to me the frank contagion of
an afternoon; the moon’s delirium when
the sun, too soon, goes down. I pick the panicles
of grass that dart her dress—I love
her dress. I love it the color of her hips
and love the green odor of the summer’s cuttings
at her lips; and I forget myself,
I—the smelting of ore into the bone
and tissue of an hour—am made, for an hour,
more than what I am.
through slow intersections where
the riders come and go; she among them, opening
her umbrella into snow. she arrives.
I take her raincoat and umbrella
and where we sit before the window, the windows
outside our own show buildings from
the inside out; and here and there
the men and women like ourselves who gather
as we gather, who take wine
wineglass, cutting board and bread
before the window-lit climes of the city.
the streets thrum below us with their ebb
and flow. let’s drink to the waves
we can’t see but feel incessantly
against the window’s glass; the tide
subsiding beneath the mass of steel and concrete
don’t ask what savagery
or tenderness, what thousand lives
have brought her life and mine together. the sands
of Troy are clotted by the blood
of men, killing and killed for Helen’s beauty—
when she’s mine again
and the great ships set sail and the fire
and feast are done, the snow’s ashes descend
on the cars parked and departing. what ruins we leave
we never leave behind.
the girl with the many-colored braids
replies: love leaves no ruins. she, barefooted,
who dances in the scarab’s eye with enameled hair
and lips. she leaps over the leaping seas.
love leaves no monuments, she says, no cold
command or shattered torsos sinking, sinking
into the desert sands.
a cracked tin pail
locked in ice beneath the barn light catches
the snow and roundabout the bottom where
the tin is welded, rust has rusted through;
and were there anyone to pick it up
the bottom, where the raindrops drum, would fall
into the mud.
the girl who dances, dances
in rusty pails and with the singing rails
of streetcars. some nights the river walks
among the signs and storefronts, and streaks
the watery roads with lampposts; the evergreens
with its twisting gray ribbons. some nights walking
along the river bank, the waters move
in leaden contemplation, darkly indifferent
to what reflects.
the girl who dances, dances
among the shock of willows and her hair
is rapturous as the water-witch. love leaves
no ruins, she says. love builds no edifice
of glass or stone but beats the drum of flesh
let go the finch’s cry, the cry
of root and mud; the stench of earthen growth
out of the ruinous sludge, and from the soil
the berries of the spindle tree, but
the berries—colored like the girl’s lips—
are poisonous to taste or kiss. do you see
the purple shadows drip and pool beneath
the yellow birch?
She’s dancing in an orange
and yellow skirt. she won’t answer where
she goes. The rain has turned to snow; the bus
pulls out into the afterglow of brakes
I’ve seen her out among
the cattails, dancing in a rusty pail,
but don’t believe me. I’ll lie for beauty,
I’ll burn the city to the ground; the sands
To sheets of glass. I’ll pull the towers down,
I’ll throw the pail into the trash—the rusted pail.
The snow has turned to ash.
the sun’s still not gone down
and out the bedroom window is the laundry,
the wind billows in the sail of sleeves
and lifted backs as though the clothes and bedsheets
pulled the world after them into
the distant waters—the world’s dark waters
that edge a summer’s field with starlight. we are
ourselves our passion’s ruins. I say
To her, the downspout buckled, maybe
tomorrow I’ll replace it. I’ve waited
so long to mow that now the tall grass flounders under
the heady weight of seed.
I stand outside the store.
a bookstore looking in.
the woman walking through the door
is what it’s like in Berlin—
always wondering where she’s been.
to think that even while I’m writing,
I’m already gone;
that for a little while, delighting
here and there in song
I’ve been vanishing all along.
as I was saying to her, before the iron brawling
of the streetcar interrupted us,
the yellow streetcar that follows
the preordained rails through the cobblestone streets:
as I was saying: let us be naked side
by side. there’s nothing better or as truthful.
let us lie together and let us lie. there’s nothing otherwise
to make sense of.
Patrick Gillespie | March 17th 2021
Quintet in C D. 956
Note: I continue to tweak this poem so, until I update my reading, the reading will reflect the original version.
How discretely she arranges
her porcelain figurines
in 18th century skirts; with cheeks
like amorous tangerines.
What if, between their thighs, beneath
the lace and filigree
there were sculpted just a touch
But let's discuss the weather.
The crumpets are divine.
She says: 'I baked them just this morning.
The recipe is mine.'
'I wonder if I could,' I say,
'if I were short of yeast
or flour— Could I skimp a little?
Would it matter in the least?'
'On no, my dear, leave out no detail!
The recipe's exact.
I'll know if there's been skimping but,
as mother always said—"Tact."'
Recipes | March 2nd 2023 by Me
I’m currently working on a separate poem and this one snuck its way in. Enjoy.
After unloading on Modernism I felt—guilt. What boorish behavior, I said to myself. Why can’t you just get along? Why can’t you be like Edward Hirsch? He just published The Heart of American Poetry, where he writes “deeply personal readings of forty essential American poems we thought we knew… exploring how these poems have sustained his own life and how they might uplift our diverse but divided nation.” Why do I find this insufferable? How am I any less insufferable? Instead of my blog nourishing our diverse and thriving ‘community of poets‘, I oil my axe. Even here in Vermont, I pick fights with former Vermont poet laureates—and in the local paper no less. I guess I enjoy blood-letting. In the clash of arms there’s more to be learned about poetry (for me) but probably not for the vast majority of readers who prefer to simply enjoy poetry, not dispute it. Robert Frost once wrote that “No sweeter music can come to my ears than the clashofarmsovermy dead body.” Same here.
That got me thinking, why am I like this?
The answer, strictly in terms of poetry, is that I might be more like Ezra Pound than not. Pound had little patience for the generation of poets preceding him, and neither do I. I find little to admire in the poetry of the latter 20th century. Like him, for better or worse, I have opinions about how poetry should be written. For Pound, the aesthetics of Georgian poets made him grind his teeth. He struck out anything resembling it from Eliot’s The Waste Land. Britannica has the following to say of Georgian poetics:
~ …taken as a whole, much of the Georgians’ work was lifeless. It took inspiration from the countryside and nature, and in the hands of less gifted poets, the resulting poetry was diluted and middlebrow conventional verse of late Romantic character. “Georgian” came to be a pejorative term, used in a sense not intended by its progenitors: rooted in its period and looking backward rather than forward.
