INTRODUCTION TO POETRY
~ by Paul Lake
She comes in late, then settles like a sigh
On the first day, returning every week
Promptly at ten, each Monday Wednesday Friday,
To study Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, and Blake;
Enters the room to an approving murmur,
Straightens her dress, then, brushing back her hair,
Arches her body with the slightest tremor,
And sits, while the room grows breathless, in her chair;
Sits for an hour, while busy sophomores worry
Each turgid line, a Botticellian smile
On her rapt face, who’s learned how little study
Love involves; who, walking down the aisle,
Knows in her bones how little poetry
Words breathe, and how– on turning to go home–
All eyes will watch her rise above her “C”
And walk off, like a goddess on the foam.
~ by Marilyn Hacker
Consider the three functions of the tongue:
taste, speech, the telegraphy of pleasure,
are not confused in any human tongue;
yet, sinewy and singular, the tongue
accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ
can. Were I to speak of giving tongue,
you’d think two things at least; and a cooked tongue,
sliced, on a plate, with caper sauce, which I give
my guest for lunch, is one more, to which she’d give
the careful concentration of her tongue
twice over, to appreciate the taste
and to express– it would be in good taste–
a gastronomic memory the taste
called to mind, and mind brought back to tongue.
There is a paucity of words for taste:
sweet, sour, bitter, salty. Any taste,
however multiplicitous its pleasure,
complex its execution (I might taste
that sauce ten times in cooking, change its taste
with herbal subtleties, chromatic organ
tones of cloves and basil, good with organ
meats) must be described with those few taste-
words or with metaphors to give
my version of sensations it would give
a neophyte, deciding whether to give
it a try. She might develop a taste.
(You try things once; I think you have to give
two chances, though, to know your mind, or give
up on novelties.) Your mother tongue
nurtures, has subtleties which give
flavor to words, and words to flavor, give
the by no means subsidiary pleasure
of being able to describe a pleasure
and recreate it. Making words, we give
the private contemplations of each organ
to the others, and to others, organ-
ize sensations into thought. Sentient organ-
isms, we symbolize feeling, give
the spectrum (that’s a symbol) each sense organ
perceives, by analogy, to others. Disorgan-
ization of the senses is an acquired taste
we all acquire: as speaking beasts, it’s organ-
ic to our discourse. The first organ
of acknowledged communion is the tongue
(tripartite diplomat, which after tongu-
ing a less voluble expressive organ
to wordless efflorescences of pleasure
offers up words to reaffirm the pleasure.)
Marilyn Hacker (linguist, great poet, teacher, erudite translator from the French) makes a comprehensive disquisition on the many meanings of tongue. Tongue as one’s language, as one’s speech, as one’s organ of taste — even as a delicatessen meat. Also as tongue kisses. And, let us not forget, as oral-sex lovemaking. And especially cunnilingus!
Marilyn Hacker has a particular weakness — a gift really — for writing in forms with repeating elements (villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, and sonnet crowns) the repeating elements often meaning something entirely different in each new context, the new contexts often produced by ingenious and subtle enjambments and caesuras. She produces these poems with a versatility that is quite unrivaled in late-twentieth-century literature in English. She has almost single-handedly revived the highest sorts of standards for the use of form among our poets. We have been reading her astonishing works since the 1970s. She carries forward the traditions of masters like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, W. D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich in writing openly autobiographic works about significant personal relationships and their vicissitudes.
One of the best poems to introduce readers to her use of repeating elements is Marilyn Hacker’s “Villanelle For D.G.B.,” one of our favorite poems.
Every day our bodies separate–
exploded torn and dazed.
Not understanding what we celebrate
we grope through languages and hesitate
and touch each other, speechless and amazed;
and every day our bodies separate
us farther from our planned, deliberate
ironic lives, I am afraid, disphased,
not understanding what we celebrate
when our fused limbs and lips communicate
the unlettered powers we have raised.
Every day our bodies’ separate
routines are harder to perpetuate.
In wordless darkness we learn wordless praise,
not understanding what we celebrate;
wake to ourselves, exhausted, in the late
morning as the wind tears off the haze,
not understanding how we celebrate
our bodies. Every day we separate.
