Thursday, April 30, 2009


A review of Davis McCombs's recent poetry collection.

By Jason Guriel
Poetry Media Service

Dismal Rock, by Davis McCombs. Tupelo Press. $16.95.

Younger poets still making a name for themselves, like Davis McCombs, know that they must be clear and compelling and not take up too much of our time--"for time," as August Kleinzahler smartly reminds us in a recent talk, "has vanished with inflated rents and the blitzkrieg of what's cheerfully called information, information to be attended to, and I'm talking right now." McCombs gets this and--in the first section of Dismal Rock, a sequence on tobacco farming--gets down to business, describing a world with the rigor of an anthropologist in the field:

The people are talking about budworms; they are talking
about aphids and thrips. Under the bluff at Dismal Rock,
there where the spillway foams and simmers,
they are fishing and talking about pounds and allotments;
they are saying white burley, lugs and cutters.
Old men are whittling sticks with their pocketknives
and they are saying Paris Green; they speak of topping
and side-dressing; they are whistling and talking
about setters, plant beds and stripping rooms.

In these lines, from "Lexicon," McCombs's speaker, a good listener, has catalogued his environment's recurring sounds--the "u" in "bluff ," "lugs," and "cutters"; the "w" in "white," "whittling," and "whistling"--and organized them into a brief, cohesive sound loop that captures the aural energy of a rural landscape. Dismal Rock reassures us that words, when used well, can work. They can record the world and, at their best, transform it, as McCombs's do when they describe a bat "crossing / the water on the boat of its reflection," or how "a bulb of gnats flickers on / above the damp leaves."

But while words can be made to work, they can also become workmanlike. And while much of the poetry in Dismal Rock is precise, much of it is also unmemorable nature poetry, opting for the obvious over the transformative:
each moment flaring up

like a match, consuming itself.

--From "Gnomon"

this is the river's

whorled thumbprint, the water's surface dark as ink.

--From "The Tobacco Economy"

the storm that, far beyond him, was purpling

like a bruise.

--From "Hobart"

when the storm spread

like a bruise along the coast.

--From "Bob Marley"

This is the sort of poetry in which things "unspool" (see "Salts Cave Revisited" and "Northtown Well"), in which stuff is compared to "ash" (see "The Tobacco Economy" and "Stripping Room")--poetry, in other words, that's teetering on the cliche of our era's cliches.

McCombs, a Yale Younger Poet, is capable of some fine moments--but then who isn't in an era that valorizes the bite-sized fragment over the fully realized narrative, the poetry over the poem? Instead of working through the implications of a neat idea--that bat "crossing / the water on the boat of its reflection," for example--McCombs merely moves onto the next idea--"it is squeaking / like a rusted hinge"--which is far less startling. The poems in Dismal Rock, then, are less poems than lists of description that never quite cohere into the self-contained pieces that need every one of their words. Like worms and double albums, they can be sectioned and still survive.

Jason Guriel lives in Toronto, and his next collection of poems is forthcoming from Vehicule Press in 2009. This article originally appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2008 by Jason Guriel. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Even the avant-garde couldn't resist Helen Adam's ballads.

By Ange Mlinko
Poetry Media Service

A Helen Adam Reader, ed. by Kristen Prevallet. National Poetry Foundation. $29.95.

The publication of A Helen Adam Reader is of historical interest, feminist interest--and poetic interest. Born in Peeblesshire, Scotland, in 1909, Adam was a teenage poet whose Victorian fairy ballads captivated the British public and earned the praise of the Queen of England. Reviewers lauded her "perfect ear" and "delicate imagination." But this fame vanished into the past in 1939 when Adam, who lived with her mother and sister until their deaths, immigrated to the United States virtually by accident. The three women had traveled from London to Hartford, Connecticut, for a wedding; two months later World War II broke out, and relatives warned them against returning to a city of blackouts and rations.

The watershed moment of Adam's creative life came in the late 1940s, when her mother's health problems prompted a move west, first to Reno and then to San Francisco. In the Bay Area, Adam quickly found herself a member--some said godmother, witch or Nurse of Enchantment--of the interlocking Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer poetry circles, which, with the Beats, formed the avant-garde San Francisco Renaissance.

Adam wrote to raise gooseflesh. Her brand of ballad derived from the northern regions of Scotland, where minstrels evoked the grue (whence our "gruesome"). The grue manifests itself physiologically in the audience's shiver: the authenticity of a bodily response is the outward sign of the performer's otherworldly power. Helen Adam had, as they say, "it," as in these lines from "Kiltory":

"Come hither, my lady, lie doun wi' your dear.
A rival sae braw I ha' reason tae fear.
Come lie wi' your true love for ten starry nights.
I'll grudge ye nae hour o' your stolen delights."

Tae the dead man he flung her. He nailed up the door.
"Kiltory, I wish ye the joy o' your whore!"
Awa in the woodlands the wild throstles cried,
And the waters ran red on the brant mountain-side.

Adam combined the narrative economy of ballads--where each line is a discrete unit of information--with the lush sonic tapestry we associate with older Anglo-Saxon and Celtic strains of British verse. It's not just in the way she wields the Lallans dialect (those wi's and ha's, sae's and braw's), trimming consonants to highlight the more musical vowels. To see her sing her ballads--she chants "Kiltory" on the Reader's accompanying DVD--is to appreciate how the language, trilling and seething by turns, possessed its acolyte. Adam gets so lost in it, she dances a jig to her own bloodthirsty tale.

When Helen Adam landed in Robert Duncan's class at the Poetry Center in 1954, the effect was literally electrifying--classmates recalled a thunderstorm erupting at the moment Adam chanted William Blake's "Introduction to the Songs of Experience" from memory for him. Adam also cast a spell over austere, uncompromising Jack Spicer. This conjunction was even stranger, on the surface: Spicer worshiped virile boys, Billy the Kid, Federico Garcia Lorca. Spicer was struck by Adam's rejection of the folky and fey, her chthonic appeal to the grue. No hippie she, in these lines from "I Love My Love":

There was a man who married a maid. She laughed as he led her home.
The living fleece of her long bright hair she combed with a golden comb.
He led her home through his barley fields where the saffron poppies grew.
She combed, and whispered, "I love my love." Her voice like a plaintive coo.
Ha! Ha!
Her voice like a plaintive coo.

