Gwendolyn Brooks: Poems

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is a late inheritor of the Harlem Renaissance vein of poetry. She is known for the versatility of her experimental styles and themes.

A STREET IN BRONZEVILLE, 1945

“KITCHENETTE BUILDING”

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” mate, a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent”, “feeding a wife”, “satisfying a man”.

But could a dream sent up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms,

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Think of “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes in connection with the imagery of the dream here.

“THE MOTHER”

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?—
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.
Remarkable for its early, candid treatment of abortion, if somewhat maudlin.

“A SONG IN THE FRONT YARD”

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face

“GAY CHAPS AT THE BAR”

…and guys I knew in the States, young
officers, return from the front crying and
trembling.  Gay chaps at the bar in Los
Angeles, Chicago, New York…
–Lt. William Couch
in the South Pacific

We knew how to order.  Just the dash
Necessary.  The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech.  How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum.  No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death.  We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,

“WE REAL COOL, ” 1960

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

The poem invites a syncopated reading – you can almost hear a snap in the pauses at the end of each enjambed line. It would be interesting to compare this to the lineation of a William Carlos Williams poem.

Advertisements

Allen Ginsberg: Poems

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) is perhaps the most famous of the Beat poets.

“A SUPERMARKET IN CALIFORNIA”

      What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
          In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
          What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families
shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?

          I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
boys.
          I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
          I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
detective.
          We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

          Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in
an hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?
          (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
          Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be
lonely.

          Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
          Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

In this poem, Ginsberg considers Whitman’s legacy – and himself, as another gay poet, the inheritor. Its wild toggling between the “peaches and penumbras,” the “neon fruit” or “shopping for images” to the more transcendental “Are you my Angel?” locates a cultural contrast nascent in Whitman that is only clearer a century later (the poem is written at the centennial of “Song of Myself’). At the end, Ginsberg points to the fact that America always looks back nostalgically to an imaginary lost time, ever receding and never extant at all.

“AMERICA”

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for
murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over
from Russia.

I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals
an unpublishable private literature that goes 1400 miles and hour and
twentyfivethousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underpriviliged who live in
my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.

America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his
automobiles more so they’re all different sexes
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they
sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the
speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the
workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party
was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother
Bloor made me cry I once saw Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have
been a spy.
America you don’re really want to go to war.
America it’s them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him makes Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers.
Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

This heteroglossic poem is one of my favorites by Ginsberg because when you hear recordings of him reading it in Berkeley, you can tell that it was meant to be humorous – he and the audience are laughing. Its notation of the time and amount of money he has look ahead to Frank O’Hara’s cataloguing, and his lists look back to Whitman’s.

“HOWL”

The poem is introduced by William Carlos Williams (“Hold back the edges of your gowns, ladies, we are going through hell), who befriended Ginsberg in New Jersey after the younger poet left the mental hospital. Howl traces a course of American poetry of identity from Whitman into the 20th century, touching on the Inferno and Frost’s “Fire and Ice” as well. “The spontaneity of surface in Howl conceals but grows out of Ginsberg’s care and self-consciousness about rhythm and meter.” The first few lines actively set up over 10 pages of predicate clauses beginning with “who”:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up…

Part II turns more Yeatsian: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” proceeding to posit answers beginning with “Moloch…” Part III is the famous “I’m with you in Rockland” section to Carl Solomon, which ends:

I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night.

The footnote is a cry for sacredness in its ironic repetition of “Holy!”

“KADDISH”

Written after his mother died in 1956, Kaddish is a moving exploration of the relationship of one’s personal and family memories. The speaker remembers his mother, Naomi (a leftist/Communist who was often in and out of mental hospitals), but also weaves her memories that he has inherited from her into the work:

Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,
the final moment—the flower burning in the Day—and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—
like a poem in the dark—escaped back to Oblivion—

The poem is filled with love, but also with horrifying images of madness, loneliness, anger, and violent sexuality. It is written in a mix of Whitmanian, surrealist, and stream-of-consciousness styles. Part of the anxiety of the poem is the internalization of his mother’s madness, as well as a feeling of guilt, since he could not amass the necessary number of  men to properly make a minion to say Kaddish over her body. In this sense, his voice strains to “contain multitudes,” as Whitman’s speaker also claims. Much of the imagery seems miscegenous, from the “crown of thorns” outside of Judaism to the mix of metaphors and styles the speaker uses in straining to talk about his mother. Even the crows that caw are sad copies of the cries that end Eliot’s The Waste Land, scavengers like the birds in Yeats come to feed on the available carrion. Like O’Hara’s more lighthearted poems, it begins with the strange thought of being out on the street and thinking of his dead mother, now gone:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph

Mixing tradition and mourning via pop culture, the poet expresses a desire for death himself:

And you’re out, Death let you out, Death had the Mercy, you’re done with your century, done with God, done with the path thru it—Done with yourself at last—Pure—Back to the Babe dark before your Father, before us all—before the world—

The poet turns back to memories of caring for his paranoid, ill mother:

By long nites as a child in Paterson apartment, watching over your nervousness—you were fat—your next move—
       By that afternoon I stayed home from school to take care of you—once and for all—when I vowed forever that once man disagreed with my opinion of the cosmos, I was lost-
       By my later burden—vow to illuminate mankind—this is release of particulars—(mad as you)—(sanity a trick of agreement)—
       But you stared out the window on the Broadway Church corner, and spied a mystical assassin from Newark…
…  The enemies approach—what poisons? Tape recorders? FBI? Zhdanov hiding behind the counter? Trotsky mixing rat bacteria in the back of the store? Uncle Sam in Newark, plotting deathly perfumes in the Negro district? Uncle Ephraim, drunk with murder in the politician’s bar, scheming of Hague? Aunt Rose passing water thru the needles of the Spanish Civil War?
There is something fearful in the fact that her paranoia, as the witch hunts of the 50s demonstrate, was somewhat justified. Her diminishing, ‘irradiated’ body registers the Cold War as manifest phenomenon, diminishing almost by half-life. Repeatedly, the speaker attempts to confront the horror of his own mother’s body (perhaps a stand-in for the ravaged dreams of the old Left in America), now gone:
     Naomi, Naomi—sweating, bulge-eyed, fat, the dress unbuttoned at one side—hair over brow, her stocking hanging evilly on her legs—screaming for a blood transfusion—one righteous hand upraised—a shoe in it—barefoot in the Pharmacy
Picking her tooth with her nail, lips formed an O, suspicion—thought’s old worn vagina—absent sideglance of eye—some evil debt written in the wall, unpaid—& the aged breasts of Newark come near—
       May have heard radio gossip thru the wires in her head, controlled by 3 big sticks left in her back by gangsters in amnesia, thru the hospital—caused pain between her shoulders—

One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her—flirting to herself at sink—lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers—ragged long lips between her legs—What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold—later revolted a little, not much—seemed perhaps a good idea to try—know the Monster of the Beginning Womb—Perhaps—that way. Would she care? She needs a lover.

As his mother begins to die, the speaker turns back to her days of youth in his imagination:

   O Russian faced, woman on the grass, your long black hair is crowned with flowers, the mandolin is on your knees—
       Communist beauty, sit here married in the summer among daisies, promised happiness at hand—
….
blessed daughter come to America, I long to hear your voice again, remembering your mother’s music, in the Song of the Natural Front—
       O glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck first mystic life & taught me talk and music, from whose pained head I first took Vision—
       Tortured and beaten in the skull—What mad hallucinations of the damned that drive me out of my own skull to seek Eternity till I find Peace for Thee, O Poetry—and for all humankind call on the Origin
O beautiful Garbo of my Karma—all photographs from 1920 in Camp Nicht-Gedeiget here unchanged—with all the teachers from Vewark—Nor Elanor be gone, nor Max await his specter—nor Louis retire from this High School—

At her death, Kurtzlike, she yells out “All the Horror!” The poem’s mystical, bizarre ending picks up many of the references from earlier stanzas (keys, bars, sunlight), seemingly reclaiming the visionary status of the poet for the modern era:

2 days after her death I got her letter—
       Strange Prophecies anew! She wrote—‘The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window—I have the key—Get married Allen don’t take drugs—the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
                                                       Love,
                                                               your mother’
       which is Naomi—
The key that unlocks the beginning of the poem is death itself. The last line plays on the adjectival meaning of Naomi – “beautiful or delightful” (in the Bible, the mother in law of Ruth who lost both her sons and her husband), turning over some of the horror of the memories with an act of love. The “roar of memory” at the end of the poem comes back as a vast highschool, representing America’s institutional wasteland and yet its unbounded possibilities as well.

