In for a Penny

June 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ezra Pound at William Carlos Williams’ house, 1958. Photograph by Richard Avedon.

After working all morning yesterday, I spent the early afternoon eating vanilla toffee energy bars while listening to the thunderstorm and saying silly things to the cats that made me feel like the dear, dotty, occasionally murderous old ladies so prevalent in British fiction. Then I did a more leisurely kind of work, reading poets’ letters in preparation for a Cathedral American Poets Corner show celebrating the USPS issuance of “10 Great 20th Century American Poets” stamps (7 of the poets in the Poets Corner made their cut).

This mostly consisted of the irritating practice of poking around in Google books, using various search words (poem, woman, love, want, bastards, money, never) to get pieces of letters such as this one from William Carlos Williams to Ezra Pound, after Pound wrote to him saying that T. S. Eliot was moving back to the States, teaching at Harvard, and since he’d likely feel lonely, would Williams kindly write him a note of welcome?

“Dear ez

Pussonally Eliot can go to hell before I welcome him to these shores. But since your letter is so damned decent, not to say generous, I’ll ignore the proff rather than tell him what I think of him. If I must get culchah I’ll take it from someone else. For I’m sure he will pizen a generation from his mere sickly presence—even in New England. Apparently he is sick from what you say. That would enlist my interest as a physician– if he weren’t a writer as well. No. To hell with him. Harvard without him is bad enough.

But I won’t kick him in the stomach. I suppose there’d be no use trying kicking him lower.

Jesus Christ, you’ve got a nerve asking me to do a thing like that, now that I think of it. I think you’ve been abroad long enough. I’d suggest that you come over here as Eliot’s valet.”

The letter goes on, I believe, but without buying the book I can’t say how.

Pound had a habit of writing in a rich multi-lingual but mostly early 1900’s American slang, which Williams always tried to meet up to, but never quite could. I’d give you a sample of Pound—he’s quite delicious—but don’t feel like copying it out. Maybe another time. Reading all these letters for this project is going to be one of the best parts of the summer.

June 25th and 26th are important anniversaries, so I did a little remembering. Rain, cake, wine, sex, somebody falling off a banquette, somebody getting too drunk (that could be me), somebody playing guitar too long, somebody asking me if I wanted to have babies with her husband, somebody leaving (repeat). Kind of want to shoot myself in the head, kind of want to go back to the wet grass, ocean view, dog & children…

You know how they say (some say) that the past, present and future are all part of a great many-dimensional matrix, that if you happen to be the sort of being with those powers—or a writer, pretending to be— you can slip your finger or tilt an eye wherever you want in the time stream? Well, this is undoubtedly another one of those pretty lies, but it gets easier to think you can do it the older you get. Once the future is eliminated as a source of worry and desire, the whole everything-happens-at-once thing starts seeming almost natural.

I wonder if I would feel this way if I had any ability at all to bear being in the moment. It’s not that I don’t know how. It’s not that it’s frightening, exactly. It’s just so goddamned big. And you have to either be alone there or slip through other people’s skins, which, again, I kind of know how to do, but that really is frightening…

Poets’ letters can have strange effects. Just warning you.

In this poem, David Lehman parodies Ezra Pound’s rants in the Cantos

With Tenure

If Ezra Pound were alive today
(and he is)
he’d be teaching
at a small college in the Pacific Northwest
and attending the annual convention
of writing instructors in St. Louis
and railing against tenure,
saying tenure
is a ladder whose rungs slip out
from under the scholar as he climbs
upwards to empty heaven
by the angels abandoned
for tenure killeth the spirit
(with tenure no man becomes master)
Texts are unwritten with tenure,
under the microscope, sous rature
it turneth the scholar into a drone
decayeth the pipe in his jacket’s breast pocket.
Hamlet was not written with tenure,
nor were written Schubert’s lieder
nor Manet’s Olympia painted with tenure.
No man of genius rises by tenure
Nor woman (I see you smile).
Picasso came not by tenure
nor Charlie Parker;
Came not by tenure Wallace Stevens
Not by tenure Marcel Proust
Nor Turner by tenure
With tenure hath only the mediocre
a sinecure unto death. Unto death, I say!
Nature is constipated the sap doesn’t flow
With tenure the classroom is empty
et in academia ego
the ketchup is stuck inside the bottle
the letter goes unanswered the bell doesn’t ring.

