Thursday, August 26, 2010



Driving in high desert, Joshua trees
like twisted candelabras,
I thought: my America.

This space. This dazzling

Everyone has to discover 
their own America,
and this one was mine:

not Victorian statuary
in mosquito-pond estates,

not white clapboard villages
mildewed in the nineteen-twenties,

but this
continental sweep.

A magnitude winged
with volcanoes.

Not corn fields, 

but lava fields.

Not the turnpike,
but the highway unspooling horizons.

Not monotonous muggy green,
but shameless magenta,
ochre, the red earth.

Even death is different here,
bleached bones joined to solar flare.

Operas of Pacific sunsets,
cities named in Spanish after saints –

At the rim of the world,
the cool ocean wind
combing palm-fronds 

like a river of hands;
danger signs, you leaning over
into endless light and legend –

sky on fire, a flamenco virgin 
taunting, You’ve come
this far, keep going.

   ~ Oriana


A chauvinist West Coast poem, yes, but for me to be able to say, This is my America, this is what I love – it’s huge. It has not been an easy adjustment. Observing other immigrants, I came to realize that it’s not a matter of achieving complete acceptance or getting stuck in complete rejection (actually I’ve never encountered complete acceptance, but I have amply witnessed the misery of complete rejection). For me the solution was “discovering my own America” – the people and places I liked, the aspects of culture I enjoyed, such as the informality of speech. My America is also what Adam Zagajewski calls "the other America" -- the islands of intellect and creativity in the ocean of the "TV culture." 

I know that the poem above protests too much about my rejection of that part of the continent which is not the West, but then exaggeration for the sake of emphasis is “standard practice” in literature. It is no exaggeration, however, to say that I fell in love with California at first sight. True, I was coming from Milwaukee, and the contrast was magnificent. Basically, California was another country, which made me realize that there are several countries within this continental country, and it was my incredible luck, thanks to my mother, to end up in this space and climate (including, to a large degree, the mental climate – the openness to eccentricity and subcultures, the cities’ rich spiritual and cultural smorgasbord).

Of course nothing is perfect, and this paradise also had its price and its problems. I never used to think of public transportation as a luxury until I was hit with having to have a car and drive and drive and drive. And get lost – this was almost a sure thing whenever I had to go somewhere unfamiliar, especially trying to find my way back after dark. It’s also uncanny how often I drive in my dreams, usually under adverse conditions.

And so I came to realize that America is neither hell, purgatory, or paradise. Those are obsolete medieval constructs. America is about driving.  The country originated in movement, migration. The speed has changed, but the movement continues.

photo: Angie Vorhies


It’s soul-time, god-time, the lilacs of sunset
already drowned as I make a wrong turn.
Poets have no sense of direction
even if they cross themselves

before driving off into the so-called
“real world” – the moon looking wasted,
the four dogs in the back of a rusty
pick-up truck in ecstasy, gulping the wind –

while I don’t know where I am,
who I am, why everywhere I go
I see an artificial waterfall
at the entrance to a shopping mall.

And thus we are both lost,
I and America, under the ruined moon,
abandoned as soon as it was “conquered.”
We read again the torn

out-of-date map; we begin to pray,
more religious the darker it gets,
under the illegible signposts of the stars –
though the afterlife, once you’re out of

the tunnel of unbirth, will probably be
another crowded parking lot.
I stop and I ask for directions, but mostly
I’m in the desert like Moses, forty years

trying to find the Promised Land.
By now I believe that country exists
only in the mind, the kingdom within.
It’s not darkness that blinds us,

it’s headlights. Don’t talk to me
about the moral compass –
I need to be told how to get
to I-15, the highway that leads

one way to Las Vegas, the garishly lit
wilderness of sin, where I was told, 

“It’s not the winners
who pay the electric bill.”

The other way leads home,
the blue end of the world:
white roar of the Pacific,
below the eroding cliffs.

~ Oriana


During my worst years, the beauty of California was one of my life lines. I never forgot that the Pacific was the largest ocean in the world. It was a first-rate ocean, so at least I had one huge first-rate sight in my second-hand life.

