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Monday, January 31, 2011

Number 54: Allen Ginsburg " A Strange New Cottage in Berkley"

A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley

All afternoon cutting bramble blackberries off a tottering
brown fence
under a low branch with its rotten old apricots miscellaneous
under the leaves,
fixing the drip in the intricate gut machinery of a new toilet;
found a good coffeepot in the vines by the porch, rolled a
big tire out of the scarlet bushes, hid my marijuana;
wet the flowers, playing the sunlit water each to each,
returning for godly extra drops for the stringbeans and daisies;
three times walked round the grass and sighed absently:
my reward, when the garden fed me its plums from the
form of a small tree in the corner,
an angel thoughtful of my stomach, and my dry and love-
lorn tongue.

-- Allen Ginsburg

Hap Notes: This poem is from Ginsburg's (1928-1997) book Reality Sandwiches and it was written sometime in the late 50s. Ginsburg moved from the East coast to the San Francisco area in 1954 and the poem delights in the natural beauty he probably did not see in New York much. Even the flotsam and jetsam of the industrial society he held in contempt, a coffee pot and an old tire, seem more tolerable and gift-like. The Bay Area in the 50s is a very different place now than it was then and it certainly must have seemed more wholesome and "strange" compared to the stacks of apartment buildings and slabs of parking lots in the east. He seems almost contented and contemplative in this poem.

Ginsburg is known, of course, for his quick-witted, sexually frank, enthusiastic, and often angry verses which have spawned countless poetry throw-downs and rants. One is always glad that people have outlets to unburden their souls and give an outlet to their anger, so it's not particularly necessary to criticize poetry like this, since, if they really wanted to write poetry they would study the form more and write it less.

Ginsburg was influenced by William Carlos Williams, whom he corresponded with, and William Blake, whom he had some sort of transcendent religious experience about, and Walt Whitman, whom he read and somewhat copied. Let's not forget that Ginsburg went to Columbia University where he wrote conventional verse that won him school prizes. It was Williams who wrote a letter to poet Kenneth Rexroth, introducing Ginsburg to the San Francisco poetry scene.

Ginsburg is one of the few poets that need little introduction since his antics, readings, beliefs and poetry have been lionized and copied for the last 40 years. He started writing in an explosive time for literature and the arts, a time when industrialization seemed to be forming people into mindless automatons. (Sometimes, on darker days, it seems as though the transformation is complete, doesn't it?)

He was an avid pacifist, a practicing Buddhist and a devout admirer of much of Hindu philosophy. Much has been made of him also being an avid drug user (mostly LSD and weed.) He felt they brought people to a deeper understanding of themselves and God. Early proponents of drug use, like Ginsburg and Timothy Leary, were under the impression that drugs would make people more conscious and spiritual. One doesn't know how to comment on this except to say that our contemporary drug problem is more a symptom of a greater societal problem than anything else. This is not what the "Beats" had in mind with their espousal of drugs. They didn't want to cause more misery, they were looking for enlightenment. Unfortunately, drugs turned out to be another band-aid to patch over the yearning soul. Until we repair the way we treat and educate people, we can look forward to drugs and alcohol to always be the duct-tape that will do a portion of the patching up on some people. (Oops- I wandered away from Ginsburg- sorry.)

Ginsburg and his confreres (Jack Keroac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Phillip Whalen, Lew Welch) were committed to free expression and freedom of speech in their work. Ginsburg helped found Beatitudes magazine, a poetry publication that gave the "Beats" their name. They were full of joyful sexuality (hetero, bi, and gay), sensual awareness and social consciousness.

Ginsburg suffers from the same trouble that Charles Bukowski suffered from i.e. when you get an adoring public forum you are allowed to do most anything you want and they will call it genius. They both sorely needed loving editors to sort out the bullshit, or at least craft it a bit. I'll point out, once again, that they wanted to be published. They thought enough of their work to want it to see permanent print. They wrote it out- it may have come spontaneously but there's a process of getting it from your head to your hand that automatically implies some thoughtfulness. Ranting and raving is what you do at your mom when you are 15. Just sayin'.

This poem isn't a rant at all, anyway. It's Ginsburg doing yard work. Enjoying a few plums. Feeling the bounty of a new place. Thinking of angels.

Here's a Ginsburg quote: "I really would like to stop working forever–never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I’m doing now–and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I’d like to keep living with someone — maybe even a man — and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence."

You can find more Ginsburg here:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Number 53: D.H. Lawrence "Mystic"


They call all experience of the senses mystic, when the experience is
So an apple becomes mystic when I taste in it
the summer and the snows, the wild welter of earth
and the insistence of the sun.

All of which things I can surely taste in a good apple.
Though some apples taste preponderantly of water, wet and sour
and some of too much sun, brackish sweet
like lagoon water, that has been too much sunned.

If I say I taste these things in an apple, I am called mystic, which
means a liar.
The only way to eat an apple is to hog it down like a pig
and taste nothing
that is real.

But if I eat an apple, I like to eat it with all my senses awake.
Hogging it down I call the feeding of corpses.

--D. H. Lawrence

Hap Notes: There are so many things in contemporary culture for which David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930) is responsible it's hard to know where to start pointing. I suppose his greatest impact is how we view sex and love, although Lawrence would blanch at the casualness with which we regard these subjects when he felt they were supremely holy. Those looking for prurient titillation by reading his banned book, Lady Chatterly's Lover, are usually astonished to find out that so mild a book was ever considered pornographic, especially when every cheap pulp romance novel one can now buy at the grocery store contains more sexually explicit details.

Lawrence also had great interest in Pagan rituals, Buddhist philosophies and mysticism. He was interested in anything that evoked the sacred sensual passions. He was brought up in a mining town in Nottinghamshire in a working class family, though, and he always considered himself a Christian and was not a hedonist. The mores of the 60s were precipitated by Lawrence, hence all the literature that came from it, but he was a fairly constrained man who was trying to balance, theoretically, the sensual with the intellectual.

If nothing else, Lawrence's life and his novel Sons and Lovers is the template for the (now cliched) scenario of the intelligent working class son who doesn't want to work in the mines with his brutal blunt father. The theme has been done to death, now, but Sons and Lovers was a revelation when it was published in 1913. Lawrence is one of the first writers, also, who felt that industrial society was draining the souls of men and he rails against this often. Much of "Chatterly" is about this, as well.

Lawrence's critical work, Studies in Classic American Literature, almost single-handedly revived the reputation of Herman Melville which is why you were probably asked to read Moby Dick for some class in either high school or college. (I have rarely met anyone who has read Melville's classic, although they were certainly assigned to the task. I do wish more people would read it all the way through- it's a wonderful book.)

I actually think Lawrence's poetry comes in a poor third with his novels and critical works coming first and his poetry and travel books neck-and-neck in the third spot. One thing about Lawrence that runs through each these things, though, is his extraordinary talent for description. He understands plants, animals, histories, colors, clothing, art and architecture and describes them with loving detailed strokes.

In the poem "Mystic" Lawrence is not just showing us that his tastebuds are refined enough to tell the differences in the flavor of apples. He's using the apple (an iconic symbol of the "fall" of man) to stand for all experiences. The one great thing that comes from Eve's tasting of that apple (regardless of the arguably questionable intent of the story), is our ability to appreciate the earth we have been consigned to live upon. Lawrence's era was not so different from own our in that any sort of deviation from the status quo was looked on with suspicion. Mysticism was a flaky lie, a fake thing. No matter how open-minded we say we are currently, there is no doubt that the "mystic" experience is still regarded with some contempt. Lawrence isn't giving "foodies" more criteria for tasting things. He is telling us to taste everything with the same awareness and that awareness will bring revelations to you. He wants you to experience all of life's flavors. The experience may be transcendent for you.

My personal experience with Lawrence's books are intensely mystic in nature. I was pretty sure that he wrote Women in Love expressly for me when I first read it at 15. All of his writing speaks to me from a spiritual place that hits to my core, as if I know him somehow. While his work often has the tang of adolescent ardor and passions, he never outgrew their depths and it's hard to fault him for this when one considers what passes for passion now. Lawrence is always wrestling with the concepts of love, our animal nature and the spiritual life. He confusedly blends them into one unified theory, sort of like science trying to find a theory that will unite Einstein and particle physics. I've always been impressed with Lawrence's efforts even if I don't always appreciate his conclusions.

What is beyond all his theories is his descriptive powers which are almost incomparable. He manages to describe flowers and clothing so perfectly that you see the colors and know that they mean something- they aren't just hues, they're statements. Like the apple he's tasting in the poem. Those who say his work and experiences are a lie, just have never been to the place in the soul he is describing.

Lawrence was prone to pneumonia and eventually succumbed to tuberculosis when he was only 45. He, at that point, had been well-traveled, widely condemned and incredibly prolific. This isn't his best poem, but it certainly hints at all the troubles he'd been through in one neat little round red package.

Heres a good Lawrence quote: "Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.”

and another: “I can never decide whether my dreams are the result of my thoughts, or my thoughts the result of my dreams."

Okay, one more:
“This is what I believe: That I am I. That my soul is a dark forest. That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest. That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back. That I must have the courage to let them come and go. That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women. There is my creed.”

( The graphic at the top today (1/30/11) is part of a painting done by Lawrence, who also loved to paint.)

You can find more of Lawrence's poetry here:
("Snake" is too long for us to do here but I highly recommend it.)

Number 52: Mary Oliver "Wild Geese"

Wild Geese 

You do not have to be good. 

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body 

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on. 

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain 

are moving across the landscapes, 

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again. 

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

-- Mary Oliver

Hap Notes: If Mary Oliver's (born 1935) poetry is looked on as missives she is writing to us as she takes her daily walk, who, I wonder, could not see them as love letters? And who can resist falling in love with her when she courts us with such dazzling descriptions and bright pronouncements? Of course, she is not in love with us, or at least, just us, but the natural world in all its remarkable beauty and mystery. She's sending fan mail to the earth.

Nature is the muse of Oliver like art was for Rilke. Her descriptions are lush and intricate (as when she describes the features of the bird in "The Swan") and never seem overly-sentimental or trite. I tire of the observance of both the literary critics and her fans that she uses "plain speaking" and "effortless language." Get real. You try to write with "plain English" like this and see how you fare. Her words are carefully selected and juxtaposed. "Plain English" doesn't sound like this. One of the hardest things to do in poetry is to write with this kind of beauty and not come off like a Hallmark greeting card that you would send to your grandma.

The call of wild geese is exactly "harsh and exciting"-- it's very a precise and well thought description. But she's not just reeling off description, she's telling you something harsh and exciting about the natural real world we live in- the one on which we build skyscrapers and parking lots and roads. She wants to bring you back to your body on the deep good dirt of the earth. You get the bounties of the earth just because you live- you don't have to be good or repentant to get this reward. What an extraordinary thing that is. Her poetry often exclaims this in amazement. The calls of the geese are not just the vague honking of birds but a wake-up call, reminding you of who your family really is, with all its harshness, beauty and excitement. The earth is sending you a love letter, too.

And doesn't "clear pebbles of the rain" strike you (no pun intended) as a wonderful way of describing it? The earth turns while we rejoice or despair, patiently reeling out strange beauty and sometimes harsh truths. What can compare to the wonders of the earth? No video game or movie or YouTube moment is as complex.

I don't know that the Rilke comparison is always so apt for Oliver but if he'd been born just outside of Cleveland instead of Prague, who knows? Oliver went to upstate New York and worked on Edna St. Vincent Millay's papers with Millay's sister Norma. Rilke worked with Rodin. The parallels have some little merit; they both describe the world through the filter of their muse. They both come up with startling statements. And Oliver actually uses a Rilke line from his breathtaking poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" in her poem "Invitation." You must change your life.

Oliver went for a time to both Ohio State and Vassar but took no degree. She's been a poet or writer "in-residence" at several colleges. She's won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award among many other honors. She is notoriously reticent about public appearances and prefers to let her work speak for itself. I suppose it's pretty obvious in her work, but she likes to take long walks around her home in Provincetown, MA. She calls the town a " marvelous convergence of land and water."

Here's a wonderful Oliver quote: “Whenever I would leave home, I would say ‘I’m going in. Whenever I would go back in the house, I would say ‘I’m going out.’”

You can find more Oliver here:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Number 51: Robert Frost "Choose Something Like A Star"

Choose Something Like a Star

O Star (the fairest one in sight), 

We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud --
It will not do to say of night, 

Since dark is what brings out your light. 

Some mystery becomes the proud.

But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn 

By heart and when alone repeat. 

Say something! And it says "I burn." 

But say with what degree of heat. 

Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade. 

Use language we can comprehend. 

Tell us what elements you blend.

It gives us strangely little aid, 

But does tell something in the end. 

And steadfast as Keats' Eremite, 

Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height, 

So when at times the mob is swayed 

To carry praise or blame too far, 

We may choose something like a star 

To stay our minds on and be staid.
-- Robert Frost

Hap Notes: Since we just had Auden's "star poem" here's Frost's take on the star, which in some ways is very similar to Auden. Except in the case of Frost, he's telling us that this distance between us and a star is what gives it the qualities we most enjoy. A case could be made like this for Auden's poem, too, really. Auden, though, is not afraid of the dark.

Frost rarely pulls his punches with his symbols, i.e. they seem to be fairly simple to sort. Light is good, dark is not-so-good (although in "Design" that's not exactly true.) That sort of thing. So people often mistakenly figure they "get" the poem. This is Frost's craftiness at its best because just "getting" the top two layers of the poem leaves the reader with the idea that Frost's simple statements are well-worn, charmingly expressed homilies. Go deeper into Frost, always, after the first few readings. He's got some time bombs in the poem and this one is no exception.

Already in the first verses we get a whiff of what's to come. "Some mystery becomes the proud," implies that the star is above us both literally and figuratively. Who else is thought to be above and over humans, we wonder. God, maybe? It's amusing to hear Frost yelling at this star- speak up, tell us something! Why will you not speak to us in language we can understand? It's frustrating. No need to point out the god-like reference there, eh?

The reference to "Keats' eremite" is to the poem "Bright Star, Would I Were Steadfast" where Keats compares a star to a Christian recluse or hermit, one who has taken vows to be contemplative. Keats says in his poem that stars are steadfast, faithful, immovable.

In the end Frost says we need to choose "something" like a star to keep us steady. People need their gods-- it's good to have "something" over us to keep us on the mark. Sure, the poem says that.

But look deeper. Just for a minute. You can look away, then. Frost wants you to look away- he lets us back out of this one fact: it does tell us something by telling us nothing. Yikes! Let's go back to those first two layers quickly before we get too freaked out. Because we're just looking at this "thing" that comes out in times of darkness. We see it then only. It says nothing back to us except "I burn" and "I'm up higher than you." Hmmm, that's not much of a god, is it?

The sun is a star isn't it? Why do we not choose to stay our minds with it? Because it's not a time of darkness. We don't need it. We pick the "fairest one in site" whatever or whomever your god may be. It may be slightly difficult to understand (obscured by clouds) and that's okay. But we need its light in the darkness. Frost is sort of telling us that we choose "something" to steady us that is "above" us when we need to get away from the "sway" (not steadfast or steady) of the mob- whether they are praising or blaming. We purposefully choose an indifferent mysterious "thing" we can look on with safety. Then we can interpret this proud, burning, indifferent thing anyway we need when it's dark for us.

