1. Louis Zukofsky, "Mantis: An Interpretation" (55 Poems, 1941)
(Millet in a Dali canvas, Circe in E's Cantos)
Whatever seeming modelling after the event,
649 years, say, after Dante's first canzone,
If it came back immediately as the only
Form that will include the most pertinent subject of our day--
Cannot mean merely implied comparison, unreality
Usually interpreted as falsity.
Zukofsky is best known for the epic long poem "A," but his short poetry is equally seminal. "Mantis, An Interpretation" has to be one of the most thrilling poems ever written by a poet as commentary on one of his own poems--in this case the sestina "Mantis," where the mantis lost in the subway, meeting the indifference of a newsboy and alighting on the poet's chest, is equated with the condition of the ignored poor. Yet in the "interpretation" poem, Zukofsky reaches beyond any ideology, any program, any systematic correspondence (real or imagined) toward a history that is chaotically ordered. To reduce mantis to mantis, and not something else for which it might stand, turns out to be the most illuminating task of all. The "closed" form of the initial poem, the "open" form of the commentary--thought twisting around the irrefutable facts of existence, making the question of form central.
2. Marianne Moore, "When I Buy Pictures" (Selected Poems, 1935)
I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:
the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible
than the intensity of the mood;
or quite the opposite--the old thing, the medieval decorated
in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the
waist of the hour-glass,
and deer and birds and seated people.
Like Eliot and Stevens, Moore brought in a greater abstraction to the hitherto lyrical confines of poetry. All statements--overtly philosophical and sociological ones too--could henceforth be part of poetry. At times Moore verges on prose, thus raising the standard for prose--not lowering it for poetry, as we might presume. In this poem, what's daring is how Moore explodes her fantasy with a standard so transparent that the preceding images stand rudely exposed by comparison. She performs the same operation in "New York," from the same era, which after chronicling such elements of the "savage's romance" as "the conjunction of the Monongahela and the Allegheny, / and the scholastic philosophy of the wilderness," concludes with the rather flat assertion, the summation of New York's (and America's) quintessence: "it is not the plunder, / but 'accessibility to experience.'"
3. James Wright, "As I Step over a Puddle at the end of Winter, I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor" (The Branch Will Not Break, 1963)
But it is 1960, it is almost spring again,
And the tall rocks of Minneapolis
Build me my own black twilight
Of bamboo ropes and waters.
Where is Yuan Chen, the friend you loved?
Where is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness
Of the Midwest? Where is Minneapolis? I can see nothing
But the great terrible oak tree darkening with winter.
Did you find the city of isolated men beyond mountains?
Or have you been holding the end of a frayed rope
For a thousand years?
Clarity is the signature Wright quality, and it is evident in abundance here. Countering the reign of the Beats and the New York School in the 1960s, Wright offered a different style of transparency and directness that has worn very well over time. Here he bridges the distance between ancient and modern--strands of melancholy that can have no resolution in the end--in a plaintive meditation that invites none of the debased emotional reactions such a poem straddling incongruous temporalities could easily have solicited.
4. George Oppen, "Tourist Eye" (Discrete Series, 1934)
The lights that blaze and promise
Where are so many--What is offered
In the wall and nest of lights?
We must look to Lever Brothers
Based in a square block.
A thousand lives
Within that glass. What is the final meaning
Of extravagance? Why are the office
Buildings, storehouses of papers,
The centers of extravagance?
A fierce critic of capitalism--as this poem makes clear--Oppen joined the Communist Party, volunteered for military service in the fight against fascism, left for Mexico in the midst of the McCarthyite witch hunt, and eventually returned to poetry after a twenty year silence with one of the greatest long poems of the century, Of Being Numerous. In "Tourist Eye," there is no refuge in the city for the tenant, solitude itself is debased, privacy is a preemptive threat, and the drudgery of work has made everyone and everything ancient before its time.
5. Robert Duncan, "What Do I Know of the Old Lore?" (Roots & Branches, 1966)
A young editor wants me to write on Kabbalah for his magazine.
What do I know of the left and the right, of the Shekinah, of the
It is an old book lying on the velvet cloth, the color of olive
under-leaf and plumstain in the velvet;
it is a romance of pain and relief from pain, a tale told of the
Lord of the Hour of Midnight,
the changing over that is a going down into Day from the Mountain.
Duncan's musicality is hypnotic in the extreme, his oscillations between the quotidian and the transcendent profoundly antithetical to the supposed polarity between reason and intuition. We have to believe Duncan identifies with the devoted, hardworking rabbis of the poem. He repeats the line in the middle of the poem, "A young editor wants me to write on Kabbalah for his magazine"--the poet, the young editor, the Kabbalah, the magazine, a cumulative ignorance that has come down through the ages, the only knowledge worth anything. What are the secrets worth knowing? Only Duncan's drunken wisdom will tell.
6. Federico Garcia Lorca, "The King of Harlem" (Poet in New York, written 1929-1930)
It's necessary to kill the blond vendor of firewater
and every friend of apple and sand,
and it's necessary to use the fists
against the little Jewish women who tremble, filled with bubbles,
so the king of Harlem sings with his multitude,
so crocodiles sleep in long rows
beneath the moon's asbestos,
and so no one doubts the infinite beauty
of feather dusters, graters, copper pans, and kitchen casseroles.
