The Stricture Of Structure: Willis Barnstone’s Successful Sonnets
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/29/02

  It’s easy to let 1’s prejudices get in the way of evaluating art, or anything in life in general. I loathe religion- organized religion, especially. & I have little use for the sort of bleeding heart substitute: faith, spiritism, etc. Yet, there are some religious poets that can write marvelously. Off the top of my head I would, for Christianity, nominate John Donne (better than Shakespeare- yes, he really is!), George Herbert (only at his best), Gerard Manley Hopkins (experimentalist, to boot), & Countee Cullen (the great American religious poet of the last century- yes, forget Thomas Merton or Brother Antoninus, CC was the real deal). Even Jessica Powers (aka Sister Miriam) could make some claims. But, generally religious verse is bathetic & didactic.
  Yet, then there is the sonnetry of Willis Barnstone. Note, I say the sonnetry of Willis Barnstone. That’s because his free verse, while not bad, is not really good either. But his sonnets, although hit & miss, are generally good, with some outstanding examples. In fact, I can say he is the best sonneteer alive, in English, who has had a book published. 1 must go back to the 1960s heydays of John Berryman & Robert Lowell to find such a solid & prolific sonneteer. Perhaps the only published living poet whose sonnets are the equal of WB’s is Kate Light- but she’s only got a dozen or so published in her 1st book, The Laws Of Falling Bodies. WB, however, has a lifetime’s worth of sonnets collected in his 1996 book called The Secret Reader, 501 Sonnets. It is from this book & his 1999 book Algebra Of Night, New & Selected Poems, 1948-1998, that I will focus this essay on.  In truth, WB is not a big name. No one outside of poetry circles will know him the way they might a Maya Angelou, Robert Bly, or such. Even in the poetry world the few who would recognize the name would immediately append the sobriquet translator to it. Yet, quietly, WB has been building a poetic dynasty, of sorts, which includes his son Tony, daughter Aliki, both poets with name Q-factors about as high as dad’s, as well as his wife- a painter named Helle Tzalopoulou-Barnstone. While they have almost none of their actual writings online it is a handsome site: http://www.barnstone.com/index.html . All the family members have their own pages, & I got an almost disturbing tinge, whilst viewing it, that the Barnstones were trying to become, sort of, poetry’s answer to Thomas Kinkade- the terrible painter & religious cultic figure.
  While mom has some of her art up son Tony’s online bio & blurb read thusly:

  Tony Barnstone is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and English at Whittier College, and has published his poetry, fiction, essays and translations in dozens of major American journals. His books include Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone; Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry; Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei; The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters; and Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, Barnstone lived for years in Greece, Spain, Kenya and China before taking his Masters in English and Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature at UC Berkeley.
  Read "Commandments," from Impure, Tony Barnstone's new book of poetry. Find out what he has to say about his work in an interview with him from amazon.com. Also check out Tony's poem, "The Video Arcade Buddha" and his review of Arthur Sze's The Redshifting Web.


    "I admire Tony Barnstone's Impure because of the collection's unrelenting believability and lyrical certainty. Plain-spoken and magical, this poet knows how to make imagination and the real world collide softly. There is a clarity in Impure that reaches beyond the formlessness of modern life. Borders are crossed in the psyche and the flesh, and this collection seems like an elongated song that embraces the most elusive moments buried in language and nuance through the pure naming of things - a mantra of what is and what is dreamt - that takes into the sacred territory what no ordinary compass can plot or unplot."- Yusef Komunyakaa


  "Tony Barnstone has no walls. He is alive moment to moment at the naked center. In his shrewd double vision, the animal self and the outside self mingle in ecstasy and grief of flesh. He is so surprising and fearless and cuts right to it, and yet so delicate and lyrical. The pure Impure! Bravo!"- Ruth Stone


  "Tony Barnstone unabashedly celebrates bodily joy and pokes the backside of everything prudish and puritanical. He is a poet of profound amusement, a spirit accountant, an heir to Whitman, Basho and Neruda. He works in many styles, but his hallmark is a deep and truculent honesty, a desire to bring secrets into the open. "Impure" is a first book to revere."- Rodney Jones

