20th Century Poets–2

POETS ON THIS PAGE: T. S. ELIOT * EDWARD FIELD * THEODORE ROETHKE * LANGSTON HUGHES * LOUISE BOGAN * JAMES WRIGHT * GALWAY KINNELL * RICHARD HUGO * DAVID WAGONER * JOHN BETJEMAN

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Part I (of VI) of BBC program on T. S. Eliot:

Alec Guinness reads “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

John Gielgud reads Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”:

TO SEE THE TEXT OF THE ABOVE POEM [CLICK HERE]

LA FIGLIA CHE PIANGE [Young Girl Weeping]

        O quam te memorem virgo*

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.

by T. S. Eliot, 1888 – 1965

*the quotation is from Virgil’s “Aeneid”, I, 326 and may be translated: “O, how should I call you, virgin?”

TO HEAR JEREMY IRONS READ “PRELUDES” [CLICK HERE]

Read by Jeremy Irons:

Rhapsody on a Windy Night

Twelve o'clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one,
The street lamp sputtered,
The street lamp muttered,
The street lamp said, "Regard that woman
Who hesitates towards you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin."

The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things;
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
A broken spring in a factory yard,
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap.

Half-past two,
The street lamp said,
"Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter,
Slips out its tongue
And devours a morsel of rancid butter."
So the hand of a child, automatic,
Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay.
I could see nothing behind that child's eye.
I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.

Half-past three,
The lamp sputtered,
The lamp muttered in the dark.

The lamp hummed:
"Regard the moon,
La lune ne garde aucune rancune,
She winks a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners.
She smoothes the hair of the grass.
The moon has lost her memory.
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face,
Her hand twists a paper rose,
That smells of dust and old Cologne,
She is alone
With all the old nocturnal smells
That cross and cross across her brain."
The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices,
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars.

The lamp said,
"Four o'clock,
Here is the number on the door.
Memory!
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair,
Mount.
The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life."

The last twist of the knife.

by T. S. Eliot, 1888 – 1965




And now for something completely different:

CURSE OF THE CAT WOMAN

It sometimes happens
that the woman you meet and fall in love with
is of that strange Transylvanian people
with an affinity for cats.

You take her to a restaurant, say, or a show,
on an ordinary date, being attracted
by the glitter in her slitty eyes and her catlike walk,
and afterwards of course you take her in your arms
and she turns into a black panther
and bites you to death.

Or perhaps you are saved in the nick of time
and she is tormented by the knowledge of her tendency:
That she daren't hug a man
unless she wants to risk clawing him up.

This puts you both in a difficult position--
panting lovers who are prevented from touching
not by bars but by circumstance:
You have terrible fights and say cruel things
for having the hots does not give you a sweet temper.

One night you are walking down a dark street
And hear the pad-pad of a panther following you,
but when you turn around there are only shadows,
or perhaps one shadow too many.

You approach, calling, "Who's there?"
and it leaps on you.
Luckily you have brought along your sword
and you stab it to death.

And before your eyes it turns into the woman you love,
her breast impaled on your sword,
her mouth dribbling blood saying she loved you
but couldn't help her tendency.

So death released her from the curse at last,
and you knew from the angelic smile on her dead face
that in spite of a life the devil owned,
love had won, and heaven pardoned her.

by Edward Field, 1924

Tim Gracyk reads Edward Field’s “New Yorkers”:

MAE WEST

She comes on drenched in a perfume called Self-Satisfaction

from feather boa to silver pumps.

She does not need to be loved by you

though she'll give you credit for good taste.

Just because you say you love her

she's not throwing herself at your feet in gratitude.

Every other star reveals how worthless she feels

by crying when the hero says he loves her,

or how unhoped-for the approval is

when the audience applauds her big number--

but Mae West takes it as her due:

she knows she's good.

She expects the best for herself

and knows she's worth what she costs

and she costs plenty-
-
she's not giving anything away.

She enjoys her admirers, fat daddy or muscleman,

and doesn't confuse vanity and sex,

though she never turns down pleasure,

lapping it up.

Above all she enjoys her self,

swinging her body that says, Me, me, me, me,

Why not have a good time?

