20th Century Poets-3





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


She looked over his shoulder
         For vines and olive trees,
     Marble well-governed cities
         And ships upon untamed seas
    But there on the shining metal
        His hands had put instead
    An artificial wilderness
        And a sky like lead.,

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
     No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
     Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
     An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
     Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
     No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
     Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

    She looked over his shoulder
         For ritual pieties,
     White flower-garlanded heifers,
         Libation and sacrifice,
     But there on the shining metal
         Where the altar should have been,
     She saw by his flickering forge-light
         Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
     Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
     A crowd of ordinary decent folk
     Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
    That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
    And could not hope for help and no help came:
    What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

    She looked over his shoulder
         For athletes at their games,
    Men and women in a dance
         Moving their sweet limbs
     Quick, quick, to music,
         But there on the shining shield
     His hands had set no dancing-floor
         But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
    Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
     That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
    Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

    The thin-lipped armorer,
        Hephaestos, hobbled away,
    Thetis of the shining breasts
        Cried out in dismay
    At what the god had wrought
        To please her son, the strong
    Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
        Who would not live long.

by W. H. Auden, 1907–1973

Music: Piano Rain by Teddy Bergström:

Another great poem by Auden:


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, 1930–2015


Where the Woodrow Wilson School was once
squat blocks of pastel siding
slap back at the sun.

Why should it be there? Who was Woodrow Wilson?

We had a Dodge. When we hit a chicken
we had chicken.

Milton Tackett fixed tires and sold the rubbers
you had to have in your wallet
like a badge
You’re under arrest. Take off all your clothes.

Milton gave a package of rubbers free
for any pair of panties.
When you told him her name and he believed you
you got a dozen.
No sir I said I guess not.
Well he said if I said
pussy I could have one anyway

A woman off the Titanic
talked Sunday night.
She said that all she heard them play
was a waltz.

I bought a Nash
for 97 dollars.
Sunday afternoons
cotton rows running up to the road
flicked by like spokes.
The cropdusting plane put down its pattern
back and forth across the field
like a shuttle.
I was drunk on speed
and metaphor. The world 
was a weaving machine.

But on the other hand 
said Alexander the Great 
bringing down the sword on the Gordian knot 
fuck fate

Didn’t you used to live here?

Don’t do that you’re going to tear something
Look if I take off my clothes will it make you happy

I’m sorry. What did you say?

Nothing. Never mind.

by Miller Williams, 1930–2015


came with a bible in the middle of what I do
How are things in Porlock I asked her
No she said I’m from Joplin Missouri

by Miller Williams, 1930–2015


Biographical documentary about Philip Larkin:

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

Larkin reads his poem “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, 1922–1985


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, 1922–1985

England’s Poet Laureate Motion reads Larkin’s “Going, Going”:


About twenty years ago
Two girls came in where I worked—
A bosomy English rose
And her friend in specs I could talk to.   
Faces in those days sparked
The whole shooting-match off, and I doubt   
If ever one had like hers:
But it was the friend I took out,

And in seven years after that   
Wrote over four hundred letters,   
Gave a ten-guinea ring
I got back in the end, and met   
At numerous cathedral cities   
Unknown to the clergy. I believe
I met beautiful twice. She was trying   
Both times (so I thought) not to laugh.

Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement   
That I was too selfish, withdrawn,   
And easily bored to love.
Well, useful to get that learnt.   
In my wallet are still two snaps
Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.   
Unlucky charms, perhaps.

by Philip Larkin, 1922–1985

from Whitsun Weddings. Copyright © Estate of Philip Larkin.  Reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber, Ltd. Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001)

Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings” read by the author:

Talking In Bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind's incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds about the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

by Philip Larkin, 1922–1985

***************AL YOUNG****************


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, 1939


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.

by Al Young, 1939

© 2006 and 2007

***************LOUIS SIMPSON**************

James Wright and Louis Simpson read poety and are interviewed by James Dickey:


In my grandmother's house there was always chicken soup
And talk of the old country—mud and boards,
The snow falling down the necks of lovers.

Now and then, out of her savings
She sent them a dowry. Imagine
The rice-powdered faces!
And the smell of the bride, like chicken soup.

But the Germans killed them.
I know it's in bad taste to say it,
But it's true. The Germans killed them all.


In the ruins of Berchtesgaden
A child with yellow hair
Ran out of a doorway.

A German girl-child—
Cuckoo, all skin and bones—
Not even enough to make chicken soup.
She sat by the stream and smiled.

Then as we splashed in the sun
She laughed at us.
We had killed her mechanical brothers,
So we forgave her.


The sun is shining.
The shadows of the lovers have disappeared.
They are all eyes; they have some demand on me—
They want me to be more serious than I want to be.

