Poetry Feed

Leonard Cohen, RIP

If I were to pick one artist among the singer-songwriters of the 1960s whom I would bet would still be listened to a hundred years from now, it would be Leonard Cohen. I think there will be others, but like I said, if I were to pick only one....

This song, from 1969's Songs From A Room, strikes me now as a profound commentary on sex and the sexual revolution. Well, it did at the time, actually.


As it happens, I have recently been getting re-acquainted with this album and this song, in connection with the book I'm writing. And in doing so I ran across this story about the real Nancy. It's as sad as the song suggests. Say a prayer for him, and for her.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

For years I have been seeing this poem by Kipling described as having some sort of profound relevance. I read it, and it seemed interesting, but I didn't quite understand who these gods were supposed to be. It was only fairly recently that I learned the answer. A "copybook" in English schools of the time was for handwriting practice. At the head of each page was some sort of proverb or maxim, and the student was to copy it repeatedly down the page. The gods of the copybook headings, then, are those eternal truths of human life which we forget or ignore at our peril. It was written just after the end of World War I, in which Kipling lost his son. It begins like this:

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

And ends rather chillingly. Please read the whole thing at the Kipling Society's site. (I'm not going to include it here because I'm pretty sure some of the lines are too long and wouldn't display properly.)

It does seem that our culture is determined to ignore every scrap of wisdom inherited from our ancestors. I thought of the poem a couple of days ago when I read this piece by Damon Linker in which he criticizes progressives for attempting to demonize and destroy perfectly natural and not necessarily unhealthy "particularist" impulses. Progressivism

displays outright contempt for particularistic instincts that are not and should not be considered morally and politically beyond the pale. On the contrary, a very good case can be made that these instincts are natural to human beings and even coeval with political life as such — and that it is the universalistic cosmopolitanism of humanitarian liberalism (or progressivism) that, as much as anything, has provoked the right-wing backlash in the first place.

Underlying liberal denigration of the new nationalism — the tendency of progressives to describe it as nothing but "racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia" — is the desire to delegitimize any particularistic attachment or form of solidarity, be it national, linguistic, religious, territorial, or ethnic.

As you might imagine, liberals reacted angrily, and called it, of course, racist. The inclusion of "ethnic" in that list pretty much guaranteed that reaction. But ethnic solidarity is not necessarily a bad thing. It is perfectly healthy and sane to prefer one's own place and people to others, and the fact that it can become pathological doesn't change that. It is generally not considered a bad thing by liberals when it involves, say, Jewish or Italian or Irish immigrants in early 20th century New York, or today when it takes forms that they can approve and enjoy: a Haitian enclave in a big city, for instance. Multiculturalism generally approves any presence here of a non-American culture. But how could that culture exist except as something particular, something which, by virtue of being what it is, is necessarily not something else?--and especially not a mere instance of interchangeable universal humanity.  

I do think the Trump phenomenon, which I mostly deplore, has been fed by the sort of backlash that Linker mentions. But appears that progressives will not learn from it. 

A Note on Versification

Anthony Daniels, in the February issue of The New Criterion, on the experience of being asked to be one of the judges in a poetry contest:

One of the problems for a novice judge is to know how far to take extra-poetic considerations into account, indeed to know what they actually are, especially in an age of free verse. There are no guidelines laid down, as in (for example) the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, and where almost any string of words could be considered verse, chopped up the right way:

There are no guidelines laid down,
As in (for example)
The treatment of rheumatoid arthritis,
And where almost any string of words
Could be considered verse,
Chopped up the right way.

A Very Fine Poem

Update: My apologies: I thought this poem was available to non-subscribers, but apparently it's not. I'll leave the post here because you can still enjoy the anecdote. It's even possible that you may run across a copy of the magazine somewhere. Thanks to Louise for pointing this out to me.


I don't find most of the poetry published in The New Criterion (or anywhere else, for that matter) very memorable. Well-crafted, always, and sometimes enjoyable, but rarely anything I would wish to read ten years from now. But there's one in the May issue which I've read several times with no lessening of the pleasure of the first reading. It's based on an incident in the life of Samuel Johnson:

After breakfast we walked to the top of a very steep hill behind the house. When we arrived at the summit, Mr. Langton said, 'Poor dear Dr. Johnson, when he came to this spot, turned back to look down the hill, and said he was determined "to take a roll down". When we understood what he meant to do, we endeavoured to dissuade him; but he was resolute, saying, "he had not had a roll for a long time"; and taking out of his lesser pockets whatever might be in them--keys, pencil, purse, or pen-knife--and laying himself parallel to the edge of the hill, he actually descended, turning himself over and over, till he came to the bottom.'

