Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 5

Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 5

For the latest installments in this feature, we’ve once again asked 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 fifth of six installments. You can see the others hereherehere, here and here.

Scroll down or click on the links to read:

Joy Katz on John Berryman
Craig Morgan Teicher on A.R. Ammons
Chris Tonelli on A.R. Ammons
Joanne Diaz on Brenda Shaughnessy
Geffrey Davis on Claudia Rankine
Erika Meitner on Denis Johnson
Ada Limón on Larry Levis
Dave Lucas on Mark Strand
Rusty Morrison on Forrest Gander
Averill Curdy on James Schuyler
Lisa L. Moore on Judy Grahn


I find an audio clip of John Berryman reading Dream Song 4, the only recording of a Song with the black voice in it.

I hit “play” and wait for him to get to line 11. The recording, from the Guggenheim in 1963—Halloween night—is full of furry analog hiss.

Berryman begins:

                 Filling her compact & delicious body with chicken paprika…

He hasn’t crossed over to the black diction yet. By “black diction,” I mean the voice that sometimes enters these hundreds of poems, The Dream Songs, which otherwise center on Henry. Henry is white—that seems obvious, but I’ll say it—or anyway both Henry and his unnamed “black friend” are the inventions of a white poet, so who is what, and what is “other,” is complicated.

The friend first appears in Song 2, speaking broad-stroke Vaudeville: “astonishin yo legal and yo good.” Later, the diction draws close to a Lead Belly blues lyric. By Song 50, the voice is something entirely else: elements of blackface as if pushed through a speech filter tuned to Andrew Marvell.

                 I cave to feel as if
de roses of dawns & pearls of dusks, made up
by some ol’ writer-man, got right forgot
& the greennesses of ours.

The voices, black and white, have become so entwined, I can’t separate them. To me, this inseparability is one meaning of the poems. A hundred years earlier, in Song of Myself, Walt Whitman was caught up in “the merge,” a vision of unity that enfolded everyone, including enslaved blacks. In 1963, in what I think of as Berryman’s Song of My Selves, there is no “merge.” Only entanglement. I find this passage beautiful and astonishing. I am interested, and personally involved, in entanglement…. But never mind. Sitting here waiting for Berryman to perform the voice, in real time, I only feel dread.

                 … chicken paprika …

“Paprika” gets some giggles. The mood in the auditorium is buoyant. This poem is about a night out. The men are in white shirts and ties, the women in sheaths, they’re leaning in, listening, they are going out for drinks after…

Berryman is reading the Dream Song two months after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is four months after students in Birmingham, protesting segregation, were mauled by police dogs. Nineteen sixty-three is on fire. The story goes that Berryman used to call up his friend Ralph Ellison in the middle of the night and read him the black lines to get his opinion. I wonder whether the audience is all white. It is Halloween, night of masks.

I am waiting for Berryman to step over a line. (A chalk outline?) How will the poet switch codes, how move from his voice—amused, erudite-but-not-too, emanating from a full beard silvered as if by the hiss of a kettle in some cozy faculty lounge—into the other one. (George Wallace: “Segregation forever.”) Now Berryman is at line 6.

                 …falling at her little feet and crying
“You are the hottest one for years of night…

I am waiting for the poet to fall off into the abyss. I am waiting for him to be wrong. I am good and certain to be kicked in the gut by his wrong. I seem to need to be, despite my nuanced case for the “black” voice. Here in 2014, I am the girl who does know better but.


My mother’s voice held traces of Boston by way of Memphis. In a clear alto she repeated the meaningless white line: We are all the same. Saying this, she meant to keep me from a wrong. Meant well. Believed she was teaching her daughter justice. Instead, “we are all the same” taught me how to not see. I am well schooled in not-seeing blackness and all kinds of other things. It turns out this kind of sight makes people invisible. Race blindness harms souls, doesn’t dignify them. Meanwhile, at the same time, I somehow also learned to hear black speech as “wrong,” incorrect, not part of us (white, black, other) progressing toward a democratic goal, to be the same. I am not sure how that became the dream.


On the recording, Berryman gets to line 11 finally.

Here’s what happens. He stops reading the poem, pauses, and offers an aside to the audience: “Now, here comes his friend…”

So, before crossing the border, Berryman has to explain. Is this a form of responsibility, or is he doing the thing white people do when they say, “I’m not being offensive here, this is my black friend.” Is he self-conscious to simply switch over to this voice? His explanation is like the window that pops up on the YouTube video when Glenn Vernon & Edward Ryan make themselves up in blackface. Once their faces darken, they toggle from white speech to “lookee heuh, mistuh Tambo.” This is not meant to promote hatred in any way. It is merely a historical look at the use of blackface.

Berryman reads:

… is stuffed, de world, wif feeding girls…

Reading the line, he sounds not different from when he reads the rest of the poem. It turns out he doesn’t read the “black” voice as caricature. He sounds like himself. Only, a tiny bit clearer. More—intentional. A little like a drunk person trying to seem sober. Or how some people speak English to non-English-speakers. I was waiting to be kicked in the gut. What did I expect? I needed the voice to feel like a wrongdoing. But then, I didn’t hear the voice I thought I would hear.


In Dream Song 98, Henry asks, “why can’t we all the same be?”

The black friend asks, “Sir Bones, how?”

Henry has that white longing, to be all the same. The poem ends in silence after the unanswered question. Henry has no response. He never responds to the black voice. In fact, he doesn’t seem to ever hear it.

Henry has only longings. The black friend has ideas: that we are not all the same; that we have to die; that we have to choose to live, not sit on the fence. These registers of diction carry what little daylight and reason there is in the Songs.


In interviews, Berryman talked about that wherever Ellison went, Ellison was black. That meant not being heard. It meant (means) suspicion, violence, invisibility. The luckiness of being born white was not lost on Berryman. In that, I think he understood something about race that my mother never did and that I didn’t for most of my life. I wonder what she would have said about Berryman’s poem had she been in the audience that night in 1963.

