20th Century Poets-15



Documentary and William Stafford reading his poem “Traveling Through the Dark”:

Traveling Through the Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car   
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;   
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,   
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;   
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;   
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,   
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

by William Stafford, 1914–1993

From The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1998 by William Stafford. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, MN

With Kit, Age 7, at the Beach

We would climb the highest dune,
from there to gaze and come down:
the ocean was performing;
we contributed our climb.

Waves leapfrogged and came
straight out of the storm.
What should our gaze mean?
Kit waited for me to decide.

Standing on such a hill,
what would you tell your child?
That was an absolute vista.
Those waves raced far, and cold.

"How far could you swim, Daddy,
in such a storm?"
"As far as was needed," I said,
and as I talked, I swam.

by William Stafford, 1914–1993

from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1998

M. J. Hummingway reads William Stafford’s “Ask Me”:


Ours are the streets where Bess first met her   
cancer. She went to work every day past the   
secure houses. At her job in the library
she arranged better and better flowers, and when   
students asked for books her hand went out   
to help. In the last year of her life
she had to keep her friends from knowing   
how happy they were. She listened while they
complained about food or work or the weather.   
And the great national events danced   
their grotesque, fake importance. Always

Pain moved where she moved. She walked   
ahead; it came. She hid; it found her.   
No one ever served another so truly;   
no enemy ever meant so strong a hate.   
It was almost as if there was no room   
left for her on earth. But she remembered
where joy used to live. She straightened its flowers;   
she did not weep when she passed its houses;   
and when finally she pulled into a tiny corner   
and slipped from pain, her hand opened
again, and the streets opened, and she wished all well.

by William Stafford, 1914–1993

from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems. Copyright © 1970 by William Stafford. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

To read all the drafts of Stafford’s poem “Tornado” [CLICK HERE]



It was hot. A size too large,
my wool winter suit scratched.
Indian summer flaring up through fall.
The shul's broken window bled sunlight
on the congregation; the Red Sea
of carpet parted the women from the men.
Mother next to daughter, father next to son,
flipped through prayer books in unison
trying to keep the place. Across the aisle,
my father wore a borrowed prayer shawl.
A black yarmulke covered his bald spot.

The rabbi unlocked the ark
and slid the curtain open. Propped inside,
two scrolls of the Torah dressed like matching dolls,
each a king and a queen. Ribbons hung down
from their alabaster satin jackets;
each one wore two silver crowns.
I wondered, could the ancient kings
have been so small? So small,
and still have vanquished our enemies?

The cantor's voice rose
like smoke over a sacrificial altar,
and lambs, we rose to echo the refrain.
Each time we sat down
my mother rearranged her skirt.
Each time we stood up
my head hurt from the heat, dizzy
from tripping over the alphabet's
black spikes and lyres,
stick-figure battalions marching to defend
the Second Temple of Jerusalem.

Rocking on their heels, boats
anchored in the harbor of devotion,
the temple elders davened Kaddish, mourning the dead.
Our neighbor who owned the laundry down the street
covered his left wrist out of habit--
numbers indelible as those
he inked on my father's shirt collars.
Once, I saw that whole arm disappear
into a tub of soapy shirts,
rainbowed, buoyant as the pastel clouds

in The Illustrated Children's Bible,
where God's enormous hand reached down
and stopped a heathen army in its tracks.
But on the white-hot desert of the page
I was reading, it was noon,
the marching letters swam, the regiments
wavered in the heat,
a red rain falling on their ranks.
I watched it fall one drop at a time.
I felt faint. And breathed out sharply,
my nose spattering blood across the page.

I watched it fall, and thought,
You are a Chosen One,
the child to lead your tribe.
I looked around the swaying room.
Why would God choose me
to lead this congregation of mostly strangers,
defend them against the broken windows,
the spray-painted writing on the walls?

