The Lost Pilot

By James Tate
for my father, 1922-1944

Your face did not rot
like the others–the co-pilot,
for example, I saw him

yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter,
the poor ignorant people, stare

as if he will compose soon.
He was more wronged than Job.
But your face did not rot

like the others–it grew dark,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their

distinction. If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,
down from your compulsive

orbiting, I would touch you,
read your face as Dallas,
your hoodlum gunner, now,

with the blistered eyes, reads
his braille editions. I would
touch your face as a disinterested

scholar touches an original page.
However frightening, I would
discover you, and I would not

turn you in; I would not make
you face your wife, or Dallas,
or the co-pilot, Jim. You

could return to your crazy
orbiting, and I would not try
to fully understand what

it means to you. All I know
is this: when I see you,
as I have seen you at least

once every year of my life,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,

I feel dead. I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger’s life,
that I should pursue you.

My head cocked toward the sky,
I cannot get off the ground,
and, you, passing over again,

fast, perfect, and unwilling
to tell me that you are doing
well, or that it was mistake

that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.

On Wednesday, March 28, 2012, at 4:30PM, James Tate will read with Zadie Smith in McCosh 50 as part of the Althea Ward Clark W’21 Reading Series.

The Valley

The valley
edge by edge
bare field by field
I walked through it through you

rain by rain
cold by cold
root absence
and the purposeful cold

Eye opened
but what is slow

–Jean Valentine, from Break the Glass (Copper Canyon, 2010)


by William Carlos Williams

Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow

changed by white curtains―
Smell of cleanliness―

Sunshine of late afternoon―
On the glass tray

a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which

a key is lying―And the
immaculate white bed

Poetry@Princeton is on a bit of a break this summer, but we’ll be back when classes start in September. In the meantime, we’ll try to post events to the Calendar as we hear of them, so it wouldn’t hurt to check the site periodically throughout the coming months.

Princeton Poetry Festival

The second biennial Princeton Poetry Festival will be taking place on Friday, April 29 and Saturday, April 30 in Richardson Auditorium.

Readings and discussions begin on both days at 2pm. Advance tickets may be purchased through University Ticketing at 609.258.9220.

If you haven’t already checked out the schedule, you should do so here.

Want to hear more about Poetry at Princeton? Check out this video by Nick Barberio in which poets from Princeton talk about poetry and read their work.

From “Urban Renewal”

by Major Jackson


That moment in church when I stared at the reverend’s black
kente-paneled robe & sash, his right hand clasping the back
of my neck, the other seizing my forehead, standing
in his Watch this pose, a leg behind him ready to spring,
his whole body leaning into the salvation of my wizened soul,
I thought of the Saturday morning wrestlers of my youth who’d hold
their opponents till they collapsed on a canvas in a slumberous
heap, and how it looked more like a favor, a deed, though barbarous,
a graceful tour out of this world, that chthonic departure
back to first waters, and wondered what pains I endured
in Mr. Feltyburger’s physic’s class, worshipping light, density, mass,
preferring to stare long at snowdomes or the carcasses
of flies pooling above in the great fluorescent cover, and how beds
are graves, my mother and father kissing each other’s head,
their cupped faces unhurriedly laying the other down,
and how all locked embraces light in my mind from below
in blue-neon like you’d find on the undercarriage of sports cars,
and then what came was the baker stacking her loaves,
one by one, into little coffers, and Desdemona’s
last surrender to Othello’s piercing glance, and Isaac shown
a militia of clouds over Moriah, and the dying we submerge
in a baptism of pillow, and how we always loiter at this verge,
there, between rising up and falling back, as in now, this tank
of sound I swim in, gripped between the push and yank
of his clutch, caught in that rush of tambourines next to solemn
trays of grape juice and bits of crackers held by deacons when
the reverend, serious as a pew, whispered, “Fall back, my son. Fall.”

from Hoops by Major Jackson. New York: W.W. Norton & Company 2006.
On Wednesday, April 6 at 12:30 p.m. in McCosh 40, Jackson will be reading from two long poems, “Urban Renewal” (from Leaving Saturn and Hoops) and “Letter to Brooks” (Hoops).* The reading will be followed by an intimate discussion between Professor Jackson and students & faculty. Lunch will be provided.

