It Pierces All Nights To Come

Wanda Coleman (1946 – 2013)

American Sonnet 95

by Wanda Coleman

seized by wicked enchantment, i surrendered my song

as i fled for the stars, i saw an earthchild
in a distant hallway, crying out
to his mother, “please don’t go away
and leave us.” he was, i saw, my son. immediately,
i discontinued my flight

from here, i see the clocktower in a sweep of light,
framed by wild ivy. it pierces all nights to come

i haunt these chambers but they belong to cruel churchified insects.
among the books mine go unread, dust-covered.
i write about urban bleeders and breeders, but am
troubled because their tragedies echo mine.

at this moment i am sickened by the urge
to smash. my thighs present themselves
stillborn, misshapen wings within me



I am hesitant in writing about issues of race in this country because my own experience is starkly white.  Wrestling with the legacy of Lowell this past month made me ask myself the question; how do I respect the history of the African American sonnet both past and present?  Does spending time with all early 20th Century sonnet writers, regardless of race, honor the writers who created it or are am I perpetuating a problem in our society by nostalgically looking backwards and not focusing on the present? Is the constraint that lyric poetry creates less a metaphor and more a symptom of our racist past that inevitably formed a wedge in literature, a demarcation that poets have wisely taken their writing further and further away from elitist sounding language and moved instead down a new path with free verse that has the flexibility poets need to articulate the breadth of their human experience?  As much as I enjoy sonnets, if that was my only diet in reading poetry I would soon starve to death.

In searching out some reading on what place do the classics have in today’s world and in particular in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement I came across Princeton professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta.  Peralta, an Associate Professor of Classics, was in the news in 2019, when at an important conference of his peers, he dared to ask the question – should the field of study we call classics survive?   

It is a fascinating question, particularly since it is his life’s passion and profession.  My Mother was taught Latin in High School in public school in the 1940s in Minnesota, so I am only one generation removed from the idea that classical studies should be part of every high school graduate’s experience.  I was always impressed by her insight into language and meaning of words that comes from a rudimentary understanding of Latin.  (Also an invaluable skill for cross word puzzles and of course a deeper understanding of poetry.) 

So how then do we reconcile the history of the sonnet with current issues around equity and inclusion?  Does the sonnet deserve a hall pass to the future? My suggestion; let’s read the poets of color who are skillfully and thoughtfully treading those planks, seek out their poetry for its unique perspective.   In the next several blog posts I will present African American sonneteers across the decades and let you explore what relevance their words bring to your current mindset. 

If I were to draw a simple progression of African American writers of sonnets from the 1700’s to today in America that are top of mind for me, without doing any additional research, it would start with Phyllis Wheatley, then progress without perfect linearity, to Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, H. Cordelia Ray,  Gwendolyn Bennett, Marcus Garvey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Wanda Coleman, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Marilyn Nelson and Terrance Hayes, with my apologies to all the fine poets I have missed, but look forward to meeting someday.

One of the things I try and share through Fourteenlines is nearly every poet has written at least one sonnet like poem, in part because it connects their writing to the past.  These poems are not always classical sonnets in construction and sometimes I am not even sure the poet was consciously aware of the sonnets influence, so ingrained in our culture are “the classics”.  So if it is by this distinct lens that we think of as classical literature that most art is influenced and judged, and if its by these very archetypes American thought has been formed and whittled over generations of  high school and college educations, than why wouldn’t we at least ask some questions about what holes we have dug for ourselves in this process without even realizing it and should we stop digging?  I am not suggesting we have to chuck the lot of it, nor is Peralta, only maybe we should go back and re-read the classics with a  different focal point and scrutinize what is relevant and meaningful in our journey today while taking a bright yellow high lighter to unhelpful and racist stereotypes that don’t move us in the direction of equity and are partially to blame for the mess we have made of things.  

Poetry doesn’t need to be serious.  I read it because its fun.  I don’t believe I have to analyze it endlessly.  I read what I like and honestly don’t think too much about it in terms of an academic understanding.  But this February I am trying to think a little differently and consciously address how I am presenting African American poets and poets of color during Black History Month.  I  feel an obligation to not be tone deaf and color blind to the biases of my  “liberal” arts education.

What’s your thoughts on Peralta’s interesting ideas in the article below?  I don’t think he is suggesting we should stop reading sonnets.  But he opened my eyes to change my reading glasses and ponder the fact that all those ancient Greek marble statues in our museums were not originally displayed as we now see them.  It was only over time that the affluent collectors of art history, in the name of conservation and “classical” studies, scrubbed and polished them white. 

 

Dan-el Padilla Peralta visionary questioning of some of the foundations of liberal arts.

Sonnet

by Countee Cullen

There are no wind-blown rumors, soft say-sos,
No garden-whispered hearsays, lightly heard,
I know that summer never spares the rose,
That spring is faithless to the brightest bird.
I know that nothing lovely shall prevail
To win from Time and Death a moment’s grace;
At Beauty’s birth the scythe was honed, the nail
Dipped for her hands, the cowl clipped for her face.