As long as you amuse me, go on,

I like you slobbering over my hand, big boy--

I have a right to.

Most convincing, we know all this

not by her preaching

but by her presence-it's no act.

Every word and look and movement

spells Independence:

she likes being herself.

And we who don't

can only look on, astonished.

by Edward Field, 1924



MY PAPA’S WALTZ

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

by Theodore Roethke, 1908 – 1963

from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, Anchor Books, 1974.

I KNEW A WOMAN

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

by Theodore Roethke, 1908 – 1963

BIG WIND

Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped?
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Creaking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.

by Theodore Roethke, 1908 – 1963

from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, Anchor Books, 1974.

To see Roethke’s “The Meadow Mouse” [click here]

DOLOR

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplicaton of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.

by Theodore Roethke, 1908 – 1963

Poem about Roethke’s father:

OTTO

1 

He was the youngest son of a strange brood, 
A Prussian who learned early to be rude 
To fools and frauds: He does not put on airs 
Who lived above a potting shed for years. 
I think of him, and I think of his men, 
As close to him as any kith or kin. 
Max Laurish had the greenest thumb of all. 
A florist does not woo the beautiful: 
He potted plants as if he hated them. 
What root of his ever denied its stem? 
When flowers grew, ther bloom extended him." 

2 

His hand could fit into a woman's glove, 
And in a wood he knew whatever moved; 
Once when he saw two poachers on his land, 
He threw his rifle over with one hand; 
Dry bark flew in their faces from his shot,— 
He always knew what he was aiming at. 
They stood there with their guns; he walked toward, 
Without his rifle, and slapped each one hard; 
It was no random act, for those two men 
Had slaughtered game, and cut young fir trees down. 
I was no more than seven at the time. 

3 

A house for flowers! House upon house they built, 
Whether for love or out of obscure guilt 
For ancestors who loved a warlike show, 
Or Frenchmen killed a hundred years ago, 
And yet still violent men, whose stacked-up guns 
Killed every cat that neared their pheasant runs; 
When Hattie Wright's angora died as well, 
My father took it to her, by the tail. 
Who loves the small can be both saint and boor, 
(And some grow out of shape, their seed impure.) 
The Indians loved him, and the Polish poor. 

4 

In my mind's eye I see those fields of glass, 
As I looked out at them from the high house, 
Riding beneath the moon, hid from the moon, 
Then slowly breaking whiter in the dawn; 
When George the watchman's lantern dropped from sight 
The long pipes knocked: it was the end of night. 
I'd stand upon my bed, a sleepless child 
Watching the waking of my father's world.— 
O world so far away! O my lost world!

by Theodore Roethke, 1908 – 1963

 



Yale lecture about Langston Hughes:

THE WEARY BLUES

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
   I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
   He did a lazy sway . . .
   He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
   O Blues!

Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
   Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man's soul.
   O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan--
   "Ain't got nobody in all this world,
      Ain't got nobody but ma self.
      I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
      And put ma troubles on the shelf."

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more--
   "I got the Weary Blues
      And I can't be satisfied.
      Got the Weary Blues
      And can't be satisfied--
      I ain't happy no mo'
      And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

by Langston Hughes, 1902–1967

Leyla McCalla performs her song based on the Langston Hughes poem “Song for a Dark Girl”

SONG FOR A DARK GIRL

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

by Langston Hughes, 1902–1967

CROSS

My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?

by Langston Hughes, 1902–1967

Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” read by Danez Smith:


MEDUSA

I had come to the house, in a cave of trees,
Facing a sheer sky.
Everything moved, -- a bell hung ready to strike,
Sun and reflection wheeled by.

When the bare eyes were before me
And the hissing hair,
Held up at a window, seen through a door.
The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead
Formed in the air.

This is a dead scene forever now.
Nothing will ever stir.
The end will never brighten it more than this,
Nor the rain blur.

The water will always fall, and will not fall,
And the tipped bell make no sound.
The grass will always be growing for hay
Deep on the ground.