  While the words would seem to portray yet another Academic loser (& there’s no doubting TB’s as ensconced as you can get) he’s actually a passable poet. 1 only wishes he would can the incessant need to blurb. His sibling, Aliki, suffers from the same lack of independence:

  Aliki Barnstone was educated at Brown University (B.A. and M.A.) and at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph.D.). Her volume of poems, The Real Tin Flower, introduced by Anne Sexton (Macmillan), was published when she was twelve years old. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, New Letters, The New York Times, Ms., Agni, Chicago Review, The Antioch Review, and other journals, and she is co-editor of the anthology A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now (Schocken/Random House). At present she is editing the forthcoming volume, Voices of Light: Women's Spiritual Poetry from around the World (Shambhala). She teaches at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.


  "There's a profound meditation in Madly in Love, a whirlwind of snow and warmth, a persistent music that informs a retrained rage, and it is such contrasts that propel the sweep and swell of this book. Each poem is a honed, crafted collection of moments and pulsebeats in a landscape where celebrations and confrontation are necessary: 'bright snow' and 'smart misery' are witnessed by the same merciful eyes."- Yusef Komunyakaa


  "For Aliki Barnstone, poetry seems a natural medium. The vision and cadences of these poems suggests a sensibility for which poetry is as inevitable and necessary as breathing or eating. It is no surprise to read, at the conclusion of one poem (and a poem largely about despair!): 'I can spit out hatred for the prescribers / as surely as I've been cooking up / this poem for a long time and today / I sit at my feast and enjoy every bite." Pleasure, wonder, anger, and moral passion are here, and the imagination that can write a poem called 'Love Poem' and make it fresh. This is a remarkable first book."- Robert Pinsky


  "All of a sudden I understand why I like Aliki Barnstone's poems so much. They remind me of the one she has studied most--shall we call her master--that Emily Dickinson. Not in the forms, not, as such, in the music, and not in the references; but in that weird intimacy, that eerie closeness, that absolute confession of soul. Once you understand this, you begin to see the connection. It piles up after that. In Barnstone, (too) the two worlds are intensely present, and the voice moves back and forth between them. She has the rare art of distance and closeness. It gives her her fine music, her wisdom, her form. She is a fine poet."- Gerald Stern


  "Madly in Love is beautiful poetry. These poems are freighted with longing and doubt but they are never naive. Passionate, unflinching family stories and personal loss are here and yet the will to love breaks all molds. In Aliki Barnstone's inimitable way, these poems rise spacious as a clearing sky. Deep breaths of how it is."- Ruth Stone 

  Note that the sibs have 2 common blurbists, Yusuf Komunyakaa & Ruth Stone. Wanna bet they’re former teachers? Then there are the standard kiss-ass blurbs by Gerald Stern, Robert Pinsky (yet another in the ceaseless parade of bad Poets Laureate), & Rodney Jones- a career mediocrity. Yet, Aliki, too is a better-than-average poet. So why do they have such pathetic bios & blurbs? Probably because it’s just standard operating procedure in Academia. Similarly they foist their mug shots on to the website. This includes papa Willis, whose photo is the same 1 which adorns AON- which portrays him as a blanched, fey, & almost Quentin Crispian character- & 1 with exposed nose hair, claims my wife! Despite that, WB is the best of the clan, even though he, too, indulges in the asskiss festival of blurbery: 