Now, having just had a near-drowning experience, I feel somewhat less trusting toward that magnificent but dangerous beast. Never mind the eroding cliffs; if you get caught in the white roar of a large wave, it’s hopeless to resist. But it is still a privilege to be near the Pacific. It’s exhilarating to be in the presence of so much energy.
I confess that I also find Las Vegas exhilarating (though I wouldn't want to live there). Again, it’s the energy. “Energy is the eternal delight.” Thanks to my close encounter, I understood this even more deeply. My friend and I, sore from the pounding of a freak wave but unhurt, not counting my minor scrapes and the scolding from the lifeguard, were strangely calm afterwards. You’d think we might be emotionally expressive when talking about it, but we moved and spoke slowly, quietly. There was simply no energy to maintain our typical animated state. So that was another lesson in how you can’t separate what we imagine is our stable and distinctive personality from its cellular substrate. 


About coming to America: I experienced similar emotions coming to the West Coast from the East Coast. I never felt at  home here until I discovered the poetry community.

I like Angie's photo.

You're right when you say "America is about driving" and "most poets have no sense of direction." I thought it was just me. I stay "misplaced" most of the time.

At least here in SD we have mountains, deserts, the ocean – all the best within driving distance. But I miss being able to step out the door to see the stars. You have to drive away from the city lights or the heavens are just not visible. 


It’s interesting that I instantly felt less “foreign” in California than in Milwaukee, even though the landscape, vegetation, and climate were all different here, new, amazing. The Hispanic element, e.g. names like Santa Monica, also made the place all the more attractive. I remember seeing my first bluejay in the botanical garden at UCLA. I stared at it with delight. My mother was beside me. Sharing my joy, she said, “They have birds like this here.”

Yes, we are terrifically spoiled by California. True, the urban sprawl creates light pollution and we see only the brightest stars. I heard that school children from New York, taken on a field trip to the countryside, screamed with terror at the sight of the night sky with its millions of stars. But that’s another post, another poem.


So much to say (blabber) about your page on America. I was born in California. And yes, love. Dream about it almost every night.

OK, will take the bait:  America is about driving . . . ambition.

And driving was particularly apt re your observation that "you can’t separate what we imagine is our stable and distinctive personality from its cellular substrate. " Both are vehicle.

A friend sent me this this morning: 

Touring on a motorcyle immerses you into the environment you are going thru – you smell and taste the air around you – you feel the subtle differences in temp and humidity – you are  not isolated from the environment you are going thru.

So perhaps we all need to ride motorcycles in our approach.  A little less "us" (personality, body), that gets in the way.

The part about the motorcycle and immersion in the environment reminds me of a friend's tale of how her father gave her a drive-through tour of the whole country, the main tourist spots, and his repeated boast was, "And you never once  had to get out of the car." 

Driving can be a metaphor for ambition, but sometimes driving is only driving, for the sake of driving. At first I was quite surprised by driving for the sake of driving -- "Let's go for a ride."  Not a ride to somewhere, but just a ride. Motion. This truly is the country of car culture, astonishingly shaped by the car: hence sprawling suburbs, jammed freeways, super-markets, giant stores like Walmart and Costco, giant parking lots, giant trucks, and more. 

And America is the country of getting lost. Labyrinthine tales of how someone got lost and how it took an incredible amount of time to arrive at the intended destination. Heroic tales of finding parking. My sense of victory if I manage to arrive somewhere new having had to make only one U-turn. Getting home after midnight because of a missed exit. The garage door failing to open. And on and on, the automotive life, even in my dreams. Oh please, not a motorcycle (dangerous), but the kind of city where you can walk . . .  and with lots of trees to keep the air cool and clean. With fountains  . . . and not just at the entrance to shopping malls.

Old cemetery, Amherst MA

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Mausoleum, Long Beach

Here you wander, in smooth
corridors of the dead,
the chiaroscuro of desire
wrapping you, crushable silk.
Even inside this armature,
it smells of the earth,
of moisture and roots.
The small-winged Eros is veiled.

You expected a lost world –
torches of black flame,
a black boat on a black river –
not these lamps hovering
as on a spider’s thread,
the gilded globe of the pendulum
like a captive planet.
Light comes in the color of stone:
amethyst, lapis lazuli.
Galleries of sheen
travel endlessly like mirrors.

You have no reflection.
You slide off, a horizon of absence.
The dead repeat themselves:
a name and two dates,
an echo that insists
that’s all that’s all.
The ceiling’s carved constellations
guard the mask of emperor and saint;
the nameless three hundred
who could leave the pass
only through the body
opening beyond return.

Are these your poppy fields
where you sway, a shadow
in a bouquet of shadows?
But there is no wind;
it’s the stone breath of stone.
Rust veins streak grayish marble.

It is not your myth you want.
Look how it hardens.
Only the unreal has such real edges.
Outside the spring rain
has blurred everything
into mud and flowers.
Follow me, my love.

But you do not move.
The serpent has made you
too wise. You stare at me,
silent, with your eyes
of stone, while I walk alone,
in love with the song.

   ~ Oriana


Let me quote James Hillman:

The hidden god (deus absconditus) who rules the underworld of death and shadows all living existence with the question of final consequences, comes also to mean the god of the hidden, the underworld meaning in things, their deeper obscurities. Underworld, secrecy, hiddenness, and death, whether in the chambers of plotters or the psychic interiority of scholars, reflect the invisible god Hades. 

             ~ James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology

And my short poem to illustrate journalism is this one (darker, in fact, since it's not "darkness" that defines the two categories).


He shows me how to perform
hara-kiri, but can’t remember
if one starts at the navel,
zigzagging upward,

or at the chest,
zigzagging downward –
“The point is to hit
all the vital organs.”

Then he remarks how melodious
were the names of concentration camps:
Gross-Rosen, Bergen-Belsen,
Theresienstadt, Birkenau.

I tell him the Allies were bombing within
five miles of Auschwitz,
the inmates heard, they prayed,
but there was nothing

of military interest, no
plan to destroy at least
the crematoria or the railroad line.
But he has exhausted

the subject; begins to make love.
I interrupt, say we must
wait a while. For me some 
things are real, I apologize.

~ Oriana

Both poems were inspired by the same man (transgendered to Eurydice in the first poem) -- a lover, long ago, who committed suicide. (By the way, it was the Sunnyside Mortuary in Long Beach that provided the visual details -- the name like a bad joke). So even in an imaginary (inner, mythical, archetypal) situation, a real mausoleum provided specific visual details, including the eeriness of Foucault's slow pendulum showing the rotation of the earth, the dead rotating with the living, with "rocks and stones," as Wordsworth said about his imaginary dead beloved.  

Nevertheless, it was the poem’s own compelling music, not imposed by me but unfolding on its own, that carried it more so than the faint thread of a narrative. To me, this type of poem, lyrical and mysterious, is an example of what I call “underworld” poetry. The setting need not be any particular sort of underworld, but there is a strong element of the imaginary and an air of mystery.

The second poem is essentially verbatim reporting: these are exactly the things that were said and done, and my part as a poet was to recognize that there was a dark poem in this vignette. Call it a "found poem." It’s very compressed, minimalist reporting, and this is where conscious craft enters. The neat little quatrains also add to the tension; from the start, I wanted even stanzas, the perfect form jarring against the content.

I am certainly not against journalism – those can be very fine poems. They are better choices for a reading because they are easier for the audience to grasp. I am tempted to say that the more "real world," the better the poem will succeed at a reading, especially if it's a narrow slice of the real world, a memorable little story. And yet poetry is supposed to be the language of feelings, of the mental world, and that world has to enter, musically, invisibly, or else the poem will have no magic. 

Most poems are hybrids: they interweave the inner and the outer world. Journalistic poems can have fascinating content, while a lot of “subjective” poetry is boring beyond belief because of inadequate grounding in reality. But purely “objective” poetry runs the danger of being pedestrian. It’s not nourishing to that part of us that longs for something beyond the realistic “broken-up prose,” as modern poetry is frequently described. It doesn’t connect with our mental world and fails to move us. It’s better to turn to good non-fiction: at least there will be ideas as well as things, and we will learn something.

