As In The Flame There Is The Wandering

M. S. Merwin (b. 1927)


To The Sonnet With My Soul

By M. S. Merwin

As in the wing there is the infinite flight
which in the flower is the erring essence,
as in the flame there is the wandering
brilliance, and in the blue the single sky;

 .as the consolation in the melody,
the penetrating coolness in the stream,
the noble opulence in the diamond,
so is my flesh in the total desire.

In you, sonnet, form, this pristine hunger,
imitates as a lingering water,
the multitude of immortal wonders.

.The endless clarity of your beauty is,
as a sky in a fountain, limitless
within the limitation of your borders.

“I needed my mistakes in their order to get me here.”

M. S. Merwin



by M. S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write


As Words Sometimes Do

Galway Kinnell

If This Night Is Other Than Night

by Galway Kinnell (1927 – 2014)

If this night is other than night,
Come back to life, distant beneficent voices, wake
The heaviest clay in which grain ever slept.
Speak: I was no more than craving earth,
Now at last have come the words of dawn and rain.
But speak, that I may be propitious earth,
Speak if it is still a buried day.

Rare is the poet that can speak with voices both human and inhuman. Galway Kinnell denied that he was a nature poet and certainly humanity takes center stage in his voluminous writing, but Kinnell’s writing is edged with all forces on earth, including animals and the world in which we and them inhabit.  Kinnell won the Pulitzer prize in 1980 for Selected Poems,  as much for his consistency in my opinion as for his seminal brilliance for specific poems. Kinnell, along with fellow Princeton classmate, M. S. Merwin, both had long and fruitful writing careers, neither stretching the boundaries of form much, rather developing distinctive styles and perspective.

I am currently visiting Durango, Colorado, having flown into Albuquerque, New Mexico and driven over through the deserts of the Southwest. We stopped and stretched our legs on a BLM nature preserve path and were struck by the abundance of flowers, a recent rain storm having coaxed forth blooms on perennials, succulents and annuals in the reddish, brownish clay of the desert. When I was researching this blog entry, my sister sat down and I read her the opening poem and asked her what she thought. She said, “I don’t understand it, what does it mean to you?”  I said, “I love this poem, and the key to my relating to it is the line; The heaviest clay in which grain ever slept.  It makes me think like a seed in the ground, lying for possibly decades in that dry clay, waiting to speak with the voices of rain, wind, night and sun to awaken my potential to grow.”  I had her close her eyes and stop thinking human and I read it to her again, twice.   She said, “my goodness, maybe I need to stop thinking human when I read poetry, more often.”

Exactly, you got it Sis!  But not too often.

Blackberry Eating

Galway Kinnell

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

In A Restless World Like This Is

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


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



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.