Theodore Roethke

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In reading elegies by David Wagoner this week we focused attention on the elegant Elegy While Pruning Roses that was published in the January 1979 issue of Poetry. 

 

Here are two poems from Roethke’s 1948 book The Lost Son and Other Poems that I mentioned, poems that are part of a group of thirteen lyrics often referred to as the “Greenhouse Poems”:

 

 

 

Cuttings

Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;

One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

Cuttings 
(LATER)

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,—
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

 

We talked about Theodore Roethke. You can read more poems by Roethke at the Poetry Foundation. I also recommend the online resources at the Theodore Roethke Museum.

One of the most anthologized poems in American poetry, and perhaps the exemplary villanelle in the twentieth century, is The Waking. (There is a wonderful reading of the poem by Tom Moran that is part of the Favorite Poem Project.)

Wagoner edited Roethke’s notebooks that would eventually be published as Straw for the Fire.

And, finally, the late poems in The Far Field are just beautiful, in the collection that was recognized with the National Book Award in 1965. Read the arresting “North American Sequence” and “Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical.”

Gertrude Stein

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Study Nature

I do.
    Victim.
    Sales
    Met
    Wipe
    Her
    Less.
    Was a disappointment
    We say it.
                     Study nature.
    Or
    Who
    Towering.
    Mispronounced
    Spelling.
    She
    Was
    Astonishing
    To
    No
    One
    For
    Fun
                     Study from nature.
    I
    Am
    Pleased
    Thoroughly
    I
    Am
    Thoroughly
    Pleased.
    By.
    It.
    It is very likely.
                     They said so.
    Oh.
    I want.
    To do.
    What
    Is
    Later
    To
    Be
    Refined.
    By
    Turning.
    Of turning around.
                     I will wait.

from Composition as Explanation 

 

Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same. Everything is not the same as the time when of the composition and the time in the composition is different. The composition is different, that is certain.

 

. . .

 

Continuous present is one thing and beginning again and again is another thing. These are both things. And then there is using everything.

This brings us again to composition this the using everything. The using everything brings us to composition and to this composition. A continuous present and using everything and beginning again. In these two books there was elaboration of the complexities of using everything and of a continuous present and of beginning again and again and again.

 

. . .

 

It is understood by this time that everything is the same except composition and time, composition and the time of the composition and the time in the composition.

. . .

 

The time of the composition is the time of the composition. It has been at times a present thing it has been at times a past thing it has been at times a future thing it has been at times an endeavor at parts or all of these things. In my beginning it was a continuous present a beginning again and again and again and again, it was a series it was a list it was a similarity and everything different it was a distribution and an equilibration. That is all of the time some of the time of the composition.

 

Conrad Aiken “Electra”

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Electra

I

The little princess, on her eleventh birthday,

Trapped a blue butterfly in a net of gauze,

Where it was sunning on a speckled stone.

The blue wings fluttered in the silkworm net.

“What voice, Blue Butterfly,” (the Princess cried)

“Is voice of butterfly? … You scream in fury

Close to my ear; yet hear I not a sound.”

She caught it down against the stone, and pressed

A royal finger on each round blue wing;

And as one tears apart a folded leaf

By pushing right and left, so tore she, smiling,

The azure fly…. Her eyes were bright and blue,

 

Her teeth were sharp; the sunlight streaked her hair

With twining gold along two braids. She frowned

As might a chemist at a test-tube-drop

(Bright, poisonous and pendent) when she saw

Cerulean dust upon each finger tip.

This, being rubbed against a tulip-mouth,

(A glutted bee dislodged) she sat demurely:

Opened her book, on which leaf-shadows winked;

And blew a dart toward a scarlet bird

In bright green tropics of the Amazon.

II

Dressing the naked doll of redded wax,

(The white cheeks rouged) she feathered-stitched a square

Of scarlet silk with golden staggering stitches;

Chain-lightninged all its edges, After this,

Superimposed; and then a tinfoil crown,

Massive, of divers colours; this, compounded

(Relics of Beaune, of Jerez, and Oporto)

Blazed the wax brow. A bed cottonwool

Was smoothed; and thrice-anointed Ferdinand

(First pressed against her thigh for nourishment)

Was covered with a soiled green handkerchief

And closed his eyes: exchanging glass for wax.

 

This was the seventh year. Between the eight

And ninth, the form of nourishment was changed.

The doll was clasped between her knees. She held

A knife in one hand, while the other lifted

A paper bird. The neck of this was severed.

And Ferdinand had passed from milk to blood.

 

III

“Your soul” (so said her father in the spring

That brought her sixteenth year) “turns smaller, as

Your body waxes to ripe beauty. Dwarfs

(As you haven seen circuses, or tumbling

Through scarlet-papered hoops, at vauderville)

Bear on the brow, though mouth and eyes be fair,

A drawn and arid look, of suffering.

Dwarfed, and as blue and arid, peers the soul

Like a starved nymph from your bright eyes. Your mouth

Though beautiful, and yes, desirable,­ ––

(even to me, who like a wizard shaped it),––

Is much too red; too cruelly downward curved,

It hides a tooth too sharp. You will do murder ––

Laughing and weeping; hear the song of blood;

The gnome in you will laugh; the nymph will weep.”

