The Bigness of Small Poems – # 48 in a Series – Jack Gilbert and Patrick Lane

American poet Jack Gilbert. Photo Credit: The Poetry Foundation


Not wanting to lose it all for poetry.
Wanting to live the living. All this year
looking on the graveyard below my apartment.
Holding myself tenderly in this marred body.
Wondering if the quiet I feel is that happiness
wise people speak of, or the modulation
that is the acquiescence to death beginning.

Jack Gilbert (1925-2012) from Monolithos – Poems, 1962 and 1982, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982

Yellow Warbler.Photo Credit: All About Birds


I hold in my hands her yellow wings.
They are what bamboo leaves offer to the rake.
The tiny knuckles of her claws grip nothing.
They are the hands of my mother on her deathbed.
I place her beside the stupa of the fallen daisy,
cover her with a robe of white petals.
There are restraints and they are without fault.
The spirit leaves us slowly, forever.
It is the waiting I try to understand, the quietness of that.

Patrick Lane (1939-2019), Washita: New Poems, Harbour Publishing, 2016

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Bad or Failed Poems vs Bad Person – In the Age of Social Media Another Look at Tony Hoagland (1954-2018)

American poet Tony Hoagland (1954-2018) Photo Credit: Lithub

The Hero’s Journey

I remember the first time I looked at the spotless marble floor of a giant hotel lobby
and understood that someone had waxed and polished it all night

and that someone else had pushed his cart of cleaning supplies
down the long air-conditioned corridors of the Steinberg Building across the street

and emptied all two hundred and forty-three wastebaskets
    stopping now and then to scrape up chewing gum with a
         special flat-bladed tool
                         he keeps in his back pocket.

It tempered my enthusiasm for “The Collected Letters of Henry James, Volume II”
and for Joseph Campbell’s “Journey of the Hero”

Chapter 5, “The Test,” in which he describes how the
“tall and fair-complexioned” knight, Gawain,
                            makes camp one night beside a cemetery

but cannot sleep for all the voices rising up from down below—

Let him stay out there a hundred nights, 
                            with his thin blanket and his cold armor and his
                                   useless sword,

until he understands exactly how
the glory of the protagonist is always paid for
                         by a lot of minor characters.

In the morning he will wake and gallop back to safety;
he will hear his name embroidered into
                            toasts and songs.

But now he knows
        there is a country he had not accounted for,
                     and that country has its citizens:

the one-armed baker sweeping out his shop at 4 a.m.;

the prisoner sweating in his narrow cell;

and that woman in the nursing home,
                       who has worked there for a thousand years,

taking away the bedpans,
lifting up and wiping off the soft heroic buttocks of Odysseus.

Tony Hoagland from Application for Release from the Dream, Graywolf Press, 2015 (Please note this version differs from the original first published in the New Yorker in 2012)

Such a vintage Tony Hoagland poem! Funny, sad, heart-breaking. And it questions all our (my) assumptions of who is a male hero and who isn’t! Here, Hoagland, as he is so often, is poet as shit disturber and trouble maker.  Poet as seismic disturbance! Poet as changer of the lens I use to look at my accustomed world.

But there’s a risk! A shit disturber can get shit blown back all over him. A poet who sends shock waves against cultural complacency and blindness can get shaken up badly in the aftershocks. Hoagland was a shit disturber and did get blow back. Are you prepared to face that? Am I? Especially in this time of mob on-line shaming? Are you, am I, prepared in good faith to write a so-called bad poem that suddenly transforms you on-line into a “bad or shitty” person?

American poet Marie Howe said this about Hoagland a few weeks after his death last October:

Tony Hoagland tore into subjects that are not comfortable. Many think he blundered. He was not an apologist, not ever. Many believe the speaker in his later poems was Tony Hoagland himself: of course it is; of course it isn’t. He wanted to see into the shadow and to expose it. He did that, and in doing that he did what few of us are willing to risk or endure.

Marie Howe from Marie Howe Remembers Tony Hoagland, LitHub, November 9th, 2018
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A Unicyclist of Poems – Patrick Lane – A Poem by Paulette Jiles and also an Invite to Lane’s Upcoming Celebration of Life, April 20th, 2019

Canadian Poet Patrick Lane (1939-2019)

Join the local literary & UVic communities as poets & authors celebrate the life of the late Patrick Lane.

This evening of poetry and tribute to the acclaimed poet and late UVic Department of Writing professor Patrick Lane will feature readings and memorials by a number of Writing alumni, including emcee Steven Price, Esi Edugyan, Carla Funk, Philip Kevin Paul, plus retired faculty members Lynne Van Luven and Lorna Crozier, among others. The evening will also see the posthumous presentation of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.


