Hart Crane, High & Low

Here is one the my favorite moments from a writer’s life, followed by one of the saddest. Only seven months apart, they typify the pendulum of great highs and awful lows in Hart Crane’s life. Desperate to write, and giving in his letters as articulate a record of that burning desire as any writer I know, it is hard not […]

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Joyce’s Dirty Letters

When James Joyce returned to Ireland in the closing months of 1909, leaving his wife Nora Barnacle in Trieste, it was the first time they had been apart for so long since they had fled Ireland together in 1904. Their separation, prompted by a business scheme Joyce hoped to succeed in, instead gifted the world with some of the most […]

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Michelangelo & Leonardo da Vinci

From Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of da Vinci, here is about as concise and colorful a summary of how true genius can, in the same century and even the same city, manifest itself in entirely different ways: When Leonardo left Florence for Milan in 1482, Michelangelo was only seven years old. His father was a member of Florence’s minor nobility […]

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Robert Frost: “Out, Out – ”

“Out, Out – ” The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood, Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it. And from there those that lifted eyes could count Five mountain ranges one behind the other Under the sunset far into Vermont. And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and […]

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Wordsworth & Eternity at St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s Pressed with conflicting thoughts of love and fear I parted from thee, Friend! and took my way Through the great City, pacing with an eye Downcast, ear sleeping, and feet masterless That were sufficient guide unto themselves, And step by step went pensively. Now, mark! Not how my trouble was entirely hushed, (That might not be) but how, […]

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Yeats Discovers Poetry

Here’s W. B. Yeats recalling his earliest experiences of poetry: ….This may have come from the stable-boy, for he was my principal friend. He had a book of Orange rhymes, and the days when we read them together in the hay-loft gave me the pleasure of rhyme for the first time. Later on I can remember being told, when there […]

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Yeats Comes to the Occult

Here is W. B. Yeats, remembering some of his early experiences with the occult and supernatural. All taken from his The Trembling of the Veil, collected in Autobiographies: When staying with Hyde in Roscommon, I had driven over to Lough Kay, hoping to find some local memory of the old story of Tumaus Costello, which I was turning into a […]

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Joyce & Proust Meet

From that greatest of literary biographies, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, here is the account of Joyce meeting Marcel Proust, only a few months before Proust’s death: On May 18, 1922, Sydney Schiff (“Stephen Hudson”), the English novelist whom Joyce had met a few times, invited him to a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev following the first performance of one […]

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Kafka Executes Josef K.

Josef K. is arrested for no reason at the beginning of Kafka’s The Trial, and at its conclusion he is put to death for no reason as well. Kafka, who worked by day as a lawyer at a Prague insurance company, was well able to illustrate not just the absurdity and inscrutability of bureaucracy, but also its deep cruelty and […]

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Kafka’s Great Fable: “Before the Law”

From Kafka’s novel The Trial: Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can’t grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he’ll be allowed to enter later. “It’s possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.” […]

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Virginia Woolf Meets T. S. Eliot

From Virginia Woolf’s Diary on November 21, 1918: I was interrupted somewhere on this page by the arrival of Mr Eliot. Mr Eliot is well expressed by his name – a polished, cultivated, elaborate young American, talking so slow, that each word seems to have special finish allotted it. But beneath the surface it is fairly evident that he is […]

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A Twelfth Century Love Letter: Heloise Remembers Abelard

An amazing passage from a letter of Heloise to Abelard, those twelfth-century lovers who ended up in a nunnery and a monastery after their affair was discovered. Strip away the contemporary details (their religiosity and its attendant guilt, etc.), and Heloise might be writing a blog today: In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too […]

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The best job application letter that didn’t work

James Murray (1837-1915), the Scottish lexicographer and philologist, sent the following letter regarding a job at the British Museum in late 1866. Largely self-taught, he later became the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Before then, this letter somehow didn’t get him the British Museum gig: I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my […]

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Ted Hughes: “Devon Riviera” (poem)

Strange to find a Hughes poem more populated by people than animals; & you can tell he’s not happy about it: Devon Riviera Under the silk nightie of the August evening The prepared resort, a glowing liner, Leans toward happiness, unmoving. The whole vessel throbs with dewy longing. Grey, dazed heads, promenading their pots, Their holiday shirts, their shrunk, freckled […]

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Picasso & the Gestapo

from Simon Schama’s Power of Art In the winter of 1941, Pablo Picasso was living and working at the top of an old house in the rue des Grands Augustins in Paris. The Seine was a stone’s throw away. Hard northern light swept in over the rooftops. Pigeons perched on the sills. But Picasso’s Left Bank life during the Occupation […]

