Whole Earth Poem Catalog

Is there any blank space left for a new poem, old subjects?

Does this sound familiar? You are hit by a wave of missing someone you will never see again. You get that fizzy signal that a poem-to-be would consider coalescing if you could stop doing anything else, and no sooner do you locate a working pencil when … oh darn (you say, shutting down the engines): Bishop already wrote it.

And then, how can you write it? And then, of course, how can’t you, since the writing of poetry does not require reinventing human beings. I have had this experience so often that I decided to make a party game from it—first, to identify those poems that seem to cover all the territory of my particular sense of the human condition; and second, to figure out where on earth I might express my own perception of age-old archetypal repetitions. This wall’s been written on! Is there any blank space left for a new poem, old subjects?

So, part the first. Around the time I started hitting what I thought of as repeats, I got the picture of a globe, and the globe represented the circumference of my thoughts. There were the landmasses and the oceans, and the masters had written so adroitly about life that they had covered the whole thing with a few deft, cosmically massive poems. Here is the handful of poems that cover the thought-world particular to me:

Poem Without an End” by Yehuda Amichai

“Under One Small Star” by Wisława Szymborska

The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth

Adam’s Curse” by W.B. Yeats

“Brief for the Defense,” by Jack Gilbert (this can alternate with “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski)

One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

I have a B-list, too: poems that cover nation-states within the continents, such as “St. Roach” by Muriel Rukeyser; “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room” by Wordsworth; and “Broom” by Deborah Digges. I don’t really think you can speak to all of life with six poems—this is just a party game, not a manifesto! One of the worthwhile things about middle age (I like to find them) is that by this time we know the repetition of an experience means, almost surely, that a small audience’s worth of the people in the room have also found themselves in the same spot. It can be any spot. We know the archetypal gestures handed down through the ages like a woman drying her hands on her apron, but somewhere along the line we understand that the most private of thoughts occur to the majority as well. Read Tolstoy’s depiction of what goes on in the mind of Anna Karenina. Why, the man has put a Dictaphone in my brain case! you say in alarm, and then just resign yourself to the fact that, um, well, we’re only human.  

Part the second. Why these poems? I’ll just mention what I take to be salient characteristics of each, reductive as that will be. Let’s start small, with Amichai's “Poem Without an End” (translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell). It begins:

Inside the brand-new museum
there’s an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
is me.
Inside me
my heart.

Like many beloved pieces of literature, “Poem Without an End” telescopes one way we find meaning—through the sense of microcosm embedded one thing to another. When Melville’s Ishmael says something to the effect that the timbered body of a whaling ship in construction resembles nothing so much as the skeletal body of a whale itself, the reader is alerted to the resonance that shuttles between the two and weaves a larger comment about the intimacy of their relationship at the same time. These relationships cohere the world of those who enjoy them. So it is with Amichai’s little poem. It reminds me of a travel cup (or traveling cup, as my grandfather called them) that folds into itself, the better to fit into a suitcase, as the metaphors here are enfolded in the speaker and then in us. And, also like other beloved poems, the dynamic of the poem seems to speak to the construction and dynamic and endlessness of poetry as a whole. As Ezra Pound translated Li Po to say in “Exile's Letter”: “What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking— / There is no end to things in the heart.”

Endlessness as a dizzying part of existence comes to me before I can articulate it myself in Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us.” It begins: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—”

His sonnet holds a cosmic conversation about our spiritual estrangement from the pagan world of born because of our consumption by the world of made in which we are never at peace, never just being. But I also understand “getting and spending” in my own life as the incessant tide of doing what we need to do to survive. There is also the kind of getting and spending evinced by my kitchen fridge every time I open it: Hey, what’s here? If I use up these salad greens tonight, I can buy more, fresh stuff tomorrow.

It never ends there, or anywhere else. I might like to rest from the inhale, exhale, the spiritual pacing, the to-ing and fro-ing of getting and spending, living and dying, which un-mathematically seem to add up to a sense of depletion, not neutrality. Though Wordsworth touts nature as a sanctuary from life’s consumerism, middle age has compromised my experience of nature, because time seems to speed up as we get older. As a result, I see Vanitas at every bloom; looking at a peony in its prime, I foresee the fallen petals. My sense of “prime” itself has lost its integrity! The conundrum of how to Be. Here. Now—where now is not a dominating foreshadowing of sooner or later—hums around my experience, inviting instruction from mainstream Buddhist teachers such as Pema Chödrön and whatever inner voice can remember to keep order among the minutes. By using the same two rhymes for the first two quatrains—ABBA, ABBA—then knitting those with three times CD, CD, CD, Wordsworth emphasizes the structure of beauty and how we might yearn to be in its secure hold. Who doesn’t like to say:

The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune….

The drama of the progression suits me many a day. Nothing feels right, often feels exactly right.

