Four by four. . . the first poetry quartet introduces four poets who should be better known

Followers of this column, or welcome visitors, can expect to meet many of the great poets who wrote in English: Shakespeare and Keats, Browning and Yeats, Dickinson and Frost, and the occasional sneak in from Ogden Nash . But our in-house first poem quartet and I like to focus on poets who are not often celebrated, and in this column we’ll meet four of our favorites: two men, two women, two British, two an American.

First, let us introduce Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), a distinguished poet, playwright, Harvard professor, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, very literati. Like Geoffrey Chaucer many centuries ago, MacLeish also held important government positions such as Librarian of Congress, Assistant Secretary of State, and head of the U.S. delegation at the founding of UNESCO. (Chaucer served Richard II and Henry IV; MacLeish served Franklin Roosevelt, who my mother insisted was trying to become king.)

Archibald MacLeish. A poem should not mean but.

* * *

One of his most famous poems is called “Ars Poetica”, (Please see the video link below), but almost as famous is a work called “You, Andrew Marvell.” Marvel was a metaphysical poet who wrote “If We Had Enough Worlds and Time,” which MacLeish glorified by describing the overnight decline of empires and civilizations.

here face down in the sun
altitude at noon on earth
to feel that it is always happening
The nightclub rises:

Feel the climb up the crooked east
Dusk and the slow dirt chill
under the earth
Climbing shadow grows

The trees in Ekbatan are strange
strange night
The darkness that floods their knees
Changes in the Persian Mountains

Now at the gate of Kerman Shah
dark hay
Through the twilight it’s too late
Few travelers westbound

Baghdad darkens, bridges
through the silent river
across the borders of Arabia
open in the evening

Dive deep into the streets of Palmyra
rut on broken stone
Lebanon Fade and Crete
high through the clouds

sicilian sky
Still twinkling with land seagulls
faintly disappear
Sail above shaded hull

Spain down to shore
Africa’s gilded beaches
The night is gone, no more
The faint pale light that passes through the land

Now it is no longer a long light on the sea:

here face down in the sun
How fast and how secret
Night falls. . .

Note: The skip before the last three lines is intentional.

In my formative years, I greatly admired Archibald MacLeish. I never met him, but I served in the military with his son Bill, who also became a fine writer.

* * *

Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin. Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three.

You might be surprised to learn that an important poet of the past few decades is a librarian who has been hiding for 30 years at a university in the north of England.His name: Philip Larkin, by era Britain’s greatest postwar writer. Larkin (1922-1985) was a gentle and unassuming lad who wrote beautifully precise poetry with a strong pessimism and taste for soft porn, often hilarious. “Deprivation is to me what daffodil is to Wordsworth,” he said. He disliked fame and turned down the Poet Laureate position. His top poetry reflects the influence of William Butler Yeats and Thomas Hardy.

Here are his thoughts on two of his favorite topics in life: “money” and “love.”

Quarterly, eh, money blames me:
“Why let me lie here in vain?
I am the commodity and sex you never had,
You can make them stand still by writing a few checks.

So I look at other people, how they handle theirs:
Of course they wouldn’t put it upstairs.
Now they have a second house, car and wife:
Apparently money is about life

– In fact, if you ask, they have a lot in common:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
No matter how you save your money, you save your money
It won’t give you more shaves in the end.

I listen to money looking down
From the long French windows of a provincial capital,
Slums, canals, churches are gorgeous and crazy
in the evening sun. This is very sad.

* * *

The hardest part of love
selfish enough
with blind persistence
disturb an existence
just for yourself.
What face it might take.

Then there’s the selfless side —
How can I be satisfied,
put others first
So you are the worst performer?
My life is for me.
and ignoring gravity.

Still, vicious or virtuous,
Love suits most of us.
Only the bloodletter was found
Selfishness the wrong way
always totally rejected,
He can get stuffed.

* * *

Eleanor Wiley.
Eleanor Wiley. We will walk in velvet shoes.

Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) appeared briefly in one of our earlier columns, but did not explore the more in-depth coverage her poetry deserves. Some might call her a social poet, in fact, Wylie was born of wealth and status, was remarkably beautiful, and was often embroiled in scandals related to the field; but her poetry was sensual, melodious, and well-crafted . Influenced by Shelley, she wrote a novel imagining him being rescued from drowning and taken to America.

One of her most famous poems is “Wild Peach,” a series of sonnets that includes the following two:

When the world is turned upside down
You said we would emigrate to the east coast
Take a cruise from Baltimore;
We shall live in wild peach groves miles from town,
You wear a raccoon fur hat, I wear a robe
The deep golden color of earthen, dyed walnut.
Lost, as you eat lotus ancestors,
We will swim in milk and honey until we drown.

Winter is short, summer is long,
Autumn amber, sunny and hot,
tasting cider and scuppernong;
All seasons are sweet, but fall is best.
A squirrel with silver fur will fall off
Like fallen leaves, like fruit, before you shoot.

When April pours out the color of the shells
On the mountain, when every creek
Shot with Chesapeake silverware
On the new beach washed by the waves,
Smooth while strawberries beg
The blue plum opens up to the black bird’s beak,
We will live well – we will live well.

months between cherries and peaches
is an overflowing cornucopia
red and purple fruits, dark and black;
Then, along fertile fields and cold river beaches
We’ll trample bright persimmons while you kill
Bronze partridge, spotted quail and canvas back.

* * *

Jenny Joseph.
Jenny Joseph. When I was an old lady, I would wear purple.

* * *

The irrepressible Jenny Joseph (1932-2018) is now little known in the US but still hugely popular in the UK, with her poem “Warning” (see video) among the most popular modern poetry polls Ranked first. Lyndon Johnson’s administrative assistant, Liz Carpenter, backed “Warning” did have a brief U.S. popularity, but other of Joseph’s poems did not receive the same exposure. It’s a shame, because her work can be quite brilliant:

A man paid 110,000 guineas for Van Gogh’s mother.
Not even the woman who breathes, but her picture.
If he met her when she was still her
I don’t think he will give her that much.

If he gets a chance to meet him, he’ll want to offer
Painter, even with enough sausage for the rest of his life?
He probably doesn’t want him in his house:
A functioning man, asleep, staring at him.

Although he had to pretend to value her
Said he was willing to give his teeth or at least his worldly wealth to save her,
I bet he wouldn’t really want to give that much money
Let his own mother sit on his couch forever.

One dog would rather have another dog
than flat;

And it’s just a dog.

PS In England, there is always time for gardening. Jenny’s memoir is called “Guided by the Nose: The Garden of Scents.” You’ll see her take on purple when we watch our video.

* * *

video: Each of our featured poets is represented by a poem. This is the program.

MacLeish. . . . . . Psalms

Larkin. . . . . . . Strange Times

willie. . . . . . . . . velvet shoes

Joseph. . . . . . . . warn

As a reenactment, the quartet played Edith Sitwell’s whirlwind “Tarantella.”

Click this link to watch the video: four by four

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