“Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.”
— Michael Joseph Oakeshott
Portrait of a Machine
by Louis Untermeyer
What nudity as beautiful as this Obedient monster purring at its toil; These naked iron muscles dripping oil And the sure-fingered rods that never miss. This long and shining flank of metal is Magic that greasy labour cannot spoil; While this vast engine that could rend the soil Conceals its fury with a gentle hiss. It does not vent its loathing, it does not turn Upon its makers with destroying hate. It bears a deeper malice; lives to earn It’s masters bread and laughs to see this great Lord of the earth, who rules but cannot learn, Become the slave of what his slaves create.
One hundred years ago it took 40 hours of labor from planting to harvest with the best horse drawn equipment at the time to raise 100 bushels of corn. Today it takes around 2 hours. We have 20X increased productivity and with it 20X increased the cost of production and reduced 20X the workforce needed to produce it. The reason we’ll never go back is no one would want to work that hard ever again for so little wages. We have grown comfortable in the marvels that the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels have created and there is no bridge back to a pastoral rural economy. But as these poems both remind us, there is a cost to our efficiency that goes beyond finances. There is a human cost in our souls being tethered to the very machines that have transformed lives.
Agricultural Implements and Machinery
by James Mcyintre (1828- 1906)
Poor laborers, they did sad bewail, When the machine displaced the flail ; There’s little work, now, with the hoes, Since cultivators weed the rows.
Labor it became more fickle When the scythe took place of sickle ; Labor still it did sink lower By introduction of mower ;
And the work was done much cheaper When they added on the reaper. Another machine to it they join, Mower, reaper, binder, they combine.
Machines now load and stow away Both the barley and the hay, And the farmers do get richer With the loader and the pitcher.
There’s little work now for the hoes, Since cultivators weed the rows ; They sow and rake by the machine- Hand labor’s ‘mong the things have been.
Armed with scythes, the old war chariot Cut down men in the fierce war riot ; Round farmer’s chariot falls the slain, But ’tis the sheaves of golden grain.
This harvest, now, of eighty-four, Will great wealth on farmers pour, For there is abundant yield Of fruitful crops in every field.
Because I had this faint memory of the thought of a taste in my mouth and could not name it
I went through school sad I could not say it if I had swallowed it or was it even edible
maybe I was too young when I first had it I did not know the word yet though the taste stayed
as I grew older some nights I could nearly describe it and would put my tongue to chalk
and paraffin and iodine and go into grocery stores sniffing along every aisle thinking I would find it
but I did not find it until one day when I was not looking there it was for an instant
it came to me I said it so I would remember though in time I forgot that is why now I write
I think the official answer to the question of how many sonnets did Shakespeare write is 154, but I object! History confirms there were two separate volumes of Shakespeare’s sonnets published, one in 1609 and one in 1640, both contain 154 sonnets so its easy to explain that answer. I have two issues with the proclamation that 154 is correct. First – the sonnet structure is deployed throughout his plays, either in full or in part, time and again. If we include the sonnets contained within the 38 plays that Shakespeare wrote, it would add extensively to that list. And second, why do we believe that the 154 sonnets that were published are the only ones he wrote? Unlike his plays, in which many copies were published, edited and made public so they could be performed, there is evidence that the publishing of his sonnets in 1609 was done without his consent. The first edition was littered with errors, some of which have remained, which suggest he was not directly involved in oversight of its publishing. The sonnets content and in some cases the casual nature of the writing, although brilliant but not polished suggest these were private poems intended for his lover, lovers or friends. And because some of the content suggests he may have been bi-sexual and that if proven, could have landed him in prison adds further evidence that he may not have intended for the sonnets to have been made public.
But do we honestly believe that the 154 that were published are all the sonnets that Shakespeare wrote if these were private missives not intended for the public’s eyes and ears? Maybe these poems were his way of satisfying his fantasies privately and he never wanted them to be shared. Or, as prolific a writer as Shakespeare, maybe there were far more than 154 sonnets hidden about under pillows some place in England over his lifetime.
Anyone who writes sonnets can tell you part of the reason they write them is they are ONLY 14 lines. Sonnets still require a fair amount of work, but you aren’t writing Hamlet. I write sonnets as play, in part because I know if I get sick of the poem I am working on, I can quit, discard it and it isn’t like I have wasted six months on a draft of a screenplay I now hate. I have a feeling that Shakespeare wrote sonnets as a way to relax and possibly as a way to not discard some ideas that maybe didn’t fit into the play he was writing at the time. I think he wrote sonnets because he knew those he shared them with would enjoy them. He may have written them to get laid. And because poetry can have that desired effect on romance, my guess is its entirely possible that some of his best poetry died with the lucky lover who received it and no copy was left lying around to be discovered by whatever means the publisher acquired them. Regardless of what you believe about the conspiracy theories regarding the work attributed to Shakespeare possibly being penned by himself and others, despite no direct evidence that Shakespeare did not author everything attributed to him, it feels like the true answer to the question of how many sonnets did Shakespeare(s) write – is a lot.
One of the reasons that Shakespeare included the rhyme and meter of sonnets in portions of his plays are that 10 syllables is about what most people can say comfortably and project loudly in a theater on stage without taking a breath and second rhyme helps actors remember their lines. The lines from this section of Romeo and Juliet below are 14 lines, with a rhyming convention of ababcdcdeef(e like)fg. Is it a sonnet? I think so but I am one to bend the rules a bit on what is and isn’t a sonnet.
How would you classify the poem above by Rodney Jones? All the lines have 10, 11 or 12 syllables, its fourteen lines long, but is it a sonnet? There is no rhyme at all, its certainly not a traditional sonnet, but how you interpret its construction depends on how you think about the influence of sonnets on poetry over time. I offer these two poems up as evidence to the question as to how many sonnets did Shakespeare write in his lifetime? You decide…. Have you ever sat down and read all 154 in a row in one sitting? If you have, what jumped out at you as you progressed through the most famous sonnets of all time?
Romeo and Juliet (Act 1, Scene 5, line 104)
by William Shakespeare
Juliet Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, Which mannerly devotion shows in this: For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss. Romeo Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too? Juliet Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r. Romeo O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do, They pray—grant thou, lest faith turn to despair. Juliet Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake. Romeo Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. (Kisses her) Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purg’d. Juliet Then have my lips the sin that they have took. Romeo Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d! Give me my sin again.
Poetry is the power of defining the indefinable in terms of the unforgettable.
Prayer For This House
by Louis Untermeyer
MAY nothing evil cross this door, And may ill-fortune never pry About these windows; may the roar And rains go by.
Strengthened by faith, the rafters will Withstand the battering of the storm. This hearth, though all the world grow chill, Will keep you warm.
Peace shall walk softly through these rooms, Touching your lips with holy wine, Till every casual corner blooms Into a shrine.
Laughter shall drown the raucous shout And, though the sheltering walls are thin, May they be strong to keep hate out And hold love in.
Louis Untermeyer was a businessman, poet, translator, educator and editor who followed his passion mid-life to become one of the most influential anthologists of poetry in the early 20th Century. Untermeyer spent his 20’s and early 30’s in the family jewelry business in New York City, but eventually followed his literary passions. He was fond of puns and rhymes and felt that poetry didn’t need to be an elite artistic endevour but was something that should be enjoyed by everyone. He focused on a wide range of poetry, from children’s verse to poetry anthologies used in Universities to introduce countless college students to English literature.
Untermeyer was a liberal all his life and aligned his politics around civil rights and a more just society. Late in life he left New York City and like Frost, retired to the country, preferring the solitude of his gardens and nature over the busy streets of New York City.
Untermeyer is known more for his work as an anthologist and translator, but his own poetry I find playful and inspiring. I was particularly taken with the poem above, but wonder how successful he was in his own right in the affirmation expressed. Married and divorced four times, martial harmony in Untermeyer’s households seemed to have eluded him, now matter how strong the sentiments he successfully put to rhyme.
