Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Scott King on W.S. Merwin

Liked this short piece by poet Scott King, "Hearing Merwin," an account of first encountering W.S. Merwin's poetry and an appreciation of Merwin's work.

Scott King, a wonderful poet himself, is also the publisher of Red Dragonfly Press, the publisher of one of my previous books, If There Is A Song, and another that is forthcoming, What Is Buried Here. A list of available Red Dragonfly Press titles is here.

Monday, March 13, 2006


These fasting feet

Recently arrived in the mail is Cosmic Rainbow, a wonderful selection of poems by Mary McAnally, drawn from the full body of her work over the past several decades. Mary is a long-time friend -- we first got to know each other in the mid-1970's when she lived in Minneapolis with her children and then-husband poet Etheridge Knight. I've awaited this book with great anticipation, and I feel excitement and joy that it's now in the world.

The poems make a kind of journal record of McAnally's long involvement in activism for peace and justice, and also offer a moving account of her many travels to places in the world where revolutionary passion and intelligence have been most evident in the past half century. Poems growing out of McAnally's connections with the insurgent movements in South Africa, Ireland, Central America, as well as the stubborn endurance and resistance in the cities and towns of the United States, against the predatory dealings of the empires of capital, driven by the unquenchable striving for a more human world.

The following poem is reprinted in full from Cosmic Rainbow, by permission of the author.
The Last Supper of the I.R.A.

--for Bernadette Devlin and Seamus Heaney

Hunger has settled in their hearts
forever. There is no end to it.
No Blaskets here, surviving on communal fish
(The laughing plates desire only to be clean,
to clink against each other in the sink.

Whatever food is brought is eaten right away;
no waiting for the host to eat, the guest
to take a seat, the blessing said.
No silent toasting of the dead.)

Their sex goes first.
The body cannot reproduce
which does not eat.
It loosens its hold on the hair;
empty eye sockets fill with air

and sight turns inward toward the sea
of silence in the blood.
The navel is a sinkhole sucking in the belly.
These fasting feet will never again
march on a Belfast street.

The ribcage misses the lung's caress,
the hands begin to flutter
like severed wings of butterflies.

Where does water go when it dies?
The Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti said that the people of the United States live in the heart of the beast. For some years now Mary McAnally has been a practicing minister in the heart of Oklahoma, speaking and writing and living a radical liberation theology in the midst of a dry and dusty conservative tide. I will admit that I don't always feel great affinity with what seem to me some of McAnally's more explicitly religious poems, some of which are in this collection. Not, however, religious in any narrow or repressive sense; everything in the poems in this book is insurgent and embracing and life-affirming.

A couple of years ago on Labor Day weekend, I attended an event in Tulsa, Oklahoma (of which McAnally was one of the organizers) celebrating labor, poetry and music; in particular, the event was organized to recognize and honor the union members who had recently completed successful contract negotiations with American Airlines, around the time when the recent wave of airlines bankruptcies and anti-union actions was getting underway. Such events are often smaller than we would want them to be; even recognizing that, the several dozen people who turned out for an evening of poetry and music and labor talk in the rooms of the Unitarian Church were a victory, however temporary, however provisional.

The couple of days I spent at Mary's house that weekend, and the time with our other friends who got there for the events, will remain one of the many times of joy I've known in my life. Even in the heart of what corporate media (and corporate elections) would have us believe is Bush country -- Oklahoma is, after all, also the home of Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie -- we can plant the seeds of remaking our world, and our flowers can bloom.

Cosmic Rainbow is published by Partisan Press; you can find ordering information on this page.

The book includes beautiful illustrations by Terry Hauptman, herself also a wonderful poet. Her most recent book of poems, On Hearing Thunder, was published in 2004 by North Star Press. (The North Star Press website hasn't been updated in a little while; if you don't find Terry Hauptman's book listed there, check with the press. In the "Contact Us" page they have a toll-free number, an email address, and a postal address.)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


The blazing secrecy of noon

The little bit of critical writing I've read about William Carlos Williams talks mostly about two qualities of his poetry: what some critics call his imagery (the red wheelbarrow beside the white chickens, the number 5 on the fire engine), and what some critics feel to be a resemblance (in some of Williams' poems) to idiomatic speech. I don't read a great deal of literary criticism, and I'm sure much else has been written about Williams' work that approaches if from other directions.

