Apr 102016


The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — most of us know what it looks like: God divides light from dark and land from water; God creates the Heavens, the sun, the moon; God holds his hand out to Adam’s hand and their index fingers almost touch; God creates Eve from Adam’s rib; the Snake, wrapped around The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, tempts Adam and Eve with an apple; God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; eventually, after familiar stories of Old-Testament misbehavior, God sends a Flood. Meanwhile, sibyls and prophets sit at the edges, distracted by their own concerns. We know when the frescoes on the ceiling were painted: between 1508 and 1512. We know who the painter was: Michelangelo Buonarroti, born in  1475, died in 1564 (the year Shakespeare was born) – Italian painter, sculptor, architect, and engineer.

Michelangelo - Daniele da Volterra, 1533, Florence ItalySketch of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra, 1533

But do we know how the artist felt, lying on his back painting that ceiling month after month and year after year? I mean, do we know much about it beyond the imaginative retelling of it by a Hollywood director? We do, since Michelangelo himself gave us a poem about it:

A goiter it seems I got from this backward craning
like the cats get there in Lombardy, or wherever
–bad water, they say, from lapping their fetid river.
My belly, tugged under my chin, ‘s all out of whack.
Beard points like a finger at heaven. Near the back
of my neck, skull scrapes where a hunchback’s hump would be.
I’m pigeon-breasted, a harpy! Face dribbled-see?
like a Byzantine floor, mosaic. From all this straining
my guts and my hambones tangle, pretty near.
Thank God I can swivel my butt about for ballast.
Feet are out of sight; they just scuffle round, erratic.
Up front my hide’s tight elastic; in the rear
it’s slack and droopy, except where crimps have callused.
I’m bent like a bow, half-round, type Asiatic.
Not odd that what’s on my mind,
when expressed, comes out weird, jumbled. Don’t berate;
no gun with its barrel screwy can shoot straight.
Giovanni, come agitate
for my pride, my poor dead art! I don’t belong!
Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong.

Not many people know that Michelangelo was a prolific and accomplished poet, writing more than three hundred poems across the entire span of his creative life. He tried, near the end, to organize one hundred of his poems for publication. But one of the two friends involved in helping him with this project died before it was completed, and a first edition of the poems was not published until sixty years after the artist’s death, under the supervision (and high-minded tinkering and “sanitizing”) of Michelangelo’s grandnephew.  “Sanitizing,” according to the translator John Frederick Nims, meant taking out “anything that might have reflected discreditably on the family or fame of Michelangelo: “Love poems addressed to a signor were revamped to fit the madonna of tradition; dubious political or religious views were amended.” His poems, to put it bluntly, were “made respectable.”

For more than 200 years, this version of the poems – “discretely doctored” to disguise the homosexual nature of them – was the only one available. By the mid-1800’s scholars began to look back at the originals for comparison; in 1893 the British homosexual activist and poet/critic John Addington Symonds offered a more authentic version, correcting the changed pronouns (from “she” back to “he”) and adding in several of the more explicit poems not included in the 17th-century edition. By 1960 a complete edition was published that included 400 pages of editorial notes referring to the originals.

What we recognize, as we read through The Complete Poems of Michelangelo is the unique physicality of the artist. He brings his knowledge of the body – it’s outer curves and inner musculature – with him, from the three-dimensional sphere into the verbal. Known to have reduced his skill at sculpting the human body to these instructive lines, “Carving is easy. You just go down to the skin and stop,” he also gave us these thoughts about sculpting, comparing what he sees as his simple talents (calling his own hammer “botched”) to the “heavenly hammer” of God:

….If my rough hammer shapes the obdurate stone
to a human figure, this or that one, say,
it’s the wielder’s fist, vision, and mind at play
that gives it momentum – another’s, not its own.
….But the heavenly hammer working by God’s throne
by itself makes others and self as well. We know
it takes a hammer to make a hammer. So
the rest derive from that primal tool alone.
….Since any stroke is mightier the higher
it’s launched from over the forge, one kind and wise
lately flown from mine to a loftier sphere.
….My hammer is botched, unfinished in the fire
until God’s workshop help him supervise
the tool of my craft, that alone he trued, down here.

david-full-front …………Michelangelo’s David
Carving is easy. You just go down to the skin and stop.

According to Nims, the originals were written on “whatever [Michelangelo] had at hand”: the backs of letters, records of expenses, receipts, and sketches for his buildings and for his paintings. The artist was known for his sloppy personal habits – Paolo Giovio, one of his many biographers, wrote, “His nature was so rough and uncouth that his domestic habits were incredibly squalid and deprived posterity of any pupils who might have followed him…he had a reputation for being bizzarro e fantastico.” He felt no particular restraints when he was young about criticizing the profit- and violence-driven culture that surrounded him in Rome:

….Chalices hammered into sword and helmet!
Christ’s blood sold, slopped in palmfuls. With the yields
from commerce of cross and thorns, more lances, shields.
Still His long suffering mercy falls like dew?
….These lands are lands He’d better not come through.
If He did, his blood would boil, seething sky-high,
what with His flesh on sale, in good supply.
Virtue? Cast out. NO ENTRY signs repel it.

Later in his life, he became more cautious about expressing his political views in public. But his love poems remained vital; he is described over the years by many poets, including Italy’s own Nobel laureate, Eugenio Montale, as one of the great lyrical poets of the High Renaissance.

No one translates Michelangelo’s poetry as well as John Frederick Nims – in fact, Nims’s essay about his translations engage the reader almost as much as the poems themselves. Nims had this to say about his own efforts:

I intended, at first, to [translate] only a few…. But when I had finished those few, the momentum carried me on through all eighty. Those done, there were the hundred or so madrigals, which showed another side of the poet’s temperament. They came next. Then there remained another hundred poems in various meters -but it seemed too late to turn back….What had kept me going, for a year or more, was the fun of it. “Fun” is a word that Robert Frost often used of poetry. If it offends anyone when used in the aura of the divine Michelangelo, as Vasari called him, we could retrieve from ancient Greece the favorite motto of Valery…which he translates as pour le plaisir. I kept translating for the pleasure of it.

Not all translation is word~for~word “literal,” rich in the pleasure we call “fun.” Dictionary~scavenging can be dreary work, like a piece of assigned homework we resent having to do. The fun comes in when, by imposing obstacles, we introduce the element of sport or game, with its hurdles, wickets, sand traps, baselines, strike zones, bull’s~eyes. So, in translating poetry, we have to cope with such tricky features as rhythm, sound, wordplay, connotation, and all the other enrichments that lift prose to a resonant and more allusive level. Incorporating as many of these features as the terrain allows is the goal of the translator: born of such fun is what we call fidelity.

Nims chooses a modern voice (“I don’t belong! / Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong”) which some critics object to. The poet Mark Jarman, in his review of the book for The Kenyon Review (Summer/Fall 2001) says that, as a translator, Nims “tends to heat up Michelangelo’s poetry, making it more inventive and slangier than it appears in Italian, closer respectively to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Nims himself.” But in his introduction to the book, Nims points out the unappealing high diction of previous translators  such as Wordsworth, Longfellow, Emerson, Santayana, Symonds and Rilke, all of whom overloaded the “rough language” of Michelangelo’s youth with too much elevated diction. He goes on to explain that previous translations had “a totally different effect on our ear today than Michelangelo’s would have had on the Italian ear of his time.” Despite their “complexity of content” the poems contain language that shows Michelangelo “spoke and wrote like the Florentine he was.”

The poems of Michelangelo surprise us. They do just what surprises should do: they wake us up and keep us marveling. To the list of his accomplishments – painter, sculptor, architect, engineer –  we need to add the words “and poet.” Though publicly arrogant at times, in the privacy of his own poems Michelangelo doubted his own worthiness, his own talent, and he struggled with the uncomfortable fit between his creative energies and his more spiritual existence. Not only his back ached – so did his soul. The poems often sound like they come from a worried, tempestuous modern mind. See if you can get a copy of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (translated by Nims) and read it through. And while you do, keep this image in mind:

laocoonMichelangelo’s Laocoon

—Julie Larios

.May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios  has contributed several Undersung essays to Numéro Cinq over the last few years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.


Nov 142015



I have three bookcases full of poetry books in my house, one whole bookcase taken up with hefty anthologies like The Oxford Book of American Poetry, along with classics (thank you, Homer, Chaucer, Blake, Hopkins, Dickinson, Whitman) and Collected Works (thank you Auden, Moore, Brodsky, Merrill, Heaney) and books about the craft of writing. The other two cases, however – a total of twelve shelves, 30″ each shelf – are filled with individual “slim volumes” by poets with a few books out and with, often, long teaching careers and honorable but minor reputations.

A remarkable number of 1/4″ spines can fit into 360 inches, especially when they’re mostly paperbacks, as mine are. There are a handful of poets whose early hardcover books I’ve lusted after and, bit by bit, collected (thank you, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur) and another bundle of hardcover books written by professors and mentors whose work I love (thank you Richard Kenney, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds.) I have a nice stack of books by friends (thank you Walker, Wing, Hoogs, Whitmarsh, Cornish, Arthur) and I have my own poetry books for children plus copies of reviews that my adult work has appeared in.

The remaining space is filled with books by poets who have won some fine contests, gotten published, gotten some buzz, earned teaching positions, generated enough excitement to establish a loyal (usually regional) cadre of followers, but never really become “major” poets. Each one of those books has elegant, finely crafted poems in it, poems which are idiosyncratic in the best way, that is, with an identifiable, strong voice. Just as most books by well-known poets can be uneven, these books by lesser known poets can be uneven;  that’s as true for the reading of an individual book by Auden as it is for any one of these many “slim volume” poets. There are poems I pass by after one reading, but there are also poems that reach out and grab me by the collar and shake me to my bones. There are poems I share with friends – a grassroots effort that mimics my approach to politics: support who and what you love. Buy their books. Talk them up. Cross fingers.

I wonder sometimes whether, if submitted to a blind “taste test,” some of the best poems that stay quietly within the covers of these slim volumes  might not be mistaken for the writing of poets with much heftier reputations. And, as usual with this series about “undersung” poets, I wonder about the whys and wherefores of “success” in general. Did (or do) these poets long to be well-known, or were they satisfied professionally? Did they dedicate themselves to mentoring and thus forget (or express contempt for) the process of self-promotion? Did they battle with good-old-boy systems? Did they know the right people, and – if they did – did they use the right people in order to get ahead? Did they quit poetry and move on to anything less disappointing or better paying or fresher or simply different or…? Did they suffer poetry fatigue? Were they simply in the right place at the wrong time, wrong place at the right time? Did their gender or ethnicity present stumbling blocks? Were they shy? Were they, ultimately, satisfied by poetry, or would they rather have been fishing, playing the trombone, painting? Was publication enough? Did they – or do they, for those who are still alive – want more? “Success” – is it really counted sweetest by those whom it bypasses? Does it really interrupt that “sorest need” which Dickinson said was required in order to “comprehend a nectar”?

Here are five poems, one from each of five separate books I pulled randomly off my shelves. I’ve purposely left out biographical details about the five poets, though you can easily click on their names to get further information about them. Some were winners of the National Poetry Series competition or the Walt Whitman Award, several earned fellowships like the Guggenheim, one was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize,  most earned residencies at respected workshops and retreats, as well as State Arts Commission awards. Some are still publishing and can expect their reputations to continue developing. But for reasons that continue to elude me – and, of course, the reasons are multiple rather than simple – the names of these poets are relatively unfamiliar to most poetry readers.

Yet I think these five poems measure up to most of the contemporary poems in the Oxford Book of American Poetry – they are precise, original, layered, large, and full of leaps that take the breath away. They use language beautifully and, though not formal in terms of rhyme or meter, they are “musical” – like the best musical compositions, they care about the sound they make, and like the best humor, they increase in appeal when spoken aloud with just the right emphasis.  In what way do the poems in well-recognized anthologies surpass these five? I haven’t figured it out. Can it be as simple as personal taste – is that what the best anthologists do, insist on including what they like? If so, are we unduly influenced, are we struggling to “like” work we don’t actually like (and what is that thick volume of John Ashbery’s Collected Poems doing on my shelf if his work doesn’t appeal to me; is it there because J.D. McClatchy likes it? Because Harold Bloom likes it, David Lehman likes it?) “Success” – is it counted sweetest, Emily, by those who go all out trying to achieve it? I’m curious to see what the readers of Numéro Cinq think.

—Julie Larios



Throughout the night the sky
had been wild with stars.
Then in the morning came an instant
when the hills sharpened, and grew shadowless,

and the world seemed no casual
enterprise of creation. From beyond the hills
rose the soft pillars of light,
until, as if caught by high winds,

they wove and interwove, and became
the bright, close fabric of sky.
Later came a burst of warm rain,
but by sunset the light had cleared,

and at the tip of one needle of the white pine
that shaded the front porch, a drop of rainwater
trembled. It was clear
as ice. It contained a fierce,

quivering image of the sun.
The light drew back, and back,
and with no further evidence of breath
the sky was precisely as it had ever been.

John Engels (from Cardinals in the Ice Age (Graywolf Press, 1987)


John Engels


Language with Pony Track

You’d think the rich stink of pony
would rule the senses, but violets, sunflowers,
hollyhocks draw the eyes which dart
from the shaggy Shetland’s horrible privates,
a-drop and a-swing like the backstage works
of St. Ag’s, to a bank of tiger lilies, those carroty stars.
Two girls, the sides of their sneakers
worn away, wearing tattoos of water paint
rubbed on with spit, check it out:
the heaven of leather, fried onions, and music,
five houses from where, with no eyes for flowers
or horseflesh, their father’s face reaches
the texture and twitch of skinned hare.

Catherine Doty, from  Momentum (CavanKerry Press, 2004)


Catherine Doty


Saint John of the Cross

He is not here in Fontiveros, Spanish Nebraska
of his birth. The red brick granary fills
with nothing but wheat, and the empty plaza
has forgotten the name of Juan de Yepes,
grandson of Jews, though it contains a statue
of his alter ego, Saint John of the Cross.
Even bound by the thinnest of golden threads,
the soul’s inexplicably bound. Leashed
in the cell, the whips of the holy friars
scourged him as he knelt, three times a week,
at dinner hour, nothing to eat but cruelty.
When he finally saw Christ, He was
falling toward him, His arms stretched back,
coming out of their sockets for love of him.

It’s clear why he left Fontiveros —
his love for mountains conceived by this
dreary view — but no one knows how he escaped
from prison. Or why love finally drove
him back. Sick, he asked to be treated
in Ubeda, for he knew no one would cure him,
the bishop would curse him: he could die
inferior, die unknown, die suffering greatly.
Only love can heal us, opening our hands 
to a darkness that we keep trying to let go…
How happy he was, always leaping free of the cell —
Fontiveros, Salamanca, Ubeda, the World —
singing softly, no longer having to tear out
the feathers that kept sprouting from his limbs.

Rebecca Seiferle from Bitters (Copper Canyon Press, 2001)

Rebecca Seiferle

Rebecca Seiferle



Glossy ibis, says the guide setting her tripod
on pavement, training the lens for the birdwatchers
to fix the downward curved bill and spindly legs
of the wader. I can’t help but itch
to get closer than this tailored birdwalk. Once

I rode to low marshland with a friend. The horses
mucking up to their knees, parting the brushy alders
where there wasn’t any trail. We gave them their heads,
trusting their instincts to get to dry land.
On the far side we rested, the woods

glowing with rust and lemon. We sat. Reins dropped,
the horses leaned to fidget the leaves.
Wind thickened in the evergreens. Then the quiet cracked —
wings that loud slapped the air — brittle legs
arrowed through weeds to land not five feet away.

The great blue heron, eye fired toward shore,
where we held our breath. Even when
we began to speak, edging slightly closer,
she stayed. And something in her lack of fear,
the fix of one black iris on us — horses,

woman and man alike, kept us in our place.

Alison Hawthorne Deming from Science and Other Poems (LSU Press, 1994)

Alison Deming

Alison Deming


The Arbitrary Angel

It’s born in that sudden
spark between things: a yolking
of oxen and egg, the music
of shells and high seas.

And so it rises, of course
capriciously, a sexless
Venus from a salty meringue
masticating your good mind

until you’re determined
to do it justice — even as
the microwave sounds
like a garbage truck in reverse,

the pencil a small animal
filled with lead but still
running, running, running
everything down.

Gilbert Allen, from Driving to Distraction (Orchises Press, 2003.)

Gilbert Allen

Gilbert Allen


Sep 082015
Mistral 7

Gabriela Mistral – Nobel Prize Ceremony – 1945

Icame to the poetry of Gabriela Mistral through the back door – that is, through her poems for children. As a teacher of graduate students who wanted to write for children, and as someone writing poems for children myself, I was drawn to her cradle songs, her “round dances” and “Tell-a-World” poems, and her “trickeries,” especially the ones that offered up strange images or that went directions that contemporary American rhymes for children do not  often go.


A Tasso de Silveira

Dame la mano y danzaremos;
dame la mano y me amarás.
Como una sola flor seremos,
como una flor, y nada más.

El mismo verso cantaremos,
al mismo paso bailarás.
Como una espiga ondularemos,
como una espiga, y nada mas.

Te llamas Rosa y yo Esperanza;
pero tu nombre olvidarás,
porque seremos una danza
en la colina, y nada mas.


For Tasso de Silveira

Give me your hand and give me your love,
give me your hand and dance with me.
A single flower, and nothing more,
a single flower is all we’ll be.

Keeping time in the dance together,
singing the tune together with me,
grass in the wind, and nothing more,
grass in the wind is all we’ll be.

I’m called Hope and you’re called Rose;
but losing our names we’ll both go free,
a dance on the hills, and nothing more,
a dance on the hills is all we’ll be.

[unless otherwise noted, translations are all by Ursula LeGuin from her book, Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral.]

Mistral’s rhythms (especially as translated by LeGuin, who catches both sound and sense perfectly) remind me of the work of Walter de la Mare (“I must go down to the sea again, / to the lonely sea and the sky….”), another writer whose poems for children can inhabit and haunt us.

Most of Mistral’s children’s verses were published in a book titled Ternura (Tenderness); I found a dusty copy among her poetry for adults (and literary criticism about her work) at the graduate library of the University of Washington – my public library didn’t have it. I searched that volume out because I wanted to study how Mistral did it, how she managed to make the leap and bring a certain oddness to her verses for children. While teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I often asked my students to try to “strange it up” in order to make their work less thin and Seuss-like, more haunting, less Hop-on-Pop. Mistral knew how to do that; it’s a worthy goal for people who think, as Maurice Sendak did, that children can handle more than we give them credit for.


Una rata corrió a un venado
y los venados al jaguar,
y los jaguares a los búfalos,
y los búfalos a la mar…

Pillen, pillen a los que se van!
Pillen a la rata, pillen al venado,
pillen a los búfalos y a la mar!

Miren que la rata de la delantera
se lleva en las patas lana de bordar,
y con la lana bordo mi vestido
y con el vestido me voy a casar.

Suban y pasen la llanada,
corran sin aliento, sigan sin parar,
vuelan por la novia, y por el cortejo,
y por la carroza y el velo nupcial.


A rat ran after a deer,
deer ran after a jaguar,
jaguars chased buffalo,
and the buffalo chased the sea.

Catch the ones who chase and flee!
Catch the rat, catch the deer,
catch the buffalo and the sea!

Look, look at the rat in front,
in its paws is a woolen thread,
with that thread I sew my gown,
in that gown I will be wed.

Climb up and run, breathless run,
ceaseless chase across the plain
after the carriage, the flying veil,
after the bride and the bridal train!

We can almost see the children’s game being played out on the playground there, but the poem has the combination of eeriness and sing-song cadences that Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” and James Fenton’s “Out of the East” have. Mistral’s poems for children are not always sweet and catchy, nor are they hyper-kinetic with wordplay. They might be called quirky and – at their darkest points – unsettling. That’s true, too, of the oddest and most haunting nursery rhymes we have in English (think “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”)

Mistral 1

Gabriela Mistral – Her First Communion


Que sopló el viento y se llevó las nubes
y que en las nubs iba un pavo real,
que el pavo real era para mi mano
y que la mano se me va a secar,
y que la mano le di esta manaña
al rey que vino para desposar.

Ay que el cielo, ay que el viento, y la nube
que se van con el pavo real!


What if the wind blew and bore away the clouds,
and there was a peacock flying in the clouds,
what if the peacock came to my hand
and my hand is going to wither,
and this morning I gave my hand
to the king who came to be married;

O for the sky, O for the wind and the cloud,
all gone with the king’s peacock.

That poem has something of Wallace Stevens in it (“The palm stands on the edge of space. // The wind moves wind in the branches. / The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down”) and something of George MacDonald (author of the classic At the Back of the North Wind.) There are folkloric elements, fantasy elements, and a strong flavor of the fabulous.

When Mistral published Ternura in 1922, she had already been teaching for twenty-two years but was only thirty-six years old. She had been supporting her mother and siblings since she was fourteen, managing to write and publish poetry while she did. A tragic love affair (her lover killed himself over accusations of embezzlement) led to the publication of a book of sonnets (Sonetos de la muerte / Death Sonnets) that won the Chilean National Poetry Prize and established her reputation throughout Chile, all this when she was barely twenty-five years old.

mistral 2

Some critics consider those sonnets her best work, and though they are technically accomplished and passionate, I find her later work more precise, more secular, less sentimental, less florid, and so more connected to the world of senses than to emotional abstractions or questions of religious devotion. After the publication of Ternura, she moved to Mexico, where she tried to help the new Obregon administration establish a post-revolutionary education and library system nationwide. She never again returned to Chile to live, though she represented it as a diplomat in many countries. Neruda studied under her at one point, and both of them, though well-known for their attachment to Chile, spent long years abroad. Though Neruda’s exile was forced, Mistral’s was voluntary. She died in New York in 1957.

Mistral 10
As I say, I came to Mistral through the back door. Knocking on the front door, I would have encountered a steelier poet, a more complicated Mistral: Nobel Prize winner, self-styled exile but world citizen, diplomat and activist (the proceeds of the sale of one of her books went to help Basque children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War), renowned educator, and fierce guardian of her personal privacy. “Gabriela Mistral” was not actually the poet’s name – it was used as the pseudonym of Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, born in 1889 in the Elqui Valley of Chile’s Andean Mountains, in the small farming community of Vicuna. Lovely as the more poetic explanation of her pseudonym is (referring to the Archangel Gabriel and to the mistral wind which blows across France toward the Mediterranean Sea), most biographers suggest that the name was chosen to honor the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and the French poet and philologist, Frederic Mistral, also a Nobel Prize laureate.

Choosing an alternate way to approach her work allowed me to detour around some of her earlier sentimental work and arrive at what I think her strongest poems for adults are, those published later in her life. The series of poems called “locas mujeres” (crazy women), which includes some of my favorites, was published in Lagar (Winepress), Mistral’s last book of poems. By then, she had lost not only her lover but several friends and a well-loved adopted son to suicide. I have an unpublished manuscript of poems for adults titled “The Madwoman”; it’s only natural I would be drawn to those poems of Mistral’s. Looking at a woman’s perspective on the ordinary objects and routines of this world, once she has some kind of emotional and mental dislocation, is intriguing to me, though not quite as personally motivated as it was for Mistral. Randall Couch, author of the book Madwomen: The Locas Mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral (he translates the poems – a few of them uncollected at her death – as well as introducing them and addressing the task of translation, both in general and in particular) says that these poems are among Mistral’s most complex and compelling, written “at the height of her powers.” I agree.  Couch goes on to say that Mistral “bends the bow of poetry, a frail weapon against the unhinging of consciousness, into strange new forms.”


