If By Dull Rhymes

John Keats (1795 – 1821)

My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk

John Keats

If By Dull Rhymes

By John Keats

If by dull rhymes our English must be chain’d,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter’d, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain’d
By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.


Today is the 200th anniversary of John Keats death.  Keats died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis.  Keats did not die peacefully, he was in agony, denied opium for his pain by his doctors, fearing he would intentionally overdose,  they offered him no respite, forcing him to suffer at the end.  He had moved to Rome in his final months hoping the climate would help cure him, but his disease was too far progressed to prevent his death.  

Keats is a great example its not quantity but quality that is the lasting legacy of a poet.  He wrote poetry for only six years.   In his life time only about 200 copies of his three volumes of poetry were sold.   Yet, Keats has gone on to become immortalized as one of the great English poets because of the sheer beauty of his work.   

He himself doubted his poetry’s staying power, in part because of his limited publishing success.  In a letter to Fanny Brawne a year before his death he wrote “I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty of all things…”   Keats’ work became loved by generations of readers,  due in part to Shelly and Hunt’s admiration keeping his work in front of the public through their ongoing tributes and support after his death.  Keat’s poetry is an example that great lyric poetry never goes out of style.  Beauty remains beautiful when it is created for the pure artistic pleasure of the writer. 

Shelley penned and published Adonais in the year following Keats death and it brought a wider audience and interest to Keats work that would build and build throughout the remainder of the 19th century.   Keats wrote sonnets in a style and at a time when lyric poetry was revered. 

I  believe that if Keats were alive today, his sonnets would garner attention for their sheer beauty, but he might find his publishing success might not be that dissimilar to what he experienced 200 years ago.  So it is ironic that modern tastes have moved wide of his mark, and yet it would be interesting to estimate how much money publishers have made publishing Keats poetry while it has been in the public domain?  I’d wager its a very large sum.  There’s something that feels like a tear in the cosmic universe about publishers benefiting handsomely from poets long dead. 

In a recent trip to my Barnes and Noble I stopped by the poetry section and was disappointed that I could not find a single new book of poetry that interested me, the current tastes of publishers running to one or two lines of free verse confessions with stick figure illustrations that look more like memes to my eyes and ears than poetry.  Is that the attention span of readers these days for poetry?   Maybe the pendulum will swing so far towards simplicity that it will start swinging back towards the beauty of more complex lyric poetry again.  Maybe the beauty of Keats will inspire a new generation of readers to reach further into their imaginations, to expect more of writers, publishers and of ourselves in the poetic vision of our modern world. 


Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats

(An Excerpt)

by Percy Bysshe Shelley
 
XXXIX
       Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
       He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
       ‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
       With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
       And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
       Invulnerable nothings. We decay
       Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
       Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.
 
XL
       He has outsoar’d the shadow of our night;
       Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
       And that unrest which men miscall delight,
       Can touch him not and torture not again;
       From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
       He is secure, and now can never mourn
       A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain;
       Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceas’d to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.

There Is A Journey From Me To You

Margaret Walker Alexander (1915 – 1998)

“The poetry of people comes from the deep recesses of our unconscious, the irrational and the collective body of our ancestral memories.”

Margaret Walker

The Struggle Staggers Us

by Margaret Walker

Our birth and death are easy hours like sleep
and food and drink. The struggle staggers us
for bread, for pride, for simple dignity.
And this is more than fighting to exist,
more than revolt and war and human odds.
There is a journey from Me to You.
There is a journey from You to Me.
A union of the two strange worlds must be.

Ours is a struggle from a too warm bed,
too cluttered with a patience full of sleep.
Out of this blackness we must struggle forth:
from want of bread, of pride, of dignity.
Struggle between the morning and the night,
this marks our years, this settle too, our plight.


Kahlo _1

Frida Kahlo Self Portrait. 

Sonnet in Primary Colors

by Rita Dove

This is for the woman with one black wing
perched over her eyes: lovely Frida, erect
among parrots, in the stern petticoats of the peasant,
who painted herself a present–
wildflowers entwining the plaster corset
her spine resides in the romance of mirrors.

Each night she lay down in pain and rose
to her celluloid butterflies of her Beloved Dead,
Lenin and Marx and Stalin arrayed at the footstead.
And rose to her easel, the hundred dogs panting
like children along the graveled walks of the garden, Diego’s
love a skull in the circular window
of the thumbprint searing her immutable brow.

