Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 6

Short Takes on Long Poems, Volume 6

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 sixth installment. You can see the others hereherehere, here and here.

Scroll down or click on the links to read:

David Micah Greenberg on John Ashbery
Idra Novey on June Jordan
Robert Archambeau on W.H. Auden
Jee Leong Koh on Cyril Wong
Joshua Rivkin on Randall Jarrell
Connie Voisine on James McMichael
Sophie Cabot Black on Louise Glück
Carmen Gimenez Smith on Alice Notley
Jill McDonough on Stephen Jonas
Keith Ekiss on Patrick Kavanagh
Sarah Blake on Frank Bidart


New Yorkers have been consumed with Andrea Elliott’s recent series in the Times: “Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life.” It follows an 11-year-old girl who lives in the Auburn Family Residence in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and is meant to show the intimate stream of her daily experience. The reporter describes her rising from a torn mattress, singing to herself as she walks to school, shamed by hunger, negotiating the principal’s office, and fighting. There are photographs of her family in private and public places. (The reporter’s and photographer’s actions to elicit these experiences are obscured.) People see in the piece what they want to see, condemning the system or the family or both depending on their sympathies.  Dasani, a beautiful name, after the bottled water brand. Water. A flow and a mark.

There are strengths and problems with the piece. The author is sympathetic to the girl but not to her parents or other homeless adults. While it exposes inhumane conditions at the shelter, Elliott overemphasizes sentimental and sensational detail in Dasani’s life. But its largest problem is that it catalogues Bloomberg-era decisions that have led to record shelter populations without exploring policies that could prevent homelessness. As Elliott presents, as if it were unmediated, the flow of Dasani’s experience, without understanding how to shape it for the better, the reader is left with pathos and also with the sense that sadness will do nothing to help. It pretends the waters are uncharted. And yet the piece does communicate to people who have never known homelessness, something more of its suffering than can be conveyed through statistics or dry policy prescription.

What does this have to do with John Ashbery? Flow Chart is one of our most vital meditations on the relationship between the apprehension of experience (Chart) and its more immediate substance (Flow). The tension between the poles of Chart and Flow enlivens the text, which moves between lines that temporarily ground the reader, in a statement of position, and crystalline improvisation that reflects, challenges, or enhances this position. Its opening:

Still in the published city, but not yet
overtaken by a new form of despair, I ask
the diagram: is it the foretaste of pain
it might easily be? Or an emptiness
so sudden it leaves the girders
whanging in the absence of wind,
the sky milk-blue and astringent?

It is a deep misunderstanding of the poet–when he is at his best in any case–to suggest that his work is solely about indeterminacy, the inability to apprehend life or come to meaningful conclusions about it. Flow Chart shows instead the modern, urban world’s profusion of ideas and schema. (“Still in the published city…”) In the published city, these schema, like the abstraction of policy, may be malignant or empty, like the diagram, because they are not enlivened by the “wind” which has since the Romantics been associated with the consciousness of daily life.

Compelling schema, and deeply lived experience, cannot exist independently of each other. There are few books as bountiful in ideas, and also in enlivened dailyness, as Flow Chart. Policy analysis and journalism on social conditions so often fail to achieve this tense interdependence–policy analysis does not often encounter the experiences of those who affected by it, and journalism often presents these experiences without deep reflection as to causes and solutions. (And to be fair, Ashbery’s work itself is sometimes derailed by bathetic, empty abstractions, on the one hand, or improvisations that do not communicate the flow of experience with lived intensity, on the other.)

While full of sadness, reflections upon death, and acknowledgement of system failures, the book also holds out promise, because we need to know what the revolution will look like, while we are “not yet / overtaken by a form of despair.” Nonviolent revolution will look nothing like Flow Chart but may feel like it–like the turning of the sunflower, in the double sestina that emerges in book V–constantly alive, always asking questions, finding new forms, confronting empire, seeing both joy and pathos, acknowledging progress and set-backs, and moving to light.


