20th Century Poets-4

POETS ON THIS PAGE: W. STAFFORD * C. CULLEN * C. MCKAY * P. DUNBAR * D. LAUX * J. MILLAR * N. DUBIE * E. POUND * MARILYN NELSON * E. ST. V. MILLAY * G. CORSO * A. GINSBURG


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

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.


William Stafford, The Way It Is: New and
Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1998. 

 

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

 



 

Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen‘s short but powerful poem “Incident’:

 

YET DO I MARVEL

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

by Countee Cullen

 



 

Another Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay‘s “If We Must Die”:

 

 



Another Harlem Renaissance poet Paul Laurence Dunbar

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties,
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To Thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile,
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

 



 

 

Psalm

Lord, there are creatures in the understory,
snails with whorled backs and silver boots,
trails beetles weave in grass, black rivers
of ants, unbound ladybugs opening their wings,

spotted veils and flame, untamed choirs

of banjo-colored crickets and stained-glass cicadas.
Lord, how shall we count the snakes and frogs
and moths?  How shall we love the hidden
and small? Mushrooms beneath leaves

constructing their death domes in silence,

their silken gills and mycelial threads, cap scales
and patches, their warts and pores. And the buried
bulbs that will bloom in spring, pregnant with flower
and leaf, sing Prepare for My Radiance, Prepare

for the Pageantry of My Inevitable Surprise.

These are the queendoms, the spines and horns,
the clustered hearts beating beneath our feet. Lord
though the earth is locked in irons of ice and snow
there are angels in the undergrowth, praise them.

by Dorianne Laux

© Dorianne Laux.  All Rights Reserved.

 

Lapse

Poem beginning with a line from Gwendolyn Brooks

I am not deceived, I do not think it is still summer. I
see the leaves turning on their stems. I am
not oblivious to the sun as it lowers on its stem, not
fooled by the clock holding off, not deceived
by the weight of its tired hands holding forth. I
do not think my dead will return.  They will not do
what I ask of them.  Even if I plead on my knees.  Not
even if I kiss their photographs or think
of them as I touch the things they left me.  It
isn’t possible to raise them from their beds, is
it?  Even if I push the dirt away with my bare hands? Still-
ness, unearth their faces.  Bring me the last dahlias of summer.

by Dorianne Laux

© Dorianne Laux. All Rights Reserved.



 

 

Red Wing

Here's where they make the good work shoes
in the long brick buildings beside the road.
Shoes whose stitched, crepe-wedge soles
and full-grain, oil-resistant leathers
bless tiny bones in the ankles and feet, shoes
of carpenters balanced on roof beams,
electricians, farmers, iron workers, welders –
cuffs frayed with sparks from the torch.
At shift's end the socks emerge tinged
pale orange, tops of the arches crisscrossed
with lace marks, propped up in front
of the six o'clock news. Here's to the sweet
breath of pond mist filling the lungs of summer.
Here's to baked beans and twelve hours off.
Here's to dust from the trucker's shoe, dust
he stepped into three states back.
Here's to shingles, aluminum flashing,
wall studs, rafters, ten-penny nails,
here's to tomatoes, onions and corn,
here's squatting down and here's reaching over,
here's to the ones who showed up.

by Joseph Millar

From Fortune by Joseph Millar, 2006 Eastern Washington University Press, Cheney, WA Copyright 2006 by Joseph Millar. All rights reserved.


 

 

Of Politics & Art

for Allen

Here, on the farthest point of the peninsula
The winter storm
Off the Atlantic shook the schoolhouse.
Mrs. Whitimore, dying
Of tuberculosis, said it would be after dark
Before the snowplow and bus would reach us.

She read to us from Melville.

How in an almost calamitous moment
Of sea hunting
Some men in an open boat suddenly found themselves
At the still and protected center
Of a great herd of whales
Where all the females floated on their sides
While their young nursed there.
The cold frightened whalers
Just stared into what they allowed
Was the ecstatic lapidary pond of a nursing cow's
One visible eyeball.
And they were at peace with themselves.
Today I listened to a woman say
That Melville might
Be taught in the next decade.
Another woman asked, "And why not?"
The first responded, "Because there are
No women in his one novel."

And Mrs. Whitimore was now reading from the Psalms.
Coughing into her handkerchief. Snow above the windows.
There was a blue light on her face, breasts, and arms.
Sometimes a whole civilization can be dying
Peacefully in one young woman, in a small heated room
With thirty children
Rapt, confident and listening to the pure
God-rendering voice of a storm.

by Norman Dubie

from The Mercy Seat: Collected & New Poems 1967-2001, 2001 Copper Canyon Press Copyright 2001 by Norman Dubie. All rights reserved.

 



 

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

 

The Garden

     En robe de parade.
          --Samain
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

 

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

 

Pound’s English-language version of Li Po’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” read by actress Jodie Foster:

 



 

Marilyn Nelson reads:

 

Thus Far By Faith

Thomas Chapel C.M.E., Hickman, Kentucky

I. Sermon in the Cotton Field
Philippians 2:12b-15a

His heart’s upwelling of its own accord
slackens the reins, stopping the plow mid-row
beside a sea of furrows, as the word
whirling within takes shape: Whoa, brothers, whoa.
One mule cranes questioningly; the other nips
his neck, ears back. They bray against the hitch
which matches them. And Uncle Warren wraps
his arms around the sky and starts to preach.