Change This Bloody Thing

Marcus Garvey (1887 – 1940)

“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity.”

Marcus Garvey

White and Black

by Marcus Garvey

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.  


Village Blues

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.

This Woman Twirling

Sonia Sanchez

“The most fundamental truth to be told in any art form, as far as blacks are concerned, is that America is killing us.”

Sonia Sanchez

For Sister Gwen Brooks

Sonia Sanchez – 1934-

 

you tell the stars
don’t be jealous of her light
you tell the ocean,
you call out to Olukun,
to bring her always to
safe harbor,
for she is a holy one
this woman twirling
her emerald lariat
you tell the night
to move gently
into morning so she’s
not startled,
you tell the morning
to ease her into a water
fall of dreams
for she is a holy one
restringing her words
from city to city
so that we live and
breathe and smile and
breathe and love and
breathe her…
this Gwensister called life.


Sonia Sanchez, a leader in the Black Studies movement over the past 50 years, is a poet, playwright, professor and activist.  During the early 1960’s Sanchez was focused on racial equality, but as the violence of the 1960’s progressed she became more and more influenced by the ideas of Malcolm X, and the concepts around a separatist, independent black movement as a place of empowerment was needed among the black community.  Sanchez became an early pioneer in the emerging field of Black Studies, including developing classes on African American women’s literature and social justice.

Sanchez has published extensively as a poet, pushing new boundaries like the 1970 book  We a BaddDDD People, in which her love of African American language is the foundation of her poetic style.  She has written poetry for adults and children and is fond of haiku.  An important scholar and teacher, Sanchez had a lengthy teaching career and has won numerous awards for her writing. 

Sanchez was briefly married to Ethridge Knight in the 1960’s, with whom she had two sons.  Sanchez’s poetry is deeply influenced by  her experiences of motherhood, both as a mother and as a daughter, shaped in part from the loss of her own Mother when she was two in childbirth, and then her maternal Grandmother who was raising her when she was 6.   Sanchez also has a daughter from her first marriage. 

 


For Malcolm, A Year After

by Ethridge Knight (1931 – 1991)

Compose for Red a proper verse;
Adhere to foot and strict iamb;
Control the burst of angry words
Or they might boil and break the dam.
Or they might boil and overflow
And drench me, drown me, drive me mad.
So swear no oath, so shed no tear,
And sing no song blue Baptist sad.
Evoke no image, stir no flame,
And spin no yarn across the air.
Make empty anglo tea lace words—
Make them dead white and dry bone bare.
 
Compose a verse for Malcolm man,
And make it rime and make it prim.
The verse will die—as all men do—
but not the memory of him!
Death might come singing sweet like C,
Or knocking like the old folk say,
The moon and stars may pass away,
But not the anger of that day.

Now I Am Dry Bones

Richard Wright (1908 – 1960)

“Poetry aims for an economy of truth––loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions––beautiful writing rarely is. I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my rationalisations. Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Haiku: This Other World

by Richard Wright


Why did this spring wood 
grow so silent when I came?
What was happening?


That frozen star there, 
or this one on the water, – 
Which is more distant?


Richard Wright was an essayist and novelist that championed civil rights throughout his career.   Author of the novel Native Son, he was a mentor and inspiration to many black writers including James Baldwin.  Wright’s own experience in America was not one of opportunity, but continued oppression.  In 1947 he moved to France to escape American omnipresent racism.   During the 1950’s he worked on the African Liberation movement in Ghana and continued to write.  His later works includes essays and novels.  Given that poetry was only a small fraction of his published work in his lifetime, it is a bit ironic that it is his poetry that has garnered the most attention since his death.  Wright wrote more than 4,000 Haiku, which his daughter lovingly compiled and published in 1998 volume titled; This Other World.    Wright died in Paris at the age of 52.  

Wright infused his essays with poetic language, something Ta-Nehisi Coates espouses.  Coates thoughtful writing of difficult truths lend themselves to a poetic touch, not for flourish, but for directness of story telling and depth of meaning. Ta-Nehisi Coates video below is an interesting listen on how he started as a poet and how that has influenced his journalistic style. 

Between The World And Me

by Richard Wright

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled
suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly
oaks and elms
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting
themselves between the world and me….

