Gadfly Poetry

"I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me." – Socrates (in Plato's "Apology")

A Supermarket in California

After a full year of hiatus, Gadfly Poetry is back with one of the most quintessentially American poets, Allen Ginsberg. This poem depicts a fantastically fanciful romp through a supermarket as Ginsberg chases his most direct poetic forbear, Walt Whitman.

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

by Allen Ginsberg

It Was Going on Five in the Morning

Today I feature another poem from the great surrealist André Breton. Today’s poem demonstrates one of Breton’s most infamous poetic techniques, automatic writing. Bypassing the conscious mind, Breton is able to string together a series of increasingly bizarre images for which the reader is asked to supply his/her own unity.

It Was Going on Five in the Morning

It was going on five in the morning
The ship of steam stretched its chain to shatter the windows
And outside
A glowworm
Lifted Paris like a leaf
It was only a long trembling scream
A scream from the Maternity Hospital nearby
FINIS FOUNDRY FANATIC
But whatever joy escaped in the exhalation of that pain
It seems to me that I was falling for a long time
I still had my fist clenched around a handful of grass
And suddenly that rustle of flowers and needles of ice
Those green eyebrows that shooting-star pendulum
From what depths was the bell actually able to rise again
The hermetic bell
Which nothing last night made me foresee would stop on this landing
The bell whose sides read
Undine
Moving to raise your spearheaded Sagittarius pedal
You had carved the infallible signs
Of my enchantment
With a dagger whose coral handle forks into infinity
So that your blood and mine
Would become one

by André Breton

Choose Life

As I promised yesterday, this weekend on the blog will feature one of the most idiosyncratic voices in twentieth-century poetry, the french surrealist André Breton. In addition to his work as a poet and prose writer, Breton is also known as a philosopher and critic, most notably for The Surrealist Manifesto, published in 1924.

Choose Life

Choose life instead of those prisms with no depth even if their colors are purer
Instead of this hour always hidden instead of these terrible vehicles of cold flame
Instead of these overripe stones
Choose this heart with its safety catch
Instead of that murmuring pool
And that white fabric singing in the air and the earth at the same time
Instead of that marriage blessing joining my forehead to total vanity’s
Choose life

Choose life with its conspiratorial sheets
Its scars from escapes
Choose life choose that rose window on my tomb
The life of being here nothing but being here
Where one voice says Are you there where another answers Are you there
I’m hardly here at all alas
And even when we might be making fun of what we kill
Choose life

Choose life choose life venerable Childhood
The ribbon coming out of a fakir
Resembles the playground slide of the world
Though the sun is only a shipwreck
Insofar as a woman’s body resembles it
You dream contemplating the whole length of its trajectory
Or only while closing your eyes on the adorable storm named your hand
Choose life

Choose life with its waiting rooms
When you know you’ll never be shown in
Choose life instead of those health spas
Where you’re served by drudges
Choose life unfavorable and long
When the books close again here on less gentle shelves
And when over there the weather would be better than better it would be free yes
Choose life

Choose life as the pit of scorn
With that head beautiful enough
Like the antidote to that perfection it summons and it fears
Life the makeup on God’s face
Life like a virgin passport
A little town like Pont-á-Mousson
And since everything’s already been said
Choose life instead

by André Breton

André Breton’s Apartment

Today I feature a poem by Garrett Caples which was written as an homage to the French surrealist poet André Breton, whose work I’ll be featuring here on the blog later this week.

André Breton’s Apartment

the madder runs
like blood

lifeblood of
the livebud

that kindles next to earth

the hair on the church is water
the lovebirds curve their crutches down

so long
to the sacred
palaces

so long to the fingerbone that lingers on

if i’m alive
it’s no thanks to you

if i’m comatose
let’s make the most of it

tomato ghost

rude twilight

ruby tear

discipline disappears
between the shapeless necklace
and the cloudy robe of shrapnel

in the absence
of incense

no balm can grease
the throbbing temples

of the rotting world

by Garrett Caples

Releasing the Sherpas

Today’s poem from Campbell McGrath, a professor of poetry at Florida International University in Miami, is basically an extended metaphor in which our mind and body are refigured as sherpas which guide us on our difficult mountain ascent. In a strange twist, however, the narrator of the poem actually sends these two “sherpas” packing and faces the final stanza alone.

Releasing the Sherpas

The last two sherpas were the strongest,
faithful companions, their faces wind-peeled,
streaked with soot and glacier-light on the snowfield
below the summit where we stopped to rest.

The first was my body, snug in its cap of lynx-
fur, smelling of yak butter and fine mineral dirt,
agile, impetuous, broad-shouldered,
alive to the frozen bite of oxygen in the larynx.

