Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 3

Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 3

For our latest feature, we’ve asked 50 poets to weigh in (briefly) on the long poems that interest them. To avoid spending too much time on the usual suspects, we suggested that most of our contributors focus on poems from the last 70 years.

This is the third of six installments (you can see the others here, here, here, here and here.) Scroll down or click on the links to read:

V. Penelope Pelizzon on Robert Pinsky
Michael Collier on John Berryman
Peter Streckfus on Czeslaw Milosz
Afaa Michael Weaver on Wole Soyinka
Wendy Willis on C.D. Wright
Ed Skoog on Ronald Johnson
Lia Purpura on Reginald Gibbons
Jeff Dolven on James Merrill
Joshua Marie Wilkinson on Frank Stanford
Anna Maria Hong on Seamus Heaney and Marilyn Nelson
Katie Peterson on Robinson Jeffers
Catherine Theis on Camilio José Cela


A father is explaining their country to his young daughter. It’s the kind of thing that will take careful unfolding: a nation’s essence, including the convoluted violence of its making and the sometimes- inexplicable aggressions of its present day. Its fears, its failures, its promises.

“A country is the things it wants to see,” he tells her.

He’s explaining the past. But because this is all taking place in a poem, he first has to imagine the daughter in the present.  He has to invent her in words, describing her so that we, the readers, likewise can imagine her.

That means he also has to invent us. To do so means imagining the poem moving away from him into the future.

If I could sail forward to see the streets
Of that strange country where you will live past me,
Or further even by a hundred years,
And walk those pavements with my phantom steps…

Toward that future the father will go “on foot,” shod in the softest, most flexible blank verse. It’s a measure in which one can amble slowly, then pick up the pace to a trot, pause, regain a longer stately stride, then make unexpected turns, all while thinking aloud. So even as this is an explanation of America, it’s a formal exemplar of how language can present human consciousness moving through time.


Whitman the ecstatic:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? …I do not know what it is any more than he.

Pinsky the earnest:

I want to tell you something about our country,
Or my idea of it: explaining it
If not to you, to my idea of you.


Pinsky’s critical study, The Situation of Poetry, was published in 1976, three years before An Explanation of America. Situation is something of a primer for appreciating the later book’s long title poem. In it, Pinsky praises the discursive qualities that allow a writer to speak fully “about a variety of subjects [and] …to include many of the mind’s steps and many of its interesting travels.”

This discursive mode is unabashedly earnest; it is, as Pinsky puts it, “primarily neither ironic nor ecstatic” because while it “does not absolutely exclude irony or ecstasy… it subordinates them to the idea of ‘making your mind known.’” It involves “the pursuit of definition beyond the temptations merely to divert the reader or impress him.”

So, no figurative fireworks, no neo-surrealist giggles. Rather, we’re dealing with a mode that implies moral gravity, even didacticism. It’s one that risks straying into the pedestrian.

What does this risk gain us? When successful, the discursive offers us, in Pinsky’s words, the pleasure “of knowing someone’s mind in the most precise and animated way: the soul, in other words, revealed in language.”

That’s a bold claim to make in the deconstructo-1970s. I love it. It’s the colors raised high on the ramparts of meaning as the post-structuralist guns begin going off. O say can you see.


Is it any surprise that Pinsky later gives us an “Ode to Meaning”?


This is not “the” explanation, only “an.” The daughter might eventually have her own. So might you, fellow citizens. What’s yours? wtf, as the daughter’s daughter might text it. How do you explain this crazy thing that nursed us and that we’re part of?

The discursive mode of the poem implies that we might meet in a public space and talk this through. We might debate our definitions. But we would agree that meeting and exchanging words was meaningful and important. Such discourse is a cornerstone of any civil society.


Genealogies fill the poem.

Like Jews or Indians, roving on the plains
Of places taken from us, or imagined,
We accumulate the customs, music, words
Of different climates, neighbors and oppressors,
Making encampment in the sand or snow.

So many of Pinsky’s later poems trace their ancestry back to these lines.


Ancestry. In a later work, Pinsky writes that it was at the signing party for Explanation that Elizabeth Bishop made her last public appearance, “at the Grolier Book Shop…. Then afterwards, getting ready for dinner, the sudden stroke.”


1979-2012. The daughter has grown. The writer has been made a Laureate, that centaur who’s half poet and half public man (though whether it wears the head of Horace on Quinctius’s body or vice versa might be unclear to anyone in that creature’s hooves.) The poem has been thirty-three years in print.

June 3, 2012. This afternoon I open our old rain-logged scribbly-annotated paperback copy once more and step in. Hours pass. The winter sun bleeds out at the desert’s edge. Grey Go-Away birds settle in the jacarandas  and slowly overhead the candles of the Southern Cross ignite.  But I’m back home with my father, far away in that familiar place where his voice gathers and “Possibility spreads/And multiplies and exhausts itself in growing,/ And opens yawning to swallow itself again.”


