In my last post I described the beauty of “strangeness” and how it can capture the imagination with its oddity. Most poems are strange ballets. Another category of poem that I appreciate (and more and more with age) is what I’d call the poetry of nostalgia. So many great poems are infused with a kind of quiet, melancholy sense of nostalgia—just a whiff of ruefulness or a lingering scent of longing for a past—a past idealized, perhaps, but a past that seems better, more innocent than what we know now. The nostalgic poem can be rendered stupid by too much sentimentality—“How Dear to My Heart Is the Old Oaken Bucket,” has a rather cheap and paltry sentimentality.Oscar Wilde says that “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” James Joyce says that “Sentimentality is unearned emotion.” The great WB Yeats writes that , “Rhetoric is fooling others. Sentimentality is fooling yourself.” Flannery O’Connor warns that ““To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness”.

Sentimentality is an easy bathos which can serve as a kind of emotional antechamber to a more knowing, more transcendent love of beauty. When I was about nine years old I kept rereading the passage in Little Women where young Beth dies. Alcott writes that “Beth, who keeps the house is always kind and gentle” and sets up the young female reader who is typically racked with guilt because she is not automatically “always kind and gentle” as the superlative Beth. Beth’s death scene is indeed a kitschy theatre of pathetic fallacy. Many years later it all seems like alien corn to me, but I think that the place of sentimental poetry is to get a person invested in words and their invocation of emotion.

John Keats rightly says, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us”. The old oaken bucket and Beth’s death and Kilmer’s trees want to bludgeon us. And they serve their purpose if they bludgeon us into emotional or intellectual receptivity of more subtle poetry.

The poetry of nostalgia gives us a glimpse of a past. This past was, perhaps, one that seemed unredeemable at the time. It takes us back to a time and a place that, even if we never knew it, now swim into our ken as if a real memory.

I like this poem by the remarkable Philip Larkin:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day–
And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Philip Larkin

Larkin conjures up a past world in which children named Albert or Bertha play innocently in the brilliant sun of August not yet aware of the impending Guns of August. His tone is nostalgic but I read a good deal of irony infusing the nostalgia. These men are about to go to the deaths. They don’t know if they are on a lark or in the dark. Nature, silent, does not embrace them. Larkin mentions the servants in their tiny rooms and the poem almost necessarily becomes a critique of the past just as it remains nostalgic.

As a title, “MCMXIV” conjures up war memorials and the kinds of mostly solemn occasions in which Roman Numerals are used (I know my Roman numerals because movies like to “sign themselves” with their dates).

Like all great poems, it opens up questions instead of resolving them. Is the speaker imagining a memory? Glancing at a photograph? Trying to share sentiments that are not ruled by a subject and a predicate—in one sentence that goes on for 32 lines?

Strange Ballet



Some of the greatest poems, like hugely magnificent oil paintings or like elaborate classical symphonies, are not easy to comprehend. Poems like Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” or his “Intimations” Ode or the psychological work Browning does in poems like “Fra Lippo Lippi” or “Andrea del Sarto” are not the matter of a ten-minute read. What you can do, however, if you’d like more great poetry in your life is look upon the great long lyrical poems or the sweeping narrative poems as new friendships. Slowly, gradually, with regular visits, the poem will unfold its aesthetic splendors and its wisdom. Soon it will touch you. Perhaps you begin by appreciating just one phrase—“the still sad music of humanity”. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” “I have measured out my life in coffee-spoons.” “Death is the mother of beauty”. “Old age hath yet his honour and his toil”. “Postmen like doctors go from house to house.” “I could say elves to him, but it’s not elves exactly”.

I never much liked Beethoven’s cerebral late quartets when I was young; I preferred the rousing symphonies. I didn’t really see the point of Mark Rothko for years. I had to sit in sundry galleries and be with Rothko’s work for a long time before I could say that I had the fumbling beginnings of an “I’ve got it” moment that has made me want to sit with him again. And I love Beethoven’s late quartets now and cannot imagine how I failed to appreciate the deep comprehension of humanity within them.

I don’t require all the art in the world to be magisterial and profound. Poetry has delights comparable to light music or to a simple sketch. The hook for me can be an odd or intriguing image; a strange group of words that conjures up a response. Some great poems can be like an amuse-bouche, a sonatina giocosa, a sketch of a toucan or a small water-color of a purple fish. I especially enjoy the kinds of poems that I call “strange ballets.” These are poems with a bizarre verbal choreography. Poems that go herkimer-jerkimer. Poems that address the glory of the Triscuit rather than the Trinity. Poems that make sudden lurches, jetés, glissades, a pas de chat, a moonwalk, a dos-a-dos.

Some of the “strange ballets” I love include Gene Kelly in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” and Fred Astaire doing “Shine on My Shoes.” Similarly, a strange ballet of a poem is riveting if well-executed. It deserves your attention even if it’s just a glance.

I’m going to post a poem that is neither profound, nor great. It’s not brilliant. But it amuses. It’s playful and it’s strange.

Earthy Anecdote (1923)
Every time the bucks went clattering
Over Oklahoma
A firecat bristled in the way.
Wherever they went,
They went clattering,
Until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the right,
because of the firecat.
Or until they swerved
in a swift, circular line
To the left,
Because of the firecat.
The bucks clattered.
The firecat went leaping,
to the right, to the left,
Bristled in the way.
Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes
And slept.

By Wallace Stevens

I enjoy the images and the language here. Why is this an “anecdote”? What is a “firecat” anyhow? Why “Oklahoma”? What kind of buck?” Is there but one firecat or do the bucks encounter a firecat wherever they go? Why “earthy?”
Asking such questions of the poem amuses me, but the most important thing is the image: the swerving, the circular lines, the majestic colors of a poem that never mentions color. This poem is indeed a fine and inventive amuse-bouche.

“In the Vicinity of the Crank-House”



I am becoming a connoisseur of walking sticks
Comparing my own stout stump with the slender ferrule,
The harsh metal wand, or the pair of hospital crutches.

Not lameness or amputation, thank God, simply old age
And a condition known as “degenerative spine” –
Something between a moral menace and a washed-out weakling.

In the vicinity of the crank-house the maimed swing by
As I make my own slow way between sets of traffic lights,
Grinning a greeting grimly in complicitous courtesy.

My first was something much lighter, with a silver band,
But I had to leave that behind as my back shrank.
Sometimes I journey uphill muttering to myself

That bit of Christina Rossetti in a stertorous way.
There are worse ways of being a connoisseur
Than quoting Christina Rossetti, and comparing walking sticks.


–Anthony Thwaite

I enjoy this poem for its lack of overt poetry-ness.  Instead, Thwaite stealthily opens up the universe of a poem by giving us a guide:  the walking-stick certainly stands as both image and metaphor.  Also the crank-house stands at an uncertain place as an uncertain kind of place.   I’ve known quite a few crank-houses; I even live in one.

I love the way Thwaite uses the phrase “journey uphill” as a segue into Christina Rossetti and her poem, “Uphill”.  Using a walking-stick, expounding upon Christina Rossetti brings us to the neighborhood of mortality.

When my friend was dying I would bring her lap-top to her bed and we would search for a good steady stable decorative walking-stick.   She (and I) too became connoisseurs of walking sticks.  Her walking stick would be wooden and stout, with Celtic Victoriana engraved throughout.  The handle would be brass and long and depict an animal–an animal with a smooth and long proboscis.  An elephant or a nickel-plated horse or a chrome-coated jaguar.  Perhaps a duck or a dog.  A crook-handled stick would not offer enough support.  And mount-badges!

“Grinning a greeting grimly in complicitous courtesy” I would find another page of walking sticks to covet.  Thwaite’s superb poem brings me straight back to the time when it seemed possible to appease the menace of cancer by ordering a bespoke walking-stick from abroad.  From Cornwall, specifically.





A Cento is a  poetic form in which all of the lines are taken from other poems. For example, I can make up a rather silly and meaningless one by grabbing a volume of poetry at hand:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Let murderers, bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions!
Man superannuates the horse;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Dissolve me into ecstasies
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
Spitting–from lips once sanctified by hers.
Say not the struggle naught availeth.”

That’s a matter of opening pages of “Lives of the Poets” more or less at random and grabbing a line without thought to meaning, to grammar, to sense. You see Whitman follow Pope and Coleridge segue into Browning into Clough.

It takes true merit to come up with a clever and meaningful Cento and contemporary poet RS Gwynn has done so using Wallace Stevens, Pope, Keats, Hopkins, Frost, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Yeats, Robinson, Eliot, and others.  What distinguishes  his “Cento” is that is makes sense as a reverie on time passing and human ageing, and death.   Well-known lines out of context remind me of the fragmentation of life and how easily connections can be broken.  New connections are not as strong as the old ones simply because they are new.  roygbiv***************************

Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses the Norton Anthology of Poetry.

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
And somewhat of a sad perplexity.
Here take my picture, though I bid farewell;
In a dark time the eye begins to see

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall–
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet bird sang.
What but design of darkness to appall?
An aged man is but a paltry thing.

If I should die, think only this of me:
Crass casualty obstructs the sun and rain
When I have fears that I may cease to be,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain

And hear the spectral singing of the moon
And strictly meditate the thankless muse.
The world is too much with us, late and soon
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.
Again he raised the jug up to the light:
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.

Downward to darkness on extended wings,
Break, break, break on thy cold gray stones, O Sea,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
–RS Gwynn

“And Were You Loved?”

And were you loved?

“And were you loved?”
“And did you love in return?”

I believe those are quotations from a poem by Raymond Carver, but I cannot find a copy. The words are simple, unspectacular but have that emotional “catch” that grabs at the gullet. The catch can expand like a bottomless canyon, but for me today the catch is quick to come: my mother’s death. It’s been a while.  It’s been 8 years.  It’s been since this morning; it happened yesterday; it happened decades ago.  She loved me–sometimes in a strangely childish way. Sometimes I felt that I was the mother; sometimes I felt that I was holding (metaphorically) a child who had returned from a day at school where she was laughed at or bullied. I had to comfort her. Comforting a mother or a child leads to that kind of deep emotional catch. The unexpected bump that trips you and suddenly you descend into cascades of emotion.

Yes, each person was loved. Each person had a mother, who felt and hoped and wished for something when the babe quickened. Each person was loved, even–perhaps especially–terrorists, murderers. All had someone who loved him or her.

And now…where has that love gone, that powerful force that pushes babies out of the womb and pushes people into the air? The perversion of love to the idea that, as Yeats put it, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Musée des Beaux Arts
by WH Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears,

Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.”

I turn to poetry, as I do more frequently as I age–for almost all occasions, including the most mundane (the poetry of shopping, the poetry of driving…it’s all there). And yet….

“The Death of a Soldier”

by Wallace Stevens

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

All are soldiers, every one of us, soldiering on through life, never knowing when the expected death will come. We don’t usually think of it much when we get up and go to work; life does not seem too perilous on a simply grey January morning, yet to soldier on is, I think, to be willing to live without immediate answers. To risk each day knowing that loss can come from anyplace—from a hospital bed, down from the sky, from an intransigent worm within. To try to live without contemplating that risk, to go on going on, signing leases, paying earthly mortgages, preparing for an indefinate future that is finate indeed….

And yes, they were all loved, everyone of them.

 ‘And were you loved?’


Wyatt Prunty, 1947

For weeks he’s tunneled his intricate need
Through the root-rich, fibrous, humoral dark,
Buckling up in zagged illegibles
The cuneiforms and cursives of a blind scribe. 
Sleeved by soft earth, a slow reach knuckling, 
Small tributaries open from his nudge—
Mild immigrant, bland isolationist,
Berm builder edging the runneling world.
But now the snow, and he’s gone quietly deep,
Nuzzling through a muzzy neighborhood
Of dead-end-street, abandoned cul-de-sac,
And boltrun from a dead-leaf, roundhouse burrow.
May he emerge four months from this as before,
Myopic master of the possible,
Wise one who understands prudential ground,
Revisionist of all things green;
So when he surfaces, lumplike, bashful,
Quizzical as the flashbulb blind who wait
For color to return, he’ll nose our green-
rich air with the imperative poise of now.

First published in New Criterion. Copyright © 2006 Wyatt Prunty.

I love what Wyatt Prunty does with the mole in this poem.   When was the last time you thought of the “intricate need” of a mole?  Prunty uses sophisticated vocabulary  such as “humoral,” and “cuneiforms” to focus on the very specificity of this mole as we reach into the back corridors of our word-hoards.  If you can read this out loud or in your mind’s voice, notice the fantastic sound-effects:  “zagged illegibles,” and “berm builder” and “nuzzling through a muzzy neighborhood” and “Myopic master”.  This mole is a blind scribe, a builder, and he has political opinions:  an immigrant, he’s also an isolationist.   Wise, prudent, bashful and quizzical, he has the “imperative poise of now”.

And we have a new way of looking at a mole!  This mole seems like an elderly Frostian New England observer:  slow to speak, slow to move, and slow to write but always deliberate.  Both Prunty and the mole build bridges between our limitations and our capacities to look once again, with new vision, at something we’ve passed without thought in the past.


Prunty is such a great poet!  He’s always dancing with the dictionary; seeing with the microscopic and kaleidoscopic eyes of a visionary.  mole


“Coyote, with Mange”


We must avert our eyes; this image is too sickening.  It takes a strong poetic voice to humanize it and a magician to make it loveable.  Mark Wunderlich has written a magnificent poem about a coyote like this one.


“Coyote, with Mange”
Oh, Unreadable One, why
have you done this to your dumb creature?
Why have you chosen to punish the coyote
rummaging for chicken bones in the dung heap,
shucked the fur from his tail
and fashioned it into a scabby cane?
Why have you denuded his face,
tufted it, so that when he turns he looks
like a slow child unhinging his face in a smile?
The coyote shambles, crow-hops, keeps his head low,
and without fur, his now visible pizzle
is a sad red protuberance,
his hind legs the backward image
of a bandy-legged grandfather, stripped.
Why have you unhoused this wretch
from his one aesthetic virtue,
taken from him that which kept him
from burning in the sun like a man?
Why have you pushed him from his world into mine,
stopped him there and turned his ear
toward my warning shout?
Source: Poetry (March 2009)
The poem is a series of five piercing questions addressed to the “Unreadable one” who may be our vision of a God, of the crass apathy of Nature, or the untaggable sense that somehow manages things.  The poem has a Thomas Hardyesque unblenching acceptance that disaster and cruelty can strike anywhere.
Mark Wunderlich takes unflinching and realistic snapshots of animals in many of his poems and then he moves on to make the ugly endearing without sentimentalizing or moralizing or trying to serve us a platitudinous finale as a kind of dessert for entertaining the image of the coyote with mange.   Wunderlich makes me feel a deep well of compassion where I might have turned away in disgust.  He shows us the coyote as a “slow child,” a ” a “bandy-legged grandfather,” and a member of our world.  True, he only has one aesthetic virtue:  his fut that has been denuded by the mange.   The fur that protects him from the rays of the sun and keeps his “pizzle” dignified is his house.
Wunderlich has three published books all worthy of purchase.  His topics are numerous and his poems about animals
This is what poetry is for, for me:  to make me look at something in a new and significant way.  Now I see the coyote as a kinsman needing, like me, some sort of house.  I can see making a minute observation of the coyote and seeing the ways in which some outside force has failed him:  not simply the scourge of mange but the indifference of the “Unreadable one.”