As I work on my own poems about race, I am hyperaware of the tension between the meaning I find in the Songs’ use of voice and my discomfort with it. Voice is the radioactive material of racial thought. But this is 2014. Poets talking about race do so in what Major Jackson has described as a surveillance culture, among a “diverse and politically sensitive audience of readers and critics.” This is it should be. But I am on high alert about what voice can and can’t enter a poem, according to the rules. It’s not hard to see how a white poet could be sidelined into poetics of white guilt—which actually stalls thinking about race, rather than moving it forward— or be too fearful and self-conscious to write anything but “responsible” poems that go around quietly in rubber nurses’ shoes.

I still think any voice in a poet’s consciousness ought to be able to enter a poem.

But how.


It’s hardly a cure, but poetry is certainly something distracting to do while one is anxious; it’s full of grubby toys, a kind of doctor’s waiting room of the mind, a magazine to thumb through before you’re called in to death.  Desperately anxious about whether he would get a full-time teaching gig at Cornell in the late 1960s (it was to be his first, and only, I believe), A.R. Ammons found himself giddily interested in what would happen if he stuck a roll of calculator tape into a typewriter and kept writing poetry (with lines no wider than the width of the tape) until the tape ran out.  He hoped the tape would be long enough to get him through until he heard back about this life-changing job, or at least that’s what I was told.  The result was Tape for the Turn of the Year, the first of Ammons’ celebrated long poems, and an extraordinary verbal object that has dogged and haunted me since I first read it about a decade ago.

It’s an extraordinary poem, and kind of a bad one.  It’s just Ammons casting whatever he happens to be thinking about in short lines until he feels like stopping for a while.  Bloom likes to lump Ammons and Ashbery together in his celebrations of “sequences” of poets, and, yes, they both write in pursuit of their minds in the act of thinking, of articulating, of coming into being through words.  But Ashbery’s scaffolding is almost always the conglomerated culture his mind has absorbed during all his attentive years–he free associates between good and bad films, paintings, books, but not so many actual people.  Ammons is grittier.  He looks around him all the time: his mind is whatever is near to hand that he can describe.  So, in Tape, we often watch him twiddling his thumbs, describing the tape itself as it curls into a waste basket beneath his typewriter; he also writes about bugs and the weather and anything and whatever.  None of it would work if he weren’t so clever.  And, in his later long poems, when he’s fully embraced his inner crotchety old man (which happens, in his work, long before he actually gets old), there’s a kind of stubborn meticulousness, a hardened sense of habit, that robs the poems of some spark.

But this first book-length poem broke me open, showed me how far one could go in writing down what one thought one thought.  I wrote an imitation of and tribute to it which became the long poem that occupies the final third of my first book.  And I’ve been trying to get Ammons’ grouchy, earthy music out of my head ever since.  I recently taught this book to a class of grad students; they kind of didn’t get what was so great about it, and a decade later, I must admit, I almost didn’t get it either.  It takes special circumstances, maybe, to be struck by how wildly surprising and ridiculous this particular poem is.  I’m not sure I’ll ever read it again with the same sense of wonder.  But maybe I will, and I certainly wish everyone who loves poetry the chance to read this poem for the first time with all of those circumstances, whatever they may be, in alignment so that Ammons can keep sounding this strange wakeup call.


                                                            today I
decided to write
a long

                                                            …to contemplate
this roll of
adding-machine tape, so
narrow, long,

Ammons begins Tape for the Turn of the Year by matter-of-factly setting the formal parameters, invoking the muse, and “employing certain / other classical considerations.” In doing so, he affords a remarkably representative glimpse into his 200+ page meditation.

In many ways, the above excerpt prepares us for a book-length version of Williams’ “Just to Say.” Ammons could have just as easily said, “today I / decided to eat / all the / plums,” and his “so / narrow, long, / unbroken” certainly echoes, “so sweet / and so cold.”

But this excerpt also prepares us for the Beat-esque exercise that it is—a poem written continuously on cash register tape from the “Garden store” Ammons mentions early on in the poem, implying that he works there a few nights a week. It is an exercise that purports a certain level of editlessness, and its content (also classically Beat in nature at times) reflects this inclusiveness: “I can’t / feel any presence / to my balls: missing // would it be masturbatory if / I if I / touched the area / briefly / just to make sure?” His reaction, after coming to the conclusion that they are in fact still there, and that they do still work, might as well have been a Ginsbergian “My balls are holy!” but is instead: “two cool weights! / thank you: / thank you very much:”.

For another kind of reader, the poem evokes the easy, ecstatic speech of the New York or Black Mountain schools, especially when Ammons employs the abbreviations and ampersands for which Creeley is best-known: “fact is, I’m having / this conversation with a / piece of paper! / and “you” are a figment / of imagination and “you” / have no mask / & if you did / no face / wd be behind it:”.

Because of these various approaches, Tape for the Turn of the Year can technically be classified as a kind of Desert Island Classic—a survival kit of post-WWII poetry. But it should really be read more wholistically, as a meandering, leisurely, patient epic (“this is that & that is this / & on and on”) punctuated by bursts of lyricism.

One extended example of this comes when, for a few pages anyway, the “you” he’s addressing most certainly is not a figment of Ammons’ imagination, but is in fact his wife, Phyllis. It is the Gettysburg Address of love letters—brief and simple, but powerful and complete. It should be our national wedding vow, or, at the very least, parts of it should serve as substantive replacement text for those Valentine’s Day sweetheart candies, lyrics like “encounter me with / belief:” and “are we touching on elation / enough?” and “you’ve had me: I float: / every cell / comes to this:”. It ends with him pretty much stammering, broken down into his most rudimentary elements of expression, in this case, pure gratitude and the kind of guilt that results from not deserving what one is grateful for:

                                      you are
beautiful: you are
just beautiful:
beautiful: thank you:

While the realization that one’s genitals are still viable provides a very different brand of relief than the realization that one has had a loyal, generous partner for decades, gratitudes of all varieties pervade Tape for the Turn of the Year. It is a sentiment that seems necessary for Ammons, or is at least the form of attention he chooses most often to apply, in order to sustain a project that requires both a daily casualness and an intense formal commitment.