Szymborska also considers the heedless, invasive clanging of one experience against another in her poem “Under One Small Star.” The first English translation to hit our shores, by Sharon Olds, appeared in the 1982 Quarterly Review of Literature, Poetry Series 23, as “Under This Little Star,” and the stellar poet Stephen Ackerman copied the whole issue for me because he heard its remarkable call above the din. As majestic a poem as I am likely to love in this world, it describes the human condition’s yoked ironies like unsuited bedfellows fighting over the bed’s one pillow. Here is another translation of it, by Joanna Trzeciak, with the slightly different title of “Under a Certain Little Star:”

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity in case I’m mistaken.
Don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you for my own.

As the poem goes on, the speaker says, “May the dead forgive me that their memory’s but a flicker…. My apologies to an old love for treating a new one as the first,” encapsulating our clownish inability to manage time (after all this while!). She goes on, “Forgive me, far-off wars, for carrying my flowers home. / Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.” Awful to synopsize or bypass any of it, but in its whole, I see Szymborska’s poem as a younger generation’s “The World Is Too Much With Us,” because it talks about the inability to live in the isolation of any one moment. To that conflict, her lines progressively color in our helplessness and guilt. As the lines depict our involuntary awareness of suffering, the poem crescendos like a glacier taking a pebble, then a rock, then the whole side of a mountain with it. Its early lines, “Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger,” absorb experience until they say, “My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere. / My apologies to all for not knowing how to be every man and woman.” And, finally, the poem ends with an apology to language and the ambitions to “borrow weighty words, / and then labor to make them light.” Who has not hesitated, when poised to pluck the daisy of a feeling, by the looming bulk and shadow of one she feels more global, urgent, or worthy? If I fail to distract myself from this competition, it plays out in any given hour, or maybe is always playing out.

The crime against language described by Szymborska brings us, of course, to Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse,” in which, early on, he defines the poet’s role as exactly that.

I said: ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

This Atlantic Ocean of a poem not only defines the shoptalk of the craft but connects that work to a protest poem about the entire human condition. Within its two connected sonnets and final fractured one, the poem describes the Bible-based terms for humankind that we have come to associate with the fall of Eden and with which we live daily: men [sic] have to labor to make a living, women have to labor to birth the living and be beautiful, and the poets have to labor to birth beauty while making it appear labor-less, as if tying a bow. I bump up against this poem in my thoughts so habitually that it has become one of the few I have inadvertently memorized, which also speaks to the poem’s thrilling dynamic between form and content. Yeats’s masterful ability to “articulate sweet sounds together” regenerates the poem through time. And the poem’s tenets always judge what I write and read. We don’t know why labor should hide itself, do we? We know only that we trip down the stairs on the clutter of those poems whose lines fail to persuade us it has.

When I first read Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense,” I was smashed by the sure feeling that it was the poem everyone I know has been trying to write his or her whole life, including me. All those drafts, poems, chapbooks, and volumes—here were bettered in 30 lines. It begins:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

Oy. But Gilbert begins his majestic save by next writing: “But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.”

What is the place of beauty in civilization? How can we reconcile not joining up with Doctors Without Borders? While those questions may not be everyone’s, I feel they do bleed up from the heart of work I love. More than any other poem that I have taken to heart, Gilbert’s poem articulates the use of happiness in the world and, by extension, the poet’s attempted reconciliation between making art (that might satisfy the self and others) and facing very real grievousness. How can we even allow ourselves to “articulate sweet sounds together”? After his first description of suffering, Gilbert offers his first entreaty about the role of delight: “But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.” As I am more rooted in Jewish liturgy than God-belief, the notion of what “God wants” doesn’t carry much truck with me. More persuasively, Gilbert argues through the principle of separation, which frames both Judaism and my own perception: you cannot have heavens if you don’t have earth, you cannot have a restful Shabbat if you don’t have the rest of the working week. Gilbert says we cannot respect the “importance” of “deprivation” if we “resist our satisfaction.” He maintains: “We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world.” Now that’s a relief. I can go back to writing because the act of delight also actualizes our respect of sorrow.

In the final straightaway, Gilbert paints life as something we see from the vantage point of a small ship “looking over to the sleeping island.” He describes the sailor–human being looking out at the island’s waterfront, closed for the night, with its “three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning,” and ends:

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

In that one assertion, the ethical obstacles between the page and me go under. But how to write anything that comes within a mile of his poem? 

In Bishop’s “One Art,” feral truth—the poet’s untamable devastation through loss—tries to outpace the speaker’s hunt through the maze of the villanelle. But we know that the inevitable capture of the ferocious through naming and articulation brought the poem into being in the first place. And you know what Robert Hass says in “Meditation in Lagunitas”: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” Losses, for poets, are like the grunt workers—“Reporting for duty, sir!”—and the daily urge to put them to work must first be okayed by the captain. Or, rather, the Bishop. She who got there and listed them first.

Part the third. How does my thinking dare speak? When this question drowns my ideas, I feel forbidden from the page, and the only cure is reading. I read whomever I admire and I notice how each writer got to the page. I see the privacy each allowed themselves within the cosmopolis of literature, like the city dweller, alone on the street with her own thoughts but inspired by public riches.

