Monthly Archives: January 2016

Happy Birthday, Galway Kinnell

Galway_KinnellGalway Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 1, 1927. In his youth, he was drawn to both the musicality and hermetic wisdom of poets like Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. In 1948, he graduated from Princeton University, where he was classmates with W. S. Merwin. However, while Merwin studied with the critic R. P. Blackmur and John Berryman, Kinnell felt what he called in one interview “a certain scorn that there could be a course in writing poetry.” He later received his master’s degree from the University of Rochester.
by Galway Kinnell

On the tidal mud, just before sunset,
dozens of starfishes
were creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it as slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven.
All at once they stopped,
and, as if they had simply
increased their receptivity
to gravity, they sank down
into the mud, faded down
into it and lay still, and by the time
pink of sunset broke across them
they were as invisible
as the true stars at daybreak.

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Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry

By Howard Nemerov

Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle

That while you watched turned to pieces of snow

Riding a gradient invisible

From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.

And then they clearly flew instead of fell.


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Why poetry should be heard, not seen


THE RE-ENCHANTMENT OF POETRYThe proxy war in Syria between Russia and Turkey is only the latest of many clashes between these two great powers. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 left its mark in Anglo-American literature and culture, when it inspired the British songwriter Percy French to write “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” a comic ballad about the fatal duel between an Ottoman soldier and a Russian soldier:

The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir …

Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar,
And the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

Sung or recited, the ballad became a staple of vaudeville halls in Britain and college glee clubs in the United States. The late Thomas M. Disch told me he heard it recited at county fairs in the Midwest in the mid-20th century. MGM made a cartoon based on the ballad in 1941, called “Abdul the Bulbul Ameer,” which I remember having seen as a child in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the British actor and writer Stephen Fry portrayed the Russian count in a Whitbread beer advertisement on television.

Listen to Frank Crumit sing ABDUL ABULBUL AMIR (1927)

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by R.S. Thomas

SongI choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one

Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.

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A final reminder that we will be celebrating the poetry of Walt Whitman on Thursday, January 28

Please check the SCHEDULE PAGE for a list of Whitman’s poems to be read and discussed.

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Ask Me

by William Stafford

Ask Me
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

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by R. S. Thomas

WhereWhere to turn without turning
to stone? From the one side
history’s Medusa stares,
from the other one love

on its cross. While the heart
fills not with light
from the mind, but with the shadow
too much of such light casts.

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The Sojourner: The elusive Langston Hughes

Langston_HughesBy the time the British artist Isaac Julien’s iconic short essay-film “Looking for Langston” was released, in 1989, Julien’s ostensible subject, the enigmatic poet and race man Langston Hughes, had been dead for twenty-two years, but the search for his “real” story was still ongoing. There was a sense—particularly among gay men of color, like Julien, who had so few “out” ancestors and wanted to claim the prolific, uneven, but significant writer as one of their own—that some essential things about Hughes had been obscured or disfigured in his work and his memoirs. Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, and transplanted to New York City as a strikingly handsome nineteen-year-old, Hughes became, with the publication of his first book of poems, “The Weary Blues” (1926), a prominent New Negro: modern, pluralistic in his beliefs, and a member of what the folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston called “the niggerati,” a loosely formed alliance of black writers and intellectuals that included Hurston, the author and diplomat James Weldon Johnson, the openly gay poet and artist Richard Bruce Nugent, and the novelists Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, and Wallace Thurman (whose 1929 novel about color fixation among blacks, “The Blacker the Berry,” conveys some of the energy of the time).

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Rock and Hawk

by Robinson Jeffers

FalconHere is a symbol in which
Many high tragic thoughts
Watch their own eyes.

This gray rock, standing tall
On the headland, where the seawind
Lets no tree grow,

Earthquake-proved, and signatured
By ages of storms: on its peak
A falcon has perched.

I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,

But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final

Life with calm death; the falcon’s
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive

Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud.

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The Empty Bath

by Colin Burrow

IliadHomer: ‘The Iliad’ translated by Peter Green

At sandy Pylos (as Homer calls it) on the western coast of Greece it’s still possible to see the bathtub of Nestor, who figures in the Iliad as an ancient, well-meaning but rather long-winded hero. Nestor’s bath is a substantial piece of decorated terracotta fixed into a weighty base. It has sat in its present position since the late Mycenaean period (1300-1200 BC), which is roughly when the historical figures behind Homer’s epics are thought to have strode the earth.

Bathtubs play a small but significant role in the Iliad. At the end of Book 10 the Greek heroes Diomedes and Odysseus go into the sea to wash off the sweat they have worked up during a night mission in which they have slaughtered a dozen Thracians and captured their horses. Then they ‘climbed into polished bathtubs and bathed themselves’. The Greeks (or Achaians as Homer calls them) have been camping out on the shore near Troy for nine years, so it’s conceivable that they had equipped their huts with a full Nestorian en suite. Or maybe they packed portable baths in their hollow ships as they set off for Troy, on the principle that for a long siege you would need a lot of kit including if not the kitchen sink then at least the bath. Alternatively the presence of these bathtubs may be a sign that the free-standing episode related in Book 10 (traditionally called the ‘Doloneia’) was, as most scholars now believe, composed by someone other than ‘Homer’, who was a bit more prone to nod than the writer he emulated. But the magically appearing bathtubs at the end of Book 10 are a marker of a very deep-seated feature of Homeric poetry. Objects can be conjured out of the air by a set of rules for narrative plausibility which are not ours. Diomedes and Odysseus are rich and powerful. They are exhausted and they have been successful. Rich and powerful warriors have baths, so the bathtubs have to be there and must be ‘polished’. The way Homeric narrative deals with objects is determined not by probability or the laws of physics, but by social ambience, and by what a poet thinks an audience is likely to expect.

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