~ by Robert Pinsky
1. The Service
The nerve to make a high toss and the sense
Of when the ball is there; and then the nerve
To cock your arm back all the way, not rigid
But loose and ready all the way behind
So that the racket nearly or really touches
Your back far down; and all the time to see
The ball, the seams and letters on the ball
As it seems briefly at its highest point
To stop and hover — keeping these in mind
The swing itself is easy, forgetting cancer,
Or panic learning how to swim or walk,
Forgetting what the score is, names of plants,
And your first piece of ass, you throw the racket
Easily through Brazil, coins, mathematics,
And haute cuisine to press the ball from over
And a slight slice at two o’clock or less,
Enough to make it loop in accurately
As, like a fish in water flicking itself
Away, your mind takes up the next concern
With the arm, ball, racket still pressing down
And forward and across your obedient body.
Straightforwardness can be a cruel test,
A kind of stagefright threatening on the cold
And level dais, a time of no excuses.
But think about the word “stroke,” how it means
What one does to a cat’s back, what a brush
Does through a woman’s hair. Think about
The racket pressing, wiping, guiding the ball
As you stay on it, dragging say seven strings
Across the ball, the top edge leading off
To give it topspin. Think about the ball
As a loaf of bread, you hitting every slice.
Pull back the racket well behind you, drop it
And lift it, meeting the ball well out in front
At a point even with your left hip, stroking
To follow through crosscourt. The tarnished coin
Of “follow through,” the cat, the loaf of bread,
“Keep your eye on the ball,” the dull alloy
Of homily, simile, and coach’s lore
As maddening, and as helpful, as the Fool
Or Aesop’s Fables, the coinage of advice:
This is the metal that is never spent.
Here, panic may be a problem: in the clench
From back to jaw, in manic you may come
Too close, and struggling strike out with your arm,
Trying to make the arm do everything,
And failing as the legs and trunk resist.
All of your coinages, and your nerve, may fail…
What you need is the Uroborus, the serpent
Of energy and equilibrium,
Its tail between its jaw, the female circle
Which makes it easy: all is all, left
Reflects the right, and if you change the grip
To keep your hand and wrist behind the racket
You suddenly find the swing is just the same
As forehand, except you hit it more in front
Because your arm now hangs in front of you
And not behind. You simply change the grip
And with a circular motion from the shoulder,
Hips, ankles, and knees, you sweep the inverted swing.
Hit to the weakness. All things being equal
Hit crosscourt rather than down the line, because
If you hit crosscourt back to him, then he
Can only hit back either towards you (crosscourt)
Or parallel to you (down the line), but never
Away from you, the way you can hit
Away from him if he hits down the line.
Besides, the net is lowest in the middle,
The court itself is longest corner-to-corner,
So that a crosscourt stroke is the most secure,
And that should be your plan, the plan you need
For winning — though only when hitting from the baseline:
From closer up, hit straight ahead, to follow
The ball to net; and from the net hit shrewdly,
To get him into trouble so he will hit
An error, or a cripple you can kill.
If he gets you in trouble, hit a lob,
And make it towering to make it hard
For him to smash from overhead and easy
For you to have time to range the backcourt,
Bouncing in rhythm like a dog or seal
Ready to catch an object in mid-air
And rocking its head — as with your plan in mind
You arrange yourself to lob it back, and win.
Call questionable balls his way, not yours;
You lose the point but you have your concentration,
The grail of self-respect. Wear white. Mind losing.
Walk, never run, between points: it will save
Your breath, and hypnotize him, and he may think
That you are tired, until your terrible
Swift sword amazes him. By understanding
Your body you will conquer your fatigue.
By understanding your desire to win
And all your other desires, you will conquer
Discouragement. And you will conquer distraction
By understanding the world, and all its parts.
Robert Pinsky has produced here an entire instruction guide to tennis. First, really cut loose on the serve, and put the opponent back on his heels. Then, hit diagonally crosscourt from the back of the court; brush-up the back of the ball to lift it clear of the net and deep into the corner. Make sure to really coil before unleashing a crackling backhand along the opposite diagonal angle. Mainly, aim to use crosscourt strokes to make your opponent cover the widest and deepest part of the court — make him have to run! When he hits a ball that is weakly struck and falls short, come flying in for the volley and angle the ball away. Finally, stay focused on every point, and remain undiscouraged by small setbacks (do not give in for a second!) as you must stick to your game and win those points, one after another! …That’ll be fifty dollars. Sure, a check’s okay.
