20th Century Poets-3

POETS ON THIS PAGE: W. H. AUDEN * M. WILLIAMS * P. LARKIN * AL YOUNG * L. SIMPSON * D. LEVERTOV * R. PINSKY * S. MCPHERSON * D. GIOIA * W. KEES * J. BOLTON * DENIS JOHNSON * S. ALEXIE * C. SIMIC * G. SOTO * M. OLIVER * DYLAN THOMAS * C. A. DUFFY * W. C. WILLIAMS * W. B. YEATS * S. PLATH * W. S. MERWIN


A great poem by one of the 20th century’s greatest poets:

Another great poem by Auden:



 

Ruby Tells All

When I was told, as Delta children were,
That crops don't grow unless you sweat at night,
I thought that it was my own sweat they meant.
I have never felt as important again
As on those early mornings, waking up,
My body slick, the moon full on the fields.
That was before air conditioning.
Farm girls sleep cool now and wake up dry
But still the cotton overflows the fields.
We lose everything that's grand and foolish;
It all becomes something else.  One by one,

Butterflies turn into caterpillars
And we grow up, or more or less we do,
And, Lord, we do lie then. We lie so much
Truth has a false ring and it's hard to tell.
I wouldn't take crap off anybody
If I just knew I was getting crap
In time not to take it.  I could have won
A small one now and then if I was smarter,
But I've poured coffee here too many years
For men who rolled in in Peterbuilts,
And I have gotten into bed with some
If they could talk and seemed to be in pain.

I never asked for anything myself;
Giving is more blessed and leaves you free.
There was a man, married and fond of whiskey.
Given the limitations of men, he loved me.
Lord, we laid concern upon our bodies
But then he left.  Everything has its time.
We used to dance.  He made me feel the way
A human wants to feel and fears to.
He was a slow man and didn't expect.
I would get off work and find him waiting.
We'd have a drink or two and kiss awhile.
Then a bird-loud morning late one April
We woke up naked.  We had made a child.
She's grown up now and gone though God knows where.
She ought to write, for I do love her dearly
Who raised her carefully and dressed her well.

Everything has its time.  For thirty years
I have never had a thought about time.
Now, turning through newspapers, I pause
To see if anyone was passed away
Was younger than I am.  If one was
I feel hollow for a little while
But then it passes.  Nothing matters enough
To stay bent down about.  You have to see
That some things matter slightly and some don't.
Dying matters a little.  So does pain.
So does being old.  Men do not.
Men live by negatives, like don't give up,
Don't be a coward, don't call me a liar,
Don't ever tell me don't.  If I could live
Two hundred years and had to be a man
I'd take my grave.  What's a man but a match,
A little stick to start a fire with?

My daughter knows this, if she's alive.
What could I tell her now, to bring her close,
Something she doesn't know, if we met somewhere?
Maybe that I think about her father,
Maybe that my fingers hurt at night,
Maybe that against appearances
There is love, constancy and kindness,
That I have dresses I have never worn.

by Miller Williams

 


 

Biographical documentary about Philip Larkin:

Tom O’Bedlam reads Larkin’s Mr. Bleaney:

Larkin reads his poem “Aubade”:

AUBADE

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

by Philip Larkin

Broadcast 

Giant whispering and coughing from
Vast Sunday-full and organ-frowned-on spaces
Precede a sudden scuttle on the drum,
‘The Queen’, and huge resettling. Then begins
A snivelling of the violins:
I think of your face among all those faces,

Beautiful and devout before
Cascades of monumental slithering,
One of your gloves unnoticed on the floor
Beside those new, slightly-outmoded shoes.
Here it goes quickly dark. I lose
All but the outline of the still and withering

Leaves on half-emptied trees. Behind
The glowing wavebands, rabid storms of chording
By being distant overpower my mind
All the more shamelessly, their cut-off shout
Leaving me desperate to pick out
Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.

by Philip Larkin



ONE AUGUST SUMMARY

The scents of summer, once so moist and vast,
now scorch your nose. O how your pricked eyes water!
This fire’s going to last and last and last
until your in-laws, wife, two sons and daughter
collapse among the Pepsis, Cokes and chips.
The makeshift rescue center, where you’ve learned
some distant neighbors’ names from their own lips,
fills still with losers just like you. Hurt. Burnt.

