Poems About the Body

What you wake into.
What you dance out of.
A body. 
The body.

A few weeks back, Facebook friends offered suggestions for poems about the body. Here is a variation of that list, in no particular order and with links to texts (always best to check online texts against the original source). Suggestions came from poetry lovers, teachers, editors, and authors, including Ada Limón, Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, and Robert Pinsky. Enjoy~
("Nude, 1936," Edward Weston) 

"A Story about the Body" by Robert Hass
"homage to my hips" by Lucille Clifton 
"My Beloved" & "Breasts" by Charles Simic
"The Consolations of Sociobiology" by Bill Knott 
In Posse Review's "Poetry and the Body" issue by various 
"Embalming" by Scott Cairns
"[i like my body]" by e.e. cummings
"The Plan is the Body" by Robert Creeley 
...no text, but audio of Creeley reading here
"Catalyst" by A.R. Ammons
"Spring and All" by William Carlos Williams
"Passages 18: The Torso" by Robert Duncan 
"Ode to My Hands" by Tim Seibles  
"The Race" by Sharon Olds 
"History of My Body" by Marie-Elizabeth Mali
...no text, but video of Mali reading here
"the floating poem, unnumbered" by Adrienne Rich 
"Sonnet XXVII" by Pablo Neruda 
"Hands" by Sarah Kay
...no text, but video of Kay reading here
"First Poem for You" by Kim Addonizio
“Thirty Lines about the Fro” by Allison Joseph
“A Hand” by Jane Hirshfield
“Sean Penn Anti-Ode” by Dean Young
“The Routine Things Around the House” by Stephen Dunn
“Consider the Hand That Writes This Letter” by Aracelis Girmay
"New Heaven and Earth" by D. H. Lawrence
"Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh" by Thomas James 
"The Bladder" by David Keplinger 
"My Husband's Back" by Susan Minot
"Not the Furniture Game" by Simon Armitage
"The Connoisseuse of Slugs" by Sharon Olds
"Samurai Song" by Robert Pinsky 
"Strongly Scented Sonnet" by Rhoda Janzen 
"The Cleaving" by Li-Young Lee 
"Question" by May Swenson
"The Lovers" by Dorianne Laux
"Free Union (L'Union libre)" by André Breton 
"I Knew a Woman" by Theodore Roethke 
"The Language of the Brag" by Sharon Olds 
"I Sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power's Out" by Andrea Gibson 
...or video of Gibson reading here
"The Body is Not an Apology" by Sonya Renee 
...no text, but video of Renee reading here
"How to Make Love to a Trans Person" by Gabe Moses
"In Celebration of My Uterus" by Anne Sexton 
"Hip-Hop Ghazal" by Patricia Smith 
"Anodyne" by Yusef Komunyakaa 
...or video of Komunyakaa reading here 

"Anything from..."
e.e. cummings
Beth Bachmann's Temper
Frank Bidart
Walt Whitman
Sharon Olds
David Keplinger's The Most Natural Thing
Stacey Waite's Butch Geography
Morgan Lucas Schuldt

Sally Rosen Kindred suggested Lisa Russ Spaar's "Hallowe'en," going so far as to type it out. (The poem appears nowhere online and Glass Town, Spaar's first collection, is out of print.) I've loved that poem for years, so thanks to Sally for the excuse to share it here:


On the night of skulled gourds,
of small, masked demons
begging at the door,
a man cradles his eldest daughter
in the family room. She's fourteen,
she's dying because she will not eat
anymore. The doorbell keeps ringing;
his wife gives the sweets away.
He rubs the scalp
through his girl's thin hair.
She sleeps. He does not know
what to do.
When the carved pumpkin
gutters in the windowglass,
his little son races through the room,
his black suit printed with bones
that glow in the dark.
His pillowsack bulges with candy,
and he yelps with joy.
The father wishes he were young.
He's afraid of the dream
she's burning back to,
his dream of her before her birth,
so pure, so perfect,
with no body to impede her light.

