Archive for February, 2010

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James Wright (1927-1980) won the Pulitzer for his book of "Collected Poems"

Trying to Pray

This time, I have left my body behind me, crying
In its dark thorns.
There are good things in this world.
It is dusk.
It is the good darkness
Of women’s hands that touch loaves.
The spirit of a tree begins to move.
I touch leaves.
I close my eyes and think of water.

The Jewel

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans.
They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

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W.S. Merwin (born 1927) won the Pulitzer for his book "The Carrier of Ladders." In response to the statement, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” Merwin said, “The part of you that writes poems hoping that it will make something happen, which is the part of you that’s writing propaganda, is always there. Poetry isn’t so pure that it’s completely devoid of that. You wouldn’t want it to be. Pure poetry is an antimacassar, isn’t it? It’s a decoration. You do want something to happen, even if it is only to get somebody to move something. When we wrote poems during the Vietnam war we wanted the poems to stop the war.”

Second Psalm: The Signals

When the ox-horn sounds in the buried hills
of Iceland
I am alone
my shadow runs back into me to hide
and there is not room for both of us
and the dread
when the ox-horn sounds on the blue stairs
where the echoes are my mother’s name
I am alone
as milk spilled in a street
white instrument
white hand
white music
when the ox-horn is raised like a feather in one
of several rivers
not all of which I have come to
and the note starts toward the sea
I am alone
as the optic nerve of the blind
though in front of me it is written
This is the end of the past
Be happy

when the ox-horn sounds from its tassels of blood
I always seem to be opening
a book an envelope the top of a well
none of them mine
a tray of gloves has been set down
beside my hands
I am alone
as the hour of the stopped clock
when the ox-horn is struck by its brother
and the low grieving denial
gropes forth again with its black hands
I am alone
as one stone left to pray in the desert
after god had unmade himself
I am
I still am
when the ox-horn sounds over the dead oxen
the guns grow light in hands
I the fearer
try to destroy me the fearing
I am alone
as a bow that has lost its nerve
my death sinks into me to hide
as water into stones
before a great cold
when the ox-horn is raised in silence
someone’s breath is moving over my face
like the flight of a fly
but I am in this world
without you
I am alone as the sadness surrounding
what has long ministered to our convenience
alone as the note of the horn
as the human voice
saddest of instruments
as a white grain of sand falling in a still sea
alone as the figure she unwove each night alone

as I will be

For more on Merwin, click on:

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Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Jean-Paul Sartre (France, 1905-1980)

Bad Faith

Bad faith is a condition people suffer when they deny to themselves that they are radically free, when they think their pasts determine their future. They turn themselves into inert objects rather than free beings who can make choices. The classic example of bad faith from Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness, published in 1956, is of a cafe waiter:

“What are we then if we have the constant obligation to make ourselves what we are if our mode of being is having the obligation to be what we are? Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to changing his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seems to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us.”

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Richard Howard (born 1929) won the Pulitzer for his book "Untitled Subjects"

Morris Louis, "Where," 1960. Magna on canvas: Louis spills his paint on unsized and unprimed cotton duck canvas, leaving the pigment thin enough for the eye to sense the threadedness and wovenness of the fabric.

Like Most Revelations

(after Morris Louis)

It is the movement that incites the form,
discovered as a downward rapture–yes,
it is the movement that delights the form,
sustained by its own velocity. And yet

it is the movement that delays the form
while darkness slows and encumbers; in fact
it is the movement that betrays the form,
baffled in such toils of ease, until

it is the movement that deceives the form,
beguiling our attention–we supposed
it is the movement that achieves the form.
Were we mistaken? What does it matter if

it is the movement that negates the form?
Even though we give (give up) ourselves
to this mortal process of continuing,
it is the movement that creates the form.

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George Oppen (1908-1984) won the Pulitzer for his book "Of Being Numerous"


Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor —

Bergen street.

Hardship . . .

