“The Book” and the Art of Poetic Provenance

The Beloved is Dead

The beloved is dead. Limbs
And all the body’s
Miraculous parts
Scattered across Egypt,
Stained with dark mud.

We must find them, gather
Them together, bring them
Into a single place
As an anthologist might collect
All the poems that matter
Into a single book, a book
Which is the body of the beloved,
Which is the world.

Gregory Orr from Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved, Copper Canyon Press, 2005

I refer to the American Poet Greg Orr a lot in my blogs and especially in my blog – O is for OrrClick here. (Orr has a new book coming out in June – The River Inside the River . I look forward to it!) For this blog I am concerned most with his concept of “The Book” which he has described in an interview as being the book that contains every poem or song ever written. In the poem above he refers specifically to poems that matter being collected into a single book but no time for quibbling!

What strikes me about Orr’s book is the idea that all poems and songs are connected. Each is part of a greater whole. We never write in isolation. And ultimately all poems come down to common themes that human beings have been singing and reciting for thousands of years.

When I Open the Book

When I open the Book
I hear the poets whisper and weep,
laugh and lament.

In a thousand languages
They say the same thing:
“We lived. The secret of life
Is love, which casts its wing
Over all suffering, which takes
in its arms the hurt child,
Which rises green from the fallen seed.”

Gregory Orr, ibid

Orr’s concept of the book is a large one. It makes a big claim. But it gathers special traction for me when I can trace the specific genealogy or provenance of a poem or poems! Where I see how poems grow out of each other yet be strikingly different!

Recently, I went on quite a trip tracing poetic genealogies! I owe this trip, which started quite accidently, to Erin Murphy and her poem Covetous which I discovered in an anthology she co-edited called Making Poems – Forty Poems with Commentaries by the Poets published in 2010 by State University of New York Press. Murphy is an American poet who has written five poetry collections and is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Penn State’s, Altoona College.

So, hold on as I take you on a poetic trip that spans more than seventy years! It starts with Murphy’s poem Covetous and its epigraph: After Eamon Grennan’s Start of March, Connemara. Before I could say thumbed and wind-scumbled!, phrases in Murphy’s poem, I was searching for Grennan’s poem and Grennan who I didn’t know. I found him, an Irish-born poet who has lived and taught in the U.S. for almost fifty years, but even better I was set on another chase!

Murphy had referenced the influence of Elizabeth Bishop on Grennan’s poem in her commentary of her poem Covetous in her book Making Poems. And as a clue for this there’s Grennan’s dedication line in his poem: In memory of Elizabeth Bishop. Thanks to Murphy I had a direct reference to Bishop’s influence on Grennan’s poem. So away I went to find Bishop’s poem – The End of March. Phew! Final destination I thought. But no!

It turns out, according to an article written by Shaune Bornholdt in the journal Per Contra (issue 23), that Bishop’s poem was directly influenced by Wallace Stevens’ poem The Sun This March and also shows direct influences from other Stevens poems! Enough already!

So please join me on the trip I took starting with Murphy.


After Eamon Grennan’s “Start of March, Connemara”
You ask how the gulls find the right angle in the gale,
how they adapt to the current and let it take them

the way they were going. I could ask the same of you:
how do you find thumbed and wind-scumbled,

thrusting them together like lost lovers,
letting them glance off each other, polished stones

on our tongues? Or glitterwings making their mark,
a dance linguists call the fricative,

a word I love because it is what it means,
unlike palindrome, which resists mirroring itself

and sends me, instead, to a girl I knew in college,
the one from Glenelg – g-l-e-n-e-l-g, the same

forward and back. She had hips that looked good
in boy jeans and a way of making the professor

believe she’d done the reading when she hadn’t
even bought the book. Do you see what just happened,

how I started in your lyrical world of shorelines
and wave-peaks and wound up recording

slumber party giggles through a thin wall? Your gulls:
maybe they don’t harness the wind after all.

Maybe they give in to each gust and forsake their plans,
having learned long ago to want what they have.

Erin Murphy from Making Poems – Forty Poems with Commentaries by the Poets, State University of New York Press, 2010

Her poem, as the epigraph suggests, is utterly connected to Grennan’s but then she takes her own astonishing turn, completely out of context with Grennan, or so it seems, when she talks about palindromes and a girl she knew at college! And then flys, so to speak, right back into Grennan’s poem! Also notice right from the get go she addresses Grennan. We are overhearing a poetic conversation inside The Book! And in a wonderfully sneaky move she also uses an image of stones in her poem that doesn’t come from Grennan but from Bishop!

Start of March, Connemara

(In memory of Elizabeth Bishop)

The wind colder even than March in Maine, though the same sea
is your greens of mutton-fat jade and bleached artichoke,
the water thumbed, wind-scumbled, its heroic white manes
blown to bits at the shoreline. Two white gulls, wing-tilted,
are surfing the sou’wester. How do they do it, finding the right
angle in the gale and –angels of the shiverblast– adapting to it,
letting it take them the way they’re going?
A lone cormorant
blackly flashes, heading west like a messenger. Breasting
the choppy wave-peaks, he’s all purpose and intensity, plunging
headlong into his own unknown future, reaching out to it
without a thought, while I go back the way I came
along wet sand that’s glistening with relief, my own prints
erased already, writ in water.
Rock and water have to be
our elements here, and today’s buffeting air – which these
rain-plovers pay no mind to, a little tribe rising as one, spinning
into the wind, whistling their shrill excitement in flight: glitterwings
making their mark against green gape-water, then gone.

