Strange garment

Like many poetry aficionados, I was grieved the hear about the death of W. S. Merwin, among the last of the great poets born in the annus mirabilis 1926–1927, which also gave the world Snodgrass, Ammons, Merrill, Creeley, Ginsberg, Wagoner, O’Hara, Bly, and Wright, among others. I probably first encountered Merwin’s work in college—he didn’t appear in the Sound and Sense anthology that informed by high school days. That’s not entirely surprising, given the emphasis on form and meter, but it remains a embarrassing oversight.

I recall writing an essay as a freshman on this small poem (which has stuck in memory ever since):


Your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

It turns out my reading was different than everyone else’s. It all hinges on the word “through.” To my mind, that implies a complete passage: when you go through a tunnel, it’s understood that you come out the other side, or when a camel passes through the eye of a needle, it’s understood that he emerges on the other side, if he passes through at all. So for me, the thread going through the needle meant that one end went through the hole, but the rest followed until it had all snaked through, leaving nothing behind. I wasn’t a very good seamstress, I suppose, and that had happened to me more than once in attempting to sew on a button. But to me, that made the poem all the more poignant and clever, as the stitches are literally the color of absence because they hold no thread—and therefore cannot hold anything together anymore. As I recall, my teacher didn’t buy it, but I still think such a reading is well within the realm of possibility.

Another poem from my college days that has stuck with me throughout the years:

Dead Hand

Temptations still nest in it like basilisks.
Hang it up till the rings fall.

I just love the brutality, the bathos, the cynicism, the utter lack of compassion, the whip-smart pivot from wonder to disdain. He presents a complete, singular vision of humanity in roughly the same amount of syllables as would make a haiku. Interestingly, Merwin lived out the latter part of his life in a place called Haiku, in Hawaii. That’s apt, insofar as his work often displayed an intense compression; but his work rarely strove to achieve the whimsy, serendipity, and pleasant shift in perspective we associate with haiku.

I recall the scandalous decision by Merwin not to award the Yale Younger Poets prize (in ‘97, I think). I later met one of the finalists that year, who did not have any kind words for a man who had nothing to lose by awarding the prize, but who chose to withhold it anyway. This poet subsequently went on to achieve considerable acclaim, including a Macarthur prize. But at the time, she really had no idea of who this Merwin character was. While I couldn’t defend his decision, I certainly did defend his poetry (often lumped in the “Deep Image” or “American Surrealist” schools). In particular, I raved on and on about The Lice, published in 1967 during the escalation of the Vietnam war, which heavily influenced the poetry of the time. This book sort of completed the transition away from punctuation. You’ll still find a few end stops, but those are rare. At first, I approached the lack of punctuation as sort of a gimmick, but I quickly understood what a powerful device it can be, stripping down language to its barest utterance. Many of his lines end with the completion of a thought or phrase, but many are enjambed–and the lack of punctuation really forces the reader to stop and backtrack to correctly follow the sentence. It can also impart a sense of simultaneity of thought, or a rushing together of disparate elements. Consider this poem (another that I committed to memory years ago):

Sunset in Winter

The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way.

The first lines all present a complete phrase; but the last line runs two phrases together. Consider how different it would sound if the final phrase were also brought down to its own line. It’s not just the lack of punctuation but the lack of pause or caesura that makes it sing.

Like other Deep Image poets (e.g., Wright), Merwin started out writing in a more traditional style, but abandoned it to forge his own poetics. Perhaps he felt that he scaffolding and embellishments of formal structure prevented him for reaching the true essence of a thing. Certainly, much of his work is elemental, with more than a few stones, birds, trees, and visits from a quasi-personified Death. This focus often allowed him to create fabulous metaphors and images. I love, for example, the final lines of “When You Go Away,” which reads, “my words are the garment of what I shall never be / Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy.”


There is an undeniable misanthropy undergirding these poems—not surprising, given the public’s growing lack of faith in government and the general disaffection of the age. Nature is a redemptive power, but even Nature might not have the wherewithal to reform the excesses of humanity. Consider the final lines of “December Night,” which read, “Tonight once more / I find a single prayer and it is not for men.” Or “Avoiding News by the River,” which ends bluntly: “If I were not human I would not be ashamed of anything.” This sense of shame in humanity is another undercurrent. It appears most notably in one of his more famous pieces, “For the Anniversary of my Death,” which reads,

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what.

That would of course be an apt place to end, though I could go on for pages and pages. But I’ll end by noting that I saw Merwin read—not once, but twice. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was, as he rarely gave readings (as far as I know). The first was some time around 1990, in Atlanta or thereabouts, and the second many years later in LA (where Merwin was introduced by the inimitable Stephen Yenser). He read “Lament for the Makers,” which at that time felt like a swan song, even though he still had many years ahead of him. In it, he recalled many of his poetic influences and friends, from Frost and Eliot to Wright and Merrill, who had recently died. It was truly an emotional performance—and that’s not what comes to mind when we think about Merwin. In part, it is a straightforward dirge, but in part, he considers how his efforts to carry on the tradition are doomed to failure, and how everything eventually comes to nothing. It is precisely the sort of sentiment that Buddhists are supposed to embrace, but in this poem, he seems to rebel against the Buddhist sentiment, if only for a moment (he also returns, ever so slightly, to the formalism of his younger days). It ends poignantly,

the best words did not keep them from
leaving themselves finally
as this day is going from me

and the clear note they were hearing
never promised anything
but the true sound of brevity
that will go on after me

More lilies

I don’t want this to become an obituary blog, but I need to note the death of another of my poetic luminaries: May Oliver.

I think I first became acquainted with her work through the Poulin anthology, Modern American Poetry (the same can be said for a number of my favorite poets of the last generation). I felt an immediate affinity, as I considered myself (and still do) a nature poet at heart. Still, whereas I sometimes feel compelled to include the occasional human in my poems, Oliver did not.

I’ve been flipping through House of Light recently, and I’m struck by the general lack of human contact. Most of the poems stem from a walk by the poet through secluded woods and fields, and center on an observation made during the excursion. That may sound a bit formulaic—and OK, if I have one gripe with Oliver’s poetry, it’s that it is forumulaic—but the insights are beautifully rendered in sparse language that speaks directly to my inner sensibilities.

Sparse, direct, plain language is a defining feature of her poetry. She adores flowery plants, not flowery language. Adjectives are typically simple, and often simply indicate color. Interestingly, the main colors found in House of Light are white, black, and red, with occasional patches of green and blue. And again, it’s just “red,” not “blood red” or “cherry red” or scarlet or fuchsia—just “red.” She gets away with this partly because the objects she’s describing are so familiar, they hardly need describing at all. We all know what color is a crane, or a bear, or the sky; any attempt to portray them with more specificity would mar the image. I started flagging all the poems that mentioned white, black, or red, but I ran out of stickies.

And it’s not just colors that appear throughout. The familiar woodland creatures make multiple appearances: deer, cranes, owls, frogs—not to mention lilies, her favorite flower (lilies for Oliver are like ballerinas for Degas). These are not exotic creatures, and that’s partly the point. Nature is not what you find in zoos or on safari, it’s what you find in your own backyard. On the other hand, you don’t find many dogs, cats, and squirrels—such creatures are far too domesticated. Nature is not the antidote to civilization, it’s the default state. Buildings and structures and mechanical devices are the anomaly, and though they may distract us from our natural state, they do not erase it.