And it certainly doesn't say much for people who are a part of that "mob." Sometimes it's almost as if Frost is saying "Look at the shiny thing!" as though dangling a set of keys in front of a baby. Choose "something" like a star, not someONE.

And remember he says, "it will not do to say of night," i.e. how did we get to the darkness in our lives so that we needed the star? Why are we in the dark-- so that we will go to the star? Kinda sadistic, ain't it?

Once, again. Not much of a god. You can go back to the top two layers of this poem, if you like. It's still a very good poem that way.

Always good to remember that Frost said he had a "lover's quarrel" with the world. Feel a little better now? He's a lover.

Here's where we've talked about Frost before if you want to review:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Number 50: W.H. Auden "The More Loving One"

The More Loving One

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

--W.H. Auden

Hap Notes: I've always thought that Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) was America's trade with Great Britain for T.S. Eliot, Auden having been born in England and taking American citizenship in 1946 and Eliot, born in St. Louis, MO, taking British citizenship in the 1930s. The difference being (sort of sad really) that we didn't protest much when Eliot left but Britain was horrified at Auden's leaving. In terms of poetic prowess, I might add, we got the better deal since we got Eliot's influence on Auden as well as the poet himself.

Auden was a brilliant, erudite and clever man skilled in all the forms of poetry and was so good at writing it that he can often reel them off a bit glibly. Whenever one reads criticisms of Auden the issues are never a question of his skill as a poet, it's about whether he genuinely meant it or not. Was he feeling it or was he just showing you his sharp expertise? He's got a good poem for every style in the field, really. He is stylistically and technically a virtuoso at playing the piano of poetry. He also wrote critical essays and I think his book The Dyer's Hand, a collection of his lectures, is essential reading for students of literature.

You may know Auden for his poem "Funeral Blues" from its inclusion in the movie "Four Weddings and A Funeral" and one of his finest poems "September 1, 1939" has been excerpted and truncated for many a poetry reading (especially post 9/11) and is famous for the line "We must love one another or die." One hates to see this used too freely but one loves to see it used. Auden later rejected the poem from inclusion in collections of his work but I believe it was mostly because the line was becoming an old shoe like Maya Angelou's "more alike than unalike" thing that gets rolled out all too frequently.

Regardless of opinions about his work, Auden's shadow looms large. He influenced countless poets and it is often remarked that the "Beats" were a reaction against the kind of poetry he wrote and inspired. His greatness as a poet is often disputed but, good grief, it's not hard to see that modern poetry would not exist the way it does and continues to do without Auden. His footprint is so massive that we don't always see that we are standing in it.

"The More Loving One" is a case in point about his work. First off, it's brilliantly casual. Then, one begins to see it as a parallel to other affections besides the one the poet feels for stars. The third stanza is a bit of bravado and the fourth, an admission of some vulnerability. This is pretty tight stuff, here. And of course, only the more loving one would write a poem, wouldn't they? The stars write no poems to us. And yet, Auden is a sly fox because if this is written to a person rather than a star, it certainly shows the poet to be capable of enjoying life without the loved one even if it would take some time. Hmmm. Stuff to wrestle with.

I often think of this poem in contrast with Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Love is Not All:

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.
-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Now, who do you think is the "more loving one" and why? What are the chances the poet will ever have an opportunity to "trade" her memories for peace or even food?

Auden's poem may be colder but is he more of a realist?

Here's a good Auden quote: "The interests of a writer and the interests of his readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident."

You can find more Auden here:

Number 49: John Ashbery "Sleepers Awake"

Sleepers Awake

Cervantes was asleep when he wrote Don Quixote.
Joyce slept during the Wandering Rocks section of Ulysses.
Homer nodded and occasionally slept during the greater part of the Iliad; he was awake however when he wrote the Odyssey.
Proust snored his way through The Captive, as have legions of his readers after him.
Melville was asleep at the wheel for much of Moby-Dick.
Fitzgerald slept through Tender Is the Night, which is perhaps not so surprising,
but the fact that Mann slumbered on the very slopes of The Magic Mountain is quite extraordinary—that he wrote it, even more so.
Kafka, of course, never slept, even while not writing or on bank holidays.
No one knows too much about George Eliot’s writing habits—my guess is she would sleep a few minutes, wake up and write something, then pop back to sleep again.
Lew Wallace’s forty winks came, incredibly, during the chariot race in Ben-Hur.
Emily Dickinson slept on her cold, narrow bed in Amherst.
When she awoke there would be a new poem inscribed by Jack Frost on the windowpane; outside, glass foliage chimed.
Good old Walt snored as he wrote and, like so many of us, insisted he didn’t.
Maugham snored on the Riviera.
Agatha Christie slept daintily, as a woman sleeps, which is why her novels are like tea sandwiches—artistic, for the most part.
I sleep when I cannot avoid it; my writing and sleeping are constantly improving.

I have other things to say, but shall not detain you much.
Never go out in a boat with an author—they cannot tell when they are over water.
Birds make poor role models.
A philosopher should be shown the door, but don’t, under any circumstances, try it.
Slaves make good servants.
Brushing the teeth may not always improve the appearance.
Store clean rags in old pillow cases.
Feed a dog only when he barks.
Flush tea leaves down the toilet, coffee grounds down the sink.
Beware of anonymous letters—you may have written them, in a wordless implosion of sleep

--John Ashbery

Hap Notes: John Ashbery (born 1927) has won every award you can win for poetry in the U.S. His eccentric mix of metaphor and memory and art is easily read but not so easily explicated. One of the things I'll say about his work that may or may not help you is this: stop making sense. Some of his poetry will puzzle you and it's purposeful. Some of it will hit you as just right and you'll not be able to explain why. Some of it will miss you; just let it go. Enjoy the ride.

Whenever you get too tangled up in the lives of men and women of letters, it's a good idea to read this poem. Ashbery is poking fun at our preoccupation with the lives of writers and their works. He's poking a little at them, too. Even if you wrote the greatest book of all time, you still have to sleep, you're still human, you still function pretty much like every other human being on the planet. Poets, to paraphrase everybody's grandpa, put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else. By the way, it's worth noting that sometimes these authors could put themselves to sleep with their work, let alone the reader.

While he's at it, Ashbery gives us a surreal litany, in the last nine lines of the poem, of self-help instructions. We read warnings and instructions like this all the time on the sides of aspirin bottles, in instruction manuals for power tools, in magazines, in recipes. We sleep-walk through a lot of this reading, just as we often sleepwalk through "the classics." The odd list is crafted to be familiar but with surprising twists. He's trying to wake you up.

Of course, I don't want to belittle how truly funny the poem is, either. One suspects a nervous Kafka never slept and who hasn't fallen asleep over a few of the whaling descriptions in Moby Dick or another long description in Proust? The Emily Dickinson line sums up, amusingly, the fairy magic of her work, and its often too-precious conclusions. These one sentence lines are hilarious, purposely glib, summations of the author's works. It's a fun poem to read. This alone, makes it wonderful.

Ashbery had the same kind of connections Frank O'Hara had to the art world and, at first, he wanted to be an artist. After he graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1949, he wrote art criticism for New York magazine and Newsweek and edited and wrote for many short-lived art and literature magazines. He's translated the work of several French poets (Jean Perrault, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, Ramond Roussell) and had a teaching career starting at Brooklyn College. He retired from Bard in 2008 but he still does packed-house readings all over the country.

Ashbery is certainly a major American poet. He has almost single-handedly dragged poetry with him into the late 20th and early 21st century when everyone else was flailing for a "voice." His voice has been strong and influential. I often think of Ashbery's fantastic and surreal poetry is him unwinding a Wallace Stevens poem and putting it back together as a Grace Hartigan painting. Sometimes his poems are more like spin-art and they're a bit harder to sift through. Just don't get too worried if you don't understand everything- who ever understands every little thing in every poem? And if someone does, or think they do; that doesn't mean they're right.

