allen Ginsburg, Berman drew upon wryness as a muse, as a way of moistening his confessions. Over the slow static progression of “Blue Arrangement,” Berman and Malkmus praise the “Protestant thighs” of a paramour who inspires a prolixity increasingly uncommon in Amerindie. Berman, unlike words-first guys, believed in melody. Perhaps the melody inspired the following verse:

Sometimes I feel like I’m watching the world
And the world isn’t watching me back
But when I see you, I’m in it too
The waves come in and the waves go back

Perhaps he sensed the high tide of those waves waiting to take him.

‘Summer, do your worst!’

Dorothy Parker is overesteemed as personality and writer, but her desiccated wit often produced gems like the poem below.

When my eyes are weeds,
And my lips are petals, spinning
Down the wind that has beginning
Where the crumpled beeches start
In a fringe of salty reeds;
When my arms are elder-bushes,
And the rangy lilac pushes
Upward, upward through my heart;

Summer, do your worst!
Light your tinsel moon, and call on
Your performing stars to fall on
Headlong through your paper sky;
Nevermore shall I be cursed
By a flushed and amorous slattern,
With her dusty laces’ pattern
Trailing, as she straggles by.

Happy August.

‘I must get a new bird/and a new immortality box’

Thanks to Peter Gabriel, I discovered Anne Sexton; thanks to Harold Bloom, I practiced a received contempt. Sexton and Sylvia Plath, he said, “are not poets, merely case histories and hysterics. They could not write poetry that should matter to any serious reader.” Proposing that W.D. Snodgrass, John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Elizabeth Bishop, and above all James Merrill are superior shouldn’t detract from Sexton’s achievement . I’m not sure if she listened to rock ‘n’ roll, but her concision and affinity for the folktale give her strongest lyrics a performative power that her contemporaries lacked; you can read “The Ambition Bird” aloud and produce a helluva response. Continue reading