Her poems often convey the serenity of nature, which, on its own, does not typically change in human timescales. Death is ubiquitous, but it’s typically a quiet, and sometimes quick, death: a heron nabs a frog and moves on, a turtle gulps a duckling and is gone. And afterward, the quiet returns. Death is to be welcomed as an opportunity to return to the earth and set the cycle of life in motion again. In fact, when she declares in “Foxes in Winter,” “I never said / nature wasn’t cruel,” I’m suddenly taken aback by the defensiveness of the line and the surprising truth to it. Yes, she never said nature wasn’t cruel, but that’s because she didn’t need to; cruelty is a human construct, implying some sort of malicious intent or pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Nature can’t be cruel, though we may perceive it to be. She also says, perhaps with a bit irony, “I think this is / the prettiest world—so long as you don’t mind / a little dying.” Of course, most people do mind a little dying, especially when they’re the ones doing the dying.

I sometimes find myself starting to write a poem, but then stopping and saying, “Wait a minute, are you really going to write another poem about snakes? Shouldn’t you try something different?” Oliver’s work repudiates that advice. She returns to the same subjects, the same tropes, time and again, following a well-worn path through her poetic woods, literal and figurative. But as with a favorite hiking path, I never get tired of following her.

The Hall effect

The effusive obituaries and encomiums for Donald Hall have given me pause. He was, by most accounts, an “important” poet, part of the miraculous crew born in the mid- to late-1920s. He served as poet laureate for a time, and remained something of a revered public figure. He received the Frost Medal and Ruth Lilly prize, both for lifetime achievement. And yet, I could not name a single poem of his, let alone quote one. The only books of his on my shelf are Remembering Poets and its later revision, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, which I recall greatly enjoying once upon a time. But as for the poetry itself? I had nothing. So, I turned to my floppy, well-worn copy of Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry, and was amused to discover that Hall had edited the first edition!

Perusing the poems, I vaguely recall reading them decades ago, but nothing really stuck with me. And, I must admit, the intervening years have not endowed them with any new and uncanny resonance. I still find them all rather pedestrian.

Hall was a vocal critic, and seemed to have little patience for poetry that did not comport with his tastes and preferences. But even if you agree with his assessments, it’s hard not to view them as the peevish pronouncements of a crotchety old man who just can’t understand these kids nowadays.

In fact, Hall was basically the poster child for white male privilege in the academy. Born in New Haven, he attended Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford. He taught for a while at U. Michigan, but then retired to the family estate in New England. He served as The Paris Review’s first poetry editor. He was an advisor to the NEA during the senior Bush presidency and was named Poet Laureate by the junior.

Much has been made of his marriage to Jane Kenyon; perhaps it was happy and productive, but I, for one, find it distinctly icky when a college professor shacks up with an undergrad 20 years his junior. Surely an older academic should engage in some self reflection before plunging in to such a relationship—especially with his divorce so recent (or perhaps not even finalized) when it began. To be fair, Hall is not the only one with such a complicated personal history (Yeats, of course, comes to mind); but his relationship with Kenyon perhaps provide a lens through which to view his work, a lens defined by self-regard without self-awareness.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Clearly, many people have a high opinion of his poetry. Maybe I simply haven’t read enough, but I can’t say that I share that assessment. On the other hand, he exhibited a profound influence on American poetry, and helped shape the debate about the value and function of poetry. Much of that debate—between the raw and the cooked, the well-wrought and the naked—was still going on during my formative years, and helped shape my own ideas about what makes a poem (or a poet) truly great.

Things of this world

How come no one told me?

I was flipping through the latest issue of Poets & Writers when I happened to glance at the “In Memoriam” column—and was somewhat stunned to see Richard Wilbur listed there. How is it that I did not know he died? How could I have missed something like that? (Well, I see that he died on a Saturday, so maybe there’s a lesson here: don’t die on a weekend if you want the public to notice.)

