Friday, April 22, 2011

Three by Kay Ryan


by Kay Ryan (from The Best of It ~ New Poems)

Unlike igneous
porphyry, famous
since the Egyptian
basin business,
periphery is no
one substance,
but the edges
of anything.
Fountains, for instance,
have a periphery
at some distance
from the spray.
On nice days
idle people circle
all the way around
the central spout.
They do not get wet.
They do not  get hot.
If they bring a bottle
they ket kicked out, but
generally things are mild
and tolerant at peripheries.
People bring bread the
pigeons eat greedily.


by Kay Ryan (from The Best of It ~ New Poems)
for E.B.

I thought you were
born to privilege,
some inherited advantage ~
like an estate framed
in privet edge,
or a better-feathered
shuttlecock for badinage,
or other French pretensions.
I never thought you knew about exhaustion ~
how we have to leap in the morning
as early as high as possible,
we are so fastened, we are so dutiful.

A Certain Kind of Eden

by Kay Ryan (from The Best of It ~ New Poems)

It seems like you could, but
you can't go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It's all too deep for that.
You've overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you're given
for control.  You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
you even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens.  But those things
keep growing where we put them ~
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us in thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.

Kay Ryan ~ poet
I discovered Kay Ryan for the first time a few days before she won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and since then how well-known and well-regarded she is - she was the poet laureate for the United States from 2008-2010, and has won countless awards.  She also has spent a career teaching in a community college and championing community college education - not the normal path of privilege.  I admire her independent voice and her courage.

I found her book,  "The Best of It", new and collected poems, on sale when our local Borders was going out of business.  What a lucky day it was for me.  I had not heard of her and I opened it expecting to be disappointed as I am by so many books of poetry I buy - but this one was different.  The first poem chosen at random was brilliant -- a cut gem of thought, and the next - and the next.   Her language is lyrical but tightly woven.  Her insights are clear and provocative.  Her poems are short - most 12 - 18 lines - with no waste, nothing frivolous.  She does what, in my mind, a poet should do - capture the moments we wish we could capture - but with grace, insight, agile intelligence, and the sort of music that comes from years of practice.

The Best of It ~ 2011
winner of Pulitzer Prize 
Annie Dillard says, "These are poems that inspire us with poetry's greatest gifts:  the music of language and the force of wisdom."

Here in a New York Times review when she was named poet laureate, Patricia Cohen writes, "Known for her sly, compact poems that revel in wordplay and internal rhymes, Ms. Ryan has won a carriage full of poetry prizes for her funny and philosophical work"  Recently, the New York Times reviewed this particular book and stated, "poems are as slim as runway models, so tiny you could almost tweet them. Their compact refinement, though, does not suggest ease or chic. Her voice is quizzical and impertinent, funny in uncomfortable ways, scuffed by failure and loss. Her mastery, like Emily Dickinson’s, has some awkwardness in it, some essential gawkiness that draws you close."

If you only buy one book of poetry this year it should be this one - I bet it will give years of pleasure ~ promise.   

Saturday, April 16, 2011

To an Old Philosopher in Rome

by Wallace Stevens

On the threshold of heaven, the figures in the street
Become the figures of heaven, the majestic movement
Of men growing small in the distances of space,
Singing, with smaller and still smaller sound,
Unintelligible absolution and an end -

The threshold, Rome, and that more merciful Rome
Beyond, the two alike in the make of the mind.
It is as if in a human dignity

Two parallels become one, a perspective, of which
Men are part both in the inch and in the mile.

How easily the blown banners change to wings...
Things dark on the horizons of perception
Become accompaniments of fortune, but
Of the fortune of the spirit, beyond the eye,
Not of its sphere, and yet not far beyond,

The human end in the spirit's greatest reach,
The extreme of the known in the presence of the extreme
Of the unknown. The newsboys' muttering
Becomes another murmuring; the smell
Of medicine, a fragrantness not to be spoiled...

