Anthony Hecht

The Vow
In the third month, a sudden flow of blood.
The mirth of tabrets ceaseth, and the joy
Also of the harp. The frail image of God
Lay spilled and formless. Neither girl nor boy,
But yet blood of my blood, nearly my child.
All that long day
Her pale face turned to the window’s mild
Featureless grey.
And for some nights she whimpered as she dreamed
The dead thing spoke, saying: “Do not recall
Pleasure at my conception. I am redeemed
From pain and sorrow. Mourn rather for all
Who breathlessly issue from the bone gates,
The gates of horn,
For truly it is best of all the fates
Not to be born.
“Mother, a child lay gasping for bare breath
On Christmas Eve when Santa Claus had set
Death in the stocking, and the lights of death
Flamed in the tree. O, if you can, forget
You were the child, turn to my father’s lips
Against the time
When his cold hand puts forth its fingertips
Of jointed lime.”
Doctors of Science, what is man that he
Should hope to come to a good end? The best
Is not to have been born.
And could it be
That Jewish diligence and Irish jest
The consent of flesh and a midwinter storm
Had reconciled,
Was yet too bold a mixture to inform
A simple child?
Even as gold is tried, Gentile and Jew.
If that ghost was a girl’s, I swear to it:
Your mother shall be far more blessed than you.
And if a boy’s, I swear: The flames are lit
That shall refine us; they shall not destroy
A living hair.
Your younger brothers shall confirm in joy
That this I swear.

Giant Tortoise
I am related to stones
The slow accretion of moss where dirt is wedged
Long waxy hair that can split boulders.
Events are not important.
I live in my bone
Recalling the hour of my death.
It takes more toughness than most have got.
Or a saintliness.
Strength of a certain kind, anyway.
Bald toothless clumsy perhaps
With all the indignity of old age
But age is not important.
There is nothing worth remembering
But the silver glint in the muck
The thickening of great trees
The hard crust getting harder.

“It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.”
Tonight my children hunch
Toward their Western, and are glad
As, with a Sunday punch,
The Good casts out the Bad.
And in their fairy tales
The warty giant and witch
Get sealed in doorless jails
And the match-girl strikes it rich.
I’ve made myself a drink.
The giant and witch are set
To bust out of the clink
When my children have gone to bed.
All frequencies are loud
With signals of despair;
In flash and morse they crowd
The rondure of the air.
For the wicked have grown strong,
Their numbers mock at death,
Their cow brings forth its young,
Their bull engendereth.
Their very fund of strength,
Satan, bestrides the Globe;
He stalks its breadth and length
And finds out even Job.
Yet by quite other laws
My children make their case;
Half God, half Santa Claus,
But with my voice and face,
A hero comes to save
The poorman, beggarman, thief,
And make the world behave
And put an end to grief.
And that their sleep be sound
I say this childermas
Who could not, at one time,
Have saved them from the gas.

“More Light! More Light!”
for Heinrich Blücher and Hannah Arendt
Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
“I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.”
Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible,
The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite.
His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap
Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.
And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst;
Permitted at least his pitiful dignity;
And such as were by made prayers in the name of Christ
That shall judge all men, for his soul’s tranquility.
We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.
Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill
Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.
A Lüger settled back deeply in its glove.
He was ordered to change places with the Jews.
Much casual death had drained away their souls.
The thick dirt mounted to the quivering chin.
When only the head was exposed the order came
To dig him out again and get back in.
No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.
The Lüger hovered lightly in its glove.
He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.
No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.

poetry news

pamayres.jpg The good news: Pam Ayres has got an MBE. I’ve been a fan of Pam Ayres’ unpretentious light verse since I first heard her reading it in her distinctive West Country burr about twenty years ago. My favourite is still Clamp the Mighty Limpet, which begins

I am Clamp the Mighty Limpet
I am solid, I am stuck
I am welded to the rockface
With my superhuman suck.

