Tag Archives: Poetry

‘Let them leave language to their lonely betters…’

A master poet whose spiritual yearnings and commitment to homosexual camp don’t quite represent the paradox it looks like, W.H. Auden wrote an awful lot of uneven verse: clotted, obscurantic, often too brittle. Yet few poets are so much fun to read. To spend an afternoon with Collected Poems is like hearing a swishy raconteur hold court. “Their Lonely Betters” isn’t as well known as “In Praise of Limestone,” “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” and “Musée des Beaux Arts,” but its quiet pain has moved me since high school. Continue reading

‘That dying chose the living world for text…’

A couple days ago, Dorian Lynskey took a closer look at the twentieth century’s most quoted poem after Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” — and as apt for misinterpretation. ” Just as dystopian authors get a kick out of dramatising their worst fears, great apocalyptic art has a dreadful vitality, its pulse quickening in proximity to catastrophe,” Lynskey writes. This month’s poem, also by William Butler Yeats, is less well-known, but the cosmic manner in which it regards the death of an airman is appropriate for the close of May. Continue reading

‘Spring’s universal bliss….’

A Jesuit who struggled with barely suppressed homosexual tendencies, Gerard Manly Hopkins didn’t sublimate his lusts so much as organize them into verse units whose rhythms imitate no natural speech I know but reflect his idiosyncratic relations to his god. Students of twentieth century poetry will recognize “The Windhover” and “Pied Beauty” and the long poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” — devotional poems as highly (over?)wrought as Donne or Milton’s. Continue reading

‘If this be magic, let it be an art…’: Ranking William Shakespeare

A rummaging through my archives will reveal sundry bits about Shakespeare: film adaptations, re-readings of the plays, and so on. Perhaps my knowing Spanish as a first language and taking French in elementary school inoculated me against the difficulty of Shakespeare’s prose and verse; he is, let me emphasize, more prolix than, say, Marlowe. Reading Julius Caesar at thirteen helped, impressed enough by the canting Brutus, as a pretentious little flower in ninth grade might be, to try Anthony and Cleopatra on my own. Classified as a tragedy because, to be reductive, the eponymous heroes can’t help succumbing to the parts of their nature that would immolate them, A&C is a damn good romp, Will’s most spirited production after A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with one of the two most powerful men in the world pouring blandishments into the lap of a queen even hornier, more devious, and outsized. A cast of dozens too — can you distinguish Dolabella from Dercetus? This isn’t tragedy — this is a Joseph L. Mankiewicz script.

Meting out solemnities under the impression that they buck up adolescent minds, high school curricula teach the tragedies instead of the comedies when Shakespeare’s taught at all. I’d love to teach Twelfth Night and As You Like It in this new age of gender fluidity (then teach them side by side with Sylvia Scarlet). I didn’t the comedies until I matriculated in a class devoted to them my junior year of college — what fools these mortals be. My passion for My Own Private Idaho and Orson Welles sent me to the Henry plays, during which Prince Harry transforms himself into the cunning iceberg of the king he thought England needed, thus surpassing in ruthlessness the usurper father Bolingbroke whom he’d disappointed as a teen dissolute. Mark Rylance, whom I saw in Henry V at The Globe in 1997, was too damn amiable. Twenty-one years and three readings later the tonal clashes in The Winter’s Tale still puzzle me with their rightness; the marble statue of Hermione warming to life is the only moment in Shakespeare that I sense my jaw tremble (“To see sexual jealousy and metaphysical nihilism as modes of tyranny has its own interest,” Harold Bloom notes). I expect to keep reading Shakespeare; I expect to review execrable movies about him; I expect to read Love’s Labour’s Lost during my isolation.


Titus Andronicus
Troilus and Cressida
King John

Sound, Solid

Richard II
Henry V
Romeo and Juliet
Richard III
The Taming of the Shrew
The Merchant of Venice

Good to Great

As You Like It
King Lear
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Winter’s Tale
Much Ado About Nothing
Measure for Measure
The Tempest
Anthony and Cleopatra
Twelfth Night
Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
Julius Caesar

The Jury’s Out

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Love’s Labour’s Lost
All’s Well That Ends Well
Timon of Athens
Henry VI, Parts 1 through 3

‘Turn and look once more/And smite a rock” — a Good Friday poem

In eighth grade relatives could measure my devotion by the clack of rosary beads. I lived close enough to St. Brendan to walk. The rest of Holy Week — undeveloped, I thought. What about Holy Monday and Holy Tuesday? Thus the intensity of my devotion during what I call my Stephen Dedalus period. The sacrifice of Christ I felt in my corpuscles, a Method acting so thorough that when the belief vaporized I blinked like a man who has stepped out of a smoke-filled room. Continue reading

John Prine — RIP

“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

‘My flesh was its own shield’

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

‘Speak of the world’s own change’

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

‘What a cradled life finds emblematic’

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.”

Continue reading

Beyond a filmmaking gimmick, ‘1917’ has no resonance

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

‘i will kiss your cool bark’

e.e. cummings can layer schmaltz over typographical unorthodoxies with rather too much enthusiasm, but his Christmas poem is a beaut.

little tree
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
“Noel Noel”

Merry Christmas.

‘I feel ancient, as though I had/Lived many lives.’

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 didn’t.
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
karma demands.

Happy December.