The bed, the books, the chair, the moving nuns,
The candle as it evades the sight, these are
The sources of happiness in the shape of Rome,
A shape within the ancient circles of shapes,
And these beneath the shadow of a shape

In a confusion on bed and books, a portent
On the chair, a moving transparence on the nuns,
A light on the candle tearing against the wick
To join a hovering excellence, to escape
From fire and be part only of that which

Fire is the symbol: the celestial possible.
Speak to your pillow as if it was yourself.
Be orator but with an accurate tongue
And without eloquence, O, half-asleep,
Of the pity that is the memorial of this room,

So that we feel, in this illumined large,
The veritable small, so that each of us
Beholds himself in you, and hears his voice
In yours, master and commiserable man,
Intent on your particles of nether-do,

Your dozing in the depths of wakefulness,
In the warmth of your bed, at the edge of your chair,
Yet living in two world, impenitent
As to one, and, as to one, most penitent,
Impatient for the grandeur that you need

In so much misery; and yet finding it
Only in misery, the afflatus of ruin,
Profound poetry of the poor and of the dead,
As in the last drop of the deepest blood,
As it falls from the heart and lies there to be seen,

Even as the blood of an empire, it might be,
For a citizen of heaven though still of Rome.
It is poverty's speech that seeks us out the most.
It is older than the oldest speech of Rome.
This is the tragic accent of the scene.

And you - it is you that speak it, without speech,
The loftiest syllable among loftiest things,
The one invulnerable man among
Crude captains, the naked majesty, if you like,
Of bird-nest arches and of rain-stained-vaults.

The sounds drift in. The buildings are remembered.
The life of the city never lets go, nor do you
Ever want it to. It is part of the life in your room.
Its domes are the architecture of your bed.
The bells keep on repeating solemn names

In choruses and choirs of choruses,
Unwilling that mercy should be a mystery
Of silence, that any solitude of sense
Should give you more than their peculiar chords
And reverbations clinging to whisper still.

It is a kind of total grandeur at the end,
With every visible thing enlarged and yet
No more than a bed, a chair and moving nuns,
The immensest theatre, and pillared porch,
The book and candle in your ambered room,

Total grandeur of a total edifice,
Chosen by an inquisitor of structures
For himself. He stops upon this threshold,
As if the design of all his words takes form
And frame from thinking and is realized.

Wallace Stevens wrote this incredible poem for his former Harvard philosophy professor, George Santayana, who had influenced him deeply.  Santayana spent his final years in Rome.  He is perhaps best known today for the his remark that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This is a poem that never tires of being reread - beautifully written admiration from one person to another.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Black Lines

by Jaye Freyer

It was here I heard the loon's long lay,
A piercing moving melody, a voice foreign and strange
A visitor strangely alone, swimming
on the currents of the lake.
Here my thoughts fly forth
in the weighted willing wonder of a song
Rhetoric and logic left behind
Like the body of this heavy awkward bird
Whose voice is to the wilderness
What my thoughts are to a complicated earth ~
A sleek and sensuous singing to the others of my kind
An echo of a lyric music launched from lean black lines

Kandinsky's 'Black Lines' from
the Guggenheim Museum collection.
I was fortunate enough to see a loon up close on an Adirondack lake and its song was hauntingly beautiful.  Not long before I had seen this painting, Black Lines, by Vasily Kandinsky; the colors bursting from the black lines made me think of both the song of the loon and about poetry - how something incredible can burst out of few little black lines on a page.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Annie Dillard ~ Metaphysical Model with Feathers

What I know of dimension
Is an old suspicion:
That time is a crack as long
And thin as a wing.

Time is whole and fully fledged always.
We discover its fullness; we pace it out blind on the wing.
We live in time's quills as senseless as lice.
And the eagle - the petrel? -- and the petrel,
Rock Peter walking on water, the petrel
Full noiselessly flies.  It plies
The created ages; it beats the boundless along,
Rising without  surcease, spiraling down,
Sliding breastbone bent and feeling
The inbound curve of the real.

