Archive for the ‘ Poetry ’ Category

To catch a thief …

The Trump posse doesn’t have much to recommend itself, but it sure is loaded with irony.

Trump, who cannot otherwise explain how he could not achieve a plurality of the vote (he missed by about 3 million), has laid it to the feet of those who engaged in voter fraud.

And to prove it he has promoted one Gregg Phillips, who has been diligent in rooting out, as he said, “thousands of duplicate records and registrations of dead people.”

Today the AP reports that Mr. Phillips himself may have a unique insight into these “duplicate records” inasmuch as he himself is registered in 3 different states:

The AP found that Phillips was registered in Alabama and Texas under the name Gregg Allen Phillips, with the identical Social Security number. Mississippi records list him under the name Gregg A. Phillips, and that record includes the final four digits of Phillips’ Social Security number, his correct date of birth and a prior address matching one once attached to Gregg Allen Phillips.

I guess we should pay more attention when Trump starts braying about alleged illegalities. He’s likely to have a close advisor who is an expert.


Anthem for our coming winter

Once again we have escaped the night’s gnawing away at the light. Neolithic man must have been even more terrified than I was as the daylight got shorter every day. But just like then, and as it has ever since, came winter solstice and night was defeated! Helios has vanquished darkness; the earth is no longer without form, order reigns and chaos is once again beaten back: Marduk has defeated Tiamat, Horus and Jesus are born, Julblotet sacrifices have been made so days will become longer and soon surely the crops will rise again.


The columns of the Karnak temple are aligned so that the Winter Solstice sun rises along its central axis. (Photo by Graham Hancock.)

But this year we must prepare for a second winter, one we’ve never seen before. As we anticipate the first openly proto-fascist administration in America, we have no Christina Rossetti carol appropriate for the purpose. We can, however, turn to America’s most lyrical fascist poet who inverted a medieval English summer anthem for just the kind of salute we need for the winter soon to be upon us.

Ancient Music

from Lustra with Earlier Poems (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1917, p.61)

by Ezra Pound

Winter is icummen in
Lhude sing Goddamm.
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.

Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm,
So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.

Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm.
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

This November Reminds Me of Laing

First the trees.

That Time of Year

from Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 186, no. 1112 (January 1943)

by Dilys Bennett Laing

AS PERSONAGES now the trees emerge
Out of anonymous green, each one a forge
That stands in its own color and burns large.

August could scarcely tell sumach from maple,
Birch from oak and larch, or beech from popple.
Now no two maples even are a couple.

Each is a seraph in his own degree
Of gold. He claps his wings in the keen day
And has no peer under the autumn sky.

Verity of the self is only plain
In variation from environs. Green
Summer sucks the individual in.

So does white December. Shortly now
These egos shall retreat, resigned to go
Into the cold incognito of snow.

And then that other thing.

Afternoon of a Forethinker

from Poetry (May 1953)

by Dilys Laing

The rock was hard behind my back
hard as thought and hard as bone
the sky enclosed me like a brain
and the sea burned like a wick

the sea burned and the sea birds flew
as sparks above the spinning flame.
The dark rock shook. I took my name
and flung it at the thinking sky

and the sky gave me nothing back
no wink no word no code no sign
the sea birds rose with beaks of pain
and nailed my mind upon the rock

And perhaps, deo absit, even this.

Forgive Me

Collected in Walter Lowenfels (comp.), The Writing on the Wall: 108 American Poems of Protest (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969)

by Dilys Laing

Forgive me for neglecting to show you that the world is evil.
I had hoped your innocence
would find it good
and teach me what I know to be untrue.

Forgive me for leaving you open to persistent heartbreak
instead of breaking your bright heart with medicinal blows.
I had hoped your eyes would be stars
dispelling darkness wherever you looked.

Forgive me for a love that has delivered you unwarned to treachery.
Now I confess that the world,
more beautiful for your presence,
was not fine enough to warrant my summoning you into it.
My beloved.

Why Love is a Little Boy (as explained by Propertius)

Eros evolved over time (much like humans themselves) by a process of neoteny (whereby juvenile features are retained into adulthood). The early Iron Age and presumably earlier (see Hesiod (Theogony, 120) had him as the fourth of the original, primal beings (after Chaos, Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus (whence Light and the Cosmos)), “fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them.” Both Phaedrus and Acusilaus in Plato’s Symposium (178b) say that Eros was third, but agree with Hesiod that he had no parent. As an ancient deity he was involved in uniting the unruly forces of the primeval universe as well as inventing procreation, both essential for our production. He was, in short, a formidable Agency.