A dry La Niña winter, snow-melt, drought
(July: Colfax, June: Colorado Springs,
New Mexico) let heated winds strike out
across your parchment landscape with a zing
that flared up like a sulphurous safety match.
But here’s the catch: Can this mean climate change
is real? Do savvy Californians watch
what happened back in 2009, the range
of wildfires: Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz
(their so-called Lockheed Fire), the Station Fire
near L.A.? Half a million square miles. News.
You sweat. Your wife and family, they perspire.

Août, août, août, août! – August, moaned in French,
needs no translation. You can smell and feel
the fall and peel of summer. Inch by inch
you sink into this smoky state. You reel.
You suddenly realize what really counts:
You’re still alive. Don’t underestimate
again how unseen danger creeps and mounts.

Ooo, ooo, ooo, ooo – August stops you at its gate!

by Al Young

Up Jumped Spring

for Nana

What’s most fantastical almost always goes
unrecorded and unsorted. Take spring.
Take today. Take dancing dreamlike; coffee
your night, creameries your dream factories.
Take walking as a dream, the dearest, sincerest
means of conveyance: a dance. Take leave
of the notion that this nation’s or any other’s earth
can still be the same earth our ancestors walked.
Chemistry strains to connect our hemispheres.
The right and left sidelines our brain forms
in the rain this new world braves—acid jazz.
The timeless taste her tongue leaves in your mouth,
stirred with unmeasured sugars, greens the day
the way sweet sunlight oxygenates, ignites
all nights, all daytimes, and you—this jumps.
Sheer voltage leaps, but nothing keeps or stays.
Sequence your afternoon as dance. Drink spring.
Holding her hard against you, picture the screenplay.
Take time to remember to get her spells together.
Up jumps the goddess gratified, and up jumped spring.

© 2006 and 2007 by Al Young



My Father in the Night Commanding No

My father in the night commanding No
Has work to do. Smoke issues from his lips;
   He reads in silence.
The frogs are croaking and the street lamps glow.

And then my mother winds the gramophone,
The Bride of Lammermoor begins to shriek—
   Or reads a story
About a prince, a castle, and a dragon.

The moon is glittering above the hill.
I stand before the gateposts of the King—
   So runs the story—
Of Thule, at midnight when the mice are still.

And I have been in Thule! It has come true—
The journey and the danger of the world,
   All that there is
To bear and to enjoy, endure and do.

Landscapes, seascapes . . . where have I been led?
The names of cities—Paris, Venice, Rome—
   Held out their arms.
A feathered god, seductive, went ahead.

Here is my house. Under a red rose tree
A child is swinging; another gravely plays.
   They are not surprised
That I am here; they were expecting me.

And yet my father sits and reads in silence,
My mother sheds a tear, the moon is still,
   And the dark wind
Is murmuring that nothing ever happens.

Beyond his jurisdiction as I move
Do I not prove him wrong? And yet, it’s true
   They will not change
There, on the stage of terror and of love.

The actors in that playhouse always sit
In fixed positions—father, mother, child
   With painted eyes.
How sad it is to be a little puppet!

Their heads are wooden. And you once pretended
To understand them! Shake them as you will,
   They cannot speak.
Do what you will, the comedy is ended.

Father, why did you work? Why did you weep,
Mother? Was the story so important?
   "Listen!" the wind
Said to the children, and they fell asleep.

by Louis Simpson, 1923 – 2012

 

Another great poem by Louis Simpson:

The Riders Held Back

One morning, as we traveled in the fields
   Of air and dew
With trumpets, and above the painted shields
   The banners flew,

We came upon three ladies, wreathed in roses,
   Where, hand in hand,
They danced–three slender, gentle, naked ladies,
   All in a woodland.

They'd been to the best schools in Italy;
   Their legs were Greek,
Their collarbones, as fine as jewellery,
   Their eyes, antique.

‘Why do lambs skip and shepherds shout "Ut hoy!"?
   Why do you dance?'
Said one, ‘It is an intellectual joy,
   The Renaissance.

‘As do the stars in heaven, ruled by Three,
   We twine and move.
It is the music of Astronomy,
   Not men, we love.

‘And as we dance, the beasts and flowers do;
   The fields of wheat
Sway like our arms; the curving hills continue
   The curves of our feet.

‘Here Raphael comes to paint; the thrushes flute
   To Petrarch's pen.
But Michael is not here, who carved the brute
   Unfinished men.'

They danced again, and on the mountain heights
   There seemed to rise
Towers and ramparts glittering with lights,
   Like Paradise.