John Ashbery: Poems

John Ashbery, a poet in the New York School, is often thought of as having inherited the poetic tradition of Wallace Stevens (phenomenological) vs. Pound and Creeley (historical).

“SOME TREES,” 1956

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

The poem expresses and renews the joys of nature by pointing out that the beauty the speaker finds is in the fact of being “glad not to have invented such comeliness.” The trees, as in Mrs. Dalloway, represent some form of both rootedness and connectivity. The attention to speech performance is also interesting in a poem about trees because Saussure’s original sign, made of signifier/signified, was of the tree/arbor.

“SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR,” 1975

Examining the convex portrait of Parmigianino, the speaker considers it from all perspectives with a sort of “peripheral vision.” He says to the artist, “your eyes proclaim/ That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there/ And nothing can exist except what’s there…. And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,/ No words to say what it really is, that it is not/ Superficial but a visible core, then there is/ No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.” I am very interested in this idea, as well as how the mirror plays with the idea of “reflection.” The doubt of sight enters: “the supposition of promises together/ In one piece of surface… more keeps getting included/ Without adding to the sum.”  “Those assholes/ Who would confuse everything with their mirror games/ Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or/ At least confuse issues by means of an investing/ Aura that would corrode the architecture/ Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,/ Are beside the point.” He concludes with an image resembling faceting: “We have seen the city; it is the gibbous/ Mirrored eye of an insect.” The poem is an extremely complex literary encounter with visual art, in the tradition of poets like Auden (“Musee Des Beaux Arts”), William Carlos Williams (poems on Brueghel), and others.

Robert Lowell: Poems

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was a confessional poet interested in history and writing as forms of repetition and revision. His characteristic style emerges in 1959 with the publication of Life Studies, the collection that led the critic Mendenhal to coin the term “confessional poet.” The poetry of the Beats caused him to reexamine his old work, which he saw, much as Yeats did in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” as “distant, symbol-ridden, and willfully difficult” with “a stiff, humorless and even impenetrable surface.”

LORD WEARY’S CASTLE, 1946

“COLLOQUY IN BLACK ROCK”

Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean;
My heart, you race and stagger and demand
More blood-gangs for your nigger-brass percussions,
Till I, the stunned machine of your devotion,
Clanging upon this cymbal of a hand,
Am rattled screw and footloose. All discussions

End in the mud-flat detritus of death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Hungarian workmen give their blood
For the martyrs Stephen who was stoned to death.

Black Mud, a name to conjure with: O mud
For watermelons gutted to the crust,
Mud for the mole-tide harbor, mud for mouse,
Mud for the armored Diesel fishing tubs that thud
A year and a day to wind and tide; the dust
Is on this skipping heart that shakes my house,

House of our Savior who was hanged till death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Stephen the martyre was broken down to blood:
Our ransom is the rubble of his death.

Christ walks on the black water. In Black Mud
Darts the kingfisher. On Corpus Christi, heart,
Over the drum-beat of St. Stephen’s choir
I hear him, Stupor Mundi, and the mud
Flies from his hunching wings and beak–my heart,
he blue kingfisher dives on you in fire.

Here, Lowell slowly moves from the localized construction site with its jackhammers penetrating the mud to the high language of Yeats and Eliot: “Stupor Mundi” (the marvel of the world) and “the drum-beat of St. Stephen’s choir” remind me of Yeats, while “Corpus Christi,” “House of our Savior,” and “In Black Mud Darts the kingfisher” remind me of Eliot.

“MR. EDWARDS & THE SPIDER”

I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
In latter August when the hay
Came creaking to the barn. But where
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
Into the apparitions of the sky,
They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea;

What are we in the hands of the great God?
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
In battle array against the fire
And treason crackling in your blood;
For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
Your lacerations tell the losing game
You play against a sickness past your cure.
How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?

A very little thing, a little worm,
Or hourglass-blazoned spider, it is said,
Can kill a tiger. Will the dead
Hold up his mirror and affirm
To the four winds the smell
And flash of his authority? It’s well
If God who holds you to the pit of hell,
Much as one holds a spider, will destroy,
Baffle and dissipate your soul. As a small boy

On Windsor Marsh, I saw the spider die
When thrown into the bowels of fierce fire:
There’s no long struggle, no desire
To get up on its feet and fly
It stretches out its feet
And dies. This is the sinner’s last retreat;
Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
And full of burning, it will whistle on a brick.

But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast
Into a brick-kiln where the blast
Fans your quick vitals to a coal—
If measured by a glass,
How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.