By Classical times poets had reduced Eros to a minor deity, but youthful and handsome, either bearing a bow with arrows (e.g., Theocritus, Idylls 23 [in English]) or with wings (Nonnus, Dionysiaca V:88ff [in English]). He no longer was the product of spontaneous generation, but his parents were not clear. Usually his mother was said to be Aphrodite by Ares (the same book by Nonnus), although fragments (including of Sappho) have him as the son of Iris, Gaia or Aphrodite by Ouranos. He is capable of inflicting desire on both humans and gods and he occasionally is mentioned in this connection, but it is not until Imperial Roman times that his own story with Psyche is recounted in Apuleius’s Golden Ass (Book iv, Chapter 22 [in English]).

Statuette of Eros Wearing Lion Skin of Herakles. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Discovered in Myrina, Asia Minor.

Statuette of Eros Wearing Lion Skin of Herakles. Terracotta. 1st century B.C.E. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Discovered in Myrina, Asia Minor.

It was in the Hellenized world after Alexander, however, that Eros became the chubby child Cupid represented in many works of art in various Hellenistic kingdoms, where children were a much more common subject than in Classical times. The small (15 ½”) terracotta statuette from Myrina shown in the recent Pergamon exhibition at the Met (which we reviewed) and seen at the right, is a particularly famous example, given its impish charm. The child god is hiding something behind his back with his left hand (the object has since disappeared), and he cautions someone with his left hand. He has a disrespectful or smirking expression on his face. Such insolence is never found on Classical representations of children, and the pose is certainly one that Classical artists would not try to reproduce. But Hellenistic artists were more interested in sui generis portraits representing intimate rather than abstract situations. The infantilization of Eros is an interesting example of how the Hellenistic world personalized and in some ways domesticated not only art, but also religion and common culture. It was a world not looking for Truth but rather diversion. Hellenistic poets did the same in literature.

Sextus Propertius (? ca. 50 B.C.E.–before 1 B.C.E.) wrote in Latin rather than Greek, and while he lived at the end of the Hellenistic period, he resided as an adult in Rome, not a Hellenized kingdom. But he modeled himself after the most important of Hellenistic poets, Callimachus, once a scholar at the Library of Alexandria.1 Propertius wrote four books of elegies. The first (published around 26 B.C.E. and titled in some manuscripts as Cynthia Monobiblos) mostly contained poems detailing his erotic obsession with a woman he calls Cynthia. Apparently that book made him immensely popular in Rome. The second book (published in 24 or 23 B.C.E.) describes his agony in Cynthia’s unfaithfulness and rejection. The third book (published in 22 or 21 B.C.E.) treats poetic topics other than just his love and by the end he finally breaks with her. The fourth (which is half the size of the other three, perhaps because he died before it was completed; it was published in 16 B.C.E. or later) shows that he outlived Cynthia but never really resolved the affair.2

Propertius was born in Assisi, in the modern Perugia of Umbria. (Assisi was later also the birthplace of the friar Francis, who venerated animals.) In his major autobiographical poem, what the ancients called a sphragis, the “signet” by which a poet gives his name and provenance (IV:i), Propertius implies that his wealthy father died when he was young, around the time that Octavian ordered the redistribution of land for his soldiers in 41 B.C.E. Propertius’s circumstances was thus diminished but he was not reduced to abject poverty as was Horace when his own father’s estate was seized. Perhaps his estate was treated more leniently because the Propertii were of equestrian rank (IV:i:131-34), whereas Horace’s father was a newly freed slave. Propertius says that he gave up study of law for poetry. He soon fell in love with Cynthia who dominated the rest of what we know of his life. By law, Propertius was unable to marry her because she was a prostitute (II:vii:7) and so chose to remain a bachelor.