I haven't come across much commentary about the sounds in Williams' poetry, and I'd like to say a couple of things about that here. All quoted passages by Williams here are from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher McGowan, published in two volumes by New Directions originally in 1986. Here are the opening lines from an early poem of his, published as poem number XX in the poem-and-prose sequence Spring and All:

The sea that encloses her young body
ula lu la lu
is the sea of many arms--

The blazing secrecy of noon is undone
and and and
the broken sand is the sound of love--

The flesh is firm that turns in the sea
O la la O
the sea that is cold with dead men's tears--
The first time I read the poem, a number of years ago, I was struck by how the vowel and consonant sounds in the poem weave and mingle among each other, sometimes repeating, other times (especially) suddenly and sharply contrasting. "The broken sand is the sound of love," in which four strong vowel sounds follow one another, each turning in a different direction from the previous one. "The sea that is cold with dead men's tears" -- the first two or three times I read the poem, I kept expecting the line to say "bones" (repeating the o in "cold"); the lighter starker sound of "tears" infuses a sudden austere brightness into the line, a colder sound, evoking the coldness of the sea.

The poem continues:
Deeply the wooing that penetrated
to the edge of the sea
returns in the plash of the waves--

a wink over the shoulder
large as the ocean--
with wave following wave to the edge

Oom barroom

It is the cold of the sea
broken upon the sand by the force
of the moon--
"A wink over the shoulder/large as the ocean..." how stunning, the tiny fleeting sound of "wink" progressing through the rounder heavier sounds of "shoulder" to the iron weight of "large as the ocean." As I read these lines, it's the mounting movement of the sounds of the words that slips through barriers of overly rational thought and allows the image to take hold. I notice also the words or syllables that are pure sound (what textbooks often call onomatopoeia): "plash," "oom barroom." In an earlier version of the poem (which I read in the Collected Earlier Poems published by New Directions in 1951), the line "Oom barroom" was "Coom barroom," and "O la la O" was "O la la" The changes (based on notes by Williams on the typescript of the poem) give the lines a deeper, larger sound, and also give insight into Williams' ear for detail.

The poems finishes:
In the sea the young flesh playing
floats with the cries of far off men
who rise in the sea

with green arms
to homage again the fields over there
where the night is deep--

la lu la lu
but lips too few
assume the new--marruu

Underneath the sea where it is dark
there is no edge
so two--
Again, the subtle music of contrasting sounds, "floats with the cries of far off men/who rise in the sea//with green arms..." And almost dissolving in the luring call of the long "uu" syllables in the last two stanzas.

The poem I've quoted here is, I think, something of an exception for Williams. While similar grace and music of word sounds occur in other poems of his here and there, more commonly his poems seem to me to work by the muscle of their rhetorical quality, the sense of articulating thought into speech as the thought itself takes shape. As an example, these lines from the poem "The Yachts," published originally in the 1930's:
In a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by
lesser and greater craft which, sycophant, lumbering
and flittering follow them, they appear youthful, rare

as the light of a happy eye, live with the grace
of all that in the mind is fleckless, free and
naturally to be desired. Now the sea which holds them

is moody, lapping their glossy sides, as if feeling
for some slightest flaw but fails completely.
However much has been written about Williams' capacity with imagery, I've usually found that the weakest quality in his poetry. The famous "red wheelbarrow" poem (also a part of the Spring and All sequence), the locust tree in flower, the small careful poems about lilies and trees, strike me not so much as images, but as journalistic pictures, though not bad ones.

Commenting (in the larger context of questions about the reform of language), Thomas McGrath says, in passing, of Williams and Ezra Pound: "And indeed it was liberating to see those apparitional faces, and interesting to see the chickens and the red wheelbarrow, though the "so much" that is said to depend upon them turns out not to be (as Williams supposed) the validity of the whole visible world of objects but merely the temporality of a consumer society."

McGrath continues: "Metaphysical consumerism! As the Williams tradition runs down in the work of the less talented of his followers, the object becomes All, becomes the One. Things (but not goods) are hypostatized and so anything is as good as anything else and a beer can equals the Mona Lisa. This mock materialism is essentially Puritan. Feelings are muted or excised and objects proliferate. This is what Freud called anal and Marx called petty bourgeois, and it is where the search for purity has led a lot of poets and novelists: to things rather than feelings about them, to situations without people, to esthetics pretending to be politics." -- From Thomas McGrath, "McGrath on McGrath," in North Dakota Quarterly, Fall 1982. The full essay by McGrath covers a great range of material, and is one of the best commentaries I've read on poetry, politics, and related things. You can read the essay in its entirety in the online poetry magazine Pemmican, under the title "Problems of the Revolutionary Poet in Contemporary Times."

William Carlos Williams is not a poet I read often. I come back to his poems once in a while and spend a little time. I usually find something that speaks to me and stays with me, perhaps not huge, perhaps a brief recollection, a puff of air. Sometimes just some lingering sounds.
The veritable night
of wires and stars

the moon is
the oak tree's crotch

and sleepers in
the windows cough

athwart the round
and pointed leaves

and insects sting
while on the grass

the whitish moonlight

assumes the attitude
of afternoon--
(From number XXIII in the sequence Spring and All.")

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