~Lisa Russ Spaar

John Hollander: An Appreciation

Only as I paste in his photo, do I realize: I never actually met John Hollander. That's a punch in the gut, a regret. Because he is in my DNA as a writer. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I took a course on poetic forms with Stephen Cushman, who had himself taken a course on forms with John Hollander while a graduate student at Yale. We studied Hollander's nimble articulations of iambs and sonnets; for the first time I really got the difference between a dactyl and an anapest, and scansion became a language I could speak. I loved the idea that the formal qualities of a poem, if handled with knowing intent, could offer clues to interpretation and an organic rhetoric--with the qualities of conflict, compromise, closure--apart from explicit text. My left-brain self, which had once thrived on the studies of mathematics and science, was engaged for the first time. I abandoned my fixation on a "practical" life course, e.g. law school, to the goal of becoming a writer. 

So I looked for MFA programs that heeded form and world traditions, which brought me to American University, and Washington, DC. I took a full-time job at the Phi Beta Kappa Society's national headquarters to cover tuition and living expenses, and discovered that Hollander was one of the judges for a book prize I administered. When I came on board, all of the first-round reads were already sent out--except, I realized, a book that had been misfiled under the award for poetry (creative) versus poetry (criticism). I leafed through the book, thought "This looks substantial," and pleaded with my supervisor that it should be considered. She said, OK--if I could convince a judge to take on an extra book. That judge turned out to be John Hollander ("talk poet to poet," I steeled myself before asking him) and the book, Susan Stewart's Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, went on to win the 2003 Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism. One of my earliest lessons that even when you're an underling, paying attention and speaking up can change the course of events. 

Of course, as any administrator will attest, some of our exchanges were less fruitful. I once had to plead with him to turn in some overdue reader reports. He responded by saying the books in question had been delivered to his mailbox at the end of his driveway, but his driveway was long and very icy, and did I want him breaking a bone in the name of Phi Beta Kappa? His voice was kind in phone calls, but reserved.  

All the while I was driving to AU three times a week for class, where my principle mentor was Henry Taylor--who I had first sought out as an overzealous UVA first year, looking to interview a poet for my underground lit mag. At the time he was on a clerihew kick. We'd talked for hours, then stayed in touch; he recommended me for a fellowship, and then on the first day of classes he told me he was retiring. Ooof. He stayed around until my thesis was complete, and we segued to "independent study," which meant sitting in his office talking (a little bit of) poetry and telling (a whole lot of) stories. Which is how I heard about the time he arrived at a literary conference and, because he could, adopted the name tag of...John Hollander. And attended the party accordingly, making conversation, answering questions. This would have been back in Henry's drinking days, and I don't think Dr. Hollander appreciated the homage. But I was delighted by the tale--a humanizing lesson that even great scholars could be pranksters, and could be pranked. In those AU office days Henry also workshopped my Chronic Medea sonnet sequence, and played matchmaker between me and the sestina. In all the important ways, Dr. Hollander, he carried on your values. 

Now, when I teach--before I consider any other craft book for the syllabus--I use John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason. No other book is so deft and concise in demonstrating principles of sound, line, and meter. It's benzedrine for form-lovers. Consider this effortless example:

"A line can be end-stopped, just like this one,
Or it can show enjambment, just like this
One, where the sense straddles two lines: you feel
As if from shore you'd stepped into a boat;"

Or this:

"Milton and Wordsworth made the sonnet sound
Again in a new way; not with the sighs
Of witty passion, where fierce reason lies
Entombed in end-stopped lines, or tightly bound
In chains of quatrain: more like something found
Than built--a smooth stone on a sandy rise,
A drop of dew secreted from the sky's
Altitude, unpartitioned, whole and round.
The octave's over; now, gently defying
Its opening tone, the sestet then recalls
Old rhythms and old thoughts, enjambed, half-heard
As verses in themselves. The final word,
Five lines way from what it rhymes with, falls
Off into silence, like an echo dying."