After George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, I thought of June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights.”   I hadn’t read the poem since graduate school, and reading it again I was struck by how little has changed in the national dialogue about race and gender in the nearly ten years since the poem appeared in her Collected Poems.  There is a heat to the poem that rises from the page, and Jordan’s masterful use of repetition increases the heat, cranking it up higher and higher as the poem continues.  “Poem About My Rights” begins with a list of what belongs to her and to no one else: my clothes my shoes/   my body posture my gender identity my age/ my status as a woman alone in the evening.”  Jordan then varies that list, replacing “wrong” for “my,” so that the reader experiences the outrage of having that “wrong” imposed on one’s life over and over:

Because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:

Jordan’s leap from the repetition of “wrong” to all that is “disclosed by the stars” hurls the reader into the all-encompassing feeling this injustice brings, how it pervades everything in a person’s galaxy of thoughts, even alone, in silence.

But Jordan never ducks out of her poems after a single unexpected leap.  She always pushes them a little further, risks a little more, which is why her poetry never falls into the trap of ending on a predictably poignant moment.  To convey the outrageousness of what is considered “consent” in a rape trial, she posits the image of “South Africa/ penetrating into Namibia into/ Angola” and then Zimbabwe.  The leap here from sovereign body to sovereign country is bold.  Jordan is not a poet who holds back or retreats into quirky, quiet conclusions, which can be satisfying in a poem, but for how long? What is poetry for, if not to address one’s “simple and daily and nightly self-determination?”  On the Trayvon Martin Foundation homepage, there is a spare drawing of Trayvon with the hood of a sweatshirt framing his face.   The drawing breaks down the now famous photograph to its essential lines: the face of a boy who was taking a walk and is now gone.


If you want to appreciate W.H. Auden, you’ve got to come at him with a good grasp of camp. Camp is essential, for example, to Auden’s first large-scale achievement in verse, the play—or, more precisely, the charade—Paid on Both Sides. Completed in 1928, it appeared first in T.S. Eliot’s Criterion in January 1930, and later that same year became the longest piece in Auden’s Poems, a volume published by Faber under Eliot’s aegis. One can see much in Auden’s play that would recommend it to the author of The Waste Land: like that poem, it gives a clearly modern landscape, and it depicts a struggle between a faltering life-wish and the forces of sterility and death, and even includes a depiction of spring’s life-force faltering, in the manner of the famous opening of Eliot’s poem. One wonders whether Eliot was sensitive to the differences between the two poems, though. There are, after all, reasons to doubt how thoroughly Auden embraced the world-view that seems to pervade his poem.

That world-view is distinctly Freudian. In 1920, at the age of 13, Auden had discovered Freud via his father’s library, and Auden consumed his works eagerly, along with those of others associated with psychology and psychoanalysis, in the years that followed. His attitude toward psychological theory tended toward the camp—taking the ideas seriously, but at the same time making fun out of them, an activity (as Auden’s friend Christopher Isherwood liked to point out) quite distinct from making fun of them. Auden enjoyed the theories and made much art out of them but self-consciously presented himself as giving them greater credence than he truly did, striking the pose of the dogmatist.

We see something like this attitude at work in Auden’s charade: when we examine the plot of Paid on Both Sides, the Freudian influence is clearly pervasive. When we examine many of the play’s stylistic features, especially those that have given critics pause, we see that the approach to Freud is arch. The plot is a matter of growing up, differentiating oneself from one’s mother and father, and setting up one’s own household—or failing to do so and remaining a prisoner of one’s parents. It’s the Eros of sexual maturation vs. the Thanatos of the smothering mother. Auden had good reason to reflect on the potentially smothering power of mothers: he and his own mother were very close during his childhood, and one suspects Dr. Freud would have a good deal to say about how the two of them used to sit at the piano when he was a boy, singing the deeply erotic love-potion scene from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, with Auden taking the woman’s part. But Paid on Both Sides plays out with too much wackiness for its Freudianism to be taken entirely seriously.

