Poetry, M

Poetry Month is officially over, but that’s no reason to abandon our arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series…

M is for Manhire, Bill

Ask a New Zealander to name a contemporary Kiwi poet—a lively game for dinner parties, if you can get hold of a New Zealander—and they’re almost certain to say Bill Manhire. (Ask your antipodean to quote a few lines, and they’ll wrinkle their sunburnt nose and say, “Oh, I don’t know any poems off by heart…” and then they’ll look all shy and take a massive swig of wine.)

Bill Manhire was born in Invercargill in 1946. For those of you who insist on picturing bucolic, hobbity loveliness whenever someone says “New Zealand,” please note that Invercargill is a gray, gloomy town at the bottom of the world. It looks like this (and if ever you need proof that human beings are inherently optimistic, consider the person who planted the weird shrub-like thing and thought, “Oh, this’ll cheer the place up a bit”):


The son of a publican, Manhire grew up in small hotels in southern New Zealand, an experience he writes about movingly in his short memoir, Under The Influence (Four Winds Press, 2003):

At the St. Kilda Hotel there was a pensioner called Henry who used to come into the bar in the mornings. He lived in a shed in someone’s small backyard, and a rich smell always kept him company. The bar staff liked Henry, and wanted to let him have a drink, but they had to keep the comfort of other customers in mind. So before he was served, Henry would wait patiently until he had been sprayed with air freshener. He would raise his arms like a child hoping to be lifted. Sometimes he smelt of lemons, sometimes of roses.

Manhire was educated at the University of Otago and University College, London, where he studied Old Icelandic sagas (he can still pronounce “Eyjafjallajökull”). His first book of poems, The Elaboration (featuring drawings by acclaimed New Zealand artist Ralph Hotere), came out in 1972. He has since published fifteen poetry collections, and has won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry five times. He became the inaugural New Zealand Poet Laureate in 1997, and in 2004 he was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (an order of chivalry given by the Queen to top-notch citizens of her commonwealth). His poetry collections get reviewed by fancy papers and his poems get published in fancy places (Google tells me this 2009 poem contains the New Yorker’s sole reference to “Asian bukkake”).

Manhire has also played a significant role in fostering New Zealand literature. He founded the country’s first creative writing course at Victoria University of Wellington in 1975, and he recently retired after a long career as the director of the International Institute of Modern Letters (disclosure: I was a student in his MA class in 2003, and will be forever grateful to him for gently dissuading me from my obsession with writing about women in comas). According to a Dominion Post article, he wants to spend his retirement being a “proper writer” again, a prospect that could be “quite scary.”

Bill Manhire

In a 2003 interview for World Literature Today, Manhire remarked that “most people are mildly puzzled by my work.” And it’s true, his poetry is often referred to as elliptical, allusive, maddeningly enigmatic (much like Manhire himself, it has been suggested; regarding his tendency to be “secret and reserved and private,” he told World Literature Today that “I’m not sure that’s a good thing in me as a person, but I kind of like it in the poems”). But his poetry can also be playful, whimsical, a bit silly. (Self-important writers, Manhire told The Listener, “are the worst sort of human being.”) He likes to repurpose the banal idioms of popular culture, rendering the ordinary mysterious with the deft flick of a line or a sudden shift in tone. And his more recent collections, particularly Lifted (2005), are unashamedly more personal. We’ve featured my favorite Manhire poem, “Kevin” (from Lifted), here, and I’m also very fond of the ones below. If you like New Zealand accents (you weirdo), you can listen to him read “Hotel Emergencies” here.


The likelihood is
the children will die
without you to help them do it.
It will be spring,
the light on the water,
or not.

And though at present
they live together
they will not die together.
They will die one by one
and not think to call you:
they will be old

and you will be gone.
It will be spring,
or not. They may be crossing
the road,
not looking left,
not looking right,

or may simply be afloat at evening
like clouds unable
to make repairs. That
one talks too much, that one
hardly at all: and they both enjoy
the light on the water

much as we enjoy
the sense
of indefinite postponement. Yes
it’s a tall story but don’t you think
full of promise, and he’s just a kid
but watch him grow.

* * *

My Sunshine

He sings you are my sunshine
and the skies are grey, she tries
to make him happy, things
just turn out that way.

She’ll never know
how much he loves her
and yet he loves her so much
he might lay down his old guitar
and walk her home, musician
singing with the voice alone.