Overhead, the everlasting light, a red bulb,
was burning. As if God held me in His fist,
I stumbled down the synagogue stairs
just in time to hear
a cyclone of breath twist through
the shofar, a battle cry so powerful
it blasted city walls to rubble.
I reeled home through the dazed traffic
of the business day--€”
past shoppers, past my school,
in session as usual,
spat like Jonah from the whale
back into the Jew-hating world.

by Jane Shore, 1947-


I’m here to kidnap my beloved aunt

from her apartment in Fort Lee, N.J.,

Flossie, my mother’s older sister,

born the year the Titanic sank.


But before she’ll let me kidnap her,

she hijacks me, steering her spiffy

high-tech walker across the street

into rush-hour traffic to the bank.


Breathless, I plead for her to stop.

Bypassing the flashing ATM,

waving her cane, she makes a scene,

repeating yesterday’s, before I came,


when she demanded that the teller

withdraw $5,000 in fives and tens,

and make it snappy, from her account.

The bank called the cops, the cops


called her doctor, her doctor

called me to please come ASAP,

extract her from her apartment house

and move her into assisted living.


She calls her walker her “wagon.”

She calls me by my mother’s name.

Now that both my parents are gone,

I am the responsible party.


I’m responsible and it’s no party.

After accusing her optometrist

of losing her bifocals, my aunt

pocketed his ballpoint pen,


the same pen she uses to sign for

the five grand in soft bundled bills

we stuff into tote bags like robbers.

She’s the brains. I’m her accomplice.


They can’t arrest us. There’s no law

against withdrawing money that is

rightfully yours. Back from the bank,

she’s too busy dumping her loot


into a drawer to catch me slipping

her car keys into my purse.

She insists on cooking us dinner.

My mouth waters for her brisket,


the only dish she’s famous for.

Instead, she fills a pot with milk,

stirs in a spoon of instant oatmeal,

turns on the gas, opens the fridge,


stares inside, as if she’s opened a book

and lost her place. Is she hungry?

Where’s her appetite? Come to think of it,

where’s her full-length sable coat?


Not in the closet where I saw it last.

Did she throw it down the incinerator

chute along with the garbage bags

she ghost-walks past the corridor’s  

numbered doors twenty times a day?

Is that fur warming a neighbor’s back?

Lost, her husband’s star-sapphire ring,

her strand of graduated cultured pearls,


her Chanel handbag, not a knockoff.

Lost, her lovely, sophisticated things.

Where did they go? Misplaced? Stolen?

She won’t let strangers inside her door,


no social worker, not even the super.

She points to snapshots of my daughter

among the rogue’s gallery on her desk:

“She’s very pretty, what’s her name?”


She says it again two minutes later.

And says it again five times more.

Though I’m afraid to leave her alone,

I lock the bathroom door against her.


I don’t want Auntie to see me cry.

I sit down on the closed toilet lid,

turn on the faucet, flush the toilet,

in case she’s listening at the door.


But she isn’t. She’s where I left her,

humming happily, perfectly in tune,


Unforgettable, that’s what you are.

by Jane Shore, 1947-

My Mother’s Chair

Coming home late, I’d let myself in
with my key, tiptoe up the stairs,
and there she was, in the family room,
one lamp burning, reading her newspaper
in her velvet-and-chrome swivel chair

as though it were perfectly natural
to be wide awake at 2 A.M.,
feet propped on the matching
ottoman, her orthopedic shoes
underneath, two empty turtle shells.

Like a mummy equipped for the afterlife,
she’d have her ashtray and Kents handy,
her magnifying mirror,
and tweezers and eyeglass case,
her crossword puzzle dictionary.

Glancing up and down, she never
appeared to be frisking me, even when,
just seconds before, coming home
from a date, at the front door,
I’d stuck my tongue into a boy’s mouth.

I’d sit on the sofa and bum her cigarettes,
and as the room filled up with smoke,
melding our opposite temperaments,
we’d talk into the night, like diplomats
agreeing to a kind of peace.

