20th Century Poets–2

Part I of BBC program on T. S. Eliot:

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

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

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?”


 

And now for something completely different:

CURSE OF THE CAT WOMAN

 by Edward Field

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.

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

 


5 poems by Theodore Roethke:

 


 

PBS program about Langston Hughes:

 

 

Text to the above video:

THE WEARY BLUES

 

by Langston Hughes

 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.

 


 

3 poems by Louise Bogan:

 

Medusa – by Louise Bogan

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.

 


 

Great poem by James Wright:

 

TO THE MUSE

 

by James Wright

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.

 

Wright’s prose poem:

The Wheeling Gospel Tabernacle

 


 

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

 

 


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

Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg

By Richard Hugo

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.


Read David Waggoner’s “The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934” (keep scrolling down on the page below to get the whole poem):

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/shooting-john-dillinger-outside-biograph-theater-july-22-1934


Poem by the Nobel prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney:

OLD SMOOTHING IRON

Often I watched her lift it
from where its compact wedge
rode the back of the stove
like a tug at anchor.

To test its heat she’d stare
and spit in its iron face
or hold it up next her cheek
to divine the stored danger.

Soft thumps on the ironing board.
Her dimpled angled elbow
and intent stoop
as she aimed the smoothing iron

like a plane into linen,
like the resentment of women,
To work, her dumb lunge says,
is to move a certain mass

through a certain distance,
is to pull your weight and feel
exact and equal to it.
Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.

“Vergissmeinnicht” (“Forget Me Not”) by British poet Keith Douglas, who died in World War II, read by Sir John Gielgud:

VERGISSMEINNICHT*  by Keith Douglas

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that’s hard and good when he’s decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

*Vergissmeinnicht = Forget me not.

BBC program about Douglas: