Poets on Poetry

Of course, it’s Tuesday. Monday slipped by again, busy with spring planting, new baby chicks, and miscellaneous garden chores–they are endless. But for today I thought I’d share two famous poets words on poetry. Philip Levine and Marianne Moore:

LevineA Theory of Prosody

When Nellie, my old pussy
cat, was still in her prime,
she would sit behind me
as I wrote, and when the line
got too long she’d reach
one sudden black foreleg down
and paw at the moving hand, Continue reading “Poets on Poetry”

Whose poem is this?

Sometimes I can’t remember whether something in my notes is original or cribbed from somewhere.  For example, did I write this? or was it possibly Lorine Niedecker?

Changed two words.
What I call
a morning’s work.

It’s very like some of her short work:

Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what’s got away in my life—
Was enough to carry me thru.

*                    *                   *

Popcorn-can cover
screwed to the wall
over a hole
so the cold
can’t mouse in

Both those are hers, and I can’t remember for the life of me whether that three-line stanza is mine or hers. Someone might know…

In any case, I thought of it, because my day’s work today was to come up with the phrase “the darning needle of dread,” which came out of reading Robert Kroetsch. His mother called dragon flies darning needles. I liked that idea, and so it goes. Though I’m not too crazy about his prose so far. A little too Hemingway-wannabe? a little too peppered with self-consciously quotable phrases? I’m not sure just what I am finding off-putting. I haven’t gotten to the poetry yet. But I do like Lorine Niedecker! An underrated poet, I think. She lived into her late sixties, but I couldn’t find a good later photo. She wasn’t as secluded and little known as Emily Dickinson, but you don’t get too famous if you live a quiet life in the wetlands of Wisconsin.

Breakfast chez moi

This morning: sauteed onions, thai basil, garlic chives, and tarragon with baby kale (all from the garden) topped with softly steamed eggs. I sauteed the onions first in coconut ghee, added the herbs and kale, broke the eggs on top and covered them just till they set. No photo, we ate it all up before I could think of getting out the camera.

The garden takes breakfast to a new level. The ghee is an allegedly health-enhancing alternative to olive oil that I use from time to time. I bought a gallon of it a year ago and have about a pint left. It has a distinctly sweet flavor. Great for roasting vegetables, too.

I was meandering through a hefty volume of Zbigniew Herbert’s prose over breakfast. One of my favorite poets, his prose is savory and acerbic. A short sample I read aloud from “The Poet and the Present”: History does not know a single example of art or an artist anywhere ever exerting a direct influence on the world’s destiny–and from this sad truth follows the conclusion that we should be modest, conscious of our limited role and strength. Yes. More modesty, artists!

Then Larry read the beginning of a book review to me: At some point in the mid-1990’s academic authors in the humanities began to use the verb “complicate” when they didn’t have anything useful to say. They were always talking about how some new consideration or alleged insight “complicates” our understanding of this or that. “Such a view of early Victorian culture,” they’d say, “complicates our understanding of Tennyson’s metrical romances.” Well all right, one thought, but could we get to the part where you uncomplicate it? But they never did.

The review contained that wonderful line of Mary McCarthy’s about Lillian Helman’s memoir, Pentimento: Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ Great line, though I remember enjoying the book thoroughly.

Then I practiced piano for a bit while Larry went on reading the paper. Me to Larry: “Practicing piano yields such direct results. Practicing poetry not so much.”

Larry: “That’s because with poetry you’re always starting over.”

Too true.

Poetry and Pastry

I’m reading tonight, Jun 16, at 7:00 PM

Falkirk Cultural Center
1408 Mission Street, San Rafael

as part of the Marin Poetry Center Summer Traveling Show
hosted by Laurel Feigenbaum

Others include:

Joan Gelfand, Alan Cohen, John Hart, James Phoenix and Andrea Freeman

Because I’m reading “Loaves and Fishes” I’m bringing a fruit tart…mango and blueberry—it’s not pear season. So at the very least they’ll be something yummy to eat.


Zbigniew Herbert

This Polish poet is one of my favorites. He has many dark poems, having survived the second world war and the subsequent Soviet regime in Poland.  But this is a light, acerbic little prose poem. I disagree with his assessment of the hen, though I love the poem.