I’d feign indifference—so did she—
about what I was doing out so late.
When I became a mother myself,
My mother was still the sentry at the gate,
waiting up, guarding the bedrooms.

After her funeral, her chair sat empty.
My father, sister, husband, and I
couldn’t bring ourselves to occupy it.
Only my daughter climbed up its base
and spun herself round and round.

In the two years my father lived alone
in the apartment over their store,
I wonder, did he ever once
sit down on that throne, hub
around which our family had revolved.

After my father died, the night
before I left the place for good,
the building sold, the papers signed,
before the moving vans drove away,
dividing the cartons and the furniture

between my sister’s house and mind,
a thousand miles apart,
I sat on the sofa—my usual spot—
and stared at the blank TV, the empty chair;
then I rose, and walked across the room,

and sank into her ragged cushions,
put my feet up on her ottoman,
rested my elbows on the scuffed armrests,
stroked the brown velvet like fur.
The headrest still smelled like her!

Swiveling the chair to face the sofa,
I looked at things from her point of view:
What do you need it for?
So I left it behind, along with the blinds,
the meat grinder, the pressure cooker.

–by Jane Shore


In 1959, at Horace Mann Elementary
in North Bergen, New Jersey,
wearing white on Wednesday meant you were a virgin,
wearing red on Thursday meant you were a lesbian,
wearing green on Friday meant you were a tramp.

The gymnasium, with its locker room and showers
and drains, moldered in the basement.
Sanitary napkin dispensers were always empty,
and the changing room with stalls for privacy
had white flapping curtains that didn’t quite close.
I undressed, and put on my gray cotton gymsuit
out in the open with all the other girls.

The gym teacher, Miss Piano, wore a Dutch-boy haircut.
Her legs were as solid as a baby grand’s.
She called us by our last names, like privates in the army,
and clapped, as each girl climbed the ropes
and disappeared into girders and beams
and caged light fixtures on the ceiling.
When my turn came,
I gripped the lowest knot and dangled down;
my legs drawn up, I looked like a dying spider.

On wooden bleachers, chummy as sorority sisters
the lucky girls who had their periods
gossiped and did their homework
after handing Miss Piano a note from the nurse.
Where was my excuse?

After gym class, I’d undress in my own stall,
stuffing my gym suit back into its mildewed bag.
But first, I’d examine my underpants
for the red smear of “the curse.”
The last of my friends, the last of the last.
No luck. I’d swathe myself again
in my neutral clothing.

When one morning, I woke up,
two black ink blots staining my pajamas,
I dragged my mother out of bed to tell her.
We squeezed into the bathroom
as if into our clubhouse,
as if she were about to show me the secret handshake.

Blushing, leaking, I sat on the tub’s rim,
as if poised over the mikveh, the ritual bath.
Stuffed inside my underpants,
the bulky Kotex, safety pins, and elastic sanitary belt
I had stored in my closet for over a year.
My mother took a seat on the toilet lid.
“Ma,” I shyly said, “I got my period,”
then leaned over to receive her kiss,
her blessing.

She looked as though she were going to cry.
In her blue nylon nightgown, her hairnet
a cobweb stretched over her bristling curlers,
my mother laughed, tears in her eyes,
and yelled, “Mazel Tov! Now you are a woman!
Welcome to the club!”
and slapped me across the face–
for the first and last time ever–

This should be the worst pain you ever know.”

by Jane Shore, 1947-


Yale course Modern Poetry (ENGL 310) with Langdon Hammer:

Rob Crisell reads:


Simon The Zelot speaking after the Crucifixion; Frere = Mate, Companion

Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.

When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
“First let these go!” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Or I’ll see ye damned,” says he.

Aye he sent us out through the crossed high spears
And the scorn of his laugh rang free,
“Why took ye not me when I walked about
Alone in the town?” says he.

Oh we drank his “Hale” in the good red wine
When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere
But a man o’ men was he.

I ha’ seen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.