Para nadie planta la lila
o poda las azaleas
y carga el agua para nadie
en baldes que la espejean.

Vuelta a uno que no da sombra
y sobrepasa su cabeza,
estira un helecho mojado
y a darlo y a hurtárselo juega.

Abre las rejas sin que llamen,
sin que entre nadie, las cierra
y se cansa para el sueño
que la toma, la suelta y la deja.

Desvíen el agua de la vertiente
que la halla gateando ciego,
espolvoreen sal donde siembre,
entierren sus herramientas.

Háganla dormir, póngala a dormir
como al armiño o la civeta.
Cuando duerma bajen su brazo
a avienten el sueño que sueña.

La muerte anda desvariada,
borracha camina la Tierra,
trueca rutas, tuerce dichas,
en la esfera tamborilea.

Viento y Arcángel de su nombre
trajeron hasta su puerta
la muerte de todos sus vivos
sin traer la muerte de ella.

Las fichas vivas de los hombres
en la carrera le tintinean.
Trocaría, perdería
la pobre muerte de la granjera!


For nobody she plants the lilac,
prunes the azalea,
for nobody carries buckets
of water that reflect her.

Turned towards someone taller
who casts no shadows,
she pulls up a wet fern frond,
plays at giving and taking back.

She opens the shutters though no one calls,
no one comes in, she shuts them,
and wears herself out in the dream
that takes, and frees, and deserts her.

Turn aside the water of the spring
that finds her groping blindly,
scatter salt where she sows,
and bury her farm-tools.

Make her sleep, put her to sleep
like a stoat or a weasel.
when she’s asleep lower her arm
and blow way the dream she dreams.

Crazy Death goes reeling
across the world, drunk,
changes paths, twists fates,
makes earth his dream.

Wind and Archangel of her name
brought to her door
the death of everyone she loved,
and did not bring her own.

Living human poker chips
jingle as he runs.
He must have lost it on a bet,
the poor farm wife’s death.


We all know that a poet, no matter how well his or her books sell in America, will be under-read. The readership for poetry in this country is so small and fiercely segmented, so specific to individual tastes and trends, that we assume a meeting of any poet’s fan club will be sparsely attended (relative to the loyal fan clubs of Stephen King or Barbara Cartland.) This is as true for Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, whose books sell well considering they are full of poems, and whose fans include people who don’t normally read poetry, as it is for a “poet’s poet”  like James Merrill or Elizabeth Bishop. Poetry, no matter how well it sells, is not a best-seller in America. So the idea of poet-as-beloved-symbol-of-her-people and “Mother of the Nation” is a bit hard to comprehend.

In 1945, Gabriela Mistral became the first South American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was cited by the prize committee for “her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idyllic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.” Or, as The Poetry Foundation puts it, “[Mistral] will always be seen as a representative figure in the cultural history of the continent.” Scholarly books of criticism, written by critics who are well aware of the need to be politically correct, still use the slightly objectifying term “la Mistral” when referring to Gabriela Mistral (imagine Pablo Neruda being called “el Neruda”!) and she is often referred to simply as “Gabriela” in the Hispanic communities where her children’s poems are sung as lullabies and read in school, and her reputation as an important educator is sustained.  In some segments of Latin American society, Mistral’s reputation paints her with such a saintly or other-worldly brush that she is basically desexualized, not unlike the “mistral” wind her name conjures up, strong but cold. In truth, very little is known about her private life, despite many poems and a large body of personal letters having been poured over for decades by scholars.

What we also know about Mistral is that in South America, at least, she is not undersung; in fact, she’s ubiquitous. Schools are named after her, songs are sung in her honor, festivals and prizes (for poets and teachers) are named after her. Her image was placed on the 5000-peso Chilean bank note (now affectionately called a “gabriela”) in 1981; it has also appeared on stamps throughout South America. When she died and her body was returned to Chile, the Chilean government declared three days of national mourning, and hundreds of thousands of people attended her memorial.

Mistral 5

Mistral 6

Mistral 8 _1957_Ecuador_stamp

Mistral 9

How can a poet born in the Western hemisphere, one who received the Nobel Prize for Literature mid-century, one whose work has been well-translated and reliably kept in print in English, one whose work still reads as modern and relevant, one whose gender might serve as a point of pride for feminists — how can she remain not only undersung among general readers of poetry but among American poets themselves? On the other hand, when I told my sister that I was working on an essay about the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and that I was worried, as I had been about a previous essay in the Undersung series about Eugenio Montale,  whether Nobel laureates could actually be labelled “undersung,” my sister reminded me that 25% of all Americans believe that the sun revolves around the earth. I guess it’s no surprise Gabriela Mistral is not a household name from Maine to California. Assuming that a large percentage of practicing poets actually know which heavenly objects orbit which, it’s still true that many American poets have never read Mistral’s work  – certainly not in its original language.

We’re a lazy bunch here in America, second-language-wise, despite the fact that whole sections of the government now print their official documents in Spanish and English. We’re a bilingual country without a bilingual population – bilingualism is taking its own sweet time to catch on.  Hurry up, I feel like saying to my compatriots, learn Spanish and be ahead of the crowd! The benefit of doing so would be not only the ability to converse with and stand together with a growing portion of our fellow countrymen, but the ability to read Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Vincente Aleixandre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Camilo Jose Sela, Jose Saramago, Miguel Angel Asturias (all nine are Nobel Prize winners) and yes, Gabriela Mistral, in the language their work was written in. The current state of affairs seems to suggest that since Robert Frost said (I’m paraphrasing) that poetry is what gets lost in translation, we’ve given ourselves permission not to read translated poetry. After all, if Frost was right, what would be the point? Translated poetry would be an oxymoron. Thank God a few poets – oxymoronic, slippery fish – manage to reach our shores from time to time and make a contemporary splash: Wislawa Szymborska springs to mind, as do C.P. Cafavy and Czeslaw Milosz. But it’s not the feast we might enjoy if we were less Anglocentric. We have an unfortunate history of undervaluing anything  — or anyone — that is outside the mainstream, as Langston Hughes understood when he translated this poem by Mistral:



The green and yellow parrot,
the saffron and green parrot,
called me “ugly,” squawking
with his devilish bill.

I am not ugly, for if I am ugly,
then my mother who looks like the sun is ugly,
the light that is part of my mother is ugly,
and the wind is ugly that sounds in her voice,
and ugly is the water that reflects her body,
and ugly is the world and He who created it…

The green and yellow parrot,
green and shimmering parrot,
calls me “ugly” because he has not eaten,
so I take him bread and wine,
for I am getting tired of looking at him
up there always posed, always shimmering.

—Julie Larios



Julie Larios writes poetry for both children and adults; several of her poems have appeared in the pages of Numero Cinq but she is proudest of her faux-translation “A Cow’s Life,” submitted five years ago to NC’s First Ever Translation Contest. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series. Her Undersung series for Numéro Cinq has previously highlighted the work of R.F. Langley, George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale, Alistair Reid, John Malcolm Brinnin, Ernst Jandl and The Poet-Novelist.

Jul 082015


This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them… What Jandl’s wordplay accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too. — Julie Larios

reft and light


Ernst Jandl’s book Reft and Light opens with this word of warning from editor Rosemarie Waldrop: “Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate.” Notice that she doesn’t say “extremely difficult.” She says “impossible.” That doesn’t bode well for English-speaking readers who, like me, know only a few words in German – principally those used by fictional Nazis in old WWII movies – “Achtung! Verboten!” – or for readers who, also like me, have been puzzled by the long controversy over whether John Kennedy, in a 1963 speech, called himself a jelly donut or declared himself to be a citizen of Berlin (“Ich bin ein Berliner.”)

The jelly-donut controversy no doubt would have pleased Ernst Jandl, an Austrian poet and translator, whose work often explored the strange malleability of words. He was philosophically if not officially a member of  the Oulipo school of experimental poets (the moniker “Oulipo” formed from the French words Ouvroir  de Litterature Potentielle, meaning “Workshop of Potential Literature”) who played with formal constraints as a means of re-examining or re-awakening language. Inventive word-morphing, reconstructions, deconstructions and deliberately misdirected readings and soundings of words at the sentence, word and phoneme level – these were his strong suit, at least as far as Reft and Light is concerned. Waldrop’s note introducing the book helps explain why few people in the United States have heard of Jandl, despite his popularity among German-speaking readers. Reft and Light is one of only two collections translated into English (the other is Dingbat, translated by Michael Hamburger) and Jandl’s “poems” in this book are not lyrical in the traditional sense nor are they narrative. I’m not sure I would characterize most of them as poems; in fact, and I can’t recommend Jandl’s other work to you since I can’t speak German.  Reft and Light is not likely to satisfy people looking for poetry with a capital P. But for people looking at language at the word level and taking pleasure in innovation and experimentation, reading the book is like spending recess on a school playground.

I was handed Jandl’s book several years ago by Christine Deavel of Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore, Open Books. “You’re the perfect reader for this,” she told me, and she was right. I’m a recess junkie when it comes to poetry, which is not to say I can’t go back to the classroom and enjoy the quieter lessons when recess is over. But I admit to liking the dizziness of a ride on the dangerous Big Spinner, word-wise, especially if it creaks and groans at unnerving intervals, and even more so if I feel like I might just be thrown off by the G-forces at work, heels over head and away. Jandl’s book is for punsters, anagramists, riddlers, jumble solvers, Scrabble players, crossword addicts, and poets who respond to sound as much as they do to images and ideas. You get off the ride and don’t quite know which end is up.

So if his work is untranslatable, as Waldrop states, how successful is Reft and Light? The entirety of her Editor’s Note tries to explain:

Most of Ernst Jandl’s poems are so engrained in the German language that they are impossible to translate. But their procedures can be imitated. Here is an experiment: several American poets respond to each poem so that original is encircled by multiple English analogues. The responses (which range from close imitations to freewheeling versions that continue Jandl’s thinking into other semantic areas) form the first part of this book. The version that seems closest to Jandl’s text is usually the first to follow the German.

Part II presents, in roughly chronological order, poems by Ernst Jandl either left in their original form (including visual poems and poems that he wrote in English) or translated/adapted by Anselm Hollo or myself.

The characterization of the translations as “analogues” is a good one: they are comparable, but not equal to. They are not literal translations. They are re-interpretations; they “continue Jandl’s thinking” and find ways to express his thought-process in English. Take this short experiment (again, not what I would call a poem) where Jandl turns a simple counting list inside out:



The correct German numbers 1-10 would be ein, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn. Translated literally, the title means “series” and Jandl’s list reads (if I’ve got it right) ice, twig, fresh, cattle, fill, groan, syllables, oh, new, zinc. We hear the similarities in the German pairing – ein/eis, sieben/silben, etc.  But how to translate this into English when all the wordplay involves German sound variations? In Reft and Light, various poets try their best with a comparable English version of counting 1-10. The poet Keith Waldrop offers this basic possibility:



It’s a simple enough bit of play. I often asked my students at Vermont College of Fine Arts to give it a try, just to shake up the way they hear their own language (in the firm belief that we stop really hearing our own language because it’s too familiar – idiomatic speech is sometimes inaudible and metaphors are flattened by over-familiarity. Finding alternatives for the numbers is not hard. But if I asked my students to take it a step farther, to see if they could create a narrative of some kind out of the words, it became more difficult and more interesting. Here is an excerpt from Julie Patton’s extended variation on Jandl’s wordplay; her version incorporates both German and English equivalents and moves beyond sound imitation toward storytelling – it “sounds” like it could be counting from one to ten, but it’s not:


Ray di Palma’s versions (five lists) even play with the title “series,” changing the title for each list to cherries, ceres, seers, jerries and cerise. This is the pleasure of Jandl’s Reft and Light. Not only does it introduce us to Jandl’s originals, it goes on to show us how any poet trying to wake up tired words can do so by putting an improvisational spin on them. In another example, “Otto Mops,” a univocalic, Jandl goes for the o’s to tie things together, sound-wise:

ottos mops trotzt
otto: fort mops fort
ottos mops hopst fort
otto: soso

otto holt koks
otto holt obst
otto horcht
otto: mops mops
otto hofft

ottos mops klopft
otto: komm mops komm
ottos mops kommt
ottos mops kotzt
otto: ogottogott

Okay: it’s not W.B. Yeats. But Jandl is not going for mystery and moonlight. He’s going for Abbot and Costello, in their classic skit, “Who’s on first?” He wants to make us sit up and make us notice how confusing and playful language is. With my meager German and a good dictionary, I can discern this loose story in the Otto poem: ottos pug defies / otto: away, pug, away / ottos pug hops away / otto: so so. // otto brings coke [can that be right?] / otto picks fruit / otto listens / otto: pug pug / otto hopes // ottos pug knocks / otto: come pug come / ottos pug comes / ottos pug throws up / otto: ohgodohgod.

Notice that the poem uses only the vowel “o.” And notice that the German words do more than rhyme, they morph in terms of sound: trotzt, fort, soso, koks, mops, obst, horcht, hofft, klopft, komm, kommt, kotzt, ogott. Elizabeth MacKiernan’s English version, below, uses only u’s and o’s, having changed Jandl’s o’s to ooh’s. Our Hero become Lulu rather than Otto – fair enough. MacKiernan loosely follows the narrative thrust of the original but her words rhyme a bit more, morph a bit less:

Lulu’s pooch droops
Lulu: scoot, pooch, scoot!
Lulu’s pooch soon scoots.
Lulu brooms room.

Lulu scoops food.
Lulu spoons roots.
Lulu croons: pooch, pooch.
Lulu broods.

Lulu’s pooch drools.
Lulu: poor fool pooch.
Lulu grooms pooch.

Lulu’s pooch poops.
Lulu: oops.

This play with vowels is typical of some of the best known work by Oulipo poets. The French writer Georges Perec made enough of a splash in 1969 with his 300-page lipogrammatic novel La disparition (in which the vowel “e” is never used) that a translation into English (The Void) was commissioned – the translator was Gilbert Adair.  This was followed three years later by a companion novel, Les revenentes in which no vowels other than “e” are used (it was translated by Ian Monk in 1996 and given the title The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex.) 

GeorgesPerecGeorges Perec

One of Jandl’s sound experiments is a little more haunting, less comedic; more zen, less Big Spinner:



völlig beraubt



völlig beraubt

Translated loosely, this says “all/ all / without // completely bereft // canzone // all / all / without // completely bereft.” Jandl arrives at this quiet moment by way of the original Italian word “canzone” (song, ballad) — to any German speaker, “canzone” sounds immediately like “ganz ohne,” which means “all without.” Gale Nelson offers up this English equivalent:



wholly undone



wholly undone.

The English version doesn’t work quite as well because “sadly full” does not match “madrigal” quite as well as “canzone” matches “ganz ohne.” But it does continue Jandl’s thinking.  Jandl also offers up a form which changes how we see the relationship between two words when a single letter gets replaced by another. He places the words on the page so their similarity is clear (this isn’t rocket science: it’s easy to imagine a good elementary school language arts teacher having her students do the same):

fr   sch

In German, “frosh” means frog and “frisch” mean fresh. The Englsih translators do even better with this form:

…..i………………   is……………….o………………n…………..s
chmp   ||    poon   ||    str..ng   ||   bo   y ||  .re  . olve
….o……………….  ti……………….i……………….d…………..v

Occasionally, the serious side of play shines through, as in this poem:

tee……….:….ein stück
lieber…..:    tee
ich……….:   tee
[er nie].:tee

Craig Watson comes up with an excellent translation:


all a…….:….tease

Is this a poem? I think this one is. Are some of the other, simpler experiments poems? Not in my opinion. What Jandl’s wordplay in Reft and Light accomplishes in general is a toning up of the poetic muscles. I was grateful that Christine Deavel put the book into my hands. Over the years it has provided me with several good workouts, and it has been a reminder that recess is part of the kinesthetic education of a poet, too.

Here’s one last Jandl poem, written in English late in his life and cited in the obituary the New York Times published when he died:

When born again
I want to be
a tenor saxophone
if it’s up to me,
theres gonna be
total promiscuity.

Ernst Jandl was born in Vienna in 1925 and died there seventy-five years later; he was called up into the German army during World War II but was strongly anti-Nazi and criticized the Austrian government for its cooperation with Germany during the war. I can’t tell you whether the majority of Jandl’s untranslated work consists of poems that play less and paint more. I’m only familiar with Reft and Light, which might be the sorbet in between other courses of a more substantial meal, serving to cleanse the palette. I do know that Jandl was voted one of the ten most important German-language poets of the 20th century by a group of 50 writers, scholars and critics; the fact that he has next to no name-recognition in this country makes him qualify as undersung by any standard.

As an experimental poet, Jandl is not to everyone’s taste – experimentation, by definition, is not mainstream, and to honor sound at the expense of image and meaning is dangerous. But an old-fashioned playground is dangerous, too.  At the very least, be brave, whether reader or writer or both: Climb up on the equipment and give it a spin. Try some of Jandl’s experiments: break up words, bend them. Above all, re-hear and re-fresh them. Meanwhile, keep the sound of that Abbot and Costello bit about “Who’s On First?” in your head. Why does that classic routine continue to appeal to us? Comedy is often located in miscommunication, and confusion makes us laugh, makes us wince, makes us listen more carefully and sends us new directions. Not a bad agenda for the creative spirit.

—Julie Larios


May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios  has contributed several Undersung essays to Numero Cinq over the last two years. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for inclusion in The Best American Poetry series.

May 122015

John Malcolm BrinninJohn Malcolm Brinnin 1916-1998

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.”

—Julie Larios


Imagine this scene in Florida’s Key West: the sun beats down on a white sand beach,  a hot breeze blows the palm fronds, and six middle-aged men sit around a table playing anagrams. They rearrange the letters of words to make new words; they argue about the rules; they yell a lot. If it sounds to you like these men should be Morty Seinfeld and Frank Costanza and their friends, I agree. But the group consists of composer Leonard Bernstein, journalist John Hersey, and poets John Ciardi, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill and John Malcolm Brinnin.

Anagrams A Favorite Pastime Among the Literati of Key West

Three or four times a week, depending on how many of them were in town, these men played anagrams and poker together in Key West. Ciardi was the most aggressive of the group and, according to his biographer, expected to win every game. Bernstein, according to the same account, insisted on his own rules. They were all successful and well-known artists – all, that is, but John Malcolm Brinnin, who was described by the literary critic Phyllis Rose this way: “Even some of us who saw a good deal of John Malcolm Brinnin in his later years forgot he was a poet….John was known to us, his friends, for the high drama of his eye glasses, massive horn affairs that were as much a product of his wit and conscious choice as his courtesy, his conversation, his skill at anagrams. A lot of poetic spirit went into his self-presentation.”

Of the several poets presented in the Undersung series here at Numero Cinq, there is not another one among them who could be said to have had his or her poetic reputation subsumed by self-presentation, and I think Rose chose the words of her reminiscence carefully. In it, she implies both affection for Brinnin and criticism of him – she enjoys his elegance and his contribution to the party atmosphere (“He dressed so well one always looked forward to his getup as part of the fun of a party….”) but chastises him for his “conscious choice” of style over substance. To subordinate your talent to self-presentation (though some people might call self-presentation an art in itself) is a puzzle. What Rose seems to be saying is that Brinnin was  – like a good formal poem – elegantly composed, but also  – like a bad poem – overfabricated.

Well, we don’t have to judge poets by their self-regard, nor by how well they dress. We can choose to judge them by the poems they wrote, and Brinnin’s work more than measures up. It’s true that the poems in his first book (The Garden is Political, 1942) were called “mannered” by one critic who was, most likely, eager for the diction of poetry in the 1940’s to to be looser and more modern. It’s true, also, that Brinnin’s work does not sound loose; his language is denser, more opaque than the broken lines of prose that became more and more popular as the 20th-century progressed. Not many authors survive the curse of being called old-fashioned. But whatever the reason for the mannerisms some critics accused him of, Brinnin’s poetry pleases me in the same way Shakespearean monologues and sonnets please me: they’re the product of someone with large things to say, someone using his or her intelligence to put pressure on the English language to be simultaneously truthful and beautiful.

La Creazione degli Animali

Here that old humpback Tintoretto tells
Of six day’s labor out of Genesis:
Swift from the bowstring of two little trees
Come swans, astonished basilisks and whales,
Amazed flamingos, moles and dragonflies,
to make their lifelong helpless marriages.
Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells
From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.
The patriarch in that vicinity
Of bottle seas and eggshell esplanades
Mutters his thunder like a cloud. And yet,
much smaller issues line the palm of God’s
charged hand: a dog laps water, a rabbit sits
grazing at the footprint of divinity.

From the largest moments of that poem (Heaven, Hell, Time, divinity) to the smallest (a dog lapping water, a rabbit at the feet of God) Brinnin offers up the “dumb wonder” a person feels in the face of such an ambiguous world, and in the presence of work produced by a master artist.  The poem follows some of the rules of a sonnet – fourteen lines, with a slight turn or refocus after the eighth line. But Brinnin is no stranger to adapting the rules to his own purpose – the rhymes assert themselves clearly but without establishing a conventional pattern (ABCA/DEAA/FGHG/HF.) The couplet which usually closes a conventional Elizabethan sonnet is buried mid-poem (“Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells / From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.”) The full rhyme of “vicinity” and “divinity” still chimes loudly despite being separated by four other rhymed lines – not an easy task.

Tintoretto - la creazione degli animaliTintoretto – la creazione degli animali

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.” Rosten rightly said that “the question of ‘popular’ understanding is very important to a revolutionary magazine.”

So Brinnin was not a poet of the people; his poems are layered and dense and must be worked out slowly. I suspect hearing them aloud would untangle them more quickly than reading them on the page. In fact, when I read Brinnin, I often imagine someone reading his poems to me – someone like Ian McKellen or John Gielgud. Again, his work has a Shakespearean elegance. Being read aloud, the complications of syntax might settle down, while the musicality of them would shine. Brinnin’s sentences are long, which ups the level of difficulty; the verbs sometimes hide within the verbiage, so their narrative thrust – that is, their “sense” — is not immediately discernible. Brinnin’s words will never make their way onto a revolutionary’s placard, and clarity is not their goal. Take this example:

A River

A winkless river of the cloistered sort
Falls in its dark habit massively
Through fields where single cattle troll their bells
With long show of indifference, and through
The fetes champetres of trees so grimly bent
They might be gallows-girls betrayed by time
That held them once as gently as Watteau.

Electric in its falling, passing fair
Through towns touched up with gilt and whitewash, it
Chooses oddments of discard, songs and feathers
And the stuff of life that must keep secrets
Everlastingly: the red and ratlike curios
Of passion, knives and silks and embryos
All sailing somewhere for a little while.

The midnight drunkard pausing on the bridge
Is dumbstruck with a story in his eye
Shuttling like his memories, and must
Outface five tottering steeples to admit
That what he sees pass under him is not
Mere moonlit oil and pods of floating seed,
But altogether an astonishing swan.

The river, I mean, for all is riverine,
Goes slowly inward, as one would say of time,
So it goes, and thus proceed to gather in
The dishes of a picnic, or the bones
Of someone lost contesting with the nations,
Glad in the wisdom of his pity to serve
Though the river’s knowledge, whelming, overwhelms.

This isn’t subject/predicate/object territory; a sadistic high school English teacher could make her students suffer by requiring students to diagram the sentences of it. Each seven-line stanza is a single sentence, nouns often sit quite a way from the verbs they depend on, and lush dependent clauses make readers push to figure out exactly where the sentence goes. The effect of this poem is similar to a cubist painting; like Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” we see the movement before we quite understand the figure; we grasp the gestalt before we deconstruct the individual lines. From “fetes champetres” on, we know we’re in for some work. Questions pile up: In what way was the artist Watteau gentle? What does it mean to say that a river goes “slowly inward”? What does the river represent – to me, to other readers – and what did it represent to Brinnin himself? Who exactly, or inexactly, is “lost contesting with the nations”?