I suppose it's also worth noting that "Sleepers Awake!" is a well-known Lutheran hymn by Phillip Nicolai which is infused to a Bach cantata. The hymn is always scheduled in the lectionary for pre-Easter. It tells the story of the sleepy ten virgins with the lamps, five of whom had oil to light the way for the bridegroom (a Christ analogy), five of whom did not. So at midnight, when the bridegroom finally showed up (late, I might add), the women were sleeping and had to run out with their lamps to light his way. Sort of a "be prepared story." The Sleeper Awakened is an Arabian tale, also. There's something in that for the poem too.

Another thing to consider is where you are when you sleep. You may be writing yourself anonymous letters which take the form of dreams. What exactly is sleep? And isn't that list of instructions somewhat like an anonymous letter from the culture, which is often asleep at the wheel? Also, there is something to be said for the idea that much of writing is as inspired as a sleeper's dream. Who hasn't used some permutation of the phrase "they could do that in their sleep" to signify someone's easy talent? Just some suggestions.

Here's a good Ashbery quote: “I think I’m a rather funny person. I like my poems to include as many things in them as possible. Humor, tragedy, love, time, all the things that are traditional in poetry—I like having them happening all at once.”

You can find more Ashbery here:

Monday, January 24, 2011

Number 48: Percy Bysshe Shelley "Ozymandias"


I met a traveler from an antique land 

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, 

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear: 

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare 

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

---Percy Bysshe Shelley

Hap Notes: Shelley (1792-1822) is one of those poets you read in school, see his picture and think of him as being one of those pallid, "sensitive" types who lived in velvet breeches. He may have been that, too, I suppose, but he was mostly a free-thinking firebrand. He was an atheist who was kicked out of Oxford for writing his radical views. It is said when he attended Oxford he may have gone to one class once, but read 16 hours a day on his own. His father interceded to get him back into Oxford and if Shelley would have recanted his views in some atheist political pamphlet he wrote, he would have been allowed to be reinstated. He would not. He was 19 years old at the time.

He was never famous as a poet during his lifetime and wasn't even published much. He was, however, somewhat infamous as a political trouble-maker. He was a believer in the rights of the lower class and women, vegetarianism, non-violent protest (both Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi were influenced by Shelley's views), Irish independence and atheism. He was not afraid to write about this or argue about it.

Let's not make him into a sinewy hero, though. He was picked on and bullied at school when he was a boy. He had a high pitched voice and curly locks. But he had the heart of a lion to defend his idealistic beliefs (which were influenced by Thomas Paine, remember him?) I think Shelley got a pretty good whitewash job over the years as many have tried to depict him as only a gentle poet. His radical views have gotten a better airing over the last century but there are still too many that think of him as ethereal and quiet. Shelley was enthusiastically opinionated.

When he drowned in a boating accident in Italy (he was not quite 30), some snarky paper wrote "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is God or no." Nice, huh? Shelley was cremated on the beach (his remains were so eaten away Byron had to walk away from them) and his heart was snatched from the fire and given to Mary Shelley who kept it in a little silver box. The heart was buried many years later with Shelley's son.

Shelley, Keats and Byron were all friends but Byron was the popular hero, Keats was a sensitive and somewhat sickly man and Shelley was a hot-headed radical. I've often thought that Byron would have been the most fun to hang out with, Keats would have made a wonderful and brilliant friend and kindly Shelley would have set you aflame with ideas. I lean towards Shelley.

This poem is probably his most anthologized and famous work but did you know that it was part of a contest between Shelley and the writer Horace Smith? Poets from this era enjoyed competing with one another in a test of skill. We'll do another one of these contests soon that feature Keats, Shelley and Leigh Hunt. But" Ozymandias" was a duel with Smith. Here's Smith's poem:

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand." The City's gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
--Horace Smith

Please tell me you can see how Shelley's poem is far superior and not just because Smith titled his poem with the encumbering "On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below." Do you see how Shelley lets you draw your own conclusions and Smith feels it's necessary to explain what you should be thinking and thereby narrows his poem into a sliver of an idea? Contrast the phrases "Egypt's sandy silence" with "lone and level sands." What the hell is sandy silence compared with other silences? Is it different from dirt-y silence? And doesn't just the sound of the phrase alone make you think of the winds over the sands which are not silent at all? It sounds good, it just means the opposite of what it sounds like. In Shelley's poem we meet a traveler, in Smith's we get a judgmental narrator. Shelly shows us the face and the sculptor, Smith shows us a giant leg. Both poems have some merit. But Shelley is both beautiful and profound while Smith is merely thoughtful.

Here's an extraordinary Shelley quote: "Government has no rights; it is a delegation from several individuals for the purpose of securing their own. It is therefore just, only so far as it exists by their consent, useful only so far as it operates to their well-being. ... The only use of government is to repress the vices of man. If man were to day sinless, to-morrow he would have a right to demand that government and all its evils should cease."

You can find more Shelley here:

Number 47: Edwin Arlington Robinson "Reuben Bright"

Reuben Bright

Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.

And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Hap Notes: Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) spent the first part of his life as sort of an ink-stained wretch. He wrote poetry taking odd jobs to keep alive and lived in poverty. He went to Harvard for a couple of years but could not afford to keep going. Besides, he already knew he wanted to write since he was 11 years old. His first (revised) book of poetry Children of the Night met with little success and he just kept on plugging away despite some family tragedies.

For instance (and very relevant to Reuben Bright, actually) his mother died of "black diphtheria" and because no mortician would touch the body, Robinson and his two brothers had to lay her out, dig the grave and bury her (his father was already dead.) Her death came just a few days after publishing his first book of poetry. One of his brothers, Dean, overdosed on morphine and his other brother, Herman, married the girl Edwin loved but rejected because he wanted to write. Robinson decided to marry his work (although later in life he had lots of ladies who doted on him.)

He was a pretty dejected unknown until Teddy Roosevelt. I mean that literally.

Roosevelt, when he became president, requested Robinson to come to the White House. Teddy loved Children of the Night (his son showed it to him) and was stunned that Robinson was so poor and so unknown. He arranged for Robinson to have a job with the Custom House in New York. Robinson's job there was to come in, open his roll-top desk, read the daily paper and then leave, placing the paper on his chair to signify he'd been there. When Taft was elected, the job pretty much dried up, but Roosevelt tried to help Robinson by talking Scribner's into republishing Children of the Night and writing articles praising Robinson's poetry. The effect of the articles was somewhat like being part of Oprah's book club only without as much clout as Winfrey. Established literary critics didn't think TR was the best judge of literary quality. Robinson sold a few more books and that was about it.

Robinson's most enduring poems are ones like Reuben Bright; psychological character studies of people. He did eventually win a whopping three Pulitzer Prizes. So TR was right. Maybe Oprah is, too, who knows? Robinson was probably the most famous poet in America when he died.

Anyone who has been around the death of a loved one, especially from a protracted illness, knows the sick hollow feeling Bright has in the poem. The idea of butchering creatures would certainly not feel right after watching death take someone. Remember, too, that this probably isn't a clean white hospital death- his weeping made the women cry- women who were probably at his home to help him care for her, neighbors and the like. She more than likely died at home.

It's a heartbreaking portrait of a man's grief.

Robinson's technically clean, thoughtful poetry was influential to a variety of poets, notably Frost. Frost said,"His theme was unhappiness itself, but his skill was as happy as it was playful." Robinson's vocabulary is usually clear and quite modern. His work is shamefully undervalued today although he has contemporary champions in W.S. Merwin and James Dickey.

One of the most important qualities of Robinson's work, I think, is his compassion for his subjects- the people he creates. He doesn't judge- he tells you a story. The stories are about love and longing and laughter and grief. Life.

Here's a good Robinson quote: ""I don't expect recognition while I live but if I thought I could write something that would go on living after I'm gone, I'd be satisfied with an attic and a crust all my life."

