vasko popa | ted hughes | poetry is

24 07 2012

Photo by Norbert Blei

POETRY DISPATCH #379 | July 24, 2012

“Poetry Is”

Editor’s Note: It was a restless night. Though I had three or four or more other books going, none of them spoke at this hour in the morning, flaunted their covers, made note of the various placements of their bookmarks (beginning, middle, end) or said: “Continue.” “Read me NOW!” “Only 20 more pages to the end…”

Instead I got up from my chair, roamed the bookshelves, saw a book titled POETRY IS, discovered it was written by Ted Hughes (wondered just what it was all about)…realized I had not read Hughes in sometime…saw that the book was published in 1970…(with a receipt revealing a Chicago purchase)…wondering now if I had ever even read the book—but there, some of my underlining…a tell-tale sign I was here before…then settled into my chair again to see what POETRY IS is all about.

Instructional. It looks like a helpful book for poets starting out or stuck. It looks like it might benefit those uncreative teachers teaching creative writing workshops who are searching for somebody else’s ideas to teach writing, instead of exploring the depth of their own experience and techniques. The Table of Contents includes: CAPUTURING ANIMALS, WIND AND WEATHER, WRITING ABOUT PEOPLE…etc. With lots of good example from established poets, including: Elizabeth Bishop, Miroslav Holub, Theodore Roethke, Eudora Welty, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Etc. and, of course, plenty of poems by Ted Hughes.

Actually, it’s a pretty okay book. I’m glad I rediscovered it—if, for no other reason to remind myself: I DON’T NEED TO BUY ANY MORE BOOKS. Everything I will ever need is here. I have over 3000 of them on my shelves, some never read, others read and forgotten, some to be reread every few years…not to mention all the incredible little mags and small press publications (of every shape and size including mimeographed and Xeroxed pages) by some of the best writers in the world—most of whom will never find a national audience, a big publisher, a faithful audience of more than 50 readers (most of them friends)…writers and words destined for obscurity. YOU need (WE need) to keep these writers alive by bringing them back to life in our own libraries, by reading this significant, almost invisible literature that keeps the fields fertile. (I will return to my shelves a little later and rescue one of these writers from obscurity myself—for a half hour or so.)


When I open the Hughes book, what do I immediately find but “The Small Box” written by an old, long lost (from my consciousness) Serbian poet-friend, Vasko Popa. And in the intro to the book, written by Hughes, what did I underline over 50 years ago but a passage on ‘what poetry is”.

Later the next afternoon. neither heeding or remembering my own advice…I find myself online with a bookstore…ordering a book of Vasko Popa poems…a copy of STONE ARABIA by Dana Spiotta…another copy of Stanley Kunitz’s, THE WILD BRAID (hard back) because I just gave mine to a friend…THE GENTLE INSURRECTION by Doris Betts, ZONA by Geoff Dyer, ALMOST THERE by Nuala O’Faolain…

Hopeless, utterly hopeless…I can’t afford these!… I don’t have time enough…

Which is precisely why I need them. — Norbert Blei

The Small Box

The small box gets its first teeth
And its small length
Its small width and small emptiness
And all that it has got

The small box is growing bigger
And now the cupboard is in it
That it was in before

And it grows bigger and bigger and bigger
And now has in it the room
And the house and the town and the land
And the world it was in before

The small box remembers it childhood
And by overgreat longing
It becomes a small box again

Now in the small box
Is the whole world quite tiny
You can easily put it in a pocket
Easily steal it easily lose it

Take care of the small box

vasko popa

The struggle truly to possess his own experience, in other words, to regain his genuine self, has been man’s principal occupation, wherever he could find leisure for it, ever since he first grew this enormous surplus of brain. Men have invented religion to do this for others. But to do it for themselves, they have invented art—music, painting, dancing, sculpture, and the activity that includes all these, which is poetry.

Because it is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head and express something—perhaps not much, just something—of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are, from the momentary effect of the barometer to the force that created men distinct from trees. Something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies from moment to moment like water in a river. Something of the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river.

Something of the duplicity and the relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this. Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaninglessness. And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment of time, and in that same moment make out of it all the vital signature of a human being—not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses—but a human being, we call it poetry.


[From POETRY IS by Ted Hughes, Doubleday, 1970]

vasko popa | shadow of a shewolf

14 10 2007


Poetry Dispatch No. 57 | February 27, 2006


They tell how my grandmother
The witch Sultana Urosevic’
Used to have the shadow of a shewolf

She would never leave the house
On moonlit nights

So no one could step on her shadow
Deprive her of secret powers
And kill her instantly

They tell
That I inherited from my great grandmother
These eyes and this tongue

Whether the shadow of a wolf too
I don’t know

In the moonlight
And often in the sunlight
I walk backwards

God forbid

from Selected Poems 1956-75. HOMAGE TO THE LAME WOLF, translated by Charles Simic