Memorial Day

This poem came to me from The Paris Review, sent as part of their daily email awhile ago. Somehow it seems apt for Memorial Day.

The Dirt and the Willow

All summer long
while other trees
reached for more
light the willow
unfurled streamers
down into its own
streetwise shade
lower and slower
until the silvery
tip of its lowest
leaf had reached
the limit set to
its inverted growth:
dirt’s intractable

Enough it thought
if willows think
these accretions
are taking me
it came to its annual
decision to drop
everything it was

doing and dieJust try
the dirt wisecracked
not unkindly but
the willow was
aquiver with indignant
self-pity and wouldn’t
sit still for such “sitcom

It’s easy
for tombs to talk
about eternal recurrence
to equate one string
of proteins with another
the wailing child
and the ailing mother
tombs have nothing
to lose o what’s the use
you’ll never understand

On the contrary said the dirt
that’s what I do best
now why don’t you just rest


Tom Disch  (this link takes you to a remembrance of the poet by Dana Gioia)

Your morning economics lesson

This morning, Larry was reading Greg Mankiw’s NY Times editorial on 45’s tax plan. Mankiw is an economics professor at Harvard.  To familiarize me with Mankiw, Larry played a country western economics song, Dual Mandate for me. I guess he was directed to this from reading Mankiw, and I incorrectly reported it as Greg. An alert reader (thanks, Dan) caught the error, but the video is still worth watching.

And Mankiw’s editorial in the Times is worth reading.

I don’t know any good poems on economics or business. As Dana Gioia has pointed out, business is the last taboo subject for poetry. I have one poem about money, and so you don’t miss a Monday poem, here it is.

Meditation on Money

I am thinking about a day forty years ago
when we were down to our last fifty cents,
and our friends drove up
with a month’s rent and groceries,
and after we ate and talked, we sat together
on the edge of the dock, saying nothing,
and watched the barnacles
slowly open their feathery lips,
slowly close them.

Meryl Natchez

Poetry reading

A few weeks ago I was wondering if there was anything worse than a bad poetry reading–sitting captive in a low-ceilinged room in an uncomfortable chair listening to words that don’t seem to relate any meaning. The person I was complaining to asked why I go.  I go for the kind of experience I had on Thursday, listening to Dana Gioia read his work at Falkirk House (the wonderful historic building where I read last summer) in San Rafael, courtesy of the Marin Poetry Center. I’ve written here before of Dana’s excellent critical prose, and of a “Verse,” a critical homage to Donald Justice that Dana told me last night will now be an ebook. Continue reading “Poetry reading”

Lit crit

I’ve been slowly reading through a 1992 issue of a British literary magazine called “Verse,” which Larry found amid his books. It features Donald Justice, a poet I really like. I memorized this sonnet of his, which he wrote to get into John Berryman’s seminar at Iowa. According to Larry, who told me this story, many more students than the seminar could accommodate showed up the first day. Berryman assigned a sonnet, and only a few even tried–fewer were accepted.

I like the mysteriousness of this sonnet about Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge. It plays on a story we all know, and yet makes it happen anew. I especially admire how “the first omen” is that they “can find no flaw/ in all of Eden.” We humans don’t seem to be able to bear perfection very long! And “the first omen” sounds so full of dread, followed by the dream of the lion sharpening its claw. We know what’s going to happen and this sets it up. I also like how it takes us right up to the moment of exile and leaves us in dread.

The Wall

The wall surrounding them they never saw;
The angels, often. Angels were as common
As birds or butterflies, but looked more human.
As long as the wings were furled, they felt no awe.
Beasts, too, were friendly. They could find no flaw
In all of Eden: this was the first omen.
The second was the dream which woke the woman.
She dreamed she saw the lion sharpen his claw.
As for the fruit, it had no taste at all.
They had been warned of what was bound to happen.
They had been told of something called the world.
They had been told and told about the wall.
They saw it now; the gate was standing open.
As they advanced, the giant wings unfurled.

Donald Justice

When I memorized this poem, I decided to switch a line, so that the poem ended “As for the fruit, it had no taste at all.”  The rhyme scheme still works that way, and I liked ending it with the sense of futility that line gives. But of course, that’s not Mr. Justice’s version, and he’s no longer around to discuss it. If he were, I’d write to him. I wonder what you think?

Meanwhile, although I admire Dana Gioia and William Logan enormously, the kind of literary criticism that appears in this volume seems beside the point (six different essays on his verse!). Either you like Donald Justice’s rather formal poetry or you don’t; discussing its format, analyzing its meter, and probing its origins doesn’t enhance my enjoyment of the poems. Au contraire. A surfeit of lit crit is one of the reasons I’m on my extended leave of absence from college.

As Larry said this morning, “If all the literary criticism in the world were to disappear overnight we would be not one whit poorer.”

You might have noticed that there hasn’t been much “Stuff Larry Sez,” lately. He was gone, then I was gone. Larry went to the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans, a celebration of roots music that featured Big Jay McNeely, Lazy Lester, and many other colorful musicians. Larry is going to talk about this and give away some autographed photos on Mal Sharpe’s “Back on Basin Street” radio show on KCSM on Sunday, October 9, at 9 pm.


A pint of plain…

In the rarified intellectual world of boarding school, I arrived as a naïf in 10th grade. I was lucky to make a friend who later became a translator of Octavio Paz. He was always willing to explain a poem or a line to me. I remember clearly asking him to explain several passages of Prufrock when I first read it.  What did it mean to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”? And his answer—”That one’s so easy—it means to put on the mask you wear in public.”

He had a scathing wit, and for a few years after high school he was the secretary for our classes alumni notes section. He kept in touch with many alums, and his descriptions were not always kind. They were always fun to read, though. Unfortunately, the more sensitive of my classmates were offended, and he was asked to resign, which he did.

All of which brings me to the criticism of William Logan, whom I’ve mentioned briefly before. Most poetry criticism reads like a sanitized version of alumni notes—bland, kind, praising small achievements. The world of poetry is a small and cozy one, and few want to risk alienating their peers. But in the midst of this vapid sea of faint praise, there is an island of acerbic wit called William Logan. Though he writes and publishes verse, he seems to have no qualms about pricking the pretensions of the most lauded poets, and the poetry establishment itself. Here’s an excerpt from his 2009 review of Billy Collins’ book, Ballistics:

“When comedians stop being funny, they must invent themselves anew or retire for good. A number of poems here mention divorce in a roundabout way… Indeed, the most hilarious poem in the book is titled “Divorce,” and it’s also the shortest:

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tinned forks
across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

If Collins can become the bitter philosopher of such lines, there’s hope yet. Otherwise, Poetry must do what Poetry does when a poet runs out of gas, or screws the pooch, or jumps the shark—give him a Pulitzer and show him the door.”[1]

Lucille Clifton used to say “Poetry is a house of many rooms,” meaning that there is room for a wide variety of style and form. But unlike a house, whose builders need to demonstrate a minimal level of carpentry skill for the house to stand, anyone at all can claim to be a poet, whether skilled or not. Here’s where knowledgeable critics help.  William Logan, Dana Gioia, and Robert Hass have each written some wonderful prose about poetry and are all worth reading. Dana Gioia’s essay “The Successful Career of Robert Bly” in Can Poetry Matter? is one of my favorites of his work. Robert Hass’s collections of newspaper columns, Now and Then, and Poet’s Choice are both worth owning, and if you like these, you might want to go on to the more difficult Twentieth Century Pleasures.  But no one makes me laugh as reliably as William Logan, and that’s worth a lot in this world of woe.

If you’re looking for biting wit, for someone who can pierce the veil of pretentious obfuscation poets so often draw about themselves, a pint of Wm. Logan is your only man.  I’d rather be skewered by him, and have my eyes opened to what’s flabby and phony in my work than be praised by a thousand fans. But I wouldn’t have fired my friend as secretary to our class, either.

[1] From “Verse Chronicle,” The New Criterion, June 2009