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Hart Crane & His Father

In early January, 1924, the poet Hart Crane, twenty-four and basically broke, received a letter from his father offering to hire him into the family business. To a friend, Crane wrote, “Along comes a letter from my father this morning offering me a position with him as travelling salesman! This is unacceptable, of course, even though I now can’t complete […]

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T. S. Eliot & His Father

Here is a favorite bit from a youthful T. S. Eliot (he’s just turned thirty but that’s young to me now). After leaving America for England and abandoning the job at Harvard his family was expecting of him, he made an unfortunate marriage and started a literary life of day job, essays and reviews. He eventually had enough essays for […]

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George Orwell in the Coal Mines

As an addition to my last post, here is George Orwell’s complete description of going down into the coal mines of northern England, taken from the second chapter of his 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier.  The entire text of the book can be found here. *** When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and […]

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George Orwell & Empathy

As usual, George Orwell says it better than anybody. Here he is in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, asking his readers not to give up using coal, but just to recognize whose labor is providing them with that coal. Nowadays I would only add to the coal miners all the people behind our conveniences; because if we […]

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Jung’s Great Dream

Jung traveled with Freud and others to America in late September, 1909, and on the boat returning to Europe, he had a dream. Whatever you make of Jung’s overarching theories and scholarship, it always seems better to think of him more as a poet or mystic, and so his strength seems to lie in descriptions of intense inner experiences, and […]

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Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 13: “The perfect image of a mighty mind, of one that feeds upon infinity”

Here are excerpts from the last book of Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude.  Other excerpts  are here.   In one of these excursions, travelling then Through Wales on foot and with a youthful friend, I left Bethkelet’s huts at couching-time, And westward took my way to see the sun Rise from the top of Snowdon. Having reading The cottage at the mountain’s […]

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Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 12: “making verse deal boldly with substantial things”

Throughout the summer I hope to post my favorite bits from Wordworth’s 1805 Prelude. Book 12 continues his meditations in Book 11, which was titled “Imagination, How Impaired & Restored.” Other excerpts are here.   Such benefit may souls of humblest frame Partake of, each in their degree; ’tis mine To speak of what myself have known and felt – […]

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Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 11: “Habits of devoutest sympathy”

Excerpts from Book 11 of  Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, which he calls “Imagination, How Impaired and Restored.” Other excerpts are here.   Long time hath man’s unhappiness and guilt Defained us: with what dismal sights beset For the outward view, and inwardly oppressed With sorrow, disappointment, vexing thoughts, Confusion of the judgement, zeal decayed – And last, utter loss of hope […]

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Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 10: “In the very world which is the world of all of us, the place in which, in the end, we find our happiness, or not at all “

Excerpts from Book 10 of Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, where he concludes his story of being in France during the Revolution. Other excerpts are here.   A poor mistaken and bewildered offering, Should to the breast of Nature have gone back, With all my resolutions, all my hopes, A poet only to myself, to men Useless, and even, beloved friend, a […]

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George Orwell in the Coal Mines

As an addition to my last post, here is George Orwell’s complete description of going down into the coal mines of northern England, taken from the second chapter of his 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier.  The entire text of the book can be found here. *** When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and […]

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George Orwell & Empathy

As usual, George Orwell says it better than anybody. Here he is in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, asking his readers not to give up using coal, but just to recognize whose labor is providing them with coal. Nowadays I would only add to the coal miner all the people behind all of our conveniences; because if […]

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Images: The Saint & the Lion

One of the great jazz standards of Medieval & Renaissance art, here’s only a selection of all the depictions of St. Jerome: either studying indoors or out, with or without his lion or skull, probably translating the Bible as he goes, reading or writing always. A good excuse for artists to place him in contemporary landscapes, or familiar book-lined rooms. […]

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Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 9: “I saw the revolutionary power toss like a ship at anchor”

Excerpts from Book 9 of Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, where he begins his story of being in France during the Revolution. Other excerpts are here.   ’Tis mine to tread The humbler province of plain history, And, without choice of circumstance, submissively Relate what I have heard. Book 9, 642-645 Oft then I said, And not then only, “What a mockery […]

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Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 8: “A weight of ages did at once descend upon my heart”

Excerpts from Book 8 of Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, which he titles “Love of Nature Leading to Love of Mankind.” Other excerpts are here.   With deep devotion, Nature, did I feel In that great city what I owed to thee: High thoughts of God and man, and love of man, Triumphant over all those loathsome sights Of wretchedness and vice, […]

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Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 6: “No absence scarcely can there be, for those who love as we do.”

