his ping-pong twang


John Berryman, at the Guggenheim
with Robert Lowell
(twins of the groundswell
‘60s – gyrfalcons of the time)

relates a cutting parable
to illustrate poetic
speech.  Paternalistic
hot-shot banker plunks edible

& butler-polished gift-apple
into tot’s trick-or-treat
bag... You big shit!
yells kid – you crushed the crap

out of my cookie! (Guggenheim
giggles).  Jokes take place
in Minneapolis – this
much-derided mini-apple (rhymes

with Big).  Poet’s last home.
Dust-devils & tornadoes
fill his Oklahoma shoes.
His ping-pong twang off spiral womb

booms (sepulcher-recording)
up the ascending ramp
of modern art (Duchamp
is, Mr. Bones).  & there be something

weird ‘bout Henry – year-long
yearning in the yearling
lurching at spring –
light from Evening Star (so long!)


glancing toward Morning Star
across a black-iced
Mississippi (nice
Minnesota teeth, or solar flare).

The holm oak is an evergreen.
Turned inside-out, grief
lifted underleaf –
a pale moss-light, Nativity scene.

Like that Natasha veering toward
her lonesome labyrinth,
whose airy terebinth
fills sails of summer shade –

whose fluttering eyelids well up
with incomparable
change.  As in the parable
of viceroy in treetop –

evanescent black-&-yellow
wings’ twin semaphore
your sign-lingo, your
promise of new life (tomb-slow,

lentissimo).  The snarky raven
& the tremulous dove –
the starlings’ chatter-trove
amid bare, barren limbs... Olympian

Zeus rattling his thunder-oak
will never leave this winter
harbor – mangy splinter,
tuneful cove – spooky light-spoke.



the sense of being right

Stray thoughts of a stray dog, this afternoon...   Have been reading the translation of Mandelstam, by Oleg Lekmanov, a sober, concise, and poignant biography.  Came upon this passage, quoting a letter (written to his wife in the spring of 1935) of Sergei Rudakov, a writer who spent some time with the Mandelstams during their exile in Voronezh.  Rudakov :

"I have never seen anything like this in my life... At a distance it is impossible to measure or relate.  I am standing before a working mechanism (perhaps even organism - it would be the same) of poetry.  I see the same thing as in myself, though in the hands of a genius, which will mean much more than it is possible to understand now.  There is no human anymore - there is Michelangelo...  For the sake of 4 lines, literally 400 are pronounced.  He does not see anything.  He does not remember that some of these lines belong to his earlier poems and repeats these lines again.  Then by eschewing the old lines he creates new poems." (Mandelstam, p. 144)

Anna Akhmatova's memoirs are then quoted, reflecting on the same period : "It is amazing that the sense of space, breadth, deep breathing appeared in Mandelstam's poetry in Voronezh, when he was not at all free."

There are several statements here worth pondering.  I just want to focus on what they triggered in my thoughts.  First is Rudakov's impression of the "biological organism" at work.  The sense I have here is of an artist who has ripened and sharpened his talent over a lifetime.  This is not a dilettante, but a kind of word-sculptor ("Michelangelo"), who is refining - in compositional "real time", so to speak - his own conception of Russian poetry as a totality, and his own individual idiom, purpose & sense of occasion - within the theatre of creation which is the making of the particular poem.

Secondly, these pages got me thinking about works of art & poetry as monuments, turning points, as benchmarks of cultural refinement.  As great expressive achievements : quintessential, incomparable.

This sort of window on poetry seems unfashionable these days.  We don't think of poems (or poets) as "rare" : in fact we go out of our way to encourage everyone to be a poet.  We don't understand this picture - a poet composing out loud, not writing anything down - reciting 400 lines in order to melt them down to four.  The whole idea is alien to us.

Poetry today is nothing if not transitive, direct, colloquial, and above all informal.  Every line is a throwaway line.  Every line is a "hook."  Even our current "experimental", formalist poets lay out their organizing principles very explicitly,  as if on a blueprint, or as a Powerpoint presentation.  We are meant to see & appreciate exactly how A leads to B.

Difficulty is conceptualized as "technical difficulty".  Poetry is evaluated by the sharpness or effectiveness of its rhetorical weapons.

This is not to deny that sharp, effective rhetoric has not always been a part of poetry.  But what's missing in art & poetry today (in large part, if not everywhere) is some kind of elusive spiritual dimension.  The strange epileptic seizures or fits of passionate composition which we behold in Mandelstam should be understood as the culmination of decades of committed labor at his craft; yet they must also be seen as Mandelstam's own conscious submission to the wave of inspiration.  He cannot fully control what he is making, because it is happening out of the improvisatory process itself; and yet it is guided by a kind of overall sense of wholeness or cultural mission - a critical sense - which shapes and informs his artistic "oracles".

Mandelstam refines 4 lines out of 400 lines because he senses he is not just writing "for himself" but is composing something which has objective meaning for the Russian people as a whole, and perhaps for humanity as a whole.  Poetry is not solely a private egotistical achievement, but is part of a vow, a "commission", to produce these integral, free-standing objects or monuments of harmonic song.  They belong to everyone, and he is somehow aware of this, and his awareness reinforces his effort to sing it exactly right.