The poem is by Joseph Harrison, and it's called "Dr. Johnson Rolls Down A Hill". Read it when you're not in a hurry.

I read the anecdote upon which the poem is based many years ago in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (which by the way is a treasure). There it's attributed to Personal and Literary Memorials, published by Henry Digby Beste in 1829. But the speaker is not identified. Thanks to the web and Google, I find a very similar recounting in Leslie Stephens's 1900 biography. It's so similar to Beste's that I suppose Beste to have been Stephen's source. Beste, interestingly, was a Catholic convert, an early instance of what would become the Oxford Movement.

Sally Thomas: Brief Light

I could go on for a long time--I've already gone on for a couple of months--planning to write a substantial review of this splendid book of poems, with a lot of attention to its specific virtues. The result would be a pretty good appraisal and appreciation. But I have a lot to do, and am generally pretty distracted; it could be a long time. So I'm going to content myself with a brief notice.

I don't have much of an appetite for contemporary poetry. Few people do, of course, but I should, since I make the occasional attempt in that direction myself. Back in the 1970s I knew a lot of aspiring poets who were working on MFAs in creative writing, and they read their contemporaries in great volume, often to the neglect, I thought, of older and better work. Now and then I followed someone's recommendation and read a little in one of these poets, but very little of it made much of an impression on me.

Worse, it was frequently somewhat off-putting for reasons that I couldn't articulate. I think that had to do with the sensibility of the writers, and in that term I'm including not just personality but the effects of the poet's general view of things, including his or her theology, or rather lack of it in most cases. Frequently there was an obvious verbal gift, and an impressively close--often too close--attention to sensory, mainly visual, detail, which is a sort of convention in poetry since the early 20th century. But the poems just didn't seem to add up to much. Stylistically a very mannered school had arisen, as mannered in its way as the 18th century establishment against which the Romantics rebelled, and it was in general not a manner I liked greatly. And the sensibility tended strongly toward what I have elsewhere called the Stoic Resentful. For these reasons, and for some other, more fundamental lack of aesthetic response, I just didn't find much to like. I'm sure I've missed a lot of good work, but I didn't have the time to seek it out among the ordinary.

What that has to do with Brief Light is not that it stands in utter contrast to the prevailing mode, but that it is in fact to a great extent in that mode, yet with so much skill in execution, and with such a different sensibility, that it does seem a different and better thing. I will admit that my spirits tend to sink when I see a Catholic poet praised for being Catholic, especially if at the same time he or she is praised for rejecting the modernist method and writing in strict forms. The result is frequently not much more than adequate, but one hesitates to criticize it because its intentions are so good. It's like much, if not most, Christian rock or "CCM"--Contemporary Christian Music: maybe pretty good, but never quite as good as the secular stuff. There's usually something constrained about it, a sense that the artistic impulse is being forced into a container that doesn't really fit it. We want Catholic artists, yes. But we don't want to have to condescend to them, to make allowances for their defects, to hold them to a lower standard than we would others. 

We want Catholic art that fully and naturally embodies its own life, that goes where it goes not because some disconnected hand is pushing it but because that's where it naturally goes. And we want the same standard of craft that we would expect from any art. Aesthetically at least, we generally have the sensibility of our times--we can't help it--but we want it transformed by the leaven of Catholic faith: transformed, all the way through, not just painted.

We have what we're looking for in this book. Formally, it fits in perfectly well with most of contemporary poetry. It's subtitled "Sonnets and Other Small Poems," and I haven't counted, but I think half at least of the poems have fourteen lines and are in some variant of sonnet form, from fairly loose to fairly strict. This is not unusual nowadays; form has made something of a comeback. Its rhetoric is contemporary, and even, I think, shows the influence of the MFA school (for instance, in the one thing that I would criticize here and there: the creation of a verb from a noun, as in the snake "sluggarding in the woodpile"). But its sensibility is deeply Catholic although belief is hardly mentioned directly. I suppose I mean that it seems to see things in the way a Catholic ought to see them.