Excerpts from Book 6 of Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, on his friendship with Coleridge. Other excerpts are here.   There is no grief, no sorrow, no despair, No languor, no dejection, no dismay, No absence scarcely can there be, for those Who love as we do. Book 6, 253-256 I too have been a wanderer, but, alas, How different is the […]

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Speaking of Short Stories

Back when I used to do a lot of readings, I would start out by sharing somebody else’s work, and I realize that I should do the equivalent of that with the release of my book of stories, The Lonely Young & the Lonely Old. The person that comes to mind is the late William Trevor, whose Last Stories was […]

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Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude, Book 2: “The self-sufficing power of solitude”

Excerpts from Book 2 of Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude. Other excerpts are here.   Thus the pride of strength And the vainglory of superior skill Were interfused with objects which subdued And tempered them, and gradually produced A quiet independence of heart. And to my friend who knows me I may add, Unapprehensive of reproof, that hence Ensued a diffidence and […]

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Robert Pinsky, “The Figured Wheel”

The Figured Wheel The figured wheel rolls through shopping malls and prisons, Over farms, small and immense, and the rotten little downtowns. Covered with symbols, it mills everything alive and grinds The remains of the dead in the cemeteries, in unmarked graves and oceans. Sluiced by salt water and fresh, by pure and contaminated rivers, By snow and sand, it […]

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Images: Egon Shiele Predicts the 20th Century

Egon Schiele - Self Portrait (1911)

The Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s bizarre and brutal self-portraits, many dating from before World War One, seem to presage all the carnage and atrocity and alienation that were to come. And even as the more famous artists from the period, and their perhaps “better” work still feels dated and rooted to the time they were created. Shiele seems like he […]

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Ted Hughes – “Crow’s Song about God”

Crow’s Song about God Somebody is sitting Under the gatepost of heaven Under the lintel On which are written the words: “Forbidden to the living.” A knot of eyes, eyeholes, lifeless, in the life-shape A rooty old oak-stump, aground in the ooze Of some putrid estuary, Snaggy with amputations, His fingernails broken and bitten, His hair vestigial and purposeless, his […]

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T. S. Eliot hits the highest notes

Some poetry can become so much a part of our own personal scripture that its status as “literature” is pretty much irrelevant. This is near the top for me: From “East Coker” I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre, The lights are […]

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Adrienne Rich: 4 Love Poems

from 21 Love Poems: 1 Whenever in this city, screens flicker with pornography, with science-fiction vampires, victimized hirelings bending to the lash, we also have to walk . . . if simply as we walk through the rainsoaked garbage, the tabloid cruelties of our own neighborhoods. We need to grasp our lives inseparable from those rancid dreams, that blurt of […]

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Ted Hughes: 2 War Poems

Six Young Men The celluloid of a photograph holds them well – Six young men, familiar to their friends. Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands. Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable, Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile, One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, […]

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James Merrill: A Poem to Begin Things

Here is how James Merrill begins his 560 page poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, published between 1976 and 1982; it being the record of his conversations with a Ouija board, &  with the spirits of W. H. Auden & many many others: Admittedly I err by undertaking This in its present form. The baldest prose Reportage was called for, that […]

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Emily Dickinson Affirms a Soul

#1142 The Props assist the House Until the House is built And then the Props withdraw And adequate, erect, The House support itself And cease to recollect The Augur and the Carpenter – Just such a retrospect Hath the perfected Life – A Past of Plank and Nail And slowness – then the scaffolds drop Affirming it a Soul –

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Allen Ginsberg, “Paterson”

Paterson What do I want in these rooms papered with visions of money? How much can I make by cutting my hair? If I put new heels on my shoes, bathe my body reeking of masturbation and sweat, layer upon layer of excrement dried in employment bureaus, magazine hallways, statistical cubicles, factory stairways, cloakrooms of the smiling gods of psychiatry; […]

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Robert Frost: “Out, Out – ”

“Out, Out – ” The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood, Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it. And from there those that lifted eyes could count Five mountain ranges one behind the other Under the sunset far into Vermont. And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and […]

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Elizabeth Bishop, “The Shampoo”

The Shampoo The still explosions on the rocks, the lichens, grow by spreading, gray, concentric shocks. They have arranged to meet the rings around the moon, although within our memories they have not changed. And since the heavens will attend as long on us, you’ve been, dear friend, precipitate and pragmatical; and look what happens. For Time is nothing if […]