Answering or not answering these questions is a matter of personal preference; I’m comfortable being “riverine” and flowing past some of the difficulty, then following up later with a little research. Without much trouble I find images of Watteau’s paintings and realize that many of his people face away from us, just as “the stuff of life that must keep secrets.” I can ponder that for awhile, and isn’t pondering part of the pleasure of poetry? I read the best of Brinnin’s poems again and again, and I understand them better each time; I find new beauties each time. I’ve read the following poem several times and still have questions; to my mind, that’s a plus.

Rowing in Lincoln Park

You are, in 1925, my father;
Straw-hatted, prim, I am your only son;
Through zebra-light fanwise on the lagoon
Our rented boat slides on the lucent clam.

And we are wistful, having come to this
First tableau of ourselves: your eyes that look
Astonished on my nine bravado years,
My conscious heart that hears the oarlocks click

And swells with facts particular to you –
How France is pink, how noon is shadowless,
How bad unruly angels tumbled from
That ivory eminence, and how they burned.

And you are vaguely undermined and plan
Surprise of pennies, some directed gesture,
Being proud and inarticulate, your mind
Dramatic and unpoised, surprised with love.

In silences hermetical as this
The lean ancestral hand returns, the voice
Of unfulfillment with its bladelike touch
Warning our scattered breath to be resolved.

And sons and fathers in their mutual eyes,
Exchange (a moment huge and volatile)
the glance of paralytics, or the news
Of master-builders on the trespassed earth.

Now I am twenty-two and you are dead,
And late in Lincoln Park the rowers cross
Unfavored in their odysseys, the lake
Not dazzling nor wide, but dark and commonplace.

Brinnin was perhaps best known to his generation as “the man who brought Dylan Thomas to America.” As head of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center (now known as the 92nd St. Y) from 1949 to 1956, Brinnin founded a series of poetry readings that included some of the best known poets in America and Britain. He acted as Thomas’s “agent” in America, scheduling readings and arranging for places Thomas could stay. During the Welsh poet’s last cross-country tour in America, Thomas fell ill; despite efforts to fulfill his public obligations, he ended up being taken to a hospital in New York City where he died a few days later; Brinnin’s strange lack of response to the emergency (he didn’t come down to New York from nearby Connecticut until several days later, after the poet had died) stirred up quite a bit of controversy, especially when Thomas’s doctors assigned the cause of death to pneumonia and Brinnin claimed it was alcohol poisoning. The postmortem showed no signs of alcohol being involved in Thomas’s condition, and doctors insisted it had not been an alcoholic coma that Thomas was in but a severe bronchial condition; nevertheless, Brinnin’s assertions played into the myth of the Poet as Self-Destructive Madman, a myth quite popular at the time (and, possibly, still popular now.)

Even more controversy was caused by Brinnin’s publication of the book Dylan Thomas in America, in which he continued to propagate his assertions about the poet’s death and to paint the poet – not completely undeservedly – as a boozer and a womanizer, out of control, in a self-destructive spiral, and functioning without a strong sense of duty to his professional, collegial or marital relationships. Thomas’s family considered Brinnin persona non grata for failing to attend to the poet’s needs while in America and for spreading gossip about him. One reviewer of the biography had this to say about it: “A fascinating read, even if you are not interested in DT. On the surface, a story of wretched excess and inevitable self-destruction, but even in this entirely one-sided account one senses an anxious, self- serving agenda. It was keenly interesting to later read the accounts of Thomas’ family, who regard Brinnin as an exploitative hanger-on who added character assassination to his almost criminal failure to help the dying poet.” Critics have considered the possibility that Brinnin’s indifference and inattention at that crucial time was due to Brinnin being in love with, but rejected by, Thomas. The fact that Brinnin kissed Thomas full on the lips in public on the occasion of one of Thomas’s departures from America might have contributed to that theory.

In spite of the controversy (or perhaps because of it), Dylan Thomas in America sold well, better than Brinnin’s poetry collections had. Brinnin resigned his position at the Poetry Center but continued to spend time with and write about other celebrities in the literary world, many of whom he had met there. He published books about Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and Truman Capote (a lifelong friend who, according to Brinnin, abandoned his talent and took on “the role of mascot to cafe society.”) Maybe Brinnin submerging himself in the world of other poets meant withdrawing from that world as a poet himself. As he once told an interviewer, ”I think I’m as well known as I deserve to be.”

In any case, he wrote less poetry after the controversy, publishing only one more collection twenty years later, and he focused on cultivating friendships, editing anthologies, and writing biographical pieces and accounts of travel on ocean liners (a passion of his – he crossed the Atlantic Ocean over sixty times.)  In some way, his role in Key West was that of the leader of a private literary salon, making sure he was a star in that firmament. His book Sextet is full of gossipy anecdotes about celebrities, including some his own friends or the friends of friends. T.S. Eliot, according to Eliot’s roommate, John Howard, was no slouch when it came to self-regard. Hayward told Brinnin “On the day Time magazine came out with his face on the cover, [Eliot] walked for hours looking for wherever he might find it, shamelessly taking peeks at himself.” Christopher Lehman, who reviewed Sextet for the New York Times, said, “…there’s something about these six easy pieces that makes a reader faintly uneasy in the author’s company – something that makes one feel slightly compromised by having to meet these people under Mr. Brinnin’s auspices.” And Brinnin could be vicious. In a review of one of William Meredith’s books of poetry, Brinnin kills three giants with one stone: “In poetic terms, Meredith takes us into a region recently charted by the knuckleboned asperities of Robert Lowell and by the vaudeville turns of conscience played out in the ‘Dream Songs’ of John Berryman.”

I’ve met enough poets and sat through enough lunches with them to know that their personalities are not always in sync with their poetry — affable and upbeat people can write pessimistic and mean-spirited poems; conversely, whiny and egotistical people can write poems that lift our spirits and fill us with wonder. For me, Brinnin the Gossip comes across at times witty, at other times narcissistic; Brinnin’s poetry, on the other hand, is humble and full of wonder. Without wonder (and its co-conspirator, curiosity) poetry cannot exist, and  I agree with Brinnin’s own take on the subject: “Unfortunately, a sense of wonder cannot be instilled, installed, or otherwise attained. Rather it is something like a musical sense — if not quite a matter of absolute pitch, a disposition, something in the genes as exempt from judgment as the incidence of brown eyes or blue.”

The Giant Turtle Grants an Interview

How old are you, Old Silence?
…..I tell time that it is.
And are you full of wonder?
…..Ephemeral verities.
What most do you long for?
…..No end to my retreat.
Have you affections, loves?
…..I savor what I eat.
Do shellbacks talk to shells?
…..Sea is a single word.
Have you some end in mind?
…..No end, and no reward.
Does enterprise command you?
…..I manage a good freight.
Has any counsel touched you?
…..Lie low. Keep quiet. Wait.
Your days – have they a pattern?
…..In the degree of night.
Has solitude a heart?
…..If a circle has a center.
Do creatures covet yours?
…..They knock, but seldom enter.
Have you not once perceived
…..The whole wide world is yours.
I have. Excuse me. I
…..Stay utterly indoors.

Choosing to put Brinnin’s work in front of the readers of Numéro Cinq, I found myself wondering whether we need to admire an artist — the man himself or the woman herself — whose work we admire. The question was raised pointedly in the movie Amadeus — Mozart as a man is a giggling fool but as a composer is a genius, while Salieri the man is serious and committed to his art while the art he produces is mediocre. Some days I find myself thinking that if a poet is a son of a bitch, a bigot, a boozer, a racist, a loud-mouthed fool, a shameless self-promoter and/or a misogynist in real life, I’d rather not read his work, thank you. Other days, I couldn’t care less who the poet is — I just want to see if the necessary element of wonder is present in the poems; if it is, I can relish them and ignore everything else. My conclusion right now is this: John Malcolm Brinnin may, like Capote, have wasted his talent and become another mascot to café society, but he was wrong about himself — he is not as well-known as he deserves to be. I might not choose to play anagrams or poker under a beach umbrella in Florida with someone like him — by many accounts backbiting, gossipy, and self-aggrandizing . But that has nothing to do with how much I enjoy and admire his poems.

Key West Writers“A Day at the Beach, 1984” – Key West Writers

From top left: James Merrill, Evan Rhodes, Edward Hower, Alison Lurie, Shel Silverstein, Bill Manville, Joseph Lash, Arnold Sundgaard, John Williams, Richard Wilbur, Jim Boatwright. From bottom left: Susan Nadler, Thomas McGuane, William Wright, John Ciardi, David Kaufelt, Philip Caputo, Philip Burton, John Malcolm Brinnin. Photo by Don Kincaid.

— Julie Larios

Numero Cinq photo

Julie Larios is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize; her work has been published in journals such as The Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, The Atlantic, Ecotone and Field, and has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.


Mar 112015

r f langley 2 copyR. F. Langley 1938-2011

“By the end of my time spent with Langley’s work that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice.” —Julie Larios



LIKE SEVERAL OF THE POETS I’ve written about for Undersung, Roger Francis Langley (known as R. F. Langley) was seriously unprolific. Seventeen poems were gathered together for one book, twenty-one poems for another. Apparently eight other poems appeared uncollected in The London Review of Books and PN Review. But unlike most other poets I’ve written about, Langley has not been a secret favorite of mine for years. In fact, I just heard about his work this January, when a friend mentioned a memoir titled H is for Hawk by the British writer Helen Macdonald. Macdonald, whose book recently won both the Costa Book Award for Biography and the Samuel Johnson Award for Non-Fiction, mentioned in an interview for The Guardian that, among a few other influential books which “opened her eyes to nature,” she had enjoyed a collection of diary entries by a poet I’d never heard of: R. F. Langley. Her description of that book, titled simply Journal, hooked me:

“These journals, Langley wrote, are concerned with ‘what Ruskin advocated as the prime necessity, that of seeing’, and pay ‘intense attention to the particular’. They speak of wasps, of thrips, grass moths, stained glass, nightjars, pub lunches and church monuments, everything deeply informed by etymology, history, psychology and aesthetic theory. The prose is compressed and fierce, and its narrative movement is concerned with mapping the processes of thought, the working out of things. It is founded on careful, close observation of things that typically pass unnoticed through our world.”

Being a fan of all things which pass unnoticed (or rarely noticed) I figured Langley’s journal might be worth looking through. Macdonald’s list of subjects (from thrips –thrips? – to pub lunches) intrigued me, and I was betting that Langley’s attention might be both focused and digressive, a combination that often produces fine essays. First, though, I had to see what kind of poetry he wrote.

I don’t own any of Langley’s books, and I couldn’t find individual poems anthologized in anything on my shelves. His work is not in my public library, and a search of databases produces not much more than basic biographical material (born in Warwickshire, England, 1938, educated at Cambridge, studied with poet Donald Davie, taught high school, retired to Suffolk, died 2011) and obituaries in major newspapers. Reviews and articles are few and far between, most of them simply remembrances. The obituaries warn that Langley did not produce a large body of work, having only begun to publish seriously in his sixties when he retired from forty years of teaching literature and art history to high school students.

There are only a few links to his poems online. Over at Amazon, his earlier out-of-print books/chapbooks are listed as “Unavailable at this time.” Later books listed there “may require extra time for shipping” which is code for any book that takes weeks to arrive from the U.K. and is obscure, published probably by a small European press. Luckily, I found two of Langley’s books (Collected Poems – 2002 – and The Face of It – 2007 – both still in print, published by Carcanet) at the university library near me and spent a slow afternoon reading them. The 2002 edition of Collected Poems (nominated for a Whitbread Book Award) contains only seventeen poems. It would be better titled Selected Poems; fortunately, a new edition is forthcoming from Carcanet in September of this year, and it is the definitive collection. It contains everything from the 2002 edition plus previously uncollected poems and supplementary material — I believe the total number of poems is 48.)

By the end of my reading that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice. Langley’s poem “To a Nightingale” was awarded the 2011 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem:

To a Nightingale

Nothing along the road. But
petals, maybe. Pink behind
and white inside. Nothing but
the coping of a bridge. Mutes
on the bricks, hard as putty,
then, in the sun, as metal.
Burls of Grimmia, hairy,
hoary, with their seed-capsules
uncurling. Red mites bowling
about on the baked lichen
and what look like casual
landings, striped flies, Helina,
Phaonia, could they be?
This month the lemon, I’ll say
primrose-coloured, moths, which flinch
along the hedge then turn in
to hide, are Yellow Shells not
Shaded Broad-bars. Lines waver.
Camptogramma. Heat off the
road and the nick-nack of names.
Scotopteryx. Darkwing. The
flutter. Doubles and blurs the
margin. Fuscous and white. Stop
at nothing. To stop here at
nothing, as a chaffinch sings
interminably, all day.
A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
turtle doves. Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
is anyone’s quelque chose.
No business of mine. Mites which
ramble. Caterpillars which
curl up as question marks. Then
one note, five times, louder each
time, followed, after a fraught
pause, by a soft cuckle of
wet pebbles, which I could call
a glottal rattle. I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.
The road is rising as it
passes the apple tree and
makes its approach to the bridge.

In this poem, Langley opens directly onto the physical world, minimizing the human presence, unlike “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats, where the speaker (all agony, in the Romantic mode) dominates the first forty lines of the poem. Nature is somewhere out there in Keats’s poem; his speaker says, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,” though he’s willing to take a few guesses. Langley’s poem, on the other hand, goes down to the ground immediately and sees clearly the non-human world: petals, burls, mites, lichen, flies, lemons, moths. The speaker of Langley’s poem is present only in his desire to name correctly what he sees and hears (a flower, “Helina / Phaonia, could they be?’ and a color “I’ll say / primrose-coloured” and  a sound “which I could call a glottal rattle.”) Human involvement in the scene comes quietly:

               Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
is anyone’s quelque chose.
No business of mine.

He does not romanticize nature, as Keats does when he compares the bird’s “full-throated ease” to a man’s being half in love with Death. Instead, Langley celebrates what is mysterious and even nervous about the natural world (“Caterpillars which / curl up as question marks” and the “fraught pause” of the nightingale, the bird finally making its appearance at the very end of the poem. The man in the scene stands still , but nature is in motion; for Langley, the speaker’s role is that of a careful observer of an active, natural world.  William Wordsworth’s “Ode to a Nightingale” also begins with a man on a bridge and involves a nightingale’s song in the distance (no coincidence there – Langley is surely building on the English tradition of ornithological poems) but the center of that poem is also, as with Keats’s poem, clearly Man, not nature. Langley’s hidden subject might turn out to be the same upon careful observation, but his poetic trick is indirection. Langley, like many good poets, uses the tools of a good magician.

Look, too, at the subtler technical details of Langley’s poem, beyond the large idea it offers. It starts by saying “Nothing on the road.” Then, structurally, the poet unfolds his long list of everything that is actually there. He slows down after the opening four words and takes another look. And the poem come back structurally to that “nothing” by the end; the design of the poem is curvilinear, almost like the little caterpillar’s question mark.

                                          I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.
The road is rising as it
passes the apple tree and
makes its approach to the bridge.

Like many of Marianne Moore’s poems (and like the quantitative verse of ancient Greece) this poem is built on counted syllables, with seven syllables per line, but without the lines feeling unnaturally stunted. Langley’s inspiration for this attention to the syllable was Charles Olson’s essay on “Projective Verse,” in which Olson says, “It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself, and shall sing, nature has such paradoxical ways, by way of artificial forms outside himself. But if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets [that] objects share.” Olson goes on to say that the syllable is “king and pin of versification” and describes what syllables do as a dance. “It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose.”

Counted syllables are not in and of themselves what a poet wants a reader to be aware of – the counting is simply part of the puzzle-making challenge the poet sets himself in order to see what kind of words will fill the particular vessel of the poem. Peter Turchi discusses a poet’s delight in this kind of challenge in his book A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, reviewed in the January issue of Numero Cinq. Turchi also talks about nursery rhymes in that book; several of Langley’s poems involve nursery-rhyme rhythms:

You grig. You hob. You Tom, and what not,
with your moans! Your bones are rubber. Get back
out and do it all again. For all the
world an ape! For all the world Tom poke, Tom
tickle and Tom joke!

(excerpt from “Man Jack”)

Meter established by syllable count is not the only technical tool used in the poem; there is also a generous amount of internal rhyme:

To stop here at
nothing, as a chaffinch sings
interminably, all day.
A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
turtle doves. Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff.

A light touch with alliteration also plays its part in the appeal of the poem: petals/pink, hairy/hoary, bridge/burls/bowling/baked, shells/shaded, nick-nack of names…alliteration runs through the poem, as does near-rhyme (“the soft cuckle/ of wet pebbles….”) With such a tight syllabic count, the choice of words that manage to chime off each other like that is especially difficult.

Then there’s the specificity of the Latin names, countered with the goofy sound of giff-gaff and chiff-chaff (which is actually a type of bird.) Langley had a naturalist’s command of information, a linguist’s command of etymology, plus good comedic timing and a modern voice in the style of Wallace Stevens. Some of his phrases in this poem seem non-sensical on first reading, until you look up the less-familiar meaning of a familiar word – the “coping of a bridge,” for example, refers to the architectural detail of its capped wall; “mutes on the bridge, hard as putty” are bird droppings.

Retired in 1999 at the age of 61 and able — finally — to turn his full attention to writing, Langley might have anticipated two decades to do so. But “To a Nightingale,” which appeared in the London Review of Books in November of 2010, was his last published poem; he died in January of 2011. As Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote in his remembrance of Langley for the Cambridge Literary Review, Langley managed to personify Keats’s notion of “negative capability,” that is, the state of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In one poem about a medieval church in the moonlight, Langley says, “There are no / maps of moonlight. We find / peace in the room and don’t /ask what won’t be answered.” In “To a Nightingale,” there are no blunt answers, no overt message, nor is there any clear metaphor-making to draw lines between speaker and scene, yet we feel the mystery and melancholy in both, and we understand Langley’s play on the double-entendre of the word “coping” as it relates to both man and bridge, and the slight rise (of hope?) for both road and man as the poem ends. Daniel Eltringham summarized Langley’s skill in his article “‘The idea of the bird’: Bird Books, the Problem of Taxonomy, and Some Poems by R.F. Langley,” when he said, “Roger Langley’s writing lies between two worlds: the certainty desired by the amateur naturalist and its implications for artistic and taxonomic records, poised against the uncertain, plural, deferred, evasive character of an experimental artist. But poised without explicit tension: he is not a tense writer, more curious and exploratory, content to allow contradictions to remain contrary.”

Here is one more poem, offered up without commentary, other than to mention the character of Jack, who makes his appearance (like John Berryman’s Henry) in many later poems. There is also a noticeable use of end rhyme in this poem in addition to the internal rhyme, and the use of counted syllables (ten to the line.)  You’ll see the same sensibility at play, the same fine control of sound, the barrage of images, the refusal to straighten it all out and over-explain. Some of the work, Langley seemed to believe, belongs to the poem’s readers.

Jack’s Pigeon

The coffee bowl called Part of Poland bursts
on the kitchen tiles like twenty thousand
souls. It means that much. By the betting shop,
Ophelia, the pigeon squab, thuds to
the gutter in convulsions, gaping for
forty thousand brothers. So much is such.
Jack leans on the wall. He says it’s true or
not; decides that right on nine is time for
the blue bee to come to the senna bush,
what hope was ever for a bowl so round,
so complete, in an afternoon’s best light,
and even where the pigeon went, after
she finished whispering goodnight. Meanwhile,
a screw or two of bloody paper towel
and one dead fledgling fallen from its nest
lie on Sweet Lady Street, and sharp white shards
of Arcopal, swept up with fluff and bits
of breadcrust, do for charitable prayers.
The bee came early. Must have done. It jumped
the gun. Jill and the children hadn’t come.

How hard things are. Jack sips his vinegar
and sniffs the sour dregs in each bottle in
the skip. Some, as he dumps them, jump back with
a shout of ‘Crack!’ He tests wrapping paper
and finds crocodiles. The bird stretched up its
head and nodded, opening its beak. It
tried to speak. I hope it’s dead. Bystanders
glanced, then neatly changed the name of every
street. Once this was Heaven’s Hill, but now the
clever devils nudge each other on the
pavement by the betting shop. Jill hurried
the children off their feet. Jack stood and shook.
He thought it clenched and maybe moved itself
an inch. No more. Not much. He couldn’t bring
himself to touch. And then he too had gone.
He’s just another one who saw, the man
who stopped outside the door, then shrugged, and checked
his scratchcard, and moved on. Nothing about
the yellow senna flowers when we get home.
No Jack. No bee. We leave it well alone.

Jack built himself a house to hide in and
take stock. This is his property in France.
First, in the middle of the table at
midday, the bowl. Firm, he would say, as rock.
The perfect circle on the solid block.
Second, somewhere, there is an empty sack.
Third, a particular angry dormouse,
in the comer of a broken shutter,
waiting a chance to run, before the owl
can get her. The kick of the hind legs of
his cat, left on the top step of a prance.
The bark of other peoples’ dogs, far off,
appropriately. Or a stranger’s cough.
His cows’ white eyelashes. Flies settled at
the roots of tails. What is it never fails?
Jack finds them, the young couple dressed in black,
and, sitting at the front, they both look up.
Her thin brown wrist twists her half open hand
to indicate the whole show overhead.
Rotating fingernails are painted red.

Who is the quiet guard with his elbow
braced against the pillar, thinking his thoughts
close to the stone? He is hard to make out,
and easy for shadows to take away.
Half gone in la nef lumineuse et rose.
A scarlet cardinal, Jack rather hoped.
A tired cyclist in a vermillion
anorak. Could anyone ever know?
Sit down awhile. Jill reads the posy in
her ring and then she smiles. The farmer owns
old cockerels which peck dirt. But he is
standing where he feels the swallows’ wings flirt
past him as they cut through the shed to reach
the sunlit yard, bringing a distant blue
into the comfortable gold. How much
can all this hold? To lie and eat. To kill
and worry. To toss and milk and kiss and
marry. To wake. To keep. To sow. Jack meets
me and we go to see what we must do.
The bird has turned round once, and now it’s still.

There’s no more to be done. No more be done.
And what there was, was what we didn’t do.
It needed two of us to move as one,
to shake hands with a hand that’s shaking, if
tint were to be tant, and breaking making.
Now, on the terrace, huddled in my chair,
we start to mend a bird that isn’t there,
fanning out feathers that had never grown
with clever fingers that are not our own:
stroking the lilac into the dove grey,
hearing the croodle that she couldn’t say.
Night wind gives a cool hoot in the neck of
Jack’s beer bottle, open on the table.
Triggered by this, the dormouse shoots along
the sill, illuminated well enough
for us to see her safely drop down through
the wriggling of the walnut tree to find
some parings of the fruit we ate today,
set out on the white concrete, under the
full presentation of the Milky Way.

Though Langley’s work is new to me, I want to put his name in front of readers here at Numero Cinq and to recommend that we all make the effort to find his work and read it. I’ve purchased his Journal and now wait for it to wing its way across the Atlantic and into my mailbox. If your library responds to World Cat requests, you might find copies of his books through that resource. Meanwhile, listen to the wonderful audio recordings he made for The Poetry Archive – he has a perfect reading voice, not melodramatic but full of feeling, which is no small accomplishment. There are two recordings available: first, the odd and interesting “Cook Ting” and then his compelling “Blues for Titania, ” which you can read along with as he reads it – it’s a complicated and masterly poem, four stanzas long, nineteen lines each stanza, eleven syllables per line, and swoon-worthy.

