Category Archives: Poetry

Poetry: T’ao Ch’ien

I came across an absolutely lovely book, The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien in a rather odd way. I first heard of T’ao Ch’ien in John D’Agata’s essay anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, which has a short selection of his called “Biography of Master Five-Willows.” This is only a few paragraphs long, but I fell in love with it. It’s my habit when I read an anthology selection that I love to hunt down a book by the author, so when I checked D’Agata’s “Acknowledgments” section to find out where the T’ao Ch’ien piece came from, I saw it came from his selected poems. It was strange to find a prose piece coming from a volume of selected poems, but I thought I’d buy it anyway. Why not? It turns out that the prose piece was included in the introduction to the poems. It also turns out that D’Agata’s definition of the essay is wide enough to encompass poetry as well as prose, as his anthology includes Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry,” one of my favorite poems ever. D’Ataga is perhaps stretching the definition of “essay” beyond recognition, but whatever. I love T’ao Ch’ien’s prose and poetry both, so I’m a happy reader.

T’ao Ch’ien is a Chinese writer who lived from 365-427 A.D. The editor of his selected poems says that T’ao was “the first writer to make a poetry of his natural voice and immediate experience, thereby creating the personal lyricism which all major Chinese poets inherited and made their own.” There is indeed a very natural and everyday voice that comes through the poems, the voice of a person who is wise and wryly funny at the same time.

A little bit of T’ao’s life story comes through the poems even if you know nothing else about his biography; you can tell that he at one time held a post in government service but left it to live in poverty as a farmer. His poems are frank about the poverty, but he celebrates his life on his farm, even with its hard work. When the work is done, he is free to walk in nature, to sit quietly at home with friends, and, very often, to drink wine. There is a strong Buddhist orientation to the poems (although the frequent references to wine don’t quite seem to fit); they celebrate living in the moment and enjoying what one has rather than grasping for more. The poems have a strong awareness of suffering and death, but rather than being morbid, they call for enjoyment of life while we have it.

But mostly the poems are just beautiful, in a peaceful, meditative way. The descriptions of nature are brief — none of the poems are long — but evocative, and his depiction of a quiet life lived in nature and among friends is moving. But rather than trying to describe them, let me just give you one of the poems:

In all its reckless leisure, autumn begins
its end. Cold — the dew-charged wind cold,

vines will blossom no more. Our courtyard
trees have spent themselves: they stand

empty. Dingy air washed clean, clear sky
heightens the distant borders of heaven,

and now mourning cicadas have gone silent,
geese call out beneath gossamer clouds.

The ten thousand changes follow each other
away — so why shouldn’t living be hard?

And everyone dies. It’s always been true,
I know, but thinking of it still leaves me

grief-torn. How can I reach my feelings?
A little thick wine, and I’m soon pleased

enough. A thousand years may be beyond me,
but I can turn this morning into forever.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Poetry: Ted Hughes

I’ve been reading my collection of Ted Hughes poetry very, very slowly, and in spite of the slowness enjoying it very much. My edition is one of the lovely Faber anniversary editions, and although I don’t like the lack of dates or any other acompanying contextual information, the book looks great and the poems themselves are wonderful. I’ve read Hughes before, for a grad class or two, but it’s been a while, and this is the first time I’m reading much beyond the usual anthology inclusions.

Although I’ve read only the first 35 pages out of 140 or so, it’s clear that Hughes’s main topic is nature and often animals. Among the titles of poems I’ve read so far are these: “The Thought-Fox,” “The Jaguar,” “The Horses,” “Hawk Roosting,” “The Bull Moses,” “View of a Pig,” “Second Glance at a Jaguar.” Other poems have animals in them even if the title doesn’t mention it, and of the poems without any animals in them, most are about nature. Other titles include “Wind,” “October Dawn,” “Mayday on Holderness,” “February,” “November,” “Snowdrop,” “Pike,” “Thistles,” “Fern,” and “Full Moon and Little Frieda.”

