In A Restless World Like This Is

charles-bernstein
Charles Bernstein

I always say I am a professor of poetry, I profess poetry; think of me as a snake-oil salesman, a confidence man: I don’t want to test your accumulated knowledge; I want to convince you of the value of poetry as a method, as a way of writing, as a form of vision. . . . .

Charles Bernstein – Artifice of Absorption

In A Restless World Like This Is

by Charles Bernstein

Not long ago, or maybe I dreamt it
Or made it up, or have suddenly lost
Track of its train in the hocus pocus
Of the dissolving days; no, if I bend
The turn around the corner, come at it
From all three sides at once, or bounce the ball
Against all manner of bleary-eyed fortune
Tellers—well, you can see for yourselves there’s
Nothing up my sleeves, or notice even
Rocks occasionally break if enough
Pressure is applied. As far as you go
In one direction, all the further you’ll
Have to go on before the way back has
Become totally indivisible.


There are certain cult figures in poetry that rise through the ranks of academia or blossom because of a small cadre of fanatical readers to eventually become mainstream. When this happens it is not by chance, it is because there is a raw brilliance that forces itself into public view.  Veronica Forrest-Thomson is one such poet. Forrest-Thomson did not live long enough to cement herself during her lifetime as a poet of significant consequence of her generation.   She died from an overdose of narcotics and booze. Whether it was accidental or intentional really doesn’t matter.

Part of Forrest-Thomson continuing legacy is because of her writing on critical theory, which was championed by Charles Bernstein after her death. Forrest-Thomson described poetry as neither a replica of the natural world, or an abstract dialogue as an a window into the inner mind, but rather as a third kind, where poems are images built in the tension between language and the external world. She felt poetry shouldn’t mirror reality, neither should it be gibberish or reject the world in which we live, but instead poetry should build a space that lets us expand our understanding of language relative to ourselves and our lives.  Forrest-Thomson felt poetry has power when it maintained some continuity with the world while allowing for a specific discontinuity as well.

It sometimes feel to me like the progression of the history of poetry is a relay race, often run most elegantly by the suicidal.  Sylvia Plath handed the baton to Veronica and what a shame that she couldn’t hang on to life rather than run that same short race, breathless.


Not Pastoral Enough

by Veronica Forrest-Thompson

…………homage to William Empson

It is the sense, it is the sense, controls
Landing every poem like a fish.
Unhuman forms must not assert their roles.

Glittering scales require the deadly tolls
Of net and knife. Scales fall to relish
It is the sense, it is the sense, controls.

Yet languages are apt to miss on souls
If reason only guts them.  Applying the wish,
Unhuman forms must not assert their roles.

Ignores the fact that poems have two poles
That must be opposite.  Hard then to finish
It is the sense, it is the sense, controls,

Without a sense of lining up for doles
From other kitchens that give us the garnish:
Unhuman forms must not assert their roles.

And this (forgive me) is like carrying coals
To Sheffield. Irrelevance betrays a formal anguish.
It is the sense, its is the sense, controls,
“Unhuman forms must not assert their roles”.

 

 

 

Drowns and Booms and Vowels

earth_from_space_western_hemisphere_lg

Sonnet [Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,]

by Karen Volkman (b. 1967)

Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,
the earth, blue egg, in its seeping shell
dispensing damage like a hollow hell
inchling weeping for a minor sea

ticking its tidelets, x and y and z.
The blue beneficence we call and spell
and call blue heaven, the whiteblue well
of constant water, deepening a thee,

a thou and who, touching every what—
and in the or, a shudder in the cut—
and that you are, blue mirror, only stare

bluest blankness, whether in the where,
sheen that bleeds blue beauty we are taught
drowns and booms and vowels. I will not.


It is a pleasure to see contemporary writers skillfully exploring the sonnet form.  Karen Volkman is a master at taking the sonnet structure and like e. e. cummings, mold it to her will and keep it fresh and exciting.  I like her playful bending of words, in particular the turning the word vowel into a verb at the end of this poem. It rather struck me that maybe I had never really considered what underlays the term.  So I looked it up.  A vowel is a speech sound that is produced by comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction and is a unit of the sound system of a language that forms the nucleus of a syllable. It is therefore in speech, by its very definition a verb and action. How brilliant an insight by Volkman, that in this case her blue, where nothing was ever as it claimed to be, forms the nucleus of this snapshot of her creativity.

