Four by four. . . the First Poetry Quartet presents four poets who should be better known


Followers of this column, or welcome visitors, can expect to encounter many great English-language poets: Shakespeare and Keats, Browning and Yeats, Dickinson and Frost, with the occasional glimpse of Ogden Nash. But our First Poetry Quartet and I like to draw attention to poets who aren’t so often celebrated, and in this column we’ll meet four of our favourites: two men, two women, two Britons, two Americans.

To begin, let’s introduce Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), a distinguished poet, playwright, Harvard professor and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a complete man of letters. Like Geoffrey Chaucer several centuries earlier, MacLeish also held important government posts as Librarian of Congress, Assistant Secretary of State, and Chairman of the American Delegation at the founding of UNESCO. (Chaucer served Richard II and Henry IV; MacLeish served Franklin Roosevelt, whom my mother insisted he try to become king.)

Archibald McLeish. A poem should not mean but be.

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His most famous poem is called “Ars Poetica” (see video), but almost as famous is a piece called “You, Andrew Marvell”. Marvell is the metaphysical poet who wrote “Have we but enough people and time” which MacLeish embellishes by describing the fall of empires and civilizations in a passing of the night.

And here face down under the sun
And here on the height of the earth around noon
To feel the always coming
The always rising of the night:

To feel crawling towards the curved east
The earthy cold of twilight and slow
on these basements the vast
And the ever growing shadow grows

And strange in Ecbatan the trees
Take sheet by sheet the strange evening
The dark flood around their knees
The mountains above Persia are changing

And now in Kermanshah the door
The dark void and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the end
Few travelers in the pass to the west

And Baghdad darkens and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And across Arabia the edge
Evening widen and fly

And deepen in the street of Palmyra
wheel rut in ruined stone
And Lebanon fades and Crete
High through the clouds and over the top

And over Sicily the air
Always blinking with the seagulls down to earth
And slowly arise and disappear
The sails above the dark hulls

And Spain goes under and the shore
From Africa the golden sand
And the evening fades away and nothing more
The faint dim light across this land

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face down in the sun
To feel how fast and secret it is
The shadow of night appears. . .

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

In my youthful years, I had great admiration for Archibald MacLeish. I never met him, but I served in the military with his son, Bill, who also became an excellent writer.

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Philippe Larkin
Philippe Larkin. The sexual intercourse began in 1963.

You might be surprised to learn that one of the important poets of the last decades was a librarian in hiding for thirty years at a university in the north of England. His name: Philip Larkin, selected by The temperature as Britain’s greatest post-war writer. Larkin (1922-1985) was a gentle, unassuming guy who wrote polished, precise poetry with a strong streak of pessimism and a taste for soft, often hilarious porn. He said: “Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.” He disliked fame and turned down the post of poet laureate. His high-level poems reflect the influence of William Butler Yeats and Thomas Hardy.

Here’s his take on two of life’s favorite things: “money” and “love.”

Quarterly, isn’t it, the money blames me:
‘Why do you let me lie here unnecessarily?
I’m everything you ever had in goods and sex,
You could still get them by writing a few checks.

So I look at the others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
They now have a second home, a car and a wife:
It’s clear that money has something to do with life

– In fact, they have a lot in common, if you inquire:
You can’t put off your young age when you retire,
And however you cash in your screw, the money you save
In the end, it won’t buy you more than a shave.

I listen to the money sing. It’s like looking down
From the long French windows of a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the flowery and crazy churches
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

* * *

The hard part of love
It’s quite selfish
It’s having blind persistence
Turn a life upside down
Just for your own good.
What impertinence that can take.

And then the selfless side –
how to be satisfied,
put someone else first
So what are you doing the worst?
My life is for me.
Might as well ignore gravity.

Yet, vicious or virtuous,
Love suits most of us.
Only the bleeding found
Selfish in that bad way
Is always wholly repelled,
And he can get drunk.

* * *

Elinor Wylie.
Elinor Wylie. We will walk in velvet shoes.

Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) appeared briefly in one of our previous columns, but did not explore the deeper coverage her poetry deserves. Some people might call her a poet of society, and indeed Wylie was born into wealth and position, was astonishingly beautiful and often engaged in the kind of scandals that seem to go with this territory; but his poems are sensual, melodious and expertly crafted. Influenced by Shelley, she wrote a novel which imagines her being rescued from drowning and taken to America.

One of his best-known poems is ‘Wild Peaches’, a series of sonnets including these two:

When the world is completely turned upside down
You say we’ll emigrate to the east coast
Aboard a Baltimore riverboat;
We’ll live among the wild peach trees, miles from town,
You’ll wear a raccoon cap, and I’ll wear a dress
Home spun, dark gold color of butternut.
Lost, like your lotus-eating ancestor,
We will swim in milk and honey until we drown.

The winter will be short, the summer long,
Amber autumn, sunny and warm,
Cider and scuppernong tasting;
All seasons are mild, but fall is the best of all.
Squirrels in their silver fur will fall
Like falling leaves, like fruit, before your shot.

When April pours the colors of a seashell
On the hills, when every little stream
Is shot with Chesapeake money
In the banks newly hit by the ocean swell,
When the strawberries go begging, and the elegant
The blue plums open at the blackbird’s beak,
We will live well, we will live very well.

The months between cherries and peaches
Are full of overflowing cornucopias
Red and purple, dark and black fruits;
Then down rich fields and frosty river beaches
We’ll trample shiny khakis, while you kill
Bronze partridge, speckled and canvas quail.

* * *

Jenny Joseph.
Jenny Joseph. When I’m old, I’ll wear purple.

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The irrepressible Jenny Joseph (1932-2018) is little known today in the United States but still very popular in England where her poem “Warning” (Watch the video) was named number one in a poll of favorite modern poems. “Warning” enjoyed a brief period of popularity in America when championed by Liz Carpenter, executive assistant to Lyndon Johnson, but other poems by Joseph did not enjoy the same exposure. This is unfortunate, because his work can be quite wonderful:

A man paid 110,000 guineas for Van Gogh’s mother.
Not even for the breathing woman, but a photo of her.
If he had met her when she was what she was
I guess he wouldn’t have given her that much.

And if he had had the chance to meet him, would he have wanted to provide
The painter, even with enough sausage for the rest of his naturalness?
He probably wouldn’t have wanted him in his house:
An ordinary functioning man, sleeping and staring at him.

And though he has to pretend to value her
Saying he would give his eye teeth or at least his material wealth to save her,
I dare say he wouldn’t have really wanted to give all that money
Having your own mother permanently sitting on your sofa.

A dog would rather have another dog
Than a flat board;

And is just a dog.

PS In England, there is always time to garden. Jenny’s memoir is titled “Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells”. And as our video progresses, you’ll see what she thought of the color purple.

* * *

VIDEO. Each of our star poets is represented by a poem. Here is the program.

MacLeish. . . . . . Poetic Ars

Larkin. . . . . . . . Annus Mirabilis

Wylie. . . . . . . . . Velvet shoes

Joseph. . . . . . . . Warning

As an encore, the Quartet performs the tourbillon “Tarantella” by Edith Sitwell.


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