What’s striking about the poems is the way animals and nature are not sentimentalized or romanticized. The poems have a dark, almost harsh tone to them, and while they are beautiful, it’s a stark kind of beauty. Often we get a purely exterior view of the animal in question, such as the haunting “Second Glance at a Jaguar,” which describes a jaguar pacing relentlessly in a zoo. “View of a Pig” is about a dead pig in a wheelbarrow that the speaker thumps “without feeling remorse” because “it was too dead. Just so much / A poundage of lard and pork. / Its last dignity had entirely gone. / It was not a figure of fun.” The poem is about the changes that death brings, the way it transforms a being with dignity — because even a pig can have it — into a lump of flesh. It’s a harsh reality, but that’s exactly what these poems are about.

When we get an imagined interior view, as in the poem “Hawk Roosting,” which is written in first person from the hawk’s point of view, the voice is remote. The poem ends this way: “The sun is behind me. / Nothing has changed since I began. / My eye has permitted no change. / I am going to keep things like this.”  The hawk rejoices in its ability to kill: “I kill where I please because it is all mine. / There is no sophistry in my body: / My manners are tearing off heads.” The voice is otherworldly, speaking from a place and perspective that feels entirely different from the one we know. Humans don’t exist in that world.

In “The Bull Moses,” Hughes tries to imagine what goes on in the bull’s mind, and he does it by imagining what’s not there: “He would raise / His streaming muzzle and look out over the meadows, / But the grasses whispered nothing awake, the fetch / Of the distance drew nothing to momentum / In the locked black of his powers.” The calmness, the complete disinterest in the natural world that is moving all around him is mysterious and haunting, and there’s nothing to do but watch it and marvel.

While the animal poems describe the otherness of creatures and captures their least “human” moments, the poem “Thistles” personifies the plant, describing the thistles as men fighting feuds. However, while the thistles may be like people, they are like people at their harshest, ugliest, and most frightening. I’ll close with this poem in its entirely, to give you a fuller taste of Hughes’s voice:

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men

Thistles spike the summer air

Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst

Of resurrection, a grasped fistful

Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.

They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.

Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey, like men.

Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,

Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.


Filed under Books, Poetry

That’s the Way the Music Sounds

A friend of mine, Laurel Peterson, recently published a chapbook of poetry called That’s the Way the Music Sounds, and I’m so pleased to say that it’s a gorgeous book and the poems are beautiful. It’s so much fun having friends who are writers, as I enjoy reading their work and seeing another side of them than I might otherwise, and it’s especially fun when the work is so good. The poems in this book take up a lot of different subjects and the voice varies in each one, but there is an elegance that runs through them all, coupled with a quiet, but powerful emotional charge, as though the persona could say so much more than she actually does, and you get a glimpse of the depths underneath. It means an intense reading experience, which is the way reading poetry should be, I think.

A number of poems in the book are about religious experience, or more often memories of religious experiences, and these are among the ones I like best. The tone in these poems is sometimes sad, sometimes angry and regretful, and sometimes thoughtfully critical. The persona in “I Have Come to Return Marbles,” for example, looks back at her childhood spent in church services from the perspective of an adult, thinking about the legacy she inherited from the sermons she heard:

Always I picked the needy ones,

boys who stretched khaki’d legs

out on the church floor

and shot their problems

like marbles

toward me.

On those teenaged nights I sat

in the balcony watching

Jack, in the pulpit,

I thought I’d tuned him out.

But Jack, the preacher, knows that his sermons will sink in anyway, even if the teenagers aren’t listening:

Jack’s voice choes

in this empty nave

where I now sit

surrounded by all those

khaki’d boys — husbands and lovers —

demanding stones for a prostitute,

sacrifice of a mother’s first born,

and quiet, quiet

when men speak.