I have read this poem over 10 times in the past couple of months. Each time I read it, it has this uncanny ability for me to think about something completely different. Volkman’s flow of words do not create a specific image or emotion in my mind, rather its like a shimmer, the suggestion of a skin, that allows my mood at the moment to interpret or enjoy spontaneously. I am in awe of writers that have that ability to share something so intimate as their own inner life, without infringing on our own ability to let our imaginations fly unfettered.

Volkman shared a sliver of insight into her writing on Poetry Out Loud:

“I believe one of the jobs of poetry is to allow readers to discover different and more complex ways of engaging experience, including the experience of their own inner lives, partly by surprising them into developing new modes of response in their reading, new freedoms.”  Karen Volkman

Volkman and I are contemporaries at least in terms of age.   She would have been even younger than I when the golden age of space exploration and maned space missions were the grand spectacles of awe on our black and white televisions. Time magazine was the weekly vehicle by which the amazing colors of space streamed into my living room, with pictures freshly minted from astronauts circling the earth, sending back photos of our blue egg.

I have no idea if Volkman sees the ying and yang between the two poems I have shared from her work.   The second explores  in my mind the sun around which the earth spins, and which is the source of energy that fuels all life on this planet. I particularly like her imagery that the sun “wakes the waters” and at the end, is the “blue begun.”  In Volkman’s mind, none of what I see in her writing may exist, but she is the most beneficent of artists to not impose too much on the mind of her readers that we cannot create within her sonnet’s structure our own mystery.

It is hard sometimes to wrap ones head around the seemingly daily disasters, whether geopolitical or environmental or just good old-fashioned crazy people, that seem to dominate the daily news cycle. Poetry, for me, is an invitation to contemplation, meditation, a welcoming to experience a quieter place, where the mind can remind itself, that life on this planet is special.


[She goes, she is, she wakes the waters]

by Karen Volkman

She goes, she is, she wakes the waters
primed in their wave-form, a flux of urge
struck in oneness, the solid surge
seeking completion, and strikes and shatters

and is its fragments, distinction’s daughters
and now, unholding, the cleave and merge
the hew and fusing, plundering the verge
and substance is the scheme it scatters

and what it numbers in substantial sun.
Her hands hold many or her hands hold none.
And diving the salt will kiss a convex eye

and be salt fact and be the bodied sky
and that gray weight is both or beggared one,
a dead dimensional, or blue begun.

Karen Volkman, “[She goes, she is, she wakes the waters]” from Nomina. Copyright © 2008 by Karen Volkman

 

 

The Past Was Nearer Then

Kids with popsicles
The Final Lazy Days of Summer

The Past Was Nearer Then

By T. A. Fry

Awakening to warbling of a wren,
Remembering when, the future bade
As unending line. The past was nearer then,
A shadowland, where tears were unafraid.
Afternoon shade slipped by on green grass blades
Beneath canvas hammock  as my tent.
No other purpose than to play was weighed.
And orange popsicles were heaven sent.
No divine mystery to be unwrapped.
It lay before me with simplicity.
Choose cool shadows or sunshine for my nap,
And snooze without hint of duplicity.
Then, a long summer evening to be spent,
Devoid of care or thought of where it went.  

Love’s Language Starts, Stops, Starts

Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy Poet Laureate of England

FALSE though she be to me and love,
I’ll ne’er pursue revenge;
For still the charmer I approve,
Though I deplore her change.

In hours of bliss we oft have met:
They could not always last;
And though the present I regret,
I’m grateful for the past.

William Congreve


 

Syntax

by Carol Ann Duffy (1955 – )

I want to call you thou, the sound
of the shape of the start
of a kiss – like this – thou –
and to say, after, I love,
thou, I love, thou I love, not
I love you.

Because I so do 

as we say now – I want to say
thee, I adore, I adore thee
and to know in my lips
the syntax of love resides,
and to gaze in thine eyes.

Love’s language starts, stops, starts;
the right words flowing or clotting in the heart.

Knowing The Take Was Deep And Real

Contour Farming
Contour Farming

 

The Fielder

by Matthew Hollis

The day is late, later than the sun.
He tastes the dusk of things and eases down,
and feels the shade set in across the yard.
He never thought there’d be so much undone,
so much in need of planing: the haugh unmown
with its fist of bracken, the splinting of the cattle bar,
the half-attended paddock wall
scribbled with blackthorn and broke-wool.

Perhaps he could have turned the plough for one last till,
be sure, or surer, of where the seeding fell.
But then it’s not the ply that counts, but the depth of furrow,
knowing the take was deep and real, knowing the change was made.
And field by field the brown hills harvest yellow.
And few of us will touch the landscape in that way.


