On the recommendation of my friend Marcus, I’ve been reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. In the first chapter Gilbert talks about a reclusive poet named Jack Gilbert (no relation). She describes him as a charismatic recluse who could have been famous but who declared fame to be boring. He once remarked that his career was marked by “a self-imposed isolation.” Or, as Elizabeth wrote in her book, “He went to live in Europe and stayed there for twenty years. He lived for a while in Italy, a while in Denmark, but mostly he lived in a shepherd’s hut on a mountaintop in Greece.”
The poet Linda Gregg said of him that “All Jack ever wanted to know was that he was awake—that the trees in bloom were almond trees—and to walk down the road to get breakfast. He never cared if he was poor or had to sleep on a park bench.” I was intrigued and decided to read up a bit more about him and look at some of his poems.
—-If you aren’t interested in poetry, stop reading here—-
Okay, if you are still reading, here’s one of Jack Gilbert’s poems:
RECOVERING AMID THE FARMS Every morning the sad girl brings her three sheep and two lambs laggardly to the top of the valley, past my stone hut and onto the mountain to graze. She turned twelve last year and it was legal for the father to take her out of school. She knows her life is over. The sadness makes her fine, makes me happy. Her old red sweater makes the whole valley ring, makes my solitude gleam. I watch from hiding for her sake. Knowing I am there is hard on her, but it is the focus of her days. She always looks down or looks away as she passes in the evening. Except sometimes when, just before going out of sight behind the distant canebrake, she looks quickly back. It is too far for me to see, but there is a moment of white if she turns her face.
I have a love-frustration relationship with poetry. I love poems because they can say a lot in just a few words; they can evoke emotions in a few lines; they can tell a whole story in a few verses.
Sometimes poems are terse and funny, such as the curmudgeon Philip Larkin’s poem This Be The Verse. In fact, Larkin once said of his own work, “I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any. . . . Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”
THIS BE THE VERSE They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you. But they were fucked up in their turn By fools in old-style hats and coats, Who half the time were soppy-stern And half at one another's throats. Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don't have any kids yourself.
Then there’s Wendy Cope, who writes a lot of witty, lighthearted poems and parodies. Her poems are often about the frustrations of being single or of intimate relationships.
BLOODY MEN Bloody men are like bloody buses - You wait for about a year And as soon as one approaches your stop Two or three others appear. You look at them flashing their indicators, Offering you a ride. You're trying to read the destination, You haven't much time to decide. If you make a mistake, there is no turning back. Jump off, and you'll stand there and gaze While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by And the minutes, the hours, the days.
Or a poem might touch me because it is tragic with great historical significance, such as Anna Akhmatova’s famous poem, Requiem. It is about the Stalinist Terror of the early 20th Century, and it reflects the shared fear, pain and agony felt by her and others during the Purges: the arrests, executions, and exile to the gulags during Stalin’s reign. Akhmatova kept the existence of Requiem secret until after Stalin’s death in 1953. Here’s one of the verses:
It was a time when only the dead smiled, happy in their peace. And Leningrad dangled like a useless pendant at the side of its prisons. A time when, tortured out of their minds, the convicted walked in regiments, and the steam whistles sang their short parting song. Stars of death stood over us, and innocent Russia squirmed under the bloody boots, under the wheels of Black Marias.
Sometimes lines from poems can make their way into modern idiom, often used in political discourse or intellectual discussion. You’ve probably heard the phrase “Look on my works, Ye mighty, and despair”, which comes from Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias.
OZYMANDIAS I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed: And on the pedestal these words appear: 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Or maybe you’ve heard “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” or “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Or even “slouching towards Bethlehem”. These all come from The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats.
THE SECOND COMING Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand; A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
So that’s the love part for me. However, poetry can also be immensely frustrating because I simply don’t understand a lot of poems. I have no idea what the poem is trying to say. Some poems are just too abstract for me. I once got a book of poems by John Ashbery, who is “recognized as one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets.” I couldn’t understand a single poem in the book and gave it away.
Some great poems have a more obvious meaning, but I still need it explained to me. Decades later, I still remember reading Dylan Thomas’ poem, The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower, in high school and feeling frustrated and incompetent because I didn’t know what it was saying. When the English teacher explained it – it’s about Time – it somewhat made sense, but that was one of the moments when I decided I wasn’t smart enough to study English Literature and would be better off focusing on Math.
THE FORCE THAT THROUGH THE GREEN FUSE DRIVES THE FLOWER The force that through the green fuse drives the flower Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees Is my destroyer. And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose My youth is bent by the same wintry fever. The force that drives the water through the rocks Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams Turns mine to wax. And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks. The hand that whirls the water in the pool Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind Hauls my shroud sail. And I am dumb to tell the hanging man How of my clay is made the hangman's lime. The lips of time leech to the fountain head; Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood Shall calm her sores. And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind How time has ticked a heaven round the stars. And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.
Over the years I’ve bought many books of poetry and at one time they filled a large part of my bookshelf in my house in Boulder. Since then I’ve donated most of the books to libraries in Boulder and Tucson, keeping just a few of my favorites. These are the ones that are accessible; that I can understand; that have a straightforward meaning. So here are a few poems by a few of the poets whose books I did keep because I could understand the poems.