When in Rome Propertius was part of the circle of Maecenas, the wealthy minister of Augustus. But he was not economically dependent, as were Horace and Virgil. (The first book was dedicated not to Maecenas but to Volcacius Tullus, nephew of the proconsul of Asia, and he treats him as an equal (I:i:9).) Yet Maecenas was a literary taste-maker so it was useful to curry his interest and even recite poetry in his great estate house. Whether it was envy of his wealth or independence or his middlebrow popularity, Horace took a dislike to Propertius, telling a correspondent that he had to stop up his ears to avoid hearing the second Callimachus (Epistles II:ii:87-104 [in English]). But it could simply be that Horace could not make the break from Classicism that the new Hellenistically-inspired taste demanded. In any event, Propertius’s poetic description of Cupid is a good example of how lightly tripped the lyrics of this new school and how easily the gods were treated, both things strange to those who studied to imitate the more austere masters.

Incidentally, the term “elegy” in Greek and Latin poetry is not the same as in English, where it describes a plaintive poem lamenting a death. In classical times an elegy was simply a poem written in elegiac couplets. In such a couplet the first line is written in dactylic hexameter (the epic meter used by Homer and everyone else describing monumental themes). The second line is in dactylic pentameter. The rules of prosody are a bit arcane and in any event can’t be reproduced in English. The basic idea is that the first line is made up of six feet and the second five. (The number of syllables in a foot, however, depended on the vowel quality of each syllable.) The effect is supposed to be of a rising cadence in the first line and a falling one in the second (something I tried to recreate using a simpler English meter). Propertius’s “domestic” poetry uses the form rather than the spirit of the elegy, as we can see in his Elegy to Cupid’s Image.

Elegia XII
from Elegiarum, Liber Secundus
by Sextus Propertius
(edition of H.E. Butler, Propertius, Loeb Classical Library
(Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard University Pres, 1912))

Quicumque ille fuit, puerum qui pinxit Amorem,
nonne putas miras hunc habuisse manus?
is primum vidit sine sensu vivere amantes,
et levibus curis magna perire bona.
idem non frustra ventosas addidit alas,
fecit et humano corde volare deum:
scilicet alterna quoniam iactamur in unda,
nostraque non ullis permanet aura locis.
et merito hamatis manus est armata sagittis,
et pharetra ex umero Gnosia utroque iacet:
ante ferit quoniam, tuti quam cernimus hostem,
nec quisquam ex illo vulnere sanus abit.
in me tela manent, manet et puerilis imago:
sed certe pennas perdidit ille suas;
evolat ei nostro quoniam de pectore nusquam,
assiduusque meo sanguine bella gerit.
quid tibi iucundum est siccis habitare medullis?
si pudor est, alio traice duella tua!
intactos isto satius temptare veneno:
non ego, sed tenuis vapulat umbra mea.
quam si perdideris, quis erit qui talia cantet,
(haec mea Musa levis gloria magna tua est),
qui caput et digitos et lumina nigra puellae,
et canat ut soleant molliter ire pedes?

Elegy II:xii
[translated by D.K. Fennell]

Whoever first painted Amor as a child
Had marvelous touch, don’t you think?
He saw just how childishly lovers behave
Forfeiting the great for the small.

He usefully added two fluttering wings
Divinely convulsing their hearts.
Indeed we are tossed on buffeted waves
Our wind never blowing one way.

And apt is he armed with aquiline shafts
A quiver from Crete on each arm,
Because we are struck without seeing our foe
A wounding from which one can’t flee.

Transfixed as I am with his darts and his form
But surely his wings have been lost.
Alas! from my breast he never takes flight
Instead he makes war in my blood.

What joy is there living within my dried heart?
Know shame; throw your darts somewhere else!
Much better to poison the ones still unscathed;
Not me, it’s my shadow that’s drubbed.

For if you shall waste me, then how shall I sing
(Though slight is my Muse, your glory is great)
Her head and her fingers, my lady’s dark eyes,
The delicate sound of her feet?

Text note: In line 18, other (better?) manuscripts have “puella” for “duella” and “tuo” for “tua.” A modern emendation is simply to replace them with “tela una.” In other poems Propertius plays fast and loose with diction and syntax so it is difficult to know precisely what he originally intended, although the general sense is discernible. In this sense his poetry contrasts with that of other Augustan poets, particularly Virgil.