How different the ballad's "Ha! Ha!" from the Romantic odist's "O!" (Think of Shelley: "O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being.") The note of mockery imbedded in the nuptial scene is but a foreshadowing of horror: in the climactic stanza "The hair rushed in.... It swarmed upon him, it swaddled him fast, it muffled his every groan":

Like a golden monster it seized his flesh, and then it sought the bone,
Ha! Ha!
And then it sought the bone.

What Duncan's and Spicer's enthusiasm had in common was the belief that Helen Adam was the real thing--a link to an authentic past and authentic power. In an interview, Adam admitted, "One critic called me a pre-Christian poet, which I think is nice...most of my poems are about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

The avant-garde needed Adam not only because she was Romantic, authentic and transgressive. They needed her example to unite their own fractured poetics, their own wounded demos. Despite herself, Helen Adam showed them how to be one again; she exerted authority, and they recognized it. From "Counting Out Rhyme":

Then cam' the unicorn, brichter than the mune,
Prancing frae the wave wi' his braw crystal croon.

Up the crisp and shelly strand he trotted unafraid.
Agin' the lanesome lassie's knee his comely head he laid.

Upon the youngest sister's lap he leaned his royal head.
She stabbed him tae the hert, and Oh! how eagerly he bled!

Now we can read Adam's poems for ourselves and judge whether Duncan was right that "what was important was not the accomplishment of the poem but the wonder of the world of the poem itself." She may not have invented a new form, but she did create a world.

Ange Mlinko's poems and articles have appeared in the Village Voice, The Nation and Poetry. Her latest book of poems is Starred Wire. This article first appeared in The Nation. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2008 by Ange Mlinko. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Sarah Hannah's second, and final, poetry collection.

By Jason Guriel
Poetry Media Service

Inflorescence, by Sarah Hannah. Tupelo Press. $16.95.

The author of this next book, a one-time nominee for Yale Younger Poet, committed suicide last year. Its poems are about flowers and mental health; they have titles like "Dried Flowers" and "Night Nurse," and brandish sharp lines like
Don't talk to me of Paris;
I have duties.
Don't talk to me of loss;
I bury pills in applesauce.

Given those facts alone, it would be easy to write off Sarah Hannah through a single, obvious comparison. But the most amazing--and consequently tragic--fact about her second (and last) collection is that its poems (and they are poems, choppily well-separated and varnished with formal finish) are very, very good. Whatever the poet was going through, it didn't hinder the production of small, complete masterpieces like "The Riddle of the Sphinx Moth":
An enormous body kamikaze-dives
At me from behind the eaves of a summer
Shack: a sudden blow between the eyes,

A hybrid whirr--half bird, half bee--she hovers,
Helicopters to the grass, and sparks: Long-short-long,
Morse code in creature-speak for Get you gone.

I run inside. What was she? A pair of dragonflies
Combined to mate like biplanes in a blitz
Seem cordial in comparison to this--the eyes,

Two narrows, solid black, or should I say,
Twin Stygian pools of fixedness,
Her torso thick, a pattern throbbing in the fur,

And what was that prodding in front of her?
A stick, a thin proboscis, twice as long as she,
Insinuates itself in jimsonweed--

Sucks out all the juice. Twenty quiet minutes pass
Until I hear a rattle on the glass;
The window's shaken out of frame--she's in!

She fouls the bed--the whole room's a sty.
I should flee. I shudder in my chair instead.
She owns this house, not I.

A buzz and feint, and with a glare
She's out the door. She owns the house,
Not me. I've solved the riddle:

All skirmishes aren't fatal;
All metaphors don't fly.

Hannah has a knack for images, but she's careful not to overload the poem with too many, showcasing only the special ones. She's also careful--as Ariel-era Plath wasn't always--to unify them. The staggering description of a "pair of dragonflies / Combined to mate like biplanes in a blitz" is supported by references to kamikaze planes, helicopters, and Morse code, so that when the reader comes to "a pattern throbbing in the fur," the sphinx moth has already been transformed, in the reader's mind, into furry fuselage, capable of rattling windows. The deft use of rhyme and alliteration further unifies this subtle, anti-war psychodrama, lending an aura of inevitability to words like "throbbing," "prodding," "proboscis," "sucks," "pass," and "glass." The poem can't afford the loss of any of them.

But while Hannah expertly moves the reader, word by word, to the poem's finish, she's careful not to craft too tidy an ending. She solves her riddle with a bit of folk wisdom--"All metaphors don't fly"--but in doing so subverts the very art, metaphor-making, that she has mastered, suggesting the limits of poetry. She completes a final rhyme, but also drops a line from what would have been the final tercet, introducing a note of anxiety. Indeed, many of Hannah's poems set up consistent patterns of stanzas only to deviate from them at the last moment. Life, Hannah seems to have recognized, is closer to coherence than chaos, which makes it all the more troubling when it falls just short of gelling.

The pieces in Inflorescence add up to a memoir about Hannah's care for her terminal mother. But the best ones--"Greenbrier," "Common Creeping Thyme," "The Leaded Windows," "Night Nurse," and "Eternity, That Dumbwaiter"--are anthology-bound and easily transcend the collection's overall arc. Hannah has not left a body of work that, through sheer bulk, demands our grudging respect. She has left us poems, each its own testament.

Jason Guriel lives in Toronto, and his next collection of poems is forthcoming from Vehicule Press in 2009. This article originally appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2008 by Jason Guriel. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Poet Stanley Plumly's book on the legendary John Keats transcends biography.

By Eric Ormsby
Poetry Media Service

Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, by Stanley Plumly. Norton, $27.95.

