Z is for Zucker

Poet Rachel Zucker, responding to the Huffington Post’s question Is there such a thing as “truth” in a poem? (A good question to consider at the end of this month…er…6 months of poetry) I’m sure there are those who would vehemently disagree with her answer. They might think she’s wrong to answer in the affirmative at all, or perhaps they would argue that her response is not, in fact, an affirmative in any important sense.  But I like what she says–I think it does affirm something important about poetry’s relationship to truth–and I like her poetry (see one of her poems on my friend’s poetry blog, here).  

Your question…inspired me to (finally) look up the word “truth” and I’m glad I did. I see that truth is defined as “the body of real things, events, and facts” or “fidelity to an original” or (a more archaic definition) “sincerity in action, character, and utterance” so yes, I’d say there is such a thing as “truth in a poem.” A poem isn’t an egg (it doesn’t have a body or thing-ness the way other “real things” do), but a poem can strive to be faithful to the original (experience) and certainly a poem can be sincere. A poem is never going to be a copy of the real world or a mirror–it’s always a translation of experience and another experience in and of itself. Even seemingly unaltered photographs are composed and exposed, developed and printed in ways that mediate “the body of real things” but, yes, I think there is truth in poetry. Truth in the sense of an attempt, not an absolute.”

            ~ Rachel Zucker


Y is for Yeats

Turns out it’s hard to make a poetry alphabet where Y doesn’t stand for Yeats. William Butler Yeats was born in 1865 and died in 1939, a pretty eventful 75 years in which to be alive. Yeats was born in Dublin and though he spent more than a decade of his early life in London, he was an Irishman and an Irish poet. He even served for six years in the Irish senate. Yeats’ work is steeped in Irish folklore and mythology, and he has become an almost fantastically large figure in Irish national and literary history. I read Edmund Wilson’s book Axel’s Castle, a survey of imaginative literature, early this summer. Writing about Yeats, Wilson asks:

What is the consequence of living for beauty, as beauty
was then understood, of cultivating the imagination, the
enjoyment of aesthetic sensation, as a supreme end in it-
self? We shall be thrown fatally out of key with reality,
we shall incur penalties which are not to be taken lightly.
There is a conflict here which cannot be evaded; and
Yeats, even in his earliest period, is unceasingly aware of
this conflict.

Sounds like a difficult place in which to live. Sounds like maybe the place where Keats lived, too. 

My most vivid Yeats memory is of attending a job talk for a new Modern British Literature professor my sophomore year of college. After delivering her presentation, the candidate was answering questions, and she somehow or other got into a word for word recitation of  Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming,” with my advisor, a professor of English more than 30 years her senior. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” they chanted, staring directly at each other in a room full of silent listeners. It gave me chills: two women just dashing out this poem, line after line, a slight feeling of pressure wondering whether one of them would stumble, though neither did. It was so clear how much they loved the words they were saying, how much that poem meant to them. It was thrilling. 


    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

~ W.B. Yeats (first published 1919)

X is for XX

A favorite sonnet from my favorite sonnet sequence, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese: 


Beloved, my Beloved, when I think
That thou wast in the world a year ago,
What time I sat alone here in the snow
And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink
No moment at thy voice, but, link by link,
Went counting all my chains as if that so
They never could fall off at any blow
Struck by thy possible hand,--why, thus I drink
Of life's great cup of wonder!  Wonderful,
Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
With personal act or speech,--nor ever cull
Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
Thou sawest growing!  Atheists are as dull,
Who cannot guess God's presence out of sight.

~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning

W is for “We Are Not Responsible”

From Harryette Mullen’s book, Sleeping with the Dictionary, which definitely deserves a place in any poetry alphabet, as it is pretty alphabetically organized itself (check out an interview with Mullen about how her writing process for this particular collection here) :

We Are Not Responsible 

We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives. We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions. We do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for handouts. We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. Your ticket does not guarantee that we will honor your reservations. In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your carrying-on. Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments. If you cannot understand English, you will be moved out of the way. In the event of a loss, you’d better look out for yourself. Your insurance was cancelled because we can no longer handle your frightful claims. Our handlers lost your luggage and we are unable to find the key to your legal case. You were detained for interrogation because you fit the profile. You are not presumed to be innocent if the police have reason to suspect you are carrying a concealed wallet. It’s not our fault you were born wearing a gang color. It is not our obligation to inform you of your rights. Step aside, please, while our officer inspects your bad attitude. You have no rights that we are bound to respect. Please remain calm or we can’t be held responsible for what happens to you.

~ Harryette Mullen

V is for Varela

Blanca Varela (1926-2009)

As in Blanca Varela, a Peruvian poet whose translated work I’ve run into on rare and lovely occasions. I believe her poetry is much more widely available in Spanish, so if anyone is interested in finding it and translating it into English for me, for the world, or for the large measures of glory that come from unsung toil in the name of poetry, go to it! (Or if you’re interested in teaching me to speak Spanish, let me know.)  Here’s the first poem of Blanca’s I ever read, called “Curriculum Vitae.” It reminds me of a very different poem (Dorothy Parker’s “Resume”) and also of the Cake song, “The Distance.”  I’m including it here in both Spanish and English, and I found it in The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry, edited by Ilan Stavans (who translated this particular poem).


Digamos que ganaste la carrera
y que el premio
era otra carrera
que no bebiste el vino de la victoria
sino tu propia sal
que jamás escuchaste vítores
sino ladridos de perros
y que tu sombra
tu propia sombra fue tu única
y desleal competidora.




let’s say you won the race
and the prize
was another race
you didn’t savor the wine of victory
but your own salt
you never listened to hurrahs
but dog barks
and your shadow
your own shadow
was your only
and disloyal competitor

~ Blanca Varela
translated by Ilan Stavans