The persona has returned to the church, trying to return those marbles — the burdens she’s been expected to carry — but Jack’s voice is still there. Another poem describes a panic attack experienced while in a church service on Christmas day, where the persona is suddenly taken back to childhood experiences in the church and has to remind herself that she is not the young, vulnerable girl she once was and that she:

doesn’t need to to say she wants to be a missionary,

that she believes the husband is the head of the wife,

to sing “Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth…”

while pretending her toes don’t bend in red impotence.

But the poems aren’t all about church experiences, and they aren’t all sad. The poem “Late Jazz,” which is where the book’s title comes from, describes a night in New York City listening to jazz, and it’s one of those nights where everything is perfect:

And the way the music sounds is

as if all of New York is on fire,

while ice floes crackle on the Hudson

and the morning falls with ice

and the evening rises with heat

and the sparks fly off the floes

into the burning air…

The poem captures that feeling of exhilaration at a time when New York City is as it should be: glamorous, elegant, thrillingly alive. Another favorite poem of mine is called “Mantra,” and it’s about writer’s block. The persona starts with an empty, clean desk with room for words to move around in, and then the words take on a life of their own, and suddenly they are everywhere, and they are overwhelming. Familiar phrases, song lyrics, and advertising jingles float around and repeat in the writer’s mind again and again, until they begin to lose all meaning and empty out, and soon enough, the writer’s desk is clear again and there is an empty space for the words to move around in. It’s a funny and clever contemplation of what it’s like to try to work with words, to conjure them up and control them, when words are all around us all the time, almost taunting us with their omnipresence.

I’ve described only a few of the poems here, but there are many more that capture something true about experience and do it with that evocative tone I’ve been describing. I’ve been discovering as I read more and more that voice is what I really value in writing — of whatever genre — and it’s the voice in these poems I admire so much: insightful, suggestive, in love with language.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Thoughts for Friday

I just got back from a lovely yoga class and am feeling all … relaxed. This class was a great follow-up to a book group meeting this morning where instead of discussing a book, we watched the documentary What the Bleep Do We Know, a film about quantum physics, spirituality, emotions, the brain, and changing one’s way of thinking. If those things sound at all interesting to you, I recommend the film highly. It really can change the way you think, if you are in the right frame of mind for it, which, at this point, I am.

It also got me interested in reading more books on science, such as Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos and Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages and a book by one of the scientists in the film, Joseph Dispenza, called Evolve Your Brain. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll actually pick up one of these books very soon, but the film was a good reminder that I do want to read them at some point.

Today was a good day for another reason entirely: I received six beautiful volumes of poetry in the mail. I was incredibly lucky and won a contest over at Nonsuch Book to receive these books published by Faber in celebration of their 80th anniversary.


The volumes are by W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and John Betjeman, and each one is gorgeous.  I haven’t read any poetry in a while, and I think it may be time to start again soon. I think I will begin with Ted Hughes.

In other bookish news, I have two books to review, although time is slipping away from me, and it is taking me forever to get to them: Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It, and E.M. Forester’s Maurice. I enjoyed both of them, and we’ll see if I can manage to gather my thoughts to write reviews.

The deeper I get into summer, the harder I’m finding it to do anything much at all. However, I did ride 80 miles on my bike yesterday, a ride which started inauspiciously with a downpour that didn’t last long but which left me feeling damp for the rest of the ride. But once that passed, I had a great time riding around the back roads of Litchfield County, seeing some farms and some cows and a few small towns. It left me feeling a little beat today, but pleasantly so.

I now have a bit of catching up in Infinite Jest to do, but only a little, and the other book I’m reading is Richard Holmes’s biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which I’m loving. Holmes is such an excellent storyteller, Coleridge is such an interesting person, and he lived in such interesting times, that there is no way I’m not going to like this book. I love the way that Holmes quotes liberally from Coleridge’s letters and lectures and poetry so we can really hear his voice, and I love how Holmes does such a good job of situating Coleridge in his context, so I get a sense of what it was like to live in England at that time. The biography is two volumes long, and I expecting to enjoy both of them fully.