Pound played his part in that characterization. When Frost came to England, he said he had ‘come to the land of The Golden Treasury. That is what I came for.’ Pound referred to that same anthology as ‘that stinking sugar teat’. Pound’s objections to Georgian Poetry were both political, he bristled at their insular British imperialism, and aesthetic—what he perceived as their roots in Victorian verse and sensibility. Interestingly, when Poetry’s Harriet Monro planned the series of anthologies called Georgian Poetry, she originally meant to include poems by Frost and Pound. They were excluded at the last minute when Edward Marsh decided to keep the anthology a purely British anthology. That might have contributed to Pound’s contempt, but his aesthetic differences were nonetheless very real.
If it’s possible to set aside Pound’s antisemitism, which TS Eliot shared by the way, and Fascist collaborating; if it’s possible to consider his ambitions and inestimable generosity in isolation (to writers and poets including Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot, Yeats, and Robert Frost) then I admire him as a poet. Even if the execution of his vision was flawed, The Waste Land wouldn’t exist in its current form without him. To quote Hollis, who was referencing Hemingway, “He witnessed their wills and he loaned his own money, and encouraged in each of them a fortitude for life. ‘And in the end,” said Hemingway, “a few of them refrain from knifing him at the first opportunity.'” [p. 319, The Waste Land, A Biography of a Poem]. He had an eye for greatness in other poets and writers, and knew where to find it even when the writers themselves didn’t. Pound didn’t accomplish what he did by writing glowing encomiums. He picked fights. He made enemies. While there’s a place for those who think every poem is precious, I like the Pounds of the world. I’m of the mind, as I’ve written before, that it’s the responsibility of every generation to smash the sacred icons of the generation before. There hasn’t been enough of that in my opinion. Despite the unqualified praise that has anthologized many latter 20th century poets—they’ve produced little that holds a candle to Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Cummings, etc… Freed by an elder generation from the conventions and mannerisms of the 19th century, they turned modernism into their own mannered conventions. There are latter 20th century poets who stand out, but they aren’t, by any stretch, among the great poets.
So maybe this post is partly to further clarify what I wrote in Matthew Hollis & the death of The Waste Land. I meant, not the death of The Waste Land, but the death of the mannered and conventional poetics that grew from its example. I like and admire the modernist poets. The Waste Land itself, along with a number of other poems by Eliot, rank among the very greatest. Pound, on the other hand, was no Eliot. His Cantos fail the test of first rate poetry but, to his credit, he was truly original and was attempting a poetry equal to his vision. In my show of penitence, I decided to finally buy my own copy of the Cantos (the full text is available online). And it was this copy that spurred this post.
The book was discarded by the Chandler/Gilbert Library in Arizona. What made me feel like I ought to revisit Ezra was the due date slip. The book was only checked out once, due back on April 24th 1990. The book was printed in 1986. So, arguably, the book was only read/checked-out once during its 37 years at the library. Pound himself recognized the inaccessibility of the Cantos and worried that his poetry would be forgotten (despite Eliot’s reassurances). Inasmuch as Pound himself is integral to the story of modernist poetry, his own writings won’t be forgotten. But they may be seldom read. The same fate awaits most, if not all, of the better known poets of the latter 20th century.
I also picked up Pound’s Personæ, an original hard cover printed in 1926. More of my making amends.
There’s a rugged quality to Pound’s versification that I like, despite or because of his contradictory predilection for archaic grammar and poeticisms—thees and thous, hasts and haths, -ests and -eths. And yet it can work. I like it most of all in his poem, The Seafarer. The idiosyncrasies of Pound’s versification feel perfectly suited to the rugged and ancient Anglo-Saxon he was translating. It is, frankly, a breath of fresh air next to the generic and characterless versification of contemporary free verse. Pound left off, as he called it, the “platitudinous address to the Deity” which, some argue, was added later by a separate author. My own opinion is that the Christian moralizing of the final third are nothing like the first two thirds of the poem. They possess none of the evocative poetry but read like the self-satisfied bloviating of a third rate theologian. You can read a complete modern translation here. Pound was right to omit the final lines, in my opinion. Based on the quality of the poetry and the complete shift in tone, it’s hard to imagine that the poem, as we have it now, is by a single author. My own completely evidence-free speculation is that the original Anglo-Saxon Seafarer concluded with a possibly similar but more secular, if not ambivalent, note. The original poetry certainly would have been much better. But this was entirely inadequate to the sensibilities of some secondary author who couldn’t resist closing the poem with a pompous and aphoristic sermon—much like the prim Victorians who loved nothing better than a closing moral. If I’m correct, then the secondary author probably also touched up earlier portions of the poem. Pound was having none of it.
May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet’s clamour,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews' singing all my mead-drink.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy.
This he little believes, who aye in winsome life
Abides ’mid burghers some heavy business,
Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft
Must bide above brine.
Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,
Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then
Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now
The heart's thought that I on high streams
The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.
Moaneth alway my mind’s lust
That I fare forth, that I afar hence
Seek out a foreign fastness.
For this there’s no mood-lofty man over earth’s midst,
Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed;
Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful
But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare
Whatever his lord will.
He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having
Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world's delight
Nor any whit else save the wave's slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing.
Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying,
He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow,
The bitter heart's blood. Burgher knows not —
He the prosperous man — what some perform
Where wandering them widest draweth.
So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock,
My mood ’mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale’s acre, would wander wide.
On earth’s shelter cometh oft to me,
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly,
O'er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow
My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land, I believe not
That any earth-weal eternal standeth
Save there be somewhat calamitous
That, ere a man’s tide go, turn it to twain.
Disease or oldness or sword-hate
Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body.
And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after —
Laud of the living, boasteth some last word,
That he will work ere he pass onward,
Frame on the fair earth ’gainst foes his malice,
Daring ado, ...
So that all men shall honour him after
And his laud beyond them remain ’mid the English,
Aye, for ever, a lasting life’s-blast,
Delight mid the doughty.
Days little durable,
And all arrogance of earthen riches,
There come now no kings nor Cæsars
Nor gold-giving lords like those gone.
Howe’er in mirth most magnified,
Whoe’er lived in life most lordliest,
Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!
Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.
Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low.
Earthly glory ageth and seareth.
No man at all going the earth’s gait,
But age fares against him, his face paleth,
Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions,
Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven,
Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart,
And though he strew the grave with gold,
His born brothers, their buried bodies
Be an unlikely treasure hoard.
Pound’s translation, or transliteration, can’t be beat. His archaisms somehow perfectly capture the flavor of the source. In some ways the poem itself reminds me of Tennyson’s Ulysses. Maybe the original Anglo-Saxon, if there was an original, ended somewhat like Tennyson’s poem. “No man at all going the earth’s gait, But age fares against him,” Then better for the seafarer to return to the sea, to strive, to dream and to perish in his “self song’s truth” than in a grave strewn with gold. There is no treasure hoard but to live life to the fullest. Maybe I’ll write that ending myself.
