Archive for October, 2015


Quick Notes on Charles Wright

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Charles WrightCharles Wright (August 25, 1935) is an American poet and professor emeritus of creative writing at the University of Virginia. In 1983, his book Country Music: Selected Early Poems shared the National Book Award with Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems; in 1998, his book Black Zodiac won the Pulitzer Prize; and in 2014, he was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Lately, I’ve been wondering about the materiality of language and what it means or is. After some research, I think I have an idea. The materiality of language suggests, in part, that language is a material substance that is part of the phenomenological experience of the world, and as a material, it is malleable – it can be changed, reshaped, and regulated. So language is two things: it’s part of the experience and it’s a tool to engage with an experience. Language becomes the landscape of vision, and we become language. Or as Wright says in “Tennessee Line”: “We are our final vocabulary, / and how we use it. / There is no secret contingency. / There’s only rearrangement, the redescription / Of little and mortal things” (17). Those last two lines act as an aesthetic principle for Wright, too. Poetry is old words in new orders exploring the same content. Poetry is style laid atop the content of experience. As Wright also says in “Chickamauga,” “The poem is a code with no message: / The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath, / Absolute, incommunicado, / unhoused and peregrine” (33).

Part of this linguistic experience is to give contour to the visible in order to experience the invisible, and by invisible I also mean abstract. Wright’s poems (at least in Negative Blue) move back and forth between abstraction (especially in statement form) and image. He creates juxtapositions of idea and experience. Usually the movement is on a small scale, such as in the middle of “Waiting for Tu Fu” (with Wright’s rare use of apostrophe):

     O we were pure and holy in those days,
     The August sunlight candescing our short-sleeved shirt fronts,
     The music making us otherwise.
     O we were abstract and true.
     How could we know that grace would fall from us like shed skin,
     That reality, our piebald dog, would hunt us down.

This stanza opens with the abstraction of “pure and holy,” and then shifts to images in the next two lines, then back to the abstract with “we were abstract and true,” but in the final two lines is where the movement is more sudden, as it goes from “grace” to “shed skin” in one line, and then in the last line, from the abstraction of “reality” to the concrete of “piebald dog,” and then the blending of abstract and concrete in “would hunt us down.” Wright concretizes the abstraction and makes it come alive in action as reality begins its hunt like a dog. Not all of Wright’s movements concretize abstractions as here, but the juxtapositions do give shape to the abstractions, or what cannot be seen.

A larger scale juxtaposition occurs in “Yard Work”:

     I think that someone will remember us in another time,
     Sappho once said – more or less –
     Her words caught
     Between the tongue’s tip and the first edge of the invisible.

     I hope so, myself now caught
     Between the edge of landscape and the absolute,
     Which is the same place, and the same sound,
     That she made.

     Meanwhile, let’s stick to business.
     Everything else does, the landscape, the absolute, the invisible.
     My job is yard work –
     I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.

The “more or less” in line 2 is acknowledgement that language is not exacting. It’s a means of communicating something close to what we mean, or as Wright says in “Sprung Narratives”: “The world is a language we never quite understand, / But we think we catch the drift of” (23). So even though language is part of the experience and a tool for experience, it’s not perfectly mimetic. It’s almost as if language is a gesture towards the truth. But what is truth in “Yard Work”? Is it that space between the visible and invisible? between the utterable and unutterable? – “Between the tongue’s tip and the first edge of the invisible”? Or is it between the physical and metaphysical? – “Between the edge of the landscape and the absolute.” Or is it the sign? – the word Sappho “made” out of signifier (“the same place”) and the signified (“the same sound”). The word as mediation of experience. Or is truth just keeping busy? Is truth action? Consider his work in the last line: “I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.” here there is measurement (“inch”) and movement (“from here to there”) and distance (however far it is from “here to there”), and are all three of these things are what one needs to identify time. Without movement, there is no time. Wright enacts the passage of time not only by the movement of inchworm, but also with the juxtaposition of past (Sappho) and present. That juxtaposition coupled with the more intricate juxtapositions of language (stanza 1), thought (stanza 2), and action (stanza 3), enables one to record memories and the invisible and the passage of time. Or as he more aptly says in the opening of “Basic Dialogue”:

     The transformation of objects in space,
                                                                or objects in time,
     To objects outside either, but tactile, still precise . . .
     It’s always the same problem –
     Nothing’s more abstract, more unreal,
                                                               than what we actually see.
     The job is to make it otherwise.


Works Cited

Wright, Charles. Negative Blue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. Print.



Quick Notes on Stephen Dunn

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Stephen DunnStephen Dunn (1939) is an American poet. His book Different Hours won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. He studied under Donald Justice, Philip Booth, and W. D. Snodgrass.