—Julie Larios


With Jackson at Mo's 2

Julie Larios’s Undersung essays for Numéro Cinq have highlighted the work of George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale, Alistair Reid and The Poet-Novelist; her own poems have been featured in our pages as well. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.


Nov 112014

AlastairReidAlastair Reid — 1926-2014


Scottish poet Alastair Reid died on September 21st of this year at the age of 88, just three days after the naysayers for an independent Scotland won the day and the sunstruck madmen of Reid’s poem “Scotland” crawled home in defeat. It seems fair to say Reid’s poem — with its direct title, its landscape in high relief, and its dour fish-shop matron — stands as one of the poet’s definitive takes on the culture of his homeland.


It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’

In the referendum of September 18th, good money was bet that Reid’s woman represented Scotland well enough to prevail — her brow bleak, her ancestors raging, her misery ancient — and that the optimistic Home-Rule voters would not prevail. They did not go down in flames; perhaps their failure was more sodden. Certainly “We’ll pay for it” was the rallying cry for those who urged a No vote and who implored Scottish voters to stick by the Queen.

QueenApparently, the Union needed Scotland, and vice versa.

But what of the Scottish landscape, in contrast to the taciturn Scottish character? “…the air shifted with the singing of actual angels. / Greenness entered the body. The grasses / shivered with presences, and sunlight / stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.” Reid  celebrated landscape.  How a poet capable of writing those lines can fade into the background on the stage of British poetry is a puzzle to me. In 1954, Selden Rodman wrote an introduction to Reid’s work for Poetry magazine in which he said, “There are echoes of Dylan Thomas and Auden….[Reid] stands among these gifted contemporaries as an equal, one of the few poets writing in English to promise a continuance of their original affirmation.”

ScotlandA view of the Scottish hills: “Greenness entered the body….”

Could it be that since much of Reid’s mid-career energy was spent on the translation of poets who wrote in Spanish — Borges, Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Pacheco, Padilla — his relative obscurity as a poet in his own right was guaranteed? As with other poets in this Undersung series, Reid was not completely invested in his identity as a poet; his output of poetry was high-end but sporadic, his interests were broad, his wanderings wide, and his abilities as both essayist and translator loomed large enough to cast a shadow over his own talent as a poet. On the other hand, it might just be that Reid’s early ascendency was interrupted by something more sanguine, something described this way recently by the columnist Daniel Mendelsohn (himself a translator) in the June 3rd New York Times’ Book Review column, “Book Ends”:

As a critic, I’m often struck by the way in which so many successful writers settle into a groove by midcareer: Whatever marked them as special, new, or distinctive when they started — the “thing” that set them on their path — becomes, with time, a franchise; at worst, a straitjacket. By the end, most of us repeat ourselves. Very few — perhaps only the greatest — continue to grow.”

Over the years, Reid did not settle for a straitjacket; he wandered the world and grew as a writer, seldom repeating himself, accepting few of the categorical limitations that certain genres (and upbringings) usually insist upon us. He was restless, and his writing reflected it. He moved between poetry and prose, between memoir and travel writing and translation work and articles about sports — he even wrote two picture books for children.

He was born – his father a minister, mother a doctor – near Whithorn in the Galloway region of southwest Scotland in 1926, the year of Scotland’s debilitating General Strike, during which soldiers and tanks were used in the streets of Glasgow to disperse angry crowds of union men. The entire decade of the 20’s was one of mass emigration from Scotland, with families leaving behind high unemployment and miserable living conditions in order to head out for better highlands and lowlands in “the colonies”; the vision of so many people leaving home, longing to find a more comfortable life, might have contributed to Reid’s famously itinerant lifestyle.


“What drew me to writing was its portability,” he once wrote; “it requires essentially no more than a notebook and a pencil, and it allowed me to own my own time, to travel light, to come to rest anywhere….”

His poems often explore the pull away from, and eventual push back towards, home:

Whithorn Manse

I knew it as Eden,
that lost walled garden,
past the green edge
of priory and village;
and, beyond it, the house,
withdrawn, white,
one window alight.

Returning, I wonder,
idly, uneasily,
what eyes from inside
look out now, not in,
as once mine did,
and what might grant me,
a right of entry?

Is it never dead, then,
that need of an Eden?

Even this evening,
estranged by age,
I ogle that light
with a child’s greed,
wistfully claiming
lost prerogatives
of homecoming.

Reid understood that what the landscape offered and what the people offered could be radically different things. But he did find a number of places that came closer to what he was searching for, especially in the landscape and language of Spain and Latin America, and in the character of their people. It was this level of comfort that allowed him to focus on learning Spanish – to hunger for it, to eat it up and beg for more – and begin his highly-praised works of translation.

Over his lifetime Reid lived for extended periods in Majorca, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic – on a ginger plantation – Mexico, England – in a houseboat on the Thames – and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, where he finally settled in (or was settled by old age) until his death. The obituary Charles McGrath wrote in The New Yorker three days after Reid’s death opens with this line: “The poet and translator Alastair Reid, who died on Monday at the age of eighty-eight, had itchy feet.” In his essay titled “Digging Up Scotland,” published in 1981 in The New Yorker, Reid makes clear that his restlessness had something to do with finding a place where he could “feel one” with his surroundings:

“I have a friend in Scotland, a painter,” he wrote, “who still lives in the fishing town he was born in, grew up in, went to school in, was married in, raised his children in, works in, and clearly intends to die in. I look on him with uncomprehending awe, for although I had much the same origins, born and sprouting in rural Scotland…I had in my head from an early age the firm notion of leaving….He has made his peace with place in a way that to me is, if not unimaginable, at least by now beyond me. ”

Reid seldom stayed in one place long enough to have what he considered a permanent address; his mail was delivered to the offices of The New Yorker, where he let stacks of it pile up for months. His unease with permanence is clearly visible in his poems, where two perceived opposites often pull against each other, interfering with any hope that the tug-of-war will be settled or the people involved come to rest, as seen in the opening stanzas of a poem titled “What Bones Say”:

The skeleton
is hardly a lesson
in human nature.

Similarly, stones
are the bones of landscapes,
and yet trees blossom

in contradiction.
We are much more
than our brittle topography.

In those lines, see how beautifully Reid handles the simple language – in the near-rhyme of “skeleton” with “lesson,” the full rhyme of “stones” with “bones,” and in the echo that chimes between “lesson,” “blossom” and “contradiction” – not overwhelming readers with musicality, but giving us just enough. I admire the courage he has to say something as large as “We are much more / than our brittle topography.” He approaches language the same way in the other poems transcribed here – the abundant alliteration in “Scotland” and its chiming verbs – “shimmer” and “shivered” – the triptych of “idly,” “eyes” and “inside” in “Whithorn Manse,” its full rhymes (“white” and “alight) and near-rhymes (“need,” “Eden” and “garden.”) Reid’s poems seem spoken at first, easy and conversational, but the music on which they rise is carefully and thoroughly composed.

In the same New Yorker essay mentioned above, Reid writes, “The natural world and the human world separated early for me. I felt them to be somehow in contradiction, and still do. The Scottish landscape – misty, muted, in constant flux and shift – intrudes its presence in the form of endlessly changing weather; the Scottish character, eroded by a bitter history and a stony morality, and perhaps in reaction to the changing turbulence of weather, subscribes to illusions of permanence, of durability, asking for a kind of submission, an obedience. I felt, from the beginning, exhilarated by the first, fettered by the second. Tramps used to stop at our house, men of the road, begging a cup of tea or an old shirt, and in my mind I was always ready to leave with them, because between Scotland and myself I saw trouble ahead.”

He traveled first to Spain; it was during his time in Majorca – six years, off and on — that he met and became friends with the poet Robert Graves (about whom I wrote in my Undersung article about poet-novelists.) Their friendship ended when Reid fell in love with – and ran away with, temporarily – Graves’s muse, Margot Callas. Though Callas eventually returned to Graves, the conversations and apprenticeship Reid once enjoyed with the older poet were finished. In an essay Reid wrote on the occasion of what would have been Graves’s 100th birthday, he chided Graves for having been “mired in domesticity” during his first marriage, but then Reid becomes more conciliatory, saying “The English have always kept Graves at a distance, as if he were an offshore island, out of the mainstream – something they often do with English writers who choose to live elsewhere and are still successful.”

MajorcaThe Majorca home of Robert Graves – “an offshore island, out of the mainstream”

The same might be said of Reid himself – an offshore island in the sea of British literature. His most important books are out of print; these include his poetry collection Oases; Inside Out: Selected Poetry and Translations; Outside In: Selected Prose; Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner; and Weathering: Poems and Translations. If you subscribe to The New Yorker, you’re in luck – he contributed articles and poems there for more than forty years, and my quick search of their archives produced 152 hits.

In addition to “Scotland,” Reid’s most anthologized poem is “Curiosity,” about a dog’s and cat’s (but mostly human’s) view of the old adage “Curiosity killed the cat,” with the poet coming down hard in favor of being curious. Click here to hear it read by Reid himself over at The Poetry Archive. Rather than transcribe the poem so you can read it, I hope you will finish this essay and then go over to The Poetry Archive to listen to it.  We’re lucky to have recordings of these poems(as well as three others) in Reid’s own voice, since it was voice that he valued above all other qualities in a poem.

In an essay about translating his friends Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, he wrote, “I realized I couldn’t read a poem of Neruda’s simply as words put down on the page without hearing behind them his languid and caressing voice. The most important thing to me in translating these two poets was the sound of their voices in my memory, since this helped in finding my way in with the appropriate English….The key was voice.”

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Pablo Neruda — from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid)

He went on to say, “For me, Neruda’s poems were fundamentally voiced – spoken poems of direct discourse – his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.” Describing one lecture he went to at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Reid says Neruda’s voice “spread out like a balm over the English crowd; a magical sound, even without the thread of meaning.” [Note: my source for these quotations from the essay about Borges and Neruda was in Spanish – the translations are my own.]

1754-PABLO_NERUDA_5-630x350Pablo Neruda – “…his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.”

It was Reid who was instrumental in getting the work of both Neruda and Borges in front of English-speaking readers. About translating Borges, Reid was less lyrical than he was about Neruda: “Translating Borges was, for me, like learning a private language….” He refers to Borges’s skeptical and questioning tone, concluding that Borges’s poems were more interdependent than Neruda’s, linked as they were by a “recurring heraldry of symbols – chessboards, maps, knives, mirrors, coins, labyrinths, tigers, libraries….”

Reid and Borges

Reid (second from left) and Jorge Luis Borges (third from left)

One of Reid’s most interesting observations about Borges focused on his blindness: “After many conversations with Borges, from the most serious to the most entertaining, I came to the profound realization that for him, I existed only as a voice. Maybe this led me to the deep conviction that voice is the most long-lasting incarnation of my existence. Even more, it is in voices rather than photographs that the dead remain alive.”

borges-in-libraryJorge Luis Borges – “…for him, I existed only as a voice.”

At one point, Reid explains Borges’s style: “He spoke English with the respect a language well-known to him deserved, but within which he did not live – that is, with the controlled cadence of literature. On other occasions, in the company of Spanish-speakers, he was more playful, less solemn. Still, I think his bilingual upbringing gave him a sense of the arbitrary and fickle nature of language: a bilingual person is more aware of the gulf that exists between word and object than someone limited to a single language.”


Reid’s awareness of the strange nature of words and his innate playfulness (in Charles McGrath’s obituary write-up, Reid is remembered as “cheerful, funny, and irreverent, with high expressive eyebrows that were frequently squeezed together in amusement”) show up full force in his picture book Ounce Dice Trice, a collection of nonsense – that is, a collection of real but relatively unknown words – tantony, quicklings, moonglade, etc. – revealed to us in all their strangeness, the way a talented chef might reveal the secret ingredients of a favorite dish. In the book, Reid creates several imaginative ways of counting from one to ten without numerals (“Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist” and “Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim.” The words sound like they come straight off the playground. Of course, the whole point of the book is wordplay, emphasizing that “gulf between word and object” recognized by people who have learned more than one language. Illustrations by Ben Shahn make the book a collector’s item – previously out of print, it’s now available again thanks to the New York Review Children’s Collection.

Ben ShahnReid himself was a gongoozler….

Reid’s origins might have been provincial — even restrictive — but as he grew his poetry and prose became more and more cosmopolitan and expansive. He regarded translation as an act resembling “bewitchment,” and he wrote that the translation of someone else’s work required “not only reading it deeply and deciphering it, but climbing on top of the scenery backstage, up onto the supports and the scaffolding.”

I often wished while getting my MFA that the program I attended had offered a translation track. Translation seems to me one of the best ways – almost acrobatic, according to Reid — to capture and understand how a poem works. Reid understood the way a poem could float out over the reader “without the thread of meaning,” though with his own poetry we are lucky enough to find both meaning and music.

Poem without Ends

One cannot take the beginning out of the air
saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’.
The process is continuous as wind,
the bird observed, not rising, but in flight,
unrealised, in motion of the mind.

The end of everything is similar, never
actually happening, but always over.
The agony, the bent head, only tell
that already in the heart the innocent evening
is thick with the ferment of farewell.

— Julie Larios


Julie Larios has contributed seven previous essays in her Undersung series for Numéro Cinq, highlighting the work of George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale and The Poet-Novelist; her own poems have been featured in our pages as well. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.


Sep 112014


Photo 1 - J. Jacobsen


Friends, Romans, Countrymen: a word of warning— If you’re a tyrant, you’d do well to beware the Ides of March. Four-hundred years after Shakespeare offered up that phrase to theater-goers, it’s still best to avoid friendly types who gather round waiting to stab a despot to death outside whatever Capitol he controls. Sic semper tyrannis, as John Wilkes Booth reminded another crowd of theater-goers in 1865.

Writers: Odds are you’re not in control of any Capitol (nor any capital) so forget the soothsayer’s voice rising above the crowd in Julius Caesar. Had the Bard been issuing a warning to his own colleagues, he might have said, “Beware the phrase ‘a writer’s writer,’ ” because those words are like a knife between the ribs, metaphorically speaking.

“A writer’s writer” implies that the readers who most appreciate your work will be other writers – high praise to some, low praise to many, almost certain poverty will ensue, and yes, it’s the kind of praise that can bury Caesar. Upon hearing that designation assigned to them, ambitious writers – those who hope to win over a wider range of countrymen and readers, and/or those who hope to make more money – might feel as Marc Antony did, as if their hearts are “in the coffin there with Caesar.” Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor for The New Yorker, quoting a review in the New York Times, said that the phrase “a writer’s writer” is “the definition of obscurity.”

Try searching the Web for the phrase “writer’s writers” and up the names will come, the generally-agreed-upon writers’ writers (wiggle-room acknowledged), mostly contemporary: Joseph Brodsky, Henry Green, Julian Barnes, Lydia Davis, James Salter, Colm Toibin, William Maxwell, Elias Canetti, Richard Yates, W.G. Sebald, Mavis Gallant – these writers often have the phrase “a writer’s writer” attached to descriptions of their work. The list goes on, of course, and is not always short; people argue for the inclusion of a baker’s dozen more, or argue their exclusion. But the list settles down to those whose names get repeated often. Putting the wrong person on the list (try naming anyone who writes science fiction) generates guffaws among the cognoscenti. The phrase “a writer’s writer” suggests a level of craftsmanship – “the art of the sentence” – not generally associated with popular fiction, much less genre fiction. “Writer’s writer” tops off an amorphous category known as “literary fiction.”

If you narrow “a writer’s writer” to “a poet’s poet” – the phrase first used by Charles Lamb to describe Edmund Spenser – you’re taken into the backroom of an even more exclusive club (whether exclusivity is off-putting is a side argument): Elizabeth Bishop is on everyone’s list, I think, and names like Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Stanley Kunitz, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur, Allen Grossman, Wallace Stevens, Fernando Pessoa and Allen Tate make the short list of 20th-century  “poet’s poets” over and over.


The one I want to shine a light on here is Josephine Jacobsen, born Ontario, Canada, 1908, died Maryland, U.S.A., 2003, just one month short of her 95th birthday. Though she published well into her eighties, and received more attention in those later years, she remains even less well-known – less read and less anthologized – than most of the poets already mentioned.

Jacobsen’s poetry offers its readers three qualities most common to the category of “poet’s poet” – formal precision with the variety and musicality of her words, a freshness to her images, and a depth of subtext underneath the surface subject. All three of those qualities inspire repeated readings of any one of her poems; with each subsequent reading, her poems unfold and grow, unlike less complicated poems which remain relatively static each time they’re read. If you pay close attention to how she manages to do what she does, you do what good poets do, studying not just the surface of the poem but the craftsmanship behind it. Readers who want quick comfort from a poem rarely spend time with a poet’s poet because what they’re looking for is something easy. To be fair, quick comfort is sometimes nice and certainly serves a wider community. But the general public’s knowledge of the many tools a poet uses is minimal, so its desire for an “accessible” poem is maximized.

Jacobsen’s craftsmanship exceeded the abilities of less exciting poets as well as the capacity of readers in a hurry to understand. She was not “willfully difficult” as Wallace Stevens has been described. But she handled the tools available to a poet with more precision, complexity and grace than is the norm.

Of Pairs

The mockingbirds, that pair, arrive,
one, and the other; glossily perch,
respond, respond, branch to branch.
One stops, and flies. The other flies.
Arrives, dips, in a blur of wings,
lights, is joined. Sings. Sings.

Actually, there are birds galore:
bowlegged blackbirds brassy as crows;
elegant ibises with inelegant cows;
hummingbirds’ stutter on air;
tilted over the sea, a man-of-war
in a long arc without a feather’s stir.

The mockingbirds are a pair. A pair
touches some magic marrow, lends
a curious solace. “Lovers” pretends
of course an anthropomorphic care
we know is specious. This is a whim
of species. Nevertheless, they come.

One, then the other, says what it has to say,
pours its treble tricks clearer
into clear air, goes; one, and the other.
In the palms’ dishevelment, the random day,
over the green hot grass, fellow to fellow:
the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.

What jumps out at you at once in the first stanza of Jacobsen’s “Of Pairs” is the pairing of words as a complement to the pair of birds being described. Hardly a line goes by without words being doubled or repeated – one/the other, respond/respond, branch/branch, one/the other (that phrase itself, repeated), flies/flies, sings/sings. The second stanza moves on to describe other birds, non-pairs, some as part of a multitude (blackbirds, crows, hummingbirds), some spared cross-species (ibis and cow), and one eerily singular (the lone man-of-war in his long arc over the sea.) The third stanza opens again by pairing the word “pair,” and adds a warning via the pairing of “specious” and “species” – we’re warned not to over-anthropomorphize the mockingbirds; in other words, we should work to understand this as similar to human behavior only when due caution is exercised. The fourth stanza, again, is all about pairing – one/the other (a third echo of that phrase), clearer/clear, one/the other (the fourth and final echo of the phrase), fellow/fellow, shadow of wings/wing’s shadow.

Unlike some poems where the echoes are less intense and less noticeable, it seems Jacobsen’s purpose here is to overwhelm the reader with pairings. The title of the poem itself announces her purpose. And nothing about the pairing apparatus is subtle, in keeping with the nature of the mockingbirds themselves, who not only pair up but who echo the songs of other birds – the pairing of birds, plus the pairing of words, plus the imitation (parroting, pairing) of one bird by another. A perfect matching of form to content.

All this Jacobsen does while sustaining the tetrameter rhythm (a four-beat line) through four six-lined stanzas, and creating a rhyme scheme of ABBACC – a pair of A’s, a pair of B’s, a pair of C’s – and what is rhyme if not a pairing of words? There are some full rhymes (wings/sings, pair/care, lends/pretends, say/day) but many more near-rhymes (perch/branch, arrive/flies, galore/air, crows/cows, war/stir, whim/come, clearer/other, fellow/shadow) which the ear picks up as both imperfect and interesting, as are the mockingbirds’ own imitations of other birds – similar, but not the same. Again, form and content “rhyme.” The noisy alliteration of those bowlegged blackbirds brassy calls – again, form (alliteration, almost always noisy) and content (blackbirds, ditto) pair up.

As for the freshness of images, who would argue that “bowlegged blackbirds” is a tired idea, or that hummingbirds stuttering and mockingbirds playing “treble tricks” are not fresh ways of seeing and hearing them? Who but a poet’s poet could come up with such an ending: “In the palms dishevelment, the random day, / over the green, hot grass, fellow to fellow: / the shadow of wings, the wing’s shadow.” This is what I mean by a poet’s “depth of subtext underneath the surface subject.” Depending on your circumstances at any given point in your life, these lines take on new meanings – so the poem must be read, re-read, and read again over the course of a lifetime. For each person, there is a way to weave these lines into individual experiences – what does “the palm’s dishevelment” mean in the context of a random day of happiness or sorrow? And so a fine poet releases the poem to her readers, she lets her readers make meaning, rather than the other way around. And she does it simply (though not as simply as it seems at first) by describing the mockingbirds. Musicality, fresh images, depth of meaning – each element expertly handled.

What’s even more amazing is that Jacobsen managed to sustain this level of effort and precision over a long lifetime of writing. William Meredith called her “post-cocious.” She never got lazy, she never just knocked one out or went for an easy laugh or an easy cry, as some poets do. Poor Billy Collins always comes up in discussions of accessibility; he’s the punching bag of the Formalists who don’t care for his prose-like work. I do like Collins’ quirkiness when he’s at his best – there’s no denying he brings a poet’s perspective to the world. But sweet as some of his work is, he is no poet’s poet. His lack of technical finesse and his prolific output inform how “tossed off” much of his work feels to poets who work within the restrictions of received forms. Collins charms the public, there’s no doubt about that. Poets like Jacobsen, however, charm the poets.


Effortful-ness, then, might also be a quality particular to the work of a poet’s poet, most often if the effort disappears inside the poem. Effort sustained over a lifetime, in combination with technical elegance – those are the trappings of genius. “Of Pairs” is included in Jacobsen’s last book, In the Crevice of Time, published when she was eighty-seven. Though I don’t know the precise year “Of Pairs” was written, it’s included in the section of poems written between 1975 and 1994, when the poet was already a septuagenarian (at least.) Compare it to “Terrestrial,” a poem published at the beginning of her career.


The day was made of dust,
The bright and lovely
And utterly perishing—
Nothing that we could trust, nothing worth cherishing.

No skeleton to stay and whiten,
No soul to escape—
The word was never,
Nothing like love, to frighten; dust, lost forever.

Moss, rainbow rock, fall apart,
the cold pools vanish
Without resurrection.
The alien human heart, strange to perfection

Understands this, its own:
Not past, not future,
Not truth, to enmesh us—
This was our dust alone, O ours, O precious.

Structurally, this has four four-line stanzas, with the first three lines short, and the last line comparatively long. Each last line has a caesura – a sustained pause within the long line – and the last word of the first line of each stanza rhymes with the last word before the caesura in each fourth line (dust/trust, whiten/frighten, apart/heart, own/alone.) In addition, the last word or words of each third line rhyme with the final word/words of each stanza (never/forever, resurrection/perfection, enmesh us/O precious.) Technically, Jacobsen has always done this kind of rhyming elegantly, using unexpected patterns. If you want a hair-pulling writing prompt, try to write a poem following that structure and rhyme scheme.