This is perhaps one interpretation of the retort Mandelstam offered, when asked by an apparatchik interviewer for his "definition of poetry."  Mandelstam simply replied : "the poet's sense of being right."

Where do we find this sense of mission in American poetry?  Where do we find a poet relinquishing the calculations of rhetorical guile, and submitting to a more profound source of inspiration?  Where do we find a poet refining & refining lines out of an obscure sense of enunciation, of oracular speech?

I'm not arguing such poetry is not out there in America now.  I just think perhaps it's a little hard to find, under the unceasing bombardment (from what Mandelstam called "the horde of scribblers") of easygoing, unctuous, smarmy, clever, cozening, glib, prosaic, tossed-off, complacent, shallow, and trivial so-called works which offer themselves to the public in the name of poetry.


a Jewish refugee

Welcome back to Henry's late-night improv.  Record cold in Minneapolis tonight (Keith Richard's birthday).  We see foxes, turkeys, deer, packs of coyotes, rabbits & owls in this neck of the Minneapolis metro area (SE, along the river, by the University, where both sides of my family have lived for the last 150 years).  A few blocks from weird John Berryman's last home (33 Arthur Ave.).

Advent.  The Messiah is coming.  A Jewish refugee, he nurses in a barn.

I myself identify with Shakespeare's dreamy, soulful, effete Henry VI (recast tonight on PBS - The Hollow Crown).  Wars of the Roses.  "We are two shadows cast by Henry's body", declares one conspirator.

Civil strife... was Shakespeare part of a fake-news, Tudor messianic cult?  Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?

Think not.  I perceive the Globe & other theaters were implicated with royal politics... yet echoed something older, something medieval (mystery plays).  The master plot of the medieval theater, of the Byzantine labyrinth, was this : all earthly political authority is subject to the King of Kings.

So when you listen closely to the Delphic pentameter strophes of the Bard, you can hear this parochial, medieval, local, humble, Franciscan, monastic, Dominican, scholarly, ancient, simple, salty, truthful royal whisper... something to which both Eliot & David Jones, in contrastive ways, were attuned... the sovereignty of the Son of Man.

There is a spiritual resistance audible in Shakespeare - isomorphic with Osip Mandelstam's "oath to the 4th Estate".  A resistance to the usurper, the tyrant, the oppressor - recognized by his fell signs of inhumanity : his lack of grace, his murderous ambition, his rejection of his own eternal soul (with its attendant values).  Shakespeare's Richard III (who wasn't actually so bad, in real life).

This is the straight redwood of righteousness... the prophets' vow.

I confess, the inner world of Henry is quite unique & strange.  The sleepy king, the drowsy infant, bobbing along down the stream of his milky entitlement (the barn) - mumbling calm platitude-poems, radiating ridiculous ease, contentment... & only very slowly awakening to his fatal inheritance.

Oh yes : we must confront these usurpers.

I speak not of the minor satrapies, the lotos-eaters in the provinces, the solipsism of the echo-pond.

The poet's drawn to his true rivals in the lists, the spiritual enemies of Man : the despots, autocrats - the Putins, Erdogans - the Trumps, the Kim Jong-Uns, Dutertes, Xi Jinpings - the Stalins, Hitlers, Pol Pots... all the honchos riding out of Hell.

They will attack you, oak tree - like the termites gnawing at the life-marrow.  & yet the Child-King nestles in his oak-leaf hideout...will prevail against all Philistines (both high & low).

He is Man, after all.  Advent comes on.  Epiphany.


for the future ages' resounding glory

Arctic cold here.  Just returned from a beautiful concert of medieval choral music by the Rose Ensemble, at the Basilica of St. Mary (over by Loring Park).  Incredible freedom in the rhythm & harmonies - you sense the hardship of life in those days (nasty, brutish & short), stamped with this otherworldly exaltation.

Makes you think anything is possible.  Also reading a translation of brief, lucid biography of Osip Mandelstam (Mandelstam, by Oleg Lekmanov).  My hero & imaginary friend.  Makes you think anything is possible.

What if it were possible to transmute contemporary American poetry (poetry in American English) into some completely revised, unrecognizable system of relations & values?

The relations between poet / poetry / language / nation-state (or people) are a knotty spider's web.  Think of Shakespeare, setting his seal on English poetry, while advancing the historical legend of Tudor supremacy (there were other poets in English).  Or Dante, basically establishing the Italian language, and the Italian nation, by way of mutually-reinforcing rhyme-schemes.  Or Whitman, the loafing disreputable hobo-bard, inventing a template for the American dream?

Poetry per se - individual poems - subsists as a subtext of these larger narratives.  The unresolved suspense of Hamlet (the play) is a dramatic effect - the plunging of quasi-historical characters into a tragic allegory of their own (semi-suicidal) demise.  Actual England, actual Elizabethan London provides the tacit atmosphere, maintaining these translucent symphonies of lyric speech.

Anything is possible.  What if we initiated something like an American "charismatic (bardic) poetry"?  What if HG Poetics replaced AWP, the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Foundation, and the Library of Congress?  What if the charisma of the flinty bard - the stubborn, indomitable shaman/patriarch/prophet/holy fool - what if the drama of poet vs. official anthill - became the most interesting thing happening?

