Monthly Archives: May 2017
By R. S. Thomas
I turn now
not to the Bible
but to Wallace Stevens.
everything but the muse
what has the word-wizard
to say? His adjectives
are the wand he waves
so language gets up
and dances under
a fastidious moon.
We walk a void world,
he implies for which
in the absence of imagination,
there is no hope. Verbal bank-clerk,
acrobat walking a rhythmic tight-rope,
trapeze artist of the language
his was a kind of double-entry
poetics. He kept two columns
of thought going, balancing meaning
against his finances. His poetry
was his church and in it
curious marriages were conducted.
He burned his metaphors like incense,
so his syntax was as high
as his religion.
I stand with my back to grammar
at an altar you never aspired
to, celebrating the sacrament
of the imagination whose high-priest
notwithstanding you are.
By Troy Jollimore
At 4 in the morning on Oct. 9, 1980, Czeslaw Milosz’s phone rang. The caller was a Swedish journalist who informed him that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It can’t be true,” Milosz said, and hung up and went back to sleep.
This, at any rate, is the story Milosz told later. Most likely it isn’t true. But there is at least a grain of truth in it: Many people, not just Milosz himself, must have thought, “It can’t be true” on learning that the 69-year-old Lithuanian-born poet and author, who since the early 1960s had been laboring in obscurity as a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, had suddenly been transformed into a celebrity by winning the most prestigious literary prize on the planet.
In America, he was practically unknown as a writer; most of his work had never been translated into English. In Poland, his writings had been banned for decades, ever since his 1951 defection to the West, which followed several years during which he worked as a diplomat for the Soviet-controlled government that had run the country since the end of World War II. There were those in Eastern Europe who remembered him, some with antipathy, labeling him a traitor, others with fondness and admiration. His work circulated, unofficially and in often in small, hand-produced formats, despite the efforts of the Polish regime to squelch it.
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Never have met me, know me well,
tell all the world there was little to tell,
say I was heavenly, say I was hell,
harry me over the blasted moors
but come my way, go yours.
Never have touched me, take me apart,
trundle me through my town in a cart,
figure me out with the aid of a chart,
finally add to the feeble applause
and come my way, go yours.
Never have read me, look at me now,
get why I’m doing it, don’t get how,
other way round, have a rest, have a row,
have skirmishes with me, have wars,
O come my way, go yours.
Never have left me, never come back,
mourn me in miniskirts, date me in black,
undress as I dress, when I unpack pack
yet pause for eternity on all fours
to come my way, go yours.
Never have met me, never do,
never be mine, never even be you,
approach from a point it’s impossible to
at a time you don’t have, and by these byelaws
come my way, go yours.
Pluto – the non-planet, the ex-planet – is the dominant celestial influence in Glyn Maxwell’s new collection: Pluto is a book about change, the before-and-after of love, the aftermath of loss: change of status and station, home and place, of tense and pronoun. It also marks a radical departure for one of our most celebrated English poets: his formidable skills as a rhetorician and dramatist are suddenly directed inwardly, to produce poems of brutal self-examination, raw elegy, and strange songs of the kind those bruising encounters often leave us singing to ourselves. In Pluto, Maxwell has set out something like a metaphysic of the affair; the result is a lean and concentrated poetry of great emotional power, and far and away Glyn Maxwell’s most directly personal work to date.
by Jonathan Ellis
American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was one of the most praised poets of her generation. Yet she was never the most read or respected at the time. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965) both sold more copies than any of her collections, while Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) continues to take the critical plaudits as the key work of poetry for most post-World War II readers. Lowell was godfather to the Confessional poets. His gift was somehow to fuse the radical themes of Beat writers like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac with the formal ingenuity of poet-critics like Randall Jarrell and Allan Tate. As a teacher at Harvard in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, he also acted as an informal mentor to a new generation of younger poets, including Plath and Anne Sexton. Bishop’s influence, on the other hand, took time to make itself felt and is still something of a well-kept secret. While each of her four collections of poetry gained recognition from her peers in the form of various fellowships and prizes, this acclaim did not immediately translate into much academic interest or popular success. At the time of her death there was just a single critical book on her work, a short introductory study by the poet Anne Stevenson. Poetry readers knew her, if at all, as the author of the much-anthologised piece, ‘The Fish’ (Bishop called it ‘that damned Fish’,  so sick was she of requests to republish it).
Much has changed since the 1980s. Bishop, rather than Lowell, is the poet new writers usually cut their teeth against. She is a favourite poet of authors as diverse as Thom Gunn and Paul Muldoon, Jorie Graham and Louise Glück, Lavinia Greenlaw and Jo Shapcott. In fact, poets have been instrumental in raising Bishop’s profile, as well as providing some of the most acute and intelligent assessments of her work. Adrienne Rich’s 1983 review of Bishop’s Complete Poems is central to this. It was one of the first feminist readings of Bishop’s life and art, connecting ‘her experience of outsiderhood’ with ‘the essential outsiderhood of lesbian identity’.  While other poets disagreed with this assessment – notably Alicia Ostriker, who characterised Bishop in 1987 as one of those ‘poets who would be ladies’  – it laid the groundwork for women poets’ re-reading of Bishop in the 1990s as a more sensual and sexual writer than had previously been thought. The poetry of Deryn Rees-Jones in England, Caítriona O’Reilly in Ireland, and Sandra McPherson in America, all owe something to Bishop’s understated, almost invisible, focus on the human body.
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An early reminder that we’ll be discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28
BY JAMES WRIGHT
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Tom Schulman – Dead Poet’s Society.
A final reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing the poetry of Robert Frost this coming Thursday, May 25th. Among the poems to be discussed will be “The Road Not Taken.” Please see two previous postings about this poem: The Road Not Taken: The Poem Everyone Loves and Everyone Gets Wrong and The Road Not Taken: A Misunderstood Chestnut. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the complete list of featured poems.
When they say Don’t I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
Lowell’s confessional work of the 1960s marked a sea change in American letters – then he fell out of favour. But on the eve of his centenary, his work offers an urgent political message in a time of Trump
‘I was born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House,” wrote the poet Robert Lowell, “and under Pisces, the Fish, on the first of March, 1917.” With his aristocratic background – all the inherited furniture and ancestral portraits surrounding him as a child, as he recalled in the memoir 91 Revere Street – perhaps it’s no surprise, reading Lowell 100 years after his birth, that he was often preoccupied with the passing of time. “Thirty-one / Nothing done,” he writes in 1948. A decade later: “These are the tranquilized Fifties, / and I am forty.” In the elegiac Grandparents, he stands over his late grandfather’s billiards table and contemplates his own “life-lease”.
Lowell is best known for his fourth collection, Life Studies (1959). He abandoned the tight metrical forms of his earlier work for free verse, helping him articulate his experiences and the turbulence of postwar America. Radiant and unsettling, Lowell examines his parents’ unhappy marriage, his responses to their deaths and his bouts of manic depression, in a pioneering style of confessional writing (“the C-word,” as Michael Hofmann put it). His psychological insights are as sharp as the “locked razor” of Waking in the Blue; in the magnificent Skunk Hour, his clarity pierces the night: “My mind’s not right.”
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