Now that I’ve read Brenda Shaughnessy’s “Our Andromeda,” I’ll never look at a crosswalk the same way.

Perhaps I should explain.

Shaughnessy’s marvelous, charged, wide-ranging poem points to the most urgent of life decisions, disappointments, and affirmations. In it, the speaker meditates on the harm that has come to her son during his birth and the disabilities that he will live with for the rest of his life. Her poem is remarkable for its rhetorical leaps: across twenty-one pages of beautifully crafted, heart-wrenching tercets, Shaughnessy elegizes the child she might have had in another galaxy. It’s an Old Testament lamentation against a God who doesn’t answer her cries; an act of penance for the choices the speaker does and does not make on behalf of her son; a bitter complaint and invective against the family and friends who forsake her and her son when they learn of his disability; and a truly moving, redemptive love poem addressed to Cal, her son and muse. To borrow from Teresa Leo’s “Arc: A Quest,” Our Andromeda does not just present the reader with a narrative “arc,” but also an “ark”: an ark for the profundity of a life experience, with “room for all of its inhabitants, a vehicle acting at once as shelter and transportation.”

If the poem were just its variety of rhetorical traditions, it would still hold my complete attention. It would have been enough to hear the speaker to envisioning a life in an alternate galaxy where her son never feels the pain and difficulty of his birth. But the poem does so much more. It takes a series of ethical turns that devastate, implicate, and—one can only hope—re-form the reader, re-form me.

Everything and everyone in the Andromeda galaxy is better by virtue of their capacity for empathy. For example, when the speaker describes the doctors in Andromeda, they are, unlike the ones she encountered on earth, “whole-organism empaths” who

                                                                     know how
                 you feel. They put their hands on you

                 and their own spleen aches, or their spirit
is tired, tendon bruised, breast malignanced,
et cetera. The patient’s ills course
through the doctor’s body as information,

                 reliable at last. There are no misdiagnoses
or cursory dismissals as if the patient

                 were a whiny dog who demands another

In these lines, pain—so often ignored or dismissed, so often subjective and unknowable—enters the doctor’s body and is incorporated, a sensation so palpable that he or she could walk alongside the patient in complete knowledge of the patient’s distress.

Elsewhere, the speaker sees how her son’s difficult birth elicits the worst reactions from her closest friends. In particular, she marvels at those who have healthy children—the very friends she expected to be most empathic:

                                           The most articulate,
                 sensitive souls suddenly bumbled,
tongue-tied, unable to say anything at all

                 but the weakest thing, the things that
actually made everything worse.
                 We’re so scared for you. We’re so sad for you.

                 As if our new child had died.

Reading these lines, anyone might cringe in a moment of self-recognition, or maybe bitterness, having felt similarly in a time of great need. Here and elsewhere, the speaker implicates us in uncomfortable ways. She does this most compellingly in what seem to be banal situations. Consider this excerpt, in which she waits at a neighborhood crosswalk with a mother and her child in a stroller (and the moment that I remember every time I stand at a crosswalk):

                 The mother was craning her neck to the left
to watch for cars, her stroller pushed out
so far ahead of her it was already

                 in the street, ready to go, when an unseen car
zipped fast past us, dangerously close
to her child, and the first thing the mother did

                 was turn to me and say, panicked,
“Did you see that? He didn’t even have the light!”
but I couldn’t feel any sympathy for her.

                 In fact, I recoiled from her safe and lucky outrage.

This mother’s very public, very mundane moment of surprise, and the speaker’s indictment of the mother’s indignation, is one of the most riveting moments I’ve ever experienced in a poem. In it, Shaughnessy provides the reader with an emblem for how “safe, lucky” people misapprehend the world’s dangers. This critique of a certain kind of ignorance, and the sense of entitlement it produces, is at the core of Shaughnessy’s work.

Every time I read this poem, it reminds me that every body’s borders directly inform a person’s understanding of the world, and that whatever I think I know about the lived experience of another human being will always be partial and irremediably unknowable. This is the mystery, and the reward, of reading “Our Andromeda.” It provides persuasive evidence that poetry can influence the way we think and speak and make choices in the world—and it does so for the heartbreaking good.


I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness. The world moves through words as if the bodies the words reflect did not exist.

Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004) is a meandering and amazing amalgam.  Blending essay and poetry, combining word and image, it searches for a language of survival, one that might honestly endure the dual pressures of longevity and brevity in life.  And it does all this while simultaneously registering and even resisting an unforgiving sense of disconnect spread throughout America. Though the book itself would likely reject such fixed claims, it’s an essential text for our times.

Rankine has a brilliant ear for our existential binds, for revealing the cultural language and practices that at once suppose and trouble a connected sense of self, as well as tangling with our history of racial injustice and wounds.  Pausing to unpack the implications loaded into seemingly innocuous exchanges, she exposes the things we assume when we approach one another.  For instance, when a dying figure in a Spaghetti Western says I am not going to make it, Rankine wonders:

Where?  Not going to make it where?  On some level, maybe, the phrase simply means not going to make it into the next day, hour, minute, or perhaps the next second. […] On another level always implicit is the sense that it means he is not going to make it to his own death.  Perhaps in the back of all our minds is the life expectancy of our generation. […] We are all heading there and not to have that birthday is not to have made it.

