Mary Jo Salter




At the end of this blog is a list of poets born during the 1950’s who have made an impression on me so that I try to buy their books and follow their careers.  Not all of them are equal in my esteem but all of them are worthy to be read, to be listened to, to ponder.   The oldest approach 66 or 67 years of age and even the youngest are in late mid-career.  Some have faltered; some have already accomplished an astounding body of work.   It’s time to begin a provisional review of their works and I look forward to a good deal of reading and catching up on some careers.

Today  (August 15) is the birthday of Mary Jo Salter—who has a magnificent body of work.  My love of her poetry began when  I found a memorable poem in The New Yorker, or The Atlantic or Poetry or The Kenyon Review and reread it.  And started looking for her name (before we had search engines).  I found her first book, Henry Purcell in Japan (when a mid-sized city had at least one book-store with an excellent poetry selection) and purchased it.    I have seven of her books now.

Salter is very good at travel verse,  comic verse and domestic verse.  I love her series about being pregnant in Japan (by the way, I have no idea if they are spoken by narrators or reflect her own experience), about visiting Iceland, and about  domestic life  with children.   She writes beautifully about some of the disaster spots of our world—Hiroshima, Chernobyl,  TWA 800 near Long Island,  and shipwrecks and other catastrophes that become tourist destinations.  If there is a flaw to her comic verse, it is the understandable tendency to be a bit arch (perhaps she’s waving to another baby of August 15, Julia Child, a Goddess of Domestic Archery).

I like Salter’s preference for strong form, allusion, and grounding her poems in specific times and places.   Each one is a story—from a minor glance at a spouse’s fondness for Myrna Loy to a ping-pong table: “unsporty, unoutdoorsy / and sseriously unlikely / to reform out habits much”  in a section called “Light-weights”.

Salter’s scope is extensive:  from birth to death, from parenthood to divorce, from brownie troops to tombstones, from Netsuke to breakfast.  Her poetry never disappoints me AND in many cases has given me words to live by.

Let’s get more specific:  “Dead Letters”  refers to somebody who receives letters addressed to her recently deceased mother.  The poem begins with a comic concept:  that of course the dead will continue to receive Junk Mail; that the Publisher’s Clearing House will continue to dangle the promise of millions, that “a host of worthy causes vies for your attention”, the misery of cleaning out the closets of the dead; the ruminations about the process of death, the steady excoriating  march of chemotherapy, memories of splendid times, and then learning to live with the reality of death and knowing that we, too, are next on the list of dead-letter senders.   The end of the poem is, perhaps, the most deeply piercing:  the poet reflects on a philodendron  her mother had given her:

“And yet it intertwines

Forever, I perceive, your life and mine,”


“You too were one to note

Life’s artful correspondences:”

“Dead Letters” and “Elegies for Etsuko” have helped to guide me through my own losses and mourning:  Salter has the gift to put into words that we can grab onto and use in the messy business of collecting a warm living person into a series of memories that keep on refining themselves with the years.

“Elegies for Etsuko” is a long poem about the suicide of a young friend at age twenty-eight.  In 9 segments which range from a villanelle to free verse to elegant quatrains, Salter very specifically circles around memories of a good friend and the way memories are transformed by death and even more specifically rarefied by suicide.

In the volume “A Kiss in Space,” the poem “Alternating Currents” alternates between the worlds of Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, A. Conan Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes and his own Watson.  Every stanza is a tour de force and the words “alternating currents” have many denotations and connotations.   The poem is a tribute to and an expansion on the idea of a “drop of water” which is what Annie Sullivan uses to get the attention of the young  Helen Keller .

Salter writes about the “craft of authorship:”

so let them, on my tangling lines,

call the overloaded switchboard

for souls they’re linked to, all at once:

Keller and Sullivan, Conan Doyle

and Watson, Bell and Watson, the two

two-watt Watsons….


“Alternating Currents’ is a magisterial miracle of verse and while it is all Salter, it also partakes of the long  poems of Anthony Hecht, such as “Venetian Vespers” and “See Naples and Die”.  (By the way, I think that Salter  follows the line of Hecht in brilliancy and sheen and the ability to juggle, Hamlet-like, wit and death in the same speech).



The six poems that make up the “Icelandic Almanac” section of Salter’s volume, Sunday Skaters, are magnificent.  Could they be a tribute to Auden’s and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland?  Absolutely; Salter mentions them both in other places. And does the Nora here end up being the subject of an elegy in a later book?  Always concerned with the intersections of art, beauty (both natural and hand-created), and memory, Salter asks:

Why has Iceland no Tiepolo?