They’ll no’ get him a’ in a book I think
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.

If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”

“Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,” says he,
“Ye shall see one thing to master all:
’Tis how a brave man dies on the tree.”

A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.

He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.

I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men
On the hills o’ Galilee,
They whined as he walked out calm between,
Wi’ his eyes like the grey o’ the sea,

Like the sea that brooks no voyaging
With the winds unleashed and free,
Like the sea that he cowed at Genseret
Wi’ twey words spoke’ suddently.

A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea,
If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally.

I ha’ seen him eat o’ the honey-comb
Sin’ they nailed him to the tree.

by Ezra Pound, 1885–1972

Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” read by Tom O’Bedlam:

Sestina: Altaforte

LOQUITUR: En Betrans de Born.
     Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer-up of strife.
     Judge ye!
     Have I dug him up again?

  The scene is his castle, Altaforte. “Papiols” is his jongleur. “The
Leopard,” the device of Richard (Cœur de Lion).


Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.


In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When the tempests kill the earth’s foul peace,
And the light’nings from black heav’n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven skies God’s swords clash.


Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour’s stour than a year’s peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there’s no wine like the blood’s crimson!


And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears through the dark clash
And it fills all my heart with rejoicing
And prys wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might ’gainst all darkness opposing.


The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth’s won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.


Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There’s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle’s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges ’gainst “The Leopard’s” rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry “Peace!”


And let the music of the swords make them crimson
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
Hell blot black for always the thought “Peace”!

by Ezra Pound, 1885–1972


     En robe de parade.
Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,
And she is dying piece-meal
       of a sort of emotional anemia.
And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor.
They shall inherit the earth.
In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
       will commit that indiscretion.

by Ezra Pound, 1885–1972

Portrait D’une Femme

Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,
London has swept about you this score years
And bright ships left you this or that in fee:
Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
Great minds have sought you--lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind--with one thought less, each year.
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
Hours, where something might have floated up.
And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.
You are a person of some interest, one comes to you
And takes strange gain away:
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion;
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale or two,
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
That might prove useful and yet never proves,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;
Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,
These are your riches, your great store; and yet
For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
In the slow float of differing light and deep,
No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,
Nothing that's quite your own.
Yet this is you.

by Ezra Pound, 1885–1972


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

by Ezra Pound, 1885–1972




Veterans of the Seventies

His army jacket bore the white rectangle   
of one who has torn off his name.  He sat mute  
at the round table where the trip-wire veterans  
ate breakfast.  They were foxhole buddies  
who went stateside without leaving the war.  
They had the look of men who held their breath  
and now their tongues.  What is to say
beyond that said by the fathers who bent lower  
and lower as the war went on, spines curving  
toward the ground on which sons sat sandbagged  
with ammo belts enough to make fine lace  
of enemy flesh and blood.  Now these who survived,  
who got back in cargo planes emptied at the front,
lived hiddenly in the woods behind fence wires  
strung through tin cans.  Better an alarm  
than the constant nightmare of something moving  
on its belly to make your skin crawl  
with the sensory memory of foxhole living.

by Marvin Bell, 1937–2020  

Reprinted from Mars Being Red, Copper Canyon Press, 2007, by permission of the author and publisher. The poem first appeared in Gettysburg Review, Summer, 2007.


The Campus in Wartime 

Sweet corn sweetens the air by the gas station
as the Torah students hurry by to Hillel House,
the coatless short-skirted social butterflies
totter toward happy-hour double-drink specials,
the rabbi adjusts his tallis and the bartender
lines up the pints, half-pints and pitchers.
Three thousand of ours and thousands of theirs
are too many body bags to bury in the mind,
so while the gas of rotting bodies seeps up
from the ramshackle coffins and folded flags,
the young seek books or booze to soften the ache.
This year's few stalks of corn are one small
businessman's salute to the land. He may need
to fuel the air with toxic waste to earn a living,
but he has in mind the purity of original desire,
which some call sin but the half-Hasids know
as the life force, and the barflies toast. Let us study
the future, for it shall be the cradle of the past,
siring a blue abyss aflare in the lamp we call a sun.

by Marvin Bell, 1937–2020 

From Mars Being Red. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.