Consider the bizarreness of the narrative materials and the jarring juxtapositions that they make. Our characters are mining entrepreneurs, but they are also, at the same time, warriors from the sagas, public schoolboys, Montagues and Capulets, and wear colored armbands in the manner of the radical political parties of 1920s Germany. To this bizarre and, one might add, excessive list, one must add characters taken from traditional English mummer’s plays: Father Christmas, who serves as a judge during the nightmarish trial of the spy, as well as an incompetent doctor and his ironic boy follower. The effect of this hodgepodge is disorientation, and the disruption of the solemn, tragic tone to which the play makes periodic returns, and on which it ends–the chorus’s final words echo the words of the chorus at the end of Oedipus Rex, underlining the play’s Freudianism.

The language of Paid on Both Sides is a similarly disorienting mélange. The syntactic inversions—“drank alone, one of Shaw’s men”—and omissions of articles and pronouns—“Though dangerous to new ghost, new ghost learns from many,” say, or “To Colefangs had to go, would speak with Layard”—give us a kind of faux saga-idiom. But this sits oddly with modern actions, such as a character ordering a sidecar cocktail, and with references to modern people. What is more, the doctor speaks the language of a carnival barker, as does Father Christmas, even when he is presiding over the trial of a murdered man. There are moving, even operatic, scenes in which star-crossed lovers discuss the hopelessness of their plight, but these are in close proximity to the kind of emotionally manipulative patriotic cant Auden and Isherwood suffered through at school, which Auden parodied in his impressions of teachers and clergymen, and which would form the basis of his book The Orators. It’s hard to take a patriotic speech seriously when it’s addressed to Santa Claus, a jury wearing school caps, and the speaker’s mother bearing a gigantic baby’s bottle.

William Empson, himself no stranger to camp, was one of the very few who said, early on, that the play was not a simple expression of Freudian ideas but a kind of intrigued, gentle amused take on them, with wild juxtapositions, bizarre modulations of tone, and slapstick effects interposed amid the profundities. The play, he wrote, “puts psycho-analysis and surrealism and all that, all the irrationalist tendencies which are so essential a part of the machinery of present-day thought, into their proper place.” His insight, though, has been lost on generations of critics who have seen the play’s camp elements as a glitch rather than a feature, as something that interferes with the presentation of psychological doctrine, rather than as a way of distancing oneself from such doctrine (and Auden, as a gay man, had good reason to distance himself from Freud). I hope we can come back to Paid on Both Sides and see it as what it is: the camping of psychoanalysis. We could use a poem like that.


Maybe any successful book of poems can be read as one long poem: forged of a singular piece. Cut from the same heart, same sensibility. Maybe you fall deeper in love with those who also work from the inside out. It’s more distinctively organic; a larger, interior momentum builds.

So it is with The Wild Iris: it unfurls. In a garden, over 64 pages, a trialogue makes its way out from some dark interior. Meanwhile, the three strands entwine: God, Gardener, Flower. There are the overlaps, the plurals, and most interestingly, the switching itself, from poem to poem. Out from each last poem and into each next, comes the sense of a “catchword”; much the way medieval manuscripts had a guide word at the end of a page to give the reader the first word of the next, Glück writes as if to spill the reader into each next poem–not just as an afterthought, but as an ongoing text.

I tried to map the trajectory of the book by writing it out in columns: from, to. But the voice(s) didn’t quite line up–they slipped under and over each other—-the garden growing its design even as the cellular weave of matter and spirit grows finer, more ingenious, while each color nudges, eclipses, keeps a light on us all.