–David Lehman

Driftwood Goddess

June 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

I found this piece of driftwood in Bolinas, California, in my 20’s. I recognized her at once as a goddess. I used to prop her against the wall of our Berkeley apartment with a small shrine of beautiful stones around her. Sometimes I’d include a piece of jewelry, but I’d always take that back. In my cups, I might surround her with nuts and berries, but I took those back too.

I called myself a pagan and wanted ritual, but not like the women and men who formed covens in San Francisco and Marin County. I was afraid they were silly. My nature/spirit worship was of a higher order, clung to the page, refused contamination and connected me to childhood. At seven and eight years old, I was deeply familiar with the fairytale literature concerning stolen children, and fully expected to be one. That my mother told me she had expected the same thing—said lovingly, as a way of bonding with her dreamy daughter—was disturbing, but I managed to put it aside. The dreariness of daily life, which school made numbingly clear to me, the unknown horrors of working life, which my father illustrated by returning home every night in a rage, would not be my problem. I had my ticket out.

My compromise, as I grew older, passed the threshold of puberty and grew ever more rooted to our visible world, was that magic did exist in some unspecified way. It existed for me. Not just the “magic” of the moonlit night, the foreign city, but a secret thread in the cloth of the universe, my protection and guide. There was poetry, of course, and in college I wrote a paper comparing The ErlKing to The Stolen Child. My mother and I shared the excitement of reading Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. It’s the work of a brilliant writer madly in love with the Goddess, using every tool of his intellect, intuition and vast scholarship to find her.

That I found my goddess was not surprising to me. That she guarded me I didn’t doubt. I was so young, newly married (with four stepchildren!), exquisitely sensitive, afraid of and longing for new people and experiences, for the life that was surging past my door. That I wanted, most of all, not to be afraid, I recognized. That my goddess was not about fear, I recognized. My goddess was what I kept safe, the unspoiled solitary appreciation of the numinous.

I don’t look at her very often anymore, but when I do, she still speaks to me. She says different things now. She’s like the old woman who has always known you were doing things wrong, but held her tongue because youth is stupid. I’ll never be as old as the goddess, but we’re closer. She tells me the numinous isn’t going anywhere, even if I share it with others.

After Ken Burns

The beautiful plate I cracked in half as I wrapped it in tissue paper—
as if the worship of a thing might be the thing that breaks it.

This river, which is life, which is wayfaring. This river,
which is also sky. This dipper, full of mind, which is

not only the hysterical giggling of girls, but the trembling
of the elderly. Not only

the scales, beaks, and teeth of creatures, but also
their imaginative names (elephant, peacock) and their
love of one another, the excited
preparations they sometimes make
for their own deaths.

It is as if some graceful goddess, wandering in the dark, desperate with thirst, bent down and dropped that dipper
clumsily in this river. It floated away. Consciousness, memory, sensory information, the historians and their glorious war . . .
The pineal gland, tiny pinecone in the forehead, our third eye: Of course

it will happen here. No doubt. Someday, here,

in this little house,
they will lay the wounded side by side. The blood
will run into the basement through the boards. Their ghosts are already here, along
with the cracked plate wrapped in old paper in the attic,

and the woman who will turn one day at the window to see
a long strange line of vehicles traveling slowly toward her door, which

she opens (what choice does she have?) although she has not yet been born.

–Laura Kasischke

Father’s Day

June 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

Not much to say about fathers. But this poem makes me want to write more poems.

The Last Four Things (That Hard Thread)

That hard thread
between us.

Is it gold? Do I have to be
so outshined by my curtain?

especially by breaking.

people who would die
people who would almost

die and
who would be injured

My dad was in the water.
Across an unprecedented space.

It would rain
for days, they said

he’d come home.
[lists the father’s wounds]

That hard thread
is a bone. Is made of bone.

When I was
a girl,

the first loss,
between tunnels…

I didn’t need so much.
I’d eventually get hungry.

–Kate Greenstreet

Where Am I?

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