Tag Archives: poetry

Frost was here


Spray-painted verse appeared the other week on a sidewalk near work. I took a pic and planned to look it up later. I remembered the photo today and the source came up quickly: the end of Robert Frost’s “Reluctance.”

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Wonderful — and what a mystery. Cool Disco Bob! How often does Frost get graffiti? Who’s the writer? A graffitist with a MFA and a broken heart?

Who’s the intended recipient? An NPR staffer? A resident of the next-door apartments? They make up most of the people walking that way down the block. Are there other verses in the neighborhood? I hate to see graffiti in a beautifully rebuilt block. But I also wonder if any others find this mystery intriguing and a little warming. Does good graffiti makes good neighbors?

Four poems for tonight’s rain


It just finished raining. Pouring. Barely thundering. Barely lightening. At least where I was, it was all about the rain. There may be a few drops still falling, but a drainspout above my apartment porch makes it hard to tell. Above is my contribution to this evening’s sky and rainbow pictures.

So… here are four poems about rain and water that I’ve loved recently.

Kazim Ali’s “Rain” because what a glorious opening. “With thick strokes of ink the sky fills with rain. / Pretending to run for cover but secretly praying for more rain.” With a minimum of words, the poem grows more intense.

Brooklyn Copeland’s “Prayer’s End” because the stutter-step of the lines mimics drops as the poem pursues nature and finds nature leading it back through time and what time inflects. “The wind / speaks fluent / rain.”

Don Patterson’s “The Wave” because anthropomorphizing so often falls short, and this rolls as smoothly and powerfully as what it captures. “For months I’d moved across the open water / like a wheel under its skin….”

E.E. Cummings’ “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” (lack of space, his, I think) because the poem’s end may be familiar, “nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands,” but the journey to that point is one I’d forgotten. We usually think of the poet’s twisting fun. Here, passion rules.

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

Ten poems for summer because it will be 97 degrees tomorrow

Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility–” because you think you know a poem and then read it after not seeing it for a while and you are surprised by the breeze across the field and the bright light from above that isn’t as hot as you expect or deserve. You are saved. You are not the 97 degrees.

Beth Weaver-Kreider’s “Pebbles” because when you went to the beach you ran into the water on its rougher days, harbingers of the hurricane approaching you might say later though earlier you hadn’t seen weather reports and the storm might not have been responsible at all, and waves threw you down as if to throw you out and filled your trunk pockets with pebbles and their shell cousins and sand, ground like the waves sought to grind you, you big-footed interloping beast.  But you love them anyway.

Maxine W. Kumin’s “Together” because this poem tells the rest of the fantasia above, after the waves win over you but your story doesn’t end. Why should it? “The water closing / over us and the / going down is all.  / Gills are given.  / We convert in a / town of broken hulls / and green doubloons.” And it turns out your story is a love story. Did you know?

Ron Padgett’s “The Love Cook” because short and simple is how love sometimes is when you’re not smashing about in the ocean and if you don’t allow yourself the time or deletion of pretense or vantage points, then you have some thinking to do. Or not some thinking. Or some not-thinking. Forget where you were. You have serious not-thinking to do.

Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” because when you initiate your not-thinking, when you’ve disposed of your vantage point and the horizon itself vanishes, you begin to work from the inside out and love is not an activity nor an observation but the first fire of yourself and then you have choices about what to do with yourself but fire can do most anything.

Stacie Cassarino’s “Summer Solstice” because a question like “Where is the evidence I will learn / to be good at loving?” is a surprisingly good one for the longest day of the year, in which we realize more than the rest of them that we can never take full advantage of the day, 100% advantage, every-minute-of-sunlight advantage. The poem gives lines destined for a wall-hanging, e.g., “I am visiting my life with reckless plenitude.” But the previous line is “We measure the isopleths.” Screw you, wall-hanging!

(The word turns out to be perfect.)

David Mason’s “In the Mushroom Summer” because “the ineffectual panic of a squirrel” is not only my favorite line of the summer (maybe!) but also a very silly way to set up sadness and removal of sadness, which is cool.

Hailey Leithauser’s “Bad Sheep” because summer is not all sunny days and prat-falling squirrels and balanced examinations of self. Summer is also the worst. Like you. You are the worst, and there’s nothing you can about it until the poem ends or the day gives up. Tomorrow you can be the best. But today you are stuck with yourself and the day til it ends, unrelenting heat not enticed by your offer of ice cream or air-conditioning or water.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ “truth” because it is too easy to think summer is just about summer. The seasons distill us in ways the days do not. The poem is about race and privilege, and no American summer is without either.