(For example: in “Field Flowers” the examination seems direct, between flowers and gardener, yet one may also overhear the voice of the Master Gardner speaking to some larger force– “Your poor/idea of heaven: absence/of change. Better than earth? How/would you know, who are neither/here nor there, standing in our midst?” Then too, detectable is God, speaking back to the all-too-human gardener he has wrought– “What are you saying? That you want/eternal life? Are your thoughts really/as compelling as all that?” Perhaps this is the work of under and overtones much the way an opera ensemble works, a trio of voices push their argument along, each with its own agenda, self-singing, but with all that singing at the same time a larger form gets sung into being.)

Despite the alternating speakers, there is a sense a singularly sustained voice presides. The argument unfolds but doesn’t fully back onto itself; like rows of seeds that fill a larger field, the book starts each poem in a new furrow, the way great poetry must argue itself through its lines. But as with rows in a field, each is dictated by the last, the entire field owing itself to itself, at the end.

Indeed The Wild Iris has this going on–what with all its repetitions of image, tone, even titles–these signal each poem’s trying to get it right, over and over, until done. It’s a book with three angles, three voices–but if you let the music wash over you, then you reel into each next poem with the plainspoken voice of before still in your ears. If you let all gods stand in for God, you ride the three voices, as rails, perhaps at first as parallel lines, but fast and faster they gather into the fullness of the one field. And all this toward some kind of relinquishment, at the end, nothing truly tidy, the garden having been readied for the relentless whatever the next season brings.


The way is every place. Love appears
as nothing when we begin to know it,
nothing that is not its opposite, or
whatever opposites mean, in this case—
coming and ebbing, a kiss and heartache.
The place where no love waits
is also love. Legs uncrossed, benumbed
but tender, tenderly. Gratified when answers
rose up in a field without questions.
Eyelids lifted like hoods or wings,
then a mise en abîme of eyes
flying open, endless hoods and wings.

So begins the 39-page poem Satori Blues by Cyril Wong, a Singapore writer. Wong is better known for writing brutally frank lyrics about love and loss. Satori Blues brings to light the spiritual yearnings latent in the earlier lyrics, and anticipates the composition of larger structures in his later books. Brought up in a Catholic family, Wong found cause to reject his religious upbringing, for its easy consolation and homophobic intolerance, in favor of Buddhist philosophies.

Wong credits a number of Buddhist teachers at the start of the book, but he doesn’t thank them for their teachings. As U. G. Krishnamurti insisted, “Tell them there is nothing to understand.” In this, Wong shows himself a genuine disciple. The teachers are thanked, instead, for their “writings.” The true disciple is a reader. The best disciple may in fact be a writer, just as the teachers were. One does not follow one’s masters by taking possession of their thought, as if it is portable property. One follows their example by reading and writing.

Yet this writing must be conducted in a spirit of meditation. How is it to be done? Here one may remember the wise passiveness extolled by the Romantics. Influenced by Wordsworth, Coleridge in “The Aeolian Harp” speaks of stretching out on a slope as “Full many a thought uncalled and undetained, / And many idle flitting phantasies, / Traverse my indolent and passive brain.” It’s a beautiful description of meditation by a Western author but Coleridge isn’t musing on tranquility in the poem; he’s actually conversing with his betrothed. One can make the case that Coleridge’s greatest poetic achievement lies in his clutch of ‘Conversation Poems.’ Conversation, however, is not meditation.

In discussions of poetry, sometimes one hears that a poem is basically an act of communication, or, even, delayed communication. Thinking about a poem as an act of meditation, however, requires a different kind of relationship between the writer and the reader. Instead of sitting face-to-face, in a café, say, or in an interview, writer and reader are sitting side-by-side, facing the same direction, gratified when answers rose up in a field without questions, as Wong has it.

Meditation takes time, just as writing a long poem does. But what kind of time is needed for writing or reading a meditation-poem? Epic poetry can leap forward ten years or glance back a thousand years in just one line of verse. Poetic sequences can switch time frames and time scales without so much as a by-your-leave. A meditation-poem, however, cannot resort to these devices to make time malleable and convenient. In such a poem, as in a meditation, time must be lived through, second by second, minute by minute. There is no shortcut; there is no doubling back. There is only the unhurried succession of thoughts, and when the reader comes to the end of the poem, he may begin reading it again, but it will be another time, another session.