I’m still reading, at my slow pace, Hollis’s book The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, which gets mixed reviews (from me). Hollis spends at least half, if not more, of Part I discussing Ezra Pound and his poetry. And yes, Pound’s editing was essential to the development of The Waste Land, but Hollis’s discussion of Pound fails to elucidate his editorial process or, really, The Waste Land itself. Hollis seems to assume that discussing Pound and his poetry is enough, but it’s not. One could start the book on Page 219 (Part II of the book), where Hollis actually begins his “biography” of the poem, and the book wouldn’t horribly suffer. The first 218 pages are largely scene setting and, of that, the same could have possibly been accomplished with a third as many pages. We don’t need to know how much Eliot paid for rent, how many times the water swept over the estuaries of Bosham Channel, what Virginia thought of Vivien, or who attended this or that boozy dinner party.
But here’s what really struck me about the book (and I in no way dispute The Waste Land’s greatness), it reads less like a centenary celebration of the poem and more like an unwitting elegy to the era. When I read Pound’s poetry, especially his poetry, and the development of the modernist aesthetic, it all strikes me as tired and exhausted. We’ve lived in the fallout of the modernists all our lives. And sure, Pound wrote a handful of anthologizable poems, but so did any number of serviceable poets in the centuries prior to Pound. Pound was nothing exceptional in that respect. And yes, Pound was an original poet. His Cantos were original. His poetic ideas were original. But originality, as the 20th century has amply demonstrated, isn’t enough. By no stretch of the imagination are the Cantos a first rate poetic achievement. They’re the uneven product of a troubled visionary. There are moments of rigor and beauty, but also the banal masked by inaccessibility.
We’re almost a quarter of the way through the 21st century and modern poetry is still largely 20th century poetry—and it’s exhausted. One senses a public desperate for poets to move on, to let go of the 20th century and its facile conflation of “difficulty” with originality, depth and artistic worth. Think of Rupi Kauer’s poetry. Think of it as minimalist poetry—as if all the junk and excess of 20th century poetry had finally been jettisoned from the living room. And think of her incredible success! Consider how strange that Mary Oliver’s poetry, the most successful and widely read of the latter 20th century, still needs defending while John Ashbery’s poetry, with only a fraction of the readership, is already published in the Library of America. While he was still writing! The difference is that Oliver didn’t write the “difficult” poetry that is still consistently favored by poets, academics and critics. As the New Yorker puts it:
~ By any measure, Oliver is a distinguished and important poet. She published her first collection, “No Voyage and Other Poems,” in 1963, when she was twenty-eight; “American Primitive,” her fourth full-length book, won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1984, and “New and Selected Poems” won the National Book Award, in 1992. Still, perhaps because she writes about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God—she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics. None of her books has received a full-length review in the Times. In the Times’ capsule review of “Why I Wake Early” (2004), the nicest adjective the writer, Stephen Burt, could come up with for her work was “earnest.” What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand
The difference is that the editors (and poets) who decide these things have a stake in exalting the aesthetics of the last hundred years (themselves being acolytes of modernism and its various offshoots—Acmeism, Imagism, Free verse, Futurism, Objectivism, Dada, Postmodernism, Surrealism). But one gets the feeling that they’re at war with 21st century readers. Readers read poets like Oliver and Kauer in the millions all while being subtly (and not so subtly) told that the great poets are the “difficult” poets—poets they have little interest in reading. There’s a clear disconnect. That’s okay if you’re an artist, have a canvass to sell, and can auction it off to the 1%. If success is defined as living off your creative work, then artists optionally don’t have to care whether the general public likes their work. They only have to appeal to a narrow coterie of critics, taste-makers and the auction house. Poets don’t have that luxury.
But really, getting back to The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem— It’s the exhaustion. It’s how Pound and Eliot’s novel ideas, to me, sound spent and worn out. The last hundred years have run their innovations into the ground—along with being misunderstood. When poets lacked the talent to make their subject matter new, they turned from content to medium. “Make it new” meant hiding mediocrity behind a veneer of “difficulty”—the pointless obscurities, the superficial complexities in verse and language, the vapid “profundity” signaled by abstruse and obscure allusions. Joyce recognized the academic appeal of “difficulty” when he wrote that Finnegan’s Wake would “keep the critics busy for 300 years.” He perfectly understood his audience. Think of academia as a secret society and academics as the high Priests of inaccessible 20th century texts. Only through them, their books and their classes, can the keys to the obscure text be found. Is it any wonder they champion these texts? Do you want the keys to Pound’s Cantos? Then how about A Companion to the Cantos by Carroll F. Terrell, Pound’s Cantos Declassified by Philip Furia, A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, Revised Edition, by William Cookson, etc… Without their keys the Cantos are inaccessible to even the most sophisticated reader. They would have to speak multiple languages and simultaneously be familiar with extensive biographical trivia concerning Pound’s life and times. But it’s in the interest of a variety of editors, critics, and poets to give the impression that literature is great when and because it’s difficult. It’s their livelihood after all. But one wonders when the 20th century will end for poetry? Maybe we’ll know when it no longer feels necessary to write New Yorker articles defending a poet who was the most successful of her generation from critics championing poets who remain among the least successful of their generation.
you should know,
I only meant to recite
a poem of love and gratitude,
but seeing you tonight?
forgive the weather
that pinches buds into cries
of burst leaves—for the runoff
between April’s thighs.
February 1st 2021
Alongside all my other projects, I’m working on pulling together a collection of erotic haiku and poems. Thought I’d post some along the way. I want to write one erotic poem for each week of the year—many already written. This is part of an effort to gradually collect all my writings in one place. These for my belovèd muse, Erato, the muse of the erotic, poetry and lyric poetry.
As I edit North of Autumn, I thought I’d put all the novel’s poems in one place. I previously posted them as I wrote them. North of Autumn is written in the same universe as Tiny House Big Mountain. The latter is on its way to being published by Raw Earth Ink. I also added readings of the poems. Reading the poems is my favorite part, but also what I’m never satisfied with. Now, having them all together, I want to write more hymn meter. Also (adding this after having published the post) I didn’t include the poem Haute Couture, which I wrote for the novel but decided not to use.
Whatever rakes the attic floor,
There won't be any ghost;
And if there's scratching at your door,
A gust of leaves at most.
Though I may whisper my good-byes,
Who hears the Thrush's song,
Who's seen which way the Raven flies
Will never stay for long.
I'll have crossed the fresh-laid snow
And left no trace behind;
The summers that I used to know
Will since have slipped my mind.
Life is itself enough to scare
The living half to death,
No need for supernatural fare
To steal away our breath.