Poets who die young often have surprisingly lively posthumous careers. John Keats (1795-1821) provides the most celebrated example: Almost immediately after his death in Rome, at the age of 25, he entered the realm of legend. Though his poetry wasn't much read at the time, he himself was quickly transformed into a figure of myth. For Shelley--who drowned with a copy of Keats's last book in his pocket--he was "like a pale flower by some sad maiden cherished," as he put it in "Adonais," his elegy for the poet. At the opposite extreme, Shelley's good friend Lord Byron detested Keats and snubbed him, referring to him in one letter as "a dirty little blackguard." For the aristocratic Byron, Keats was a "Cockney" upstart--more a rank weed than a pale lily. But for Keats's admirers, his humble origins only enhanced the pathos of his fate. For William Butler Yeats, Keats was both the "coarse-bred son of a livery-stable keeper" and a woebegone schoolboy "with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window," the very epitome of sensuousness unsatisfied.

In Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography, the poet Stanley Plumly draws on these multiple, and often conflicting, images to create a subtle portrait of an elusive figure. Keats has been well-served by his biographers--most particularly, in the last century alone, by Walter Jackson Bate and Aileen Ward, both of whom wrote superb and compelling accounts of his short but rich life. Though Mr. Plumly uses these, and other sources, in his own account--and seems to have read virtually everything written about Keats from the early 19th century onward--his book is less a biography in the usual sense than an extended meditation.

Each of his chapters deals with a significant event in Keats's life, and yet the effect is anything but episodic. Whether he is describing Keats's grim medical training as a "dresser" (a surgical nurse who tended the survivors of operations) or exploring his passionate love affair with the enigmatic and flirtatious Fanny Brawne or recounting his terrible lingering final illness and death, Mr. Plumly knows how to piece the fragmentary evidence--from letters, memoirs, official documents, and, of course, the poetry itself--so seamlessly together as to bring each scene before the reader's eyes with great dramatic force. At the same time, by rejecting what he calls "linearity," he is able to proceed in a circular fashion, swerving and doubling back to give fresh emphasis or new nuance to a point made earlier. The effect is curiously musical, with each of his chosen themes followed by ever more intricate variations.

In this respect, Mr. Plumly's unusual method, which does take some getting used to, succeeds brilliantly. In part it works so well because it is perfectly suited to the "personal biography" of his subtitle. For while the book is a scrupulously factual account both of Keats's life and of his literary afterlife, it is also a sort of secret conversation carried on between two poets over a distance of almost 200 years. And this sense--not only of love for Keats's poetry, but of profound engagement with it--informs Mr. Plumly's discussion throughout. Unlike previous biographers, he has a subtle ear for the verbal harmonies which make the great odes in particular so memorable. When he quotes the opening lines of the ode "To Autumn," "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun," and compares them to these lines from the "Ode to a Nightingale," "I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, / Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs," he notes that the interlacing patterns of sound in these two quite different poems both create "a hearing just beautifully ahead of knowing." This is part of what Mr. Plumly elsewhere describes, quite aptly, as Keats's "plush playfulness." The poems play upon our ears before they engage our minds; their sounds are the very music of the imagination.

In a way, Keats anticipated his own afterlife. His most fervent wish was one day to "be counted among the English poets." During his lifetime that wish seemed improbable.

Though he was admired early in America, it wasn't until the 1850s--some 30 years after his death--that English readers began to appreciate his distinctive genius. Byron scoffed at Keats's phrase "music unheard" but it was Byron, along with many of his contemporaries, who couldn't catch the tune. As Keats lay dying miserably of tuberculosis, tended only by his friend, the painter Joseph Severn, he asked his physician how much longer "this posthumous life of mine" would last. It has lasted now for almost two centuries, and it seems likely to continue forever.

Eric Ormsby's work regularly appears in The Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, The Paris Review, and other publications. This article first appeared in The New York Sun, where he writes the weekly "Readings" column. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about John Keats, and his poetry, at

© 2008 by Eric Ormsby. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Poet Albert Goldbarth discusses his 1950s space paraphernalia collection.

By Richard Siken
Poetry Media Service

Albert Goldbarth is the author of over 20 books of poetry, including, most recently, The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems; his many honors include two National Book Critic Circle awards.

Richard Siken: What do you collect?
Albert Goldbarth: 1950s outer space stuffs, toy spaceships and robots. Also, I have a bunch of homages to the manual typewriter, some old manual typewriters, some of them quite beautiful as physical objects, and lots of old typewriter ribbon tins with beautiful designs lithographed onto the covers. I've always been a hoarder, a kind of bower bird-like creator of displays from out of my hoard. By my standards, there isn't a real line of demarcation between "junk" and "collectibles." The question is: is it lovely to my eye?

RS: Do you type on the typewriters you collect?
AG: No, I just look at them and imbibe the aura they have for me. That's true for the toy spaceships and robots. For example, many of them, as you know, are meant to be wound up, or they're battery operated. Some of them are extraordinarily intricate and very jazzy performance objects--they move, they beep, they clang, they spark--but generally I just like to look at them. Sometimes, when I'm moving around my spaceships, I feel that I'm doing something similar to what Joseph Cornell did--arranging his bird eggs and feathers and clipping from magazines--although I know there is some element of hubris in saying that.

RS: How many objects do you have in your collection?
AG: I've never counted, but I've been accumulating these things for well over 20 years now. I love a certain kind of 1950s outer space look--Cadillac-finned rocket ships, bubble-helmeted space guys and gals, fantastically futuristic space guns that go zap. I also have a cornucopia of old kids' coloring books, comic books, paperbacks, pulp magazines, board games. A lot of it is just packed away--there really is no more room for display--but the brunt of it exists in what would be, in a more normal household, the dining room. After a long time in negotiations, my wife and I have yielded [this room] to the outer space collection.

RS: What's the most important item in your collection?
AG: Although it's hard to pick, that might be a Buck Rogers spaceship. It's from 1934, created by the Marx Toy Company--that was a very famous producer of American toys from the '20s up into the early '60s--and it is probably the first commercially produced toy spaceship ever. To my eyes it's just lovely, faithfully produced from the way the spaceship looked in the Buck Rogers comic strip. It's just fantastically, almost ichthyologically finned, with the most beautiful array of deco colors displayed all over it.