Ideally, I think, poetry should be grounded in realistic details, but not confined to them. Perhaps the key word is “confined.” In writing in general, I love the freedom to go beyond the here and now, the world strictly of the living. There should be room for communion with the dead and with entirely imaginary (yet strangely real) beings, such as mythical and literary characters. As Milosz says in “Ars Poetica?”

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

For me, those “invisible guests” include Penelope and Persephone and other mythical figures, as well as Anna Karenina, the Grand Inquisitor, Faust, and a number of other literary characters. Of course dead and absent lovers are frequent visitors, as are poets I have met only on the page.

Underworld is the realm of the Psyche, Soul. Journalism is mainly about the outer world. In most poems, the inner and outer, the soul and the world, are intertwined: a mix of the outer and inner world, of reality and the imagination. Even a journalistic/realistic poem needs to be "well-imagined." But when a predominantly Underworld poem starts rolling out, with its own music carrying it, and I don’t know where it’s going, it’s a very special joy. It happens rarely, so it’s only moments when I feel like a “real poet.” By the way, this being a “real poet” is no ego trip: rather, I experience an overwhelmed, somewhat scary feeling of taking dictation. Not long after the visit to that mausoleum (a friend and I jokingly called ourselves “graveyard poets”), I remember hearing in my mind, “Here you wander, in smooth / corridors of the dead” – already with line breaks! – and knowing that I had to write it down.

One could see all this in terms of introversion and extraversion, subjective/objective, dream/daytime, inner world versus outer. An excess of either is unbalanced, but an occasional poem can be extremely introverted or extraverted, and still produce the kind of delight that only great poetry can. 


Being an Aries/Scorpio Rising who identifies more with my Scorpio self, I also see this Underworld/Journalism division as a Scorpio/Aries divide. Scorpio seeks mystery and the depths; Aries wants to “see the world.” Scorpio is fascinated by the trance-like state induced by an “underworld” inspiration; Aries finds nothing so fascinating as accurate details and active verbs.

The Scorpio-lyrical self wants a poem to have hypnotic music and be all enchantment, while the Aries self pulls toward “I don't want this story to be lost” (even if those who don’t see the need for the narrative element in poetry don’t think that a poem based on a great story is “real poetry.”)

Most poets I know I basically realistic “higher journalists” with lyrical moments. These are hard times for lyricism, it seems. There are few judges and editors who go mainly for the lyrical, or, as I’ve been told, my trouble is that editors are not into beauty. “This is too beautiful,” I’ve been told more than once, even if it happened to be a dark and surprising beauty. Not the beauty of roses, but of the purple thistle flower. You still have to use the word “petal,” however. Not allowed.

One poet who dares to write mainly in the underworld mode is Eric Pankey. This is one of my favorite poems of his:


They stand before me as the stirred air
Outside a swarm, a ghost of salt
In suspension, shadow wrapped in shadow.

My habit of flame gives them shape:
A mass that tosses and settles, tosses
Like drafts in the air, loose pages,

Scribbles amid the fog and ether,
Scribbles and scratches upon vellum.
No words can tempt them to step forward.

No barley or wine, blood or honey.
No opiate incense. No dram of sleep.
No words can tempt them to step forward

Again. They recognize my hands,
Folded in prayer, for what they are:
A rude shambles, the locus of slaughter.

~ Eric Pankey, Oracle Figures


It is amazing how the strictly imaginary leads to a powerful insight about the “real world”: our collective human hands, even when folded in prayer, are not to be trusted: they are the hands of killers. Pankey's best underworld poems teach us something about the world and the paradoxes of being human. In this poem, we learn -- unforgettably -- that our hands are the hands of a butcher. Yet  I sense that Pankey has had all kinds of rich experiences that he doesn't write about. I agree that we don't choose what we write about; still, we the readers are the poorer if the poet stays strictly on one side or the other. 

I also love the wonderfully imagined first stanza of “Mary Magdalene Preaches at Marseille” by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin:

Now at the end of her life she is all hair –
A cataract flowing and freezing – and a voice
Breaking loose from the loose red hair,
The secret shroud of her skin:
A voice glittering in the wilderness.
She preaches in the city, she wanders
Late in the evening through shaded squares.