And I shall stand here like a shadow
Under the great balanced day,
My eyes on the yellow dust, that was lifting in the wind,
And does not drift away.

by Louise Bogan, 1897–1970

CLICK [HERE] TO SEE THE TEXT OF BOGAN’S POEM “The Meeting”

THE CROSSED APPLE

I’ve come to give you fruit from out my orchard,
Of wide report.
I have trees there that bear me many apples.
Of every sort:

Clear, streaked; red and russet; green and golden;
Sour and sweet.
This apple’s from a tree yet unbeholden,
Where two kinds meet,-

So that this side is red without a dapple,
And this side’s hue
Is clear and snowy. It’s a lovely apple.
It is for you.

Within are five black pips as big as peas,
As you will find,
Potent to breed you five great apple trees
Of varying kind:

To breed you wood for fire, leaves for shade,
Apples for sauce.
Oh, this is a good apple for a maid,
It is a cross,

Fine on the finer, so the flesh is tight,
And grained like silk.
Sweet Burning gave the red side, and the white
Is Meadow Milk.

Eat it, and you will taste more than the fruit:
The blossom, too,
The sun, the air, the darkness at the root,
The rain, the dew,

The earth we came to, and the time we flee,
The fire and the breast.
I claim the white part, maiden, that’s for me.
You take the rest.

by Louise Bogan, 1897–1970



Great poem by James Wright:

TO THE MUSE

It is all right. All they do
Is go in by dividing
One rib from another. I wouldn't
Lie to you. It hurts
Like nothing I know. All they do
Is burn their way in with a wire.
It forks in and out a little like the tongue
Of that frightened garter snake we caught
At Cloverfield, you and me, Jenny
So long ago.

I would lie to you
If I could.
But the only way I can get you to come up
Out of the suckhole, the south face
Of the Powhatan pit, is to tell you
What you know:

You come up after dark, you poise alone
With me on the shore.
I lead you back to this world.

Three lady doctors in Wheeling open
Their offices at night.
I don't have to call them, they are always there.
But they only have to put the knife once
Under your breast.
Then they hang their contraption.
And you bear it.

It's awkward a while. Still it lets you
Walk about on tiptoe if you don't
Jiggle the needle.
It might stab your heart, you see.
The blade hangs in your lung and the tube
Keeps it draining.
That way they only have to stab you
Once. Oh Jenny.

I wish to God I had made this world, this scurvy
And disastrous place. I
Didn't, I can't bear it
Either, I don't blame you, sleeping down there
Face down in the unbelievable silk of spring,
Muse of the black sand,
Alone.

I don't blame you, I know
The place where you lie.
I admit everything. But look at me.
How can I live without you?
Come up to me, love,
Out of the river, or I will
Come down to you.

by James Wright, 1927–1980

a wonderfully funny prose poem:

THE WHEELING GOSPEL TABERNACLE

Homer Rhodeheaver, who was the evangelist Billy Sunday's psalmodist 
and shill at the offertory, did something in the year of Our Lord 
1925 that made both of my parents almost ecstatic with happiness all 
the rest of their lives until they died within a few months of each 
other in 1973.  

Just as the Reverend Doctor Sunday was admonishing the congregation 
in congress assembled with his customary warning that they warn't no 
virtue in the clinking of shekels, a wicked sound; just as the 
Reverend Doctor was in full oratorical blossoming cry in praise of 
each silken soft certain rustle of one twenty-dollar bill against 
another in the wicker collection-plate; just as the former semi-
professional baseball player of the Lord God Almighty Lord of Hosts 
was advising how as "Bruthern, a twenty don't take up no more room 
in that there plate than a wun" — it happened.  

One of Dr. Sunday's locally hired ushers glided to the minister's 
side and with ghostly discretion reported to the evangelical ear 
that the cops from Pittsburgh had just left Weirton, West Virginia, 
and were hurtling down the West Virginia Route Forty in their 
prohibition-style armored Cord cars, bound to catch Homer 
Rhodeheaver in full song. He was wanted in Pittsburgh on a paternity 
charge.  

By the time the Pittsburgh cops burst into the Wheeling Gospel 
Tabernacle, it was as empty and dark as the waiting-room of a 
speakeasy. Where had the brethren gone? Some thought that Dr. 
Sunday ascended. I lean toward the opinion that the two laborers in 
the vineyards of the Lord skinned the populace of Benwood down the 
river the next day, and that possibly Homer had time between hymns 
to make some lonely widow happy.  