How the bright morning passed, I cannot say.
   We woke and found
The dancers gone; and heard, far, far away,
   The trumpet sound.

We galloped to it. In the forest then
   Banners and shields
Were strewn like leaves; and there were many slain
   In the dark fields.

by Louis Simpson

From The Owner of the House: New Collected
Poems 1940-2001, BOA Editions, 2003.

 

THE CRADLE TRAP    

 

A bell and rattle,
a smell of roses,
a leather Bible,
and angry voices . . .

They say, I love you.
They shout, You must!
The light is telling
terrible stories.

But night at the window
whispers, Never mind.
Be true, be true
to your own strange kind.

by Louis Simpson

 



 

WHAT WERE THEY LIKE?

1) Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
2) Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
3) Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
4) Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
5) Had they an epic poem?
6) Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

1) Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
2) Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
3) Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
4) A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
5) It is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
6) There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

by Denise Levertov

 


Shirt

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.
”Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord.   Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

by Robert Pinsky

 

Ginza Samba

A monosyllabic European called Sax 
Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah, a kind of twisted 
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating 
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone 
Widening ever outward and bawaah spouting 
Infinitely upward through an upturned 
Swollen golden bell rimmed 
Like a gloxinia flowering 
In Sax's Belgian imagination 

And in the unfathomable matrix 
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven 
Humming into the cells of the body 
Or cupped in the resonating grail 
Of memory changed and exchanged 
As in the trading of brasses, 
Pearls and ivory, calicos and slaves, 
Laborers and girls, two 

Cousins in a royal family 
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks. 
In Christendom one cousin's child 
Becomes a "favorite negro" ennobled 
By decree of the Czar and founds 
A great family, a line of generals, 
Dandies and courtiers including the poet 
Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning 
His wife's honor, while the other cousin sails 

In the belly of a slaveship to the port 
Of Baltimore where she is raped 
And dies in childbirth, but the infant 
Will marry a Seminole and in the next 
Chorus of time their child fathers 
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers 
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish 
Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing 

His American breath out into the wiggly 
Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths—the Ginza 
Samba of breath and brass, the reed 
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable 
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box 
Here in my room in this house built 
A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere: 

It is like falling in love, the atavistic 
Imperative of some one 
Voice or face—the skill, the copper filament, 
The golden bellful of notes twirling through 
Their invisible element from 
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering 
Speed in the variations as they tunnel 
The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup 
And anvil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.

by Robert Pinsky

 



 

ONE WAY SHE SPOKE TO ME

I would say whisper
and she could never figure how to do it.
I would say, speak louder into the phone.
or could she raise her voice.

But then I found such a whisper, the trail
as she began to write to me in snails
in silver memos on the front door
in witnesses to her sense of touch.

Home late, I found them slurred
and searching, erasing the welcome
she'd arranged them in.
H--12 snails. I--seven or six.

They were misspelling it,
digressing in wayward caravans and pileups,
mobile and rolling but with little perspective,
their eyestalks smooth as nylons on tiny legs.

I raised her in isolation. But it is these snails
who keep climbing the walls. For them, maybe
every vertical makes an unending tree--
and every ascension's lovely.

Why else don't they wend homeward to ground?
But what do we do? We are only part
of a letter in a word. And we are on our
bellies with speech wondering, wondering slowly,

how to move towards one another.

by Sandra McPherson

 

FOR ELIZABETH BISHOP

 

The child I left your class to have
Later had a habit of sleeping
With her arms around a globe
She’d unscrewed, dropped, and dented.
I always felt she could possess it,
The pink countries and the mauve
And the ocean which got to keep its blue.
Coming from the Southern Hemisphere to teach,
Which you had never had to do, you took
A bare-walled room, alone, its northern
Windowscapes as gray as walls.
To decorate, you’d only brought a black madonna.
I thought you must have skipped summer that year,
Southern winter, southern spring, then north
For winter over again. Still, it pleased you
To take credit for introducing us,
And later to bring our daughter a small flipbook
Of partners dancing, and a ring
With a secret whistle. —All are
Broken now like her globe, but she remembers
Them as I recall the black madonna
Facing you across the room so that
In a way you had the dark fertile life
You were always giving gifts to.
Your smaller admirer off to school,
I take the globe and roll it away: where
On it now is someone like you?

by Sandra McPherson

 

for more on Sandra McPherson click here

 



 

 

Summer Storm

We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.

