Who Is Not More Than His Limitations

Terrence Hayes
Terrence Hayes

“When the wound is deep, the healing is heroic. Suffering and ascendance require the same work.”

Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin

Snow For Wallace Stevens

by Terrance Hayes

No one living a snowed-in life
can sleep without a blindfold.
Light is the lion that comes down to drink.
I know tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk
holds nearly the same sound as a bottle.
Drink and drank and drunk-a-drunk-drunk,
Light is the lion that comes down.
This song is for the wise man who avenges
by building his city in snow.
I know what he said in his poem.
“Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.”
How, with pipes of winter
lining his cognition, does someone learn
to bring a sentence to its knees?
Who is not more than his limitations,
who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without
forgiveness. This song is for my foe,
the clean shaven, gray-suited, gray patron
of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness
blue as a body made of snow.


Is it not true that if we were to assemble enough of our life’s work and thoughts in one place, and dug through it carefully, we would find it would be an erector set of contradictions, or at least an odd creation with parts of it out of place?  Are we to throw out everything a person creates because the worst of it is worse than we expect of them or that they expect of themselves?  Is that not the nature of being human?  Maybe it’s impossible to walk a straight line on a round planet forever twirling endlessly in two trajectories, one a slanted axis; the very nature of it dizzying, causing us to lose our balance once in a while and go akimbo.

One of the purposes of art is to hold ourselves and other artist’s accountable, for their genius and their failures or limitations.  One of the sins of white privilege, particularly in the realm of poetry, is the reverence placed on the tradition of affluent white men of means who are held up as the pantheon of poetic tradition, without recognizing their legacy of poetry is tainted by the ease with which they found a publisher and an audience, the ease they were afforded recognition, while there were equally as many gifted voices of people of color that went unnoticed, unrewarded, unpublished, unheard.  We best be careful as we venture back in literature to not let the whiteness of the page on which the words are set blind us to the whiteness of the privilege of the writer’s life that for many have persisted into the present.

Terrance Hayes has a knack for connecting the present to the past, for wading in the pools of literary history, feeling their swirling eddy’s, but then making the current his own.  I love his lines; “I too have lost faith in language have placed my faith in language. Thus, I have a capacity for love without forgiveness.”   These are the words at the core of how we might find a path to heal as a nation.  Have we the people, lost faith in the words of our founding fathers?  Words like “freedom” and “justice for all“? Maybe, if we can as a nation, hold on to love, we’ll find our way forward, even if the sins committed by our founders, in allowing slavery on these shores, and institutionalizing racism by that very act and suppression of rights under Jim Crow and segregation will never deserve forgiveness.


The Brave Man

By Wallace Stevens

The sun, that brave man,
Comes through boughs that lie in wait,
That brave man.

Green and gloomy eyes
In dark forms of the grass
Run away.

The good stars,
Pale helms and spiky spurs,
Run away.

Fears of my bed,
Fears of life and fears of death,
Run away.

That brave man comes up
From below and walks without meditation,
That brave man.

This Is Old Song, That Will Not Declare Itself

images
Wallace Stevens

The Man In The Dump

(Excerpt last stanza)
by Wallace Stevens

One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Peck the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

Wallace Stevens wrote wonderfully odd poetry, just think if he were alive today and trying to out do the oddity of real life? Would he have given up trying to write poetry and become a painter instead?  Or would he have just studied the actuarial tables for life insurance a little harder and drove his wife nuts even faster?  I love Wallace Stevens.  His creativity is astounding.  And although I don’t think he intended The Man In The Dump to be a commentary on the 2020 presidential election, he was brilliantly prescient.

“Where was it one first heard of the truth?” 
 
What ever your truth happens to be, or is truth now a metaphor, The the.?


Metaphors of a Magnifico

by Wallace Stevens

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.

This is old song
That will not declare itself . . .

Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are
Twenty men crossing a bridge
Into a village.

That will not declare itself
Yet is certain as meaning . . .

The boots of the men clump
On the boards of the bridge.
The first white wall of the village
Rises through fruit-trees.
Of what was it I was thinking?
So the meaning escapes.

The first white wall of the village . . .
The fruit-trees . . .

Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face

untitled-1937-8
Untitled 1937 – Pablo Picasso

Sonnet For September 27

by Jack Prelutsky

How wonderful that you have recognized
That poetry for children has great worth,
And is a part of being civilized,
Of being human on our planet Earth.
Soon after people first began to speak,
They put their thoughts and feeling into rhyme.
In this they were, and we are now, unique,
And may be so until the end of time.
We celebrate, upon this autumn night
That fledgling of the literary arts
Which crafts its words with wonder and delight
To open children’s minds and touch their hearts.
With gratitude, and true humility,

I thank you all for being here with me.

