What Law, Then, Moved A Wicked Judge

Francisco de Quevedo (1580 – 1645)

A Una Dama Bizca y Hermosa

by Francisco de Quevedo

Si a una parte miraran solamente
vuestros ojos, ¿cuál parte no abrasaran?
Y si a diversas partes no miraran,
se helaran el ocaso o el Oriente.

El mirar zambo y zurdo es delincuente;
vuestras luces izquierdas lo declaran,
pues con mira engañosa nos disparan
facinorosa luz, dulce y ardiente.

Lo que no miran ven, y son despojos
suyos cuantos los ven, y su conquista
da a l’alma tantos premios como enojos.

¿Qué ley, pues, mover pudo al mal jurista
a que, siendo monarcas los dos ojos,
los llamase vizcondes de la vista?

To A Cross-Eyed, Beautiful Lady

By Francisco de Quevedo
Translated by Christopher Johnson

Were your eyes to gaze on just
one place, it would be cinders.
If they didn’t gaze hither and thither,
the West would freeze, or the East.

Your lame, stuttering glance convicts
your criminal eyes of sinister deeds;
with deceitful sight, they shoot us
with sweet, fascinating, burning light.

What they do not gaze upon, they see;
what they see is their spoils, and their
conquest angers and pleases the soul.

What law, then, moved a wicked judge
to declare them, the eyes being monarchs,
mere counts of the countenance?

Do not think this business of writing sonnets is all snooty literature.   There is a history of using sonnets as satire, humor and good clean revenge.   We take for granted freedom of the press, but for most of the past 500 years a writers words could get them killed if you offended the wrong person.  Cervantes was not the only Spanish writer to use humor to gain wide spread acceptance of his most politically charged writing.   The wit and flow of the rhyme in both these poems is lost in the English translation, but the school boy humor still comes through loud and clear.

I am fond of limericks, as well as sonnets.   Limericks have a reputation for silliness, double meanings, puns and bawdiness.  Though they are considered low brow poetry, their tradition of origin is historically high brow. Limericks are the poetry of college boy drinking contests, in which tawdriness balanced by wit, the more clever the unexpected twist the more likely the limerick will survive in oral tradition.  Limerick origins are usually considered “anonymous” yet, some of the most famous writers in the English language, men of distinguished letters, penned more than one that would have made their Mother’s blush.  Of course they generally only assigned their names to ones that didn’t sully their reputation.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with the following:

God’s plan made a hopeful beginning.
But man spoiled his chances by sinning.
We trust that the story
Will end in God’s glory,
But at present the other side’s winning.

La Voz Del Ojo, Que Llamamos Pedo

by Francisco de Quevedo

La voz del ojo, que llamamos pedo
(ruiseñor de los putos), detenida,
da muerte a la salud más presumida,
y el proprio Preste Juan le tiene miedo.

Mas pronunciada con el labio acedo
y con pujo sonoro despedida,
con pullas y con risa da la vida,
y con puf y con asco, siendo quedo.

Cágome en el blasón de los monarcas
que se precian, cercados de tudescos,
de dar la vida y dispensar las Parcas.

Pues en el tribunal de sus gregüescos,
con afl ojar y comprimir las arcas,
cualquier culo lo hace con dos cuescos.

The eye’s voice we call a fart

by Francisco de Quevedo
Translated by Christopher Johnson

The eye’s voice we call a fart
(nightingale of sodomites), if
detained, kills the healthiest
and scares the wealthiest.

But if pronounced with a vile lip
and with a sonorous, farewell push,
with curses and jests, with a soft ,
disgusting puff , it gives life.

I shit on the blazons of kings,
who fancy, guarded by Germans,
they grant life and dispense fate;

for in the tribunal of its trousers,
easing and squeezing the chambers,
any asshole does so with two farts.