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly
upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt
finger accusingly at the sky.
There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and
a scorched coil of greasy hemp;
A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,
and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood.
And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,
butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a
drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick;
Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the
lingering smell of gasoline.
And through the morning air the sun poured yellow
surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity
for the life that was gone.
The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by
icy walls of fear–
The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the
grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods
poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the
darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived:
The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves
into my bones.
The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into
my flesh.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and
cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red
upon her lips,
And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that
my life be burned….

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth
into my throat till I swallowed my own blood.
My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my
black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as
they bound me to the sapling.
And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from
me in limp patches.
And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into
my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony.
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a
baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs
Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot
sides of death.
Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in
yellow surprise at the sun….

Sail Through This To That

Lucille Clifton (1936 – 2010)

I don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.

Lucille Clifton

Blessing the Boats

by Lucille Clifton

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your
innocence
sail through this to that

Lucille Clifton had the gift of sparse words imparting vast meaning.   Her poetry is straightforward yet complex.   Discovered by Langston Hughes through a mutual friend in New York, she succeeded on the strength of her talent and bright spirit.  Clifton was an educator, children’s book author, poet, engaging speaker and civil rights leader.  Clifton advanced ideas of equity through her art and educational leadership.  

There is a motherly savviness to some of Clifton’s poetry that reassures me, good naturedly cajoles, lulls me into surprises and insight, while letting me wander about breezily in her words.  I marvel at her imagery and her welcoming, supportive spirit.   

Blessing The Boats, the title of her award winning anthology, is a remarkable poem in that it has no moorings of where you feel required as a reader to start or stop.   I can chose to see it as a loop that I can plug into almost anywhere. 

Sometimes I like to read a poem backwards.  Not all poets work lend themselves to this, but it can be an interesting technique to enter a poem and the poets ideas in a different way.   By reading it in reverse sequence, it allows me to focus on individual lines and not worry about trying to understand the whole of poem. Try reading Clifton’s Blessing the Boats from the bottom to the top, and see what rises on your internal wavelengths.  What line sticks out in your mind?  Is it a different line than you noticed the first time reading it through? 



“Oh Antic God”

by Lucille Clifton

oh antic God
return to me
my mother in her thirties
leaned across the front porch
the huge pillow of her breasts
pressing against the rail
summoning me in for bed.
 
I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.
 
I can barely recall her song
the scent of her hands
though her wild hair scratches my dreams
at night.   return to me, oh Lord of then
and now, my mother’s calling,
her young voice humming my name.

So It Shall Be Done

Martin Luther King Memorial, Washington D. C.

 

First Fight Then Fiddle

by Gwendolyn Brooks

First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering,
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.


On a recent hike in the north woods in January, an inch of freshly fallen powdery cold snow having covered up the activities of its woodland habitants the previous evening, my partner and I came across a stand of cedar trees, interspersed with spindly hardwoods, and noticed a lot of recent debris under the tree, some animal droppings mixed bark and small pieces of cedar needles scattered about in the fresh snow.   It made me stop and think about what animal was causing this in the past 8 hours.  When hiking on icy, rocky trails in the winter you spend a lot of time looking down to make sure you don’t mis-step, and noticing what was before me on the ground made me look up.  There right above me were the tell tale feeding signs on several trees of a porcupine and given the recent nature of both the snowfall and the residue on the ground, it was clear the porcupine was somewhere near. 

A pro tip in trying to find a porcupine in 50 foot tall cedar trees, don’t stand underneath the thick canopy and look straight up.   Instead back up 10 or 20 yards and scan not just the trunk but the outer branches.  My partner soon spotted our bristly friend, sleeping way out on the end of small forked branch about 40 feet in the air.   We stepped back even a little further for a better view, the sun making the porcupine’s needles glow golden in the afternoon air.  We watched as the porcupine woke up a few minutes later, probably listening in on our conversation, scratched  its side and made its way to the top of the tree for a snack.  It had been over 20 years since I had seen a porcupine in the woods and it was a pleasant way to connect with the broader natural world on Martin Luther King Day. 

  “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”

Martin Luther King

After a long January, I am looking forward to getting back into the groove of mixing up authors over the next month and focusing on poets of color during black history month.   The poetry baton today has shifted from Lowell to Brooks, born the same year, their personal histories could not be more different, Brooks thriving in adversity and Lowell drowning in opportunity. 


 Martin Luther King Jr

by Gwendolyn Brooks

A man went forth with gifts.

He was a prose poem.
He was a tragic grace.
He was a warm music.

He tried to heal the vivid volcanoes.
His ashes are
reading the world.

