And Five More American Poets: Stevens, Swenson, Rukeyser, Lowell and Ashbery

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens

The Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard.
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

May Swenson

May Swenson


is The Nude Descending a Staircase
a circular one.

See the undersurfaces of the spiral treads
and the spaces in between.

She is descending and at the same
time ascending and she moves around herself.

For she is the staircase
“a protoplasmic framework an internal scaffolding

that twists and turns.”
She is a double helix mountain and dismounting

around the swivel of her imaginary spine.
The Nude named DNA can be constructed

as a model with matches and a ribbon of tape.
Be sure to use only 4 colors on 2 white strands

of twistable tape.
“Only matches of complementary colors

may be placed opposite each other.
The pairs are to be red and green

and yellow and blue.”
Make your model as high as the Empire

State Building and you
have an acceptable replica of the Nude.

But and this is harder you must make her move
in a continuous coil

and you must make her increase
while at the same time occupying the same field.

She must be made “to maintain a basic topography”
changing yet remaining stable if she

is to perform her functions which
is to produce and reproduce the microsphere.

Such a sphere is invisible to but
omnipresent in the naked eye

of The Nude.
It contains “a central region and

an outer membrane” making it able to divide
“to make exact copies of itself without limit.”

The Nude has “the capacity for replication
and transcription” of all genesis.

She ingests and regurgitates
the genetic material it being

the material of her own cell-self.
From single she becomes double and

from double single.
As a woman ingests the demon sperm and with

the same membrane regurgitates
the mitotic double of herself

upon the slide of time
so the DNA molecule produces with a little pop

as the waistline of its viscous drop
a new microsphere the same size as herself

which proceeds singly to grow
in order to divide

and double itself.
So from single to double and double to single and

mounting while descending she expands while contracts
she proliferates while disappearing

at both of her ends.
Remember the red can only be

opposite green and blue opposite yellow.
Remember that the complementary pairs

of matches must differ slightly in length
“for nature’s pairs can be made only with units

whose structures permit an interplay of forces
between the partners.”

I fixed a blue match opposite a red
match of the same length

in defiance of the rules pointed them away
from the center on the double-stranded tape.

I saw laid a number of eggs on eggs on the sticky side
of a twig.

I saw a worm with many feet grow out
of an egg.

The worm climbed the twig a single helix and
gobbled the magnified edge of a leaf

in quick enormous bites.
It then secreted out of itself a gray floss

with which it wrapped itself tail first and so on
until it had completely muffled

and encased itself head last as in a mummy pouch.
I saw plushy irridescent wings push moistly out

of the pouch.
At first glued

together they began to part.
On each wing I saw a large blue eye

open forever in the expression of resurrection.
The new Nude released the flanges of her wings

stretching herself to touch
at all points the outermost rim of the noösphere.

I saw that for her body from which the wings expanded
she had retained the worm.

Muriel Rukeyser

Muriel Rukeyser

The Speed of Darkness


Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis
Whoever despises the penis despises the cunt
Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child.

Resurrection music, silence, and surf.


No longer speaking
Listening with the whole body
And with every drop of blood
Overtaken by silence

But this same silence is become speech
With the speed of darkness.


Stillness during war, the lake.
The unmoving spruces.
Glints over the water.
Faces, voices. You are far away.
A tree that trembles.

I am the tree that trembles and trembles.


After the lifting of the mist
after the lift of the heavy rains
the sky stands clear
and the cries of the city risen in day
I remember the buildings are space
walled, to let space be used for living
I mind this room is space
this drinking glass is space
whose boundary of glass
lets me give you drink and space to drink
your hand, my hand being space
containing skies and constellations
your face
carries the reaches of air
I know I am space
my words are air.


Between between
the man : act exact
woman : in curve senses in their maze
frail orbits, green tries, games of stars
shape of the body speaking its evidence


I look across at the real
vulnerable involved naked
devoted to the present of all I care for
the world of its history leading to this moment.


Life the announcer.
I assure you
there are many ways to have a child.
I bastard mother
promise you
there are many ways to be born.
They all come forth
in their own grace.


Ends of the earth join tonight
with blazing stars upon their meeting.
These sons, these sons
fall burning into Asia.


Time comes into it.
Say it. Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.


blazing beside me
you rear beautifully and up—
your thinking face—
erotic body reaching
in all its colors and lights—
your erotic face
colored and lit—
not colored body-and-face
but now entire,
colors lights the world thinking and reaching.


The river flows past the city.

Water goes down to tomorrow
making its children I hear their unborn voices
I am working out the vocabulary of my silence.


Big-boned man young and of my dream
Struggles to get the live bird out of his throat.
I am he am I? Dreaming?
I am the bird am I? I am the throat?

A bird with a curved beak.
It could slit anything, the throat-bird.
Drawn up slowly. The curved blades, not large.
Bird emerges wet being born
Begins to sing.


My night awake
staring at the broad rough jewel
the copper roof across the way
thinking of the poet
yet unborn in this dark
who will be the throat of these hours.
No. Of those hours.
Who will speak these days,
if not I,
if not you?

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell

Skunk Hour

(For Elizabeth Bishop)

Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.


John Ashbery

John Ashbery

Words to That Effect

The drive down was smooth
but after we arrived things started to go haywire,
first one thing and then another. The days
scudded past like tumbleweed, slow then fast,
then slow again. The sky was sweet and plain.
You remember how still it was then,
a season putting its arms into a coat and staying unwrapped
for a long, a little time.

It was during the week we talked about deforestation.
How sad that everything has to change,
yet what a relief, too! Otherwise we’d only have
looking forward to look forward to.
The moment would be a bud
that never filled, only persevered
in a static trance, before it came to be no more.

We’d walked a little way in our shoes.
I was sure you’d remember how it had been
the other time, before the messenger came to your door
and seemed to want to peer in and size up the place.
So each evening became a forbidden morning
of thunder and curdled milk, though the invoices
got forwarded and birds settled on the periphery.

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