In living through time with the meditation-poem, the reader grows not only more acutely aware of the world but also more able to let such gleanings go. Shunryu Suzuki writes, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything.” This exhortation precedes and explains his more famous saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

I had thought that it was desirable to be an expert, even though expertise necessarily foreclosed viable options. Having studied the map and explored the terrain, I was even secretly pleased with my growing expertise. But in Shunryu Suzuki’s saying, the beginner has the advantage over the expert. He has the advantage of readiness. Everyone can see a catastrophe when it is in full flood. The beginner, however, can detect the beginning of it; in fact, he can detect the catastrophe even before it begins.

What we talk about when we talk about loss
are the catastrophes: walls collapsing
and the terrible flood. What we forget is what
we fail to detect: the line opening like an eye
from one end of the a dam to another;
a startled look and the averted vision
at a wrong word at yet another wrong time.
Loss is an ever-growing thing. The same
is true of how we win. Everything
woven through with its own unmaking . . .


“When I awoke “ “was in darkness” “& could see nothing” “at all”
from The Descent of Alette

Alice Notley has taken on a prophetic role normally occupied in poetry by men like William Blake, Walt Whitman, Derek Walcott, and Alexander Pope: critics, seers, and preachers. In her book The Descent of Alette, a woman speaks in stuttering and eerie dispatches about a subway system underworld controlled by an amorphous dark force called “the tyrant’s mind.” It’s a set-up for a great journey, alluding to a feminist overthrow of patriarchy. The overthrow, however, is not the most compelling part of the book. What dazzles me most is the way Notley has gone about making a work of écriture feminine, a text that formally interrogates the expression of female power by writing the female onto the modernist masculine tradition of appropriating classical modes.

In the words of the critic Page Dubois, “Notley posits the pre-Homeric as somehow premisogynist, like the Minoan period Freud imagines as a pre-Oedipal, maternal phase of human history,” and many of the book’s tropes evoke pagan mythical symbologies, but Alette is also a beautiful and inspiring work of theory-in-action where politics and subjectivity tangle.

The book’s formal charge comes in part from, of all things, its punctuation. The book is scored with quotation marks that, according to the author’s note, serve to control the pace, distance the narrator from Notley, and “remind the reader that each phrase is a thing said by a voice.” The quotation marks feel like an impediment, but they bring music and dynamism to a work that is itself a disruption. The isolated phrases might also stand for the linkage of endless cars, but the poems themselves are picaresque and testimonial. In some poems the speaker describes the female bodies that enter and leave the cars, each of them marked or deranged by the onus of being “…steeped in”/”the authority”// “of” “another’s mind.”

In the book’s action, the heroine is subject, witness, and agent. Sometimes she speaks for all the car’s occupants and other times she is battling tyranny. The book is like Dante’s Inferno, but it also reminds me of the other great feminine descents: Perspephone, Isis, and Psyche—of who they’d be if they had agency. In one important scene, she’s getting ready to meet the tyrant:

“I stood before” “a dismal door” “an old paint-eroded” “wooden door”
“I took from” “my pocket” “the fragment of” “the tyrant’s heart”
“& held it” “just held it” “standing there in” “murky brown light”
“The lapis” “now had “a pulse in it:” “one place throbbed rhythmically”

The speaker’s breath and body live in those lines, a striking feminine occupation of the lyric mode. The door, “dismal” and “wooden,” opens onto the book’s destination, which is itself a journey: no less than a revision of “the whole idea of a literary movement, the academy, the avant-garde…,” which Notley has rightly called  “all male forms.”