Both Adams and Untermeyer share the distinction of serving as Poet Laureate when the title was known as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Adams poem below took a bit for me to wrap my head around. It is an example of a poem that I have a hard time connecting to the whole of it, but I was taken with these three lines; Thus I lived then, till this air breathed on me. Till this kind are breathed kindness everywhere, There where my times had left me I would stay. For me sometimes a couple of lines is all I take from a poem and the rest takes a while to sink in before the emotion or thoughts expand beyond the portion that I am attracted. Sometimes the entirety of a poem I never understand. Do you have poems like that; where there is only one line that stays with you, inspires you?
I stopped after class for some Chinese food I figured I would just grab a quick bite For sesame chicken is always good and I hadn’t had much to eat that night.
I got my food and I got in the car, and I felt my stomach begin to growl. So before I had gotten very far, I decided to sneak a taste of fowl.
I waited until I’d stopped at a light; I grabbed something tasty without concern. I took one and then another small bite, but soon I felt something hot start to burn.
Alas! on my chin, I now have a scar from eating Chinese food inside my car!
Statistics are an imperfect way to share information. Stats are notoriously unreliable in that they sound factual but are inevitably outdated or biased in some manner in which the data was collected and summarized. So when I share that I read recently that nearly 70% of Chinese restaurants have closed in the United States since the start of the pandemic, you can feel free to object and say the stat is wrong, because from your perspective it is either too big or too small. Yet the statistic is directionally correct. Chinese restaurants have born the brunt, more than any other type of restaurant, during the pandemic not only because of closure of in-restaurant dining reducing income but also because of the blatant anti-Chinese racism that is occurring from the misinformed and small minded who are blaming China and by extension Chinese-Americans and Asian businesses. Despite being ridiculous, the economic downturn has resulted in successful Chinese restaurants that have been institutions for decades, from New York to San Francisco, from small towns to large, to confront the sad reality of bankruptcy and closure. Behind this glaring statistic are family businesses, many passed down through generations, that are having to confront the reality of a change in American dining habits and questioning the opportunity for Chinese food as a profitable venture in or out of traditional urban centers with diverse ethnic populations. If the only Asian food that is going to survive in the United States are chain restaurants, then America will be all the more culturally impoverished in the future for lack of finding ways to help authentic small ethnic restaurants flourish and thrive through the pandemic.
If you haven’t stumbled across the blog – Putasonnetonit – I highly recommend it. Evelyn Curtis set herself the herculean task of writing and sharing a sonnet everyday for a year. I can’t imagine myself writing a limerick every day for a year, let alone a sonnet, so I have huge respect for the undertaking. It would be interesting to ask her what she feels are her top 5 sonnets from that year looking back? I have no idea where this one would rank, but since it is a sonnet about an actual scar she will carry forward for the rest of her life, I thought it might rank up there a bit. Its a great example that sonnet writing doesn’t have to take itself too serious. It can be simply a Polaroid picture of the moment, that might take on more meaning with time, even unexpected meaning. I wonder if the restaurant in which she purchased the food that the sonnet is based still exists?
For many years I had a subscription to The New Yorker and I enjoyed Calvin Trillin’s regular contributions. Trillin shared a view of New York that was illuminating to a Midwesterner. It felt like I had an irascible great Uncle giving me the inside scoop on how the big city works. I was saddened when Trillin was hit with criticism and blow back on his poem below. It wasn’t quite cancel culture, but it was roughing up a veteran journalist who had been sharing his unique perspective for decades with gentle humor and a tinge of grumpiness. I personally don’t think Trillin’s poem rose to the level of the accusations – racism. But since that criticism was invoked, it felt to me that the The New Yorker drifted into blander and blander territory, less interesting while more politically correct. Which is why my subscription eventually lapsed, I ceased to find it compelling. Cancel culture works in both directions and I must admit from the subscription department I am assuming that the editors can’t tell which is the cause; the loss of Trillin like pieces causing subscriptions to dwindle or is it because of “vocal” critics of such work being so outraged they cancel their subscription. In the end the result is the same.