The Hen

The hen is the best example of what living constantly with humans leads to.  She has completely lost the lightness and grace of a bird. Her tail sticks up over her protruding rump like a too large hat in bad taste. Her rare moments of ecstasy, when she stands on one leg and glues up her round eyes with filmy eyelids, are stunningly disgusting. And in addition, that parody of song, throat-slashed supplications over a thing unutterably comic: a round, white, maculated egg.
The hen brings to mind certain poets.

More typical is his poem, “Five Men.” This poem astonished me with its power when I first read it, perhaps 40 years ago. In an essay about another poem, Herbert said:

“If a school of literature existed, one of its basic exercises should be the description not of dreams but of objects. Beyond the artist’s reach, a world unfolds–difficult, dark, but real. One should not lose the faith that it can be captured in words…I do not turn to history to draw from it an easy lesson of hope, but to confront my experience with that of others, to acquire something I might call universal compassion, and also a sense of responsibility, responsibility for the state of my conscience.”

This poem seems to me to fulfill that responsibility.

Five Men

They take them out in the morning
to the stone courtyard
and put them against the wall 

five men
two of them very young
the others middle-aged

nothing more
can be said about them

when the platoon
level their guns
everything suddenly appears
in the garish light
of obviousness

the yellow wall
the cold blue
the black wire on the wall
instead of a horizon

that is the moment
when the five senses rebel
they would gladly escape
like rats from a sinking ship

before the bullet reaches its destination
the eye will perceive the flight of the projectile
the ear record the steely rustle
the nostrils will be filled with biting smoke
a petal of blood will brush the palate
the touch will shrink and then slacken

now they lie on the ground
covered up to their eyes with shadow
the platoon walks away
their buttons straps
and steel helmets
are more alive
then those lying beside the wall

I did not learn this today
I knew it before yesterday

so why have I been writing
unimportant poems on flowers
what did the five talk of
the night before the execution

of prophetic dreams
of an escapade in a brothel
of automobile parts
of a sea voyage
of how when he had spades
he ought not to have opened
of how vodka is best
after wine you get a headache
of girls
of fruits
of life

thus one can use in poetry
names of Greek shepherds
one can attempt to catch the color of morning sky
write of love
and also
once again
in dead earnest
offer to the betrayed world
a rose

Zbigniew Herbert
both of these were translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, and are from the Penguin 1968 edition of Zbigniew Herbert Selected Poems,

Peas and poetry

I saw what looked like an irresitable recipe for fresh pea soup on jfeldt’s blog, Progress and Procrastination. As it’s the season of fresh peas, I decided to try it with excellent results.  It turned out every bit as enchanting a green the original. I made a few modifications to the recipe, so repeat it below. The virtues of this recipe include:

  • takes about 10 minutes start to finish (not counting shelling the peas)
  • is a delectable green color
  • tastes fabulous and is relatively low calorie

Fresh Pea Soup

1 onion, chopped
1 to 2 cloves garlic or ½ a green garlic head, crushed
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 3/4 Cups fresh peas (you can use frozen)
small handful of herbs (I used thyme, lemon verbena and garlic chives)
1 avocado
1 Cup water
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper

Put the olive oil in a saucepan and heat. Add chopped onion and garlic and cook gently till softened but not brown (2-3 minutes) Place frozen peas in on top of the onion and garlic, add herbs, and just cover with water. (I didn’t use vegetable stock because I thought it might ruin the green color.) Bring to a boil until peas are bright green and al dente (about 5 minutes).

Add all to blender with the avocado and 1 cup of water and liquefy. Return puree saucepan and add salt, pepper, cayenne, and lemon juice. Stir constantly until just boiling. Serve warm.   I put a mint leaf on top just for fun. Mint might be a good addition.

Several years ago, I heard an NPR broadcast about Gregor Mendel and wrote this poem about him and his peas and his bees. It occurs to me that I now also have both bees and peas, though not with the same objectives!

Sexing the Pea

Mendel in his monk’s robes strolled
amid hermaphroditic peas, tweezed open
each pea flower keel, snipped filament and anther
and shoved the pollen deep into the womb
of his pocket.  Then, bending to the female
flower parts—not yet sticky, immature—
he twisted over stigma, style and ovary
a calico cap, to protect the pea’s virginity.

Pudgy, stooped above his flowery flock,
he chose the moment and the father strain
for each sweet pea. He touched
each fragile, trembling pistil
with his tiny brush. When the flowers
turned to fruit, he sorted out
three hundred thousand peas.

His single published text, eye-crossed
with figures, was ignored for almost forty years.
But Mendel spent his sun-blessed days
amid the odor of pea blossom,
deep in the unembarrassed sex of flower and bee,
and puzzled out the logic of genetics,
before we had the word for gene.

Meryl Natchez

Mark Doty

This morning I was chatting with friends about poetry over tea and muffins. We were talking about workshops, etc. I told them about my worst workshop experience, one with Mark Doty at the Walt Whitman Birthplace. Despite the awful workshop, his work is luminous. We talked about how you can’t equate the work with the person. This came home to me years ago, watching a poet I know who wrote stunning love poems to his wife and treated her like the dirt under his shoe soles.

In any case, Marcia, here’s a Mark Doty excerpt for you. Other poems of his I love include: A Green Crab’s Shell, Apparition; A New Dog; The Embrace, Migratory, A Display of Mackerel. There’s a transcendental strain in his work that he weaves in with such skill. I find it extraordinarily moving. You can find several of these at poets.org, and hear him read. He’s a good reader. Fire to Fire, his new and selected poems, is worth owning, and I even like his blog.

from “Atlantis”

I thought your illness a kind of solvent
dissolving the future a little at a time;

I didn’t understand what’s to come
was always just a glimmer

up ahead, veiled like the marsh
gone under its tidal sheet

of mildly rippled aluminum.
What these salt distances were

is also where they’re going:
from blankly silvered span

toward specificity: the curve
of certain brave islands of grass,

temporary shoulder-wide rivers
where herons ply their twin trades

of study and desire. I’ve seen
two white emissaries unfold

like heaven’s linen, untouched,
enormous, a fluid exhalation. Early spring,

too cold yet for green, too early
for the tumble and wrack of last season

to be anything but promise,
but there in the air was the triumph

of all flowering, the soul
lifted up, if we could still believe

in the soul, after so much diminishment…
Breath from the unpromising waters,

up, across the pond and the two-lane highway,
pure purpose, over the dune,

gone. Tomorrow’s unreadable
as this shining acreage;

the future’s nothing
but this moment’s gleaming rim.

Now the tide’s begun
its clockwork turn, pouring,

in the day’s hourglass,
toward the other side of the world,

and our dependable marsh reappears
—emptied of that scratched and angular grace

that spirited the ether, lessened,
but here. And our ongoingness,

what there’ll be of us? Look,
love, the lost world

rising from the waters again:
another continent, where it always was,

emerging from the half light,
drenched, unchanged.

Mark Doty

The poem that changed my life

Okay, I finally found a copy of the poem that was published in the (1967?)
Harvard Advocate that elicited the fateful fan letter from Larry that changed the course of my life. It was printed with a long footnote, which I include here.  I remember that in Larry’s letter (which will be harder to find, but will appear here eventually), he suggested that I lose the footnote, but I love the last sentence, so am leaving it in, despite the grammatical error (do you see it?). In any case it’s more authentic this way.

I remember pacing the Radcliffe library one night trying to write a poem and stumbling on the volume of the Cambridge Natural History.  Was it open on a desk?  Feeling somewhat caged myself at the time, the captive chameleon seemed the perfect subject.

Image from the Markov Thought Chain Blog

Chameleons in Captivity[1]

Silent, they bide their time.
Turning brown or green as the mood suits them
they swing on a twig,
and steady themselves
with a flexible tail.
Until, when their prey flies by,

they slyly become the branch.
With one cool thwap of an eight-inch tongue
they get their meal,
no sentiment spared
for their breakfast or dinner.
They slit their eyes and sleep.

And yet in winter, they wander.
Restless, insatiate, refusing to eat.
Aloof, they hiss
and swell, swaying
in gold indignation
and bite their keeper’s hand.

They no longer care who feeds them.
Some urge, half forgotten, intrigues them despite
the warmth of their cage,
and they crave the dark
and solitary
cave, drawn back towards the earth.

And what strange joy they must feel
As they watch their iridescent skin
fade and peel
in the long months
of slow starvation.
What absolute power they hold

over the foolish keeper
who thinks to deny this swaggering beast—
when weary of summer
and the hoards
of beetles and flies—
the privilege of death.

Meryl Natchez

[1] From the Cambridge Natural History, Vol. III. Chameleons are notoriously difficult to keep successfully, whereby we do not mean keeping for three to six months. This is easy enough, since it takes them several months to die of starvation. The difficulty is to keep them through the winter. To enable them to do this, it is absolutely necessary to fatten them up during the summer and autumn. Otherwise, although kept in a warm place, they are liable to lose their appetite in autumn, when they become restless, probably with the desire to hibernate. Those few individual which get over this critical period, say during the month of October, and do not refuse food are probably safe. But those are doomed which refuse to eat meal-worms or cockroaches or such food as can be procured easily during the winter.

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.

What’s in a name?

A reader asked why I chose the blog name Dactyls & Drakes. When I was thinking about a name, I wanted something that would encompass both poetry and the mini-ecosystem I’m creating—garden, animals, weird inventions. I first thought poetry and poultry, but that was too clunky.  Larry suggested dactyls and ducks, but that sounded, well, sort of web-footed.  I liked the dactyls part, though, the poetic foot of one long, two short stresses—the common foot for nursery rhymes: hickory, dickory, dock (actually, it would have to be dockery for them all to be dactyls). And here’s a mallard drake, common, but elegant.

Not that I have ducks yet, but they’re in the plan.  Hence dactyls & drakes.  Turns out you can’t have an ampersand in a URL, though. I thought the name obscure enough to signal that I am doing this purely for my own pleasure, and hope it becomes a way to connect with whomever my interests align.

Poets Out Loud!

Want to hear F. Scott Fitzgerald reading Keats? or H.D.’s cultured accent reading her long poem, Helen in Egypt? or William Carlos Williams folksy tones as he reads his seminal A Red Wheelbarrow poem? or Lorine Niedecker, Jack Spicer, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky not to mention many contemporary poets?  Here’s the list of authors in PennSounds’ audio library for you: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/authors.php

Of course, there are many other audio libraries, but this one is new to me and intriguingly eclectic.

Chickens, Driving at Night

It seems to me that chickens are the perfect eco-accessory. Here they are, a few days old, when they were still in the laundry room.

They grow quickly, provide eggs and meat, and are omnivores. I ground up the remains of the fish stock and they gobbled it—no more smelly mess in the garbage. They eat weeds, bugs, snails and slugs. I’m planning to make a “chicken tractor” to move them around to various parts of the garden. I wonder if I’d still like them as much without the knowledge of future eggs? There is really no comparison between the eggs from a backyard chicken that gets to roam and eat grass and bugs to those sold commercially. Larry says the yolks are the color of a Van Gogh sun. Of course, here in the suburbs, no roosters, which is too bad. I understand that others may not be charmed by the rooster alarm clock. They do crow incessantly, starting before dawn. When I was in Puerto Rico, surrounded by households with roosters I wondered: is a rooster’s crow the sound of poverty or of affluence? In any case, a small, well-tended flock of chickens is pretty delightful. I saw this poem about chickens years ago and saved it.

Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty 

Some were pulled by the wind from moving
to the ends of the stacked cages,
some had their heads blown through the bars—

and could not get them in again.
Some hung there like that—dead—
their own feathers blowing, clotting

in their faces.  Then
I saw the one that made me slow some—
I lingered there beside her for five miles.

She had pushed her head through the space
between bars—to get a better view.
She had the look of a dog in the back

of a pickup, that eager look of a dog
who knows she’s being taken along.
She craned her neck.

She looked around, watched me, then
strained to see over the car—strained
to see what happened beyond.

That is the chicken I want to be.

Jane Mead,  The Lord and the General Din of the World

I don’t know anything about Jane Mead, but the following poem, also about a bird seen driving at night, was written by a woman who died fairly young from a chronic and degenerative disease.  It’s a level darker and deeper:

Night Owl

            You are nearing the land that is life,
            You will recognize it by its seriousness.

Diving my bad news the back way home
I know I’m in the land that is life
when I reach my favorite stretch of road—fields
flat and wide where corn appears soon after
planting the soil tilled, night-soaked
and crumbled into fists.
Ferguson’s barn is somewhere
at the end of this long arm of tar
and as I near it, something grazes the back
passenger-side door, luffs parallel to my car—
a huge owl on headlight spray floating,
holding night over the hood to see
if this moving thing is real, alive,
something to kill—then gliding in
close as if to taste glass.
The road levitates, buffeted on a surf
of light, the fog-eaten farm disappearing
as I ride into starlessness, cells conspiring
so I am bright-flecked and uplifted—is this
what it feels like to be chosen—to be taken
under the wing of something vast
that knows its way blindly?

M. Wyrebek, Be Properly Scared