 

She locked strong hands around his neck and kissed him.

Lifting a naked knee to press him subtly

She hurt him consciously; kissed till he laughed;

Unlocked her hands, then sobered; moved away;

Shook down the golden skirt; whistled a tune;

And read the morning paper, coiled like a cat.

 

IV

 

“Under this water-lily knee” (she said)

“Blood intricately flows, corpuscle creeps,

The white like sliced cucumber, and the red

Like poker-chip! Along dark mains they flow

As wafts the sponging heart. The water-lily,

Subtle in seeming, bland to lover’s hand

Upthrust exploring, is in essence gross,

Multiple and corrupt. Thus, in the moonlight”

(She hooked a curtain and disclosed the moon)

“How cold and lucent! And this naked breast,

Whereon a blue vein writes Diana’s secret,

How simple! How seductive of the palm

That flatters with the finest tact of flesh!

Not silver is this flank nor ivory,

Gold it is not, not copper, but distilled

Of lust in the moonlight, and my own hand stays

To touch it in this moonlight, whence it came.”

Naked in moonlight, like a doll of wax,

On the stone floor nocturnal, she stood still

But her moved her hands. The cruel mouth was curved,

Smiling a little; and her eyes were fixed,

In wonder, on Diana’s hieroglyph.

And it was then (her nineteenth autumn come)

She heard at last, so often prophesied,

The singing of the blood. Her beauty broke

To sound beneath her hands, which moved from breast

To knee and back again, and bruised the flank

That was not gold or copper, but became

A throbbing sound beneath palpating palms.

Thus stood awhile; then sighed; then dropped her hands

And wept, as he (who loved her) had foretold.

 

V

It was the twentieth birthday, or the moon,

Which flung a careless net upon the house

Trapping the stone (as she trapped the fly);

The house with weeping. In the room they lay

Weeping together. “Like a harp it is”

(She said) “which but to sound, but once to sound,

Snaps every string. Better to die, than be

Where sound of life was once.” She pressed his hand

Against her side, where once the doll was pressed,

Prince Ferdinand; but she was hungry still.

And heard the song of blood, outrageously,

And cried, “Shut eyes and kiss me!” “O, Arachne!

What web is this you weave, dear poison-mouth?”

“The web, alas, is cut as soon as woven,”

She answered. And the word she spoke was true.

 

VI

The moonlight and the house then sang together,

Yet not the house, but something in the house,

As if together they once more distilled

(Of blood and moonlight) ivory or gold,

Copper or silver; or, if not quite these

Something of which the moon contrived the surface

While blood beneath supplied the essence gross.

Useless! for it was spilled as soon as brimmed.

Prince Ferdinand was dead, Arachne dead,

The blood unmoving, and the moonlight vain.