Beloved, stop your grumbling. Be the stars
what give a twisted generation light.
That’s what the book say. But old Satan roars
louder, sometimes, than master. He say, Hate
the whip-hand and the yoke: Why be a fool?
The Lord Hisself were tempted, Brother Mule.

II. Sermon in the Woodlot
1 Corinthians 9:24-27

The Lord Himself was tested, Brother Mule,
but y’all would try the patience of a saint.
There’s only a few more loads of lumber to haul;
Git up, there! You know Master don’t know no cain’t.
The Book say, run so as to win the crown
imperishable. That mean man must grunt
and sweat from first light 'til the sun sink down,
same as a mule. We can run lightfoot with praise
or toting a croaker sack of dead-weight sins around.
Come on now, git.
The wagon creaks and sways,
a mockingbird trills from a branch almost overhead.
Uncle Warren nods to a quietly working slave
whose bare brown back is criss-crossed with black and red.
The mules meander into sunshine, leaving the wood.

III. Sermon in the Ruined Garden
James 2:14-18

A mule meanders into sunshine from the wood
near Sally’s garden. Almost nothing left
after the locust tides of the bereft
swept north. Some die for truth; some died for food.
Uncle Warren plucks a few choice stalks of grass,
chirrups and holds it in an outstretched hand.
The mule flinches just out of reach, to stand
flat-eared, tail flickering, willful as an ass.
Uncle Warren says, Uh-huh: You think you smart.
Well, don’t hee-haw to me about how faith
helped you survive the deluge. Save your breath.
Show me. Faith without works ain’t worth a fart.
People is hungry. Act out your faith now
by hitching your thanks for God’s love to my plow.

IV. Meditation over the Washtub
Exodus 19:4-6a

Oh, I’m hitching my love for Jesus to my plow;
Aunt Sally hums thanksgiving to her Lord,
pausing occasionally to wipe her brow,
scrubbing wet, soapy darks on the washboard.
The clean whites undulate against a breeze
scented with hyacinth and simmering greens.
So this is freedom: the peace of hours like these,
and wages, now, for every house she cleans.
Her singing starts as silence, then her throat
fills with a bubble of expanding praise.
A deeper silence underlies each note:
a lifting mystery, the sky of grace.
Aunt Sally sings, Yes, Jesus is my friend.
Hosannas rise like incense on the wind.

V. Palm Sunday, 1866
1 Peter 2:22-24

Make our hosannas incense on the wind;
may we wave palms of welcome . . . Listening
from the colored pew, Aunt Sally nods amen.
From beside her, T.T., bored and fidgeting,
chases his rubber ball into the aisle.
The front pew kneels at the communion rail,
heads bowed. Aunt Sally, reaching for the child,
bumps into Captain Randall. He goes pale
with cursing rage, jumps up, and knocks her down.
In the hush that follows, the minister proclaims,
Coloreds aren’t welcome here, from this day on.
T.T.’s blue eyes meet hers, sharing her shame.
The colored worshippers, silent and grim,
file out as the organist strikes up a hymn.

VI. Good Friday Prayer
Psalm 51

Defy him! Tear his organ off! Strike him
with righteous lightning! Make the devil pay!
Uncle Warren paces, has paced since Sunday,
wrestling with demons and with cherubim,
reaching for heaven, balancing on hell’s rim.
Life’s promise seems to him a vast array
of shit and more shit, followed by decay.
Now, on Friday evening, he kneels to pray a psalm,
remembering His unearned suffering,
and how he said, Forgive them. Poor, poor fools.
The spade of prayer cuts stone, untaps a spring
of clear compassion. Uncle Warren feels
God present again. Help ME do no wrong.
The others? Well, it’s like preaching to mules.

VII. Easter Sermon, 1866
Acts 10:40-43

Others might think it’s like preaching to mules
to preach to dark-faced people who sign X
laboriously. They listen on cotton bales
as Uncle Warren reads from the book of Acts.
A rose-gold dawnlight streams in through the chinks
and roosters halleloo the sun’s return.
In a makeshift church reeking with familiar stinks,
field hands, bricklayers, and domestics yearn
toward Jesus.
                        Well, sir, like the gospels say,
only a handful saw the risen Lord:
What was true in them days still holds true today.
Be a witness. Pull the plow and sow His word.
Come harvest you’ll have love you can give away,
and a heart that wells up of its own accord.

by Marilyn Nelson

 

15¢ Futures

      Epiphany Davis, 1825

I set up my cash box and my bones and cards
on Broadway, most days, offering what I see
of what’s to come. For a donation, words
fall from my mouth, surprising even me.

Uncle Epiphany doesn’t forecast death
or illness worse than gout or a broken bone.
The sailors stop. They listen with caught breath
as I tell them some girl’s heart is still theirs alone.