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The Poet Speaks #13: Richard Wilbur & John Berryman: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him”

Even though I’ve never read a word of his poetry, John Berryman has been haunting me lately. Two friends who are also poets that I admire deeply have both praised his work, and recently I’ve come across remarks from a handful of Berryman’s peers, reflecting on his life and his suicide in 1972. Here are two quotes, the first from […]

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Wordsworth & Eternity at St. Paul’s

I’m stunned every time I read this: one of Wordsworth’s best short poems (& that’s saying something), & perhaps one of the great poems period: St. Paul’s Pressed with conflicting thoughts of love and fear I parted from thee, Friend! and took my way Through the great City, pacing with an eye Downcast, ear sleeping, and feet masterless That were […]

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The Poet Speaks #11: George Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Levine, Stephen King, Seamus Heaney: “struggling erring human creatures”

George Eliot, on empathy: The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies…. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. The only effect I ardently long to produce by […]

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The Poet Speaks #9: Geoffrey Hill, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, James Merrill, Ursula K. Le Guin: “We are difficult”

On the supposed “difficulty” of his poetry: We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that […]

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The Poet Speaks #8: Patti Smith, Toni Morrison, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane: “I shall make every sacrifice toward that end”

As even “nerd culture” and all the rest just becomes another snobby fad and pop culture corner to hide in, Patti Smith suggests where the real “next” actually is, out of view completely:…when people ask me Who’s the new people?, well to me the new people are the unknown people. The new people that I embrace are the people that […]

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Go Ahead and Fuck Up

I’m not sure who the equivalent is for you, but Albert Camus was one of the first authors I found outside of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. The high school teacher who introduced me to him also laid an egg it took years to get over: the apparently insurmountable gulf between “popular” and “serious” literature; and so even more than […]

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Art Must Be Political

Should anyone tell you that the primary duty of art (and of life) is to be political, to constantly choose sides and to turn one another into mere categories and the most minute identities, here are a few replies by Jean Guéhenno, written while living in Nazi-Occupied Paris. All come from his Diary of the Dark Years: December 23, 1940 […]

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Daniel Bennett (6 Poems)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
Bermondsey Spaces By the corner forecourt of the Shell station the man eating ribs from a paper bag lets a crutch dangle on one elbow, as he picks his way through want and circumstance, under the gloaming, the overpass, beyond the river’s abstract mass. A light like fine quartz inside concrete ghosts our day. Low…

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Early Ted Hughes (Forerunners)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
Here are fourteen early poems from Ted Hughes, all of them from before the more well-known collections Wodwo and Crow. The powerful voices he gives to the animal and natural world, to history and mythology, to the experience of war, even to the theology of a sixteenth-century martyr burned at the stake, are well worth…

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Robert Okaji (5 Poems)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
As Blue Fades Which defines you best, a creaking lid or the light-turned flower? The coffee’s steam or smoke wafting from your hand. Your bowls color my shelves; I touch them daily. Sound fills their bodies with memory. The lighter’s click invokes your name. And the stepping stones to nowhere, your current address. If the…

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Heaney’s Bog Poems (Forerunners)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
Here’s Seamus Heaney, first talking about his poems on the bog bodies of Iron Age Europe, in Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones, and then the bog poems themselves, spanning three of his collections: Wintering Out, North, and District and Circle. Also, since I hope to do a post on the bog bodies at some point, interested…

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Virginia Slachman: Eden Park Meditation

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
Eden Park Meditation i How odd that the days lengthen; the hours braced against a brittle sun that sears the lip of ice at the base of the black oak.                                          The ice and the sun are opaque and impenetrable, a sealed world. This world. The days don’t dwindle into twilight but linger so silently we hardly notice the future in these perplexed angles of light.                         Later, at the feet of the boxwood, night rustles anxiously, or is it merely the wind. No, there are certain tensions. The night wants what it is owed. ? ii Mornings, I walk the circular pond and the pond stares back. I won’t go near enough to see the distorted reflection staring up at me                                                          The sky is there; clouds shunt past, rapid as recognition, the sky a blank eye as is the sun. I stand at the edge, I am                                                                  a poor lot, my mind sees nothing useful. Not the world as it is, darkling sense, dear winged plume of thought . . . the pond and what is reflected–images of light on a blinded eye. What makes us think the water will tell us what it holds. ? iii Year after year the same: winter rushing towards us in a cool, blue cloak, pale and in a chilled clarity: Through the trunks of the thickest oak the day goes forward and that one wood thrush,…