Afraid that he was being pigeonholed as a writer of popular ballads--Songs: The Gypsy Ballads had become immensely successful--in June 1929 Lorca left Spain for New York, where he soon encountered the Wall Street crash and the onset of the Great Depression. In Poet in New York--which may yet end up being his most significant work--he describes, perhaps better than anyone else, in language twisted under the greatest surrealistic strain, the depravities of that city's capitalistic corruption, including the blatant suppression of social groups. The balladeer had transformed himself, through sheer will, into the direst prophet of the coming decade and a half of global self-destruction.
7. Anna Akhmatova, "Requiem" (written, 1935)
At dawn they came and took you away.
You were my dead: I walked behind.
In the dark room children cried,
the holy candle gasped for air.
Your lips were chill from the ikon's kiss,
sweat bloomed on your brow--those deathly flowers!
Like the wives of Peter's troopers in Red Square
I'll stand and howl under the Kremlin towers.
Osip Mandelstam remarked that "great poetry is often a response to total disaster." Along with her husband at the time, Nikolai Gumilev, and Mandelstam, Akhmatova was the founder of Acmeism, which stood in contrast to the Futurism of Mayakovsky. The Acmeists believed in economy and precision of expression, and an acceptance of reality as it is, compared to the urge to escape common to Futurism and the predecessor umbrella movement, Symbolism. Akhmatova's project was to preserve the purity of the Russian language in the face of the Stalinist terror. "Requiem" was written in response to her then lover Nikolai Punin's arrest by the secret police. Akhmatova's son, Lev Gumilev, was also often in prison, and other prominent intellectuals--Mandelstam, for example--suffered death at the hands of the regime. Grace, dignity, and compassion are Akhmatova's watchwords.
8. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, "To a Publisher...cut-out" (Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, 1961)
But who am I to love anybody? I ride the 14th St. bus
every day...reading Hui neng/ Raymond Chandler/ Olson...
I have slept with almost every mediocre colored woman
On 23rd St...At any rate, talked a good match. And
Frightened by the lack of any real communication
I addressed several perfumed notes to Uncle Don
& stuffed them into the radio.
Baraka's earliest poetry is his best, before the convolutions of black nationalist and later Marxist ideology got a hold of him. Preface was published by Totem Press, which Baraka founded with wife Hettie Jones, and which published Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. There is great musicality in the early poems, an expansive indictment that shuns bitterness and hatred. Reading these early poems one almost believes that poetry can save a life--or lives. The intense musicality and transcendence of recrimination of Preface continue well into Black Magic (1969), where, in "A Poem Some People Will Have to Understand," the poet complains: "All the fantasy / and justice, and dry charcoal winters / All the pitifully intelligent citizens / I've forced myself to love."
9. James Merrill, "The Thousand and Second Night" (Nights and Days, 1966)
I / RIGOR VITAE
Istanbul. 21 March. I woke today
With an absurd complaint. The whole right half
Of my face refuses to move. I have to laugh
Watching the rest of it reel about in dismay
Under the double burden, while its twin
Sags on, though sentient, stupefied.
I'm here alone. Not quite--through fog outside
Loom winged letters: PAN AMERICAN.
Twenty-five hundred years this city has stood between
The passive Orient and our frantic West.
I see no reason to be depressed;
There are too many other things I haven't seen,
Like Hagia Sophia. Tea drunk, shaved and dressed...
Merrill represents a lush, sensual, even narcissistic strain in American poetry not as richly and consistently followed as one would have hoped--what we got was a poetry of pseudo-guilt and pseudo-shame for the most part, instead of a poetry of frank erotics, the direction not taken. One suspects the class origins of most poets in this country explain this to some extent, but also the institutional parameters of the profession. This mid-career poem takes place in Istanbul, Athens, and back in America, as the poet's soul and memory seek rupture and healing anywhere and everywhere--a more cosmopolitan imagination than Merrill's has rarely graced the depressive American poetry business.
10. Robert Lowell, "To Delmore Schwartz (Cambridge 1946)," (Life Studies, 1959)
Your stuffed duck craned toward Harvard from my trunk:
its bill was a black whistle, and its brow
was high and thinner than a baby's thumb;
its webs were tough as toenails on its bough.
It was your first kill; you had rushed it home,
pickled in a tin wastebasket of rum--
it looked through us, as if it'd died dead drunk.
You must have propped its eyelids with a nail,
and yet it lived with us and met our stare,
Rabelaisian, lubricious, drugged.
Compared to Elizabeth Bishop, her contemporary Robert Lowell's stock has relatively fallen, we're told. Yet Lowell injected history, philosophy, and psychology in a personalized manner, revolutionizing poetry, making it bear a weight of catharsis it had previously not been called on to bear. In this relatively light-hearted poem, the poet's nostalgic remembrance of a friendship is equal parts harmony and disharmony. In Lowell's world, intellectual life is the greatest adventure--which rules out despondency and despair, in formal terms. It's a paradox our age lacks the sophistication to enter and accept.
Anis Shivani's debut book of criticism is Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (July 2011).