Category Archives: Poetry

Friday link: Discovering Updike country in verse

Today in Scatterville we’re taken with Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times of Tony Hoagland’s new book of poetry, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.

tonyhoagland1For one thing, that’s just a terrific title, even better than the review’s zinger of a headline (based on a quoted poem set in a grocery store), The Free Verse Is in Aisle 3.

Mostly, though, we’re happy that Mr. Hoagland has a new collection on (or in) the market, and that Mr. Garner has so cheerfully brought it to our attention.

The review draws comparisons in Hoagland’s poems to Randall Jarrell, Frank O’Hara, Marianne Moore. And we love the way that Garner fixes not just Hoagland’s poetry but an entire school in the firmament, in the process defining both what Mr. Hoagland is as a poet and what he is not:

“On a superficial level Mr. Hoagland’s poems — he writes in an alert, caffeinated, lightly accented free verse — resemble those of many writers in what one is tempted to call the Amiable School of American Poets, a group for which Billy Collins serves as both prom king and starting point guard. But Mr. Hoagland’s verse is consistently, and crucially, bloodied by a sense of menace and by straight talk.”

That makes Hoagland, in the Scatter Book of Literary Comparison, akin to the great John Updike, poet (in prose and verse) of suburban middle class unsettling awareness. Something growls, softly, beneath the placid surface. Think of that as you read these excerpts, from a poem set at a wine-tasting, that Garner quotes from Hoagland’s 2003 collection What Narcissism Means to Me:

But where is the Cabernet of rent checks and asthma medication?
Where is the Burgundy of orthopedic shoes?
Where is the Chablis of skinned knees and jelly sandwiches?
with the aftertaste of cruel Little League coaches?
and the undertone of rusty stationwagon? …

When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.
But when a man is hurt, he makes himself an expert.
Then he stands there with a glass in his hand staring into nothing
as if he was forming an opinion.

Poetry in Motion: Cast your ballot and get on board

“We have some exciting poetry news!”

T.S. Eliot, painted by Wyndham Lewis, 1938. Wikimedia CommonsPress releases starting like that don’t hit the central clearing desk at Art Scatter World Headquarters very often, so of course we dropped everything else and immediately investigated. We’ve been waiting for some exciting poetry news ever since the cat lost his hat.

What is this big news? Poetry in Motion is back on track. Regular readers may recall Mrs. Scatter’s lamentation last June over its disappearance, and her call for commuters to take matters poetical into their own hands. The program behind those printed poems posted above the seats on Tri-Met buses and trains, which is administered by Literary Arts, has been on hiatus for financial reasons. Now it’s recruited new sponsors and is ready to rhyme (or not) again. What’s more, you can vote on which poems out of thousands of possibilities you’d like to share your ride with: Vote here.

Perhaps you’d like to celebrate by writing your own poem about reading poetry on the bus. Here are a few key words:

Bus. Muss. Truss. Fuss. Cuss. Deciduous.

Now all you have to do is fill in the blanks. Happy versing!


Pictured: T.S. Eliot, painted by his friend Wyndham Lewis in 1938. Lighten up, Tom! You could be rolling on the bus! Wikimedia Commons.

Monday event: I met a traveller from an antique land

UPDATE: Ixnay on Thursday’s bell-tower raising. Word arrives that the tower hoist at Central Lutheran Church (see below) has been postponed a couple of weeks because of some last-minute troubles that the structural engineers will have to sort out. Something about board & batten siding and a connectivity issue. Sidewalk superintendents will need to rejigger their schedules.

Harald Schmitt's 1991 photo of Lenin deposed.

China Design Now, the big exhibit from the Victoria and Albert Museum about the waking of the sleeping giant, opens Saturday at the Portland Art Museum, and that’s got me thinking about the rise and fall and rise of civilizations.

We are at war in the Tigris and Euphrates, the once-verdant “cradle of civilization.” We are also at war in Afghanistan, the destroyer of empires. More pragmatic Americans, looking to the inevitable shift of world power toward the east, are trying to figure out a best-scenario future that has us looking something like Scandinavia or the Netherlands. Russia, so recently brought low, is still a shambles but is beginning to shake its fist again.

This morning I ran across the compelling image above on Art Knowledge News, announcing a show at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin of photographs by Harald Schmitt, who documented the social turmoil in Eastern Europe and China in the latter 20th century. This one, taken in Vilius, Lithuania, is titled simply Lenin, thrown from the pedestal.