For some reason, I've always found Osip Mandelstam more interesting than any poets or poetry surfacing in the United States.  He emanates this uncanny/contradictory rightness - this resolution in the face of autocratic, totalitarian social control - so as to present the inimitable profile of the free, loving, creative human being.  The person.  I, Walt Whitman, speaking to you, whoever you are - my equal, my soul mate, my camerado.

We need more national drama in poetry today.  Down with the protocols, away with the moneychangers !

Take me into the night, where the Yenisey
flows, where pines reach the starlight,
because there's no wolf's blood in me,
and only an equal shall take my life.

(trans. by A.S. Kline)


Queequeg was covered with tattoos

The slow fuse of indignation burns in the joints of an old man, keeping him warm.

It's late.  Not sure why I'm here.  We're having a Minnesota mini-blizzard.  I did some late-night shoveling, then took a walk through the new snow, round the old haunts.  East River Road - past Granddad's, Grandma's brick house.  He built it (grain-elevator engineer) 90 years ago.  My mother & uncle & aunts grew up in that house.  We used to visit for dinner almost every Sunday.  (I live in an apartment around the block from there now.)

The snow is falling soundlessly.

Whence cometh the indignation?  Is it envy?  Frustration?

Well... let's see.  I've been bloggin' here recently about what seems like a kind of atomic oscillation, an inherent duality : passion/detachment, poet/listener, reason/intuition, poet/reader, poet/audience...

Which reminds me that a few days ago I was nattering on about another duality : poet/bard.

Which seems to chime (imperfectly) with the fault line that's troubling me now.

I'm indignant with, I'm troubled by, the institutional pattern of poetry in America.

How do we (as a social what-not) decide what writing, what poetry, is central, necessary?

We are such a massive, rich, diverse & powerful country.  The nocturnal titanic beams of energy from the power-plants are blinding.

There is a kind of establishment prestige which seems to settle like a natural force, like snow, like rain, upon those gifted workers in the artistic fields who find a way to establish their credentials.

It doesn't matter with us how abrasive, shocking, & subversive your art-work is : sooner or later you will be crowned with platinum awards & ecstatic acclamations.  You will arrive.  This is democracy.  This is ***AMERICA***.

The glamour spreads from Lincoln Center & Kennedy Center through all the ivy-clad academic domains & the newspapers, unto the magazines, the radio stations, the local reading groups, the bookstores, libraries... You are the successful author; you are the beloved.

Isn't it great?  It is great.  So what's my problem?  (I haven't written anything, maybe?)

My problem is that America is stultified by its own success.  The laurels showered on our favorite writers are like flaming iron tongs, dropped on the martyrs from moronic Nero's box.

Our literary culture rewards its writers with a kind of recognition resembling the daily specials board over the deli counter.  It will be different tomorrow : maybe meatballs.

& the poets try so hard.  Our top critics review every new book (from a careful selection of new & established authors) with an eye to immediate value for money down.  The hyperbole comes naturally; everybody's hungry, after all.  They're all brilliant.  If they weren't, they wouldn't be writing for the major publications, believe me.

But my problem goes deeper.  It goes back to this odd schizophrenic duality.... poet/bard? Emotion/detachment?

I walk down to the Mississippi in the dark night of the snow.  Poetry is not about poems.  Poetry is about the dark night of the snow.  Queequeg was covered with tattoos; each one was painful to apply. Time & history turn the artist into her own fresco.  The crux of things is a matter of life or death - of spiritual values, not literary reifications.

Yet the poet must struggle toward an integral wholeness - a good end, a finished work.

Hence for Mandelstam (for one example) the appeal of the Redemption.  Hence for Dante the adoration of the high-school flame (a resolution of all things).

The Promised Land must be a kind of vanishing point, where life & art coalesce in equilibrium.  Some romantic kind of classicism, maybe.

I'm going down into the depths, beyond these reifications of the national machine.  That's the Mississippi down there.  Very cold tonight.


Two-Minute Aphorisms

The most radically experimental is that poetry which appears without any publicity, scaffolding or promotion whatsoever, completely bereft of explanatory support networks.


Poetry is verbal music.  If it has no music, I'm not interested.


Prose is absolutely necessary, especially for the most banal, vapid and insipid communications.  The only thing on earth which does not require prose is poetry.


Poetry is conceptual music.  If it has no sound waves, I'm not interested.


You needn't concern yourself with this useless gray pebble.


Janus-Faced Henryism

In my Janus-faced post of yesterday ("poetry is/is not a psychological double-bind"), I did not quite express the whole of the elusive notion which triggered the initial commentary.  Let me see if I can briefly get there now.

The notion itself was about doubleness : a sense that some kind of detachment or critical awareness is integral to creative art forms - including poetry - and the art-experience itself.

Pasternak once characterized Mandelstam's appearance on the Russian literary scene thus : "you entered a conversation which had already begun."  Many the poet & theorist (Plato, Lacan, Levinas come to mind) have emphasized the dialogic nature of poetry (and consciousness generally).  But the notion is perhaps idealized to some extent.  If art is a dialogue, it seems somewhat one-sided.  One partner speaks, the other listens.  One is expressive, the other is mute.  One is conscious, deliberate, rational - the other subconscious, intuitive, ineffable.  One is assertive, the other receptive.  Yin, yang.  The two halves of creation and reception play a subtle chess game : poets acknowledge dreams, intuition, inspiration, negative capability, or the Muse as the true source of their rational articulations, bringing into question : who is really speaking here?  Who listening?

