On Poetry

Over Christmas I had the chance to grab coffee with my most literary of friends and we got to talking poetry. Specifically, my lack of knowledge about it due to a high school curriculum that consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s poorer plays and witless rhyming couplets.

I said that I’m willing to give it a second chance, but that I had absolutely no idea where to begin. This led to a slew of recommendations that I’ve decided to share with the interpipes community.

So here, without further ado, is a selection of recommended poems. Before sharing them though, a note on how to read them. JB recommends the following three rules to get the most out of each poem:

  1. Read them out loud
  2. Read slowly
  3. Follow the punctuation, not the line breaks. If there’s a line break, don’t stop: keep going until the next comma or period

Here are the poems:

Philip Larkin

High Windows

When I see a couple of kids

And guess he’s fucking her and she’s

Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,

I know this is paradise


Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives–

Bonds and gestures pushed to one side

Like an outdated combine harvester,

And everyone young going down the long slide


To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if

Anyone looked at me, forty years back,

And thought, That’ll be the life;

No God any more, or sweating in the dark


About hell and that, or having to hide

What you think of the priest. He

And his lot will all go down the long slide

Like free bloody birds. And immediately


Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:

The sun-comprehending glass,

And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows

Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.


Sad Steps

Groping back to bed after a piss

I part thick curtains, and am startled by

The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.


Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie

Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.

There’s something laughable about this,


The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow

Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart

(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)


High and preposterous and separate –

Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!

O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,


One shivers slightly, looking up there.

The hardness and the brightness and the plain

Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare


Is a reminder of the strength and pain

Of being young; that it can’t come again,

But is for others undiminished somewhere.



Why should I let the toad work

  Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

  And drive the brute off?


Six days of the week it soils

  With its sickening poison –

Just for paying a few bills!

  That’s out of proportion.


Lots of folk live on their wits:

  Lecturers, lispers,

Losels, loblolly-men, louts-

  They don’t end as paupers;


Lots of folk live up lanes

  With fires in a bucket,

Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-

  they seem to like it.


Their nippers have got bare feet,

  Their unspeakable wives

Are skinny as whippets – and yet

  No one actually starves.


Ah, were I courageous enough

  To shout Stuff your pension!

But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff

  That dreams are made on:


For something sufficiently toad-like

  Squats in me, too;

Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,

  And cold as snow,


And will never allow me to blarney

  My way of getting

The fame and the girl and the money

  All at one sitting.


I don’t say, one bodies the other

  One’s spiritual truth;

But I do say it’s hard to lose either,

  When you have both.



Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me) –

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.


Up to then there’d only been

A sort of bargaining,

A wrangle for the ring,

A shame that started at sixteen

And spread to everything.


Then all at once the quarrel sank:

Everyone felt the same,

And every life became

A brilliant breaking of the bank,

A quite unlosable game.


So life was never better than

In nineteen sixty-three

(Though just too late for me) –

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.


Edna St-Vincent Millay

I Shall Forget You Presently, My Dear

I shall forget you presently, my dear,

So make the most of this, your little day,

Your little month, your little half a year,

Ere I forget, or die, or move away,

And we are done forever; by and by

I shall forget you, as I said, but now,

If you entreat me with your loveliest lie

I will protest you with my favorite vow.


I would indeed that love were longer-lived,

And oaths were not so brittle as they are,

But so it is, and nature has contrived

To struggle on without a break thus far,—

Whether or not we find what we are seeking

Is idle, biologically speaking.


Intention To Escape From Him

I think I will learn some beautiful language, useless for commercial

Purposes, work hard at that.

I think I will learn the Latin name of every songbird, not only in

America but wherever they sing.

(Shun meditation, though; invite the controversial:

Is the world flat? Do bats eat cats?) By digging hard I might

deflect that river, my mind, that uncontrollable thing,

Turgid and yellow, srong to overflow its banks in spring,

carrying away bridges

A bed of pebbles now, through which there trickles one clear

narrow stream, following a course henceforth nefast—


Dig, dig; and if I come to ledges, blast.