I had a boss many years ago who teased me all the time, teased me in ways that were definitely not always politically correctly and did it in front of the entire group. After several years, I asked a co-worker about it and he said; “You have to realize that he only teases the people he likes. Its when he stops teasing you that you should be worried.” I had never thought about it before in that way. I stopped worrying. I’m not saying that being emotionally inept in your approach to interacting with others is a role model for success as a current business leader, but the truth is the worst insult is to be ignored. Teasing is an acknowledgement that you like the person or institution enough to think about them. Teasing taken too far is bullying and I acknowledge teasing can be racist. But teasing in and of itself is not inherently racist. I consider Trillin’s poem a form of literary teasing, something that has a long history- think Cervantes. In my opinion, its far worse for people to stop supporting Chinese restaurants and see them fail, then to publish a silly poem about all the different kinds of Chinese restaurants and to take the time to make it rhyme. I am guessing that the New York Chinese Restaurant Owners Association, if such a thing exists, would be happy to have Calvin Trillin writing silly poems about the diverse array of thriving Chinese food options in New York in 2021. It would mean that people were walking through those doors and dining. Its far worse that 70% of them have had to close their doors for lack of business.
Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet
by Calvin Trillin
Have they run out of provinces yet? If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret. Long ago, there was just Cantonese. (Long ago, we were easy to please.) But then food from Szechuan came our way, Making Cantonese strictly passé. Szechuanese was the song that we sung, Though the ma po could burn through your tongue. Then when Shanghainese got in the loop We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup. Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao, Came along with its own style of chow. o we thought we were finished, and then A new province arrived: Fukien. Then respect was a fraction of meagre For those eaters who’d not eaten Uighur. And then Xi’an from Shaanxi gained fame, Plus some others—too many to name. Now, as each brand-new province appears, It brings tension, increasing our fears: Could a place we extolled as a find Be revealed as one province behind? So we sometimes do miss, I confess, Simple days of chow mein but no stress, When we never were faced with the threat Of more provinces we hadn’t met. Is there one tucked away near Tibet? Have they run out of provinces yet?
The white man held the blacks as slaves, And bled their souls in living death; Bishops and priests, and kings themselves, Preached that the law was right and just; And so the people worked and died, And crumbled into material dust. Good God! The scheme is just the same Today, between the black and white Races of men, who gallop after fame. Can’st Thou not change this bloody thing, And make white people see the truth That over blacks must be their king, Not white, but of their somber hue, To rule a nation of themselves
Marcus Garvey is a complex figure, a poet, a visionary, an entrepreneur, a successful businessman, an orator and a key figure in the idea of a homeland for African Americans in Africa as part of reparations in the United States and elsewhere for slavery. He didn’t mince words. I have known several people named Marcus and it was by no coincidence, it was in honor of the best of this man.
Garvey was proud of his African heritage and spoke of empowering Africans everywhere for a better future. He advocated that change had to be both economic and political, that African Americans had to prosper for all of America to prosper. Though he remains a national hero in his birth place Jamaica, he was decidedly controversial. Garvey’s writing was both admired and disliked among the African diaspora, with some viewing him as self serving in promoting his own business interests, but also some within his own community criticized him as a demagogue, his ideas sometimes blurred by prejudice against Jews and mix-ed race individuals. His writing and ideas have had a lasting influence on Rastafarianism, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power Movement.
by Michael S. Harper
The birds flit in the blue palms, the can workers wait, the man hangs twenty feet above; he must come down; they wait for the priest. The flies ride on the carcass, which sways like cork in a circle. The easter light pulls him west. The priest comes, a man sunken with rum, his face sandpapered into a rouge of split and broken capillaries. His duty is the cutting down of the fruit of this quiet village and he staggers slowly, coming.
You might as well answer the door child, the truth, is furiously knocking.
homage to my hips
by Lucille Clifton
these hips are big hips they need space to move around in. they don’t fit into little petty places. these hips are free hips. they don’t like to be held back. these hips have never been enslaved, they go where they want to go they do what they want to do. these hips are mighty hips. these hips are magic hips. i have known them to put a spell on a man and spin him like a top!
Oh, that mankind had less of Brain and more of Heart,
Oh, that the world had less of Trade and more of Art;
Then would there be less grinding down the poor,
Then would men learn to love each other more;
James Weldon Johnson – Excerpt from Art vs Trade
by James Weldon Johnson
Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.
So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.
James Weldon Johnson was a renaissance man. Born in south Florida he was raised to look beyond the barriers of a troubled America post civil war and strive to grasp the dream that emancipation embodied. Raised by a father who was a free Virginian and Jamaican Mother he would push beyond the racism of the Jim Crow south. He was a graduate of the University of Atlanta and went on to become the first African American to pass the bar exam in the state of Florida. Johnson was an educator, novelist, poet, song writer, musician, diplomat and civil rights leader. Johnson and his brother co-wrote the song Lift Every Voice and Sing which became an anthem for the NAACP and the civil rights movement. He was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to diplomatic positions in 1906 in Venezuela and Nicaragua and upon returning in 1914 became involved in the NAACP, eventually serving as its president from 1920 to 1930.
Johnson focused on the arts in retirement, primarily his writing. Known as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement over his lifetime he published poetry, novels and stories that helped shape the broader cultural legacy of America. He died at the age of 67 in a car accident in Maine.
Johnson is just one of many African American writers who wrote sonnets during the early 20th Century. It may sound odd to connect sonnets to part of the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, but lyric poetry was still the standard by which literature was judged and writers like Johnson, Claude McKay, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and H. Cordelia Ray and others used them to reach across cultural divides and share their poetic vision, while challenging the dominant racist white culture to think differently and inspire their community of color. Johnson also wrote playfully, in free verse and in rhyme. He published in a wide range of poetic forms.
I find his final two lines in A Poet To His Son a bit confusing, double negatives scramble things and it makes the entire poem strange. When I read double negatives I translate it to understand it as a positive, so one way to read it is for me take both out, which would change what he saying to; “Son you can begin too young to be a poet.” I don’t agree. You can never be too young to begin to be a poet. Everyone utters poetry all the time, thinks poetry, from our first word to our last. And so it left me scratching my head and was a very unsatisfying poem. I disagree with almost all of the advice he gives to his son. Is it sarcasm when he says; Poets these days are unfortunate fellows? Is Johnson writing in first person but intending that it not be his voice but the worlds? Or was Johnson sincere and wanting his son to not follow in his footsteps? What do you think Johnson is saying in the poem below?
A Poet to His Baby Son
by James Weldon Johnson
Tiny bit of humanity,
Blessed with your mother’s face,
And cursed with your father’s mind.
I say cursed with your father’s mind,
Because you can lie so long and so quietly on your back,
Playing with the dimpled big toe of your left foot,
And looking away,
Through the ceiling of the room, and beyond.
Can it be that already you are thinking of being a poet?
Why don’t you kick and howl,
And make the neighbors talk about
“That damned baby next door,”
And make up your mind forthwith
To grow up and be a banker
Or a politician or some other sort of go-getter
Or—?—whatever you decide upon,
Rid yourself of these incipient thoughts
About being a poet.
For poets no longer are makers of songs,
Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,
Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,
Of the sweet pain of love
And the keen joy of living;
No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,
And interpreters of the eternal truth,
Through the eternal beauty.
Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.
Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way
Or new things in an old language,
They talk abracadabra
In an unknown tongue,
Each one fashioning for himself
A wordy world of shadow problems,
And as a self-imagined Atlas,
Struggling under it with puny legs and arms,
Groaning out incoherent complaints at his load.
My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;
Grow up and join the big, busy crowd
That scrambles for what it thinks it wants
Out of this old world which is—as it is—
And, probably, always will be.
Take the advice of a father who knows:
You cannot begin too young
Not to be a poet.
Human beings suffer. They torture one another. They get hurt and get hard. No poem or play or song Can fully right a wrong Inflicted and endured.
History says, Don’t hope On the side of the grave,’ But then, once in a lifetime The longed for tidal wave Of justice can rise up And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea- change On the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore Is reachable from here. Believe in miracles. And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing, The utter self revealing Double-take of feeling. If there’s fire on the mountain And lightening and storm And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing The outcry and the birth-cry Of new life at its term. It means once in a lifetime That justice can rise up And hope and history rhyme.