Then the poet and reader (audience) replicate this original duality - another mirror of doubleness.  The poet recites; the reader listens, responds - is bored, is moved; is misled, is enlightened; is offended, is pleased...

And then, finally, the poet is also the reader.  New poetry grows from old poetry, as the complex emotional-intellectual receptors of the poet respond to achieved works of the past (impossible to overstate the chasm which lies between the poet giving birth to a new, as-yet unknown work of art, and the examples of finished poems, which represent the poet's benchmarks, models, and obstacles).

Moreover, the poet is famously characterized (Keats' negative capability) as the embodiment of receptivity : he or she "reads" not only prior literature and rival poets, but the "signs" emanating from nature and experience as a whole.

The sketch or pattern of the field we are presenting here - this notion of "detachment" as integral to creative expression - begins to appear less like a standard opposition between "poet & critic", or "intuition and intellect", and more like a dimension of aesthetic experience as a whole.

Which raises, in my mind, the question of value.  Taste, critical judgement, tradition : perhaps these are both tacit and fundamental to an era's literary culture.  What do I mean by this?  How does this follow from the previous?  I mean that if tacit reception is one half of art & poetry, as a dialogic duality, then there is more to poetic making than a simple 1-2 process of "create-disseminate".  Reception becomes a kind of fertile, intangible ground or atmosphere within which actual poems manifest.

American culture idealizes immediacy, production, re-invention.  "Make it new" becomes the paradigmatic shibboleth for the sales appeal of the stylish rebel, for the idealization of change per se.  It's a linear, one-way process.  Success = succession.  I think what I am proposing, indirectly, is a challenge to this standard arrangement.

The poem on the page is a kind of message in a bottle.  Sheer potentiality - nothing until it is found and opened and received and evaluated.  And the message itself may be in code; it may be meaningless until you find it out, you give it meaning.  It may also be allegorical - in disguise.  The obvious, the overt message may be meaningless in itself.  The poem lives in another dimension - a quintessence, a 5th element, active only in tacit reception.  The poem is, at heart, a riddle.

I guess I would like to imagine a somewhat different American poetic culture than the one we have at present.  There seems to be a kind of short-circuit driving the current machinery, which goes something like creation-dissemination-publicity-fame-awards-prestige.  What's left out here is the tacit "(reception)" bracketing both sides of the term "creation".  Maybe a healthier, simpler template for poetic culture would go something like this : (reception)-creation-(reception)-publication-(reception).  This model is not driven by ambition, professional interests, & prestige, by ulterior goals and motives.  If I were able to, I would display the latter, (reception) model as a circle.

bookstalls in Paris


Stay, Momentary Confusion

Taking off where I left off a few hours ago, to retrieve Sophie from school...

We were mumbling something about critical detachment, about memory.  "Tradition" in poetry.

Tradition : bit of a taboo expression, eh?  Reactionary, neo-conservative, T.S.-Eliotos antique odor there.

Of course 20th-cent. Modernists revolutionized the whole notion - backward & forward, left & right.  But that was already a long time ago.

When I think about poetic tradition, I see something essentially unavoidable, like "family".  But this tradition is very much not a symptom of some filial-Oedipal-patriarchal-economic sense of duty.  It is instead something organic, almost biological.

Watch how young poets struggle to launch collectives, find affinities, soul-mates, define themselves, test themselves against be-laureled paragons, aspire to famousness, & so on.  What doesn't so much interest me here are motivating ambitions & rivalries.  Rather the curious thing is the anxiety, the helplessness, of poets - confronted by the fact that poetry is this livid knot of incomprehensible, uncontrollable, inexplicable lumpish living somethung, which nobody know how to explain, correct, control, or abolish.  Is like the inheritance of some arcane glob of biological (living) what-not, handed down from generation unto generation - the voodoo box of elegant poison Grandpa bequeathed us, whose Grandpa left to him, & so on, with an unreadable curse scribbled on the lid : Take Good Care of Me, Never Abandon Me, or You Gonna Die.

What are all these MFA programs for, if not that?  What are all these mags about?  These awards, these citations, this enormous prestidigitation of prestige?  These quotations in stone?  These honored dead, these beloved unread classics?  Touchstones?  Operatic ecstasies?

The point of the sword is immediacy.  Poetry doesn't need explaining : it's like a powerful speech, it justifies itself in the persuasive dominance of its message.

All the talent of Madison Avenue is compacted here in this syllable of recorded charisma.

But actually, I don't believe all that.  It's like the poetic version of a simplified, bowdlerized, philistine "American Dream" : the past is pointless; everything of value is about me, here, now.  Poetry is the anti-tradition. (Here we get down to the marrow of the dumbed-down American myth.)

Great!  Cool!  Make America Drool Again!  Great Gatsby!

Sounds pretty psychological, actually.  Frazer, Sacred Wood & all.  Siege Perilous.  The double-bind of succession, father & son.  Elongate twilight of Freud's sacrificial totem, across the "grey matter" of poetry itself.  (So maybe it is a symptom, after all?)

The Great Game.