Oh love is sweet and love is all, it’s
evening and the purple shadows fall
about the baby and the toddler
on the bed. It’s true he loves her
but he should have told her,
he should have, should have said.

Foolish evening, boy with a foolish head.
He sighs like a flower above his instrument
and his sticky fingers stick. He fumbles
a simple chord progression,
then stares at the neck.
He never seems to learn his lesson.

Here comes the rain. Oh if she were only
sweet sixteen and running from the room again,
and if he were a blackbird
he would whistle and sing
and he’d something
something something something.

* * *

The News

A few survivors run for cover.


Each night at six we all go live to death.
there’s someone on the spot
to help me hold my breath.


If I could just cry out
to my far, forgetful lover . . .


or if you could only love me
oh World I am walking over.

Poetry, L

Poetry Month is officially over, but that’s no reason to abandon our arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series…

L is for Larkin, Philip

Philip Larkin. Sigh. What do we do about Philip Larkin? I want to devote the letter L to Larkin, whose poetry I adore, and yet there’s just so much… awfulness.

Larkin cartoon

Larkin was never an especially lovable geezer—gloomy, grumpy, and looking, as he described it, “like a balding salmon”—but prior to the publication of his Selected Letters, it was still possible to feel somewhat fond of ol’ Phil. He was just your standard British bachelor-curmudgeon-librarian, keen for a quiet life, fond of rain and queues and animals. Describing his daily routine to the Paris Review in 1982, he wrote:

My life is as simple as I can make it. Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings. I almost never go out. I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time: some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way—making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.

The man liked to put on his egg-stained cardigan and watch a spot of telly. Nothing wrong with that! And although his most famous poem addresses the horrors of family life, there’s nothing especially strange or sinister in questioning the cycle of generational misery: the popularity of This Be the Verse suggests we all know exactly what he’s talking about.

But with the publication of the Selected Letters in 1992 and Andrew Motion’s biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, the following year, it became clear that Larkin was not just playing the role of the cantankerous old fogey who liked to insist “I loathe abroad.” The letters made plain his rabidly right-wing political views, his misogyny, and his racism: he calls for the “stringing up” of striking miners, for instance, and adds that “the lower-class bastards can no more stop going on strike now than a laboratory rat with an electrode in its brain can stop jumping on a switch to give itself an orgasm.” He also writes of a “terrifying” future in which “we shall all be cowering under our beds as hordes of blacks steal anything they can lay their hands on.”

It was repulsive stuff indeed, and people were quick to take sides. There was a lot of quotes-at-dawn carry on. One critic insisted that Larkin couldn’t possibly be a racist because he once wrote this:

The American Negro is trying to take a step forward that can be compared only to the ending of slavery in the nineteenth century. And despite the dogs, the hosepipes and the burnings, advances have already been made towards giving the Negro his civil rights that would have been inconceivable when Louis Armstrong was a young man. These advances will doubtless continue. They will end only when the Negro is as well-housed, educated and medically cared for as the white man.

And another immediately countered with Larkin at his most vile:

We don’t go to [cricket] Test matches now, too many fucking niggers about.

Poet and critic Tom Paulin described the Letters as a “revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals the sewer under the national monument that Larkin became” and Professor Lisa Jardine referred to Larkin as a “casual, habitual racist and an easy misogynist” and noted that “we don’t tend to teach Larkin much now in my department of English. The Little Englandism he celebrates sits uneasily within our revised curriculum.” Others made excuses. Martin Amis, whose father was great pals with Larkin, suggested the letters merely reveal “a tendency for Larkin to tailor his words according to the recipient.” In his letters to Amis père, Larkin always signed off with some variation of the word bumC. H. Sisson bum; Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry bum—but it’s rather a leap to suggest that adding an impish bum to the end of a letter is akin to chucking about a few n-words. Yes, we all write things in confidence that we would never say in public, but I’m pretty sure most of us have never written a letter to anyone (not even to Racist Aunt Gladys) in which we refer to “hordes” or “lower-classes.” Some might insist that such sentiments were commonplace back then, to which I would gleefully reply, well, then fuck the lot of them, the mid-century toerags. In any case, this it was different back then stuff is a load of nonsense—the language Larkin used may have read as slightly less shocking at the time, but there’s no denying that his remarks were considered racist by his contemporaries. Many of Larkin’s friends were horrified by the opinions he expressed in private, and Motion says that Larkin was “very unrepentant about his attitudes” and made no special effort to avoid discussing them, even when it was clear they offended the listener.