Wilbur ranks among my favorite poets, and was certainly an influence and inspiration for me (as I’m sure he was for many who followed in the “New Formalist” tradition). When did I first encounter his work? I vaguely recall reading “Praise in Summer” in my high-school textbook, Sound and Sense (back when it had an eye-assaulting neon-fuchsia cover—I may still have it somewhere), but I may be misremembering. In college, though, I started reading him in earnest in the pages of Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry, which included, among others, “Hamlen Brook.” That poem was a revelation for me. It evinced a mastery of technique that I’ve been striving ever since to achieve, most notably in its vivid descriptive imagery (especially about the natural world) and the use of the unexpected but oddly juste word, the word you wouldn’t have thought to use, but after you see it, you couldn’t imagine using a different one. For example, “I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,” or “A startled inchling trout … Trawling a shadow solider than he.” Dinting?!?! Trawling?!?! Amazing! I remember sharing that poem with my girlfriend, who remarked, “You could’ve written that poem… Well, all except for the last stanza.” Well, yeah… the last stanza makes the poem, and I certainly couldn’t have written it. But it did make me start to understand that vivid description is not enough in itself—it must serve a greater purpose. “How shall I drink all this?” Wilbur writes. That’s the question I would not have though to ask, but the question that takes the poem beyond the beautiful into the sublime.

I have loved so many of his poems, and committed some to memory. “A Late Aubade” comes to mind (“I need not rehearse / the rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse…”). As an interesting sidenote, many of his poems make casual reference to certain touchstones of art and culture—e.g., Schoenberg’s serial technique, or Schliemann staring down on the crowns of Troy. In this way, he shares the genius of Merrill; but with Merrill, such references and nuances always bore a whiff of the patrician, the commonalities you learned by virtue of your station in life, not the hunger of your mind. Wilbur’s poetry, while certainly not plebeian, was more grounded in the things of this world. I could not imagine Wilbur playing around with a Ouija board, much less writing a book-length poem about one.

And who could forget “The Writer?” The richness of metaphor is astounding—even as he undercuts his own “easy figure.” And I suppose, in our electronic world, fewer readers will appreciate the way he likens the sound of a manual typewriter to a “chain hauled over a gunwale.” My keypad makes no such noice, though the typewriter that I learned on certainly did. And his pacing is impeccable: who doesn’t share in his exuberance, or feel his spirits rise, when the trapped bird suddenly clears “the sill of the world?”

Also remarkable about Wilbur, he could write for any audience. My kids encountered his work at an early age in books such as Opposites and The Disappearing Alphabet (Oh, do not let / anything happen to the alphabet!). It is a far journey indeed from that to Molière.

I learned in Wilbur’s obituary that he grew up not far from where I did, so perhaps that’s why a poem such as “Hamlen Brook” or “The Death of a Toad” or “A Grasshopper” speaks to me so directly. I can place myself completely in the scene; but I suspect I’d be able to, even if I didn’t have that sort of referent.

I will miss him. He was most surely called to praise, called by love to the things of this world: fountains, and insects, and train stations, and birds, and art, and sound, and legends. It was always a matter of life or death. The forsaken will not understand. Mr. Wilbur, I do not place much faith in a hereafter, but wherever you are, I wish you a lucky passage.

Whatever it is

Freshman year, English 201, seminar, first class. Professor R.—a rather intimidating and authoritative figure—explains that if we really want to develop an appreciation for poetry, we should be grabbing the New Yorker each week to see what’s being written right now. To illustrate, she gives us all a copy of a page from the most recent edition. We read:

Not liking what life has in it,
“It’s probably dead, whatever it is,”
you said.…

That was my first introduction to John Ashbery, and perhaps my first introduction to real poetry by a real poet (as opposed to my fellow students) that just left me scratching my head. In the countless years since then, that line has stuck with me. It’s offhand, it’s ridiculous, it’s non sequitur. I’m sure that’s what many people love about Ashbery’s poetry, but it’s certainly what I like least—about anybody’s poetry. It’s disjointed, it’s solipsistic, it’s random, it’s simply words on a page. What does it tell us about the human condition at this particular point in time? What does it tell us about anything? A generous reading might suggest that the enormity of history, the calamity of humanity, has left us with nothing to say, but being human, we have to say something—even if it is meaningless outside a context that is so specific it excludes all but the smallest social circle. A less generous reading just says, don’t quit your day job—unless your day job is “poet.” There’s no denying that Ashbery exerted considerable influence on a generation (or two or three) of young poets, who apparently learned that obscurity and insularity were qualities to admire. I personally believe that poetry is not meant to be deciphered, any more than music or architecture is. A poem is not a puzzle—life is the puzzle. Even the title of the poem, “Wet are the Boards,” is an exercise in abstruseness. What is being emphasized by the inverse construction? Why do we even need “are the” in this case? How does it relate, if at all, to what comes next?