When I get home this evening I’ll transcribe the rest of it, and a couple of others. (Update: apparently I forgot to steal the Pam Ayres books from my parents last time I visited, so I’ll make a separate entry when I’ve bought myself new copies.) I think Ms Ayres should be Poet Laureate instead of professional boring git Andrew Motion. Seriously, and if I had the time I could make a scholarly argument for the idea on the basis that light verse of a certain kind is the last (and perhaps the first and only) distinctively British mode of poetry. (photo lifted from the jacket cover of her latest book)
anthonyhecht.jpg The sad news: Anthony Hecht is dead much too soon at 81. Hecht was a formalist whose poetry merited with unusual frequency both of the overused adjectives “beautiful” and “melancholy”. He also (with John Hollander) invented the double dactyl, a light form that’s considerably harder than it looks. This, for instance, reads like one but isn’t:

Higgledy piggledy
Anthony Hecht is dead,
terrible news for all
lovers of verse:
assholes like me will be
obituarizing him; what
could be worse?

You can read some of his work at the links above, and I’ll transcribe some more tonight. (photo swiped from Auburn U Dept of English) (both items from the excellent dumbfoundry)


If you like poetry and related news-y things, you should read Malcolm Davidson’s excellent dumbfoundry, where today he excerpts from A Wodehouse Miscellany that worthy’s exposition on the alarming spread of poetry. Let me whet your appetite:

In life I was the village smith,
I worked all day
I retained the delicacy of my complexion
I worked in the shade of the chestnut tree
Instead of in the sun
Like Nicholas Blodgett, the expressman.
I was large and strong
I went in for physical culture
And deep breathing
And all those stunts.
I had the biggest biceps in Spoon River.

Louis MacNeice

Corner Seat
Suspended in a moving night
The face in the reflected train
Looks at first sight as self-assured
As your own face—But look again:
Windows between you and the world
Keep out the cold, keep out the fright;
Then why does your reflection seem
So lonely in the moving night?

Museums offer us, running from among the buses,
A centrally heated refuge, parquet floors and sarcophaguses,
Into whose tall fake porches we hurry without a sound
Like a beetle under a brick that lies, useless, on the ground.
Warmed and cajoled by the silence the cowed cypher revives,
Mirrors himself in the cases of pots, paces himself by marble lives,
Makes believe it was he that was the glory that was Rome,
Soft on his cheek the nimbus of other people’s martyrdom,
And then returns to the street, his mind an arena where sprawls
Any number of consumptive Keatses and dying Gauls.

Having bitten on life like a sharp apple
Or, playing it like a fish, been happy,
Having felt with fingers that the sky is blue,
What have we after that to look forward to?
Not the twilight of the gods but a precise dawn
Of sallow and grey bricks, and newsboys crying war.

The Sunlight On The Garden
The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.
Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying
And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

ae stallings

This is a good idea, and spurred me to make this post, which I’ve had in mind for ages. (And April was National Poetry Month; who knew?)
It’s tough to pick just one poem by my favourite contemporary poet AE Stallings, so I’ll go with the first of hers that I read, way back when it was featured on Poetry Daily:

The Man Who Wouldn’t Plant Willow Trees
Willows are messy trees. Hair in their eyes,
they weep like women after too much wine
and not enough love. They litter a lawn with leaves
Like the butts of regrets smoked down to the filter.
They are always out of kilter. Thirsty as drunks,
They’ll sink into a sewer with their roots.
They have no pride. There’s never enough sorrow.
A breeze threatens and they shake with sobs.
Willows are slobs, and must be cleaned up after.
They’ll bust up pipes just looking for a drink.
Their fingers tremble, but make wicked switches.
They claim they are sorry, but they whisper it.

Ms Stallings’ homepage gives links to another two dozen or so poems; I particularly liked this and this and this, but go and read them all, even if you think you don’t like poetry. She has a wonderful, distinctive voice, erudite, whimsical and powerful all at once, and manages the delicate balance between profound and trite with enormous skill. There’s an interview in the Cortland Review here, where you can hear Stallings reading a couple of her own poems (if you can put up with the wretched Real Audio format). The essay on formal verse mentioned in that interview is well worth reading and can be found here at the Alsop Review, which also hosts Stallings’ excellent close reading of The Darkling Thrush. In addition, Stallings moderates a forum called Musing on Mastery at Able Muse‘s Eratosphere and so is one of the few working poets with whom you can actually “talk shop”, in a sense. Finally, her first (and, sadly, so far only) book, Archaic Smile, is available from the publisher (U of Evansville Press), and all good book stores. I cannot recommend it too highly.
Update: below the fold, a list of blogs featuring poems for Poem On Your Blog Day. Not exhaustive by any means, just the ones I found tracking back to Ronn’s entry or with a couple of quick searches on Google, Technorati or Bloglines. If I missed your entry and you want on the list, email me.

