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”

Death in the morning, an elegy

This morning I woke to squawking from the chickens. I didn’t think much of it; they’re often noisy in the morning. But it went on, and I went out in time to see a large grey fox with feathers in his mouth standing in the corner of the run. He stared as I approached, and then easily climbed the fence and ran off. The ground was littered with feathers, and one hen was trembling with several bald patches, but the real heartbreaking find was Malawi, the rooster, who lay alive but with his neck broken.

Here’s to beautiful, proud Malawi, who always led his flock to food and always waited and ate last. He successfully defended all seven hens from the fox, who went away with nothing for his trouble but a mouthful of feathers.

Continue reading “Death in the morning, an elegy”

Wilbur could not rescue Plath

Thanks to my daughter, who forwarded on this poem, about a meeting in which Richard Wilbur was recruited to encourage Sylvia Plath after a suicide attempt:

Cottage Street, 1953

Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs. Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me.

Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or lemon, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.

It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless

Continue reading “Wilbur could not rescue Plath”

In praise of Berryman

I perfect my metres
until no mosquito can get through…

Beryman, Dreamsong 297

In the vagaries of poets’ reputations, Berryman is now up, while Lowell is down. This is a reversal of thirty years ago. Who can say why? I fell in love with Berryman’s Dreamsongs in my early twenties. They have two ongoing personae: Henry, a stand in for Berryman himself, and Mr. Bones, a wisecracking minstrel who sees through Henry. In my innocence and arrogance I wrote a Henry poem, in imitation and homage, and sent it to Berryman. He responded with a wonderfully kind letter.  This wasn’t long before his suicide in 1972. Continue reading “In praise of Berryman”

More about William Dickey

There are so many good poets who write in relative obscurity. Bill Dickey (whose poem I posted yesterday), was part of Berryman’s famous class at Iowa and taught poetry for over 30 years at San Francisco State. Don’t confuse Bill with another poet, James Dickey, who is very well known (and in my view a much lesser poet).  Bill published 15 volumes of poetry, and was well thought of by fellow poets, but his work is almost unknown to the general public. Larry was lucky enough to study with him in 1968, and then again in the late 70s. He says of Bill: Continue reading “More about William Dickey”

A penny for your prayer

I really try to ignore the political scene. It’s just too depressing, and like the changing of time for Daylight Savings and back, feels totally outside my control. But after reading today about prayer breakfasts on Capitol Hill, I felt moved to compose this:

Prayer’s a very private thing—
a scouring of the soul, a reckoning,
a probing of just what is meant,
a clarifying of intent.
And anyone I’ve seen to pray
in any kind of public way
who makes a show of piety,
advertises their propriety,
shows up, on examination
to be a card-carrying member
of the hypocrite nation.

Larry, on reading it, shrugged and said “too unsubtle,” and came up with a pithier, more succinct version:

If it’s public it ain’t a prayer.

It’s bon mots like this that keep those gourmet meals coming.

In the same NY Times article, they referenced David Orr’s selection of poems to assign to Congress. Here are two I’d choose:

Sailing to Byzantium by Wm. Yeats

Cantatrice by John Berryman.  As I can’t find this online, here it is, Dream Song #233

Misunderstanding. Misunderstanding, misunderstanding.
Are we stationed here among another thing?
Sometimes I wonder.
After the lightning, this afternoon, came thunder:
the natural world makes sense: cats hate water
and love fish.

Fish, plankton, bats’ radar, the sense of fish
who glide up the coast of South America
and head for Gibraltar.
How do they know it’s there? We call this instinct
by which we dream we know what instinct is,
like misunderstanding.

I was soft on a green girl once and we smiled across
and married, childed. Never did we truly take in
one burning wing.
Henry flounders. What is the name of that fish?
So better organized than we are oh.
Sing to me that name, enchater, sing!

*                    *                *

How about that for a prayer?

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.

Poems by heart

One year at the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, Bob Hass gave a craft talk in which he said he had memorized his own poetry by driving around with a cassette of his poems. I’d been memorizing poems for a long time used this technique to memorize several dozen poems more (not my own, though). As a result, not only do I have a treasury of poems to get me through long lines and bad traffic, snippets of poems come to me just in the course of an ordinary day.

Walking down the street in spring, when the new leaves have just unfurled, I sometimes think of Tony Hoagland’s poem, A Color of the Sky, in which he calls the color of these leaves “the very tint of inexperience.”

As I come out of the tunnel on Highway 24 and see San Francisco gleaming white over the bay, I might think of Wordsworth’s lines:

“The city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning, silent, bare.
Ships, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open to the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”

And when my granddaughter complains of boredom, I think of Berryman’s wonderful dream song that begins:

“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover, my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly), “Ever to confess you’re bored
means  you have no

Inner Resources.”

I refrain from quoting it to her, but it makes me smile.

Having an internal library of poems I love enriches my day, and will be a comfort if they every put me (like Christopher Smart) in solitary confinement. Here’s a poem about this:

Poems by Heart

The first I memorized was for Miss Underhill
in seventh grade: Frost’s woods.
Then Márgaret’s melodious grief,
like nothing I’d heard before,
like the anthem of my tribe.

I grabbed onto poetry as if
it were the round, white circle
of canvas-covered cork
thrown from the lifeguard’s chair
when they hauled me out,
and stood me on my feet,
still flailing.

The poems meant that somewhere
there had to be others like me.
They had left me a trail of words,
little candy lifesavers in rainbow colors,
and I ate them, one by one,
as I made my way
across the acres of suburban
athletic fields and sidewalks
to find them.