 All right, then. But can I be more specific about what makes these poems such a pleasure? I'm not very good at describing poetry, or much inclined to do so. It's no more useful than describing music: a few broad words to indicate the general impression, and then one must read or listen. These poems are intelligent, wise, distinctly feminine, sharply observant, occasionally witty, suffused with deep feeling and a consciousness of the enormous significance of our small lives and the small things that fill them...yeah, yeah, all true, but that doesn't mean much until you experience them. It seems inappropriate to reproduce an entire poem here, and after flipping through the book for ten minutes I find no passage I want to quote, because, fine as the lines might be in isolation, they are on their way to something more powerful than they alone can accomplish, and it seems a shame to interrupt their journey.

I am able resolve this dilemma by pointing you to a poem on Sally's blog: On New Year's Eve: Letting the Time Go Where Time Goes. It's not in the book, but it's representative. That thing she does with the last line is a good example.

Did you read it? See what I mean?  Go buy the book.

Big Savings! Now! Hurry!

Should have posted this yesterday (or whenever it was that I first saw it). Go here to get 20% off the price of Sally Thomas's book of poems, Brief Light, today. It's not very expensive to start with, so with the discount it's down around the price of a fast-food lunch, or even one of those elaborate coffee concotions.  I've had a copy for a week or so but haven't had a chance to sit down with it yet. But I've seen some very good poems on her blog. And here's a sample at Patheos.com.

W. S. Merwin: Notes To A Lost Text

Sunday Night Journal — November 7, 2011

For many years I’ve thought of writing some sort of lengthy appreciation of W.S. Merwin, but the project has never made it to the top of my list, and it’s time I accepted the possibility that it never will. Last year when he was appointed Poet Laureate I thought I would at least do some sort of blog post about him; now his year in that position has come and gone and I never managed to get that done, either. So, on the Chestertonian principle that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, or better late than never, or better something than nothing, here is...something, though perhaps the applicable aphorism is “too little, too late.”

Did you even know the U.S. had a poet laureate? I believe it is a renaming of what used to be the nearest thing we had, poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. At least, back in the days when I was somewhat more conversant with the contemporary poetry scene, that seemed to be considered a sort of pinnacle of what passes for fame for poets. As someone said—it may have been John Ashbery—on being asked what it was like to be a famous poet, “being a famous poet is not like being famous.”

In those same days, roughly 1971-1976, Merwin was very highly regarded, and imitated, by aspiring young poets, at least those of my acquaintance. As is often the case with poets having a very distinctive style, the influence was not necessarily for the best. Mediocre work in the vein of, say, Hopkins, or Dylan Thomas, or early Eliot, inevitably seems like mere imitation, and draws attention to the fact that it is not quite as good as the original.

Unlike most of the people I knew in the local literary scene, I didn’t read much contemporary poetry, and didn’t like most of what I read. I held on principle a general sort of disapproval of it. I thought the whole direction of modern poetry—free verse, the French-influenced imagism, the obscurity, the flat rhythms—was a big mistake, and had neo-classical or formalist, and definitely traditionalist, ideas about what I wanted to do. More fundamentally, I just didn’t think much of it was very good—it was competent and occasionally memorable, but it hardly ever affected me deeply. Merwin’s work did, though. I was won over when I read his 1967 book The Lice. Specifically, I think it was this poem, at the time and I suppose still, considered one of his very best, that won me over:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year not knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Setting aside what I thought or think about whether this manner of writing poetry is the way it ought, ideally, to be done—that is, whether one thinks it a healthy development for the art—there is also, philosophically and religiously and psychological, something pretty unhealthy in this book. It’s desolate and disoriented:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

(“The Asians Dying”)

And at night wrapped in the bed of ashes
In one breath I wake
It is the time when the beards of the dead get their growth

(“When You Go Away”)

Out of the morning stars the blood began to run down the white sky and the crowd in tears remembered who they were and raised their hands shouting Tomorrow our flag

(“Unfinished Book of Kings”)

I could go on and on, quoting the whole book. Looking through it again now for the first time in ten years or so, I’m reminded of how many of these poems are perfect in their way, and that even the ones I like less always have something stunning in them. They are often obscure, but not in the tight, logically rigorous way of some of the earlier modernists who were taken with Donne, the way of the riddle or puzzle. This is the way of intuition, instinct, and a definite touch of surrealism. One does not look for a precise physical analog to the bed of ashes, or the blood running down the sky; one accepts them as images of isolation and dread. (Actually the ashes might be pretty straightforward as a reference to a bed empty of the one addressed in the title.)

