Levine’s Bud Powell and Matthews’ Bud Powell

For this month’s Music post, a look at two poems about jazz musician Bud Powell, William Matthews’ “Bud Powell, Paris, 1959” and Philip Levine’s “On 52nd Street“.

There are poems about the sound of the music, and there are poems about the musicians, and there are poems about the experience of music. It’s probably true that all music genres have a special hero worship to their culture, but it seems like jazz in particular has HEROES. (Rock music I guess more has rock GODS.) Both Matthews’ and Levine’s poems are about their jazz hero Bud Powell in less-than-stellar form. Continue reading “Levine’s Bud Powell and Matthews’ Bud Powell”

William Matthews’ Janis Joplin

February’s Music post: William Matthews’ “The Penalty for Bigamy is Two Wives

William Matthews’ prose poem “The Penalty for Bigamy is Two Wives” has so many great descriptions of music it almost makes you forget how hard it can be to describe music. Joplin’s voice breaks out “in hives of feeling.” Music, in the words of the speaker’s friend, “throws you back into your body, like organic food or heroin.” Then there’s the image of the pain in his friend’s singing voice “like the silhouette of a dog baying at the moon, almost liver-shaped, a bell hung from a rope of its own pure yearning.” And then, back to Janis again, her voice running up and down the body “like a fire that has learned to live on itself” and then, there comes the amazing description of listening to dead Janis sing as being “Grief’s beautiful blowjob.” Now that is one hell of a line.Continue reading “William Matthews’ Janis Joplin”

“Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo”

For this inaugural monthly Animal Poem post, a look at Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo” by William Matthews.

It’s a gorgeous poem from his 1973 Rising and Falling collection, which is one of my “desert island” books. The immediate beauty is of course in the largest metaphor — the snow leopards “jump / down and jump up, water being / poured,” a visual image of their physicality that is reinforced, with a heavy emphasis on the endangered aspect of the snow leopard, in the last three lines of the poem (the “them” refers to his children): “I save them whatever I can keep / and I pour it from hand to hand.” But in between that introductory image and the end, man what a lot happens in this 18-line poem.Continue reading ““Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo””

2012: A Short Look Back At What I Read

Before the look back, a quick look forward. Coming soon (or eventually) in 2013:

  • Reviews of collections by James Arthur, Bruce Beasley, David Biespiel, Stuart Friebert, Laura Jensen, A. E. Stallings, and Wendy Willis
  • Posts about William Matthews’ and Christian Wiman’s poetry
  • The afore-mentioned monthly look at an animal poem (replacing 2012’s Months posts)
  • Some more extensive film reviews on occasion, in addition to the short ones you can always find, frequently updated, on the Film page

Now for the requisite (and for all it’s cliché to do so, enjoyable) quick look back at the reading I did this year. (I stuck the Worst in the middle, because I didn’t want to end on a low note).Continue reading “2012: A Short Look Back At What I Read”


July is a good time for lying down in green grass, in a graveyard perhaps, like in Kazim Ali’s “July,” where there’s a pause before the next thing, and if you look at it long enough, with a friend, the sky changes —”came down in breaths to my lips and sipped me.”

In July, the windows are always open, as in William  Matthews’ “Morningside Heights, July,” and one hears, like it or not, “a clatter of jackhammers” and someone “yelling fuck in Farsi” and a couple having a break-up conversation, and it all makes one feel a little strange, “hollower than a bassoon.”

Albert Goldbarth’s “Sentimental” begins in July but winds up, with it’s wonderful-sounding language, (“What if some chichi streetwise junkass from the demimonde / gave forth with the story of orphans forced through howling storm / to the workhouse”) going quite elsewhere, as thoughts are wont to do. Continue reading “July”


March in Portland means weather of every kind (hail, sun, snow, rain, freezing, 60°) in a single day on most days. The weather in March poems ranges too. In Lizette Woodworth Reese’s Mid-March “It is too early for white boughs, too late / For snows” and “The days go out with shouting.”  Swinburne‘s March is a “master of winds, bright minstrel and marshal of storms that enkindle the season they smite,” but William Matthew’s March is hot, with thick air — “Nothing can ease the March heat / nor make it stay.”

In Elizabeth Spires’ “Ocean City: Early March” the month is moody and gray with storm. Dickinson, however, invites March in,

Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –
I have so much to tell –

I got your letter, and the Birds –
The Maples never knew that you were coming –
I declare – how Red their Faces grew –

But I think my favorite Continue reading “March”


On the flip side, as it were, from the fragmented, non sequitur, collage poetry I sometimes complain about, is the ghazal  (correctly pronounced, they tell me, something like a rhyme with “guzzle” but with a longer, throatier “gh” at the beginning).

Here are the first few couplets from the ghazal “Miscellany” by Nancy King:

Spread the tarot with care with me.
Future is daily fare with me.

Cats know eyeing can unnerve.
If you agree, come stare with me.

A confidence is heading here,
a dangerous need to share with me.

An Anjou lost no one an Eden.
Regard the innocent pear with me.

Ghazals are made up of anywhere from a few to many autonomous couplets with equal-length lines (be it meter, syllables, or beats) and a repeating rhyme (a qafia) and refrain (a radif) at the end of each 2nd line, which is introduced twice in the very first couplet (“care with me / fare with me”). Often the poet’s name is used in the very last couplet. The form dates back to the seventh century in a variety of Middle Eastern and other languages.

Pretty much all of my knowledge of the ghazal comes from Agha Shahid Ali‘s 2000 anthology Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, Continue reading “Ghazal”

The Lichtenberg Figures

Ben Lerner‘s 2003 Hayden Carruth Award-winning collection The Lichtenberg Figures is one of those that illuminates, for me, the difference between well-written and good.

The poems, all untitled, are almost all 14 lines, nominally sonnets. Like a lot of other folks these days, Lerner uses collage, repetition, puns, mash-ups of language (erudite & slang, high-falutin’ & jargon, academic & plain), juxtaposition, and rapid shifts throughout.

For instance,

The thinkable goes sobbing door-to-door
in search of predicates accessible by foot.
But sense is much shorter in person
and retreats from chamber to antechamber to text.

How then to restructure a premise like a promise?

Continue reading “The Lichtenberg Figures”