I suppose one of the nice things about the toy spaceships--and in some sense the toy robots, too--is that no matter how imaginative or surreal they are, they're made, by definition, out of the real material they would exist in if they existed in our actual world. You're looking at a tin spaceship, opposed to a plastic spaceship or a carved wooden spaceship. You're looking at a tin robot, and they have the look of working models, something someone might actually stumble over if they walked outside and saw this spaceship parked at the curb. So at one and the same time you have this fantasy object that never could exist, made of a material that we choose to believe has an actual existence in some other nearby universe.

RS: Why tin? Why not some other metal?
AG: The story that has come down to me, through various sources, is that after World War II, when the Japanese economy was virtually dead, due to our own intervention, the Japanese realized there were all these tin cans around that the American soldiers had left behind. They collected them, smoothed them out, and used them for the original batch, as fodder for the first generation of Japanese tin toys. There's a sort of symbolic lovely revenge that evened the economic playing field. The original tin they had at hand and was free, and to this sudden lucky windfall they were able to add new techniques in vibrant color lithography and new possibilities for windup and battery-operated mechanisms, so that long before the Japanese became the primary inventors of transistor circuits or Toyota cars, the world of American childhood was being defined by tin Japanese space fleets.

RS: Do your friends and family understand your obsession, or do they give you grief?
AG: Obsession? Who said it was an obsession? My wife understands. We've had our moments of disagreement over dust issues. On the whole, I think she's intellectually supportive, even though, on a day-to-day basis, I think she might walk through the dining room and think of other uses to which it could be put. Friends generally tend to find it pretty amazing when they walk into some of the rooms here. Often, if they haven't seen the things before, and they're at a loss for any other analogy, they say "Ooooh, it's like a museum" or "Ooooh, this is the ideal toy room I dreamt of as a child." [My favorite reaction is from] those who really see these things with the same kind of understanding of the era and the pizzazz of innocence that these toys possess.

Albert Goldbarth is the 2008 winner of the Poetry Foundation's Mark Twain Poetry Award for humor in poetry. Richard Siken's poetry collection Crush won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. This article originally appeared on Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Albert Goldbarth, and his poetry, at

© 2008 by Richard Siken. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 13, 2009


New U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan.

By Meghan O'Rourke
Poetry Media Service

Kay Ryan, who has just been named America's new poet laureate, is a miniaturist. She favors compression the way Walt Whitman favored expansion. Like oysters, she has said, her poems take shape around "an aggravation." They are also small (most are only about 20 lines long), rich, and dense. A single one might not always make a meal, but a well-selected plate will satiate most readers.

If Ryan's language is spare, her concerns are broad and philosophical. A typical Ryan poem begins with a proposition--"Everything contains some/ silence" or "It's what we can't/ know that interests/ us." She explores old bromides, wondering what the fabric of life is like ("stretchy") or what it might be like to live on an island where silence is revered. Here's "Green Hills," from The Niagara River, her sixth (and most recent) book:
Their green flanks
and swells are not
flesh in any sense
matching ours,
we tell ourselves.
Nor their green
breast nor their
green shoulder nor
the langour of their
rolling over.

This little lyric contains many of Ryan's hallmarks: the juxtaposition of unlike things (green mountains and human flesh); the skinny, syncopated lines ("are not/ flesh in any sense"), which propel the unfolding thought by emphasizing the musicality of the language; and heaps of internal rhyme ("shoulder" and "langour" and "rolling over"), which help create a sense of closure. Internal rhyme and assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds) are crucial to the success of Ryan's poems, in part because her epistemological investigations of the human condition can hardly be called completist or definitive; rhyme adds a crucial layer of complexity. She practices dipstick philosophy, taking a quick reading of the oil in the motor and slamming the hood.

Born in California in 1945, Ryan, who succeeds Charles Simic, has been described as an "outsider," largely because she has managed not to be drawn into the great peristalsis that digests most "creative writers" in America today; she has taught remedial English in California's Marin County for many years. And yet it's hardly a surprise that the Library of Congress tapped her. Ryan rejects the pained, stylized self-consciousness that characterizes so much contemporary poetry. She has called herself a "rehabilitator of cliches," an apt description of the way the ordinary is transformed through close attention so that a mockingbird becomes a "distempered/ emperor of parts" or the moon becomes "evening's ticket/ punched with a/ round or a crescent."

In a sense, Ryan is an American pragmatist, making her more like Robert Frost (about whom she's written enthusiastically) than [Emily] Dickinson. Hers is a parsing imagination, given to trying to differentiate between the real and the imagined, the real and the taken-for-granted. In "Carrying a Ladder," she writes "We are always/ really carrying/ a ladder, but it's/ invisible. We/ only know/ something's/ the matter:/ something precious/ crashes; easy doors/ prove impassable." While her work has deepened over the years--The Niagara River is her strongest book--she has always been most interested in the idea that "whatever reality is, it is something we only know in the negative--by being constantly wrong about it."

Of course, being "wrong" is compelling only insofar as it reveals just how limited--or self-serious--our ideas about being "right" are, and Ryan's poems pack the greatest punch when she not only inverts an improbable juxtaposition or takes an old bromide literally--Q: What might "lime light" really look like? A: "A baleful glow"--but presses forward to formulate a more exacting ars poetica. For example, in "Repulsive Theory":

Little has been made
of the soft skirting action
of magnets reversed,
while much has been
made of attraction.
But is it not this pillowy
principle of repulsion
that produces the
doily edges of oceans
or the arabesques of thought?
And do these cutout coasts
and in-curved rhetorical beaches
not baffle the onslaught
of the sea or objectionable people
and give private life
what small protection it's got?
Praise then the oiled motions
of avoidance, the pearly
convolutions of all that
slides off or takes a
wide berth...