Savvy lines of questioning such as this interrupt an American fantasy of individualism, one that quietly constructs the conditions for devastating isolation.  In the hopes of instead establishing conditions for truer encounters, Rankine asks us to reconsider the collective belief that “we will survive no matter what.”

The lyric has long been used to investigate the makings and mysteries of subjectivity.  As Rankine explicitly realizes, however, this positions poetry and poet (unhealthily, to say the least) as the metaphorical liver of a national subjectivity, sieving out and breaking down the noxious images and messages saturating the body politic.  Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, in its own contemporary quest for human interconnectedness, struggles with its lyrical insight—with keeping a confident finger on the basis and consequence of poetry’s intervention.  At the heart of this uncertainty is another worry she revisits: to what extent does (poetic) inquiry only succeed in producing singular kinds of insight and greater degrees of the very solitude the book sets out to critique, if not escape?  Rather than advocate too strongly for the critical vantage of poetry/poet, then, Rankine wonders whether a language of “feelings” might offer an alternative way to more collectively navigate “the gaps created by the indirectness of experience.”

The book’s moments of feeling, however, don’t simply solve the ambivalence about her poem, much less for poetry in general.  Rankine writes:

Sometimes I think it is sentimental, or excessive, […] too self-wounded to value each life like that, to feel loss to the point of being bent over each time. There is no innovating loss.  It was never invented, it happened as something physical, something physically experienced.  It is not something an “I” discusses socially.  Though Myung Mi Kim did say that the poem is really a responsibility to everyone in a social space.  She did say it was okay to cramp, to clog, to fold over at the gut, to have to put hand to flesh, to have to hold the pain, and then to translate it here.  She did say, in so many words, that what alerts, alters.

Ever sensitive to the threats of an exceptionalism associated with the artist in society, the poet-speaker continually wonders at and about poetry’s civic duty.  Ultimately, it seems, a combination of responsibility and possibility compels her to continue the book’s careful and inclusive survey in search of better, healthier traction.  She does so without simply re-inscribing the myth of the artist as prescient, marginal witness of a society gone wrong.  Instead, beginning with the very title, Rankine positions the poet herself as maybe in most need of rescue from an American imagination.

Despite the stakes—perhaps, precisely because of them—this book refuses to give up its hunt for hope. Rankine stays ready to claim the slightest proof of a community primed for contact:

The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another.  Hence the poem is that—Here. I am here.  This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.

While the book’s outlook arguably never fully recovers from a fundamental sense of isolation, the (human) conditions and (failed) exchanges that Rankine holds up to the lyrical light produce enough insight and prospect to draw us back in, looking for an ethics of mutual recognition that lets us feel we’re in this thing together.


I first encountered Denis Johnson’s poems at The Strand—a treasure-trove of used books on Broadway and 12th.  It was 1998, and I had just moved back to New York, and I was broke, the way everyone I knew was after graduating college, when we used the money we had for rent and MetroCards, takeout and beer.  Sometimes I bought poetry, but only at The Strand, where books mostly cost less than a street pretzel. The higher shelves of the poetry section were less picked over, so I was balanced on a step-stool when I pulled a copy of The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, Johnson’s collected poems, and cracked the cover.  The list price was $22.00; The Strand’s price was $3.95.  What sold me on it was the poem “White, White Collars”—“We work in this building and we are hideous / in the fluorescent light, you know our clothes / woke up this morning and swallowed us like jewels…”

I was working at a corporate job I had taken to pay off my undergraduate loans, programming computers for a company named Andersen Consulting (now called Accenture).  I was a former creative writing major sporting the job title “Analyst, Process Competency Group, Financial Services Industry,” and I had been assigned to Merrill Lynch in the World Financial Center, on Project Blueprint, which was meant to help the company revamp their front-end trading systems.  I knew nothing about financial services or trading stocks and bonds.  I knew very little about systems.  I knew about the particular kind of beauty and hideousness that was office work for me though, and Johnson had nailed it. I read most of the book while balancing on the step stool in The Strand. It took me ten more years to realize that “White, White Collars” was actually a sonnet—Johnson’s sneaky like that.

I still own that book (with the red price sticker still on it), and the poem of Johnson’s I come back to constantly, especially now that I don’t live in a city of any kind, is “The Incognito Lounge”—his 6-page, 9-part American epic of loneliness, accidents, neighbors, suburbia, insomnia, consumerism, suffering, and electric light.  There’s not a poet I know who was born in the 60’s or 70’s who won’t immediately recognize “The Incognito Lounge” if asked about it, and nearly everyone loves the poem, and the book of the same name, published in 1982 as a National Poetry Series pick.  It’s secret currency—the backroom poetry handshake of our Nixon-era childhoods and our penchant for poems with duende.  Yet in the broader literary world, people don’t talk about Johnson as a poet; he’s generally know as the author of the fiction cult classic Jesus’ Son (or more recently, of Tree of Smoke or Train Dreams).

Johnson’s figurative language in “The Incognito Lounge” is haunting and perfect.  He opens the poem with “the manager lady” of his apartment complex, who “has a face / like a baseball with glasses;” later, “she pours me some boiled / coffee that tastes like noise.”  His neighbor is “out on the generous lawn / again, looking like he’s made / out of phosphorous.”  In Matthew 22:39, Jesus commands a lawyer, one of the group of Pharisees he is talking to, to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and Johnson tries mightily in this poem—“How will I ever be able to turn / from the window and feel love for her?” he asks.  But his neighbor is out in the parking lot in his underwear yelling threats; his neighbor has sent his child away; his neighbor has no face; his neighbor arrives at The Incognito Lounge where the television is on, tuned to “a show about / my neighbor in a loneliness, a light, / walking the hour when every bed is a mouth.”