When Stephen Jonas died in 1970, he was working on a series of poems that he ended up calling Dominations.  He didn’t finish, and they’re a mess—I don’t  need to read them for their beauty or their sound or good sense; I read them for their crazy, for their voices, for the comic asides and private jokes.  For  “Hail marys full ov boose” and “Oh Dante he was soft-on-us fags” in III,  “Maenads broken in groups of teenage girls/ “go baby go go GO” in VIII, for imagining Jonas starting each writing exercise with the tarot, real cards on a real table in a real apartment in my city, before I was born.

I read them to remember “an eastern jail where/even the light is automatic” in V, to be grateful again I get to live in a place, in a time, where I get to turn on all the lights I want; on, and off.  I read it for its portrait of an American high in VII: “Man when I get juiced/& stoned/I’m in the White House/or on Wall St. giving orders/to flunkies to buy or sell/i’m ten feet tall& just lickd cassius clay” For the thoughts on satellites in II, from back when there were fewer than twenty of them up there: “(I have thought about you/about what concerns you/–what concerns all of us/nothing’s waiting for you in the skies/ save what yr/engineers/send aloft/these toys are no answer.”

But mostly I read it for the time travel: Looking at these unfinished sloppy pages is like crawling in through the window of Stephen Jonas’s apartment, the one he always left unlocked for stray cats and friends.  They’re like looking at a  messy desk in Boston in 1970, wishing Steve would come home soon and make supper and that I could point to the mess on his desk and tease him, quoting his own lines, “why is it I cant/understand yr poe-TREE?”


I remember when I was a boy falling asleep listening to the radio.  I’d lie in the dark and listen to Jon Miller calling runs and outs for the Baltimore Orioles.  It’s one of the memories I’ve smuggled out of childhood: a fragment of solitude and escape, of first secrets, of the voice’s power, of intimate proximity to lives beyond my own.  I recognize that boy and his secret night radio in Randall Jarrell’s “The Lost World”:

                          Forced out of life into
Bed, for a moment I lie comfortless
In the blank darkness; then as I always do
I put on the on the earphones of the crystal set–
Each bed has its earphones–and the uneasy tissue
Of their far-off star sound, of the blue-violet
Of space, surrounds the sweet voice from the Tabernacle
Of the Four-Square Gospel.

The lush and lyric voices from the speaker’s set call to him from beyond the walls of his grandparent’s house.  His perceptions of “star sound” and “sweet voice” echo in the repeated ‘s’ sound, a gospel of word and world, a seduction of both speaker and listener. The boy can’t see the faces behind the words, and the history of the “sweet voice,” Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, isn’t elaborated.  But the place and time, Los Angeles in the 1930s, is inescapable: from the movie sets and the Hollywood streets to the wars left behind to the wars to come, Jarrell’s poem captures the complex exchange between place and memory, time and desire, and the past that we return to by choice and accident. “Back in Los Angeles we missed / Los Angeles” goes a line in the long poem’s coda, “Thinking of the Lost World.”  The world we remember is not the same as the one that is lost.  What’s striking — and perhaps unsurprising — is that in a poem about memory everything is in motion.  The three sections of “The Lost World” slip from past to present, from boyhood self to the adult voice, and back again. The illusion of plain speech elides the poem’s complexity, its ambitious structure, its seemingly effortless terza rima. “All of them are gone / Except for me;  and for me nothing is gone,” claims the speaker, which is the foolish dream and hopeful possibility of nostalgia–we can return.  Return the past in the present.  Return to the word, to the line, to the page.  Return to that early self: dreaming and reading and listening, absorbed into the “far-off star sound,” imagining worlds beyond worlds.


Why does this continue to please me, this book-length long poem that features sections on the real estate business in Pasadena, the industrial revolution in Manchester, stamp collecting, tourism in France, and a mental patient’s time with his family away from the institution, among other things, all woven together by a frankly autobiographical speaker’s story of his early losses and later life?

I think I love that all of these sections are perhaps Puritan in their language, which is to say that the words used are necessary and well considered, rich without ornament, not indulging in metaphor or symbol. Who else can write such a vivid and unpretentious line? This is a poet who is not only rigorous with his words, but one who is just as hard on sentiment, you soon realize. McMichael believes that feeling alone is not enough for the work of poetry. As he says in an interview:

as soon as I had that connection between the individual and the collective, then I knew I had to write not only about myself but about the big processes in the surrounding world.

This very philosophical notion—that an individual’s feeling is not separate from the social and historical—is another reason why I love this poem. The ghost of blank verse inhabited by discussions of California real estate, wind tunnels, the Craftsman movement—who else can do this?  McMichael’s father was involved in the real estate business and the boy who walks the city of Pasadena is walking to know his father. The writer, in his literary journey, ends up in Manchester with the inventor of the water-frame method of carding fibers and the enclosure laws that drastically changed how people used and understood property. The “dissolves” (this is what McMichael himself has called them) between the stories create a series of nested histories, some imagined, some autobiographical, some historical.

The book is told, as its dedication states, to the poet Killarney Clary, who is also from Pasadena. It begins with a woman’s journey—the family housekeeper’s—a simple shopping trip. His mother’s fatal illness anchors the beginning of the book, and his travels with his wife Linda end it. There’s a lovely symmetry in how Linda’s story of her trip (on cross country skis in Italy) finishes the book, one that began with a woman’s journey. It’s as if, in telling a generous friend a poet can understand his basic state of being alone—albeit it’s one that seems organic to many a poet. I would argue that even though it’s a common state, no poet presents it quite so fully, never veering towards the splashy, and always refusing catharsis, that easy way out. The gift of Four Good Things is its unsparing eye and intellect—the epigraph is from a medieval abbess’ writings:

Despise the world; Despise nothing;
Despise yourself; Despise despising yourself;
These are four good things.

At the end of the book, McMichael writes of being a happier tourist in France, watching the shoppers one day in a small medieval market town. I was reading this poem as I traveled across France about 20 years ago and was sitting in a covered market in Mirapoix as I read towards the end of the book,

Housewives were in the shops on their various
errands and charges and were coming back…

I’d seen them in the square, in Mirapoix, they were
all I had to go on.

Being inside that story for a glorious moment, I began to wonder what the genealogy of my own difficult connection to the world might be.


I’m embarrassed to admit that I first heard of Patrick Kavanagh while reading a poem by another poet, Galway Kinnell. As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, I’d picked up a copy of Kinnell’s When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone and found a poem called “Oatmeal” where Kinnell imagines sitting down to breakfast with his imaginary friend, John Keats (because it’s wise never to eat oatmeal alone). At the end of the poem, the speaker says that for dinner he’s going to enjoy a leftover baked potato and for good company he’ll “invite Patrick Kavanagh” to join him. At the time, I didn’t get the joke because I’d never heard of Kavanagh and didn’t know that he was a poet. Years later, I would hear mention of Kavanagh, always in conjunction with a mysterious and long poem called “The Great Hunger,” but it was at least a decade after that first passing reference before I read the poem. You will likely search long and hard in bookstores (at least outside of Ireland) before finding Kavanagh on the shelves.

Kavanagh is the great Irish poet who wrote in the shadow after Yeats and before Heaney, Boland, and Muldoon. The contemporary Irish poet Paul Durcan has said that he doesn’t “read” Kavanagh so much as he “believes” in him. The son of a shoemaker, Kavanagh was accepted into literary society as an “authentic farmer” whose soul was the soil, a literal and literary embodiment of the Irish Literary Revival, whose adherents sought to reclaim traditional Irish culture after centuries of British colonization. But Kavanagh, ever wily and cantankerous, rebelled against that narrow, compromised definition and “The Great Hunger” is the labor and document of that struggle, an anti-pastoral masterpiece on the hardships and privations of life as a 30-acre farmer in rural county Monaghan, midway between Belfast and Dublin, where Kavanagh was raised in Inniskeen.