Lowell takes apart Edwards’ sermon piece by piece, returning its wrought metaphors to the material world, where the spider does not struggle in hell, but dies. The ending of the poem, “To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death,” parallels the spider’s hourglass marking – the curse is not the fear of death, but the knowledge – the fact of it. Could be compared to Larkin’s “Ambulances.”

LIFE STUDIES, 1959

“MEMORIES OF WEST STREET & LEPKE”

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is a “young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.
These are the tranquillized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a Negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,”
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair—
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections….
Like Williams coming to terms with his domestic madness in “Danse Russe,” Lowell contemplates his age here – he feels old, at 40, to be a new father, so different from his youthful days as a conscientious objector to the war and getting a year of jailtime for it. He falls further back in time to those radical days, so starkly different from “bookworming” in “the tranquillized Fifties.”

“SKUNK HOUR”

(For Elizabeth Bishop)

heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.
Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
nobody’s here—
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Nautilis Island is the location of the poem, but it’s also interesting that Lowell sets the scene with reference to this natural object, whose spiraling chambers reproduce the Golden Ratio perfectly. The rich woman buying up the houses to watch them die and the idea of “our summer millionaire” are reminiscent of Gatsby. The poet, painfully aware of death, climbs “the hill’s skull” to spy on lovers, and the insertion of the pop Lyrics and the speaker’s assertion, “I hear my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, as if my hand were at its throat… I myself am hell” refers to Satan in Milton, but also feels like Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. The foul but beautiful persistence of the skunk, swilling for sour cream in the trashcan, is an odd and visionary moment for the times Lowell describes.

“FOR THE UNION DEAD,” 1964

Relinquunt Ommia Servare Rem Publicam. (They sacrifice everything to save the Republic.)

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sign still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half of the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die-
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic

The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his ‘niggers.’

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statutes for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the ‘Rock of Ages’
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

In the first 2 stanzas, Lowell displays a ruin to the reader and weaves it in with his childhood memories of desire and excitement. In the next stanzas, Lowell likens the ancient life of the sea (linked by “scales” to “fish and reptile” to “dinosaur steamshovels”) to the construction of a parking lot with “Puritan pumpkin-colored girders.” He turns to the monument to the Colonel Shaw and the Negro soldiers of the Civil War, imagining their suffering. Just as the Puritan girders and steamshovel dinosaurs create a flattening historical parallel, so do the Negro soldiers and  “the drained faces of Negro school-children [that] rise like ballons” on his TV, during the period of desegregation. The blank of the parking lot, too, being built underground, resonates with the boiling hole of Hiroshima (15 years before). “Space is nearer,” the speaker proclaims, ushering in a postmodern sensibility. He returns at the close of the poem to the ancient grease and fishiness of the technology around him, circling back to the start of the poem.

Gertrude Stein: “Tender Buttons”

1914

Gertrude Stein lived from 1874-1946. Tender Buttons is largely read as an experiment in prosody and syntactical structures. Stein revivifies words in the Russian Formalist mode – by defamiliarizing them from their dictionary meanings, by emphasizing their material presence (like paint for her), and by experimenting with their sounds up against each other. Lyn Hejinian argues that this “thwarts an evolutionary response to [try to fully] understand language” because it calls attention to how language structures and intersects with epistemology. The poem emphasizes “like/as” – structures of relationality, as well as a proliferation of conjunctions. Stein’s work might also be compared to jazz in its “variations on a theme,” or “repetition with a difference,” also at work in the earlier story collection Three Lives (1909) and The Making of Americans (1925), where she writes that we mostly know and love each other by our repetitions.

By constantly inflecting and estranging language, Stein confronts our temptation to extract a word for its meaning from the sentence in which it is situated. Geoffrey G. O’Brien has asked why this bothers us in writing, but not in painting (as in Cubism – Stein was heavily influenced by the 1913 Armory Show of Modern Art in Paris, and was a great collector of Picasso, Matisse, and others, alongside her brother Leo – Picasso’s portrait of her marked a shift in his style toward masklike visages). O’Brien’s idea is that language is ordered and bound up in our expressions of the self and the sense we make of the world by articulation, whereas the visual is not – it is something we receive and sort daily. In this way, he argues, Stein “queers” language, gives us the experience of being “outside” a system, and “trains” us to anticipate that which we cannot anticipate without feeling merely frustrated or excluded. Stein herself said that after “a rose is a rose is a rose,” it was “the first time it was red again” (pun intended?). Like other American modernists, she takes as her subject everyday life and conversations. It would be interesting to put her in conversation with the time-stalling perspectival and judgmental emphasis of the novels of Henry James.

