Poetry Monday

troy_jollimoreYes, I know, it’s Tuesday again. What can I say? As always, life before poetry.  But today I have a poem by Troy Jollimore, a recent Squaw connection, whose book Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. One section of the book has poems that give a nod to Berryman’s Dream Songs. Troy’s alter ego is not Henry, but Tom Thomson. Here’s one of my favorites:

Tom Thomson in Retrospect

He had a good run. Ran like hell, in fact,
toward the wisdom and away from pain.
(Except he got them mixed up, it turned out.) Continue reading “Poetry Monday”

Snippets

Over breakfast we have have some pretty far ranging conversations. I am usually reading some poems (lately a selection Larry put together of his Berryman favorites), Larry is reading the Wall St. Journal or the NY Times. I read parts of these, too, the “soft” parts. I try to avoid the news, letting Larry be my filter. If it’s ever time to flee, I count on him to let me know.

Yesterday I was musing on what makes Louise Gluck’s poetry so powerful. Her imagery is not gorgeous, and her language tends to be plain not flashy.  Yet the poetry is strong. Currents of feeling move though it and jump out at you. And Larry said: Yes, Berryman writes like a man on a high wire; but Louise stands on the ground. Continue reading “Snippets”

Bleh!

Okay, time for a short rant about motivational pablum.  Like Chicken Soup for the Soul (I’m NOT going to link to that), or the slightly more sophisticated message from Thich Nhat-Hanh which I saw on a blog I occasionally enjoy, An Improvised Life:

We often ask, “What’s wrong?” Doing so, we invite painful seeds of sorrow to come up and manifest. We feel suffering, anger, and depression, and produce more such seeds. We would be much happier if we tried to stay in touch with the healthy, joyful seeds inside of us and around us. We should learn to ask, “What’s not wrong?” and be in touch with that. There are so many elements in the world and within our bodies, feelings, perceptions, and consciousness that are wholesome, refreshing, and healing. If we block ourselves, if we stay in the prison of our sorrow, we will not be in touch with these healing elements.”

There’s something about this kind of instruction (and I do admire the man!) that makes me want to go out and eat worms out of sheer perversity. Life is complicated and those healthy, joyful seeds also contain disease, death, despair, or as Berryman put it, “the image of the dead on the fingernail/of a newborn child.” Acknowledging that complexity is (at least for me) a much richer, deeper praise than asking what’s not wrong. Sorrow doesn’t have to be a prison; it can be a door to accepting the world as we find it.

“Cantatrice,” by Berryman, is by far more my kind of prayer. It appears at the end of this post, which I see was a little bit of a rant itself.

Snail, snail glister me forward

Does this line from Roethke’s “Lost Son” make you want to spend some time with his work? Here’s your chance. As a teenager I was thoroughly seduced by Theodore Roethke’s work, and still love it. As Galway Kinnell put it:  “I suppose what I like most in Roethke is particularly that interest he had in real things including slimy things that everybody thought were too base a subject for poetry. There aren’t any angels in Roethke’s poems, but there are slugs and worms, and I like that about him.”

I came back to Roethke to this morning, remembering my great love of Roethke’s work by way of reading Poetry in Person, a series of interviews from a class run by Pearl London at the New School in New York, starting in 1970 and running for almost 25 years. The roster of interviewees is stellar, and the class became famous. Im jealous that I don’t have a similar resource in my life. There’s a short introduction to this book on youtube and a longer video of the celebration of its publication with anecdotes and readings by Maxine Kumin (someone else who writes about real things!), Paul Muldoon, Robert Pinsky, Ed Hirsch and others.

Roethke was not among those interviewed for the class, but the snippet from the Kinnell interview led me to take down my Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke and read through the opening sequence of Lost Son and Other Poems. Roethke deserves a better edition than this badly printed book!  There is a Selected Poems, which despite the hideous portrait on the front seems like a book worth owning. Here are three poems by Roethke, and an elegy for Roethke by John Berryman. Roethke’s father owned a nursery and greenhouse, hence all the gardening images.

Orchids

They lean over the path,
Adder-mouthed,
Swaying close to the face,
Coming out, soft and deceptive,
Limp and damp, delicate as a young
bird’s tongue;
Their fluttery fledgling lips
Move slowly,
Drawing in the warm air.

And at night,
The faint moon falling through whitewashed
glass,
The heat going down
So their musky smell comes even stronger,
Drifting down from their mossy cradles:
So many devouring infants!
Soft luminescent fingers,
Lips neither dead nor alive,
Loose ghostly mouths
Breathing.

Wish for a Young Wife

My lizard, my lively writher,
May your limbs never wither
May the eyes in your face
Survive the green ice
Of envy’s green gaze;
May you live out your life
Without hate, without grief,
And your hair ever blaze
In the sun, in the sun,
When I am undone,
When I am no one.

Big Wind

Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped?—
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Creaking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.

A Strut for Roethke

Westward, hit a low note, for a roarer lost
across the Sound but north from Bremerton,
hit a way down note.
And never cadenza again of flowers, or cost.
Him who could really do that cleared his throat
& staggered on.

The bluebells, pool-shallows, saluted his over-needs,
while the clouds growled heh-heh, & snapped, & crashed.

No stunt he’ll ever unflinch once more will fail
(O lucky fellow, eh Bones?)—drifted off upstairs,
downstairs, somewheres.
No more daily, trying to hit the head on the nail:
thirstless: without a think in his head:
back from wherever, with it said.

Hit a high long note for a lover found
needing a lower into friendlier ground
to bug among worms no more
around um jungles where ah blurt ‘What for?’
Weeds, too, he favored as     most men don’t favor men.
The Garden Master’s gone.

John Berryman

“The Waking” (a villanelle), “My Pappa’s Waltz,” “In a Dark Time,” are some of Roethke’s most famous poems, easy to find online. You can hear Roethke read “Big Wind” if you like. Stanley Kunitz wrote a wonderful tribute to Roethke that gives a sense of the man and his work.