Linda Pastan’s “Eyes Only” because Pastan begins her poem, “Dear lost sharer / of silences” and no poem has hooked me so deeply this summer. I want to write you nearly every hour of the day and only infrequently find words, not specifically the right words, just words at all. I wish we shared the silences as Pastan means, with sharing in all its definitional splendor. Too often silence shares us, and words we churn for work beat their wings into numbing and injurious hums. I have higher expectations of summer.

Three that have jumped out from the new poet laureate

I haven’t read a ton of Charles Wright, but here are three of his poems that struck me enough in the past for me to mention them here. I always get the sense he would be a great person with whom to sit in woods as night falls.

Bedtime Story.” First lines: “The generator hums like a distant ding an sich. / It’s early evening, and time, like the dog it is, / is hungry for food….”

Oxford Dictionary, or whatever that means online, definition: “(In Kant’s philosophy) a thing as it is in itself, not mediated through perception by the senses or conceptualization, and therefore unknowable.”

Littlefoot, 14.” First lines: “The great mouth of the west hangs open, / mountain incisors beginning to bite / Into the pink flesh of the sundown.”

Consolation and the Order of the World.” First lines, capturing life here recently: “There is a certain hubris, / or sense of invulnerability, / That sends us packing / Whenever our focus drops a stop, or the flash fails.”

Five poems that remind us the current is not the permanent

Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun: “In the first part of my life with Sotatsu, he lived in a cell in a jail where the sun came south through the window on an avenue all its own where it was forced to stoop and stoop again until when it arrived at its little house it was hardly the sun at all, just a shabby old woman. Yet we were always looking for her, this sun, when she would come, always eager to have her meager presents, her thin delineations.”

Robert Frost,  writing a letter in 1913: “The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.”

These two quotes are the only two reasons I’ve dog-eared pages recently. The first is from late in this story, and the second is from late in this one.

I haven’t been focusing as much as I’d like. I’ve been working or packing all the time recently, one or the other. I’m getting ready to move, and tasks at the other end of the apartment are always calling, no matter at which end I may be. Work is kind of the same. These poems have broken through a bit and directed my focus outward, at least for short periods of time. Yes, they deserve better. They throw me off kilter in a way both scary and hopeful.

Son of Fog,” Dean Young.  Makes me think of being in San Francisco two or some  years ago, staring into a foggy cove and having no idea where life would go next. “What a mess. We stand at the edge / of a drop that doesn’t answer back,  / fog our only friend although it’s hell  / on shrimpboats.”

From “The Sonnagrams,” K. Silem Mohammad. He puts a Shakespearean sonnet into an anagram engine, then rearranges the text until it makes some sense again. I feel this way at the end of almost every week these days. Productive but scrambled. “A purple fist, a Federalist, a sunspot, / A bird that’s got a big big butt to study, / A guy named Toots, ten dumb galoots, a gunshot, / Die Fledermaus by good ol’ Strauss (my buddy)….”

You’re,” Sylvia Palth. For Plath, happiness looking at her baby before her eventual final sadness. “Clownlike, happiest on your hands, / Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled, / Gilled like a fish.” And then we flip the journey…

Epilogue,” Robert Lowell. Starts with sadness, ends with a higher calling, within sight of happiness? In life, sadness haunted him, but he never gave in.  “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.”

Song,” John Fuller. Naturalism of the face. “You don’t listen to what I say.  / When I lean towards you in the car / You simply smile and turn away.” A lover? God? Life? Take your pick, your perspective. Take the smile, at least.

Winter poetry: The goon of the season never leaves, but still…

You hadn’t seen the mobster’s girlfriend. Tasty,
But are you sure her goon has gone away?
It’s not so wise to come on overhasty
In the Grünewald Café.

Not since Marty Robbins’ El Paso has making a pass at a dangerous man’s lady been so much fun in verse. “In the Grünewald Café” by Alfred Corn is the kind of poem that gets you through the winter that never ends. That’s what it’s all about at this point in the season, yes? Survival? A little drama by which to keep warm? So, let us review the varieties of warmth in verse.

These varieties, of course, come in poems that have captured me recently.