P.S. - Hymn #7
Each element best mends itself
When human beings have erred—
Metal is with metal welded
And clay with clay repaired
But tell me when the last word's spoken—
If this is how we end it—
Tell me when the heart is broken
What element will mend it?
The morning glories may mistake
Whatever wall they try
And in their slow mistaking take
A window for the sky.
They press against the glass and reason
They touch the celestial sphere
(Above Earth’s evanescent season
Divinity is near).
How strange and unaccountable
Is heaven to these flowers—
My indoors unpronounceable
And foreign to their hours.
As if I were a deity
They watch me come and go,
Their guileless spontaneity
More God-like than they know.
These flowers searching the sidereal
For something like perfection
Might almost witness the ethereal
Yet miss their own reflection.
Hymn #9 - The Morning Glories
You mostly needn’t guess
(Or second guess) the season,
You know it more or less:
You know it by the spider
Fattened on the addled flies.
They crowd September’s cider.
And if the weather’s terse
And fitful then it’s likely
April; yet suppose this verse
Is buried under snow?
Your guess is good as mine.
Vermont. You never know.
Every year it’s touch and go.
If despite your hurry
You pause just long enough
To momentarily query
The verses here and there,
You next may ask yourself
If poems aren’t everywhere?—
If maybe all along
(And even by a sidewalk)
There wasn’t always song?
And though that may be true,
It’s true because all poetry
Is truthfully in you.
Two Sidewalk Poems
Cosima Lia Tilden
Died Dec 15 1893
in þe 73d
yr of her age.
Here lies a piece of Earth
That for a little while
Was all my joy & worth
Heaven in her smile
A world of love & mirth
All was ours in a brief square mile.
Forgive me if I'm worse for wear.
There's nothing I've to show
For writing poetry here and there.
One should take care, I know—
The ant instructs us patiently—
The winter will be long—
But where would summer's evenings be
Without the cricket's song?
Hymn #14 - Fables
Odysseus, wily navigator, you
Who have endured a thousand harborless sorrows,
I too have suffered.
I, being sent to launder
Your mistress’s apparel in the river
Or often, by myself, to bring from orchards
A desired olive, fig or grape, was also
Betrayed by those you’ve slain—made by them
A slave to slaves—my vessel desecrated
My lading mired and diminished, sorted
With weeds and brackish waters—yet for that
Odysseus, wily navigator—
Tell him, your minstrel with the wine stained fingers
Who sings of wayward tides, of witches, Gods
And far-flung isles, that I was also lost
Longing for home who had no home to search for;
And tell your songster in your rage you snared
My sisters by one rope between a pillar
And dome; and that we were together lifted,
Each beside the other, nooses round
Our necks until our feet no longer touched
The earth—the knots tight as a luthier’s string.
Tell your songster, though he sings of you
To tell of the twelve girls who were like
Thrushes that spread their wings to fly at last
But could not. Though struggling, we only breathed
To take another dying breath—our agony
Tell him: ‘Sing of girls, of slaves
To slaves, who twitched a little while but not
For long; whose rags were left behind, bone broken
And creaking in the winds of Ithaca.”
Tell him that we waited to be lain
Among the corpses we ourselves had carried
From the blood-soaked hall.
So long as sings your minstrel,
Odysseus, so long will fly from us
The last syllable of our breath: that far
From Ithaca, cries of murder, bloodshed
And vengeance—where the grass at evening shivers
In sea-spray and the noiseless spider sifts
The wind—was seen a startled thrush that cried out,
Took flight above the drumming waters, even
Above the dissolution of the air,
Into the spreading fingers of the Milky Way.
The seasons do not tabulate
The yearly gross and net,
And neither do they contemplate
What quotas go unmet.
The endless inefficiencies
Give reason to be worried
(There's no escaping winter's fees)
Yet dreams will not be hurried.
The dreary mind cannot affirm
What nature testifies—
The paltry labor of the worm
Hymn #8 Butterflies
I otherwise would hardly write
(These poems are hit or miss)
But here I sit, alone tonight,
Still thinking of your kiss.
Just so you know, a storm came through;
The garden is a mess.
You ought to see the honeydew.
They're floating more or less.
The melons drift from row to row,
And peas are here and there.
Don't bother asking if I know
Which vegetables are where.
But I can tell you either way
The melons are delicious,
The flesh— so cool, so sweet. To say
Much more would be seditious.
I washed the dirt from some tomatoes;
Diced and tossed them in
With several waterlogged potatoes—
(The soup's a little thin).
The weather teaches us, I guess,
What is and isn't ours—
But have I mentioned, nonetheless,
How beautiful the stars?
Thursday’s Letter Hymn # 17
I've seen the threadbare eyes of women
Their longing turned to doubt.
They pass me by like shrouds, these women,
Who've looked too deeply out.
I've watched the speechless men go by;
Their loose and tattered frames.
I've watched—beyond repair—these men
With their forgotten names.
If nothing else then know that some,
Depending where they dwell,
Would trade all heaven's angels singing
For just one kiss in hell.
Hymn #3 - Threadbare
I’m told they finally closed the bridge.
It’s for the season. I don’t mind it closed.
Autumn is the time of year a tree
Will make her apron from the leaves she scatters;
And neat and tidy as a pin she’ll strew
The self-same skirt with fruits and nuts. The shame
Is when her labor’s swept into a ditch
Her summer lost to all the traffic’s coming
Were the brook to drown the bridge
As she’s been threatening to for forty years
I’d be as pleased to see it gone. And sure
I’d have to go by Hodge’s into town.
Old Hodge! Such stories as he liked to tell!
He’s since long gone but I remember how
My mother scolded him from time to time.
She’d ask him. ‘Stealing berries from your neighbor?
No fields of your own?’
‘Too shaded,’ he’d say.
And then she’d answer, ‘Cut down all those Hemlocks!
And why not plant your berries there?
He’d answer with a wink my ways. ‘Someday
They’ll up and go all by themselves. You’ll see.’
And I being just a little girl saw how
They could and straightaway that night I dreamt
Just past midnight came a gust
That shook the windowpanes. I sat upright
Or dreamt I did. When one’s so young life’s anyhow
A half-remembered dream.
I looked straight out
The window where I saw the further ridge
And Hodge’s Hemlocks quaking top to bottom.
I slipped from bed and tip-toed to the sill
And leaned with nose and elbows. There was not
The slightest breeze and yet the Hemlocks teetered
And tottered down the ridge the way we used to
Before electric came—when all we had
Was balancing a candle in one hand
And the other out before us all the same.
They slipped into the hollow; not just Hemlock,
But birch and Sugar Maple followed.