Isolation. Desolation. Loss. Alienation. Disorientation. Absence. These are the abstractions with Thelice which one attempts to describe the atmosphere of this book. And if those words told the whole story, I wouldn’t like the poems as well. But there is always in them the consciousness of what is missing, and an occasional glimpse of it. My friend Robert said something many years ago about Merwin’s work that has stuck in my mind ever since: that it was like “notes to a lost religious text.” I believe he was talking about Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, but it applies to most of the work that I love.

I’ve never quite made up my mind whether or not I believe in something along the lines of a collective mind or instinct, something that brings certain ideas and moods to the forefront among a large segment of humanity: the skepticism of the 18th century, for instance. Perhaps such things are explainable as being simply a matter of the time being congenial to the idea—but when we say that, what have we really said? Why was the time congenial? In any case, whether or not there is some mysterious force behind it, these phenomena do occur. Something happened in the 1960s, throughout the western world, at least. It involved the breaking down of structures of all sorts. For some people in some situations it was a liberation, for others a collapse, and sometimes the same situation was a liberation to some and a collapse to others. And sometimes the same person felt it simultaneously as liberation and collapse. I think that could be said of Merwin, and of my other favorite artist of the mid-20th century, Ingmar Bergman. Their work of the 1960s is often similar in tone, movies like The Silence and Hour of the Wolf seeming to come from a very similar place as some of the poems in The Lice. Both men were the sons of Protestant ministers, both seem to have lost or rejected belief in God, but were left with a sense of loss and a fear of meaninglessness, and created works of art which express a deep spiritual yearning. Their sense of dislocation is almost apocalyptic; they seem to see an abyss opening, and the modern world plunging toward it, or already falling.

What I’ve seen of Merwin’s early work was pretty conventional for its time, which is not to say it wasn’t very well done. The few poems I’ve seen from that period were formal in structure. It was in The Moving Target, published in 1963, that he began to develop the style that produced his most original work: he dropped all formal regularity, including meter, line length, stanza patterns, and finally punctuation, as in the poem quoted above. At a glance you might think his line no different, formally, from the lifeless “free verse” that a high-schooler might produce, but anyone with an ear quickly discerns that it has its own shimmering rhythm, and that each poem has a definite graceful shape, all the product of considerably more skill than is immediately apparent.

It is The Moving Target and the following three books—The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, and Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment—which are for me, and I think for many of Merwin’s admirers, the heart of his work. The Lice, by the way, is the darkest of the four. I have followed him only as far as 1992’s Travels, which has its moments but was the latest of several that didn’t seem to me on the level of his work of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He also seems to have become more political over the years, in the usual left-wing artist sort of way. The great books have some memorable and powerful poems on political and environmental themes, but from the Reagan years forward I have occasionally run across remarks from him that were the sort of bared-teeth leftism that I thought could hardly fail to have affected his art.

But never mind that. The great work remains. Here is another poem from The Lice, one that reminds me of both Bergman and St. John of the Cross. This book, by the way is the darkest of the four mentioned above. And also by the way, the intent of the title is not to disgust and repel: it is the answer to a riddle which, according to Heraclitus, stumped Homer: “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

The Room

I think all this is somewhere in myself
The cold room unlit before dawn
Containing a stillness such as attends death
And from the corner the sound of a small bird trying
From time to time to fly a few beats in the dark
You would say it is dying it is immortal


I haven't really made much attempt here to describe the effect of Merwin's poetry on me, and apparently on a good many other people, and to explain why I like it so much. That is the part of the unwritten essay that would require the most work and even then be inadequate. As with  most art, the old saying applies: for those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't, no explanation will suffice. You will either have responded to the two poems reproduced here, or not. If you did, and are not already familiar with Merwin's work, you should seek it out.