When I first taught The Incognito Lounge as a ‘lost classic’ to my MFA students, the class dubbed Johnson the Poet Laureate of Despair.  And the despair in the title poem is of the deepest, most existential kind.  His friends are a “couple of miserable gerbils / in a tiny white cage.”  We learn that “everything suffers invisibly.”  His neighbor carries “the same message everyone carries / from place to place in the secret night, / the one that nobody asks you for.”  We all try to give voice to our suffering, but we fail over and over again to articulate it on our blank faces, in our written messages, with our interactions: “nothing is possible, in your face.”  What is happiness?  Are the people around us always inscrutable?  Is it possible to dwell in the world fully, or at all?

The poem isn’t all darkness—and actually traffics in artificial light: the electric light of storefronts and televisions, the transformative light of open refrigerators, the harsh and precise spotlight of his language.  The last section of the poem takes place on a bus that “wafts / like a dirigible toward suburbia,” and the speaker shifts to second person, so the reader and speaker become one.  On the bus, a woman repeatedly tells the driver to shut up, two boy scouts are “de-pantsing a little girl,” and a “baby child” catches a bee against the bus window.  “Maybe you permit yourself to find / it beautiful on this bus,” Johnson writes.

“The Incognito Lounge” is one of the few poems that has managed to age with me and still seem relevant and resonant.  I go back to it at 2 a.m. when mine is the only house in the neighborhood with its lights on, and I’m still up writing, pondering (again) what it means to be truly present in the world, how my neighbors really live, how we strive to understand and love one another and fail—and what secret messages of suffering we all carry beneath our faces, which are sometimes blank, sometimes painted on, and sometimes turned toward the light.


The tricky part of the long poem, for me, is how to sustain someone else’s attention. How can you expect, how can you be gutsy enough to ask the reader to go on for pages at a time, ask them to meander with you down the field, to observe the old muzzle of a horse, to wander back up the field, then be whisked off to the giant incomprehensible idea of death, then go with you off to the idea heaven or not heaven, and then switch tenses with you so that you show them, in a revealing tight focus, one man who may be everyone in one moment and let that moment feel inexplicably like it still matters, more than anything, even after so many moments have already passed?

What weird and brave soul would even attempt to make a poem so packed with severely accurate descriptions and stark truths so that it seems sometimes one could stop it anywhere, but still the poem goes on—like a horse—and the reader has no choice but to ride it? Who dares to be the rider and the horse and all that’s in between? Who trusts that what he’s telling us is so important, so necessary, that we will lean in, our minds resting at the steps of his porch, begging for him to go on, tell us the rest, what happens in the end? This is what I love about Larry Levis: the ease at which he lets his long poems go on and on, travel with joy and sometimes a creaky, aching silence, until they come to what can only be their only possible conclusions.  In “Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand,” Levis is at the height of his powers. He balances incredible precision and an almost brutish recklessness as a highly skilled expert, and only a highly skilled expert, might ride a horse.

What “Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand” does so well, and causes me such sheer elation and pangs of jealousy that sometimes I find it hard to read, is to take all the time it needs.  You cannot rush the reading, you cannot get to the end faster and you wouldn’t want to, you can only go at the pace he requires, and it’s an extraordinary lesson in both patience and control.  If Carl Jung was right (and I reckon he was) when he said, “As far as we can discern the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being,” then I would add that we are also here in order to experience poems such as this, to walk among these giant animals and to let them show us how to be small and curious and alive.


[T]he world is filled with music, and in between the music, silence
and varying the silence all sorts of sounds, natural and man made.

I think because I missed reading the New York School poets when I was young, I’m capable now of reading some of them only pedantically and pedagogically, without the enthusiasm they inspire in others. So I was skeptical when someone recommended that I read James Schuyler. I thought I’d once again endure the experience not unlike listening to the new release by a friend’s favorite band—the real music eluding me while my friend persisted in playing the drum solo over and over. Instead, I found myself reading Schuyler with the kind of innocence, an immersive and self-forgetful attention, that occurs with greater rarity the older I get; and I read everything else he wrote along with the poems, sharing with Schuyler his own taste for letters and diaries. But I remember, that first time, when I looked up from the page of Schuyler’s Collected the light had changed.

I love the last line of Schuyler’s published diaries: “I must go change my clothes for the party.” Schuyler is most moving and most perceptive when recording his awareness of mutability. In “Hymn to Life,” there are seasonal changes, which align the poem with older works as diverse as farmers’ almanacs and eclogues; there are the changes of weather, and of clouds, which remind me of the painter Constable, as well as Coleridge—another poet dependent on friends and subject to mental instability; and there’s the poet’s awareness of aging, as Ovid notes of himself in Tristia. But beneath the poem’s “restless surface,” which observes and celebrates all that passes within the compass of the poet’s perception, whether flowers or fashion, the poem suggests a more inward, subtle concern with time and vicissitude, those sharper, less welcome alternations of experience, love, and fortune.

Vicissitude could define the spring that provides the occasion for the poem: moody as a teenager, disruptive, muddy and sullen, then suddenly and unexpectedly profligate with its beauty. The poem begins in early spring still tense with winter, then ends in late spring relaxing into the promised fullness and ease of summer. But there are other springs in the poem, too, of childhood and youth. The poet at 50 looks forward and back. Mid-life is the time when the awareness of choices made, and alternatives unlived, becomes acute. In retrospect, each decision seems in its own way inevitable, desirable, maybe even in some (impossible) objective light, correct, and yet the sum, the life itself, is unaccountable. “The day,” as Schuyler writes, “lives us.” I read “The Hymn to Life” as one of the great meditations on middle age, with its awareness of time’s passage, of its gifts and injuries, present everywhere in the poem, as in these lines:

[ . . . ] Tomorrow
Will begin another spring. No one gets many, one at a time, like a long
Awaited letter that one day comes. But it may not say what you hoped
Or distraction robs it of what it once would have meant.