Leonard Cohen

What I’m doing here

I do not know if the world has lied

I have lied

I do not know if the world has conspired against love

I have conspired against love

The atmosphere of torture is no comfort

I have tortured

Even without the mushroom cloud

still I would have hated


I would have done the same things

even if there were no death

I will not be held like a drunkard

under the cold tap of facts

I refuse the universal alibi


Like an empty telephone booth passed at night

and remembered

like mirrors in a movie palace lobby consulted

only on the way out

like a nymphomaniac who binds a thousand

into strange brotherhood

I wait

for each one of you to confess


E.E. Cummings

Look at this

look at this)

a 75 done

this nobody would

have believed

would they no

kidding this was my particular



funny aint

it we was


i used to



him lift the

poor cuss

tenderly this side up handle


with care


and send him home


to his old mother in

a new nice pine box




Kitty, Sixteen, 5’11”, White, Prostitute

“kitty”. sixteen, 5′ 11″, white, prostitute.


ducking always the touch of must and shall,

whose slippery body is Death’s littlest pal,



skilled in quick softness. Unspontaneous. cute.



the signal perfume of whose unrepute

focusses in the sweet slow animal

bottomless eyes importantly banal,



Kitty. a whore. Sixteen

                                       you corking brute

amused from time to time by clever drolls

fearsomely who do keep their sunday flower.

The babybreasted broad “kitty” twice eight



–beer nothing, the lady’ll have a whiskey-sour–



whose least amazing smile is the most great

common divisor of unequal souls.


Elizabeth Bishop

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!

–this little filling station,

oil-soaked, oil-permeated

to a disturbing, over-all

black translucency.

Be careful with that match!


Father wears a dirty,

oil-soaked monkey suit

that cuts him under the arms,

and several quick and saucy

and greasy sons assist him

(it’s a family filling station),

all quite thoroughly dirty.


Do they live in the station?

It has a cement porch

behind the pumps, and on it

a set of crushed and grease-

impregnated wickerwork;

on the wicker sofa

a dirty dog, quite comfy.


Some comic books provide

the only note of color–

of certain color. They lie

upon a big dim doily

draping a taboret

(part of the set), beside

a big hirsute begonia.


Why the extraneous plant?

Why the taboret?

Why, oh why, the doily?

(Embroidered in daisy stitch

with marguerites, I think,

and heavy with gray crochet.)


Somebody embroidered the doily.

Somebody waters the plant,

or oils it, maybe. Somebody

arranges the rows of cans

so that they softly say:



to high-strung automobiles.

Somebody loves us all.


Thomas Hardy

In The Cemetery

“You see those mothers squabbling there?”

Remarks the man of the cemetery.

“One says in tears, ”Tis mine lies here!’

Another, ‘Nay, mine, you Pharisee!’

Another, ‘How dare you move my flowers

And put your own on this grave of ours!’

But all their children were laid therein

At different times, like sprats in a tin.

“And then the main drain had to cross,

And we moved the lot some nights ago,

And packed them away in the general foss

With hundreds more. But their folks don’t know,

And as well cry over a new-laid drain

As anything else, to ease your pain!”


Margaret Atwood

This Is A Photograph Of Me

It was taken some time ago

At first it seems to be

a smeared

print: blurred lines and grey flecks

blended with the paper;


then, as you scan

it, you can see something in the left-hand corner

a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree

(balsam or spruce) emerging

and, to the right, halfway up

what ought to be a gentle

slope, a small frame house.


In the background there is a lake,

and beyond that, some low hills.


(The photograph was taken

the day after I drowned.


I am in the lake, in the center

of the picture, just under the surface.


It is difficult to say where

precisely, or to say

how large or how small I am:

the effect of water

on light is a distortion.


but if you look long enough


you will see me.)