This lunchtime reading and conversation is proudly sponsored by the Princeton English Department’s Contemporary Poetry Colloquium.

*Complete copies of these poems are available in McCosh 22.  Professor Jackson’s essay “A Mystifying Silence” is also highly recommended reading.

To the Memory of Mr Oldham (1684)

by John Dryden

Farewell, too little, and too lately known,
Whom I began to think and call my own:
For sure our souls were near allied, and thine
Cast in the same poetic mold with mine.
One common note on either lyre did strike,
And knaves and fools we both abhorr’d alike.
To the same goal did both our studies drive;
The last set out the soonest did arrive.
Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place,
While his young friend perform’d and won the race.
O early ripe! to thy abundant store
What could advancing age have added more?
It might (what nature never gives the young)
Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue.
But satire needs not those, and wit will shine
Thro’ the harsh cadence of a rugged line:
A noble error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betray’d.
Thy generous fruits, tho’ gather’d ere their prime,
Still shew’d a quickness; and maturing time
But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.
Once more, hail and farewell; farewell, thou young,
But ah too short, Marcellus of our tongue;
Thy brows with ivy, and with laurels bound;
But fate and gloomy night encompass thee around.

Michael Johnduff writes:

Can we separate Dryden’s elegy for John Oldham (raging satirist and translator, dead at just thirty) from Dryden’s criticism of John Oldham? Perhaps it’s unfair to call what Dryden does here literary criticism, but then again everything of Dryden’s we call criticism looks pretty much the same. Only the stately tone is different, since the criticism’s stylistics (not unlike “harsh cadence,“ “thy generous fruits […] still showed a quickness”) always unfolds into a nuanced, yet thoroughly practical poetics (not unlike “satire needs not those,” “a noble error, but seldom made,” “time / mellows what we write to […] rhyme”) in an almost irreverently offhand prose. But don’t we think these cool, composed lines are indeed a bit irreverent when they say Oldham lacked (can the parenthesis soften this at all?) “the numbers of thy native tongue”? Whatever we want to call such acts, they introduce another subject of the poem–Oldham’s “poetic mold,”–we can’t but feel is slightly different than the elegized “soul,” and so should be separate.

What is crucial to understand, though, is that for Dryden, the “poetic mold” really is something in which “souls” are “cast”: he is too skeptical of the formalist tradition to criticize “what we write” without also letting it express a more essential tendency, without also making us uncertain whether work or author have “rugged” qualities (or whether “Oldham” is work or author). So the strange comfort Dryden seems to find in this ambiguity may not be entirely out of place: the inseparability of the critical and elegiac subject comes from staying true to the amorphous nature of the difference between writer and reader. And this is an ambiguity central to the relationship between two working poets, or what we might call practicing (rather than practical) critics, who read and comment upon each others’ work. Indeed, the noble austerity of the last line is only possible because, for Dryden, this ambiguity is the same as the ambiguousness of the tie that bound him together with Oldham in life and still binds them together: it is the “same poetic mold” Dryden finds himself cast in.

What then is a soul cast in a poetic mold, but something like an oxymoron which this poem continually finds faith in, rather than confusion? I can’t help but think this is what made T.S. Eliot say the poem “deserves not to be mutilated” in his essay on Dryden (Selected Essays (1932), 315): the innocent little notion starts to give the whole poem its honesty, to make it true to the facts of the loss of a fellow poet, and as it does so we feel it is more and more innovative, almost useful as an elegaic strategy. For rather than commune with the dead by invoking what is not “cast” in a “mold,” Dryden undoes the insubstantiality the soul should have, in order to commune better. The “ands” in the opening lines–“too little, and too lately,” “to think and call,” “and thine,” “and knaves and fools”–make this clear, and, gathering the force of polysyndeton, they start to imply a near, an alike, a with, a same. At a certain point we feel the soul is kindred to Dryden only because it is in the mold. I can’t but hear “alloyed” behind “allied,” and the fluidity involved in being cast “with” other souls, seems to me molten, something that only cools and hardens. We start to remember that speaking of the fluidity of the soul in general is wrong to begin with: souls are supposed to fly or flee, while it’s blood that is supposed to flow. But Dryden, we see, was wont to exploit the connection between these two, and we’d rather have it that way. “Ast illi soluuntur frigore membra / vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras,” says Virgil, and though Dryden insists Turnus’ “vita” is a “soul,” he keeps it in same place as the blood: “The streaming blood distain’d his arms around, / And the disdainful soul came rushing thro’ the wound” (Aeneis, 12.1376-7).

