The Craft of Eavan Boland

grass_dewIn addition to its humanity — its giving voice to people that history and art have often overlooked — one of the great pleasures of Eavan Boland’s poetry is the way it layers time and moves through time. At our last meeting, the Book Club for Poets focused on poems from Against Love Poetry, several of which show Boland’s ability to merge past and present, historical and personal, the captured moment and the fleetingness of time.

In “Making Money,” for example, the poet devotes the opening five stanzas to a narrative describing how women living near the River Slang were employed to make money for the British government. Boland describes the process closely, from the “first ugly hour” of the women’s waking, to “the toil / of sifting and beating and settling and fraying / the weighed out fibres” of “rag” and “hemp.” The poem then shifts into what the women themselves cannot see — the consequences of British wealth in Ireland, compressed into a single stanza:

And they do not and they never will
see the small boundaries all this will buy
or the poisoned kingdom with its waterways
and splintered locks and the peacocks who will walk
this paper up and down in the windless gardens
of a history no one can stop happening now.
Nor the crimson and indigo features
of the prince who will stare out from
the surfaces they have made on
the ruin of a Europe
he cannot see from a surface
of a wealth he cannot keep

The poem then challenges its readers. If we can’t acknowledge that the past is “a crime we cannot admit and will not atone,” the women are still there “in the rainy autumn” as the “wagons of rags . . . arrive.” The women will always be “facing the paradox” of making money in their poverty, “learning to die of it.”

In “Thankëd be Fortune,” the poet moves from “constellations, / orderly uninterested and cold” to “the bookshelves just above” the sleeping narrator and her husband:

all through the hours of darkness,
men and women
wept, cursed, kept and broke faith
and killed themselves for love.

The poem then shifts from literary time into the present of the couple as they wake and hear their child waking — “listening to our child crying, as if to birdsong” — and the poem ends with an evocative, mysterious image: “the grass eking out / the last crooked hour of starlight.” Is the grass photosynthesizing starlight? What, to human eyes, seems like the timelessness of the constellations is translated into the more mortal time span of the grass.

Boland creates a similar moment in “The Pinhole Camera,” noting first our knowledge of the natural world and how time works here (“the reason for the red berries / darkening”). The speaker then describes the narratives that humans have created to explain phenomena like solar eclipses (“if this were legend / the king of light would turn his face away”) — before the poet captures the workings of the universe in an everyday object, a piece of paper below the pinhole camera:

But this is real —
how your page records
the alignment of planets,
their governance.
In other words,
the not-to-be-seen again
mystery of
a mutual influence.

Besides the pleasure we get in reading Boland’s poetry, we can also use these poems to remind ourselves to consider how time moves in our own poetry. Can we include more than one scale of time in our own poems? Can we explore when to be leisurely and when to move swiftly, compressing events?


Boland, Eavan. “How We Made a New Art on Old Ground.” New Collected Poems. 1st American ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 296–297.

— — —. “Making Money.” New Collected Poems. 1st American ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 292–293.

— — —. “The Pinhole Camera.” New Collected Poems. 1st American ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 280–281.

— — —. “Thankëd be Fortune.” New Collected Poems. 1st American ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 286.

The Craft of Billy Collins

zodiac coinThe Book Club for Poets decided once again to discuss a book by the latest Hall-Kenyon Prize winner, and the poet selected for the 2013 award was Billy Collins, who gave a reading at the Concord (NH) City Auditorium on October 3, 2013; the audience was large and enthusiastic, applauding after every poem. Several national figures have praised Collins’s work. But when I told poet friends that we’d be discussing Collins’s Horoscopes for the Dead at our next meeting, I got mixed reactions, including a “I won’t be going to that one” and a simple but fairly hostile “Why?”

Why does Collins inspire such polarized views among other poets? That was the question I decided could be our way into Horoscopes for the Dead. What are the strengths of this poetry? What are its weaknesses? If Collins wasn’t such a wildly successful poet financially, such a popular writer, would he instill the same kind of reaction?

His work is admired by accomplished writers. In choosing Collins for the Hall-Kenyon Prize, poet Wesley McNair told the Concord (NH) Monitor, “He’s intelligent, wonderfully witty and urbane, just as the critics say. But the Billy Collins who engages me most is the naif — the poet of the curious imagination, who shows us that the world is a source of delight and mystery, and the only reason we haven’t seen this is that we’ve been standing in the light.” Stephen Dunn admires how “we seem to always know where we are in a Billy Collins poem, but not necessarily where he is going.” Dunn says, “I love to arrive with him at his arrivals. He doesn’t hide things from us, as I think lesser poets do. He allows us to overhear, clearly, what he himself has discovered” (Academy of American Poets). In a review of Picnic, Lightning in Poetry, John Taylor notes, “By forming these odd but somehow convincing associations, Collins helps us feel the mystery of being alive. Beneath his tongue-in-cheek humor, a deeper melancholy reminds us that a human being can hope for little more than emotional, mental, and physical experiences of this mystery.”

But not everyone admires Collins’s craft. Paul Stephens has noted in the Drunken Boat,  “The dominant impression one gets when reading a Collins poem is one of sheer lack of ambition. … There is nothing engaging whatsoever about the construction of [“The Lesson”]. The prosaic domestic setting is typical of a Collins poem. There is in fact no specific ‘History’ to speak of. ‘History’ becomes a sort of non-threatening daydream of some past life where things might actually have been interesting.”

This last comment comes closest to that of those poet friends of mine who declined to be part of our discussion of Horoscopes. The work, they said, was glib, overly sentimental, not ambitious, not well crafted.

