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Archive for February, 2010

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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Anne Sexton (1928-1974) won the Pulitzer for her book "Live or Die"

Depression is boring, I think,
and I would do better to make
some soup and light up a cave.

From the Fury of the Rain Storms

The following is from the book Anne Sexton, a Self-Portrait in Letters, published in 2004 and edited by Gray Sexton and Lois Ames:

When Anne met W.D. Snodgrass at the Antioch Writers’ Conference, she fulfilled one of her first ambitions: to establish personal contact with a worthy mentor. Immediately following her return to Newton, she began an intense passionate correspondence with Snodgrass which set the pattern for many later friendships-by-letter.

[Excerpt of letter to W.D. Snodgrass]
40 Clearwater Road
August 31st [1958]

Dear Mr. Snodgrass honey –

I have three pictures of you (and others) on my desk—they are placed there for inspiration. They do not work. But they will. You look sleepy in this one and Jan [Snodgrass], beside you, looks earnest and sweet with one curl promising something. In another you are busy telling a bunch of sitting ducks something from your desk. Here you are looking young and rather handsome by the mike and Jessy West. She must be telling you how [illegible] genius you are or something—else why do you look so humble and pretty? I like your pictures—otherwise I wouldn’t believe it . . . some funny dream I walked through . . . I do believe it because you were real. I was afraid that the “Heart’s Needle” man would not be real. Thank you for being—and Mrs. Snodsy and Buzzy too. […]

Once I sad to Dr. Martin that I didn’t care if I were crazy forever if I could only write well.

"I shall never write a really good poem. I overwrite. I am a reincarnation of Edna St. Vincent . . . I am learning more than you could imagine from Lowell. I am learning what I am not. He didn't say I was like Edna (I do--a secret fear)--also a fear of writing as a woman writes. I wish I were a man--I would rather write the way a man writes."

Somewhere, sometime at Antioch this plan seemed to fall down. Everyone seemed to like my poetry and the doctor was right. It isn’t enough . . . That was another thing about meeting you—I was afraid to find out what you were like. I loved your poetry—even this was dangerous—but unavoidable considering the unconscious area of my guilt. Then I met you and unavoidably you were special. So now I love you and your wife and your Buzzy and your Cynthia and –well, ‘it makes me nervous.’ [Jarrell? I think, you quoted this).

Are you going to answer this? If so I’ll ask some questions—like where does Robert Lowell live—if I knew I’d write him and ask if he would like me as a student for his graduate course in poetry writing. It says in the catalogue that students may enter without degree with instructor’s o.k. . . . There are six Robert Lowells in the book.

If you do come to Boston you had better come see us, or visit if you like. Would you have a place to stay—I could put you up—though we have no real room, could shift about –could the three of you manage in one room? Warning: my husband is not bohemian (sp?) but is at one with the world like the farmer—at one with a conventional world—but good man. Have been thinking that he is just right for me. He is solid; I am lonely. Why do I ask him to be lonely too? He doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I have stopped trying to change and started to appreciate . . . (all because of your devious analysis of the “Farmer’s Wife” [TB]). Come to visit if you can.

I enclose yesterday’s poem. I have so much I could write about that I do understand—but could only write this rather trivial thing Because I didn’t understand. I’m not sending it because I think it’s a good poem—but in case your analytic bent has been frustrated lately and you’d like to figure this out. The only thing I can guess is that ‘I’d like to be there,’—or maybe ?????? I don’t’ know—better get my analyst back before I fail all understanding and go back to thinking portraits do talk….

Sorry to have gone on so long and so easily–
Love to you and Mrs. Snodsy–
Anne

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Giorgos Seferis (Greece, 1900-1971)

Mythistorema 15

Sleep wrapped you in green leaves like a tree
you breathed like a tree in the quiet light
in the limpid spring I looked at your face:
eyelids closed, eyelashes brushing the water.
In the soft grass my fingers found your fingers
I held your pulse a moment
and felt elsewhere your heart’s pain.

Under the plane tree, near the water, among laurel
sleep moved you and scattered you
around me, near me, without my being able to touch the whole of you —
one as you were with your silence;
seeing your shadow grow and diminish,
lose itself in the other shadows, in the other
world that let you go yet held you back.

The life that they gave us to live, we lived.
Pity those who wait with such patience
lost in the black laurel under the heavy plane trees
and those, alone, who speak to cisterns and wells
and drown in the voice’s circles.
Pity the companion who shared our privation and our sweat
and plunged into the sun like a crow beyond the ruins,
without hope of enjoying our reward.

Give us, outside sleep, serenity.
…………………………..
(translator unknown)

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Richard Eberthart (1904-2005 ) won the Pulitzer for his book of "Selected Poems."


The Groundhog

In June, amid the golden fields,
I saw a groundhog lying dead.
Dead lay he; my senses shook,
And mind outshot our naked frailty.
There lowly in the vigorous summer
His form began its senseless change,
And made my senses waver dim
Seeing nature ferocious in him.
Inspecting close his maggots’ might
And seething cauldron of his being,
Half with loathing, half with a strange love,
I poked him with an angry stick.
The fever arose, became a flame
And Vigour circumscribed the skies,
Immense energy in the sun,
And through my frame a sunless trembling.
My stick had done nor good nor harm.
Then stood I silent in the day
Watching the object, as before;
And kept my reverence for knowledge
Trying for control, to be still,
To quell the passion of the blood;
Until I had bent down on my knees
Praying for joy in the sight of decay.
And so I left; and I returned
In Autumn strict of eye, to see
The sap gone out of the groundhog,
But the bony sodden hulk remained.
But the year had lost its meaning,
And in intellectual chains
I lost both love and loathing,
Mured up in the wall of wisdom.
Another summer took the fields again
Massive and burning, full of life,
But when I chanced upon the spot
There was only a little hair left,
And bones bleaching in the sunlight
Beautiful as architecture;
I watched them like a geometer,
And cut a walking stick from a birch.
It has been three years, now.
There is no sign of the groundhog.
I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped a withered heart,
And thought of China and of Greece,
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.

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John Steinbeck (USA, 1902-1968)

John Steinbeck is my favorite novelist. In college I became obsessed with his novel East of Eden. The story centers around the Hamiltons, who are based on Steinbeck’s own family. Below is a section from that novel and three clips from the 1955 movie East of Eden, starring James Dean and Julie Harris. The middle clip is a scene between James Dean and actress Jo Van Fleet, who won an academy award as best-supporting actress in that movie. Van Fleet’s resemblance, mannerisms and attitude so remind me of my mother I cry each time I see it.

Here is the section from the novel on the Hebrew word timshel:

“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”
“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”

Samuel Hamilton was Steinbeck's grandfather, who died in 1904. He came to the U.S. from Ireland in 1846 and moved to Salinas, California in 1873.

“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.
Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”
Lee said, “I’m going to tell you. And it’s a fairly long story. Will you have a touch of ng-ka-py?”
“You mean the drink that tastes of good rotten apples?”
“Yes. I can talk better with it.”
“Maybe I can listen better,” said Samuel.

The Hamilton family. There are nine children in the Hamilton family in the novel.

While Lee went to the kitchen Samuel asked, “Adam, did you know about this?”
“No,” said Adam. “He didn’t tell me. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”
Lee came back with his stone bottle and three little porcelain cups so thin and delicate that the light shone through them. “Dlinkee Chinee fashion,” he said and poured the almost black liquor. “There’s a lot of wormwood in this. It’s quite a drink,” he said. “Has about the same effect as absinthe if you drink enough of it.”
Samuel sipped the drink. “I want to know why you were so interested,” he said.
“Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”
“You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”
“I think the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China too.”
“I just wanted to know,” said Samuel. “You’re not a Presbyterian after all.”
“I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own.”
“I have heard of them,” said Samuel.
“You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?”
“I guess so.”
“It’s a little different from that, really,” said Lee. “I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me.

Liza Hamilton was Steinbeck's grandmother.

“They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well.”
Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. “I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”
Lee laughed. “I guess it’s funny,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t dare tell it to many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn’t bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter.”
“And you?” said Samuel.
“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking—the beautiful thinking.

Olive Hamilton was Steinbeck's mother.

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam Trask is based on Steinbeck's father John E. Steinbeck.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”
Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”
Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”
“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

Here are three clips of James dean with:

Julie Harris

Jo Van Fleet

Raymond Massey

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