When people say, “I don’t get poetry,” I think a large share of the blame falls on Ashbery and his imitators. From a young age, we’re taught that poetry is special. So when we encounter a poem that does not reach out to us the way poems are supposed to, we’re less likely to think, “this poem is stupid because it makes no sense,” and more likely to think, “I am stupid because I can not make sense of this poem.” And who wants to feel like that?

Ashbery died this week; his legacy will no doubt endure, though we may hope that his influence will not.

Things fall apart

My kids have been obsessed with the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” and the soundtrack seems to be on perpetual loop in the house. So it’s perhaps not surprising that I woke up on Wednesday with the tune “The World Turned Upside Down” in my head. When I was a kid, I learned in school that the British piped that tune (the ballad, not the Broadway ditty) during the surrender at Yorktown. Modern historians are skeptical of that claim, but it certainly has an air of truthiness about it. And I’m sure many people on Wednesday felt much like the British did all those years ago—stunned and chagrined. What should have been an easy victory turned into a dirty and protracted campaign. The Continental army had no idea what it was doing, was breaking all the rules and seemed to be learning as it went along. No one seriously though they could win. And yet, they shocked everyone—including themselves, I’d guess.

But the lyrics from Hamilton were soon supplanted by a few lines from Yeats, written about 100 years ago:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

These lines from “The Second Coming” have shown their relevance time and again throughout the years, and they seem even more ominous this week. The future is uncertain, but one thing seems clear: it will not be pretty. Centrist policies based on fact and reason cannot hold against the anarchy of ignorance, fear, and disaffection. What puzzles me, though, is that many if not most Trump supporters were of an older demographic. I always thought anarchy was a young man’s game. In fact, I recall showing up on my first day of college wearing my circle-A tee shirt, bought at Zipperhead in Philly. I didn’t really want a devolution into chaos, but I did feel that the authoritarian institutions and traditional expectations were standing in the way of individual freedom and self-actualization (kind of a hippy-libertarian stance, now that I look back at it). And the punk in me can still see the allure of tearing everything down, just to wipe the smug grin off the face of the establishment. But the rationalist (and cynic) in me does not believe in a progress narrative anyway, and assumes that any institutions torn down will just be replaced with something equally ignominious. I’m also perplexed by how easily people swallowed the massive lies and hypocrisy. I guess even a lie can be told with passionate intensity. But we’re still dealing with the havoc wrought by an administration that used propaganda and outright lies to sell it’s self-serving and paranoid vision of the world. And getting back to Yeats, part of me wonders whether all those evangelicals who turned out in force were consciously voting for someone who, they thought, would bring about the second coming, the war of Revelations, the rapture. It’s more likely they’ll get the zombie apocalypse.

On the bright side, tumultuous times often lead to the most enduring works of art, as Yeats’ poem demonstrates. Perhaps the new administration will unwittingly foster a renaissance in American art and literature, even as it dismantles the NEA and moves to stifle all dissent.

No bells

Bob Dylan, Yes: Dylan Thomas, No.

I don’t get it. Bob Dylan getting the Nobel prize for literature? Some commenters have no problem with that. I’m mildly flummoxed. If he were awarded the prize for economics, for example, how would that go over? Would people say, “Yes, that makes perfect sense—he often writes about the rural working-class poor.” Or would they say, “No, that’s just stupid—he’s not trying to be an economist.” To put it another way, how would people react if Robert Pinsky were awarded a grammy for his poetry?