And yet I cannot think that this my faith,
My winged joy, my pride, my utmost mirth,
Centered in you, shall ever taste of death,
Or perish from the false, forgetting earth.
You are with time, as wind and weather are,
As is the sun, and every nailed star.

History Has To Live

lowell&caroline_crop

Robert Lowell and Lady Caroline Blackwood

“I was overcome with a pathological bout of enthusiasm.”

Robert Lowell

History

by Robert Lowell

History has to live with what was here,
clutching and close to fumbling all we had—
it is so dull and gruesome how we die,
unlike writing, life never finishes.
Abel was finished; death is not remote,
a flash-in-the-pan electrifies the skeptic,
his cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire,
his baby crying all night like a new machine.
As in our Bibles, white-faced, predatory,
the beautiful, mist-drunken hunter’s moon ascends—
a child could give it a face: two holes, two holes,
my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull’s no-nose—
O there’s a terrifying innocence in my face
drenched with the silver salvage of the mornfrost.


What have I learned this month?   My appreciation for Lowell has grown, along with my empathy.   The quote above is what endears maniac depressives to those around them.   The lows are a cross to bear for all, but the highs, when in moderation, can power the world with their energy.  I am envious of Lowell’s friendships among his vast circle of friends, and the talent in that remarkable group that helped each other become better writers, still recognizing the negative self destructive tendencies that these men and women had in their own lives and others. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have grown to like Lowell the man, but I have grown to appreciate more of Lowell the artist and accept his humanness.  

Robert Lowell was the product of two generations of men of letters in this country and the patience and emotional intelligence of  multiple women.  His poetry evolved to fit the style that the New Critics applauded and rewarded; Merrill, Tate, Ransom, Warren, Jarrell, Taylor, Frost, Schwartz and Berryman literally molded Lowell out of clay.  His passion and the depth in his poetry was influenced by Stafford, Hardwick, Blackwood and Bishop.  Did Lowell win those two Pulitzers, or do all of them deserve some of the credit as well?   Does it take a village to raise a poet? In Lowell’s case, I think the answer is yes.   

Obviously, Lowell brought something to the table.  I wonder though, if he had been born poor,  with the same talents, and written the same words, would a single thing he ever wrote have seen the light of day from a publisher?  Would he have had the financial ability and time to write? Even with the generous  support and royalties he received from publishers,  it was not enough to support him and his family without his father’s money to fill in the gaps.  Talent publicly recognized is almost always influenced by luck as well. Lowell exists in American Lit history in part because of the opportunities his families wealth, connections and the power his birthright afforded him, if not for the access to publishing, then for the glimpse into the halls of power in this country and its moral authority and failings which he used for some of his poetic inspiration.  Lowell may have been a confessional poet, but the history he shared was not just his own, it served as a sketchbook illustrating our broader society, his words a mirror for the American tendency towards narcissism that was reflected in his best work.

Lowell and Berryman always preferred criticism of their work by other writers.  They were writing during a unique time in history, existing within a relatively small literary bubble, where the best critics, were also some of their best friends.  There are tentacles in literature that extend from one generation to the next and influence poetry in ways that we may not even be aware. We owe a debt of gratitude to these men and women, who pushed poetry forward, in a legacy that would forever change how poetry is written and read today.   Even if it some of that work led to dead ends, it forced open doors of change, either positively or negatively, because of their commitment to their writing.  Sometimes things have to become broken to be put back together in a new more innovative way.

This past year in 2020, when several hundred poets of color demanded changes in the way the Poetry Foundation wields the power of its financial assets, and who sits as the gate keepers of that financial wealth, I applauded, even though it probably was painful to the multiple old white men who were forced to resign from the board of directors.  We have to remind ourselves that giving birth is painful.  It’s never easy and not to be taken for granted.  All parties don’t always survive the process.  Things don’t die and are buried because they did something wrong.  Things die, because things need to die, so that the next generation has room to breathe and grow and thrive.

After a month of reading Lowell, if I compare him to Berryman, there is no question which book of collected poems will continue to sit on my reading table; its Berryman’s.  For sheer enjoyment of the written word and intellectual fun of the poetry and creativity, Berryman’s poetry wins in my world hands down.  But it would have been easy for me to show case Berryman this year and stay in a familiar rut of sharing things I enjoy on Fourteenlines.  The beginning of 2021 is a time of reckoning.  This month has been a time for me to reassess white power and privilege that has shaped the past, my own included, and confront the underlying rot of white supremacy that is all around us, even in the creative arts and poetry.   It’s easy for me to write about things I like.  It’s much harder to write about things I don’t.  And though I have learned a lot by writing about Lowell this month, I will be glad to move on.