The tone is both ironic and sincere; it is the case, I think, that repulsion is genuinely seen as a virtue, but there is a loss that the speaker skates over--namely, the loss of true intimacy, of the possibility of sustaining a genuine "private life" while also not withdrawing from the clamor and love and pain of the world around you.

It's these layers of complexity that make her best work more nuanced than the Library of Congress' descriptions of its "accessibility" might have you think. A pervasive darkness catapults her strongest poems beyond the more quotidian decrescendos into profundity. And every now and then--because Ryan prides herself on her intransigence--a touch of sublimity creeps into the usual irony. For example, in "Desert Reservoirs," which opens, "They are beachless basins, steep-edged/ catches, unnatural/ bodies of water wedged/ into canyons, stranded/ anti-mirages/ unable to vanish..../ Nothing/ here matches their gift."

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor, and she is the author of Halflife, a collection of poetry. This article first appeared on Slate. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Kay Ryan, and her poetry, at

© 2008 by Meghan O'Rourke. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


The reverent, and irreverent, poetry of Zen priest Philip Whalen.

by Travis Nichols
Poetry Media Service

In his book Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New Directions, 1968), Thomas Merton compares the true Zen artist's mind to a mirror, a reflective surface that does not strive for meaning or poetic beauty. He quotes Zenkei Shibayama:
The mirror is thoroughly egoless and mindless. If a flower comes it reflects a flower, if a bird comes it reflects a bird. It shows a beautiful object as
beautiful, an ugly object as ugly. Everything is revealed as it is. There is no
discriminating mind or self-consciousness on the part of the mirror. . . . Such
non-attachment, the state of no-mind, or the truly free working of a mirror is
compared here to the pure and lucid wisdom of Buddha.

Merton suggests that such faithful recording requires intense concentration and heightened consciousness rather than just a free artistic spirit. And while both Japanese Zen poetry and American poetry in the Objectivist tradition purport to show the world in this manner--without superfluous adjectival or analytical baggage--the poetry of American Zen poet Philip Whalen takes the artist-as-mirror idea to beautiful extremes.

Whalen's poetry reflects not just objects as they are, but his own mind as it is too. And what a mind! A drug-fueled Beat-scholar's mind, an epicurean mind, a mind comically but earnestly wrestling with nonattachment, a mind passing through the phenomenal world. In "Haiku, for Gary Snyder," Whalen describes what he sees, but the object is soon obliterated:

Here's a dragonfly
( T O T A L L Y )
Where it was,

that place no longer exists.

Rather than trying to pin down the dragonfly, Whalen describes how his perception shifts as the dragonfly shifts, flux reflecting flux.

Whalen's poetic mind is often analogous to a mind in the beginning stages of zazen, the term for Zen-Buddhist meditation. Buddhist beginners are encouraged, as they settle into meditation, to let the pieces of the world appear in the mind and disappear without attachment. Instead of letting the chatter of the world float away, as those entering into zazen are encouraged to do, Whalen catalogs it. From his poem "For Albert Saijo":

Fireweed now--
Burnt mountain day
Sunny crackle silence bracken
Huckleberry silver logs bears
bees and people busy.

Or from "International Date Line, Monday/Monday 27:XI:67":

Here it comes again, imagination of myself
Someplace in Oregon woods I sit on short
Wide unpainted wooden cabin steps
Bare feet wiggle toes in dirt and moss and duff
The sun shines on me, I'm thinking about all of us
How we have and haven't survived but curiously famous
Alive or dead. . . .

These zazen moments, gleaned from the outside as well as the inside world, "shift," as Whalen describes them in an early poem, "from opacity to brilliance." Passages of dense interiority--bursts of intensely private language, rich in sonic play and vivid imagery but nearly nonsensical--level out into moments of profound insight and clarity. And while his poetry may not seem like Merton's "pure and lucid wisdom of Buddha," it shows an authentic struggle to get there.

In his professional life, Philip Whalen was a Zen priest. He was ordained so in a 1987 transmission ceremony performed by Roshi Richard Baker, who himself was ordained in 1971 by Roshi Shunryu Suzuki, one of the most important figures in American Buddhism. Whalen's transmission was part of the soto Zen tradition that began 800 years ago with the poet and monk Dogen Zenji, and which has followed "warm hand to warm hand," from elder to elder to the present day.

Here's another example, from one of Whalen's most famous poems, "A Vision of the Bodhisattvas," that shows progress toward, rather than attainment of, enlightenment:

They pass before me one by one riding on animals
"What are you waiting for," they want to know

Z--, young as he is (& mad into the bargain) tells me
"Some day you'll drop everything & become a rishi, you know."

I know
The forest is there, I've lived in it
more certainly than this town? Irrelevant--

What am I waiting for?

This Bodhisattva search for enlightenment within both the phenomenal world and one's own mind has a long tradition in soto Zen poetry. It has traditionally been expressed in Japanese poetics through the aesthetic of wabi. Scholars see Japanese haiku master Basho, through his life and poetry, as the best historical example of a man of wabi, because of his single-minded devotion to its underlying aesthetics and ethics.

Sometimes translated as "poverty" and other times as "poetic truthfulness," wabi (and its offshoot, shiqori) is described by Toshiko Izutsu and Toyo Izutsu as the "verbal crystallization of what naturally effuses from the mind as man looks upon things of Nature and human affairs with the emotion of commiseration."

As Whalen says in his poem "Historical Disquisitions":
Hello, hello, what I wanted to tell you was
The world's invisible
You see only yourself, that's not the world
although you are of it

In other words, Whalen's poetry does not explain itself or offer explanation after the experience of reading its disjunctions. Instead, it holds up its observation and waits for the careful reader to smile in acknowledgment, thus securing a mind-to-mind transmission in the radically lyric tradition of the Buddha.

Travis Nichols is a poet and novelist living in Seattle. This article originally appeared on Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Philip Whalen, and his poetry, at

© 2008 by Travis Nichols. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


The delightful verse of new Children's Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman has been a family favorite for decades.