1In III:i:1-2 Propertius writes: Callimachi Manes et Coi sacra Philitae, /  in vestrum, quaeso, me sinite ire nemus. (“Ghost of Callimachus and rites of Coan Philitas, / permit me, I pray, to enter into your grove.”) In IV:1:62-64 he writes: mi folia ex hedera porrige, Bacche, tua, / ut nostris tumefacta superbiat Umbria libris, / Umbria Romani patria Callimachi! (“Hold out for me your ivy leaves, O Bacchus, / So that my books may make Umbria swell with pride / Umbria, country of Rome’s Callimachus!”) [Return to text.]

2In IV:7:1 Propertius recounts the visitation of her ghost: Sunt aliquid Manes: letum non omnia finit. “Spirits are real: death is not everything.”) [Return to text.]

Whitman’s Joy

Perhaps because we in the upper reaches of the northern hemisphere are finally seeing sunshine for a substantial part of the day, I can’t help recalling Whitman, the last great poet who whole-heartedly affirmed life, in all its aspects, without irony, cynicism or restraint. Spring is no time for Eliot (who thought April the cruelest month, because he was always too old to even remember joy), so best to read aloud a poet who believed in the joy of spring (and who even in his greatest depths of despair could always remember lilacs blooming in the doorway). So here’s a few excerpts from his ode to joy:

From A Song of Joys
by Walt Whitman
(1881-82 ed.)

Know’st thou the excellent joys of youth?
Joys of the dear companions, and of the merry word, and laughing face?
Joys of the glad, light-beaming day, joy of the wide-breath’d games?
Joy of sweet music, joy of the lighted ball-room, and the dancers?
Joy of the friendly, plenteous dinner, strong carouse, and drinking?

 * * *

Yet, O my soul supreme!
Know’st thou the joys of pensive thought?
Joys of the free and lonesome heart, the tender, gloomy heart?
Joy of the solitary walk, the spirit bow’d yet proud, the suffering
and the struggle?
The agonistic throes, the ecstasies, joys of the solemn musings,
day or night?
Joys of the thought of Death, the great spheres Time and Space?
Prophetic joys of better, loftier love’s ideals, the divine wife,
the sweet, eternal, perfect comrade?
Joys all thine own, undying one, joys worthy thee, O soul.

* * *

O while I live to be the ruler of life, not a slave,
To meet life as a powerful conqueror,
No fumes, no ennui, no more complaints or scornful criticisms,
To these proud laws of the air, the water and the ground, proving
my interior soul impregnable,
And nothing exterior shall ever take command of me.

* * *

O to struggle against great odds, to meet enemies undaunted!
To be entirely alone with them, to find how much one can stand!
To look strife, torture, prison, popular odium, face to face!
To mount the scaffold, to advance to the muzzles of guns with
perfect nonchalance!
To be indeed a God!

* * *

O to sail to sea in a ship!
To leave this steady, unendurable land!
To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks
and the houses;
To leave you O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship,
To sail, and sail, and sail!

* * *

O to have my life henceforth a poem of new joys!
To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on,
To be a sailor of the world, bound for all ports,
A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air,)
A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys.

Witter Bynner’s “Passing Near”

Witter Bynner was one of the vanguard of poets who in the 1910s and 1920s would bring about something of a poetic rebirth in the United States after several decades of undistinguished works mainly by writers better known for their prose. This is not a modern conclusion. At the time, the dearth of American poetry was lamented in most of the serious literary periodicals. Seemingly in spite of the barren plot, serious poets (or at least writers with serious ambitions to be professional poets) sprumg up in numbers, and seemingly, all at once.

This new flourishing took place slightly behind the modernist experiments going on by poets in London. While some Americans attempted to follow the new techniques pioneered there (notably Hart Crane, for example), American poets of the time never subscribe to the burden of the English modernist, unable to subscribe to the haughty elitism, the reactionary politics and the ethnocentric bigotry of the leading modernists (Hulme, Pound, Eliot and Lewis). Nor did the Americans find the need to form schools (except, perhaps, for Amy Lowell, who personally interacted with Pound and who purchased the leadership of the Imagist movement at the time that Pound was working up other manifestoes). The Americans displayed interest in a variety of approaches and techniques, although none seemed interested in in competing with the English modernists in announcing the death of civilization.

Bynner was not tempted by the modernist song of Tiresias either in subject or tone or technique. He was, however, capable of donning their voice as he and Arthur Davison Ficke proved by hoaxing the literary establishment with their publication Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1916). Bynner was more interested in exploring the mysteries of an interior world in finely wrought traditional lines.

