All posts in Poetry

Poetry: Mark Strand & Jack Gilbert, The Head and the Heart of the Journey Within.

Jack Gilbert (left) and Mark Strand are two towering poets whom I admire greatly. They both write in clear, plain, direct language. They both travel deeply within, and exhibit a piercing, keen intellect. You could say they are also both pre-occupied with themselves, the I, but they are oriented on different axes. Here is a famous poem by Strand, Keeping Things Whole.

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces

where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

Some of the elements present here are typical of Strand’s work. These are, a focus on self, but in the context of absence and insecurity. There is also a sense of loss, but kept at a distance. It is quite revealing that Strand who had once studied painting, before focusing on poetry, wrote a famous book on the great  American painter of isolation and alienation, Edward Hopper. He observed that Hopper’s characters seemed ” trapped in the space of their waiting.” Strand and Hopper share that feeling, and a sensibility, where the surface of either the poem or painting is a kind of screen that creates a necessary barrier to the external world that protects the inner self. Let’s contrast this with a poem by Jack Gilbert, called, Finding Something

I say moon is horses in the tempered dark,
because horse is the closest I can get to it.
I sit on the terrace of this worn villa the king’s
telegrapher built on the mountain that looks down
on a blue sea and the small white ferry
that crosses slowly to the next island each noon.
Michiko is dying in the house behind me,
the long windows open so I can hear
the faint sound she will make when she wants
watermelon to suck or so I can take her
to a bucket in the corner of the high-ceilinged room
which is the best we can do for a chamber pot.
She will lean against my leg as she sits
so as not to fall over in her weakness.
How strange and fine to get so near to it.
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.

With simple language and a beguilingly lyrical setting of the scene, Gilbert brings us directly into an intimacy almost too anguished to bear. We are led so quickly from the outside, into the deepest heart of human experience, that we are stunned, breathless in shock and awe. “It is this lyrical mix of anguish and grace that make Gilbert’s poems so rewarding, and so heartbreaking.” As James Dickey said, ” He takes himself away to a place more inward than is safe to go; from that awful silence and tightening, he returns to us poems of savage compassion. Gilbert is the rarest of beings, a necessary poet, who teaches us not only how to live, but to die creatively, and with all meaning.”

Mark Strand has been a very prolific poet, and has won every award  there is to win: Fulbright and MacArthur Fellowships, the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer, and been Poet Laureate of the U.S.  Jack Gilbert has only published five books in the last fifty years, and two of those have been in the last five years. He has won prizes and was a finalist for the Pulitzer twice, but is hardly known to the general poetry reading public. He is considered a “poet’s poet.” He has spent much of his life, living abroad, and therefore been out of  mainstream media attention.

Both Strand and Gilbert give us startling insights into themselves and ourselves. Strand always presents a polished, cool surface. He is insightful, and provokes stimulating thought, though is often, slightly aloof. Gilbert throws us deep into the muck of life, but always with an incredible touch of lyric grace. Strand gives us deep thought, Gilbert deep emotional insight. They both constantly delight, and are two great examples of why we need to read poetry.


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In honor of my eighth wedding anniversary, a few days ago, I wanted to share this poem with you. It has a special place for me, because it was the first poem I wrote that was published. In case you don’t know, quarks are considered the most elementary constituent particle of matter, in the current “standard model” of the universe. They come in six “flavors,” which are a form of spin; up, down, charmed, strange, top, and bottom. I thought this painting of mine captured something of the feel of the poem.

The Physics of Love 

I wonder how I see you at all
when I walk into a room.
The emptiness inside you
between molecules of skin,
is the space between stars.

The smallest part of you is quarks,
top or bottom, up or down,
charmed or strange, locked
in a kind of orbit, but never staying
in one place.
No wonder you are out of focus.

Inside you, magnetic fields shift and spin,
a crazy dance of violent tides,
free from the cycles
of any moon.
It confuses the hell
out of the stuff
that holds me together.

There is so little of us,
in all this nothing.
What gives love
enough weight
to be named.


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Poetry: “The Weight” by Linda Gregg

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a poem by Linda Gregg, called,”The Weight.” It is from her terrific book “Chosen by the Lion.” Linda is a wonderful poet, and along with the great, Jack Gilbert, one of my two poetry mentors. This poem has just been rolling around in my  head  so much lately, that I’d like to share it with you.


The Weight

Two horses were put together in the same paddock.
Night and day. In the night and in the day
wet from heat and the chill of  the wind
on it. Muzzle to water, snorting, head swinging
and the taste of bay in the shadowed air.
The dignity of being. They slept that way,
knowing each other always.
Withers quivering for a moment,
fetlock and the proud rise at the base of the tail,
width of back. The volume of them, and each other’s weight.
Fences were nothing compared to that.
People were nothing. They kept standing,
their throats curved against the other’s rump.
They breathed against each other,
whinnied and stomped.
There are things they did that I do not know.
The privacy of them had a river in it.
Had our universe in it. And the way
its border looks back at us with its light.
This was finally their freedom.
The freedom an oak tree knows.
That is built at night by stars.

I’d love to hear everyone’s feelings and thoughts about this poem.


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The Still Point

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Compotier, 1883-7, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement
from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.


This still life by Cezanne was the first painting I saw that made me realize that art is not merely a reproductive, or illustrative process, but an encounter that can touch on the sublime and the infinite. It elevated me to a place of profound stillness, that felt like timelessness. I felt lifted up and given a glimpse of a higher plane of reality, of being.
This painting hung in The Fogg Museum at Harvard and was an image taught in the introductory art history class I took first semester of my freshman year. I found myself visiting it often over the four years I studied there. I would stand, both mesmerized and transported. The apples were not just apples. There was a weight, a solidity to all the objects, indeed, a plasticity to the very space they inhabited, that felt at times overwhelming. The table, the jars, the fruit, the space itself, seemed as if they had always been there, and always would be there. They seemed to stand for every piece of fruit, every table, every jar, that ever existed. They seemed to contain the entire universe in them. No beginning. No end.
Was it the compressed compositional geometry, the forced perspective and abstracted spatial relationships, the tonal modeling and harmony…? It was certainly all these things, But also, it was something quite ineffable. There is a liminal feeling of being completely present. Somehow this quality transforms the specific into the universal, as it collapses past and future into an eternal present.
Cezanne transported me to a state outside myself, into a state of stillness
Not unlike meditation or prayer. Once again T.S. Eliot describes it better than I can
In Burnt Norton.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern.
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still,
Moves perpetually in its stillness….

Cezanne’s approach to “representation” brings up important questions
about what is ”realistic” and what is “abstract” in terms of painting.
I will talk in other posts about these concepts, and especially in relation to the way we actually see. Hyper-realism is a dramatic abstraction of “reality”
And the way we actually perceive the world. More later.


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