By Michael Atkinson
Poetry Media Service

The best children's poets look at the subjects most parents are terrified of introducing to their little children--death, for instance--and invite them, gracefully, to dance. Take, for instance, Mary Ann Hoberman's "Mayfly," a rather Williamseque lyric on mortality:

Think how fast a year flies by
A month flies by
A week flies by
Think how fast a day flies by
A Mayfly's life lasts but a day
A single day
To live and die
A single day
How fast it goes
The day
The Mayfly
Both of those.
A Mayfly flies a single day
The daylight dies and darkness grows
A single day
How fast it flies
A Mayfly's life
How fast it goes.

Hoberman, author of over 40 children's books and the new Children's Poet Laureate, is a consummate channeler of children's sensibilities. She is clearly a writer who takes children's verse very seriously--as well she might. Children's poetry requires precision tools, a childlike ear, a capacity for spirited irreverence, and a scrupulous lack of pretension. What's more, its intended readers have only their inner metronomes and innate sense of the absurd to inform how they react to a poem, not a wealth of experience or literary-cultural know-how, and their native antennae cannot be easily bamboozled.

Still, the grace and taste and wit of a good children's poem can provide a genuine frisson for those of us over 10. It is hard not to be taken with "Praying Mantis," the subject of which is "really not engaged in prayer." Instead, "That praying mantis that you see / Is really preying (with an e)," and thus, "With prey and preying both so endless / It tends to end up rather friendless." Or "X?," which bemoans the scarcity of X-words, and concludes "X-words do not get used a lot. / I knew one once / But I forgot."

The Llama Who Had No Pajama is a kind of best-of collection, stretching back five decades, of Hoberman's short lyrics. She sets off tsunamis of nonsense like "Permutations," at once a child's dose of linguistic chaos and a Dadaist dare for adults to read it aloud without getting head-shakingly lost. Here's the first of six reflective stanzas;

A flea flew by a bee. The bee
To flee the flea flew by a fly.
The fly flew high to flee the bee
Who flew to flee the flea who flew
To flee the fly who now flew by.

Born in 1930, Hoberman has remained a faithful New Englander her whole life, graduating from Smith College in 1951 and marrying artist-architect Norman Hoberman that same year. They set up shop in Greenwich and had four children; Mary Ann published her first picture book, All My Shoes Come in Twos (Little, Brown), in 1957, illustrated by Norman, as were her next three books. A half century later, Hoberman has accumulated five grandkids and virtually every award given to picture-book literature, including a National Book Award, the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, a Society of School Librarians International Best Book award, a National Parenting Publications Awards gold medal, and numerous laurels from magazines such as Child and Parenting.

It's a measure of Hoberman's writerly sensibility that her work has remained remarkably consistent in tone and craft, and her voice timelessly unfaddish; she knows that although the culture may change, children in the first half-dozen years of life don't really. She has never reneged on her role as an educator (Hoberman has taught continuously, on all levels), and her output has included scores of alphabet books, counting tales and sing-along tomes, and even a seminal and popular series of books of call-and-answer stories titled You Read to Me, I'll Read to You.

But the short lyric is Hoberman's forte, and the punchy, effortless, game-playing, precisely scanned poems she wrote 35 years ago, such as "Alligator/Crocodile," don't age a whit:

The crocodile
Has a crooked smile.
The alligator's is straighter.

Or maybe it's the other way.
(With crocodiles it's hard to say.)

Perhaps the opposite is true.
(It's hard with alligators, too.)

But if I write what I just said,
The first way might be right instead.

And then again the second might
As easily be wrong or right.

Or right as wrong. Likewise the first.
In that case should they be reversed?

Whether she's writing about lonely pets or befuddled fauna or little kids still figuring out the world, Hoberman's poems are always fundamentally about the language, and about introducing its capacity for magic and puzzlement and emotional meaning to the world's youngest poetry readers.

Michael Atkinson is the author of six books, including a debut volume of poetry, One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train (Word Works). This article originally appeared on Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Mary Ann Hoberman, and her poetry, at

© 2008 by Michael Atkinson. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


Tips for homeschoolers, and all parents, on inspiring families with verse.

By Susan Thomsen
Poetry Media Service

When she was a tiny girl, one of Karen Edmisten's daughters took a shine to Emily Dickinson. Edmisten, a freelance writer and homeschooling mom in the Midwest, recently recalled what it was like to hear a poetry-besotted four-year-old reciting the Belle of Amherst:

Because I could not stop for deff
He kindwee stopped for me
The cawwiage held but just aw-selves
and immortowity.

The young Dickinson fan is one of at least 1.1 million homeschooled children in the United States. For some, their parents' enthusiasm for poetry and literature has been translated into lesson plans and family closeness and fun. How do these parents do it? We talked with Edmisten, several other parent-teachers, and a librarian with homeschooling expertise about their recipes for success.

One poetry-loving homeschooler, North Carolinian Jenny C., read and reread Shel Silverstein as a child. Now she's introducing poetry to her five- and seven-year-olds in hopes that they will learn to treasure the written word too. The plan seems to be working. On Fridays the family snuggles on the couch while Jenny reads a preselected poem that fits in with the rest of their theme-based studies. "I . . . am usually greeted with a cry of 'Read one more!'" Some favorite anthologies include William Cole's A Zooful of Animals and Elise Paschen's Poetry Speaks to Children, which comes with a CD of poets reading their own works. Jenny also matches up poems and artwork for their studies of the individual United States. For the unit on Massachusetts, for example, the family chose David McCord's "Islands in Boston Harbor" and the rhyming stories of Dr. Seuss, who was born in Springfield.