The second was my intellect, dour and thirsty,
furrowing its fox-like brow, my calculating brain
searching for some cairn or chasm to explain
my decision to send them back without me.

Looking down from the next, ax-cleft serac
I saw them turn and dwindle and felt unafraid.
Blind as a diamond, sun-pure and rarefied,
whatever I was then, there was no turning back.

by Campbell McGrath

The Stags

Today and tomorrow, I’ll be featuring poems by the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. In each of these two poems, Jamie manages to take seemingly tired poetic conceits (a conversation with the moon or an experience of the raw animal power of nature) and twist them into new and exciting positions.

The Stags

This is the multitude, the beasts
you wanted to show me, drawing me
upstream, all morning up through wind-
scoured heather to the hillcrest.
Below us, in the next glen, is the grave
calm brotherhood, descended
out of winter, out of hunger, kneeling
like the signatories of a covenant;
their weighty, antique-polished antlers
rising above the vegetation
like masts in a harbor, or city spires.
We lie close together, and though the wind
whips away our man-and-woman smell, every
stag-face seems to look toward us, toward,
but not to us: we’re held, and hold them,
in civil regard. I suspect you’d
hoped to impress me, to lift to my sight
our shared country, lead me deeper
into what you know, but loath
to cause fear you’re already moving
quietly away, sure I’ll go with you,
as I would now, almost anywhere.

by Kathleen Jamie

Moon

Today and tomorrow, I’ll be featuring poems by the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. In each of these two poems, Jamie manages to take seemingly tired poetic conceits (a conversation with the moon or an experience of the raw power of nature) and twist them into new and exciting positions.

Moon

Last night, when the moon
slipped into my attic room
as an oblong of light,
I sensed she’d come to commiserate.

It was August. She traveled
with a small valise
of darkness, and the first few stars
returning to the northern sky,

and my room, it seemed,
had missed her. She pretended
an interest in the bookcase
while other objects

stirred, as in a rock pool,
with unexpected life:
strings of beads in their green bowl gleamed,
the paper-crowded desk;

the books, too, appeared inclined
to open and confess.
Being sure the moon
harbored some intention,

I waited; watched for an age
her cool gaze shift
first toward a flower sketch
pinned on the far wall

then glide down to recline
along the pinewood floor,
before I’d had enough. Moon,
I said, We’re both scarred now.

Are they quite beyond you,
the simple words of love? Say them.
You are not my mother;
with my mother, I waited unto death.

by Kathleen Jamie

Scripture for Sabbath: from “Vibhuti-Vistara Yoga”

Today as part of our Scripture for Sabbath series, I feature an excerpt from the tenth chapter of the The Bhagavad-Gita. Scripture for Sabbath is a regular Sunday practice on the blog of featuring words from the world’s most treasured books, namely holy scriptures. The worlds religious traditions have been receptacles for some of the most beautiful and influential words ever penned and it seems that examining excerpts from the Bible, Qu’ran, Tao Te Ching, and others in the light of their poetic significance might open new exegetical doors for a deeper engagement with the texts within religious communities. Broadly, The Bhagavad-Gita shows a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna immediately before  the start of a major battle. In this section, excerpted from Chapter 11, Krishna is explaining to Arjuna the ultimate cause of all material and spiritual existence.

from Chapter 10: “Vibhuti-Vistara Yoga”
or “Of Religion by the Heavenly Perfections”

Whatever Natures be
To mortal men distributed, those natures spring from Me!
Intellect, skill, enlightenment, endurance, self-control,
Truthfulness, equability, and grief or joy of soul,
And birth and death, and fearfulness, and fearlessness, and shame,
And honour, and sweet harmlessness, and peace which is the same
Whate’er befalls, and mirth, and tears, and piety and thrift,
And wish to give, and will to help, — all cometh of My gift!
The Seven Chief Saints, the Elders Four, the Lordly Manus set —
Sharing My work — to rule the worlds, these too did I beget;
And Rishis, Pitris, Manus, all, by one thought of My mind;
Thence did arise, to fill this world, the races of mankind;
Wherefrom who comprehends My Reign of mystic Majesty —
That truth of truths — is thenceforth linked in faultless faith to Me:
Yea! knowing Me the source of all, by Me all creatures wrought,
The wise in spirit cleave to Me, into My Being brought;
Hearts fixed on Me; breaths breathed to Me; praising Me, each to each,
So have they happiness and peace, with pious thought and speech;
And unto these — thus serving well, thus loving ceaselessly —
I give a mind of perfect mood, whereby they draw to Me;
And, all for love of them, within their darkened souls I dwell,
And, with bright rays of wisdom’s lamp, their ignorance dispel.
Arjuna. Yes! Thou art Parabrahm! The High Abode!
The Great Purification! Thou art God
Eternal, All-creating, Holy, First,
Without beginning! Lord of Lords and Gods!
Declared by all the Saints — by Narada,
Vyasa Asita, and Devalas;
And here Thyself declaring unto me!
What Thou hast said now know I to be truth,
O Kesava! that neither gods nor men
Nor demons comprehend Thy mystery
Made manifest, Divinest! Thou Thyself
Thyself alone dost know, Maker Supreme!
Master of all the living! Lord of Gods!
King of the Universe! To Thee alone
Belongs to tell the heavenly excellence
Of those perfections wherewith Thou dost fill
These worlds of Thine; Pervading, Immanent!
How shall I learn, Supremest Mystery!
To know Thee, though I muse continually?
Under what form of Thine unnumbered forms
Mayst Thou be grasped? Ah! yet again recount,
Clear and complete, Thy great appearances,
The secrets of Thy Majesty and Might,
Thou High Delight of Men! Never enough
Can mine ears drink the Amrit of such words!