Though the poem seems grounded, literally, in dirt and dust, it’s filled with airy abstractions like “love” and “the soul,” the past, the future, truth – all words I would warn a student of poetry away from because abstractions tend to make a poem ungrounded – that is, they make nothing available to the reader’s senses. But are those abstractions airy? In an odd way, they feel heavier than the dust in Jacobsen’s poem – they stand as things to cherish and revere, and they impart a kind of biblical solidity – a religion of abstractions – that readers can get tangled in or bogged down by. Compare that abstract solidity to what is real and what the heart, maybe unwillingly, understands in Jacobsen’s poem: the ephemeral dust-to-dust nature of our bodies, ending without even “skeletons to whiten,” without perfection, without time – we are the “utterly perishing.” We own that condition, it’s ours, and it’s precious. Death is, after all, what makes life meaningful.

There – I’ve made sense of the poem in a way that satisfies me right now. Tomorrow or next year or in another ten years, I might read it again and make sense of it another way, possibly reinterpreting that word “resurrection.” That’s the gift a good poet offers us: a poem to slow down with, to re-read, to understand in a new way each time it’s read.

Though Jacobsen’s work is not well known, she did receive – finally – some of the honors her work deserved. She served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1971 to 1973. The Sisters, a poetry collection published in 1987,was awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize in 1988. She was given a fellowship by the Academy of American Poets and awarded the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in 1994. Joyce Carol Oates, in the New York Times Book Review, compared her to Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. Jacobsen also wrote well-received short fiction; her collection of short stories, On the Island, was nominated for both the Pen Faulkner award and National Book Critics Circle award, and eight of her stories have been included in the O’Henry Prize Stories series.

When asked to assess her own work, Jacobsen said, “”I don’t really value very highly statements from a poet in regard to her work. I can perhaps best introduce my own poetry by saying what I have not done, rather than defining what I have done. I have not involved my work with any clique, school, or other group: I have tried not to force any poem into an overall concept of how I write poetry when it should be left to create organically its own individual style; I have not been content to repeat what I have already accomplished or to establish any stance which would limit the flexibility of discovery. I have not confused technical innovation, however desirable, with poetic originality or intensity. I have not utilized poetry as a social or political lever. I have not conceded that any subject matter, any vocabulary, any approach, or any form is in itself necessarily unsuitable to the uses of poetry. I have not tried to establish a reputation on any grounds but those of my poetry.”

I hope you’ll search out Jacobsen’s books – In the Crevice of Time collects an astounding number of poems written over the course of sixty years, between 1935 and 1994; used and nearly new copies of the book pop up from time to time. It’s exciting to see the poems in their original volumes as well, and to judge for yourself how she developed as a writer. Don’t fail to find her book of collected essays and lectures, The Instant of Knowing, and check out her fiction to see if her achievements there measure up to her skill as a poet. I think her poems gained in strength and brilliance as she aged, and one of my favorites of her later poems – “Piazza di Spagna”— was first published in the Atlanta Review (Vol.II, No.1, Fall, 1995 – see note in comments) and then posthumously in Contents of a Minute as part of Sarabande Books’ Quarternote Chapbook Series. In the poem, Jacobsen uses the two characters from Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir, to open up a short examination of the nature of poetry itself, placing at its core the small apartment in Rome where John Keats died.

Piazza di Spagna

Estragon says to Vladimir
(or vice versa) of happiness
recollected in distress: how
unpleasant that must be.

Ah, Estragon, ah Vladimir,
discussing loss, the poet’s
mother-lode. On the Spanish Steps
chill fingers the bone.

As the sun drops and drops,
stare across at the small,
cold, invisible room
where loss has reveled;

where loss’s aficionado
labored to grasp and hold
a green felicity,
Apollo’s summer look.

Loss has its son et lumiere
to show what it has got
and means to keep: a hundred poems,
bright blood, a girl.

It’s always risky to try to pin down what makes a poem a poem, and I like the elusiveness of this take on it – we really only hear about two essential elements, memory and loss. Maybe that’s true even today as post-Modernism pokes holes in received traditions. I’m not sure what I think of that. Jacobsen wrote another poem (“The Poem Itself”) which takes a look at how a poem “works,” and in it she offers this description: “On the shelf, by the clock’s tick, in the black / stacks of midnight: it is. A moon / to all its tides.” That, I believe completely. It saddens me to think that a poet can be undersung not because she is so bad, but because she is this good. Shakespeare gave his soothsayer in Julius Caesar a “tongue shriller than all the music,” and its true that something is needed to make certain voices rise above others. Luminous craftsmanship shines, but it doesn’t always make the loudest noise. Sic semper scriptores.

—Julie Larios


Jul 102014

Robert Graves, Poet and Novelist…and Playwright…and Scholar

Some writers who gain fame as novelists continue to write poetry “on the side,” not unlike the little smear of cream cheese offered up with a bagel. Some writers quite sensibly refuse to be labeled; they write whatever they please, whenever they please….And some writers who are truly talented poets get shanghaied by the success of their fiction and never regain the courage or the emotional space to re-establish themselves as poets. The categories are many.


“I am a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” So said a fine novelist you might have heard of: William Faulkner. He knew a thing or two about writing, but his sense that every writer longs to be a poet can’t possibly be true, not if MFA programs around the country are any indication. The fiction track students hoot and holler at poets and mock them at every turn. The poetry track students do the same right back. At one reading, the poets might emote earnestly while the fiction writers snore; at another, the fiction writers read on and on and on while the poets pass around derisive notes in the form of double dactyls. Looking down on the proceedings, the gods would never guess there were prose writers lusting after poetry’s compression, nor poets longing to try out a novel’s expansive narrative thrust.

That said, there are a surprising number of novelists who started out as poets. Thomas Hardy wrote poetry throughout his life and considered himself a poet despite the fact that he published no poetry until he was 58 years old, having gained fame with his novels – Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure – long before that. After the publication of his first collection of poems, he did not write another novel. James Joyce first published poetry; some might even make a case for sections of Ulysses and all of Finnegan’s Wake reading more like poetry than prose. D.H. Lawrence was a poet before he turned to fiction. Vladimir Nabokov published four books of poetry before ever attempting a novel. John Updike’s first book was a collection of poems, as was one of his last, published posthumously. In between, he published six other volumes of poetry, a fact which surprises quite a few of those MFA students mentioned earlier.

The list of poet-novelists is a long one and includes Rudyard Kipling, Robert Graves, Muriel Spark, Randall Jarrell, Czeslaw Milosz, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Anne Michaels, Fred Chapelle, Russell Banks….I’m sure you can think of more. Some writers who gain fame as novelists continue to write poetry “on the side,” not unlike the little smear of cream cheese offered up with a bagel. Some writers quite sensibly refuse to be labeled; they write whatever they please, whenever they please. Some continue to think of themselves as poets first, novelists second, no matter what the sales figures or their publishers tell them. Some are definitely better fiction writers than they are poets and admit it, but continue to write poems; some are in denial and their publishers don’t want to antagonize them by saying, “Enough” – those poems get published despite their poetic failures. And some writers who are truly talented poets get shanghaied by the success of their fiction and never regain the courage or the emotional space to re-establish themselves as poets. The categories are many.

Both Robert Graves and James Dickey fall into the troubling category of poets whose reputations rest on a single novel that the wider public embraced – Deliverance for Dickey, I, Claudius for Graves. These men considered themselves primarily poets, but today few people read their poetry. It’s not just time and changing taste that accounts for that.  Maybe Hollywood contributed to the switch – it’s hard to fault Sir Derek Jacobi for delivering Graves’s Roman emperor to us in a way that burned him into our consciousness forever. Ditto the talent of director John Boorman when taking four men on a fictional hunting trip down a river in Dickey’s northern Georgia.

James Dickey at his desk…

There’s no doubt at all that James Dickey deserves to be remembered as a poet. After a late start with his writing (he worked for an advertising agency until he was thirty-seven), he produced five books of poetry in just five years (1960 to 1965), won a Guggenheim Fellowship, won the National Book Award and was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (equivalent to today’s Poet Laureate.) But his reputation now seems to rest on dueling banjos, Georgian hillbillies, and a down-on-all-fours-pig-squealing rape scene in his novel-turned-film, Deliverance. The novel was a bestseller and the film brought national attention to Dickey (who made a cameo appearance in it as a Southern sheriff.) His adapted screenplay of the story even brought him a Golden Globe. But Dickey’s accomplishments as a poet suffered for it (he never again had a collection of poems that was a critical success, despite more than twenty volumes of poetry in the three post-Deliverance decades before his death.) The New Georgia Encyclopedia says “His misbehavior at public events, his disorderly personal life, and his self-destructive alcoholism only enhanced his public image as a masculine, burly poet and man of American letters,” but it’s more likely that Dickey’s wonderful work as a poet will get dusty on academic library shelves, and Burt Reynolds will take home the honors for masculinity.

…and on the set of Deliverance with Burt Reynolds

Dickey’s style involves a precise ear for the rhythm of the words – his poems might not adhere to rules of form, and there is no formalized rhyme in the poem that follows, but Dickey definitely constructed it with a spoken cadence in mind. Reading it aloud, you hear the often eight- or nine-syllabled lines distinctly, you hear their three strong beats carried through to the final line. As the poet and Orange-Prize-winning novelist Helen Dunmore said, “Maybe it’s because the first things I wrote were poems – and very likely the last things will be poems too – that I’m convinced work has to grow into its own rhythm, inside the head.” Dickey, too, as a poet first and last, hears the rhythm of words. His sometimes violent imagery (in his poetry as well as in his novels) made many people squirm – it engaged “nature,” but not Mary Oliver-style, not as a source of inspiration and self-awareness; rather, Dickey’s nature (both poetic and – from what I can tell – personal) was primitive, full of blunt force, and sometimes theatrical. He once said, “I want a fever, in poetry: a fever, and tranquility.” The fever more often than not trumped the tranquility, but I think he managed to capture both in my favorite Dickey poem, “In the Tree House at Night.”

In The Tree House at Night

And now the green household is dark.
The half-moon completely is shining
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees.
To be dead, a house must be still.
The floor and the walls wave me slowly;
I am deep in them over my head.
The needles and pine cones about me

Are full of small birds at their roundest,
Their fist without mercy gripping
Hard down through the tree to the roots
To sing back at light when they feel it.
We lie here like angels in bodies,
My brothers and I, one dead,
The other asleep from much living,

In mid-air huddled beside me.
Dark climbed to us here as we climbed
Up the nails I have hammered all day
Through the sprained, comic rungs of the ladder
Of broom handles, crate slats, and laths
Foot by foot up the trunk to the branches
Where we came out at last over lakes

Of leaves, of fields disencumbered of earth
That move with the moves of the spirit.
Each nail that sustains us I set here;
Each nail in the house is now steadied
By my dead brother’s huge, freckled hand.
Through the years, he has pointed his hammer
Up into these limbs, and told us

That we must ascend, and all lie here.
Step after step he has brought me,
Embracing the trunk as his body,
Shaking its limbs with my heartbeat,
Till the pine cones danced without wind
And fell from the branches like apples.
In the arm-slender forks of our dwelling

I breathe my live brother’s light hair.
The blanket around us becomes
As solid as stone, and it sways.
With all my heart, I close
The blue, timeless eye of my mind.
Wind springs, as my dead brother smiles
And touches the tree at the root;

A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?
When may I fall strangely to earth,

Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?
My green, graceful bones fill the air
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

As for Robert Graves, how sad it will be if his poetry fades into the background and the light only shines on his fiction.  Yes, he wrote plays, he wrote literary criticism, he was a consummate scholar, he wrote I, Claudius, but he was also a poet’s poet, with a command of so many formal poetic devices that reading his poems is akin to alchemy – base metal into gold.

robert graves 1A young Robert Graves

The best example of his thoughts on the nature of poetry is found in his poem, “Flying Crooked.”   Substitute “poet” for “butterfly” and you’ve got a perfect description of what a poet does.

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has- who knows so well as I?-
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the acrobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

I hope you will go back, read the poetry of Dickey and Graves, read the poetry of  Atwood, Carver, Hardy, Nabokov, Ondaatje or any of the others I mentioned. There is something addictive about flying crooked, that’s for sure. And the plain truth is that few writers with a knack for it ever stop.

—Julie Larios

Author Photo

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children.


May 052014

Darfur, Minnesota - Birthplace of Adrien Stoutenburg Darfur, Minnesota – Birthplace of Adrien Stoutenburg


The goal here is not really to determine the why
behind a poet’s lack of reputation and readership.
But it’s such a puzzle – this business of a rising star failing to rise –
that the temptation to try to solve the puzzle always lurks in the background.

—Julie Larios


I often begin my treasure hunts for Undersung authors by looking for just the right author photo – one that will gaze back at us while we gaze at it, one that will allow the poetry to radiate out through the eyes, the smile, the averted glance, the stare. The treasure hunt this time around was for poet Adrien Stoutenburg, born Darfur, Minnesota, 1916; died Santa Barbara, California, 1982, aged 66. I had only two photos, both low-quality, both from the back jacket flaps of her books. The one below is on the flap of Heroes, Advise Us – her first poetry collection.

From Jacket Flap of Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964)

From Jacket Flap of Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964)

In terms of author photo categories (author as seductress, author as girl next door, author as bad ass, author as somber academic) this author photo of Stoutenburg might be placed in the “author as Republican great-great aunt” file. In it, the poet looks mild mannered but tightly coifed (her father was a barber, her mother a hairstylist.) Possibly a 1950’s country-club member and/or a Faculty Wives’ bridge player. But not even remotely the poet that critics once described as “ferocious” and “terrifying.”

So I looked for another picture. No luck. I couldn’t find a single photo of her on the Internet. I couldn’t find much at all, in fact, about the poet Adrien Stoutenburg —one quick Wikipedia entry. A few mentions as an author of children’s books. But little else. Below is the poem that made me stop in my tracks several years ago when I first read it in a used book store:


I have never seen that beast
with his snout bearing a pagoda
and his eyes like little fragments
and his haunches carrying hills
with them. His teeth, I have read,
are monuments, and his heart colder
than a key in winter,
though he sweats from pores round as goblets
and full of swamps.
The white hunters have killed him
a thousand times over.
I think of myself walking toward him
and preaching a love of creatures,
leaves in my palm, or a loaf of sugar,
and his great horn still,
the knees waiting,
and between us, like birds,
a twittering hope,
or merely the pause
between monster and monster.

—from Heroes, Advise Us

I’m not sure Stephen King ever wrote a more ominous line: “…his great horn still, / the knees waiting….” Ready to charge, that’s what’s implied. What poet, I wondered, looks into the face of a rhinoceros and sees a fellow monster? 

"...his great horn still, / his knees waiting....

“…his great horn still, / his knees waiting….

On the basis of that poem alone, I bought the book, then proceeded to hunt down every other one of her four books that I could find. But finding Stoutenburg takes some doing.

It’s not easy to suffer obscurity or anonymity  (or achieve it, depending on your point of view) on the Internet these days, not with the decades of digitally archived material available, and it’s certainly not common if the object of the hunt is a prize-winning author. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find a photo of Adrien Stoutenburg anywhere online— not a professional portrait, not one of her at a lectern, nor one in a professorial workshop pose, and not even one where she stands at the elbow of – or peeking out from behind – a more famous poet at a conference somewhere.

Was I missing some key word to type in that would get me to a photo? Might there be a photo of her in a literary journal or academic review in a narrower database? I checked, but no. Next I tried to find images online of the covers of her books of poetry – there were four titles to post pictures of – Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964), A Short History of the Fur Trade (Houghton Miflin, 1969), Greenwich Mean Time (Univ. of Utah Press, 1979) and Land of Superior Mirages (Johns Hopkins, 1986.) Again, I came up empty – other than an unusable 115×115 pixel photo somebody posted at a used book site, there are no pictures of her poetry books online, not even via the increasingly amazonian Amazon. Apparently, the poet Adrien Stoutenburg is not only undersung, she’s invisible.

How is that possible? Heroes, Advise Us won the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1964; her second poetry collection, A Short History of the Fur Trade, won a California Commonwealth medal and was under serious consideration (a “close competitor”) for the 1970 Pulitzer Prize (Richard Howard won, but one of the judges – James Dickey – declared later in a letter to Stoutenburg that he believed her book should and would have won had not W.H. Auden insisted on Howard – and, as the poet David Slavitt said, “Auden… prevailed—he was Auden, after all.”) Joyce Carol Oates praised the book, calling it “brilliant” and referring to Stoutenburg as “a really striking artist.”  Poet Henry Taylor helped get Greenwich Mean Time published at the University of Utah Press, saying “[Stoutenburg] has a wonderful eye for the right detail, and the tact to arrange observed details toward deep conclusions.”  Consider this poem:

On the Wagon

In between drinks I go on the wagon
which is sometimes a sleigh
and always filled with children,
the ears of horses like furred leaves,
the reins black over rumps
that resemble gray, cleft apples,
the smell of leather strong as brown medicine.

It is sometimes summer
and my cousin and I
actually ride the horses
and feel their backs—
broad, alive, and separate—
under our legs
thrust out, spraddled,
like short tan oars.

Sometimes there is hay in the box,
and that is a wood-sweet, wild-smell,
hot-heady bundle
of what was rooted, clovered, seasoned,
and sickled into a great, riding pillow
where we can roll under the passing sky.

It is at other times winter
and the smoke of the horses
is like the breath of fires,
and if I could, even now,
I would sneak inside,
stow away and lean against those hearts
stroking above every kind of ice and sweat
and desire.

Filled, furred, straddled, rooted, clovered, seasoned, sickled – just the sound of the words furls you and unfurls you, as do the unexpected comparisons – those horses’ rumps as cleft-apples, the smell of the leather like brown medicine, the children’s short legs sticking out like oars. It’s a passionate poem that goes deep, certainly not one that stays at the level of surface “glitter.” It throws off the same heat as Rhinoceros, and I could post another twenty here that do the same.

How invisible are other Lamont Poetry Prize winners from the 1950’s through the present day? The list includes poets Kay Ryan, Adrienne Rich, Czeslaw Milosz, Philip Levine, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Hass, Carolyn Kizer, Jane Hirshfield, Kim Addonizio, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth – stars in the poetry firmament, with abundant photos of each one online.  But Adrien Stoutenburg – author not only of award-winning books of poetry but of forty well-received books for children – can’t be found. One-time editor of Parnassus Press. Frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Saturday Review, the Nation, Yale Review, Commonwealth, and Accent. A Poetry Society of America’s Michael Sloane Fellowship winner. Winner of nine Borestone Mountain poetry awards  – yet not one photo.

Heroes, Advise Us contains a 39-page multi-sectioned poem /narrative (“This Journey”) focused on the tragic Scott expedition to the South Pole, as well as another 70 pages of strange and powerful stand-alone poems. The collection won prizes, but the Kirkus review of it at the time said the following: “Although the poems sometimes glitter, they lack a basic warmth.” For me, the poems have such heat that I feel like moving slightly back from them for fear of getting scorched at the edges. I love Stoutenburg’s work with its startling metaphors and convergences, its physicality, its dark imagination and heat.

But no one I’ve ever asked has  heard of her.

There is a second photo, this one from the jacket flap of her posthumously-published fourth collection, Land of Superior Mirages:

Jacket Flap from Land of Superior Mirages

Jacket Flap from Land of Superior Mirages

This photo shows what might be a younger Stoutenburg, despite the later release date (posthumous, actually) of that book. Younger or not, she appears more approachable and relaxed – like a kind, small-town librarian, which she actually was for awhile.  Stoutenburg, like another of our Undersung poets, Marie Ponsot, earned much of her income over the years by publishing work for children, with Ponsot translating French fairy tales and Stoutenburg interpreting American tall tales and publishing historical fiction and non-fiction for middle-grade school children. Several of her kids books were published as collaborations with the woman Stoutenburg lived with for almost twenty years, Laura Nelson Baker; the books were well-reviewed but not award-winners. Stoutenburg’s writing for children put food on the table just as medicine did for William Carlos Williams, insurance for Wallace Stevens, mortuary work for Thomas Lynch and Brooks Brothers clerking for Spencer Reese. Many of Stoutenburg’s children’s books were published under a pseudonym (most commonly “Lace Kendall,” the first and middle names of her father) – it doesn’t take too large a leap to reach the conclusion that a pseudonym was used because she didn’t want to be known primarily as an author of children’s books.

The reference book Contemporary Authors Online lists Stoutenburg’s authorial status as “Juvenile Writer” despite the fact that all the honors described in the CAO entry are for her poetry for adults.  First comes the long list of not particularly stellar children’s books, then comes the category “Other,” under which her poetry titles rest, like afterthoughts that don’t quite count.  The category itself –“Juvenile Writer” – is that a kind of ghetto-ization? And is that part of the reason readers of poetry have not heard of her?

I’m thinking right now of the photographer Vivian Maier, whose boxes (and boxes) of negatives were purchased by several people at a public auction (the most well-known of the three serious collectors was John Maloof, whose film, Finding Vivian Maier, is currently in release around the country.) Maier worked for forty years as a nanny to private, wealthy families; the fact that seems to surprise people most is that she supported herself by working with children. “A nanny? Really?” is the common reaction, and it comes out with a kind of derisiveness (am I projecting?) that sounds different than it would if people said, “A car salesman? Really?”  Photographers like Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark now say Maier was one of the great street photographers of the 20th-century, on a par with Weegee and Garry Winogrand. Maier, however, never published any of her photos, nor did she share them with anyone. Eventually, she descended into mental illness and true self-neglect. Maier was determined to remain anonymous, Stoutenburg was not, and Stoutenburg did achieve some recognition during her lifetime. But the paradox of being undervalued (people failing to be curious enough to find out who they actually were) due to work with and for children lingers around both these artists.

Two Girls, France - Vivian Maier

Two Girls, France – Vivian Maier

Perhaps it was difficult for Stoutenburg to present herself in a coherent way professionally, with feet in both the adult and the children’s worlds. Her final book talks about mirages:  “All images are bent / through time, and some most prized are fraudulent— / as mine may be.”  I wonder how clearly we can see a writer who moves between stories about Paul Bunyan and John Henry for six-year-olds and a poem like the following:


After my cousin, the choir boy,
murdered his mother with bitter candy;
and after my brother, the air force hero,
ruined his wife with a linoleum cutter;
and after my neighbor ignited his house,
and my best friend took a child to his room,
their gentle faces hung like jerky
from the live ceiling my bed looked up to.

Facts seemed fatal, at the beginning,
as the raw world must have
when it was imagined
with all its teeth and dung and passion.

Time tranquilizes, and bedrooms are cozy.
I rest most nights in the fearless moonlight
as well as the choir boy or the major
in their deep cells, or the child (grown-up now)
or the empty mothers.

Each day the pound master records the dead.
Bones of kittens burn like ignorant trees.
Headlines blur after too much reading
and the patched-up ceiling turns to mist.
I am chilled by the cold blue lisp of mice
hunting for traps arranged in my closet.
One grows accustomed even to this.

It’s hard to imagine a woman writing and publishing that poem if she wanted to be remembered for her children’s books. And since there is little to no critical writing about her, it’s hard to get a picture – both literally and figuratively – of who this woman was. Clear definitions of artists makes things easier for people who like to  pigeon-hole their art.

The goal here is not really to determine the why behind a poet’s lack of reputation and readership. But it’s such a puzzle – this business of a rising star failing to rise – that the temptation to try to solve the puzzle always lurks in the background. Maybe it comes down to what the photographer Saul Lister (himself unsung) once said about his own reputation:

I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason — maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did — in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success…My friend Henry [Wolf] once said that I had a talent for being indifferent to opportunities. He felt that I could have built more of a career, but instead I went home and drank coffee and looked out the window.

Fascinating – that something as simple as indifference (is it a character flaw or a character blessing?) or ambivalence (ditto) determines whether a writer’s work will or will not be read by subsequent generations of readers. Success obviously has many definitions, but isn’t it universally accepted that the trajectory should be, must be, consistently upward? Maybe the whole vertical model is wrong, and by reading poets like Adrien Stoutenburg we have a chance to restructure things, make our understanding of “success” more horizontal, less competitive, find those artists whose work we love but who were “indifferent to opportunities” and share their work with each other.