This is neither realistic/journalistic Mary Magdalene nor real ancient Marseille. And yet our sense of delight gives this poem its own reality.

For contrast, here is a journalistic poem:

One September Afternoon
Home from town
the two of them sit
looking over what they have bought
spread out on the kitchen table
like gifts to themselves.
She holds a card of buttons
against the new dress material
and asks if they match.
The hay is dry enough to rake,
but he watches her
empty the grocery bag.
He reads the label
on a grape jelly glass
and tries on
the new straw hat again.

  ~ Leo Dangel (posted on Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry)


William Carlos Williams at least tortures us with the puzzle of “so much depends on” before he goes on to the red wheelbarrow. In Dangel’s poem we have a bit of mentality showing in the line “like gifts to themselves” – a line that lifts the poem a bit, but does not make it soar.

But look at what a bit of “underworld” can do for a basically journalistic poem. This is an example of “higher journalism” that moves me. It touches on death and communion with the dead (in this case, dead dogs), and uses the imagination to transform flowers into beloved animals.

Old Woman With Protea Flowers, Kahalui Airport
She wears the run-down slippers of a local   
and in her arms, five rare protea   
wrapped in newsprint, big as digger pine cones.   
Our hands can’t help it and she lets us touch.   
Her brother grows them for her, upcountry.   
She’s spending the day on Oahu   
with her flowers and her dogs. Protea   
for four dogs’ graves, two for her favorite.   
She’ll sit with him into the afternoon   
and watch the ocean from Koolau.   
An old woman’s paradise, she tells us,   
and pets the flowers’ soft, pink ears.

~ Kathleen Flennicken (posted on Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry)


Between the two extremes, my guess is that more readers prefer poems like “One September Afternoon” to Pankey’s underworld drama, or to the Irish poet’s imaginary Mary Magdalene (since more and more children grow up in secular households, some young readers may not even know who Mary Magdalene was).  As the wise saying goes, there is no arguing with tastes, or any need to. True, the trend is heavily toward journalism, but those who love the lyrical and mystical will discover that kind of writing on their own, and experience rapture again and again, in private, unseen by their creative writing instructors, many of whom would gladly delete all poems based on myth and dreams. Fortunately, most poems are hybrids, like “Old Woman with Protea Flowers” – so we don’t have to choose between the inner and the outer world.

An addendum:

Roland Barthes, in Writing Degree Zero, writes:

Prose is narrative, relational, human, ordered. Poetry is “inhuman,” connecting the poet not with the world, other people, or history, but to heaven, hell, holiness, childhood, madness, pure matter. With all the splendor and freshness of a dream language, poetry is terrible and inhuman, full of gaps and full of lights, without foresight or stability of intentions, and thereby opposed to the social function of language.

I think this is too extreme. Poetry, like prose, can be relational and deeply ordered. However, Barthes does hit on something when he says that poetry connects  us with “heaven, hell, holiness, childhood, madness” (I am not sure what he means by “pure matter” – the inhuman nature of the universe?).  

It has been often noted that we live in the Age of Journalism. The mass media, now including the Internet, present practically all events as if they were of the same importance; all become equally evanescent. The Underworld element relates to what is timeless. There is mystery at the heart of poetry – note that poetry has never even been successfully defined. Likewise, the best writing comes from the unconscious -- hence its original, unpredictable nature. Maybe the word "Underworld" is not exactly right; I simply haven't been able to find a better label. I invite the reader to help me.

Brenda Hammock:

My favorite lines from the Eurydice selection:

Only the unreal has such real edges.

Outside the spring rain
has blurred everything 
into mud and flowers.
Follow me, my love.

But you do not move. 
The serpent has made you 
too wise. You stare at me,

silent, with your eyes

of stone, while I walk alone,

in love with the song.

My favorite lines from the Reality poem:

all of it!!!