Two owls have perched at the property line,
and a scraping on the porch means the postman
is wiping his shoes before continuing
across the yards, three homes’ worth of catalogues
and ads, and the occasional letter, all cradled
in the crook of one elbow. I’ll be getting an offer
of money, a map to riches, a new future
that has come out of the blue. Today I finger
each envelope before opening, and I admit
I feel for wires and beads of plastic explosive
amid the saliva. The daily rags speak
of a dirty bomb. The government tells me live
in a wooden house with a hurricane lamp,
a gas mask, and flares, while it arms
an impervious underground temple from which
it can map the surface, choose a site
anywhere on the globe, and call down the rain.

by Marvin Bell, 1937–2020 

From Mars Being Red. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.


Written in April 1915, 21 years prior to the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit” (by Abel Meeropol):


Blackbird, blackbird in the cage,  
There’s something wrong tonight.  
Far off the sheriff’s footfall dies,  
The minutes crawl like last year’s flies  
Between the bars, and like an age          
The hours are long tonight.  

The sky is like a heavy lid  
Out here beyond the door tonight.  
What’s that? A mutter down the street.  
What’s that? The sound of yells and feet.    
For what you didn’t do or did  
You’ll pay the score tonight.  

No use to reek with reddened sweat,  
No use to whimper and to sweat.  
They’ve got the rope; they’ve got the guns,    
They’ve got the courage and the guns;  
And that’s the reason why tonight  
No use to ask them any more.  
They’ll fire the answer through the door—  
You’re out to die tonight.    

There where the lonely cross-road lies,  
There is no place to make replies;  
But silence, inch by inch, is there,  
And the right limb for a lynch is there;  
And a lean daw waits for both your eyes,    

Perhaps you’ll meet again some place.  
Look for the mask upon the face: 
That’s the way you’ll know them there—  
A white mask to hide the face.    
And you can halt and show them there  
The things that they are deaf to now,  
And they can tell you what they meant—  
To wash the blood with blood. But how  
If you are innocent?    

Blackbird singer, blackbird mute,  
They choked the seed you might have found.  
Out of a thorny field you go—  
For you it may be better so—  
And leave the sowers of the ground    
To eat the harvest of the fruit,  

by Ridgely Torrence, 1874-1950



On a train in Texas German prisoners eat
With white American soldiers, seat by seat,
While black American soldiers sit apart,
The white men eating meat, the black men heart.
Now, with that other war a century done,
Not the live North but the dead South has won,
Not yet a riven nation comes awake.
Whom are we fighting this time, for God’s sake?
Mark well the token of the separate seat
It is again ourselves whom we defeat.

by Witter Bynner, 1881-1968


Charles Simic reads his poem “Shelley”:


Butcher Shop

Sometimes walking late at night
I stop before a closed butcher shop.
There is a single light in the store
Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.

An apron hangs on the hook:
The blood on it smeared into a map
Of the great continents of blood,
The great rivers and oceans of blood.

There are knives that glitter like altars
In a dark church
Where they bring the cripple and the imbecile
To be healed.

There is a wooden block where bones are broken,
Scraped clean– a river dried to its bed
Where I am fed,
Where deep in the night I hear a voice.

by Charles Simic


Born on May 9, 1938, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Simic had a traumatic childhood there during World War II:


Neighbours leaned out of windows
To see a pretty girl pass by
While bombs fell out of the sky
And flames lit up the mirrors.

Our building was a roller coaster
We took a ride in every night
Wearing only our pajamas
And clutching a suitcase or a small dog.