The year was 1925. My mother and father got one of their chances to 
laugh like hell for the sheer joy of laughter before the Great 
Depression began.

by James Wright, 1927–1980

This reading includes his great elegy for Pres. Warren G. Harding:


The late Galway Kinnell recites his poem “The Bear”:

PULLING A NAIL

In the year of my birth
my father buried this spike,
half in hemlock half in oak,
battered the flat of its head
into the dead center
of the round dent of his last blow.

He would have struck
in quick strokes filled
with inertia and follow-through.
He would have hit at the precise
moment the direction of force
in the hammer exactly lined up
with the axis of the nail.

As friction tightened, he would have
hit harder, striking up
shock waves that struck back
in his elbow and shoulder.

Near the end, when his arm
grew weak and his hand
could barely hang on,
he would have gone
all out and clobbered
the nail, crushed it into itself,
with each blow knocking
off kilter every new tilt of the head.

I hack and scrape
but can't get the hammer's claw
to catch under the rim of the nail,
and I have no nail pull or pry bar.
But looking back in time I see
my father, how he solved
it when in the same fix:
angling the claw of his hammer
like a chisel, he cosied it
up to the nail head, then taking
a second hammer, smacked
the face of the first, and kept on
smacking it, until the claw
gouged grooves for itself
in the bruised wood and grudged under.
So I do as my father did.

Now begins what could be called
carpenters' arm wrestling, and also,
in this case, transrealmic combat
between father and son.
We clasp right hands (the flared
part of the hammer handle,
his hand) and press right elbows
to the hemlock (the curved
hammer head, his steel elbow) and pull.
Or rather, I pull, he holds fast, lacking
the writ to drag me down where he lies.

A nail driven so long ago
ought to be allowed to stay put,
until the structure it serves
crumbles into its ill-fitting cellar hole,
or on a freezing night flaps up
and disappears in a turmoil
of flame and smoke and its
blackened bones; or until the nail
discovers it has become
merely a nail hole filled with rust.

A spike driven long ago
resists being pulled--worse
than a stupefied wisdom tooth,
whose roots, which have screwed
themselves into the jaw bone,
refuse to budge; worse even
than an old pig who hears
the slaughterer's truck pull up
and rasp open its gate and rattle
its ramp into place; and grunts,
and squeals, and digs in.

Slipping for leverage
a scrap of quarter-inch wood
under the hammer, I apply
a methodology I learned from
unscrewing stuck bottle lids:
first, put to it the maximum force
you think you can maintain,
and second, maintain it.

Just as when an earthworm
pulls itself out of a cul-de-sac,
cautious end pulling adventurous end,
stretching itself almost in two
until the stuck end starts to come free,
so this nail, stretched and now
starting to let go, utters a thick squawk—
first sound it has made since
my father brought down his hammer
full force on it, adding a grunt of his own,
and thudded it home--and a half inch
of newly polished steel stutters
out of fibrous matter intended to grip it
a good long time, if not forever.

My fulcrum this time a chunk
of inch board, I pull again, again
creating a chaotic ruckus,
and another segment of bright
steel screeches free.

Helped along this time by
a block of two-by-four lying
on its inch-and-three-quarter side,
I leverage out another noisy half-inch.
At last, standing the block up
on its three-and three-quarter inch side,
I pull hard, hold the pressure,
and the entire rest of the nail,
almost too hot to handle, extrudes
in an elegant curve of defeated matter.

It seems I've won.
But in matters like this
winning doesn't often
feel exactly like winning.
It's only a nail, I know,
an earthen bit. Bent.
Very possibly torqued.
And yet my father drove it
to stake out his only hope
of leaving something
lasting behind. See,
there he is now, bent
at his workbench,
in the permanent
gloom of the basement
of the house on Oswald
Street that he built, as he did
everything he did, alone,
probably driving all but a few dozen
of its ten thousand nails himself.