Warmth as challenge. “The Forms of Resistance” by Emily Berry.

Is this mountain all rock, or are there any villages on it?
These are some of the things I said to her.

We bake because it is a way of overcoming.
In the journey of zest, I see myself.

Warmth as complex fuel. “Scene” by Maxine Chernoff.

What the body might guess,
what the hand requests,
what language assumes
becomes amulet

Warmth as desperation. “Sweet Virginia” by Michael Robbins.

Don’t worry about the environment.
Let it kill us if  it can.
I give a tiny tinker’s damn.
I put the ox behind the cart.
Consume away my snow-blind heart.

Warmth as pain. “Roses” by Marion McCready.

If you listen carefully you can hear the vibrations,
the heart drone of their petal jaw-harps.

Warmth as the moment of death. “The Break” by Franz Wright.

in the cerebral
combs, unprecedented
mass desertions, solar

Warmth as fighting to stay alive, I think. “Hand” by Robert Pinsky.

The Brush-off, the Fig, the Finger.
Backhand brushing the chin for
Fuck you, I hereby pull your beard.

Warmth as unexpected spring. “There Are Birds Here” by Jamaal May.

There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
between buildings
and buildings. No.

None of these poems are sunshine and happiness.  But in the long gray cold, you burn what you can and stuff the rest into your coat pockets.

Invigorating lines needed

Alice Fulton, I don’t know whether you jump out of bed every morning like the monster underneath gave you a hotfoot, but your finished works turn out that way. Your three poems in October’s Poetry magazine are what I needed this season. I’m a little behind on life, you see, but I’m catching up.

Fulton’s trio:

1. “Personally Engraved.” Opening lines: “There are many opportunities here for unrequited friendship, / the offer letter said. All you need is a chain saw and die grinder.” A truly terrific love poem for chilly times.

2. “Make It New.” It’s nearly impossible for me to decide my favorite part of this poem. Maybe it’s: “It will be new / whether you make it new / or not. It will be full of neo- / shadows. Full of then — both past and next, / iridescent with suspense.” Or maybe it’s: “New is a hooligan.”

3. “You Own It.” Opening lines: “For your birthday, I’m learning to pop champagne corks / with a cossack sword when all you asked for was world peace.” The ensuing chase with that sword is gloriously unrelenting.

Check them all out. So good. I’m now Googling dozens more of Fulton’s poems and remembering how her April New Yorker poem, which I tried to blog about here, is the one that’s left me  most disappointed this year in the magazine’s paywall. It’s just unfair sometimes. Set good verse free.

Meanwhile, here are other works that have been giving me similar feelings recently, feelings of fire and randomness and freedom. Some are from the same October Poetry issue (a great one, in my mind, or at least a great one for me right now).  Some are from other sources. All are night-rockers.

  • Lines for painting on grains of rice” by Craig Arnold. In the middle of it, nut graf-ly: “Love is like velocity we feel the speeding up / and the slowing down otherwise not at all / the more steady the more it feels like going nowhere / my love I want to go nowhere with you….”
  • Pitahaya” by Craig Arnold. So close yet so far.
  • Most People Would Rather Not” by Hannah Gamble.  In the middle of it, a couple more fathoms down: “I have to admit, sometimes / I want nothing more than to be lying on the bottom / of an unimpressive river.”
  • Thunderbride” by Mark Bibbins.  Opening lines: “My throat is full of sparklers / making me a lighthouse / for a loveship that can fly….”
  • Caedmon” by Denise Levertov. “All others talked as if / talk were a dance. / Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet / would break the gliding ring.”
  • The Afterlife: Letter to Sam Hamill” by Hayden Carruth. It’s a letter that’s so friendly and familiar you’re going to wish you were pen-pals with Carruth and, upon Googling, you’re going to be sad he’s dead.
  • Before” by Rae Armantrout. Breaks your heart. Or mine at least.
  • Hand” by Robert Pinsky. Great journey, awesome ending.

Last, we have “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye and “To the New Year” by W.S. Merwin. I don’t know who invented New Year, but I’d like to shake that person’s hand. One week just like the last — but better.

Transposing memories is okay

Why? The December issue of Poetry gives five arguments I like.

1. Ango Mlinko, “Epic.” Because when you are somewhere amazing alone, you can think of bringing someone there someday. “It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with / You I’d like to take to bed of cyclamen….”