Of course, we can attribute Dryden’s taste for the seeming substantiality of the soul to his Catholicism, towards which he was moving just as he wrote this elegy (he converted in 1685). Certainly he lacked the anguished relationship to carnality that allowed Milton to go to such amazing extremes in verse and prose in explaining the morning of Christ’s nativity, or even the (only seemingly) milder frustration that forced Marvell to write his “Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body,” or the Mower poems. But we shouldn’t think that because the sublimity of lines like “the pink grew then as double as his mind,” were impossible for Dryden, this was because he was complacent about the issue:

Can I believe eternal God could lye
Disguis’d in mortal mold and infancy?
That the great maker of the world could die?
The Hind and the Panther, Part I, 80-82

Leave it to Dryden to explain how he feels in a parody of a doubt, which this is: in the context of The Hind and the Panther (1687), the passage echoes anti-Catholic slander, even as it dramatizes his anxieties before his conversion. But the dense poignancy of such a triplet (which we also find expertly used above), the plainness of what should be grotesque if this were full-on mock-mockery (“infancy,” and “die,” and especially “mold,” should be more like “lie” and “disguised”), is a sign that this is doubt that cannot be flatly dismissed. So if Dryden here does not overcome disbelief, he certainly negotiates an anxiety; if he does not justify the ways of God to man, he makes the principles of faith shine through the harshness and roughness of ambiguity:

For what my senses can themselves perceive
I need no revelation to believe.
Let them declare by what mysterious arts
He shot that body through the opposing might
Of bolts and bars impervious to the light,
And stood before His train confessed in open sight.
The Hind and the Panther, Part I, 96-99

So too in his poem to Oldham above. It seems fitting, then, to end by adding that, if we are tempted to place the the “mold” in which the soul is cast almost on the side of the concrete and bodily, we see this too is checked in favor of something again more oblique:

To the same goal did both our studies drive;
The last set out the soonest did arrive.
Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place,
While his young friend perform’d and won the race.

When souls study, drive and arrive, the mold they are cast in does not make them material. Or at least that’s what Oldham’s death proves. Blood here, in fact, is something slipped on, like a mistake:

Now, spent, the goal they almost reach at last,
When eager Nisus, hapless in his haste,
Slipp’d first, and, slipping, fell upon the plain,
Soak’d with the blood of oxen newly slain.
The careless victor had not mark’d his way;
But, treading where the treach’rous puddle lay,
His heels flew up; and on the grassy floor
He fell, besmear’d with filth and holy gore.
Aeneis, V.426-433.

A Story that Could be True

by William Stafford

If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.

He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by—
you wonder at their calm.

They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”—
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”

As part of the English Department’s annual celebration of the great poet’s birthday, the Art Museum is pleased to host this year’s William Stafford Poetry Reading. Attendees are invited to bring their own favorite poem by Stafford for reading and discussion. Birthday cake will be served. For more information, please contact Elizabeth Lemoine at

Location: Art Museum
Date/Time: 01/14/10 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm

Keats’s Last Poem

[First published in 1838 titled “Keats’s Last Sonnet” in the 1848 edition of Keats’s “Literary Remains” and thus throughout the 19th c; now known as Bright Star. In the summer of 1818 Keats remarked that the scenery of the lake country “refine[s] one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power”; sometime before summer 1819 he drafted this sonnet, and in early autumn 1820 wrote it out again, with some variants, in the volume of Shakespeare’s poems he took to Italy. The opening line of this Shakespearean sonnet chimes with Caesar’s heroic declaration:  “I am constant as the Northern Star, / Of whose true-fixed and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament” (Julius Caesar 3.1.58-62).]

BRIGHT star, would I were steadfast as thou art–

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution  round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–

No–yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever–or else swoon to death.


by Katie Ford

We love the stories of flood and the few

told to prepare in advance by their god.

In that story, the saved are

always us, meaning:

whoever holds the book.