Maybe It Was Summer

Stanley Plumly

Sitting Alone In The Middle Of The Night

by Stanley Plumly (1939 – 2019)

Maybe it was summer and I was back home for a while
working to pay off debts from school, painting white
barns and long field fences and on off-days baling hay.
It was hot then in Ohio and sometimes so dry the corn
or the soybeans would fail. I’d get up at two or three
in the morning to find my way to the kitchen for water
and he’d be sitting there in a kind of outline,
smoking and staring at something far, his eyes by now
long adjusted to the dark. Mine were just now opening.
Nothing would be said, since there was nothing to say.
He was dying, he was turning into stone. The little
I could see I could see already how much heavier
he made the air, heavy enough over the days that summer
you could feel in the house the pull of the earth

Zermat: To The Matterhorn (June-July, 1897)

by Thomas Hardy

Thirty-two years since, up against the sun,
Seven shapes, thin atomies to lower sight,
Labouringly leapt and gained thy gabled height,
And four lives paid for what the seven had won.

They were the first by whom the deed was done,
And when I look at thee, my mind takes flight
To that day’s tragic feat of manly might,
As though, till then, of history thou hadst none.

Yet ages ere men topped thee, late and soon
Thou watch’dst each night the planets lift and lower;
Thou gleam’dst to Joshua’s pausing sun and moon,
And brav’dst the tokening sky when Caesar’s power
Approached its bloody end: yea, saw’st that Noon
When darkness filled the earth till the ninth hour.

Spring’s Thousand Tender Greens

Jane Kenyon (1947 – 1995)

“Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.”

Jane Kenyon

April Chores

by Jane Kenyon

When I take the chilly tools
from the shed’s darkness, I come
out to a world made new
by heat and light.

The snake basks and dozes
on a large flat stone.
It reared and scolded me
for raking too close to its hole.

Like a mad red brain
the involute rhubarb leaf
thinks its way up
through loam.

The Clearing

by Jane Kenyon

The dog and I push through the ring
of dripping junipers
to enter the open space high on the hill
where I let him off the leash.

He vaults, snuffling, between tufts of moss;
twigs snap beneath his weight; he rolls
and rubs his jowls on the aromatic earth;
his pink tongue lolls.

I look for sticks of proper heft
to throw for him, while he sits, prim
and earnest in his love, if it is love.

All night a soaking rain, and now the hill
exhales relief, and the fragrance
of warm earth. The sedges
have grown an inch since yesterday,
and ferns unfurled, and even if they try
the lilacs by the barn can’t
keep from opening today.

I longed for spring’s thousand tender greens,
and the white-throated sparrow’s call
that borders on rudeness. Do you know—
since you went away
I’ve done little
but wait for you to come back to me.

Teach Me To See It

William Meredith (1919 – 2007)

Life is some kind of loathsome hag who is forever threatening to turn beautiful.

William Meredith

Accidents of Birth

By William Meredith

Je vois les effroyables espaces de l’Univers qui m’enferment, et je me trouve attaché à un coin de cette vaste étendue, sans savoir pourquoi je suis plutôt en ce lieu qu’en un autre, ni pourquoi ce peu de temps qui m’est donné à vivre m’est assigné à ce point plutôt qu’à un autre de toute l’éternité qui m’a précédé, et de toute qui me suit.

—Pascal, Pensées sur la religion

The approach of a man’s life out of the past is history, and the approach of time out of the future is mystery. Their meeting is the present, and it is consciousness, the only time life is alive. The endless wonder of this meeting is what causes the mind, in its inward liberty of a frozen morning, to turn back and question and remember. The world is full of places. Why is it that I am here?

—Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House

Spared by a car or airplane crash or
cured of malignancy, people look
around with new eyes at a newly
praiseworthy world, blinking eyes like these.
For I’ve been brought back again from the
fine silt, the mud where our atoms lie
down for long naps. And I’ve also been
pardoned miraculously for years
by the lava of chance which runs down
the world’s gullies, silting us back.
Here I am, brought back, set up, not yet
happened away.
But it’s not this random
life only, throwing its sensual
astonishments upside down on
the bloody membranes behind my eyeballs,
not just me being here again, old
needer, looking for someone to need,
but you, up from the clay yourself,
as luck would have it, and inching
over the same little segment of earth-
ball, in the same little eon, to
meet in a room, alive in our skins,
and the whole galaxy gaping there
and the centuries whining like gnats—
you, to teach me to see it, to see
it with you, and to offer somebody
uncomprehending, impudent thanks.