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Go Ahead and Fuck Up

Not sure who the equivalent is for you, but Albert Camus was one of the first authors I found outside of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. The high school teacher who introduced me to him also laid an egg it took years to get over: the apparently insurmountable gulf between “popular” and “serious” literature; and so even more than other […]

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Prufrock & Other Observations (Forerunners)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
A hundred years ago, in June of 1917, the small Egoist Press in Bloomsbury, London, issued a book of poems by the American expatriate, T. S. Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations. Much like trying to read the Bible after a religious upbringing, it is almost impossible now to read especially the first four poems—“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Portrait of a Lady,” “Preludes,” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”—without reference to the veneer, reputation, and sometimes repudiation, that have attached themselves to Eliot in the century since. (And many of the remaining poems make you wonder why that reputation took hold at all.) But here are all twelve of them. What an odd bird the book was then, and how strange so much of it still seems now. ? The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse A persona che mai tornasse al mondo, Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse. Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero, Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo. Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an…

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Robinson Jeffers (Forerunners)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
Remember when poets made the cover of Time? It’s too bad the reputation of?Robinson Jeffers has pretty much disappeared; but read any of the following poems aloud and see if you don’t hear something brutal, beautiful, and essential. While he?seems to have staked his reputation on the longer narratives that pretty well fill his Collected Poetry, it’s his small, powerful lyrics that strike me as being as good as anything ever written. INSCRIPTION FOR A GRAVESTONE I am not dead, I have only become inhuman: That is to say, Undressed myself of laughable prides and infirmities, But not as a man Undresses to creep into bed, but like an athlete Stripping for the race. The delicate ravel of nerves that made me a measurer Of certain fictions Called good and evil; that made me contract with pain And expand with pleasure; Fussily adjusted like a little electroscope: That’s gone, it is true; (I never miss it; if the universe does, How easily replaced!) But all the rest is heightened, widened, set free. I admired the beauty While I was human, now I am part of the beauty. I wander in the air, Being mostly gas and water, and flow in the ocean; Touch you and Asia At the same moment; have a hand in the sunrises And the glow of this grass. I left the light precipitate of ashes to earth For a love-token. ?…

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Kitty Coles (6 Poems)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
Black Moon Season for walking out into white frost under the black moon. Feeling the grass bend, the cold enfold flesh, the dark draw closer. Scenting the wet earth, lying fallow: ice has its own smell. Tasting night on the tongue, cobwebby, thin, and the mouth’s own heat. Watching the breath steam, cloudy, abundant, twining with old leaves. Hearing the silence staking its own claim. Then – the keen owl cry sadly to fierce stars as once the wolves cried, walking here also. ? ? Daylight Fox We watch her circle the house, crouched low to the ground. Her hollow flanks flutter, in out, in out, and her fur, black-tipped, as if charred, shivers with them. She has sensed the warmth of breath, the throb of a heart. She has scented the rust of blood, its salt abundance. Her doggish ears tense forward. Her gilt eyes narrow. Her pulse comes fast and feet shift slowly, slowly. And we, behind the window, observe her progress, her imperceptible and ceaseless movement, and wonder where the thing she stalks is waiting, living and trembling, waiting for its death. ? ? The Girl Of Wood A quiet girl, this one: sometimes, she mutters, hushy and breathless, gibberish of her own, or groans deeply, on an autumn evening, her feet encased by damp, her hair wind-blown. A sturdy girl, this one, phlegmatic, stocky, her movements reluctant, her broad feet planted…

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Michael McGill (5 Poems)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
Documentary A woman in a documentary is frozen in my mind. She stands behind an asylum window and whispers in a foreign language. The subtitle below her reads, “Please let me out of here.” She is framed by the subtitle; framed by the edit of her portrayal. Finally, she is framed by the asylum itself.…

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Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Forerunners)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
Many thanks to David Cooke for contributing this week’s Forerunner, and it’s quite a treat. Below he has recorded a good portion of two Anglo-Saxon poems, “The Ruin” and “The Seafarer” in the original Old English. Also included is the original text, an English translation and, following “The Ruin,” David Cooke’s response to the poem,…

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New Poetry Series

To celebrate Walt Whitman’s birthday today, S4N Books is announcing their new series, Pocket Poems. It will feature classic long poems and books of poetry in small pocket-sized editions. The first three volumes are now available: the 1855 and 1892 editions of Whitman’s Song of Myself, and Alfred Tennyson’s elegy, In Memoriam. Future titles will include books by William Wordsworth, […]