And that reminded me of another visit from a ghost of empire, this one in a famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, written in 1818. Happy Monday! Anybody feeling heroic?


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


n16769Also fast approaching for Portlanders is Wordstock, the celebration of writing that sprawls over the Oregon Convention Festival this weekend. And that got me to thinking about the series of fine profiles written lately by Jeff Baker, The Oregonian’s book editor and lead critic, of some key Northwest writers. If you’ve missed them, they’re well worth your time. Baker has a way of opening up a writer’s heart and mind:

  • Tess Gallagher, the fine poet, who lives in Port Angeles and still guards the legacy of her late husband Raymond Carver while continuing to expand her own rich body of work. Read it here.
  • Portlander Katherine Dunn, maybe the world’s greatest writer about the art of boxing, whose struggles with her long-awaited next novel are legendary in literary circles. Read it here.
  • Seattle’s Sherman Alexie, maybe the best-known Native American writer alive, who likes a good laugh and loves a good fight. Read it here.


Our friend Jane, who is executive director of the Architecture Foundation of Oregon and who sometimes leaves funny comments on Art Scatter posts, passes along this tip:

The bell tower, on the rise.Sometime on Thursday the shorn-off Central Lutheran Church tower, a lamented landmark in close-in Northeast Portland that had taken a Lenin-like tumble, will rise again. Good news!

The frame was prefabricated at Western Wood Structures and delivered a week ago to the church site at Northeast 21st Avenue and Schuyler Street for reassembly in the church parking lot. (That was after a 14-month delay while wading through the building-permit process.) If all goes well, the frame will be hoisted into place sometime between 9 and 11 in the morning on Thursday. Be there if you want to watch the fun. Things are looking up!

Poem for city travelers: reading and writing on the bus


Anna Griffin’s column today in The Oregonian about poetry disappearing from buses makes my heart hurt. I love those poems, those found sparks of life, and I will sorely miss them if they disappear. Often, when I was lost in thought on the bus, I would spy one of those poems and read it over and over. I would crane my neck around other passengers to follow the lines.

Credit: TriMetPerhaps if the poetry cards go away, riders could start carrying around books of poetry — reading them, exchanging them, passing them around. TriMet could have stacks of books on the bus, donated by riders, free for the taking and dropping off again.

Perhaps riders could start writing poetry. Maybe TriMet could run its own poetry contest. It would be fitting for buses and MAX trains to run local poems. If TriMet pays to print cards anyway for public service announcements, why not some inspiring art? Worried about printing costs? Use recycled paper and Sharpies, have people write their own poems, pick the best and most legible, and paste them on the old boards. Why stop at poetry in motion? Decorate them. TriMet would be so hip. TriMet would be … so Portland.

What’s the harm? What’s to lose? Look at everything TriMet has to gain: public outreach, supporting the arts, good vibes for riders, a happier Portland, impressing tourists, giving itself a great image boost.

Maybe TriMet could spearhead various literary efforts: One week, a free ride if you have a poetry book, for instance. Another week if you have a book more than an inch thick. Another week if you have a Newbery Medal book. It could be a wonderfully organic, perfect-for-Portland kind of thing. Think of the heady, positive impact that could have.

When I had to start commuting on the bus, I didn’t entirely like the idea. I didn’t like the idea of sitting next to people who smelled like pee, or of listening to overblown phone conversations. But I quickly realized it was good head time. I liked being part of the everyday jostlings of people getting to places. The ride made me take the time to see and hear, and made my brain turn over many a matter.

My whole Henry James gig that ran in The Oregonian got its life on the bus.

Don Colburn: gravity on the bus
And that’s where I read As If Gravity Were a Theory, a book of poetry by Don Colburn.
I worked with Don at The Oregonian. He sat across from me. He whirs a whistle on occasion when a rowdy celebratory moment deserves it. He’s a health writer by day. But other times he writes beautiful, brain-tickling verse. His title poem ran in The Oregonian. It’s worth every careful winged word.

Don has no idea that I wrote a poem many months ago about reading his poetry on the bus. What poetry ride will you take? Will TriMet take up the challenge?

Don, I Read You on the Bus

Words flit by like traffic lights
blinking colors
in stop and go.

The bus bends
the way you say clouds kneel
and people file on
clinking coins
It’s gray outside.

Heads framed
by wide windows
scuzzy on the outside.
Whole bridges stand in
as backdrops
and then whiz gone.