Stephen Dunn is one of those poets whose poems I can understand. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 collection of poems, Different Hours. As the Poetry Foundation says about his writing, “His poetry is concerned with the anxieties, fears, joys, and problems of how to co-exist in the world with all those who are part of our daily lives.”
THE ROUTINE THINGS AROUND THE HOUSE When Mother died I thought: now I'll have a death poem. That was unforgivable. Yet I've since forgiven myself as sons are able to do who've been loved by their mothers. I stared into the coffin knowing how long she'd live, how many lifetimes there are in the sweet revisions of memory. It's hard to know exactly how we ease ourselves back from sadness, but I remembered when I was twelve, 1951, before the world unbuttoned its blouse. I had asked my mother (I was trembling) If I could see her breasts and she took me into her room without embarrassment or coyness and I stared at them, afraid to ask for more. Now, years later, someone tells me Cancers who've never had mother love are doomed and I, a Cancer feel blessed again. What luck to have had a mother who showed me her breasts when girls my age were developing their separate countries, what luck she didn't doom me with too much or too little. Had I asked to touch, Perhaps to suck them, What would she have done? Mother, dead woman Who I think permits me to love women easily this poem is dedicated to where we stopped, to the incompleteness that was sufficient and to how you buttoned up, began doing the routine things around the house.
Marge Piercy is a fiercely emotional writer, strongly committed to feminism and social and environment issues. Her poems are often very direct. I like them because they are easy to understand and I don’t have to search for deep meaning!
FOR THE YOUNG WHO WANT TO Talent is what they say you have after the novel is published and favorably reviewed. Beforehand what you have is a tedious delusion, a hobby like knitting. Work is what you have done after the play is produced and the audience claps. Before that friends keep asking when you are planning to go out and get a job. Genius is what they know you had after the third volume of remarkable poems. Earlier they accuse you of withdrawing, ask why you don't have a baby, call you a bum. The reason people want M.F.A.'s, take workshops with fancy names when all you can really learn is a few techniques, typing instructions and some- body else's mannerisms is that every artist lacks a license to hang on the wall like your optician, your vet proving you may be a clumsy sadist whose fillings fall into the stew but you're certified a dentist. The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.
Then there’s the master of the beautiful, soulful, romantic poem, especially ones full of love and despair. I mean Pablo Neruda of course. There are so many beautiful poems to choose from and I agonized over showing Love, or Tonight I Can Write, but in the end chose If You Forget Me.
IF YOU FORGET ME I want you to know one thing. You know how this is: if I look at the crystal moon, at the red branch of the slow autumn at my window, if I touch near the fire the impalpable ash or the wrinkled body of the log, everything carries me to you, as if everything that exists, aromas, light, metals, were little boats that sail toward those isles of yours that wait for me. Well, now, if little by little you stop loving me I shall stop loving you little by little. If suddenly you forget me do not look for me, for I shall already have forgotten you. If you think it long and mad, the wind of banners that passes through my life, and you decide to leave me at the shore of the heart where I have roots, remember that on that day, at that hour, I shall lift my arms and my roots will set off to seek another land. But if each day, each hour, you feel that you are destined for me with implacable sweetness, if each day a flower climbs up to your lips to seek me, ah my love, ah my own, in me all that fire is repeated, in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten, my love feeds on your love, beloved, and as long as you live it will be in your arms without leaving mine.
I’ll finish with a final whimsical prose-poem from Charles Harper Webb, Conan the Barbarian. This is from the book Hot Popsicles, and while it’s not poetry in a classical form, the imagery and terse writing makes it less than prose. I’d include some of the other prose-poems from Hot Popsicles but I think Webb would prefer that you buy the book 🙂
CONAN THE BARBARIAN waited politely, in his best suit, for his turn to board the Greyhound, L.A.-bound. He picked two seats toward the rear, sprawled over both, and faked deep sleep. Five minutes later, the bus eased into the rainy night with Conan sitting pretty: lots of legroom, and no neighbor to disrupt his reading- practice. Conan had gone civilized. He didn't miss Stygian ale. He didn't miss Red Sonja, or Belit, Queen of the Black Coast. He liked his MasterCard, the Tonight show, Money Magazine. He switched on his reading light. Nothing. He switched on the light above his extra seat. Still nothing. All over the bus, happy people were switching on their reading lights, setting back to pass the long hours profitably, pleasurably, while he sat swathed in gloom. There was not one other empty seat. "Well, they can't blame me this time," Conan growled as he loosened his tie, stood, and reached into his golf bag for his sword.
I wrote this post because I got bored with writing about boredom. It was invigorating to resurface some of my old joy of poetry and to read through some of my old favorites. I hope that you enjoyed some of the poems, and hope that at least one poet inspired you to read more of their work.
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Links and Other Clicks
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Here’s a page about Jack Gilbert. And here’s another page.
Here’s a page about Akhmatova’s poem Requiem.
Below is the audio of an interview with Charles Harper Webb on To The Best of Our Knowledge., where Webb talks about his book Hot Popsicles.
In the CD of the movie Il Postino (The Postman), various Hollywood stars read famous Neruda poems. You can get the CD here.