Marianne Moore

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Marriage

This institution,
perhaps one should say enterprise
out of respect for which
one says one need not change one’s mind
about a thing one has believed in,
requiring public promises
of one’s intention
to fulfill a private obligation:
I wonder what Adam and Eve
think of it by this time,
this firegilt steel
alive with goldenness;
how bright it shows —
“of circular traditions and impostures,
committing many spoils,”
requiring all one’s criminal ingenuity
to avoid!
Psychology which explains everything
explains nothing
and we are still in doubt.
Eve: beautiful woman —
I have seen her
when she was so handsome
she gave me a start,
able to write simultaneously
in three languages —
English, German and French
and talk in the meantime;
equally positive in demanding a commotion
and in stipulating quiet:
“I should like to be alone;”
to which the visitor replies,
“I should like to be alone;
why not be alone together?”
Below the incandescent stars
below the incandescent fruit,
the strange experience of beauty;
its existence is too much;
it tears one to pieces
and each fresh wave of consciousness
is poison.
“See her, see her in this common world,”
the central flaw
in that first crystal-fine experiment,
this amalgamation which can never be more
than an interesting possibility,
describing it
as “that strange paradise
unlike flesh, gold, or stately buildings,
the choicest piece of my life:
the heart rising
in its estate of peace
as a boat rises
with the rising of the water;”
constrained in speaking of the serpent —
that shed snakeskin in the history of politeness
not to be returned to again —
that invaluable accident
exonerating Adam.
And he has beauty also;
it’s distressing — the O thou
to whom, from whom,
without whom nothing — Adam;
“something feline,
something colubrine” — how true!
a crouching mythological monster
in that Persian miniature of emerald mines,
raw silk — ivory white, snow white,
oyster white and six others —
that paddock full of leopards and giraffes —
long lemonyellow bodies
sown with trapezoids of blue.
Alive with words,
vibrating like a cymbal
touched before it has been struck,
he has prophesied correctly —
the industrious waterfall,
“the speedy stream
which violently bears all before it,
at one time silent as the air
and now as powerful as the wind.”
“Treading chasms
on the uncertain footing of a spear,”
forgetting that there is in woman
a quality of mind
which is an instinctive manifestation
is unsafe,
he goes on speaking
in a formal, customary strain
of “past states,” the present state,
seals, promises,
the evil one suffered,
the good one enjoys,
hell, heaven,
everything convenient
to promote one’s joy.”
There is in him a state of mind
by force of which,
perceiving what it was not
intended that he should,
“he experiences a solemn joy
in seeing that he has become an idol.”
Plagued by the nightingale
in the new leaves,
with its silence —
not its silence but its silences,
he says of it:
“It clothes me with a shirt of fire.”
“He dares not clap his hands
to make it go on
lest it should fly off;
if he does nothing, it will sleep;
if he cries out, it will not understand.”
Unnerved by the nightingale
and dazzled by the apple,
impelled by “the illusion of a fire
effectual to extinguish fire,”
compared with which
the shining of the earth
is but deformity — a fire
“as high as deep as bright as broad
as long as life itself,”
he stumbles over marriage,
“a very trivial object indeed”
to have destroyed the attitude
in which he stood —
the ease of the philosopher
unfathered by a woman.
Unhelpful Hymen!
“a kind of overgrown cupid”
reduced to insignificance
by the mechanical advertising
parading as involuntary comment,
by that experiment of Adam’s
with ways out but no way in —
the ritual of marriage,
augmenting all its lavishness;
its fiddle-head ferns,
lotus flowers, opuntias, white dromedaries,
its hippopotamus —
nose and mouth combined
in one magnificent hopper,
“the crested screamer —
that huge bird almost a lizard,”
its snake and the potent apple.
He tells us
that “for love
that will gaze an eagle blind,
that is like a Hercules
climbing the trees
in the garden of the Hesperides,
from forty-five to seventy
is the best age,”
commending it
as a fine art, as an experiment,
a duty or as merely recreation.
One must not call him ruffian
nor friction a calamity —
the fight to be affectionate:
“no truth can be fully known
until it has been tried
by the tooth of disputation.”
The blue panther with black eyes,
the basalt panther with blue eyes,
entirely graceful —
one must give them the path —
the black obsidian Diana
who “darkeneth her countenance
as a bear doth,
causing her husband to sigh,”
the spiked hand
that has an affection for one
and proves it to the bone,
impatient to assure you
that impatience is the mark of independence
not of bondage.
“Married people often look that way” —
“seldom and cold, up and down,
mixed and malarial
with a good day and bad.”
“When do we feed?”
We occidentals are so unemotional,
we quarrel as we feed;
one’s self is quite lost,
the irony preserved
in “the Ahasuerus tête à tête banquet”
with its “good monster, lead the way,”
with little laughter
and munificence of humor
in that quixotic atmosphere of frankness
in which “Four o’clock does not exist
but at five o’clock
the ladies in their imperious humility
are ready to receive you”;
in which experience attests
that men have power
and sometimes one is made to feel it.
He says, “what monarch would not blush
to have a wife
with hair like a shaving-brush?
The fact of woman
is not `the sound of the flute
but every poison.'”
She says, “`Men are monopolists
of stars, garters, buttons
and other shining baubles’ —
unfit to be the guardians
of another person’s happiness.”
He says, “These mummies
must be handled carefully —
`the crumbs from a lion’s meal,
a couple of shins and the bit of an ear’;
turn to the letter M
and you will find
that `a wife is a coffin,’
that severe object
with the pleasing geometry
stipulating space and not people,
refusing to be buried
and uniquely disappointing,
revengefully wrought in the attitude
of an adoring child
to a distinguished parent.”
She says, “This butterfly,
this waterfly, this nomad
that has `proposed
to settle on my hand for life.’ —
What can one do with it?
There must have been more time
in Shakespeare’s day
to sit and watch a play.
You know so many artists are fools.”
He says, “You know so many fools
who are not artists.”
The fact forgot
that “some have merely rights
while some have obligations,”
he loves himself so much,
he can permit himself
no rival in that love.
She loves herself so much,
she cannot see herself enough —
a statuette of ivory on ivory,
the logical last touch
to an expansive splendor
earned as wages for work done:
one is not rich but poor
when one can always seem so right.
What can one do for them —
these savages
condemned to disaffect
all those who are not visionaries
alert to undertake the silly task
of making people noble?
This model of petrine fidelity
who “leaves her peaceful husband
only because she has seen enough of him” —
that orator reminding you,
“I am yours to command.”
“Everything to do with love is mystery;
it is more than a day’s work
to investigate this science.”
One sees that it is rare —
that striking grasp of opposites
opposed each to the other, not to unity,
which in cycloid inclusiveness
has dwarfed the demonstration
of Columbus with the egg —
a triumph of simplicity —
that charitive Euroclydon
of frightening disinterestedness
which the world hates,
admitting:

“I am such a cow,
if I had a sorrow,
I should feel it a long time;
I am not one of those
who have a great sorrow
in the morning
and a great joy at noon;”
which says: “I have encountered it
among those unpretentious
protegés of wisdom,
where seeming to parade
as the debater and the Roman,
the statesmanship
of an archaic Daniel Webster
persists to their simplicity of temper
as the essence of the matter:

`Liberty and union
now and forever;’

the book on the writing-table;
the hand in the breast-pocket.”

