Thursday, June 25  |  6:30 – 8:30 PM  |  Zoom details TBA


Below you’ll find a few really fine poems by some of the very best contemporary or near contemporary poets. As with our class a few weeks ago, our focus is not on beating the meaning out of these poems, but (with Billy Collins) letting them rush over us like a waterfall, or skiing over their surface, dropping a mouse into them to see which way it runs, or holding them up to a light to see what we can see through them.

I won’t provide much in the way of introduction for any of the poems. I don’t want to get in your way of encountering the poems on your own. When we get together for our “Poetry Happy Hour” on June 25th we’ll share insights and thoughts and perspectives we gain from the poems.

Jane Kenyon

Jane Kenyon was one of the most beautiful souls of American poetry. I still grieve her death (and find it impossible to realize that she died in 1995). Her work is lyrical, even when it consists of a meditation on the end of life, as we see in her poem, “Let Evening Come.” If ever you long to read a poet whose gentle faith is real, and who speaks from the deep reality of human life, you may want to reach for Jane Kenyon. Her poems “Otherwise” and “Notes from the Other Side” are shot through with an imperishable spirit.

Let Evening Come

Jane Kenyon
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needle
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Norman MacCaig
Some of the poets I’ve come most to admire were chance discoveries. Such was the case with Norman MacCaig. We were spending the summer at the cottage in Ellanabeich, on the Isle of Seil, when I came upon a passage from a poem by him used as an epigraph in a book on the Neolithic history of Britain. I liked the passage, and the next time we were in Oban buying groceries, I went to the local bookstore to get a collection of his poems. I’ve fed on them ever since. He speaks of nature in an original voice, as when he writes: “A mountain is a sort of music…. And God was Mozart when he wrote Cul Mor.” And his capacity to express the personality of friends and loved ones, and his unique vision of them, is unrivaled as in, “After his death,” the poem in honor of the legendary Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. When we met for the poetry and faith class, you may remember I couldn’t resist reading his poem, “Memorial,” about the death of his wife, which opens with that haunting line, “Everywhere I go she dies.”
After his death
for Hugh MacDiarmid
Norman MacCaig
It turned out
that the bombs he had thrown
raised buildings
that the acid he had sprayed
had painfully opened
the eyes of the blind.
Fishermen hauled
prizewinning fish
from the water he had polluted.
We sat with astonishment
enjoying the shade
of the vicious words he had planted
The government decreed that
on the anniversary of his birth
the people should observe
two minutes pandemonium.
Mary Oliver
There is no more beloved poet today than Mary Oliver. Her range is astonishing from light verse like “Prayer,” in which she says: “May I never not be frisky,/ May I never not be risqué” to poems of remarkable depth, such as “Drifting.” If I started quoting from her volume of poems, “Felicity,” I fear I shouldn’t be able to stop myself before quoting the whole book. The poems are all so good. Oh, to heck with it. I’ve got to try. Her “Whistling Swans” is too good not to share.
Whistling Swans
Mary Oliver
Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look
up into that blue space?
Take your choice, prayers fly from all directions.
And don’t worry about what language you use,
God no doubt understands them all.
Even when the swans are flying north and making
such a ruckus of noise, God is surely listening
and understanding.
Rumi said, There is no proof of the soul.
But isn’t the return of spring and how it
springs up in our hearts a pretty good hint?
Yes, I know, God’s silence never breaks, but is
that really a problem?
There are thousands of voices, after all.
And furthermore, don’t you imagine (I just suggest it)
that the swans know about as much as we do about
the whole business?
So listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly.
Take from it what you can.
Louise Gluck
I’ve often thought that Louise Gluck is my favorite poet. Her luminous beauty shines through lines of desperate longing. A New Yorker, a woman who dedicated herself to years of psychoanalysis, a lifelong student of Greek mythology, her work is unrivaled for the beauty of her language and the layered complexity of her images. And, as my friend Lewie Donelson has said, no one makes better use of space on the page than does Gluck. For many years now, she has written books of poems that are intimately interconnected, making it very difficult to draw out a single poem without needing to keep pulling on the threads until the entire book is read. I so wish I could share with you from her masterpiece, “Averno,” but I simply don’t know how to do so. Where to start? Where to stop? She can produce a passage of such devastating clarity as: “death cannot harm me/ more than you have harmed me/ my beloved life.” Or, listen to her pledge to the reader: “It is true there is not enough beauty in the world./ It is also true that I am not competent to restore it./ Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.”
I’ve talked myself into trying to share one small poem from one section of her poem, “October” from “Averno.”
The light has changed,
middle C is tuned darker now
And the songs of morning sound over-rehearsed.
This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring.
This is light of autumn: you will not be spared.
The songs have changed; the unspeakable
has entered them.
This is the light of autumn, not the light that says
I am reborn
Not the spring dawn: I strained, I suffered, I was delivered.
This is the present, an allegory of waste.
So much has changed. And still, you are fortunate:
the ideal burns in you like a fever.
Or not like a fever, like a second heart.
The songs have changed, but really they are still quite beautiful.
They have been concentrated in a smaller space, the space of the mind.
They are dark now, with desolation and anguish.
And yet the notes recur. They hover oddly
in anticipation of silence.
The ear gets used to them.
The eye gets used to disappearances.
You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.
A wind has come and gone, taking apart the mind;
it has left in its wake a strange lucidity.
How privileged you are, to be still passionately
clinging to what you love;
the forfeit of hope has not destroyed you.
Maestoso, doloroso:
This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us.
Surely it is a privilege to approach the end
still believing in something.
Well it’s happened again. I need to stop sharing poems, and I’ve gathered around me several more I am sure you’d love. I had only planned to provide four. But we’ll go one more.
Kay Ryan
In the category of accidental discoveries “The Niagara River” takes its proud place. I heard it read on a podcast, I can’t now remember by whom. The subject of the podcast was change, specifically how life is non-stop change, impermanence, flowing and swirling and ebbing. The presenter read this poem by Kay Ryan, and I just had to find more. Ryan has a sense of humor, not as slapstick as Billy Collins, but wry, that little twist at the end. As in her delightful poem, “Stardust,” in which she tries to describe how we might catch stardust. After introducing a delightful set of strange metaphors, the poet throws up her hands, and says of the thing that is impossible to conceive, like a five year old perplexed, “It’s hard to explain.”
The Niagara River
Kay Ryan
As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice — as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced —
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.