Published in 1956 to positive reviews, John Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is a hypersonic lyrical narrative that through a daring act of linguistic prestidigitation (“Out of maize  & air/ your body’s made, and moves.  I summon, see,/ from the centuries it.”) gives voice to Anne Bradstreet, North America’s first published poet, and at the same time, shows Berryman cultivating a ventriloquism that allows him to take on and inhabit another voice, the way he will do with his alter egos Henry and Mr. Bones in the Dream Songs. Berryman found in the Puritan Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) a sympathetic heroine who overcame great obstacles to educate herself and eventually write compelling and significant poems. As his alter ego Berryman saw in her predicament similarities with his own as he worked hard to forge his poetic style and identity. In his essay, “The Development of Anne Frank,” he describes the subject of Anne Frank’s Diary as “the conversion of a child into a person…. It took place under very special circumstances which—let us now conclude as she concluded—though superficially unfavorable, were in fact highly favorable to it; she was forced to mature, in order to survive; the hardest challenge, let’s say, that a person can face without defeat is the best for him.” Certainly, Berryman thought of Bradstreet in the same way he thought of Frank and, I think, how he wished to view his own efforts to confront the challenges his art and life provided.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet is a crucial transitional work, along with the once- suppressed Sonnets, that transcends his apprentice efforts so beholden to W.B. Yeats (Remember, he said, “I didn’t want to be like Yeats.  I wanted to be Yeats.”), and makes possible 77 Dream Songs, which appeared in 1964.  Homage is a dazzling and entrancing act of poetic conjuring (“Pockmarkt & westward staring on a haggard deck/ it seems I find you, young.  I come to check,/ I come to stay with you,/ and the Governor, & Father, & Simon, & the huddled men.”) that is so startling and strange it carries the force of revelation.  It violates almost all of the central tenets of modern poetry beginning with Coleridge and Wordsworth’s claim that poetry should sound something like the way contemporary people speak.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet’s 456 lines are arranged in 57, eight-line stanzas whose metrical arrangement follows this pattern: the first two lines are iambic pentameter, the fourth tetrameter and the eighth hexameter. The other four lines are variously played with as few as 5 syllables and as many as 11. Berryman employs a steady but quirky rhyme scheme of ABCBDDBA that echoes and shadows the changing metrics of the lines. The stable and unstable elements of the metrical pattern combine, along with a wrenched and highly attenuated and dramatic syntax, to give the poem its utterly unique music.  Unique in the sense that you hear running through it and all at once Shakespeare, Donne, Browning, Dickinson, Hopkins, and Lowell, to name the most obvious.  Berryman has so thoroughly fabricated an idiom from those precursors that the influence of Yeats, which was once “as pervasive as garlic,” as Philip Larkin said of his own Yeatsian preoccupation, is almost completely gone.

When I first read Homage, in 1972, I was so taken by its music that I memorized large portions of it, and, today, I often find myself declaiming, silently, under my breath, or loudly, the beautiful and moving first three sections, the second of which begins: “Outside the New World winters in grand dark, / white air lashing high thro’ the virgin stands/ foxes down foxholes sigh.”  Berryman’s enjambments can be breathtakingly pronounced and yet the sense and meaning of his sentences are suspended rather than ruptured:  “Motes that hop in sunlight slow/ indoors, and I am Ruth/ away: open my mouth, my eyes wet; I would smile.” The lyricism throughout the poem is so brisk, musical, and fidgety that scenes from Bradstreet’s life unfold like time-elapsed photography. As a result, the first ten sections are an action painting of how the Massachusetts Bay Colony is established—“Wolves & storms among, uncouth/ board-pieces, boxes, barrels vanish, grow/ houses, rise.”

I know that when I first read Homage, I was responding to a questioning, doubting, rigorous religious scrutiny that runs from beginning to end in the poem.  It’s what I heard in Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” (“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You/ As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.”)  And in Hopkins: (“No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,/ More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.”).  This aspect of the poem still attracts me even as I have given up for the most part my own struggles with Faith.  And yet, what is most important to me about Homage is how it summons up, by eschewing irony completely, the seriousness with which poetry of the highest order can bring us face-to-face with the beautiful and terrifying transitory nature of our existence, and how this creates in us contradictory and intense feelings of belonging and isolation.  Here is Berryman speaking directly to his spectral Bradstreet about this dilemma: “How do we/ linger, diminished, in our lover’s air,/ implausibly visible, to whom, a year,/ years, over interims; or not;/ to a long  stranger; or not; shimmer and disappear.”

W.S. Merwin in “Berryman,” his own homage to his undergraduate teacher at Princeton, describes how Berryman “…suggested I pray to the Muse/ get down on my knees and pray/ right there in the corner and he/ said he meant it literally” and then later, “he said the great presence/ that permitted everything and transmuted it/ in poetry was passion/ passion was genius and he praised movement and invention.” Bradstreet doubled as a muse and alter ego for Berryman, and so it is possible to read Homage as an extended supplication, one that is fueled by the genius of passion and embodied in the movement and invention of Berryman’s language.  Reading Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, it is easy to imagine Merwin’s indelible portrait of Berryman, in which his “lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled/ with the vehemence of his view about poetry”.


Influence, the Wormwood Star of History: Czeslaw Milosz’s The Separate Notebooks

In a night train, completely empty, clattering through the fields and woods, a young man, my ancient self, incomprehensibly identical with me, tucks up his legs on a hard bench—it is cold in the wagon—and in his slumber hears the clap of level crossings, echo of bridges, thrum of spans, the whistle of the locomotive. He wakes up, rubs his eyes, and above the tossed-back scarecrows of the pines he sees a dark blue expanse in which, low on the horizon, one blood-red star is glowing.