An Orson Of The Muse

by George Meredith

Her son, albeit the Muse’s livery
And measured courtly paces rouse his taunts,
Naked and hairy in his savage haunts,
To Nature only will he bend the knee;
Spouting the founts of her distillery
Like rough rock-sources; and his woes and wants
Being Nature’s, civil limitation daunts
His utterance never; the nymphs blush, not he.
Him, when he blows of Earth, and Man, and Fate,
The Muse will hearken to with graver ear
Than many of her train can waken: him
Would fain have taught what fruitful things and dear
Must sink beneath the tidewaves, of their weight,
If in no vessel built for sea they swim.

What Could I Have Said?

Sharon Olds

If I wrote in a sonnet form, I would be distorting. Or if I had some great new idea for line breaks and I used it in a poem, but it’s really not right for that poem, but I wanted it, that would be distorting.

Sharon Olds

His Stillness

By Sharon Olds
The doctor said to my father, “You asked me
to tell you when nothing more could be done.
That’s what I’m telling you now.” My father
sat quite still, as he always did,
especially not moving his eyes. I had thought
he would rave if he understood he would die,
wave his arms and cry out. He sat up,
thin, and clean, in his clean gown,
like a holy man. The doctor said,
“There are things we can do which might give you time,
but we cannot cure you.” My father said,
“Thank you.” And he sat, motionless, alone,
with the dignity of a foreign leader.
I sat beside him. This was my father.
He had known he was mortal. I had feared they would have to
tie him down. I had not remembered
he had always held still and kept quiet to bear things,
the liquor a way to keep still. I had not
known him. My father had dignity. At the
end of his life his life began
to wake in me.

I wonder what the divorce rate is among poets?   In particular how many first marriages survive?  No matter what a poet writes, whether autobiographical or not, there is a tendency for readers to think it is, particularly family members. It’s why poems written in the style of confessional poetry, in first person, can be difficult reading, there is little wiggle room for the reader, unless you view every poem as fiction, a product of imagination.  Who is the greater exhibitionist; the painter or the nude, the poet or the reader, the artist or the gallery?  
I find it interesting that Olds views the sonnet form as stifling and I find it liberating.  I like structured verse because it provides a canopy under which I can get out of the bright sun and allows fiction to mingle with experience more readily into a nice rosy shade of pink reading glasses.  
There are many sides to every failed marriage, particularly if there are children involved and the marriage went on and on, well into their young adulthood; then every member of the family will have their opinion on the matter. When a poet eulogizes their failed marriage in poetry, it takes on a whole new level of sentimentality, there becomes multiple deaths, the death of possibilities.  I wrote a number of poems about my failed marriage.  None of them were any good.  I am not as talented a poet as Olds in that regard.  Poetry of failure is not as inspiring as the poetry of discovery, but maybe it’s equally as important.   The poetry of failure serves as a glue, to remind us all, that life is complicated.  We all fail in our lifetimes, particularly in our marriages. Its just a matter of degrees.  Olds’ poem below was a good reminder to myself, to not be so quick to burn the past without forethought as to the portent of the memories that go up in that rich smoke of the lives that were worth living long ago.  Even those lives that ended in divorce. 


The Easel

by Sharon Olds

When I build a fire, I feel purposeful –
proud I can unscrew the wing-nuts
from off the rusted bolts, dis-
assembling one of the things my ex
left when he left right left. And laying its
narrow, polished, maple bones
across the fire, providing for updraft –
good. Then by flame-light I see: I am burning
his old easel. How can that be,
after the hours and hours – all told, maybe
weeks, a month of stillness – modelling
for him, our first years together,
smell of acrylic, stretch of treated
canvas. I am burning his left-behind craft,
he who was the first to turn
our family, naked, into art.
What if someone had told me, thirty
years ago: If you give up, now,
wanting to be an artist, he might
love you all your life – just put your
gifts into the heart’s domestic service.
What would I have said? I didn’t even
have an art, it would come to me
from out of our family’s life – what could I have said?