Behind it all, I have accepted that I will never know if a poem is “good.” I may know that I feel a poem is done, thanks to Seamus Heaney’s test: “When it leaves you alone and you leave it alone.” I may know that I am satisfied with it for the time being, and even that it got published. But I remember those decades when no poems were taken, and I am too well aware of those thrillingly inspired poets who don’t yet have books. Why do the politics of the publishing world starve so many of our great writers while lauding the noncommunicative? Among the armloads of stellar volumes cycling through the Brooklyn Public Library’s shelves of new books, more than what seems a fair proportion leave me hungry, mystified, and, well, angry: Whatever feat is performed on these pages, once getting through them, who would want to come back to them? Why did these heartless, shoddy, oblique, and otherwise unworthy poems get published while those deserved by the appetites of time did not?

And knowing that my own attempts may be seen in just those derogative terms by other readers, and by myself in relation to the poems that have already covered my particularized earth, I can come to the page only as a supplicant. I write the poems as little missives pushed under the door of one of the great poems: I’m just a little note on a ripped piece of paper. The dialectic between inspiration and intimidation can resemble the zigzag of lacing up sneakers; if I get to the last eyelet, I can tie the bow and walk the mind’s hallway to the page. And though I will never know if my poem is good, I can know I tried to make it so, because I took delight in the art, studying at the feet (ha) of these experience-covering poems, and the thousands of others that have offered instructional beauty. I will know only that I was allowed the luxury of living a middle-class life in the (mostly) free world of New York City, with the time to read and the grace of a life-force direction to respond in kind, as best I could, to everything.

Originally Published: May 29th, 2013

Jessica Greenbaum’s first book, Inventing Difficulty (Silverfish Review Press, 1998), won the Gerald Cable Prize. Her second book, The Two Yvonnes (2012), was chosen by Paul Muldoon for Princeton’s Series of Contemporary Poets. She is the poetry editor for upstreet and lives in Brooklyn. She received a 2015 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the...

  1. May 29, 2013

    Makes me wish I could attend your poetry workshop but, alas, NYC is too far to drive. Bishop's poem still gives me goosebumps every time.

  2. May 30, 2013
     Surazeus Simon Seamount

    I agree that the best poems integrate
    sorrow of human experience with words
    that express fierce struggle of human will
    to create meaning from chaos of life.

    So much has been sung about human life,
    yet so much of life has yet to be sung.

  3. June 3, 2013
     Michelle Boisseau

    Valiant and valuable essay/assay! Thank you, Jessica.

  4. June 4, 2013
     Giuliano Jones

    Whose oblique? I do not think fury is warranted simply on the
    grounds that you cannot accept things outside the purview of your
    own experience. You are looking for reconciliation through
    similarity, not expansion through difference. It's sad to hear that
    surrender is your reaction to aporia. Poetry is an act itself with the
    capability to alter and shape consciousness and reframe the
    conditions of our relations to the world. It is a shame to use such a
    vital, powerful medium as the word for a poetics of defeat and

  5. June 8, 2013
     Mary Oak

    Not only a reflection on the power/ place of poetry- this rich offering
    illumines an understanding into a prime selection of instructional poems.
    Some familiar, seen through your eyes, others a new invitation.

    Thank you!

  6. June 8, 2013
     Mack Hall, HSG

    What a well-thought-out and accessible essay! Thank you!

  7. June 11, 2013
     clark cook

    An excellent survey of some superb poetry, some old friends, some new for eager future reading. The opening angst--concern that whatever topic one has in mind has probably already been "taken"--strikes me as a non-issue. Of COURSE it has already been "taken". The old adage, "There's nothing new under the sun", holds true. Surely, the subjects of modern poetry are the subjects of the Ancients. What we CAN and do offer is our unique vision of the Old, our stylistic take on the abiding truths that have fueled poets since the first storyteller shaped a tale around the tribal fire. "True wit is Nature to advantage drest / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well exprest", declares Alexander Pope. That's our job. That's our genius, when we can pull it all together. If the quest of the modern poet could be stated in a succinct phrase, perhaps it would be--the Search for Form. We could do ourselves a favour
    in times of doubt or blankness to re-read Theseus' oft-quoted lines from MSND, beginning "The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling......."

  8. June 15, 2013
     vivek iyer

    This sounds like the idea, in topology, of a cover of a
    set. Very interesting to see such (to my mind) disparate
    poems constituting a cover. I'm familiar with the notion
    of the poet as inhabiting the narrow isthmus between two
    poets, or two texts- this is the 'barzakh' of the
    Ghazal- which also has the meaning of an imaginal limbo-
    like the bardo thodol of the Tibetans- and the manner in
    which the property of compactness arising from the
    consciousness of being this vanishing limit can really
    drive 'meaning-creation' and 'fresh idiom'. The
    complicating factor here is the author has a six
    dimensional cover- which I can't visualise, but imagine
    to be some weird shape like a Klein bottle- so I can
    well see that this expanded universe of reference is
    going to add to the cognitive burden of the poet. Is
    that a good thing? For good poets, maybe, I guess..

  9. July 18, 2013
     jenan nepal

    i hope this would do good to those who want to do really
    good in poetry.

  10. August 3, 2013
     don nelson

    sensitive and wonderful author photo