Apr 11, 2014

What Age is Worth

Decimus Magnus Ausonius
Years ago I discovered Ausonius in Helen Waddell's wonderful book The Wandering Scholars. (See the first part of my earlier post.) Although I took three semesters of Latin in high school, I promptly forgot most of it, and so my effort to translate the Ausonius epigram below relied on a Latin dictionary and a Loeb Library translation by Hugh G. Evelyn White.

The online Encyclopedia Britannica refers dismissively to Ausonius as a "Latin poet and rhetorician interesting chiefly for his preoccupation with the provincial scene of his native Gaul." Anna Pearl MacVay, in an old issue of The Classical Weekly (Vol. 5, No. 7: Nov. 25, 1911), is more generous and more accurate, at least so it seems to me: "No other classic writer so felt the subtle charm which nature has for modern eyes." The epigram that caught my eye isn't about nature, though, but the nature of a particular kind of love:
Uxor, vivamus quod viximus, et teneamus
       nomina quae primo sumpsimus in thalamo,
nec ferat ulla dies ut commutemur in aevo,
       quin tibi sim iuvenis tuque puella mihi.
Nestore sim quamvis provectior aemulaque annis
       vincas Cumanam tu quoque Deiphoben,
nos ignoremus quid sit matura senectus:Joseph
       scire aevi meritum, non numerare decet.

Sweet wife, let’s live as we lived, and keep
       the names we whispered in our wedding bed.
As time goes by, let’s keep change at bay:
       I’ll go on as your boy, you’ll be my girl.
Even if I live longer than Nestor, and you
       the Cumaean Sibyl, let’s ripen but refuse
to age. Better to know what age is worth
       than waste time counting down the years.
In "Ausonius' Elegiac Wife: Epigram 20 and the Traditions of Latin Love Poetry," an article by R. Sklenár in Classical Journal (101.1: 51–62) devoted to this poem, the author remarks that Ausonius later wrote an elegy for his wife, whose name was Sabina, in which he notes that she died at age twenty-seven. How strange to feel a pang of sorrow for this long dead man ("interesting chiefly ... [etcetera]") and his young wife!

It's the pathos of that number, twenty-seven, that made me want to hear his poem in my own English.

Apr 9, 2014

Grace as It Is in Dürrenmatt's Once a Greek...

A poverty-stricken, teetotaling, vegetarian religious zealot living in an unnamed central European country—a man of Greek heritage who also happens, in middle age, to be a virgin—places a personals ad seeking a marriage partner. The woman who answers the ad falls in love with him (we can't at first imagine why), as he with her (this we can easily imagine), and from that point on his fortunes abruptly and radically change for the better. Like all people who have suffered a lifetime of misfortune, Arnolph Archilochos distrusts his good luck, suspecting (correctly) that it’s not what it seems to be. When the truth of things is revealed, the shallow foundations of his life collapse, but that painful collapse reveals yet another, underlying reality—one he is free to embrace or reject. Here is the advice he receives, from his country’s president yet, when Archilochos confesses his feeling that life itself is a sham.
“A grace has been conferred upon you,” the old statesman [said to Archilochos]. “There are two possible reasons for this grace, and it depends upon you which of them is the valid one: love, if you believe in that love, or evil, if you do not believe in that love. Love is a miracle that is eternally possible; evil is a fact that is eternally present. Justice condemns evil, hope longs to reform it, and love overlooks it. Only love is capable of accepting grace as it is. There is nothing more difficult, I know. The world is terrible and meaningless. The hope of finding a meaning behind all the meaninglessness, behind all the terror, can be preserved only by those who nevertheless can love.”
The tone of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel, Once a Greek…, so reminiscent of Candide and the plays of Ionesco, is fundamentally funnier, more humane, and finally uplifting in an existentialist/absurdist way. I highly recommend it, if you’re lucky enough to find a copy!

Carl Sandburg in Colorado Springs

Carl Sandburg in Chicago
Attention, fans of Carl Sandburg:
"Prayers for the People: Carl Sandburg and the Sunburnt West" will take the stage at Colorado College's Cornerstone Arts Center. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and is free to the public.

Produced by Kate Benzel, professor emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, and David Mason, Colorado's poet laureate, the evening will include poetry from Sandburg and Mason, folk songs from Sandburg's "The Great American Songbag" performed by regional artists Mike Adams and Sons and Brothers Trio, and narration by Charles Peek.
More here.


