A discussion of how a poem means is most effective, it seems to me, against a backdrop of what it means … My formal education is in the sciences, mostly physiology … The perspective of that education stays with me, and I continually find parallels between the sciences and
the humanities. I know, for instance, how much a dissection
leaves unsaid about the dissected. Still, it’s useful.

—From “How the Poem Means,”
by Miller Williams, in Poems and Sources

Poems and Sources

Cover features “Island Cities,” painted by Hysse Forchhammer in 1999 especially for the anthology, and inspired by the John Updike sonnet in the issue.

Cover photo of Poems and Sources

“The Fascinated Beast”

I have also included photographs of the poets. When I issued my call for pictures, Albert Goldbarth sent one of himself with a further note which he asked me to include with his commentary: “The photo you requested is enclosed. Not that I blame you for wanting to spice up the issue with such stuffs, and not that I have a major self-image invested in always being Mr. Churlish, but — what has any of this to do with the proper power and beckon of someone’s poem?”

A strong question and a good one. I do not know the answer. I only know that everything about poetry continues to hold me in its trance like a fascinated beast; even if wanting more than only the poem might seem beside the point of the poem itself, I will continue to want more. I will eat the poem and the commentary, too, gobble down the bio notes and proceed to the photos, peering intently at the reflected faces of the poets for whatever else I might find there.

—From “The Fascinated Beast,” opening essay by Thomas E. Kennedy. (Full text of this essay also appears online in The Literary Review, Fall 2000.)

“First Blood”

After the fall when snake
and Adam slunk away
from satin-sheeted love
and Eve uncoiled and stretched
and knew the dawn

when lion cubs lay curled around the lamb
although their legs stirred
to a leap in dreams,
the falcon’s eyes still hooded
and the vulture’s breath still sweet

then in that silent light
while birds were huddled into sleep,
then, like a signal, a new need
for blood, the whine of a mosquito
hovered over Eve, surprised

her smooth white arm and bit,
raised a strange welt
her sullen fingers scratched,
a touch of the first blood —
a bond of motherhood

an itch for knowledge

Poet’s Commentary:

“First Blood” was the first poem I wrote while staying at an international writer’s colony in Switzerland last summer. Having arrived with certain hesitations — this was my first stay at a writer’s colony — I was delighted to find the chateau as beautiful as it had looked in the photo. The garden, with tables arranged for privacy, looked inviting enough to make the muses want to linger. There were views of Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc hovering in the distance. The living arrangements were comfortable, the food tasty and plentiful, and the people interesting. A veritable paradise! But as we lingered over wine and conversation after dinner, our pleasant talk was interrupted — mosquitoes had invaded our paradise.

Mind you, these were not the vicious, voracious kind I had become accustomed to in New Jersey, who announce their invasion with a high-pitched whine before attacking, and leave hard welts that itch for days. These were genteel mosquitoes, thin and fragile, who barely pricked the skin and raised the gentlest welt that disappeared almost at once. Inspired by their delicate intrusion into my vision of paradise, I began to write the poem.

—From “First Blood,” by Jean Hollander, author of Moon Dog and Crushed into Honey, and co-author with Robert Hollander of poetic translations of Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. (Full text of this essay also appears online in The Literary Review, Fall 2000.)

“Stolen Kisses”

Several years ago Dorianne Laux called from Petaluma to read me a poem that she was working on called “Kissing.” It was terrific. She could hear the pleasure in my voice when I told her how much I liked it. It was one of those splendid pieces that was bound to find its way into any number of anthologies. But what I didn’t tell her, what I suppressed, because it would have sounded tacky and accusatory, was that what she had read me was my own goddam poem! Once, years earlier, when we were both living in San Diego, I had talked to her about a long piece I was taking notes for, about a couple kissing while the panorama of history, the endless bloodletting of Homo satanicus, unfolded behind them. And that was exactly what Dorianne had done: “They are still kissing when the cars crash and the bombs drop, when the babies are born crying into the white air, when Mozart bends to his bowl of soup and Stalin bends to his garden.” Yes! Exactly! Just what I’d had in mind.

Of course, she hadn’t the slightest recollection that her idea had come from that conversation, and there seemed no point in mentioning it. Besides, stealing ideas for poems is what poets do as a matter of course. At least, it’s what I do. Even in poems written directly out of my own experience I am apt to use notions, phrases, and musical ideas filched from other writers — Dorianne Laux certainly among them. Into one recent poem — a poem about the pleasures of poetic lineage — I incorporate a tanka by Izumi Shikibu (inspired by Jane Hirschfield’s lovely translation); then I steal an image from Ray Carver, quote Eliot, and end with a line from Pound. To ice the cake, its title, “Madness and Civilization,” was snitched from Foucault. No less egregiously, I’ve published two books of “imitations” of srngararasa, the erotic-mood poetry of India — poems made up of situations lifted whole cloth from that ancient tradition and then shamelessly reworked into my own idiom.

Allen Ginsberg once told me with great pleasure that his poem “Things I Don’t Know” came out of my long poem, “Mysteries,” a poem that was itself inspired by Fernando Pessoa’s “Tobacco Shop” and, even more directly, by Ben Belitt’s luscious translation of Pablo Neruda’s “Los Enigmas.” Oddly, I didn’t realize I had stolen Neruda’s idea till one day, years later, I started reading his poem and was shocked. Even my title was outright larceny!

—From “Stolen Kisses,” by Steve Kowit, author of Lurid Confessions and The Dumbbell Nebula, and editor of the anthology, The Maverick Poets. (Full text of this essay also appears online in The Literary Review, Fall 2000.)