 


For most of us, our first introduction to poetry are nursery rhymes and rhyming children’s books. It’s a shame then, we grow up and forget about humor in poetry. I think there is a misconception that poetry is a very serious business. I think that misconception arises from the fact that so many poets write about such gloomy themes and the humor is dark. In the past 5 years, I have gotten a whole new perspective on reading poetry by writing poetry. I have come to realize that humor abounds, but you have to understand that poets often embed the humor as an inside joke and unless you know something about their personal life the joke is often missed.

Let’s take Wallace Stevens as an example. The guy was a lawyer for gosh sake, who worked in the insurance business, about the least humorous of professions, he looks scary in every photograph ever taken of him and his wife didn’t consider him to be funny one bit. But read this poem and tell me how you can’t find the humor in it if you approach it as a poem that is meant to be funny.

The Rabbit As King of The Ghosts

by Wallace Stevens

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When shapless shadows covers the sun
And nothing is left excpet light on your fur –

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.  It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself.  The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone-
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

In my opinion sonnets by their very nature have a bit of whimsy and humor.  First its the rather strict construction that puts the poet on the defensive right from the start, so a bit of word play and humor is almost inevitable to break the tension of writing the darn thing.  Second, they are rather short in terms of space so they are a bit like writing punch lines. The poet has to get to the joke fast, so it’s generally a little easier to spot. Third, I think people who are really talented at writing sonnets generally see the world from a twisted perspective and they have left little clues hidden all through their writing as to their sense of humor. If you don’t believe me, read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets from a perspective that this is one big joke on his part, not serious English hoity toity literature, and I think you’ll find it a much more enjoyable experience.

If you are still left mystified by poetry and generally bamboozled by where the humor is hiding, then just head to a poet who leads with humor right from the start. You can’t miss the humor in Robert Service, Ogden Nash, Shel Silverstein, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde or Jack Prelutsky poems. But then don’t make the second mistake of thinking that their humorous poetry isn’t deadly serious.

If you have a favorite funny poem that doesn’t start with “There once was a man from Nantucket”, I would love to hear from you.   Drop me a line in the comments section with your recommendation or even better share it in its entirety.


 

Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face

by Jack Prelutsky

Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
for if it were where it is not,
you might dislike your nose a lot.

Imagine if your precious nose
were sandwiched in between your toes,
that clearly would not be a treat,
for you’d be forced to smell your feet.

Your nose would be a source of dread
were it attached atop your head,
it soon would drive you to despair,
forever tickled by your hair.

Within your ear, your nose would be
an absolute catastrophe,
for when you were obliged to sneeze,
your brain would rattle from the breeze.

Your nose, instead, through thick and thin,
remains between your eyes and chin,
not pasted on some other place—
be glad your nose is on your face!

 

Let Be Be Finale of Seem

SA187
Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)

“The Truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Oscar Wilde

The Emperor of Ice Cream

by Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

 

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


 

I don’t know why I love this poem.   Maybe it’s the mixture of serious with the silly. It paints a great picture, even if I am not sure I totally understand what its all about. Good poetry has a veil around it that allows the reader to decide and this one leaves plenty for the reader to interpret.

A more interesting question is whether Wallace was intentionally playing with a sonnet concept when he wrote it? At first glance this is obviously not a sonnet, at least to any purist. But when I look closer, I am not so sure. It is 138 syllables in length, shockingly close to our 140 syllable traditional sonnet.  It is 16 lines, not 14, but its clever in how the rhyming scheme is incorporated with a 1-2 punch at the end, just like an English sonnet.  The final two lines of each stanza is 21 syllables.   If you count enough sonnets there are plenty of others that finish with an extra syllable or two when it carries the sonnet to its natural conclusion.

Stevens was consciously moving away from traditional metrical poetry to voice his own unique style throughout his career. But the pull of tradition impacts writers and artists in unusual ways and it would have been interesting to have a conversation with Wallace on whether, even subconsciously, his experience with sonnets had an impact on his creation of this wonderful poem.

I often am attracted to a poem for one line and for me in this poem it is the line “Let be be finale of seem.”   It is such a convoluted use of the word be and yet it makes sense to me.   It says to me – our impressions have the final say in what’s real and what is not, for though we may have eyes in our heads it is our brains that decide what is that we see.

And Yet One Arrives Somehow

 

rolla-henri-gervex
Rolla by Henri Gervex

Arrival

by William Carlos Williams

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom—
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles.
The tawdry veined body emerges
twisted upon itself
like a winter wind . . . !


There is a tradition in poetry which I admire; that being established poets mentoring the next generation of poets who are pushing the current boundaries of poetry.  Many of my favorite poets have maintained a wide circle of friendships, and provided encouragement and criticism to new writers,  helping them to hone their craft.

William Carlos Williams is an example and maintained correspondence and friendships with many poets, including Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Charles Abbott, James Laughlin, Louis Zukofsky, and Denise Levertov to name a few. Levertov, a disciple of Williams’ Imagist style, wrote him an admiring letter when she was young, and included several of her poems. Williams wrote back, providing validation and the most generous act of all, suggested edits, to help refine her writing technique.

