Poet Laureate at the End of Empire


America has a new poet laureate. His name is Philip Levine and he’s an old white man; I know that will shock you. I’m ashamed to say that I’m unfamiliar with our new poet laureate’s work.

Levine succeeds W.S. Merwin, another old white man whose work I very much like. Merwin (it’s so close to “Merlin”) wrote one of my favorite poems: Trees.

I am looking at trees
they may be one of the things I will miss
most from this earth
though many of the ones I have seen
already I cannot remember
and though I seldom embrace the ones I see
and have never been able to speak
with one
I listen to them tenderly
their names have never touched them
they have stood round my sleep
and when it was forbidden to climb them
they have carried me in their branches.

I had dinner with a dear friend tonight and she was talking about the tree in front of her Capitol Hill home and how much she loves it. I think Merwin wrote for her. He often wrote movingly about ecological topics and is, IMHO, not yet as appreciated as he should be.

America’s poet laureate (the poet who wears the laurel wreath) is selected by the Librarian of Congress. There’s a lot wrong with America these days, but I’m glad that we have a Library of Congress that sits — literally — in Columbia’s shadow and I’m glad that we have a poet laureate. The poet laureate’s job is to promote poetry. S/he doesn’t have to write poems for events of state, although some poet laureates have done. Billy Collins, for example, wrote The Names after September 11, 2001:

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —

Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —

Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.

Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,

And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —

Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

And some presidents select different poets to write inaugural poems. Bill Clinton asked Maya Angelou to write a poem for his inauguration and she wrote one that doesn’t get much critical acclaim, but that I liked. Well, I would; it begins: “A rock. A river. A tree.”

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no more hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.

Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.

Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the stone were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
Knew nothing.

The River sings and sings on.

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

Today, the first and last of every Tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside me, here beside the River.

Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you
Pawnee, Apache and Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of
Other seekers–desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot …
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours–your Passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

The flaw in this poem, the reason the critics don’t like it, is that it’s too long. The stanzas that go on naming people should have been edited. But any poem that includes the line: “I will give you no more hiding place down here,” is a damn good poem.

Barack Obama commissioned a poem from another poet I like, Elizabeth Alexander, but it just didn’t quite work. Maybe it was a sign.

If I were president, I’d commission poems for lots of things besides inaugurations. For New Orleans and Detroit. For Joplin, Mo. For every State of the Union message; how would America be different if each of those started with a poem? For each peace treaty signed. For each species taken off the endangered list. For each advance in medicine. For first responders. For blood donors. For each tree, fern, and snail in Muir Woods. For Columbia. I’d commission poems, either from our already-rich-by-$35,000-poet-laureates or by, if they’d write for me, Mary Oliver, or David Whyte, or Adrienne Rich, or Robin Morgan. And I’d push for more poet laureates who were not old white men. Which may explain (one more reason) why I am not the president.

So I’ve spent time today (in between conference calls, and editing pleadings, and pausing beside the Moon-lit Potomac to pray) reading the poems of our new poet laureate. He has a working-class background and LAT says that, “Politics, particularly issues of class, thread through his poetry.” Here’s the poem that, so far, I like best, although I can’t say that it really grabs ahold of me, the way I want a poem to really grab. But it gets better with repeated readings and maybe our new poet laureate will grow on me. Oddly, or maybe not, it’s a poem about writing poetry.

Theory Of Prosody

Listen
When Nellie, my old pussy
cat, was still in her prime,
she would sit behind me
as I wrote, and when the line
got too long she’d reach
one sudden black foreleg down
and paw at the moving hand,
the offensive one. The first
time she drew blood I learned
it was poetic to end
a line anywhere to keep her
quiet. After all, many morn-
ings she’d gotten to the chair
long before I was even up.
Those nights I couldn’t sleep
she’d come and sit in my lap
to calm me. So I figured
I owed her the short cat line.
She’s dead now almost nine years,
and before that there was one
during which she faked attention
and I faked obedience.
Isn’t that what it’s about–
pretending there’s an alert cat
who leaves nothing to chance.

The last three lines are good (as is “short cat line”):

Isn’t that what it’s about —
pretending there’s an alert cat
who leaves nothing to chance.

Is he just talking about writing poetry? Or is this a broader statement? I was talking tonight with my friend about how people long to believe that random events aren’t random. They wouldn’t have been raped because they don’t go to that part of town late at night. They got cancer for a reason and it taught them so much. If they just stop gays from getting married and turn American back to Jehovah, America will go back to the way it was and they won’t be out of work in a post-peak-oil world. Surely, there’s an alert cat (Levine’s old enough to have used “cat” to mean a “cool dude”) who leaves nothing to chance. And, equally, maybe, the poem is just about poetry, which comes when it comes, writes itself through the poet (all s/he needs to do is sit at a computer and open a vein) and seems as like to be determined by Nellie as anything else. So if our new poet laureate is someone who groks how mysterious and divine poetry is, well, I can live with him. (I bet he’s sighing with relief.)

But when I’m the Congressional Librarian, I’m going to pick Mary Oliver.

6 responses to “Poet Laureate at the End of Empire

  1. I hate to admit it, but my first reaction was, “Philip Levine is still alive?” O tempora. I heard him read fromThey Feed They Lion years ago. Let’s just say good writer, crappy performer. Soporific. Now Mary Oliver is excellent, but she has gotten awfully Christ-y lately, and yes, I know why.

  2. Chas,

    I’m hoping w/ MO that it’s temporary. Because that woman is a “Witch but doesn’t know it” if ever a woman was. Losing the love of your life does odd things. I read “They Feed Lions” over and over today and it’s still not grabbing me. I’m going to keep trying to like Levine, at least for a while.

  3. I have never understood why Mary Oliver is not Poet Laureate for life. Is is possible that she has turned down offers before? To me she is THE poet. Yes, the new-found christian themes are disturbing, but I also understand the reason behind it. The lady is still amazing.

  4. Me, I would vote for Gary Snyder, who did win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry a few years back. Perhaps he is too much of a poet of the West and Pacific Rim for the Library Congress. But he is, as the man said, a calm son of a bitch.

  5. Pingback: The Great Cat in the Sky | Works of Literata

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