We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.

The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.

To my surprise, you took my arm–
A gesture you didn’t explain–
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.

Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.

I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn’t speak another word
Except to say goodnight.

Why does that evening’s memory
Return with this night’s storm–
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?

There are so many might have beens,
What ifs that won’t stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.

And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.

by Dana Gioia

 

 

The Angel with the Broken Wing

I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
The one large statue in this quiet room.
The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.

The docents praise my elegant design
Above the chatter of the gallery.
Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts—
The perfect emblem of futility.

Mendoza carved me for a country church.
(His name’s forgotten now except by me.)
I stood beside a gilded altar where
The hopeless offered God their misery.

I heard their women whispering at my feet—
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadows up the wall,
And I became the hunger that they fed.

I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.

For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.

There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the damned can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.

by Dana Gioia

 

Dana Gioa’s poem “Prayer” was set to music by Morten Lauridsen and performed by the Wartburg College choir:

 



 

Aspects of Robinson

Robinson at cards at the Algonquin; a thin
Blue light comes down once more outside the blinds.
Gray men in overcoats are ghosts blown past the door.
The taxis streak the avenues with yellow, orange, and red.
This is Grand Central, Mr. Robinson.

Robinson on a roof above the Heights; the boats
Mourn like the lost. Water is slate, far down.
Through sounds of ice cubes dropped in glass, an osteopath,
Dressed for the links, describes an old Intourist tour.
—Here’s where old Gibbons jumped from, Robinson.

Robinson walking in the Park, admiring the elephant.
Robinson buying the Tribune, Robinson buying the Times. Robinson
Saying, “Hello. Yes, this is Robinson. Sunday
At five? I’d love to. Pretty well. And you?”
Robinson alone at Longchamps, staring at the wall.

Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson
In bed with a Mrs. Morse. Robinson at home;
Decisions: Toynbee or luminol? Where the sun
Shines, Robinson in flowered trunks, eyes toward
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson in East Side bars.

Robinson in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch-grain shoes,
Black four-in-hand and oxford button-down,
The jeweled and silent watch that winds itself, the brief-
Case, covert topcoat, clothes for spring, all covering
His sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.

by Weldon Kees

 

Hear Weldon Kees read his poem “1926”:

1926

The porchlight coming on again,
Early November, the dead leaves
Raked in piles, the wicker swing
Creaking. Across the lots
A phonograph is playing Ja-Da.

An orange moon. I see the lives
Of neighbors, mapped and marred
Like all the wars ahead, and R.
Insane, B. with his throat cut,
Fifteen years from now, in Omaha.

I did not know them then.
My airedale scratches at the door.
And I am back from seeing Milton Sills
And Doris Kenyon. Twelve years old.
The porchlight coming on again.

by Weldon Kees

 



 

Lines for Hank Williams

The way his high voice would break and break down,
Beautifully lonesome, lost . . . who once wrote
A song at gunpoint in a hotel downtown,
Fingers shaking to hold the simple chords.
The world was one long night, endless Nashvilles,
A jambalaya of women, whiskey, and pills.
At the Opry they poured coffee down his throat
Backstage before the show, until he’d cough
And rise, trying to remember his own words.
And once, driving through the dark of night
In a Cadillac with Minnie Pearl, he broke
Into “I Saw the Light,” then broke it off,
His voice losing volume as he spoke:
“There ain’t no light, Minnie. There ain’t no light.”

by Joe Bolton

 

 

Ballroom Dancing in the Barrio

South Tucson wind would blow away the stars
If they weren’t nailed in place above the night
As we arrive in loud clothes and loud cars
That slink like dealers in the parking lot
Where bulldozers muscle up to mangle
What’s left of the barrio. Here, a girl
Could lose it all in one serpentine tango,
In the Scotch-cigarette-and-salsa swirl
Of this lit synergy, this dying to live—
Heat of black silk on flesh, a slow burning
In the slick bilinguistics of desire.
Coming to get what we can’t come to give,
We shine and shine on, querulous, turning.
We weren’t just dancing, see. We were on fire.

by Joe Bolton

 



 

Heat

Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
It’s beautiful Susan, her hair sticky with gin,
Our Lady of Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover,
streaming with hatred in the heat
as the record falls and the snake-band chords begin
to break like terrible news from the Rolling Stones,
and such a last light—full of spheres and zones.
August,
        you’re just an erotic hallucination,
just so much feverishly produced kazoo music,
are you serious?—this large oven impersonating night,
this exhaustion mutilated to resemble passion,
the bogus moon of tenderness and magic
you hold out to each prisoner like a cup of light?

by Denis Johnson

 

Vespers

The towels rot and disgust me on this damp
peninsula where they invented mist
and drug abuse and taught the light to fade,
where my top-quality and rock-bottom heart
cries because I’ll never get to kiss
your famous knees again in a room made
vague by throwing a scarf over a lamp.
Things get pretty radical in the dark:
the sailboats in the inlet sail away;
the provinces of actuality
crawl on the sea; the dusk now tenderly
minsters to the fallen parking lots–
the sunset instantaneous on the fenders,
memory and peace . . . the grip of chaos . . .

by Denis Johnson

 

Passengers

The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through these intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always these definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning — her languid flight of hair
traveling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die.

by Denis Johnson

 



 

POWOW AT THE END OF THE WORLD

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam
and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam
downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you
that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find
their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific
and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must 
     forgive
and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by 
     that salmon
waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive 
     and so I shall
after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia
and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors
of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I 
     shall
after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River
as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives
in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.
I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after
that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws
a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire
which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will 
     teach us
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;
the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many
of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing
with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.

by Sherman Alexie


 

From “The Native American Broadcasting System”

Part 9

I am the essence of powwow, I am
toilets without paper, I am fry bread
in sawdust, I am bull dung
on rodeo grounds at the All-Indian
Rodeo and Horse Show, I am
the essence of powwow, I am
video games with with braids, I am spit
from toothless mouths, I am turquoise
and boootleg whiskey, both selling
for twenty bucks a swallow, I am

the essence of powwow , I am
fancydancers in flannel, I am host drum
amplified, I am Fuck you
don't come back and Leave me

the last hard drink. I am
the essence of powwow, I am the dream
you lace your shoes with, I am
the lust between your toes, I am
the memory you feel across the bottom
of your feet when ever you walk too close.

by Sherman Alexie



 

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

 

Greyheaded Schoolchildren

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



 

Oranges

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted -
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
About.

Outside,
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

by Gary Soto

 

Looking Around, Believing

How strange that we can begin at anytime.
With two feet we get down the street.
With a hand we undo the rose.
With an eye we lift up the peach tree
And hold it up to the wind--white blossoms
At our feet. Like today. I started
In the yard with my daughter,
With my wife poking at a potted geranium,
And now I am walking down the street,
Amazed that the sun is only so high,
Just over the roof, and a child
Is singing through a rolled newspaper
And a terrier is leaping like a flea
And at the bakery I pass, a palm
Like a suctioning starfish, is pressed
To the window. We're keeping busy--
This way, that way, we're making shadows
Where sunlight was, making words
Where there was only noise in the trees.

by Gary Soto



 

Mary Oliver reads her poem “The Summer Day”:

 

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

by Mary Oliver

 

How Would You Live Then?

What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks
flew in circles around your head? What if
the mockingbird came into the house with you and
became your advisor? What if
the bees filled your walls with honey and all
you needed to do was ask them and they would fill
the bowl? What if the brook slid downhill just
past your bedroom window so you could listen
to its slow prayers as you fell asleep? What if
the stars began to shout their names, or to run
this way and that way above the clouds? What if
you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves
began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang
from its painted branches? What if you suddenly saw
that the silver of water was brighter than the silver
of money? What if you finally saw
that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day
and every day — who knows how, but they do it—were
more precious, more meaningful than gold? 

 by Mary Oliver

 



 

Tom O’Bedlam reads Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”:

Dylan Thomas reads his poem “Fern Hill”:

Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

by Dylan Thomas

 


 

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

Text to the above poem:

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

 

STANDING FEMALE NUDE

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

 



Lecture from a Yale course on Modern Poetry:

 

The Last Words Of My English Grandmother

 

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

 

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

 

The Yachts

 

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)

 


 

 

The Dolls

A doll in the doll-maker's house
Looks at the cradle and bawls:
'That is an insult to us.'
But the oldest of all the dolls,
Who had seen, being kept for show,
Generations of his sort,
Out-screams the whole shelf: 'Although
There's not a man can report
Evil of this place,
The man and the woman bring
Hither, to our disgrace,
A noisy and filthy thing.'
Hearing him groan and stretch
The doll-maker's wife is aware
Her husband has heard the wretch,
And crouched by the arm of his chair,
She murmurs into his ear,
Head upon shoulder leant:
'My dear, my dear, O dear,
It was an accident.'