You can find more Robinson here:

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Number 46: Pablo Neruda"We Are Many"

We Are Many

Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing
They have departed for another city.

When everything seems to be set
to show me off as a man of intelligence,
the fool I keep concealed on my person
takes over my talk and occupies my mouth.

On other occasions, I am dozing in the midst
of people of some distinction,
and when I summon my courageous self,
a coward completely unknown to me
swaddles my poor skeleton
in a thousand tiny reservations.

When a stately home bursts into flames,
instead of the fireman I summon,
an arsonist bursts on the scene,
and he is I. There is nothing I can do.
What must I do to distinguish myself?
How can I put myself together?

All the books I read
lionize dazzling hero figures,
brimming with self-assurance.
I die with envy of them;
and, in films where bullets fly on the wind,
I am left in envy of the cowboys,
left admiring even the horses.

But when I call upon my DASHING BEING,
out comes the same OLD LAZY SELF,
and so I never know just WHO I AM,
nor how many I am, nor WHO WE WILL BE BEING.
I would like to be able to touch a bell
and call up my real self, the truly me,
because if I really need my proper self,
I must not allow myself to disappear.

While I am writing, I am far away;
and when I come back, I have already left.
I should like to see if the same thing happens
to other people as it does to me,
to see if as many people are as I am,
and if they seem the same way to themselves.
When this problem has been thoroughly explored,
I am going to school myself so well in things
that, when I try to explain my problems,
I shall speak, not of self, but of geography.

--Pablo Neruda

Hap Notes: Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born Ricardo Eliezer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in Chile. His dad, a railway employee, didn't think much of his son's interest in poetry and literature so the boy changed his name to Pablo Neruda. ("Neruda" is in tribute to Czech poet Jan Neruda and "Pablo" possibly from Paul Verlaine.) He published his first book of verse when he was only 19. At 20 he published one of his most famous works, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada ("Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair"). It probably won't surprise you that, at this age, it was a book of (somewhat controversial) sensuous and erotic love poems. The book has sold millions of copies since its original publication. (In one poem he says "I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees"- whoever said THAT better?)

Neruda was an ardent communist due to a lot of political factors, one of which was Franco's domination of Spain. I can't possibly do justice to politics in South America but let's just say that he was deeply involved in politics throughout his career. Suffice it to say he started out liking Stalin and Lenin and, like many of their supporters, grew to dislike them for various reasons. (Khrushchev (remember Nikita?) called this "the cult of personality"- idolizing these political figures) While Neruda grew to dislike his former communist idols (thinking of them as heroic Nazi-crushers at first) he never lost faith in the theories of communism. Neruda served in various political and diplomatic posts throughout his career and then had to been hidden away when various regimes toppled in that whole South/Central American game of political musical chairs. Politics were important to him- that's the condensed version of this paragraph.

Neruda won lots of awards for his work and received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. He has been called the "greatest poet of his generation" all over the world.

Here's my favorite story about Neruda. He was giving a reading to about 600 people in Venezuela (he gave hundreds of readings all over South America and they were very popular, by the way.) After the reading was done- the audience was allowed to make requests. The first request was for "Poem XX" (#20) from "Twenty Love Poems" which starts out "Tonight I can write the saddest lines..." Neruda apologized, he had not brought that poem with him. At which point 400 people in the audience stood up and recited it to him. How awesome is that?

"We Are Many" is a great poem but don't take it solely as the confession of a man who has has been chagrined by his lapses in times of stress. He's saying something about the geography of where you are at each moment- when you are reading this where are you? Not the self-conscious reader but YOU- the real you. And by the way, who is that? And how are you different from anyone else's "you"? And where are they all? Are you the sum of your influences? Are you what you want to be? Do you will yourself to be someone you are or are not? Who, as the caterpillar so famously asked Alice, ARE YOU?

Neruda writes poems that are full of luscious and juicy metaphors. He writes poems to tomatoes and lemons and a tuna sitting in the fish market. He uses every color, flavor and fragrance in the lush world that surrounds us. No subject escapes his scrutiny- old shoes to beautiful women to sea creatures to plump squash. Because of his extensive use of so many words, phrases and idoms which are common to Spanish but unknown to English (other languages often have words we don't have. You knew that, right?) Neruda is notoriously hard to translate. But what has been translated is a revelation- an amazing technicolor dream of beauty, despair, loneliness and ardor.

We will do a lot more Neruda this year, I think.

Here's a good (and relevant to the poem) Neruda quote: "Someday, somewhere - anywhere, unfailingly, you'll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life"

You can find more Neruda here:

Number 45: Philip Levine "They Feed They Lion"

They Feed They Lion

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.

Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
They Lion grow.

Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.

From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

--Philip Levine

Hap Notes: Philip Levine (born 1928) grew up in a working class home in Detroit, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. He often speaks in his poetry of his jobs in the auto industry or his brother's job at the ice plant (his poem "You Can Have It" addresses this.) But this poem is about the distilling anger of the working man and, most specifically, the African-American working/lower class.

Levine said he wrote this poem in response to the 1967 Detroit Riot. The riot started after a police raid of an after-hours bar, street slang called an establishment like this a "blind pig." Confrontations with patrons and observers evolved into a 5-day riot that left 43 dead, 467 injured and resulted in 7,200 arrests and 2,000 buildings destroyed. LBJ sent in army troups to quell the disturbance. The only riot that exceeds this one is the 1992 L.A. Riot after the Rodney King verdicts. Levine calls the poem a "celebration of anger."

The poem smolders like tinder from the open stanzas- a litany of the oppressed, the poor, the over-worked working man living in the detritus of an industrial society. The poem builds as the refrain repeats, "They lion grow." The loose prosody of the poem allows you to think of the phrase as "their lion grows" and "They, lion, grow." Levine's use of what some would call Ebonics is from poetic admiration. He's not making fun of this clause, he's honoring it for its meaning, scansion and force.

By the end of the poem the smoldering is about to flare out into explosions of flame and pent-up anger. The narrator is revealed as a white man who understands the reasons for the impending flow of anger and violence.

Breaking off briefly to say here that Ebonics and the various other phonological American English dialect varieties are a wonderful and spirited expression of our melting pot culture. Our language has so many foreign words and expressions in it we come closer to being Esperanto all the time. Have you ever read the Gullah New Testament? It's a powerful and wondrous thing. I am 14th generation American, both my grandmother's and my grandfather's people were here in the late 1600s from England (that's right- we probably were stupid with the Native Americans-it's shameful)- you are more than likely my distant cousin if your family has been here longer than one generation. I am doubtful that your original American ancestors spoke English. I love the way America takes in every culture and enjoys and celebrates it- yours, too, but not only yours. I am happily amazed by the varieties of words and slang and accents we have- it's world treasure chest of phrases and words and sounds. If you want to speak and read strictly the King's English I suggest you move to England. Do it soon. Please. (Will now get off soapbox.)

Levine got his degree by taking night school at Wayne State while he worked at an auto plant. He later studied poetry at the University of Iowa with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Levine said Berryman was a brilliant teacher. Levine also admitted in an interview several years ago that he never paid for the class, he couldn't afford it, he just showed up every day. Berryman often commented on how Levine was left off the roles and Levine usually made some comment about bureaucratic snafus at the college and Berryman accepted this answer. Levine has won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Levine was strongly influenced by the work of Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats and William Carlos Williams. Levine is somewhat of a storyteller in his poems and while some of his poetry is autobiographical be aware that he is telling you a story and it's not always actually about him. For example, in the poems where he talks about his sister- he didn't have a sister. His many characters speak but they are not all personally confessional in nature.

