A Very Merry Birthday to Walt Whitman, American

May 31, which is still Today on the American west coast, is Walt Whitman’s birthday. Born in 1819, he would be almost 200 years old today if science would hurry up and cure aging. Right now we only have poetry.

Walt Whitman

Along with Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, Whitman invented American poetry. In the man’s honor—as thanks for what he wrote—here is a short poem from the 1860s that is usually named by its first line. You will almost certainly like it if you enjoy the English language and are human. The text below is from Michael Moon’s superb Norton Critical edition of Whitman’s work.

Come for the erotic politics, stay for the ecological sensibility, that’s the Whitman way here.

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the 
Without any companion it grew there, uttering joyous 
         leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think 
         of myself; 
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves
         standing alone there without its friend its 
         lover near, for I knew I could not, 
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of 
         leaves upon it, and twined around it a little 
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in 
         my room, 
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear 
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of 
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me 
         think of manly love; 
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there 
         in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a 
         lover near,
I know very well I could not.

Topical Verse: Memorial Day

I didn’t advertise the last bit of verse I put up because I didn’t want to appear to be capitalizing on events in Isla Vista which, as we gather details about the killer and his plans, become all the more horrific. I invite you to go back and read the Bukowski poem though, as I think it has something important to tell us about how our culture teaches us to think about being alone, loneliness (which is different), and self-worth.

Today’s small bit of verse I will advertise though, as I think its message is one we should spend time thinking about on this particular Memorial Day. Published sixteen years before Eisenhower’s famous and totally prescient warning about the “military-industrial complex,” Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is often one of the shortest poems in anthologies of American verse, but it is surely one of the most accurate descriptions of how the state can instrumentalize people in order to maintain its power (both over the people themselves, and over other states).

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” 

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State, 
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. 
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, 
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. 
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

That’s the whole poem. Its lines aren’t symmetrical, yet it has balance: the awakening from the dream is preceded by two lines about a person, and is followed by two lines about the hard fact that, in the eyes of the “State,” this person isn’t an individual, but rather canon fodder, a substance to be cleaned up, like the foam leftover from a used up fire extinguisher, when it has served its purpose. We get an entire life-cycle in five lines. The key is Jarrell’s implication that the State sees it as its prerogative to wake us, its weapons of war, from the “dream of life” so that we may fulfill our purpose: dying for the State. If you can read this poem and not think about the current VA scandal, you probably haven’t heard of the current VA scandal.

Like many people, my late grandfather served during World War II. He was captured by the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, and was sent to a prison camp. He stayed alive until the camp was liberated, but even then he had to make his way back across hostile territory largely on his own. He rarely talked about the war, but often had nightmares that I can’t even begin to imagine. In the last weeks of his life, when he was dying of cancer, the VA treated him with dignity and great care. As it should have. Jarrell’s poem isn’t a condemnation of those who fight in wars, nor is it even a blanket condemnation of war itself. Sometimes it is necessary. But if the state is going to send people off to die, sometimes in the name of folly and hubris, the least it can do is treat those who come home, battered inside and out, as something more than inconveniences. It should treat them all the way it treated my grandfather. If it can’t do that, then something really is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Lazy Sunday Beats and Links

Oh, hey. General Reader here. These are some texts we liked reading that you would probably also like to read. There are things to listen to as well. Enjoy them on this lovely Mother’s Day.