Believe In This

Bob Kaufman (1925 – 1986)

“when i die, i won’t stay dead.”

Bob Kaufman

Jail Poems (An Excerpt)

by Bob Kaufman
I am sitting in a cell with a view of evil parallels,
Waiting thunder to splinter me into a thousand me’s.
It is not enough to be in one cage with one self;
I want to sit opposite every prisoner in every hole.
Doors roll and bang, every slam a finality, bang!
The junkie disappeared into a red noise, stoning out his hell.
The odored wino congratulates himself on not smoking,
Fingerprints left lying on black inky gravestones,
Noises of pain seeping through steel walls crashing
Reach my own hurt. I become part of someone forever.
Wild accents of criminals are sweeter to me than hum of cops,
Busy battening down hatches of human souls; cargo
Destined for ports of accusations, harbors of guilt.
What do policemen eat, Socrates, still prisoner, old one?

Bob Kaufman has a unique bio, even for a beat poet.   The 10th of 13 children, he left home and joined the Merchant Marines when he was 13, a profession he would continue late into his 20’s.  In the 1940’s he moved to New York and went to the New York School, studying literature.  He became active in the beat poet’s movement, mostly performing his poems live.  It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that several books of his poetry were published by City Lights in San Francisco, where he would eventually move, with the aid of friends, like Allen Ginsburg.  His wife helped compile Kaufman compile and record his poetry, assisting with its publication.
Kaufman spent several stints in prison on Riker’s Island while still in New York, for mostly minor charges.  He was unfairly committed to a mental institution for unruly behavior and given electro-shock therapy against his will.  During this time he found Buddhism.  When John F. Kennedy was killed he took an oath of silence that lasted 10 years, a profound sacrifice for a man who was best known artistically as an oral poet.  Though he would end his silence for a time, he would return to it at the end of his life. 
If you want to hear more of Kaufman’s work, check out the video below:

Believe, Believe

By Bob Kaufman (1925 – 1986)
Believe in this. Young apple seeds,
In blue skies, radiating young breast,
Not in blue-suited insects,
Infesting society’s garments.
Believe in the swinging sounds of jazz,
Tearing the night into intricate shreds,
Putting it back together again,
In cool logical patterns,
Not in the sick controllers,
Who created only the Bomb.
Let the voices of dead poets
Ring louder in your ears
Than the screechings mouthed
In mildewed editorials.
Listen to the music of centuries,
Rising above the mushroom time.


Lassoing A Unicorn

“In Paris, I was a poet, in New York City, a painter.” E. E. Cummings

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

e. e. cummings

Cumming mystique as a poet was both the reason for his success and the cause of the inconsistency with which some of his poems have aged. Some of Cummings published and unpublished work reads more like shear gibberish than the highly nuanced and stylized literature that is among his best. Even Edna St. Vincent Millay, at the height of her popularity on powers, wrote on his behalf the following for the Guggenheim Fellowship that he was eventually awarded in 1933;

“[I]f he prints and offers for sale poetry which he is quite content should be, after hours of sweating concentration, inexplicable from any point of view to a person as intelligent as myself, then he does so with a motive which is frivolous from the point of view of art, and should not be helped or encouraged by any serious person or group of persons… there is fine writing and powerful writing (as well as some of the most pompous nonsense I ever let slip to the floor with a wide yawn)… What I propose, then, is this: that you give Mr. Cummings enough rope. He may hang himself; or he may lasso a unicorn.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

What I find funny about Millay’s assessment is both sides of the coin she presents are true.  Cummings lassoed a unicorn more than once with his poems that touch me, electrify me.  However, the poems that I most enjoy might not be yours, so brilliance is relative in the eye of the reader.  But in reading Cummings entire collected works, he also wrote a lot of clunkers, truly forgettable poems that are utterly unfathomable. 