It seems that the Nobel committee is purposefully sticking a finger in the eye of every living American writer. There are many who have worked arduously, perhaps in obscurity, in the service of literature. To give the award to someone with no aspirations toward creating enduring works of literature is nothing short of preposterous. And insulting.

Literature springs from a dialog among writers. Thomas fostered such a dialog, influencing his contemporaries and those who would come after. Many embraced his style; others (eg, the Movement) openly rejected it. In either case, his work directly affected the style, tone, and tenor of generations of writers, and shaped what we think of as literature. I doubt many writers would credit Dylan as a core influence on their work.

I am occasionally asked by folks who don’t read poetry if I can name any musicians who might qualify as poets. I begin by explaining that music and poetry strive for different ends, and have different tools and methods for achieving those ends. I generally find that setting poetry to music destroys it—in the same way that reading a song on the printed page destroys it, too. Music and literature are animated by different geniuses—and while they may share a common ancestor, they occupy different and distinct branches on the phylogenetic tree of human expression. Still, in terms of poetic musicians, I might start with Bruce Springsteen (and not just because of my Jersey roots). Many of his lyrics stand alone in their grittiness and angst, and their occasional delight in wordplay (cf, “Blinded by the Light”). Even better, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has written many lines that I wish I had written myself; that’s high praise from a poet. I’ve never heard anyone say the same thing about Dylan.

Oddly, Dylan has so far maintained an intriguing silence with regard to the award. Perhaps he is simply too bemused to comment? Perhaps he, too, finds it bizarre, and is waiting for the prize committee to say, “Just kidding!” In any case, I am hoping that he’ll decline the prize. It probably means nothing to him, anyway, and it would send a message to the committee. Intentional mixing of genres can result in wondrous works of art; but mixing up your genres just makes you look ignorant, arrogant, and dismissive.

The simple truth

Philip Levine has died. That is the simple—the brutal—truth. I first encountered his work in the pages of a red anthology, which served as our textbook in Roger Gilbert’s modern poetry seminar at Cornell, back in the late ’80s (I still might have that book on my shelf somewhere). I remember taking great joy in the poem, “Animals are Passing From Our Lives,” with it’s bleak, defiant, somewhat mocking, and unexpected ending: “No. Not this pig.” It’s a phrase I still repeat to myself in certain situations. Similarly, “They Feed They Lion” made an impression, with the driving urgency of its language. But though these earlier works were remarkable in their own right, they barely hinted at what he would later achieve in What Work Is. For me, and many other young male poets, that book was a revelation. It deeply influenced everything I wrote thereafter, as it probably did for the likes of B.F. Fairchild, Joseph Millar, and others who would be hypnotized by the force and muscularity of his verse. Thin, taut, the cascade of lines carried the reader down the page, dragged the reader into a world that was far removed from the effete ivory towers of academia. But though they were powerful, I would not call his poems raw, for they were in fact impeccably engineered. Certainly, they taught me the importance of cadence, and the sense that you could not work on a particular line without considering every line that came before it, and the collective rhythm of the poem. I was also struck by what could only be called a dismissive attitude, a tone that said, “this is important, so forget you, if you can’t relate.” Levine also illustrated the difference between the personal and the confessional, as well as the distinction between honesty and truth; history is subjective, and therefore, so is truth—but the honesty with which we embrace that truth must be incontestable. And of course, the characters themselves, straight out of story by Isaac Babel! Nobody else was writing about such people at the time, with the intimacy that comes from first-hand knowledge and the wisdom that comes from detached regard. His politics were also out of the mainstream. As a young man, he had been an ideological communist, espousing the belief that “property is theft,” and displayed an apparent bond with the anti-fascists in Spain. This, too, influenced my work at the time.