OBJECTS

A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

A BOX.

Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.

A PETTICOAT.

A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.

A WAIST.

A star glide, a single frantic sullenness, a single financial grass greediness.

Object that is in wood. Hold the pine, hold the dark, hold in the rush, make the bottom.

A piece of crystal. A change, in a change that is remarkable there is no reason to say that there was a time.

A woolen object gilded. A country climb is the best disgrace, a couple of practices any of them in order is so left.

SUPPOSE AN EYES.

Suppose it is within a gate which open is open at the hour of closing summer that is to say it is so.

All the seats are needing blackening. A white dress is in sign. A soldier a real soldier has a worn lace a worn lace of different sizes that is to say if he can read, if he can read he is a size to show shutting up twenty-four.

Go red go red, laugh white.

Suppose a collapse in rubbed purr, in rubbed purr get.

Little sales ladies little sales ladies little saddles of mutton.

Little sales of leather and such beautiful beautiful, beautiful beautiful.

FOOD

ROASTBEEF; MUTTON; BREAKFAST; SUGAR; CRANBERRIES; MILK; EGGS; APPLE; TAILS; LUNCH; CUPS; RHUBARB; SINGLE; FISH; CAKE; CUSTARD; POTATOES; ASPARAGUS; BUTTER; END OF SUMMER; SAUSAGES; CELERY; VEAL; VEGETABLE; COOKING; CHICKEN; PASTRY; CREAM; CUCUMBER; DINNER; DINING; EATING; SALAD; SAUCE; SALMON; ORANGE; COCOA; AND CLEAR SOUP AND ORANGES AND OAT-MEAL; SALAD DRESSING AND AN ARTICHOKE; A CENTRE IN A TABLE.

ROASTBEEF.

In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling. In the evening there is feeling. In feeling anything is resting, in feeling anything is mounting, in feeling there is resignation, in feeling there is recognition, in feeling there is recurrence and entirely mistaken there is pinching. All the standards have steamers and all the curtains have bed linen and all the yellow has discrimination and all the circle has circling. This makes sand.

Very well. Certainly the length is thinner and the rest, the round rest has a longer summer. To shine, why not shine, to shine, to station, to enlarge, to hurry the measure all this means nothing if there is singing, if there is singing then there is the resumption.

EGGS.

Kind height, kind in the right stomach with a little sudden mill.

Cunning shawl, cunning shawl to be steady.

In white in white handkerchiefs with little dots in a white belt all shadows are singular they are singular and procured and relieved.

No that is not the cows shame and a precocious sound, it is a bite.

Cut up alone the paved way which is harm. Harm is old boat and a likely dash.

COOKING.

Alas, alas the pull alas the bell alas the coach in china, alas the little put in leaf alas the wedding butter meat, alas the receptacle, alas the back shape of mussle, mussle and soda.

CHICKEN.

Pheasant and chicken, chicken is a peculiar third.

CHICKEN.

Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird.

CHICKEN.

Alas a doubt in case of more go to say what it is cress. What is it. Mean. Potato. Loaves.

CHICKEN.

Stick stick call then, stick stick sticking, sticking with a chicken. Sticking in a extra succession, sticking in.

CHAIN-BOATS.

Chain-boats are merry, are merry blew, blew west, carpet.

PASTRY.

Cutting shade, cool spades and little last beds, make violet, violet when.

CREAM.

In a plank, in a play sole, in a heated red left tree there is shut in specs with salt be where. This makes an eddy. Necessary.

CREAM.

Cream cut. Any where crumb. Left hop chambers.

ROOMS

Act so that there is no use in a centre. A wide action is not a width. A preparation is given to the ones preparing. They do not eat who mention silver and sweet. There was an occupation.

A whole centre and a border make hanging a way of dressing. This which is not why there is a voice is the remains of an offering. There was no rental.

So the tune which is there has a little piece to play. And the exercise is all there is of a fast. The tender and true that makes no width to hew is the time that there is question to adopt.

Nothing aiming is a flower, if flowers are abundant then they are lilac, if they are not they are white in the centre.

Dance a clean dream and an extravagant turn up, secure the steady rights and translate more than translate the authority, show the choice and make no more mistakes than yesterday.

This means clearness, it means a regular notion of exercise, it means more than that, it means liking counting, it means more than that, it does not mean exchanging a line.

Why is there more craving than there is in a mountain. This does not seem strange to one, it does not seem strange to an echo and more surely is in there not being a habit. Why is there so much useless suffering. Why is there.

A pecking which is petting and no worse than in the same morning is not the only way to be continuous often.

A light in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even notwithstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.

Marianne Moore: Poems

Marianne Moore (1887-1972) was an influence on Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. If “Pound worked with the clause, Williams with the line, h.d. with the image, Stevens and Stein with the word,” then “Moore, unlike these modernist contemporaries, used the entire stanza as the unit of her poetry” through syllables, rather than stress.

“THE FISH,” 1918

wade
through black jade
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
an
injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the
sun,
split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices–
in and out, illuminating
the
turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,
pink
rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly-fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.
All
external
marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice–
all the physical features of
ac-
cident–lack
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is
dead.
Repeated
evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

Moore’s correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop in the early 1940s on Bishop’s poem, “The Fish,” in which Bishop catches a fish and sets it free, make this poem particularly interesting. It would also be nice to put it in dialogue with the fish in Murdoch’s The Bell. Are fish to female poets what birds are to men (occasions for considering epistemology and death) and if so, why? And why is the fish absent from this poem, other than the way the title invites us to consider them as the ones who wade? (The first line could otherwise be an imperative). The poem suggests itself to the reader through its very absences as a poem about the choices of writing – here we have a brutal seascape, with the harsh water like jade and iron, the mussels like broken fans, huddled together in the hardship.

“POETRY,” 1921

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all 
this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one 
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf
under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that
feels a
flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician–
nor is it valid
to discriminate against ‘business documents and

school-books’; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
‘literalists of
the imagination’–above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

I have italicized the first 2 sentences (5 lines) of the poem, which comprised Moore’s entire first version. The layers of metaphors in later stanzas, giving way to the simile of the poet “like a horse” remind me of Plath’s “Metaphors,” on her pregnancy. The poem “lays bare the device” through its attention to its own metaphorized layers, especially the “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The line “business documents and school-books” is from Tolstoy, who thought these the only texts outside the domain of poetry. The line “literalists of the imagination” is Yeats on Blake – his vision was “too strong” to have the patience to delineate the forms in which he was so interested.

“THE MIND IS AN ENCHANTING THING,” 1944

is an enchanted thing
      like the glaze on a
katydid-wing
            subdivided by sun
            till the nettings are legion.
Like Gieseking playing Scarlatti;

like the apteryx-awl
      as a beak, or the
kiwi's rain-shawl
            of haired feathers, the mind
            feeling its way as though blind,
walks with its eyes on the ground.

It has memory's ear
      that can hear without
having to hear.
            Like the gyroscope's fall,
            truly unequivocal
because trued by regnant certainty,

it is a power of
      strong enchantment. It
is like the dove-
            neck animated by
            sun; it is memory's eye;
it's conscientious inconsistency.

It tears off the veil; tears
      the temptation, the
mist the heart wears,
            from its eyes -- if the heart
            has a face; it takes apart
dejection. It's fire in the dove-neck's

iridescence; in the
      inconsistencies
of Scarlatti.
            Unconfusion submits
            its confusion to proof; it's
not a Herod's oath that cannot change.

The first line of the poem reflects the title in a meditation on the perception of the world – the mind is that which is enchanted and enchanting. The mind is reflection (a pun), but also, importantly, flux and movement – “conscientious inconsistency.” The poem is aestheticizing and depoliticizing.

 

Wallace Stevens: Poems

Wallace Stevens

“THE SNOW MAN,” 1921

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The poem does not introduce the completion of the first line “One must have a mind of winter” until the seventh line, “and not to think.” The frozen elongation of imagery over the intervening lines gives a picture of winter itself, of what a “mind of winter is” – patience, waiting, even self-effacement. This is reinforced in the final stanza where “the listener,” rendered impersonal, is “nothing himself” and beholds “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” This strange awareness of self as presence/absence and exterior world as presence/absence affords both the possibility of disjunction and a kind of transcendent unity.