In truth, even with my most favorite poets, the actual poems of theirs that I enjoy is a tiny subset of their entire lifetime of work.   Take Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams for example.  I don’t like the vast majority of their work, particularly some of their most famous poems, that everyone else gushes over.  I absolutely detest William Carlos Williams The Red Wheelbarrow, one of the most anthologized poems written in the 20th century; 

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
William Carlos Williams, The Red Wheelbarrow

There is absolutely nothing going on for me in that poem.  I don’t find it funny, or interesting.  It’s not poetry in my opinion, there are no ideas passed from Williams’ words to me. But there are plenty of other things William Carlos Williams wrote that I find intriguing and brilliant.  I think for even the most gifted poet, to write 50 great poems, you have to write 500 or maybe even 5,000. And maybe you have to surround your greatness with a plethora of mediocrity or even stupidity so that when a reader finds a great one, (to them), it stands out. 

It could be that the only poets that bat a high average of brilliance are those that didn’t write very many; Keats for example. If Keats had written until he was 80, likely we would think differently about him, as there would be a body of poetry during his inevitable dry spell that might not reflect very kindly upon him in the mirror of time.  But he died young and brilliant, which is partly the cause of his unsullied reputation.  Apparently the key to immorality as an artist is a tragic, untimely death. 

A reader in a previous post, shared a great comment, that Cummings “star has fallen” out of favor in the past 20 years, partly because of his use of terms that would be considered racist today in a few of his poems. I am not going to be an apologist.  Cummings words are there for all to judge if you want to find the literary criticism that is advocating ghosting Cummings.  I am not in that camp.  I don’t think we should judge Cummings, or any other artist on their worst work,  particularly when it is not aligned with his entire body of work.  A more troubling truth about Cummings, expressed not in his poetry, but in his personal correspondence, is antisemitism, despite many personal friendships with Jewish artists and writers.  Cummings was opinionated, and could be course in his language, particularly when drinking.  Cummings left plenty of ammunition for today’s critics, if your intent is to unseat him from his place in literary history. 

Cummings published 800 poems and is reputed to have written 2800.  Poems dealing with issues on politics, social justice and equity, outside of a couple of his anti-war poems and a few others, are not themes he dealt with very often, particularly civil rights. He touches on it once in a while, but by and large it is not a focus of his writing.  He was a highly educated white man, surrounded by highly educated white men.  Yes, I think he had cultural blinders on, so did the majority of the poets of his era, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t capture some of the human condition in his art.  I agree with critics that point out that several of his poems contain offensive language by today’s standards and that we shouldn’t give him a pass. Cummings was a New York City poet, just like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, writing  during the same period, both of which used the same words in their poetry, in fact quite a bit more frequently.  The difference obviously is African American poets of that period bring a different tilt to things in how we relate to that writing.  Ultimately every reader has to bring their own slant to it.  I personally don’t find evidence in Cummings entire body of work that he was racist.  I do think he was a bit tone deaf in a small subset of his poems. 

You will have to decide for yourself.  And in doing so, ask yourself, do you want to judge or dismiss Cummings on the basis of his worst work through the cultural standards of 2022, or accept him for his best?  Ask yourself how you, yourself would like to be judged in your own writing, your own social media posts, your own blog?  Forgiveness and grace and the human condition are an integral part of Cummings philosophy of art and themes in his writing.  Consider as you decide how to relate to his work, the responsibility in the interaction each of us have with artwork and the artists we choose to engage throughout history.  If we engage in the theme of grace,  because it interests us, than do we not have some obligation to extend some amount of actual grace in return to artists and artwork?  I hope you will forgive me, for the inevitable thing I have written that set your teeth on edge during this journey on Fourteenlines. Cummings interests me precisely because he was flawed, because he was human.  It is in the margins around his flaws and brilliance I most relate. 


I Live In Stillness Now

Allen Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky


I Dwelled in Hell On Earth To Write This Rhyme

by Allen Ginsburg  (1926 – 1997)

I dwelled in Hell on earth to write this rhyme,
I live in stillness now, in living flame:
I witness Heaven in unholy time
I room in the renown-ed city, am
Unknown. The fame I dwell in is not mine.
I would not have it. Angels in the air
Serenade my senses in delight
Intelligence of poets, saints and fair
Characters converse with me all night,
But all the streets are burning everywhere,
The city is burning these multitudes that climb
Her buildings. Their inferno is the same
I scaled as a stupendous blazing stair.
They vanish as I look into the light.