Levertov penned an interesting explanation of why modern poetry evolved in the 20th century beyond the confines of more formal metrical structure like sonnets.  In it she wrote:

“.….I do not mean to imply that I consider modern, nonmetrical poetry “better” or “superior” to the great poetry of the past, which I love and honor. That would obviously be absurd. But I do feel that there are few poets today whose sensibility naturally expresses itself in the traditional forms…The closed, contained quality of such forms has less relation to the relativistic sense of life which unavoidably prevails in the late twentieth century than modes that are more exploratory, more open-ended. A sonnet may end with a question; but its essential,underlying structure arrives at conclusion. “Open forms” do not necessarily terminate inconclusively, but their degree of conclusion is–structurally, and thereby expressively–less pronounced, and partakes of the open quality of the whole…The forms more apt to express the sensibility of our age are the exploratory, open ones.”

Excerpt from The Function of The Line, 1979.  Yale University Press.

It is an interesting idea, that the poets of the 20th and now 21 century have left structure and rhyme behind because there are no answers to the madness that befalls this world on a daily basis.  But there’s always been madness.  And in my opinion, if poetry lacks beauty, in some form, it lacks a timeless quality that is the cornerstone of verse that survives its epoch.  As readers we toy with darkness and enjoy rolling in the mud from time to time, but’s its the light of poetry that is the bread of life for our souls. Its why, when I ask someone, do you have a favorite poem, the answer if yes, is more often than not, a metrical rhyming poem.  A poem where there is a reassurance of an answer. Poems where there is something concrete in meaning or imagery for the reader to find, not words that were by design to be elusive, there is something for the reader to hold on to.

Wallace Stevens’ legacy is primarily his originality of free verse, but he wrote beautifully in traditional forms as well, even if he found “it sounded like the rise, of distant echo from dead melody, soft as a song heard far in Paradise.”


Sonnet

by Wallace Stevens

Lo, even as I passed beside the booth
Of roses, and beheld them brightly twine
To damask heights, taking them as a sign
Of my own self still unconcerned with truth;
Even as I held up in hands uncouth
And drained with joy the golden-bodied wine,
Deeming it half-unworthy, half divine,
From out the sweet-rimmed goblet of my youth.

Even in that pure hour I heard the tone
Of grievous music stir in memory,
Telling me of the time already flown
From my first youth. It sounded like the rise
Of distant echo from dead melody,
Soft as a song heard far in Paradise.

Home To Your Heart

 

Wallace-Stevens-portrait
Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955)

 

“One thing I am convinced more and more is true and that is this: the only way to be truly happy is to make others happy. When you realize that and take advantage of the fact, everything is made perfect.”

William Carlos Williams in letter to his Mother, published in Selected Letters 1957.

 

Slow Movement

by William Carlos Williams

All those treasures that lie in the little bolted box whose tiny space is
Mightier than the room of the stars, being secret and filled with dreams:
All those treasures—I hold them in my hand—are straining continually
Against the sides and the lid and the two ends of the little box in which I guard them;
Crying that there is no sun come among them this great while and that they weary of shining;
Calling me to fold back the lid of the little box and to give them sleep finally.

But the night I am hiding from them, dear friend, is far more desperate than their night!
And so I take pity on them and pretend to have lost the key to the little house of my treasures;
For they would die of weariness were I to open it, and not be merely faint and sleepy
As they are now.


I am a little envious of artists whose skill and daring make it possible for them to earn a living as an artist.  I have never had such pluck.  I am in good company when it comes to poets in that regard.  Many of the poets I admire and who helped shape the poetic language of the 20th Century did not make their living as a poet.  William Carlos Williams was a doctor, a general practitioner in Patterson, NY and Wallace Stevens was an executive for a insurance company in New York City.  Either could be the patron saint of the responsible adult toiling daily in a job they may or may not love, but which gives structure and financial stability to their life so that in their free time they can pursue their art.

Both Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams pushed the boundaries of free verse and helped redefine American poetry. William’s wrote in Modern American Poetry (1950); “The job of the poet is to use language effectively, his own language, the only language which is to him authentic.”  Neither WCW or Stevens is known for classical poetry, quite the opposite, they are known for their free verse, and yet, like most poets, the sonnet form is like a siren calling them to the shore, and they are inspired to take their turn in wrestling with tradition.


Explain My Spirit

by Wallace Stevens

Explain my spirit—adding word to word,
As if the exposition gave delight.
Reveal me, lover, to myself more bright.
“You are a twilight, and a twilight bird.”
Again! For all the untroubled senses stirred,
Conceived anew, like callow wings in flight,
Bearing desire toward an upper light.
“You are a twilight, and a twilight bird.”

Burn in my shadows, Hesperus, my own,
And look upon me with a triumphant fire.
Behold, how glorious the dark has grown!
My wings shall beat all night against your breast,
Heavy with music—feel them there aspire
Home to your heart, as to a hidden nest.