2. Louise Gluck, “Visitors from Abroad.” Because when you write as an aware first-person, you write as many first people. “I write about you all the time, I said aloud. / Every time I say ‘I,’ it refers to you.”

3. Emilia Phillips, “Saul Bass Redesigns the First Man.” Because the best movie posters are the pop earworms of the eye, you can disassemble your existence, under the right light, as easily as Bass a film.

4. Tomas Q. Morin, “Love Train.” Because the world of repetition inside an overnight train is more transpository (can that be a word?) than any other mode of transportation, an overnight train cradles love.

5. Merrill Gilfillan, “Alfresco” (an essay not a poem). Because an up always exists, new worlds are okay. “Facing any landscape demands bearings, finding a footing, and then a bearing. Which way is up, for example.”

Masters of verse in a small, beautiful room


In her free time, Lori helps manage Rosanne Cash’s website — newly (and beautifully) relaunched. When she heard Cash was coming to the Library of Congress to talk with the U.S. poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, we had to go. The best parts came when the two compared notes on writing and editing. (I’m a sucker for when showing beats telling.) Steps from the Library’s main reading hall, the room was ornate but small and colonial by federal scales, holding fewer than a hundred people. I felt huge feelings for my city and what tucks away in welcome corners, there in the small room.

Reading back and forth, up and down, going somewhere

Barring the unexpected, we’re due to launch a pair of big projects at work tonight. In the past couple weeks, running the final tests and making the final pre-launch changes, life has been dramatically up and down. Moods have been all over the place. Confidences have died and lived again. Dishes and laundry have piled up at home as inboxes and bug reports have taken up hours at the desk nearby (in times when home beaten work at all).

Since code freeze on Friday, I’ve been pulling my self back together. While the snow has made tonight’s push a little more complicated, it’s made this morning and afternoon a cozy and maybe necessary time of recuperation. After all, when the code goes lives, that’s when life gets crazy again. After tonight, the work days aren’t going to quiet down again for a week or so.

So, the poems catching my attention these days are the ones that go back and forth, up and down. I’m working through old issues of Poetry, and the May issue is a goldmine (a snowfall?) of such verse. Back and forth on grit? By A.E. Stallings, “The Rosehead Beauty.” Or back and forth on focus and wholeness? By Peter Cole, “Song of the Shattering Vessels.” How about back and forth on work? By Peter Cole, “Quatrains for a Calling.” And back and forth on nature? By Jessica Greenbaum, “The Storm-struck Tree.”

Then there’s a combination of poems at the end of the issue’s new work. Three from Kay Ryan — “Party Ship,” “Album” and the heart-rending “Still Start” — lead into James Hoch’s “Round.” I’m not even going into details. Read the four in a row. Consuming them set inside the Poetry Foundation website, as minimal as it is, isn’t going to give you as much of a blow as receiving them on richly beige and empty magazine pages. But I bet a bit of the effect will still arrive. The string is the most brutal, head-first run into a brickwall as I’ve ever seen a magazine execute. That some editor has constructed such an experience is a glorious (brutal) back and forth.

Put another way: A concussion is awful, but the seeing-stars part is nice.

Lastly, here are four poems relatively new to me. They are more upbeat overall, or at least don’t dive as far to sadness. They’ve each confronted me on their own but assembled a collective identity in my browser tabs. They are late fall, aware of the gray but looking forward to the warm, whether inside or in seasons to come. Even the “Landscapes” poem, cold and dry, sets up a realization of being more than the sum of our parts, more than the sum of our emails, issues and hours spent inching towards a goal.

“Snow would be the easy / way out — that softening / sky like a sigh of relief / at finally being….” By Rita Dove, “November for Beginners.”

“Gettin’ together to smile an’ rejoice, / An’ eatin’ an’ laughin’ with folks of your choice; / An’ kissin’ the girls an’ declarin’ that they / Are growin’ more beautiful day after day….” By Edgar Albert Guest, “Thanksgiving.”

“Someday I’d like to go / to Atlantic City with you / not to gamble (just being / there with you is enough / of a gamble) but to ride / the high white breakers / have a Manhattan and listen….” By David Lehman, “May 2.”

“Between water reading itself a story / with no people in it / and fields, illegible, and a sky / that promises nothing, / least of all what will happen now….” By Vona Groarke, “The Landscapes of Vilhelm Hammershøi.”