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
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!
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 remainders 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.
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.
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
Her gifts quashed by her reputation, Sylvia Plath aspired to write great poetry and occasionally did. Often her poems consist of glittering phrases, as abrasive as bleach, in search of a sympathetic structure. “The Beekeeper’s Daughter” doesn’t cohere, but when you reach the end you know you’ve read something powerful — without knowing what the “something” is. Continue reading
“If only Shakespeare had lived in the era of therapy,” I thought halfway through All is True. He could afford it. In Kenneth Branagh’s fictionalized depiction of the playwright’s exile, occasioned by a malfunctioning cannon causing The Globe to burn down in 1613, Shakespeare returns to Straford-on-Avon so that his wife Anne Hathaway and daughters can torment him about being a lousy husband and father. Not even Macbeth and Petruchio were so henpecked. There isn’t much to All is True beyond remembering the greatest hits of the Bard’s life treated as expository dialogue and the chuckles of Branagh and Judi Dench bedeviled by the sorriest old age makeup in recent memory. Continue reading