In high school, my favorite teacher (Vernice Van Duzer) taught a Sandburg poem from Laurence Perrine's durable teaching anthology Sound and Sense (the 1963 edition):

Passing through huddled and ugly walls
By doorways where women
Looked from their hunger-deep eyes,
haunted with shadows of hunger-hands,
Out from the huddled and ugly walls,
I came sudden, at the city’s edge,
On a blue burst of lake,
Long lake waves breaking under the sun
On a spray-flung curve of shore;
And a fluttering storm of gulls,
Masses of great grey wings
And flying white bellies
Veering and wheeling free in the open.
For me this was a first opening into understanding the power of sound—in so-called "free verse," yet!

Among the many things I love about Sandburg's poetry is the fact that its taproot is firmly set in the soil of humanity, which gives him a tremendous ear for human voices. Here, for example, his listening ability reaches back 6,000 years:
(From table writing, Babylonian excavations of 4th millennium B.C.)

Bilbea, I was in Babylon on Saturday night.
I saw nothing of you anywhere.
I was at the old place and the other girls were there, but no Bilbea.

Have you gone to another house? or city?
Why don't you write?
I was sorry. I walked him half-sick.

Tell me how it goes.
Send me some kind of a letter.
And take care of yourself.

(From Babylonian tablet, 4,000 years before Christ)

Three walls around the town of Tela when I came.
They expected everything of those walls;
Nobody in the town came out to kiss my feet.

I knocked the walls down, killed three thousand soldiers,
Took away cattle and sheep, took all the loot in sight,
And burned special captives.

Soe of the soldiers—I cut off hands and feet.
Others—I cut off ears and fingers.
Some—I put out the eyes.
I made a pyramid of heads.
I strung heads on trees circling the town.

When I got through with it
There wasn't much left of the town of Tela.
If you don't hear the smitten country boy in the first poem and the triumphalist braying of Dick Cheney in the second, listen your way through them again....

Well, long as I'm at it, let me give you another one, almost certainly never anthologized, but I love it because of its empathy with a poet very much at the opposite end of the aesthetic scale from Sandburg, a poet I dislike—but even knowing that, Sandburg makes me want to read him again:

If I should pamphleteer twenty years against royalists,
With rewards offered for my capture dead or alive,
And jails and scaffolds always near,

And then my wife should die and three ignorant daughters
Should talk about their father as a joke, and steal the
Earnings of books, and the poorhouse always reaching for me,

If I then lost my eyes and the world was all dark and I
Sat with only memories and talk—

I would write "Paradise Lost," I would marry a second wife
And on her dying I would marry a third pair of eyes to
Serve my blind eyes, I would write "Paradise Regained," I
Would write wild, foggy, smoky, wordy books—

I would sit by the fire and dream of hell and heaven,
Idiots and kings, women my eyes could never look on again,
And God Himself and the rebels God threw into hell.

Apr 6, 2014

Poetry Reading Photos

I had a great time reading with two excellent poets, Robert Cooperman and Andrea Hollander, first in Boulder (at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore) on April 4th and then in Denver (at BookBar) on April 5th. Just for grins, here some pictures. I'm only in one of them because I was the guy behind the camera for all the rest; the one I'm in was taken by Nicole Sullivan, presiding genius of BookBar.

I should say that I read from two recent books. In Boulder from Marked Men, and in Denver from Bed of Coals. In both venues Bob read from his brand new collection Just Drive (not yet linkable for purchase), and Andrea read from her latest, Landscape with Female Figure: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2012.

Innisfree Poetry Bookstore—Friday, April 4th

Thanks to Brian Buckley, who has made Innisfree the kind of home for poetry of which Yeats would certainly approve.

Bob Cooperman reading from his brand new
collection of poems about driving a taxi
in New York City, Just Drive
(so new it's not even on the publisher's Web site yet!)

Andrea Hollander reading from Landscape with FemaleFigure: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2012,
a powerful 30-year retrospective.

BookBar—Saturday, April 5th

Thanks, as ever, to Nicole Sullivan for creating her store's relaxed and welcoming atmosphere.

Me on the left, wondering where my muse has
wandered off to, and Bob Cooperman (right) holding a
hot-off-the-press copy of Just Drive. 

The two above are of Bob guiding us all through
the gritty world of New York cabbies.

The two above show Andrea reading with her customary
poise and understated forcefulness.