  Willis Barnstone, former O'Conner Professor of Greek at Colgate University, is Distinguished Professor of comparative literature, and founding member of the Institute of Biblical and Literary Studies, at Indiana University. A Guggenheim fellow, a poet, and the author of Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice, he has received many honors over the years including the Emily Dickinson Award of the Poetry Society of America, the W. H. Auden Award of the New York State Arts Council, a PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Special Citation, and the Midland Authors Award. Barnstone divides his time between Bloomington, Indiana, and Oakland, California.
  Willis Barnstone was born in Lewiston, Maine, and educated at Bowdoin, Columbia, and Yale. He taught in Greece at the end of the civil war (1949-51), in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War, and during the Cultural Revolution went to China, where he was later a Fulbright Professor of American Literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University (1984-1985). His publications include Modern European Poetry (Bantam, 1967), The Other Bible (HarperCollins, 1984) The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets (New England, 1996), a memoir biography With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires (Illinois, 1993), and To Touch the Sky (New Directions, 1999). His literary translation of the New Testament The New Covenant: The Four Gospels and Apocalypse was published by Riverhead Books in 2002. A Guggenheim Fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry, Barnstone is Distinguished Professor at Indiana University.


  "Willis Barnstone has been appointed a special angel to bring 'the other' to our attention, to show how it is done. He illuminates the spirit for us and he clarifies the unclarifiable . . . I think he does it by beating his wings."- Gerald Stern


  "Willis Barnstone has a problem: he's too good. Everything he writes, from his invaluable The Other Bible, a compendium of holy texts no writer should be without, through his brilliant translations and beautiful poems, is a breathtaking achievement."- Carolyn Kizer


  Note the ubiquitous Gerald Stern contributes his 2¢, & then dilletante extraordinaire, Carolyn Kizer, contributes at least 5 clichés in her 2 sentence blurb. So, you may ask, Dan- why are you writing about this obviously ensconced & connected habitué of the Ivy Halls? Well, because his sonnets are good- & need more exposure, so that young poets can know that 5th rate hip hop, snooze-inducing neo-formalism,  & bathetic Confessionalism are not all that has been published in the last few decades. Even if 1 disagrees with alot of the underlying religiosity WB laces within them, the poems are technically sound, with the occasional shows of imagistic, musical, or narrative brilliance. For that I can take the occasional wanton veer off into religious nonsense.
  But, I cannot take poor poetry. For that I hold more against WB than his religious views. Before I get in to the excellence of his sonnetry let me examine some of his typical free verse. Here’s a typical WB free verse effort from the 1970s:


I, W.B.


I ride my blue bike to work
down a potted black alley,
a shallow scholar and a minor poet.


In the wire cage I carry
the Song of Songs- my latest love-
and hear the coeds sigh as they screw


in barely furnished pads.
I don’t even have a beard
to show. I live a bit on home, a few beers


and what the others tell me.
My soul feeds on foreign flicks
or loneliness, terror, and a flirting pit


of light. A loner among friends,
at night I take a sleeping pill
that wakes me up to dream and dream.


  In truth, this is probably the best free verse poem in WB’s whole Selected. Too often, his other poems drone on much longer &/or are larded with more clichés. This is not a bad poem- but it’s not good either. Basically we have a wan jeremiad. WB, or the speaker known by those initials, notes a few external things, then ends with 2 very weak stanzas:


and what the others tell me.
My soul feeds on foreign flicks
or loneliness, terror, and a flirting pit


of light. A loner among friends,
at night I take a sleeping pill
that wakes me up to dream and dream.


  The 3 worst are the cliché-fests that are the last line in the penultimate stanza, & the whole of the last stanza. But note the word light that appears. This overused word is always used to connote spirituality, but WB fetishizes it to the max in his poetry. It always lingers over his poems- sometimes inserted in very awkward situations, & often redundantly & tritely. This poem is passable technically, but why was it written? What new thing does it impart to a reader? Even the interesting title hangs limply, & is unused. There is no deep rumination that accompanies what it implies.
  Then, again, it is better than some of WB’s more overtly ‘experimental’ poems. As an asides- many experimental poets are free versers who don’t want to obey any rules. They tend to gizz their eructations all over the page. Fortunately WB was wise enough to return to the relative ‘safety’ of formalism- where the stricture curbs a mediocre poet’s worst habits. Nonetheless, WB’s long 50 part poem Overheard contains some really atrocious poetry interspersed with mediocre & self-conscious sections. None of it has music, nor does it work in any way. Let me give 3 atrocious examples from this overly long piece of dreck:


I hate my self
with some love and
guilt a hot day
falls on my hair
if I can I
will love your face
body and mind


  Put aside the poor enjambment, & the pointless lack of punctuation- what in the blue hell makes WB think this overripe tripe has any literary worth? It’s terrible- & even if 1 were trying to portray a whiney character (which the poem does not) you cannot rationalize this crap away. This is terrible. Then, again, would you prefer 5th rate Dr. Seuss?:


the man who was
in this head was
not in one place
I don’t know the
exact spot can’t
find him I talk
look am I? where?


  Psychodrama is obviously not WB’s forte. Oh- remember that particular word that I told you WB fetishizes? Read on:


light is in hell
and where dark is
water of pupils
you are light where
I am not I
wait for you who
are enough light


  Bad, bad enjambment, & ridden with clichés. To top it off, it’s a poem-ender. But, worst of all is the poem Last Voyage Of Hart Crane, 1 in a series of poems that are done in mimicked styles of the named poets. Granted, it’s a good idea, & 1 I’ve employed in a # of far more successful poems. But WB’s attempt at ‘doing’ the Hartster is enough to make even a 17 year old blanche. It fails as homage, fails worse as an imitation, & most poorly as a parody. Here are the 1st 2 stanzas in an 8 stanza atrocity:


Last Voyage Of Hart Crane


The rose tarantula is hanging from
The window of my Aztec house- the worm
Sleeps in the bottle of mescal- I come
drunk as a white volcano- my dead sperm


Finds no black stars in hell- O Lord,
I’m sick on the floor!- the lily is my sun
Tricking me into hope- I am the ward
of brutal bells that ice the broken dawn


  Trust me, it gets worse from there. Try comparing these 2 stanzas to anything Hart Crane ever wrote- where HC is ecstatic WB is silly ‘drunk as a white volcano’, yet- in truth- virtually all of WB’s poetry suffers from these sorts of flaws. Overall I graded AON a 68 of 100, while The Secret Reader book of sonnets hit an 80 of 100. A sizable, if not noticeable, difference, until you realize that about 1/3 of AON is filled with TSR sonnets. Remove the sonnets & that 68 plunges into the 55-60 range- a huge differential! Let’s now take a look at the meat of WB’s poetic legacy- his sonnets. Here’s a good solid sonnet I would grade out as between a 75-80, meaning it has good parts & bad parts, yet the good outstrips the bad overall. It’s another attempt at getting inside another persona- this time it’s Russian poetess, & Slavic Plathian idol, Marina Tsvetaeva. MT was certainly a great poet, at least in the slim Selected Poems of hers translated by Elaine Feinstein. Without doubt she is primarily a lyricist. Outside of poetry she is known as a hero to lesbians (although she was bisexual), a suicide (often disregarded as such as she is lumped in with her contemporaries, such as Osip Mandelstam, who died directly at Stalin’s hands), & a force for feminism (although a dubious role model if 1 considers the totality of her life). Nonetheless, let’s examine the pros & cons of WB’s take on her:


Marina Tsvetayeva And Her Ship Of Being Sailing Even Now In Darkness


Strangely, Marina found her light
and death too early, and she left,
a hounded maid. Trains flowed at night
carting her exile and the theft
of her laughing staccato knife
of words. Daughter of Moscow, who
hanged from her Russian rope, a wife
beyond the suburbs, floating to
her ship of death. Her ways are clear:
she stares from an Egyptian crypt
with guardian jackals. Her typescript
in Braille illuminates a Peking
Man hunting deer. Her ship of being
is out of light, yet always near.