His Dream still wishes to anoint
the barricades of faith and of control.

His word still burns the center of the sun
above the thousands and the
hundred thousands.

The word was Justice. It was spoken.

So it shall be spoken.
So it shall be done.

 

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.

I Would Change My Trueself If I Could

Robert Lowell

It’s a completely powerful and serious book, as good as anything in prose or poetry written by a ‘beat’ writer, and one of the most alive books written by any American for years. I don’t see how it could be considered immoral.

Robert Lowell (Speaking about criticism of The Dolphin)

Critic

by Robert Lowell

Is my doubt, last flicker of the fading thing,
an honorable subject for conversation?
Do you know how you have changed from the true you?
I would change my trueself if I could:
I am doubtful . . . uncertain my big steps.
I fear I leave many holes for a quick knife
to take the blown rose from its wooden thorns.
A critic should save her sharpest tongue for praise.
Only blood-donors retain the gift for words;
blood gives being to everything that lives,
even to exile where tried spirits sigh,
doing nothing the day because they think
imagination matures from doing nothing
hoping for choice, the child of vacillation.


Reading Hamilton’s biography about the final 5 years of Lowell’s life I felt only pity for Lowell and all who loved him.   It had to be heartbreaking to watch a man with such intellect and creativity completely lose his mind, his spirit, his physicality.  Blackwood couldn’t bear it, couldn’t stand to be in his presence when Lowell would enter a maniac phase.   I think he agreed to lithium in part so that he could blunt the symptoms and maintain some semblance of home life with Blackwood, Sheridan and her daughters the first few years.  But that decision had to come with some sacrifice to his creativity as well. 

Blackwood bought an estate called Millgate shortly after Sheridan’s arrival.  They also had an apartment in London.   Lowell loved the idea of being English gentry if not outright nobility, even though the Blackwood lineage was Irish.  It was part of the fantasy of rebirth that Lowell was seeking by coming to London.   There were happy times at Millgate, punctuated by episodes of anxiety, depression and mania. I get the rather confusing depiction from Hamilton that Lowell lived apart from Blackwood as much as he did with her and the children during their short marriage because of his mental illness and tendency of ADHD hyper focus on different projects. Lowell was a moth constantly in search of a new flame. 

Lowell’s private life continued to be upended in the early 1970’s by multiple losses, chief among them Berryman and Pound in 1972 and Ransom in 1974.  Lowell’s physical presence seemed to shrink in conjunction with each of these deaths, as his literary crowd of friends and colleagues and supporters dwindled about him. 

By 1975, Lowell could feel his maniac attacks coming on as a physical sensation creeping up his spine.  Blackwood describes one such incident where she took Lowell by train to his doctor in hopes of heading it off with an injection of valium and in the short interval between two train stops Lowell went from being lucid, though highly animated, to talking completely incoherently and out of touch with reality.   These episodes terrified her and she refused to allow him to be around the children when he was in such a state.  His doctors told her during this particular incident that it took extreme doses of valium to pacify Lowell and get him to relax, the doses given may have proved fatal to other patients, so intense was Lowell’s state of mind and physical aberration, one doctor described him like a “bull” in his ability to be nearly unaffected by the drugs at normally proscribed levels.  

By 1976, Lady Blackwood’s patience and sanity frayed and the marriage was over.  She sold Millgate and moved her and the children to Ireland, in part for tax purposes to save money realizing Lowell was unlikely to be able to adequately contribute to support the lifestyle they were living and in part to make it unlikely that Lowell would be able to follow them.   It worked.   Lowell realized he had mucked up his life with Blackwood in abandoning Hardwick and his daughter Harriet and began begging Lizzie if he could return to her side in New York as the one attempt to live in Ireland was a disaster.  So pathetic was Lowell’s situation that Hardwick didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no either, realizing wisely, that Lowell needed some little ribbon of hope to hold on to for the moment, while he/they figured something out.

Lowell died Sept 12, 1977 in a taxi cab on his way from the airport to visit Hardwick in New York.  He had arrived earlier that day with a few possessions to discuss the possibility of a return to New York to live in a spare bedroom of Hardwick’s in New York City.  When his taxi pulled up to the building the driver found him unresponsive in the back seat and thought he was asleep. Hardwick was summoned by the doorman and she knew he was dead the moment she climbed in as the taxi drove them to the hospital. Later, when she went through his things he had brought with him, she found he had been clutching a wrapped oil painting by Freud when he died, a portrait of Blackwood. Lowell was grasping at straws, his anxiety tearing him to pieces, torn between two lovers right to the very end.   He was 60 years old, his frequent predictions of premature death having come true.

