Lute Music (Kenneth Rexroth)

February 24, 2009

The Earth will be going on a long time
Before it finally freezes;
Men will be on it; they will take names,
Give their deeds reasons.
We will be here only
As chemical constituents—
A small franchise indeed.
Right now we have lives,
Corpuscles, Ambitions, Caresses,
Like everybody had once—

Here at the year’s end, at the feast
Of birth, let us bring to each other
The gifts brought once west through deserts—
The precious metal of our mingled hair,
The frankincense of enraptured arms and legs,
The myrrh of desperate, invincible kisses—
Let us celebrate the daily
Recurrent nativity of love,
The endless epiphany of our fluent selves,
While the earth rolls away under us
Into unknown snows and summers,
Into untraveled spaces of the stars.


Rexroth’s famous poetic career spanned half a decade, and led him from Chicago, where he was one of the first poets to read his poems to jazz accompaniment, to San Francisco where would be associated with the avant-garde. Such misguided associations prompted him to say (and I quote this because I like it, and it seems true to me): “I’ve never understood why I’m [considered] a member of the avant-garde… I [just] try to say, as simply as I can, the simplest and most profound experiences of my life.”

“Lute Music” comes from an early collection (1944) called The Phoenix and the Tortoise which is thick with philosophical ruminations and Greek mythological references. I prefer his earlier work to his later, which tends to be more overtly political, with smatterings of love and naturalistic poems throughout. I find contemporary poetry wanting of the kind of abandon found in lines like “Let us celebrate the daily/ Recurrent nativity of love.” But then, I am still a fool for the elevated, mellifluous line.


The Sky (Humberto Ak’Abal)

February 17, 2009

If you climb up an old cypress
and hang on the highest branch,
you will see that the sky
is not far from the earth.

In Momostenango
you can touch it.

(translated by John Oliver Simon)

During our two years in Guatemala I struggled to find any contemporary Guatemalan poets, in or out of translation. But Kristin recently found, and showed me, an extraordinary poem by Humberto Ak’Abal, a Mayan poet born in Momostenango, Guatemala. And I was happy to find two of his poems translated in the magazine Circumference which I picked up this past weekend in Chicago. Anyway, I love this poem for its spare, hypnotic simplicity. Its language is as close to the earth as Momostenango is to the sky.

Two evils, monstrous either one apart,
Possessed me, and were long and loath at going:
A cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart,
And in the wood the furious winter blowing.

Think not, when fire was bright upon my bricks,
And past the tight boards hardly a wind could enter,
I glowed like them, the simple burning sticks,
Far from my cause, my proper heat and center.

Better to walk forth in the frozen air
And wash my wound in the snows; that would be healing;
Because my heart would throb less painful there,
Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling.

And where I walked, the murderous winter blast
Would have this body bowed, these eyeballs streaming,
And though I think this heart’s blood froze not fast
It ran too small to spare one drop for dreaming.

Dear love, these fingers that had known your touch,
And tied our separate forces first together,
Were ten poor idiot fingers not worth much,
Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.

John Crowe Ransom is among a school of poets popularly called the “Fugitives,” a collective of writers who taught at Vanderbilt around the 1920s, and who met regularly to share meals, poems, and intellectual banter. Mark Van Doren describes the group’s origin and development best when he wrote, “I am convinced that the way taken by the Fugitives toward poetry is one of the best ways…it is the way of friendship and discussion; it is the way of the amateur society.” Art through conviviality.

“Winter Remembered” exhibits as well as any the precision of Ransom’s craft. While his fidelity to rhyme and meter may be unfashionable today, his wide ranging subject matter (Randall Jarrell affectionately said that Ransom’s poems are about “everything from Armageddon to a dead hen”), commitment to craft, and his genius for combining formalism with a deep affection for the local, give enduring credibility to his reputation. Read him. He’s damn good. And I love that he said this: “With a serious poet each minor poem may be a symbol of a major decision. It is as ranging and comprehensive an action as the mind has ever tried.”

Pale Bliss (John Updike)

February 2, 2009

Pale Bliss

Splitting a bottle of white wine
with a naked woman
in the middle of the day.


As you might have heard, John Updike died last week at the age of 76; a great loss. While his novels have often left me feeling weirdly unsettled and disturbed, I have returned to them for their extraordinary language. Updike will be honored and remembered, perhaps above all, for his ability to write dizzyingly beautiful sentences out of the flat, white-washed boredom of middle-class American life. For the same reason, ironically, he will continue to be criticized for wasting his talent on lackluster material.

I have read Updike’s novels and short stories over the years with more care than his poetry, which has fallen dubiously under the category of “light verse,” but I thought it only fitting to select a poem today in his honor. I chose this particuarly short poem not because it is famous, but because it illustrates some of the things I love about Updike: his confidence, subtlety, nuanced sense of humor, and the pleasure with which he seems to put words together.