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Sample Poetry Columns by Hass

[Ed. Note: This is a small sample of the Hass's syndicated "Poet's Choice" column.]

A Poem by Horace
"Poet's Choice," March 29, 1998

It's spring. And here's a chance to print a song of the season that comes from a very old, sunlit, Mediterranean sanity. Also a chance to celebrate a remarkable recent book.

One of the poets central to the history of lyric poetry in the European tradition is Quintus Horatius Flaccus, whom we know as Horace. He was born when Rome was emerging as a world power. He fought, as a young man in those turbulent years, in the wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, and wrote most of his poems in the age of Augustus.

With Catullus and Virgil and Ovid, he's one of the four great lyric poets of ancient Rome. For English poets from Shakespeare's time to the end of the 19th century, he was the man. Horace spent most of his life in retirement on a modest farm in the country outside Rome. He wrote immensely civilized, poised, exquisitely polished, and apparently casual poems about the countryside and the Roman seasons, about not living in the Augustan equivalents of the corridors of power and the feeding frenzies of the media and the fevers of the deal. His values were the gentleman farmer's ideals. Balance was what he admired, independence, privacy, friendship, a sensible prosperity, good wine, the fruits of the season.

These are reasons to read him, but the deepest reason is pleasure. He's a beguiling poet. Reading him in stray moments is, I've been finding, like carrying around a particularly delicious and soothing dream-trance. "Soothing" isn't quite accurate for the complexity of Horace's mind, but this was the idea of him among poets of the early 20th century, which is why he fell out of favor and why he hasn't really had a compelling English translator in this century. Now one has arrived. David Ferry, a New England poet and Wordsworth scholar, has published a complete translation of "The Odes of Horace" (Farrar Straus Giroux), and it's wonderful to read. (See Book World, Oct. 26, 1997, for a review.)

The Odes have to be lived with – they'll make great summer reading of a mellow and reflective kind – and one sample won't convey that. But here's the flavor. Cut to a spring day in Italy 2,000 years ago where Horace's friend Lucius Sestius is worried about his bank account and his place in society and his love life:

To Sestius

Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their
    caulked boats
Down to the water; in the winter stables the cattle
Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the
    early mornings.

Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,
Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;
Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless sky
Vulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.
Now is the time to garland your shining hair
With myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth
    has given;
Now is the right time to offer the kid or lamb
In sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.

Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whether
He's going to knock at a rich man's door or a poor man's.
O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don't put your hope
    in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto's shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love
    with Lycidas,
This or that girl with him, or he with her?

Copyright 1998 by the Washington Post Company. Online Source. Ode I.4 "To Sestius" from "The Odes of Horace," translated by David Ferry. Copyright 1997 by David Ferry.

A Poem by Donald Justice
"Poet's Choice," September 20, 1998

Many readers wrote to express their interest in and ask questions about the poetic form called the villanelle, after I printed a couple of examples last month. So the haunted and magic quality of that kind of formal repetition in poems must have struck a chord. One reader suggested that I print a pantoum. The pantoum has a curious history. It's a Malay song form and it was adapted by French poets in the 19th century (one of the more obscure fruits of the Age of Imperialism) and came into English from poets who imitated the French. The pantoum has a four-line stanza; the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza.

Here's one by Donald Justice, who grew up in Florida and taught for many years at the Iowa Writers Workshop. The poems in his New and Selected Poems about Florida, the Miami of another era, and about growing up in the Depression years are especially memorable. Justice is widely admired and imitated by other poets; he's a brilliant craftsman who has experimented with a lot of forms, including the pantoum. Here's an American poet using a Malay-French-English form to get the feel of America in the 1930s.:

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.

Copyright 1998 by The Washington Post Company. Online Source. "Pantoum of the Great Depression" reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

A Poem by Octavio Paz
"Poet's Choice," April 26, 1998

I was in San Miguel de Allende in January when I heard that Octavio Paz was gravely ill. My hotel room had a rooftop patio. When I walked out onto it at dawn, 6,000 feet up in the Sierra Madre, I looked out at a late Renaissance dome, 18th-century church spires, laundry lines, utility lines, black rooftop cats gazing with what seemed religious reverence at the pigeons they could not quite reach, and in the distance the lines of low bare hills that formed the high shallow valley of San Miguel. Overhead there was a flock of what must have been two hundred cormorants flying silently and swiftly north. In the dawn light it looked as if the white sky were full of broken black crosses, a kind of aerial, fast-moving cemetery. It could have been an image from one of his poems.

Paz, who died this week, was not only Mexico's greatest poet. He was one of the most remarkable literary figures of this half century. His essays are at least as compelling as his poems and a good way for English readers to get to know him. Paz's great prose book is probably his stunning meditation on the nature of poetry, The Bow and the Lyre, and there are others: his book-length essay on Mexico and Mexican culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude, his biographical study of Mexico's great poet of the Colonial Period, Sor Juana de la Cruz, his essays on history and politics, One Earth, Four or Five Worlds, and his essays on Mexican art. Only Czeslaw Milosz among the poets of his generation has had the same depth and range.

But he was a poet first of all. The best volumes of his work in English are Selected Poems and A Tree Within, both published by New Directions. Here is one of his poems, gorgeous in Spanish and you can almost hear the original in this English translation by Mark Strand:

Wind and Water and Stone

The water hollowed the stone,
the wind dispersed the water,
the stone stopped the wind.
Water and wind and stone.

The wind sculpted the stone,
the stone is a cup of water,
The water runs off and is wind.
Stone and wind and water.

The wind sings in its turnings,
the water murmurs as it goes,
the motionless stone is quiet.
Wind and water and stone.