–from “The Wormwood Star” movement of Czeslaw Milosz’s The Separate Notebooks


In the fourth century, influence referred to an astrological phenomenon: an inflowing, an influx of ethereal fluid from the distant lights of the night sky that affected the actions and destinies of persons on the earth. This astrological meaning eventually passed into our contemporary sense of influence and into our sense of literature. Literary tradition is a relational process. The poet opens to the influx of work coming before and contemporaneous with him. He becomes a channel of influence. Channeling, above, “a young man, my ancient self,” distant in time, sitting in a rail car on the eve of the World War II, he channels a character from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, who channels St. John’s Revelations, whose wormwood star, “one blood-red star,” will fall into the waters of the earth and make them bitter.


When I was twenty-two, my site of access for this influx was the poetry shelves of Half-Priced Books on Guadalupe Street, in Austin, TX, just north of the food co-op. There I found Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky’s English translation of Polish Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz’s The Separate Notebooks, a selection of poems that included his exquisite, multiphonic long poem of the same title. Google Books offers pages of the poem here.

Milosz changed my sense of what “influence” means. He was not the originator of his poems, he claimed; rather, he was a “secretary,” a scribe to voices, sometimes plural, sometimes singular. He described his source as a “Daimonion,” “a little demon” whose utterances he attempted to capture in his native tongue. This struck my young self as supremely odd, but has, over time, come to define my understanding of what it means to make poetry, or any art for that matter, and of what it means to be human—the animal that watches itself, the self-conscious animal.


If the poet is indeed a “secretary,” the form poetry takes depends on what the poet accepts as influx and the poet’s inclinations as an instrument of poetry. In “Ars Poetica?,” written in 1968, a decade before he wrote The Separate Notebooks, Milosz speaks to his own inclinations. Here are the first two and the final two stanzas of that poem in Milosz and Lillian Vallee’s translation:

I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.


The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

Here, Milosz communicates two ideas key to the form and strategy of The Separate Notebooks. First, he seeks “a more spacious form,” one that need not adhere to the constraints “of poetry or prose.” Second, in its essence, poetry indecently brings forth a thing “we didn’t know we had in us.”

Helen Vendler has famously claimed that “There are no direct lessons that American poets can learn from Milosz.” The foreign, archaic positions he takes above about spirits and daimonions may make this oft-quoted challenge seem true. Yet, I would argue, these positions are fully purposeful, as Milosz’s anthropologic approach to the meditative poem, concerned as it is with what it means to be an animal caught in a sense of its own story, is by nature dialectical. In his poems, one part of the self often speaks to an opposite, foreign, part of the self: “It is true that what is morbid is highly valued today, / and so you may think that I am only joking / or that I’ve devised just one more means / of praising Art with the help of irony,” he says in the middle of the poem, speaking to that distant animal, his reader, who is at all times part of himself, as the animal cannot help but see itself seeing itself. “How difficult it is to remain one person, […] invisible guests come in and out at will”: this anthropologic, dialectic quality, always prepared to shift perspective in place, in time, in argument, in person, and in doing so to hold a mirror to the mirror, makes this work one of the most genuine and moving examples of reflective thought in twentieth century letters.


These aspirations led Milosz, finally, to write The Separate Notebooks. This, his “more spacious form,” was my introduction to the mixed form. While contemporary practitioners of the prose poem blurred differences between poetry and prose by eliminating the line, Milosz redefined “the claims of poetry and prose” by intermixing them, taking advantage of the differences, the distance, between the prose paragraph and the verse line. The effect is multiperspectival. “A Mirrored Gallery,” the poem’s first movement, includes narrative verse and prose, short lyrics, addresses to Cezanne and Schopenhauer, prose commentaries on those addresses, songs, lines measured by the sentence, histories, persona poems, and Milosz’s characteristic piercing, self-reflective gaze beyond the horizon of his own story. Here, the opening lines of “(Page 1),” the first poem of “A Mirrored Gallery,” prepare us for this gaze beyond the self:

An old man, contemptuous, black-hearted,
Amazed that he was twenty such a short time ago,
        Though he would rather understand than speak.

In the next poem, “(Page 10),” the poet speaks in first person from a car whose tires drum out a meter on the Sacramento bridge:

Ships, black animals among the islands,
Gray winter on the waters and the sky.
If they could be called in from their far-off Aprils and countries,
Would I know how to tell them what is worse yet true—
The wisdom, not for them, that has come to me?

A prose paragraph follows, which begins:

He found on dusty shelves the pages of a family chronicle covered with barely legible writing, and again he visits the murky house on the Dvina where he had been once in his childhood […] called the Palace, to distinguish it from the cottage in the park where Eugene used to move, together with his piano, for the winter.

We move here from Milosz’s later life in California to his childhood in Lithuania, before the First World War, and from “he” to “I” to “he.” The lyric consciousness that “speaks” The Separate Notebooks turns on its own self-awareness, and, through subtle shifts in point of view, turns on the positions, the persons of that awareness. The “old man” from above, “contemptuous, black-hearted,” “speaks” in third person. Yet when the “I” speaks in the poem that follows, he is immediately overlaid, as if a transparency, upon the “old man,” becoming him, who is in turn overlaid upon the family chronicle’s bitter Eugene, who we encounter as if over the shoulder of a third person, reading.