I'll be honest: Rhyme's Reason is rarely the students' favorite part of the semester. For most of them, his didactic exercises go down like cough syrup, his jokes seem contrived, his tastes old-fashioned. They're only too happy to scoot along to free verse and talking about what the poem means to them. But there's always one or two who perk up--who appreciate, like I did in college, that intensity of wit and those acrobatics of language, and who embrace that poetry can have both objective and subjective qualities. For those one or two students, he's a revelation. The lineage continues.

Rest in peace, John Hollander. You were a brilliant scholar. You shaped my ear, and my sensibility (and many more than me, more than a simplistic head-count of "formalists" would describe). Yet you were also a real person in the real world, and that helped me envision a future where I, too, could be a real poet. I am so grateful.

The Hangman

Over the weekend I was looking up pastor Martin Niemöller's poem ("First they came for the communists...."), which I had push-pinned to the wall of my teenage bedroom. Along the way I found this, which I'd never seen before: a 1964 short video adaptation of Maurice Ogden's poem, "The Hangman." The production team is Paul Julian, who did the animation, and director Les Goldman. The narrator is character actor Herschel Bernardi, who was the singing voice of Zero Mostel in the Broadway launch of Fiddler on the Roof (he also voiced the Jolly Green Giant, and Charley the Starkist Tuna, though that seems almost unfair to mention). The music is composed by Serge Hovey, who was also part of the effort to record the complete songs of Robert Burns. 

This is really quite beautiful--and chilling. Now that I've seen it, I can't get it out of my head. Thanks to the Academic Film Archive of North America for archiving it online. 

Poetry Calling

Last night we had a big crowd for the Omission Summer Poetry Tour's stop at Baked & Wired (which serves all your standard coffeehouse fare...plus sweet tea so rich it should carry a warning label...plus bacon cupcakes). The work was great; as I told the audience, this felt like a snapshot of What's Being Written Now, and I was honored to be part of that constellation. Our host Diana Khoi Nguyen was every bit the charmer I expected. Justin Boening read before me, and is pictured below. His PSA chapbook (selected by Dara Wier) is gorgeous, and I'm looking forward to it. My vision of "area poets" got a little bigger, as I learned Miriam Bird Greenberg had spent the summer tending to a grandmother who lives mere miles from my family's house in Vienna, and John Fenlon Hogan is here to stay awhile. 

Afterwards we wandered down to Mr. Smith's, one of those venerable Georgetown institutions with the crumbly brick and the peacock-hued stained glass, where we snagged two tables in an outdoor courtyard. I wouldn't want to be there on a Friday night when the Jager-bombs are 4 for $10, but on a Monday night it was kind of awesome thanks to inexpensive house IPAs, a basket of curly fries for the table, and a surprisingly tasty vegan Israeli couscous dish with spinach and "sundry" tomatoes (how that snuck on the menu is a mystery). All of which took a backseat to the conversation, the kind of totally indulgent poetry-talk--on blurbs and contests and conferences and feuds--that I crave but rarely find outside AWP. I had fun eavesdropping on the post-Columbia MFA conversations, a program whose dynamics seem so very different from my time at American University. 

Not surprisingly, I woke up this morning wanting to write. There's about five calls for poems that are uppermost on my radar, on topics ranging from perfume to gravy to politics. Like many poets I'm both lured in by the Los Angeles Times' call for "op-ed" poems and turned off by the condescension of the tone ("if you have an opinion that can only be expressed in rhymed iambic pentameter or lively doggerel, in a haiku or limerick, now's your chance to express it"). 

I've also been inspired to dive back into blogs. Leslie Pietrzyk has an epic recount of her travels through small-town Georgia, which I must re-read before I embark on the Georgia Poetry Circuit in spring 2014, which takes me to nine colleges around the state for readings. Gotta brush up on my Flannery O'Connor before then, too. I found out from Victoria Chang's blog that she has a third book out, The Boss, courtesy of the new McSweeney's poetry imprint. You can subscribe to said imprint, $40 for four "issues" (a.k.a. books). I'm assuming these are poems in series with the ones she wrote for VQR a few issues back--fragmented views of a dystopian workplace--which has me intrigued. And I'm not going to link to any one post on "The French Exit," because they're all so damn good; Elisa Gabbert keeps one of the most interesting and substantive blogs among poets these days, even when (like most of us now) she only updates once a week. 