by William Butler Yeats

 

Text to the above poem:

Sailing To Byzantium

I

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

II

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

III

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

IV

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

by William Butler Yeats

 

The Lady’s First Song

I turn round
Like a dumb beast in a show.
Neither know what I am
Nor where I go,
My language beaten
Into one name;
I am in love
And that is my shame.
What hurts the soul
My soul adores,
No better than a beast
Upon all fours.

by William Butler Yeats

The Cap And Bells

The jester walked in the garden:
The garden had fallen still;
He bade his soul rise upward
And stand on her window-sill.

It rose in a straight blue garment,
When owls began to call:
It had grown wise-tongued by thinking
Of a quiet and light footfall;

But the young queen would not listen;
She rose in her pale night-gown;
She drew in the heavy casement
And pushed the latches down.

He bade his heart go to her,
When the owls called out no more;
In a red and quivering garment
It sang to her through the door.

It had grown sweet-tongued by dreaming
Of a flutter of flower-like hair;
But she took up her fan from the table
And waved it off on the air.

'I have cap and bells,' he pondered,
'I will send them to her and die';
And when the morning whitened
He left them where she went by.

She laid them upon her bosom,
Under a cloud of her hair,
And her red lips sang them a love-song
Till stars grew out of the air.

She opened her door and her window,
And the heart and the soul came through,
To her right hand came the red one,
To her left hand came the blue.

They set up a noise like crickets,
A chattering wise and sweet,
And her hair was a folded flower
And the quiet of love in her feet.

by William Butler Yeats



BBC documentary on Sylvia Plath:

 

Plath reads her poem:

Text to the above poem:

The Moon and the Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up, it has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness –
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness–-blackness and silence.

by Sylvia Plath

DADDY

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time--
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You--

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through.

If I've killed one man, I've killed two--
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

by Sylvia Plath



 

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

by W. S. Merwin

from The Second Four Books of Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1993). Copyright © 1993 by W. S. Merwin.

The Judgment of Paris

 

                                                                         for Anthony Hecht

Long afterwards
the intelligent could deduce what had been offered
and not recognized
and they suggest that bitterness should be confined
to the fact that the gods chose for their arbiter
a mind and character so ordinary
albeit a prince

and brought up as a shepherd
a calling he must have liked
for he had returned to it

when they stood before him
the three
naked feminine deathless
and he realized that he was clothed
in nothing but mortality
the strap of his quiver of arrows crossing
between his nipples
making it seem stranger

and he knew he must choose
and on that day

the one with the gray eyes spoke first
and whatever she said he kept
thinking he remembered
but remembered it woven with confusion and fear
the two faces that he called father
the first sight of the palace
where the brothers were strangers
and the dogs watched him and refused to know him
she made everything clear she was dazzling she
offered it to him
to have for his own but what he saw
was the scorn above her eyes
and her words of which he understood few
all said to him  Take wisdom
take power
you will forget anyway

the one with the dark eyes spoke
and everything she said
he imagined he had once wished for
but in confusion and cowardice
the crown
of his father the crowns the crowns bowing to him
his name everywhere like grass
only he and the sea
triumphant
she made everything sound possible she was
dazzling she offered it to him
to hold high but what he saw
was the cruelty around her mouth
and her words of which he understood more
all said to him  Take pride
take glory
you will suffer anyway

the third one the color of whose eyes
later he could not remember
spoke last and slowly and
of desire and it was his
though up until then he had been
happy with his river nymph
here was his mind
filled utterly with one girl gathering
yellow flowers
and no one like her
the words
made everything seem present
almost present
present
they said to him  Take
her
you will lose her anyway

it was only when he reached out to the voice
as though he could take the speaker
herself
that his hand filled with
something to give
but to give to only one of the three
an apple as it is told
discord itself in a single fruit its skin
already carved
To the fairest

then a mason working above the gates of Troy
in the sunlight thought he felt the stone
shiver

in the quiver on Paris’s back the head
of the arrow for Achilles’ heel
smiled in its sleep

and Helen stepped from the palace to gather
as she would do every day in that season
from the grove the yellow ray flowers tall
as herself

whose roots are said to dispel pain

W. S. Merwin  

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