So the Book Club asked ourselves what we liked in Collins’s work—and what we found disappointing.

In Collins’s favor, the club noted his humor, his willingness to be whimsical, his willingness to risk sentimentality — and the strategies he uses to undercut it. Critics sometimes object to Collins’s “pandering” to the audience in his performances, but Don Kimball noted that without the humor of “The Lanyard,” the poem would be unbearably maudlin. The poem also gets more serious at the end, a technique the poet uses frequently.

One of the things I personally respond to best in Collins’s work are the moments when he shifts dramatically, in tone, in time and space, or in point of view. In a poem like “Horoscopes for the Dead,” for example, most of the poem mines the humor of prosaic newspaper horoscope-speak and its inappropriateness for the dead:

Some days I am reminded that today
will not be a wildly romantic time for you,
nor will you be challenged by educational goals,
nor will you need to be circumspect at the workplace.

The prosiness is intensified, I think, by the neatly self-contained stanzas. Occasionally, the language is elevated by more music (listen for the long i sounds, the s’s, and the l’s below) and by image and metaphor:

… that would apply
more to all the Pisces who are still alive,
still swimming up and down the stream of life
or suspended in a pool in the shade of an overhanging tree.

Collins reserves the ending for his most dramatic shift. Compared to the narrator, who is “pedaling along the shore road by the bay,” the dead “you” of the poem is both stationary and moving, flying, beyond the dimensions of this world:

And you stay just as you are,
lying there in your beautiful blue suit,
your hands crossed on your chest
like the wings of a bird who has flown
in its strange migration not north or south
but straight up from the earth
and pierced the enormous circle of the zodiac.

In a poem like “Good News,” however, the Book Club thought the whimsy and sentimentality were not balanced by something sharper or more ominous. The dog’s “long smile” is such a satisfying image in the penultimate stanza, but the final lines seem unremittingly sweet and discursive: “and your brown and white coat / are perfectly designed to be the dog you perfectly are.” In contrast, in “Two Creatures,” the narrator is willing to risk the sweetness of contemplating a pet dog’s point of view but ends somewhere much more interesting: “I have never once worried,” the narrator says at the conclusion of the poem,

that she would take off in the car
and leave me to die
behind the locked doors of this house.

Such a shift, it seems to me, invites us to ask questions about our relationships to the creatures we have under our care. What’s the hidden cruelty, or at least the hidden callousness, in such a relationship?

Other poems from this collection that take similar leaps or shifts are “My Unborn Children,” “Roses,” and “Thieves,” which moves from the narrator’s human point of view to that of the mouse he sees “ducking  … into stone wall.” The ending also illustrates Collins’s sly allusions, the language of the first line of this stanza recalling Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse”:

my wee, timorous mind darting in after him,
escaping the hawk-prowling sunlight
for a shadowy cave of stone
and the comings and goings of mice —
all that scurrying and the secretive brushings of whiskers.

This movement to the inward and the small is intensified by the narrator’s just having imagined “the monstrous glacial traffic of the ice age.” (The final image reminds me a bit of the sudden intimacy of the bee in the foxglove in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Moose.”)

At his best, Collins writes a musical line:

all that scurrying and the secretive brushing of whiskers (“Thieves”)
delivering morsels of asparagus and crusted fish (“Table Talk”)
One hagiographer compared him to a hedgehog bristling with quills (“Table Talk”)

At other times, he doesn’t seem as interested in loading the rifts with ore:

“It’s the size of a basketball / but much more interesting” (“The New Globe”)
“the drawings you would bring in” (“Girl”)

In the poems the Book Club enjoyed most from Horoscopes from the Dead, Collins’s narrator is saying, in the conversational way he has, something complicated, as in the series of inner landscapes, private worlds, compressed “to the size of a bedroom,” for instance, in “Memorizing ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne” — the world of the lovers in Donne’s poem “contracted” a second time, as the narrator memorizes it, “into a little spot within” the narrator himself. At other times, the poems express deep ambivalence, as in the dead father’s silence in “Grave,” which is described so delicately but that seems withdrawn, withholding, perhaps punitive. In comparison, a poem like “On Reading a Program Note on Aaron Copland” is clever—the famous composer traveling only from Brooklyn to North Tarrytown over his ninety-year life span — but never really goes beyond cleverness. The world of the poem seems completely imagined, self-contained within its own whimsy. But the poem on the facing page, “After I Heard You Were Gone,” has both a clever extended metaphor but much more emotionally at stake, the world transformed, made surreal, by the “you’s” absence:

I could have sworn the large oak trees
had just appeared there overnight.
And that pigeon looked as if
it had once been a playing card
that a magician had transformed with the flick of a scarf.


Poems quoted from Collins, Billy. Horoscopes for the Dead. New York: Random House, 2012.

Dunn, Stephen. Quoted in “Billy Collins.” Academy of American Poets,

McNair, Wesley. Quoted in “Poet Billy Collins Selected for Donald Hall–Jane Kenyon Prize.” Concord (NH) Monitor, April 29, 2013,

Taylor John. “Picnic, Lightning / The Art of Drowning.” Poetry 175, no. 4 (Feb. 2000): 273. ProQuest.