World’s most ambitious clouds, and no

Portraitist to do them justice;

The answer might be that life gets in the way of art:

A local woman explains that:

“When you have to watch your footing, you don’t look up;


when the weather’s treacherous, and life’s a stguffle,

neither the clouds nor the land is beautiful.”



Part of the pleasure of Salter is her allusiveness and her scope:

“For I will consider my kitten, Herb” and “Brief Candle”.

Does “Madama Butterfly” from “Libretto”  become more poignant from the earlier “Elegies for Etsuko”?  Who doesn’t live with “Persons from Porlock?”   It’s also fun to know that when somebody like Barbara Stanwyck or Renoir or Debussy comes up, we will have a new way of seeing old faces.

I’ve saved a particular group of poems for special consideration:  When Salter writes about figures from the past, as in “Alternating Currents” she transforms them for us—and always for the better.  “Voice of America (Joseph Brodsky) and “Lost Originals” (William Blake) are superb.  “Crusoe’s Footprint” leads us to the footprints of Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and the Robinson poems by Weldon Kees.  “Two American Lives” looks at “The Hand of Thomas Jefferson” and “Frost at Midnight” (an allusion to Coleridge) about Robert Frost.  Salter writes elegantly about Amy Clampitt in “Unbroken Music”.

Finally Salter has done a magnificent translation of the Old English “The Seafarer”.

I have been stingy with my quotations because I am fearful of violating copyright law.  But I will give you an example of a poem that is already on the Internets:

“Two Pigeons” is a closely observed look at the behavior of a most pedestrian pair of birds.  It’s worth reading because it makes us look at pigeons differently and it asks us to look more closely, to notice more precisely:

“but when they resume

their places, the shift

is one only a painter


or a barber (prodding a chin

back into position)

would be likely to notice.”


Salter is both witty and wise; she is unpretentiously and deep.  She is a painter and a barber.   She does not expect her readers to have a Ph.D. or an M.F.A. or a master’s in metrical prosody.  She is a poet for our days, for every day.  Welcome her into your life; read a poem or two!   The theme of my own life is that art is my only defense against utter hopelessness.  Salter’s work has been around my house for over 30 years.    She will make your life better, quite simply:  and how many people can offer that?




Rita Dove, Paul Muldoon, Dana Gioia, Linda Gregorson, Annie Finch, Edward Hirsch, Mary Jo Salter, Carol Ann Duffy, Alice Fulton, Harryette Mullen, Jo Shapcott, James Richardson, Helen Dunmore, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Mark Doty, Medbh McGuckian, Rosanna Warren, Bruce Bond, Mary Ruefle, Henri Cole, Dean Young, Amy Gerstler, Robert Wrigley,  Cynthia Zarin, Lucie Brock-Broido, Tony Hoagland, Alan Shapiro, J. Allyn Rosser, Tim Seibles, Leithauser—Hailey and Brad (no relation);  Franz Wright, Ian Duhig, Brenda Hillman, Thylias Moss, James Longenbach, Dorianne Laux, and those I cannot recollect just at this moment.




Read It, Sam…Then Read It Again!


My Reader’s Block, a delightful blog, is sponsoring a rereading challenge for the year 2016.    Even though it is late in the year, I aim to the level of “Living in the Past”–rereading 16 or more books.  I have a lot of gaps in my reading, but rereading is almost always a soothing anodyne and antidote to those bodice-rippers praised too fulsomely by the New York Times Book Review.

So here I go:

Reread 1:  PNIN by Vladimir Nabokov.

I can’t get over the wonderfulness of the squirrels.

There are 13 encounters of various kinds with squirrels in PNIN by Nabokov. Pnin is a Russian emigre who has fled from communism and has ended up as an adjunct professor in the USA. Most people make fun of him as an “elderly” (although he is in his early 50’s) absent minded professor. He is very genial and willing to laugh at himself. But in case you think that the man is a joke, as most of the people around him do, consider the themes of deracination and WWII. Pnin has lost his first love and family members to concentration camps. He is extremely generous and the book is filled with the contrast between the casual joking or cruelty of other people towards the bald man and the reality of his life: one lived with generosity towards others, one of sacrifice and loss, one of kindness to all.

 PNIN also is a linguistic tour de force. If you like puns and word play, Nabokov is in top form here. PNIN was written around the same time as Lolita, and he seems to be the anti-Humbert Humbert. In all ways that Humbert is evil, Pnin is kind.  

