W. H. Auden’s social, political, and personal consciousness—not to mention his well-rhymed music—hits a tonic note even seventy years later, in our own disorganized time.
Leap Before You Look
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.
The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.
The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.
Much can be said for social savoir-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.
A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
Excerpt from COLLECTED POEMS © 1976, 1991 by The Estate of W. H. Auden. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
In Jonathan Galassi’s Left-handed, a transformation unfolds in three powerful sections, as the book’s speaker, at midlife, tries for what he calls in the first section, “A Clean Slate.” He feels his way through a difficult, if at times exhilarating, middle passage (“A Crossing”), to arrive at last at the tentative joys he discovers in the final group of poems in “I Can Sleep Later.” Today’s selection, “Pretzels,” falls more than halfway along in this chronicle of old and new love, with its painful goodbyes.
You twisted your-
self into a pretzel
trying to tolerate
something you hated
in me it turned out
was essential. Does
that mean I should
twist myself into a
pretzel trying not
to be the thing that
made you twist
yourself into a
been salty and
wrenched for so
long it’s a relief I
find to unwind and
simply be bent but
not twisted; neither
of us can be pret-
zels anymore. Why
is that so hard to
understand? I’m sad
about it too but
I’m not angry. No,
I’m glad I’m not
twisted into a pret-
zel. You be glad too.
Excerpt from LEFT-HANDED © 2012 by Jonathan Galassi. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
For those who don’t know Archy, he was the cockroach poet who used the typewriter of his “boss,” Don Marquis, a columnist for the New York Sun from 1916 into the 1930s, in order to type out his poems, which then became the fodder for Marquis’s highly popular Sun Dial column. Together with his sidekick, the cat Mehitabel (she claimed to have been Cleopartra in a previous life), Archy discoursed on all manner of subjects, using only lower-case letters and no punctuation (because of his difficulty in operating the shift key). In our new Pocket Poets edition, The Best of Archy and Mehitabel, we reproduce E. B. White’s introduction to a 1950 volume collecting Marquis’s Archy columns, in which he writes, “The creation of Archy, whose communications were in free verse, was part inspiration, part desperation. It enabled Marquis to use short (sometimes very very short) lines, which fill space rapidly, and at the same time it allowed his spirit to soar while viewing things from the under side, insect fashion….Vers libre was in vogue….It was the time of ‘swat the fly,’ dancing the shimmy, and speakeasies. Marquis imbibed freely of this carnival air, and it all turned up, somehow, in Archy’s report. Thanks to Archy, Marquis was able to write rapidly and almost (but not quite) carelessly. In the very act of spoofing free verse, he was enjoying some of its obvious advantages.”
a spider and a fly
i heard a spider
and a fly arguing
wait said the fly
do not eat me
i serve a great purpose
in the world
you will have to
show me said the spider
i scurry around
gutters and sewers
and garbage cans
said the fly and gather
up the germs of
and pneumonia on my feet
then i carry these germs
into the households of men
and give them diseases
all the people who
have lived the right
sort of life recover
from the diseases
and the old soaks who
have weakened their systems
with liquor and iniquity
succumb it is my mission
to help rid the world
of these wicked persons
i am a vessel of righteousness
scattering seeds of justice
and serving the noblest uses
it is true said the spider
that you are more
useful in a plodding
material sort of way
than i am but i do not
serve the utilitarian deities
i serve the gods of beauty
look at the gossamer webs
i weave they float in the sun
like filaments of song
if you get what i mean
i do not work at anything
i play all the time
i am busy with the stuff
of enchantment and the materials
of fairyland my works
i am the artist
a creator and a demi god
it is ridiculous to suppose
that i should be denied
the food i need in order
to continue to create
beauty i tell you
plainly mister fly it is all
damned nonsense for that food
to rear up on its hind legs
and say it should not be eaten
you have convinced me
said the fly say no more
and shutting all his eyes
he prepared himself for dinner
and yet he said i could
have made out a case
for myself too if i had
had a better line of talk
of course you could said the spider
clutching a sirloin from him
but the end would have been
just the same if neither of
us had spoken at all
boss i am afraid that what
the spider said is true
and it gives me to think
furiously upon the futility
Excerpt from THE BEST OF ARCHY AND MEHITABEL © 2011 by Everyman’s Library. Excerpted by permission of Everyman’s Library a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
We like to page through our backlist in search of gone but not forgotten little gems like this one from the novelist Susan Minot.
There’s a cat up on the roof
with stripes across his face.
He has the curious guarded look
of a cat who knows this place
may be inhabited
by other cats.
I see him through the window
past yellow tangles on the sill,
beyond the long pegged rack
of all my heartsick hats.
He lifts his paw and shakes off rain.
His face is wild and true.
For a moment he relieves me
of the pain of loving you.
Excerpt from POEMS 4 A.M. © 2002 by Susan Minot. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
From our current Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, an immigrant story, the unrecorded contours and meaning of which the offspring must fill in for himself, with a bittersweet generosity that won’t discount the pain.
The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.”
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
“orange,” saying it patiently over and over.
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on,
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept “The Mercy” afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.
“The Mercy,” I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
arrived, “Tancred” out of Glasgow, “The Neptune”
registered as Danish, “Umberto IV,”
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds the alien shore.
Italian miners from Piemonte dig
under towns in western Pennsylvania
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange.
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.