  • For many pundits, Barack Obama’s refusal to ignore the electorate and get the USA involved in reputation-killing trillion-dollar military disasters is a sign of weakness. As John Cassidy observes at the New Yorker, this line of criticism ignores the arrogance and waste of the Bush regime: Obama is only a foreign-policy bungler if you think that the Iraq War went well and that things will work out in Afghanistan somehow. Otherwise the President is a realist who operates according to historical precedent and geopolitical fact, not foolish proclamations about shocking and awing our way around the world. Obama has, remarks Cassidy, remembered his Machiavelli—it is strength, not weakness, to avoid fights that can, at best, end in Pyrrhic victories (and at worst, end in Iraq).
  • We all need Shakespeare. I know that he often suffers the Gatsby fate: assigned so much in English courses that people end up thinking he’s perfunctory and boring, “classic” mainly through cultural inertia or pedagogical convention. “Yeah, yeah, Hamlet is great, got it”—most educated individuals acknowledge that he’s Very Important and thus, ironically, end up not reading him beyond school. Which is a shame, because as with The Great Gatsby, most of Shakespeare’s work (not Coriolanus, oh god not Coriolanus) is shockingly beautiful and repays multiple readings. Go ahead. Open up Hamlet or Macbeth or the Sonnets or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, flip to a random page, and experience one of those “Holy shit, how did a human being think to say it that way?” moments Shakespeare provokes. You’ll never get to the end of his wonders. With that in mind, here is one of my favorite sonnets, #29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

  • Hey, parents and students, here is the narrative that will bond you with contingent faculty in the fight to save higher education: The adjunct system exploits teachers and wastes your money, because your tuition dollars end up going mostly to redundant deans and resplendent landscaping, not undergraduate education. Susan McNamara, a professor in Boston, has written a bang-up explanation of this for the Globe. (Plus the professor in the article image is wearing jeans and a navy blazer, which I can totally get behind.) Read it now.
  • Some tenured and tenure-track professors have long been part of the effort to improve the working conditions of adjuncts (and thus the learning conditions of students), and many more have recently climbed aboard. Some of the staunchest labor allies I’ve met are tenured full professors in the University of California. But in the UK and the US, too many TT faculty have been complicit in the forty-year ascension of a managerial class that now controls most colleges and universities despite having little experience or interest in education. Some faculty saw a way to profit, in terms of money and/or prestige, from neoliberal “reforms” that weakened the professoriate as a whole; too many others stood idle while this happened. Like I said, if they haven’t already, most TT profs are coming around to a more enlightened, pro-labor view of things, but Tarak Barkawi (himself a tenured scholar) implores us to remember our institutional past in order to salvage the future. Power has many ways to recruit relatively powerless enablers. Barkawi’s editorial focuses on the UK, but its lesson is transatlantic.
  • My friend Jarret, who has introduced me to probably 60-65% of the music I love, played Arthur Russell for me about ten years ago while we were chillin’ in a post-college basement, and I’ve been a fan since. Russell was a classically trained cellist, and during his largely unremunerative career as a musician and producer in New York, he worked with Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, and David Byrne, among others. An enormous influence on fellow artists, he died broke, of AIDS, in 1992, leaving behind a lot of fragmentary or uncollected work. One of my favorite pieces, “A Little Lost,” is a spacey, droned-out, heartbreaking composition where Russell’s voice and lyrics blend with the shuffling strings, forming a sonic component of the track as much as a rhetorical accompaniment. It’s about love. Also death, I think. Songs usually are. Enjoy.
  • When you stare into the douche abyss, the abyss stares back. When it comes to cultural matters this pressing, yes, I will link to Buzzfeed. Just don’t look directly into Billy Ray Cyrus.
  • Allen Iverson was so cool. If I had a time machine, I’d zip back to 2001, kidnap dude, bring him back to 2014, and turn him loose on the NBA. Reminding us that sports are not just about the games, Jay Caspian Kang examines the continuing role of AI’s famous arm sleeve in his overall cultural cachet.

Weekend Verse: Auden’s Tables

W.H. Auden is the best. His feline sense of humor and mid-century Greenwich Village/Brooklyn Heights cool are part of that (see below), but his value mostly consists in his poems. If you haven’t heard of or read him yet, no problem; you will probably like his poetry, because Auden actually wrote with his reader in mind, which means he thought about how to coherently convey human experience within a text. He assumed that a reader would appreciate a poem that is at least somewhat situationally intelligible (i.e. where you can tell what basic human action, occasion, or event is at stake); serious without being pedantic or humorless (even an honest master like T.S. Eliot is frequently guilty of the latter); and musically pleasurable—and this, the human delight in rhythmic sound, is the heart of Auden’s work. Rhyme and a beat are what you want, not traits to be rejected because, I don’t know, Difficulty is good or whatever. His work is comforting in a way that much modern poetry isn’t, though it would be hard to justify calling much of it “optimistic.”

