14 November
Literary Potpourri

What we feel most…

Jack Gilbert

On the big bulletin board to the left of my desk:

Assorted postcards (most strikingly featured: a manatee, a hummingbird, a fishing spot on the Cape Cod Bay)
A list of 50 literary magazines that pay
Another of phone numbers for my office-mates
A luggage tag from American Airlines
A couple of yellowing cartoons from The New Yorker
An ancient photo of my niece and nephew
A Groupon for a month of unlimited classes from a local Yoga Studio
Several quotes, lifted from periodicals and programs, to comfort and inspire (Emerson, Thoreau, Helen Frankenthaler, Whitney Balliet, and Margo Jefferson)

And poems—
poems peeking out from behind poems—
poems I had to have in my sightlines because they got to the bottom of how I think and feel; because they expressed exactly-but-exactly what I hadn’t known I thought or felt, better than I’d ever be able to say it myself—

poems from Yeats, Ponsot, Ryan, Rector, Haas, Gerstler, and Laux, to name only a few—

poems about living, and poems about writing—

“Memoir” by Vijay Seshadri—
And “The New Song,” by W. S. Merwin—
and “The Problem of Sentences,” by Linda Gregg—

and here’s Czeslaw Milosz, the last stanza of “Ars Poetica”:

What I’m saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
As poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
Under unbearable duress and only with the hope
That good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

And from Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegy #9:

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
Bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most, column tower… But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing…

And today I’m adding a poem to the board (thanks to Dinty Moore, who posted it online this morning). I’m typing it out to feel the words in my fingers, pinning it smack in the middle of everything, to remind me how important it is to get it right, and how impossible, and how that’s the reason we keep trying, isn’t it?

Here, from Jack Gilbert, who died yesterday, who left us his poems, this one among them:


How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not laguage but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

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