I wrote the poem below a week after the violence at the Capitol building in the midst of my month long journey with Lowell.  I readily admit it is a troubling poem.  I don’t like all the aspects of these characters.   And yet it begs the question, if we dislike the artist, should we dislike the art?  The risk of cancel culture is we cancel the very reminders of what not to be?   How many of us learned our most important lessons in life not from a role model of the epitome of our ideals but from the fuck-ups in our midst that we wanted to not emulate?   Spending a month in Lowell’s company and his cronies messes with you.   Lowell leaned conservative right in his ideology in some of his writing, but did he believe it or use it as a mirror to society?  Impossible to know. I don’t know why this poem shaped itself in my mind.   If you were to count it out, it is roughly a sonnet, 14 lines.   Was it inspiration for what could be a broader script for a play someday wrestling with the death of the sonnet and the ideas these men wrote about over a lifetime?  There’s probably 90 minutes of pretty interesting dialogue waiting to be crafted if I tried to insert myself into the minds of these four men playing cards.   What is it trying to tell me? What about the perspective their month of company has imparted, formed n my mind in both good ways and bad, that brought out this poem?  I may delete this poem and post in a year because it isn’t relevant and reads like trite nonsense or I may find in it something I don’t see now?  I honestly don’t like the men behind the art of all the writers I read. It doesn’t mean I find that disagreeable taste in my mouth any less worthwhile than the bitter coffee I sometimes choose to drink.  


Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman Play Euchre in Heaven

By T. A. Fry

(This poem is intended to be read by screen play rules – words in parenthesis and gray italics should not be read out loud, rather help inform the reader on characters and plot. Lines in black are Robert Lowell’s. Lowell is partnered with Pound and Berryman is partnered with Jarrell.)

.       . “Jezzus Chrst Mr. Bones, would you stop dropping
 ashes on the table.  Lets do clubs – Pounder. “  ( Lowell winks)

.       . “Cal…. your move.* What’s with the winking?” (Berryman, staring at Lowell)
.       .
It’s a tick, he’s not tabl-talking the bower.” (Pound)

“Henry…. pass me a pretzel with cheese on it. ” 
(Lowell leads the Jack of clubs)

.        . “Yes he is,  see —- exerting his power….
(Berryman passing the pretzel with a napkin, then picks up his cigarette, takes a long drag, exhaling a cloud Lowell’s way, muttering;)
It’s a damn shame, the state of the sonnet….”

(Lowell takes the trick and leads the Queen of clubs)

.       . “What’d you guys think, the attack in D. C.?
Ezra – yu’old fascist, what’s your report?” (Jarrell) 

“… Relieved… bar’s been raised for traitorous crazy.”
(Smiling as he lays the Jack of spades over top Lowell’s Queen and Berryman’s Ace and Jarrell’s sloughed off suit, taking the trick for the team.)

.      . “So am I!  It’s great to see such support
For mental illness among the masses.
It’s amazing, I tell you, aammaazzzing,
What these people pull out of their asses.”


* When Berryman jumped to his death in 1972, the only identification on his body recovered from the river was a pair of sunglasses with his name on it and a blank check.  Hamilton, in Lowell’s biography, claims Auden started a cruel rumor among the literati in New York City shortly thereafter that Berryman had in fact left a note, which read; “Cal, it’s your move.

Justice Can Rise Up

President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

The Cure of Troy

by Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

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….


Sonnet 21

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

In The Spirit Level

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

“The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do so many a dangerous thing.”

― Elizabeth Bishop

The Armadillo

by Elizabeth Bishop   (1911-1979)

 

For Robert Lowell

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!


Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s friendship spanned from 1947 until the end of Lowell’s life in 1977.  They met when Lowell, as part of his appointment with the Library of Congress, was tasked with expanding its collection from just manuscripts and books to include recordings of poets reading their work.  He immediately reached out to Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Randell Jarrell along with many others, and included an invitation to Elizabeth Bishop who had recently published North and South, which Lowell had written a positive review.   They soon became fast friends. 

In the summer of 1948, with fresh divorce decree in hand, Lowell went with his girl friend at the time, Carly Dawson to spend the summer in Maine to visit Elizabeth Bishop.  Dawson, already twice divorced, soon faded on Lowell’s odd behavior and intensity and dumped him early on in the visit when Lowell immediately set his fascination upon Bishop shortly after their arrival.  Lowell’s and Bishop’s fascination with each other would continue for the next three decades.   It didn’t take long that summer for Lowell to profess his love for her and told his friends and even his family he was going to marry her.  Bishop never took his exclamations of matrimony seriously and claims the two of them never slept together, though there was an intimacy in their intellectual connection that lasted far beyond what a likely physical romance would have lasted, given Lowell’s history in that regard.  

By fall of 1948, with his position completed at the Library of Congress, Lowell headed to Yaddo, an arts commune near Saratoga, New York that still exists today.   It is an eclectic place, then and now, that gives artists in residence a place to work and interact with other artists across a wide range of disciplines.  Upon arrival he reconnected with Elizabeth Hardwick whom he had met before, a novelist and book reviewer, who was a sharp and thorny critic, and also apparently a font of juicy rumors about Alan Tate’s private life.  In short, Hardwick was exactly the kind of intellectual challenge Lowell admired and it took no time for him to switch his gaze from one Elizabeth to another, Bishop to Hardwick.  

Bishop is quoted as saying, “I never wanted to marry Robert Lowell, but I would have loved to have his baby.”  I think it was a way of keeping her sexual history private.  Bishop was a lesbian at a time that it was not easy to be out and open about being a lesbian.   Bishop, in contrast to Berryman and Lowell who were celebrated for evolving confessional poetry, was very deliberate in her writing to separate her personal life from her poetry in all but its metaphors.  Bishop traveled the world, enjoyed the freedom that a single life affords a woman of financial means; writing, painting and enjoying her journey. 