Excerpt from THE MERCY © 1999 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Marie Ponsot, who turns 91 this month, still treads with sprightly step as she delivers her incomparable wisdom.
A Rune, Interminable
Low above the moss
a sprig of scarlet berries
soon eaten or blackened
Go to a wedding
as to a funeral:
bury the loss.
Go to a funeral
as to a wedding:
marry the loss.
Go to a coming
as to a going:
Time is winter-green.
Seeds keep time.
Time, so kept, carries us
across to no-time where
no time is lost.
Excerpt from EASY © 2009 by Marie Ponsot. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Simon Armitage’s latest volume, Seeing Stars, is a fascinating swerve for this lyric poet – while still emanating from the soul of Britain, this latest is a book of startling dramatic monologues, tall tales, and chillingly deadpan meditations by unforgettable people not unlike ourselves, stuck in the gears of an absurd modern society not unlike our own.
Sold to the Lady in the Sunglasses and Green Shoes
My girlfriend won me in a sealed auction but wouldn’t
tell me how much she bid. “Leave it, Frank. It’s not
important. Now go to sleep,” she said. But I was restless.
An hour later I woke her and said, “Give me a ballpark
figure.” “I’m tired,” she replied. I put the light on. “But
are we talking like thousands here?” She rolled away,
pulled the cotton sheet over her head, mumbling, “You’re
being silly, Frank.” I said, “Oh, being silly am I? So not
thousands. Just a couple of hundred, was it?” “I’m not
telling you, so drop it,” she snarled. By now I was wide
awake. “Fifty, maybe? A tenner?” She didn’t say anything,
and when Elaine doesn’t say anything I know I’m getting
close to the truth. Like the other day with the weed killer.
I said, “Maybe you weren’t bidding for me at all. Maybe
you were after a flat-screen telly or a home sun-tanning
unit, and you got me instead. Tell me, Elaine. Tell me
what I’m worth, because right now I don’t know if I’m
an original Fabergé egg or just something the cat dragged
in.” Elaine surfaced from under the covers and took a sip
of water from the glass on the bedside table. “Frank, listen.
What does it matter if it was a million pounds or a second-
class stamp? You’re priceless, OK? You’re everything to
me. Don’t spoil it by talking about money.” Then she took
my hand and held it against her breast and said, “Do you
want to make love?” I answered with my body, tipping
every last quicksilver coin into her purse.
But that night I dreamed of the boy-slave winning his
freedom by plucking a leaf from Diana’s golden bough,
and long before dawn, with bread in my knapsack and
the wind at my back, I strode forth.
Excerpt from SEEING STARS © 2010 by Simon Armitage. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
In a multi-part poem Dan Chiasson calls “Swifts,” the objects and entities who speak to us (a fist, a needle’s eye, a sound at 2 a.m.) have uncanny self-knowledge. Here is “Tree.”
All day I waited to be blown;
then someone cut me down.
I have, instead of thoughts,
uses; uses instead of feelings.
One day I’ll feel the wind again.
A moment later I’ll be gone.
Excerpt from WHERE’S THE MOON, THERE’S THE MOON © 2010 by Dan Chiasson. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
From Jane Hirshfield’s latest collection, in which time is the thief who steals from us – but not without some gain on our side, as below.
Perishable, It Said
Perishable, it said on the plastic container,
and below, in different ink,
the date to be used by, the last teaspoon consumed.
I found myself looking:
now at the back of each hand,
now inside the knees,
now turning over each foot to look at the sole.
Then at the leaves of the young tomato plants,
then at the arguing jays.
Under the wooden table and lifted stones, looking.
Coffee cups, olives, cheeses,
hunger, sorrow, fears—
these too would certainly vanish, without knowing when.
How suddenly then
the strange happiness took me,
like a man with strong hands and strong mouth,
inside that hour with its perishing perfumes and clashings.
Excerpt from COME, THIEF © 2011 by Jane Hirshfield. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Welcome to poetry month! This April, we’re celebrating the remarkable career of Jack Gilbert, now in his late eighties, with a Collected Poems - here between two covers we have more than fifty years of his luminous awareness of pain and joy running together, his solitary, bittersweet, tough and at times enraptured voice. It’s nearly impossible to choose just one, but in honor of Gilbert’s origins, we offer “Searching for Pittsburgh.”
Searching for Pittsburgh
The fox pushes softly, blindly through me at night,
between the liver and the stomach. Comes to the heart
and hesitates. Considers and then goes around it.
Trying to escape the mildness of our violent world.
Goes deeper, searching for what remains of Pittsburgh
in me. The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where we played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning
the Earth. Locomotives driving through the cold rain,
lordly and bestial in their strength. Massive water
flowing morning and night throughout a city
girded with ninety bridges. Sumptuous-shouldered,
sleek-thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable.
All grip and flood, mighty sucking and deep-rooted grace.
A city of brick and tired wood. Ox and sovereign spirit.
Primitive Pittsburgh. Winter month after month telling
of death. The beauty forcing us as much as harshness.
Our spirits forged in that wilderness, our minds forged
by the heart. Making together a consequence of America.
The fox watched me build my Pittsburgh again and again.
In Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont. On Greek islands
with their fields of stone. In beds with women, sometimes,
amid their gentleness. Now the fox will live in our ruined
house. My tomatoes grow ripe among weeds and the sound
of water. In this happy place my serious heart has made.
Excerpt from COLLECTED POEMS © 2012 by Jack Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.