I drop in and out
of poems
the way I drop in and out
of people.
The everyday.
I rock and sway with suspension,
re-sort my bags
and zone in
on a life sliced uneasy.
I’m lost. Forgotten.
Unconsciously counting the meter
in my head,
rewording the words
and slipping into spaces
of someone else
in some other place.

That was streets ago.
White tennis shoes
center my gaze
blue jeans
coat no hat
and the slow focus
to a face creased brown
like fresh-made paper
and lips flat quiet.

Then the woman
and the hill and the pill.
I’m stepping with her
going up and going down
lost in her rhythm
and life’s seasons

when the driver honks goodbye
to a toddler waving,
his eyes following small steps,
though his expression doesn’t change.

My eyes refocus
to a tan trenchcoat,
black hat and headphones,
a paperback with bus ticket bookmarks.
He’s lost in a John Grisham world.

Black words
make sense of
white paper
and when I read
there in your
15th and Fremont,
my stop in just a few blocks,
it’s not just a coincidence,
but another everyday thing
in a whole spectrum
of in-between colors
in in-between places.

–Laura Grimes

Call me anthological


“Anthologies of contemporary poetry, like new cars, run the risk of being obsolete within a couple years. My hope is that this one will have the lasting power of a Volkswagen at least.”
-A. Poulin, Jr., Contemporary American Poetry (1971)

9780520072275As anthologies go, the monstrous Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (2009), edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson, is a Hummer pretending to be a hybrid. Combined with its sturdy predecessors, Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry, Volume One: From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude (1996), and Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium (1998), edited by Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, with 2600 combined pages, they are a fully-loaded triple trailer.

A carrier we can use for the long haul, or a threat to others on the road? At the beginning of the new millennium, we have some time to sort it out. This is my shakedown run.

I love poetry anthologies, for reasons that can’t be duplicated with anthologies of fiction or essays. A lyric poem, after all, is itself a work of assemblage, each line a careful choice of image and word held in balance for a breath, framed in tension or in harmony with lines before and after, rounded swiftly to the close. The poetic line is a product of selection; the poem an anthology of lines. In a good anthology, we sense, in the swift space of a few poems, the range or depth of the poet, the clash or harmony of theme and emotion. In half an hour we explore the unique geography and weather of two, four or half a dozen poets, landscapes wild or domestic, an experience that can be over- or underwhelming depending on the curatorial skill of the anthologist.

No other anthology offers the same sense of immediacy or range. I very seldom read fragments or segments of novels in progress. I don’t even like isolated short stories; I need to read several at a go to feel connected to any one. So I wait for new collections by Alice Munro and T.C. Boyle, rather than read their stories singly in The New Yorker or Harper’s.

Anthologies have been the lifeblood of American poetry, the venerable Mississippi of American poetry, though poets and readers may not realize it fishing the thousands of miles of the hundreds of tributaries, pulling up sunfish and an occasional trout. Though the internet may have changed that somewhat, providing broad access to poetry and poets, there is nothing like the compact, well-thumbed anthology to provide the casual intimacy that precipitates the shock of recognition – a new poet! The discovery of good poetry is incidental to that kind of casual exploration.

Poetry also has fewer readers and wider diversity, and needs the cross-fertilization an anthology provides. I’m guessing wildly here, but if you ask 25 readers to name the top 25 fiction writers in America, I’d expect two-thirds of those named would be the same but in a different order. Ask 25 poetry readers to name the top 25 American poets and perhaps only half a dozen would be the same, and some lists might have no common names.

There are all kinds of anthologies. Some explore eternal themes such as love and anti-war. Some are gender or ethnic collections. Others are simply the 101 “best loved” poems of the last year, decade or century. Some are designed for college classroom use, providing surveys of canonical poets and representative poems, often winding a poet’s reputation tightly to a few poems before they’ve hit their stride. Some anthologies are school or movement oriented, both recognized and obscure: Futurists, Surrealists, Objectivists, Beats, confessional, or language poets. Most – and, interestingly, some of the best – are very polemical, arguing for a certain kind of poetry. Classrooms never do justice to this volatile aspect of contemporary poetry. I’m not sure how you can educate yourself in the broad landscape of American poetry, all its streams, other than through the anthologies of the day, serially “new” and “recent,” and then old and dusty and obscure in all their wild diversity.