At the end of Dunn’s poem “Introduction to the 20th Century,” he writes, “In difficult times, we come to understand, / it’s the personal and only the personal matters” (83). I think that is a good summary of part of Dunn’s poetry, but there’s more which I’ll I get to in a moment. I also think these lines speak to contemporary American poetry, in general, especially when this poem is read, on one level, as an allegorical history of 20th century Anglo-American poetry. The first stanza traces the metronomic meters and Edwardian poetic imagery of early 20th century poetry to which Modernist poetry reacted. The first stanza also presents the bourgeois sensibility that was beginning to develop at the same time. The next stanza introduces a modernity of people working for “hours, days, weeks,” as well as the rise of city life with its subways. Then there’s the hint of the poets who “felt they had a say in the universe,” as the poet of Modernism felt he/she was a hero doing the important work of saving culture. And so the poets create “a rhythm and a hunch, something local / we could possibly trust.” They created free verse, new localities, and something to believe in. Part of Modernism poetry is the move away from temporality, or causality and the narrative flow of time, and the move towards the place, especially the juxtaposition of places to represent the poly-perspectives of reality, which is best evidenced with Cubism. And then Dunn’s poem arrives at the personal of contemporary American poetry. And when I think about this some more, especially in relation to Dunn, I find the personal also means less hermeneutic. When I read a poem between around 1914ish to 1945ish (the time of Modernism), I feel like a lot of work has to be done to read and understand those poems. I have to look up allusions, look up etymologies, scan quantitative and qualitative rhythms, and, in essence, I almost feel like I’m measuring poetry for how good it is. After 1945, I feel less of that, especially with Dunn.

Dunn, I think, is concentrated on choosing words and putting them in the most evocative and/or effective order, but he’s also creating experiences but not excavation sites. The reader doesn’t have to dwell on each word and dig layers down into the poem. The reader just needs to experience the poem of the personal level that is filled with detail, and then think about what it means to have inhabited that experience. Dunn’s language is easy to follow, but it’s certainly tight.

I think one way to look at Dunn’s poetry, in general, is too look at “Essay on the Personal” (139), which appeared in Not Dancing from 1984, six years after “Introduction to the 20th Century,” which appeared in A Circus of Needs.

     Essay on the Personal

     Because finally the personal
     is all that matters,
     we spend years describing stones,
     chairs, abandoned farmhouses –
     until we’re ready. Always
     it’s a matter of precision,
     what it feels like
     to kiss someone or to walk
     out the door. How good it was
     to practice on stones
     which were things we could love
     without weeping over. How good
     someone else abandoned the farmhouse,
     bankrupt and desperate.
     Now we can bring a fine edge
     to our parents. We can hold hurt
     up to the sun for examination.
     But just when we think we have it,
     the personal goes the way of
     belief. What seemed so deep
     begins to seem naive, something
     that could be trusted
     because we hadn’t read Plato
     or held two contradictory ideas
     or women in the same day.
     Love, then, becomes an old movie.
     Loss seems so common
     it belongs to the air,
     to breath itself, anyone’s.
     We’re left with style, a particular
     way of standing and saying,
     the idiosyncratic look
     at the frown which means nothing
     until we say it does. Years later,
     long after we believed it peculiar
     to ourselves, we return to love.
     We return to everything
     strange, inchoate, like living
     with someone, like living alone,
     settling for the partial, the almost
     satisfactory sense of it.

The poem’s, or essay’s, thesis is, “the personal / is all that matters,” and the poem attempts to prove this twice. The first way occurs in lines 1 to 19, and the second from line 20 to the end. In line 6, Dunn writes, “it’s a matter of precision,” and there is precision of detail throughout Dunn’s poems. It’s a concern of Dunn to be exacting, as he explains in an interview with William Walsh. Dunn tells Walsh how Philip Booth influenced him with this need for this precision: “Philip was an old Puritan and he would write in the margins [of Dunn’s workshop poems], ‘Deepen your concerns!!’ I couldn’t get away with anything. He loved exactitude. Anything imprecise pissed him off” (78). This precision allows Dunn to get intimate and personal. As Norman Dubie says, “details create intimacy,” and I think this is true for Dunn, too, but not wholly true. In the middle of the poem is a turn, and this turn also mimics Dunn’s poetry. The turn begins and ends with, “But just when we think we have it, / the personal goes the way of / belief. What seemed so deep / begins to feel naïve, [. . .] because we hadn’t [. . .] held two contradictory ideas.” This also describes how Dunn’s poetry moves. Dunn also tells Walsh, “My working habits are essentially to doubt everything I write, to refine, and to work myself down the page by disagreeing with myself until I have something I can hold. Then doubt that for a while” (77). Dunn moves by questioning what he writes or assumes. His poems present and consider in order to create hard, believable, and felt experiences. His poetry in other words is a “style, a particular / way of standing and saying, / the idiosyncratic look / at the frown which means nothing / until we say it does.” His poetry, in part, is the poetry of interpreting the personal experiences of himself or a loved one, and then, through language, sharing what the experience means, but it’s a meaning that doesn’t have to be excavated for like a Modernism poem. It’s excavated by the reader turning inward and experiencing the empathy that Dunn experienced.