Kids don't have to hear this part, but guess what? The homeschoolers' approach of using poetry to foster broader learning is supported by scientific research. "Writing and listening to poetry, for example, sharpen a child's developing ability to hear (and ultimately to segment) the smallest sounds in words, the phonemes," notes cognitive neuroscientist and Tufts professor Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

For the child under five, Mother Goose verses provide "a host of potential aids to sound awareness--alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition." It can be difficult to find all kinds of reading materials for children between five and eight years old. Material for older grade levels may be too challenging, and books written for younger kids may feel "babyish." Poetry offers a solution that's perfect for the homeschooling parent, who can choose texts appropriate to each child. "I use poetry with slow readers, those who cannot possibly get through a long story or novel but who can understand and relish the message a poem conveys," writes poet and anthropologist Lee Bennett Hopkins in the guide Pass the Poetry, Please! "Poems, being short, are not demanding or frustrating to these readers."

In an amusing entry on her blog, Farm School, Becky S. recounts "how I got my kids to like poetry and broccoli." She writes, "It didn't happen by accident, though it didn't require a lot of work, either." Both were always around, and her daughter and two sons grew accustomed to indulging in the same savory fare that their parents prefer. Becky often lets her children choose what they want to hear. The family, who lives in western Canada, is particularly fond of poetry for all sorts of occasions, from holidays to cleaning the house. Favorite Poems Old and New, edited by Helen Ferris, comes in handy. The Farm School kids also memorize and recite poems. "It's a mistake and a terrible disservice to children to underestimate them," Becky says.

An adult who didn't grow up immersed in verse might not know where to begin choosing poems for children. Adrienne Furness, of the Webster (New York) Public Library, has come to the rescue, offering some reliable starting places. A children's librarian and the author of the recently published Helping Homeschoolers in the Library, Furness recommends the following books, all "well-designed and engaging."

  • The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, edited by Jack Prelutsky. "Most homeschoolers approach subjects in a multidisciplinary way. This excellent collection is sorted into broad categories, including poems by writers past and present--even Shakespeare. A great investment."

  • A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, edited by Paul B. Janeczko. A solid resource "for people who think they don't know anything about poetry."

  • Lee Bennett Hopkins' anthologies in HarperCollins' "I Can Read!" series. "The poems themselves are exactly the right level for someone on the threshold of reading independently."

  • The Poetry Foundation's online archives contain a number of possibilities well-suited to an afternoon break. In the beginning, sample one and see how it goes. Here are just a few:

  • "Fish," by Mary Ann Hoberman. Delectable wordplay.

  • "Baby Ate a Microchip," by Neal Levin. Just plain funny.

  • "If You Catch a Firefly," by Lilian Moore. For nature lovers.

  • "The Highwayman," by Alfred Noyes. A suspenseful (if rather bloody) longer poem.

  • "Song of the Witches," from Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. No need to save it for Halloween. "Double, double toil and trouble . . ."

  • Susan Thomsen blogs about children's books at Chicken Spaghetti. This article originally appeared on Explore more children's poetry resources at

    © 2008 by Susan Thomsen. All rights reserved.

    Friday, April 03, 2009


    W.S. Di Piero reminisces.

    By W.S. Di Piero
    Poetry Media Service


    I went to find the poet Hayden Carruth when I was living in Vermont in the mid-seventies and he was running his small farmstead, patching together a living with literary hackwork, haying, tractor repair, barn-building, and any other money-eking enterprise, on a hill outside Johnson about forty miles from me. When I phoned in advance, his was the quietest telephone voice I'd ever heard; each sentence seemed to fade toward silence as it closed. His best poems are like that, soft-spoken, plain, even when the emotional signature is hacked or burnt into hardwood, and they possess absolute candor about everything. He's the least self-censoring person I know, his honesty embedded in Camus' writings, which were foundational for him. So there we were one summer afternoon sitting on the small porch of the modest house he kept with his then-wife Rose Marie. He's chewing on his pipe stem, looking off into the distance. He gazed--his conversation seemed aimed at some elsewhere. He lived so deeply inside himself that he makes the oily, after-dinner-speaker-type poets we're all familiar with seem like carnie shills. When I pulled out my cigarettes, he cadged one.

    --A little whiskey would go well with this.

    So there we were, smoking Luckies, sipping Jim Beam or some other corny liquor, when a typical country Vermont oil-burning junker too large to fit in most people's living rooms rattles past.

    --Glad I don't have to earn money fixing those things anymore.

    He wasn't talking about a summer job. He'd done everything except teach, which would come later. He called himself a hack because he'd done, for money, just about every sort of writing and editing, working in the cowshed we could see from the porch.

    We talked for hours. He loved Dryden's dramatic lyrics and put me on to the poetry of Paul Goodman, whom I knew from the frantic sixties only as a social critic. We smoked up a storm. Smoking has been one of his greatest pleasures. Back then he went through twenty pipes a day easy. In his autobiography, Reluctantly, he describes an uncle smoking: "He would talk and exhale smoke at the same time, so that the smoke came out every whichway, as if it were the ectoplasmic embodiment of his language."


    One pick-up job was his stint as editor of Poetry in 1950. He was proud he never kept a poet waiting more than five weeks for an answer. But he riled the board--he was trying to revamp and amp up things with more challenging poems and feistier prose--so within a year he was out. He loved Chicago for its jazz and blues and can still run down the sidemen on many sessions, but was also severely agoraphobic and not cut out for cities. He didn't like having too many people around and suffered disabling panic attacks and other agonizing psychological ailments that afflicted him but lived in the shadow of the major one--suicidal depression.


    Mid-nineties and he's in California to read at Stanford. We plan to meet for dinner pre-reading, and I find him at the bar of a trendy Italian restaurant in Palo Alto. We haven't seen each other in a few years and make small talk until the bartender drifts over and asks our pleasure.

    --Get Chianti (the only red Hayden seems to drink).

    --I'll have a Prosecco.

    --(Bartender) Sorry, sir, we don't have that.

    --How can you call yourself an Italian restaurant and not serve Prosecco?

    --Right! That's telling him! You have to make yourself heard. Bring this man a glass of Chianti!

    At dinner with his vivacious wife Joe-Anne, Hayden looking much older since his last visit, he's telling a story and trying to set it in context.

    --That was about six months after I killed myself, right, Joe-Anne?

