On Mr. Milton’s “Paradise Lost”

by Andrew Marvell

When I beheld the poet blind, yet bold,
In slender book his vast design unfold,
Messiah crowned, God’s reconciled decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heaven, Hell, Earth, Chaos, all; the argument
Held me a while, misdoubting his intent
That he would ruin (for I saw him strong)
The sacred truth to fable and old song,
(So Sampson groped the temple’s posts in spite)
The world o’erwhelming to revenge his sight.

Yet as I read, soon growing less severe,
I liked his project, the success did fear;
Through that wide field how he his way should find
O’er which lame faith leads understanding blind;
Lest he perplexed the things he would explain,
And what was easy he should render vain.

Or if a work so infinite he spanned,
Jealous I was that some less skilful hand
(Such as disquiet always what is well,
And by ill imitating would excel)
Might hence presume the whole creation’s day
To change in scenes, and show it in a play.
Pardon me, Mighty Poet, nor despise
My causeless, yet not impious, surmise.
But I am now convinced that none will dare
Within thy labors to pretend a share.
Thou hast not missed one thought that could be fit,
And all that was improper dost omit:
So that no room is here for writers left,
But to detect their ignorance or theft.
That majesty which through thy work doth reign
Draws the devout, deterring the profane.
And things divine thou treat’st of in such state
As them preserves, and thee, inviolate.
At once delight and horror on us seize,
Thou sing’st with so much gravity and ease;
And above human flight dost soar aloft,
With plume so strong, so equal, and so soft.
The bird named from that paradise you sing
So never flags, but always keeps on wing.

Where couldst thou words of such a compass find?
Whence furnish such a vast expanse of mind?
Just heaven thee, like Tiresias, to requite,
Rewards with prophecy the loss of sight.

Well mightst thou scorn thy readers to allure
With tinkling rhyme, of thine own sense secure;
While the Town-Bayes writes all the while and spells,
And like a pack-horse tires without his bells.
Their fancies like our bushy points appear,
The poets tag them; we for fashion wear.
I too, transported by the mode, offend,
And while I meant to praise thee must commend.
The verse created like thy theme sublime,
In number, weight, and measure, needs not rhyme.

****

Matthew Harrison Writes: Marvell always writes with an eye on other poets–comparing his career to theirs, filching images, and parodying lines. I love this poem because here the encounter seems particularly genuine and revealing of both poets. Marvell’s worries in reading Paradise Lost fit in well with his own poetics of control, ambiguity, and even miniaturization, yet they describe the risks inherent in Milton’s ambition. His account of Miltonic majesty, delight, and horror captures the tone of Paradise Lost in familiar terms. I am struck, too, by Marvell’s anticipation of Harold Bloom:

“So that no room is here for writers left,
But to detect their ignorance or theft”

I’m curious what people think–is Milton’s accomplishment here an occasion for any anxiety for Marvell? Or does this record of Marvell’s encounter with a strong poet offer up another way of thinking about influence?

My own thought is that this poem bears many marks of Miltonic language and influence:
Where couldst thou words of such a compass find?
Whence furnish such a vast expanse of mind?
Just heaven thee, like Tiresias, to requite…
Milton seems to be operating in these lines as an agent of expansion, pushing Marvell to write more strongly and boldly. But I’d be curious to know what others think.

Green Mountain Idyll

Hayden Carruth (1921-2008)

Honey    I’d split your kindling

clean & bright

& fine

if you was mine

baby baby

I’d taken to you like my silky hen

my bluetick bitch my sooey sow

my chipmunk    my finchbird

& my woodmouse

if you was living at my house

I’d mulch your strawberries & cultivate

your potato patch

all summer long

& then in winter

come thirty below and the steel-busting weather

I’d tune your distributor & adjust

your carburetor

if me & you was together

be it sunshine be it gloom

summer or the mean mud season

honey I’d kiss you

every morningtime

& evenings I’d hurry

to get shut of the barn chores early

& then in the dark of the night

I’d stand at the top of the stairs & hold the light

for you for you

if you’d sleep in my room

& when old crazy come down the mountain after you

with his big white pecker in his hand

you would only holler

& from the sugar house

the mow    the stable

or wherever I’m at

I’d come    god I’d come running to you

like a turpentined cat

only in our bed

honey

no hurting

but like as if it was

git- music

or new-baked bread

I’d fuck so easy

sweet-talking & full of love

if you was just my daisy

& my dove

* * *

English Department professor Meredith Martin writes:

I was startled to hear that Carruth passed away in September. Like Jack Gilbert, he is one of those 20th century poets who I had just begun to believe was really immortal. And he is immortal,  or at least I hope our critical attention to him will make him so. This poem is one of my favorite love poems — I love how it lurches  from image to image betraying how through all these tasks, this man wants to be doing something with his beloved and the tasks themselves transform into a kind of lovemaking. I don’t doubt the character — I never do, in Carruth’s poems — and though I’m not sure his lover is someone I could love, I find this poem teaches me to listen about the ways people perform affection and makes me think about how knowing that might be important.