But you mentioned game... (unicorns?)... so let's reiterate : I had this hunch or notion this afternoon about "detachment".

If we think about what we love, about what's beautiful... it occurs to me that the beautiful is always overdetermined : is "meta", one way or another.  What's beautiful entails, and emanates from, reflection (in both the physical & the intellectual sense).

Memory suffuses the object with feeling, identification.  What we love involves reverberations, echoes (mnemonic stimulae).

So, curiously, detachment - the distancing, the psychic freedom from passionate, emotional absorption - allows memory to evoke beautiful response, because it is fused with the recognition of tragic reality (the actual distance of the past, the ineluctable remoteness of lost time).

The plangent feeling of the truth, the power of the documentary.  Classic-Romantic.  (Italian Neo-Realism?  & then - Garden of the Finzi-Continis.  Deserto Rosso.)

The hour draws on... my deep-seated hunches & haunches gettin' tired here, blog.  For Augustine (& for Nicolas Cusanus) time is purely psychological.  Bracketed by the soul.  Begins & ends there.  This is a liberating concept, on the one hand - & also an abyss.

But for Augustine (following Virgil) poetry (music) was the very strong magic of ordered time.  The enchantment of syllables, framing, architecturally grounding, the sacred ineffable Now (planted, as Joyce put it, on that very void).

Proust also, echoing Augustine.  Re-echoing the poets (in prose).

The frame supports the picture (Rothko colors dream into infinity).  The beautiful an echo, a reflection.  Sketch, abstract, icon, exemplumimago - of the immaculate supra-beautiful.

So where does this leave poetry?  Tradition?

Sounds very Symboliste.  But remember : poetry is this intractable breathing spiritual animal - a stubborn problem, a dilemma - a sort of spiritual refugee, a crisis (like Roma in Roma).

Nobody can work it out in advance.  But I do believe it might be possible to re-think poetry (with a capital P) somewhat as the pre-Revolutionary, post-Revolutionary Russian Acmeists did (Gumilev, Akhmatova, Mandelstam).  With a sort of Cusanian (conjunctio oppositorum) passionate detachment, or critical engagement.

The paradigmatic or characteristic quality of contemporary cultural reality is immediacy.  All the Faustian technological forces are concentrated on disseminating the charismatic (marketable) product.  Of course there's a large element of risk involved, but this is of the essence of productive enterprise.  Success is the by-word; our future well-being depends on the happy financial outcome.

By the way, I'm not against free markets, or anti-capitalist.  I just believe there exists a scale of values which must mediate the struggle for economic domination, on behalf of equality, liberty, human rights, the common good, the safety net, the peaceable kingdom.  There are things more important than luxury, status, charisma and sway.  There is freedom.  There is equality.  There is justice.

Poetry inhabits this realm of universal spiritual values (see: Mandelstam on Chaadev, Rome, moral freedom).  And by grappling with the chaotic force-fields of articulate speech, it establishes a free space for what the Acmeists termed "the Word as such".

This sounds like a very hi-falutin' bequest.  But it's not, really.  I'm looking at the tradition of the beautiful as a manifestation of the detachment of elegiac (yet strangely hopeful) realism.  Of Blake's metaphysical "innocence and experience".

Social media is bursting with constant, relentless, monotonal cultural aggression, masquerading as sophistication.  The little screen is inundated with seductive, screaming roadsigns.  King Blurb is Trumpet for a Day.

Poetry, on the other hand, resonates with inherent doubleness.  It is not what you think, it is not what you feel.  It is not even what you read.  It is another kind of sign, pointing toward your beating heart.

Listen to it, keeping time... like John Donne's bell.  It tolls for thee.

Momentary stay, with confusion

For the past couple years, at least, I've been digging along in the trenches, or the mole-hole, of Ravenna Diagram, my long processional day-by-day poem.  It might be nice to try messing with this blog as I used to, with off-the-cuff observations & ponderings.  I have 15 minutes here before I have to go pick up Sophie, my granddaughter, from her school - what can I say in 15 minutes?

As I say, Ravenna D. absorbs most of my so-called mental concentration now.  But fleeting thoughts today...

"Detachment."  Is it possible an artist/poet might show a kind of natural capacity for detachment from his/her own work, and from the field of poetry generally?

Is such detachment perhaps necessary for substantial creative works?

I'm thinking about how poetic movements, fashions - fundamental changes in styles and thematic concerns - actually happen.  Perhaps they have to culminate in a level of conscious choice, of principle.  Some awareness, self-consciousness of one's cultural-historical situation, and of what might be possible.

This seemingly would require some mode of detachment - the ability to stand back, see things from "the outside".

Which for me anyway gets to a question about "tradition" in poetry.  Is there such a thing?  What does it mean?

Is it possible that the real & authentic creative effort we call "poetry" is very much caught up in a kind of artistic consciousness - a sort of retrospective "memory" - which is both involved, integrated - and detached from its processes and perspectives?

I guess the word often used is "critical" consciousness.

I must run... more later?  Who knows.


the whole sweet Seine will glow


A ghost of snow hung in the air
like glittering smoke.
Dusted from a hemlock
by a twirling jay – like nothing there.