Although you suggest that Eurydice is inspired by a male suicide, your narrators often betray a chthonian attraction of their own. That conflict reminds me of Rilke's Eurydice.  She doesn't really want to return to the world of light. She no longer feels at home there.  The fascination with hara-kiri (and other methods of undoing) seems to contradict that beauty you've been accused of indulging.  Yes, I can see the allure in "the chiaroscuro of desire /wrapping you, crushable silk," in"torches of black flame," in "lapis lazuli. /Galleries of sheen."  I've been thinking about the lull of beauty as I read Joanna Klink's They Are Sleeping.  Here's a passage from her "Monde, Demimonde" (University of Georgia Press):

Le Pendu is delighted, prepared.
Under the attraction of earth
he rises into the cool interior.
Le Pendu a portion of everything they know
about the sea and its marble sheets.
Chronic Pendu charting the wayward
skipping air, Pendu with his papier-maché lungs,
Omen-Pendu, shuddering sleepyhead in
clear light, force thrown off his neck, his heels
springing back from the smooth fresco sky.
Pendu cool under the makeshift gallows,
Pendu in the storm and static rainlight,
white legs flashing, Pendu
spinning in his pivot, precious Pendu
weeping into air, turning work into play, work into sea.

What keeps the poem from turning into mere fresco?  Well, the knowledge that the man is hanging.  I think your poems often pull a similar trick.  Yes, the language is lovely and the reader could miss the subject matter if s/he listens as some do to music, appreciating only sounds without concentrating on the jaggedness belied by glinting words.  One may be hypnotized by light flashing off a waved knife--and that, surely, makes the blade all the more dangerous.



Thank you, Brenda, for this exquisite comment. You are right, the language of a poem may be beautiful, but on a closer look something terrible is happening. In the first poem Eurydice refuses to follow because she knows that Orpheus is “married to art”; he loves his music more than his bride. The second poem is more explicit about the lover/hara-kiri demonstrator’s fascination with death as though it were merely an esthetic phenomenon.

Once I had a dream that uncannily corresponded to the “Le Pendu” passage that you quote. I dreamed it after learning that my favorite cousin died of cancer. It was as though my mind tried to defend itself from grieving by presenting a Tarot image that dissolves in waves of symbolism, a cosmic play that has nothing to do with loss. I think that’s why we can bear to read so much poetry that deals with death: in an accomplished poem, there is enough beauty to make dying an esthetic experience. 

In our Salon, we just studied Linda Pastan, whose poem about her mother’s dying, “The Descent,” is an extended metaphor of going down on an escalator. We get so caught up in the imagery, there is no room for any fear of death, that kind angel. And in my “Lilacs from Persephone,” I say,

In this unending granary of minutes,
what is death unless
a new tenderness? Smoky lilacs
I give you in memory
of rain-beaded blossoms --

lilacs in your arms,
the moist hearts of leaves. 

We badly need to believe in the inherent goodness of things. Poetry can be more potent that way than religion. We can dismiss religion as archaic nonsense, but the beauty of poetry works on our “emotional brain” in a more subtle way. 


I'm pleased to have the time to read your blog tonight. Wow! These lines are more graphic than any horror file and so chilling.  I will never forget them.

"He shows me how to perform
hara-kiri, but can't remember
if one starts at the navel,
zigzagging upward,

or at the chest,
zigzagging downward -
"The point is to hit
all the vital organs."


The photo is wonderful and mysterious. It almost looks as if the face is starting to put a deformed hand on one cheek.


At that point I was so used to that young man's speaking of suicide as a craft (an "artistic suicide" was his goal), that this didn't particularly chill me (let me explain a bit more: I was ridiculously sure that he wouldn't do it as long as his mother was alive; he told me as much, and I took it on face value). What undid me was the little interlude on the beautiful names of concentration camps (which my grandparents survived, but three other relatives weren't so lucky).  


I understand what you're saying and agree that there are two sides to you as a writer, but isn't that true of many? I am also an Aries and some of my poetry sounds like it's written by different people. I like the stories but love the lyrical and think, Just be who we are and write what comes.

Sure, I write what comes, and more often it’s journalism, with lyrical lines here and there, lines where music and imagery are primary, and can’t be fully explained, because they “know” more than the poet knows. Without the lyrical lines, there wouldn’t be enough pleasure to make me stay with poetry. I know how to write competent informational prose, and in the past I got paid for precisely that. Nevertheless, eventually I got to miss poetry, and it certainly wasn’t a matter of content (for satisfying content, I still go to good non-fiction). It was a nostalgia for the music and the beauty; it was a longing for longing. I sense in myself a kinship with the underworld that I can’t rationally explain (or maybe I just don’t want to analyze it, given the pleasure of mystery).