I find it intriguing that Bishop’s final published poem, published 3 weeks after her death in the New Yorker is titled Sonnet.  She had published another Sonnet in 1928 that I have shared in an earlier Fourteenlines, but to my knowledge sonnets were not her forte.  Is the title and its 14 lines a way to reach out to the past to departed friends, Lowell in particular, who had embraced 14 lines as sufficient space to encompass a lifetime?  The poem is remarkable in its simplicity and imagery.  I too have often been fascinated by the rainbows that live in the edges of beveled mirrors and the tiny bubble that exists in all of our spirit levels, fragile, yet permanent, resetting us on the level if we choose to course correct. 

 


Sonnet

by Elizabeth Bishop

Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
undecided.
Freed — the broken
thermometer’s mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

My Clumsiness Each Time I Try To Dance

Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966)

“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”

John Milton – Paradise Lost

Rome

By Joachim du Bellay
Translated by Ezra Pound 
 

O thou newcomer who seek’st Rome in Rome
And find’st in Rome no thing thou canst call Roman;
Arches worn old and palaces made common
Rome’s name alone within these walls keeps home.

Behold how pride and ruin can befall
One who hath set the whole world ’neath her laws,
All-conquering, now conquered, because
She is Time’s prey, and Time conquereth all.

Rome that art Rome’s one sole last monument,
Rome that alone hast conquered Rome the town,
Tiber alone, transient and seaward bent,

Remains of Rome. O world, thou unconstant mime!
That which stands firm in thee Time batters down,
And that which fleeteth doth outrun swift Time

Nouveau venu, qui cherches Rome en Rome
Et rien de Rome en Rome n’aperçois,
Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcs que tu vois
Et ces vieux murs, c’est ce que Rome on nomme.

Vois quel orgueil, quelle ruine et comme
Celle qui mit le monde sous ses lois
Pour dompter tout, se dompta quelquefois
Et devint proie au temps, qui tout consomme.

Rome de Rome est le seul monument,
Et Rome Rome a vaincu seulement.
Le Tibre seul, qui vers la mer s’enfuit,

Reste de Rome. O mondaine inconstance !
Ce qui est ferme est par le temps détruit
Et ce qui fuit, au temps fait résistance.


Despite Lowell’s embrace of the true southern hospitality showed him by Tate, Warren and Ransom, Lowell was a Bostonian through and through. Though even he was a bit taken aback by the privileged life he grew up in and retained as an adult through his family’s Bostonian wealth, status and power, he never hesitated to embrace the safety net it provided.   There are the penniless loonies, like Pound, who get by in part through their eccentricity.  And then there are the wealthy eccentrics, who are tolerated because they have fuck you walking around money.   They can be as crazy as they want, and their community will accept it, because there is an unspoken bond among families, schools and businesses that are so intertwined in their community, that they have mutually decided its better to accept a few nut bars of their own choosing, as long as they can pay their bar tab and afford expensive psychiatrists and luxury mental hospitals in times of recovery when substance abuse gets out of control.  The field of psychiatry and the big business of treating mental illness and substance abuse largely evolved to serve the wealthy in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s.  During the hay day of Lowell’s drinking in the 1940’s, there was an acceptance of heavy drinking that was part of the culture within which he associated that covered up real insanity, with a ready excuse of bad behavior by individuals as  “just having had a few too many with the boys.”

Lowell had burned enough bridges in Boston with school mates, his father, and the upper crust of Bostonian society, that as a young adult and then throughout the rest of his life, he made New York more his adopted northern home.   He would spend long periods in New York, in between stints at various Universities, including one triumphant return to Harvard, and travel abroad.  Schwartz, who also came from money, but saw his inheritance squandered by a corrupt executor of his father’s estate, who died suddenly at age 49, was taken aback by the level of wealth and servants in Lowell’s parent’s household.  He was also shocked by the undertones of anti-Semitism that ran through the banter between Lowell and his parents during “pleasant” dining room conversation when he and Lowell would visit. 

Schwartz and Lowell were good friends, who palled around together in New York City in the 1940’s and early 1950’s when Lowell was in residence or visiting, during the high point in Schwartz’s career, when his books and poetry were being praised by Tate, Warren and others.  But writing careers are like chess games, there is an opening, a mid-game, and for the best, an end-game.  Schwartz had a clever opening and the start of a solid mid-game, but alcoholism and mental illness wore away his talents and opportunities, until even his brilliant conversational skills weren’t enough to keep his friends visiting him at his favorite bars in New York City.  He died penniless in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City at age 52.

Lowell’s dark side was in full display early in his marriage with Stafford.   There was a sense of obligation, from the car crash, that instantly began to erode its underpinnings and by 1945, Lowell was finding other female companionship to his liking better, if not for sex, at least for its pleasant diversion of company.  For someone known as a bit of prude, who didn’t counter rough talk and sex jokes among his male companions,  Lowell was unabashed in going through a series of lovers and female companions in the end stages of his marriage to Stafford.   By 1946 serious negotiations were ongoing between the two of them around dissolution through Lowell’s lawyer on what would be the financial alimony paid to Stafford in a divorce so that it could be finalized.  During this time from 1945 to 1948, Lowell and Stafford were married in name only.  Lowell used this time to travel, live in New York and then in 1947 and 1948, as the divorce was finalized, take on a position in Washington D. C. as a consultant to the Library of Congress, the post that would eventually be renamed as the position of United States Poet Laureate.   