Bible Study: 71 B.C.E.

By Sharon Olds

After Marcus Licinius Crassus
defeated the army of Spartacus,
he crucified 6,000 men.
That is what the records say,
as if he drove in the 18,000
nails himself. I wonder how
he felt, that day, if he went outside
among them, if he walked that human
woods. I think he stayed in his tent
and drank, and maybe copulated,
hearing the singing being done for him,
the woodwind-tuning he was doing at one
remove, to the six-thousandth power.
And maybe he looked out, sometimes,
to see the rows of instruments,
his orchard, the earth bristling with it
as if a patch in his brain had itched
and this was his way of scratching it
directly. Maybe it gave him pleasure,
and a sense of balance, as if he had suffered,
and now had found redress for it,
and voice for it. I speak as a monster,
someone who today has thought at length
about Crassus, his ecstasy of feeling
nothing while so much is being
felt, his hot lightness of spirit
in being free to walk around
while other are nailed above the earth.
It may have been the happiest day
of his life. If he had suddenly cut
his hand on a wineglass, I doubt he would
have woken up to what he was doing.
It is frightening to think of him suddenly
seeing what he was, to think of him running
outside, to try to take them down,
one man to save 6,000.
If he could have lowered one,
and seen the eyes when the level of pain
dropped like a sudden soaring into pleasure,
wouldn’t that have opened in him
the wild terror of understanding
the other? But then he would have had
5,999
to go. Probably it almost never
happens, that a Marcus Crassus
wakes. I think he dozed, and was roused
to his living dream, lifted the flap
and stood and looked out, at the rustling, creaking
living field—his, like an external
organ, a heart.

Ivan Ortiz writes:

A friend of mine recently introduced me to Sharon Olds via this remarkable poem that I’ve revisited several times in the last month.  I’ve also been reading a ton about the dramatic monologue lately for one of my papers and I’ve been thinking about the limits of sympathy.  This poem wouldn’t technically qualify as a dramatic monologue since Marcus Crassus doesn’t actually perform himself for us, but what I find so fascinating about it is its cautious tiptoeing around the form, the speaker terrified about her own ability to enter the understanding of this historical “other.”  But, it is the second of the speaker’s fears that I found most interesting:

It is frightening to think of him suddenly
seeing what he was, to think of him running
outside, to try to take them down,
one man to save 6,000.
If he could have lowered one,
and seen the eyes when the level of pain
dropped like a sudden soaring into pleasure,
wouldn’t that have opened in him
the wild terror of understanding
the other?

The wickedness of Crassus’ deed is not what frightens the speaker the most, it’s the thought of him realizing what he’d done just as he’d done it that is utterly terrifying.  I found this move by Olds so brilliant because it’s much too easy to read about this Roman general and mark him as savage or wicked or heartless; it would be easier, it seems, for Olds to write a dramatic monologue and to perform this wickedness, as Browning does so expertly. For Olds, though the cartoon wicked is more easily digested than to think of a person who has just crucified 6,000 as someone with even the slightest potential for sentiment or sympathy.  And, in a way, this poem performs a double refusal of sympathy: Marcus Crassus fails to admit “the wild terror of understanding the other” and so does the speaker.  I think this poem might be suggesting that the extreme limit of sympathy is not necessarily, as in the dramatic monologue, an exercise of getting closer to the other, but in bringing the other closer to us.

Ode to Guinea

by Aimé Césaire

And by the sun installing a power and eagle factory under my skin
and by the wind elaborating the passes it knows best over my power of tooth of salt
and by the black rising along my muscles in sweet sap-like effronteries
and by the woman stretched out like a mountain unsealed and sucked by lianas
the woman with the little known cadastre where day and night play mora for springhead waters and
rare metals
and by the fire of the woman in which I look for the path to ferns and to Fouta Jallon
and by the closed woman opening on nostalgia

I HAIL YOU

Guinea whose rains from the curdled height of volcanoes shatter a sacrifice of cows for a thousand
hungers and thirsts of denatured children
Guinea from your cry from your hand from your patience
we still have some arbitrary lands
and when they have me, killed in Ophir perhaps and silenced for good,
out of my teeth out of my skin let the make
a fetish a ferocious guardian against the evil eye
as your solstice shakes me strikes me and devours me
at each one of your steps Guinea
silenced in myself with the astral depth of medusas

from The Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire, translater by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith.