There's a lot to do. I must be a little more settled, because creative ideas are simmering to the surface again. but there's a LOT to do. Luckily this life is long...and also I have enough kale and watermelon in the fridge to skip grocery shopping for a bit.


Joshua Robbins. Praise Nothing (The University of Arkansas Press, 2013).

Despair, and its accomplice Acedia (the spiritual version of ennui), have been part of literature since at least Chaucer’s disturbing portrait of the Pardoner. Recent poetry knows these complex feelings best from Berryman’s mantic and morose Henry, who makes a game of his despair and invites the reader to play along. In Berryman’s dream songs, we are surprised to see that rather than nullifying the poetic impulse, despair urges the poet toward enumeration, that the poetic analog of Acedia is not silence but rather catalog. There seems to be something about despair that drives one to ever closer examination of what is, as if the fear of the void pushes a poet to cling frantically to the variety, the astounding copiousness of the material world. This same tendency to turn despair into catalog, into ontological enumeration is apparent in Joshua Robbins’ debut volume, Praise Nothing.

Praise Nothing announces its despair in its title and begins with a poem in the form of a list. The poet names “the streetlights’ high murmur,” “the rattle of shopping carts,” “the skirr of asphalt // worn to gravel” and on in a minutely observed and detailed catalog of a decaying suburbia. The poem’s insistence that “nothing / need be forgiven,” its essential nihilism expressed in lines like “whatever / your thoughts of heaven / by now they’d be long // unutterable,” is in creative tension with the abundance of the imagery. This tension animates the poems throughout this book. I could pick examples from anywhere and begin cataloging Robbins’ catalogs, but let the poem “Collateral” suffice as an example, as it is very explicit on the matter. In the silence after listening to his neighbor beat a stray dog with a two-by-four, the poem’s speaker tells us

                                    it was

                        as if this world had never been

                                    more pure, that the rasped October

                        breeze through the birch trees on our street

                                    meant nothing, saw nothing, could say

                        nothing. There was only silence,

                                    then a clang of wood on concrete

                        and, somewhere, the dead leaves stirring.

The creative tension between the urge toward nothingness and the urge toward enumeration is evident in the brilliant line break between “as if this world had never been” and “more pure,” a taking away and a giving. Again as the poem ends, he creates silence, then fills it with the two-by-four dropping, the leaves stirring. The book stays energized by never settling into total negation nor simple abundance: neither second-rate Baudelaire nor second-rate Whitman, neither Nine-Inch Nails nor Mary Oliver.

Thus, when I point to the thread of nihilism in Robbins’ book, the tendency toward negation, it should be understood that this nihilism is tentative and contested, always at odds with the intense desire to recover faith. Such is always the way with despair, which is, after all, not a form so much of atheism (one could not imagine a despairing Richard Dawkins) as a form of frustrated desire. Think of the Pardoner’s preoccupation with the language of salvation or Berryman’s Henry always teetering on the verge of hymn (or indeed of Berryman’s own last works, such as “Eleven Addresses to the Lord”). This desire for belief is expressed in poems such as “When I Say Hymn,” in which the speaker expresses clearly the will to believe in lines such as “the day after the fire // we sang over the sanctuary’s / ashy smolder.” The image itself carries the tension of faith and despair, of hymn and ash. We see this tension also in “Heaven As Nothing but Distance,” in which the poet declares, “I could not even begin to count / all the things I wished to believe in,” again linking a faith deprived with a sense of the copiousness of the world.

In Praise Nothing Robbins shares many characteristics with poets whom we may call, loosely, the best of the “neo-confessional,” poets such as Matthew Zapruder or Matthew Dickman, born in the 70’s or 80’s, writing about the vacuity of American life, drawing frequently on popular culture and personal reminiscence: edgy and direct yet also, at times, experimental. (Another good example, and well worth a read, is Jeff Simpson, author of Vertical Hold). Robbins’ religious sensibilities, however, add something unique to his work, a reaching after eternity even as the poet seems to feel that his reach exceeds his grasp.