I’m seldom more than a few feet from a poetry anthology (or a battered copy of Four Quartets, an anthology of sorts). How else to fill the time when you have a minute or two to spare, waiting for something or someone, and you crave intellectual nourishment, but a novel is too much and a Luna bar wrapper too little?
Continue reading Call me anthological

Live from Reed, it’s Gary Snyder 52 years ago

Gary Snyder , Lincoln High and Reed College graduate, made a return appearance in Portland Friday. In the Oregonian Jeff Baker reports the discovery of a tape of Gary Snyder reading at Reed College on February 14, 1956. Rather, it is a cassette copy a Reed student made twenty-five years ago from the original reel-to-reel tape that is now missing. Recall back in February of this year Scatter commented on Reed’s release of the tape of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” that same night and the likelihood that a second tape had captured Snyder’s reading, too. The release of the Ginsberg tape inspired the Reed graduate, Portland photographer Steve Halpern, to offer up the cassette he had made while doing research in Reed’s library. Baker’s story includes Snyder’s reaction to the discovery. Baker also reports that Snyder’s reading from the seminal work “Myths & Texts” gives a glimpse of how the text published in 1960 evolved from the early version he read at Reed.

Jack Kerouac wrote a fictionalized account of Snyder and Ginsberg during this time in The Dharma Bums, still my sentimental favorite among Kerouac’s novels. You can listen to the tape at Reed’s website, which also has extensive notes discussing the variations between the read and published versions of the poems. The recording is remarkably clear. Snyder’s rich outdoor voice complements nicely the environmental themes of the poems. In addition to “Myths and Texts,” Snyder read versions of poems published in later books, including Riprap (1959), although he did not read the title poem in that collection. Too bad, really, for “Riprap” is Snyder’s call to arms, hands and feet as a poet, as well as to the voice, mind and heart that grows through his work from beginning to end.
Continue reading Live from Reed, it’s Gary Snyder 52 years ago

W. S. Merwin in other words

Starting with A Mask for Janus, which W.H. Auden picked for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1952, W. S. Merwin’s first poems were written in a traditional mode, many on themes drawn from classical mythology. In the 1960s, Merwin opened up his forms, abandoned formal lines and punctuation, and infused his poems with anti-war and environmental themes. The Moving Target (1963) and The Lice (1967) revolutionized poetry in a manner different from the way the Beats did. Merwin’s poems still hit me in the gut. A mystical, searching quality sparked by everyday perception and simple language. “Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise” finds the poet recognizing gold chanterelles pushing through sleep and wondering “Where else am I walking even now / Looking for me”. He discovers that his “eyes are waiting for me / in the dusk / they are still closed / they have been waiting a long time/ and I am feeling my way toward them.” That from “Words From a Totem Animal,” Merwin’s characteristic evocation of the spirit haunting man’s relations with the natural world.

So when Kayak press published Animae, a 1200 copy chapbook, in 1969, I was ready for Merwin’s next leap into the unknown. I ordered it through a college bookstore, and when it arrived I loved immediately the paper bag feel of the green cover, the faded salmon pages. It was a shock–but not that much of a shock–to find the pages blank through the whole book. “Animae,” I thought, spirit manifest by its absence. A neat trick, and a low-budget effect, too, at $1.50, and whatever change for postage. I’ve returned to it over the years, as much probably as to any book I own with words. It is seldom listed among Merwin’s published books, and I’d never read about it until last year an academic article referenced it as containing poems about animals, as well as illustrations by Lynn Schroeder. Shocked again! Somehow, my copy ended up a misprint, or non-print. Now, of course, I see the words that are not there. I lived nearly forty years with my blank book and wish I could have it back.

Continue reading W. S. Merwin in other words

Robert Creeley: “Selected Poems, 1945-2005”

creeley.jpg The rhyme is after
all the repeated

— Robert Creeley, “For W.C.W.”

Black Mountain College, nestled in the mountains of eastern North Carolina, was small but thrived on its own terms for the 30 years it existed from the mid-1930s to mid-1950s. And thrives, perhaps, in memory because of the storied avant garde careers of teachers and students who took a turn there: Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Paul Goodman, as well as a cluster of poets that included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley (1926-2005). Creeley’s Selected Poems, 1945-2005 (University of California Press), edited by Benjamin Friedlander, has just been published, a microcosm of 60 years and some 60 volumes of work.

Creeley was inspired by jazz and abstract art and in fact collaborated with musicians, photographers and artists on various projects, a legacy of the communal atmosphere at Black Mountain. Creeley and other Black Mountain stalwarts were part of the “New American” poets anthologized by Donald Allen, but while they were associated with the Beats, they had their own clear path, a more reserved, austere form of verse that was innovative and experimental nonetheless.

