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”:
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
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
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
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
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
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”:
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
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
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
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”:
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
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
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”:
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
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)
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
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
and brought up as a shepherd
when they stood before him
and he knew he must choose
the one with the gray eyes spoke first
the one with the dark eyes spoke
the third one the color of whose eyes
it was only when he reached out to the voice
then a mason working above the gates of Troy
in the quiver on Paris’s back the head
and Helen stepped from the palace to gather
whose roots are said to dispel pain