I have picked up Gertrude Stein’s novel Three Lives, and it’s interesting, although the truth is, I’m not entirely sure this is the best time to read it. But the truth is also that my opinions change rapidly from day to day, so all I have to do is wait a while, and it will be a good time to read it. I’m not giving up just yet.

I hope you all enjoy your weekend!


Filed under Books, Life, Poetry, Reading

A Wallace Stevens poem

I mentioned a poem by Wallace Stevens the other day that surprised me with its beauty — surprised me because I thought the title was ridiculous and I was afraid the poem might be as well. The poem I’m talking about is “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” Now with a title like that, what would you expect in the poem itself? The title sounded flippant to me, and silly, and like it was the title of a short poem that was full of little but irritating sound effects.

I was surprised to look further and find that the poem went on for several pages. When I read it, I found that it contained serious subject matter, although I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. I’m still not entirely sure how the title relates to the poem itself, and I certainly think it wasn’t a good idea to title the poem that way, but, then again, do I really want to question Wallace Stevens?

The poem has 12 sections of 11 lines each, and it’s loosely about middle-aged love, aging, and disillusionment, but also about the pleasures and consolations of the familiar. It’s got melancholy and exhilaration, vitality and nostalgia — a whole host of emotions, actually, and this is what makes it a little hard to follow. There is no narrative or sense of development; instead it moves back and forth among various thoughts and impressions, creating a mood rather than advancing an idea.

It’s got some lines that I really don’t like — I’ll get the stuff I don’t like out of the way and then talk about what I do like — including these:

And so I mocked her in magnificent measure.
Or was it that I mocked myself alone?
I wish that I might be a thinking stone.

The only way I’ll accept these lines as anything but laughable is if the last line is part of the self-mockery — I mean, if telling us that he wishes he could be a thinking stone is part of his way of making fun of himself. Because otherwise it sounds too much like adolescent self-pity to me, and the alone/stone rhyme sounds absurd. The poem doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, which makes this rhyming couplet stand out.

But many of the poem’s sections are wonderful, like this one, section 8:

Like a dull scholar, I behold, in love,
An ancient aspect touching a new mind.
It comes, it blooms, it bears its fruit and dies.
This trivial trope reveals a way of truth.
Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof.
Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
The laughing sky will see the two of us
Washed into rinds by rotting winter winds.

I like the rhythm of line 3, the way the line, in perfect iambic pentameter sums up the whole story of love, and I also like the short, abrupt sentences of lines 4-5, which state directly and unflinchingly what the lovers have experienced. Line 5 captures the contradictory nature of the experience — it moves from the bloom being gone, an image of aging, to the idea that they are fruit, which sounds full of sweetness and potential. The following lines revise this possibility, however; they are “golden gourds distended on our vines,” “splashed with frost,” “turned grotesque,” and, most amusingly, they “hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed.” The sky laughs at them. And the speaker sees why the sky might laugh at them: the section’s very first line indicates why — the metaphor is one a dull scholar might produce.

Section 11 is great too:

If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.
But note the unconscionable treachery of fate,
That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout
Doleful heroics, pinching gestures forth
From madness or delight, without regard
To that first, foremost law. Anguishing hour!
Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,
Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,
Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog
Boomed from his very belly odious chords.

Love, as opposed to sex, is caused by “the unconscionable treachery of fate,” making us not heroic but ridiculous — we weep, laugh, grunt, groan, and shout. The closing image is ridiculous as well: as the lovers are sitting beside a romantic pool watching the stars, a frog is booming “odious chords.”

I’m seeing now how full of the ridiculous this poem is, even though, at the same time, it’s also full of what feels to me like thoughtful sincerity. These two modes go hand-in-hand, in fact. Look at lines like these:

The fops of fancy in their poems leave
Memorabilia of the mystic spouts,
Spontaneously watering their gritty soils.
I am a yeoman, as such fellows go.
I know no magic trees, no balmy boughs,
No silver-ruddy, gold-vermilion fruits.
But, after all, I know a tree that bears
A semblance to the thing I have in mind.