Continue reading


I thought I’d add some value to the intarweb by posting poems from my personal anthology-in-progress. I have six or seven feet of bookshelf devoted to poetry, and eventually I’d like to have all of my favourite works online. I read somewhere that Welsh bards used to qualify for the position by memorising a thousand poems; I’m not Welsh and I don’t want to be a bard, but I quite like the idea of having a thousand poems by heart. This, at least, is a start.
Here’s ee cummings, the first poet whose work stuck to me like a burr so that I had to read all of it, and a generous helping of criticism besides. There will be lots more cummings in the final anthology.

if i have made,my lady,intricate
if i have made,my lady,intricate
imperfect various things chiefly which wrong
your eyes(frailer than most deep dreams are frail)
songs less firm than your body’s whitest song
upon my mind-if i have failed to snare
the glance too shy-if through my singing slips
the very skillful strangeness of your smile
the keen primeval silence of your hair
-let the world say “his most wise music stole
nothing from death”-
you only will create
(who are so perfectly alive)my shame:
lady through whose profound and fragile lips
the sweet small clumsy feet of April came
into the ragged meadow of my soul.

since feeling is first
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
and death i think is no parenthesis

happy birthday ted

seuss.jpg I attribute my lifelong love of words principally to two things: my parents’ willingness to read to me — and read, and read, and read, and read some more, long after their sanity must have been strained — and the poetry of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr Suess. From him, via my longsuffering parents, I learned to love the feel of words in one’s ears and mouth, the bounce and swing of rhythm and the “just-so” pleasure of rhyme. Today would have been his hundredth birthday, and the occasion will be marked by the unveiling of a statue, the issue of a postage stamp (I swiped that picture of it from the NYT) and the addition of a star to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. His publisher, Random House, also has a variety of events planned, including an art exhibition which, sadly, does not seem to come anywhere near Portland. Personally, I think it would be better celebrated by reading one of his books aloud to a small child — or to yourself. Wikipedia has an excellent entry on Dr Suess, much better than the official Random House site (which requires Flash). The Chase Group handles sales of Geisel’s art if you fancy a print or even a sculpture.

too much politics, not enough poetry

Acorn is an independent journal of haiku-in-English founded and edited by AC Missias, whose own haiku were among the first “international haiku” (viz., haiku not written in Japanese) I remember reading:

father’s kimono
fluttering empty
still protects his yard
spring chill —
rounded sparrows cling
to bare branches
far from land
waiting for sunrise
— the creaking of ropes

Subscription is less than USD12/year. I’d happily pay that much for just one good poem.

you got any poems on that intarweb doohicky?

Typing “poetry” into a search engine will get you nowhere; or rather, it will get you everywhere, which is no use at all. Every angsty teenager should write poetry, of course, but only in a vanishingly small number of cases should anyone else ever read it. Herewith a short list of readable poetry on the web.
Dead white men; or, “classical” poetry:
Steve Spanoudis’ Poet’s Corner offers 7600 poems by 780 poets indexed by author, title and subject. Biographies of about 30 and photographs of about 120 poets (many of them somewhat obscure) are also available. They accept submissions, if you have a favourite poet you’d like to see included (but beware copyright restrictions!). The daily poetry break features a poem a day from the Poet’s Corner collection, with commentary by Bob Blair. I frequently disagree with Bob’s opinions, but he’s interesting.
Representative Poetry Online includes about 2,900 English poems by over 400 poets. It’s based on a 1912 textbook but includes hundreds of additional poems and poets as well as biographical data, commentaries and other features.
The estimable Project Bartleby offers a wonderful selection of verse anthologies and volumes. Special mention here to the best anthology of English poetry ever made, the 1919 Oxford Book of English Verse. Quoth Q:

My wish is that the reader should in his own pleasure quite forget the editor