Philip LarkinSo, what to make of it all? Do we simply dismiss Larkin as a hateful racist? Or do we ignore the personal (“hey, he wasn’t as bad as Pound!”) and concentrate on the poetry? Motion writes that “the beautiful flower of art grows on a long stem out of often murky material,” and this kind of uneasy admission is perhaps the best we can do. And yet—it doesn’t seem quite enough to say “Okay, yes, Larkin was a bit of a racist; now here are some lovely poems!” Much of Larkin’s appeal comes from his ability to capture the oppressive, dreary pointlessness of life in a post-war England that has lost its faith—that is, ordinary life, lived by ordinary people. As poet X. J. Kennedy states in the New Criterion, Larkin gives us “a poetry from which even people who distrust poetry, most people, can take comfort and delight.” But who are these ordinary people Larkin writes for and about? If he’s racist, misogynistic, and a snob, are his “ordinary people” all middle-class white men? Is he writing for me, too? Do I really want to read a “deeply moving” poem by someone who perhaps suspects that significantly more than half the population is incapable (or undeserving?) of being moved? When I picture Kingsley Amis and Larkin writing sniggery, right-wing, posh-voiced bums to each other, I want to punch them both hard in their ruddy little noses. And yet—

Here I am joining the “Larkin was a bit of a racist; now here are some lovely poems!” chorus, and feeling, yes, very uneasy about it. The best I can do to mitigate the queasiness is present the two Mr. Larkins side by side:

If you skip to the 43:50 mark of Life and Death in Hull (a mildly interesting doco), you can listen to Larkin and his girlfriend singing a little Larkin ditty. If you hear this and still wish to defend Larkin on the grounds that this was done in private (but recorded, do note), or that it’s just meant to be, you know, funny, well, you might not want to invite me to your next dinner party, because I’m not going to laugh at your jokes.

And now here’s the other Larkin, the one I like very much. I’ll leave it to you to try and reconcile the two.

Next, Please

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it’s
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

* * *

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too. 
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

* * *


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Poetry, K

Poetry Month is officially over, but that’s no reason to abandon our arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series…

K is for Kaminsky, Ilya

Ilya KaminskyIlya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, former Soviet Union, in 1977. Although his early years were fairly peaceful (largely because his wealthy father was able to secure his family’s safety by bribing state officials), life in Odessa became increasingly difficult following the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991. Political unrest, galloping inflation, and the outbreak of war in neighboring Moldova prompted the family to apply for political asylum in the United States. In 1993, the U.S. approved their application, and sixteen-year-old Ilya and his parents moved to Rochester, New York. Kaminsky’s father died the following year.

When he was a child, Kaminsky had written short prose articles for Odessa newspapers, but after his father’s death he found himself drawn to poetry as a way to make sense of the loss. Although he claims he “hardly knew the English alphabet” when he first arrived in the United States, he began to write poems in English. In an interview with the Adirondack Review, he explains this decision:

My father died in 1994, a year after our arrival to America. I understood right away that it would be impossible for me to write about his death in the Russian language, as one author says of his deceased father somewhere, “Ah, don’t become mere lines of beautiful poetry!” I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it—no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.

Dancing in OdessaKaminsky’s first poetry collection, Dancing in Odessa, was published by Tupelo Press in 2004. It earned accolades from assorted fancy folks—Anthony Hecht proclaimed the volume “the start of a brilliant career,” while Robert Pinsky praised the poems’ “glorious tilt and scope”—and was named Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord magazine. Following the book’s publication, Kaminsky also received the Whiting Writer’s Award, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award in Literature, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship.

Kaminsky lost his hearing when he was four (a rare complication of mumps), and he sees a link between his deafness and his desire to be heard: “I speak against silence, and again, against silence, knowing that silence moves me to speak.” In Dancing in Odessa, he speaks not only for himself, but for all those who have suffered dislocation and loss. His poetry is deft, musical, and passionate: it engages with the world and is unashamedly sincere. He is often considered a “political” poet, but Kaminsky simply sees himself as an attentive observer of the world, and is quick to shrug off questions concerning his agenda:

I write about life and death. Some people call that politics. Other people call that life and death. I don’t know why in [the United States] we need to ask each other these questions. Writers in Russia or South Africa or Poland or China don’t, since the answer seems self-explanatory.

Yes, poetry is poetry, an art of language. And, yes, we live in the larger world; our job as human beings is to pay attention to that world. As human beings we are all responsible, as Dostoevsky suggests: “Not everyone is guilty, but everyone is responsible.”