  Chronologically the title intrigues, although the overused ‘Darkness’, & its predecessor word, could be dropped. Line 1 sees WB going back to his obsession, although it is not as strained as it could be in a lesser poet’s hands as the word is used as an audio sleight-of-ear for ‘life’. To really give the 1st whole sentence zing WB should have found a way to make light refer to ‘a state of airiness’. Nonetheless, while he fails at maximizing the line’s & word’s potentials he does do more than your average poet would. The description of MY, in line 3, as ‘a hounded maid’ is odd since it is so unlike the real MT. Even trying to think of it in relation to her being a virgin to death really strains the poetic conceit level. But the idea would not be bad if WB did something with it later in the poem. Instead, it juts out as an odd, unpolished curio. The train & leaving sequence is good, but then we get the teeth-gnashing cliché so prevalent in Russian verse: Daughter of Moscow. Okay, I can live with it, simply because the poem is an homage & 1 could pass it off as a tip of the hat. The whole Egyptian motif strains, though, especially the ship of death thing. Ship of being, in the title & last line, is unique, but ship of death sucks ass- & I don’t give a damn for the rationalizers who would argue the Egyptian connection- it’s still a cliché. The end of the poem is a bit of a muddle, but technically it’s a sound poem. In truth, this poem would provoke alot of comment if someone brought it to the Uptown Poetry Group, because its many pros & cons would fuel a good healthy debate.
  But, WB has done better- let’s look at a better sonnet & scope out why it is better. This is a poem that invokes many a Breughel-type poem, written by many a poet, especially W.H. Auden’s triumphal Musée Des Beaux Arts.


Domination Of Miracle


The boy, skating wildly on the North Sea
frozen along a Danish strand, goes home
after inspecting polar gulls. There he
studies the Book of Wonders: killer foam
in the Red Sea, an old man smiting rocks
for water, words the finger of god penned
on holy stone. But why must human clocks
tick only forward? Desperately a friend
asks me if I believe in reincarnation.
I don’t. Anyway, we’d forget, I tell
her. Time is law. Even that boy’s elation
on the black ice is my concoction. Yet
nothing but miracles. Love is our hell
and miracle, burning till we forget.


  Okay- let’s get the bad out of the way- the last sentence is atrocious; especially Love is our hell & burning. But, that aside, the rest of the poem is good & interesting. 1st off the title is interesting. Yes, quasi-religious, but also quite Stevensian, or- more properly- a good solid title for some philosophical rumination. We start off with a scene very much the mindset of Europe’s Little Ice Age of a few centuries past- Hans Brinker & all. But, just as we are set for some Hans Christian Andersen-type parable to unwind we get a recession into the child’s mind, as he, instead, studies Biblical lore. This forms the connection between the real & the read, fervor (the boy’s skating madness- an often trite  word here used very well, for its unexpectedness) & calm (his studying of that which often brings forth fervor is also a nice inversion of the expected), & this ushers itself right into science/philosophy. We get the semi-rhetorical question. Is it the boy’s fervor or calm which has led him here? & is either the miracle the title points to? Now we get the filmic pan out/dissolve. We have left the boy & entered the speaker’s/poet’s mind- or is the boy now the speaker/poet? A return to religious pondering, then to science’s nipple. Then we sally quickly back to the boy- which we now suspect is definitely a separate entity from the speaker, if not his ‘concoction’. This serves 2 dramatic purposes: 1st it establishes the speaker’s total authority over the poem’s domain (as well as authorship- 2 separate things), but secondly- & more dramatically cogent- we get the compression of time, which serves to silently underscore the oneness of all things, including science & religion. Yet, on a skim the poem, to this point, could be read as a semi-interesting tale of some guy’s philosophical thrusts & parries. To this point this poem is on par with WHA’s masterpiece. In fact, it’s probablt better since it accomplishes much of the same in a far more compressed (read- poetic) way. Unfortunately, as pointed out, after this it tanks into cliché. Oh well- that knocks it from being a great sonnet (95+ range) to being just a very good sonnet (85-89 range).
  I could go on & speculate why WB let this poem swing in the wind, so to speak, but I’d rather do something more instructive before I give a few examples of WB’s sonnets that are total home runs. Let’s look at another sonnet of WB’s that has great potential, but which fails to reach it, explain why, then compare it to a similarly themed sonnet that actually does reach its potential as a round-tripper. The sonnets in question are WB’s Bloated With Light, Eve Faces Her Memory Of God The Rapist & my own sonnet from my 1st Omnisonnets collection, The Rape Of Mary. The idea of Mary being raped by God is not new. It precedes the Christian mythos & goes all the way back to the animist myths of gods invading or occupying the bodies of people, The many mythic ½-man/½-animal creatures are often the progeny of such unions. Many a great poet (you know the names) has tackled the Classical version of this myth: Leda & the swan. Let’s look at WB’s attempt:


Bloated With Light, Eve Faces Her Memory Of God The Rapist


And darkness God called night. Yet that expanse
was weakness, thirst for an Edenic morning,
hunger for voyage in the south and trance
of reckless angels raping Eve. All warning
of their corruption went unheard. God held
to vision as he spent his rod, and never
fell into sleep. The fowl of the air yelled
into the face of creation. Then letter
by letter, texts of darkness cooled away,
and even during lunar eclipse, Eve found
no cliff of shadow. Nervous, sticky, sick
from God, bloated with light, she smelled the ground,
his sperm, his unkissed fire, and lit the wick
of memory. That brilliance God called day.


  An okay poem, with alternating good parts & clichés. The last 3½ lines, again, is where the poem goes awry. It would seem WB is not a good finisher of poems. Also, the quasi-Biblical cant is never put to any real purpose, save to announce the tale’s provenance, which is manifest. Its purpose is really to make the straightforward description of the aftertime more vivid. But the description is so straightforward it’s really prose- & this single sentence ‘Nervous, sticky, sick/from God, bloated with light, she smelled the ground,/his sperm, his unkissed fire, and lit the wick/of memory.’, itself, contains 4 clichés! Not to mention the clichéd redundant nod to the title. Also, the turn toward the nastiness comes too late to shock, & too early to end the poem with a bang- even were it bang-worthy. But the music is solid, & turns of phrases like ‘The fowl of the air yelled/into the face of creation’ & ‘letter/by letter, texts of darkness cooled away’ show why WB is the best living published sonneteer, & balance out the wretched sentence named above. What they actually symbolize is open to interpretation, but they are jarring & apropos, respectively.
  However, the Scriptural cant & the clichés really blunt this poem from being on a par with, say, Yeats’ Leda And The Swan. That’s not true of my sonnet, The Rape Of Mary. Bearing in mind where WB’s poem goes south from immortality, let’s read mine & do a side-by side:


The Rape Of Mary


This void is that she could never swallow:
  when behind the ravening marketplace,
  that pit of commerce, the alley growing
  darker with each step, where that day expunged

  the moment it happened- removed her space-
  from within. She encompassed its shudder,
  or so she dreamt. She thought, then, tomorrow
  she could begin to love this difference plunged 

  beyond her Lord. But that feral smile,
  his mortal smells filled the Holy Mother
  hung on a fiction that could never be: 


  the virgin's delight; the rapist plowing
  past her desire to be defiled-
    O to be fucked so immaculately!

Bloated With Light, Eve Faces Her Memory Of God The Rapist


And darkness God called night. Yet that expanse
was weakness, thirst for an Edenic morning,
hunger for voyage in the south and trance
of reckless angels raping Eve. All warning
of their corruption went unheard. God held
to vision as he spent his rod, and never
fell into sleep. The fowl of the air yelled
into the face of creation. Then letter
by letter, texts of darkness cooled away,
and even during lunar eclipse, Eve found
no cliff of shadow. Nervous, sticky, sick
from God, bloated with light, she smelled the ground,
his sperm, his unkissed fire, and lit the wick
of memory. That brilliance God called day.


