By Evan Kindley

Marianne_MooreIn January 1919, Marianne Moore wrote a letter—the first of many—to her fellow poet-critic Ezra Pound. Pound had initiated the correspondence after encountering some work Moore had submitted for publication in the Little Review, seeing in her work some similarities to his own. After politely deflating most of his conjectures (“The resemblance of my progress to your beginnings is but an accident so far as I can see”), she makes so bold as to advance an unsolicited opinion of Pound himself:

I have taken great pleasure in both your prose and your verse, but it is what my mother terms the saucy parts, which have most fixed my attention. In 1911, my mother and I were some months in England and happening into Elkin Matthews’s shop, were shown photographs of you which we were much pleased to see. I like a fight but I admit that I have at times objected to your promptness with the cudgels. I say this merely to be honest.
The whole passage has a typically Moorish ambiguity of tone—the attention she pays to Pound and his work is decorous, flirtatious, and disapproving in equal measure—but the phrase that jumps out is the penultimate one, which characterizes not Pound but Moore herself: “I like a fight but I admit that I have at times objected to your promptness with the cudgels.” This qualified, partially self-negating criticism encapsulates a characteristic mode of Moore’s writing, what I will call her “antagonism toward agonism.” This is not the same as a simple abhorrence of confrontation or violence; after all, Moore admits that she does “like a fight” and is, not incidentally, picking one here—and with a formidable opponent—by objecting to Pound’s aggressive behavior. But the fact that Moore, at this relatively early stage of the development of modernism and of her career, felt the need to register an objection, not to any particular attack of Pound’s but to his tendency to attack in general, is significant.

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Neutral Tones


Neutral TonesWe stood by a pond that winter day,

And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,

And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;

– They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove

Over tedious riddles of years ago;

And some words played between us to and fro

On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing

Alive enough to have strength to die;

And a grin of bitterness swept thereby

Like an ominous bird a-wing….

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,

And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me

Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree,

And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

Listen to the London Review of Books podcast of Seamus Perry and Mark Ford discussing this poem and the life and work of Thomas Hardy.

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On Sylvia Plath and the Many Shades of Depression


On Sylvia Plath and the Many Shades of Depression“I am only thirty,” the narrator of Sylvia Plath’s monumental 1962 poem, “Lady Lazarus,” announces early. “And like the cat I have nine times to die.” Like the biblical Lazarus, she has returned from the silent room from which one is never supposed to return; she also resembles Plath herself, who attempted suicide multiple times. Read in light of Plath’s history, her resurrections become the failures of both women’s suicidal attempts, a failure at once triumphant, in that she gets to live again, and tragic, for the same reason.
In an introduction to the poem for the BBC in December of 1962, Plath described Lady Lazarus as “a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also,” Plath added, “just a good, plain, very resourceful woman.”
For some of us, Death offers her hand more than once for a dance in her ballroom. We may want her to, fed up as we are with life, or we may be swallowed up by the grey of depression, not even fully realizing we have taken Death’s dark-nailed fingers in ours. We sway, her blue curls brushing our cheeks, her soft scent become almost familiar after the second time around the floor under the pink-black lanterns, but we always find ourselves, with rage or relief, back beyond the dancefloor, breathing. We fail to die, try as we might.
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Listen to Sylvia Plath read “Lady Lazarus”
Read also: “I’m an intelligence” by Joanna Biggs

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Robert Lowell

From The Kenyon Review, Winter 1946, Vol. VIII, No. 1
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.
As a young man Lowell had read deeply in the life and writings of his mother’s ancestor, the eighteenth-century New England theologian Jonathan Edwards. “He was an ancestor,” Lowell said, “but this doesn’t make our relation exactly personal – another grandfather.” Perhaps, but early on in Lowell’s life, Edward’s work impressed upon him a belief in the hardness of life and the need to summon the courage to face what the pain of the world would deliver him. Edward’s writings stamped Lowell’s religious and historical thinking, as well his early poetry. Lowell abandoned his initial plan to write a biography of Edwards, but he returned to his life and work as the inspiration for four poems, including one of his greatest, “Mr. Edwards and the Spider,” which was published in Lord Weary’s Castle in 1946. Thirty years later, a few months before he died, it was one of the poems Lowell read during his last public reading at Harvard.


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William Eaton


DICKINSON — SEX, SPANISH, STEWThe first law of American literature: Somewhere, somehow, in God only knows what language, you are always going to come across one more, intriguing—if not indeed great—Emily Dickinson poem. A poem that you have previously overlooked, or not even heard of. And yet, there it is, ready to reward your attention.
A rider: The poem might be about sex. Not sex like Henry Miller with his beloved Germaine du Café de l’Éléphant, soaping herself at the bidet and “murmuring all the while in that hoarse, cracked voice of hers that it was good, beautiful, a treasure, a little treasure.” But for heady sexiness we’re not going to improve on

        in the Isles of Spice —

The subtle Cargoes — lie —

I sit down to lunch at la Fondación Miró in Barcelona, a menu is brought. It includes snippets of poetry, including “Me desperté temprano saqué al perro”. English reverse translation: “I started Early — Took my Dog,” a Dickinson poem I had previously ignored.

May it not seem too vulgar or pretentious if my first comment in some connection to the poem is that, in addition to mon trésor, Germaine might have called her sex “ma chatte”—her Cat. And, shifting to biographical data and from sex to love, from petting to pets, I note that, in a letter to an older man who she at least admired and who had gone to England a few months earlier, Dickinson once wrote:

it is a suffering, to have a sea—no care how Blue—between your Soul, and you. The Hills you used to love when you were in Northampton, miss their old lover, could they speak—and the puzzled look—deepens in Carlo’s [her dog’s] forehead, as Days go by, and you never come.