Aimé Césaire, the prominent Martinique poet and anticolonialist politician, died on April 18, 2008 at the age of 94.

Simon Gikandi writes:

Initially I was tempted to pick Césaire’s “elegy” as an appropriate gesture of passing, but then it occurred to me that an ode might be more appropriate for a couple of reasons: One, after the powerful and painful, self-inflicted suffering through the what Fanon famously called the lived condition of blackness in the Cahier, Césaire sought to construct a space of exaltation, one in which the colonial self could imagine itself to be at home in the world. Slaves in the Caribbean used to say that when they died they would eventually go back to Guinea; in this ode Césaire had imagined the poetic home to which he would return when the passage through the landscape of modernity was completed. Second, I have always been intrigued by Césaire’s relationship to Senghor: they are certainly very different poets, but in the for of the ode they often seem to
converge. In this particular poem, Césaire’s “Guinea” universalizes Senghor’s very specific geography. I’m intrigued by the translation of Senghor’s specific ethnos (located in the cultures of the Fouta Jallon) into the register of global blackness and the challenges involved in this translation.

Malcolm X

by Gwendolyn Brooks
For Dudley Randall

Original.
Hence ragged-round,
Hence rich-robust.

He had the hawk-man’s eyes.
We gasped. We saw the maleness.
The maleness raking out and making guttural the air
And pushing us to walls.

And in a soft and fundamental hour
A sorcery devout and vertical
Beguiled the world.

He opened us —
Who was a key.

Who was a man.

***

Greg Londe writes: I’ve been trying to think lately about elegies on public/political figures in the 20th century. Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Malcolm X,” her slippery and conflicted elegy (or is it an elegy?) for Malcolm X is not perhaps one of her greatest poems, but it is one that registers her quicksilver ability to praise and lament simultaneously, in lines at once harrowing and delicate. The poem appeared (well after X’s assassination on 21 Feb 1965) in Brooks’s book In the Mecca (1968) and is given pride of place as the first poem in Broadside Press’s anthology For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X (1969, edited by Margaret Burroughs and the poem’s dedicatee/BP founder, Dudley Randall).

It is also a poem that seems to be reflecting on, and perhaps trying to find a voice both within and outside of, the formal and cultural transitions effected by X’s death, from which shocking moment followed Leroi Jones’s transformation into Amiri Baraka, the move uptown, and the establishment of the Black Arts Movement (for which Brooks would become an overdetermined mother figure and icon). The phrase “pushing us to walls” may recall Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black People”, which includes the infamous section, eventually used as evidence against Baraka in court, “you can’t steal nothin from a/ white man, he’s already stole it he owes you anything you want,/ even his life. All the stores will open if you will say the magic/ words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker/ this is a stick up!” In her autobiography, Brooks recalls seeing Baraka perform the poem at the Fisk Writers Conference in 1967: “I was sitting beside a youngish white fellow. He had b
een very quiet. But when Baraka said at one point, ‘Up against the wall!’ this man jumped to his feet and said ‘Yeah, yeah, kill ’em!’ And here he was was, ordering his own execution.”

It may be harder in this forum to discuss such a markedly occasional work. So does this poem work? What work is it doing or attempting to do? Can we compare its politicized iconography to the operations of the Clifton poems which we were just reading? On a purely sonic level, how does it elaborate, or overcome, or supersede its “origins”?

Two Poems by Lucille Clifton

if i should
to Clark Kent

enter the darkest room
in my house and speak
with my own voice, at last,
about its awful furniture,
pulling apart the covering
over the dusty bodies: the randy
father, the husband holding ice
in his hand like a blessing,
the mother bleeding into herself
and the small imploding girl,
i say if i should walk into
that web, who will come flying
after me, leaping tall buildings?
you?

from The Book of Light (1993)

a song of mary

somewhere it being yesterday.
i a maiden in my mother’s house.
the animals silent outside.
is morning.
princes sitting on thrones in the east
studying the incomprehensible heavens.
joseph carving a table somewhere
in another place.
i watching my mother.
i smiling an ordinary smile.

from Two-Headed Woman (1980)

***

Meredith Martin Writes:

Lucille Clifton is one of those poets who blew my mind when I was first reading poems as a young woman. My mentor at the time, poet Paulann Petersen, gave me Good Woman, a collection of her earlier books and a memoir. I had never read any voice like this, and it was a voice, in a way that I’ve since trained myself to think against. Her “homage” poems (“to my hips” especially) carried fierce feminist salvos — and humor. Hers was a world of sisters and mothers and women who had to make it on their own in a man’s world. Re-telling biblical tales alongside tales of “ordinary” women, I learned that the ordinary and extraordinary were almost always intertwined. She’s more interested in Clark Kent than Superman, and her Mary is a regular woman with some intense dreams. Her “two-headed woman” has “one face turned outward / one face / swiveling slowly in.” I see these poems as those two sides: the first giving us a sense of what happens when the gaze is fixed inward and the second teaching us something new, something ordinary, through a differently imagined perspective.