I do not like that phrase “fops of fancy” — it’s too reminiscent of the poem’s odd title — and I think it’s part of the ridiculousness that runs through the whole poem, but I do like the phrase “I am a yeoman, as such fellows go,” the way it quietly contrasts his own modest poetic claims with those of the fops of fancy. He may not know magic trees or balmy boughs, but he does know “a tree that bears a semblance to the thing I have in mind” — he knows, in other words, something that is true.

Here are the closing lines; I’m not entirely sure what they mean, but I think they are beautiful:

A blue pigeon it is, that circles the blue sky,
On sidelong wing, around and round and round.
A white pigeon it is, that flutters to the ground,
Grown tired of flight. Like a dark rabbi, I
Observed, when young, the nature of mankind,
In lordly study. Every day, I found
Man proved a gobbet in my mincing world.
Like a rose rabbi, later, I pursued,
And still pursue, the origin and course
Of love, but until now I never knew
That fluttering things have so distinct a shade.

Stevens makes me follow advice I give my students, which is that they should read poetry with a dictionary next to them.  The word “gobbet” can mean “a piece or portion (as of meat),” a “lump or mass,” or “a small fragment or extract.”  So I picture the speaker, in his younger version, arrogantly studying human beings, eating them up, so to speak, as he looks around him from on high.  His older self, however, is much more circumspect.  He seeks after knowledge of love instead of assuming he already has it.  But only now does he know “that fluttering things have so distinct a shade.”  I’m not sure exactly what that line means, but it hints at the beauty and mystery of living things.  In the last two lines the speaker seems struck with awe at what he has learned, sorrowful that he didn’t know it before, but grateful that he knows it now.

Okay, so when I think about how the ridiculous and the absurd run through much of the poem, the odd title makes a little more sense.  But I’m still not sure Stevens should have risked titling the poem that way.  I almost skipped it, after all.  I’m glad, however, that I didn’t.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Wasting time

Alan Lightman’s closing essay “Prisoner of the Wired World,” from his book A Sense of the Mysterious, is interesting, although not entirely original in its argument. But it has made me think a lot over the week or so since I finished it, which surely is the mark of a good essay. Lightman opens the essay this way:

Not long ago, while sitting at my desk at home, I suddenly had the horrifying realization that I no longer waste time.

He goes on to describe how connected we all are, through our computers and our cell phones and other forms of technology, and how all this connectivity means that the pace of life is faster and we spend more and more of our time working, at the expense of enjoying the kind of down time that nourishes our souls. He lists what he sees as the unpleasant effects of the wired world (developing each item in a paragraph or so):

1. An obsession with speed and an accompanying impatience for all that does not move faster and faster… 2. A sense of overload with information and other stimulation… 3. A mounting obsession with consumption and material wealth… 4. Accommodation to the virtual world… 5. Loss of silence… 6. Loss of privacy…

The essay is a call to resist this speed and unthinking acceptance of technology; Lightman argues passionately for taking time to be still, doing nothing, and letting our spirits flourish.

I’m drawn by this argument, although suspicious of it at the same time. I find that people who criticize modern technology, especially the internet, rarely take the time to acknowledge sufficiently all the good it can do people. The internet can be a distraction and it can be a way to keep us chained to our jobs (answering student emails, for example) so that we rarely enjoy true leisure, but can’t it also be a place where that leisure can happen, where we can explore our minds and spirits, express our thoughts, and find people who think the same way we do? I find the internet to be an exciting, freeing place, a place where I can take risks with writing and read people doing the same thing. At the same time as I’m writing my blog posts, though, I’m sometimes checking my work email. I suspect tons of people have this complicated relationship to technology, and I wish I found it reflected in the writing on technology I encounter.

That said, I believe strongly in doing nothing and think I should do more of it. I suspect, also, that I should spend less time on the internet, hard as that may be. There’s a restful quality to time spent goofing off outdoors, for example, that I don’t experience goofing off online. But however I decide to do nothing, I hope to be able to keep doing it.