It is the 21rst day, of the 21st year of the 21st Century. I feel better already….
by William Shakespeare
So is it not with me as with that Muse, Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse; Who heaven itself for ornament doth use, And every fair with his fair doth rehearse; Making a couplement of proud compare, With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems, With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems. O’ let me, true in love, but truly write, And then believe me, my love is as fair As any mother’s child, though not so bright As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air: Let them say more than like of hearsay well; I will not praise, that purpose not to sell
“You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.”
Dream Songs 1
by John Berryman (1914 – 1972)
Huffy Henry hid the day, unappeasable Henry sulked. I see his point,—a trying to put things over. It was the thought that they thought they could do it made Henry wicked & away. But he should have come out and talked.
All the world like a woolen lover once did seem on Henry’s side. Then came a departure. Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought. I don’t see how Henry, pried open for all the world to see, survived.
What he has now to say is a long wonder the world can bear & be. Once in a sycamore I was glad all at the top, and I sang. Hard on the land wears the strong sea and empty grows every bed.
John Berryman and Robert Lowell met in 1944 at the suggestion of mutual friends and Lowell’s mother. Each was still married to their first wives at the time and it was thought that their socializing as couples would do them both some good. Ha! It probably did, but maybe not the way mothers intend. There are many similarities to their personal histories, temperaments, fierce intellect, vices and destructive personal decisions that it’s not a surprise they found enjoyment in one another’s company. When you have a tendency towards leaning into a bit of insanity and have a mirror to that fracturing in a friendship with someone of the same self destructive inclinations, it can help bring respite and lucidity once in a while, in that at least you know you are not alone in your state of mind.
Berryman did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He succeeded in spite of his father’s betrayal. He succeeded on the sheer audacity of his talent and intellect. It does not mean that doors were not opened for him because he was white and male, but Berryman is a writer’s writer in my mind. Writing entirely consumed him as maybe the only thing that could keep him alive for as long as it did. Berryman died when he was 58, though he looks more like 78 at the end.
I will turn the same age this year. I have written before on Fourteenlines that I walked across the bridge that Berryman jumped to his death probably a 1,000 times as a young man, on my way from classes on the East bank to the glass studio in the fine arts building at the time on the West bank. In every one of those passages I was completely unaware of Berryman’s fate, his poetry not yet in my consciousness. Despite spending 12 years on the same campus, treading the same paths, entering the same buildings, eating at the same greasy diners, while getting an undergraduate degree and graduate degree, I did not have the good fortune to overlap with Berryman in being physically at the same place at the same time. Looking back, that bridge holds more meaning for me today as a metaphor for the life I have tried to navigate the past 40 years. On one side of my river I have a foundation in practicality, academics and the industriousness to make a living to support myself and my family. On the other side lies the buttress with my heart and soul; creativity and expression. Through the middle of it runs my own mighty Mississippi of time, my bridge just beneath its singular falls on its entire stretch from Minnesota to a gulf, a hypoxia zone where not enough oxygen exists. Unlike Berryman, I do not have the talent or the ego to earn a living from my passions and so I shall have to continue to cross that metaphorical bridge every day and enjoy its views.
I have wondered, as I think about the men and women of letters, who managed to stay productive and thrive into old age, is it because they did not see writing as their profession; William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens but two examples? Or was writing always such a thrill that it never became a chore? We will never know if writing kept Berryman and Lowell alive as long as it did, or whether winning Pulitzers, being crowned as “the” best, created such an unbearable weight of expectation to continue to be brilliant that it may have actually accelerated their own self destruction. Maybe Dickinson did it right? Fill your desk and dresser drawers with scraps of your brilliant self as postcards to your older self. Give your friends the best of your art in cards and thank you notes and gifts. Scatter your creativity throughout your house and those of your loved ones and don’t bother with putting it out there in the world beyond the reach of your own fingertips.
Almost every great poet is also a great translator. There are exceptions, but it is far too common to be a coincidence or a requirement. I have come to believe this tendency to translate is a solution to the problem of trying to be productive as an artist every day. Maybe there are people who can wake up every day with inspiration to write brilliantly? But I suspect, more people suffer from the same thing I observe in myself. Most days nothing comes of my efforts. Sometimes whole months or even a better part of a year goes by without my muse whispering in my ear. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and a writer that can wake up everyday and translate someone else’s brilliance, bringing it to a different mother tongue, that has yet to enjoy the satisfaction of the original poet’s humanity can feel productive and satisfied without the need to entirely create something on their own from nothing.