~ by Fleur Adcock
I write in praise of the solitary act:
of not feeling a trespassing tongue
forced into one’s mouth, one’s breath
smothered, nipples crushed against the
ribcage, and that metallic tingling
in the chin set off by a certain odd nerve:
unpleasure. Just to avoid those eyes would help —
such eyes as a young girl draws life from,
listening to the vegetal
rustle within her, as his gaze
stirs polypal fronds in the obscure
seabed of her body, and her own eyes blur.
There is much to be said for abandoning
this no longer novel exercise —
for not “participating in
a total experience” — when
one feels like the lady in Leeds
who had seen The Sound Of Music eighty-six times;
or more, perhaps, like the school drama mistress
producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream
for the seventh year running, with
yet another cast from 5B.
Pyramus and Thisbe are dead, but
the hole in the wall can still be troublesome.
I advise you, then, to embrace it without
encumbrance. No need to set the scene,
dress up (or undress), make speeches.
Five minutes of solitude are
enough — in the bath, or to fill
that gap between the Sunday papers and lunch.
LE HIBOU ET LA POUSSIQUETTE
~ by Francis Steegmuller
Hibou et Minou allerent a la mer
Dans une barque peinte en jaune-canari;
Ils prirent du miel roux et beaucoup de sous
Enroules dans une lettre de credit.
Le hibou contemplait les astres du ciel,
En chantait, en grattant sa guitare,
“O Minou cherie, o minou ma belle,
O Poussiquette, comme tu es rare,
O Poussiquette, comme tu es rare!”
Au chantait la chatte, “Noble sieur a deux pattes,
Voitre voix est d’une telle elegance!
Voulez-vous, cher Hibou, devenir mon epoux?
Mais que faire pour trouver une alliance?”
Ils voguerent, fous d’amour, une annee et un jour;
Puis, au pays ou le bong fleurit beau,
Un cochon de lait surgit d’une foret,
A bague accrochee au museau,
Une bague accrochee au museau.
“Cochon, veux-tu bien nous vendre pour en rien
Ta bague?” Le cochon consentit.
Donc ils prirent le machin, et le lendemain matin
Le dindon sur le mont les unit.
Ils firent un repas de maigre et de gras,
Se servant d’une de cuillere peu commune;
Et la sur la plage, le nouveau menage
Dansa au clair de la lune,
Dansa au clair de la lune.
The writer and scholar Francis Steegmuller does a pitch-perfect rendition of “The Owl And The Pussycat” by Edward Lear.
The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat:
They took some honey and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“Oh, lovely Pussy, oh, Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl,
How charmingly sweet you sing!
Oh, let us be married; too long we have tarried:
But what shall I do for a ring?”
They sailed away for a year and a day
To the land where the bong tree grows;
And there in the wood a Piggywig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
EVENING IN THE SANITARIUM
~ by Louise Bogan
The free evening fades, outside the windows
fastened with decorative iron grilles.
The lamps are lighted; the shades drawn;
the nurses are watching a little.
It is the hour of the complicated knitting on the safe
bone needles; of the games of anagrams and bridge;
the deadly game of chess;
the book held up like a mask.
The period of wildest weeping,
the fiercest delusion, is over.
The women rest their tired half-healed
hearts; they are almost well.
Some of them will stay almost well always;
the blunt-faced woman whose thinking dissolved
under academic discipline; the manic depressive girl
now leveling off; one paranoiac
afflicted with jealousy;
another with persecution.
Some alleviation has been possible.
O fortunate bride, who never again
will become elated after childbirth!
O lucky older wife, who has been
cured of feeling unwanted!
To the suburban railway station you will return,
return to meet forever Jim home on the 5:35.
You will be again as normal and selfish
and heartless as anybody else.
There is life left: the piano
says it with its octave smile.
The soft carpet pads the thump
and splinter of the suicide to be.
Everything will be splendid:
the grandmother will not drink habitually.
The fruit salad will bloom on the plate like a bouquet
and the garden produce the blue-ribbon aquilegia.
The cats will be glad; the fathers
feel justified; the mothers relieved.
The sons and husbands will
no longer need to pay the bills.
Childhoods will be put away,
the obscene nightmare abated.
At the ends of the corridors
the baths are running.