Apr 2, 2014

The Natural Poet

Don Quixote on poetry, in response to a gentleman whose son appears to be wasting his life as a scholar of the classics:
“Señor, regarding your son’s lack of esteem for poetry in the modern languages, it is my understanding that he is mistaken, for this reason: the great Homer did not write in Latin because he was Greek, and Virgil did not write in Greek because he was Latin. In short, all the ancient poets wrote in their mother tongues, and they did not look for foreign languages in order to declare the nobility of their ideas. And this being true, it is reasonable to extend this custom to all nations, and not to despise the German poet because he writes in his own language, or the Castilian, or even the Basque, for writing, for writing in his. But I imagine, Señor, that your son does not condemn vernacular poetry but poets who are merely vernacular and do not know other languages or other fields of knowledge, which adorn and awaken and assist their natural impulse; even in this he may be mistaken, because, according to reliable opinion, a poet is born: that is to say, the natural poet is a poet when he comes from his mother’s womb, and with that inclination granted to him by heaven, with no further study or artifice he composes things that prove the truthfulness of the man who said: Est Deus in nobis*. [...] I also say that the natural poet who makes use of art will be a much better and more accomplished poet than the one who knows only the art and wishes to be a poet; the reason is that art does not surpass nature but perfects it; therefore, when nature is mixed with art, and art with nature, the result is a perfect poet.”
Don Quixote, Second Part, Chapter XVI, 556-557: Miguel de Cervantes (tr. Edith Grossman)

* Ovid, Fasti 6.5: "est deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo; impetus hic sacrae semina mentis habit" (in A. S. Kline's version: "There is a god in us: when he stirs we kindle: / That impulse sows the seeds of inspiration").

Apr 1, 2014

This Is Not Spam

Truly, truly the very best imaginable kickoff to National Poetry Month. Don't miss it!

Mar 31, 2014

Lois Hayna: Coping Without a Miracle

Not long after I put up the just previous post about Lois Hayna's Lifetime Achievement Award, an email arrived from David Giannini with this gently prodding subject line, "One Poem Proving Her Talent," and this Lois Hayna poem in the body of the message:


Our last glimpse was all green—
the trees, the gray-green slats of the gate,
lively with foliage billowing through.
My last glance back, I saw
the green-gold flash of the serpent
slithering down into dewy grass.

I wouldn't go back through that gate
if He suddenly forgave. Already
the shifts of scene and possibility
excite me, the day ahead
dazzles like treasure. If He’s checking on
our exile, if He’s starting to see for Himself
the joys of the possible but unpredictable,
He has to be green with envy.

Yep, I thought, I should have included some of Lois's poems in my post. Rather than go back and update, it though, let me add a few to David's excellent choice (from her book Keeping Still) drawn from three other of Lois's books.


I drink to your good fortune
(for I wish you well) though never quite
to the letter of your choosing.

I wish you health, yet with the knife
of known precarious limits. May you not want,
but never lose the memory
of want. May you attain
whatever you name happiness except
for one desire which always slips your grasp

as you eluded mine.

                    (from A Book of Charms*)



This is a view of American history: a slow
continent unrolling at the pace of tired oxen.
You watch from the back flap
of a covered wagon headed west.
Your green and carefree years fall
one more day beyond recovery
with every sundown.

The western trek never moves west for you.
Not for you the hurrah of mountains on the sky,
only the prairie, folding and folding itself
into nostalgia.

Lashed to the wagon, your grandmother’s
carved bureau, your delicate china, destined like you
for a sod shanty wherever the oxen give out.
You’ll scrape dry alkaline soil to sow
flower seeds from rainy eastern gardens;
full your daughter into starched pinafores
against the west’s odds.
She’ll ride bareback anyway.

You are forever caught in a split
vision. The others go west
facing west, or are born west, giving themselves
utterly. You alone never quite arrive,
riding west as you did, facing east.

                    (from Never Trust a Crow)



Rain speaks in tongues
over my sodden roof, strums
enigmatic music in downspouts and across
the puddling lawn. I hear it
lose patience with innocent
anemones. I will find them
face-down tomorrow, humbled in mud.
Rain’s fingers
insinuate deep, deep,
searching for frostline.
Three feet? Four?

That it mercifully halt
short of six. That it not
surround you who hated wet,
who can no longer
answer the rain nor escape it
though you understand
finally now
rain’s meaning.

                    (from Northern Gothic)



All seas are one sea
interrupted by islands
of continents and
archipelagos. All water
the same water, always flowing, always
forming and reforming, streaming
into clouds, falling back. Water
from the Ganges locked
in Antarctic glaciers,
mist from rainforests sifting
sparse over the Gobi, Nile water
into the Styx, Erie
to Tuonela. We live on a planet
of water, ourselves
ferryhing lent fluids across uplifted
and for-centuries-dry landmasses
toward a small plot wetted
with old water.

