Poems that break the silence of the night

POETS are like ham-radio operators. They sit up late nights listening to each other fade in and out, noting the sound of one another's voices, waiting for the chance to share their own verses with the world. On a good night I can get Greece. I've talked with Yannis Ritsos. He's been writing for more than 50 years and has published almost a hundred books of poems. He's made me feel as if I'd been with him when the colonels took over in 1967. He doesn't elaborate. ``The deep voice was heard in the deeper night,'' he wrote. ``Then the tanks went by. Then day broke.''

Later he read his poem called ``Wind.'' Like most of his poems, it's short. It begins, ``Sudden summer wind behind the shutters./ The women's dresses billowed out. Small warm birds/ left their armpits.'' I love those birds.

Halfway through ``Wind'' a man is quoted. ``I didn't know a thing,'' he says. ``They took me, I went along with them peacefully....'' At the end he says, ``I then told them candidly: the dead are no longer frightened./ I even showed them the mirror. Inside it, at an angle, you could see/ the geologist with that hearing-aid wire of his secretly listening.''

Ritsos didn't explain the geologist, but I thought the poem a wonderful image of courage and persistence.

One night I lost Ritsos; a strange voice came through from London. It was Peter Porter. He's originally from Australia. He's a lot noisier than Ritsos.

He was reading his poem called ``Essay on Dreams.'' ``Daylight drags itself through windows./ They are coming round collecting papers,/ you must hand yours in. You have covered it/ with nonsense, or left it white with fear.''

I could sympathize. He went on, ``The great poems you could write/ are all assigned to Dickinson and Donne./ Peculiar to hear a person so obtuse/ he could not even dream us a straight line.''

Porter's poems are full of jagged edges, but all within a measured flow of well-placed syllables. It's all like an English garden; a little eccentric, but very likable, even natural.

Once he said he had learned how to write by translating epigrams from Greek and Latin. He is witty. He writes a lot about Italy and his cats back in London.

Recently he came on with ``Radio Caliban.'' It starts out, ``This is Imagination's nuclear-free zone,/ so answer, airwaves, answer!/ And hello to the girl/ who asked for Ariel's new single.''

That made me listen hard. At the end he was saying, ``Not much rhythm, not much art -/ all right, but it's got feelings, listeners!/ So let a lady wrangle with the blues,/ `They flee from me that sometime did me seek.'''

I recognized that last line from my college course in Elizabethan literature: Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503?-42). But how'd he get from Wyatt to rhythm and blues?

One night he was reading the last stanza of the ``Essay on Clouds'' - ``Night awaits the upper wind./ I decide I should not like to live/ in a universe kept up by love/ yet unequipped to tell a joke/ or contemplate the sources of its fear.''

After that wonderful ending, a rather humorless voice broke the silence: ``All night, snow, then, near dawn, freezing rain, so that by morning the whole city glistens....''

I knew it was an American. Sight dominated sound. It was C.K. Williams, reading from Paris. His book ``Flesh and Blood'' had just won a National Book Critics Circle award.

Breaking in on Porter's classical surrealism, Williams seemed like anti-poetry. His poetry is immediate. It can be scary, like a tabloid at dawn. ``In that oblivious, concentrated, fiercely fetal decontraction peculiar to the lost'' (he was reading his poem called ``The Park''), ``a grimy derelict is flat out on a green bench by the sandbox, gazing blankly at the children.''

The guy was there in the room! After a while, though, I missed the sound of poetry. It's not that he's boring. Williams uses precise words like ``decontraction'' and contrasts them to plain description - ``green bench by the sandbox'' - so he's always interesting. His voice is just so naked!

Occasionally I read one of my own poems into the darkness. Every spring I read this one:

No frost. I wake to middle age, a second cup and the sports page, and as I dress I think of work and tie my tie not with a jerk

but a loose fold. I leave my porch ablaze as ornamental oranges scorch the mild air and drunken thrushes crowd red pyracantha down the road.

My fellow hams seem to like it. The night fills with the scent of jasmine and the chatter of the birds.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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