With all the heavy coverage from Gaza and Ukraine today, we could all use a poem selected by the wonderful Alice Quinn. Here’s “Happily Married” by Deborah Garrison:
on the longest day of the year,
I saw two birds on a telephone wire:
two beaks, two sharp-peaked ruffs,
two tails that stuck down stiff
like two closed fans
all matched up neatly,
and against the faintly
yellow pre-dusk sky
the birds and wire
were all one color,
a fading black
or darkening gray.
Sometimes the smallest thing
brings harmony in
through the eye.
Or was it that I
on that particular day
had harmony to bring
to what I saw?
That I’d even looked up
seemed a piece of marital
good luck, and that they didn’t
move as I passed by—
I wondered how long in fact
they’d sit that way.
Two more poems from Garrison featured on the Dish here.
In 1998, the poet and editor Deborah Garrison published her debut collection, A Working Girl Can’t Win. At the time, she and I were colleagues at The New Yorker. Now she is poetry editor at Alfred A. Knopf, where I once had the same wonderful job, as well as a senior editor at Pantheon Books.
Her book was highly praised, drawing compliments from A. Alvarez (“A triumph of wit and modesty.”), The New York Times Book Review (“An intense, intelligent and wonderfully sly book of poems.”), and John Updike, who wrote, “Many a working girl will recognize herself in the poems’ running heroine, and male readers will part with her company reluctantly.”
What struck me rereading the book last weekend were the poems about a young marriage. We’ll post three in the hope that many of you will find them as winsome and dear as we do.
“3:00 A.M. Comedy” by Deborah Garrison:
Sometimes it’s funny, this after-hour when
whatever hasn’t happened between us
hasn’t happened again, and I pretend
to be another kind of woman, who spends
the night on the couch in a rage,
on strike for affection—
I’m always in this bed,
if not having you, then forgiving you
exquisitely, consoling myself
with a lame joke: I’m a shrinking
being, tinier and tinier I grow,
there I go!
The last woman on earth
who even bothered about sex,
and now I’m nothing but a speck.
What a shame for all those lusty men;
their world without me is barren.
While you, my dear, get
larger: you’re a hulking, man-
shaped continent, a cool green
giant (I can hardly reach your leafy
parts), or a statuesque
philosopher-king, whose sleep soars
I love at eventide to walk alone
Down narrow lanes o’erhung with dewy thorn
Where, from the long grass underneath, the snail
Jet black creeps out and sprouts his timid horn.
I love to muse o’er meadows newly mown
Where withering grass perfumes the sultry air,
Where bees search round with sad and weary drone
In vain for flowers that bloomed but newly there,
While in the juicy corn the hidden quail
Cries “wet my foot” and hid as thoughts unborn
The fairylike and seldom-seen landrail
Utters “craik craik” like voices underground,
Right glad to meet the evening’s dewy veil
And see the light fade into glooms around.
Last Friday on July 4th, in an Ask Me Anything segment, Andrew responded to a reader’s question as to whether after 30 years here he identified more as American or English. I was struck by his saying, “The impact—when I look at it now—of the English countryside on my psyche was bigger than I ever really anticipated. I find myself drawn constantly to that sort of rural calm.”
We’ve recentlypostedpoems by John Clare (1793-1864), and I can’t seem to stop reading and memorizing his work, particularly the sonnets which are so expressive of his tender devotion to the English countryside. So this week we’ll post a few more and dedicate them to Andrew, to England, and to readers of The Dish who may be moved to learn some poems by heart this summer. We’ll start with one with a dog to up the ante with Mr. Sullivan! In the poem, “nine-peg-morris” refers to a game played on squares cut in turf.
“The Shepherd Boy” by John Clare:
Pleased in his loneliness he often lies
Telling glad stories to his dog—and e’en
His very shadow that the loss supplies
Of living company. Full oft he’ll lean
By pebbled brooks and dream with happy eyes
Upon the fairy pictures spread below,
Thinking the shadowed prospects real skies
And happy heavens where his kindred go.
Oft we may track his haunts where he hath been
To spend the leisure which his toils bestow
By “nine-peg-morris” nicked upon the green
Or flower-stuck gardens never meant to grow
Or figures cut on trees his skill to show
Where he a prisoner from a shower hath been.
Hughes describes the Hopkins poem below as “a scene in sharp focus: all gloom and brilliance, the exhilaration and uneasy sunniness of a bleak, rather lonely place … so clean and right that whenever I see anything like it in actual scenery I think—’It’s almost as good as Inversnaid.’”
It may well be one of my favorite poems of all time, and GMH one of my most beloved poets. See what you think – here’s “Inversnaid”:
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Early on in the book, he struck the note of his approach, “Imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it . . . . Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic. . . . The minute you flinch, and take your mind off this thing, and begin to look at the words and worry about them . . . then your worry goes into them and they set about killing each other. So you keep going as long as you can, then look back and see what you have written.”
The nineteenth-century English poet John Clare, whose poem appears below, wrote with exceptional ease, naturalness, and intimacy about the creatures of our world.
The Sand Martin by John Clare (1795-1864):
Thou hermit haunter of the lonely glen
And common wild and heath—the desolate face
Of rude waste landscapes far away from men
Where frequent quarries give thee dwelling place,
With strangest taste and labour undeterred
Drilling small holes along the quarry’s side,
More like the haunts of vermin than a bird
And seldom by the nesting boy descried—
I’ve seen thee far away from all thy tribe
Flirting about the unfrequented sky
And felt a feeling that I can’t describe
Of lone seclusion and a hermit joy
To see thee circle round nor go beyond
That lone heath and its melancholy pond.
The English poet Ted Hughes presented a series of BBC programs in the 1960s addressed primarily to children to help them feel at home with writing poetry. “In these talks,” he wrote, “I assume that the latent talent for self-expression in any child is immeasurable.” These were later anthologized in a book very much worth looking for titled Poetry in the Making: An Anthology of Poems and Programmes from ‘Listening and Writing’. In it, he outlines all sorts of valuable poetic exercises and comments on poems that illustrate his points. From the chapter, “Writing about People”:
From time to time I have read a good deal about Sir Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan statesman and philosopher. . . . I read a lot about him while just searching for the clue that would tell me what he was really like. At last I found it. I read that he had peculiar eyes—eyes, we are told, like a viper…. At once I was able to feel I knew exactly what that man was like. I felt to be in his presence. And everything that I could remember about him became at once near and real. And this is what we want.
Elizabeth Bishop felt that her poem “Sandpiper” (1962) was an accurate self-portrait. Accuracy was one of the three qualities she admired, she said, “in the poetry I like best.” (The others were spontaneity and mystery.) Reading this poem I always feel her presence “at once near and real,” yielding a strong sense of what she was “really like.”
“Sandpiper” by Elizabeth Bishop:
The roaring alongside he takes for granted
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.
–Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them,
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan and gray,
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
There was nothing trivial about the
Thai masseuse who slid his vertical
along my vertical, the power
outage, or those extra minutes
without charge. I cannot say he
wasn’t God. What I felt then, what
I feel with a man’s body on mine, is
holy, holy the way I imagine it is
right & without damage, worth
thanks & remembrance &