Harsh cold rain goes crystalline,
shines in white waves
of domes (over sea-caves,
graves of grass).  Adamantine

turtleshell or judgement seat
of green sea-swell
beyond heaven & hell...
only a murmur makes complete

your copper frame, chère Liberty.
Emerald cicada husked
in tamaracks, at dusk –
vesture & camouflage for thee,

O soul set free!  Out of the spiral
gloom of time you come,
crown of the human kingdom –
like yellow-black spry swallowtail

up from your petrified cocoon,
or incognito monarch
skittering from ark
to ark (Amsterdam-Rangoon

Line – Mendelssohn to Mexico)
– or like a tiny bulb
planted in mirror-hub
of rose islands – blazing so


bright the whole sweet Seine will glow
from end to end –
the safety net, my friend!
Jonah’s repast (Apollinaire’s tomorrow).

Thus the planet’s plain warm hearth
was set in diamond
& salt – with two kind
hands melded was gentle Earth

into a homely heart (Heimlich
maneuver from afar).
Gates cracked ajar –
the broken cistern, Cain’s conflict –

the Minotaur in every man –
the frozen ideologies,
bitter mythologies
of gulag-mind, in her began

to melt... the light played on the iron
spring... rust turned
green... mold burned
clear... the Psyche-lamp of Zion

lifted from the harbor.  Then
that fireplace couch of ages
in the molten kiln of sages
rose from black soil – crowed the Hen-

Cock!  Morning gathering beneath
the lighthouse surfaced
in your radiant face
O Matrix of candescent wreath.



I take the zigzag iron


Once more I take the zigzag iron
steps to the river, messy
with ice floes, shaggy
snow.  Leaning like a blind man

on a walnut cane – elliptical
wobbles part of the scene –
a yellow Mediterranean
hypercube out of Israel

by way of Ravenna, or Voronezh.
Brown Mississippi,
take me on your hippy,
roll me with your palm-cortège

like a Mardi Gras Chief, bowing
Guillem’s trompette marine
don’t bow to none
but God & Queen Marie (wheeling

like a rose kaleidoscope, sheer
levitating waterfall).
All the birds of the air will
chatter in that live-oak cedar –

rainbows scattering in all directions
like arrows from the sun.
They speak for everyone –
whistling starling-projections

mapped onto a merry time-
space Ocean chronicle
the Lady will unshackle –
Shekinah, or Magdalen... L’Chaim!



on the snow path


On the snow path between bridges
the sun squints beneath
clouds; twin hawks unsheath
talons, whirl over river’s edge

(aerial wrestle-dance).  Winter sky
slows the flow down,
frozen.  Last windblown
oak leaves sail the bone-dry

ground.  Yet in another age
innocent gold honey
fed the sons of Zebedee
from almond lips of Nazir-sage –

his eagle-crow, accompanied
by flutes & turtledoves.
The knot of shackled loves
in your Knossos-heart are freed

when crystalline snow-light, like salt
shines through the octagon
of your mandorla – son
& father, sister mother & daughter melt

into one mead-measure of fire
& the smile of Manitou
mirrors an arc for you –
primordial apse of Apollinaire.

Whorled vortex of the shepherd’s roam
reveals a human face
in that holy place –
mosaic well from kingdom come.



unfinished business


Cold Minneapolis.  White flakes
float solo, lazily
toward frozen sod.  He
sleepy too, Great Harry – shakes

his fusty bearskin (Mister Rabbi
tucked into his cave).
Wish they would behave.
A wayward dolor over fly-by

country ekes the bile from bunny-fur.
Infinitely gentle,
infinitely... mental
clamps inhibit memory, yessir.

Over the mantle in the dim apartment
Lafayette was dancing
just for Washington.  Sing
victory, Columbia – our true intent

was Liberty.  Hail to the Chief
in Indian Country –
arctic blue pine tree
sheds secret home (Sending Relief).

Grandpa’s got amnesia now.
The old brass shell from
Belgium mourns like a bell
in the pipe-smoky corner.  Plow

up the rose from the deep well of France,
Willa – that spiral dance
Crane zigzagged in a trance,
Atlantis echoing in weedy elegance.


Unfinished business crowds a heavy
surf onto the canvas.
Painter sticks to grass
with orange tar-baby.  Chevy

waves from Davy’s Locker – swings
his palm toward magnetic
north.  D.C. frantic –
Empire stuns fleet – Mort brings

us to us knees.  Only a wee
green island merman,
imperturbable, remain –
Pacific mule (Admiral of Ocean Sea).

A little grey jay (Whisky Jack)
whistles through her veil
of salt-shaking.  Sail
on, Peace CorpsPearl’s Clamshack!

Under the turbid rotoring
of pyramid schemes –
when trumpery becomes
a weird mudfish – a rippling

stone floats to the surface, springs
to hover – catenary
honeycomb (or berry-
gem).  All minions, toughs & underlings

flee suddenly, like shady characters
out of a bad novel
(their plots unravel).
Blue J’s light canoe threads jasper piers.



Martin Luther King's home town

Sarah & I just got back from a 3-day trip to Atlanta, visiting relatives.  Martin Luther King's town, Jimmy Carter's town (even FDR's town, in a way).

Trying to come to grips with the Donald Trump reality.  Perhaps one good thing that might emerge, out of Arturo Ui's resistible rise, would be a reconnection with fundamentals of American democratic government.  As a matter of survival.