They want me to stick in their mudhole
Where no one is elegant.
They want me to wear old clothes,
They want me to be poor, to sleep in a room with many others—

Not to walk in the painted sunshine
To a summer house,
But to live in the tragic world forever.

by Louis Simpson, 1923-2012


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:


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, 1923 – 2012

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


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, 1923 – 2012


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, 1923–1997


Brilliant, this day – a young virtuoso of a day.
Morning shadow cut by sharpest scissors,
deft hands. And every prodigy of green – 
whether it's ferns or lichens or needles
or impatient points of buds on spindly bushes – 
greener than ever before. And the way the conifers
hold new cones to the light for the blessing,
a festive right, and sing the oceanic chant the wind
transcribes for them!
A day that shines in the cold
like a first-prize brass band swinging along
the street
of a coal-dusty village, wholly at odds
with the claims of reasonable gloom.

Denise Levertov, 1923–1997

from The Great Unknowing: Last Poems, © 1999

************ROBERT PINSKY*******


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, 1940


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, 1940

*********SANDRA MCPHERSON**********


I would say whisper and she could 
never figure how to do it. I would say, 
speak louder into the phone, nor 
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, 1943


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, 1943-


Orange is the single-hearted color. I remember 
How I found them in a vein beside the railroad, 
A bumble-bee fumbling for a foothold 
While the poppies' petals flagged beneath his boot. 

I brought three poppies home and two buds still sheathed. 
I amputated them above the root. They lived on artlessly 
Beside the window for a while, blazing orange, bearing me 
No malice. Each four-fanned surface opened 

To the light. They were bright as any orange grove. 
I watched them day and night stretch open and tuck shut 
With no roots to grip, like laboratory frogs' legs twitching 
Or like red beheaded hens still hopping on sheer nerves. 

On the third afternoon one bud tore off its green glove 
And burst out brazen as Baby New Year. 
Two other poppies dropped their petals, leaving four 
Scribbly yellow streamers on a purple-brimmed and green 

Conical cadaver like a New Year's hat. 
I'd meant to celebrate with them, but they seemed 
So suddenly tired, these aging ladies in crocheted 
Shawl leaves. They'd once been golden as the streets 

Of heaven, now they were as hollow. 
They couldn't pull together for a last good-bye. 
I had outlived them and had only their letters to read, 
Fallen around the vase, saying they were sorry.

by Sandra McPherson, 1943-

for more on Sandra McPherson [CLICK HERE]



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, 1950-


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, 1950-

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


***************WELDON KEES*************


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, 1914–1955


The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone.
His act is over. The world is a gray world,
Not without violence, and he kicks under the grand piano,   
The nightmare chase well under way.

The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,   
Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.   
Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.

Which is all of the room—walls, curtains,
Shelves, bed, the tinted photograph of Robinson’s first wife,   
Rugs, vases, panatellas in a humidor.
They would fill the room if Robinson came in.

The pages in the books are blank,
The books that Robinson has read. That is his favorite chair,   
Or where the chair would be if Robinson were here.

All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson   
Calling. It never rings when he is here.

Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun.   
Outside, the birds circle continuously   
Where trees are actual and take no holiday.

by Weldon Kees, 1914–1955

from The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees edited by Donald Justice by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 1962, 1975, by the University of Nebraska Press. © renewed 2003 by the University of Nebraska Press

Hear Weldon Kees read his poem “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, 1914–1955


Looking into my daughter’s eyes I read   
Beneath the innocence of morning flesh   
Concealed, hintings of death she does not heed.
Coldest of winds have blown this hair, and mesh
Of seaweed snarled these miniatures of hands;
The night’s slow poison, tolerant and bland,
Has moved her blood. Parched years that I have seen   
That may be hers appear: foul, lingering   
Death in certain war, the slim legs green.   
Or, fed on hate, she relishes the sting   
Of others’ agony; perhaps the cruel   
Bride of a syphilitic or a fool.   
These speculations sour in the sun.   
I have no daughter. I desire none.

by Weldon Kees, 1914–1955

from The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees edited by Donald Justice by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 1962, 1975, by the University of Nebraska Press. © renewed 2003 by the University of Nebraska Press.

************JOE BOLTON********************


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, 1961-1990

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, 1961-1990

Tropical Courtyard

It is a rage against geometry:
The spiked fans of the palmetto arcing
Like improvised brushstrokes in the light breeze;
Like shadowplay, somewhere a dog barking.

Against the height of new and old brick walls,
Confounding stone, transplanted pine and palm
Lift in imperfection, as heavy bells
That would force order fade into the calm

Of azure and a faint scent of musk.
(Is it eucalyptus or just the past?)
There's nothing in this warm, vegetal dusk
That is not beautiful or that will last.

by Joe Bolton, 1961-1990

***************DENIS JOHNSON************


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.
        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, 1949–2017


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, 1949–2017


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, 1949–2017



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 
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 
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, 1966-

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, 1966-

Mary Oliver reads her poem “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, 1935–2019


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

by Mary Oliver, 1935–2019



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, 1935–2019 

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

Richard Burton reads Dylan Thomas’ poem “Fern Hill”:

Another version:


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, 1914–1953

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