Nor are they very good to each other;
It is not that. I want

An end of poverty
As much as anyone

For the sake of intelligence,
‘The conquest of existence’ —

It has been said, and is true —

And this is real pain,
Moreover, It is terrible to see the children,

The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good.

George with wife Mary Oppen

Letters of Oppen

To June Oppen Degnan
September 25, 1981


Oppen poem in process

I have the little figurine in exactly the right place [spot] and I remember my mother in the garden by the sun-dial and the Rothfeld grandmother who asked me not to play [the piano] so loud and I said, ‘It’s supposed to be loud.’ And the man across the street who said, ‘Hello Bud,’ and the manuscript who came at intervals, and the Saxon automobile with me sitting on my father’s lap and steering, and the slope down-hill toward our house at Circuit Road and the bicycle I got for Christmas and I insisted it must belong to the delivery boy — I couldn’t believe it was mine, and a great many other things — all in the little figurine.

And me climbing on my mother’s bed, and the people said to come down and someone said, let him be – – – –


To Claude Royet-Journoud
September 26, 1981

Dear Claude,

I am truly sorry to refuse anything that you ask of me, but I cannot bring myself to write poetic “exercises.” We come back to that old saying: a poem is a poem is a poem. (and never an exercise)
it is tied to the world, and the stones of the villages.
Again sorry to refuse to do anything you ask of me,

Best wishes,

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Anthony Hecht (1923-2004) won the Putlizer for his book “The Hard Hours”

Devotions of a Painter

Cool sinuosities, waved banners of light,
Unfurl, remesh, and round upon themselves
In a continuing turmoil of benign
Cross-purposes, effortlessly as fish,
On the dark underside of the foot-bridge,
Cast upward against pewter-weathered planks.
Weeds flatten with the current. Dragonflies
Poise like blue needles, steady in mid-air,
For some decisive, swift inoculation.
The world repeats itself in ragged swatches
Among the lily-pads, but understated,
When observed from this selected vantage point,
A human height above the water-level,
As the shore shelves heavily over its reflection,
Its timid, leaf-strewn comment on itself.
It’s midday in midsummer. Pitiless heat.
Not so much air in motion as to flutter
The frail, bright onion tissue of a poppy.
I am an elderly man in a straw hat
Who has set himself the task of praising God
For all this welter by setting out my paints
And getting as much truth as can be managed
Onto a small flat canvas. Constable
Claimed he had never seen anything ugly,
And would have known each crushed jewel in the pigments
Of these oil golds and greens, enameled browns
That recall the glittering eyes and backs of frogs.
The sun dispenses it immense loose change,
Squandered on blossoms, ripples, mud, wet stones.
I am enamored of the pale chalk dust
Of the moth’s wing, and the dark moldering gold
Of rust, the corrupted treasures of the world.
Against the Gospel let my brush declare:
“These are the anaglyphs and gleams of love.”

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A Partial History of My Stupidity

Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge
and I took the road to the right, the wrong one,
and got stuck in the car for hours.

Most nights I rushed out into the evening
without paying attention to the trees,
whose names I didn’t know,
or the birds, which flew heedlessly on.

I couldn’t relinquish my desires
or accept them, and so I strolled along
like a tiger that wanted to spring,
but was still afraid of the wildness within.

The iron bars seemed invisible to others,
but I carried a cage around inside me.

I cared too much what other people thought
and made remarks I shouldn’t have made.
I was slient when I should have spoken.

Forgive me, philosophers,
I read the Stoics but never understood them.

I felt that I was living the wrong life,
spiritually speaking,
while halfway around the world
thousands of people were being slaughtered,
some of them by my countrymen.

So I walked on–distracted, lost in thought–
and forgot to attend to those who suffered
far away, nearby.

Forgive me, faith, for never having any.

I did not believe in God,
who eluded me.

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For What Binds Us

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down —
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest —
And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

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