So I’ve been thinking about Lightman’s essay and have been more conscious of moments I allow my mind to drift. One of my favorite moments is in the morning when I have a chance to linger in bed after I’ve woken up. I think about my day, but I also think about … nothing. My mind works this way when I’m walking or riding my bike too. These things don’t feel like work to me; they feel like an escape from work.  A friend asked me today what I think about when I’m riding, and I had a hard time answering her. Sometimes I think about things I’m working on or plans for when I get home, but other times — a lot of the time — I can’t even say what’s on my mind. I like this. I like riding for all kinds of reasons, but one of them is that it gives my mind a break.

So even if I don’t fully agree with him, I’m grateful to Lightman for making me think of all this — for reminding me of the value of doing nothing and wasting time.


Filed under Books, Lists, Poetry

Wednesday whining and some poetry

This semester is dragging along, as slowly as it possibly can. I really don’t like wishing for time to pass by, as I feel like I’m wishing my life away, and that can’t be a good thing, but still … I’m longing for summer when I’ll have more time to read and sleep and ride my bike and go to yoga class and walk and read blog posts without feeling rushed. My semester, unfortunately, goes all the way through the middle of May and then some, so I have over a month left. Not that I’m counting or anything (okay, I have 4 1/2 weeks, dozens of classes to teach, hundreds of meetings to attend, and thousands of papers to grade, or something like that).

Unfortunately, I’m in a bit of a reading rut too, as I’m not enjoying Rosamund Lehmann’s novel The Echoing Grove as much as I thought I would. I loved Lehmann’s A Note in Music and thought I’d like anything she wrote. But The Echoing Grove hasn’t captured my attention and imagination as much as I’d hoped. It’s slow-moving and narrow in focus, but neither of those things is a problem for me, as I generally like that sort of book. It’s about relationships and love and family, and I generally like books about those topics. But in this case the characters haven’t grabbed me. I’m having trouble figuring out what to make of them, and I’m not finding myself very interested in their fates. Surely this is a bad thing. It was quite the opposite when I read A Note in Music, as I found myself responding emotionally to the characters and the situation. I’m not going to give up on Lehmann, though; I’m convinced I’ll like her other work. It’s just this one that’s not working for me.

I did begin a book of poems, which I’ve had a hankering to do for a while; I picked up Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems. I’m not expecting to read through the whole collection, as it’s quite long, but I thought I might try to read the first section, his 1931 collection Harmonium, and then decide where to go from there. So far I’m enjoying the poems, although they are not yet knocking me off my feet. When I find one that does, I’ll post it here.

As for poems that do knock me off my feet, though, there is the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet we covered in my class today. I’m not a religious person these days, but Hopkins almost makes me wish I were. How can you read a poem like this one and not be tempted to believe in God?

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

Praise him.

I love the way Hopkins uses sound in the poem, for example, the alliteration that appears in nearly every line: Glory/God, couple/colour/cow, fresh/firecoal/falls/finches, plotted/pieced/plough, trades/tackle/trim, fickle/freckled, swift/slow/sweet/sour. This is a poem that simply must be read out loud to be fully experienced (true for most poetry I suppose). Hopkins likes to use alliteration and other sound effects because they reflect the design he sees in the world around him — the design created by a God taking great care of the world he’s made. Hopkins also likes to write lines that are difficult to read out loud, lines with odd rhythms and strings of words that you have to work hard to spit out: “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings” or “with swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.” As you are reading it, you are forced to slow down, which makes you linger over the words and perhaps take more time to consider their meaning. Reading a Hopkins poem out loud makes the words feel like physical things themselves; you can almost feel them in your mouth as you read.

And if I were to believe in God, I’d want to believe in one like Hopkins describes — one who has created and sees the beauty in “all things counter, original, spare, strange; / whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?).”


Filed under Books, Fiction, Life, Poetry