Kaminsky currently teaches English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, and is working on his second collection, tentatively titled Deaf Republic (Poetry has published a selection of these not-quite-done poems). Meanwhile, here are two of my favorite (finished) Kaminsky poems:

Elegy for Joseph Brodsky

In plain speech, for the sweetness
between the lines is no longer important,
what you call immigration I call suicide.
I am sending, behind the punctuation,
unfurling nights of New York, avenues
slipping into Cyrillic—
winter coils words, throws snow on a wind.
You, in the middle of an unwritten sentence, stop,
exile to a place further than silence.

I left your Russia for good, poems sewn into my pillow
rushing towards my own training
to live with your lines
on a verge of a story set against itself.
To live with your lines, those where sails rise, waves
beat against the city’s granite in each vowel,—
pages open by themselves, a quiet voice
speaks of suffering, of water.

We come back to where we have committed a crime,
we don’t come back to where we loved, you said;
your poems are wolves nourishing us with their milk.
I tried to imitate you for two years. It feels like burning
and singing about burning. I stand
as if someone spat at me.
You would be ashamed of these wooden lines,
how I don’t imagine your death
but it is here, setting my hands on fire.

* * *

We Lived Happily During the War*

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun
                                                        in the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money, in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

* from I Go to the Ruined Place, an anthology of poetry in defense of global human rights

Poetry, J

Poetry Month is officially over, but that’s no reason to abandon our arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series…

J is for Jackson, Laura Riding

Laura JacksonLaura Riding Jackson (1901-1991) was a renowned American poet, essayist, and critic. She was also a woman with a hell of a lot of names, and she could occupy any one of a number of spots in a Poetry A-Z series: she was born Laura Reichenthal; was first published under the name Laura Riding Gottschalk; subsequently dropped Gottschalk and went with Riding; and finally adopted Laura Riding Jackson as her authorial name from 1963 onwards. Since we’ve reached J in our poets’ alphabet, we’re going to go with Ms. Jackson.

Jackson was born in New York, grew up in Brooklyn, and was educated at Cornell University, where she first started writing poetry. Her early work attracted the attention of the Fugitives, an influential group of young Southern poets and scholars whose members included Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate. They published her poetry in their eponymous literary magazine, The Fugitive, in 1923, and formally invited her to join the group in March 1925. When the group awarded her the prestigious Nashville Prize for poetry in 1924, they praised her “sound intellectuality” and “keen irony,” and noted that her poems were “concerned with profound issues.”

Around this time, Jackson’s first marriage, to her former Cornell history tutor Louis R. Gottschalk, was dissolving. The couple divorced in 1925, and at the end of that year Jackson moved to England. She’d been invited to Blighty by the poet Robert Graves and his wife Nancy Nicholson, and she moved in with the couple as soon as she arrived. Although this arrangement seemed to work for a while, it must eventually have become a rather difficult ménage à trois: Jackson jumped out of a fourth-floor window in 1929, nearly killing herself. This drama prompted Graves to leave his wife—quite the literary scandal at the time—and move with Jackson to Deià, Majorca. There they continued to run their small publishing company, Seizin Press, which put out a magazine, Epilogue (1935-1938), and published avant-garde writers like Gertrude Stein. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the couple left Majorca and lived in England and France before moving to America in 1939. They parted ways shortly afterwards, and Jackson began a relationship with the critic Schuyler B. Jackson.

In 1941, Jackson renounced poetry—she later claimed it was because she found poetry incompatible with truth. She married Schuyler Jackson and they moved to a citrus farm in Wabasso, Florida, where Jackson withdrew from public life. Together, the couple devoted themselves to a new task: producing a comprehensive study of language that was intended to offer “a fundamental re-evaluation” of the way words work. Schuyler Jackson died in 1968, and Jackson continued working on the project after his death; their book, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words, was posthumously published in 1997. It does not sound like a fun read.

Jackson hasn’t had the best press over the years. Virginia Woolf called her “a shallow, egotistical, cock-crowing creature” and William Carlos Williams referred to her as “a prize bitch.” She was blamed for breaking up Graves’ marriage, and she further damaged her reputation by sending lengthy, admonishing letters (referred to as “Lauragrams” by one frustrated reviewer) to anyone she believed had misrepresented some aspect of her life or work. Some critics see this as proof of an egomaniacal need for control, but a more generous interpretation is also possible: how could Jackson refrain from insisting that details matter when she was obsessed with “truth” and devoted her career, first as a poet and later as a scholar, to the notion of “a linguistically ordained ideal”?