It was during this time that Lowell lived in Washington, D. C. that he began visiting Ezra Pound in prison, who was being held on charges of treason at the Chestnut Ward at St. Elizabeths Hospital in southeast D.C.  Lowell, no stranger to mental institutions, though ones far nicer in creature comforts than St. Elizabeths, began visiting Pound for weekly conversations on poetry and literature. Lowell had always been fascinated by Pound. Lowell first contacted Pound via letter his freshmen year at College.  Pound, always a generous mentor and critic and fan of younger poets, had written back and so it is not surprising that Lowell seized this opportunity to further their friendship.

I am hopeful both men found solace in the acceptance of each other’s humanity.  As someone who is having to come to grips with the depths of his own demons, I can appreciate the generosity and dangers these types of friendships represent.  Friendships like Lowell had with both Schwartz and Pound, were the totality of their beings was not hidden, both the power of their artistic expression, the brilliance of their intellects and the brokenness of their souls, are on full display and tolerated, as friends, is a rare thing to find.   And I would hope, all three were the better for it, even if not spared from the best and the worst each brought to those relationships and their own lives.


Why Do You Write An Endless History

by Delmore Schwartz

“Why when you write do you most frequently
Look in your heart and stare at it both first
And last, half agonized by what you see
And half bemused, seeking what is accursed
Or blessed in the past? And what demand
Is gratified?” I answered, hesitant
And slow: “Because I wish to understand
The causes of each great and small event

Choosen, or like thrown dice, an accident,
-My clumsiness each time I try to dance,
My mother’s anger when I wore long pants,
Thus, as the light renews each incident,
My friends are free of guilt or I am free
Of self-accused responsibility.

The Dailiness of Life

lowell

“We poets in our youth begin in sadness; / thereof come in the end despondency and madness…

William Wordsworth

Well Water

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.


Helen

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!

Sometimes, Everything I Write

Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

“If we see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light of the oncoming train.”

Robert Lowell

Epilogue

by Robert Lowell 

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name


 

Happy New Years.   My intention has been to spend the month of January doing a deeper dive into Robert Lowell,  the last white male poet to be on the cover of Time Magazine.  It is said we all foreshadow our own destruction, but in the case of Lowell, he foreshadowed not only his own, but also nearly the down fall of poetry itself in America. 

In my mind Lowell epitomizes where the politics of poetry went wrong in the 20th Century.   For an artform that is irreparably bound to breaking all the conventions in its creation, there is still politics in the way that new poets are vetted and published and paid.  Something happened as Lowell reached the zenith of his career in the 1960’s that nearly broke poetry.  The business of poetry, which was and still is in some ways, largely controlled by an elitist insulated establishment, committed the gravest of sins in my mind, it became boring.  Lowell is the demarcation point where poetry hit the proverbial white male wall. And although there have been many fine white male poets who have carried on since, the sun has set on that regime to have the type of influence, readership and popular appeal that was possible in the first half of the 20th century.  

The 1970’s, 1980’s and beyond have seen the rise of  greater diversity, different perspectives, different expressionism and  the full ascension of free verse, to the point that many poets have forgotten,  that poetry at its essence should go beyond the page and live in our mouths as well as our minds.  It should read well aloud.  The past 40 years have carved out a niche for nearly ever type of poetry, but along with it a smaller and smaller readership, at least published, even for the most successful, such that it is harder and harder for a poet to make a living as a poet.  Poetry has become what it always was, a way of thinking, a life style, but it is only for a very talented few, who can actually make a living at it without subsidizing their passion through teaching or another line of work or an acceptance of poverty.  You don’t have to be wealthy to be a poet, but it certainly doesn’t hurt if it is your desire for it to be your vocation. And such as it has been since Homer and Browning. 

Lowell wrote 100’s of sonnets in his lifetime and translated nearly that many as well from other poets.   Yet, there is not a single sonnet of Lowell’s that I can point to that anyone is likely to be familiar or that I would give a resounding, thumbs up.  The problem with celebrating Lowell is he is hard to like because his poetry is so overtly academic, it is not accessible.  Lowell’s poems are inside jokes of arcane knowledge written for the critics and his other academic friends to decipher.  And because Lowell won nearly every award a poet can win, and was heaped with praise and success, other’s followed mistakenly down his rather drab path, creating a self-compounding problem of scaring off more and more readers.  Poetry became up and through the 1990’s more and more incestuous in the process of what is published.  In my opinion, the only thing that saved poetry from extinction was the internet.  The internet over the last 20 years made it possible for writers to self publish in ways that harken back to Dicken’s selling single page periodicals in the streets.  Anyone willing to set up a blog and willing to write could access the world.  