Queer poetry has come a long way since the 17th century.   If you are surprised to see a sonnet from Ginsburg, so was I.  The poem above is truly a unicorn in Ginsburg’s body of writing.  But as I have commented before, one of the fun things about this blog is almost every poet, regardless of their dominant style, wrote at least one sonnet like poem along the way, a testimony as to how incredibly pervasive the sonnet form is in literature.

I debated sharing an excerpt from Howl and decided against it.  I found it difficult to find a portion that contained the spirit of Howl that also fit the style of this blog.  I think one of the reasons that Howl is so successful is that Ginsburg didn’t shy away from discussing his sexuality and emotions in terms that were not common at the time.  He brought all of it to the page, the raunchiness and the simplicity of gay sex and his outlook on life.  I have had the same internal debate around Auden’s poem The Platonic Blow.  I think The Platonic Blow is the best poem ever written about a blow job, but it strays a bit too far into the realm of pornography that some readers would find it offensive.   

Richard Barnfield has only recently caught the attention of the reading public again, in part because he was forthright for his day in his courageous themes around homosexuality given the stigma and potential punishment.   Barnfield is a unique character; he praised Shakespeare before Shakespeare’s writing had caught the public’s attention and wrote several poems that for a period of time following both men’s deaths were incorrectly attributed to Shakespeare.   Modern anthologies have sorted things out, based on careful research and documentation, but to have a poem or two of your own thought to be tied to one of the greatest literary mind’s in history is quite the back handed compliment.   

There has been lots in the news lately about the big business of art forgery and the murky provenances of missing paintings that suddenly appear on the market.  The Knoedler gallery scandal makes for entertaining reading but is problematic about why is some art considered valuable and the incentives that value then creates to cheat. It made me wonder how often writers forge the work of other poets and try and fit it in to the literary canon so that it becomes accepted as the work of that famous writer?  How many literary scholars who toil away in academic obscurity have been tempted to “uncover” a new poem that they secretly took great pleasure in writing, knowing if it was attributed to them it would be ignored, but as a long lost poem of a famous writer it suddenly becomes a career enhancing “discovery”?  The less inventive and more common fraud is someone stealing another’s writing and claiming they wrote it and putting their name on it.   Is anyone aware of a case where poetry was forged by someone else, and if so, for what purpose was the forgery perpetrated? How was it uncovered? If you aware of such a case, please share. 

Sonnet 16

By Richard Barnfield (1574-1620)

Long have I long’d to see my love againe,
Still have I wisht, but never could obtaine it;
Rather than all the world (if I might gaine it)
Would I desire my love’s sweet precious gaine.
Yet in my soule I see him everie day,
See him, and see his still sterne countenaunce,
But (ah) what is of long continuance,
Where majestie and beautie beares the sway?
Sometimes, when I imagine that I see him,
(As love is full of foolish fantasies)
Weening to kisse his lips, as my love’s fees,
I feele but aire: nothing but aire to bee him.
Thus with Ixion, kisse I clouds in vaine:
Thus with Ixion, feele I endles paine.

We Have No Time

William Henry Davies (

No matter where the body is the mind is free to go elsewhere.

William Henry Davies


by William Henry Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.


All in June

by William Henry Davies

A week ago I had a fire 
To warm my feet, my hands and face; 
Cold winds, that never make a friend, 
Crept in and out of every place. 

Today the fields are rich in grass, 
And buttercups in thousands grow; 
I’ll show the world where I have been– 
With gold-dust seen on either shoe. 

Till to my garden back I come, 
Where bumble-bees for hours and hours 
Sit on their soft, fat, velvet bums, 
To wriggle out of hollow flowers.

I, Catullus Redivivus

Alan Tate (1899 – 1979)

How does one happen to write a poem, where does it come from? That is the question asked by the psychologists or the geneticists of poetry.