Stephens, Paul. “An Apology for Poetry, or Why Bother with Billy Collins?” Drunken Boat 4 (Spring 2002),

The Craft of Natasha Trethewey

ImageAbout Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Ange Mlinko has said that the book “is structured like a dialectic, in three parts: the autobiographical as thesis, the historical as antithesis, and the intertwining of the personal and the historical as synthesis.” On reading this comment, I realized that the Book Club for Poets hadn’t yet considered the structure of an entire book of poems — and that Native Guard would be an excellent book for this kind of craft discussion. The individual poems of this collection — which received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry — are impressive in the range of forms Trethewey takes on: the pantoum, villanelle, a crown of sonnets, and even a palindrome, among other. But in addition to the mastery of individual poems, the overall structure of the book shows us how careful ordering of poems can create something greater than the sum of its parts. In our discussion, we basically walked through the book from title and dedication through to the final poem, paying attention to the shifts and echoes created with each additional element. We don’t have space to cover that entire discussion here, so I’d like to focus on the introductory poem.

Including a proem, or prefatory poem — one that appears in the volume even before the official first section — can be a risky technique for poets. Such a poem must bear the weight of a great deal of expectation: readers will want the poem to be both representative of the book as a whole and particularly strong on its own. The title of Trethewey’s proem is “Theories of Time and Space,” which sets the focus of the book at the broadest, most abstract view of how we experience history and memory as well as location. The poem starts with a meditative/discursive passage:

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. …

The colloquial tone of the opening two couplets contrast to the formality of the title, though both title and stanzas are similarly abstract. The opening lines reminded members of the Book Club of the New England comment “You can’t get there from here” (a wry remark about the remoteness of certain locations) and the Southern “You can’t go home again” of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. So the poem hints already at the North and South of the Civil War, which be the setting of “Native Guard,” a sequence of sonnets in the middle section of the book. The opening stanza also suggests a journey to a place we’ve been before, a place in our past — although “there’s no going home,” the lines suggest that “home” is precisely what the “you” of the poem had originally hoped to find.

Similarly philosophical is the second couplet, which brings to mind the Heraclitus’s familiar concept of time as a river: you can never put your foot into the same river twice. Time itself changes a location, or at least our understanding of it — the fixed point of place altered by history and our individual experience of the passage of time.

The narrator of the poem then says, “Try this: / / head south down Mississippi 49.” These lines break through abstractness by introducing a specific location and the specific action of driving. What follows is a long lyrical passage heavy with imagery, the imperative mood, and right-branching syntax:

… one-
by-one mile
markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion — dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain.

The location is clearly a Southern one: Gulfport, Mississippi. Psychologically, the images suggest waste, frustration, damage, threat: the minutes of life are being “ticked off” in travel to a “dead end,” the “stitches” of rigging suggesting the mending of cloth or flesh, though this mending is “loose.” Even the weather is “threatening.” We’ll learn later in the book that Trethewey’s mother was from Gulfport, so the proem is setting up that echo. The poem continues:

… Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on the mangrove swamp — buried
terrain of the past.

The landscape of Gulfport echoes back to the idea of the epigraph that precedes the proem: lines from “Meditation on Form and Measure” by Charles Wright, lines that declare that “everywhere” something is “underfoot,” “buried” beneath the present. Other burials later in the book will pick up on this idea of events and people being hidden from view. Sometimes these burials are specific, autobiographical, as in “What Is Evidence,” about Trethewey’s mother; other times, the burials are historical, as in “Native Guard,” the bodies and graves African American soldiers wiped from history — until the poet writes about them.

The narrator of “Meditations” then advises the “you” of the poem to “Bring only / / what you must carry — tome of memory, / its random blank pages.” So memory is a necessity, but also random and blank, something to be filled in.

The poem ends with a narrative yet to be unfolded: on the “dock” of departure for “Ship Island,”

someone will take your picture:

the photograph — who you were —
will be waiting when you return.

Whatever this journey is, the “you” will be changed by it. The photograph can capture only “who you were,” not who you are after experiencing Ship Island. Even if the reader is unaware of the history of Ship Island — the site of a prison for white Confederate soldiers guarded by the black Union guards — the reader understands that the journey is significant. What is learned or experienced there will change the “you” — and, by implication, the “we” of Trethewey’s readers.

The proem has established markers that recur throughout the book: the history of the Deep South, travel and return, memory, “tomes” of writing and history, the lost and buried. All of these elements will recur throughout Native Guard — in the first section, about the poet’s mother; in the center section, about African American history; and in the final section, in which the mixed-race narrator herself embodies both black and white and, in Mlinko’s words, “refuses to give up her legacy, which encompasses the land and its history, its mess and its murderousness.” As an example of a prefatory poem, “Theories of Time and Space” is extremely successful: it is powerful on its own and yet anticipates what’s to come.


Ange Mlinko, “More Than Meets the I,” Poetry Foundation, www. /poetrymagazine/article/180081.

Natasha Trethewey, “Theories of Time and Space,” Native Guard (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 1.

The Craft of Donald Justice

The Book Club for Poets was so impressed by Ellen Bryant Voigt’s discussion of Donald Justice’s poetry when we discussed her Art of Syntax in January 2013, that we decided to devote our April meeting to Justice’s Collected Poems. And what we learned about the role of Donald Justice in American poetry was also impressive: his career bridges the poets he studied as a young man, such as 0001693847384John Crowe Ransom, to the poetry of his teachers, including John Berryman and Robert Lowell, to his classmates, such as Philip Levine and W. D. Snodgrass, and finally to the many poets who were his students. In the New England Review shortly after Justice died in 2004, C. Dale Young listed some of the poets Justice “helped to develop: Mark Strand, Charles Wright, Ellen Bryant Voigt, James Tate, Jorie Graham, Larry Levis, Tess Gallagher, Brenda Hillman, Rita Dove, Eric Pankey …”

When critics discuss the poetry of Donald Justice, two words always come up: nostalgia and craft. Some of us expressed surprise, at our April meeting, that his poems are so often focused on the past and on loss. Critics like James McCorkel note that behind Justice’s nostalgia lies a powerful desire to recognize, honor, preserve:

In his essay “Meters and Memory,” Justice comments that one motive for art is “to keep memorable what deserves to be remembered”; meters in poetry allow for emotion to be fixed and “called back again and again” … for both the audience and the poet. Justice continues, remarking that “for an audience the meters function in part to call back the words of the poem, so for the poet they may help to call the words forth” … Indeed, it may be argued that Justice’s project fuses poet and audience into a sustained moment of retrieval.

