Favorite Poems: “To Elsie”

There is now a great deal of poetry available legally under copyright on the internet, good sources being the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Magazine, Poem Hunter, along with those repositories of older public domain literature, Bartleby.com & Project Guttenburg. There are also an increasing number of sites like Pennsound with audio archives of modern & contemporary literature. Drawing on these sources, I am going to begin a regular feature of the blog–a kind of commonplace book for me–called Favorite Poems. I will link to the full text of the poem & usually make a brief comment, personal rather than critical, about the poem. These will be my favorites, so I invite comments on other readers reactions, suggestions, etc. Join me in taking advantage of the rich resources available for our pleasure & edification. Note: I will soon begin a feature of favorite “bad” country songs in order to counteract the rather high-toned presumptions of the Favorite Poems series.

I begin today with William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie,” which astonishes by its clear seeing and unsentimental view of the world & its people. Williams has the ability to say things that are not conventionally “kind” out of a deep reservoir of love for the world & its things. Follow the link to the Poets.org site & read the poem. Here is audio of WCW reading the poem.

A Deceptive Lyric by Robert Hass

You thought it was just going to be about flowers. You thought it was going to veer into the dark that way. You didn’t know there would be history & geography. You didn’t think it would be a poem about poetry–or maybe you did. You love the way it slips sideways just slightly to deliver, not a punch, but the blow of a feather.


The Color of Rain

It has been a very wet summer. Looking out my study window, I’ve seen a lot of rain. Light rain and heavy rain and various rains in between. In poetry, I have always been attracted to description, but also suspicious of it, knowing the limits of language. In my own poems and it the work of others I have noticed that description that doesn’t go beyond itself — that doesn’t at least suggest metaphorical implications — usually falls flat. So, picking up Geoffrey Hill’s new book, Without Title, the other day during a particularly heavy downpour, I was struck by these lines, from the opening of the poem “Broken Hierarchies” —

When to depict rain — heavy rain — it stands
in dense verticals diagonally lashed,
chalk-white yet with the chalk transparent . . .

The first five stanzas (three lines each) describe the rainstorm, then, after an elipsis standing alone as a stanza, the poem concludes with four more stanzas (also three lines each) that begin with the line “like Appalachian music,” the poem turning on a simile toward its wider meaning, a vast geographical opening out of local description into a consideration of the place of humans along the “alien shore” of the natural world. It begins, though, with that remarkably observed description of the chalk-white rain. More heavy rain falling straight down now as I complete this note.


I hesitate to post this poem, written just this afternoon, fearing that it is insufficiently respectful; but whatever disrespect it exhibits is only an attempt to express a more profound respect. One never gets entirely outside the lecture room, of course; but one chafes. The seat is hard, the oscillating fan insufficient to ventilate the musty smell of old books in a tropical climate.

A Lecture on Vietnamese Culture

The professor tells the visitors
that today they will learn about
the betel leaf and the areca nut,
which is the history of Vietnam

in one small package, he says,
and then recites a song
for his audience, who have
been brought captive by a guide

to listen, though they would
be walking the narrow
streets lost in the heat blinded
by the haze of burning paper

from the temples, the sidewalks
filled with families eating soup
and gossiping, but they will
never be allowed outside —

today it’s the betel leaf
and the areca nut and slaked lime
for them, Vietnam as a quid
pro quo, their being here to hear

the lecture, offered many times
to others and polished smooth
as a Buddha’s toe kissed for
centuries, rubbed for good luck.

They are allowed nothing else.
Not the State’s music spilling
from the loudspeakers nor
the singing from the Cathedral

punctuated by the air horns
of tourist buses and the tinkle
of cyclo bells, the calls of women
hawking fish and fresh bread.

Tomorrow it will be coconuts
and when they are finished with
nuts they will move on to fruit
and flowers. And if they come

every day, before long they will
be allowed to discuss weather
and international relations,
which are very like the betel leaf.

(Hanoi, April 2009)

Animal Cruelty

In a comment to the previous post, Chris Robinson makes reference to a poem from my book Magical Thinking. We bear a special responsibility, greater perhaps than the responsibility we bear toward each other, to care for animals. Whichever philosopher said that we reveal our character through our treatment of those weaker than ourselves was right, I think. Here is the poem.

Abandoned Bluetick Bitch

Numbed with self-loathing,
we abandon the emissaries
of grace. Chained to a tree

beside the empty rental
she hollowed out a den
for herself & her young.

By the time we found her
the water they’d left her
was a couple of days gone.

When the water was gone
she would have slept, not dreaming,
letting the pups nurse

her sparse milk & when
the smallest died she ate it to keep
her strength & cleanse the den,

depriving coy dogs & foxes
an expedient scent.
It’s likely there were two more

before we found her.
Ribs covered by a tissue of dry skin,
she was nothing-a shadow

on the dirt & was just able
to raise her head & take
a little water from my hand

before turning to nose
her three live pups awake.
Reader, it is true, there is

horror everywhere worse
than this & cruelty that beggars
imagination, but this

is local & particular; these were
my neighbors did this,
who, without even the excuse

of psychosis, committed this wrong.
Who live in this same light
& shadow I live in.

Let us kill one another
with heedless abandon-we deserve it-
but not these poor relations

whose lives are without malice
& whose motives are transparent.
Let us kill one another.