(… or not. Young love is such a butterfly.)
Girls come, arms linked, giggling behind their fans.
The sad come. Uncle Epiphany does not lie.
I close shop, and come back up here to my land.

It’s a new world up here, of beggar millionaires:
neighbors who know how we all scrimped and saved
to own this stony swamp with its fetid air,
to claim the dream for dreamers yet enslaved.

I’m Epiphany Davis. I am a conjure-man.
I see glimpses. Glass towers … A horseless vehicle …
An American President who is half African …
Until you pay me, that’s all I’m going to tell.

by Marilyn Nelson, 1946

 



 

Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s poem “Recuerdo” read by Tom O’Bedlam:

 

Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s sonnet “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” read by Jonathan Jones:

 



 

Ian Dury reads Beat bard Gregory Corso‘s humorous poem “Marriage”:

 



 

Allen Ginsburg reads his “A Supermarket in California”:

 

WALES VISITATION

White fog lifting & falling on mountain-brow
Trees moving in rivers of wind
The clouds arise
as on a wave, gigantic eddy lifting mist
above teeming ferns exquisitely swayed
along a green crag
glimpsed thru mullioned glass in valley raine—

Bardic, O Self, Visitacione, tell naught
but what seen by one man in a vale in Albion,
of the folk, whose physical sciences end in Ecology,
the wisdom of earthly relations,
of mouths & eyes interknit ten centuries visible
orchards of mind language manifest human,
of the satanic thistle that raises its horned symmetry
flowering above sister grass-daisies’ pink tiny
bloomlets angelic as lightbulbs—

Remember 160 miles from London’s symmetrical thorned tower
& network of TV pictures flashing bearded your Self
the lambs on the tree-nooked hillside this day bleating
heard in Blake’s old ear, & the silent thought of Wordsworth in 
     eld Stillness
clouds passing through skeleton arches of Tintern Abbey—
Bard Nameless as the Vast, babble to Vastness!

All the Valley quivered, one extended motion, wind
undulating on mossy hills
a giant wash that sank white fog delicately down red runnels
on the mountainside
whose leaf-branch tendrils moved asway
in granitic undertow down—
and lifted the floating Nebulous upward, and lifted the arms of the 
     trees
and lifted the grasses an instant in balance
and lifted the lambs to hold still
and lifted the green of the hill, in one solemn wave

A solid mass of Heaven, mist-infused, ebbs thru the vale,
a wavelet of Immensity, lapping gigantic through Llanthony Valley,
the length of all England, valley upon valley under Heaven’s ocean
tonned with cloud-hang,
—Heaven balanced on a grassblade.
Roar of the mountain wind slow, sigh of the body,
One Being on the mountainside stirring gently
Exquisite scales trembling everywhere in balance,
one motion thru the cloudy sky-floor shifting on the million feet of 
     daisies,
one Majesty the motion that stirred wet grass quivering
to the farthest tendril of white fog poured down
through shivering flowers on the mountain’s head—

No imperfection in the budded mountain,
Valleys breathe, heaven and earth move together,
daisies push inches of yellow air, vegetables tremble,
grass shimmers green
sheep speckle the mountainside, revolving their jaws with empty eyes,
horses dance in the warm rain,
tree-lined canals network live farmland,
blueberries fringe stone walls on hawthorn’d hills,
pheasants croak on meadows haired with fern—

Out, out on the hillside, into the ocean sound, into delicate gusts 
     of wet air,
Fall on the ground, O great Wetness, O Mother, No harm on your body!
Stare close, no imperfection in the grass,
each flower Buddha-eye, repeating the story,
myriad-formed—
Kneel before the foxglove raising green buds, mauve bells dropped
doubled down the stem trembling antennae,
& look in the eyes of the branded lambs that stare
breathing stockstill under dripping hawthorn—
I lay down mixing my beard with the wet hair of the mountainside,
smelling the brown vagina-moist ground, harmless,
tasting the violet thistle-hair, sweetness—
One being so balanced, so vast, that its softest breath
moves every floweret in the stillness on the valley floor,
trembles lamb-hair hung gossamer rain-beaded in the grass,
lifts trees on their roots, birds in the great draught
hiding their strength in the rain, bearing same weight,

Groan thru breast and neck, a great Oh! to earth heart
Calling our Presence together
The great secret is no secret
Senses fit the winds,
Visible is visible,
rain-mist curtains wave through the bearded vale,
gray atoms wet the wind’s kabbala
Crosslegged on a rock in dusk rain,
rubber booted in soft grass, mind moveless,
breath trembles in white daisies by the roadside,
Heaven breath and my own symmetric
Airs wavering thru antlered green fern
drawn in my navel, same breath as breathes thru Capel-Y-Ffn,
Sounds of Aleph and Aum
through forests of gristle,
my skull and Lord Hereford’s Knob equal,
All Albion one.

What did I notice? Particulars! The
vision of the great One is myriad—
smoke curls upward from ashtray,
house fire burned low,
The night, still wet & moody black heaven
starless
upward in motion with wet wind.

by Allen Ginsberg

 

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