I spent the past few days in the company of plant physiology graduate students and their advisor at the University of Illinois in Champaign.   It did my heart good to see the genuine eagerness with which the students approach the rather difficult task of their field research, trying to tease apart the management variables that can unlock the potential for higher sustainable yields in corn and soybeans.  The number one factor that influences yield on every crop every year is the one which farmers and graduate students have no control; the weather.

 I like this poem, because Hollis captures several truths about agriculture; there is never a time when everything is finished and few understand how a good farmer can “touch the landscape in that way. “

To hear Matthew Hollis read this poem, check out the link below to The Poetry Archive. And while you’re there, listen to another fine poem by Hollis titled: And Let Us Say.

https://www.poetryarchive.org/explore/browsepoems?f%5B0%5D=sm_field_poet%3Anode%3A192535

 

This Is The Meaning of Life

Delmore Schwartz
Delmore Schwartz in New York City

The Beautiful American Word, Sure

by Delmore Schwartz (1913 – 1966)

The beautiful American word, Sure
As I have come into a room, and touch
The lamp’s button, and the light blooms with such
Certainty where the darkness loomed before,

As I care for what I do not know, and care
Knowing for little she might not have been,
And for how little she would be unseen,
The intercourse of lives miraculous and dear.

Where the light is, and each thing clear,
Separate from all others, standing in its place,
I drink the time and touch whatever’s near,

And hope for day when the whole world has that face:
For what assures her present every year?
In dark accidents the mind’s sufficient grace.


Delmore Schwartz lived and died in New York City.  In between were stints as student or adjunct professor in Madison, Wisconsin, Harvard and Syracuse University. New York City and his parents divorce loomed as a character in his stories and poetry, his sonnet 0 City, City a far cry from Wordsworth’s love affair with London.  Schwartz seemed to bear New York on his shoulders, filling his mind with literature in its public libraries as a young man, surrounding him with artists and intellectuals and then he spit it out after having chewed on it sufficiently for 40 years.  It is said that Schwartz paved the way for Saul Bellows to be Saul Bellows.  If true, its damnable praise that his legacy was being an originality that allowed the next Jewish writer to prosper for excelling even further in defining the loneliness of trying to assimilate as an outsider into a nation of immigrants.

Schwartz was a man of brilliant intellect whose professional zenith peaked in his 20’s.  He was touted by William Carlos Williams.  He was an acquaintance if not friend of Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Lowell penned a tribute or a curse in honor of him. Schwartz suffered the burdens of genius, mental illness, creativity, alcoholism and poverty.  He died  at the age of 53 of a heart attack.  His body unclaimed by family and friends he had grown estranged from years before.

Schwartz writes with a clear voice, an impulse driven by a deep understanding of literature and a willingness to work within the confines of tradition to forge something new.  The subjects of his poems were often stark.  His sonnets a love song to words and and ideas more than people.

What to make of the first line and his association of the American-ness of the word ‘sure’?  Schwartz was a first generation Romanian Jew, who grew up in respectable if not the upper middle class in New York City.  That all changed in an instant when his father died suddenly at age 49.  Apparently dying young was the one true inheritance his father passed on to his son.   The ‘sureness’ of being American may have eluded Schwartz. And yet the freedoms that invention allowed were not lost on his awakening as an artist. For what was possible for him in America would have been impossible in the birth place of his parents.


Sonnet

by Delmore Schwartz

I follow thought and what the world announces
I lean to hear, and leaning too far over,
Fall, and babied by confusion, cover
Myself in drowse, too tired by such bounces.
But in sleep are dreams across zigzagging snow
Descending quietly and slow, like minutes,
And on this peace the soul again begins its
Rhetoric of desire, older than Jericho,
And rails once more, like birds of early morning
Urchinous on branches and like newsboys,
“Extra, this is the meaning of life,
Here is the real good, beyond all turning,”
Till night goes home, astonished by such cries,
I wake up, and, to feel superior, I laugh.

 

 

 

For This Is Sunday Morning

 

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Irish Fair on Harriet Island St. Paul, Minnesota August 2018

Sunday Morning

by Louise MacNeice (1907 – 1963)

Down the road someone is practising scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,
Man’s heart expands to tinker with his car
For this is Sunday morning, Fate’s great bazaar;
Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now,

And you may grow to music or drive beyond Hindhead anyhow,
Take corners on two wheels until you go so fast
That you can clutch a fringe or two of the windy past,
That you can abstract this day and make it to the week of time
A small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme.

But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire
Open its eight bells out, skulls’ mouths which will not tire
To tell how there is no music or movement which secures
Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.