Born in Brooklyn in 1881, he made his way to Harvard where he was selected to join the Harvard Advocate by editor Wallace Stevens. He diligently dedicated himself to writing verse from the turn of the century and only nine years after he was graduated, returned to Harvard in 1911 to deliver the annual Phil Beta Kappa verse recital, with a poem entitled “An Immigrant,” which was amplified (according Book Review Digest, volume 11, 1916 (p. 72)) when collected in The New World, printed by Mitchell Kennerley in 1915. (You can read the version reprinted by Alfred A. Knopf in 1922 in Google books). Incidentally, as traditional as the poem now sounds, The Nation (September 30, 1915) was uncomfortable with its form and panned it thus: “I am sorry that the cult of novelty should have besprinkled with those queernesses which pass muster in certain quarters for originality. There is a smack of exclusiveness in in the very emphasis on democracy.” Bynner’s work would never thereafter be known for “queerness.” Rather the works’ surface simplicity belies mysteries worked up by rigorous technique.

Bynner went on to lecture at Berkeley, mainly to accommodate soldiers recently demobbed (as Eliot would put it). A trip to China convinced him to study the language and poetry. On his return ill health caused him to recover in Santa Fe, where he would take up residence for the rest of his life. Here he was host to stars (including Rita Hayworth) and literati (Auden, Frost and others). A trip into Mexico with visiting D.H. Lawrence landed him a portrait in The Plumed Serpent.

He continued writing poetry until a stroke in the mid 1960s disabled him. When he died in 1968, his will bestowed the funds that created a foundation to sponsor American poets.

The poem below is an early example of his lyric. First published in 1913 it was collected in Grenstone Poems: A Sequence (New York: Frederick A. Stockes Co., 1917). In the collection it is grouped in a section entitled “News” with the epigraph: “If a word of doom arrives—love, hearing it, / Can make the deathful tidings exquisite.”

Passing Near

from Poetry, February 1913

by Witter Bynner

I had not till today been sure,
But now I know:
Dead men and women come and go
Under the pure
Sequestering snow.

And under the autumnal fern
And carmine bush,
Under the shadow of a thrush,
They move and learn;
And in the rush

Of all the mountain-brooks that wake
With upward fling
To brush and break the loosening cling
Of ice, they shake
The air with Spring!

I had not till today been sure,
But now I know:
Dead youths and maidens come and go
Below the lure
And undertow

Of cities, under every street
Of empty stress,
Or heart of an adulteress:
Each loud retreat
Of lovelessness.

For only by the stir we make
In passing near
Are we confused, and cannot hear
The ways they take
Certain and clear.

Today I happened in a place
Where all around
Was silence; until, underground,
I heard a pace,
A happy sound.

And people whom I there could see
Tenderly smiled,
While under a wood of silent, wild
Wandered a child,

Leading his mother by the hand,
Happy and slow,
Teaching his mother where to go
Under the snow.
Not even now I understand—
I only know.

Pierre Boulez, RIP

March 25, 1925 – January 5, 2016



Le marteau sans maître

for alto voice, alto flute, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba,
percussion and viola

Text by René Char

L’Artisanat fureux

La roulotte rouge au bord du clou
Et cadavre dans le panier
Et chevaux de labours dans le fer à cheval
Je rêve la tête sur la pointe de mon couteau le Pérou

Translation by Pierre Boulez

The Furious Craftsman

The red caravan at the edge of the prison
And corpse in the basket
And work horses in the horseshoe
I dream the head on the point of my knife Peru.

Bourreux de solitude

Le pas s’est élongé le marcheur s’est tu
Sur le cadran de l’Imitation
Le Balancier lance sa change de granit rèflexe

Hangman of Solitude

The step has receded the walker is silent
On the dial of the imitation
The Pendulum thrusts its load of reflex granite

Bel édifice et les pressentiments

J’écoute marcher dans mes jambes
La mer morte vagues par-dessus tête
Enfant la jetée-promenade savage
Homme l’illusion imitée
Des yeux purs dans les bois
Cherchent enpleurant la tête habitable

Beautiful Building and the Premotions

I hear walking in my legs
The dead sea waves over my head

Child the wild promenade-pier
Man the imitated illusion

Pure eyes in the woods
Seek weeping ithe head to live in