As a poem, “The Great Hunger” is at once lyrical, bitter, propulsive, off-kilter, melancholy, and imperfect— a kind of mid-20th century rural Irish “Howl.” Its literary antecedents include the ballad tradition, but a ballad stripped of romance and the customs of patterned rhyme and meter. Published in 1942, the poem’s 14 sections track the life of an imaginary farmer, Patrick Maguire (a loose, archetypal version of the poet himself or who he might have become had he stayed in Inniskeen), who swears off marriage and lives with his mother until she dies and leaves him alone at the age of 65. We follow Maguire behind the plough and Maguire tending animals (“He saw his cattle / And stroked their flanks in lieu of wife to handle”). We cringe as Maguire obeys his mother’s orders (“His mother tall hard as a Protestant spire”); we catch Maguire wagering on horses; witness him at church (he “knelt beside a pillar where he could spit / without being seen”) and overhear his repeated laments that he never married and had children while he was young and had the chance.

When “The Great Hunger” appeared in a book of the same title, the local police paid a visit to Kavanagh. There’d been rumors that the poem featured images of masturbation (it does, repeatedly) and wary of obscenity they wanted to question the poem’s author. “We had a talk about Chaucer,” Kavanagh later reported. “They didn’t know much about him.” The church and the police might not care for the poem, but that hasn’t stopped Kavanagh’s admirers, who believe in his poetry as much as they read it and who understand the struggle it took to write it.

There are many ways to think about “The Great Hunger”—as an anti-pastoral poem, a critique of the strictures and constrictions of Irish Catholicism, or a condensed epic of the life of one man— but in the short space I have here what I want to claim for “The Great Hunger” is that its greatness in part lies in its formal spontaneity and imperfection. The poem’s spirit and its sorrow overwhelm its formal means – its spirit comes from its flaws, its often-clunky rhymes, its flayed, tortured images, and its moments of clear self-pity. You could edit “The Great Hunger,” but you could not improve it. The poem is a raw gift of terrific genuineness: craft in service of art, rather than art in service of craft. Kavanagh was in many ways the anti-Yeats. He wrote a poetry that was not combed and cleaned by formal precision. What “The Great Hunger” gives me as an American poet who’s never had to earn a living from the land, is a kind of permission. A poem can be flawed like its maker: rough and alive and unapologetic, filled with lyrical nuance and imaginative insight, driven by narrative and character.


I remember writing toward persona poem prompts in middle and high school and being really excited about them. In college, I read Maurice Manning’s first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, and I fell in love with persona poems as they fit into a fictional narrative. But in my first round of graduate school, I began to resist persona poems. A few men in my workshops wrote persona poems from the perspective of women and I found the poems problematic. I was skeptical that any person could write for another person, speak for them. (Maybe it was wrapped up in how aware I had become of men speaking for women in the political spectrum.) Frankly, I was skeptical of any falseness. I wasn’t even using similes in my own poems at that time. It was a phase I had to go through to understand the danger of language and perspective, and the resulting responsibility of the poet.

When I read “The War of Vaslav Nijinsky” by Frank Bidart, my brain exploded. I loved how giant it was (about 30 pages in his collected), and I loved how it broke into and out of prose, how it moved across the page, and how it used CAPS ALL OVER. He mentions some of his sources in the Notes section of the book. One of the sources was the biography Nijinsky’s wife wrote, titled, Nijinsky. And very recently I read with a poet who complained about how much the poem borrowed from Nijinsky’s own diary. But that didn’t disappoint me. That made me more thrilled by the poem. It seems committed to honesty, along with more typically poetic concerns, like vibrancy, vibrancy of language, diction, use of line, and imagery. And, on top of it all, the stakes are high. The poem explores the creation of art and the instability of the mind in the presence of art. It’s necessary, and I trust it.

Frank Bidart rekindled my belief in the persona poem. I’m so grateful to him and this poem.


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