Or these:

Time brings us into bloom and we wait, busy, but wait
For the unforced flow of words and intercourse and sleep and dreams
In which the past seems to portend a future which is just more
Daily life.

The long poem always courts boredom, extending, as it does, beyond the intensity of the singular, lyric moment. And as other critics have observed, a characteristic Schuyler poem often begins in boredom, patiently finding its way to meaning. Perhaps for a poet such as Schuyler, so dedicated to the diaristic gesture, boredom is unavoidable despite his sojourner’s awareness of the beauty of daily life. But as with Thoreau in his journals, Schuyler’s long habit of articulating his perceptions of the physical world allows him to discover the metaphors in which to dress his ideas. In another poet these more philosophical offerings might be privileged, and the reader’s passage through the poem arrested in some way to call attention to them. Casual as a diary, yet more illuminating, I find in “Hymn to Life,” as I do in most of Schuyler’s work (to roughly paraphrase William James) a poetry of and, a poetry of if, a poetry of but. The poems live in the transitions of consciousness, which, for James, was the reality of experience, of life. The abundance of the poem’s materials—weather, allusions and fragments of reported speech, light, people, landscapes, flowers, etc.—and the ease with which the capacious line moves through and among them, suggest that nothing is subordinated, there is no hierarchy, but that all things share equally in existence.

The counter-image to the beauty and energy of change is the city of Washington D.C., which recurs throughout the poem and which in its plan imposes a kind of unregenerative order: “is repetition boring? or only inactivity? Quite / A few things are boring, like the broad avenues of Washington / D. C. that seem to go from nowhere and back again.”  But “Hymn to Life” isn’t just a poem in praise of life’s variability, but also an attempt, through attentive description, to accept it as the current of Life running through the individual’s life in all of its pain and beauty. The close of the poem reminds me of the conclusion to Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” as it feels like a kind of blessing—an ending filled with life, descriptive yet not static, humorous, unheroic yet gallant, and ultimately mysterious. It enacts in miniature all of the shifts—of tone, of image, of mind and mood—that occur throughout the entire poem:

[ . . . ] A cardinal
Passes like a flying tulip, alights and nails the green day
Down. One flame in a fire of sea-soaked, copper-fed wood:
A red that leaps from green and holds it there. Reluctantly
The plane tree, always late, as though from age, opens up and
Hangs its seed balls out. The apples flower. The pear is past.
Winter is suddenly so far away, behind, ahead. From the train
A stand of coarse grass in fuzzy flower. Is it for miracles
We live? I like it when the morning sun lights up my room
Like a yellow jelly bean, an inner glow. May mutters, “Why
Ask questions?” or, “What are the questions you wish to ask?”

“Let’s make a list,” Schuyler says at one point in the poem. And every list of favorites itself can change from one day to the next. However, though there are few poets more remote from my own practice than James Schuyler, there are few bodies of work that I am more grateful for than his.


My favorite commentary on The Monument has, to my knowledge, never been published.  It is a letter from Octavio Paz to Strand, dated 17 January 1978, and stored among Strand’s papers at the Lilly Library at Indiana University.  “I [. . .] entered the monument,” Paz writes, “and, while I was visiting it, walking through the corridors, circles, arches, terraces, gates, walls, passages, bridges, cells, underground gardens, Labyrinths, I wondered—[is it] a mausoleum, a cenotaph, a burial urn, a pyre, a pyramid?  No: it is a Text.  It is not a place but a house of words where the meanings and its tribes (feelings, visions, impressions, echoes) appear and disappear and reappear again. . . I love very much your text, shifting and ever changing shape, refusing to reveal itself, poem perpetually undone, always in the blessed state of ‘almost unfinished’.”

Paz’s paradox—“almost unfinished”—is appropriate for the paradox that is The Monument.  Strand’s Monument, as Paz notes, is neither monolith nor memorial, but a Möbius strip continuously turning upon itself, or the point of the ouroboros that is both tongue and tail.  Its speaker dedicates / addresses / dictates the work “to the translator of the monument in the future,” whose task it becomes to translate the text—and to perpetuate its author—into that same future.  The promise of the future is that existence should go on indefinitely, that the future will always be available to become the present.  The premise of The Monument is to discover a way for the author’s work—for the author himself—to be translated into the future, into a provisional eternity.  It is a meditation on, a satire of, a striving for literary and literal immortality.  Just as it defines itself, it defies itself, “the text already written, unwriting itself into the text of promise.”  “I speak for nothing,” its speaker says, “the nothing that I am, the nothing that is this work.  And you shall perpetuate me not in the name of what I was, but in the name of what I am.”  The Monument is Strand’s song of myself, of many selves, of no self at all.

The 52 short sections of The Monument thread quotations from other authors—among them Sir Thomas Browne, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, and most notably Walt Whitman—amid Strand’s own “blank prose.”  As such the speaker who wishes to be translated into the future simultaneously “translates” other authors into the text to be translated, placing himself among the “immortals” in the process.  These sections  ruminate on nothingness, and often on the impossibility of imagining the nothing from which we come and to which we return.  All poets write against various disappearances: the nothing of silence, of nonbeing, of being forgotten, of never being recognized at all.  These, too, are the fears against which Strand has shored his monument, mocking the authorial desire for immortality even as he enacts it.  He tells us that the Monument itself “is a void, artless and everlasting.”  But the Monument—the collaboration between speaker and translator—is the speaker’s only chance for survival.  “In what language do I live?” he asks.  “I live in none.  I live in you.”