    They both laugh. He's referring to one of his suicide attempts, the time he came closest, in 1988, when he took every pill in his possession--and there were many indeed to take. His first knowledge of the suicidal impulse, involving more smoke, is recorded in Reluctantly. As a twelve-year-old sitting on a riverbank with a flirty girl who challenges him to toss away the pack he's smoking, he throws it into the river. The image of the pack falling and floating away lived powerfully in him ever after: "Why didn't I pitch myself after it and dash out my brains on the rocks below?" It would have been that easy, even then.


    As part of his visit, Stanford has arranged a TV interview. The morning of the taping, he tells Joe-Anne he's stepping out for a little air. The event coordinator arrives to pick him up but Hayden's nowhere in sight. The coordinator waits, Joe-Anne waits, the studio waits. After an hour, everyone (except Joe-Anne, who knows her man does whatever his spirit tells him to do) is frantic. Should they put out a missing persons report? Will they need a helicopter? Will the TV affiliate hate Stanford? Fast-forward the crisis. A few hours later, Hayden re-appears at the Faculty Club where he's been housed. The coordinator is a wreck; Joe-Anne frets not at all.

    --I just had a nice long walk. It's quite beautiful here. What's wrong?

    W.S. Di Piero's latest book is Chinese Apples: New and Selected Poems (Knopf). This article first appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Hayden Carruth, and his poetry, at

    © 2009 by W.S. Di Piero. All rights reserved.

    Thursday, April 02, 2009


    The rift of war between poets Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.

    By Ange Mlinko
    Poetry Media Service

    One day in early September 1966, the poet Robert Duncan, then 47, was walking to a streetcar stop in San Francisco when lines of verse began drifting to him out of nowhere. These poems would appear toward the end of what may be Duncan's finest book, Bending the Bow (1968), which was written largely in response to the Vietnam War. He laid out their impetus in a letter to one of his dearest friends, Denise Levertov, who provided the surge of inspiration: he was in a "rapture" walking to the streetcar, because he had been listening to a tape of Levertov reading her poem sequence "Olga Poems." (It would be published in 1971 in To Stay Alive, her anti-Vietnam book, a counterpart to Duncan's.)

    Denise Levertov was one of the most important people in Robert Duncan's life. They had been carrying on a correspondence since 1953, and their letters at times resembled those of lovers. Within a few years this friendship would shatter. The story unfolds in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, and is analyzed in the essays of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry, both edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi. Ostensibly, the friendship foundered on their divergent ideas of what a political poem was. What seemed to be a passionate, but private, intellectual argument escalated to public betrayal.

    The two friends took pleasure in their rare meetings--they were often scheming to fund each other's visits through readings, carefully tallying up the fees and honoraria. Disagreements and critiques were cushioned by assurances of love: Levertov: ". . . because to me you are one of the great, as well as belov'd, I have never & will never speak 'critically' of you to anyone but yourself." Duncan is even more demonstrative, as in this letter of 1961: "That's what I did want to write most . . . the ever-lasting delight of these times in my life when I am actually with you."

    By the mid-1960s, questions of craft--not to mention conscience--became subsumed in the debate over the Vietnam War. Duncan was working on the poems that would comprise Bending the Bow, Levertov on the poems that would first appear in Relearning the Alphabet and then be reprinted in To Stay Alive with an author's preface tying their genesis to the war and her opposition to it. Both struggled aesthetically with the turn from lyric to public address. However similar their struggle to write a new political poetry, it became clear early on that they differed radically in their approaches. The conflict was twofold: Duncan did not approve of Levertov's activism--he considered group action coercive and demagogic, at one point saying she was "conscripted" into activism, thus equating it with the draft--and both of them variously disapproved of each other's poetic methods.

    His letter of March 30, 1968, criticized Levertov's appearance in the Rankin Brigade Washington protest, broadcast on TV:

    Do we believe in unilateral peace? Then surely it is we who must create it where we are. But the revolution, like Nixon, believes in inflicting peace on their own terms. I do not ask for a program of Peace; but I do protest the war waged under the banner of Peace, no matter who wages it.

    In so many words, Duncan was warning Levertov that her protests were so engaged with the war that they were partaking of war themselves. Finally, utterly shaken, they agreed to put their differences aside for a year and a day. But only a couple of months later, Duncan struggled to make amends: "I have begun to see . . . my contention with you as contention with my own anima." Levertov tried to explain herself too:

    . . . what has actually happened is only that I no longer have the emotional dependency on you, on your approval, I had for so long and which was not really a good thing.

    Neither poet seems to have understood to what extent they had absorbed the war outside and, like combat veterans, brought it into the household, dooming it. In 1974, an interview with Robert Duncan appeared in Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry Against the War:

    [Levertov]'ll be writing about the war and suddenly . . . you see a charged, bloody, sexual image that's haunting the whole thing, and the war then acts as a magnet, and the poem is not a protest though she thinks she's protesting.

    This public airing of their unresolved private conflict was the last straw. Levertov held back for a year, but finally wrote Duncan that their friendship was "twice broken, deeply betrayed." Six months passed before Duncan wrote her back, never mentioning the interview. In 1978, at last, he wrote to praise her book Life in the Forest. Levertov would have none of it.

    To those grappling with the consequences of "free verse" and "organic verse," the position of the poet vis-a-vis politics went to the heart of craft as they were re-visioning it. Duncan and Levertov (and many of their cohorts) did not view their task as mastering a verse form or even perfecting the stand-alone poem: it was about crafting a life work, with the relationship between poems, and between poet and world, replacing form as an end in itself.

    There is no bolder declaration of language as ethics--or as the very ground of ethics, without which principled stances would not be possible. Duncan and Levertov could not have written such beautiful poems, or made such electrifying correspondents, had they not been thinkers who engaged the deepest questions about war, violence, and creation. For, as Levertov wrote, "there comes a time when only anger is love."

    Ange Mlinko's poems and articles have appeared in the Village Voice, The Nation and Poetry. Her latest book of poems is Starred Wire. This article first appeared on Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, and their poetry, at

    © 2009 by Ange Mlinko. All rights reserved.