And now for a non sequitur. In a note I wrote in this book a long time ago, I said, “Stephen Dunn takes the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary, and makes them magical. It’s magical realism that gives middle-class America life, movement, meaning, love, and awe. . . . His poem are ‘approximately true’.”


Works Cited

Dunn, Stephen. New and Selected Poems: 1974-1994. New York: Norton, 1995. Print.

Walsh, William. “An Interview with Stephen Dunn.” Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art 16.1 (2014): 74-91. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 23 Oct. 2015. PDF.



Quick Notes on John Ashbery

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


John AsberyJohn Ashbery (July 28, 1927) was born in Rochester, NY. His collection of poems Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), won the hat-trick of literary prizes: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. This book is considered a masterpiece, or at least his masterpiece, and it is what I will try to work though.

In “The Tomb of Stuart Merrill,” Ashbery has a character ask a poet, “I really would like to know what it is you do to ‘magnetize’ your poetry, where the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.” While it is jesting commentary about what someone might say to a poet at a reading or post-reading party, there is some truth in it, at least for me. It occurs is in the last part, “the curious reader, always a bit puzzled, comes back for a clearer insight.” I think I will mostly focus on this, because the circling back is caused by the manner in which Ashbery writes.

Like Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery is concerned with the reality or the presentation of the real. In that regard, both are metaphysical poets, but Ashbery may be the more metaphysical. Both think that reality is a fiction created by a person or an era, and that it does not sustain itself, which is what Stevens calls the “supreme fiction.” Stevens however tackles the metaphysics of what is real in a traditionally more poetic way – he uses meter, rhyme, and forms. Stevens has developed thoughts about reality. Ashbery, however, is in the moment of thinking and in traditionally non-poetic forms. It’s almost as if Ashbery is thinking on the page or retracing recent thoughts. When I read Ashbery, I find that I am following his thoughts, and then all of the sudden I feel lost. My expectations are subverted by his wandering mind. But this is the reality he is creating – the mind thinking in associations. It’s like a stream of consciousness, but not exactly. With stream of consciousness, the unconscious or suppressed emotions will often reveal themselves, but with Ashbery, we stay on the surface of language and a conscious mind as if “A speech in play consisting entirely of stage directions” (“De Imagine Mundi” 451). Whose mind that is or what stage it is I am not sure, nor is the speaker of “De Imagine Mundi,” who opens the poem: “The many as noticed by one: / The noticed one, confusing itself with the many / Yet perceives itself as an individual” (451). Is the “I” one person? or is fragments of people? or both? Are all fictions and possibilities something to be considered?

Nonetheless, the mind, whoever’s mind it is, is concerned with the present, the moment that is “perpendicular to the ground” (“Voyage in Blue” 445). I like that image of the present. It’s how I envision the present, at least the lyric present, or what Li-Young Lee calls “the vertical moment.” And while the present is perpendicular to the ground, it moves, or as he says in “Grand Galop,” “Here, as elsewhere / April advances new suggestions.” Which is to say the present advances with new suggestions, which feels like a metaphor of the mind thinking, or waiting, which is a theme of “Grand Galop.” The waiting is what “fills up the time between” the now and the future, but this waiting is a creative time – “The wait is built into the things just coming into their own. / Nothing is partially incomplete, but the wait / Invests everything in its climate” (436). In this poem, the speaker inhabits, or waits in, the in-between space/time between the present and the next present, which is all anyone can really do. One way to try and describe an Ashbery poem in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is to refer to the end of “As You Came from the Holy Land”:

     knowing as the brain does it can never come about
     not here not yesterday in the past
     only in the gap of today filling itself
     as emptiness distributed
     in the idea of what time it is
     when that time is already past

This, in part, also describes my reading process of Ashbery, I often find myself reading a poem, then midway through stopping and going back a dozen or so lines to an earlier present in the poem, and starting over again, as I mentioned above. That can happen often in just one poem. This method, I assume, is his way of challenging the reader.

The pace or emotional intensity of Ashbery’s poems are even keeled. There are no rises in sudden enlightenment or understanding, no epiphanies, no grand gesturing. Though there is humor and parodying, such as “Love” (part one of “Poem in Three Parts”), where he parodies Wordsworth idea of “emotions recollected in tranquility” when he says about oral sex he once received, “Now years later, I think of it / Without emotion” (443). Later in the section he will also parody “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” A better example of even-keeled manner and parody mixed together is in “River.”

     It thinks itself too good for
     These generalizations and is
     Moved on by them. The opposite side
     Is plunged in shade, this one
     In self-esteem. But the center
     Keeps collapsing and re-forming.
     The couple at a picnic table (but
     It’s too early in the season for picnics)
     Are traipsed across by the river’s
     Unknowing knowledge of its workings
     To avoid possible boredom and the stain
     Of too much intuition the whole scene
     Is walled behind glass. “Too early,”
     She says, “in the season.” A hawk drifts by.
     “Send everybody back to the city.”