The speaker survives not in the product, but in the process of collaboration between speaker and translator.  “Only this luminous moment has life, this instant in which we both write, this flash of voice.”  The moment of writing, of translating, seems to collapse the abyss between the living and the dead, uniting them in a “luminous moment” in which both exist as one voice, a congruence as brief and tenuous as the binding of any metaphor.  Nevertheless, even that moment of union in one voice ultimately negates both speaker and translator: “Some will think I wrote this, and some will think you wrote this.  The fact is neither of us did.  There is a ghostly third who has taken up residence in this pen, this pen we hold” (38).  The document that seeks to perpetuate the self is also a document which “dwells on the absence of a self,” an absence which nevertheless requires a self, an “I—and this pronoun will have to do,” to do the dwelling.

If The Monument is Strand’s inversion of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” it is also Strand’s version of an ars poetica.  Much as the theoretical writings of some critical theorists—Jacques Derrida, for instance—have often been called “performative” or even “poetic,” Strand’s poem / prose / Monument represents a poetically inflected enactment of salient and persistent theoretical questions of identity, authority, textuality, translation and lyric voice.  Strand’s text—that “house of words where the meanings and its tribes [. . . ] appear and disappear and reappear again”—constructs and nullifies its own poetics, often on the same page.  At once satirical and earnest, egomaniacal and self-negating, The Monument reveals the necessary absurdity of any work beginning with “I,” and the impossibility of any that would not.


“Until they sound each other     they scrape / around in confines of blindness    skin // on skin as mind    peering.” In Eiko & Koma, Forrest Gander gives us dance as psychical disavowal of motion being distinct from stillness, and even of separation being distinct from unity. Here, the relationship between two dancing figures, but also the relationship between body and mind, and between reader and written page, is a “taut current, throughstriken / with night, starbit, and both of them / facing off.”

To write of dance, Gander uses language “[n]aked but not mute” as the gestural arm of physical experience, which simultaneously can reach outward to the reader and remain “ensorcelled in interiority.” A sense of simultaneity begins subtly, but grows markedly pervasive. Every gesture (of the language, of the bodies described in language) is eulogy to my expectation that fluidity in form requires the linear passage of time; instead I experience a sense of ‘space’ ticking wider, not time passing, and a sense of ‘event’, as I’ve bound it in my perception’s assumed parameters, dissolving.

Is Eiko & Koma a long poem? In the same way that the two dancers often arrest our attention with a movement that is unpredictably, even shockingly different from what preceded it (“His good foot / staring behind him / terrified and heavenward,” so, too, does each section offer a muscularly taut, bewilderingly dissimilar form from the last. And each section is separately titled.

But just as these two dancers are individual and yet inextricably unified in their separateness, and just as each of their limbs seems at times to have its own life (even, at times, each of the motions of each limb may become astonishingly separate) but stays organically fused to the entirety they’re constellating—so, too, is each page’s section a separate yet integral part of this entirety. Just as the dancers are “in the confines of blindness” until they “sound each other,” so, too, are these separate parts confined to a kind of blindness until they are read together as the long poem “Eiko & Koma.”

As I noted, formal technique varies, though each section is internally consistent. The variations between sections include couplets, tercets, single short or long lines, down-stepping or snaking stanzas, and prose blocks. No single form can sustain the whole, just as no single step can sustain an entire  dance. As each section ends, its formal relation is exhaled entirely and, as readers, we must manage the disruption of unpredictable change, just as the dancer must brave her own challenges, as she “coughs up / breath she / suffocation rises.”

Eiko & Koma begins with a photograph. In it, a lone dancer rests on one naked shoulder while her bare spine and buttocks lean upward. We see one bare foot behind her balancing the precariousness of her pose, which seems both spontaneous and rigorously incontrovertible; “her hair sweeps / the floor such solemnity in becoming.” Yet it is as much a poem of collapse, of “imploring / first figures / spent and mutual with a world / two bodies / releasing the event” as it is a poem offering to a reader any emerging wholeness. I allude to the ‘reader’ because I am reminded by Gander that to read this poem is to bring my embodied experience (as one of the two “bodies”) to the mutually enacted effort and risk that is necessarily “spent” in this act. But Gander’s phrase goes on: “spent and mutual with a world.” It is not “the” world, which would suggest that it’s the same world for all of us, but “a” world—his, or hers, yours or mine….

Still, there’s a severe and yet palpable “mutuality” apparent in the emotional registers that Gander achieves. Here, it‘s not simply his use of a word like “imploring” (which, by itself, would simply state an emotion). Rather, it’s his deft placement of words moving snakelike on the page, as well as the line-break between “imploring” and “first,” which proposes at least two readings. I hear in this framing of the language that a reader must become aware of the sensation of “imploring” “first,” if one is truly to see these “spent” and “mutual” “figures.” I sense that these figures are, before anything else, figures of the act, in the act, of “imploring.” Yet, there is more: I also can read “first figures” as recalling human pre-history when the first figures of thought were drawn or written, when the first images or the first words were recorded. As a record, of course, such figures also became forever separate from the objects they depicted. The creation of “first figures,” which one might equate with the arrival of consciousness, reminds a reader of her kinship with other conscious beings. But it also reminds us of the irrevocable division that a remembered image, a mental construct, creates. So, besides all else that Gander alludes to with the words “two bodies / releasing the event,” we can recall the figure and its object, and all that comes of these two with their ineluctable differences. We have the reminder that a poem is ever only “releasing” our disembodied perception of bodies, even as it may paradoxically so enrich, enliven our appreciation of what we won’t ever actually experience, though that awareness creates in us a pairing “spent and mutual with a world.”

