Posts Tagged ‘Selected Poems


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 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.







Quick Notes on Mark Strand

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.


Mark StrandMark Strand (1934 – 2014) was born in Canada, but he is considered an American poet. In 1990, he his collection of poems Blizzard of One won the Pulitzer Prize.

I picked up on four themes while reading through Mark Strand Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991). The selections begin with poems from his first book Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964) and ends with The Late Hour (1978), plus some New Poems from 1980. What I picked up on is that Strand is concerned with living a life that can be reflected on without regret, the idea of time (especially the present), the intersection of the surreal and the real, and the “I” of existence.

The concerns with living an unfulfilled life are most present in Sleeping with One Eye Open and then in The Story of Our Lives (1973). In “When the Vacation is Over for Good” (Sleeping with One Eye Open), Strand uses vacation as a metaphor for life, and when one is on vacation, one sometimes acts as if “There was nothing to do,” which is a waste of a vacation and a life, especially when the unforeseen “weather turned” and then one really couldn’t do anything. And eventually the vacation is over and the vacationer is left wondering “why it is / We are dying,” the closing lines to the poem. “Violent Storm” (which is the next poem in the Selected Poems) comes to a similar conclusion after a dialectical movement between dream/fantasy imagery with the imagery of the real. And it ends, “Already now the lights / That shared our wakefulness are dimming / And the dark brushes against our eyes.” Strand will throughout his poems give examples of how to be active, especially in the present.

For Strand, the present “is a place / you’ve never been” (“Black Maps,” Darker, 1970), it is “emptiness,” and it is something to inhabit, if it can be inhabited. For instance, Strand has what I call “temporal loop” poems. These are poems you read and feel like you are moving through time, but by the end, you are where you started, and you not sure if any time has passed. This occurs in “The Tunnel” (Sleeping with One Eye Open), where the speaker sees a man “standing in front” of his “house / for days.” The speaker tries to get him to leave, but the stranger will not. The speaker then tries to protect himself and escape to his neighbor’s house by digging a tunnel. Eventually, he comes “out in front of a house,” and he gets the sensation that:

     I feel I’m being watched
     and sometimes I hear
     a man’s voice
     but nothing is done and I have been waiting for days.

The speaker and the man at the door are the same, despite the shift in time and place. Or there is the psychological thriller in “The Mailman”:

     It is midnight.
     He comes up the walk
     and knocks at the door.
     I rush to greet him.
     He stands there weeping,
     shaking a letter at me.
     He tells me it contains
     terrible personal news.
     He falls to his knees.
     “Forgive me! Forgive me!” he pleads.

     I ask him inside.
     He wipes his eyes.
     His dark blue suit
     is like an inkstain
     on my crimson couch.
     Helpless, nervous, small,
     he curls up like a ball
     and sleeps while I compose
     more letters to myself
     in the same vein:

     “You shall live
     by inflicting pain.
     You shall forgive.”

This poem is from Reasons for Moving (1968). This looping idea and uncertainty of presence in the present will really come into full being in “The Untelling,” the nine-page poem from The Story of Our Lives, but more on that later. The poems that play with time and try to define the present are also poems that blend the perceived with the misperceived and how the misperceived becomes real, much like he does with the surreal and real imagery he uses.

The intersection of the surreal and real is introduced in the title of his first collection: Sleeping with One Eye Open, so as to suggest the real (one eye open) and dream world (sleeping and surreal) coexist. Often the poems move in a dialectical movement between the real and surreal, such as in “Violent Storm” (Sleeping with One Eye Open) or in “The Man in the Tree” (Reasons for Moving, 1968). Often after alternating between surreal and real imagery, there is a moment of analysis, but eventually, the reader (or the speaker, maybe) are left wondering what is real or surreal, or how is the surreal successfully posing as the real, or how the surreal became real? For example, in “What to Think Of” (Reasons for Moving), the poem opens:

     Think of the jungle,
     The green steam rising.

     It is yours.
     You are the Prince of Paraguay.

The poem begins by asserting the imagination and the reality it can create, and it’s so real, one can own it like a prince. And as a prince, as the poem shows, the people worship you (the imaginer) and the “air” you inhabited as prince. In fact, you as prince are “almost a god.” The imagined realm, however, can come alive without your consent. It’s something you can’t fully colonize. Soon the “bats / Rushing out of their caves,” and the “coral snakes,” “crimson birds,” and “tons and tons of morpho butterflies” arrive “Like the cold confetti of paradise.” In this case, the reality is harsh, because the imaginer tried to rule over it like a prince. This poem is also a poem about how to inhabit a place.

Inhabiting a place, especially the place of “I,” is a significant theme in Strand’s poems, where things are often being filled or emptied and where there is liminal imagery like doors, windows, and horizons. Much of Strand’s poetry is concerned with what I is or can be. There is the concern with the physical I, such as in “Keeping Things Whole”:

     In a field
     I am the absence
     of field.
     This is
     always the case.
     Wherever I am
     I am what is missing.

     When I walk
     I part the air
     and always
     the air moves in
     to fill the spaces
     where my body’s been.

     We all have reasons
     for moving.
     I move
     to keep things whole.

He is not a field, but he inhabits the space that is the absence of the field. He fills the void of wherever wherever is not. He is presence where once there was absence. He’s always walking into what is missing and his presence is erased by the moving air filling his spaces when he leaves. And so he moves to keep things whole. However, as I read more of Strand, I find the physical I that fills spaces to be only a container of the life of I. The body is not the I but is a storage unit for the life of I. This sounds confusing, so let me give an example.

     The Remains

     I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
     I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
     At night I turn back the clocks;
     I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

     What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
     I say my own name. I say goodbye.
     The words follow each other downwind.
     I love my wife but send her away.

     My parents rise out of their thrones
     into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing?
     Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
     I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

This poem is from Darker (1970). By the end of the first two lines, it’s as if he is without ego (how he interacts with “others”), without an id (as he has emptied himself of possessions and thus desire), and when he leaves his shoes, it’s like he’s walked out of himself. He tries to find himself through memories and through language, but those are all fleeting ways to make a self. He realizes he, but not his body, is his “change,” his growth, his experiences through time. And if he empties the shell of the body, his life still remains, in a way similar to a photograph. It’s the living that matters, not the body or appearance or presence of body. It’s what one does while inhabiting the body. It’s the body moving through the moments of time, for in each moment “There is the sleep of one moment / inside the next” (“The Sleep,” Darker, 1970) and each moment keeps birthing another moment until the final moment, which is death, which is “like another skin which I shall never be found, / out of which I shall never appear” (“The Sleep”). Death is another space into which one grows, as he says in “My Life,” “I grow into my death” (Darker, 1970). But if one doesn’t live that life in the body, then there will be regret.

Perhaps the one poem that brings all four of these themes together is “Elegy for My Father” (The Story of Our Lives, 1973), which has six sections. The first section is titled “The Empty Body.” This section along with section three, “Your Dying,” speak harshly to and about his dead father, who did not inhabit the one body he was given, as the opening lines indicate: “The hands were yours, the arms were yours, / But you were not there,” or later where he more clearly states it, “The body was yours, but you were not there.” According to the speaker, the father found pleasure in not filling his body with life experiences because, among many things, he “went to work let the cold enter your clothes. / [. . .] But nothing could stop you” from dying, and “You went on with your dying.” Slowly, I start to realize, or conjecture, that his father is the cause for Strand’s themes of living, the presence of I, and inhabiting the present. In section four, “Your Shadow,” real and surreal imagery enter the poem in the form of the father’s shadow, which in Jungian psychology is the unconscious part of the personality and everything that one cannot directly know about him- or herself. It is repressed substance, whether good or bad. In this case, it is the father’s will to live, for the shadow, after the father dies, is excited and “rejoiced among the ruins” of the dead host. The shadow is free and feels it can finally live. The shadow makes it presence known to the speaker as the speaker recounts what happened, “It sat on my shoulders. / Your shadow is yours. I told it so. I said it was yours. / I have carried it with me too long. I give it back.” (Where “yours” is his father.) Which to me seems like the speaker is saying something like, “I’ve been living enough and trying to fill both our lives (his and his father’s). Stop projecting on me. You had your opportunity to live, and now it’s past.” In the last section, “The New Year,” he tells his dead father in the winter of the new year, “Nobody knows you. You are the neighbor of nothing.” His father failed to fill the empty body with something.

Later in Strand’s writing, the surreal imagery occurs less often, and he also starts considering how language can fill the I or the present. In “The Untelling,” for example, the poem narrates how a character is trying to write and narrate and existence through writing, which continually fails in whole, but it does minutely affect his surroundings, or so we think until we arrive at the end of the poem, which is really the beginning of the poem again. We have entered another temporal loop, but his one is more of a narrative loop driven by language, which leaves the reader wondering, again, about perceptions and misperceptions and how they affect each other. This time, however, unlike the surreal-real interactions of his earlier poetry, it is the interaction of language with the real.


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

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

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

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

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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