  Let me start with stating the usage of a very underrated poetic technique: line placement- in my sonnet’s case indentation. The 1st & last line’s indentation suggest that the poem is a series of subsets- implying that each indentation presents something that may be a memory or fantasy or tangential thing to what preceded it. The fact that the break into 4 stanzas is not dependent on the indentation sets up an internal structural tension between a steady development of 1 thing from another & a desire to isolate things per stanza. That this struggle relates to the internal psycho-emotional state of Mary is not coincidental. WB’s poem, however, is just a straightforward let’er rip sonnet. No Biblical cant her- we plunge straight ahead to sudden jarring effect: This void is that she could never swallow. Note how the 2 poem’s play off of 2 truisms about rape. WB’s tackles the aftereffects with clichés: ‘sick/from God, bloated with light, she smelled the ground,/his sperm, his unkissed fire, and lit the wick/of memory’, while my poem tackles the idea of the rape fantasy fulfilled: ‘she could begin to love this difference plunged’. Not a cliché there, eh? WB’s Mary reacts by being sick while my Mary merely experiences: ‘his mortal smells filled the Holy Mother’. While the last 3½ lines doom WB’s sonnet from greatness the last 3 lines in mine cements my sonnet’s place in the pantheon of great sonnets- especially the last line, which is 1 of the all-time socko endings.
  My point is not self-congratulation, but to show why this particular poem misses, compared to a similarly themed poem, as well to compare it to some of his own sonnets which scrape toward greatness. Speaking of which- let us now examine a truly great sonnet by WB- 1 of, arguably 10-20 such great sonnets out of the 501 the book boasts.


Li Qingzhao And The Moon


Reading the lonely poems of Li Qingzhao,
seeing her lying drunk, her hairpins on
the courtyard table as she mourns the bamboo
bed empty of her legal lover, gone
beyond the sky and her apricot tree
I know those geese and bugles that explode
her evening in the late Song dynasty
signal her unique sorrow on the road
of the blue lotus. By the Eastern Wall
her lord and friend fell into mist. Yet in
that same small garden of their scholar’s house
they’d shared a passion for old scrolls, and when
he went (turning her moon to ink), in all
the world her grieving happened only once.


  Note how this sonnet bests WB’s prior detailed efforts. Let us recall some of the flaws that kiboshed them: hit & miss titles, clichés, failure to maximize verbal duplicity, weak (real & comparitive) endings. His strengths are solid form, occasional memorable phrasing, & good soliloquizing. Let’s see which of those traits apply here. 1st off, this poem does not fall in to the trap most Western white intellectuals bumble in to- that of conflating all things Eastern with Nirvana, & all things Western as sin-laden. While it has some standard Chinese poetic markers (Classical accoutrements) such as drunkenness, hairpins, bamboo, lotus, & gardens, they are not clichés because they merely place the speaker within the poem- they do not dominate the poem, they merely set it up. But the ending is the clincher: ‘in all/the world her grieving happened only once’. This could have been written by (& is worthy of) the preternaturally Modernist Li Po, rather than the many imitators the centuries have spawned. It’s reflective, distanced, yet touching- no mawk invades. In other words, this sonnet is more in the tradition of a Kenneth Rexroth (who used pseudonymic entities to masque his own work), rather than Poetic pillagers as Gary Snyder or W.S. Merwin. Other memorable phrases are ‘geese and bugles that explode/her evening’ & ‘signal her unique sorrow on the road/of the blue lotus. By the Eastern Wall’- yes, it is a poetic phrase, despite being 2 sentences (this is poetry, remember?), & ‘when/he went (turning her moon to ink)’.
  So, we see that WB was capable of doing his best Barry Bonds imitation. Let’s look at another gem:


New York Baglady Waking Up Enviably In An Orchard


The subway. I am sleeping by an old
baglady who has dropped into the blur
down in the mind where she rolls freely, rolled
like pebbles bouncing up under the sur-
face of acosmic sea. Inside and black.

She drowns, she swims back, space whitens into light,
the sleeping sea is glowing void (I lack
a word for it), and in the luminous night
she drinks its firmament, a photograph
of nothing, free of soul. After her time
of shopping carts, the woman wakens in
an orchard. Subway life was a long sin
of dreamlessness. I envy her bad rhyme
of hope, even her worried choking laugh.