I look at Adrien Stoutenburg’s books on my shelf and feel lucky to have them. All four are out of print, and the used hardcovers (none went to paperback) online usually number in the half-dozen or so per title.  Who can explain this kind of obscurity for a poet described by James Dickey as having “an imaginative energy matched by few poets at any time, in any language” and who David Slavitt called “the toughest, most unrelenting, most terrifying poet I can think of.”  Slavitt, in fact, for an essay included in his book Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets, addressed the way success eluded Stoutenberg. He reached this conclusion:

…as I now see, there were two things happening in the po’biz that were adversely affecting Adrien’s chances. One was that most trade publishers were abandoning the enterprise entirely, leaving the activity to the University presses. The other was the feminism had hit, and certain female poets had figured out that there were more readers for politics and protest than there were for poetry. If the likes of Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Denise Levertov were in fashion, then Adrien Stoutenburg wasn’t, and the publishing houses are always sensitive to that kind of trend. They don’t know about literature, and they don’t know about business, but they do know about lunch, and they are good about picking up what’s out there in the air, which is a vulgar knack, but then publishing is, in the root sense of the word, vulgar….If you’re not a member of one club or another, it’s mostly a crapshoot, and not always an honest one, either.

Greenwich Mean Time, Stoutenburg’s third collection is dedicated to Slavitt.  I’ll leave you with a poem from that collection. It’s a fairy tale, yes, but hardly for children.

Riding Hood, Updated

There had to have been a wolf that night,
alive in his rank fur and throat,
ears twigged, wild feet leaving flowers
on spring-deep earth. The howl was there;
his shadow kept house behind every bush.

Remember, dead grandmother,
me in my hood, and the old rifle swinging
between us, ready for that hot tongue’s flash?
There was a moon, too, skull-shaped but red.

Clouds leaned against it,
and the pines were windy harps.
A lake beckoned blue somewhere
like sky at the end of a downhill road.

There must have an owl, as well,
feather-corseted, hinged with claws;
and a bobcat’s cry.
Who knows what other things
lurked there?

It is nothing now to you
snug in your bonnet of earth,
out of the howl, forever wolf-free.
Here, where the hunt goes on,
and unimaginable beasts are loose,
it’s different for me.

I encourage you to try to find Stoutenburg’s books. It’s worth the search. Then sit down with them and wonder why this poet – her poems precise, white-hot and fierce – is not more celebrated.

—Julie Larios



Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children.


Mar 062014

Montale 1970Montale and Friend

First, a few disclaimers: My knowledge of the history of Italian poetry is limited.  There is Dante’s Divine Comedy, which I studied reluctantly in college and have only grown to appreciate over the years, especially the brave and foolish translations that try to bring Dante’s terza rima forward from rhyme-rich Italian into rhyme-impoverished English. After Dante there is…let’s see…Petrarch and his sonnets, with their non-Elizabethan rhyme scheme, and… Boccaccio was a poet, wasn’t he? But all I remember of Boccaccio is that he wrote The Decameron, and those are stories written in prose.

At this point I have to jump from the Middle Ages up to the 1800’s – there was an Italian poet named Leopardi, but I know nothing about him, only his name and that he lived around the time John Keats lived. There it is: in one jump, five centuries of Italian poetic tradition lost to me. In the 1900’s there was someone named Campana – or was Campana Spanish? No, Italian, I think. And there was definitely a modern Italian poet named Ungaretti but I’ve never read his work – or was Ungaretti a woman? No, a man, I’m sure. I remember thinking his name sounded like an expensive espresso machine.

So in writing about Eugenio Montale, a Nobel-Prize-winning poet few North Americans have heard of, I admit freely that I am not a fluent guide, only a fan. I don’t know the traditions that his work springs from.

11/12/1960  Eugenio MONTALE nel salotto di casa sua (1896 Genova - 1981 Milano)  Poeta italiano FARABOLAFOTO 391103

I do know he was born in Genoa in 1896 and died in Milan in 1981. Growing up, he spent holidays with his large family in Monterosso, one of the Cinque Terre villages which hangs dramatically from  the cliffs of Liguria, a landscape that shows up literally and metaphorically in much of Montale’s poetry. I know he had a contentious relationship with Ezra Pound, who was arrested for treason after a pro-Fascist stint as a radio broadcaster in Mussolini’s Italy (Montale was famously anti-Fascist, forced from his job after refusing to join the Fascist Party.)

In preparation for this look at Montale’s work, I consistently ran up against the term “hermeticism” to describe his circle of poets. Hermeticism? And specifically Italian hermeticism? The term was tossed around casually enough and linked to French surrealism, but I had to go to the Encyclopedia Britannica for a solid definition (“…modernist poetic movement originating in Italy in the early 20th century, whose works were characterized by unorthodox structure, illogical sequences, and highly subjective language.”) In other words, the poet locks himself into his poems and leaves the reader out. Since I disagree with that assessment of Montale’s poems, I don’t believe it’s the reason behind why the poet is not well-known here.

One credible reason might be his late-in-life pessimism, seldom far from the surface. In fact, his Nobel Prize lecture is not the most optimistic of speeches, ending on this downbeat note: “It is useless then to wonder what the destiny of the arts will be. It is like asking oneself if the man of tomorrow, perhaps of a very distant tomorrow, will be able to resolve the tragic contradictions in which he has been floundering since the first day of Creation….” Poets with a reputation for pessimism are not embraced warmly by the general public. (As counterbalance to this reputation, try the charming video at this link, which shows Montale having a great time with an interviewer, then reading a section of Ossi de seppia which begins, “Forse un mattino andando in un’aria di vetro, /arida, rivolgendomi, vedro compirsi il maracolo….” (Maybe one morning, walking in air / of dry glass, I’ll turn and see the miracle occur….”

Montale - Nobel PrizeMontale receives the Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden

Another contributing factor to his lack of popularity here is this:  Even North Americans who love poetry – and practice it – are sadly uninformed about individual poets (and whole schools of poetry) beyond their borders, including poets who have achieved fame at a broad international level. Is it the fault of our insularity – an ocean wide and deep at each edge of our “sea to shining sea” – and of our misguided sense of exceptionalism in general? Maybe the triumph of English as a global language has become a linguistic substitute for the defunct geographical concept of Empire. If that’s true, we can claim our ignorance is due in part to our superiority – an oxymoronic (and ridiculous) conclusion. Or maybe our educational system simply fails us, and we are left with wide swaths of ignorance in certain areas, including the learning of foreign languages to begin with. Maybe I shouldn’t even say maybe to that.

There’s one more possibility I can think of, a more attractive one which does less finger-wagging and makes me less embarrassed by gaps in my education, and that is the one Robert Frost offered: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”  If we accept the idea that the key element which distinguishes poetry from prose is its musicality (and not just those line breaks) then we have to accept the idea that translations which cannot capture the cadences of the original are, to a certain extent, failures. As Iris Murdoch said after being questioned by someone about her translations of French poetry, “The activity of translation…turned out to be an act so complex and extraordinary that it was puzzling to see how any human being could perform it.”

Adequate literal translations – yes, those are possible. Brave attempts to reproduce formal elements – rhyme and meter – and make them work alongside the literal translation? Yes, those exist and are laudable. But can we ever hear and know, at a visceral level – heartbeat and hoofbeat – the effect of a poem whose original language is not our own? I’m not sure. I suspect not. And maybe it is this – translation’s intrinsic failure – that makes us avoid poetry written in other languages. Vladimir Nabokov said it well in his poem “On Translating Eugene Onegin”: Reflected words can only shiver / Like elongated lights that twist / In the black mirror of a river / Between the city and the mist.

Which brings me back to my reading of Eugenio Montale, the great Italian poet of the 20th century, whose translated poetry deserves to be much more widely read, but whose name usually evokes the response “Who?” His poems seem to me to be filled with music.  Though I don’t speak Italian, I do speak Spanish, and I’ve always thought that the Latinate origins of those two languages helped me in my reading of Montale. But is my sense of its musicality justified?

Here is the original Italian of one of his most famous poems, published in his first poetry collection, Ossi di seppia  (“Cuttlefish Bones”), in 1925.  The English translation follows. To my ear (as I imagine it read aloud by someone who speaks fluent Italian) it sounds like river water rippling around well-polished rocks:

I Limoni

Ascoltami, i poeti laureati
si muovono soltanto fra le piante
dai nomi poco usati: bossi ligustri o acanti.
lo, per me, amo le strade che riescono agli erbosi
fossi dove in pozzanghere
mezzo seccate agguantanoi ragazzi
qualche sparuta anguilla:
le viuzze che seguono i ciglioni,
discendono tra i ciuffi delle canne
e mettono negli orti, tra gli alberi dei limoni.

Meglio se le gazzarre degli uccelli
si spengono inghiottite dall’azzurro:
più chiaro si ascolta il susurro
dei rami amici nell’aria che quasi non si muove,
e i sensi di quest’odore
che non sa staccarsi da terra
e piove in petto una dolcezza inquieta.
Qui delle divertite passioni
per miracolo tace la guerra,
qui tocca anche a noi poveri la nostra parte di ricchezza
ed è l’odore dei limoni.

Vedi, in questi silenzi in cui le cose
s’abbandonano e sembrano vicine
a tradire il loro ultimo segreto,
talora ci si aspetta
di scoprire uno sbaglio di Natura,
il punto morto del mondo, l’anello che non tiene,
il filo da disbrogliare che finalmente ci metta
nel mezzo di una verità.
Lo sguardo fruga d’intorno,
la mente indaga accorda disunisce
nel profumo che dilaga
quando il giorno piú languisce.
Sono i silenzi in cui si vede
in ogni ombra umana che si allontana
qualche disturbata Divinità.

Ma l’illusione manca e ci riporta il tempo
nelle città rurnorose dove l’azzurro si mostra
soltanto a pezzi, in alto, tra le cimase.
La pioggia stanca la terra, di poi; s’affolta
il tedio dell’inverno sulle case,
la luce si fa avara – amara l’anima.
Quando un giorno da un malchiuso portone
tra gli alberi di una corte
ci si mostrano i gialli dei limoni;
e il gelo dei cuore si sfa,
e in petto ci scrosciano
le loro canzoni
le trombe d’oro della solarità.

William Arrowsmith is probably the best known translator of Montale’s work, but the following English translation of “I Limoni” is by poet Lee Gerlach (who also deserves to be more widely read.) I prefer it especially for that wonderful turn of phrase “the jubilee of small birds,” which Arrowsmith translates as “the gay palaver of birds”:

The Lemon Tree

Hear me a moment. Laureate poets
seem to wander among plants
no one knows: boxwood, acanthus,
where nothing is alive to touch.
I prefer small streets that falter
into grassy ditches where a boy,
searching in the sinking puddles,
might capture a struggling eel.
The little path that winds down
along the slope plunges through cane-tufts
and opens suddenly into the orchard
among the moss-green trunks
of the lemon trees.

Perhaps it is better
if the jubilee of small birds
dies down, swallowed in the sky,
yet more real to one who listens,
the murmur of tender leaves
in a breathless, unmoving air.
The senses are graced with an odor
filled with the earth.
It is like rain in a troubled breast,
sweet as an air that arrives
too suddenly and vanishes.
A miracle is hushed; all passions
are swept aside. Even the poor
know that richness,
the fragrance of the lemon trees.

You realize that in silences
things yield and almost betray
their ultimate secrets.
At times, one half expects
to discover an error in Nature,
the still point of reality,
the missing link that will not hold,
the thread we cannot untangle
in order to get at the truth.
You look around. Your mind seeks,
makes harmonies, falls apart
in the perfume, expands
when the day wearies away.
There are silences in which one watches
in every facing human shadow
something divine let go.

The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.

As much as I admire this translation, it’s clear that the music in the first stanza alone – the long “e” rhyme of all those internal and end-line words (ascoltami, i, poeti, laureati, si, nomi, usati, bossi, ligustri, acanti, erbosi, fossi, ragazzi, i, ciglioni, ciuffi, negli, orti, gli, alieri, limoni)  has been lost. Does Gerlach’s free-verse English have a subtle music of its own? It does (“Tedious, winter burdens the roofs, / and light is a miser, the soul bitter.”) But does this evoke, much less reproduce, the music of the original? Can we say we understand what Montale does with sound in his poem by reading this translation?  No.

Montale - Lemon Tree“…the yellow lemons fire / and the heart melts….”

In fact, the more aggravating question might be this: Do we understand the sound register of the original at all? Or do we romanticize the Romance languages, pleased by their multisyllabic flow, believing them to be mellifluous just because we are accustomed to the monosyllabic chunks of granite that English inherited from its Anglo-Saxon ancestors? Montale himself felt his native tongue was weighed down by exactly what I take to be its quickness and its flow, saying once that he fought “to dig another dimension out of our heavy, polysyllabic Italian.” One critic I read said he would have to go all the way back to Dante to hear an Italian poem as guttural as “I Limoni” (specifically referring to the doubled consonants in many of the Italian words.)

Guttural? That surprised me as much as the word “hermetic” did when applied to a poem which feels so wide open, accessible, and generous-hearted.  Maybe “guttural” in this case suggests a sprung rhythm I can’t quite hear, in the style of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom Montale read and was influenced by.  If so, the translation provided here fails in a more serious way, since Hopkins (“fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings, / landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow and plough….”) is nowhere to be found in it. I’ve wondered at the translatability of Hopkins – Montale was only one among others who attempted to translate the English poet into Italian, a formidable task considering Hopkins’ penchant for vocabularies and phrasings that were Germanic.

There might be poets who are singularly unsuited to translation into particular languages. And maybe the whole idea of what is “lost in translation” has less to do with poetry and more to do with cultural constructs in general; that is, maybe the failure of some translations (“Translation is the art of failure,” said Umberto Eco) is not only a failure of sound reproduction but of emotional connotations, linguistic anomalies and cognitive connections.  The way we think (and so, the way we hear and process language) is determined by our mother tongue.  It’s enough to make a translator throw in the towel – but thank goodness, some do not. If translation is our only access to certain poets, isn’t a flawed attempt better that no attempt at all?  For anyone who wants to explore issues of translation more deeply, try reading Douglas Hofstadter’s quick essay, “What’s Gained in Translation,” as a teaser to get you interested in his doorstop-size book, Le Ton Beau de Morot: In Praise of the Music of Language.

In any case, I don’t hear Hopkins in Montale’s “I Limoni.” And I can’t quite see the “obscure” nature of Montale’s poems that so many critics moan about. Yes, his poems are deeply personal. No, his frame of reference is not everyone’s – it includes his wife, his lovers, a landscape (Liguria) we are not completely familiar with, and politics that we are only marginally aware of. Montale was a firm anti-Fascist, and some of the allusions in the poetry will go over the heads of people unfamiliar with how those political issues played out in Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  We have to pause and hunt a bit to understand a few of the references. Easy, no. But “characterized by unorthodox structure [and] illogical sequences” as the Encyclopedia says?  I don’t see it.

Maybe this is just a case of a poet’s work being ahead of its time, in the way paintings by Paul Klee might have seemed indecipherable to those who loved Monet.  To put it in a more contemporary frame, maybe people two generations out will be reading the work of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and wondering why people (me, for example) once thought of them as non-linear, illogical and difficult. It pleases me to think that the critics might be wrong about the “difficulty” of Montale’s work.  As the poet himself once said, “I have never purposely tried to be obscure and therefore do not feel very well qualified to talk about a supposed Italian hermeticism, assuming (as I very much doubt) that there is a group of writers in Italy who have a systematic non-communication as their objective.”

My goal is not to argue with literary critics but to encourage the reading and enjoyment of Montale’s work. You don’t have to figure out whether his poetry is fluid or guttural, emotionally open or hermetically sealed. It’s intriguing and worthwhile, no matter what labels are attached to it. I am all for reading any poet who calls nature “rough, scanty, dazzling” and who says, “I wanted my words to come closer than those of the other poets I’d read. Closer to what? I seemed to be living under a bell jar, and yet I felt I was close to something essential. A subtle veil, a thread, barely separated me from the definitive quid. Absolute expression would have meant breaking that veil, that thread: an explosion, the end of the illusion of the world as representation. But this remained an unreachable goal. And my wish to come close remained musical, instinctive, unprogrammatic. I wanted to wring the neck of the eloquence of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence.”

Montale published only five books in fifty years of writing, so he was not prolific. I’ve brought this up previously as one possible cause for poets being under-appreciated, though the spacing of books is less the issue here than the suspicions we all have about translation in general. But consider the lovely English translation (by William Arrowsmith) of  “Il fuoco e il buio” :

Fire and Darkness

At times, because of dampness,
gunpowder fails to flash, and sometimes
catches without matches or flint.
A pocket lighter with one drop
of fluid could do the trick. And anyway
there’s no need for fire at all,
indeed, a good sub-zero curbs
that boring great-grandmother, Inspiration.
She was none too spry a few days ago
but she managed to disguise her wrinkles.
Now, ashamed of herself, she seems
to be skulking in the folds of the curtain.
She’s lied too often, now let darkness,
void, nothingness fall on her page.
Rely on this, my scribbling friend:
Trust the darkness when the light lies.

If you have only one book of Montale’s work on your shelf, it should be The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale 1925-1977; the entire collection is translated by William Arrowsmith.  It’s still possible to get the poems in individual volumes: Ossi di seppia (“Cuttlefish Bones”), Le Occasioni (“The Occasions”), La Bufera e altro (“The Storm and Other Things”),  Xenia and Satura; it’s interesting to see how different translators handle the original Italian (poets Charles Wright and Jonathan Galassi take on the task with different collections, and Ghan Singh both translates and analyzes Montale’s work.)  But The Collected Poems, set out in the chronological order in which the poems were published, offers both Italian originals and English translations (on facing pages for easy comparison) and it is carefully indexed with both Italian and English titles of poems, making individual poems easy to find. The real genius of this collection for anyone interested in translation is the section containing William Arrowsmith’s notes – 107 pages of them in a 793-page book. In an age where translators rarely get any public recognition for their work other than their names in smaller-than-average font on the title page, that kind of permission given the translator – to go into the particular nuances of translation and the frame of reference of the original – is exhilarating. As poet and critic Rosanna Warren says in her introduction to the collection, “In each phase, [Montale] invented new ways of putting poetic language under stress and of realigning poetry with prose.” Warren, by the way, goes on to praise Arrowsmith for what she calls his “idiomatic, surging versions, ever alert to the pull and swerve of the original.”

Here’s one more small poem to pull you Montale’s direction:

My Muse

My Muse is distant: one might say
(and most have thought it) that she never existed.
But if she was my Muse, she’s dressed like a scarecrow
awkwardly propped on a checkerboard of vines.

She flaps as best she can; she’s withstood monsoons
without falling, though she sags a little.
When the wind dies, she keeps on fluttering
as though telling me: Go on, don’t be afraid,
as long as I can see you, I’ll give you life.

My Muse long since left a store room
full of theatrical outfits, and an actor costumed by her
was an actor with class. Once, she was filled
with me and she walked proud and tall. She still has
one sleeve, with which she conducts her scrannel
straw quartet. It’s the only music I can stand.

For all his insistence on the inadequacy of language to capture the true essence of anything (he called it “inexpressibility”) Montale managed to use the tools of language with grace, clarity and power.

— Julie Larios

 Author Photo

Julie Larios is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work was chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University in July, 2013. For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. In addition, she has published four books of poetry for children. She lives in Seattle.

Jan 092014

Marie Ponsot with Five of Her Seven Children

It’s probably unfair – at the very least it’s risky – to place an old photo of the poet Marie Ponsot, surrounded by five of her seven children, at the beginning of this review of her work. The implication is that the state of motherhood defines and constrains a poet qualitatively, and I don’t think that’s true. But the photo certainly suggests something quantitative about Ponsot’s creative output for a certain period of her life, and explains the slow development (by anyone’s standards) of her career – a first book, True Minds, championed and published in 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for his City Lights series, and a second book (Admit Impediment) in 1981. If you’re doing the math, that’s twenty-five years between first and second books. During those years, she divorced her husband, the French artist Claude Ponsot, and raised the children as a single parent. To support the family, she taught basic composition at Queens College and took on translation work, translating over 30 books from French into English. Those translations include celebrated versions of La Fontaine’s fables and Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales.

Since that second book of poems in 1981 – thirty-two years ago –  there have been only four more books from Ponsot – The Green Dark (1988), The Bird Catcher (1998), Easy (2009) and one collection from the previous volumes – Springing: New and Selected Poems (2002) which also has a scattering of new poems. Easy was published just after Ponsot turned eighty-eight.

Whatever it is, it's not as "easy" as it seems.... Whatever it is, it’s not as “easy” as it seems….

I offer up the photo of Ponsot with her children in the lead position as a visual explanation of her atypical career trajectory. The adjective “undersung” attached to her name might be explained by the hyphenated adjective at the beginning of the biographical notes in Contemporary Authors Online: “In the course of her career, Ponsot has published several widely-spaced collections of her work…” [emphasis is mine]. Spacing, it appears, can be everything.

Five children gathered around their mother, and all appear to be under seven or eight years old. When I look at this photo (and I have looked at it plenty – I kept a copy of it taped up on the file cabinet near my computer for a few years)  I think of Robert McCloskey’s Caldecott-award-winning picture book Make Way for Ducklings, especially everyone’s favorite page in that book, the one showing all the ducklings walking in a row:  “One day, the ducklings hatched out. First came Jack, then Kack, and then Lack, then Mack and Nack and Ouack and Pack and Quack.”

It’s a charming drawing, and I see a lot of charm in this photo of Ponsot with her children. There the kids are, though not widely spaced; there is the poet with her beatific smile. Or maybe I’m projecting my own comfort level with odd career trajectories onto Ms. Ponsot. Is the smile beatific? When I showed the photo to a few other people, their descriptions ranged from “addled” to “deer in headlights” to “amphetamines.” So maybe we see what we want to see.

But after reading through interviews of Ponsot and studying her poems, and after meeting her myself a dozen years ago, my theory is this: The woman – who will turn 93 in May – has a preternatural ability to enjoy herself, no matter what the task. The word “preternatural” fits; Webster’s definition says it describes something “suspended between the mundane and the miraculous.” That fits Ponsot to a T. In a piece for the PBS Newshour in 2009, she said, “I write for pleasure. I am a firm supporter of the pleasure principle of life. I think things that we really long to do – and are refreshed by doing – are what we ought to spend a lot of time on. Why not?”

The Spirit of "Why Not?"  The Spirit of “Why Not?”

Of course, Ponsot’s desire to write must have come into conflict with other interests – including motherhood – from time to time. Few of us are single-minded and focused enough not to feel conflicted about competing desires, and conflict like that can make a lot of internal (and sometimes external) noise. Unfulfilled expectations and thwarted desires can be disruptive or, in the case of someone like Sylvia Plath, destructive. Ponsot’s attitude is more accommodating. Consider this poem, written after her divorce:


What women wander?
Not many.  All.  A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and I am one,
Wander sitting still.
My small grandmother
Bought from every peddler
Less for the ribbons and lace
Than for their scent
Of sleep where you will,
Walk out when you want, choose
Your bread and your company.

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

She looked fragile but had
High blood, runner’s ankles,
Could endure, endure.
She loved her rooted garden, her
Grand children, her once
Wild once young man.
Women wander
As best they can.

The grandmother in the poem envies the beggar’s freedom to “sleep where you will / walk out when you want.” The speaker of the poem wonders and wanders while “sitting still.”