This recalls Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” where “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But in Yeats’ poem there is great drama as “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and “Spiritus Mundi” arrives. Ashbery’s poem, however, is less dramatic. There is a surreal river thinking and picnickers arrive, and the only dramatic thing to occur is that they are out of place, as they are there too early in the season. They are unexpected as the “hawk [that] drifts by,” as opposed to Yeats’ dramatic “rough beast” and other mythic creatures. This poem, like many Ashbery poems, meanders like a “river of consciousness.” The mind moves from noun to noun with only the stream of consciousness connecting the movement, and here in this moment, with no beginning, or an in media res beginning, drifts around from river to people arriving to a hawk to people leaving, which isn’t an end it’s just part of the ever flowing and shifting present. It’s almost as if Ashbery’s poems don’t try to create meaning; they just try to create a mind creating a fictive understanding in a real and mutating moment.

Much of what Ashbery is doing might be best realized in the second stanza of “Ode to Bill”:

     Or, to take another example: last month
     I vowed to write more. What is writing?
     Well, in my case, it’s getting down on paper
     Not thoughts, exactly, but ideas, maybe;
     Ideas about thoughts. Thoughts is too grand a word.
     Ideas is better, though not precisely what I mean.
     Someday I’ll explain. Not today though.


Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. John Ashbery: Collected Poems: 1956-1987. New York: The Library of America, 1997. 425-487. Print.



Quick Notes on Gwendolyn Brooks

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Gwendolyn BrooksGwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 1920) is an American poet and was the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize with her book Annie Allen (1949). Langston Hughes was one of her mentors. Brooks poetry explores meter and form, politics, and the lives of many African American people (both real and fictitious), as well as “Black English vernacular” (Mickle 8).

According to Timothy Seibles in “The Black Aesthetic,” “Up to this point [the 1940s], most of the poetry written by black Americans spotlighted characters/speakers that resonated as symbols of the race, or symbols of the spirit that would sustain the race, or symbols of the suffering that black people have endured” (175). With Brooks, however, we get characters that feel real. We get inside their heads and hearts and motivations. In fact, by the time I finish Gwendolyn Brooks: Selected Poems, I feel as if Brooks created a whole new country or exposed a country filled with characters don’t traditionally appear in American poetry or who were/are rarely acknowledged in popular culture. She gives voice to the unheard and she gives it to us in their voices. Brooks can write sonnets, ballads, rhyme royals, and many brilliant form poems and free verse poems, but her creation of and delivery of these characters and making them real is what I enjoy most, especially Annie Allen in “The Anniad.”

“The Anniad” is 43-stanza long poem about a poor, black woman, who is unacknowledged by “the higher gods,” vilified by “the lower gods,” and who is “underfed.” In this poem, she becomes a hero on a quest to identify herself and/or to comfortably fit herself into the world she lives in. The title “The Anniad” plays with the title to Virgil’s epic poem “The Aeneid,” and the structure of the poem uses Chaucer’s rhyme royal, though Brooks modifies it for her needs. All the stanzas use trochaic meter with a catalectic end foot, instead of iambic pentameter, and she varies the rhyme scheme of ababbcc as is needed. By calling up the epic form (the hero’s journey) and the rhyme royal, Brooks can elevate Annie Allen from a poor, hungry black woman to that of a hero, while also involving us in the life of a black woman during World War II. This begins by showing us a double consciousness (by which I mean something similar to W. E. B. DuBois’s double consciousness – the “peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one-self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”) that the young Annie experiences with her seeing the world through the white male stories of adventure and fantasy with the world of knights (who don’t exist) – “Watching for the paladin / Which no woman had ever had” – and the reality of who she is with “black and boisterous hair” filled with “anger.” This double consciousness is also reflected in Chaucer’s form, where Brooks uses a traditional English form but fills it with content of a poor black woman and colloquial Black English (and at times with parodies of Old English to re-emphasize the dual perceptions – her perception versus the confusing and contradictory perceptions from other standards). Throughout the long poem, Annie tries to find her identity, despite the contradictory identifiers of race and gender, or as Langston Hughes says in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.” I think this is Annie’s quest, too.

Brooks also uses and alludes to these poetic forms, I think, because ofwhat Mildred R. Mickle points out in “Career, Life, and Influence”:

The twentieth century was a time when black artists made significant headway in several struggles:

  1. The struggle to define what black art can be by determining to what degree black artists should assimilate into the American mainstream or speak only to the black community
  2. The struggle to determine what the role of the black artist can be, whether as a protester or as an artist who creates only for the self
  3. The struggle to establish a place for black art within the larger confines of American art by either adhering to the standards of the mainstream or establishing new standards that would become part of the mainstream

These three issues formed the main debate of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, but they are not exclusive to that time. (4)

Brooks shows she can master the mainstream expectations of poetry while speaking to the “black community” at the same time, while creating new poetic standards.