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J. S. Belote (5 Poems)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
Boriska Snowmelt mangles gray potato fields, oxcarts rot & sink by dung heaps, & month after month the heaps rise—   I don’t care. Again the sky is opaque. &, still, wizened, Andrei goes on painting icons. In one he gives Christ a cloak the color of earth. He hangs it nonchalantly over His left…

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David Cooke (6 Poems)

Originally posted on Underfoot Poetry:
Gold Its lack of reaction has made it unique, that and the way it can magnetize fools: forty-niners, Midas, the futures mob— so gung ho, yet always dazzled by it, like urchins dreaming of gilded pavements. Locked in a vault, it validates paper. It’s what the rich cling to when the bubble bursts, smiling at…

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New Poetry Blog

I’m happy to announce the launch of a new poetry blog I’ll be editing, Underfoot Poetry. It will include original, unpublished work from poets around the world, as well as a series I call Forerunners, featuring influential poetry from the past. The first installments of both are up right now: six new poems from the British poet Daniel Paul Marshall, […]

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The State of Poetry Now?

Are poets today largely talking to themselves? Are many of them happy to do so, locked away in academia or whatever other cloister? Are the ones who want a wider public, and who want to take on larger subjects, just curating their shelf of books for future generations to find? I heard somewhere that after September 11, Bruce Springsteen was […]

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Classic Jam Hits

Going through my computer the other day, I found the .pdfs of these classic book sets, and thought to post them here for whoever wants them: Frazer’s The Golden Bough, The Mythology of All Races, and Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Whatever their limitations now, they are still great resources. I can’t remember where I found […]

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John Donne: Holy Sonnets & Good Friday

There’s a sense that, eventually, somebody could have written much of the best of John Donne’s poetry. His tremendous blend of looseness (many of the poems can feel casually spoken) coupled with an almost impenetrable density and complexity, or his mixture of the erotic and humorous and newly-scientific in some of his love poetry, feel at times like they would […]

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Early Yeats (12 Poems)

A recent article tells the astonishing story about theatre majors who were unable to act out flirting: “Accustomed to soliciting one another via text, and more used to hookups than dates, this verb was no longer a touchstone for college students, and ‘flirting’ did not elicit any specific physical or emotional behaviors (sustained eye contact, light touch, smiling, playfulness) from […]

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Daniel Paul Marshall (6 Poems)

I would encourage anyone with an interest in poetry to check out the work of Daniel Paul Marshall. He has kindly allowed a handful of his poems to appear below, but many more are available at his website. Originally from England, he now lives on Jeju Island, Korea, where he runs a café and guesthouse which he built with his […]

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Kafka’s Diaries

  My recent post about Thomas Wolfe elicited a handful of comments like, “I loved to read him when I was young, but as I get older he no longer holds up.” My own versions of Wolfe are people like Hesse and Dostoevsky, but Kafka has remained one of those authors I latched onto in high school who has never lost […]

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George Orwell in the Coal Mines

As an addition to my last post, here is George Orwell’s complete description of going down into the coal mines of northern England, taken from the second chapter of his 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier.  The entire text of the book can be found here. *** When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and […]

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George Orwell & Empathy

As usual, George Orwell says it better than anybody. Here he is in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, asking his readers not to give up using coal, but just to recognize whose labor is providing them with coal. Nowadays I would only add to the coal miner all the people behind all of our conveniences; because if […]

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Thomas Wolfe

On this anniversary of Thomas Wolfe’s death, I’m reminded that every few years I turn around and he’s there again. Whether in influencing Ferlinghetti or Kerouac, or anecdotes about his editor Maxwell Perkins trying to beat his holy mess novels into some more coherent shape, or just his own troubled life, Thomas Wolfe always shows up. I still haven’t read […]

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The State of Poetry … in 1993

The following essay was published in the New Criterion in February, 1993, and reflects a view of American poetry from at least the 1970s forward. It’s quite depressing to read this two decades later, since the status of poetry as a subculture can’t help but be worse than it was then, and worse in part because the technology noted as […]

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A Gallery of Greeks & Romans

Talking with a friend about ancient Greece the other day reminded me of being in Athens back in 2007, and taking two days to wander through its National Archaeological Museum. The best part was all the faces, whether reliefs from numerous funeral stele, or the later busts of Roman emperors or other higher-ups. Nearly all of these are below if […]