HARMONIUM, 1923

“THE EMPEROR OF ICE-CREAM”

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

In Russian Formalist terms, the “story” of the poem differs sharply from its “plot.” It details a visit to the neighbor’s house to prepare a corpse for burial, while in the kitchen, a gaudy preparation of food and drink sharply contrasts the scene in the bedroom. Each stanza of 8 lines ends in a rhyming couplet, emphasizing through repetition the contrast of the two rooms: life and death. “Let be be finale of seem” endorses being over seeming, but acknowledges the power of the latter. “Let the lamp affix its beam” presumes control over the ineffable.

“ANECDOTE OF THE JAR”

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The blank jar with Nature subdued around it has been read (by Helen Vendler) as an American contrast to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the poet has firm grasp of Western history and culture. Here, instead, the poet places the jar in Nature and makes of it a center “It made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill.” The made, aesthetic object seems to give shape to an otherwise unruly space. The repetition of Tennessee seems to be an insistence on the American locality of the poem. The jar reminds me of the Sybil hanging in a jar in Eliot, as well as Heidegger’s essay on “the jug,” which he takes as an ultimate example of the-thing-in-itself, its use available to us, the process of its making evident and textural. It is in that essay that Heidegger separates being (flux, non-thingliness) from a being (God or a system) that humans try to hang the essence of being upon.

“THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD”

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

The frozen landscape is reminiscent of a number of Stevens poems, including “The Snow Man.” The movement of the bird’s eye is that of perception. The choice of a bird to explore epistemological problems places Stevens in a tradition with Keats, Hardy, Yeats, Auden, and others.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The speaker imagines the potential multiplicity of the mind as a hypostatic trinity, or three-in-one.

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

The speaker emphasizes the smallness  of the individual, again like “The Snow Man.”

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

In this stanza, Williams plays with the problem of unity between beings, versus their necessarily discrete nature.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

The “beauty of inflections” comes in the actual sound of song or verse, while the “beauty of innuendoes” are in the silences and lacunae between experiences, or outside of them.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

This “barbaric glass” recalls Emerson, Frost, and a tradition of visual American questioning of Nature.

VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

Again, this is an Emersonian idea, like the essay, “Circles,” in which Emerson claims interconnectedness through that geometric figure.

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Again, interconnectedness seems impossible, but mystically tempting here.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Here Stevens characteristically plays with the passing of time: the light of evening and its anticipation all afternoon, the experience of snow and the knowledge only after that it “was going to snow” more. The blackbird returns to a stationary place in the trees. Perhaps its eye is moving.

PARTS OF A WORLD, 1942

“STUDY OF TWO PEARS”

I
Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

“A small didactic work”: The pears are the things in themselves, and nothing else. They are not mere symbols.

II
They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

The pears can be described concretely in visual terms by form and content: shape, color, and heft.

III
They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

They are not merely aesthetic representations, as in a painting. The pears which had round bottoms in the last stanza have tapering tops here.

IV
In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue.
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

Nevertheless, Stevens gives a painterly aspect to his description of them.

V
The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

It seems almost impossible to do verbal justice to the variance of color and texture here.

VI
The shadows of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

The pears impose themselves on the viewer in their materiality: they “are not seen/ As the observer wills,” but as they are.

“OF MODERN POETRY”

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

In the first stanza, Stevens enters “in medias res” to “the poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice,” similar to the beginning of some Williams poems. The speaker recalls a time when “the scene was set,” but now “the theatre” is changed. Poetry has to “be living,” “learn,” “face,” “meet,” “think,” and “find.” Some of this language recalls and contrasts with Prufrock’s anxiety about performance (himself as a Shakespeare character) and need to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Here, the poem is “a metaphysician in the dark,” a happening, a process in flux –  music. It is the unity of two seemingly discrete things. It is the relaying of feeling.

Robert Frost: Poems

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was born in California but spent most of his life in New England. His style is characterized by its openness in contrast to the high modernists who left America for Europe. He was also a high school and college teacher, and his tendency to pedagogy, conversation, and questioning are evident in his poems, which are often staged as facets or flashes of a story, reworkings of a Victorian tradition of narrative poetry and dramatic monologue.

NORTH OF BOSTON, 1914

“MENDING WALL”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The interrupted or bizarre “Yoda” syntax “Something there is…” emphasizes an unnameable force reminds me of the in medias res beginnings of William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings poems later in the century. It shows an almost-perfect iambic pentameter and is a good example of poetic impersonality. The artificial social world here “wants” to engage with Nature’s force, where Nature is a stage for the interaction. The wall is often interpreted as poetry itself – it is both artifice or craft and Nature and chaos – something that stands between and, as Frost wrote in an essay on poetry, “rides its own melting.”

“HOME BURIAL”

This long poem concerns the death of a child determined by a man’s perspective, seemingly cold and distant as he tries to see the perspective of the hysterically mourning woman. It is almost in a free indirect discourse, with his flat delivery of the narrative nevertheless inducing pathos because of his struggle to understand what has happened and the interest in the difficult relationship of parts to whole.

“AFTER APPLE-PICKING”

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still.
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.
I cannot shake the shimmer from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the water-trough,
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and reappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
And I keep hearing from the cellar-bin
That rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking; I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall,
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised, or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Concerned with abundance and visceral exhaustion, the poem repeats in cycles to parallel the natural seasons it describes. When he looks through “a pane of glass/ I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough,” it reminds me of the Emersonian lens – the making of the whole body into an eye. It also melts as the poem runs on, again like Frost’s idea of the poem that “rides its own melting,” just as the seasons and days pass.

MOUNTAIN INTERVAL, 1916

“THE ROAD NOT TAKEN”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Here the emphasis is on the need to be one traveler – both fair and untrodden (a self-deception of how one moves through time). Think of the proleptic/analeptic notion of Genette, but compressed into a poem instead of a narrative.

“BIRCHES”

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Like Dylan Thomas’ poem “Fern Hill,” Frost builds an imaginative world here, one in which the boy’s play shapes Nature, rather than Nature shaping itself. Frost imagines this play, which he engaged in once himself, as a kind of calling, comparable to Salinger’s “catcher in the rye” – Frost writes that “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” In both cases, the desire to turn play and beauty into a career is impossible in society (especially an urbanizing capitalist society from which Frost’s idealized boy is separated by distance). Like Thomas’ poem, Frost here expresses a mixture of nostalgia for the imaginative world of childhood as well as a delight in poetry as a means of creating worlds as well.

“OUT, OUT -”

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws know what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all was spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Here, a hard, empty center – a synecdoche – becomes the whole. The poem turns from the humorous independence of the living saw to the tragedy of the boy’s unexpected death. The line “in the dark of ether” reminds me of Eliot’s “Prufrock.”

SELECTED POEMS, 1923

“FIRE & ICE”

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Frost had spoken to astronomer Harlow Shapley, who told him that the world would either freeze or burn after the explosion of the sun. Desire is fire here, while ice is hatred, and the poem’s movement down 9 lines is like the 9 circles of hell, which get hotter and hotter and end with the worst sinners encased in ice at the bottom. The poem is also satiric, probably intended for humor.

“NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

A poem about ephemerality, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” also posits a symbolic tension between the “green” of youth or spring and the “value” of gold or autumn. In this way, the poem questions how we choose what we value and whether we can in fact appreciate it before it has passed.

“STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

One interesting thing about what is probably Frost’s most famous poem is that this private, natural, Thoreau-like moment is taken by a man not out in the real wilds, but on another man’s woods – woods Frost knows are the property of someone else. It is also reminiscent of Auden’s idea in “Their Lonely Betters,” about the birds, that “Words are for those with promises to keep.” Here, the speaker is ready to let himself go, but his mantra at the end calls attention to the medium of language and to his societal obligations.

“SPRING POOLS”

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

The speaker considers the reflective pools in the woods that will soon be sucked up by tree roots to generate the dense, leafy foliage of summer. The penultimate line, “These flowery waters and these water flowers,” expresses a joy in the symmetry of reflection soon to be gone, although it has just arrived, “From snow that melted only yesterday.” It would be interesting to put this in conversation with Hardy’s poem “Neutral Tones,” also a pun on “reflection.”

“DESIGN,” 1936

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

The rhyme scheme here is that of an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet,  with a slight variation in the rhyming of the sestet: the abba abba / cdccdd instead of cdcdcd. The “dimpled spider, fat and white” recalls the “dimpled darling” of Little Miss Moffitt, The spider, the flower, and the moth (made into similes of “cloth” and “kite”) are all white, but Frost sees “death and blight” in this “design” instead of innocence and light. At the volta (the tonal turn at the sestet), Frost becomes less certain of the fatal design, and turns instead to questioning the larger forces of the universe (this is comparable to Yeats in the much less concrete and more symbolic poems “Leda and the Swan” and “The Second Coming”).