Getting back to Annie, her “black and boisterous hair, / Taming all that anger down” is also a continuation of this double consciousness. These lines close stanza 5, which opens with “Think of thaumaturgic lass / Looking in her looking-glass.” This sets the stage of the two ways of Annie seeing herself, what she thinks about herself and what she sees in the mirror. Thus, when we get to the closing lines, we can feel even more confusion because she has her own hair but she has to tame it. And to tame it, I assume, this means she would have to straighten her curly and wild hair because of some other’s standard of beauty – the experience of double consciousness manifested in the presentation of hair. Here, also, begins her “metamorphosis” to satisfy the tan man, who will later pursue other women, who look and act differently than she, as they are “bacchanalian lass[es].”

The tan man rejects Annie as an after effect of his time fighting for America in World War II. When he returns from war to America, he doesn’t feel as equal and/or purposeful as did when he was a soldier. Back in the States, with its white privilege, there is “this white and greater chess / [that] Baffles tan man,” which is to say there are greater complications because of interactions between races, and he has to play a complicated game to survive those interactions, which he didn’t experience as a soldier. As a result, he lost his belief in America and its alleged equalities, and as a consequence, he finds women other than Annie to sleep with.

This recalls the earlier Brooks’ poem “Negro Hero,” which calls out the hypocrisies of black man considered “good enough” to fight a war for “Their white-gowned democracy [. . .] fair lady,” but where back in the states he is treated as less than human, where “a white man said / Indeed, I’d rather be dead; / Indeed, I’d rather be shot in the head / Or ridden to waste on the back of a flood / Than saved by the drop of a black’s man blood.” Back home in the states, the white-privileged men will do what they need to preserve “their law in all its sick dignity [. . .] / To the continuation of their creed / And their lives” [my italics].

Brooks also presents a double consciousness in a white woman in “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” In a similar way as in “The Anniad,” Brooks incorporates myth and fable by showing us a white woman who is situated in a fantasy world of her “Fine Prince” (her white husband or lover) and a “Dark Villain.” The Dark Villain is not a scary beast who has eaten many “knights and princesses” as she envisions it, but, in reality, he is a 14-year-old black boy “with eyes still too young to be dirty, / And a mouth too young to have lost every reminder / Of its infant softness.” Additionally, this boy, according to McKibbin is Emmett Till. This makes the lady the woman Till allegedly flirted with and makes her lover the man who killed Till for the alleged flirting. In this poem, the woman has to perform the role of mother and wife, and she has to present herself in a fashion that is pleasing to her lover – “she hurried / To the mirror with her comb and lipstick. It was necessary / To be more beautiful than ever. / The beautiful wife.” In fact, she sometimes enjoyed being objectified, or receiving his look “at her as though measuring her.” This double consciousness, however, gets complicated, according to McKibbin:

Brooks’s apparent sympathy for the white woman as the pawn of domineering white men is subverted as she deconstructs the romance within the woman’s mind and thereby holds the woman responsible for her complicity in the myth, and consequently, in the murder. (667)

Brooks, according to McKibbin, is thus condemning the woman for the romantic world she has created and lives in, and McKibbin may be correct. However, this woman is also held hostage in the hierarchy of white male privilege in the south and the romantic notions of power that come with that. He threatens and beats the children and her. Eventually, she became trapped in her hate of him, “a hatred for him [that] burst into a glorious flower, / And its perfume enclasped them – big, / Bigger than all magnolias.” In the end, she is a passive figure who does not or cannot voice a defense for herself, for the racism, the violent racism, nor can she voice in the courtroom where her lover is on trial. She is no longer the “mild maid” at the beginning of the poem, but the romantic notions of her world have been subverted.

In the end, Brooks meets all eight of the criteria she sets out in “Prologue. The New Preparation. Aims. Subject Matter. Method. The Hard Flower.,” especially points 7 and 8: “7. You must make your reader believe that what you say could be true. [. . .] 8. Remember that ART is refining and evocative translation of the materials of the world!” (11).


Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “Prologue. The New Preparation. Aims. Subject Matter. Method. The Hard Flower.” A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975. 3-11. Print.

—. Selected Poems. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.

McKibbin, Molly Littlewood. “Southern Patriarchy and the Figure of the White Woman in Gwendolyn Brooks’s “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” African American Review 44.4 (2011): 667-685. Project Muse. Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

Mickle, Mildred R. “Career, Life, and Influence: On Gwendolyn Brooks.” Critical Insights: Gwendolyn Brooks (2010): 1-8. Literary Reference Center. Web. 9 Oct. 2015.

Seibles, Timothy. “The Black Aesthetic.” A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Eds. Jack Myers and David Wojahn. Carondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. 158-189. Print.





Quick Notes on Rita Dove

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Rita DoveRita Dove (August 28, 1952) is an American poet whose collection of poems Thomas and Beulah (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, which is what I will focus on.

Thomas and Beulah is a contemporary collection of poetry that uses a Modernist collage technique of telling a story, much like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where four different narrators narrate the decline of the Compson family. With Dove’s collection, she narrates the story of two people (who might be her grandparents) and who eventually become married. The narrator, unlike Faulkner’s narrators, is all-knowing but does not insert herself into the stories. When reading through these poems, I expected there to be a developing love story or that at least something very significant would take place, but after Lem drowns in the opening poem, “Event,” the poems are uneventful. Not that the poetry is uneventful, for the poetry is terrific. But the happenings within the poems and the stories are uneventful. The narrator tells us Thomas’s story of meeting and living with Beulah, but it’s just like so many other marriages, except that Thomas doesn’t mention her name in his section. Beulah’s section is about her life and how it intersects with Thomas’s life. That might be the way to think about this collection: how two seemingly parallel narratives intersect, but share little in common, especially love between Thomas and Beulah. Thomas driving force is his love for Lem, while Beulah’s driving force is an unfulfilled dream of going to Paris and maybe staying in love with a man she met before Thomas. Perhaps Dove made their lives uninteresting for a similar reason that Richard Wright makes Bigger Thomas a murderer. Prior to Wright’s Native Son, writers often presented African Americans as passive and innocent victims of racism, who lived their days in silence but with dignity. As a result of this, Wright creates the murderer so his readers would be forced to confront the realities of racism, and not the tropes and clichés of racism. Dove then, maybe, makes Thomas and Beulah ordinary lovers and workers who have children to show a different aspect of racism. With all the detail Dove gives in her imagistic narrative, the reader can piece together the lives and experiences of two African Americans living in America from the early 1900s through the 1960s, but without using the tropes that have were often used when writing about African American experiences. Dove gives us Two African American experiences across the backdrop of the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and the March on Washington in ordinary but accumulative details. Helen Vendler probably says it more eloquently:

Thomas and Beulah represents Dove’s rethinking of the lyric poet’s relation to the history of blackness. No longer bound to a single lyric moment, she lets the successive raw data of life (perceived over time by a man and by his wife at the same epoch and in the same circumstances) become pieces for a reader to assemble. The sure hand of structural form supports each life-glimpse: cunningly counter-balancing each other into stability, the tart and touching individual poems add up to a sturdy two-part invention which symbolizes that mysterious third thing, a lifelong marriage – lived, it is true, in blackness, but not determined by blackness alone. (82)


Works Cited

Vendler, Helen. “Rita Dove: Identity Markers.” The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. 59-88. Print.



Quick Notes of Richard Hugo

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Richard HugoRichard Hugo (1923 – 1982) is an American poet, and is typically associated with the Pacific Northwest. During World War II he was a bombardier. Most, if not all, of his poems are metrical, and usually iambic or trochaic, and eventually he picks up a colloquial tone.

The selected poems from A Run of Jacks (1961) that appear in Selected Poems: Richard Hugo (Norton, 1979) are mostly observational poems of environments, people, and people in environments. The speaker, or the I, does not appear often in these poems, but the speaker does try to observe and sympathize with his surroundings. For instance, in line 13 of “Neighbor” – “I try to guess what’s in that dim warm mind” – is an example of how he tries sympathize with the characters he finds. Or in “Duwamish,” where he observes not only the environment, but how four different cultures – the Northwesterner, a Greek, the speaker, and a Native American – interact with the land and what it means to each. “Back of Gino’s Place” might be a good overall example of these types of observations.

     Back of Gino’s Place

     Most neglect this road, the concrete torn
     and hunched, purple boxcars
     roasting in the wind or in the sun,
     both direct as brass. Only smoke
     from two shacks and a scratchy radio
     prevent abandonment from falling
     on this lateral bare area like fog.

     In the winter what clean nightmare
     brought a sketcher here
     to risk his hands, the loss of line
     in this much light? Not the poverty
     alone, but other ways of being,
     using basic heat: wood brought in
     by the same sea that is blaring
     wealthy ships to a freshly painted port.

     He was right to come. Light
     in this place cannot kill the lines
     of the charred boar, the rusted net,
     the log-boom beached and slanted
     waiting for a tide. Not when a need to die
     here, just to be an unobtrusive ghost,
     takes from mud and wood the color of the day.

The poem begins “Most neglect this road,” but it’s more than the road they neglect, it’s the place to where the road leads. More importantly, it’s “most,” but not all, as some have taken the challenge to go into this barren environment. A few interact with this environment in a most humble way, including an artist who is willing to sacrifice his hands to make his art, and to draw in too much light. The artist does become accustomed to the environment and “He was right to come” so he could catch the colors and lines he needed.

The selected poems from Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (1965) have a more involved “I,” but an I who is still observing, but less objectively. In many of the poems he comments on the industrialized world either entering into and disturbing some local town or environment or ignoring the small town or environment. In other words, he points out (indirectly) how industry determines the value of an area, by how it interacts with it. The book shows this on a small scale and larger scales. Early on is the poem “Between the Bridges,” where a loan shark sets up a “shack” in a desolate area to hide away with his money. He is disguised as “poverty” in that shack, like the poverty in the surrounding area. The loan shark takes the environment for his advantage. In “Tahola,” a Native American town prepares for the white tourists, who will buy baskets “rumored [to have been made by] Cherokee” or who will bribe Native American nature guides with booze in order to “pry stories from the guide.” When the white people’s money is gone, they leave. They can no longer afford the commodities of the town. They have gotten all they can, and so the town is of no use, or value. On a larger scale of this industry invasion is the poem “What the Brand New Freeway Won’t Go By,” where the speaker notes “the freeway soon will siphon / the remaining world away.”

Even the speaker gets caught up in using nature for his own. In “The Blond Road,” the speaker describes an environment with “Not one home or car. No shacks.” In other words, no humans live there. There is no human interference in this environment, save the worn down dirt road, and “no man will improve it with macadam.” But he briefly fantasizes about colonizing this land, “I planned to cheat the road with laughter. / Build a home no storm could crack.” In the end, he realizes the sanctity of the area. But it also sets up a theme of the individual’s relationship with their environment, which I’ll get to. Before that, I want to look at:

     December 24 and George McBride is Dead

     You a gentleman and I up from grime –
     now wind has shut your dark, dark eyes
     and I am left to hate this Christmas eve.
     Christ they’re playing carols. Some crap
     never stops. You’re dead and I’m without
     one goddam Wagner record in the house
     to play you up to what for some must be
     behind the sky with solid orchestration.

     Rest in your defeat, you stupid jerk,
     so fat your heart gave out, so sweet
     you couldn’t help but hear the punks.
     “One gulp. The whole quart, Mac.” That town
     you died in – so unlikely – vineyards,
     sunny valleys, stark white mansions
     and the pale priest summoning
     brown sinners from the olive grove.
     I’ll not know your grave, though I believe
     our minds have music that can lead us
     through the tangle to the lost stone of a friend.

     I get along, write my poems. Essentially
     a phony, I try to write my feelings now
     and know I fail. George, it’s Christmas eve
     and bells are caroling. I’m in the kitchen
     fat and writing, drinking beer and shaking.

In this poem, the speaker is at his most engaging personal involvement with another, an intimate friend who just died. Together they grew up “from the grime,” as if they evolved from the lowest form of life, but now they are cultured, as evidenced by his friend being a “gentlemen,” and the speaker hating Christmas carols, missing have Wagner to play to properly mourn his friend, and writing poetry. Despite the evolution from grime to culture, there is a colloquial language, such as “crap,” “jerk,” “punk,” gulp,” and “Mac.” These conflicted high- and low-cultural traits complicates the speaker, but I think it gets us closer to who Hugo is – an educated man but grounded in the life of small, hardworking, dying towns in the Northwest. Further, at the end of the poem, we see a self-deprecation come through. All of this, to me, feels like Richard Hugo. We see who is by how he reacts with another or with environments.

The selections from Good Luck in Cracked Italian appear to be poems about his time as a bombardier in World War II in the Mediterranean. In these poems, we again experience more involvement of the I and the human imposition on nature or selected areas. This time, however, the impositions come from war. More still, something maybe even more interesting happens (and it may have been something that happened in his earlier poems, but I didn’t pick up on it). In these poems, Hugo writes about how a person’s inner being or state is reflected in the environment and/or how the environment affects a person. In other words, Hugo engages in the intimacy between person and environment. For instance, in “Spinazzola: Quella Cantina Là,” Hugo learns about the clouds, how to navigate through them, and how he can be safe in a flying environment, whereas in the opening poem of this collection, he says, “You never understood a cloudy north” (“Docking at Palermo”). In “Spinazzola,” Hugo “can’t explain the wind” (which becomes a refrain of sorts), but he can intuit meanings of the wind and nature, such as “A field of wind gave license for defeat” or that there are certain clouds he shouldn’t “fly into.” From flying so much, he has come to intuitively understand his environment, though he can’t explain it. There’s also the poem “Remote Farm on the Dubrovnik-Sarajevo Run,” where Hugo imagines a child imagining his (the child’s) place in the earth (his grave, “a rich cut into the soil”) and becoming part of the environment after he dies. This displaced farm, where he lives, (displaced by the commerce of trains) situates the child in an environment he must come to know because he can’t escape it, as the last stanza shows:

                                                If you run away
     you cut your feet, your first scream comes back
     doubled in the city, and day old walls
     seem like arms [. . .]

In the end, Hugo is effective at interacting with others and environments and showing how the act upon each other. Hugo’s a poet of lost environments, towns, and people.

Hopefully, one day when I have time I’ll write a paper about the use of roads in Hugo’s poems.


Quick Notes on Donald Justice

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Donald JusticeDonald Justice (1925 – 2004) is an American poet who was a master of poetic form and technique. The Summer Anniversaries (1960) won the Lamont Poetry Prize, and Selected Poems (1979) won the Pulitzer Prize.

I am not sure how to approach writing about Donald Justice, as “his overall career denies easy categorization” (“Biography”). So I will trace his approach to the personal, and then provide a brief hypothesis based on that trace. Looking back on what I just read in Donald Justice: New and Selected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), especially the poems from 1960 (The Summer Anniversaries) through 1975 (Departures) is that reading Justice is like reading an outline of 20th century poetry through the 1970s, in style, form, and experimentation. In The Summer of Anniversaries, a 35-year-old Justice writes mostly metrical and formal poems, but it is hard to find Justice in these poems, except for a few poems that seem based on his life or from his life, such as “Sonnet to My Father,” “The Poet at Seven,” or “The Summer Anniversaries.” Most of the poems, however, are not like the more trendy personal poems of his time, where the poet inserts himself or herself more directly into the poem. Justice’s poems in this collection tend to observe, comment on, and/or inhabit another. In addition, his language is tight, but sometimes with inversions and some ornamentation, like poetry at the beginning of the 20th century.

In Night Light (1967), there is shift. In these poems, we more clearly encounter Justice’s larger themes of loneliness, despair, and lovelessness, which are all good material for Confessional poems that we might find in the poetry of his contemporaries, but his poems aren’t confessional. They aren’t confessional because, again, we don’t really see Justice in these poems, as he is still observing others, though less formally but with more humor. It is in this book that Justice appears like a Modernist poet and/or a New Critic poet. His language is controlled, tight, and straight forward. His images are grounded in the real and less ornamental, and the images are not acting as metaphors or allegories. The image is the image. In doing so, Justice gives us a depiction of a lonely person or a despairing person or some other person, which enables the reader to inhabit those spaces. Where a Confessional poet is personal and private, Justice gets into the personal and private of another, whether he should or should not. In addition, while he averts the personal and private, his language becomes more familiar. He uses less meter and form. His language and free verse poetry (though very precise) more closely aligns with his contemporaries. His language is more everyday and plainer. He abandons ornament, it seems, to present a real rendering over the “poetic” rendering. This enables Justice to get closer to the truth of his subject and/or sympathize and empathize more intimately with his subject. With all of that said, “Heart” might be a confessional poem.

     Heart, let us this once reason together.
     Thou art a child no longer. Only think
     What sport the neighbors have from us, not without cause.
     These nightly sulks, these clamorous demonstrations!
     Already they tell us thee a famous story.
     An antique, balding spectacle such as thou art,
     Affecting still that childish, engaging stammer
     With all the seedy innocence of an overripe pomegranate!
     Henceforth, let us conduct ourselves more becomingly!

     And still I hear thee, beating thy little fist
     Against the walls. My dear, have I not led thee,
     Dawn after streaky dawn, besotted, home?
     And still these threats to have off as before?
     From thee, how wouldst lose thyself in the next street?
     Go the, O my inseparable, this once more.
     Afterwards we will take thought for our good name.    (68)

A humorous confessional poem at that, with the antiquated language, apostrophes, and exclamation points. Perhaps it’s a parody.

Departures (1975) is another turning in Justice’s poetry, as these poems depart from the not very personal to the personal. And the final poem (at least the final poem in the selection from Departures), “Absences,” feels Deep Image personal, as it uses language, tone, and images that seem to come directly from Robert Bly’s poems.

     It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
     There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote,
     Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
     Of a childhood piano – outside the window, palms!
     And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
     Soon to let down its white or yellow-white.

     Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
     Like the memory of a white dress cast down . . .
     So much has fallen.
     And I, who have listened for a step
     All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
     Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
     On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.    (115)

When I finish this section of selected poems, I wonder if Justice always wanted to write the personal poem. If in fact he wasn’t a personal poet but doing it covertly and quietly through personae, such as in the poems “Men at Forty” (Night Light (1967), 76) – where he might be writing about himself at 40 through the third-person “they” – or “The Thin Man” (Night Light (1967), 78) – which uses the first-person “I,” which on first reading seems more like an objective “I,” but in reflection may be the personal “I” – or in “The Man Closing Up” ((Night Light (1967), 79-81), a poem that examines an isolated man without desire, who is depressed, and filled with anxiety and loneliness. The poem also uses metaphors and symbols which suggest emotions, unlike his typical realistic imagery.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from Justice’s poetry is his ever varying style. As Dana Gioia says about the Selected Poems:

[It] reads almost like an anthology of the possibilities of contemporary poetry [. . .] There are sestinas, villanelles, and ballads rubbing shoulders with aleatory poems [composed using chance methods], surreal odes, and . . . free verse . . . A new technique is often developed, mastered, and exhausted in one unprecedented and unrepeatable poem. (“Biography”)


Works Cited

Biography: Donald Justice.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. N.d. Web. 2 Oct. 10.






The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

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Poems for an Empty Church

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The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

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