Lowell was an incredibly gifted translator. There is a silky smooth aspect to some of his translations, like the one below, that he rarely achieved with his own words, so much pent up emotions coursing through his veins, that it may have been impossible to find that level of calm when searching his own mind. Meditation is an example where the madness of Baudelaire is becalmed under the madness of Lowell and in its place resides a little pool of sonnet peace. Dive in!
by Baudelaire Translated by Robert Lowell
Calm down, my Sorrow, we must move with care. You called for evening; it descends, it’s here. The town is coffined in its atmosphere, bringing relief to some, to others care.
Now while the common multitude strips bare, feels pleasure’s cat o’nine tails on its back, and fights off anguish at the great bazaar, give me your hand, my Sorrow. Let’s stand back;
back from these people! Look, the dead years dressed in old clothes crowd the balconies of the sky. Regret emerges smiling from the sea,
the sick sun slumbers underneath an arch, and like a shroud strung out form east to west, listen, my Dearest, hear the sweet night march!
“We poets in our youth begin in sadness; / thereof come in the end despondency and madness…
by Randall Jarrell (1914 – 1965)
What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you’re up . . .” Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.
Randall Jarrell’s and Robert Lowell’s friendship, I believe, as much influenced Robert’s Lowell’s success as a writer as any other individual. Jarrell was finishing his undergraduate at Vanderbilt when Lowell arrived to live at Benfolly with the Tates. That summer, John Crowe Ransom was being wooed by Kenyon College in Ohio to come turn their English program into a powerhouse and Ransom realized it would take more than him to turn Kenyon into an A league hub of literary activity, he would need bench strength. So he recruited both Jarrell and Lowell to follow him, going so far as to let the two of them live in the second floor of his house temporarily and then arranging for them to have comfortable student housing thereafter.
Jarrell and Lowell both spent several years at Kenyon, honing their literary talents, along with their room mate Peter Taylor. Jarrell’s unique gift to Lowell was his ability to encourage and enjoy the poetry of his friend. He was Lowell’s fan, biggest encourager, the person who reassured him he was going to be a legend, before he was. So confident was Jarrell in Lowell, that it shored up Lowell’s own anxiety and kept the wolves at bay in Lowell’s mind during key periods in his ascension. When Lowell shared the early drafts of Lord Weary’s Castle with Jarrell, he was so effusive in his praise that it was like an oracle predicting Lowell’s future Pulitzer.
Jarrell and Lowell remained friends right up until Jarrell’s death. Jarrell had fallen into a deep depression following President Kennedy’s assassination. He suffered from maniac depressive episodes and his overall health deteriorated. While seeking medical treatment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina he was hit by a car while walking along the side of the road and died. Though his death was ruled an accident, it always had the stain of the rumor of a possible suicide.
Jarrell was just one in a generation of poets, all acquaintances if not outright good friends, born between 1899 and 1917, who suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and died prematurely: Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. A legacy that continued with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
Berryman remarked on the tendency for the gods of literature to eat their own:
I’m cross with God who has wrecked this generation.
First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now
Delmore….In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath.
Does it take madness to be a great poet? Two of the great master’s of American literature who attempted to evolve the sonnet form into the 20th Century, Lowell and Berryman, eventually succumbed to the weight of their own expectations. Is that why sonnets have largely been left in the dust bin of history, too mingled with Lowell’s and Berryman’s blood to be an ongoing literary legacy.
by Robert Lowell
I am the blue! I come from the lower world
to hear the serene erosion of the surf;
once more I see the galleys bleed with dawn,
and shark with muffled rowlocks into Troy,
My solitary hands recall the kings;
I used to run my fingers through their beards;
I wept. They sang about their shady wars,
the great gulfs boiling sternward from their keels.
I hear military trumpets, all that brass,
blasting commands to the frantic oars;
the rowers’ metronome enchains the sea,
and high on beaked and dragon prows, the gods-
their fixed, archaic smiles stung by the salt –
reach out their carved, indulgent arms to me!