All Want Together

Sometimes, some beautiful times, it feels as if poetry drips, heady, from the interwebs.  

Books I wish I had in my hands right now:

And if you don’t have them either (order!) at least we can all want together.

Praise Day

Even the non-poetry blogs are talking about Elizabeth Alexander’s poem and its delivery at the inauguration.  I had wanted to make a comment about it, nearly identical to Jeannine’s regarding poems that fall flat and Evie’s note on Alexander’s reading style, but there is something to be said for not adding negativity to the universe.


I have come to praise Elizabeth Bartlett‘s poetry.  I have come to extol her cynicism, her music of the everyday, her flights of fantasy, the blood and the dirt beneath her nails which have gone into her poems. I have come too late.



by Elizabeth Bartlett (published in A Lifetime of Dying: Poems 1942-1979)


We are the ones with Faberge’s eggs

concealed about our persons, or walking

humpty-dumpty up the ante-natal clinic path.

No doubt you wish we were not here at all,

gazing out over the heads of sleeping children

at the boxes which are our homes, and gardens

full of prams and strung with washing line.


We are the ones who don’t appear too much,

the ones which modern English poetry

could do without.  We don’t hold degrees,

except perhaps of feeling, the mercury

shooting up and down like crazy.

Oh lord, the thermometers we break,

the sweaty sheets in which we lie awake.


We have no O levels, or A levels either.

We didn’t fight and we didn’t win,

we only ran to get the washing in.

Look out, you just missed us

as you crossed the crowded campus.

We were only there to clean the floors

and hand your morning coffee out.

Two drinks, minimum, will make you as brilliant as you think you are.

This is some funny advice about how to read poetry aloud (via). I didn’t do any reading while we were in Tennessee for the summer and fall, but mean to get back to it now we’re back, and there doesn’t seem to be an inauguration event planned here in my little town of 42,000 people, but Gibson’s has a reading followed by open mic on the 21st, so I’ll try to go to that.

I’ve posted a list of links about inauguration poetry here.

happy birthday (in a few days), Edgar Allan Poe

There is an essay in the January 15 Wall Street Journal by John J. Miller (a National Review writer) that reviews Poe’s life and legacy. The bicentennial of his birth is on January 19, and the tributes include a stamp to be issued on January 16.

I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Poe, but he has definitely been a presence and an influence in numerous ways. It strikes me that he is one of the rare writers whose prose and poetry enjoy strong reputations as classics. My favorite short story of his is “The Cask of Amontillado,” which was in my freshman high school English textbook, but my first or second encounter with Poe probably took place when I was eight — my family spent that summer in Taiwan, and one of the books in English in the ancient family apothecary (where my oldest then-living uncle and his family dwelled) included a version (probably abridged) of “The Purloined Letter.”

The other possible first encounter is an excerpt from “The Bells” that was in a slim pink-and-gray hardcover Hallmark anthology given to my parents upon their marriage. (That book was definitely my first exposure to Byron and probably Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 as well, but I digress.) Poetry-wise, the poems that really spoke to me were not the textbook standards about weird birds and drowned beauties, but “Alone” and “A Dream Within a Dream.” If memory serves, I was introduced to both poems via classmates at the Kentucky Humanities Institute (a short-lived but phenomenal summer program for gifted juniors-to-be), one via correspondence and the other as a powerful talent show monologue.

I visited his residence in Richmond, Virginia, during a solo road trip in 2000, but it didn’t leave any lasting impressions on my memory (it just happened to be along the way, and that journey also included the sun glittering on the blue waters of Virginia Beach, contra dancing at the Grey Eagle, and floppy-eared goats at Flat Rock). I am charmed and touched, however, by this bit from Miller’s essay:

…his tombstone is now the site of a strange annual ritual. On Poe’s birthday, scores of devotees gather in the cold night to watch a shadowy figure known as the “Poe Toaster” leave three red roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac at the author’s final resting place. This performance has survived for more than half a century, appears to have been passed on from one generation of visitant to the next, and shows no sign of letting up.

Today’s WSJ also included (on the same page) a fascinating anecdote from Thomas Baptiste about how he learned from Harold Pinter that one doesn’t have to understand the words one must say to make them true: “I learned that if you said the lines exactly as he wrote them — observing the pauses, the commas and semi-colons — the rhythm would speak for itself.”

My two thoughts on this at the moment: (1) Auden would be aghast, but I sometimes feel that way about his verses. (2) It reminds me of a feature in the New Yorker about a group of established, professional actors studying how to speak Shakespeare with John Barton, and how the text provides so much when one really slows down and says what’s there, giving every phrase its due (one image that has stayed with me all these years is that of one actor working through a scene from Othello and becoming overcome by the realization at how the text is telling him that Othello has been weeping).