P.K. Page

Deaf-Mute In A Pear Tree

His clumsy body is a golden fruit

pendulous in the pear tree


Blunt fingers among the multitudinous buds


Adriatic blue the sky above and through

the forking twigs


Sun ruddying tree’s trunk, his trunk

his massive head thick-knobbed with burnished curls

tight-clenched in bud


(Painting by Generalic. Primitive.)


I watch him prune with silent secateurs


Boots in the crotch of branches shift their weight

heavily as oxen in a stall


Hear small inarticulate mews from his locked mouth

a kitten in a box


Pear clippings fall

                   soundlessly on the ground

Spring finches sing

                   soundlessly in the leaves



A stone. A stone in ears and on his tongue


Through palm and fingertip he knows the tree’s

quick springtime pulse


Smells in its sap the sweet incipient pears


Pale sunlight’s choppy water glistens on

his mutely snipping blades


and flags and scraps of blue

above him make regatta of the day


But when he sees his wife’s foreshortened shape

sudden and silent in the grass below

uptilt its face to him


then air is kisses, kisses


stone dissolves


his locked throat finds a little door


and through it feathered joy

flies screaming like a jay


Charles Bukowski

History Of A Tough Motherfucker

he came to the door one night wet thin beaten and


a white cross-eyed tailless cat

I took him in and fed him and he stayed

grew to trust me until a friend drove up the driveway

and ran him over

I took what was left to a vet who said,”not much

chance…give him these pills…his backbone

is crushed, but is was crushed before and somehow

mended, if he lives he’ll never walk, look at

these x-rays, he’s been shot, look here, the pellets

are still there…also, he once had a tail, somebody

cut it off…”

I took the cat back, it was a hot summer, one of the

hottest in decades, I put him on the bathroom

floor, gave him water and pills, he wouldn’t eat, he

wouldn’t touch the water, I dipped my finger into it

and wet his mouth and I talked to him, I didn’t go any-

where, I put in a lot of bathroom time and talked to

him and gently touched him and he looked back at

me with those pale blue crossed eyes and as the days went

by he made his first move

dragging himself forward by his front legs

(the rear ones wouldn’t work)

he made it to the litter box

crawled over and in,

it was like the trumpet of possible victory

blowing in that bathroom and into the city, I

related to that cat-I’d had it bad, not that

bad but bad enough

one morning he got up, stood up, fell back down and

just looked at me.

“you can make it,” I said to him.

he kept trying, getting up falling down, finally

he walked a few steps, he was like a drunk, the

rear legs just didn’t want to do it and he fell again, rested,

then got up.

you know the rest: now he’s better than ever, cross-eyed

almost toothless, but the grace is back, and that look in

his eyes never left…

and now sometimes I’m interviewed, they want to hear about

life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed,

shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say,”look, look

at this!”

but they don’t understand, they say something like,”you

say you’ve been influenced by Celine?”

“no,” I hold the cat up,”by what happens, by

things like this, by this, by this!”

I shake the cat, hold him up in

the smoky and drunken light, he’s relaxed he knows…

it’s then that the interviews end

although I am proud sometimes when I see the pictures

later and there I am and there is the cat and we are photo-

graphed together.

he too knows it’s bullshit but that somehow it all helps.


Update: my second most literate friend has sent me another great poem that needs to be added to this post:

Thomas Kinsella

Mirror in February

The day dawns, with scent of must and rain,

Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.

Under the fading lamp, half dressed — my brain

Idling on some compulsive fantasy —

I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,

Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,

A dry downturning mouth.


It seems again that it is time to learn,

In this untiring, crumbling place of growth

To which, for the time being, I return.

Now plainly in the mirror of my soul

I read that I have looked my last on youth

And little more; for they are not made whole

That reach the age of Christ.


Below my window the wakening trees,

Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced

Suffering their brute necessities;

And how should the flesh not quail, that span for span

Is mutilated more? In slow distaste

I fold my towel with what grace I can,

Not young, and not renewable, but man.