From Because You Loved Being A Stranger –  55 Poets Celebrate Patrick Lane

So this is it, Lane. Not a living wake, but a celebration of all your living. And this is only the beginning. Wait until you’re dead.

Susan Musgrave, editor, from You Loved Being a Stranger – 55 Poets Celebrate Patrick Lane, Harbour Publishing, 1994

What a shock to read these lines written by celebrated Canadian author Susan Musgrave in the introduction to a book of poems celebrating Patrick Lane’s fifty-fifth birthday twenty five years ago. Sadly, the wait is over. And the grief and celebration has begun.

And on April 20th we will experience another proof of this at Patrick’s memorial celebration (invitation above) at UVic’s David Lamb Theater at 7 PM. Already the outpouring of grief over Patrick’s death on March 7th and the concomitant celebration of his contribution to the Canadian literary landscape has been huge. I am sure at the memorial gathering in just more than a week that sense of grief but also celebration of his life will be equally powerful.

The contributors to the poetry collection celebrating Lane’ fifty-fifth still today represents a who’s who of Canadian poetry. It includes poems from the likes of Margaret Atwood, Newlove, P.K. Page, George Bowering, Marilyn Bowering, Susan Musgrave, Elizabeth Brewster, Lorna Crozier (Patrick’s beloved wife) and so many more.

But it’s not a poem by any of these luminaries I want to feature but one by the American Canadian author Paulette Jilles who for many years now has made her home in Texas where she has written some remarkable novels featuring that Texas landscape and history. Her latest novel News of the World was short-listed for the American National Book Award a few years ago. I loved that book! And her 2002 novel Enemy Women, also set in Texas, won the Canadian Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

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On the Tokaido with Terry Ann Carter – Three Haibun

Hiroshige’s Station 22 – Fujieda on the Tokaido

Living Close to the Pacific; Or, Music as a Low Grey Rain

Eyes  find   nothing   to see   but  sea  and  clouds  and a
colour  without  colour.  Bashô  spoke of  this  one  colour
world  while  birds  scissor  the  water  soundlessly. Garry
oaks  in my  neighouring  forest  and   arbutus, bark  split
like a wasteland. Only the  sickle  moon,  nestled  in black
branches. Buddhists believe  in  several selves. Reinvention
I think they call it. How many waves carry the taste of salt
into sunlit spaces?

Shiki once wrote: remember that large things are large.
Small things are large, too, when seen up close.

             his doctor
             the sky is not falling

Terry Ann Carter from Tokaido, Red Moon Press, 2017

Be very careful before you read Terry Ann Carter’s wonder of a poetry book – Tokaido and its collection of fifty-five poems, all but two in the Japanese haibun form. This is no mere imitative travelogue along the  Tokaido, the age-old Japanese passage between Kyoto and Tokyo. This passage so immortalized by the 19th century woodblock master Ichiryusai Hiroshige in his series of meticulous prints titled : 53 stations of the Tokaido.

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A Very Poetry Poem for National Poetry Month – Richard Osler

A reminder of the subject of Robert Frost’s poem Birches (see below).

Two Poets Divorce
I want Cohen! No, I want him. You take Dickinson. No! I want Wilkinson.
             OK, OK, take them. I don't care. Just leave me
Gilbert, Ginsberg, Hass, Hirschfield, Hoagland. and Hughes. 

             Grass is greener when Whitman sings it. Take that! And Plath.
But I want Wah, Wallace ,Williams – C.K.,W.C., and Hugo. And the Wrights,- 
             all of them: C.D., Charles, Franz, James, Jay and Sandra. 

No, no, nothing's wrong. Above all, loud and clear, please leave me Laux
             and her Kissing and Kissing Again. Yes, Laux as in Lox
not low. And give me Lane, Lux, Dunn, Dubie and McHugh.
             Do you remember the first poet we read together? Don’t ask me. 
I don’t. But if you do, keep the book but please, leave it for the kids. 
             They like the poets, too. cummings, of course, and Olds.

But especially, they love Frost. His Birches. How they bend don't break.
             How he wants to get away from earth awhile 
 but later how he’s not so sure, wants to come back and begin over.

 No, not for anything will I begin over with you. But yes, Frost is right,
            he's right about this: Earth's the right place for love. 
And, do you remember our first sweet kiss? I have no poem for that.

Richard Osler from Hyaena Season, Quattro Books, 2016

Wasn’t planning on featuring one of my poems this national Poetry Month but after I found Tony Hoagland’s poem (featured in my April 3rd post) that included a series of poet’s names I though my poem would be a good fit to come after his!

I enjoyed being the narrator of this poem! And while it is true I was going through a divorce at the time of writing this poem the rest is  fiction except for one of the poets my two youngest daughters love: Frost and his Birches.