On Mt. Rainier, Washington, Marianne Moore and her brother John Warner Moore are third and second from the right (1922)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Octopus

 

of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies “in grandeur and in mass”
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
pseudo-podia
made of glass that will bend–a much needed invention–
comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred
feet thick,
of unimagined delicacy.
“Picking periwinkles from the cracks”
or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,
it hovers forward “spider fashion
on its arms” misleading like lace;
its “ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool.”
The fir-trees, in “the magnitude of their root systems,”
rise aloof from these maneuvers “creepy to behold,”
austere specimens of our American royal families,
“each like the shadow of the one beside it.
The rock seems frail compared with the dark energy of life,”
its vermilion and onyx and manganese-blue interior expensiveness
left at the mercy of the weather;
“stained transversely by iron where the water drips down,”
recognized by its plants and its animals.
Completing a circle,
you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed,
under the polite needles of the larches
“hung to filter, not to intercept the sunlight”–
met by tightly wattled spruce-twigs
“conformed to an edge like clipped cypress
as if no branch could penetrate the cold beyond its company”;
and dumps of gold and silver ore enclosing The Goat’s Mirror–
that lady-fingerlike depression in the shape of the left human
foot,
which prejudices you in favor of itself
before you have had time to see the others;
its indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise,
from a hundred to two hundred feet deep,
“merging in irregular patches in the middle of the lake
where, like gusts of a storm
obliterating the shadows of the fir-trees, the wind makes lanes
of ripples.”
What spot could have merits of equal importance
for bears, elks, deer, wolves, goats, and ducks?
Pre-empted by their ancestors,
this is the property of the exacting porcupine,
and of the rat “slipping along to its burrow in the swamp
or pausing on high ground to smell the heather”;
of “thoughtful beavers
making drains which seem the work of careful men with shovels,”
and of the bears inspecting unexpectedly
ant-hills and berry-bushes.
Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars,
topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz,
their den in somewhere else, concealed in the confusion
of “blue forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate
as if the whole quarries had been dynamited.”
And farther up, in a stag-at-bay position
as a scintillating fragment of these terrible stalagmites,
stands the goat,
its eye fixed on the waterfall which never seems to fall–
an endless skein swayed by the wind,
immune to force of gravity in the perspective of the peaks.
A special antelope
acclimated to “grottoes from which issue penetrating draughts
which make you wonder why you came,”
it stands it ground
on cliffs the color of the clouds, of petrified white vapor–
black feet, eyes, nose, and horns, engraved on dazzling ice-fields,
the ermine body on the crystal peak;
the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene,
dyeing them white–
upon this antique pedestal,
“a mountain with those graceful lines which prove it a volcano,”
its top a complete cone like Fujiyama’s
till an explosion blew it off.
Distinguished by a beauty
of which “the visitor dare never fully speak at home
for fear of being stoned as an impostor,”
Big Snow Mountain is the home of a diversity of creatures:
those who “have lived in hotels
but who now live in camps–who prefer to”;
the mountain guide evolving from the trapper,
“in two pairs of trousers, the outer one older,
wearing slowly away from the feet to the knees”;
“the nine-striped chipmunk
running with unmammal-like agility along a log”;
the water ouzel
with “its passion for rapids and high-pressured falls,”
building under the arch of some tiny Niagara;
the white-tailed ptarmigan “in winter solid white,
feeding on heather-bells and alpine buckwheat”;
and the eleven eagles of the west,
“fond of the spring fragrance and the winter colors,”
used to the unegoistic action of the glaciers
and “several hours of frost every midsummer night.”
“They make a nice appearance, don’t they,”
happy see nothing?
Perched on treacherous lava and pumice–
those unadjusted chimney-pots and cleavers
which stipulate “names and addresses of persons to notify
in case of disaster”–
they hear the roar of ice and supervise the water
winding slowly through the cliffs,
the road “climbing like the thread
which forms the groove around a snail-shell,
doubling back and forth until where snow begins, it ends.”
No “deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness” is here
among the boulders sunk in ripples and white water
where “when you hear the best wild music of the forest
it is sure to be a marmot,”
the victim on some slight observatory,
of “a struggle between curiosity and caution,”
inquiring what has scared it:
a stone from the moraine descending in leaps,
another marmot, or the spotted ponies with glass eyes,
brought up on frosty grass and flowers
and rapid draughts of ice-water.
Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by business men who require for recreation
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year,
these conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;
hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns, and lily-pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,
bear’s ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the moss-beds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American menagerie of styles
among the white flowers of the rhododendron surmounting
rigid leaves
upon which moisture works its alchemy,
transmuting verdure into onyx.