                    (from View from Behind the Mirror: New and Selected Poems)


Lois circa 1975

“Star light, star bright…” We used to chant that rhyme
while in the west the colors died slow deaths
pierced by the crystal-pure first star, a sign
that luck was possible. We held our breaths
and wished in secret. Everybody knew
that magic withered with the spoken word.
We wildly wished our wishes would come true,
though mine, at least, were childishly absurd.
None did, to our unseen good fortune. That’s
how the star brough luck, shielding us well
against ourselves. Life seemed so huge we thought
we couldn’t cope without a miracle.
        I still smile up at the first evening star.
        I wish for nothing in particular.

                    (from View from Behind the Mirror: New and Selected Poems)

* A Book of Charms is half poems by Lois, half poems by the late Angela Peckenpaugh. Ms. Peckenpaugh, as editor of The Sackbut Review, had invited submissions of riddles and charms and ended up publishing three of Lois's poems in that issue. Tom Koontz, the editor of The Barnwood Press, also had a poem in the issue, and from that nexus A Book of Charms was born. When, in my just previous post, I wrote that the first poems I read of Lois's were "magical," this subject matter—charms, maledictions, omens, incantations, spells—is partly what I had in mind. When she first began coming into our poetry workshop she was writing from an ancient layer of consciousness. As Tom Koontz puts it in his introduction to the book, "By creating image that join conscious and unconscious apperception and by creating harmonious patterns of sound, they love to put the mechanistic rational mind at ease and reveal a holistic sense of order and of protected space without which our mental energies become disconnected and dissipated." It's that holistic sense of order that underpins Lois Hayna's poetry.

Mar 30, 2014

Lois Hayna and the Strangeness of Beauty Perfected

Lois Beebe Hayna
I am thrilled to let everyone know that my friend and fellow poet Lois Hayna has been awarded the Colorado Authors' League's first Lifetime Achievement Award. Congratulations, Lois!

I first met Lois when she joined a poetry workshop I taught for now defunct Rocky Mountain Writers Guild back in the mid-1970s. I was fresh out of grad school and had no business teaching, but to be honest, I didn't do a lot of that; I did what in corporatese is known as "facilitation." The workshop happened to attract a number of strong writers, and all I had to do was keep the discussions on track and toss out, on occasion, a witticism or reading recommendation.

When Lois came into the workshop it quickly became apparent to everyone that her voice and her concerns were unique. She had written poetry in her youth before yielding to the pressures of family life, and only in her 60s was she picking up that golden thread again. I never saw any of her early work, but the new work she brought before us was magical, musical, strange in the way that good poetry is always strange*, and humane to the core. Here is a list of the books she's published since—that is, over the last (gulp) four decades:

Keeping Still
The Praying Mantis
Casting Two Shadows
View from Behind the Mirror: New and Selected Poems
Northern Gothic
Never Trust a Crow
A Book of Charms

There may be others that have slipped by me, but these are the essentials. Here's hoping that some prescient publisher will bring out a Lois Hayna Collected within the foreseeable future. And, of course, within Lois's lifetime. This past January she turned 101, which—if my poor math skills serve—places the date of her birth in 1913. What a span! And how grateful we should be that in the middle of her life's journey she returned to poetry.

[See the next post for a sampling of Lois's poetry.]

* René Char, in "Formal Share," advises: "Develop your legitimate strangeness." And Helen Waddell, writing about Ausonius, remarks that his "Fields of the Sorrowful Lovers" has "that strangeness without which beauty is not made perfect."

Mar 29, 2014

Putin's "Evil" and a Map-in-Flux

Just stumbled on this wonderful aphorism by the Italian writer Amedeo Ansaldi at James Geary's aphorism blog:
We always choose our enemies among those whom we would have liked to become. They are our lost image.
Something to keep in mind as the notion of Putin’s “evil” is being bandied about, often by neocons who supported our illegal adventure in Iraq and who are clearly "soft on irony."

I discovered Geary's blog thanks to Perpetual Birder and fine poet David Giannini, who sent me there to read a sampling of William Stafford's aphorisms, drawn from a new book called Sound of the Ax: Aphorisms and Poems by William Stafford. Geary, I have to print out, heard about the Stafford book from Jim Finnegan, whose blog ursprache I follow with pleasure. I also want to mention that Ansaldi's work appears in The New Italian Aphorists, a collection of aphorisms produced by "writers who took part in the three Aphorism International Prize 'Torino in Sintesi' Festivals."

The links above, like the links in any of my posts, are a map-in-flux of my self-education. It's the one country that holds my deepest allegiance.

Mar 28, 2014

Octavio Paz at 100

A fine article here by Joel Whitney, co-founder and editor-at-large of Guernica (where the poetry doesn't pretend that politics is beneath it). Paz is a seminal figure, a poet who created—through his writings on Méxican and world history, culture, and art—an intellectual context in which his own poetry and the poetry of other Latin Americans can be read. He's one of those Modernists whose work survives Modernism through the individuality of its genius.