Not only was this poem cathartic to write I had so much fun playing with the associative music of the poets’ names. That’s what drove the poem forward. But then the poem surprised me, led me to mention Frost and then I remembered Birches which I then found and read. And the lines from that poem took me to my ending. The emotion in it surprised me.This way our poems have their way with us!

A Great Send Up of National Poetry Month – Tony Hoagland, in April 2013

American poet and professor Tony Hoagland (1953-2018). Teaching at the University of Houston. Photo Credit: Michael Paulson, Houston Chronicle

People Magazine Sponsors National Poetry Month

On this page Angelina Jolie is wearing
a skimpy barbarian leotard, laughing
and throwing a copy of Sonnets From the Portuguese
across the room

at the head of Brad Pitt,
who is deeply immersed
in his sixteenth reading of Do Not
Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

He is sweaty, shirtless, and tanned,
in boots and calfskin leather pants, and he is
looking aside to check his phone
where he is this very minute getting messages

from Sean Penn and Meryl Streep
about the February meeting
of the e.e. cummings club.

These celebrities
                 have come together
for the sake of poetry—not just this poem
but great poetry,
                 a lot of it,

and their erudite shenanigans
are by no means complete,
because now they are getting on board a private jet
to join their friend Nelson Mandela,

who is wearing a Free Gertrude Stein t-shirt.
High over the Atlantic, they are reading poems out loud
by Delmore Schwartz and Marianne Moore,

they are doing villanelles like designer drugs
they are really digging the verse
of Jean Valentine and Dean Young—

its hipness, its sensuality, its Zen gestalt.
Your strange unslakeable thirst
to enter their boudoir
has led you surprisingly here,

where Emma Thompson and Jaz-Z
are about to give a stereophonic performance
of Flow Chart by John Ashbery.

But now they are starting to sway and weep,
as if they had found an old wound
which had held them in thrall
until it was touched and unlocked by feeling;

until they saw the poem
looking up into their face with recognition.
Such is the power of poetry,
which you should remember more often—

perhaps by going shopping later today
for some of the products
brought to you by our sponsors,

Truth, Justice and Beauty.

Tony Hoagland from Smartish Pace, Issue 20, April 2013

What a benefit of cleaning up a library! As I was culling masses of old literary journals from my stacks today I leafed through the April 2013 issue of  the literary journal, Smartish Pace, a dangerous move during a book cull, and to my delight found this poem by Tony Hoagland, which I cannot find in any of his poetry collections. Did he forget it? Did he deem it unworthy? We will never know.  But I was thrilled by the serendipity of finding this poem at the start of National Poetry Month!
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The Unexpected in the Overknown – Ada Limón’s Spring poem from “The Carrying”

American poet Ada Limón, winner of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle award for Poetry for her collection The Carrying. Photo Credit: National Book Critics Circle.

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

About this poem:
It was a hard winter. My whole body raged against it. But right as the world feels uninhabitable, something miraculous happens: the trees come back. I wanted to praise that ordinary thing as a way of bringing myself back too.”

— Ada Limón from Poem-a-Day, the Academy of American Poets, May 15, 2017

This must be, for me, Ada Limón’s month – April! I featured her and the poem above included in her collection The Carrying during National Poetry Month last April. But now March is her month as well since it was the month when she won the U.S.-based 2019 National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for The Carrying. A huge accomplishment for any American writer. To read my post from last April please click here.

This poem has even greater currency for me this year in light of the death of friends and also so many great poets who have gone in the past year including Lane, Rosenblatt, Merwin, Hoagland, Oliver and Gregg. The grace of the resilience caught in the poem and in its title especially! And the phrase: I’ll take it all. The courage of that declaration.  In spite of it all, I keep on keeping on! Now here is an excerpt from last April’s post:
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Reprise for National Poetry Month – The Ah! Ah! Genius of Jack Gilbert – Two Huge Small Poems – # 47 in a Series

American Poet Jack Gilbert (1925-2012)

The Cucumbers of Praxilla of Sicyon

What is the best we leave behind?
Certainly love and form and ourselves.
Surely those. But it is the mornings
that are hard to relinquish, and music
and cucumbers. Rain on trees, empty
piazzas in small towns flooded with sun.
What we are busy with doesn’t make us
groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights
and the cucumbers.

Jack Gilbert from Monolithos, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982

Just home from the delightful madness that is the annual AWP gathering of writers, this year in Portland. They say up to 12,000 participants! Yikes.The highlight for me: the astonishing reading given by Ilya Kaminsky from his latest poetry collection: Deaf Republic. One of those once-in-a-lifetime moments.