“Like happy souls in Hell,” enjoying mental difficulties,
the Greeks
amused themselves with delicate behavior
because it was “so noble and fair”;
not practised in adapting their intelligence
to eagle-traps and snow-shoes,
to alpenstocks and other toys contrived by those
“alive to the advantage of invigorating pleasures.”
Bows, arrows, oars, and paddles, for which trees provide the
wood,
in new countries more eloquent than elsewhere–
augmenting the assertion that, essentially humane,
“the forest affords wood for dwellings and by its beauty
stimulates the moral vigor of its citizens.”
The Greeks liked smoothness, distrusting what was back
of what could not be clearly seen,
resolving with benevolent conclusiveness,
“complexities which still will be complexities
as long as the world lasts”;
ascribing what we clumsily call happiness,
to “an accident or a quality,
a spiritual substance or the soul itself,
an act, a disposition, or a habit,
or a habit infused, to which the soul has been persuaded,
or something distinct from a habit, a power”–
such power as Adam had and we are still devoid of.
“Emotionally sensitive, their hearts were hard”;
their wisdom was remote
from that of these odd oracles of cool official sarcasm,
upon this game preserve
where “guns, nets, seines, traps, and explosives,
hired vehicles, gambling and intoxicants are prohibited;
disobedient persons being summarily removed
and not allowed to return without permission in writing.”
It is self-evident
that it is frightful to have everything afraid of one;
that one must do as one is told
and eat rice, prunes, dates, raisins, hardtack, and tomatoes
this fossil flower concise without a shiver,
intact when it is cut,
damned for its sacrosanct remoteness–
like Henry James “damned by the public for decorum”;
not decorum, but restraint;
it is the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out–a public out of sympathy
with neatness.

Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
“Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions,”
it receives one under winds that “tear the snow to bits
and hurl it like a sandblast
shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.”
Is “tree” the word for these things
“flat on the ground like vines”?
some “bent in a half circle with branches on one side
suggesting dust-brushes, not trees;
some finding strength in union, forming little stunted grooves
their flattened mats of branches shrunk in trying to escape”
from the hard mountain “planned by ice and polished by the     wind”–
the white volcano with no weather side;
the lightning flashing at its base,
rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak–
the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed,
its claw cut by the avalanche
“with a sound like the crack of a rifle,
in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall.”

–Marianne Moore

The Cultural Poetics of William Carlos Williams: On “the generosity of art”

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It has to be where it arises, or everything related to life there ceases. It is isn’t a thing: it’s an act. If it stands still, it is dead. It is the realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it; embracing everything involved, climate, geographic position, relative size, history, other cultures—as well as the character of its sands, flowers, minerals and the condition of knowledge within its borders. It is the act of lifting these things into an ordered and utilized whole which is culture, It is not something left over afterward. That is the record only. The act is the thing. (157)

–from “The American Background” (1934)

 

Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920)

 

Drawing by Stuart Davis included in Kora

 

 

Kora in Hell appeared in installments in the Little Review alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses. Kora was written in 1917 and published in 1920 by The Four Seas Company. The text is comprised of twenty-seven chapters each with at least three “improvisations” and one interpretive part. As Williams explains in a text written later, Spring and All,

I let the imagination have its own way to see if it could save itself. Something very definite came of it. I found myself alleviated but most important I began there and then to revalue experience, to understand what I was at– The virtue of the improvisations is their placement in a world of new values––

Below is the prologue Williams wrote for the City Lights edition of Kora. The text and this prologue are included in the collection Imaginations published by New Directions Press, that includes Kora in Hell, Spring and All, The Descent of Winter, The Great American Novel, and A Novellete & Other Prose. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“And indeed she is, an impoverished, ravished Eden but one indestructible as the imagination itself. Whatever is before her is sufficient to itself and so to be valued” (7).

“Thus seeing the thing itself without great forethought or afterthought but with great intensity of perception, my mother loses her bearings or associates with some disreputable person or translates a dark mood. She is a creature of great imagination. I might say this is her sole remaining quality. She is a despoiled, molted castaway but by this power she breaks life between her fingers” (8).

“It is to the inventive imagination we look for deliverance from every other misfortune as from the desolation of a flat Hellenic perfection of style. . . . If the inventive imagination must look, as I think, to the field of art for its richest discoveries today it will best make its way by compass and follow no path” (14–15).

“The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array. To me this is the gist of the whole matter. It is to fall under the spell of a certain mode, especially if it be remote of origin, leaving thus certain of its members essential to a reconstruction of its significance permanently lost in an impenetrable mist of time. But the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty which places a value on all works of art and makes them a necessity” (14).

“But to weigh a difficulty and to turn it aside without being wrecked upon a destructive solution bespeaks an imagination of force sufficient to transcend action. The difficulty has thus been solved by ascent to a higher plane. It is energy of the imagination alone that cannot be laid aside. . . . A frail imagination, unequal to the tasks before it, is easily led astray. . . . Although the quality of the imagination that it seeks to place together those things which have a common relationship, yet the coining of similies is a pastime of very low order, depending as it does upon a nearly vegetable coincidence. Much more keen is that power which discovers in things those inimitable particles of dissimilarity to all other things which are the peculiar perfections of the thing in question” (18 emphasis added)

“All is confusion, yet it comes from a hidden desire for the dance, a lust of the imagination, a will to accord two instruments in a duet. . . . It is only the music of the instruments which is joined and that not by the woodworker but by the composer, by virtue of the imagination. On this level of the imagination all things and ages meet in fellowship. Thus only can they, peculiar and perfect, find their release. This is the benificent power of the imagination” (18–19).