Eamon Grennan (1941 – ) from Matter of Fact, Graywolf Press, 2008

Again in this poem, right away, the poets are in conversation but this time Grennan with Bishop. And he uses phrases from Bishop’s poem, just as Murphy did from his. Mutton-fat jade and artichoke. But oh my. His language. Its surprise and freshness! It’s what so attracted Murphy when she first read it in 2004. And it’s what has made me read more of Grennan’s poems and consider him a great find! He pays such attention to the world around him  with such verbal flair. And the former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins quoted in Wikipedia says this of him: Few poets are as generous as Eamon Grennan in the sheer volume of delight his poems convey, and fewer still are as attentive to the marvels of the earth.

Murphy is covetous of Grennan’s poem! Me too. How can I not be with phrases like Angels of the shiverblast. And I so appreciate how Murphy in Covetous comes back to Grennan’s image of the gulls surfing the wind: ..How do they do it, finding the right/ angle in the gale and angels of the shiverblast , adapting to it,/ letting it take them the way they’re going? How she takes that image and gives us this wonderful response: Maybe they give in to each gust and forsake their plans,/ having learned long ago to want what they have.

I so like the idea that sometimes the act of surrender to unexpected circumstances, circumstances which might seem so counter to what we want, actually may be our deepest wanting. It’s a challenging thought but also consoling during dark, difficult times. Murphy reminds me of the pyschological depths in all the poems. Within simple descriptions also metaphoric layers and richness.

These poems then stand on other giant shoulders! Those of Bishop (1911 -1979) and Stevens (1879-1955). Many consider Bishop one of the finest American poets of her generation. And I have heard a number of poets say how deceptive she is; that her seeming simplicity masks a quality of craftsmanship that’s so superb it’s almost invisible. And Stevens is considered along with William Carlos Williams as one of the great poetic innovators of his time whose influence on modern poetry is profound. I will let these two poems speak for themselves as they echo, sometimes loudly sometimes less so, with each other and with Grennan and Murphy’s poems.

Here’s Bishop’s poem.

The End of March

For John Malcolm Brinnan and Bill Read: Duxbury

It was cold and windy, scarcely the day
to take a walk on that long beach
Everything was withdrawn as far as possible,
indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken,
seabirds in ones or twos.
The rackety, icy, offshore wind
numbed our faces on one side;
disrupted the formation
of a lone flight of Canada geese;
and blew back the low, inaudible rollers
in upright, steely mist.

The sky was darker than the water
–it was the color of mutton-fat jade.
Along the wet sand, in rubber boots, we followed
a track of big dog-prints (so big
they were more like lion-prints). Then we came on
lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string,
looping up to the tide-line, down to the water,
over and over. Finally, they did end:
a thick white snarl, man-size, awash,
rising on every wave, a sodden ghost,
falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost…
A kite string?–But no kite.

I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream-house,
my crypto-dream-house, that crooked box
set up on pilings, shingled green,
a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener
(boiled with bicarbonate of soda?),
protected from spring tides by a palisade
of–are they railroad ties?
(Many things about this place are dubious.)
I’d like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.
At night, a grog a l’américaine.
I’d blaze it with a kitchen match
and lovely diaphanous blue flame
would waver, doubled in the window.
There must be a stove; there is a chimney,
askew, but braced with wires,
and electricity, possibly
–at least, at the back another wire
limply leashes the whole affair
to something off behind the dunes.
A light to read by–perfect! But–impossible.
And that day the wind was much too cold
even to get that far,
and of course the house was boarded up.

On the way back our faces froze on the other side.
The sun came out for just a minute.
For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
were multi-colored,
and all those high enough threw out long shadows,
individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them
–a sun who’d walked the beach the last low tide,
making those big, majestic paw-prints,
who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.

Elizabeth Bishop from The Complete Poems 1927 – 1979, The Noonday Press, 1992

And here’s Stevens:

The Sun This March

The exceeding brightness of this early sun
Makes me conceive how dark I have become,

and re-illumines things that used to turn
To gold in broadest blue, and be a part

Of a turning spirit in an earlier self.
That, too, returns from out the winter’s air,

Like an hallucination come to daze
The corner of the eye. Our element,

Cold is our element and winter’s air
brings voices as of lions coming down.

Oh! Rabbi, rabbi, fend my soul for me
And true savant of this dark nature be.

Wallace Stevens from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Alfred Knopf, 1976

Most obviously Steven’s lion shows up in Bishop’s poem. And there are many other similarities that Bornholdt discusses in the Per Contra essay “The End of March”: Bishop and Stevens on the Sublime – Union or Relation. But for now this is enough.  Enjoy the conversation!


  1. Liz McNally
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    A poet and now a detective! Thanks for all your sleuthing to bring us yet another fascinating perspective. Much appreciated

  2. Richard
    Posted April 29, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Dear Liz: Thank you. I’m up for more detective work. For sure!

  3. Mary Elizabeth Nelson
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Oh Richard, thanks you! How utterly lovely. My heart soared with the winds above the waves before it settled back at my desk!

  4. Richard
    Posted May 10, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much Mary! I like the idea of your desk being a small ocean. Words crest and foam there!!!! Hope you are well. R

  5. Mary Elizabeth Nelson
    Posted May 10, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Nice thought Richard. Thanks for it. I am well. Been away but back at my desk now, awash in catching up, besides words.
    Hope all is well with you. mary

  6. Richard
    Posted May 10, 2013 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Mary. Keep checking in please! R

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