The world is absolutely out of control now and is not going to be save by any reason or unreason.” 

Robert Lowell

If you are a numerologist and believe there are signs in numbers, then Lowell’s two Pulitzers, which bookended his career, might be more than chance; Lord Weary’s Castle in 1947 and The Dolphin in 1974.   I have never thought about how the Pulitzer prize for poetry is awarded until this month, not quite understanding where other’s saw the genius in Lowell’s writing.  The Pulitzer prize for poetry is awarded based on a panel of five individuals, apparently nameless each year, whose simple majority vote on submissions from the previous year determines the winner or they can decide to award it to a new work from a poet that was not entered with a 75% vote from the group.  The prize is awarded each year at a luncheon by the President of Columbia University in May. 

In looking through the list of distinguished winners from 1970 to 2020,  it is a remarkable group, both for who is included and who is not among its ranks of honorees.  However, in that 50 year period, I highly doubt no work received more scathingly negative reviews than Lowell’s The Dolphin.  Adrienne Rich chief among them who eviscerated The Dolphin for seeing it for what it was, being neither literature or thoughtful.   In my opinion, Lowell’s final Pulitzer was a turning point, in challenging the white male power structure of who gets enshrined in the gilded halls of literature.   It took a while but the absurdity of Lowell’s recognition for The Dolphin rang like a bell for the remainder of the 1970’s well into the 1980’s.  I don’t know if the Pulitzer committee finally came to their senses and realized that maybe severe mental illness ought to be taken into consideration for who wins the award.  For whatever reason, that bell that was rung by literary criticism of its time, began to resonate and  caused white male classical poets to sink into greater and greater obscurity, for good reason and for good riddance.  The sonnet fading along with them over the past 50 years, except in the hands of a few poets of color who have managed to imbue it with greater complexity, around themes of social justice and restore the sonnet with some bit of dignity it might still deserve.    

So why do I write sonnets?   Ouch, its a tougher question after spending a month with Lowell; a serious question I need to ask myself again.   I have always known that this project and my sonnet obsession would eventually run its course.  My intent has been to carry this project forward for three more years and end it in December of 2023, as a way to fully explore something, deeply, uncomfortably, trans-formatively; to push myself beyond the first barrier, the second, the third, etc., until I lose count and the effort is the joy and joy is the work.  I am still committed to pushing onward.  I believe there are still some sonnets hiding beneath my finger tips, in my subconscious, waiting to come forth when my muse whispers in my ear that are worthy of putting to paper and worthy of the process and structure, even if they are written only for my eyes.   But I know I have hit the apex of this journey and the question is now, what will I do with this understanding on the long slow descent I still have planned?  How will it effect my creativity in what lies ahead in my exploration of writing in 14 lines? 

Who are my true role models in poetry 8 years into this project?  It isn’t Lowell, it isn’t Berryman, it isn’t Pound, or Schwartz, or Ransom or Merrill or Tate or Bishop or Plath.   So who is it?  Next January it is still my intent to explore Rita Dove, Tracey K. Smith, Terrance Hayes  and several other poets of color who have taken the sonnet in fresh directions over the past 40 years and breathed into it new life, with the idea that by doing a deeper dive into their poetry it will unfold interesting ideas in my conscious and subconscious.  And it is my hope that by contrasting the contributions to poetry by Lowell in 14 lines with these poets that it will point me to some semblance of relevance that still lingers in the sonnet form. 

Today’s two sonnets I have shared both come from The Dolphin.   Both beg the question is great poetry based on emotional honesty?   Or is nothing ever actually “true” in poetry?   The process of writing is it a lie we tell ourselves in that moment a word is written that our thoughts matter beyond the scrap of paper they are written on or is it the road we owned for only a brief wonderful moment?


Marriage?

by Robert Lowell

“I think of you every minute of the day,
I love you every minute of the day;
you gone is hollow, bored, unbearable.
I feel under some emotional anesthetic
unable to plan or think or write or feel;
mais ça ira, these things will go, I feel
in an odd way against appearances,
things will come out right with us, perhaps.
As you say, we got across the Godstow Marsh,
reached Cumberland and its hairsbreadth Roman roads,
climbed Hadrian’s Wall, and scared the stinking Pict.
Marriage? That’s another story.  We saw
the diamond glare of morning on the tar.
For a minute had the road as if we owned it.”

I Feel I Know What You Have Worked Through

Robert Lowell

If youth is a defect, it is one we outgrow too soon.

Robert Lowell

For John Berryman I

by Robert Lowell

I feel I know what you have worked through, you
know what I have worked through – we are words,
John, we used the language as if we made it.
Luck threw up the coin, and the plot swallowed,
monster yawning for its mess of potage.
Ah privacy, as if we had preferred mounting
some rock by a mossy stream and counting the sheep
to fame that renews the soul but not the heart.
The out-tide flings up wonders: rivers, linguini,
beercans, mussels, bloodstreams; how gaily the gallop
to catch the ebb – Herbert, Thoreau, Pascal,
born to die with the enlarged hearts of athletes at forty –
Abraham sired with less expectancy,
heaven his friend, the earth his follower.


History, published in 1973, contains 360 separate 14 line poems. I don’t know what to make of them.  I have sat down and read them all, an accomplishment that likely puts me in rare company of poetry readers these days. There are some I found captivating in the way a car crash can be captivating and forced me to head to Goggle to investigate references and think about them a bit more.  Others appear to be no more than drafts of  unfinished poems.  There are tributes to all his friends, fellow writers and writers he admired throughout his lifetime along with postcards of poems on almost every topic imaginable, written for reasons only known to Lowell.  It is an odd assemblage of stuff, feeling more like a writer’s notebook than a book of poetry.  I question if Lowell was not the figure in American Lit that he was at the time, whether all but a handful of the 360 would have ever been published.  What’s fascinating is it’s History in many ways that is the foundation of Lowell’s reputation as a confessional poet.  Yet, as an assemblage of work, it creates more questions in my mind than answers in terms of Lowell’s talents and state of mind when they were written. It feels to me like Lowell is drawing on his reputation from the past in its publishing, and less pushing the envelope forward on his talent as a poet.  Hamilton notes in his biography, that by 1968, Lowell was writing three to four 14 line poems a week.   At that pace of writing, it is obvious that there is not the careful construction and word-smithing, repeated editing that was a feature of his earlier work.  Gone is the craftsmanship of being a poet and in its place is speed dating, energy in its wild exuberance, but it can be hit or miss in the end result. 

In History, one gets the impression that writing and confessional poetry has become less a calling or a passion and more a cross to bear for Lowell.  He appears to be  compelled to bare all his scars, all his good, all his failings and his families failings before all, for the poetry to speak his truth.  It is not a good look.  Most middle aged men look better keeping their clothes on, particularly if you can afford a tailored suit in New York. 

John Berryman won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1965 for Dream Songs.  As a work that is a complete poetic vision of a lifetime, Dream Songs is remarkable.  It is cohesive in the way Berryman evolved his poetic vision and has continuity in the narrative that the poems express in an arc of an interconnected story throughout the course of the book.  It is is both autobiographical and fictional in ways that offer a connection between writer and reader that in my mind is masterful.  And it has a sense of humor and a sense of purpose that appears to be completely lacking from Lowell’s History.   There is no comparison between the two books in my opinion. History feels to me like a bit of professional jealousy, where Lowell was trying to play catch up to Berryman.  There are poems in History I admire, but as a whole it is a hot mess in my opinion.   For that reason, it is impossible to only pick out two poems to share from it, out of the 360 poems in total, and pretend I am representing the breadth of the ideas contained within it. Good or bad, pick I have.  

History, is but one of three volumes of poetry, Lowell published in 1973.   To say one comes before the other would be inaccurate, as the writing contained in all three were interconnected.  Over the next several days, I’ll touch on the other two (For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin), and summarize the events in Lowell’s life during the 1970s. 


Two Walls

(1968, Martin Luther King’s Murder)

by Robert Lowell

Somewhere a white wall faces a white wall,
one wakes the other, the other wakes the first,
each burning with the other’s borrowed splendor –
the walls, awake, are forced to go on talking,
their color looks much alike, two shadings of white,
each living in the shadow of the other.
How fine our distinctions when we cannot choose!
Don Giovanni can’t stick his sword through stone,
two contracting, white stone walls – their pursuit
of happiness and his, coincident. . . .
At this point of civilization, this point of the world,
the only satisfactory companion we
can imagine is death – this morning, skin lumping in my throat,
I lie here, heavily breathing, the soul of New York.