Here's a Levine quote which may help you with the poem a bit:

"I was working alongside a guy in Detroit -- a black guy named Eugene -- when I was probably about twenty-four. He was a somewhat older guy, and we were sorting universal joints, which are part of the drive-shaft of a car. The guy who owned the place had bought used ones, and we were supposed to sort the ones that could be rebuilt and made into usable replacement parts from the ones that were too badly damaged. So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who'd then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in -- burlap sacks -- and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words "Detroit Municipal Zoo." And he laughed, and said, "They feed they lion they meal in they sacks." That's exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy's a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn't speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit -- I'd gone back to the city to see what had happened -- somehow I thought of that line. "There's a poem there," I said. "But I don't know what it is. And I'm just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates."

You can find more Levine here:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Number 44: Theodore Roethke "The Bat"

The Bat

By day the bat is cousin to the mouse.
He likes the attic of an aging house.

His fingers make a hat about his head.
His pulse beat is so slow we think him dead.

He loops in crazy figures half the night
Among the trees that face the corner light.

But when he brushes up against a screen,
We are afraid of what our eyes have seen:

For something is amiss or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face.

--Theodore Roethke

Hap Notes: Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) is one of my favorite poets due to his understanding of the natural world. He grew up in Saginaw, Michigan where his German immigrant father ran a large local greeenhouse. The name is pronounced "Ret-Ka", or that's close enough to get you by anyway.

The greenhouse (it's more like green houses- the place had many of them) run by his father and uncle, is enormously present in his poetry for a variety of reasons. As a child, Roethke spent a lot of time looking at and working around glass houses full of roses and orchids. His father was stern and mysterious man to Roethke. His dad died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide around the same time in 1923. So first, there's all that to take in.

Next, Roethke, like Robert Lowell, was diagnosed as a manic-depressive but Roethke's "attacks" of the illness were quite different from Lowell's. Roethke became animated and almost divinely enthusiastic in the manic side and he kept on writing during the depressive side. He thought it gave him another window into the world. He used it to write. If you read his poem "The Lost Son" he takes you on this mental journey and the poem is marvelous and sad and strange. It's always been one of my favorites. It's not so much about his illness as it is about his internal reality.

"The Lost Son," however, is far too long for our purposes here. Another favorite of mine, "The Waking," is a villanelle we'll do at some point. Roethke's poetry is super-loaded with botanical and animal references and they are a joy to read if you like to observe nature.

The bat picture above was taken with a microscope and it certainly is astonishing in its human qualities. This particular bat looks like a Jim Henson puppet with its wise eyes and grim expression. Roethke is telling us something about human beings in that we are both like wild creatures and frightened of our similarities. The poem is clever because it starts off like a cute nursery rhyme. The bat loops around in "crazy" figures, his pulse isn't normal, his hands are strange. Then the poet tells us-with a thud- he looks a little bit like us. Kind of amusing, more than a little startling.

Roethke was famous for giving readings of his poetry that were moving and grand. He was never afraid, in his poetry, to explore the unconscious mind and he was attracted to mysticism. One of his poetic heroes was, unsurprisingly really, William Blake. He taught at several universities (remember the Kunitz story?) and really found a teaching home at the University of Washington. One imagines Roethke's delight in the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest. He loved nature.

Roethke won a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards in addition to many other awards and fellowships. He was friends with many poets; had an affair with Louise Bogan, studied under Robert Hillyer, W.H. Auden was the best man at his wedding and he taught several contemporary writers including poet Carolyn Kizer, playwright David Wagoner and poet James Wright.

We'll spend more time with Roethke this year but here are a couple of good quotes:

"Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't."

and (very telling, I might add)-"You must believe: a poem is a holy thing -- a good poem, that is."

You can find more Roethke here:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Number 43: Charles Bukowski "So You Want To Be A Writer?"

So You Want to Be a Writer?

if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.

don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

-- Charles Bukowski

Hap Notes: Charles Bukowski, born Heinrich Karl Bukowski (1920-1994) in Andernach Germany, enjoyed his "outsider" reputation with relish. He loved to poke holes in "established" values by whipping out the seamy side of life in all its stinking glory. He reveled in readings at which he drank, cursed at the audience and made lewd remarks to the females in the group. This, in large part, was his schtick- it allowed him to make a living as a poet (which came late in his life, anyway- his 40s) and satisfy audiences full of sincere middle-class kids who wanted to see a ragged rebel poet tell off the world. He was allowed, indeed, even encouraged, to act exactly as he wanted to and he did not usually take the high road.

Bukowski was enormously prolific and wrote hundreds of poems. About fifty percent of those poems are mediocre diatribes describing a life of a man who felt abandoned by life, disgusted by the rigid routine lives we are forced into and who turned to alcohol to make it through the dim days of his ordinary street life. Another twenty-five percent of his poems stink on ice. Most poets write crappy, unsuccessful poems so I mean this as no particular slight to his work- but when his poems stink-- they reek. Then we have the last twenty-five percent which are revelations. They are inspired, riding on a tide of some universal magic and come "roaring out." All in all, that's not a bad average. But I caution you when reading his very easy-to-read work to listen very closely to what he is saying. Most of the time, he's weeping, no matter what he says he's doing. Okay, sometimes he's wailing.

This poem, taken from a posthumous 2003 collection of his work is a later poem, written in the first age of computers. While he doesn't quite come out and say it, I will: his work has spawned countless legions of young would-be poets writing utter crap or, at the very least, crap that should have stayed in their journals. He takes writing seriously in spite of his antic posturings. When he was first published, he made no money at all from it. He couldn't have bought a bus ticket to San Diego with the earnings. He wanted to be published. He thought enough of his work to want it to see print. Don't forget that, no matter what he throws at you to take you off the track. And man, this boy can throw some pretty harsh crap.

"Outsider" poetry is kind of a zen koan of a misnomer. If one is really an "outsider" it's difficult to get noticed- hence the name. Once you get a little small press attention, you certainly aren't in the main stream of contemporary literature but you're encroaching on its territory. Once you get published, you are more inside than out. You gradually become an "insider." It takes all your will power to stay "outside." It's almost impossible to achieve.

Bukowski is telling you as much in this poem. Writing has got to be something that burns a hole in your soul-- it hurts- this drive, if you don't do it- he gives ample illustrations of this. You don't care whether you are outside or inside- you just write to save your sanity, your soul, your life. And you don't have to say to your mate or your pals, "I've written this new poem and I need you to tell me if it's okay." It would be nice to think he is trying to save us all from those people. I choose to think of this as a little gift Bukowski is trying to give us. You can publish yourself in this era. So shut up and write.

Bukowski is a mass of contradictions, just as we all are. He was more literate than he pretended not to be, just read his poem on Carson McCullers. He wrote that heartbreaking Bluebird poem; he has substance and style. Everybody tries to steal his muse. He is still a bone in the throat of literature for many reasons. He's trying to clean up his mess in this poem- the mess he left by inspiring a lot of middle-class kids to write their despair in the "style" of Bukowski.

There is something wonderful in a poet who inspires this kind of imitation and something horrible, too. That's Bukowski's curse. There is a great deal of value in opening up the flood gates of poetry and letting in the deluge. Just as there's something wonderful in the idea of the internet allowing us all to write whatever we want in fits and starts of self expression.

But there's a cautionary tale here, too, because not everything you read on the internet is worth your time-- it's ill conceived, juvenile, mean-spirited and banal (and that's the nicest thing one can say about it.) The same goes for poetry. Bukowski saw this. Just because he had a bottle of beer in his hand, a sex drive and a voice full of gravel does not mean he should be taken at face value like so much of the imitative poetry he inadvertently fathered.

Sometimes, though, his poems, his imitators and the internet yield up diamonds that would have been ignored or hidden forever. Remember Keats with "Chapman's Homer"? When you find the hidden diamonds you are struck with profound awe. Bukowski can do that to you, too.

Here's a good Bukowski quote: "If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is."

You can find more Bukowski here:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Number 42: Alberto Blanco "The Parakeets"

The Parakeets

They talk all day
and when it starts to get dark
they lower their voices
to converse with their own shadows
and with the silence.