Laura JacksonIn any case, it seems a little unfair that so many discussions about Jackson as a writer seem to become messy squabbles over whether she was a homewrecking control freak or a misunderstood (if pedantic) romantic. What matters is the work itself, and there’s no denying that during the first half of her life, Jackson wrote some of the most original, serious-minded poetry of the twentieth century. She was prolific, producing eleven volumes of poetry between 1926-1939, and highly regarded by many of her peers. Berryman hailed her as “the peer of any woman now writing poetry in English” and Auden called her “the only living philosophical poet.” In fact, Graves once wrote the young Auden a letter in which he reprimanded Auden for imitating Jackson’s style. For a taste of her best work, I recommend the series “The City of Cold Women” (1924), published in its entirety in Poetry. Here’s an excerpt:

The Lovers

They come glowing to the gates of the city,
Armed with tenderness,
Resolute to parade
Beneath the windows of the cold women,
With their gifts warm on their shoulders.

The women sit frigidly smiling in their frames,
And their eyes are the eyes of Medusa.
Who but lovers,
Who but unslaked lovers may be starved so?

There is one bird left in the city of the cold women,
Forager of doorsteps,
Cosset of cold women.
It is sweet carrion they scatter to him.

* * *


Are there words thin enough for such thin lips?
Smiles are more tenuous than laughter,
And their only echo is pain.

* * *


The roofs of the city are a bleak mist
Brooding over the sharpness beneath them:
Walls stroked to corners by the hands of the cold women,
Fireplaces for irony.
We shall not wonder at rimed mirrors—
Windows give up their secrets,
Not mirrors.

In the houses of the city of cold women
There are shadows.
They may be children,
They titillate the light so bashfully.

There are tired lilies, propped to apathy.

Poetry, I

Poetry Month is officially over, but that’s no reason to abandon our arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series…

I is for Inez, Colette

Colette InezI couldn’t think of a poet whose last name started with the letter I, so I asked google to help me out, and google said, hey, you silly sausage, how about Colette Inez? Nice job, google! (And if you’re reading this today, June 26th, please google the word gay and enjoy the celebratory rainbow doodle.)

Colette Inez was born in Europe in 1931 under grimly romantic circumstances:

I was conceived in Paris, the unexpected outcome of a love affair between a French archivist and a French-American priest whose mother claimed Irish descent. In her ninth month, my mother crossed the border into Belgium where I was born and soon after packed off to the Catholic sisters, my stern caretakers for the next eight years.

At the age of eight, with Europe on the brink of war, Inez was sent to America, where she spent her adolescence in a fairly menacing Long Island foster home. She found solace in literature, turning to the works of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Robinson Jeffers, who moved her with his “disdain for mankind and love of hawks, horses, and cliffs.” She won her first poetry competition while she was an undergraduate at Hunter College, and this gave her the necessary confidence to immerse herself in the New York poetry scene. She began attending readings at the 92nd Street Y and hanging out at poetry cafés in the Village. After graduating in 1961, she initially found work “in the blur of big corporate offices” as a switchboard operator and secretary, before beginning her teaching career. Over the years she lectured at a number of universities, including Bucknell, Cornell, the New School, and Columbia, where she was a long-time faculty member of the undergraduate writing program.

Inez has published ten poetry collections and a memoir, The Secret of M. Dulong. Her first collection, The Woman Who Loved Worms (Doubleday, 1972), won the Great Lakes Colleges Association National First Book Award and was reissued by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 1991. More recent volumes include the excellently titled Spinoza Doesn’t Come Here Anymore (Melville House, 2004), and Horseplay (WordTech, 2011). She has won numerous awards, including two Pushcart Prizes, and has received fellowships from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations and from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Her poetry is direct, fiery, and ebullient, full of sentiment but seldom sentimental. She’s also a courageous and deeply personal writer, unafraid to examine the legacy of her peripatetic and troubled childhood. In an essay for the Poetry Society, Inez had this to say concerning the issue of identity:

I’d have to describe myself as a narrative, lyric poet who writes in American English. I am an American citizen, long and well-married to a Brooklyn-born freelance writer whose parents were immigrants from the Polish Pale. I am an American whose roots are European although I certainly keep in mind that my true ancestors were also one-celled plants floating in water. My interests are varied, yet the mysteries of my French family and their history continue to inform and . . . haunt my work.