Alan Tate

Sonnets of The Blood (Excerpt)

by Alan Tate
The fire I praise was once perduring flame—
Till it snuffs with our generation out;
No matter, it’s all one, it’s but a name   
Not as late honeysuckle half so stout;
So think upon it how the fire burns blue,   
Its hottest, when the flame is all but spent;   
Thank God the fuel is low, we’ll not renew   
That length of flame into our firmament;   
Think too the rooftree crackles and will fall   
On us, who saw the sacred fury’s height—
Seated in her tall chair, with the black shawl   
From head to foot, burning with motherly light   
More spectral than November dusk could mix   
With sunset, to blaze on her pale crucifix.

On the first read of Words for Hart Crane, its hard to tell if it is intended as a homage. an ode to a departed friend or a put down.  It maybe because its likely Lowell intended it be both.  There are certain words, in certain poems, whose meaning and context can be pivot points of understanding.  For someone who prided himself on craftsmanship, Lowell’s use of Catullus redivivus is interesting.  Catullus was a Latin poet in the late Roman empire, who in some ways was one of the first “confessional” poets, writing about his own life experience, rather than gods, goddesses and heroes.  Inferring that Hart was the “Catullus” of his generation and the Shelley, sets him in esteemed company, but does it imply he was also outdated? Is it intended as a compliment?  I am not sure.  Potentially unravelling this sonnet further requires a little history.

Although Alan Tates legacy is mostly tied to his influence at Vanderbilt University, Princeton University and the University of Minnesota, his literary influence was much broader through friends and colleagues.  After graduating from Vanderbilt, Alan Tate moved to New York City where he became good friends with Hart Crane.  The two of them and Tate’s soon to be wife Caroline Gordon moved from Greenwich Village to a house in Patterson, New York (home of William Carlos Williams).  The three of them lived together for several years and shortly after, Caroline and Tate married and Caroline gave birth to their daughter.  Though their marriage was bumpy, they largely stuck it out, despite divorcing and remarrying and separating again over the years.  Crane,  sadly did not, stick it out.   He died while on a ship in 1932 at the age of 33 in the Caribbean by throwing himself overboard.   The connections between Hart Crane, Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, John Berryman and Robert Lowell are intricate.  There is a quadrangle that runs from Vanderbilt, to Kenyon to Princeton, Yale and Harvard and the University of Minnesota where these men moved, sometimes interchangeably, during their careers.   

When Lowell was dropped off by Merrill Moore on the door step of Alan Tate’s home in the 1930’s, it wasn’t a two bedroom flat of a penniless professor.  It was at the steps of a charming 185 acre Tennessee estate called Benfolly, which Tate’s brother had purchased for him after making a fortune on coal.  Benfolly was one of the centers of American literature in its day, a place of comfort for frequent visits by Ford Madox Ford, Edmund Wilson, Louise Bogan, Stark Young, Malcolm Cowley and his wife, John Ransom and his wife and Robert Penn Warren and his wife.  Talk about an amazing book group.  It sounds like a bushel of fun!

Students like Lowell and Randall Jarrel, who had the good fortune to be allowed into this literary and stimulating circle, realized the incredible opportunity that was opened for them.  Alan Tate is quoted multiple times that the only thing you can take as a reader and as a writer are the words on the page.   What does something mean?  There is no one meaning of any poem and what Lowell intended may have been only sheer gratitude and to honor his friendship with Crane.   What do you take from Lowell’s poem; Words For Hart Crane?   

Words For Hart Crane

By Robert Lowell

When the Pulitzers showered on some dope
or screw who flushed our dry mouths out with soap,
few people would consider why I took
to stalking sailors, and scattered Uncle Sam’s
phoney gold-plated laurels to birds.
Because I knew my Whitman like a book,
stranger in America, tell my country; I,
Catullus redivivus, once the rage
of the Village and Paris, used to play my role
of homosexual, wolfing the stray lambs
who hungered by the Place de la Concorde.
My profit was a pocket with a hole.
Who asks for me, the Shelley of my age,
must lay his heart out for my bed and board.