They are like everybody
—the parakeets—
all day chatter,
and at night bad dreams.

With their gold rings
on their clever faces,
brilliant feathers
and the heart restless
with speech...

They are like everybody,
—the parakeets—
the ones that talk best
have separate cages.

--Alberto Blanco
translated by W. S. Merwin

Hap Notes: Mexican poet Alberto Blanco (born 1951) is not only a writer of poems, essays and children's books. He is also an artists who makes collages, sculpts and paints. He has been in a couple of rock/jazz groups as a singer and/or keyboardist. (It seems almost obligatory for people to be in a band at one point in their lives now, doesn't it?)

Blanco is a busy guy with art shows, writing, poetry readings, seminar teaching and the like. He's published many books of poetry and they have been translated into at least a dozen languages. A man of many interests, he studied chemistry and philosophy in college and got his Master's degree in Asian Studies.

His poetry can be about anything in his line of vision. His knowledge in so many fields gives him a wide range of subjects. He is particularly adept at zen-like conclusions.

In this poem he gives you things to think about. How and why does one converse with silence? Why is the heart restless with speech?

Here's a Blanco quote: "But, is there such a thing as an innocent work of art? No, because a work of art is a wicked proposal that is at once both an arrival and a departure..."

(The parakeet pictures at the top of the blog are my pals Dave (the green one) and Steve. Dave passed on about a year ago- he lived 10 lively curious years. Steve is a slow starter but he loves hearing the Ramayana aloud when I read it.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Number 41: Gjertrud Schnackenberg "The Paperweight"

The Paperweight

The scene within the paperweight is calm,
A small white house, a laughing man and wife,
Deep snow. I turn it over in my palm
And watch it snowing in another life,

Another world, and from this scene learn what

It is to stand apart: she serves him tea

Once and forever, dressed from head to foot

As she is always dressed. In this toy, history

Sifts down through the glass like snow, and we

Wonder if her single deed tells much

Or little of the way she loves, and whether he

Sees shadows in the sky. Beyond our touch,

Beyond our lives, they laugh, and drink their tea.

We look at them just as the winter night

With its vast empty spaces bends to see

Our isolated little world of light,

Covered with snow, and snow in clouds above it,

And drifts and swirls too deep to understand.

Still, I must try to think a little of it,

With so much winter in my head and hand.

-- Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Hap Notes: Gjerturd Schnackenberg (born 1953) is a mighty sharp cookie and this poem is loaded with insights. Her earlier poetry has often been criticized as being too much like Robert Lowell's (which really doesn't sound that bad to me, actually) but this poem strikes a perfect balance between Lowell and Frost.

There is no way you can closely read this poem without being seduced into some deep introspection. There's so much stuff going on here; the cold, the people forever poised in their lives and "beyond our touch" in the snow globe. Then the poem turns asking if the husband can see "shadows in the sky"- from our hands ( and perhaps more?) The poem turns again and speaks of the winter night bending to see our winter lives covered with snow, with "drifts and swirls." The poet speaks of winter in the head and hand and we go back to the couple in the globe- untouchable in their eternal winter, and the poet? Lots of stuff to think on.

Schnackenberg has taught at a number of colleges and was Writer-in-Residence at Smith College and a visiting fellow at St. Catherine's at Oxford. She is highly literate and intelligent and her poetry reflects her deep reading skills and knowledge. She has won a number of prizes and fellowships including the Glascock Prize, the Berlin Prize and the Rome Prize in Creative literature. Much of her later poetry is somewhat eurocentric which isn't that surprising from a third generation Norwegian Lutheran whose father was a history professor.

You can find more Schnackenberg here:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Number 40: Stephen Crane "The Wayfarer..."

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
"Ha," he said,
"I see that none has passed here
In a long time."
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
"Well," he mumbled at last,
"Doubtless there are other roads."

--Stephen Crane

Hap Notes: I thought this might be an appropriate selection for MLK Day seeing as how Dr. King genuinely did speak truth to power and not everyone accepted that with grace and often reacted from fear.

Stephen Crane (1871-1900) is not as well-known for his poetry as he is for his classic novels (Red Badge of Courage, Maggie Girl of the Streets) and his short stories (The Open Boat, The Blue Hotel). Everybody read at least one of his books or stories in school if they went to a school that was even remotely literate.

I've always liked his poetry best, though. His spiny, compressed, sardonic parable-like verse is thought provoking and often elicits a wry and sad smile. He uses no rhyme and the meter is informal. It's over 100 years old yet it retains its modern detachment which isn't particularly surprising since Crane was one of the originators of the modern voice in prose; realistic, impressionistic and psychological.

Crane lived a short life (29 years) yet his output was generous; five books of fiction, two of poetry, two of war stories, three of short stories and lots of reportage. His friends included Joseph Conrad, Hamlin Garland, William Dean Howells and H.G. Wells. Hemingway was an admirer of his work.

The poem above probably needs no extra information to be understood but a good question to ask is, "Do we blame the wayfarer for not wanting to get cut/hurt? Do we accept the truth when it is painful?" The truth may set us free but it is not without peril. There is no old saying that goes, "The truth will make you safe." We maybe tend to think of truth as a simple thing but Crane implies it is not, and it is, at the very least, difficult and sharp.

Here's a good Crane quote: "Personally I am aware that my work does not amount to a string of dried beans- I always calmly admit it. But I also know that I do the best that is within me, without regard to cheers or damnation."

And another: "There is a sublime egotism in talking of honesty. I, however, do not say that I am honest. I merely say that I am as nearly honest as a weak mental machinery will allow. This aim in life struck me as being the only thing worth while. A man is sure to fail at it, but there is something in the failure."

You can read more Crane here:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Number 39: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe "The Erl King"

The Erl-King

Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”

"My son, 'tis the mist rising over the plain."
“Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh, come thou with me!
Full many a game I will play there with thee;

On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,

My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”

“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”

“Be calm, dearest child, ’tis thy fancy deceives;
’Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”

“Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;

My daughters by night their glad festival keep,

They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”

“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”

“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
Tis the aged gray willows deceiving thy sight.”

“I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”

“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”

The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread,—
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.


Hap Notes: Had I but world enough and time I would just sit around reading Goethe all day. He must have been made out of verses he wrote so many of them and most of them are awesome. And no, I didn't think you were stupid when I separated the speakers in colors for the poem- I just thought it would be easier to read if you didn't have to fight through the brambles of all those separate quotation marks.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), born in Frankfurt, Germany, was a true polymath. His I.Q. has been estimated at anywhere between 180-240. He's one of the most famous names and forces in literature so I'm assuming you've heard of him. His name is pronounced, for all intents and purposes, "Gerdta"- or at least that's close enough so that you won't be calling him 'Go-Eth'. He was an incredible intellect; he did early writings on evolution (pre-Darwin) and plant morphology, discovered a bone in the human jaw, wrote plays and poems, painted and drew, wrote influential works on color theory, and was interested in mineralogy and linguistics. Dig this- his poetry has been set to music or inspired works by Beethoven, Mozart, Berlioz, Gounoud, Listz, Wagner, Mahler, Schumann and Schubert, just to name a few.

Want something a little closer to home? You know that cute Mickey Mouse cartoon in Fantasia about the sorcerer's apprentice with the brooms and the buckets of water? That's based on a 14 stanza poem by Goethe, "Der Zauberlehrling " (or in English- the magic student or the sorcerer's apprentice), The music by Dukas was inspired by Goethe's poem.

Goethe wrote so much and was influential to so many that it's hard to explain his impact in Europe for the last couple hundred years. No European school child is unfamiliar with him (I interviewed a Norwegian techno-dance band in 2003 and the band guys were thrilled that I knew Goethe's work- Johann has still got some pull.) He's, at the very least, the Shakespeare of the German speaking world.