Maple Syrup Sonnet

for Grace
by Bernadette Mayer

for over ten years now
if you can imagine that
confluence of the east and west
I have been wearing pearl river boxer shorts
they are like persian blue irises
no, hyacinths no midnight blue rooms

for eight years, willy-nilly
I’ve been trying to get more
they are 100% cotton

if I were getting them for you
I would not only have them but see
a plethora of wonderful things that day

today we are making maple syrup again
I pray for them

our father who art in heaven
please get me some maple syrup 100% cotton
boxer shorts because of the war amen

***

Evan Kindley Writes:

Bernadette Mayer is usually associated with the second generation of the New York School of Poets, but her work has taken a while to arrive at the state you see it in here. Ironically, it’s only since leaving the city for rural New England that Mayer has begun to write in a recognizably “New York School” style. At first glance, the poem may seem like one more Frank O’Hara imitation: casual, personal, light and small. But where O’Hara’s poems tend to be little hymns to life, “Maple Syrup Sonnet” is all about lack and longing. Where O’Hara would exult in plenty, Mayer writes about feeling squeezed and deprived. One might even say that the third stanza imagines an archetypal O’Hara poem, one of the ones where he’s walking around New York City buying things and recording observations on “a plethora of wonderful things,” only to give them away as if they meant nothing.

In “Maple Syrup Sonnet,” by contrast, the narrator regrets her lack of access to a commodity she once prized. Somehow the idea that she can no longer get the boxer shorts she likes is both funny and poignant, and becomes especially so when she imagines giving them as a gift to a friend. This in turn is relayed into a brief prayer for the soldiers of the Iraq war (the poem was first published in 2005) which, in context, is just one more fact of life the speaker can’t change. In setting up this complex of longings and constraints, desires and realities, Mayer suggests that the act of gift exchange is both a tiny, daily ritual, pregnant with personal meaning, and an economic and social fact, enormous and out of our control.

The Yoke

by Frank Bidart

don’t worry          I know you’re dead
but tonight

turn your face again
toward me

when I hear your voice there is now
no direction in which to turn

I sleep and wake and sleep and wake and sleep and wake and

but tonight
turn your face again

toward me

see      upon my shoulders is the yoke
that is not a yoke

don’t worry          I know you’re dead
but tonight

turn your face again

*****

from Desire by Frank Bidart. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1999.

On Tuesday, March 25 at 5:00 p.m., Bidart will be reading from his new collection of poems, Watching the Spring Festival, at Labyrinth Books in Princeton. This event is proudly sponsored by the Bain Swiggett Fund (Princeton University Department of English), Poetry@Princeton, and Labyrinth.

Jeff Dolven Writes:

“The Yoke” sounds like Frank Bidart. Or maybe first, it looks like him, even before you’ve auditioned the words: italics, gaps for pauses, skipped lines, and sharp enjambments all mark the page as his. The reading that that these devices score is both halting and urgent, and it should sound like someone trying hard to understand something difficult, and to make it understood. Bidart’s typographical resourcefulness always seems to be born of a fear that you won’t get what he is saying. (And because the subjects that compel him are often so discomfiting, maybe a fear that you won’t want to get it, that you’ll try not to.)

One way into the poem then is through this typography. It’s clear enough what “The Yoke” is about: wanting to see the face of a dead friend again. But it seems to have two voices, one in italics, one not, both of them revolving the same phrases. Perhaps they capture the longest line’s alternation of sleeping and waking and sleeping and waking: the repeated request, “turn your face again” (toward me, at least at first), can’t be shaken in either state. You can’t wake up from it, or sleep it off. Of perhaps they actually distinguish the words of two different speakers—each thinking that the other is dead? Both dead? And what does “dead” mean here—literally dead; dead to me?

And then there is that curious opening, “don’t worry.” As though the dead might be wearied by our impossible demands to see them again; or pained at how we must be suffering when we ask again and again. The poem’s economy in opening up our confusion in the face of loss, whatever kind of loss this is, wherever it resides, is remarkable.