My first thought : Trump has one primary, subliminal, unconscious agenda.  Which would be : 1) to corrode institutions of democracy through administrative chaos, the flouting of legal and cultural norms; 2) to impose authoritarian tyranny, in order to bring "order" out of said chaos.

This is the playbook of Hitler and Putin.

Subliminal because Trump gives every sign of being a sleepwalker, a narcissist, a creature of show biz for its (his) own sake, a puppet of impersonal power-surges.  Or perhaps that's just his schtick, and he's a man of infinite guile.  Either way he is not a friend, he is the implacable enemy of liberal democracy.  If it's not his own design, he is subject to the designs of other, similarly dark forces.

How to oppose these forces?

40+ years ago, in 1972-73, I had a vocational crisis, a personal crisis, a nervous breakdown.  I was in college, at Brown University.  I was becoming a poet, and couldn't deal with it.  Moreover, I was morally/psychologically shattered - unable to orient the religious values instilled from childhood, with the 19-yr-old late-60s collegiate artiste I had become.

I survived this impasse.  I dropped out, wandered America and England, came back.  But what finally helped me to integrate the moral and the aesthetic, the spiritual and the poetic, was an encounter with a Russian poet of the early 20th century, Osip Mandelstam.

Mandelstam offered the model of a new synthesis.  I was drawn to the echoes of Rimbaud in his dense, wild, riddling stanzas; yet, by way of his wife Nadezhda's memoirs, and his own critical essays, I absorbed the rational cast of his mind, underlying the lyricism.

Mandelstam, the Acmeist, the Petersburg poet, the student of Gumilev, defended the Enlightenment values of Pushkin, of Chaadev - both rational and liberal, both Classical & Romantic.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [people] are created equal... endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights... among these being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness..."

Two centuries of struggle - between the vision of Lincoln, Whitman, and the Founding Fathers, on the one hand, and the forces of greed, fraud, pride, intellectual vanity, ideology, violence, and oppression, on the other - have battered and weakened the power of this egalitarian vision, which lies at the root of Western democratic politics.

What I found in Mandelstam's writings and example was a foundation even deeper - going back, through Christianity, with Christianity, to its origins in Hebraic iconoclasm (Moses' people against the dominion of Pharaoh) - the very same spirit infusing the message of Martin Luther King.

Mandelstam's notion of the Redemption (sketchily outlined in his unfinished essay "Pushkin & Scriabin") parallels themes in his essay on Chaadev.  Both are concerned with human freedom : both come to the same conclusion.  Human (political) freedom is grounded ultimately in a fundamental spiritual (eternal) dimension.  The freedom we look for, hope for, & recognize in our secular systems of government, is an expression of sacred (eternal) soul liberty.

There is a poetic dimension to Enlightenment ideals : Chaadev & Gumilev, Wordsworth & Blake, bore witness to the philosophical concept of the dignity of Man (as imago of God).  Such dignity entails equality, and (inalienable) human rights; the very thing - the notion of a common, universal human Good - that autocrats and plutocrats hate & fear the most (it is their personal nemesis).

Roger Williams - the apostle of soul liberty, the student of Edward Coke (the lawful rights of Englishmen) and forerunner of John Locke (lawful government is popular sovereignty) - understood all these things 100 years before the American Revolution; articulated them in his foundation of the first civil government on the principles of religious tolerance and political democracy (the Colony of Rhode Island).

One of my gr-gr-etc-uncles, Thomas Gould, was a friend of Roger Williams; he rented Roger a portion of Gould Island (in Narragansett Bay) for planting a hay crop.

I haven't expressed myself too clearly.  I guess this is a rant or screed in the manner of Williams' "Fox Digg'd from his Burrow" etc.  But the basic idea is, that the Modern concept of liberal democracy is not at odds with the Reformation notion of soul liberty, nor with the Medieval notion (ala Mandelstam) of the Redemption : these things are rhymes.

God is not mocked.  The splendor & creative power of humankind (imago of Creator) entails her (our) human rights.  Government is the servant of these human rights; otherwise those who claim its authority, actually have none - are frauds, imposters, usurpers, despots, tyrants.  They must be cast down - cast down by the people.

old American poet in Atlanta


stranger in the land


The old words climb from the well of time
like a Norway spruce,
aquamarine – set loose
like fiery needles from the flame

of Psyche-Liberty (breaching
Columbia, rose-grey
dauphin).  Light spray
from Ocean’s breathing-hole – the sting

of Cuban salt.  Strange emissary,
stranger in the land,
your phantom clock-hand
gravitates toward Harper’s Ferry –

ticks back, between slate gray
clouds, the frozen sword
over its chessboard hoard
(gold poison-cup, primed to betray

the Union).  Carlsen’s hesitation
in hamlet-limping lines
of Sabbath silence... Martin’s
magnanimous memory... the unknown

veteran, shrouding a still-life
Lincoln penny (pinned
atop his heart).  Sound
heard in Ramah... Rachel’s life-

saver, bobbing Caribbean blues.
Queequeg on welded keys
surfacing velocities
Atlantis-radiant... bright jasper hues.