“All things brought under the hand of the possessor crumble to nothingness. Not only that: He who possesses a child if he cling to it inordinantly becomes childlike, whereas, with a twist of the imagination, himself may rise into comradeship with the grace and beautiful presences of antiquity” (20).

“The birth of the imagination is like waking from a nightmare. Never does the night seem so beneficent” (21).

“It is at these times [pianissimo transition passages in Beethoven] our formal relations have teetered on the edge of a debacle to be followed, as our imaginations have permitted, by a new growth of passionate attachment dissimilar in every member to that which has gone before” (22).

By a mere twist of the imagination, if Prufrock only knew it, the whole world can be inverted (why else are there wars?) and the mermaids be set warbling to whoever will listen to them. Seesaw and blindman’s buff converted into a sort of football” (25).

 

First published in June 1923 in the periodical The Dial, William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All is a representative modernist text. It can be read along with T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” (which had appeared in The Dial in 1922) as exemplifying the experimental approach to literature between the wars. But to read Spring and All as simply a counterpoint to “The Waste Land” is to miss the radically distinctive presence of Williams in the tradition of modernism. For Eliot’s formal inter-textual method of allusion and quotation—Williams would describe Eliot and Pound as “men content with the connotations of their masters” (Selected 21)—stands in sharp contrast to Williams’s embrace of the dynamic aesthetic innovations of the avant-garde.

As Williams explains, Spring and All “was written when all the world was going crazy about typographical form and is really a travesty on the idea” (Imaginations 86). An improvisational sequence of twenty-seven untitled poems and associated prose fragments, Spring and All is a vital example of Williams’s early experiments with form. The text of Spring and All is distinctive for other reasons as well: it incorporates the methods of collage and juxtaposition in the visual arts of the period; it transgresses boundaries among genres, raising fundamental questions regarding the distinction between poetry and prose; it is a parody of nationalistic postwar rhetoric in the United States; and it is a modernist manifesto on the social and cultural value of art.

The text of Spring and All contains among Williams’s most well-known and widely anthologized poems—“Spring and All,” “To Elsie,” and “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The poems reflect his abiding commitment to the local conditions and people of his time and place. They register the mind apprehending particulars, “Now the grass, tomorrow / the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf // One by one objects are defined— / It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf” (96), and they attend with loving eye to individual persons—“The farmer in deep thought / is pacing through the rain” (98) and “. . .a girl with one leg / over the rail of a balcony” (120).

Spring and All is not least a breathtaking commentary on the necessary and ongoing activity of imaginative labor. “The imagination goes from one thing to another” (Selected 11) Williams explains; and it follows that the reader must remain attentive to the text’s movement from one thing to another. Not unlike Walt Whitman, Williams insists upon the reader’s active role in the production of meaning. The experience of reading Spring and All is challenging for precisely this reason. As Williams insists in Spring and All, “There is no confusion—only difficulties” (140). In other words, the confusion one may experience reading Spring and All in no way implies a “confusing text”; on the contrary, it is a condition naming the experience of a reader, face-to-face with the generative state in which the imagination becomes aware of itself.

 

from Spring and All 

To whom am I addressed? To the imagination.

To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force—the imagination.

Yes, the imagination, drunk with prohibitions, has destroyed and recreated everything afresh in the likeness of that which it was. Now indeed men look about in amazement at each other with a full realization of the meaning of “art.”

Only the imagination is undeceived.

Among them, without expansion of imagination, there is the residual contact between life and imagination which is essential to freedom.

So, then––Nothing is put down in the present book––except through weakness of the imagination––which is not intended as of a piece with the “nature” which Shakespeare mentions and which Hartley speaks of so completely in his Adventures: it is the common thing which is anonymously about us.

The inevitable flux of the seeing eye toward measuring itself by the world it inhabits can only result in himself crushing humiliation unless the individual rise to some approximate co-extension with the universe. This is possible by aid of the imagination. Only through the agency of of this force can a man feel himself moved largely with sympathetic pulses in his work.

A work of imagination which fails to release the senses in accordance with this major requisite––the sympathies, the intelligence in its selective world, fails at the elucidation, the alleviation which is––

In the composition the artist does exactly what very eye must do with life, fix the particular with the universality of his own personality––Taught by the largeness of his imagination to feel every form which he sees moving within himself, he must prove the truth of this by expression.

Only through the imagination is the advance of intelligence possible, to keep beside growing understanding.

It is a work of imagination. It gives the feeling of completion by revealing the oneness of experience; it rouses rather than stupifies the intelligence by demonstrating the importance of personality, by showing the individual depressed before it, that his life is valuable––when completed by the imagination. And then only. Such work elucidates––

Such a realization shows us the falseness of attempting to “copy” nature. The thing is equally silly when we try to “make” pictures––

Whitman’s proposals are of the same piece with the modern trend toward imaginative understanding of life. The largeness which he interprets as his identity with the least and the greatest about him, his “democracy” represents the vigor of his imaginative life.