If time cruises the breadth of the timeless,
Perpendicular, buoying its wings, then
We may guess the style of the rest:

This is the shape of the one god, holy,
Who generates the ages, rapt,
Who tolerates time as a hole in its side,
A petrel blind and churning.  This
Is the one god, flailed by wings,
And this is the one time, this raveling hole,
Swift in god and voiceless, black beak shut.

I love what Annie Dillard dares here - most of all I love her language.  It is the language of the poem that has helped it stay with me all these years.  The sonic beauty - it can walk along beside you - you can feel the steady stride and when it steps into a dance.

I remember taking dance lessons and how difficult it was to follow another person's lead.  You may have the steps worked out in advance for a particular type of dance but doing it with someone was different than doing it theoretically.  Two breaths have to find a unison within the work of the music.  Working with a poem seems very much like that to me - you meet the poem hand to hand and you step through it together as though it were a dance.  Within that model, this poem is one of my favorite dances.  I love the music in the language and the dance.  I like how she takes on big themes and though I'm not sure I agree or even understand with what is going on in this poem intellectually (it made much more sense to me in my twenties than it does now), I still continue to like the dance.

Metaphysical Model with Feathers by Annie Dillard appeared in the The Atlantic Monthly vol. 242 (October 1978): 82.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Lines composed a few miles above the 92nd Street Y, on visiting a Rae Armantrout reading during a tour of the publication of her book Versed,  March 12, 2009.

  by Jaye Freyer

Poet as dark & light as the day & night
Unfiltered & indiscriminate -- effervescent:
Thought occurs, rises up, finds height & breaks.
In the blink of an eye, is in this day

No demands:  no hammers, bolts, chisels, beams
No blueprints; no canvas tightly stretched, pre-sketched,
No thoughts of voice, footnotes, context,
No resources spent - save but the moment
That it took to write.

Just a moment
That may or may not replicate
Like the seer writing poems upon leaves
Three thousand years ago on a hill in Greece
Blowing them from palm to wind
Those poems still
On occasion

I listened to a podcast by Poetry Magazine in 2009 where a young broadcaster stated that Rae Armantrout was the most dangerous poet in America.  I was immediately gripped with a desire to see her.  Happily she was scheduled to do a reading at the 92nd Street Y a few weeks later and I bought tickets for the family.  I was completely surprised by the person who Rae Armantrout was, as well as by her poetry (which I liked a great deal).  I wrote these lines a few days later.  

A friend in college, a classical scholar, likened poets' endeavors to the oracle at Delphi who (I thought he said) wrote her prophesies in verse on laurel leaves and cast them to the wind for the fortunate to find.  I must have made some of that up because I can't find any such description for the activities of the Delphic Oracle on the internet but I love the image - the idea that the writing of a poem will, for the most part, have no more impact on anything than a leaf cast on the wind.  

Turn that thought over a few times and it starts to become interesting.  Coming across a leaf with a poem written on it would be interesting but that any leaf passing by may be inscribed with a poem seems intriguing - and what if all leaves are inscribed with something of a mystery to be deciphered - that would be transformative.  Metaphysically, a poem of a stranger may 'land' for me today but on another day be unreadable, and so it would not 'land'; that when a poem really 'lands' it is an epiphany, an other-worldly bit of light that comes in like a gift.  The image has always been a favorite of mine as it speaks volumes to the quiet nature of this sort of writing. 

I featured what I liked best about Rae's poetry - what seems so effervescently effortless.  She may really toil with her poems but they have a lightness of being that is compelling.  She has attracted some mighty minds to write about what she is writing about - with good reason I guess - but I would advise rather than reading about her writing to just read it or listen to her reading by clicking her name in the title above or save the scroll and click here Rae's Poetry Reading.  

A Resemblance (from Versed) by Rae Armantrout  

As a word is
mostly connotation,

matter is mostly


(The same loneliness
that separates me

from what I call
”the world.”)


Quiet, ragged
skirt of dust

encircling a ceramic



”Are you happy now?”


Would I like
a vicarious happiness?


Though I suspect
yours of being defective,