Mrs. C. again feels the
shadow of an obsessive idea.
Miss R. looks at the mantelpiece,
which must mean something.
The bizarre and spooky world of the midcentury mental hospital, its barred windows and “safe” knitting needles. And its denizens afflicted with paranoid delusions of conspiracy, or with overwhelming anxiety and hysteria, or with grossly unrealistic manic elation, or with depression and suicidality. Louise Bogan anatomizes the whole scene in a few deft strokes. Even the chronicity of mental illness is tellingly depicted: “Some of them will stay almost well always.”
~ by R. S. Gwynn
All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
And somewhat of a sad perplexity.
Here, take my picture, though I bid farewell.
In a dark time the eye begins to see.
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall —
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
What but design of darkness to appall?
An aged man is but a paltry thing.
If I should die think only this of me:
Crass casualty obstructs the sun and rain
When I have fears that I may cease to be,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain
And hear the spectral singing of the moon
And strictly meditate the thankless muse.
The world is too much with us, late and soon.
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze.
Do no go gentle into that good night.
Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.
Again he raised the jug up to the light:
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Downward to darkness on extended wings,
Break, break, break, on thy cold, gray stones, O sea,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
R. S. Gwynn has written the most allusive poem in history. Each repurposed pentameter line here is an allusion to — indeed a verbatim quote from — a classic poem. The authors here range from Shakespeare, Donne, and Dryden in the 1600s to Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Theodore Roethke in the modernist era.
And all are artfully woven into a melancholic lamentation on mortality and mutability. Gwynn found that the nineteenth century poets of romanticism and high tragic sentiment (Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Hopkins, Hardy, and Yeats) were particularly suited to this theme; theirs is the greatest share of quotes.
R. S. Gwynn’s exact title for this work: APPROACHING A SIGNIFICANT BIRTHDAY, HE PERUSES THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF POETRY. A little unwieldly for my format here.
The Norton Anthology Of Poetry is an authoritative textbook comprising 1200 or so poems from many centuries of poetry in English, and it is considered essential to poetry studies in America. Gwynn collected all these “found” lines there in one place and then assembled them into a collage of rhymed quatrains.
The sources of each “sampling:”
Line 1: John Dryden, “Mac Flecknoe”
Line 2: Wallace Stevens, “Peter Quince At The Clavier”
Line 3: Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written In A Country Courtyard”
Line 4: Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode To The West Wind”
Line 5: John Keats, “Ode To A Nightingale”
Line 6: William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
Line 7: John Donne, “His Picture”
Line 8: Theodore Roethke, “In A Dark Time”
Line 9: Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Tithonus”
Line 10: William Shakespeare, “That Time of Year Thou May’st In Me Behold”
Line 11: Robert Frost, “Design”
Line 12: William Butler Yeats, “Sailing To Byzantium”
Line 13: Rupert Brooke, “The Soldier”
Line 14: Thomas Hardy, “Hap”
Line 15: John Keats, “When I Have Fears”
Line 16: John Keats, “Ode To A Nightingale”
Line 17: John Crowe Ransom, “Piazza Piece”
Line 18: John Milton, “Lycidas”
Line 19: William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us”
Line 20: Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”
Line 21: Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
Line 22: John Milton, “Lycidas”
Line 23: Edward Arlington Robinson, “Mr. Flood’s Party”
Line 24: Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”
Line 25: Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”
Line 26: Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Break, Break”
Line 27: William Shakespeare, “Richard II”
Line 28: T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song Of Alfred J. Prufrock”
WHAT HATH MAN WROUGHT EXCLAMATION POINT
~ by Morris Bishop
Amid Tibetan snows the ancient lama
Mutters his lifelong intercessions comma
Turns the unresting wheel of prayer a myriad
Times in its sacred circling period period
But hold comma what object strange and dark
Is this on high interrogation mark
A giant bird has out of India stolen
To ravish holy Tibet semicolon
The plane soars upward comma tops the crest
Of the inviolate God of Everest
Period and the lama smote his wheel
Asunder semicolon with a peal
Of dreadful laughter he arose and cried
Colon quotation marks the God has died
Comma so worship man who dared and smote
Exclamation line of dots close quote
In the days of the telegram some punctuation added to your total word count, not inexpensively.