Poetry is, in its essence, a kind of influence. It is by nature reflective. What comes in depends on what the instrument knows and is capable of letting in. What was Milosz letting in and reflecting out to others? While the “family chronicle covered with barely legible writing” that plays a central role in the opening of the poem is partially fictionalized, Milosz’s own influence for the “spacious form” of the “Notebooks” may be the Polish tradition of the silva rerum, a multi-generational family commonplace book regularly kept by Polish nobles from the 1500s to the 1700s. Meaning “a forest of things,” silva rerum contained lists, advice, family histories, legal transcriptions, occasional poems, memorable quotations, anything one wanted to record for future generations. Stanislaw Baranczak, in fact, likens Milosz’s next book, Unattainable Earth, which builds on the structure of The Separate Notebooks, to a modern silva rerum. The sixth century poet and philosopher Boethius’s prose and verse work The Consolation of Philosophy may have also inspired Milosz, who wrote elsewhere about Boethius. In the silva rerum and in Boethius’s Consolation, the shifts of form indicate shifts in perspective, shifts in consciousness; one does not record advice about warding off sickness from the same point of view from which one records the lament for the dead.


A quarter century after Vendler made her challenge, what do American poets today have to gain from the influence of a poet born in 1911 in distant Lithuania? We might gain a new perspective toward the ethereal fluid of history, ours and the histories of others. In its fidelity to the complex lights of history, The Separate Notebooks is documentary. Milosz achieves this documentary effect, in part, by using the dialectic naturally built into the mixed form, allowing the movement between the poetic line and the paragraph to indicate antithesis:

When Thomas brought the news that the house I was born in no longer exists,

Neither the lane nor the park sloping to the river, nothing,

I had a dream of return. Multicolored. Joyous. I was able to fly.

And the trees were even higher than in childhood, because they had been growing during all the years since they had been cut down.

The loss of a native province, of a homeland,

Wandering one’s whole life among foreign tribes—


The Earth has not been to your majesty’s liking,

For reasons having nothing to do with the planetary state.

Nonetheless I am amazed to have reached a venerable age.

And certainly I have experienced miraculous narrow escapes for which I vowed to God my gratitude,

So the horror of those days visited me as well.

(Page 39)
He hears voices but he does not understand the screams, prayers, blasphemies, hymns which chose him for their medium. He would like to know who he was, but he does not know. He would like to be one, but he is a self-contradictory multitude which gives him some joy, but more shame.

(From the “The Wormwood Star” movement of The Separate Notebooks.)

This shift from representation to discursive commentary is characteristic of Milosz’s documentary use of mixed form, which allows him, in essence, to include additional mirrors, and with those, the pain and beauty of additional seeing, and light. (To read contemporary Americans who have begun to use the mixed form to similar documentary effect, see One with Others by C.D. Wright and 100 Notes on Violence by Julie Carr.) Milosz encounters the American reader, and we encounter him, from distant positions, yet the dialogue between distant positions, integral to his method, invites our encounter. This is the “something indecent” he speaks of in “Ars Poetica?” One part of the self watching a distant part of the self watching.

Watching my self reading Milosz, I recognize the source of my sense of the poem as a machine not just for language but for rigorous thought, for confrontation; my understanding that my task as a poet allows for the intake of the archaic, foreign, and distant; I recognize the influence of his “more spacious form,” which involves more than orientating the distances between prose and verse, but the distances incumbent in our sense of separate self. These first came to me, and continue to provoke my present work, under his star.


Sango’s Apology
          an imperfect sonnet for “Idanre”

If it were ever to happen,
and it will not, I would move
her head from the nest of my arms
in the middle of a measure of song,
chimes in her throat calling back
my dance that led her from Ogun
to me, from his iron to my thunder,
the lit sky of her confessions
an unaware script, but his is what
I took, what I keep, the theft
a single fortune, stealing Oya,
the wife enchanted by my tongue
while his black dog went mute–
night his prison, his wife my eyes.


You can feel the kudzu snake around your wrist while you wander and circle and backtrack the highways and dirt roads of Deepstep.  It’s part x-chromosome-road-trip and part whirling dreamscape that doubles back on itself—filling your basket with broken pottery and photographs of loved ones and strangers—in just the way the mind does when you let it go on a walkabout, or in this case, a driveabout.  Meanwhile, the boneman and the snakeman (with his “shitty attitude”) and Louise (“God is Louise”) and the chicken, Becky, manifest and dissolve then reappear somewhere down the road.  It is a poem full of leglight and onionlight and magnolialight but also chickenlove and moth-on-the-screendoor love and, yes, blindness in incremental degrees.

Deepstep is a poem for anyone who’s ever gone home again to try to walk in old tracks and for anyone who loves the jumbled oddity that is America.  It’s a poem for anyone who can place herself with a whiff of tobacco or mint field or maybe onions: “They’re Vidalias.  Now do you know where we are.”  It’s both an itchy-footed meander and a long call home.

But one thing’s for sure, in Deepstep, C.D. Wright makes good on her offer:  “In hither world I lead you willingly along the light-bearing paths.  In the hither world I offer a once-and-for-all thing, opaque and revelatory, ceaselessly burning.”


I found Ronald Johnson when I most needed a different way to imagine being a Kansan, to stand both apart and within it, to stand my ground and yell sideways like John Brown in the John Steuart Curry murals of the state capitol. You could leave Kansas and yet be a Kansan, like William Stafford (a bit too much of a wise owl for my tastes), or Amelia Earhart (still missing). I took heart from the psychedelic prairie wildfires of The Flaming Lips that you could imaginatively work and inhabit this landscape without taking it as a subject or adhering to the good citizenship pledge. At that distance from the sea, it seemed impossible to go overboard.