                          "Reminiscences of 1865", by John F. Peto (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

bobbing like a robin's nest


Out of a thousand painted threads,
Agnes, you warp a frame
for some belle dame
of sanded mercy.  Mounds of pebble-

heads, broken by force... the list
of useless tears... unspoken
outrage in the caravan...
the camel’s otfe-hump (if you insist).

Henrigold the river-god
bobbers oiled Jordan
with Lorelei (raison
d’étoile – mosaic mermaid).

It was the frame, Agnes, it was
the bloom, encircling
a gold bee-sting –
it was the Viennese princess

who rose from copper strands of wire –
who lifted bottlecaps,
ineffable mayhaps
into a mossy petroglyphic spire.

O spider-thread of nothingness
O Hamlet’s hesitation
Guillaume Bier creation
bobbing like a robin’s nest

around an Okie stump (of Manitou)
twin-man   twine sister-span
love’s Everywoman
Miriam   a   song in C major   (for you)



tender as a safety net


The cloudy voice of Okeanos
over snow-muted farms
hums Dakota charms
for fettered waters (under us).

The boredom of the barbed-wire
borders will dissolve,
disintegrate.  I have
a dream, sang Memphis Fire

into the tumbleweed.  Chalk lines
drawn from Grand Forks
to Santa Fe, these marks
scored by tornado, Time refines –

files into church basements & barns
bent cedar spines, weathered
by old sand.  Spare word
spun inside-out by drought yawns

into dappled pastel yarns – gray
background looming, warped
onto rainbear cube (tarp-
tepee tender as a safety net, hey

ey yo).  The fluted planes of brave
Dove-Turtle ring like wave-
tongs on your heart – weave
future pastures from a lichen grave.

Like some drab village near Drobdorf
transmuted by these panes
of plumb green-violet... the lion’s
eye, her peacock metamorph.


Lyonel Feininger, "Village Church in Thuringia (Drobdorf)"
Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis


Rhode Island was purchased by love


The last of the autumn thunderstorms
crashes through town,
hail & sleet coming down.
Quick whitecaps fleck the enormous

imperturbable Mississippi flood.
Bridge-work almost done,
the sturdy crane-&-pylon
men climb the sweat-&-blood

iron stairs up to the ridge
just one more time.
Labor is no crime –
titanic force poured to the edge

so that a featherweight robin redbreast
might perch atop a flange
of international orange
and warble good, better, best

into her indigo infinity.
Good will is balance, justice,
equanimity.  Who is
the man untouched by vanity,

cupidity?  I will hold him close
in my heart’s treasury,
for he alone is free.
Not price nor money could have purchased

Rhode Island; Rhode Island was purchased
by love.  Understand, Sophie,
this ocean mystery
of your first scallop-skipping space –


the star of Rhodos-Liberty
crowned with a ring of palms
sealed with a steady calm
handshake – confirming equity.

Guide of young Roger, ancient
Canonicus – father
& son : the grace to weather
every gale of greed, any fraudulent

unknotting of their pact of peace.
They step like lambkin twins
from a kayak circumference,
an almond eye, figuring Providence;

the planetary hearth of promise
knife-beaked Raven spied
beneath his southwest glide –
Cautantowwit to cedar wilderness

like monarch checkmating to Mexico.
Primordial Ragnarok
& other nightmares lock
the curse into a seeming cul-de-sac – so

your peace which passeth understanding
like a limping child’s sun-
yellow gyroscope, must turn
upright again – Ravenna plaything,

gather us into the river dance
drowning Man’s arrogance –
evergreen presences
surfing Ocean Stream (taut spring romance).



hen hides under blanket


In the muted Bruegel colors now
a raven’s-eye view circles
round twin Mirror Lakes
in Mendelssohn, so long ago.

Heidi & Holly, Jamie Freeman –
kids in a panorama
skate across my retina
from a Flemish Ice Age (Union

Pearl, foundered in frozen cup).
Laertes, will you drink
with meI think
not, yet... & so I take it up.

How gravity spins round the Sampo,
Longfellow – how Minnehaha
eddies through Edina
like a maelstrom over Nanabozo

– silly wabbit in the old cartoon
of Manitou & Redman –
stormcloud, lightning (Hen
hides under blanket, ‘til monsoon-

tornado trundles off to Canada).
Rabbi, Rabbi... Raven-
priest, Melchizedek... when,
O Wind, will this wallowing miasma,

lethal raincloud, lift?  A voice
from hurricane murmured –
when the agate here immured
in North Sea tears, as in a vice


floats into primeval Paradise
upon a simple kayak-word
out of the lunar hoard
of acorn-candelabra : REJOICE.

The train rumbles over the bridge
in the iron night, in the rain.
I won’t be back again
until Ferrara meets the Iron Range

in a poem coming down from winking
Starry Night.  Those whorls
are fingerprints – pearls
whispered out of Ocean, drinking

planets, orbits, icons, emblems
drawn from infinite thirst
for a milky source (first
taste of infamous black diadems).

Bears navigate a starry circle
over Berryman.  The stone
crypt glows in the bone-
castle.  Jessie Ophelia will

step down from the riverboat
beaming for Minneapolis.
The sky is gray, is
Minneapolis, St. Paul... c’est tout.

In Mendelssohn the Mirror Lakes
are ripples ever-new.
You’ll understand... you
live there (little rings an iron makes).