I actually had some difficulty tracking down the article just now, but eventually remembered that Barton had ended the class by having one of the actors read a speech by Bartolomeo Vanzetti — that is, an innocent man who knew he was about to die. I had forgotten Barton’s summing up: ““Something poetic happens in him…It’s natural in human beings.”

This echoes what I have been thinking each time I reread Lasantha Wickramatunga’s final editorial. No, it is not “poetry” as I would normally define it, in terms of a deliberately stylized arrangement of words and pauses for heightened effect. It would not belong in an Norton Anthology of poetry. But in my mind, it is nonetheless unquestionably poetic — perhaps because its stylistic choices and intended effect are no less deliberate than what Milton invested into Paradise Lost or — from yet another man on the brink of execution — Ralegh’s “The Lie.”

And this highlights how form does matter, in one sense, because “The Lie” is a poem, whereas Vanzetti’s speech and Wickramatunga’s piece are not, nor are Abraham Lincoln’s addresses nor Emily Dickinson’s letters — and it’s not a wholly pointless exercise to try to analyze the distinction(s) among these, because for us wordsmiths, comprehending the different weights that words carry in different formats and contexts can ultimately help us wield them more effectively and assess them more knowledgeably. (And, lest this sound impossibly lofty and noble, I will also admit that micro-analysis is also at another level just sheer, self-indulgent fun.) That said, I don’t think there’s a satisfactory cut-and-dried across-the-spectrum definition to be had — among other things, I’m reminded of how frequently excerpts from the Bible and from Shakespeare’s plays seem to show up in poetry anthologies, as well as the countless variations among versions of the Bible in terms of both format and fluency — some interpretations are more poetic than others (or, put another way, there’s a reason there’s still a King James Version in my house).

And yet, at a basic, visceral level, the distinctions do not matter at all. I have been haunted since college by the cadences of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” — a poem that Eugene O’Neill liked to recite while drunk and that Robert Frost also admired — and by other poems that do not resonate with me in any way on a personal level, but nevertheless contain a level of gut-wrenching beauty and/or honesty that knocks me off-balance every time I revisit them.

And perhaps this is what defines when something in prose format strikes me as “poetic” — more so than the use of figurative language (which, when deployed badly, strikes me not as “poetic” but merely excruciating): when something is so distinctly, memorably, and urgently phrased that I feel compelled to reread it, or compelled to read it aloud, or driven to urge everyone within my keyboard’s reach to go read it — that’s “poetic,” whether it’s in the shape of a traditional poem or not.

And while all this fiddle about how things are worded has its limits in terms of direct importance or relevance, I cannot help but believe that poetry and poetic speech has a reach further than simple pixels on a screen and specks on a page. Because whenever someone pulls together the wherewithal to be eloquent about injustice and death — when, to be blunt, they succeed in breaking our hearts — while they do not outlive their tragedies, their words do, and such words retain the power to propel those who read and hear them to bear true witness and live larger lives.

Leaping into Language Poetry

I’ve been AWOL, but I haven’t forgotten about Vary the Line.  I’m still recovering from poetry burnout.  A friend told me today that her poems are just starting to re-emerge, a year and a half after she graduated from her MFA.  I think mine might be hibernating.  I’m hoping they’ll wake up with the bears.

In the meantime, I’m going to try reading language poetry.  This is my husband Mike’s field of academic and creative expertise, but I’m pretty unfamiliar with it.  I know at least one of my fellow blog authors here doesn’t care for the stuff, and I think that’s a common sentiment.  I’m not sure how I feel.  It sounds interesting when Mike talks about it and it is interesting when he writes it.  Beyond that, my knowledge is pretty much limited to bpNichol’s concrete poetry, a dash of Christian Bok’s Eunoia, some a.rawlings, and bill bisset–in particular, his poem th tomato conspiracy aint worth a whol pome.  You can read it here.  That poem was in my high school poetry reader, and I loved it then.  I still do, even if it’s completely silly.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure th tomato conspiracy is language poetry at all.  It’s definitely a purposeful manipulation of language in a non-standard way, but are mis-spellings anything more than that?  Hmm.

I thought I’d start my forays with bpNichol’s The Martyrology, Book One.  I’ve read the first 50 pages and I’m not sure this is language poetry, either.  It’s experimental, but so far I haven’t encountered much linguistic craziness.  I just assumed that since bill bisset writes language poetry, Mike studies language poetry, and Mike likes and studies The Martyrology, then The Martyrology must be language poetry.  But according to Mike, the language stuff doesn’t kick in until at least book 3.  Yikes.  That’s a lot of bpNichol to wade through. I might just jump straight to Sylvia Legris, or even Christian Bok.

The point of all of this is to say that I’m going to chronicle my language poetry experiment here.  I’m not sure what form that chronicling will take, or how detailed I’ll get, but hopefully it’ll be an interesting experience.

Any language-poetry suggestions for me?

Gin a body kiss a body