Any poet who wants to have many readers must be entertaining, just like a novelist, although of course entertainment is a small part of a writer’s function. Auden’s entire corpus gets at what Dana Gioia gets at in his 1991 (and still pertinent) essay “Can Poetry Matter?” (Answer: qualified Yes, if poets bother to write sonically pleasurable things that lay readers can make intellectual sense of, and avoid the arcane density pimped by some MFA holders.) No emotionally healthy person willingly reads much of anything they don’t enjoy on a dopamine level. Outside of the fantasies of academia’s most pious residents, abstract appreciation never led anyone to finish a book.

Auden writes criticism with the same attitude. Like any effective teacher, he is into cool things and wants to tell you about them, though he doesn’t particularly care about their present cultural cachet. In the introduction to the book which provides the amazing cat picture below, Richard Howard reports that, in the poet’s words, “criticism should be a casual conversation.” It should be accessible, sharing the author’s knowledge instead of flaunting it. (If you want to read more about this, the poet James Fenton, whose witty, form-conscious work owes a lot to Auden’s example, lucidly underscores the connections between poetry and critical prose in “Blake Auden and James Auden,” a lecture reprinted in The Strength of Poetry: Oxford Lectures, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux published in 2001.)

In all of his essays, lectures, reviews, introductions, forewords, afterwords, jacket blurbs, and sundry ephemera, you see the same thing as in the verse: profoundly compassionate humanist thinking that delights in language and ranges in philosophical content from funny to sorrowful to resigned to ambivalent to defiant. Guy is a nonfiction sibling of Dickens and Foster Wallace, and a poetic ancestor of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), a novel you should absolutely go find right now, because it is incredible. In the foreword to his own Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, Auden insists that “a dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained”; and then, lest he appear sanctimonious, he blasts himself for once “shamefully” espousing a “wicked doctrine” that “equate[s] goodness with success” (“History to the defeated / may say alas but cannot help nor pardon”) just because it sounded good.

Further, and lucky for us, a great deal of Auden’s conversation survives in the form of interviews (the Paris Review has a long one somewhere in their archives and in a paperback I’m not climbing into my attic to find) and recorded conversations like those comprised in Alan Jenkins’s Table Talk of W.H. Auden. Like Coleridge, Samuel Johnson (in Boswell’s Life of Johnson), and Orson Welles, Auden was a good talker. Even when he’s being flippant or getting bored with a topic, the man’s erudite intelligence is beguiling.

Perhaps more importantly, the cover of Table Talk is incredible. Try to stop looking.

Auden Table TalkYou can’t, can you? I got it for $4 in Portland a few years ago because someone at Powell’s didn’t do their homework. Not that it is the kind of rare tome Johnny Depp pursues in that documentary The Ninth Gate, but I still saved at least fifteen dollars. The walls of my studio are a cultural lifeboat. 

Here are some choice cuts. Keep in mind that despite being a gay cosmopolitan artist who hung out in Greenwich cafes and read Latin, Auden was also an Anglican Christian born in 1907, and he held some views that are now archaic, at least among coastal intellectuals.

On the replacement of public art with limbic pleasures:

Today [1947], the great question seems to be, should one write poetry at all? During the thirties the question was, what kind of poetry should one write? Should one write for the masses, for instance? But there was never any doubt whether or not one ought to write. The great question now is, what would give one pleasure? Ought one to write poetry, or fuck? (page 50)

On modern poetry:

I shouldn’t let anyone under 25 read Whitman, and Hart Crane is dangerous for the young. (57)


I think that Coriolanus is the most boring of Shakespeare’s heroes. Macbeth is pretty dull too. I’m extremely fond of The Winter’s Tale. Cordelia is really a silly little bitch. There are so many “No”-girls in Shakespeare’s last plays. He must have acquired a special actress who could play that sort of role. (55)

Reminding us that Oscar Wilde kind of sucks:

Wilde, after all, is important not as a writer—he couldn’t write at all—but as a behaver. Still he did say some very acute things.