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“I respond more to revelation”: Hart Crane on Fire

Perhaps because he embodied that rarest of combinations—the energy and enthusiasm of youth, and actual genius—there are few writers better at articulating the fire of creation than Hart Crane. The following selection from his letters carries Crane from his early twenties to a few years before he died at thirty-two: here is is writing The Bridge, becoming intoxicated with John […]

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William H. McNeill – History as Myth

Last Friday, the great historian William H. McNeill died. I still have surprisingly endearing memories of reading his A World History one winter, in the middle crowded New York City Wendy’s, surrounded by high school kids just done with their day, his narrative silencing every one and every thing. And this year during a brief illness I finally went through […]

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Ship in Air

Here’s a nice anecdote told twice, first from some anonymous Irish source, and then Seamus Heaney’s version of it in verse. This was the first poem of Heaney’s I ever saw, back in high school when someone showed me the New York Times, perhaps when his book Seeing Things was reviewed there, or when he’d won the Nobel Prize. But […]

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A Bit of Late Yeats

For all those poets who feel guilty (or have been guilted) for not writing bad political poems—bad Brexit couplets, bad protest rants on racism, sexism, or Donald Trump poems that are as shitty as him—some advice from an aging Yeats is worth repeating:   Those Images What if I bade you leave The cavern of the mind? There’s better exercise […]

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George Herbert, Getting Back Up

from George Herbert’s poem, “The Flower”:     And now in age I bud again, After so many deaths I live and write;     I once more smell the dew and rain, And relish versing: O my only light,             It cannot be             That I am he     On whom thy tempests fell all night.

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Dante, Through the Fire

Here’s one of the great moments in poetry: Canto 27 of Dante’s Purgatorio, where Dante passes through the fire, and Virgil crowns him on their way up to the summit of Mount Purgatory. This taken from the translation of Allen Mandelbaum, and the Digital Dante site at Columbia University. *** Just as, there where its Maker shed His blood, the […]

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Picasso & the Gestapo

Here’s a favorite, possibly apocryphal, story of Pablo Picasso (who lived in Paris during the German Occupation) and his great painting, Guernica. The exchange is almost too good to be true, and perhaps nobody but Picasso could have gotten away with it. Whenever volume four of John Richardson’s biography of Picasso is finally released, I’ll be interested to see if […]

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Heaney’s Bog Poems

Here’s Seamus Heaney, first talking about his poems on the bog bodies of Iron Age Europe, in Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones, and then the bog poems themselves, spanning three of his collections: Wintering Out, North, and District and Circle. Also, since I hope to do a post on the bog bodies at some point, interested readers would do well to […]

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Allen Ginsberg, “Kaddish”

I’d like to say that after Four Quartets, I don’t know of another long poem from the last century that’s meant as much to me as Allen Ginsberg’s elegy for his mother, Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg, 1894-1956. But it’s so powerful that even describing it as a poem seems silly: it really doesn’t matter what you call it, as it […]

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Hart Crane, High & Low

Here is one the my favorite moments from a writer’s life, followed by one of the saddest. Only seven months apart, they typify the pendulum of great highs and awful lows in Hart Crane’s life. Desperate to write, and giving in his letters as articulate a record of that burning desire as any writer I know, it is hard not […]

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Yeats Comes to the Occult

Here is W. B. Yeats, remembering some of his adult experiences with the occult and supernatural. All taken from his The Trembling of the Veil, collected in Autobiographies: When staying with Hyde in Roscommon, I had driven over to Lough Kay, hoping to find some local memory of the old story of Tumaus Costello, which I was turning into a […]

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Henry Vaughan – 5 Poems

Here are a few pieces from seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan. Going through The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, the usual names stuck out, but Vaughan seemed to run past most of them. Trying to place him, he strikes me very nearly as a forerunner of William Blake in the visionary quality of his unexpected rhythms. I’ve seen him placed a […]

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Tacitus & Primo Levi

It was nice to realize that two Italian writers who lived almost two thousand years apart appear to share the same tone and outlook on world events. Here are a few bits from the Roman historian Tacitus (in his Annal of Imperial Rome) and the more recent memoirist and novelist, Primo Levi (in his The Drowned & the Saved). They […]

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Whitman Last

It has always seemed significant to me that, at the beginning of the first and the end of the last edition of his great book of poems, Walt Whitman gives us a long essay in prose. I thought to only give selections of them, but it is impossible to edit Whitman, to put a stopper in one of his sentences […]