Octavio Paz (Arturo Espinosa/Flickr)

Mar 23, 2014

Cavafy at 150

A spread from Constantine Cavafy's last passport, listing “Poet” as occupation
and two discrete birth dates, both erroneous.
"What is it, I wonder, about our increasingly cosmopolitan, multi-cultural and multilingual cities, whether New York or Athens, that needs a poet like Cavafy? What are the best ways to learn and go on learning from his poetry? How can we reconcile public legacies with the privateness of literature?"

I won't say that scholar and translator Karen Van Dyck fully answers these questions in "Forms of Cosmopolitanism," but her ponderings are fascinating to say the least.

Mar 19, 2014

The Mysterious Presence

I just finished Anton Ehrenzweig's The Hidden Order of Art, a rich and sometimes difficult, occasionally jargon-ridden book focused on visual art and, secondarily, on music. But it has a lot to say that applies to poetry, especially in his discussions of the creative process. Here are a couple of excerpts:
In any kind of creative work a point is reached where our power of free choice comes to an end. The work assumes a life of its own, which offers its creator only the alternative of accepting or rejecting it. A mysterious "presence" reveals itself, which gives the work a living personality of its own.
I often tell writing students that they have to let go of what they mean to say and write toward what the poem means to say. They generally look at me like I'm nuts. Poetry is all about "self-expression," isn't it? Well, no—it's about creating an opening for the "living personality" of the poem to express itself.

Here's the second Ehrenzweig excerpt:
Perception particularly vision, secures our hold on reality. This is probably why we are so unwilling to accept that perception is unstable, its data shifting and subject to the interplay of the uncontrollable forces within our mind. The most skeptical philosophers have accepted uncritically the sense data theory, which considers the data conveyed by perception as a secure unquestioned basis for our understanding of objective reality. Yet perception has a history; it changes during our life and even within a very short span of time; more important, perception has a different structure on different levels of mental life and time. Only in our conscious experience has it the firm and stable structure which the gestalt psychologists postulated. We have seen how, as we penetrate into deeper levels of awareness, into the dream, reveries, subliminal imagery, and the dreamlike visions of the creative state, our perception becomes more fluid and flexible. It widens its focus to comprehend the most far-flung structures. These different levels of differentiation in our perception interact constantly, not only during the massive shifts between dreaming and waking, but also in the rapid pulse of differentiation and de-differentiation that goes on continually undetected in our daily lives. It is extremely difficult to hold on to the interludes of dreamlike ambiguity and broader focusing that are interspersed among the sharper images of conscious memories [emphasis mine]. It requires perhaps singular powers of introspecting into the stream of consciousness to remember or rather to reconstruct the innumerable twilight states strung out between the more sharply crystallized gestalt structures of our memory.
Bridget Reilly, "Movement in Squares"
I emphasized the statement about "hold[ing] on to the interludes of dreamlike ambiguity and broader focusing" because I think this function is the key function of poetry. (I mean poetry on the root sense of "to make or compose": anything, that is, produced by the shaping actions of imagination.) Evolution has granted humans—and who knows, maybe all animals—the gestalt ability to differentiate coherencies from the undifferentiated flow of the "stream of consciousness." I think Ehrenzweig is right that art springs from the impulse to wrestle with ambiguities as opposed to "the more sharply crystallized gestalt structures of our memory." When readers say that a poem has made them "recognize" something, see something they've always known but somehow didn't notice before, they are talking about the way poetry, like all art, discovers and gives form to coherencies in the stream of consciousness that would otherwise pass by without notice.

Why would we not notice? Perhaps because we have evolved on a "need to know" basis: we notice what helps us survive, what helps us get food, shelter, sex, nurturing social structures, and so on. But this gestalt ability distorts reality (not objective reality, but perceptual reality), which in effect alienates us from a full appreciation of our own existence. Poetry attempts to notice, encourages us to appreciate, and therefore reduces our sense of existential alienation.

Oddly enough, even when a poet deals with the theme of alienation (the bread and butter of Modernism), the poem itself expresses solidarity. We might even say that Ehrenzweig's "mysterious presence" is the very spirit of solidarity—the secret life we hold in common.

Isia Leviant, "The Enigma Illusion"

Mar 17, 2014

Please Share with Friends in the Denver-Boulder Area...

Friday, April 4th and ...
[double click image to enlarge]

... Saturday, April 5th. Join us for either or both!

[double click image to enlarge]

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