On nineteenth-century English verse, which had its share of musically gorgeous fools and self-important nobs (that would be Shelley). This being Auden, he manages to bring sex into it:

Swinburne does what Shelley wants to do more successfully than Shelley. He lives entirely in a world of words, whereas some reality is always present in Shelley. I don’t think [Robert] Browning was very good in bed. His wife probably didn’t care for him very much. He snored and had fantasies about twelve-year-old girls. (97)

On how Americans often misprize British writers:

Samuel Johnson is a person not much appreciated in the United States. And the people who do like him are either like Yvor Winters [note: wonderful poet, aesthetically very conservative], or nasty types of Anglophiles who think they have to be rude and are usually Republicans. But Johnson was a great melancholic romantic and he wrote some exceedingly acute things. (18)

His qualified taste for pop culture:

Don Quixote is the only really Christian myth. You find a trace of it in L’il Abner in the Daily Mirror. Abner’s always trying to do someone a good turn, and it never works out. Superman and Little Orphan Annie ought to be on the Index. Henry Miller, certainly. Yes, Thomas Wolfe . . . [original ellipse] and Carl Sandburg—the prose is all right, but not the poetry. (59)

On the use of student evaluations of professors, and the narcissism of young Americans:

I’m really terribly annoyed over this teacher rating business. It’s democracy in the wrong place. It assumes that everyone’s opinion is as good as everyone else’s, which is simply not true. The result is that the teacher is encouraged to clown—to be an entertainer. But the teacher must know when he should be boring—something necessary for students sometimes. (57)

But they [undergraduates] begin with the idea that they are the important ones to be pleased—not taught—and that their untutored reactions should be the final judgement on their instructor. They’re so disobedient because that’s the way they’ve been brought up. (85)

Two for the ladies!

There are two things I don’t like. To see women drinking hard liquor and to see them standing at bars without escorts. Women should drink port with lemon. (39)

I don’t like it when women are nasty. Women are really supposed to be much nicer than men. That’s what they’re here for. Women shouldn’t be talked to on intellectual subjects because if they like you, they’ll agree without having any real opinions of their own. Oh, they are fun to talk gossip with. A few have real minds, but they usually make one feel uncomfortable. (66)

And for the men:

[. . .] America is really a very queer country. . . . All American writing [he singles out Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise] gives the impression that Americans really don’t care for girls at all. What the American male really wants is two things: he wants to be blown by a stranger while reading a newspaper and he wants to be fucked by his buddy when he’s drunk. (80-81)

Finally, the secret lives of cats:

Some Siamese cats are impossible because they keep continually crying. I’d rather have a tom. You know, they have a rugged time of it trying to service so many ladies. A friend’s was looking seedy. When he called the vet, the vet just laughed and said the cat would be fine once the rutting season was over. Cats will not let you work. They keep jumping all over you, try to attract your attention and just make a nuisance of themselves. (67)

But I believe we started out talking about poetry. So, to spruce up your weekend, here is “A Walk After Dark” (1948), whose rhymes and jaunty meter enhance, rather than reduce, its depth:

A cloudless night like this
Can set the spirit soaring:
After a tiring day
The clockwork spectacle is
Impressive in a slightly boring
Eighteenth-century way.

It soothed adolescence a lot
To meet so shamelesss a stare;
The things I did could not
Be so shocking as they said
If that would still be there
After the shocked were dead

Now, unready to die
Bur already at the stage
When one starts to resent the young,
I am glad those points in the sky
May also be counted among
The creatures of middle-age.

It’s cosier thinking of night
As more an Old People’s Home
Than a shed for a faultless machine,
That the red pre-Cambrian light
Is gone like Imperial Rome
Or myself at seventeen.

Yet however much we may like
The stoic manner in which
The classical authors wrote,
Only the young and rich
Have the nerve or the figure to strike
The lacrimae rerum note.