In contrast, Stephen Burt makes this comment about Justice’s Collected Poems: “[The post–World War I] world, its moods, and the properties that match them—repeated words, carefully balanced lines, childhood, retrospect, old south Florida—dominate Justice’s last poems as they did his first.” Burt states, “The absence of any transcendental dimension—the poet’s decision to refuse even hints of religious (or politico-historical) purpose—made nostalgia, bittersweet longing, and recognition of loss almost the only consolations his poems could seek.”

The Book Club had already read “For the Suicides of 1962” and “To the Hawks” in our January meeting—two poems that, I think, do in fact more than hint at “politico-historical” purposes and social issues, to powerful effect. But a question arose in our discussion of this critical response: when is a dominant tone or obsession effective in our own writing—and when do we undercut our ability to reach readers when we focus to a large degree on one kind of emotion?

One thing that critics agree on uniformly is Justice’s mastery of craft. For now I’ll focus on larger issues of structure rather than meter. Justice is especially skillful in using forms that suggest the obsessive quality of memory through repetition—forms like the pantoum, the villanelle, the sestina. Justice can follow such a form closely, but he is also masterful in varying expected patterns of a form. As Phoebe Pettingel puts it, Justice “dazzles us with his dexterity in complex metrical forms … [while] teasing our expectations with half-rhymes and parodies of the baroque, classical and romantic traditions.” One poem that “teases our expectations” is “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts,” a poem that sets up a pattern of repetition and almost immediately and continually varies it. Like a sestina, the poem is built of six stanzas, most of them containing six lines (though two in “Nostalgia” have a seventh line). The poem often uses repetition of end words, sestina-like, though not in a sestina pattern:

Cities burn behind us; the lake glitters.
A tall loudspeaker is announcing prizes;
Another, by the lake, the times of cruises.
Childhood once vast with terrors and surprises,
Is fading to a landscape deep with distance—
And always the sad piano in the distance,

Faintly in the distance, a ghostly tinkling
(O indecipherable blurred harmonies)
Or some far horn repeating over water
Its high lost note, cut loose from all harmonies.
At such times, wakeful, a child will dream the world,
And this is the world we run to from the world.

Or the two worlds come together and are one . . .

This poem reminds me of a quality I discussed in my post about Kay Ryan: how her “recombinant” rhymes suggest a form that feels familiar—even while resisting any traditional form. Justice’s stanzas in “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” are enough like those of a sestina to bring it to mind, but his order of repeated end words is nothing like that of a sestina—though his use of the same words across two stanzas is indeed reminiscent of the stepping-on-one-another’s-heels repetition of the end word in line 6 of one sestina stanza and line 1 of the next. In the stanzas quoted above, for example, “distance” bridges the two stanzas: “Is fading to a landscape deep with distance— / And always the sad piano in the distance, / / Faintly in the distance, a ghostly tinkling.”

Justice continues to vary his patterns in the third stanza, where he uses rhymes rather than repetition in lines 5 and 6: “And the shriek, perhaps, of Kane’s white cockatoo. / (Would this have been summer, 1942?)” In the first line of the fourth stanza, he uses assonance rather than repetition as the link between stanzas: the long oo sound of cockatoo and 1942 recurs in June in “By June the city always seems neurotic.” He also uses rhyme rather than end words later in this stanza, linking lines 4 and 6 rather than in 5 and 6, as he did earlier in the poem:

Why sad at all? Is their wish so unique—
To anthropomorphize the inanimate
With a love that masquerades as pure technique?

What connects these closing lines to the next stanza is neither repetition nor rhyme but a rephrasing of an idea: “O art and the child were innocent together!” Because we’ve come to expect the ending of one stanza to echo in the first line of the next, we’re more likely to interpret “art” as another way of saying “a love that masquerades as pure technique.” Justice uses a similar connection between the final two stanzas, with both the assonance of time/pine and the similar ideas of history/time acting as the bridge: “Only, like history, the stark bare northern pines. / / And after a time the lakefront disappears.”

This is, finally, a poem about the passing of time—and how art, “a love that masquerades as pure technique,” preserves what time otherwise steals: “the lakefront disappears / Into the stubborn verses of its exiles / Or a few gifted sketches.” Music also spurs the memory in this poem, in the “ghostly tinkling” of the “distant” piano in stanzas two and three, and the “far horn” playing its “lost note,” also in stanza two—and even in the wry hint of “the blues” in the fourth stanza, when the color of the lake is mentioned: “famed among painters for its blues, / Yet not entirely sad, upon reflection.” (The Book Club noted how often this kind of subtle punning in Justice’s work both lightens and creates tension with the sense of loss in the poems.)