One of my favorite Creeley poems is not included in Selected Poems, perhaps because it seems to be a shade romantic and sentimental. Here it is, “The Woman”:

I called her across the room,
could see that what she stood on
held her up, and now she came
as if she moved in time.

In time to what she moved,
her hands, her hair, her eyes, all things
by which I took her to be there
did come along.

It was not right or wrong
but signally despair, to be about
to speak to her
as if her substance shouted.

I read this poem in 1966 in a collection called For Love (1962),” and copied it out in my literary treasures notebook for Mrs. Wheeler’s senior English class. This was a different kind of love poem. No lips like cherries, cheeks like roses, hair like fine-spun gold – the verbal cornucopia that turned woman into an Acrimbaldo portrait. This was a real flesh and blood woman who stood across the room, held up, as it were, but not on a pedestal. The line break “what she stood on / held her up” still floors me. A simple, elegant poem, it tickles the mind and stirs the blood.
Continue reading Robert Creeley: “Selected Poems, 1945-2005”

Hear the “Howl” — Ginsberg reading Ginsberg, 1956

ginsberg_thumb.jpgSo, Allen Ginsberg comes to Portland in 1956 with his friend Gary Snyder and they spend a couple of days at Reed College. He’s 29 and just about as full of desire as a human can be. He wants to touch the firmament and he wants to savor the most exotic pleasures of the flesh, he wants to be the greatest poet ever and he wants everyone to know it, he wants to drink with the gods and use the hangover to prove that he’s caroused with them. And what separates him from just about every other ambition-drenched artist out there is that in 1956 he is carrying “Howl” in his pocket, and all the contradictions, the spirit and the flesh, the yearning for desirelessness, the hunger to be both participant and observer at the same time, have been resolved, temporarily, on the page. After reading several shorter poems on the second night, he turns to “Howl.” And, well, you should check it out.

Reed College has now posted the audio tape of Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” at the college in 1956. It’s offering a range of options (from the master tape unedited including several other poems and Ginsberg’s intro to “Howl” to an edited version of “Howl”). For the most concentrated dose, go straight to the edited “Howl.” He starts out slowly, deliberately, in a youthful version of the nasal tones that only became nosier as he aged. It picks up. Faster. Higher pitched. More intense. This isn’t the final published version of “Howl” (which wasn’t finally reached until 1986): If you follow along with the printed page, he skips around, changes the order, drops some phrases and adds others. But, after rather lackadaisically making his way through the other poems that preceded “Howl” that night (and available at the site, too), he is fully engaged with the text. He KNOWS it’s good, and tries to live up to it with his reading, even though the crowd is small (though responsive, laughing at some of the more delightfully over-the-top moments in the poem). And I was laughing too.

Listening for Allen Ginsberg

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,/angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night… “

Man. Once you start quoting “Howl” it’s hard to break it off. You could read it every night for weeks, perfecting the flow of breath needed (inhale/exhale) to keep its phrases flying skyward, to the “starry dynamo.”

Ginsberg HowlSo, what are we to make of the news today that a tape has surfaced from 1956, a tape of Ginsberg reading Part One of “Howl” to a small gathering at Reed College, where his reading mate that night, Gary Snyder, had gone to school? My first reaction: Not much. We know Snyder and his connection with the Beats and Ginsberg. We know “Howl.” The priority of this reading over the one that was taped a few weeks later in Berkeley doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

But I haven’t heard the tape, either. And as I sit here scanning that first page (“who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall..”), I want to hear Ginsberg reading it. Young Ginsberg, hot on the trail, with Snyder, who’d been with him during its composition in San Francisco the previous year. Ginsberg digging into it at Reed, surrounded by 20… what? Students? Faculty? Early Portland Beats? I don’t know, but I want to hear them breathing in the background and try to imagine what they made of it all, huddled together against the Ice Age of mid-’50s Oregon.

Proximity matters. And some part of Portland still draws from the Beat past, maybe, the part that rejects the coercion that regulates us — whether it originates in the government or the economic system or our own minds. I want to listen to the freedom in “Howl” and the sorrow, too, and see if I can smell us in there somehow. Reed is going to deliver: We can listen to the tape on Friday at the Reed website.

Meantime, here’s Jeff Baker’s interview with Snyder from Oregonlive about the night of Feb. 13, 1956.