Side note: Shortly after the publication of What Work Is, Levine gave a reading at a small bookstore in LA. I don’t remember now whether he was promoting that book, or the next one, The Simple Truth, but is strange to think now that he was still reading to sparse crowds at such a venue. But though I had devoured the book, I had never seen him in person. So, I was expecting this brooding hulk of a man, a steelworker or truck driver, with a stentorian voice like that of James Earl Jones. Instead, here was this wiry little guy with a whiny little voice. The incongruity was unsettling. It also intrigues me to think of him in the cattle burb of Fresno in California’s central valley, ground zero for the migrant farm-labor industry, about as far as you can get from the grimy confines of Detroit and the hearty eastern European stock that took root there. But perhaps it’s the vast open spaces there (ever redolent of dung and fertilizer) that focused his mind and verse.

It’s a shame that I often don’t revisit a poet’s work until I hear that they’ve died. But in this case, I’m looking forward to pulling those books off my shelf and reliving my early joy in discovering them.

Southern messenger

Another great loss, which I failed to notice, distracted as I was by the frenzy of the holidays and subsequent slide into the new year. Claudia Emerson died of cancer in December, but I only just found out about it. We went to grad school together, at UNC-G, from ’89 to ’91. Our class was small, so we got to know each other pretty well, though our temperaments and situations were vastly different. In fact, looking back, she probably found me rather annoying, but (mostly) put up with me good-naturedly. She took her work seriously, and (though I didn’t realize it at the time) viewed her presence in the program as a wondrous gift that could not be squandered. I, on the other hand, was much younger, and had only graduated college a year or two before joining the program. I still very much had an undergrad mentality—work hard, yes, but don’t forget to have fun. I was the Jarrell Fellow that first year, and it probably irked a few of my classmates to see that honor given to someone with such a dubious work effort (of course, I was working—diligently—but I never let anyone see that). As for Claudia, she had been waitlisted for the program. How could that be? I don’t know. Perhaps she simply didn’t have any contacts in the poetry world. She was not yet widely published, though that was soon to change. In an effort to enhance her chances of getting in off the waitlist, she started submitting her work everywhere, she told me. And the acceptances started rolling in. We were all a bit stunned and chagrined to see her work appearing in some of the premier journals of the day during our second year in Greensboro. That year, she also began editing The Greensboro Review, along with her close friend Kathleen Driskell. I remember being somewhat disgruntled—I thought the job would be offered to me, as the Jarrell Fellow. I was so clueless, I didn’t realize that: a), they didn’t just offer it—you had to pursue it, and b) the job required a good deal of work, and I suppose my reputation in that regard was already well established. In any case, she and Kathleen did a great job of it. That year, Claudia, Kathleen, and I did an independent study with Prof. Tom Kirby-Smith. He was, strictly speaking, not part of the writing faculty, but did write poetry, and taught classes in poetry and prosody. When I look back at my time in Greensboro, it’s those mornings that I remember most, and most fondly. Kathleen and Claudia would swing by my house in Kathleen’s Volvo, and we’d all sit together in Tom’s genteel sitting room, sometimes treated to tea and cookies by his wife. On warm mornings, we’d sit outside by the flower garden. And we’d read and discuss poetry, not just our own, but anyone we’d discovered, or who Tom thought we should know about.

Claudia’s basic voice and style were already established, and she was developing greater range and complexity. My poetry was awful, but I was excited by it, because I was trying new things, pursuing new experiments, most of which failed admirably. I remember one very long poem I wrote about a river flooding around a farmhouse. I knew nothing about the subject, but it was hard not to be influenced by the perceived trials of the rural south in such an environment. Claudia, who knew a thing or two, had written notes all over her copy. I don’t think she was planning to give me her written comments, but Tom asked us all to share them when we had them. She was so apologetic, but I must say, her critiques were spot on. I’m sure that none of us ever dreamed that one of us would one day be honored with a Pulitzer prize. I don’t think anything I wrote in Greensboro made it into my first book, but I think (though my memory is not always reliable) that I first encountered some of the poems in Pharaoh, Pharaoh in Tom’s sitting room. In fact, I remember when the book was first published. I was living by then in Oakland, CA. We hadn’t been in touch much, but I still had her phone number. I called to congratulate her, and ended up speaking with her first husband, as she was out of the house. I don’t know if she ever got the message.