Against Botticelli

Against Botticelli

by Robert Hass

1

In the life we lead together every paradise is lost.
Nothing could be easier: summer gathers new leaves
to casual darkness. So few things we need to know.
And the old wisdoms shudder in us and grow slack.
Like renunciation. Like the melancholy beauty
of giving it all up. Like walking steadfast
in the rhythms, winter light and summer dark.
And the time for cutting furrows and the dance.
Mad seed. Death waits it out. It waits us out,
the sleek incandescent saints, earthly and prayerful.
In our modesty. In our shamefast and steady attention
to the ceremony, its preparation, the formal hovering
of pleasure which falls like the rain we pray not to get
and are glad for and drown in. Or spray of that sea,
irised: otters in the tide lash, in the kelp-drench,
mammal warmth and the inhuman element. Ah, that is the secret.
That she is an otter, that Botticelli saw her so.
That we are not otters and are not in the painting
by Botticelli. We are not even in the painting by Bosch
where the people are standing around looking at the frame
of the Botticelli painting and when Love arrives, they throw up.
Or the Goya painting of the sad ones, angular and shriven,
who watch the Bosch and feel very compassionate
but hurt each other often and inefficiently. We are not in any
painting.
If we do it at all, we will be like the old Russians.
We’ll walk down through scrub oak to the sea
and where the seals lie preening on the beach
we will look at each other steadily
and butcher them and skin them.

2

The myth they chose was the constant lovers.
The theme was richness over time.
It is a difficult story and the wise never choose it
because it requires a long performance
and because there is nothing, by definition, between the acts.
It is different in kind from a man and the pale woman
he fucks in the ass underneath the stars
because it is summer and they are full of longing
and sick of birth. They burn coolly
like phosphorus, and the thing need be done
only once. Like the sacking of Troy
it survives in imagination,
in the longing brought perfectly to closing,
the woman’s white hands opening, opening,
and the man churning inside her, thrashing there.
And light travels as if all the stars they were under
exploded centuries ago and they are resting now, glowing.
The woman thinks what she is feeling is like the dark
and utterly complete. The man is past sadness,
though his eyes are wet. He is learning about gratitude,
how final it is, as if the grace in Botticelli’s Primavera ,
the one with sad eyes who represents pleasure,
had a canvas to herself, entirely to herself.

* * *

from Praise, by Robert Hass. New York: Ecco Press 1979.

On February 21, 2008, Robert Hass will deliver the Spencer Trask Lecture at Princeton, cosponsored by the Department of English and the Princeton Environmental Institute. Hass, poet laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997, will read from his latest collection, Time and Materials.

Anne Cheng writes: “This is the poem I return to when I am in need of resistance, resistance to gravity, to sheer fall, which is strange because the poem is about paradises lost. I think it is not because the poem gives me the redemption of human insight (though it possesses that ineffable wisdom so characteristic of Hass’s poetry) but because it takes me through a mind pressing toward that which has already evaporated, and being in the company of this mind reconciles me to the loneliness of being.

(By the way, it was not until the Monterey Aquarium, years after I puzzled over the image, that I saw Hass’s Botticelli!)”

The Taxis

Louis Macneice

The Taxis

In the first taxi he was alone tra-la,
No extras on the clock. He tipped ninepence
But the cabby, while he thanked him, looked askance
As though to suggest someone had bummed a ride.

In the second taxi he was alone tra-la
But the clock showed sixpence extra; he tipped according
And the cabby from out his muffler said: ‘Make sure
You have left nothing behind tra-la between you’.

In the third taxi he was alone tra-la
But the tip-up seats were down
and there was an extra
Charge of one-and-sixpence and an odd
Scent that reminded him of a trip to Cannes.

As for the fourth taxi, he was alone
Tra-la when he hailed it but the cabby looked
Through him and said: ‘I can’t tra-la well take
So many people, not to speak of the dog.’

1961

from The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, edited by E.R. Dodds
London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

Paul Muldoon writes:

Though this is the centenary of his birth in 1907, Louis MacNeice has not had anything like the readership in the United States that he’s enjoyed in Britain and Ireland. Even then he’s often been seen as a mere Irishman in Britain, a Britisher in Ireland. “The Taxis” is from his final volume, The Burning Perch, published only a few weeks after his death in 1963. It’s a poem which falls into the category MacNeice himself described as ‘thumbnail nightmare’ and, while it may be traced back partly to the ‘crazy’ poems of Yeats, it’s a poem that has also been deeply influential on successive generations of Northern Irish poets.

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