When I met Marie Ponsot– she was already eighty years old – she didn’t seem capable of sitting still. She had been invited to read on campus at the University of Washington by the Counterbalance Arts organization, and I had been asked to introduce her. She met me for lunch already having spent the morning busy with a visit to the Seattle Art Museum, and I expected her to be worn out, in need of a rest. Instead, she was energetic, animated, and fully engaged in our conversation. She described having seen, at the museum that morning, a glass bowl three-thousand years old, and she commented more than once on how remarkable it was that anything so fragile could have survived so long without breaking.  As she talked, her passion and enthusiasm about this small object left me wondering whether I could keep up with her for the rest of the afternoon, though I was thirty years her junior.  That’s not to say she was giddy or over-effusive. But her high energy level at the time was clear; that same energy beams out from this photo and the poem which follows it.

Marie Ponsot Photo 2



Heart, you bully, you punk, I’m wrecked, I’m shocked
stiff.  You?  you still try to rule the world — though
I’ve got you: identified, starving, locked
in a cage you will not leave alive, no
matter how you hate it, pound its walls,
& thrill its corridors with messages.

Brute.  Spy.  I trusted you. Now you reel & brawl
in your cell but I’m deaf to your rages,
your greed to go solo, your eloquent
threats of worse things you (knowing me) could do.
You scare me, bragging you’re a double agent

since jailers are prisoners’ prisoners too.
Think!  Reform!  Make us one.  Join the rest of us,
and joy may come, and make its test of us.

It’s not everyone who can write energetic sonnets that threaten and yell back at their own metaphorical hearts.  Nor can many poets surprise us with rhyme as well as Ponsot. It’s the rhymed couplet at the end of this poem which rings like a bell and announces the fact that the poem is an Elizabethan sonnet.  Once that happens, the reader returns to the opening of the poem to find the rhymes unfold in their traditional order, ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. Ponsot disguises the rhymes on first reading by offering us choppy mid-line sentence endings (“Brute. Spy. I trusted you. Now…”) and by highly enjambed lines (“I’m shocked / stiff”) as well as non-traditional stanza breaks (6 lines/5 lines/ 3 lines.)  The rhymes are subsumed until the end. But, going back and looking down the end words of each line, there they are, plain as day.

Beginning poets often go wrong with the tonal register of a modern sonnet, believing that the formal elements go hand in hand with heightened diction, when what the successful modern sonnet needs is a more conversational tone (“…you punk…”) to help readers relax. Even the ampersand, rather than the word “and,” helps the sonnet feel more comfortably modern.

Ponsot manages to find a conversational tone for many of her formal poems, without the work suffering from what the critic Suzanne Keen calls “the strain of artfulness.”  Take these ars poetica lines:


I like to drink my language in
straight up.  No ice, no twist, no spin
—no fruity phrases, just unspun
words trued right toward a nice
idea, for chaser. True’s a risk.
Take it. Do true for fun.

As many critics have pointed out, the poem is constructed with the very tools it rejects – it is an act of artifice (written in rhymed iambic tetrameter) but does not feel artificial. The language itself is “straight up” – it’s clean and clear.  Again, Ponsot finds a modern vocabulary and tone, and she yokes it – gently – to form. Ponsot’s ability to do this in poem after poem inspired the critic Angela O’Donnell to say, “As with the practiced athlete or dancer, she makes achieved grace seem natural….”

 Not only does Ponsot do well with received forms, she invents forms of her own. The tritina, a compressed form of the already-difficult sestina, is a case in point:


The window’s old & paint-stuck in its frame.
If we force it open the glass may break.
Broken windows cut, and let in the cold

to sharpen house-warm air with outside cold
that aches to buckle every saving frame
& let the wind drive ice in through the break

till chair cupboard walls stormhit all goods break.
The family picture, wrecked, soaked in cold,
would slip wet & dangling out of its frame.

Framed, it’s a wind-break. It averts the worst cold.


Following the rules for that form is groan-inducing, unless you do it, as Ponsot does, for pleasure.  There are three tercets, with repeating end-words as follows: ABC, CAB, BCA. The envoi – a single line – must include all those end words in their original ABC order. Like I said, it’s torture unless you think it’s fun. If you’re game, try writing one. Produce anything that makes sense and sounds like normal English, both syntactically correct and fluid. Make sure it obeys the rules. Pay attention to sound.  Make it musical. If you can do it as gracefully as Ponsot does, and enjoy it as you do it, my hat is off to you.  “The delicious realization that what someone’s reading aloud is a sestina gives you a little kick in the back of your ear,” says Ponsot of the form that causes much teeth-grinding to lesser poets.  “Some other use of the word six lines away, it’s really very pleasant.”

Though this next poem does not follow a formal pattern of rhyme, Ponsot uses  her  modern voice effectively to offer up an ancient myth:


Handmaid to Cybele,
she is a Dactyl, a
tangle-haired leap-taking
hot Corybantica.
Torch-light & cymbal-strikes
scamper along with her.
Kniving & shouting, she
heads up her dancing girls’
streaming sorority, glamorous
over the forested slopes of Mt. Ida
until she hits 60 and
loses it (since she’s supposed
to be losing it, loses it).
her sickle & signature tune. Soon
they leave her & she doesn’t care.
Down to the valley floor
scared she won’t make it, she
slipsides unlit to no rhythm,
not screaming.   But now she can
hear in the distance
some new thing, surprising.
She likes it. She wants it.
What is it? Its echoes originate
sober as heartbeats, her beat,
unexpected. It woos her.
The rhythm’s complex
–like the longing to improvise
or, like the Aubade inside Lullaby
inside a falling and rising
of planets. A clouding.  A clearing.
She listens.  It happens.
between her own two ears.

Come to think of it, that poem has some rhythmic patterns that make it sound almost Anglo-Saxon. Seamus Heaney reproduced that drum-beat of Old English in his translation of Beowulf (two beats on each side of a central caesura):


…sand churned in the surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessels hold, then heaved out
away with a will in the wood-wreathed ship.
Over the waves, with the wind behind her,
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird….


In her short poem, Ponsot does something similar, though she breaks the full-line drumbeat into two lines each. If we put her lines back into a single-line format, it looks (and sounds – boom-boom, boom-boom) like Heaney:


Handmaid to Cybele, she is a Dactyl,
a tangle-haired leap-taking hot Corybantica.
Torch-light & cymbal-strikes scamper along with her.
Kniving & shouting, she heads up her dancing girls’
streaming sorority….


Also like Heaney, and like the original poet of Beowulf, Ponsot uses strong alliteration (“Someone takes over  / her sickle & signature tune. Soon ….”) along with kennings (the riddle-like renaming of things via the hyphenating of two dissimilar nouns, such as Heaney’s translated “whale-road” to mean the sea, and Ponsot’s “torch-light and cymbal-strikes” to mean lightning and thunder.)

The last line of Ponsot’s poem feels wrong at first, since the rhythm is broken by inserting the word “own.” Without it, the rhythm would be perfect – two beats on each side of the caesura (“She listens. It happens / between her two ears.”) Instead, Ponsot breaks the back of the form. So – is it a misstep? Well, sometimes relaxing the rhythm of a poem can be the sign of mastery – and right there within the poem, Ponsot explains it to us: “The rhythm’s complex /–like the longing to improvise.” It’s “her beat,” it’s “unexpected,” a little nod to her own improvisational skill.

I said that putting the photo of Ponsot with her children at the opening of this piece was risky. It’s also risky to call any poet “undersung” who has had so many poets and critics sing her praises. Josephine Jacobsen (herself a “poet’s poet” and somewhat undersung) was a long-time champion of Ponsot’s work, citing her “powerful, and hence relaxed, ability to play with language, to fuse the witty with the grave.”  Louis McKee called Ponsot “an important but often overlooked writer.” Since winning the National Book Critics Circle prize for her third book (The Bird Catcher) in 1998, she has received more media attention and many fine awards, including the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the Shaugnessy Medal from the Modern Language Association, and the Ruth Lilly Award for lifetime achievement (with its whopping $100,000 prize.) She was elected a Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets in 2010.

So why isn’t her work better known? What keeps a writer from connecting to a wider audience? Maybe wordplay – one of Ponsot’s fortes – confuses readers. Maybe formal elements scare or irritate them (one reason why Billy Collins’ clever poem, “Paradelle for Susan,” which mocks demanding poetic forms, is so popular.) And maybe we have a skewed idea of what makes a poet “great.” Consider this description of “Greatness” by David Orr, who writes the “On Poetry” column for the New York Times:


What, then, do we assume ambition and Greatness look like? There is no one true answer to that question, no neat test or rule, since unconscious assumptions are by nature unsystematic and occasionally contradictory. Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping—unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.” And the persona we associate with Greatness is something, you know, exceptional—an aristocrat, a rebel, a statesman, a prodigious intellect, a mad-eyed genius who has drunk from the Fountain of Truth and tasted the Fruit of Knowledge and donned the Beret of….Well, anyway, it’s somebody who takes himself very seriously and demands that we do so as well. Greatness implies scale, as I mentioned earlier, and a Great poet is therefore a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way.

Sarcasm aside, Orr makes an important point about scale. Is it possible for someone like Marie Ponsot, somewhat casual about her career as a poet, and equally charmed by motherhood as by professional success, to gain access to the inner circle? Does Ponsot write about “big things in a big way?” or is there too much of the kitchen and garden, of children and grandparents, in her work to satisfy anthologists who help determine reputations? Who determines what the “big things” are? Even more important, does it matter to Ponsot?  As she said once during the previously mentioned PBS Newshour, “… when you get to be 80, you can say about a lot of things that used to cause you anxiety, ‘I don`t care. I just do not care. There are things I care about, but all this worrisome stuff, no, I don`t care.’ ”

Not caring enough about being praised could be to blame.  Or is the problem simply the lack of a steady stream of books? How long can a writer’s reputation remain suspended above the Earth without some gravitational pull being exerted? For twenty-five years, Ponsot not only did not publish collections but did not send individual poems out for publication in reviews. Once she began publishing again, urged on by her friend, the poet Marilyn Hacker, the time between books averaged eight years.

That doesn’t mean she stopped writing and thinking about language while her main focus was on raising her children. In an interview with Anna Ross, Ponsot says this:

My first baby was my girl—I had one girl and six boys. [One day] I walked into her bedroom in the morning and I realized that that little noise that she was making in the morning was the shape of that sentence that I always said to her. We were speaking French at that point because my ex-husband had no English, and I was going into the room and I was saying “Òu elle est, Monique,” and there she was saying “dah-dah-dah-dah-dah.” She’d been doing it for days, and I hadn’t recognized it. I was so ashamed of myself, I didn’t know what to do. It was a great moment of celebration, because I realized that the shape of a sentence is a music that she was reproducing. Like everyone who is still living in the purely oral tradition, she had no idea that a sentence was composed of different words; it was all one little tune. She was babbling out her little tune to me. Oh God, it was so thrilling. It was one of the great days of my life.”

Marie Ponsot Photo 3 - 1952 with Son

What do we want our writers to care about? Praise? Reputation? Productivity? Some poets, after all, manage to publish often and even to earn back their book advances. Mary Oliver, one of America’s most popular poets, has published twenty-nine books in fifty years, and that includes a nine-year gap between her first book in 1963 and her second in 1972.  If you do the math on this one and start the count in 1972, her output averages one book every 17-18 months.  Billy Collins, another wildly popular poet, has published ten collections since 1995 (the date of his breakthrough collection, The Art of Drowning.) Ten books in eighteen years – one every couple of years.

But being prolific can’t explain everything about popular success.  Some of it has to do with accessibility, which both Oliver and Collins excel at.  Few readers say of an Oliver or Collins poem, “I don’t get it.” But Ponsot’s poems, despite their modern diction, are not always easily understood. She brings a razor-sharp intelligence to the task of writing, along with her wit, and intelligence can send us scurrying to reference books or to Wikipedia for clues (Cybele? Dactyla? Corybantica?) A keen intellect can assign some poets to the dreaded “Academic” file forever, especially in the United States (God save intellectuals in 21st-century America.)

Some of it  – the achievement of name-recognition status – has to do with whether a poet is easily classifiable. Readers want to know: Is this a nature poet, a funny poet, a regional poet, a feminist poet?  It’s difficult to pigeon-hole Ponsot – her poems include references to myth and medieval iconography but do strange Beat-Generation things to syntax sometimes and send out hipster vibes. She can be funny, political, lyrical, light, heavy, post-modern, formal and free-wheeling, but she is not consistently any of them.

And certainly, writers who stay afloat in terms of reputation are willing to self-promote and to indulge in the networking that connects them – via readings and workshops and signings and conferences and and and  — with insiders in the world of media and publishers. Ponsot, in a 2003 interview with Benjamin Irvy,  had this to say about her interrupted career:  “I was very busy. It’s really that I was entirely out of all those professional poetry loops. That’s worth saying, because it’s easy to keep writing without tremendous agitation in whatever time you have. If you don’t imagine yourself as a career poet but rather as a person who writes poems, you can just go on doing that.” She goes on to say, “You really have to believe me when I say my dissociation from the idea of publication was not deliberate, contemptuous or passive-aggressive; it just didn’t occur to me. Think of all those seventeenth-century cavalier poets who had no interest in publishing their work – it didn’t occur to them either. Frequent publication of poems is a nineteenth-century development.”

Ponsot did not, during those quiet years, consider herself a “career poet.” Rather, she saw herself – at least for a long period of her life – as simply “a person who writes poems.”

Marie Ponsot, Spiraling and Springing (Photo by Diane Bondareff)

In 2010, Marie Ponsot suffered a stroke which impaired both her speech and her memory, two things which made her the unique poet she is. She has been struggling against those limitations; her still-strong religious beliefs (she is a life-long Catholic) sustain her. Her Catholicism might also explain the seven children, sixteen grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.  At the center of a large family, Ponsot still thinks of the power of poetry to keep her company:  “…it’s a very enjoyable thing,” she says, “to be an old writer. It’s bliss! It’s really a highly entertaining state. You manage as long as language lasts. And language lasts a long time. Language is a sturdy companion, I think.”

I’ll leave you with one last poem by Marie Ponsot, taken from her book, The Green Dark:



Every seventh second the wood thrush
speaks its loose curve until in ten minutes
the thicket it lives in is bounded
by the brand of its sound.

Every twenty-eight days the leisurely
moon diagrams the light way, east to west,
to describe mathematics and keep us unstuck
on our arched ground.

Every generation the child hurries out of child-
hood head bared to the face-making blaze
of bliss and distress, giving a stranger power to
enter, wound, astound.

The dedication of that poem reads “For my children entering parenthood.” In that poem I see and hear a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way. Maybe success doesn’t depend on timing, productivity, accessibility, or pigeon-hole-ability. Maybe it just depends on how we define “big.” And how we define “success.”

—Julie Larios



Julie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? (named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001), Yellow Elephant (a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006) and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work was chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University in July, 2013.

Oct 082013
Robert Francis 1901-1987

Robert Francis 1901-1987

This is the second in a series of essay by Contributing Editor Julie Larios on the undersung, underappreciated, underpublicized, forgotten, unknown, unread, lost (I could go on) poets of America (and beyond). There is so much chance and luck involved in becoming a famous author and so little chance and luck to go around. Little things like birthplace, the language you write in or whether or not some bigger poet is already there taking up all the air before you arrive on the scene all fresh and anticipatory. So Julie pays homage here to the great but lesser lights, the overshadowed and underrated. Julie Larios is an especially gifted poet and writer of essays about poetry. She seems to have read everything, have a scholar’s grasp of the tradition and the culture but with a poet’s eye and ear. I cannot imagine a better psychopomp into the Land of Shades; NC is amazingly lucky to have her.


“Sing a song of juniper / That hides the hunted mouse / And give me outdoor shadows / To haunt my indoor house” (from “Sing a Song of Juniper,” published in The Sound I Listened For, 1944.)

Robert Francis, once called “the best neglected poet” by his mentor Robert Frost, lived many years of his professional life like a maple sapling not getting enough sunlight to thrive. There must be a technical name for that condition – it has something to do with photosynthesis (turning the sunlight into growth?) or chlorophyll or damping off or root rot or….Well, I’m no arborist. But whatever the term for that pathology, the tree fails to thrive because it lives in the shade of larger trees. To carry the analogy to completion, let’s just say that Robert Frost, despite his encouragement of the younger poet, cast a very big shadow over poets living in New England in the first half of the twentieth century.

The poet and editor Louis Untermeyer, approached by Frost as a possible reader and publisher for Francis’s work, said once that Francis’s poetry “reminded me so much of Robert’s that until I learned better, I thought my leg was being pulled and Robert Francis was an alter ego Robert Frost had invented by slightly altering his last name.” It was Francis’s poem “Blue Winter” that Frost offered up to Untermeyer for consideration:

Blue Winter

Winter uses all the blues there are.
One shade of blue for water, one for ice,
Another blue for shadows over snow.
The clear or cloudy sky uses blue twice-
Both different blues. And hills row after row
Are colored blue according to how far.
You know the blue-jays double-blur device
Shows best when there are no green leaves to show.
And Sirius is a winterbluegreen star.

In fact, “Blue Winter” does sound like Frost – the focus on nature as both independent of and analogous to the human condition, the contemplative mood, the fine control of rhyme scheme, and the structure which hints at becoming a classic sonnet but is satisfied instead to end without an Elizabethan bang. The language itself falls into the iambic rhythms of “plain speech” (a quality Frost mentioned often in association with his own work); Francis even seems quite casual in places, as in his decision not to name those “different blues” in Line 5, and in his unusual repetition in Line 8 of the word “show(s)” which both opens and ends the line – that’s something we do all the time when speaking, but which a poet seldom does in a single line. Frost and Francis deliberately sought out this quality of relaxed speech to avoid the over-constructed and inflated diction of their predecessors (you can hear that sound even today in poems written by poets who mistake inflated diction for serious thought.) The words of Francis’s poem are common one- or two-syllable choices until we reach that lovely neologism “winterbluegreen” in the last line, suggesting a playfulness and an approach to words as constructed, man-made objects. That approach is more Franciscan than Frostian.

Take a look at this poem by Robert Frost:

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So sun goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Again, the focus on nature as a metaphor for the human condition, the contemplative mood, the iambic rhythm, the plain speech, the fine control of rhyme, the almost anti-climactic last line. Without a name attached to some of their poems, it’s difficult to tell which poet wrote them. For example:


From where I stand the sheep stand still
As stones against the stony hill.

The stones are gray
And so are they.

And both are weatherworn and round,
Leading the eye back to the ground.

Two mingled flocks –
The sheep, the rocks.

And still no sheep stirs from its place
Or lifts its Babylonian face.

What do you think – is it Frost or is it Francis? Actually, it was written by Francis and published in his second book, Valhalla and Other Poems, in 1938. To me, it is indistinguishable from Frost.

The desire to imitate, as Francis seems to have done in his early work, is not necessarily a bad one in a young poet. By imitation a poet learns to look carefully at the technical strategies behind a particular artistic voice. Visual artists are encouraged in studio classes to imitate famous artists as they study technique. But imitation can be dangerous – as Untermeyer’s assessment of Francis’s third book of poetry (The Sound I Listened For) reveals:”It is nothing against Francis that [his poetry] resembles Frost….But we know who wrote [the poems] first.” Imitation begins to suggest a lack of personal imagination, akin to forgery.

Francis might not have felt that his poems imitated Frost so much as honored him, but reverence, too, can be dangerous. Listen to what Francis wrote in his autobiography, The Trouble with Francis, about his feelings for Frost as their professional relationship developed: “If I ask myself what it was in Frost that impressed, attracted, and fascinated me most in the years before I met him as well as in the years afterwards, the answer is power. He was a poet and he had power; the combination was striking. …He was a match for any man he ran into on the street, and usually more than a match….You had only to catch a glimpse of him anywhere to sense his solidarity, his weight, his sanity….But though the poems were the basis of his ascendancy, the man himself kept increasing and enriching that ascendancy. Unlike some poets he always seemed more than his poems, inexhaustible. What he said was fresher and terser than what others said. Like a boxer his mind stood on tiptoe for the next parry and thrust. People listened because they were too fascinated not to.”

Initially then, Francis might have been too fascinated not to listen. His early work, remarkable as it is, might have suffered in terms of theme and structure due to the powerful opinions expressed by his mentor. In his autobiography, Francis published not only the text of a letter written to him by Frost, but a facsimile of the letter, as if even the Great Man’s handwriting had a solidarity and weight that Francis could not ignore. In the letter, Frost wrote, “I am swept off my feet by the goodness of your poems this time. Ten or a dozen of them are my idea of perfection.” Imagine how Francis felt when he read that kind of praise. But isn’t there something unnerving about the idea of Frost’s “idea of perfection”? Couldn’t that intimidate a young poet who, when composing future poems, found himself asking “What will Frost think of it?” and altering the piece accordingly? There is sometimes a fine line between influence and intimidation.

Frost as mentor....

Frost as mentor….

My concern about Frost’s influence might sound pinched and mean. But as someone who has seen that kind of reverence for an influential teacher, and who has watched the effect of it on a wide circle of fellow students, I can say that our awe of that poet’s talent and intelligence probably kept us imitative of him for too long. It was our own fault, not his; he was nothing but generous. But his students, those who felt his “power,” as Francis describes it, sometimes neglected the development of their own idiosyncrasies in favor of his.

Compare “Blue Winter” (published in 1932) to a poem written much later in Francis’s life (listed in the “New Poems” section of his Collected Poems 1936-1976):

Yes, What?

What would earth do without her blessed boobs
her blooming bumpkins garden variety
her oafs her louts her yodeling yokels
and all her Brueghel characters
under the fat-faced moon

Her nitwits numskulls universal
nincompoops jawohl jawohl with all
their yawps burps beers guffaws
her goofs her goons her big galoots
under the red-face moon?

In that poem, Francis is both big-boned and playful, like a bear with a honey buzz. He emerges from the shadows and invites the reader to join him at play, and the language is anything but measured or contemplative – in fact, it’s positively giddy. Rhyme as a formal element has disappeared, though other poetic strategies are clear. The pronounced alliteration puts me in mind of how it feels to face several Coney Island bumpers cars – they’re impossible to avoid, slightly lowbrow, confusing, almost out of control, but you still laugh and enjoy yourself until the ride is over. So, too, with the poem. And despite the fat-faced, red-faced moon, the poem addresses no other nature than human nature.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that Robert Francis titled his fourth book of poetry, published two years after Frost died, Come Out Into the Sun. But by then Francis was no longer an emerging poet and his books did not make much of a ripple. Poet and teacher Samuel French Morse, however, got it right when he said in one of the few reviews of the book, “The quiet excitement with which one reads Come Out Into the Sun generates the conviction that Francis is considerably more than ‘a poet, minor’ as he modestly calls himself. His work has humor, as well as wit, and it may be this idiosyncrasy that accounts in part for the otherwise unaccountable neglect into which the taste-makers have allowed it to fall. On the other hand, the freshness which marks almost every poem here may derive in part from the poet’s awareness that he has nothing to live up to except his own standards of excellence: he is free to be himself in ways that the poet with the burden of reputation may not be free.” The poem Morse uses as an example of this standard of excellence is one of my favorites:


The tongue that mothered such a metaphor
Only the purest purist could despair of.

Nobody ever called swill sweet but isn’t
Hogwash a daisy in a field of daisies?

What besides sports and flowers could you find
To praise better than the American language?

Bruised by American foreign policy
what shall I soothe me, what defend me with

But a handful of clean unmistakable words-
Daisies, daisies, in a field of daisies?