It was like a street fair in hell.
Death had a shelf full of stuffed animals
At the shooting gallery
Where we were a row of ducklings

Marching in line with me tagging along,
Pulling a small toy truck by a string
While trying to make the sound of a motor
Rev up as it sits stuck in the mud.

by Charles Simic

The poem below was published in 2008 during the 2nd Iraq War:


     for Robert Bly

Evil things are being done in our name.
Someone scrubs the blood,
As we look away,
Getting the cell ready for another day.

I can’t make out their faces,
Only bucket and mops
Being carried down stone steps
Into the dark basement.

How quietly they hose the floor,
Unfurl the musty old rags
To wipe the hooks on the ceiling.
I hear only the sounds of summer night,

The leaves worried as always
By that nameless something
Which may be lurking out there
Where we used to keep the chickens.

by Charles Simic



My grandmother prophesied the end
Of your empires, O fools!
She was ironing. The radio was on.
The earth trembled beneath our feet.

One of your heroes was giving a speech.
“Monster,” she called him.
There were cheers and gun salutes for the monster.
“I could kill him with my bare hands,”
She announced to me.

There was no need to. They were all
Going to the devil any day now.
“Don’t go blabbering about this to anyone,”
She warned me.
And pulled my ear to make sure I understood.

by Charles Simic



Old men have bad dreams,
So they sleep little.
They walk on bare feet
Without turning on the lights,
Or they stand leaning
On gloomy furniture
Listening to their hearts beat.

The one window across the room
Is black like a blackboard.
Every old man is alone
In this classroom, squinting
At that fine chalk line
That divides being-here
From being-here-no-more.

No matter. It was a glass of water
They were going to get,
But not just yet.
They listen for mice in the walls,
A car passing on the street,
Their dead fathers shuffling past them
On their way to the kitchen.

by Charles Simic


The South Bank Show performs Carol Ann Duffy’s “Warming Her Pearls”:


for Judith Radstone

Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I'll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,

resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.

She's beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.

I dust her shoulders with a rabbit's foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.

Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head.... Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way

she always does.... And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.

by Carol Ann Duffy, 1955-


Six hours like this for a few francs.
Belly nipple arse in the window light,
he drains the color from me. Further to the right,
Madame. And do try to be still.
I shall be represented analytically and hung
in great museums. The bourgeoisie will coo
at such an image of a river-whore. They call it Art.

Maybe. He is concerned with volume, space.
I with the next meal. You're getting thin,
Madame, this is not good. My breasts hang
slightly low, the studio is cold. In the tea-leaves
I can see the Queen of England gazing
on my shape. Magnificent, she murmurs,
moving on. It makes me laugh. His name

is Georges. They tell me he's a genius.
There are times he does not concentrate
and stiffens for my warmth.
He possesses me on canvas as he dips the brush
repeatedly into the paint. Little man,
you've not the money for the arts I sell.
Both poor, we make our living how we can.
I ask him Why do you do this? Because
I have to. There's no choice. Don't talk.
My smile confuses him. These artists
take themselves too seriously. At night I fill myself
with wine and dance around the bars. When it's finished
he shows me proudly, lights a cigarette. I say
Twelve francs and get my shawl. It does not look like me.

by Carol Ann Duffy, 1955-

Read by Samantha Morton:


​'In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.'

​If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home-
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce- No- Decorum- No- Pro patria mori.
You walk away.

​You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too-
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert-
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.

​You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.

by Carol Ann Duffy, 1955-


Cecil John was the pen name of an English poet working in the colonial service in Central Africa from Oct. 1922 to March 1932.


TO SEE CECIL JOHN’S POEMS “IN AFRICA” AND “FIRST BORN” [CLICK HERE]  Note that “First Born” continues on the next page.




And if it snowed and snow covered the drive 
he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night
And slippered her the one time that she lied.

And every week he tipped up half his wage.
And what he didn't spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.
And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.

And for his mum he hired a private nurse.
And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.
And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.