Here are a couple of my favorite Inez poems:

The Tuner

Choose how the forest
was deprived of a tree.
Blight, wind, fire?
I once lost a cantankerous man,
who tuned pianos.
Tall, an oak to me,
he goaded music from the keys.
I almost see him biting on his pipe,
tamping down the London Dock.
Blown back leaves, birds, moths,
the gestures here.
Pendulum, tool box auctioned off.
Summer roars another blast of green.
“I like to see a piano perspire,”
he’d say to me, slamming the lid
of the Baldwin.

* * *

Blind Mouths

He looks at a circle
of mouths.
Nothing to say.

His grandparents sit
in another blind time,
each in a circle
of worrying eyes.

The children, away,
rolling like hoops,
a distant park
eating their screams.

In the speed of hunger
his parents meet,
two round mouths
to devour their child.

Round as moons
the mirrored plates
reflecting the rooms
in a widening haze
of losses and blame.

The bicycle locked
in the fog of old toys,
wheels, two mouths
of spokes and dust.

Nobody speaks.
The table is cleared.
He looks at a field of snow,
the whiteness longer
than he dreams,
a blizzard of scraps
confusing the house

large as a van
devouring roads
as it moves through the years
pregnant with his furniture.

Many Happy Muldoons

Let’s raise a pint of Guinness and say sláinte to poet Paul Muldoon, who turns sixty-two today. Muldoon was born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and was educated at the Queen’s University of Belfast, where he studied under Seamus Heaney. He has lived in the United States since 1987, and is currently Howard G.B. Clark Professor of the Humanities and Chair of the University Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at Princeton University—and, as if that isn’t enough of a career mouthful, he’s also the poetry editor of The New Yorker, a guitarist in a rock band called Rackett, and an amateur actor. He has received numerous awards, including the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Irish Times Poetry Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Griffin International Prize for Excellence in Poetry. Most importantly, he owns this insane hound:

Paul Muldoon

Muldoon’s poetry is often contrasted with that of his former mentor, Heaney, with Heaney cast as “the people’s poet”—his poetry is better known and he enjoys greater popular success—and Muldoon as “the poet’s poet,” a writer whose work is too cryptic and obscure for a more general readership. It’s true that Muldoon loves wordplay and allusion, and his poetry is full of wit and riddles. (In a New York Times book review, Peter Davison remarked that Muldoon is “doubtless a dab hand at crossword puzzles.”) But if you don’t mind putting in a little work, there’s a lot of fun to be had with Muldoon’s postmodern high jinks. In honor of his birthday, let’s enjoy a little Muldoonery…

Symposium (you can hear Muldoon read it here)

You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it hold
its nose to the grindstone and hunt with the hounds.
Every dog has a stitch in time. Two heads? You’ve been sold
one good turn. One good turn deserves a bird in the hand.

A bird in the hand is better than no bread.
To have your cake is to pay Paul.
Make hay while you can still hit the nail on the head.
For want of a nail the sky might fall.

People in glass houses can’t see the wood
for the new broom. Rome wasn’t built between two stools.
Empty vessels wait for no man.

A hair of the dog is a friend indeed.
There’s no fool like the fool
who’s shot his bolt. There’s no smoke after the horse is gone.

* * *

The Fish Ladder (from Maggot)

Forty years since I proved a micher
and ate blackberries
along the plank road by a dilapidated weir
that had somehow failed to pave
the way from being a local eyesore

to something on which we might rest assured,
a corduroy causey thrown down by Caesar
across the Fens
being cut and dried by comparison.
Though a flax dam

in which our enthusiasm may be damped
as we grope
towards clarity with the high-strung
sea trout and salmon
is not to be confused with the bog hole

in which my father proved a last ditcher
during World War II, a flax dam may be the very
pool in which we find ourselves in the clear.
Less and less, though, will bog water stave
off the great gobs of gore

that come and go like Jonah’s gallows gourd
from the wound where a doctor still views his tweezer
through the lens
of day-to-day life in a Roman garrison.
Even Jonah has run himself ragged as he swam

against the workload with which he’d been swamped
those last few months in the hope,
I expect, of skipping a rung.
Sometimes the more we examine
things, the less we understand our dual role

as proven escape artist and proven identity switcher.
Just look at how two ferries
have gone down within plain sight of the pier
but only one tatterdemalion wave
has managed to stumble ashore.

And here’s Muldoon reading “A Hummingbird”: