Author Archive

Whitman diagnoses our malady

I Sit and Look Out

from Leaves of Grass
(Philadelphia: David McKay, 1891–92 [9th ed.]), pp. 215–16

by Walt Whitman

I SIT and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all
oppression and shame,
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men at anguish with
themselves, remorseful after deeds done,
I see in low life the mother misused by her children, dying,
neglected, gaunt, desperate,
I see the wife misused by her husband, I see the treacherous
seducer of young women,
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love attempted to
be hid, I see these sights on the earth,
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see martyrs and
I observe a famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting lots who
shall be kill’d to preserve the lives of the rest,
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons
upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look
out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.


Dance of the Love Ghosts

Part of John Carter’s serial compositions about the beginnings of the African experience in America. The notes for this song were:

Teeming thousands passed through the Castles of Ghana, fading shadows of broken lives, broken families, broken hearts and loves that could never be mended. The ghosts of those lost loved ones dance in eternal rhythm to the song of a desperate people who would never again view their homeland.


Bobby Bradford (cornet), Benny Powell (trombone, bass trombone), John Carter (clarinet), Marty Ehrlich (bass clarinet, flute), Terry Jenoure (violin), Don Preston (synthesizer), Fred Hopkins (bass), Andrew Cyrille (drums).

Recorded at Sorcerer Sound, New York, New York, November 1986.


A Post-Modern Tribute to T.S. Eliot

On the Threshold of his Greatness,
The Poet Comes Down with a Sore Throat

from The Next Room of the Dream
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962)

by Howard Nemerov

Enthusiasm is not the state of a writer’s soul.—Valéry.1

For years I explored the pharmacopoeia
After a new vision. I lay upon nails
While memorizing the Seven Least Nostalgias.2
And I lived naked in a filthy cave,
Sneering at skiers, all one awful winter;
Then condescended, and appeared in tails
At the Waldorf-Astoria,where I excelled
In the dancing of the Dialecticians’ Waltz
Before admiring matrons and their patrons.

Those days, I burned with a hard, gemlike phlegm,
And went up like Excelsior4 in a huff
Of seven-veiled symbols and colored vowels.
Flying from the alone to the Alone,5
My name appeared on every manifest
Everything, Bhikkhus, was on fire.6
Things are so different now. My reformation,
Glittering, o’er my fault.7 . . . Anyhow,
It’s very quiet here at Monsalvat.8
The kids are singing in the cupola.9
But quietly. The good old psychopomp
Who comes to give my shots is terribly kind.
Procurasin at night in massive doses,
Repentisol next morning when I wake.
An unpretntious life, with late quartets
Among the early frescoes, a few friars
Asleep in their coffins10 off to one side,

Angles adoring11 where the jet planes wailed.
Evenings, we all eat from the same Grail.

Gin a body meet a body12
Under boo13
Under the bo
Under the bodhi tree
All is illusion,14 all is vanity15
Nobodhi there but me and me16

Metaphysics at mealtime gets in my hair.17

1 “Variety,” tr. by Malcom Cowley, in “An Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci.”
2 Ancient druidical chants of immense length. Also referred to in some early writers, as “The Small End of the Egg Wisdom.”
3 An hotel in New York City.
4 A poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
5 Plotinus, in Stephen Mackenna’s translation.
6 In the present tense in Buddha’s Fire Sermon addressed to a thousand monks at Gays Head in Magadha. See Henry Clarke Warren, “Buddhism in Translation” (Harvard, 1922), Ch. IV, Sec. 73. See also William Empson, “Poems” (London, 1935) and T.S. Eliot, “The Wast Land” (1922), Part II, “The Fire Sermon,” ad fin. Bhikkus = monks, or priests.
7 Shakespeare, “Henry IV Part One,” 1.2.236.
8 The Grail Castle. Richard Wagner, “Parsifal,” “Lohengrin,” See also Nemerov, “The Melodramatists” (1949), pp. 155 & ff.
9 T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” line 202: “Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!” Mr. Eliot’s note attributes the line to Verlaine, “Parsifal,” but probably the sentiment, in one form or another, goes back to antiquity. Cf. Kafka, “The Castle,” where K., telephoning for permission to enter the Castle, hears in the receiver “the hum of countless children’s voices—but yet not a hum, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance.”
10 See James Joyce’s celebrated story “The Dead,” in “Dubliners.”
11 Painting by Fra Angelico in the National Gallery, London.
12 Note the increased profundity of the Burns song in the new context.
13 Cf. T.S. Eliot, “Fragment of an Agon”: “Under bam / Under the boo / Under the bamboo tree.”
14 The Buddha.
15 Ecclesiastes. The collocation of these two representatives of Eastern and Western tradition, here at the collapse of the poem, may not be an accident.
16 The Buddha achieved illumination and Buddhahood under the bo tree from the perception that all the forces of evil threatening him arose from within himself.
17 Wallace Stevens, “Les Plus Belles Pages”: “Theology after breakfast sticks in the eye.”


Note on Notes. These notes have not the intention of offering a complete elucidation of the poem. Naturally, interpretations will differ from one reader to another, and even, perhaps, from one minute to the next. But because Modern Poetry is generally agreed to be a matter of the Intellect, and not the Feelings, because it is meant to be studied, and not merely read; and because it is valued, in the classroom, to the precise degree of its difficulty, poet and critic have agreed that these Notes will not merely adorn the Poem, but possibly supersede it altogether.

Stolen Moments

from Blues and the Abstract Truth
by Oliver Nelson (1961)

Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Eric Dolphy, flute; Oliver Nelson, alto, arranger;
George Barrow, baritone sax; Bill Evans, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Roy Haynes, drums.
recorded at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, February 23, 1961
on Impulse! 


The secret of the flower

[Die Mandelbäume in Blüte (1912)]
from Uncollected Poems ed. by Edward Snow (New York: North Point Press, 1997)
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Die Mandelbäume in Blüte: alles, was wir hier leisten können,
ist, sich ohne Rest zu erkennen in der irdischen Erscheinung.

Unendlich staun ich euch an, ihr Seligen, euer Benehmen,
wie ihr die schwindliche Zier traget in ewigem Sinn.
Ach wers verstünde zu blühn: dem wär das Herz über alle
schwachen Gefahren hinaus und in der großen getrost.

[Inflorescent Almond Trees]
[translated by DK Fennell]

The Almond Trees in bloom: the only thing we can accomplish
here is to recognize ourselves, without any residue, in worldly phenomena.

I never cease, oh happy ones, to marvel at your bearing,
With that endless wisdom you support your dwindling splendor.
If one could know how to flower, the heart would transcend all
Trifling perils and take comfort against the greatest.

“… we do not admire what we cannot understand”

from Observations (New York: The Dial Press, 1924)
by Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination”—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Gentle advice to a familiar stranger said only to oneself

To a Sad Daughter
from Secular Love (Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1984)
by Michael Ondaatje

All night long the hockey pictures
gaze down at you
sleeping in your tracksuit.
Belligerent goalies are your ideal.
Threats of being traded
cuts and wounds
—all this pleases you.
O my god! you say at breakfast
reading the sports page over the Alpen
as another player breaks his ankle
or assaults the coach.

When I thought of daughters
I wasn’t expecting this
but I like this more.
I like all your faults
even your purple moods
when you retreat from everyone
to sit in bed under a quilt.
And when I say ‘like’
I mean of course ‘love’
but that embarrasses you.
You who feel superior to black and white movies
(coaxed for hours to see Casablanca)
though you were moved
by Creature from the Black Lagoon.

One day I’ll come swimming
beside your ship or someone will
and if you hear the siren
listen to it. For if you close your ears
only nothing happens. You will never change.

I don’t care if you risk
your life to angry goalies
creatures with webbed feet.
You can enter their caves and castles
their glass laboratories. Just
don’t be fooled by anyone but yourself.

This is the first lecture I’ve given you.
You’re ‘sweet sixteen’ you said.
I’d rather be your closest friend
than your father. I’m not good at advice
you know that, but ride
the ceremonies
until they grow dark.

Sometimes you are so busy
discovering your friends
I ache with loss
—but that is greed.
And sometimes I’ve gone
into my purple world
and lost you.

One afternoon I stepped
into your room. You were sitting
at the desk where I now write this.
Forsythia outside the window
and sun spilled over you
like a thick yellow miracle
as if another planet
was coaxing you out of the house
—all those possible worlds!—
and you, meanwhile, busy with mathematics.

I cannot look at forsythia now
without loss, or joy for you.
You step delicately
into the wild world
and your real prize will be
the frantic search.
Want everything. If you break
break going out not in.
How you live your life I don’t care
but I’ll sell my arms for you,
hold your secrets forever.

If I speak of death
which you fear now, greatly,
it is without answers.
except that each
one we know is
in our blood.
Don’t recall graves.
Memory is permanent.
Remember the afternoon’s
yellow suburban annunciation.
Your goalie
in his frightening mask
dreams perhaps
of gentleness.

Ondaatje is the Sri Lanka-born Canadian novelist-poet best known for the Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient (1992).