For the present stalks abroad
Like the past and its wronged again
Whimper and are ignored,
And the truth cannot be hid;
Somebody chose their pain,
What needn’t have happened did.

Occuring this very night
By no established rule,
Some event may already have hurled
Its first little No at the right
Of the laws we accept to school
Our post-diluvian world:

But the stars burn on overhead,
Unconscious of final ends,
As I walk home to bed,
Asking what judgment waits
My person, all my friends,
And these United States.

Friday Night Songs: Housman! Herrick! Springsteen!

By the time he finally died in 1936, the English poet A.E. Housman was forty years past his first and best book (1896’s chilling A Shropshire Lad), a dinosaur in the view of most living writers. The Waste Land, which helped create that thing college teachers tell you to call Modernism, came out in 1922, but in comparison to Housman’s language of experience, it might as well have been 2022. Housman hails from a late-Victorian England that knew it was vanishing, and which, in his case, largely took the form of a partially ironic pastoral language of tetrameter stanzas, waistcoats, pipes, elaborate mustaches, mossy pastures, bachelors, afternoon tea, diligent Latin (apparently some of Housman’s translations are still revered), and quiet middle-class homosexuality. Yet here it is 2014, and homeboy’s work is still in print for a damn good reason, which is that it is existentially timeless and metrically elegant, a hit song in poem’s clothing. Right now, the pears and cherries are blooming in California’s damp Mediterranean winter. This is the second poem from A Shropshire Lad:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It leaves me only fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

But not all the modern hotshots had dismissed or forgotten him. In 1936 W.H. Auden’s gift was blooming, and this entailed his lifelong embrace of forms (like ballad meter) that many of his avant-garde contemporaries found simple-minded and archaic; Philip Larkin, whose genius emerged in poems that rhyme and scan, followed Auden’s lead. Both men were Housman fanboys. If one were looking for the opposite of Ezra Pound’s tedious poetics, this line of English prosody would be it.

Housman, of course, is only possible because of who wrote before him. His work points back to Renaissance lyricists like Robert Herrick, John Skelton, Shakespeare (even if you left out the sonnets), and Ben Jonson.

Were any of these men suckers for slightly disheveled beauty, for women whose physical presences aren’t entirely, elaborately assembled, for scarves thrown on at the last minute and light makeup and holes in black leggings? At least Herrick (1591-1674) was! By the time he wrote—about a generation after Shakespeare—English was more or less modern, close enough for you, dear reader, to follow along. When this kinda-sonnet (it has fourteen lines but none have five beats) cruised into the world, you know panties were dropping all over London:

A sweet disorder in the dresse
Kindles in cloathes a wantonnesse:
A Lawne about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring Lace, which here and there
Enthralls the Crimson Stomacher:
A Cuffe neglectfull, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave (deserving Note)
In the tempestuous petticote:
A carelesse shooe-string, in whose tye
I see a wilde civility:
Doe more bewitch me, then when Art
Is too precise in every part.

Other routinely anthologized poems from Herrick are “The silken Snake,” “Her Bed,” and “Upon Julia’s haire fill’d with Dew.” I’m citing from this Penguin collection, which you should own and can probably find cheap if you look around; failing that, you could just drop the piddling $25 for a new copy. What, you needed those three Jameson shots?

More songs! Let’s pivot to an American artist. My residual graduate training still objects that this sort of ahistorical, trans-Atlantic, slipshod move is not a research convention that English PhDs get jobs by pulling, but luckily, especially for me, I’m not an academic literary scholar anymore. I took what I needed. Turns out that on the General Reader, you can link Shropshire to the Rust Belt.

Bruce Springsteen’s hollow-eyed tape-deck masterpiece Nebraska (1982) might best be listened to on hand-me-down vinyl on a Goodwill turntable on a scarred desk in a rented room in, like, Iowa. Maybe you need to be drinking bourbon out of a Dale Earnhardt glass to truly savor this record and its gorgeous cover, maybe you’re wearing old jeans the winter sun can shine through, maybe it’s sleeting and you’re heartbroken . . . We don’t know! Your humble critic has found at least a dozen emotions in this thing. Like much of Springsteen’s best work (all of it pre-1990), like most lyrics that compel you to remember them, the rhythm and the rhymes are based on careful repetition spliced with metrical variation: whatever chaos or melancholy the songs are dealing with, the language is organized. Sometimes it is even catchy. I don’t want to be a total bummer, and I shouldn’t always link to trashy rap videos, so here is “Atlantic City.”