ASPECTS OF ROBINSON
~ by Weldon Kees
Robinson at cards at the Algonquin; a thin
Blue light comes down once more outside the blinds.
Gray men in overcoats are ghosts
blown past the door.
The taxis streak the avenues with yellow,
orange, and red:
This is Grand Central, Mr. Robinson.
Robinson on a roof above the Heights. The boats
Mourn like the lost. Water is slate, far down.
Through sounds of ice cubes dropped
in glass, an osteopath,
Dressed for the links, describes an old Intourist tour.
— Here’s where old Gibbons jumped from, Robinson.
Robinson walking in the park,
admiring the elephant.
Robinson buying the Tribune, Robinson
buying the Times, Robinson
Saying, “Yes. Hello, this is Robinson. Sunday
At five? I’d love to. Pretty well. And you?”
Robinson alone at Longchamps, staring at the wall.
Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson
In bed with Mrs. Morse. Robinson at home;
Decisions: Toynbee or luminal? Where
The sun shines, Robinson
in flowered trunks, eyes toward
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson
in East Side bars.
Robinson in Glen-plaid jacket, Scotch-grain shoes,
Black four-in-hand and Oxford button-down,
The jeweled and silent watch that winds itself,
The briefcase, covert topcoat,
clothes for spring, all covering
His sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.
The Algonquin Hotel’s Rose Room on West 44th in Times Square, was a popular dining spot and watering hole, frequented at lunch by a who’s who of Broadway notables — writers, columnists, critics, all of them wits — known as the Algonquin Round Table. (They privately referred to themselves as The Vicious Circle.) Grand Central Terminal was the hub of New York at 42nd and Park, in the days before air travel, where everyone came and went, where everyone was greeted by loved ones, friends.
Intourist Tours were once-fashionable tours of Russia. The Heights refer to Washington Heights, overlooking the Hudson, in Northern Manhattan. The elephant seen in the park would be an allusion to the Central Park Zoo. Luminal, a barbituate with powerful sedative and hypnagogic effects, was an early prescription sleeping pill. Arnold J. Toynbee was bringing out the first eight volumes of his Study Of History during the 1930s and 40s, and it was about (yawn) the decline and fall of practically everyone due to their lack of Christian piety and kindness. (Thus the Russian Marxists of some future volume were doomed ahead of time!) This “scholarship” was possibly equally sleep-inducing as the heavy-duty barbituate.
Longchamps was a prominent chain of full-service restaurants — twelve of them in Manhattan — where almost all middle-class New Yorkers had dined. The one at 59th and Madison could seat nine hundred fifty patrons, and its huge cocktail bar had fifty bartenders. A four-in-hand is an elegant skinny tie-knot. A covert coat is a short tailored outer coat of very sturdy cloth, fashioned in an outdoorsy equestrian style originating with the hunting set.
Robinson was very much Weldon Kees’ own version of Crusoe in Manhattan, a man who was lost, at loose ends, quite at the end of his rope, while attempting to cope in all his usual ways, dressing nicely, being polite, engaging in superficial socializing, drinking. Kees published a number of Robinson poems. As despairing himself as Robinson, Kees is assumed to have died in middle age via a suicide leap off the Golden Gate Bridge (where his empty car was found), though no body was recovered. He simply disappeared and was never heard from, whether he faked his death and left for Mexico or, more likely, simply vanished in the abyss and then bio-degraded.
~ by Elizabeth Bishop
My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
“Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet.”
We met a stranger on foot.
My grandfather’s whip tapped his hat.
“Good day, sir. Good day. A fine day.”
And I said it and bowed where I sat.
Then we overtook a boy we knew
with his big pet crow on his shoulder.
“Always offer everyone a ride;
don’t forget that when you’re older,”
my grandfather said. So Willy
climbed up with us, but the crow
gave a “Caw!” and flew off. I was worried.
How would he know where to go?
But he flew a little at a time
from fence post to fence post, ahead;
and when Willy whistled he answered.
“A fine bird,” my grandfather said,
“and he’s well brought up. See, he answers
nicely when he’s spoken to.
Man or beast, that’s good manners.
Be sure that you both always do.”
When automobiles went by,
the dust hid the people’s faces,
but we shouted, “Good day! Good day!
Fine day!” at the top of our voices.
When we came to Hustler Hill,
he said the mare was tired,
so we all got down and walked,
as our good manners required.