I honestly believe more people on the planet are reading poetry than ever before, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the poetry section in your local bookstore, that is if your local book store has survived the ravages of the past 20 years and the pandemic.  The fact that local book stores have closed in droves across the United States is further evidence of the challenges that writers face in finding their audience in the traditional printed sense.  And yet, I am blown away by the level of talent that emerges year after year.   There are more good writers of poetry than ever before, even if book sales continue to decline. 

The internet has made it possible for people to create, find and share poetry like never before.  So why spend a month diving into someone I so dislike and worse disdain? Life is too short to read bad poetry. My mantra about reading poetry is the same as it is for food, consume what you enjoy!   The reason is I have decided I would like to figure out  maybe where poetry took the wrong road less traveled, particularly classical poetry and why it hit a dead end.  And to do so, I thought it might be interesting to follow that trail back and look about.   If the sonnet is a vehicle of artistic endeavor rusting in the scrap yard in most readers minds, then let’s spend a little time with one of the writers who helped run it off the road into some trees.   Lowell was connected to so many poets, first as a student,  then through his social network as friends, and then as a professor and the writers he mentored as students, that he is one of those literary figures that sits at the center of an incredible spider web of authors from the 20th century.  I will do my best over the next 30 days, to spend the majority of the time on writers other than Lowell, to which Lowell was connected, and to actually find a poem or two of Lowell’s in his vast collected works, that I enjoy.  Wish me luck.   

Happy New Years!  And if Lowell and his cronies are not to your liking.  I will see you in February. 


Bringing A Turtle Home

by Robert Lowell

On the road to Bangor, we spotted a domed stone,
a painted turtle petrified by fear.
I picked it up.  The turtle had come a long walk,
200 millennia understudy to dinosaurs,
then their survivor.  A god for the out-of-power….
Faster gods come to Castine, flush yachtsman who see
hell as a city very much like New York,
these gods gave a bad past and worse future to men
who never bother to set a spinnaker;
culture without cash isn’t worth their spit.
The laughter on Mount Olympus was always breezy….
Goodnight, little Boy, little Soldier, live,
a toy to your friend, a stone of stumbling to God —-
sandpaper Turtle, scratching your pail for water. 


In The Midden Of My Mind

Climbing-Trees

“Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories.  And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.”

Stevie Wonder

Motown Cross

(Excerpt – Sonnet #3 in the crown of sonnets)

by Patricia Smith

Silk where his throat should be, and growling grace,
Little Stevie made us wonder why
we even needed sight. His rhythm eye
could see us click our hips and swerve in place
whenever he cut loose. Ooh, we’d unlace
our Converse All-Stars. Yeah, we wondered why
we couldn’t get down without our shoes, we’d try
and dance and keep up with his funky pace
of hiss and howl and hum, and then he’d slow
to twist our hearts until he heard them crack,
ignoring what was leaking from the seams.
The rockin’ blind boy couldn’t help but show
us light. We bellowed every soulful track
from open window, ’neath the door—pipe dreams.

If you want to check out Smith’s entire crown of sonnets Motown Cross published in Rattle in 2010, check out the link or video below.

 


The best known crown of sonnets is John Donne’s La Corona that begins, “Deign at my hands the crown of prayer and praise.”   It sets the standard by which all others are measured.  If you are not familiar with a crown of sonnets or sonnet sequence, it is a poem containing anywhere from seven, eleven or thirteen sonnets, written around a theme.  Modern sonnet sequences are not always in rhyme and do not necessarily follow the supposed “rules” of a crown of sonnet, but I am impressed that Patricia Smith went old school in her poem Motown Cross and followed the structure of Donne, in which the first line of the first sonnet is the last line of the last sonnet, the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the second sonnet, and so forth with successive sonnets until the end.  The challenge in this structure is figuring out a rhyming sequence that you can continue from the end of one sonnet to the next and not have repetition and still carry the narrative forward. It provides a bigger canvas in which to work in the sonnet structure but that larger size carries with it it’s own unique set of challenges.

Like Smith, when I sat down and wrote a crown of sonnets, I looked sentimentally to the past.  She focused on music that shaped her, I focused on memories of growing up.   The entire sonnet sequence, In the Midden of My Mind, started with the word midden.  I came across it and it’s association with storage cupboards and sailing ships immediately conjured thoughts about climbing trees as a child, a place of mystery and serenity that still exists in my memory. I grew up in the 1960’s in a suburban landscape on a dead end street with a forest of mature trees at my door step  to explore and climb.  I had my favorites that I knew the route that I could climb to the very top and peer out over the entire world and hide from my sisters and my mom if I chose. I spent many happy summer and fall afternoons climbing trees. The act of climbing a combination of strategy, knowledge of trees,  athleticism, experience, upper arm strength and some courage.   I never fell. I have visceral memories of being at the top of swaying trees and seeing a perspective of the world that looked completely different than being on the ground.

Stevie Wonder’s album, Songs in the Key of Life was one of the very first albums I ever purchased.  It came out when I was thirteen and I listened to it over and over as a teenager.  Patricia Smith, a black woman from inner city Detroit and me a white man who grew up in suburbs of St. Paul, couldn’t in some ways be more different in our experiences, but we both danced to Stevie Wonder in our converse All Stars and we both somehow gravitated to writing a crown of sonnets to capture the mood and rhythms of our past. It took me more than six months to write In the Midden of My Mind. There were many starts and stops along the way, trying to maintain a consistent voice throughout and articulate something genuine.  In the end, I let the rhyme and sentiment both have the upper hand and though it is not one of the best things I have ever written, it has held up over the test of time in that I don’t cringe when I read it.   It still says what I want it to say. Nostalgia does not always translate well to others, our own sentimental journeys best kept as personal, but it is a way to share our common experience that connects us in ways that remind us that the human condition has more similarities that bind us together than differences that divide.


In The Midden of My Mind

By T. A. Fry

In the midden of my mind, it lies
Unbidden: the flagship of my boyhood home.
A relic hidden under bluest skies.
Where childhood’s ghosts are free to roam.
Danger beckoned me to its lofty realm
Bound by vistas from the tallest tree.
High in oaks and elm, I was at the helm
Of  tall ships sailing effortlessly.

Oh, to climb into youth’s panoply,

The dappled greens of windy murmur.
The swaying solitude of the canopy,
Above the scrambling of terra firma.
Though nostalgia’s pastel does not grow dreary,
The past’s colors blend until I’m leery.

 

The past’s colors blend until I’m leery.
It bends, then fades to form a rosy veil.
What once was real becomes more a theory,
In retelling tales that time assails.
Those days when marbles were like Midas gold,
Jewels handed down to daughters and sons.
When aggies, clears, cat-eyes and shooters rolled
To clack, smack and crack, nothing less was fun.

In long grass we played, our days unbroken.

While wildflowers buzzed with a winged milieu.
A place where kindness, if it went unspoken,
Was felt in the warmth to see us through.
A timeless landscape that shall never lapse.
When all the marbles were within my grasp.

 


When all the marbles were within my grasp.
Some gained, some lost, but all in fair play.
Until one day I turned to find the hasp
of my chest broken and all in disarray.
Death’s screech hailed me beneath a tire
Revealing the flash by which souls burn.
Chance disrobed the vagary of death’s attire
That clothes the nakedness from which we learn.

There lay crumbled before me what had been

An electric grey kitten who filled my days
With boundless play and purry naps, but in
A dash, his companionship was torn away.
Death’s design is a bloody valentine.
Is it childish to wish to turn back time?

 

Is it childish to wish to turn back time?
Life’s an endless game between gain and loss.
Death picks breath’s pocket. Yet there’s no crime.
For pure gold is smelt alongside the dross.
Are words fit crucibles for our stores?
No matter what preciousness is poured.
The past sounds hollow, when its essence roared.
Or cold metallic, when by warmth adorned.

My first real kiss from a neighbor girl.
Her lips wet and sweet, like an apple core.
Shining sun bronzed hair, not a hint of curl,
With gentle fondness, it was a thrill.
Is it any wonder I ponder still?
Soft fingers alighting on emerging will.

 

Soft fingers alighting on emerging will.
Awakened chords to songs I’d yet to sing.
Her hazel eyes afire with new found skills.
Planted bouquets of flowers I’d yet to bring.
My garden grew more bold and lush.  By what
Bewitching alchemy does love distill?
Young men from boys and with it cut
The last apron string that holds them still.

In the midden of my mind is always lit,

A candle kindled by my Mother’s grace.
It’s held in a stanchion, a sturdy kit,
Iron my father forged along its base.
By loving hands honor is embraced.
In trusting arms confidence is encased.

 

In trusting arms confidence is encased
Despite the clumsy sack-race of boys to men.
Bumbling, stumbling – ignorance is erased.
Only at the tape to hear it’s jeers again.
I drank the cold brew from which poise streams. 
And ate the fruit that falls from laughter’s tree.
I ventured far beyond green childish dreams,
With ungainly strength to go forth and be.

I unearthed proud mystery in this world.

In dominion o’er my body and my mind. 
I watched sun and moon around me swirl
And mulled how tempest winds unwind.
I made few inroads into golden plains.
But not all my wandering was in vain.

 

 

Not all my wandering was in vain.
I said “I do” before those hazel eyes,
Declared “I do” twice more as children came.
In praise of Gods that be with grateful cries.
As victory and failure filled my sail.
And first kisses gave way to wayward sighs.
Through it all I heard love’s warbling wail.
Though time forgets all the whats and whys.

As epitaphs replaced old love songs sung.

Despite all that’s happened love prevailed.
White hair the vanguard of immortal young
Who listen politely to our wistful tale.
For as I look back with old thankful eyes,
There, in the midden of my mind it lies.

The Worst To Please Is A Carpenter

IMG_6520
Roan, Norway

Mountain Life

by Henrik Ibsen

IN summer dusk the valley lies
With far-flung shadow veil;
A cloud-sea laps the precipice
Before the evening gale:

The welter of the cloud-waves grey
Cuts off from keenest sight
The glacier, looking out by day
O’er all the district, far away,
And crowned with golden light.

But o’er the smouldering cloud-wrack’s flow,
Where gold and amber kiss,
Stands up the archipelago,
home of shining peace.

The mountain eagle seems to sail
A ship far seen at even;
And over all a serried pale
Of peaks, like giants ranked in mail,
Fronts westward threatening heaven.

But look, a steading nestles, close
Beneath the ice-fields bound,
Where purple cliffs and glittering snows
The quiet home surround.

Here place and people seem to be
A world apart, alone;
— Cut off from men by spate and scree
It has a heaven more broad, more free,
A sunshine all its own.

Look: mute the saeter-maiden stays,
Half shadow, half aflame;
The deep, still vision of her gaze
Was never word to name.

She names it not herself, nor knows
What goal my be its will;
While cow-bells chime and alp-horn blows
It bears her where the sunset glows,
Or, maybe, further still.

Too brief, thy life on highland wolds
Where close the glaciers jut;
Too soon the snowstorm’s cloak enfolds
Stone byre and pine-log hut.

Then wilt thou ply with hearth ablaze
The winter’s well-worn tasks
— But spin thy wool with cheerful face:
One sunset in the mountain pays
For all their winter asks.


I have spent the past week in Roan, Norway, a rural area north of Trondheim, that is a combination of rocky highlands dotted with small dairy farms in the river bottoms.   The beauty of Norway is hard to put into words, hiking in nearly pristine wilderness, the wild blue berries and mountain berries in full splendor this week among the moss and ferns in pine forests. The waters clear and blue, making there way into the fjords, I had the good fortune to be invited to spend some time at a friends, friend cabin that provided precious silence, multiple days with only the sounds of nature except for one or two airplanes over the course of several days. That experience of not being able to hear any man-made noise is a centering, sacred experience, bringing me back to something more basic that calls me to simplify my life.  Having spent several marvelous days in new and old Norwegian mountain cabins, my love of small houses has been rekindled and the urge to build one someplace in Minnesota is strong.

file-31

I used this opportunity while in Norway to investigate the legacy of Norway’s literature. Rich as it is with playwrights, (Ibsen) and novelists and poetry (Olav Hauge and Welhaven), outside of Welhaven’s sonnet cycle called Norges Daemring I found English translations of Norwegian poetry a bit slim pickings on the internet.  It may well be that I have not figured out the right search terms or it could be Norwegian poets are unconcerned with English translations and prefer to let people read their work in Norwegian.

Hauge’s work in English has a bit of similarity to William Carlos Williams with a similar dry sense of humor that runs through it.  Everyone in rural Norway it seems is a carpenter as it were, with self made cabins, barns and even houses more the norm than the exception.   As much as I enjoyed the beauty of Norway, I am eager to get home.  The inability to communicate effectively has made me homesick for Minnesota and the beauty of the English language.   Brah!


Poem

by Olav H. Hauge
Translated by Robert Hedin

If you can make a poem
a farmer finds useful,
you should be happy.
A blacksmith you can never figure out.
The worst to please is a carpenter.

While Lingering Whispers Deepen

Maramag
Fernando Maramag

Moonlight on Manila Bay

By Fernando M. Maramag (1893 – 1936)

A light, serene, ethereal glory rests
Its beams effulgent on each crestling wave;
The silver touches of the moonlight wave
The deep bare bosom that the breeze molests;
While lingering whispers deepen as the wavy crests
Roll with weird rhythm, now gay, now gently grave;
And floods of lambent light appear the sea to pave-
All cast a spell that heeds not time‘s behests.

Not always such the scene; the din of fight
Has swelled the murmur of the peaceful air;
Here East and West have oft displayed their might;
Dark battle clouds have dimmed this scene so fair;
Here bold Olympia, one historic night,
Presaging freedom, claimed a people‘s care.


Marmag’s sonnet is written as a sentimental homage to a simpler time before the Philippine’s became a pawn in the imperial conquests of Japan and the United States.  Manila Bay is an important geographical military asset for the country which hoped to control the Pacific ocean.

I harkened at a recent MPR story about the return of a church bell which the United States Navy had taken as a spoil of war in which Maramag’s sonnet is set.  The Balangiga town’s church bells were taken as war trophies during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War and had languished in relative obscurity in an army warehouse.  But the Philippine town and the country had not forgotten about them and through an act of contrition and forgiveness the bells were returned after 117 years so that they could be restored to the bell towers in which they belonged, to herald hope that someday we might find ways to negotiate in ways that don’t require domination and subjugation as the starting point but rather equanimity, with the mutual goal of creating the best outcomes for a complex world.


To the Man I Married
Angela Manalang-Gloria

I
You are my earth and all the earth implies:
The gravity that ballasts me in space,
The air I breathe, the land that stills my cries
For food and shelter against devouring days.
You are the earth whose orbit marks my way
And sets my north and south, my east and west,
You are the final, elemented clay
The driven heart must turn to for its rest.

If in your arms that hold me now so near
I lift my keening thoughts to Helicon
As trees long rooted to the earth uprear
Their quickening leaves and flowers to the sun,
You who are earth, O never doubt that I
Need you no less because I need the sky!

II
I can not love you with a love
That outcompares the boundless sea,
For that were false, as no such love
And no such ocean can ever be.

But I can love you with a love
As finite as the wave that dies
And dying holds from crest to crest
The blue of everlasting skies.