Second track on the album, about as buoyant as the scene gets. Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty. Stay safe out there.

Topical Verse: Williams’s Widow

To simplify the literary-historical narrative a whole lot, William Carlos Williams is often placed in opposition to Wallace Stevens. To simplify this post, both poets are fantastic, and you should read as much of their work as you can starting right now.

Williams is reputedly the more “American” in voice and subject matter; not exactly plainspoken, but carefully ordinary. To the extent that such a thing is possible in writing, he tried—as he spent his career telling everybody who would listen—to build and arrange his lines based on what he considered the rhythms of mid-century conversation and thought. The lines usually break where one can imagine a person taking a breath, changing the subject, or shifting from one mental association to another. This might make you think of the parts of Ulysses that aren’t boring. Charles Olson, a poet I generally dislike but agree with here, praises texts where “The contingent motion of / each line” ending leaves us hungry for a qualifier or a completion. (Charles Tomlinson first explained that point to me.) Williams routinely achieves this effect with clever syntactic breaks (e.g. splitting text between a noun phrase / and the subsequent phrase / that elaborates on it), instead of the containment structures of end rhyme and accentual-syllabic meter. (Roses are red, violets are blue, / Even blogs are a kind of poetry, too.)

Meanwhile (goes the narrative), although Stevens’s work is likewise obsessed with the corkscrews of human thought, he cultivates an aristocratic, ornate, Europhilic, philosophically gregarious, iambically oriented style that plays around with but eventually confirms the Anglo-American lyric tradition, wherein a delicate subjectivity (such as the poet’s) absorbs, interprets, and responds to the teeming world. In other words, even when Stevens’s poems are tongue-in-cheek (“Unsnack your snood, madanna“) or jauntily nonsensical (“The Emperor of Ice Cream”), they aspire to at least sound rhetorically conclusive.

Ironically, this oppositional narrative encompasses and, to a significant extent, relies on similarities. The poets were about the same age. Both spoke Romance languages in addition to their native English; were well-educated Easterners; enjoyed theorizing exuberantly about the power of a world-remaking, almost mystical poetic “Imagination”; and became large literary figures by late middle age. And no garrets for them, they had serious careers outside of poetry. Stevens was an insurance-company executive, and Williams, a family doctor, delivered thousands of babies in north Jersey. (It was easier for middle-class male poets to have demanding day jobs back when wives would customarily take care of scrubbing the bathroom and cooking dinner. Shacked-up poets my age are rightly expected to split the chores. Bachelor poets of course handle one hundred percent.)

A number of critics, such as James Longenbach in Modern Poetry After Modernism, disdain the tidy Stevens/Williams split, along with other reductive mega-narratives about how some phenomenon called “modernism” led straight into whatever the hell “postmodernism” is, or about how Poet A influenced Poets B and C, who in turn bequeathed major parts of their sensibilities to Poet D, who, unlike Poet E, didn’t end up rejecting that aesthetic worldview. And so forth. Marjorie Perloff argues that Williams’s true foe was not Stevens but T.S. Eliot—Williams distrusted what he saw as Eliot’s patrician nihilism—while Stevens was actually the antagonist of Ezra Pound, whom by many accounts he considered a fraud. (Which isn’t an untenable opinion. Unlike Stevens and Williams, Pound was always—rather than just some of the time—pompously self-important about his views of Art and Culture, and when it comes to most of his work after about 1930 there isn’t enough musical pleasure to excuse or obscure a mind that revered Mussolini and deemed a thousand pages of largely incoherent bricolage the right sort of “epic” for the modern age—just try slogging through his Cantos. A few are good. Most will make your forehead throb.)