As this is April 1st I want to acknowledge this, the first day of National Poetry Month. And I thought this small poem of Jack Gilbert’s which I featured in a post back in 2017 would be a great way to start. Here is a short excerpt from that piece:

“His name was unknown to me when poet Heather McHugh included his name in a reading list of poets she gave me fifteen years ago. That list changed how I saw my own poetry; was what began my commitment to poetry.

American poet Jack Gilbert, oh my. His work both clear and mysterious. Layered. Confident. Full of wisdom statements that only the best of poets can pull off. Statements like this one in celebration of the 5th Century Greek Lyric poet Praxilla and her three line fragment that celebrated among other things, cucumbers:

What we are busy with doesn’t make us
groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights
and the cucumbers.”

Here are Praxilla’s lines translated by Richard Lattimore:

Loveliest of what I have left behind is the sunlight,
And loveliest after that is the shining stars and the moon’s face,
But also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears and apples.

Gilbert’s poem is a great example of pojacking (using another poet’s poem to create your own). But how he expands Praxilla’s terse fragment. Enriches it. Turns it into a much more dramatic ah!ah! moment!

This poem of his in stark contrast to another small gem, Games, in the same collection, Monolithos, published in 1982. I was alerted to this poem, one I had overlooked, by a poet whom I met at AWP. Here it is:


Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.

Jack Gilbert, ibid

The terrifying irony of this poem. How possible the impossible: to live alone and  afraid all of one’s life. A horror. And yet as much as Gilbert was not afraid to list life’s darknesses neither was he shy to celebrate its joys: mornings, light and cucumbers. And in spite of the suffering that is real and the pain and the loneliness in the world I live and love in I celebrate the sunlight that woke me this morning – water light on the canal running through La Conner, Washington.

Oh No, Another Great Poet Gone – Linda Gregg (1942- March 19th, 2019) – Her “Eyes Open, Uncovered to the Bone”

American poet Linda Gregg (1942-2019) Photo Credit: Palm Beach Poetry Festival

Each Thing Measured by the Same Sun

Nothing to tell. Nothing to desire.
A silence that is not unhappy.
Who will guess I am not
backing away? I am pleased
every morning because the stones
are cold, then warm in the sun.
Sometimes wet. One, two, three days
in a row. Easy to say yes and no.
Realizing this power delicately.
Remembering the cow dying on the ground,
smelling dirt, seeing a mountain
in the distance one foot away.
Making a world in the mind.
The spirit still connected to the body.
Eyes open, uncovered to the bone.

Linda Gregg from Sacraments of Desire, Graywolf Press, 1991

Thanks to my friend Barb Pelman I only learned of the death of the American poet Linda Gregg a few hours ago. She has been a poetic talisman for me for about ten years. I have written much on her over the years. (See previous blogs dated Dec. 4th, 2012 and Nov. 30th, 2012. Also April 17th, 2014 and January 16th, 2016). The poem above, one my favorite Gregg poems. Statements like gunfire’s staccato. And the defining statement of the last line: Eyes open, uncovered to the bone. Linda, that was your genius along with the hammer-head simplicity and impact of the way you wrote what you saw, eyes open, uncovered to the bone.

I discovered Linda through her connection to the celebrated American poet Jack Gilbert (1925-2012) her former husband for eight years early in her life and life-long friend. Their relationship was tempestuous, filled with Gilbert’s betrayals, but their lives were inextricably intertwined until Gilbert died. When I met Gregg at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival about five years ago she was still visibly shaken by Gilbert’s death about two or three years before.

Gregg’s spare but searing poems with her matter of fact diction coupled with graphic images, confront and astound me. And her detached tone which heightens the shock value of what she says ! Like these lines from her poem, Wife, below:

My husband sucks her tits.
He walks into the night, her Roma, his being alive.
Toward that outer love. I wait in the hotel
until four…..
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The Bigness of Small Poems – #46 in a Series – Crozier and Lane (and Tranströmer)

A broadsheet of two poems by Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane. Printed by Sally Green of the Brooding Heron Press, 2010

Two exquisite, yet for me enigmatic, poems by the Canadian poets Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, partners for more than forty years before Patrick’s death eleven days ago. This broadsheet hangs in my home office and I revisit it now again. And every time I feel happily lost in a lyric mysteriousness, much the way I do when I read Nobel Prize Laureate Tomas Tranströmer whose poem Tracks concludes this blog post.

I have to leave my head, my mind behind when I approach these poems. I have to ask my heart what it sees what it feels. And I get to love the haunting spareness of both of them! Their language and images. I have to surrender to the images first and only while immersed in them allow my mind a little wiggle room with the huge thoughts, huge abstractions. First, in Lorna’s poem: a dark that lives in us and hard-won grief and second, in Patrick’s poem: what language can’t say, can’t reach.
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