When you name it, life exists. To repeat––physical experiences has no––
The only means he has to give value to life is to recognize it with the imagination and name it; this is so. To repeat and repeat the thing without naming it is only to dull the sense and results in frustration.

That is, the imagination is an actual force comparable to electricity or steam, it is not a plaything but a power that has been used from the first to raise the understanding of––that is, not necessary to resort to mysticism––In fact it is this which has kept back the knowledge I seek––

The value of the imagination to the writer consists in its ability to make words. Its unique power is to give created forms reality, actual existence.

The imagination is a––

First must come the transposition of the faculties to the only world of reality men know: the world of the imagination, wholly our own. From this world alone does the work gain power, its soil the only one whose chemistry is perfect to the purpose.

The same thing exists, but in a different condition when energized by the imagination.

Imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it an evocation of objects or situations, it is to say that poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it––It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action, as proven by science in the indestructability of matter and of force, it create a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror held up to reality but––

 

Hart Crane: The Broken Tower

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The Broken Tower

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day – to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway
Antiphonal carillons launched before
The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray?

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas campaniles with reveilles out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thighs embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope – cleft to despair?

The steep encroachments of my blood left me
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower
As flings the question true?) -or is it she
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?-

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes
My veins recall and add, revived and sure
The angelus of wars my chest evokes:
What I hold healed, original now, and pure…

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven) – but slip
Of pebbles, – visible wings of silence sown
In azure circles, widening as they dip

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eyes
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower…
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.

Commentary on Commentary (II)

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We are keeping the writing projects to a minimum this semester so that you have the opportunity to experience a writing process that is by definition collaborative. I underscore the word process here: for when writing for publication you are considering feedback from your peers, the managing editors, and your professor who is the executive editor for the book project to which you are submitting your work.

Your commentaries are at the same time your own: and everything depends on individual motivation and dedication to getting each of the commentaries right. As you adapt to a writing process beyond a more familiar transactional author essay > teacher feedback model—and prepare your descriptive commentaries for the public audience you are writing for—you will be challenged by what may be less familiar opportunities and constraints as a writer, including following a general format for each commentary and investigating the previous research and writing on the poem under discussion and choosing relevant passages and links to resources.

As I read and make marginal notes on your commentaries this week I am encountering some patterns that we can address more generally in an editorial discussion like this. First, it is quite natural for all of you to be using framing sentences (biographical, historical, cultural, critical) in your commentaries. You have been taught to do this as writers of academic essays. But as we have already talked about in class, for the purposes of a descriptive commentary on a single poem this material is not directly relevant.

O Captain! My Captain! New-York Saturday Press 4 November 1865

What is relevant is the textual history of the poem. The textual history is where the commentary begins. For example, if you choose an exemplary or representative poem, you need to find your way from the general commentary you will find on the web to the work of people who have dedicated their professional lives to the study of the poetry. Consider Whitman’s Oh Captain! My Captain! This is a poem Cam has chosen. Here is the third paragraph from his draft commentary:

This poem was a departure for Whitman and this deviation would cause him problems becoming one of his most popular poems, so much so that later in life he was quoted as saying, after reciting the poem several times doing annual lectures, he was almost sorry he ever wrote the poem and ‘Damn May Captain’.  It’s debatable whether the poem is patriotic or nationalistic, while its content could apply to any country most readers know it was written in honor of the President of the United States after Lincoln’s assassination. The lyrical legacy of this extended metaphor poem will forever be associated with American President Lincoln.

 

 

The departure and deviation comments would be usefully backed up with some evidence. Departure from? One should wonder about the debates, too, and what contemporary and more recent writers have said about the poem. The third paragraph of each commentary in many cases (including this one) needs to keep in view the purpose of the paragraph as described in the project description:

3rd paragraph: Critical reception of poem Tradition of commentary and conversation about the poem: How was the poem received by contemporaries? How has the poem been read by readers since its publication? Are there critical debates or different ways of reading the poem? How does the poem fit into a literary tradition?

This poem has generated a lot of commentary. And a reader will find copious general (and often vague) references to the poem. But in the case of Whitman, we are all fortunate to have open access to the materials in Ed Folsom and Kenneth Price’s ongoing project, the Walt Whitman Archive.

A general search at the site for the name of the poem turns up a useful list of materials. Note well the search note at the top of the search landing page that will help with tracking down the relevant materials. The metadata on the poem itself is gold in and of itself—both for the details and for the link to books that have relevant commentary. In particular, the biography by Justin Kaplan Walt Whitman: A Life (1980) and Betsy Erkkila’s book Whitman the Political Poet (1989) are indispensable sources. In them we find the source to back up general statements with evidence and as the author of a reliable and authoritative commentary we would want to list these sources for our less-informed readers. We have copies on the library or I can provide copies of these books from my office library.

This is the second commentary on commentaries. The first commentary on commentary is useful when read alongside this one as you review and revise your work.

The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens

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Final Soliloquy Of The Interior Paramour

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

 

Man Carrying Thing

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:
A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists
The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived
Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,
Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,
Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.
We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

 

The Well Dressed Man With A Beard

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket’s horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart,
Green in the body, out of a petty phrase,
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:
The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,
The aureole above the humming house…
It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.

 

The High-Toned Old Christian Woman

Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

 

The Man on the Dump

Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho … The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.
The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.
The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says
That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs
More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green
Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea
On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew
For buttons, how many women have covered themselves
With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, heads
Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.
Now, in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums,
Myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox),
Between that disgust and this, between the things
That are on the dump (azaleas and so on)
And those that will be (azaleas and so on),
One feels the purifying change. One rejects
The trash.
               That’s the moment when the moon creeps up
To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time
One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon
(All its images are in the dump) and you see
As a man (not like an image of a man),
You see the moon rise in the empty sky.
One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all
Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear
To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear,
Peck the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear
Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace,
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

Discovering Modern Poetry

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This week we will be building the reading list for the second half of the course. On Tuesday we will begin with a discussion of readings by the influential modern poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Then on Thursday we will meet in the Mason Library archives for an introduction to the Modern Poetry Collection. As you explore poems written in the first half of the twentieth century, and choose a group of poems and a poet for the class to read, you will have the opportunity on Thursday to discover poems in first-edition copies of the books in which they were published. If you have not yet chosen a group of poems or poet, our time in the archive will give you access to a range of poems to explore.

We will be working with a 2100-volume library of first and rare editions of American and Canadian books by a range of poets, including John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank O’Hara, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, and William Carlos Williams. The library is a bequest from Frank C. Shuffleton, a Professor of English at the University of Rochester and a long-time summer resident of Harrisville, New Hampshire, who desired a place in the Monadnock region where his library could be shared and enjoyed by the community and serve as a learning resource for poets and students of literature.

Here is an inventory of the books we have in the collection:

ShuffletonInventory_A-G
ShuffletonInventory_H-P
ShuffletonInventory_R-Z

The inventory includes abbreviations for notable features of each edition. F = first edition; S =signed by author; SP = signed with a special note by the author; and # = a numbered edition (42 of 300).

The Modern Poetry Collection, inspired by the 2011 bequest of the Shuffelton Library, includes includes the records (fifty linear feet) of Zephyr Press, one of the leading small presses, founded by Ed Hogan in 1980, that specializes in poetry in translation, particularly of the works of poets from Eastern Europe and East Asia. Zephyr Press is best known for publication of the first complete English translation of the works of the Russian poet Anna Akhtamova.

The Modern Poetry Collection includes Aspect Magazine (1969-1980), the creation of Edward J. Hogan, of Somerville, Massachusetts. Hogan was a history major at Northeastern University in March of 1969 when he launched a magazine featuring social and political commentary by a small group of university students. Hogan subsequently expanded that magazine to include poetry, fiction, graphic design, and literary news and reviews. Aspect published many writers, poets, and artists that represented the “Boston Scene” of the late 1960s and 1970s. Issues of Aspect are available in digital format with notes and metadata from Keene State College undergraduate students studying American poetry with professor Mark C. Long.

The Collection also includes the papers of former NH Poet Laureate Patricia Fargnoli, poet and Robert Lowell scholar William Doreski, poet and Worcester Review editor Rodger Martin, and the children’s poet Edwith Newlin Chase.

Twentieth Century American Poetry and Poetics

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For the remaining ten weeks of the semester we will be reading poems, and some prose, by American poets written between 1900–1960.

First, you have some exploration to do in preparation for our study of these poets. I would like each of you to select a poet and learn what you can about her/his work and then select a few representative and/or exemplary poems for the class to read. I have put up a new page under Projects called Twentieth Century American Poetry that explains exactly what you need to do.

Second, when I receive the poets you have selected, and your lists of poems, we will complete the timeline schedule, and build in links to the poems, whether in web or in print. Once we will build the schedule we will begin reading the poems and studying the life and work of the chosen poets. When we discuss the poems you have chosen, your role will be a “discussion partner.” This designation means that you will have studied the poems and will be an active leader in our-in class discussion. I’m going to encourage you to write periodic blog entries on what you are learning about the poems you are reading—in part to prepare for the final writing project in the course (more on that in a few weeks).

Finally, I will reach out to each of you before your scheduled class discussion, too, to prepare for how we want to use the class time and to have a preliminary conversation about the poems and poet(s). To be clear: this is not a presentation requirement. Though you may want to provide Mark with ancillary materials to post on the class site so that others in the group will have relevant biographical and contextual information so that our time in class can be spent on the poems.

The poets below and the collections will lead you to specific books of poems. For some poets, a selected (or collected) poems, if available, is a good place to start. However, one of the joys of learning about a poet’s work is discovering a poem in the book it was originally published, as well as learning how books of poems are distinctive—such as William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All (1921), Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium (1923), Elizabeth Bishop’s North and South (1946), or John Berryman’s Dream Songs in the 1960s.

Nota bene: When you select the representative and/or exemplary poems and send them to Mark, please include the book of poem in which each poem was originally published.

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