Still, the Williams v. Stevens deal is not entirely fatuous. The former’s writing truly is less bookish and more at home in the twentieth century, even its grubby parts, hence the well-known wheelbarrows, county hospitals, and baseball games. The USA of his lifetime didn’t unsettle him too much. Stevens, on the other hand, might have hailed from rural Pennsylvania, but in poems he often views the universe as a tourist or collector would. The man was detached about his detachment. Even when his poems name American places (Tennessee, Florida, Oklahoma, New Haven), they are not “about” or situated in those places, which in Stevens’s hands become emptied-out terms, or “shadow worlds,” as Perloff has it. His poems love the world yet aren’t completely comfortable there, so instead of presenting themselves as referential, they turn real spaces into what often seem to be stages, curio cases, dioramas, such as with the famous moonshine jar. Stevens is also a much bigger fan of commas.

But as the decades keep passing—these “modern” writers came onto the scene almost a century ago and were dead before JFK was—grand categories make little sense outside of academic careerism and scholarly quibbling. Besides, literary competition, whether cooked up by a writer or a reader, is stupid, because there is always plenty of language to go around. While it would be difficult to mistake one writer’s work for the other’s, style-wise, if you have read enough of Williams and Stevens they begin to sound like half-siblings. Not brothers, but not distant cousins either, and certainly not strangers.

So how to explain this? Like all poets who are good at writing poetry, whatever forms they prefer, Stevens and Williams sought to reproduce “radiant gists” (WCW’s phrase) of identifiable experience, a goal most readily realized in lyric poems, and indeed these dudes are at their best when they keep things under a couple pages and play up the overlapping sounds and lovely pictures. Unfortunately, each also wrote lots of long, uneven poems. Paterson, Williams’s epic, has numerous prosy stretches that suuuuck, while Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction is a congeries of lyrics, not a unified epic, a reality many scholars ignore in spite of the title. (NOTES!) Further, their strongest texts are visually acute, rich in half- and internal rhymes, frequently arranged into stanzas or couplets, and redolent of symbolism, in the sense that they tease the reader into thinking that some object (a bouquet, a fish, a factory) in a text represents a Bigger Concept, while also frustrating any attempts to track and clarify the perceived symbolism. They are both funnier than readers usually realize.

This poem, “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” (1921), isn’t a funny one, though. Like a lot of lyrics, it confronts death, in this case a death that has already happened; and like most lyrics written in English since about 1580,  it is based on the conceit that readers are overhearing a lone, conflicted speaker. That said, it is not a tragic poem. The widow’s marriage was long. She grieves immensely but her son is alive, and it is no catastrophe for a child to bury a parent. (The reverse is.) Although it would be a stretch to say that a feeling for nature is somehow healing her, the widow’s mourning is implicitly tied to biospheric arcs of death, decay, and regrowth. Williams’s debt to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and its quasi-ecological conception of eternity (“there is really no death“) is evident here. Anyway, I’ll stop talking. “Widow’s Lament” is great. Enjoy. You are lucky to live in a place in a time in the world where you can read poems. Don’t sleep on that.

Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before, but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
Thirty-five years
I lived with my husband.
The plum tree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red,
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they,
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.

Topical Weekend Verse: Adam Zagajewski, “At Daybreak”

Four years ago, when I was just a wee blogger, I wrote an embarrassingly fulsome review/appreciation of Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet whose work exists in a fantastic English translation. Read the ancient post if you dare; it isn’t very good, being far too emotional and impressionistic in terms of how it treats the writer’s themes, although the coverage of his form and style is not entirely stupid.

Fortunately for all of us, good poetry survives its readers, even ones who were green with fantasies of being a literature professor someday. I still ride hard for Zagajewski. If you read him, there is a good chance you will end up doing the same.

Like any writer worth one’s time, Zagajewski seems to actually think about the experience of his readers. While his poems—many of them not longer than a page—are by no means facile, they are intelligible: an attentive reader will be able to grasp the situation to which the lyric utterance responds, because unlike a lot of well-published living poets, Zagajewski is not taken with his own linguistic density or philosophical heft. (Google some Jorie Graham and try not becoming confused, then exasperated, then nauseated, then just bored.) Snobs and hacks go in for performative, intentional Difficulty, barfing out poems that elucidate nothing of the bewildering universe we inhabit because they mistake incomprehensibility for complexity. Poetry like that can win awards and endowed professorships. It also makes the world ugly. It piles aesthetic confusion upon a Lebenswelt that is already plenty confusing.

Zagajewski’s best work is conversational. Because this often involves “overhearing” a lone speaker thinking, he might remind you of C.P. Cavafy or the T’ang dynasty masters. His favorite pronouns are “I” and “you” (“Only in the beauty created /  by others is there consolation, in the music of others and in others’ poems. / Only others save us”). At least in translation—I don’t speak Polish—his lines shift between loosely iambic meters and prosier “free verse,” not intensely musical but based on a quiet lyrical hinging of clauses spread over line-breaks that generally don’t try to unsettle the reader (unlike the / work / of many poets these / days of /ours). That said, he isn’t above using strange enjambments here and there, and the man knows how to deploy internal rhymes and half-rhymes. His speakers are meditative without being impressed by their own minds or arrogant about their ability to concoct a decisive answer to some existential question; as such they come off as fundamentally decent men and women. His texts are visually rich, albeit not photographic, shaped by his incredible gift for metaphorical reconfigurations of the seen: you run across “the savage lamp of the jasmine” and a muggy summer sky that “hung above me like a circus tent,” you encounter “A black rooster” who resembles “a hot, black banner of blood,” you watch how “Memory will open, with a sudden hiss / like a parachute’s.” And he is heart-deep in the history of his native country yet avoids ideological score-settling or didactic lamentations about what happened in Poland during the past century.

The conversation between text and reader derives from, and reproduces, the conversation between poet and world. His speakers’ field reports on cities, on the local nature we encounter in populated areas, on travel (especially solitary travel), on reading and looking, are the core of his best poems. From 1991, this is “At Daybreak”:

From the train window at daybreak,
I saw empty cities sleeping,
sprawled defenselessly on their backs
like great beasts.
Through the vast squares, only my thoughts
and a biting wind wandered;
linen flags fainted on towers,
birds started to wake in the trees,
and in the thick pelts of the parks
stray cats’ eyes gleamed.
The shy light of morning, eternal
debutante, was reflected in the shop windows.
Carousels, finally possessing themselves, spun
like prayer wheels on their invisible fulcrums;
gardens fumed like Warsaw’s smoldering ruins.
The first van hadn’t arrived yet
at the brown slaughterhouse wall.
Cities at daybreak are no one’s,
and have no names.
And I, too, have no name,
dawn, the stars growing pale,
the train picking up speed.

Topical Verse: Philip Larkin, “Sad Steps”

Here is something to tide you over while I finish a gigantic Infinite Jest post that will go up within a few days. Surprise: it’s a poem! This lyric is “topical” in the sense that I love it, which is the main criterion behind whatever we crow about on the Reader. I can haul this one out from memory at parties. (Hey. Hey! Where’s everyone going?)

As a prose writer Larkin remains underrated. His essays about topics like early jazz, Sylvia Plath (a “horror poet” he admired), postwar British fiction, and Andrew Marvell are perceptive and witty, and his wonderful letters, which you should buy now, demonstrate that he was at once a bleeding-heart romantic, a cruel cynic, a self-hating hermit, a deeply kind man, a nasty political reactionary, a porn aficionado, a (sometimes downright evil) comic, and—what matters most—a poet with one of the sharpest critical sensibilities outside of Auden and Eliot.

Besides those two, Auden being his closest aesthetic relative, not many twentieth-century poets can match his music. Larkin rhymes. He scans. His poems are carefully rigged yet conversationally intimate. They often disguise and then slowly unveil their meditative depths. He published sparingly (like, Elizabeth Bishop sparingly), and while his poems are short, they are existentially enormous. So here you are. This is “Sad Steps,” written in 1968 and published in his final collection, High Windows (1973).

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate—
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.