The Star-Splitter

All this week, I’ve been featuring poems by Robert Frost, perhaps the most ubiquitous poet in American culture today. Today I feature a much longer poem by Frost which, in my opinion, gives a much better sense of his poetic range than so many of the shorter poems for which he is known.

The Star-Splitter

“You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion’s having caught me.
Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
These forces are obliged to pay respect to?”
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.

“What do you want with one of those blame things?”
I asked him well beforehand. “Don’t you get one!”

“Don’t call it blamed; there isn’t anything
More blameless in the sense of being less
A weapon in our human fight,” he said.
“I’ll have one if I sell my farm to buy it.”
There where he moved the rocks to plow the ground
And plowed between the rocks he couldn’t move,
Few farms changed hands; so rather than spend years
Trying to sell his farm and then not selling,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And bought the telescope with what it came to.
He had been heard to say by several:
“The best thing that we’re put here for’s to see;
The strongest thing that’s given us to see with’s
A telescope. Someone in every town
Seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.
In Littleton it may as well be me.”
After such loose talk it was no surprise
When he did what he did and burned his house down.

Mean laughter went about the town that day
To let him know we weren’t the least imposed on,
And he could wait—we’d see to him tomorrow.
But the first thing next morning we reflected
If one by one we counted people out
For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long
To get so we had no one left to live with.
For to be social is to be forgiving.
Our thief, the one who does our stealing from us,
We don’t cut off from coming to church suppers,
But what we miss we go to him and ask for.
He promptly gives it back, that is if still
Uneaten, unworn out, or undisposed of.
It wouldn’t do to be too hard on Brad
About his telescope. Beyond the age
Of being given one for Christmas gift,
He had to take the best way he knew how
To find himself in one. Well, all we said was
He took a strange thing to be roguish over.
Some sympathy was wasted on the house,
A good old-timer dating back along;
But a house isn’t sentient; the house
Didn’t feel anything. And if it did,
Why not regard it as a sacrifice,
And an old-fashioned sacrifice by fire,
Instead of a new-fashioned one at auction?

Out of a house and so out of a farm
At one stroke (of a match), Brad had to turn
To earn a living on the Concord railroad,
As under-ticket-agent at a station
Where his job, when he wasn’t selling tickets,
Was setting out up track and down, not plants
As on a farm, but planets, evening stars
That varied in their hue from red to green.

He got a good glass for six hundred dollars.
His new job gave him leisure for stargazing.
Often he bid me come and have a look
Up the brass barrel, velvet black inside,
At a star quaking in the other end.
I recollect a night of broken clouds
And underfoot snow melted down to ice,
And melting further in the wind to mud.
Bradford and I had out the telescope.
We spread our two legs as it spread its three,
Pointed our thoughts the way we pointed it,
And standing at our leisure till the day broke,
Said some of the best things we ever said.
That telescope was christened the Star-Splitter,
Because it didn’t do a thing but split
A star in two or three the way you split
A globule of quicksilver in your hand
With one stroke of your finger in the middle.
It’s a star-splitter if there ever was one,
And ought to do some good if splitting stars
‘Sa thing to be compared with splitting wood.

We’ve looked and looked, but after all where are we?
Do we know any better where we are,
And how it stands between the night tonight
And a man with a smoky lantern chimney?
How different from the way it ever stood?

by Robert Frost

The Road Not Taken

Just a few days ago, I realized that GadflyPoetry has never featured a poem by Robert Frost, perhaps the most ubiquitous poet in American culture today. All this week, I’ll be featuring some of Frost’s most iconic poems, continuing with “The Road Not Taken.”

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

by Robert Frost

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