The poet is just as gifted in the patterning of his free verse. One of my own favorite Justice poems is “On the Night of the Departure by Bus,” which is composed of two stanzas followed by a single-line stanza expressed as a question—and then another two stanzas followed by a second single-line question. (The poem was modeled on a poem of Rafael Alberti, as Walter Martin notes in his essay “Points of Departure.”) The first half of Justice’s poem focuses on a memory of youth and love and passion, and the repetition of words evoke both ardor and humor:

Tell me if you were not happy in those days.
You were not yet twenty-five,
And you had not yet abandoned the guitar.

I swore to you by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
You swore to me by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
The moon swore to us both by your nakedness that you had abandoned yourself completely.

Who would not go on living?

The repetition of “abandoned”—with its different meanings—is especially playful. What follows in the second half of the poem focuses on transformation via art, on departure, on imminent loss, as the future tense of the fourth stanza quickly shifts into the present perfect before the imagery that follows evokes a rapidly deteriorating scene:

The typewriter will be glad to have become the poem,
The guitar to have been your body,
I too have had the luck to envy the sole of your shoe in the dead of winter.

A passenger has lost his claim-check,
The brunette her barrette,
And I—I think that there are moths eating holes in my pockets,
That my place in line is evaporating,
That the moon is not the moon and the bus is not the bus.

What is the word for goodbye?

The passion is still here, in the extravagance of “I too have had the luck to envy the sole of your shoe in the dead of winter”—but confusion is swiftly entering the poem, possibly the confusion that comes with advancing age: “I—I think there are moths … in my pockets, / That my place in line is evaporating.” In the final line, the narrator is not even sure of the word necessary for this departure between lovers: “goodbye.”

We ended this Book Club discussion with another writing exercise and a challenge to take home with us: to write a poem of our own that uses some form of refrain or repetition—especially one that we could vary as well as repeat.


Burt, Stephen. “An Unillusioned Life.” Boston Review (February/March 2005).

Justice, Donald. “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts.” In Collected Poems. Knopf, 2006. P. 222.

——. “On the Night of Departure by Bus.” In Collected Poems. Knopf, 2006. P. 138.

Martin, Walter. “Arts of Departure.” In Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice. Ed. Dana Gioia and William Logan. University of Arkansas Press, 1997. P. 47.

McCorkel, James. “Donald Justice: The Artist Orpheus.” Kenyon Review 19, nos. 3–4 (Summer/Fall 1997): 180–188. ProQuest.

Pettingel, Phoebe. “Salt for the Spirit.” New Leader 87 (2004). ProQuest.

Young, C. Dale. “In Memoriam: Donald Justice.” New England Review 25, no. 3 (2004): 121.
Selected Works for Biographical Information:

“Donald Justice.” Poetry Foundation,

Hoy, Philip. “Donald Justice in Conversation.” Excerpted from Donald Justice in Conversation with Philip Hoy (Between the Lines, 2002).

Rosenheim, Andrew. “Donald Justice: Award-Winning Poet Revered by his Peers and Influential to a Wide Range of Younger Writers.” (London) Independent, August 18, 2004, p. 29. ProQuest.
© 2013 Martha Carlson-Bradley

Ellen Bryant Voigt on the Craft of Syntax

file00089154203When a poet doesn’t want to explore sentence structure in poetry, I opined at the last Book Club for Poets discussion, it’s as serious as saying that he or she isn’t interested in imagery or metaphor or alliteration. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax offers numerous examples of the ways in which syntax is a powerful poetic tool: it heightens the music and rhythm of a poem, affects the pacing and unfolding of ideas and images, creates and varies patterns of language, and reinforces or plays against the unit of the line. And this tool is as essential in free verse as it is in metrical verse. Voigt says toward the end of the book,

It’s true that during the twentieth century, coincident with a greater tolerance for dissonance in all the arts, more room was sought for asymmetry and variation in poetry, but this now seems less a revolution than an evolution of aesthetic intent. And after one hundred years of free verse invention and mastery, contemporary poets need not focus solely on lineation … Lineation affords quite evident and audible opportunities for making pattern, and we will and should go on exploring them all. But it’s useful to remember that other sorts of pattern are also there for us to use—rhythms inherent to the language we write in, the source of its muscle and sinew and music, its clarity and its resonance and its power. (144)

Those patterns-beneath-the-patterns are what we focused on in our discussion of The Art of Syntax. In Donald Justice’s “To the Hawks,” for instance, the sentence structure creates certain kinds of repetition and variation, in addition to the more obvious couplets and internal rhymes. Voigt notes, for instance, that the poem both begins and ends with sentences that are complete, end-stopped, within the couplet stanza (101–102; 108). Here are the opening stanzas:

Farewell is the bell
Beginning to ring.

The children singing
Do not year hear it.

And here are the concluding stanzas:

Her mouth is open
To sound the alarm.

The mouth of the world
Grows round with the sound.

In between this opening and ending, the sentences begin to overflow the unit of the couplet, so that the fourth and fifth sentences are much longer (104): the fifth sentence is over ten lines long; the fifth, eight lines. The syntax also becomes more complex, including “hypotaxis” (sentences that include both a main and dependent clauses) (104-105):

… The sun Is in fact shining
Upon the schoolyard,

On children swinging
Like tongues of a bell

Swung out on the long
Arc of a silence

That will not seem to
Have been a silence

Till it is broken
As it is breaking.

Justice’s poem also shows how syntax can unfold in a way that puts particular emphasis on an image. See how the delayed predicate in these lines emphasizes “farewell”:

The young schoolteacher,
Waving one arm in

Time to the music,
Is waving farewell.

What Voigt calls a “violent enjambment” (107) also slows our comprehension of what is happening here: “Waving one arm in” seems to be a description of movement—as in, I’m not waving my arm outward toward the world but inward, toward myself or toward the interior of a building. But the rest of the sentence “corrects” this initial reading: the teacher is waving “in / Time to the music.” After that momentary adjustment, our minds are hit with the final line and, with it, the reality of what’s happening in the poem: students and teacher in a schoolyard being interrupted mid-gesture, mid-song, as a nuclear bomb hits.

In our discussion, we also spent time reviewing statements Voigt makes about English in particular—that it is a language that relies on the stress of syllables to create meaning and that our syntax depends heavily on the order of words in a sentence (rather than word endings to indicate “subject,” “direct object” and so on). What all this means is that the tension between metrical patterns and speech rhythms is particularly marked in English. I have already discussed meter and syntax—quoting Voigt—in my post about Larkin’s “The Trees” and “Cut Grass,” so for now I’ll point out what Voigt notices about the “flexible grid” (54) that meter often has to be in English poetry, as illustrated in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29.” She notes how the Bard slowly unfolds the “fundament” of subject and predicate, delaying the completion of his first sentence—while varying the iambic pattern in virtually every line of the poem (54-61). Try reading the poem aloud and listen especially for the bunched stresses, as in men’s eyes, outcast state, deaf heaven.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising
Haply I think on thee—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Do you see it? The first main clause of the poem does not appear until line 10: “Haply I think on thee—” And at this point, the entire mood of the poem also shifts, from despair to joy. What also anticipates this shift—in terms of sound—is the truly iambic rhythm of “With what I most enjoy contented least,” which Voigt identifies as “the poem’s first exactly iambic pentameter line, one that is completely consistent with lexical, syntactical, and rhetorical stresses” (57-58). This line concludes the poem’s opening octave, and the following sestet also ends with a line in which the spoken rhythms of English match the abstract pattern of iambic pentameter: “That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” The emotional resolution of the poem is mirrored by the regularity of the iambic pentameter, which gives the poem what Voigt calls its “unmistakable and gratifying closure” (61). Far from being a “flaw” in English poetry, this tension between meter and syntax gives poets an opportunity to embody and resolve tension and drama.

For this session of the Book Club for Poets, we had time not only to look at one of Voigt’s own poems in terms of its syntax but also to do a writing exercise ourselves. I’m hoping to do more exercises in the future.

We were also so taken with Donald Justice’s poems in Voigt’s discussions that we decided to discuss Justice’s Collected Poems (Knopf, 2006) for our April 16, 2013, meeting. If you have favorite poems within the collection, let me know, and I’ll try to fit them into our discussion.


Voigt, Ellen Bryant. The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song. (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2009).

© 2013 Martha Carlson-Bradley

The Craft of Jane Hirshfield

The Book Club for Poets had decided, months ago, to discuss the work of whichever poet won the 2012 Donald Hall–Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry. That poet turned out to be Jane Hirshfield, and in many ways, this “chance” selection seemed uncannily appropriate for us. While expressing her own distinct voice, Hirshfield’s poetry also echoes many of the qualities we find in the work of poets we’ve already discussed, such as the spirituality of Li-Young Lee’s work and the gnomic quality we noted in both Kay Ryan’s and Emily Dickinson’s poems. The Book Club also benefited from the many interviews Hirshfield has given and the essays she has published. Two in particular—“Spiritual Poetry” and “Two Secrets: On Poetry’s Inward and Outward Looking”—amplified points we made in our summer discussion about how craft can help us express the inexpressible.

In my summer post about Li-Young Lee’s poems, I focused on two of the techniques identified by Mary Johnson as ways of expressing spiritual experiences—rhetoric and paradox. In “Spiritual Poetry,” Hirshfield identifies further techniques, such as expressions of “abundance” and the use of dialogue. We see dialogue in “The Promise,” for example, in which the narrator of the poem engages in a one-sided conversation with several actors in her world—flowers, a spider, a leaf, her own body, the earth itself. Each time she commands “Stay,” these actors immediately change or flee. Especially effective, I think, is the metaphor that compares the inconstancy of the speaker’s own body to the well-meaning but futile—and comic—attempts of a dog to obey its master:

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

The one exception to the pattern of failure are the human “loves” of the speaker, who come in at the conclusion of the poem:

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,

The rhetorical device of repetition—Stay, Stay, Stay—at the beginning of the first five stanzas heightens the effect of each disappointing response and gives an ambiguity to that promise of the lovers in the final stanza. It’s possible to read that Always as a promise doomed to failure. (Like the cut flowers, no human lover is immortal.) Or we can interpret that Always as the exception to the rule: love outlasts even the people who inspired it and shared it with us. Or we can see both endings as true, simultaneously.

Several other Hirshfield poems we discussed use dialogue, such as “Bruises,” which addresses the narrator’s aging body and possibly an aging lover, and “Shadow: An Assay,” which explores several possible roles and meanings of the narrator’s shadow.

Much of what Hirshfield has said in print focuses perhaps less on specific ways of using language and more on the attitude of the poet toward the world. “Permeability,” for example, might mean allowing an image to contain multiple meanings. (“The moon in Japanese poetry is always the moon; often it is also the image of Buddhist awakening,” she notes in “Spiritual Poetry.”) But permeability is also an openness to all aspects of experience. “If a life is walled so tightly that it lets in no pain, grief, anger, or longing,” Hirshfield says in “Spiritual Poetry,” “it will also be closed to the entrance of what is most wanted.“ A poem that illustrates this willingness to be open is “A Blessing for Wedding,” which also demonstrates the technique of “abundance.” In the poem, the narrator lists images taken from someone’s wedding day:

Today when persimmons ripen
Today when fox-kits come out of their den into snow
Today when the spotted egg releases its wren song
Today when the maple sets down its red leaves
Today when windows keep their promise to open
Today when fire keeps its promise to warm …

We noted, during our Book Club discussion, that the imagery is satisfying not only for its precision but also for its surprises (the egg releasing not a wren but its song) and for subtle echoes and variations: the red of the fox kits is echoed in the maple’s leaves and the fire, for example; the cold of the snow is balanced by the warmth of the fire, and the ripening of the persimmon is balanced by the dying of the leaves. The abundance and fullness of the images in the poem help create a sense of “the richness of all that passes—a passing we know ourselves part of” (Hirshfield, “Spiritual Poetry”). But the when the listing continues, the narrator does not censor out aspects of life that we might normally consider inappropriate for a wedding day:

Today when someone you love has died
or someone you never met has died
Today when someone you love has been born
or someone who will not meet has been born
Today when rain leaps to the waiting of roots in their dryness
Today when starlight bends to the roofs of the hungry and tired
Today when someone sits long inside his last sorrow
Today when someone steps into the heat of her first embrace.

It’s not that the images get increasingly ominous here: instead, the speaker alternates between death and birth, drought and rain, hunger and starlight, sorrow and embrace. What the narrator is wishing for the married couple is not just happiness but fullness of experience. Only by being open can the couple fully experience their marriage, which must include joy and grief, sensuality and mortality: “Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly / Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears …”

Similar to permeability are the modes of expression that Hirshfield identifies in “Two Secrets.” These modes concern specific language techniques but focus even more on the poet’s attitude toward—relationship to—the outer world. Here is how Hirshfield defines these “inward and outward” looking modes:

Outer images carry reflective and indirect meanings as well. Poems … generally take one of three possible stances. In the first stance [subjective mode], outer reference serves the poet’s interior thinking: the world beyond the self appears, but the relationship is that of monologue, with a human-centered consciousness dominating. In the second stance [reflective mode], the poet and the outer world stand face to face in mutual regard; out of that meeting, the poem’s statements arise. Here the relationship is that of dialogue, with the wider world treated as both equal and other. In the third stance [objective mode], the poet becomes an intermediary, a medium through whom the world of objects and nature beyond human consciousness may speak; in poetry’s transparent and active transcription, language itself becomes an organ of perception. (131. Boldface added throughout. Phrases in brackets are Hirshfield’s terms, which appear also on 131.)

These modes are beautifully illustrated in Hirshfield’s own “Love in August.” The first stanza is written in objective mode, or “pure observation,” which, she says, is rare—in terms of entire poems being written in this mode—outside “Buddhist and Taoist traditions” (141). And, in fact, this stanza does read like a haiku:

White moths
against the screen
in August darkness.

This is a scene that will no doubt seem familiar to us, though the short lines focus our attention intently on each individual component of the image: the “white moths” seen first in isolation, then in location (“against the screen”), and then in contrast to the “darkness” of an August night. It’s hard for our metaphor-loving minds not to read significance into the ending of summer and into moths themselves, but the language is focused on the visual image of something in the “outer” world.

The even shorter second stanza is written in subjective mode: “Some clamor / in envy.” The narrator is projecting the human emotion of envy onto nonhuman creatures. It’s an imaginative leap that works, I think, to convey the restlessness and persistence of moths in response to a light they cannot reach. In less-skillful hands such anthropomorphizing runs the “risk,” as Hirshfield puts it, of “sentimental fog” and “solipsism” (“Two Secrets,” 131). But in “Love in August,” the poet uses the subjective mode with restraint and for the purpose of expressing the outer world vividly rather than using the outer world to look only inward.

The final stanza demonstrates the reflective mode—in which the nonhuman and human appear in equal stature, revealing something about both inward and outward realities, and the relationship between them:

Some spread large
as two hands
of a thief

who wants to put
back in your cupboard
the long-taken silver.

Because human interpretation is included here, we understand the relevance of the images, of the moths, to the human narrator: the moths themselves are a gift, and seeing them this clearly creates a sense of something being restored to us. But the moths are themselves “only”—and wholly—moths: though compared to something human, they aren’t forced to personify the narrator’s emotion or to suggest a reality “more important” than they are. It’s that intersection of the human and nonhuman—on the thinness of a screen—that is the gift.

In previous postings about our Book Club discussions, I’ve talked about the power of pattern and repetition in poetry. “Love in August” illustrates the power of variation. The layering and shifting of modes create much of our experience as readers of this poem. Consider how much the poem would lose if it were rewritten, for example, only in subjective or objective mode. Or think how less intense the poem would be if it didn’t contain the objective mode in the first stanza.

I think also that it’s important for us as poets to periodically ask the “big picture” questions about our craft. What do our own poems reveal about how we see our relationship to the outer world? And can we try to see the world in more varied ways?


Hirshfield, Jane. “A Blessing for Wedding.” In Come, Thief, 59. New York: Knopf, 2012.

———. “Love in August.” In Come, Thief, 28. New York: Knopf, 2012.

———. “The Promise.” In Come, Thief, 22.New York: Knopf, 2012.

———. “Spiritual Poetry,  Poetry Foundation,; originally published June 28, 2006.

———. “Two Secrets: On Poetry’s Inward and Outward Looking.” In Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, 125-52. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

© 2012 Martha Carlson-Bradley

Saying the Unsayable—Li-Young Lee’s Poetry

When I’m asked to define poetry, I like to say that poetry is the use of language to express experiences beyond the ordinary scope of language. This way of thinking about poetry, it seems to me, includes the widest possible range of styles and schools of poetry. And this definition is especially relevant when we think about poets who focus on spiritual or mystical experiences, the way Li-Young Lee often does in his writing.

In the Valparaiso Review, Hila Ratzabi comments that Li-Young Lee “is not only one of our best contemporary poets of the sacred; he is an authentic mystic, in the classical sense of the mystic who uses language to access a realm beyond language.” When reading Lee’s books for our Book Club for Poets discussion, I remembered a wonderful class I took with Mary Johnson, author of An Unquenchable Thirst; her Writing Beyond the Senses class was offered during the New Hampshire Writers’ Project’s 2011 Writers’ Day conference. It occurred to me that many of the techniques Johnson discussed for “expressing transcendent experiences” are illustrated beautifully in Lee’s poems.

Among the techniques that Johnson mentioned in our class were paradox, metaphor, and “wisdom’s voice,” which (for our Book Club for Poets discussion) I called “rhetoric”—the skillful use of word choice and syntax for artistic effect, especially when the effects resemble those of the Bible and other spiritual texts. For today, I’ll be focusing on rhetoric and paradox.

Let’s look at rhetoric first. In “Persimmons,” a poem in Rose, Lee’s first book, the poet concludes the poem with elements of what Johnson calls “wisdom’s voice”:

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

The Oh recalls other poems and spiritual texts, like the Bible. (A quick online search in the King James Bible shows that “oh” is used ten times in the Book of Job alone, and in eleven of the Psalms, among many other passages.) And, as the Bible often does, this final stanza of the poem uses listing—or “litany,” as Johnson puts it—as a rhetorical device, in this case, a list of noun phrases: the strength, the tense / precision; scent of the hair, texture of persimmons, the weight. The last line also shows how effective variation within repetition can be. Hear what would be lost if Lee had too strictly followed the noun–prepositional phrase pattern in the last thee lines:

scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
the ripe weight in your palm.

This isn’t bad, but the inversion of the phrases in the last line, as Lee wrote it, keeps the pattern from sounding too predictable and also puts the emphasis on the physical sensation of the persimmon in the palm—ending the poem with the ripe weight. This is the phrase and the image that lingers in our minds.

Another poem that the Book Club discussed, “Become Becoming,” also uses repetition and variation very successfully. Many of the lines have similar beginnings:

Wait for evening.
Then you’ll be alone.

Wait for the playground to empty.
Then call out those companions from childhood:

The one who closed his eyes
and pretended to be invisible.
The one to whom you told every secret.
The one who made a world of any hiding place.

And don’t forget the one who listened in silence …

In teaching poetry workshops, I’ve often been surprised by how powerful simple anaphora can be. I’ve asked participants to write five or six short, related sentences—and to then experiment by writing “And” before each one. The pattern, with its echoes of Whitman and the Bible, almost always gives a text gravitas and makes it sound like a poem. The effect is so immediate that it almost seems like cheating. What Lee does here is more complicated than simple anaphora. He repeats syntactical structures (clauses in imperative mood starting with wait; clauses that begin with then; noun phrases starting with the one) but alternates between them. The last line quoted above—“And don’t forget the one who listened in silence”—combines two forms that appear above it: the imperative command in “And don’t forget” echoes the “wait” clauses while the line also includes another “the one who” phrase. Some readers have interpreted the imperative mode and use of lists as Lee’s use of the language of self-help books, and passages in poems like “Immigrant Blues” certainly borrow phrases typical of self-help texts. But the imperative is also the language of prayer: Give us this day our daily bread. / And forgive us our trespasses …

The final lines of “Become Becoming” create a startling metaphor that is also paradoxical:

Then you’ll remember your life
as a book of candles,
each page read by the light of its own burning.

The book is simultaneously read and destroyed—the way our lives are most fully fixed in our minds, that is, comprehended, when we also understand that they are fleeting. Another poem that concludes with paradox is “Falling: The Code”:

… and dream I know

the meaning of what I hear, each dull
thud of unseen apple-

body, the earth
falling to earth

once and forever, over
and over.

How can “the earth fall to earth”? How can something that occurs “once and forever” also occur “over and over”? And yet, if we see the apple as a product of the earth, this falling makes perfect sense. And if we imagine multiple apples falling, what happens “once” in a single apple’s existence occurs “over and over” as each individual apple joins its mates in falling. Earlier in the poem, the narrator has invited us to compare the apples to “bruised bodies,” who, like humans, can feel “the terror of diving through the air” and yet, in daylight, “all look alike.” It’s not much of a leap to imagine individual human lives “falling to earth / once and forever, over / and over.” It’s to Lee’s credit that he allows his readers have this recognition on our own. We get to interpret the imagery instead of having the poet do it for us.

When I read Lee’s poetry, it strikes me afresh that poetry in general—not just mystic poetry—uses language to create experiences beyond the scope of ordinary language. It is through the structures and patterns of language, not just imagery, not just ideas, that we create experiences for our readers.

Poems Cited

Li-Young Lee. “Become Becoming.”  Behind My Eyes (New York: Norton, 2008), 21–22.

———. “Falling: The Code.” Rose (Brockport, N.Y.: 1986), 28–29.

———. “Persimmons.” Rose (Brockport, N.Y.: 1986), 17–19.

© 2012 Martha Carlson-Bradley