The same writer can produce works that tend toward either pole. Brodsky, for instance, wrote some of the best “higher journalism” I ever read in his essays on St. Petersburgas well Watermark, his wonderful and more "underworld" essays on Venice, a city that he claims is perfect for divorces: everything seems to be dissolving).


Yes, much contemporary poetry is just too prose-like for me . . . no magic, no juice.  Now I see the juice is indeed in the Scorpio. Thanks for the thought.


By “juice” I suppose you mean that which makes poetry live, even millennia later. Here, again, we have Gregory Orr’s “limitless factors,” chiefly music and imagery, but also that which I have called the underworld: feelings, mystery, communion with the dead, communion with the past – with anything that exists only in the mind. The moment you say, “I remember,” you the underworld. Why is the underworld so fascinating? Aren’t we urged to stay in the Now?

However, all theorizing about poetry can be only a partial truth. Poetry evades theory (Goethe: “gray is all theory; gold shines the Tree of Life”). A poem either has magic, or it doesn’t. I hope the poems on this blog have magic. 

Bill Mohr:

The last two stanzas of "ORPHEUS: EURYDICE’S REFUSAL Mausoleum, Long Beach" are astonishing. If others don't hear how staggeringly vivid these lines are, then one can only feel sorry for their limitations.


Thank you.  A few people advised me to drop the last stanza, but of course it’s the climax of the poem – Eurydice refuses to follow Orpheus, now that she understands the fact that’s usually rendered as “an artist is married to his art.”

In one of his late poems, Milosz speaks of the “hell of artists” – those who put their art ahead of their human affections. In another poem, he mentions a certain Polish woman poet who was a very good person, dedicated to others – that’s why, Milosz says, she wasn’t a good poet. I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious choice; those fated (I’m tempted to say “doomed”) to be artists are compulsive. 


Isn't narrative about the same as journalism and how prose poems evolved? Not sure I understand the difference except in poetry there's the lyricism.

My favorite lines:

""you have no reflection"

"it's the stone breath of stone"

"hands folded in prayer"

and still not to be trusted ( in my experience that is when they are most not to be trusted, hiding behind religion to excuse all kinds of behavior)

As for Kooser I'm disappointed in his choices as too sentimental and beyond ordinary to the point of dull. They may be true slices of life but I long for the "puzzle" of WCW.

I call myself the poet of the ordinary but hope for more meaning and puzzles than Ted offers, at least lately. His own poetry is so astonishing but his choice of others is not.

I don't understand why you're using the term "underworld." "Inner world" is closer but not quite what term you're seeking.

As you can see I have more questions than answers.


Journalism includes description as well. What I mean by the term is emphasis on the external world. But those “external” details can certainly be used to illuminate feelings. For instance, the rural couple going over the things they bought in town is definitely happy. I like those details, but wish for “something more,” a touch of mystery, a going beyond the visible. 

But I don't mean the term "journalism" to be pejorative. Good journalistic poems have depth. In my experience, they also tend to be very compressed, minimalist, bracing. Underworld poems go more for atmosphere and lyricism. It's not unusual for me to go a bit into a trance while reading a good underworld poem, and certainly while writing one. I am "under the spell." 

I know I was going for a seductive title rather than a logically tight distinction. That, too, is what I'd call "underworld." I was also struck by the frequent communion with the dead in those poems.

I know my theorizing is loose at best. When it comes to poetry, we are always left with questions rather than answers.

Robert Champ:

I enjoyed the blog. Agree about Kooser's selection of poetry. Every now and then a really nice poem, but often prosaic to the point of yawning. And yet all the people who appear in his "columns" have published books.

I prefer poets who are both underground and journalistic. On the one hand, I don't want the poem shambling too long down a dusty road; on the other, I don't want it drifting out of reach.


Yes, the interweave (or call it balance) of underworld and journalism usually yields the best  kind of writing. I love your metaphor of "the poem shambling too long down a dusty road."