  Here is a poem that truly is poetic & uses plain speech- that desiderata old William Carlos Williams aimed for & fell short of all but a handful of times. Note the nice enjambments mid parentheses & mid-word. The music is solid- not too musical to distract from the tale, but just enough to zip it along. The description of the acosmic sea midway is strong- even with the asides of the speaker’s failure to describe it. The conceits of the last 2 sentences really push the poem over the top into the great category, yet we end up with a very ‘real’ image. Most poets hope to pen a poem (sonnet or not) as good as this. Few do. The fact that the poem is also fiercely political may come as a shock to those used to the screeds that pass for such nowadays. The speaker is, after all, dreaming the poem. He has distanced himself from her presumed ‘real’ situation by going into the fantasy realm. Even there her poverty grips him. How many other poets would have displayed middle class disinterest in the poor in such a way? Not any published poets I’ve read. It makes me believe that there are simply some poets for whom form is essential in maximizing their talents. WB is a perfect example. I doubt he’d come near the power of this poem in free verse. Recall the blandeur of these lines he penned in free verse on more dreaming:


My soul feeds on foreign flicks
or loneliness, terror, and a flirting pit


of light. A loner among friends,
at night I take a sleeping pill
that wakes me up to dream and dream.


  But, WB is not a single format sonneteer- he’s, as my dad would say, voisatial. He can write seemingly light sonnets that have surprising depth. Think of how ‘cutesy’ the following poem could be in a lesser poet’s hands:


Talking With Ink


Don’t cry
for me.
To be
and die
is what
we are:
a cut,
a scar
of love,
and then
the slow
fade of
pain. Pen,
don’t go.


  Great sonnet? No. But good. Compare it to much of the WCW-Robert Creeley-type Minimalism; or worse, that of their acolytes. Yes, this poem has some near-clichés, but the short line lengths minimize their impact. The admonition at poem’s end rings very plaintive & believable. Let me wind up this essay with another WB moonshot, explain its excellence, & wrap this Seek essay up:


Days In The Turkestan Desert


Our Russian prop plane has a busted right-
side engine. We’ve been waiting two
days for the motor to come. Aliki and I hike
a few hours. “Some tea?” Nomad Turks are cooking stew
and skewing lamb. A feast. We join. It’s cold.
One fellow asks me to wrestle. We talk Chinese.
Neither of us are good at it. I fold
my wallet in my shirt, seize
his leg. We roll. Everyone is laughing. When
I’m licked, Aliki and I thank everyone again
for good food and we wander to a small
abandoned mosque. It’s a stone eyeball. We climb
inside. Goathorns in the sand, God in the wind through all
the small broken windows. Peace dazes time.


  Again, musical but plainspoken. Note how much of a story is contained in just 14 lines. Some more enjambments which pull you along in the rather Joe Friday telling. But this is 1 of those sonnets/poems whose music is not dependent on alliteration/assonance/rime, although this has its share. Rather, the poem has a ‘music of action’- the things described each build upon the last thing. It’s only in the last 3 lines that the poem gets self-consciously ‘poetic. But it works. A mosque as stone eyeball, & the final descriptions make this almost seem a mini-David Lean epic. & what a finisher to end the poem. Of all the ways to imply or show bliss, we get the conquest of time itself.
  Now, I could go on from here & detail further some other great sonnets & some others that miss, as well as explain why. But, I think these poems & fragments have given a fair representation of WB’s flaws & virtues, with the latter outstripping the former with ease. Yes, some poems are weak, even the sonnets. But, I would say that even where the poems are not his best (even the free verse) WB stands out as 1 of the few worthwhile published poets today (not named John Ashbery) who is foremost an idea poet. What impresses me is that he rarely let’s his ideas get in the way of the poem’s ideas. As example I would use his religious bent, & his refusal to let that seep in to poems where it would intrude. But, most of all, the man’s poetry should be read for his sonnets, because- at least until my own Omnisonnets see print- WB’s TSR sonnets are the best contemporary sonnets to be had. Get them, even if you can only get them through his Selected, because putting up with some mediocre free verse is a small fee for the great sonnetry you’ll find.

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