Donald Justice

Donald Justice (August 12, 1925 – August 6, 2004)
Donald Justice would be 91 were he alive today.  His name has never permeated the culture as it should.  Not just a good poet, he is a great poet with his devastating pieces that stab the emotions.  He’s a poet of death and nostalgia and aging; to read a Justice poem is to come to terms with the inevitabilities  of one’s own life.
“On the Death of Friends in Childhood”Donald_Justice
We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,
Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell;
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.
This poem can be almost unbearable to read if you think of those who died too young.  “She just turned over and fell asleep,” my mother explained away the death of leukemia of my very best friend.  She was 7.  Zanna Ziegler, who attempted to dig to China with me.  Who looked at a strange passing man and wondered if his name might be Walter.  Who told me the story of Peter Pan and explained what a “stroke” was to me.  She named a cat “Indiana,” who was picked up on a high-way there.  And when my family found a wandering stray on a road in “Oklahoma” what else could his name be but Oklahoma?  We called each other “Tweet”.
Using a Malaysian form, the pantoum, Justice wrote:

Pantoum of the Great Depression

Our lives avoided tragedy
Simply by going on and on,
Without end and with little apparent meaning.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on
We managed. No need for the heroic.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.
I don’t remember all the particulars.

We managed. No need for the heroic.
There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
I don’t remember all the particulars.
Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.

There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows
Thank god no one said anything in verse.
The neighbors were our only chorus,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.

At no time did anyone say anything in verse.
It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.
No audience would ever know our story.

It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us.
We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
What audience would ever know our story?
Beyond our windows shone the actual world.

We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
We did not ourselves know what the end was.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.
We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues.

But we did not ourselves know what the end was.
People like us simply go on.
We have our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues,
But it is by blind chance only that we escape tragedy.

And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry.

My parents and many others could testify to the cyclical circular rotation of each passing day of the American Depression.  The repetition of lines is a brilliant way to depict the claustrophobic time and the befogged souls of the people.


“Men at Forty” evokes the elegiac sense of loss that shoots through our lives:

Men at Forty

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it
Moving beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

What is the “it” they feel?  I think it’s the loss of time, the shortening of a future, the sense that shaking things up is no longer a possibility.  It’s the knowing that most likely one has passed the mid-point of a life and that one has become, impossibly, one’s parent in many ways.  Filled with the immensity of the intimation of mortality, people at forty are aware of the shut doors behind them.
In the poem “Incident in a Rose Garden”, Death is personified as a Spanish waiter:
“And there stood Death in the garden,
Dressed like a Spanish waiter.
He had the air of someone
Who, because he likes arriving
At all appointments early,
Learns to think himself patient.
I watched him pinch one bloom off
And hold it to his nose–
A connoisseur of roses–
One bloom and then another.
They strewed the earth around him.”
Death is a patient “connoisseur” of roses, a figure who is overly punctual.   In this poem he has a Spanish flair (which reminds me of the “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” by Robert Browning).  This image of Death is unsettling, even shocking, because literature and out imaginations have treated him as a skull, as a grim reaper (reaping, not luxuriating in the aroma of flowers).
Justice deserves to be better read and read more often.  He is one of those excellent poets who offer us a “vade mecum” through life and its losses and our procession towards death.   Other excellent poems include “A Dancer’s Life,”  (Her life–she feels it closing about her now / Like a small theater, empty, wihout lights); “Nostalgia and Complaint of the Grandparents” (“the dead don’t get around much any more”), the brilliant pastiche, “Banjo Dog Variations” with its tribute to Prufrock,  “Ode to a Dressmaker’s Dummy” (“O my coy darling” — how it evokes and upends Marvell).
“Sadness has its own beauty, of course” Justice assures us and he can prove it.  Part of the amazing group of poets born in the 1920’s (Wilbur, Nemerov, Hecht, Hollander, Hall, Creeley, O’Hara, Merwin–to mention only a few), Justice is well-worth reading.  As Father Hopkins says, “The just man justices”.   Donald Justice remind sus that “Thirty years and more go by / In the blinking of an eye” and also that “Certain moments will never change, not stop being—“

Reading the Nobels


I have a placid, unruffled exterior:  I am bovine and try to look at least a little stupid.  But at heart, I am very competitive.  I’ve recently become aware of the world of “Book Challenges” and they excite me.   I am going to join a few and see how it works out.

For the Nobel Prize challenge, I would like to blog about Kipling (poetry), Yeats, Shaw, Mann, Sinclair Lewis, Galsworthy, Pirandello, O’Neill, TS Eliot, Faulkner, Nelly Sachs, Sohzhenitsyn, Bellow,  Brodsky, Toni Morrison, Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter,  and perhaps Pasternak.

This preliminary plan excludes many superb authors but I am wary of being too ambitious.   But it seems to be an excellent challenge overall.  And YES, I know that the Nobels are quirky and have neglected some of the finest authors.  That call from Stockholm should have come to Nabokov and Joyce.  Why not select Tolstoy instead of Sully Prudhomme?   Or Mark Twain or Henry James or Edith Wharton?  What happened to Proust and Woolf?

It’s an imperfect list, but a challenge I cannot resist.

Nemo’s Almanac

Nemo’s Almanac

One of the things I miss in this century of instant information is the slow, patient, meticulous journey through Nemo’s Almanac I used to take. The recent results make it clear: many competitors are doing Nemo’s by quick internet searches and the quotations have become very obscure. No more loss leaders! No more jolly give-aways from Keats’s Odes or “Mariana” or Shakespeare’s sonnets! No, it’s moving towards a test of one’s computer skills. 2016 has fewer recognizable quotations than 2010 did.

I now have 47 copies of Nemo’s Almanac and I spent my younger years trying to really learn literature, both for its own sake, and for the sake of doing well at Nemo’s.

Each year 73 quotations, in the English language, are published in a slender booklet. Going through Nemo’s when I was young taught me a lot: I was able to learn how to make a distinction between Charles Cotton and Charles Churchill. It’s a heady feeling to be able to pick a snatch from Ralph Roister Doister out of a group of quotations. George Crabbe and John Gay are distinctive in their settings and subjects. Fishing for Erasmus Darwin gets easy with some experience.

I used to spend my lunch hours and many of my evenings and weekends sitting on the floor of the library stacks simply reading and reading. After a while, one gets a clear sense of which century anything might be from. Snaring a difficult quotation is an intoxicating experience. When I first encountered Nemo’s there was no named editor, just Sycamore Press. Then John Fuller took the mantle and really shaped the almanac so that each month had a very distinct and often witty theme. His superb work was carried on by Alan Hollinghurst, Gerard Benson, and now Nigel Forde. My 1970 edition cost 25p. The 2016 edition is up to 3 pounds.

I remember when I lusted after breaking the score of 500 and then I did and then I managed to break 600 and then 650! And now anyone with a computer can get a perfect score in just an hour or two!

John Fuller remarked in the 1985 issue that “There are three kinds of quotation: (a) the ones you know, or feel you ought to know, or suspect that everyone else knows; (b) the ones that you can pursue in the confidence that stylistic and historical detective work will pay off; and (c) those that you have come across before.”

April, 1984 is one of my favorite months: each quotation is prose written in verse, such as Lewis Carroll’s remarks that “Any fairly practiced writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose for hours together, in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha.”

The most difficult quotations were found by one or two keen eyes. I remember one that nobody got: a poem by John Ashbery (July, 1989). Alan Hollinghurst notes that one competitor was eloquent about his months of fruitless seaching for the Ashbery. And I just “googled” this quotation from 1989 and found it in less than 30 seconds!

After 125  years there seems to be no easy solution for Nemo’s: instead of it being a friendly competition for those with the best literary memories and widest scope of reading, it’s now a competition for those who have the fastest computers. And yet another “où sont les neiges d’antan” moment for me.

I spent my youth intoxicated by quotation-hunting; my drug of choice was Nemo’s and thanks to Nemo’s I have a lot of wonderful quotations stored in my head! But it now seems quaint to say earnestly to a partner, “You take the 17th century and I’ll read in the 18th century” or “You read through Chuzzlewit and I’ll read through Nickleby” to snare July’s fifth quotation.

Nemo’s has been my Yale College and my Harvard.  I still enjoy it.  I am introduced to new authors:  last year had Thomas Lisle, Maurice Lindsay, Gifford, Evan Lloyd, Sean Jennet.     Without Nemo’s I never would have encountered the excellent work of UA Fanthorpe, Alice Oswald, Gillian Clarke, Ian Duhig, for example.  But the number of active competitors has gone down from a few hundred to about 25.

Reading the classics

Reading the classics:

This is my application to become a member of the inspiring Classics Club:


My plan is not as precise as it might be.  It may have glaring omissions that have been caused by my recent reading.  I hope to read at least one novel by novelists and a significant number of poems by poets.  With people like George Meredith and Thomas Hardy, I plan to do some of each.  When I have not specified titles it is because I have read the books in the past and will do rereading.  I’ve read everything by Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and Dickens.   Rereading is always in order but how to tell if on any particular day I long for Daniel Deronda or Adam Bede?   Books I have completed are indicated in purple text.  I am only indicating the books read from 2016 forward.


  1. Lewis, Sinclair:  a significant number of works. Our Mr. Wrenn; The Innocents, Main Street, Babbitt
  2. Marquand, John P:  The Late George Apley
  3. Stendahl:  The Charterhouse of Parma
  4. Arnold Bennett
  5. Barbara Pym Some Tame Gazelle, Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence
  6. Elizabeth Taylor Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
  7. Willkie Collins
  8. John Galsworthy
  9. Thomas Hardy
  10. Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  11. Daphne De Maurier
  12. Henry James
  13. Rose Macauley
  14. Somerset Maugham
  15. Herman Melville
  16. George Meredith
  17. Nancy Mitford
  18. Toni Morrison
  19. Iris Murdoch
  20. Vladimir Nabokov   Pnin
  21. VS Naipaul
  22. Edward Rutherfurd
  23. Carol Shields
  24. CP Snow
  25. Leo Tolstoy
  26. William Trevor
  27. Anthony Trollope The Last Chronicle of Barset
  28. Sarah Waters
  29. Thornton Wilder
  30. AN Wilson
  31. George Eliot
  32. Gibbon (excerpts)
  33. Thackeray
  34. Updike
  35. Roth
  36. Richard Yates
  37. Joyce, Ulysses
  38. Dickens
  39. Mann:  Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain
  40. Conrad
  41. Faulkner
  42. Hemingway
  43. Turgenev
  44. Pushkin
  45. Robert Penn Warren
  46. Dostoevsky
  47. Jane Austen
  48. John Cheever
  49. Peter Taylor
  50.  Pulitzer Prize winners—fiction and poetry and drama
  51. Man Booker winners and short list and long list selections



Katherine Mansfield

Jane Gardam


  1. Anthony Hecht, both early and late poems
  2. Wordsworth:  shorter poems and The Prelude
  3. Keats:  the Great Odes
  4. Robert Browning:  significant dramatic monologues
  5. Seamus Heaney
  6. Tennyson
  7. Robert Frost
  8. Yeats
  9. TS Eliot
  10. Wallace Stevens
  11. George Szirtes
  12. ee cummings
  13. WH Auden
  14. Elizabeth Bishop
  15. Philip Larkin
  16. Theodore Roethke
  17. John Berryman
  18. Shakespeare’s sonnets
  19. Thomas Hardy
  20. George Meredith
  21. Gerard Manley Hopkins
  22. Algernon Charles Swinburns
  23. Matthew Arnold
  24. DG & Christina Rossetti
  25. John Hollander





Pinter The Caretaker

Ben Jonson


Manifestations of cheese


I enjoy this sincere effusion-ode to cheese.  I am a cheese agnostic:  I should have been born in a better country for the love of cheese to race through my veins.  My taste is unadventurous and Hall’s poem makes me wish that I had the talent to embrace cheese in all of its splendour.  I have not the tongue to enjoy a streak of blue fracking through a block of cheese or the Italian cheese which presents itself as a riot of maggots—casu marzu.

How I love Hall’s exuberance!  It’s good to know that some cheeses are loyal and others are wise.

O Cheese
by Donald Hall

In the pantry the dear dense cheeses, Cheddars and harsh
Lancashires; Gorgonzola with its magnanimous manner;
the clipped speech of Roquefort; and a head of Stilton
that speaks in a sensuous riddling tongue like Druids.

O cheeses of gravity, cheeses of wistfulness, cheeses
that weep continually because they know they will die.
O cheeses of victory, cheeses wise in defeat, cheeses
fat as a cushion, lolling in bed until noon.

Liederkranz ebullient, jumping like a small dog, noisy;
Pont l’Évêque intellectual, and quite well informed; Emmentaler
decent and loyal, a little deaf in the right ear;
and Brie the revealing experience, instantaneous and profound.

O cheeses that dance in the moonlight, cheeses
that mingle with sausages, cheeses of Stonehenge.
O cheeses that are shy, that linger in the doorway,
eyes looking down, cheeses spectacular as fireworks.

Reblochon openly sexual; Caerphilly like pine trees, small
at the timberline; Port du Salut in love; Caprice des Dieux
eloquent, tactful, like a thousand-year-old hostess;
and Dolcelatte, always generous to a fault.

O village of cheeses, I make you this poem of cheeses,
O family of cheeses, living together in pantries,
O cheeses that keep to your own nature, like a lucky couple,
this solitude, this energy, these bodies slowly dying.

“O Cheese” by Donald Hall from Old and New Poems.