One is the other and is neither:
among their empty names
they pass and disappear,
water and stone and wind.

Copyright 1998 by the Washington Post Company. Online Source. "Wind and Water and Stone" by Octavio Paz, translated by Mark Strand, from "The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987." Copyright 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.)

One Poem by Robert Frost, Another by Susan Wheeler
"Poet's Choice,"  July 19, 1998

Postmodern poetry – experimental poetry – has been for the last 15 years or so trying to figure out how to wriggle out of the sort of direct, personal poetry that the generation of Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich made. Not necessarily because the younger poets didn't like it, but because they felt that work was done and it was time to do something else. The project has gone in a lot of directions, but almost all of them have had in common an effort to subvert narrative, undermine the first person singular, and foreground the textures and surprises in language rather than the drama of content.

A rowdy and engaging instance is a second book from the New York City poet Susan Wheeler, "Smokes," published by Four Ways Books. To give you the flavor of it, here is a well-known poem from Robert Frost's first and much-beloved book, "A Boy's Will," published in 1915, and the poem by Wheeler which gives it a Monty-Pythonesque spin:

The Pasture

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear; I may):
I shan't be gone long. – You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother. It's so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue
I shan't be gone long. – You come too.

That's Vermont in the tens of the century. Here is Manhattan in the '90s:

He or She That's Got the Limb
That Holds Me Out on It

The girls are drifting in their ponytails
and their pig iron boat. So much for Sunday.
The dodo birds are making a racket
to beat the band. You could have come too.

The girls wave and throw their garters
from their pig iron boat. Why is this charming?
Where they are nailed on their knees
the garters all rip. You were expected.

The youngest sees a Fury in a Sentra
in a cloud. This is her intimation and she balks.
The boat begins rocking from the scourge
of the sunset. The youngest starts the song.

Copyright 1998 by The Washington Post Company. Online Source. "He or She That's Got the Limb
That Holds Me Out on It
" from Smokes, by Susan Wheeler, published by Four Ways Books.

A Poem by Sylvia Plath
"Poet's Choice," March 15, 1998

The appearance of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters has gotten so much attention in the press that even my local baker asked me about it the other morning when I stopped for coffee. "What's the deal?" he asked. My impulse was to lend him the book. I said that Ted Hughes was the English poet laureate, a Yorkshireman, that he wrote poems about the natural world in something like the spirit of D.H. Lawrence and a mythic book, called Crow, about the darkness of just about everything, and that 30 years ago he'd been married to a brilliant American poet, that it was a difficult marriage, that they were in the country in Dorset on the west coast of England when the marriage blew up, that when he left her for another woman they had a five-month-old baby and a toddler about three, that she moved to London and in the middle of the coldest winter of the century, feeling abandoned and enraged, she shut herself in the kitchen, taped the doors, and just before the babysitter was to arrive stuck her head in a gas oven and killed herself, that there had been earlier suicide attempts, that she'd written a novel about one of them, that her poems appeared after her death edited by her husband and made her famous, and that he was now years later supposedly telling his side of the story.

I felt like I was summarizing a soap opera, not sure which details were the relevant ones, the ones that would answer his question. So I found myself tailing off and said, "You know, what you should do first is read her poems," and the next morning I dropped off a copy of Sylvia Plath's Ariel.

Here is a poem from Ariel, from that time. It was written in October 1962, after Hughes had left and before she had moved from the cottage in Dorset. The person in the poem is imagined to be speaking to a baby, trying to put a baby to sleep. They are in candlelight and the brass candlestick has a figure on it of Atlas who seems to be lifting up the candle, and as she speaks the figure of Atlas becomes the figure, maybe, for the absent father, or maybe a figure for the woman herself, or the effort of art. Atlas is holding up all the light there is. It's not like a soap opera; things stand for more than one thing, stand for opposite things at once. We're in the territory of poetry:

By Candlelight

This is winter, this is night, small love —
A sort of black horsehair,
A rough, dumb country stuff
Steeled with the sheen
Of what green stars can make it to our gate.
I hold you on my arm.
It is very late.
The dull bells tongue the hour.
The mirror floats us at one candle power.

This is the fluid in which we meet each other,
This haloey radiance that seems to breathe
And lets our shadows wither
Only to blow
Them huge again, violent giants on the wall.
One match scratch makes you real.

At first the candle will not bloom at all —
It snuffs its bud
To almost nothing, to a dull blue dud.

I hold my breath until you creak to life,
Balled hedgehog,
Small and cross. The yellow knife
Grows tall. You clutch your bars.
My singing makes you roar.
I rock you like a boat
Across the Indian carpet, the cold floor,
While the brass man
Kneels, back bent, as best he can

Hefting his white pillar with the light
That keeps the sky at bay,
The sack of black! It is everywhere, tight, tight!
He is yours, the little brassy Atlas —
Poor heirloom, all you have,
At his heels a pile of five brass cannonballs,
No child, no wife.
Five balls! Five bright brass balls!
To juggle with, my love, when the sky falls.

This version comes from Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems, published by HarperPerennial. The line I find myself thinking about is "One match scratch makes you real." Literally, it's about becoming visible in the mirror when the candle is lit. It's also probably a metaphor for conception, for the flare of sex. And the famous line of Shakespeare's Macbeth must hover around it: "Out, out, brief candle."

Copyright 1998 by The Washington Post Company. Online Source. "By Candlelight" from Collected Poems, by Sylvia Plath. Copyright 1960, 1965, 1971, 1981 by the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Reprinted in The Washington Post by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

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