From Colosseum (Graywolf), copyright 2008 Katie Ford

Sonya Posmentier writes:

I’ve chosen this poem from Katie Ford’s Colosseum in honor of hurricane season. Ford’s book is one of a few recent poetry collections responding to Hurricane Katrina—see also, Ray McDaniel’s Saltwater Empire and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler. In different ways, these books all engage the question of whose experience is this, or whose story is this to tell. Ford’s beautifully compressed poem seems to ask not only about who gets to tell the story, but who gets to read it. The poem binds the speaker-poet and the reader into an empowered “We.”

What does the conclusion of the poem suggest about the power of holding “the book”? It’s hard not to picture Prospero, here. Is this about literacy–either in a literal sense or in some broader cultural sense?

What do you think about Ford’s turn to the universal, on the one hand (“stories of flood”) and, on the other, to the particular biblical story implied by the title? What does it mean to contextualize Katrina in this way?


by Julian Tuwim

(“Litania” by Julian Tuwim has been selected for Poetry@Princeton by David Bellos of the Department of French and Italian. Professor Bellos has provided the original Polish, a translation, and his own adaptation. We invite comments about the poem itself and in relation to questions of translation and adaptation. Such questions will also be taken up at the Translation Symposium on April 15th.)

Modlę się, Boże, żarliwie,
Modlę się, Boże, serdecznie:
Za krzywdę upokorzonych,
Za drżenie oczekujących,
Za wieczny niepowrót zmarłych,
Za konających bezsilność,
Za smutek niezrozumianych,
Za beznadziejnie proszących,
Za obrażonych, wyśmianych,
Za głupich, złych i maluczkich,
Za tych, co biegną zdyszani
Do najbliższego doktora,
Za tych, co z miasta wracają
Z bijącym sercem do domu,
Za potrąconych grubiańsko,
Za wygwizdanych w teatrze,
Za nudnych, brzydkich, niezdarnych,
Za słabych, bitych, gnębionych,
Za tych, co usnąć nie mogą,
Za tych, co śmierci się boją,
Za czekających w aptekach
I za spóźnionych na pociąg,
Za ich kłopoty, frasunki,
Troski, przykrości, zmartwienia,
Za niepokoje i bóle,
Tęsknoty, niepowodzenia,
Za każde drgnienie najmniejsze,
Co nie jest szczęściem, radością,
Która niech ludziom tym wiecznie
Przyświeca jeno życzliwie –
Modlę się, Boże, serdecznie,
Modlę się, Boże, żarliwie!


By Julian Tuwim

My Lord my prayer goes forth
My Lord my heart sings out:
To the hurt of the humiliated
To those who await and who tremble
To the eternal departure of those whom death has embraced
To those who perish all helpless
To the sorrow of the misunderstood
To those who petition in vain
To the ridiculed, the insulted
To the stupid, the wicked, small-hearted
To those who run, lose their breath
Seeking the doctor’s cold touch
To those who return to their homes
With their hearts beating aquiver
To the jostled, insulted
To those booed off the stage
To the boring, the ugly, the awkward
To the weak, the trampled, the tortured
To those whom slumber eludes
To those whom the pharmacists expect
To those whose trains have departed
To all their troubles and worries
Their aches, their hurts, their distress
To their unease and their pain
Their longings, their failures
To every tremor, the slightest,
Which their misfortunes foretells
Let eternal happiness shine upon them
My Lord my heart sings out
My Lord, my prayer goes forth

Translated by Agnieszka Gerwel and Michal Wilk

O Lord
To thee I sing from the heart
To thee I pray from the soul
For those who have been hurt and humbled
For those who only wait and quake
For those who will never return
For those who perish alone without help
For the sorrowfully misunderstood
For those in the queue with hopeless claims
For the scorned and the insulted
For the stupid, the wicked and the mean
For those who run out of breath on their way to the doctor’s
And come back home with a pounding heart
For the harried and hassled
For actors booed off stage
For the boring, the ugly and ham-fisted
For the weak, the trampled and the tortured
For those who cannot sleep
For those who fear death
For regulars at the pharmacy
For those who missed their train
On their worries and troubles
On their distress and disarray
On their aches and their pains
On their failures and aspirations
On the slightest quiver stirred in them
By the shadow of their misfortune
Let happiness shine for ever and a day
I pray thee
O Lord

Julian Tuwim
Adapted by David Bellos