I found Ronald Johnson, literally, tending the gardens around the Ward-Meade historic mansion, a few blocks from my family home in Topeka.  He had walked the English countryside with Jonathan Williams, lived in the Oz of San Francisco in the 70s and 80s, written many mad and quiet books of poems, and returned to Topeka in 1993 to take care of his father, and died of a brain tumor in March of 1998.  Home from college, I would go to Ward-Meade hoping finally to work up the courage to introduce myself and tell him how much his work had meant to me and influenced me, but although I saw him several times (pushing a wheelbarrow, pruning some butterfly bushes) I never did speak to him. Today he is remembered at Ward-Meade by a plaque designed by the poet Jeff Clark. It is the unlikeliest thing in Topeka, Kansas.

By the time he returned to Topeka he had finished his long poem ARK, begun in 1970 and finished in 1991.  It is a very odd book, toweringly odd, like the Watts Towers in LA that inspired the architectural conception of the book. Also: Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, and the rainbow (arc-en-ciel in French). And many other things, a controlled and insane matrix of associations that still avoid meaning anything less, over 250 pages, than day. What a day is, day-ness, the eternal and cosmic peanut-butter octopus of time, and what a terrible wonder it is to live in days, and to see light. Its 99 sections are broken into three books, The Foundations, The Spires, and The Ramparts. The poem is a kind of land use, a shaping of foundations to direct our attention to the cosmos behind earthly illusions, like the grand desert projects of Noah Purifoy, James Turrell and Michael Heizer.

ARK is the work of a free person. Johnson was liberated in ways that many contemporary writers are not: he made a living in San Francisco as a chef, caterer, and cookbook author. Did not teach, was not academic, a slight outsideriness which has fed the machine of his neglect. Right there in the book is his handprint, inky, whorled, a living hand held toward us. A few wild acts like this can’t disguise the otherwise spare ecstasy, the austere vision of most of ARK. You could correctly identify some passages as goofy, but what loving reader can avoid blushing at excessive passages of Milton, Blake, Christopher Smart, the crazy guy who stands by the overpass with indecipherable signs?  Every Orpheus is torn apart by his audience.

This is an important book and any serious writer or reader of poetry should know it. There is something rude and flawed about ARK that makes it more valuable, to me, than the works to which it is compared: Zukofsky’s A, Olson’s The Maximus Poems, even Pound’s Cantos. These 20th Century poetic monuments remind me of the 20th Century, which I don’t feel I have to think about anymore, because it is done. Don’t want to think about, don’t want to be a historian of. Let Boomers do so. And yet let ARK sail with us now. It maintains a lyric intensity and evades its structures and slips past its time, the way glimpses of Eden flash at the corner of the eye sometimes.


Though I wish I could talk about the whole of Creatures of a Day by Reginald Gibbons–a collection that shocked me awake on a first reading and one I’ve loved since–I’ll settle on “Ode: sometimes there’s neither sun nor shadow.”

In “The Prelude,” Wordsworth makes that amazing, dual, in-the-moment/astride-the-moment gesture describing “spots of time”–the impalpable sense of being, first experienced in childhood that he dearly wants to hold close. Here’s Gibbons’s first stanza:

Sometimes there’s neither sun nor shadow, mist closes behind me, here or
                  there stands someone in the fields, eyes closed, recalling and trying
                  to be recalled.

In “Ode,” memory both holds the world and offers a way to be held (or rather, a way to be written back into existence.) The poem as a whole, and especially at the end, suggests that the act of writing is a paradoxical practice–one which requires that the writer, in composing, endure a sense of distance from the present while also enduring a sense of distance from the dearly-sought subject–a kind of metaphysical, on-the-job hazard.

I love best: the physicality of this poem and the way it leans in its composition towards an elusive photorealism. The phrase “I try” repeats, and the author does indeed try, right there on the page, wholly in the moment–without haste, after “a timbre, a tone” as he says–to hunt scents and gestures and accents, not as bounty, but for the sake of an authentic atmosphere or instant. Length, then, as an act of modesty, a gesture that recognizes how wide a bandwidth the past wants to be, and how fragile and brief a whisper it actually is.


Great poets, by and large, do not know what they are talking about: that is the point of Keats’s praise of Shakespeare, that quality of negative capability that Shakespeare had above all, of getting out of the way of your own invention in order to make something larger than what you can understand. If, as a reader, you are committed to this idea, then poems will rank for you as they exceed their maker’s designs. (No less consciously masterful a poet than John Hollander claims that he wrote his first real poem when he gave up on knowing what it was about.) As a critic, you have the pleasure of saying what the poet could not. If this is your view, however, and it is at least a tacit orthodoxy for most of us, James Merrill’s Book of Ephraim will give you pause.

Consider an example: lines that have recently been singled out by a very good, and otherwise sympathetic, critic as an instance of the vice in Merrill of mere, lush word-painting:

The droplets atomize, evaporate
To dazzlement a blankness overdusts
Pale blue, then paler blue. It stops at nothing.

The lines come from the end of “T,” the twentieth of twenty-six sections, each headed by a letter from the repertory of the ouija board. Many spirits speak in the poem, including the ancient Ephraim of the title, who roughs out a new cosmogony for Merrill and his lover David Jackson over twenty-five years of irregular correspondence. (The poem is the story of their lives together, Merrill’s and Jackson’s, as well as of the board’s revelations.) No spirit is speaking here, however. These lines are about Sergei, who is the hermit-protagonist of a novel Merrill once tried to write, a novel that was his first attempt to reckon with the whole ouija business, and which he lost forever when he left it in a taxicab in Macon, Georgia. Sergei, in a scene the poem reconstructs, is taking a piss in the desert. Hence the droplets, which drift up into an ever-thinner, paler atmosphere, stopping at nothing.

The complexity of the poem will be evident even in my partial account of its design: it is an autobiography and a metaphysics, underwritten by the lost novel and interrupted by spirit visitors from Ephraim to W. H. Auden to Maya Deren (their words are transcribed, via the board, in ALL CAPS). But that complexity is equally, fractally evident in any given image. The atomization has its place in an account of the trouble made for relations between this world and the next by nuclear fission. That atomization stops at nothing, in a phase perfectly equivocal between physics and the morality that must somehow—can it be?—founded there. And then there is the desert piss itself, which may seem so idly, irresponsibly beautified. No, for throughout Ephraim, Merrill is testing his own ability to feel, for the universe, for the dead, among them friends and his late father, and for David. Water is everywhere, and it is always some comment on the tears he cannot shed. Sergei’s making water is so close to and so far from crying, and its pointless beauty means everything.

Which is to say, everything is meaningful in Ephraim, and behind every pattern, every pun, every masterful pentameter, one suspects the designing intelligence of the I who is the poem’s author. Wit is part of the explanation: Merrill is unfailingly witty, and wit always knows what it is up to. The poem’s peculiarly theologized version of science has a role to play, too: the rule-bound universe that Ephraim reveals in snatches and fragments (and that is explored more systematically in the remainder of the trilogy of long poems now known as The Changing Light at Sandover) is one overseen by an obscure but ubiquitous intelligence. The constant surprise of the poem’s interinanimation is a surprise only to us. So why is this not impoverishing? How could the poem mean so much and still know itself? Milton may be the better precedent than Shakespeare, out to justify the ways of God to men. But Milton could never bring himself to say what Merrill so urbanely, so casually, allows in Ephraim’s sequel: “anything worth having’s had both ways.” He is our most knowing poet, and his poem is worth knowing.


With the Moon over Your Shoulder

You can open The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You to just about any page and get a sense of what it wants from you: “call me sleep rider” or “I can live off scraps they don’t have to be warm” or “for fun they veered off the side and tore up a man’s field” or, of course, just start with the poem’s first line: “tonight the gars on the trees are swords in the hands of knights.” That lovely iambic/anapestic music brings us its chivalrous, childlike awe of the roundtable. But Frank Stanford’s long poem is a narrative epic, or perhaps it’s just a lyric broken over 15,283 lines—and somehow the poem came out in a single, uninterrupted stanza. It’s not a “project.” It’s a planet.

In many ways, Stanford’s masterpiece is the opposite of a workshop poem: it’s sprawling, sloppy, flawed, excessive, nasty, difficult to read, and seems at points to be endless. Further, it was written by a white man, and much of its language is in an African American dialect of the middle south, circa 1950. Also, in its present form, it comes in at 383 pages. And if that weren’t enough to get you laughed out of the room, the poem is almost entirely unpunctuated, save apostrophes, which aid little in the poem’s gorgeously fluid yet vexing lines. In fact, a single line for Stanford could rival even Whitman, as with “I marry the unknown in the poolroom I make out the great thighs of the shark”—and then you might find just the word “victory” on a line by itself or, my favorite, “so long motherfuckers” hanging there alone.

Apparently Alan Dugan tried to submit a copy of the original version to the Walt Whitman Prize run by the Academy of American Poets. At that time it was “five-hundred-and-forty-two pages or just under four pounds,” as C.D. Wright puts it in her introduction, and the Academy refused even to read it, citing its length.

I encountered it in early 2006 or so when Mathias Svalina and Zachary Schomburg and I were doing some readings together in the Midwest. I was living in Denver; they were in Lincoln, Nebraska; and we were all trying to finish grad school and get on the road with our poems. (We had something like two books and about eleven chapbooks published between us—who the fuck did I think we were?) I brought a copy of The Battlefield with us, and by turns we read it aloud in the car, on the long stretches from Kansas to Missouri, Missouri to Chicago, on up to Minneapolis, and back down through Iowa. This was not an appropriate landscape for The Battlefield. We were just going the wrong direction. We should have been touring the Arkansas Ozarks, Tennessee, and Louisiana, perhaps. Nevertheless, the three of us—I will speak for us all here—were transformed by its worlds, by its insane litanies, by its force of imagination, by its awful hilarity. It happens to be the most mysterious, beautiful, funny, and astonishing single poem I have so far encountered. By the time we got back to Mathias’s little basement apartment in Lincoln, we were reading it to pretty much anybody on the sidewalk who passed by.

I met Chicu Reddy around this time too. We were reading together at the Poetry Center in Tucson—where I now live. Out after the reading at some bar on 4th Ave, he asked me what I’d been reading, and—like everybody else I knew at the time—I told him I’d been obsessively memorizing Graham Foust’s first two books. Chicu just said, “Oh yeah, Graham’s work is like crack for poets.” Indeed. And as I open up The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, I think, what is Stanford for poets? A drug, no doubt, from which there is no return from the force of its experience. Maybe for me it’s akin to what Rimbaud was to Ashbery and Patti Smith. Or what Blake meant to Ginsberg.  I don’t know.

But when I want to sip on its powers a bit, I return to an early passage:

and I thought when you have a swimming party always go alone
do not attend show up by yourself don’t show up unless no one is there
swim alone never with a buddy always go in the water by yourself no matter what
they tell you jump off banks even if you know it’s shallow below crack your head
open always swim at night jump in when it’s COLD and you gasp and can’t move
my advice to all is death by water if you have an appointment at dawn a duel
swim to the forest of honor with the moon over your shoulder

—April 15, 2012, Tucson, AZ


About suffering we were always wrong. That if we were lucky, it would happen only to others. That when it happened to us, it would be crippling. That when it happened to others, it had little to do with us.

Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances” was the first sonnet sequence that I analyzed concertedly for form, and it is the poem that revealed to me (along with a number of iconic poems by Yeats) what one can do with form and particularly with sound within set structure to enhance meaning. A meditation in eight sonnets on the poet’s mother, her death, and his bond with her, “Clearances” remains my go-to poem about grieving and personal loss.

Within the suite, Heaney inhabits the sonnet form loosely, mixing up rhyme schemes and invoking patterns with deliberately varied degrees of faithfulness to tradition. In the opening sonnet, for example, the poet-speaker recalls his great-grandmother’s rebellious romantic choices in a blended Italian-English form, while coolly integrating words like “exogamous” into the characteristically casual diction, with the overtly extravagant word acting much like the stone thrown at his great-grandmother on her wedding day, and with the word stone itself used twice—early on in line 2 and then dropping through the lines—persistent as inherited story—to appear as the last word of this poem. The sound of the word stone also reverberates elsewhere in the sequence in rhyming and assonantal words such as shone, one, bowl, iron, open, and soul, and throughout “Clearances,” Heaney employs short and long o’s, their repetition sounding like the gonging of a bell, the tolling of the one note of grief.

Like “Clearances,” Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till makes use of the sonnet sequence’s blending of lyric intensity with sustained contemplation, but in order to explore a different kind of sorrow. In this series, Nelson evokes the heroic crown or sonnet redoublé, a stately form in which 14 sonnets are intimately linked, as the final lines of individual sonnets become the first lines of the successive poems, culminating in a 15th sonnet using all 14 of those first lines in order. The crown is a perfect vessel for shaping overwhelming content, as its intricate rigor enables the poet to consider and convey events that would otherwise swallow or flatten speech. Here, Nelson employs the form to address the unspeakable, in this case, the revolting torture and murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicago native who was lynched and killed while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi in 1955.

A Wreath for Emmett Till is remarkably and wonderfully a children’s book, smartly illustrated and intended for young adults learning about their world and their history, and Nelson’s verse is unequivocally clear and unflinching, drawing the reader in with Shakespearean allusion and classic imagery—flowers and plants for the wreath she weaves for Till’s martyrdom—and onward through crystalline description of the murder in its very personal feeling and sustained brutality. Even with the distance of decades, it is not an easy event to read about, and it had to be wretched to write. It was, as Nelson notes in her introduction, a poem she wrote with “my heart in my mouth and tears in my eyes, breathless with anticipation and surprise.”

A seasoned sonneteer who had previously invoked the form in her series about the lives of slaves, Nelson drives home the imperative to remember in striking image after image—blending the natural and the tender and the vile and the neutral in A Wreath’s impeccably turned Petrarchan sonnets. Along the way, she links this tragedy with other late 20th-century and early 21st-century outrages.

Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, made the choice in 1955 to hold an open-casket funeral in Chicago in order to show the world what had happened to her son and what had happened so often to others. Turning her private grief into public event helped to galvanize the Civil Rights movements, as people around the States saw the extremity of the problem and the extent to which it was not merely isolated in a particular region.

Nelson’s poem extends Mobley’s gesture into our century, where recent events such as the slaying of Trayvon Martin again sadly echo this one. In light of the ongoing need to witness and to feel experience, Nelson’s and Heaney’s sequences show how this long form enables the poet writing about difficult subjects—even the most painful and enraging and confusing kinds of loss—to say what he or she feels with clarity, force, and grace.


Robinson Jeffers lived on California’s Big Sur coast and his poetry is full of the energy of that sublime landscape. Big Sur has had many visitors since Jeffers, and most of them go for landscape, though now you can get a massage at Esalen and an overpriced meal nearly everywhere. But Jeffers loved ruined majesty. One of his best short poems, “Hurt Hawks,” has palpable pith that feels noble and brave at the same time. Even though the poem is saying something contrarian, its voice can be likeably aphoristic: “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.”

There’s little that’s likeable about the one hundred page long narrative poem Cawdor, published by Jeffers in 1928. Jeffers favors to exclusion the hard consonants of Anglo-Saxon rhythm and the flat vowels recognizable to those of us who can hear a modern “California” accent. The voice piles long line upon long line in accumulating, but always carefully orchestrated, periodic sentences. The narrator roams like a radio tuning in to sources of aggression. A mixed-race character is called a “brown slug,” and another a “nigger;” women are reviled for their lack of a sense of justice. But I think there’s a reason editor Albert Gelpi saw fit to let it take up more than half the space of his fantastic 2008 selected Jeffers (titled The Wild God of the World and published by Stanford University Press in 2008). In Cawdor Jeffers’ condemnation of man gives rise to an entire world, a whole creation.

As for the view, when the monstrous Fera, the main female character of the poem based on the Greek Phaedra, makes a commentary on the value of going someplace to see a beautiful view, it’s cutting:

“Oh well,” he answered,
“The coast’s beautiful after the rain. I’ll have the drive.” “Like this old man,” she
        said, “and the otherMillions that are born and die; come all the sloppy way for nothing and turn about
        and go back. They have the drive.”

There’s also nothing optimistic about Cawdor. Harsh weather accompanies harsh wisdom. In the lines above Fera addresses a doctor who’s too late to help her dying father. Fera’s amorous ferocity ruins the lives of both her older husband and his estranged son, her would-be lover. In the midst of various killings and at least one attempted suicide, people keep trying to escape the confined dwelling on the cliff and go for a walk or a ride into nature, only to be reminded by the author that the only thing that happens out of doors to people is the hunt. In Fera’s words, an intuition of the brutality of nature coheres:

I’ve never found the little garden-flower temperance
In the forest of the acts of God… Oh no, all’s forever there, all wild and monstrous
Outside the garden: long after the white body beats to bone on the rock-teeth the
         unfed spirit
Will go screaming with pain along the flash of the foam, gnawing for its famine a
          wrist of shadow,
Torture by the sea, screaming your name.

The plot of Cawdor flirts with irrelevance in the face of such infernal rhetoric–a rhetoric that neither brings useful self-understanding nor inspires compassion among the characters. Instead, the poem’s terrible beauty centers around three rhizomes of description, each an attempt to make an account of how consciousness encounters death: first to go is Fera’s father’s, next, her lover Hood Cawdor, driven to his death by his father’s jealous rage, and finally, the death of the eagle captured by Cawdor’s daughter Michal. Though the last moments of the play narrate Cawdor’s Oedipal self-blinding (ironic, since he’s father not son) even these moments pale in comparison to these narrations of the moment the spirit crosses the border between life and death.

In the moment of death, Jeffers sees each man and woman and creature as a maker, not a consumer. He writes of Fera’s father:

Or one might say the brain began to glow, with its own light, in the starless
Darkness under the dead bone sky; like bits of rotting wood on the floor of the
          night forest
Warm rains have soaked, you see them beside the path shine like vague eyes.
So gently the dead man’s brain glowing by itself made and enjoyed its dream.

Of the death of the eagle, Jeffers meditates “life was more than its functions /and accidents, more important than its pains and pleasures.” He reminds us–he argues to us–that the nature of human experience is to undertake acts of making, which are not always acts of conscious understanding as much as they are desperate ways of interpreting the complexity of experience. You don’t “make” a dream at the edge of death to produce something. One of the lasting images of the poem is of the younger generation gathering mussels and abalone to make soup for Fera’s dying father. To live without defeat means to keep making, if you’re going to keep consuming.

So many of the best long poems of the 20th century seem to have some interest in the length of the poem bearing some relationship to the feeling of living in the quotidian. Jeffers tackles this question from an angle of immortality. He wouldn’t care at all if “everyone else” thought it was “ok” to shop at Trader Joe’s and spend a lot of time on Facebook. He would still be telling you to grow your own food and read books, not so that you’d feel better about yourself but so that you might be good enough to be called an animal at the moment that you die.


Shocked into Speech

You find yourself camped out in a moldy tent. You run out of whiskey. You run out of chocolate. You struggle to find a dry place to hang your socks. You’re stuck in the wilderness, wondering how to define the Sublime. Maybe it’s mountain, then again, maybe not. I’m a big fan of long poems since it takes me a while to settle into the bedrock. But once I’m there, I’m a fossil in the shape of a snail: I can see the passage of a million years. Look at those clouds! Look at the campfire, how the blue flame contours the surrounding hill. Long poems allow the mind the great freedom to wander out into the wilderness, and to then circle back. Every few years, I read my favorite book-length long poem: Mrs. Cadwell Speaks to Her Son by Camilio José Cela. This work is classified as an epistolary novel but I know it’s really poetry in disguise. Cela uses allusion, metaphor, and repetition in the voice of a deranged Englishwoman who elegizes her only son, Eliacim, in a series of love letters to him. (I’ve drawn music notes in the margin of my beat-up copy to stand for “musical speech” and to flag how important sound is to this poem’s structure.) Toned, and idiosyncratic, these letters are filled with such a peculiar and manic longing, you wonder how long the tension can last. With no narrative, and no plot, this poem maps an Aegean Sea “full of burning nails, full of planks run aground. Excuse me if I go on to something else.” Thankfully, for us readers, it builds into an epic-ness so incestuous and strange it rots out into a heady familial perfume of doom. Mrs. Cadwell’s private speeches to her son are moving, and taboo. As example, here’s the beginning of a short letter which I’ve opened for you:

In a huge bird cage, Eliacim, in an immense cage in which
the birds would keep for ages the joy of knowing themselves
to be captives, I would keep your tiny heart until it sprouted
wings the intimate color of the apple blossom.

This letter closes with:

Your heart, my dear, became the colors of the hoarse
sound of the sea, Eliacim, and is no longer good for bird food.

The devastating sound of the sea, the color of apple blossoms; and so the sensory pathway triggers a second path we must follow into mingled sense. Mrs. Cadwell Speaks to Her Son explores the function of imagination as it relates to reality, and how the imagination shocks us into creating–believing–exactly what we need in order to live. By testing the limits of emotional expression, by camping away from civilized society, Mrs. Cadwell invites the strangeness of her own speech to keep herself warm, to keep herself outside.


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