And in the “New Poems” section of his Collected Works 1936-1976 there are even more poems headed in this playful direction, such as the following:


Could be a game
like battledore
and shuttlecock.
Could be.

Could be a color
but none of your Commy red
damn you!

Red of a cocky cock’s
or scarlet poppies
popping in a field of wheat.

But poppycock
after all
alas is only

In other words bilge

ballyhoo from Madison A
ballyhoo from Washington DC
red-white-and-blue poppycock

There are other cocks
to be sure.

barnyard cocks
bedroom cocks
or cockunsure.

But to get back to poppycock
what a word!
God, what a word!
Just the word!

Keep your damn poems
only give me the words
they are made of.

It’s as if a spring has been sprung and Francis is sailing out into the air, whistling as he flies. Yes, there is weight to what is said; the poem delivers its payload. But those exclamation marks! That full-feathered rooster-ish display! And what on earth would Frost have thought of the “purest purist”?

Francis is definitely undersung, but it’s not as if his work is unknown among poets. If you read enough poetry, you eventually make your way to some of his poems. And he got a sprinkling of fine awards. He was invited to participate as a fellow in the Breadloaf Writing Conference after the publication in 1936 of his first book, Stand with Me Here. In 1938 he received the Shelley Memorial Prize (contemporary winners include Robert Pinsky, Ron Padgett, Lucia Perillo and Yusef Komunyakaa.) But nearly twenty years elapsed before the awarding of that prize and his Rome Fellowship, and almost thirty more years passed after that honor before the Academy of American Poets named him, in 1984, the recipient of a Fellowship Award, citing his “distinguished achievement.” Philip Levine was just named the 2013 winner of this prize, and recipients in the years surrounding Francis’s award are true stars now in the world of poetry: John Ashbery, Philip Booth, Maxine Kumin, Amy Clampitt. Still, the header on Francis’s obituary in the New York Times says it all: “Robert Francis, A Poet Hailed by Frost, Dies.”

So how to explain the “unaccountable neglect” of critics and the reading public, other than to say that Robert Frost cast a big shadow? Plenty of ambitious poets make their way either in spite of or because of influential mentors.

Maybe the key word there is “ambitious.” Certainly something that contributed to Francis’s failure to ascend was his parallel failure to engage in the practical art of building a reputation. He did not hob-nob, he did not schmooze, he did not self-promote, he did not teach or become a mentor himself. Why not?

As Easily as Trees

As easily as trees have dropped
Their leaves, so easily a man,
So unreluctantly, might drop
All rags, ambitions, and regrets
Today and lie with leaves in sun.
So he might sleep while they began,
Falling or blown, to cover him.

It’s interesting that in his autobiography, Francis recalls something about ambition and reputation-building that Frost said to him: “Sitting in my home on the evening of December 10, 1950, he remarked casually that he had never lifted a finger to advance his career and that what had come to him had just come to him.” Francis apparently believed Frost, and was disappointed to read, when Frost’s letters to Louis Untermeyer were published, how far from the truth it was: “…what I had taken him to mean by not having lifted a finger was evidently not what he meant.”

Francis was also startled when Frost asked him what he did when he wasn’t writing. Francis lists the things he did for himself: “Marketing, cooking, dish-washing. Washing, ironing, mending, bed-making, floor-mopping. Gardening, grass-cutting, leaf-raking, snow-shoveling. Storm windows off and screens on, screens off and storm windows on. ….If I wanted wild grape jelly to sweeten the coming winter, I had to find and gather the wild grapes and do everything to the pouring of the hot wax….I knew I could not make my situation intelligible, and, what is more, I didn’t altogether want to. I was not proud of my incessant busyness. I could have envied the miraculous sense of leisure that Robert Frost carried around with him at all times.” It seems that a little doubt, a little bitterness, swelled up in Francis when looking back on this mentor who “never smiled in greeting me at the the door.” The leisure Frost took for granted bewildered Francis, and he admitted finally that there were many Frosts to Robert Frost. “I don’t want to be a farmer,” Frost once wrote. He also wrote, “There’s room for only one person … at the top of the steeple, and I always meant that person to be me.” He admitted to ambition of “astonishing magnitude.”

Frost as the independent and crusty New England farmer....

Frost as the independent and crusty New England farmer….

In his wonderful essay about these two poets, “Robert Frost, Robert Francis, and the Poetry of Detached Engagement,” Andrew Stambuk details Frost’s studied self-idealization by showing how carefully Frost constructed and protected the image of himself as the crusty old New England farmer who stands up to Nature’s brow-beatings. In discussing one of Frost’s most famous poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Stambuk says, “Frost’s evocation of ‘barrenness’ is a conscious tactic that extends to a strategy of self-idealization, whereby the poet, in shrugging off this condition and asserting his will, disguises his characteristic wariness as tough-minded resistance.” Few high school students in America have not been asked their opinions of “The Road Less Traveled” or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” after having been taught that Frost was the man who took the road less traveled and had “promises to keep /and miles to go” before he slept.

Stambuk goes on to say that Frost “helped shape the public’s perception of him as a tough-minded realist, one strikingly at odds with the poet who was insecure about his reputation….” Maybe Stanley Kunitz described it best: Frost’s “most successful work of the imagination was the legend he created about himself.”

Francis, on the other hand, turned away from reputation-building. He gave up his 15-year dependence on income which kept him out and about in town, teaching violin lessons; he gave up his high school teaching job after only one year, and he decided to rely exclusively on the money his poetry produced, which was meager. He lived alone for more than forty years outside Amherst in a hand-built two-room house he called “Fort Juniper.” Aside from the residential fellowships he was awarded, none of the honors he accumulated paid enough money to live on. In 1955 he was the Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts; in 1960, he taught for a year at Harvard. He spent one year in Italy on his fellowship from the Academy and returned ten years later after being awarded the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship.

Most of Robert Francis’s life was lived Thoreau-style, in a cabin in the woods, in the shade cast not only by Robert Frost but by a suitably transcendental forest of birch trees. He died in 1987, relatively unknown, alone, 85 years old, still writing, chopping wood, sweeping the floors, ironing, mending, and making that wild grape jelly at the kitchen stove.

A house in the shade of birch trees.

A house in the shade of birch trees.

Fort Juniper Kitchen

Fort Juniper Kitchen

Desk at Fort Juniper

Desk at Fort Juniper


As you are (said Death)
Come green, come gray, come white
Bring nothing at all
Unless it’s a perfectly easy
Petal or two of snow
Perhaps or a daisy
Come day, come night.

Nothing fancy now
No rose, no evening star
Come spring, come fall
Nothing but a blade of rain
Come gray, come green
As you are (said Death)
As you are.

Reading at the window...

Robert Francis reading at the window…

—Julie Larios

Julie Larios

Julie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? (named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001), Yellow Elephant (a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006) and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work has been chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th, 2013.

Aug 052013
George Starbuck

George Starbuck

Poetry is a fickle profession. The muse is fickle, the audience is fickle, fame is fickle. Critics and scholars have Alzheimer’s — the one-time darling is often simply forgotten. This happens to an author whether his or her work deserves neglect or not; great poets go down before the scythe of forgetfulness. Today NC is launching a new series called Undersung to try to fill in some of the gaps for the dementia-riddled reading class. Contributing Editor Julie Larios suggested this, and there is none better to write the series because she has a reading memory like a wolf trap and can call to mind verse at the drop of a hat. She is also just really smart about the technical aspects of a poem. And she has her favourite neglected poets to whom she brings brio and passion. Today, we have George Starbuck, the man whose manuscript beat out Sylvia Plath for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1960 but whose life was less notorious. Often wrongly pigeonholed as a light verse poet, he was a technical master and superb ironist. He should not be forgotten.



“Do not go into the light,” the woman screams. “Stop where you are. Turn away from it.  Don’t even look at it.”  Fine advice, if your name is Carol Anne and you’re the victim of a poltergeist. Listen to your mother as she shouts to you through the television static.  Believe her: The light is not your friend.

But in poetry, you might be better served by ignoring the voices that discourage the light (verse, that is) in favor of the dark, or that denigrate the light in favor of what is “heavy.”  As in “Wow, that’s heavy, man.” For “heavy,” you’re expected to understand significant and serious; it weighs something and is important and has a chance at entering The Canon.  It should not (repeat: should not) make you laugh. And it probably should not come wrapped up in anything sneaky that makes you think what you’re reading is dandy candy but then turns out to be good for you. That’s not fair.

Enter the poetry of George Starbuck, once named “the thinking man’s Ogden Nash.”

His reputation for “light” verse (a misnomer, I think – if that’s what it is, then Starbuck’s version of it is a sledgehammer disguised as a feather) kept him out of several of our most important anthologies and thus out of Poetry 101 classes across America. Actually, one of his poems (“A Tapestry for Bayeux”) did make it temporarily into the influential Little Treasury series edited by Oscar Williams, but was dropped from the anthology (and Starbuck “consigned to a special poetic oblivion,” according to poet Anthony Hecht) when Williams was informed that the initial letters of the first 78 of 156 lines spelled out “Oscar Williams fills a need, but a Monkey Ward catalog is softer and gives you something to read.” Who does that, writes a brilliant poem about naval operations during WWII, and builds in an acrostic poking fun at the anthologist who can make or break your reputation? George Starbuck, that’s who.

A Tapestry for Bayeux

1. Recto

Over the
….arches a
….making a

….into which,
next to them
eyed, among
twinkling an

anger as
….measured as
knitted the
….eyelets and
yarn of these
….ringbolt and
….cable and

tanktrack and
linking and
garlands and
….islands of
seafoam and
….fretwork: on
turquoise and
red instants

….neatly a
dearth of red….

On it goes, for twelve 13-line stanzas, every single line three syllables, accent always on the first syllable (dactylic monometer.) And it makes sense, in terms of its subject matter. And the language – vocabulary, music – is brilliant. And it’s an acrostic. As Hecht says in his introduction to The Works, published after Starbuck’s death, it is a poem of “needlework intensity.” Starbuck himself, in this poem, praises “opulent fretwork.” Of course, that might be exactly the problem. Fretwork and needlework are delicate, and American poetry – as with many things American – prefers muscle.

Perhaps no one needs to scream at us to stay away from the light. After all, we’re culturally drawn to the dark side, James Cagney with his tommy gun, Bruce Willis with an AK-47, aren’t we? It’s often High Noon in America, and whoever comes out of the fight alive wins; America seems, even in the year 2013, predestined to favor the gunslinger over the Quaker (as Starbuck says, “Saturday night’s a longshot / Contraption as it is. / A man without a Magnum’s / A piece of agribiz. // He might as well push daisies / And model for a wreath / And pick a granite afghan / To cuddle up beneath.”) Arnold Schwarzenegger takes out Fred Rogers in the first minute of the first round, no doubt about that.

Fred Rogers

Heavyweights rule the American roost. Farther down in the pecking order come middle and welter, then featherweight, and even farther down is the pesky bantam. Does flyweight even need to be mentioned? The boxing analogy holds for poetry: The lighter the fighter, the smaller the size of the prize. Come to think of it, the analogy holds for theater and film, too – Sean Penn’s suffering father in Mystic River gets the 2003 Oscar over Bill Murray’s sardonic film star in Lost in Translation.  Who said comedy is king?

Sean Penn

Bill Murray

Anne Sexton, definitely a Canon-weight poet, once wrote “I have to be great,” and many people admired her and still admire her for it. Ambition is more attractive to some people than it is to others. (My own reaction, when I read those words: Imagine an artist thinking that, much less confessing it – unless confession is your thing.)  Fellow poet Starbuck – who was Sexton’s lover early on while she honed both her poetry and her appetite for fame – seemed not to care as much about the size of his pistol or his reputation, nor did he spend time thinking about categories like welters, bantams, flies and feathers, not unless he could turn the words themselves to good use with a clever rhyme (feathers / weathers / death spurs / breath verse / meth purrs…no, I can’t do it, not the way George Starbuck could.)

This rhyming thing is hard, god-awful hard if you want to do it with panache; that’s why so many poets, caring not just about the basic message of a poem but about the messenger’s ability to deliver it in a breathtaking way, appreciate George Starbuck’s gifts.

Fable for a Blackboard

Here is the grackle, people.
Here is the fox, folks.
The grackle sits in the bracken. The fox hopes.

Here are the fronds, friends,
that cover the fox.
The fronds get in a frenzy. The grackle looks.

Here are the ticks, tykes,
that live in the leaves, loves.
The fox is confounded,
and God is above.

Technically dense, emotionally delicate, intellectually profound.  Try doing that – hitting that trifecta. He was a poet’s poet, as they say. And Starbuck himself said, about his choices, “For me, the long way round, through formalisms, word-games, outrageous conceits (the worst of what we mean by ‘wit’) is the only road to truth. No other road takes me.” His obituary in the New York Times echoed the sentiment: “If the scope of his verbal talent sometimes seemed at war with his reputation, Mr. Starbuck could not seem to help himself.”

If you haven’t read his work, do so. He published individual poems widely during his lifetime and gathered them into books only occasionally (two excellent collections, Visible Ink and The Works were put together by his widow and published posthumously.) His first collection, Bone Thoughts, was awarded the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1960. Sylvia Plath’s manuscript for The Colossus competed with Starbuck’s that year; they studied together (along with Sexton) in one of Robert Lowell’s famous workshops at Boston University. Plath, in her journals, rails against losing out to Starbuck.

Certainly, not everything Starbuck wrote for that first book would be considered light verse, though it did produce an introduction by the judge – the critic Dudley Fitts, who took over the Yale Younger Poets series from W. H. Auden — which indicates Fitts didn’t quite know what to think of it.  Not only did Fitts state, in that introduction, that Starbuck was “a man awake in the nightmare of our day” and predict that “a great song is begun,” but he also wrote, “I was also attracted, and sometimes repelled, by Mr. Starbuck’s wit….[He] could use an intellectual sedative.” Fitts cites this poem as an example:

War Story

The 4th of July he stormed a nest.
He won a ribbon but lost his chest.
We threw his arms across the rest
…………..And kneed him in the chin.
…………..(You knee them in the chin
…………..To drive the dog-tag in.)

The 5th of July the Chaplain wrote
It wasn’t much; I needn’t quote.
The widow lay on her davenport
…………..Letting the news sink in.
…………..(Since April she had been
…………..Letting the news sink in.)

The 6th of July the Captain stank.
They had us pinned from either flank.
With all respect to the dead and rank
…………..We wished he was dug in.
…………..(I mean to save your skin
…………..It says to get dug in.)

The word when it came was three days old.
Lieutenant Jones brought marigolds,
The widow got out the Captain’s Olds
…………..And took him for a spin.
…………..(A faster-than-ever spin:
…………..Down to the Lake, and in.)

Unfortunately, Fitts’s early assessment in 1960 turned out to be the final critical assessment when Starbuck died of Parkinson’s in 1996: Critics admired his work (perhaps not as much as fellow poets) but were unnerved by it because tonally and technically it was so complex, at once delicate and obsessive, intricate and blunt, playful and brutal. After an extended time with it, even a respectful reader becomes exhausted, or better said suspicious, and a real tumble of questions begins to overtake the pleasure:  If it is “bravura technique” (as Hecht says – and he goes on to say “it has no match among English-language poets of this century”) does it come from the heart or is the poet himself intoxicated with formal intricacies? Does the man never come up for air and write a more relaxed poem? Do the technical restrictions inflict a straightjacket on the poet rather than provide a source of inspiration? In fact, is it a poem or is it a math puzzle? Starbuck began his university studies at Cal Tech in mathematics at only 16 years old – was he more interested in mathematical patterns or in poetry? Even the cover of his collected work shows us a system of interlocking gears, more mechanical than human:

The Works

Maybe the answer to both parts of all the questions above is yes…and yes. One of my favorite poems in the book (“Unfriendly Witness”) begins this way: “I never played the Moor, / I never looked to see, / I don’t know what my hands are for, / I know they’re not for me” and ends with this: “And yet the world is heavy / and filled with men like me—/ with tired men, with heavy men / that slip my memory / if that be perjury.”

We hear a nursery rhyme in the treble clef of “War Story” and “Unfriendly Witness,” but there is no doubt they are serious poems, with a bagpipe-type dirge underneath the melody.

Ahh, “serious.” There it is again, that word. Can a poet who says in his poems “Love is a strange coot” and who indulges extravagantly in clerihews and double dactyls ever be taken seriously? Take this double dactyl from “Troves from the Natives of 1992”:

Higgledy piggledy
Fifty Columbuses,
Fifty times richer in
Trinkets and beads

Couldn’t provision the
Business’s needs.

Far be it for Starbuck, of course, to be satisfied with one complete double dactyl; instead, he continues this poem for another eight stanzas (four more complete double dactyls) in a tour de force of the form, which requires not only the double dactylic line for each 4-line stanza, but a six-syllable single word, often as the entire second line of the second stanza. Notice how one six-syllable word is followed by another in the Starbuck excerpt – “quinquecentennial memorabilia” – which few poets could pull off.

Starbuck goes for those multisyllabic lines with gusto: “miniconquistadors,” “made-in-Rumania,” “demimillennial”…that’s where the challenge and the fun of the form come together and burst into flame, and that’s where you’ll find Starbuck at his game-playing, neologistic best. Does he self-combust? The answer to that is a matter of taste, a little like the fried grasshoppers sold by the handful in Oaxaca – tasty but scary. Fitts, remember, was both delighted and repelled, and Starbuck is an acquired taste, that’s for sure.  He was, as one NPR commentator described him, “high bard of the big pun and the even bigger idea.” That’s a heady and unusual mix. Sometimes you want to stand back from that kind of chemistry.

George Starbuck should be well-known to anyone who writes and teaches. When he was just a young man working at the library of SUNY-Buffalo, he was fired for refusing to sign the loyalty oath required of all employees. Starbuck recognized the repressive abuse of power inherent in New York’s Feinberg Law (enacted in 1949) which sought out teachers who used “propaganda” in the classroom on “children in their tender years.” Three faculty members joined Starbuck in suing the university, but it was Starbuck himself who was the acknowledged instigator of the suit (this is well-documented in Marjorie Heins’s Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom and the Communist Purge.) Ultimately, the case was taken up by the Supreme Court, which ruled in the group’s favor and found the law unconstitutional. Starbuck remained a fiercely committed political activist, most visibly in his opposition to the war in Vietnam. For a blistering example of that, read his poem, “Of Late,” addressed to Robert McNamara, about Norman Morrison, the Quaker who burned himself alive to protest the war (he “…burned and was burned and said / all there is to say in that language.”) You can see the whole poem here.

A read-through of obituaries which followed Starbuck’s death at age 65 is impressive: He studied for two years at UC-Berkeley, three years at the University of Chicago (where he met and became friends with Philip Roth, whose work he later edited for Houghton Miflin), a year at Harvard, and additional time at the American Academy in Rome, never earning even a BA degree. He was an inspirational teacher at SUNY-Buffalo, the Iowa Writers Workshop and (returning to his roots) Boston University. Both Maxine Kumin and Peter Davison studied under him. He won the coveted Lenore Marshall Prize in 1983, administered by the Academy of American Poets (other winners have been Mary Oliver, Philip Levine, Stanley Kunitz, John Ashbery, Robert Pinsky, Adrienne Rich, C.D. Wright – the entire list reads like a Who’s Who of American Poetry.) He invented an entirely new poetic form called the SLAB, a “Standard Length and Breadth” poem written in fourteen-letter lines that form a “slab,” typographically as does this excerpt from one SLAB entitled “Cargo Cult of the Solstice at Hadrian’s Wall” [Note: slabs are at their best using Courier font, which lines up precisely]:




Well, as I’ve said before, it goes on for quite a few more stanza. Or slabs. The man was unstoppable.

There are a few poets who “played” (read “worked”) with language the way Starbuck did. John Hollander and Anthony Hecht, his contemporaries, famously invented the double-dactyl, which Starbuck took up with glee. The British poet James Fenton, slightly younger, found the same strength in nursery-rhyme rhythms, especially in his anti-war poem, Out of the East:

Out of the South came Famine.
Out of the West came Strife.
Out of the North came a storm cone
And out of the East came a warrior wind
And it struck you like a knife.
Out of the East there shone a sun
As the blood rose on the day
And it shone on the work of the warrior wind
And it shone on the heart
And it shone on the soul
And they called the sun – Dismay.

I sometimes hear Fenton as I read Starbuck, though I find myself missing Starbuck’s humor. Auden often had both light and dark in the same poem, as in his poem “As I Walked Out One Evening,” which starts out with its Mother Goose images this way:

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

Like Starbuck, Auden provides us with a light melody at the surface, and a funereal bass-clef as the poem proceeds:

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

Both Auden and Starbuck manage to use child-like rhythms to subvert our expectations – and subverting expectations is an important element in poetry. Starbuck, however, gave himself permission to be more relaxed with breaks in the rhythm, as well as to break words in two at  line endings, and to invent words in order to reach a rhyme, as these lines do from his poem “Dylan: The Limerick”:

He did his Old-Man-Memphis
Empathy with emphys-
…………..Ema schmooze.
Did his minstrel Ham-and-Shem fuss.
…………..He brung the teenyboppers their bad news.

Starbuck’s rambunctious combination of Low Culture and High Culture has become more common in the postmodern, post-9/11 poetry world –  I’m thinking of the recent work of poets like Richard Kenney, who can be equally witty, compressed and riveting, and sometimes equally hard to parse:


Sky a shook poncho.
Roof   wrung. Mind a luna moth
Caught in a banjo.

This weather’s witty
Peek-a-boo. A study in

Blues! Blooms! The yodel
Of   the chimney in night wind.
That flat daffodil.

With absurd hauteur
New tulips dab their shadows
In water-mutter.

Boys are such oxen.
Girls! — sepal-shudder, shadow-
Waver. Equinox.

Plums on the Quad did
Blossom all at once, taking
Down the power grid.

Another poet who comes to mind is Cody Walker. I read him with the same pleasure as I do George Starbuck. Walker is not afraid of going for a laugh, and in his book Shuffle and Breakdown he tosses in those same wry High/Low Culture references that not every poet is brave or crazy enough to make:

With Ms. Rule on One Arm

Impolitic as it may sound,
gimp-witted idiots abound.
They give the lexicon a whirl.
The get the gasworks and the girl.
MacArthur? Guggenheim? Booby
prizes, we find. Better to be
a stumbler, a throttlebotom.
Lower our eyes. And don’t dot ‘em.

Sometimes the work of Kay Ryan, a recent Poet Laureate, takes on rhyme in a similar, playful way:

Lime Light

One can’t work by
lime light.

A bowlful
right at
one’s elbow

produces no
more than
a baleful
glow against
the kitchen table.

The fruit purveyor’s
whole unstable

doesn’t equal
what daylight did.

But Starbuck was unique. So why have so many people never heard of him? Well, as one obituary pointed out, he indulged in such a “dazzling display of pun, parody and pyrotechnic wit that critics sometimes seemed too busy laughing out loud to take him seriously….” Starbuck tried to excuse his weakness in one stanza of a long poem titled “Tuolomne.”

I have committed whimsy. There. So be it.
I have not followed wisdom as I see it.
You avalanche me sermons and I make
Rhymes for the sake of rhymes.
This sinner, Lord, of his lamented crimes.

That poem is from his 1978 collection Desperate Measures – even Starbuck’s titles are double entendres.  The poet Eric McHenry suggests you have three cups of coffee as a way to prepare for reading the buzzy, caffeinated work of George Starbuck. I suggest you do just that: Sit down, sip, read, marvel.

Cup of Coffee and George Starbuck

—Julie Larios



Seattle poet Julie Larios has had poems published in a variety of print and online journals.  Her work won a Pushcart Prize and has been selected twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry Series. Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th.