In The Ground of Image, Jean-Luc Nancy writes that an image in art, in a text, and even when occurring as “musical, choreographic, cinematographic or kinetic,” can be experienced as “immobile” in the sense that it is “the distension of a present of intensity, in which succession is also a simultaneity.” Gander’s poem gives us a paradoxical, mesmerizing “distension of a present,” a still center of motionless, continuous, simultaneous arrival. Nancy, in the same essay, calls image “the coinciding of event and eternity.” Gander’s succession of images are similarly

[v]ision sheared

o make room for vision

which conveys every rupture of physicality as


earthsheen [t]he fibrous muscles

of his thighs twitching [a]s god

pours into the creatural


of these two dancers. Gander disrupts my expectation of the writer’s assumed agency over the whole:

I realized

I can move it

instead from

         here (dis-

articulating her


I ruined it

she says (in English)

and thus exposes my own responsibility to hazard my balance as reader in relation to two figures:


do not move in the same world

in which we observe them

[u]pright they are at risk

as I am constantly a part of, and apart from,


neck pulling birdlong against

her shoulder

And, by extension, I must begin to question my position in this, in any present moment: how I have coded it, defined it; what is my culpability in creating a field of ‘objective’ reality distinct from this ever-evolving present?  Am I alive to my own stillness? To my relationship to every otherness with which I blindly dance? I finish reading Forrest Gander’s text, but I do not leave behind my experience of “[n]aked presence before which no relief” in which I query  continuously where my own point of stillness resides. I am riveted in what “[u]npacks the recognizable its chaos here / and the composition stutters Face / stalking itself from inside beyond.”


I lay at the foot of Enchanted Rock and laughed into the cold spring night.

My headlamp laid a bar of light across the dome tent and I could sense, but not see, the sleeping bodies of my wife and our two boys on either side of me.  Propped up on a pile of backpacks, I was reading Judy Grahn’s “Mental” for the first time.  It’s not a funny poem (although Grahn can be funny), but a harrowing reflection by the child of a schizophrenic parent, one that asks, Who decides who is “mental”?  Which “irrational fears” will get you locked up involuntarily, and which will allow you to lock up, injure or even kill those you fear?  The poem documents, bitingly, the ways poverty, violence and gender make these differences.

Why laugh?  To be sure, it was partly gasping pleasure in experiencing, as I read poem after poem collected in The Judy Grahn Reader (so far the only place “Mental” has been published), their persistent musicality and formal innovation.  Grahn’s iconic poems of the 1960s and 1970s (“The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke,” “The Common Woman Poems,” and “A Woman Is Talking to Death”) have circulated so widely as to enter into the bumper-sticker and rally-chant lexicon of feminism; often we don’t even realize that phrases like “the common woman,” adopted as the name of not one but two feminist bookstores, come from Grahn’s poetry.  Less frequently noticed are Grahn’s contributions to experiments in poetic language and form.  “Mental” is one of a series of nine-part poems (“A Woman Is Talking to Death” was the first) that Grahn is currently gathering into a collection.  This nine-part structure is one of her distinctive contributions to the tradition of long poems.

Of course, craft only makes you gasp when it shakes your perceptions, turns reality slightly in the service of insight.  The poem moves vertiginously among definitions of “craaazy.”  We see the child caretaker (“sometimes you are just mad because no one/ever.   answers the door.”) in contrast to the schizophrenic parent, but that same child, grown up, admits “once (or ok, more than once) I experienced the full blown/ hallucination of horror, the distortion of senses that takes over.”  Later, in the grips of a hallucination, the speaker’s mother calls 911 and the police come to the door, “so departmental.” (One of the pleasures of the poem is the series of changes on the word “mental” that forms its sonic spine.) At first, the mother’s fear looks like the problem:

I can’t get her back to the clinic,

She won’t go, she’s too afraid, she’s so afraid,

..and someone could get hurt, they could hurt her, she could hurt somebody.

But soon this language migrates to the officials who cannot find room for this distressed woman in the hospital:

they are afraid, so afraid, so irrationally afraid

they hallucinate, they think they see a threat where there is none…

Emotions switch back and forth throughout the poem between crazy and sane, mother and daughter, institutions and individuals—wild zinging projections whose “reality” is determined by force.  “A mother may try to kill you in a number of ways,” the poem admits, but

what if space were set aside for behaviors like these:


dance on one leg, sing for hours off key,

scream and roll around,

hold your breath, accuse the universe of crimes

listen to essential messages from bees

rock all day pace all night

recognize strangers but not your family

pound your furies into the stalwart bodies of trees

say the weirdest ideas right out loud, fly into a cloud….

As I read by the headlamp, this calm curiosity about being “mental,” its gifts, burdens, powers and dangers, and most important, its potential in all of us, blessed me with astonished recognition. What if? You may well laugh.



Recent writing

E Read More

PoetryMay 19, 2024

“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”: On Elizabeth Bishop and Disappointment

In prose that’s erudite and accessible, former Editor-in-Chief of At Length, Jonathan Farmer, explores why “[s]o many of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems end with something audibly, willfully unsatisfying.” Covering Bishop’s career from “The Map” (1946) to her late elegy for Robert Lowell, “North Haven” (1977), Farmer’s claim will send you back to Bishop’s poems with new eyes.

W Read More

PoetryFebruary 16, 2024


“[W]hat am I to do / about beauty, about / my fear that beauty // has made me arrange / every experience in a word / and image too neatly // for them to bear / much semblance to life,” Paisley Rekdal asks in this confessional, ekphrastic poem written in response to George Stubb’s famed painting of an Arabian thoroughbred, “Whistlejacket” (1762), on view at the National Gallery in London.

S Read More

PoetryFebruary 9, 2024


“[H]ow do they bear this heat Who / knows who can say what will change,” Joanna Klink writes of this poem’s eponymous plant, also known as trumpet pitchers, as she explores our climate crisis and her relationship with her father in language that is both colloquial and catastrophic, meditative and urgent.

T Read More

PoetryApril 11, 2023

Three Weeks

“I am going to try to write / A little. // I have nothing at stake but my life.” In Dawn Potter‘s sequence, a 19th century woman alternates between diary entries and poems, trying to make sense of her life, her obligations, her hunger for holiness, and a feeling of disaster or deliverance just out of view.

Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.