Goethe said he was inspired to write this poem after seeing a man taking his young son to a doctor in the middle of the night. The son was wrapped in a blanket and the man was hurrying along worriedly. You can project that the child in the poem was seeing things in the delirium of fever, if you want. But I like to think of the Erl-King as mystical and real.

The Erl-king, literally means the "Alder King." The alder is a tree (see picture above) and I like the idea of the Erl-King being a king of the woods. The images in the poem sort of point to an army of tree-creatures. However, many prefer to translate it as the "Elf King" and you can also think of him that way, too.

The Erl King/Elf King was originally found in Danish folk tales that Goethe had read. In the folk tales, the daughters are the ones trying to snare the humans.

Goethe wrote dozens of story poems and ballads like this one. We'll see more of him this year, too. If my German was better I'd have translated this myself but I stuck to one that rhymed. Many people have translated his work so you can find other versions of this poem, too.

Here's a wonderful Goethe quote: "Every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture, and, if possible, speak a few sensible words."

You can not only find more Goethe here, you'll find a whole book with illustrations:

Friday, January 14, 2011

Number 38: Buddhadeva Bose "Frogs"


The rains have come, and frogs are full of glee.

They sing in chorus, in loud, jubilant voices.

Nothing to fear today: no drought, no dearth of worms, 

Nor serpent's jaw, nor stones of wanton boys.

Cloud-like, the grasses thicken: in the fields the lush waters stand;

Louder leaps their hour of brief immortality.

They have no necks, but their throats are rich and swollen; 

And o, what sleek bodies, what cold gem-like eyes!

Eyes staring upward, fixed in meditation,

Ecstatic, lidless, like rishis gazing on God.

The rain has ceased, the shadows slant;

Hymn-like floats their singing, on the slow, attentive air.

Now dies the day in silence, but a sombre drone 

Perforates the twilight; the thin sky leans to listen.

Darkness and rain: and we are warm in bed: 

Yet one unwearied phrase mingles in our sleep- 

The final sloka of the mystic chanting, 

The croak, croak, croak of the last fanatic frog.

-- Buddhadeva Bose (also translated by Bose into English)

Hap Notes: Buddhadeva Bose (1908-1974) is one of the major Bengali writers of the 20th century. He was a writing machine; he wrote novels, plays, poems, short stories, travelogues, memoirs and essays. He also wrote children's books, criticism and translations (he translated Baudelaire in Bengali). He was an editor and a publisher. You know the term "human dynamo"? It could be illustrated by his picture.

Bengali literature was influenced by the extraordinary work of Noble prize-winning writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Bose, while influenced by Tagore, was really the first to break through this and find his own voice. He inspired subsequent poets and writers to do likewise. (I'm very fond of the work of Jibanananda Das (1899-1954), one of the most popular Bengali poets and a colleague of Bose. We'll find some of his work, too.)

Bose did teach in the U.S. several times. He taught at Pennsylvania College for Women, Indiana University, Brooklyn College, Colorado University, Wesleyan College, and the University of Hawaii.

Here's what you probably need to know to understand "Frogs." A Rishi is a composer of Vedic hymns and a seer of sorts. Rishis were inspired to write through a higher state of meditative consciousness. A Sloka is a powerful two line prayer which describes the divine qualities of God.

It's a really charming poem. I love the idea of the frogs as meditative seers in the rain croaking out praises.

Here's an excerpt from Bose's Book, The Land Where I Found It All: "Our room in Ratankuthi had a large window that opened to the east. We had found it closed ever since we arrived, and had left it unopened. We were hardly ever in the rooms, and had paid scant heed to it. One afternoon, I was working at the table, plenty of wind blew in through the door in the south, yet it was very warm. Suddenly Makshirani came in and threw the window open. At once, great gusts of the untamed east winds blew away my papers, and amazed, we discovered a spectacular view lay before us. Alas, all those days we had left the window shut, and, unminding, robbed ourselves of such a feast that was ours for the taking."

You really cannot find much Bose poetry online in English but there is some here:

Number 37: John Keats " On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

--John Keats

Hap Notes: First of all, the picture of Keats (1795-1821) on the right is a 'lifemask' taken from Keats while he was very much alive in 1816- it's not one of those freaky death masks like they did of Washington or John Dillinger (there are two people who rarely occupy a sentence together!)

Keats, one of the most famous of the English Romantic poets, is talking about reading a translation of Homer by George Chapman (1559-1634). Chapman paraphrased much of the difficult dactylic hexameter of the original Greek into a more earthy and understandable English iambic pentameter or hexameter. There is nothing quite like reading a translation that reaches your heart and that's what Keats is so excited about. Keats knew Latin, most English school kids did, but not Greek. Keats had read other translations of Homer before (Pope's and Dryden's certainly). The Chapman translation was a revelation to him.

Keats' friend and teacher, Charles Cowden Clarke, gave Keats the Chapman translation and they stayed up all night reading it. Keats kept stopping in the middle of the reading to exclaim with excitement over some new passage that enchanted him. That morning, Clarke found this sonnet on the breakfast table. Keats had whipped out this (arguably) most famous of all Petrarchan sonnets in a couple of hours. (This made me exclaim aloud when I read this story!) I have no idea whether they are reading the Iliad, the Odyssey or both (Chapman translated both of them- I like to think they read both of them in one fevered sitting.)

Just imagine them staying up all night by firelight and candle-light reading this work. Have you ever read by candle-light deep into the night? There's a certain magic in it. (and a certain strain- it involves close reading.)

Keats is so excited by the translation that he mixes things up a bit. It was Balboa who "discovered" the Pacific ocean and was the first European to set eyes on it. Cortez actually first saw the Valley of Mexico from a peak in Panama in the province of Darien. Keats had been reading William Robertson's History of America and mixed up the two stories. He was going from memory and excited and tired and he came up with this brilliant poem so let's cut him a bit of historical slack here. Most of us could not write anything half so wonderful with Google and all 13 volumes of the Oxford English dictionary at our command. The point is, imagine what it was like to come over a peak of a mountain and see the vast, gorgeous expanse of the Pacific ocean for the first time- how heart-breakingly awestruck you would be.

The "new planet" he's talking about is probably Uranus which was discovered by astronomer William Herschel in 1781, important in the poem because it was not known to the ancients from the Greek isles he talks about earlier in the poem. So it's another "new" world, like the Cortez reference.

The octave (first eight lines) talks about the Greek isles and Homer, describing Homer's "territory", more or less. Homer is "deep browed" because he is thought to be brilliant and also sculptors always depict him with a brow wrinkled in thought. The sestet (last six lines) are what is called a "volta", a change as the poet now talks about the new worlds of discovery. Keats says he feels like he just discovered a "new world" with Chapman's translation.

The problem with all works that are translated is that you cannot read the words in the language yourself so you are counting on someone else with knowledge of the language to do so for you. Not everyone's translations will get the "feel" of the work- we are counting on another person to interpret each word for us, they are the filter the words are going through. When Faegle's translation of the Aeneid came out in 2006, everyone was aflutter, even now with a work written in the first century! (I liked it but I'm partial to the Fitzgerald version and the Browning version. Rolfe Humphries is good too. But the bits and pieces I've read of C.S. Lewis's version made me swoon.) My point is (yeah, I have one besides showing off how many translations of the Aeneid I've read (7)- I got obssessive) is that a good translation of a familiar work is like a bolt of divine lightning striking you. That's what Keats is so keyed up about.

I suppose I'm explaining it to death, here, since Keats' last four lines are elegantly perfect in their description.

Keats, by the by, was not a well-known poet during his short life. He trained to be a doctor, gave it up after he'd been fully trained in pharmacy and devoted his life, instead, to poetry. We'll surely do more Keats in the course of this year.

Here's a good Keats quote: "If poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all."

You can find more Keats here: