Culture Clash

Speaking in Voices


In the new, spring issue of West, my Poetic License column offers a discussion of voice in poetry, in introduction to the poetry of John Spaulding, whose The White Train was chosen by Henry Taylor for the National Poetry Series in 2004.

The first thing I look for in a poem is its voice. It is likely not the first thing I find. That may be an image, a sound, a surprising collision of words. These will help create the voice, but they are not yet it, and it is only once I hear the voice that I know if it is a poem for which I will feel passion, to which I will commit myself. How much more joy in the story if one loves to hear the storyteller’s voice.

With all its other virtues, there is the melancholic musical voice of Eliot’s “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the grandiloquent heroism of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the sprung-rhythm energy, as much in despair as in joy of the Lord, of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is no different for me in poetry than it is in fiction, with narrative voice. Do I want to travel with this persona? Will I be ever engaged, even thrilled, and wish to return to it? Began Auden in “September 1, 1939,”

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

A direct, blunt voice, ready to deliver plainspoken truths. Tell it to me, brother.

Concluded Larry Levis, in “The Poem You Asked For,”

And the poem demanded the food,
it drank up all the water,

beat me and took my money,
tore the faded clothes
off my back,

said Shit,
and walked slowly away,
slicking its hair down.

Said it was going
over to your place.

Any poem that’s going to say sheeeit to me is welcome to come on over.

Paul Zimmer opens “The Eisenhower Years” with similar vernacular, if not so streetwise, voicings.

Flunked out and laid-off
Zimmer works for his father
At Zimmer’s Shoes for Women.
The feet of old women awaken
From dreams they groan and rub
Their hacked-up corns together

The more eccentric the voice, which is to say a distinctive, of-an-only-kind, there-can-hardly-be-its-like voice, the more I like it. Here is Atsuro Riley, in “Hutch,” conjuring a rural Southern world as much in the voice as in any detail.

From back when it was Nam time I tell you what.
Them days men boys gone dark groves rose like Vietnam bamboo.
Aftergrowth something awful.
Green have mercy souls here seen camouflage everlasting.
Nary a one of the brung-homes brung home whole.

So it was that the first time I read this issue’s featured poet, John Spaulding, it was the voice right away that clove me to him. From his 1986 collection Walking in Stone, about the Native American-European contact:

We are the knife people, iron men, coat people
and he-lands-sailing.
Souse eaters, house makers, husbands
of kine and goat and swine, farm builders
and keepers of kettle and scummer, word
scratchers, corn stealers and bad sleepers.

As if towns could build themselves.
As if stumps jumped from the ground or
flesh of beasts fell into trenchers.
As if paradise prevailed on earth.

The magisterial earth tone stood me up straight. This was not just one more pome. This was poetry.

Read the whole thing, the poetry of John Spaulding, and more here.

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Culture Clash

Eating Poetry (XXX) – In Memory of W. B. Yeats

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/
.../A way of happening, a mouth.

This coming Friday, January 28, will be the 72st anniversary of the death of W. B. Yeats, just before the calamity of the century that W. H. Auden would auger again in “September 1, 1939.” Here, one great poet of the twentieth century memorializes one month after his death the poet who was perhaps the century’s greatest.

In Memory of W. B. Yeats
by W. H. Auden


He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.


Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

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Culture Clash

Political and Poetical Thinking

Lea Carpenter at Big Think ruminates on alternative responses and needs attached to the “Ground Zero” Islamic center dispute. In “A Poet for the Mosque,” she writes,

Let them build it. Is this what the rationalists want us to say? Let them build it. These four words counter the one, more emotional one—never—echoing across anger from the other side. Whether eloquent or irrational (or both), as the case may be, all of these words have lost meaning in the media wail. Is there one voice that speaks to both sides, one leader we can all turn to for sanity? What about turning to a poet who wrote this:  We must love one another, or die. [Emphasis added]

Just about any meaning is lost in the “media wail” of political punch and pander. The aim always in these public brawls is not to delve into the expansive depths of deeper human meaning, but to produce cheaper, less reflective meanings, to be used as forms of currency for funding the verbal war. The conflict over the Islamic center is profound and complexly human, made shallow and into a political bar-room brawl because it is happening on a front line of political warfare.

Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” like Adam Zagajewski‘s “Try To Praise The Mutilated World,” found new readers and was given new application in the period following 9/11. Amid the common scorn for poetry by those who do not read it and who prefer to live among the tools of the world’s utility, poetry touched upon a grief and a source of feeling and experience that politics regards like a stranger at the border, for whom it proposes policy. A difference between the two poems is that Zagajewski’s was written for no occasion, in response to no political event. It simply captured in poetical magic what politics can never address:

Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Poetical thinking cannot confront that enemy head on. Poets, contra Shelley, are hardly the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Maybe, better, they are its human explorers, as there are deep sea explorers and space explorers. Like the crew of the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, shrunk to microscopic size to enter a human body, poets travel unmapped arteries to buried centers of the human. Maybe, with work, over a thousand years, they can refire a synapse.

In contrast, to Zagajewski, Auden’s poem, as the title tells, was written in response to events, within weeks. It is a fascinating poem on several counts, one being that the historical malady it describes, like that of Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” can seem so present in other eras.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

An instructive difference between the two poems is that while one might conceivably depart from the tenor and attitude of Zagajewki’s poem, one is unlikely to strenuously disagree with it, as some did with Auden – even, very soon, Auden. For this reason, I am never cheered when I hear of poets about to write on political themes – when they gather, for instance, to plan collections opposing a war or promoting some specific – like environmental – consciousness. I am unhappy not because of any political position, but because I know they are unlikely to produce good poetry. The poet’s only enemy is the didact. Auden ended

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

It is inspiring rhetoric. I, too, am moved. But politically, it is vague and disputatious beyond the poetry: whose “lie,” known how, of what “authority”? Is this an anarchist poem? For much of the rest of his life, Auden professed, convincingly, to hate the poem. He, among others, addressing the convergence of the political, the human, and the poetical, believed that the famous “We must love one another or die” should truly have been

We must love one another and die.

The weight of our lives in a conjunction. Poetry.



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