It has been generally assumed, by the way, that—an unmarried woman in nineteenth-century western Massachusetts—Dickinson had little direct acquaintance either with sex or with the sea. Among other things, this may be to say that we do not understand what “direct acquaintance” could mean or involve. (And recent decades have brought increased speculations about a possible sex life. Or did she simply overhear her brother and his lover, who used her study for their adulterous trysts?)

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BY H. D.

LedaWhere the slow river   

meets the tide,

a red swan lifts red wings

and darker beak,

and underneath the purple down

of his soft breast

uncurls his coral feet.

Through the deep purple

of the dying heat

of sun and mist,

the level ray of sun-beam

has caressed

the lily with dark breast,

and flecked with richer gold

its golden crest.

Where the slow lifting   

of the tide,   

floats into the river   

and slowly drifts   

among the reeds,   

and lifts the yellow flags,   

he floats   

where tide and river meet.

Ah kingly kiss—

no more regret   

nor old deep memories   

to mar the bliss;   

where the low sedge is thick,   

the gold day-lily   

outspreads and rests   

beneath soft fluttering   

of red swan wings

and the warm quivering

of the red swan’s breast.

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Remembering W. H. Auden

From 1975: “There was nothing more admirable in Auden than his complete sanity and his firm belief in sanity; in his eyes all kinds of madness were lack of discipline.”

By Hannah Arendt

Auden-4I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends. Moreover, there was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity—not that I tested it, ever. I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, one who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the déformation professionnelle of the poet. In Auden’s case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like “Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm.” This kind of perfection is very rare; we find it in some of the greatest of Goethe’s poems, and it must exist in most of Pushkin’s works, because their hallmark is that they are untranslatable. The moment poems of this kind are wrenched from their original abode, they disappear in a cloud of banality. Here all depends on the “fluent gestures” in “elevating facts from the prosaic to the poetic”—a point that the critic Clive James stressed in his essay on Auden in Commentary in December, 1973. Where such fluency is achieved, we are magically convinced that everyday speech is latently poetic, and, taught by the poets, our ears open up to the true mysteries of language. The very untranslatability of one of Auden’s poems is what, many years ago, convinced me of his greatness. Three German translators had tried their luck and killed mercilessly one of my favorite poems, “If I Could Tell You” (“Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957”), which arises naturally from two colloquial idioms—“Time will tell” and “I told you so”:

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Time only knows the price we have to pay;

If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,

If we should stumble when musicians play,

Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,

There must be reasons why the leaves decay;

Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .

Suppose the lions all get up and go,

And all the brooks and soldiers run away;

Will Time say nothing but I told you so?

If I could tell you I would let you know.

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Corner Seat

Louise MacNeice

Corner SeatSuspended in a moving night

The face in the reflected train

Looks at first sight as self-assured

As your own face – But look again:

Windows between you and the world

Keep out the cold, keep out the fright;

Then why does your reflection seem

So lonely in the moving night?

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What Is Poetry?

Emilia Phillips

What Is PoetryThe question arises often in bookstore readings and writing workshops, cultural commentary and book clubs, and yet the answers remain slippery and incomplete, sometimes biased toward a particular aesthetic, other times umbrella-ed into compromising vagaries, all of which equally frustrate the long-haul poet and the beginning reader. A whole host of poets from Coleridge to Ginsberg have attempted to alchemize a pure-gold definition that would illuminate and charge poetry’s mission while delineating its borders. In A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch defines a poem as a “made thing, a verbal construct” and poetry as an “inexplicable (though not incomprehensible) event in language.” This latter definition suggests there’s a way into understanding what poetry is, even if we can’t neatly package a definition. Part of the reason why I love poetry so much is that it rejects synopsis, but its undefinability may be why it sometimes struggles to gain new readers, to appeal to the uninitiated. So how do we overcome this barrier?
For me, the best definition of poetry is the act and the experience of reading a poem. For every poem I read, I redefine poetry, little by little, so that I’m always, consciously or unconsciously, grappling with what it is and can be. This can happen poem to poem in a single collection, or it may arrive through the serendipitous juxtaposition of a poem I sought out and another that someone gave me. Just yesterday, I spent a lot of time with two poems, “Inversnaid” by Gerard Manley Hopkins and “At the Tribunals” by Patrick Rosal, while leading sessions on sound and music in poetry at a teen writing camp. In our discussion, we considered the ways in which the sounds of language can modulate emotion and tone; control the pacing; onomatopoetically produce ambient sound effects; and demonstrate movements and arcs in rhetoric and character. The river that Hopkins describes as a “rollrock highroad roaring down” seems to intone through the sounds of the language the very rush and fall described by the words’ meanings. The opening of Rosal’s poem chunks together hard “-ck” and “-d” sounds as he describes getting into fights as a kid—“Once, in a brawl on Orchard, I clocked a kid / with a ridgehand so hard”—and then, after the poem’s turn toward the adult speaker’s reflection, the sounds become softer, relying upon humming sounds like “-m” and “-n” or a shushing “-s” and its combinations with other consonants. I made a big to-do about these poets’ sonic strategies, and I felt satisfied that I knew what poetry can do.

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Philip Larkin

There is an evening coming in

Across the fields, one never seen before,

That lights no lamps.
Silken it seems at a distance, yet

When it is drawn up over the knees and breast

It brings no comfort.
Where has the tree gone, that locked

Earth to sky? What is under my hands,

That I cannot feel?
What loads my hand down?

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