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Whitman First

It has always seemed significant to me that, at the beginning of the first and the end of the last edition of his great book of poems, Walt Whitman gives us a long essay in prose. I thought to only give selections of them, but it is impossible to edit Whitman, to put a stopper in one of his sentences […]

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Yeats Discovers Poetry

Here’s W. B. Yeats recalling his earliest experiences of poetry: ….This may have come from the stable-boy, for he was my principal friend. He had a book of Orange rhymes, and the days when we read them together in the hay-loft gave me the pleasure of rhyme for the first time. Later on I can remember being told, when there […]

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Heaney on Writing

Here’s Seamus Heaney talking about writing, from Dennis O’Driscoll’s book-length interview with him, Stepping Stones: On Inspiration On the week in May 1969 when he wrote “about forty poems”: It was a visitation, an onset, and as such, powerfully confirming. This you felt, was “it.” You had been initiated into the order of the inspired. Even though most of the […]

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Joyce & Proust Meet

From that greatest of literary biographies, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, here is the account of Joyce meeting Marcel Proust, only a few months before Proust’s death: On May 18, 1922, Sydney Schiff (“Stephen Hudson”), the English novelist whom Joyce had met a few times, invited him to a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev following the first performance of one […]

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T. S. Eliot on Dante

Is there anything better than T. S. Eliot talking about his debt to Dante? Here is the majority of his famous essay “What Dante Means to Me” (hence my own “What Eliot Means to Me”), which can be found in his collection of essays, To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings. The essay was originally presented as a speech given […]

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The Unfinished Kafka

Reiner Stach, in the middle entry of his three volume biography of Franz Kafka, writes, “Anyone who studies bibliographies today will envy Kafka’s earliest readers, who knew very little about his life and could enjoy his work as literature and not as an accumulation of autobiographical codes.” (186) Stach’s biography (and its beautiful translation into English by Shelley Frisch) seems to give us Kafka as if from that very perspective: for while Kafka’s life and writing are clearly interwoven, there is no sense of stretching or forcing the life or the writing over each other. The second volume at least is less concerned with “what of the life got into the writing” than it is with “what kind of life did the writing emerge from,” and for that and many other reasons is easily one of the most enjoyable biographies I’ve read in a very long time. My earliest reading of Kafka included this remark from George Steiner, on Kafka’s fable “Before the Law”: “The knowledge that it was written … by a gentleman in a bowler hat going to and from his daily insurance business, defies my grasp.” Stach’s book allows that defiance to continue, and deepen, and is just as much the biography of a writer as it is of a young man from Prague in the years leading up to World War One, as he struggles with the pressures of family and career, and the possibility of marriage. […]

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Wallace Stevens, Intergalactic Planetary

Here are some bits on writing, nature, and anonymous everyday life from Wallace Stevens, that quiet murmur of American poetry who may well outlast nearly everybody. The following are from his letters and journals, from 1898 to 1955, only a few months before his death at seventy-five. That a poet so technically isolated (and gladly so) from all the clichés […]

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Heaney Comes to Poetry

Here are some of Seamus Heaney’s memories of reading, writing, and poetry, from earliest schooldays to university, all taken from Dennis O’Driscoll’s wonderful book-length interview with him,  Stepping Stones. Yes, my memory of learning to read goes back to my first days in Anahorish School, the charts for the letters, the big-lettered reading books. But I don’t think I showed […]

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Yeats & Lady Gregory

(photo from the LG/WBY Heritage Trail) In the single-volume Autobiographies of W. B. Yeats, which collects all of Yeats’s autobiographical writings from throughout his life, the great Irish poet mentions the memoirs of one John O’Leary. O’Leary was apparently taking his good old time at it, writing “passages for his memoirs upon postcards and odd scraps of paper, taking immense […]

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Classic Joyce

Too much to choose from, but here’s some classic bits from James Joyce that are always worth keeping in mind: On Writing: “Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying in my poems to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure […]

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Hart Crane to His Father

In early January, 1924, the poet Hart Crane, twenty-four and basically broke, received a letter from his father offering to hire him into the family business. To a friend, Crane wrote, “Along comes a letter from my father this morning offering me a position with him as travelling salesman! This is unacceptable, of course, even though I now can’t complete […]

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Jung’s Great Dream

Jung traveled with Freud and others to America in late September, 1909, and on the boat returning to Europe, he had a dream. Whatever you make of Jung’s overarching theories and scholarship, it always seems better to think of him more as a poet or mystic, and so his strength seems to lie in descriptions of intense inner experiences, and […]

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