A dark yellowish aura, like
the dead glow of earliest
electricity, unused to being
harnessed, hangs above
his head. He's picking over
a small heap of bent nails,
chucking some, straightening
out others back into usefulness
in the rectilinear world.
At this one he pauses.
He lifts it to the light, sights
along it as if he doubts
it can ever be used again.
I take it from his hand just
before he fades out of sight.
In it I can feel the last heat
of our struggle. Thumb
and forefinger hold the nail
to the bench, bent side up,
forming a little wobbling
bridge between then
and now, between me and him,
or him and me, over which
almost nothing of what mattered
to either of us ever passed.
A hammer still floats in the space
he had been standing in.
I pluck it out of the air
and use it to hammer the nail
up and down its length, rotate it
to keep the bend on top,
hammer it, rotate it,
hammer it, well into the night.
The cellar windows become light.
It is late. I don't think
I will ever straighten it out.

by Galway Kinnell, 1927–2014

TO SEE THE FULL TEXT TO KINNELL’S POEM ABOUT SEPT. 11, 2001 “WHEN THE TOWERS FELL” [CLICK HERE]

OATMEAL

I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that is better for your mental health
if 
     somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have
     breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary
companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal with John Keats.
Keats said I was right to invite him: due to its glutinous texture, gluey 
     lumpishness, hint of slime, and unsual willingness to disintigrate, 
oatmeal must never be eaten alone.
He said it is perfectly OK, however, to eat it with an imaginary companion, 
and he himself had enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John
Milton.
He also told me about writing the "Ode to a Nightingale.
He wrote it quickly, he said, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his
pocket,
but when he got home he couldn't figure out the order of the stanzas,
     and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and they
     made some sense of them, but he isn't sure to this day if
     they got it right.
He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a 
     Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, then 
     lay itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move 
     forward with God's reckless wobble.
He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about
     the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some
     stanzas of his own, but only made matters worse.
When breakfast was over, John recited "To Autumn."
He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words
     lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.
He didn't offer the story of writing "To Autumn," I doubt if there is 
     much of one.
But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field go him started
     on it 
and two of the lines, "For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells" 
     and "Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours," came to him 
     while eating oatmeal alone.
I can see him--drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the 
     glimmering furrows, muttering--and i occurs to me:
maybe there is no sublime, only the shining of the amnion's tatters.
For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.
I'm aware that a leftover baked potato can be damp, slippery, and 
     simultaneously gummy and crumbly, 
and therefore I'm going to invite Patrick Kavanagh to join me.

by Galway Kinnell, 1927–2014


Richard Hugo gives background to and reads “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg”:

DEGREES OF GRAY IN PHILIPSBURG

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

by Richard Hugo, 1923–1982

The Milltown Union Bar

You could love here, not the lovely goat
in plexiglass nor the elk shot
in the middle of a joke, but honest drunks,
crossed swords above the bar, three men hung
in the bad painting, others riding off
on the phony green horizon. The owner,
fresh from orphan wars, loves too
but bad as you. He keeps improving things
but can’t cut the bodies down.

You need never leave. Money or a story
brings you booze. The elk is grinning
and the goat says go so tenderly
you hear him through the glass. If you weep
deer heads weep. Sing and the orphanage
announces plans for your release. A train
goes by and ditches jump. You were nothing
going in and now you kiss your hand.

When mills shut down, when the worst drunk
says finally I’m stone, three men still hang
painted badly from a leafless tree, you
one of them, brains tied behind you back,
swinging for your sin. Or you swing
with goats and elk. Doors of orphanages
finally swing out and here you open in.

by Richard Hugo, 1923–1982

video from Kicking the Loose Gravel Home: Richard Hugo by Annick Smith (1976)


My Father Laughing in the Chicago Theater

His heavy body would double itself forward
At the waist, swell, and come heaving around
To slam at his seatback, making the screws groan
And squawk down half the row as it went tilting
Under my mother and me, under whoever
Was out of luck on the other side of him.
Like a boxer slipping punches, he'd lift his elbows
To flail and jerk, and his wide-open mouth
Would boom out four deep haaa's to the end of his breath.

He was laughing at Burns and Allen or Jack Benny
In person or at his limitless engagement
With Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. While my mother
Sat there between us, gazing at the stage
And chuckling placidly, I watched with amazement
The spectacle of a helpless father, unmanned,
Disarmed by laughter. The tears would dribble
From under his bifocals, as real as sweat.
He would gape and gag, go limp, and spring back to life.