Here's how they rated him when they looked back:
sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.

by Simon Armitage


His hair was a crow fished out of a blocked chimney
and his eyes were boiled eggs with the tops hammered in
and his blink was a cat flap
and his teeth were bluestones or the Easter Island statues
and his bite was a perfect horseshoe.
His nostrils were both barrels of a shotgun, loaded.
And his mouth was an oil exploration project gone bankrupt
and his last smile was a caesarean section
and his tongue was an iguanodon
and his whistle was a laser beam
and his laugh was a bad case of kennel cough.
He coughed, and it was malt whisky.
And his headaches were Arson in Her Majesty's Dockyards
and his arguments were outboard motors strangled with fishing line
and his neck was a bandstand
and his Adam's apple was a ball cock
and his arms were milk running off from a broken bottle.
His elbows were boomerangs or pinking shears.
And his wrists were ankles
and his handshakes were puff adders in the bran tub
and his fingers were astronauts found dead in their spacesuits
and the palms of his hands were action paintings
and both thumbs were blue touchpaper.
And his shadow was an opencast mine.
And his dog was a sentry box with no-one in it
and his heart was a first world war grenade discovered by children
and his nipples were timers for incendary devices
and his shoulder-blades were two butchers at the meat-cleaving competition
and his belly-button was the Falkland Islands
and his private parts were the Bermuda Triangle
and his backside was a priest hole
and his stretchmarks were the tide going out.
The whole system of his blood was Dutch elm disease.
And his legs were depth charges
and his knees were fossils waiting to be tapped open
and his ligaments were rifles wrapped in oilcloth under the floorboards
and his calves were the undercarriages of Shackletons.
The balls of his feet were where meteorites had landed
and his toes were a nest of mice under the lawn-mower.
And his footprints were Vietnam
and his promises were hot-air balloons floating off over the trees
and his one-liners were footballs through other peoples' windows
and his grin was the Great Wall of China as seen from the moon
and the last time they talked, it was apartheid.

She was a chair, tipped over backwards
with his donkey jacket on her shoulders.

They told him,
and his face was a hole
where the ice had not been thick enough to hold her.

by Simon Armitage

Lecture from a Yale course on Modern Poetry:


There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed—

Wrinkled and nearly blind
she lay and snored
rousing with anger in her tones
to cry for food,

Gimme something to eat—
They're starving me—
I'm all right I won't go
to the hospital. No, no, no

Give me something to eat
Let me take you
to the hospital, I said
and after you are well

you can do as you please.
She smiled, Yes
you do what you please first
then I can do what I please—

Oh, oh, oh! she cried
as the ambulance men lifted
her to the stretcher—
Is this what you call

making me comfortable?
By now her mind was clear—
Oh you think you're smart
you young people,

she said, but I'll tell you
you don't know anything.
Then we started.
On the way

we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,

What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I'm tired
of them and rolled her head away.

by William Carlos Williams, 1883–1963

The Widow’s Lament In Springtime

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

by William Carlos Williams, 1883–1963 


contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
shielding them from the too heavy blows
of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses

tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows
to pit against its beating, and sinks them pitilessly.
Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute

brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails
they glide to the wind tossing green water
from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls
ant-like, solicitously grooming them, releasing,
making fast as they turn, lean far over and having
caught the wind again, side by side, head for the mark.

In a well-guarded arena of open water surrounded by
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful, rare

as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace
of all that in the mind is feckless, free and
naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them

is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if feeling
for some slightest flaw but fails completely.
Today no race. Then the wind comes again. The yachts

move, jockeying for a start, the signal is set and they
are off. Now the waves strike at them but they are too
well made, they slip through, though they take in canvas,

Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows.
Bodies thrown recklessly in the way are cut aside.
It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair

until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind,
the whole sea become an entanglement of watery bodies
lost to the world bearing what they cannot hold. Broken,

beaten, desolate, reaching from the dead to be taken up
they cry out, failing, failing! their cries rising
in waves still as the skillful yachts pass over.

by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)