They swayed into my dooryard just as though
They’d been there all along. Next there was a tapping
As of a bony finger at the window
As might a neighbor come by casually
To say ‘Hello’. And what with all their reeling
And almost falling down, there were everywhere
Acorns, pine cones, twigs and whirligigs
And apples that swung like rusty bells whose tongues
Had since gone dry and shriveled.
What was I?
Six? Seven? I thought nothing more than straight
Undo the latch and open up the window.
I meant to let them in and in they came—
The sprung and rickety articulation,
The lean, long-fingered limbs. They combed and lifted
My hair, and poked and plucked and pinched my nightgown
(And by my nightgown picked me up). I held
My blanket sailing round me as I spun
From limb to limb. Their plaint timbers groaned
And popped as though the ocean rolled beneath them.
Their roots like prying thumbs dismantled obstacles:
They sent the stones from stone walls tumbling down
And knocked the stooks out of their rows and columns.
Sure as I stand and talk to you today
I still can feel the ribbing tips of sticks
Like fingertips, the sticking scent of pine,
The papery slough of the birch and wild vine
Against the skin. They took me from the dooryard
Into the wooded valley where the brook
Runs leisurely; where oftentimes I’d look
For Marigold and Summersweet. You might say
The child taking home the buds of May—
The firstlings of the season—was no different
Than were the woods returned to take the child
Straight from her house into the wild. By rights
It’s just the same.
They set me barefoot
On the leaf and needle covered floor.
I turned a little circle as I pulled
My blanket into something like a hood
(As if to hide). The scent of petrichor
Was in the air. I peeked; they gawked at me.
They stood like giants stooping low as if
To better see the girl they’d snatched away
(Tiny as I was). And then it seemed
That they’d decided. First to do was take
My blanket. You would hardly think a Thornapple
Could be so delicate and yet it was.
And then the others took to prodding me
Until I’d lifted up my arms and stretched them straight
To either side. They circled me like tailors,
I in their fitting room.
You’ll want to know
Just what the forest wanted. To tell the truth,
I know as little now as then. The best
I ever do is simply tell the story—
How if there were a spider’s web between
The aspen’s limbs, a birch would twirl it away:
She’d wind a yarn to weave into my braids
With Fleabane’s petals at my shoulder blades;
How when the Willow brought the cattail’s leaf
The Popple made me wristlets and a sash;
And as I waited came the Cherry Tree
To daub my lips with Hobble Bush (Witch-Hobble
Its hereabouts called). To think that they would stain
A girl’s lips with that!
You might have thought
The late September’s wind had riled them—splayed
A hundred limbs into a thousand fingers
Grasping at their leaves before they fell,
But this was no haphazard storm or season
For soon as they had daubed my lips and cheeks
They made me sandals for my feet—tied with cords
Of knotted grass—and lastly wove a crown
Of honeysuckle vine and the silk of Thistledown.
A train of dragonflies attended me
With ruby wings and emerald eyes—they circled
As if I were the Fearie Queen and they
My courtiers. Then the forest made no sound
Apart from here and there the leaf, the stick or fruit
That fell or struck the ground.
I’ve since been told
That old marble, the moon, went tumbling down;
Hodge’s jenny jumped the neighbor’s fence
And quarreled with the goose. The wind went nibbling
At every door and window so bedeviling
The weather vane that wakened ghosts ran riot
Knowing neither which way to heaven nor which
To hell. Their cold and bristling exhalations
Struck all they touched with frost, and passing by
Turned raincoats inside out. Shutters banged
And barn doors howled on swung and worried hinges;
Roof shingles clamored for a hold. The owl
Swallowed the mouse—the whiskers first and then
The whip of tail. Its yellow eyes surveyed
The farm yard’s squalor as the cat went dripping
Like licorice through the split and missing teeth
Of hemlock planks. That was the night to close
The bulkhead lest the cellar’s belly fill
With leaves and rain. Some thought the dish and spoon
Might finally run away and others, with
The mortise cracking in the attic, thought
The house elves, who steal from our kitchens,
Tapped back in place the oaken pegs worked loose
By the wind and weather. They’re the elves who snatch
A tea-leaf from the cupboard, so little
That you or I would never notice, steeped
Where dewdrops gather on the rosebud’s lip—
So slight a cup!—a hummingbird in turn
Might rob the petal if they’re quick enough.
I’ve seen it done. But none went out that night
Who needn’t go. There was only just
Myself, a wide-eyed girl, who danced with Dogwood,
Larch and Sugar Maple. I was passed
From each to each with little pirouettes.
They lightly held my hand above my head;
And while I spun I lifted up the hem
Of my pajamas just the way a Lady
Might hold the corner of her gown while dancing.
It airily tumbled as I hopped and skipped.
My heels made spirals, my toes made ringlets, round
And round I went. How grown and ladylike
I felt! I nodded graciously and bowed
And curtsied. They kept their rugged rhythm.
They thumped their hollow trunks and clapped their sticks
And with their sticks made melodies.
Had there been anyone to wander by,
Would have seemed to them to bend and sway
According to the weather. A gale
Of leaves and then another just before
The lightning crackled in the understory
And stood my hair on end. The dancing faltered.
I lifted my pajamas to my knees
And scurried to my blanket. Here and there
A raindrop stamped the earth with a flowering splash
Of dust and water. Then, as if decided
To pay no mind, a Honey-locust nudged me
To dance some more. But just like that the lightning
Struck like a thistle’s lash across the sky
And turned the bowl of water upside down.
The rain fell down in sheets.
‘No!’ I cried.
‘No! Take me home!’ The forest pricked and pinched me.
‘Let me go!’ I cried.
I tried to hide.
I pulled my blanket tightly round my shoulders
And would have run away but stumbled—
The rolling acorns bruised my heels and needles
Poked between my toes. ‘I want to go—!“
But then stopped short of crying ‘—home!’. An Oak tree
Appeared, its hollow like a yawning mouth,
The vines of wild grape among its roots
As though the old Oak trailed an ancient beard.
The woods made way until the great tree stood giant-like
Above me. I held my blanket to my eyes
When with the thumb and finger of its branches
It picked me up by my pajamas (pinched
Between my shoulder blades). I kicked and flailed
Above its gaping hollow when straightaway
It dropped me. Down I fell into the maw
And down into the endless dark, falling and falling—
Myself a piece of autumn.
I closed my eyes
At first; but feeling only weightlessness
I slowly opened them again. I saw
The tiniest light that seemed both far away
And close enough to touch. All else forgotten,
I reached. I almost touched before a moth
Took flight. It fluttered round me, through my fingers,
Flew away and back again before
I’d cupped my hands. And just as moths will do
It zigzagged fitfully until it landed.
How beautiful it was! The moth shown through
And through with light. Another fluttered round me
And then another. If I fell or floated
I couldn’t say. I turned and tumbled slowly
And held my hands out as the moths glittered, faery-like,
Between my fingers and then dragonflies
And even leaves, all lighted like the moths,
Joined me. I was like a little planet
And they the stars accompanying me through darkness—
The endless night.
And then I cried aloud!
I landed on my bed! The comforter
And pillows burst. The air above was filled
With feathers just as if the moths, the dragonflies
And leaves had all along been angels. They’d scattered,
As suddenly perplexed as I was.
By little I began to hear again
The household sounds of open windows.
The pop and stutter of their hinges. The storm
Had passed me by. I watched the ghostly curtains
That neither came nor went. They moved in moonlight
And moonlight glittered on the floor. I went
Barefooted where the rainfall pooled and drew
A chair behind me.
Still not tall enough,
I stood on tip-toes once again to reach
The window latch. A trailing gusts of rain
Confused the glass. I thought I saw the Hemlocks,
If only through the momentary blur.
I thought they bobbed and sunk into the earth
Needles were between my toes
And there were acorns in my bed. I picked
A cocklebur out of my sheets and here
And there were petals slipping from my hair.
Into the WoodsAs told by Mrs. Agnus Merryweather of Brookway, Vermont
I’ve seen them sometimes out alone,
Out walking roads too late
For any business but their own—
Lost to what they contemplate.
I’ve seen as they have seen: the grim,
The few remaining rags
Of autumn strung from the black limb,
How every hour lags.
I too, without a place to go
And nothing to my name,
Have wandered through the rain and snow
And would have said the same:
There’s only guessing at what may
Or may not come tomorrow,
But I have seen enough today
To know the taste of sorrow.
Hymn #7 - Sorrow
I know better than to say:
Give no thought to when.
There’s nothing to wish the ache away,
But that we’ll meet again.
Give to the intervening hours
As much as absence takes
But nothing more—our love is ours;
And the bonds affection makes.
To you alone the keys
Who, friend and lover, part;
To you the secret codices
And chambers of my heart.
Ellie’s HymnAs written in the notebooks of Ellie Tydan, mother of Zoē Tydan.
Even now how easy to believe
The earth the whole of nature, to see
Creation’s handiwork within the tidy
Summation of an acre – imagining
The sun and planets strung like ornaments
From a great cathedral’s vaulted ceiling
Where angels gaze as longingly at us
As we at them as if through some half-understood
But there is nothing
As we imagined it. No cogged invention
Tugs the earth or wheels the day toward night.
In place of machination
The world’s motion is expressible
By nothing more than floats the leaf to earth.
After creation’s calamity
The stars still fall from the shaken tree—
We with the sun (our slate of worlds with us)
And the sun itself—a billion years
Falling through the Milky Way, itself
A billion suns among the infinite billions
Yet pick a stone to look at,
The seed and blade of grass. Suppose
An atom were to you an earth. You’d see
Another world as seemingly divisible—
As if there were a stone inside the stone,
As if within the leaf another leaf
Subsided, slipping to an Earth too small
To be perceived—an infinite library
Of worlds containing worlds within them—as if
However intricate our contemplation,
Whatever grandeur we imagine, wonder
Begets wonder as though there were no boundary
To breadth or diminution.
Someday we tally every particle
Of dust? Suppose the ending and beginning
There still will be the plumb,
The sweeter being yours and mine; there still
Will be your eyes, as blue as plumbs and green
As oceans. Give to me an afternoon
To walk with you through cinquefoil fields;
A summer’s night to count the fireflies
Beneath the acrobatic moon; a day to pocket
The sparrow’s song; to bring the skipping winds
Of April by. If all that’s granted us
Is here and there a little acre, let’s gather,
While we can, the brome grass and the lavender,
And bind them to a kitchen rafter. There
Their paint can dry and there their leaves and petals
Can fall, of those that do, to stipple shadows
By the door; what if there’s an acre
Inside the petal?—a kitchen like our own?—
Or just like ours, a dooryard’s locusts black
With rain, their shoots and branches pitched across
The road and sidewalk? Let none belittle
Out little rooms, our worlds within the world,
Or that we keep in them our finite wares,
Like children loving what they love because
It’s theirs. But if, in the immensity
Of all we know, we only truly know
Each other, let the cogged invention turn,
The springs unwind that daily vault the sun
And moon into the sky, no telescope
Will ever put to chart your heart or mine,
Where blood and love combine. There’s no equation
Suffices to explain desire. What drives
The leaf to clutch the air, its roots to anchor
In the mire and crumbling bones of broken days
May be too much to ask—the blossom
Its only answer. Let there be the angels;
The oceanic blossoming of stars
To nightly answer the world’s shambolic beauty;
Let’s kiss before the kitchen’s petal wilts
~ by me, Patrick Gillespie Jan 25th 2023
This poem was begun about ten years ago, and was written through to the third stanza. Like Pascal, I never knew what to write after “no boundary to breadth or diminution“. After my second novel was done, I decided to finish it. The final stanza beginning “There still will be the plumb” offers, to me, some of the most beautiful blank verse I’ve written, not just in the sense of language and imagery, but the balance it strikes between sentence and blank verse structure. I didn’t just want the lines to keep the meter but the line breaks themselves to make sense. There’s also internal rhyme, which I’ve been increasingly enjoying. The opening stanzas take some liberties with blank verse, and that’s deliberate. There are more short lines, anapests, epic caesuras, headless and broken-backed lines. For years I did what most poets do when writing structured verse. I wanted to prove that I could follow the rules. Now I’m experimenting with it and putting my own stamp on it. The poem is inspired by a passage from Thoughts, by Blaise Pascal. The translation comes from the book of the cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking; and in this book the passage is entitled “The Eternal Silence of These Infinite Spaces”. The opening stanzas follow, somewhat closely, Pascal’s own observations and rhetoric. The final stanza isn’t meant to offer a solution to Pascal’s existential despair (that might be too strong a word) but does answer him to a degree.
you’ll sit across from me saying
similes explain the human
condition—we can never be ourselves
but only like ourselves (though some of us
ascend to metaphor).
at first I won’t
know what the hell you’re talking about
(and maybe never). what does it even mean
to be like ourselves if we’re not already
ourselves? but I’ll agree because
even if the meaning isn’t self-
evident, profundity is implied; and you
will likely remind me of girlfriends
I used to drive cross-country with (their
bare legs lifted, their feet out the passenger side
window V’d like the winged heels of a Greek
Goddess, ankles crossed on the rear view mirror)—
when all I could think about
was the intoxication of a girl’s bare feet
in an 80 mph air stream; and you might say:
that’s the way it is to be a barefooted
girl—always that 80 mph wind licking your feet
until the tank runs out of gas
until the sun runs down the sky, until she finds
herself landed barefoot on the sun-cracked
asphalt of a seedy, run down
motel where the parking shines with glass
ground to glitter after God knows how many bottles
but afterward in bed,
I know, it won’t be me she remembers
but the 80 mph hour wind like fingers
at her ankles that, if they could have, would
have parted her thighs and you
have no idea or, knowing you, you do,
what an 80 mph wind can do to the imagination
(or a hippy sundress); but anyway, we didn’t even
get that far because she’d say something like,
‘we can only ever be like ourselves
never ourselves,’ or she’d say,
‘all men ever want to do is fuck me’
and Christ, I’d want to say, is that so much
to ask? and before the end of the road trip she’d
be hitchhiking to LA and
I’d be broken down in Wichita.
maybe you’re wishing you were in LA too?
I have that effect on chicks like you.
and by the way I expect
you’re the type who reads the rhymes
in a toilet stall. goddamn those people
know how to write—artists and poets all.
and know damned well who their audience is
and where to find them.
I wouldn’t be surprised
if you came back from that temple
of runes and oghams reciting
what omen was given you to give the masses:
women drinking booze
talk of dicks and new tattoos
and that has me asking if there shouldn’t be
a comparative lit course in men’s and women’s
toilet stalls; and anyway what happened
to you and rhyming? is nobody singing you the blues?
do you really think if Keats had to choose
between you and Fanny Brawne,
you’d stand a chance if she recited lines
about crumbling cathedrals and dandelions?—
in corseted iambic pentameter
with a bouquet of rhymes? you poor
deluded poet. have you even read your own poetry?—
there’s more anatomy
than tits and ass that sag, though maybe yours
were archetypal? i don’t know
but honestly, does the world really need
more self-pitying poets eulogizing the loss
of their fearful symmetry?
we’ll soon enough all fit inside a Grecian urn—
but I feel your pain.
did I tell you about the time I met
Hayden Carruth in Bennington, Vermont?
there may have been me, his publisher,
students and admirers, but there was mostly
the red-haired woman in the sleeve-wrap leopard print
top and black leather mini-skirt
and I can tell you there was no talking poetry
that night or at that table with Hayden Carruth.
Carruth is your poet. Keats
never knew how to treat women, but Hayden?
I tell you, go for the man with the yellow McCulloch
but who hasn’t woken
to some new piece of poetry wondering
what in the hell happened
the night before? who said what and what
was spoken and never mind the hangover—what’s
the fucking title? I’ve been there—
a fifth of rum, midnight, some piece grinding
moves on the dance floor, moves
I’ve never seen before until, the next morning,
I’m wondering what-the-hell future I ever saw in it.
must have been the drink because I can’t
begin to explain whatever goddamn
Picasso of indiscretion I woke to—words tossed
like underwear across the exaltation
of the page. spontaneity. sure. call it that. the kind
you used to find at a 90s rage;
but as I was saying: isn’t anybody, these days,
singing you the blues?
women drinking booze
talk of dicks and new tattoos
stuck in my head now
for Christ’s sake, but haven’t any
of those poets promised, at midnight,
to walk you sly along the railroad track?—
just smooth as Scratch himself?
‘don’t you know,
‘sweet girl,’ he’d say, ‘the kinds of rhymes your hips
could make with mine?’
take me down your boulevard
of saints and swindles, where the old men leer
and the young men sing beatus vir;
where the women preen with looks as flammable
as gasoline. let’s you and me find out
the lanes and alleyways that rub against
the skin, where neon advertises sin
and preachers lick the air sweet with the carnal
and serpentine locution of the streets;
we’ll find a sidewalk curb or sway backed porch steps—
we’ll sit among the bottle caps and cups
the foil, paper wrappers, and cigarette butts
and talk about the raff we leave behind:
the drafts and stanzas; maybe here and there
a poetry worth the reading? but why guess?
go a few stone steps into the cellar
and there the mystic Madam Coriander,
who owns the laundromat around the corner,
will tell us how the roots of the raspberries finger
the sockets of a skull—
Mary, where the thorns are many,
where the autumn’s black leaves eddy
do you hear the children skipping
while your bloodless bones are slipping?
Mary, Mary, dead and buried,
buried beneath the red raspberries.
one for the money,
two to elope,
three for the noose
in the jump rope’s rope.
four for the crime
beware of four!
four’s for the rhyme:
Mary’s no more.
Mary, Mary, in the brambles
where the barren winter ambles
do you hear the children’s laughter
singing of the ever after?
Mary, Mary, dead and buried,
buried beneath the red raspberries.
—the thorns, the brambles,
the twisted vine are growing from my skull,
and children pick the berries—I see it all.
I hear them mocking the divine, their laughter,
and Madam Coriander asking if
I understand. do you? my mouth is filled
with sand and weeds are sprouting from my eyes.
I can’t decide. but do you know the spikes
of bulrush where the river dimly swims?
down by the salt-fingered pilings? I’ve been meaning
to describe the way the yellow lights
oil the river’s slippery back, the wharf,
the detritus of the clouds before they’re swept
at midnight out to sea. there’s a place
the moon goes up mechanically. behind it
the turning plate of stars goes round and round
the blinking lights. there’s not a night I’d trade
for this but I digress. the filigree
of roots, the brazen nettles, the skull beneath
the winterberry—was it winterberry?
I’m guessing you would answer: whiskey. whiskey
works just as well. you could almost mistake
the sky— let’s put it this way: let’s say
we stuck our feet out of the world’s side window,
the ocean rolling underneath. we’ll tell them
we crossed our ankles on the far horizon
and dipped our toes into the moon, we stirred up
comets and let the streaming Milky Way
wash clean our feet. (don’t ask me who the hell
but we’ve been here before,
barefooted in the parking lot. don’t ask
the exit number. if I’m first arriving,
I’ll have the front desk bring your room a bottle
of Vanni Fucci (if that isn’t wine
it should be) vintage 1954—
I wonder if you like my metaphor?
but then I’m thinking back again to driving
with my girlfriend’s heels on the rear-view mirror, and
she asks me—’don’t you understand?
we’re never ourselves but only
like ourselves: the skull, the briars, the raspberries,
winterberries or whatever—
what Madam Coriander meant
was: in the end—but you should change the poem
to winterberries. you never
eat a winterberry raw—they’re poisonous.’
but raspberries bleed, I say.
and by this I mean: if I hear you caterwauling
at the trash bins in the middle of the night, I’ll always
put out a saucer-full of gin
Ode to Kim Addonizio
writ by me
January 3rd 2023
There was an interesting guest editorial in the NY Times today by Matthew Walther, the editor of The Lamp. His essay reminded me here and there of my own essay Let Poetry Die. In my own essay, I argued that contemporary poetry’s failure to engage the public was due to poets no longer having to write for the public. Contemporary poets are essentially writing for each other in a system whose poetics are self-reinforcing. That is, the poet’s ambition may be, nominally, to appeal to the public but must be, practically speaking, an appeal to their peers and the pursuit of competitions and positions at colleges and universities where they can achieve financial stability (and be published by those same schools).
The harm is to those poets who write outside this patronage system—poets like me. They will find it far more difficult to compete for public recognition and I doubt that Walther has ever heard of me or read my poetry. The days when someone like Frost could “get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands” are largely over. The circle has been institutionalized. None of this would be a problem for poetry’s popularity if the prevailing poetics appealed to public taste but, much to the irritation of “that circle”, the public wants to read poetry with memorable language (think rhyme and meter) or poetry that speaks simply and meaningfully (think Rupi Kauer or Mary Oliver). Kauer’s breakthrough success, to judge by the snarky critiques laid at her feet, was especially resented and unapproved.
At any rate, Walther’s argument is very different. Walther writes:
~ “We stopped writing good poetry because we are now incapable of doing so.”
He goes on to blame “modern life, which [has] demystified and alienated us from the natural world.” That’s a peculiar assertion being that the aforementioned poet, the late Mary Oliver, was popular enough with the public to make a living from her poetry—and the only poet of her generation to do so. Her poetry did nothing but celebrate the mystery and beauty of the natural world. It was her bread and butter. So I’m not really sure what Walther is talking about. And don’t forget the unabated popularity of Robert Frost’s poetry—who was nothing if not a poet of woods and field. But he goes on to quote some poetry by the early 19th century poet Southey:
Aye Charles! I knew that this would fix thine eye,
This woodbine wreathing round the broken porch,
Its leaves just withering, yet one autumn flower
Still fresh and fragrant; and yon holly-hock
That thro’ the creeping weeds and nettles tall
Peers taller, and uplifts its column’d stem
Bright with the broad rose-blossoms.
Of this passage he writes: “Admit it: Your eyes, so far from being fixed, are already glazing over.” And he uses this observation to validate his assertion that we have been alienated from the natural world. Given that Southey, even in his own day, was considered an overstuffed mediocrity (by the likes of Shelley, Byron and Coleridge among others) I would argue that Southey’s passage only demonstrates that we’re alienated from mediocrity, not nature. If Walther had picked a passage from Keats’s Ode to Autumn (Southey’s contemporary—you may have heard of him) the modern reader might be a bit more attentive. Even so, one really needs look no further than the late Mary Oliver to flatly refute Walther’s claim.
But Walther has a point to make, rather than the problem being our disconnect with mediocrity, it’s our disconnect with nature. And instead of writing about nature, we write about “the feelings of unease within ourselves; [and] draw our images from the detritus of consumer civilization — an empty plastic bottle, an iPhone with a cracked screen.” And now that Walther has nicely established the premise, he pounces on the conclusion: we’ve been doing exactly this and it’s “thanks in large part to [TS] Eliot” and, problematically, nobody did or does it better than Eliot and therefore poetry died the day Eliot published The Waste Land. Thank you for your time.
~ The problem is not that Eliot put poetry on the wrong track. It’s that he went as far down that track as anyone could, exhausting its possibilities and leaving little or no work for those who came after him. It is precisely this mystique of belatedness that is the source of Eliot’s considerable power. What he seems to be suggesting is that he is the final poet, the last in a long unbroken line of seers to whom the very last visions are being bequeathed, and that he has come to share them with his dying breaths.
I’m convinced. Eliot finished poetry off.
Now, I will admit that if everyone’s poetry (and Walther seems to presume this) is essentially another poem by T.S. Eliot, then, yes, poetry ended with T.S. Eliot. The problem is with Walther’s premise. He is flatly and demonstrably wrong that contemporary readers are disconnected from the “natural world”. There are certainly gobs of poets who took and take their cue from Eliot’s example and will never do it as well as Eliot, but the same can be said for all the modernist poets: Williams, Frost, Stevens, Cummings, etc… But, for whatever reason, Walther seems to consider T.S. Eliot the apotheosis of English poetics and so confuses writing like Eliot with poetryin and of itself—as if poetry isn’t poetry if it doesn’t do what Eliot’s verse does. I could just as easily make the same argument for the other modernist poets, each in their turn. No contemporary poet has equaled Williams, Frost or, above all, Wallace Stevens. Did poetry die the day Frost wrote Mending Wall or when Stevens wrote Sunday Morning? The only defense I can imagine Walther making is that these poems aren’t as good as The Waste Land. (In his Twitter threads he does exactly this.) And yes, if you’re trying to write like Eliot or only want to read more poems like Eliot’s, then nothing will be as good as The Waste Land. Long live poetry.
It’s been 100 years since the publication of The Waste Land and his legion of passionate readers are out in full force trumpeting the poem as the “most significant of the 20th century” and for them it is. But outside of them, significant to who? It’s not everyone who wants to write like Eliot or even read him. But let Eliot’s readers have their birthday cake. Don’t tell them that The Waste Land makes a good many eyes glaze over—and I’m not saying that it should. But don’t tell them. You know how it goes with truth and handling it. It won’t kill poetry but it might kill them.
And as for all the forgettable verse that’s been written since the modernists, it bears mentioning that poetic genius is rare. Every generation elevates their own but genius isn’t a generational entitlement. Poetic genius skips whole generations. The horror! One can go decades if not hundreds of years and have only gradations of mediocrity to show for it. And the last hundred years of mixed, if not forgettable, talent is hardly an anomaly. Was poetry dead after Shakespeare? Milton? Keats? Maybe the next great poet won’t show up in your lifetime. Then again, maybe you just have to know where to look.
The reverend stood before the congregation,
A godly man afflicted and heart-sore.
"There's someone stolen every last donation,"
He grieved. "Funds devoted to the poor!"
A strident wailing filled the pews. "The Beast!"
"The Devil's work!" If little Peggy-Sue
(At six months due) was first to cry, at least
Her pearls and patent pumps were still brand new.
"But Satan won't impoverish us!" he cried,
"Those, rich in faith, are wealthy!" (After all,
Was not the reverend's day-old car outside?)
“But Jesus needs your money!” he warned them all;
Adding (with tearful prayers at the pulpit)
“Just a little more—praise God!—we’ll find the culprit!”
The Devil’s Work Written on ye 21st of December 2022