I would laugh too, but partly at him, afraid
Of becoming him. He could scowl anywhere,
Be solemn or blank in church or going to work,
Turn grim with a cold chisel, or he could smile
At babies or football games, but he only laughed
There in that theater. And up the aisle
And through the lobby to the parking lot
And all the way home, I'd see the glow on his cheeks
Fade to the usual hectic steelmill sunburn.

by David Wagoner, 1926

For David Wagoner’s “The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934” click the link below and keep scrolling down the page to get the whole poem:

[“The Shooting of John Dillinger”]


THE SILENCE OF THE STARS

When Laurens van der Post one night
In the Kalahari Desert told the Bushmen
He couldn't hear the stars
Singing, they didn't believe him. They looked at him,
half-smiling. They examined his face
To see whether he was joking
Or deceiving them. Then two of those small men
Who plant nothing, who have almost
Nothing to hunt, who live
On almost nothing, and with no one
But themselves, led him away
From the crackling thorn-scrub fire
And stood with him under the night sky
And listened. One of them whispered,
Do you not hear them now?
And van der Post listened, not wanting
To disbelieve, but had to answer,
No. They walked him slowly
Like a sick man to the small dim
Circle of firelight and told him
They were terribly sorry,
And he felt even sorrier
For himself and blamed his ancestors
For their strange loss of hearing,
Which was his loss now. On some clear night
When nearby houses have turned off their visions,
When the traffic dwindles, when through streets
Are between sirens and the jets overhead
Are between crossings, when the wind
Is hanging fire in the fir trees,
And the long-eared owl in the neighboring grove
Between calls is regarding his own darkness,
I look at the stars again as I first did
To school myself in the names of constellations
And remember my first sense of their terrible distance,
I can still hear what I thought
At the edge of silence where the inside jokes
Of my heartbeat, my arterial traffic,
The C above high C of my inner ear, myself
Tunelessly humming, but now I know what they are:
My fair share of the music of the spheres
And clusters of ripening stars,
Of the songs from the throats of the old gods
Still tending ever tone-deaf creatures
Through their exiles in the desert.

by David Wagoner, 1926




Read by the author, former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Sir John Betjeman:

CHRISTMAS

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
   The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
   Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
   And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
   The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
"The church looks nice" on Christmas Day.

Provincial public houses blaze
   And Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
   Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says "Merry Christmas to you all."

And London shops on Christmas Eve
   Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
   To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
   And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
   And Christmas-morning bells say "Come!"
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true? And is it true,
   This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
   A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
   No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
   The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
   No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
   Can with this single Truth compare--
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

by John Betjeman, 1906–1984

CORNISH CLIFFS

Those moments, tasted once and never done,
Of long surf breaking in the mid-day sun.
A far-off blow-hole booming like a gun-

The seagulls plane and circle out of sight
Below this thirsty, thrift-encrusted height,
The veined sea-campion buds burst into white

And gorse turns tawny orange, seen beside
Pale drifts of primroses cascading wide
To where the slate falls sheer into the tide.

More than in gardened Surrey, nature spills
A wealth of heather, kidney-vetch and squills
Over these long-defended Cornish hills.

A gun-emplacement of the latest war
Looks older than the hill fort built before
Saxon or Norman headed for the shore.

And in the shadowless, unclouded glare
Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where
A misty sea-line meets the wash of air.

Nut-smell of gorse and honey-smell of ling
Waft out to sea the freshness of the spring
On sunny shallows, green and whispering.

The wideness which the lark-song gives the sky
Shrinks at the clang of sea-birds sailing by
Whose notes are tuned to days when seas are high.

From today's calm, the lane's enclosing green
Leads inland to a usual Cornish scene-
Slate cottages with sycamore between,

Small fields and tellymasts and wires and poles
With, as the everlasting ocean rolls,
Two chapels built for half a hundred souls.

by John Betjeman, 1906–1984

TO SEE AND HEAR JOHN BETJEMAN’S POEM “In Westminster Abbey” READ BY GEORGE MCRAE [CLICK HERE]

TO SEE THE NEXT PAGE (3) OF 20TH CENTURY POETS [CLICK HERE]