I’ll finish with a snippet of poetry from her first book. To do justice to her early work, I should present something with cows in it—cows figured prominently in her poems, and became oddly emblematic (there’s a paper topic for you, students!). But instead, I will finish up with the second stanza of “Bait,” which has stuck with me for many years:

But when you slide the earthworm like a stocking
over the sharp toe, the smooth curve
of this wicked, hooked leg, tell me again how
the bloodless vessel feels no pain as you pierce
the first of its abundant hearts.

Dig with it

Heaney today. Hollander two weeks ago. The world of poetry has grown a bit smaller.

I had the good fortune to see Heaney just a few months ago, at the AWP conference in Boston. I missed his reading, regretfully, but I attended a conference session that was essentially a tribute to him. He was in the audience, and said a few words at the podium following the presentations, seemingly bemused by the effusive encomiums. I believe it is a peculiar ability of the Irish to appear grave and dignified and puckish and homespun all at once.

I remember my first encounter with his poetry, years (OK, decades) ago. It was through an anthology—I don’t remember whether it was specifically an anthology of Irish poetry or simply contemporary poetry in English. I must confess my ambivalence after reading the opening of “Digging,” which reads, “Between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests, snug as a gun.” Squat pen? Snug as a gun? How awful, I thought, how amateurish, how polemical. And what does a gun have to do with the following bucolic scene of digging potatoes and turf? And yet, those words have never left me. And of course, guns were certainly part of the local environment. And I subsequently dug into more of his work, particularly Station Island. Here was a man who loved language, and had the benefit(?) of two rich traditions, the Irish and the English. During the early part of the past century, the Irish language was kept alive as an act of political defiance (it was in fact banned under British rule). And even those who did not speak it could not help but absorb some of its structure and mannerism. Of course, Heaney’s Irish tradition was different than mine. He was there, in the North, whereas my ancestors fled to America. And my ancestors didn’t live in the occupied counties. And of course, Heaney was anything but polemical. Perhaps one virtue of loving two languages is that you can’t hate the people that speak them. And the poems that were infused unavoidably with violence and politics were complicated and conflicted—as befitting the subject matter.

I consider myself, at heart, a Nature poet, so I was of course gripped by poems such as “Death of a Naturalist,” which conveyed the visual scene though its deft imagery and conveyed the sounds and sense through the language itself. Who could not love the guttural consonance of “Bubbles gargled delicately,” or the echoes through “bluebottles,” “spotted,” “slobber,” and “clotted” in the next few lines, or the “strong gauze of sound” with its smashed-together velars? And in describing the frogs with their “blunt heads farting,” he marries the highbrow and the low, the poetic and the vernacular, the serious and the childish. My own poem “Mosquito Spawn” was surely influenced by “Death of a Naturalist,” which probably introduced me to the word “spawn” to describe a clutch of eggs (Heaney’s poem mentions “frogspawn” twice).

Even in “Naturalist,” Heaney’s sense of the Anglo-Saxon tradition is evident, so it’s not surprising that his translation of Beowulf immediately became the definitive version. I’ll never forget opening that book and being stopped by the very first word. As many readers know, the “Hwaet” the starts the story is in fact an aberration from the strict form that follows. And translators have tried various ways to present it. But nobody ever really captured it. Heaney’s solution? “So.” I know that seems simple, even obvious. But no one had done it before. And in that one word, that one syllable, he set the entire scene, evoking an image of an old-timer waiting for the perfect moment to start his story, silencing the rapt kids clustered around the hearthfire.

* * * * *

In other news, the paperwork has been submitted, so I can now say that I’ve been awarded a 2014 COLA fellowship from the City of Los Angeles. It’s kind of like the city’s version of an NEA grant. So I will have to stop saying that this city does not care about poetry. I might even give a reading or two in town.