Category Archives: poetry

Frank O’Hara As Planned

So, here’s a cool video of Frank O’Hara’s poem “As Planned,” set to some Miles Davis.  The text goes by a little quickly, so for maximum effect, watch it again after reading the poem a couple of times.

As Planned

After the first glass of vodka

you can accept just about anything

of life even your own mysteriousness

you think it is nice that a box

of matches is purple and brown and is called

La Petite and comes from Sweden

for they are words that you know and that

is all you know words not their feelings

or what they mean and you write because

you know them not because you understand them

because you don’t you are stupid and lazy

and will never be great but you do

what you know because what else is there?

Occupy Shelley

So, a week ago we had a snowstorm here, which knocked out our power for more than five days. Nearly a week without electricity taught me two important lessons:

  1. Sitting around a roaring fire with family, huddled under blankets and reading books is really nice. 
  2. Sitting around a roaring fire with family, huddled under blankets and reading books would be even better if you could see your damn book. 
It also struck me just how hard the winter is going to be on the various occupiers. For a while, it was feeling to me like the fate of the whole occupy movement was dependent on the ability of New York group to withstand the weather and the Mayor. Recently, though, Oakland has been stealing the spotlight.  
Something finally occurred to me, although I think it was probably already obvious to a lot of other people: Individual protest camps don’t matter. That’s the beauty and power of a decentralized, leaderless protest movement. What matters are the ideas, which are already so much larger than any single protest. What started in Tunisia and Egypt spread its seeds to New York and Oakland and Damascus and Manama and London and hundreds of other cities around the globe. 
It reminded me of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” You probably read it in high school. The poem is about how the autumn wind and the coming of winter mean death, but those winds are also the source of life and energy. Then it takes the turn that was fairly common in the Romantic era: Shelley has a crisis about his own mortality, decides that his words (i.e., this poem — see what he did there?) will be his immortality, and urges the West Wind to take those words and carry them into the future like seeds. 
Anyway, I think you see where I’m going with this: actual winter is like, I don’t know, political winter maybe? And seeds are like poems are like ideas of economic justice. 
Or something like that. 
It actually works better if you don’t spell it out.
I won’t belabor the connection further here, other than to say to all the chilly occupados out there: If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? 


WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

Thine azure sister of the spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill

(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)

With living hues and odors plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!


Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion,

Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,

Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread

On the blue surface of thine airy surge,

Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Mænad, even from the dim verge

Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,

The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night

Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,

Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapors, from whose solid atmosphere

Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: oh hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,

Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ’s bay,

And saw in sleep old palaces and towers

Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers

So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou

For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below

The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear

The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,

And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;

A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free

Than thou, O uncontrollable! if even

I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven,

As then, when to outstrip thy skyey speed

Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed

One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is;

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an extinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unwakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Mutational Analysis in Poetry and Biology

So, Robert Pinsky wrote a cool little piece in Slate the other day titled “In Praise of Memorizing Poetry – Badly.” In it he argues for a particular benefit to be gotten from misremembering a poem: that it brings into focus the choices that were made in the poem, the the consequences of using one word rather than another. He illustrates his argument with Yeats’s “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” which he presents like this:

“On Being Asked for a War Poem” 

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of [something] who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

He talks about misremembering the [something] as “glory” or “indolence” or “striving” before rediscovering Yeats’s original “meddling.”

In the case of “meddling,” the result of the exercise is to highlight the historical context in which Yeats was writing. Yeats was an Irish poet writing about World War I in 1915. At the time, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, and was actively involved in the war. However, some Irish nationalists used the war as an opportunity initiate a rebellion against English rule. And, in fact, the Irish War for Independence began pretty much as soon as World War I ended.

During Easter week of 1916, Irish rebels seized control of several key buildings
in Dublin and declared independence from England. Yeats wrote a poem about it.

Yeats’s poem was written in response to a request by Henry James, and was originally titled “To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations.” In all of this context, the choice of “meddling” seems to point to a degree of ambivalence towards the war, even presaging Ireland’s own neutrality in World War II.

Now, of course, all of this information is, in principle, available to anyone who has both the original text and access Wikipedia. However, for Pinsky, it is this forgetting, the substitution of “meddling” with “glory,” that serves as the catalyst for this particular close reading. And I doubt that, in the absence of some similar impetus, very many people would have focused on this particular aspect of the poem.

In biology, similar mistakes, in the form of mutations, provide one of our most important windows into the structure and function of biological systems. These mutations are sometimes the product of targeted mutagenesis, but can also result from naturally occurring mutations.

A lot of our coarse-grained knowledge of many systems comes from loss-of-function, or knockout mutations, where a mutation removes a particular gene, or renders it nonfunctional. For example, in 1976, Sharma and Chopra first described a recessive mutation in the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster. Flies inheriting two copies of the mutation exhibited various developmental defects, the most obvious of which involved wing formation. So, the mutation, and later the gene, became known as “wingless.”

This is typical in genetics, where a gene will be given a name based on the phenotypic consequences of losing that gene. So, a gene required for wings becomes “wingless,” a gene required for heart formation might be called “heartless,” and so on.

Kim Jong Il relaxes with some brews.
Due to the nature of the discovery process in biology, many genes wind up with names that are more like the opposite of what the gene actually does. This is sort of like how the least democratic countries always wind up with the word “Democratic” in their names, or how Citizens United succeeded in dramatically curtailing most citizens’ abilities to control their own government.

More subtle mutations, which alter the behavior of a gene or its gene product without completely eliminating it function, are more closely analogous to the misremembering that Pinsky is talking about, however. In a way, a knockout mutation of an important gene is more like just removing one whole line from Yeats’s poem, without regard for grammar, rhyme scheme, coherence, etc. What you would wind up with is a mess that fails in many ways, and is probably not terribly instructive – just like in biology.

Point mutations, which might alter a single amino acid in a protein, provide a more targeted and interpretable set of changes. Such a mutation might cause a small shift in the binding behavior of the protein, or might cause a slight change in the timing of the gene’s expression.

Like in the poetry case, these mutations are more likely to be revealing of the fine tuning part of the creative process, where mutations of small effect arise and are subjected to natural selection. In some populations – things like certain viruses, which have a very large population size and strong selective constraints – it might even be reasonable to think that these alternate, mutant forms have been explored and rejected by past natural selection. In other cases (e.g., large mammals, with relatively small effective population sizes), the most common form we find in nature might not represent some finely tuned optimum, but may simply be a form that works well enough.

Similarly, when we read a Yeats poem, we are inclined to assume that every single word has been chosen with extreme care, that a host of plausible alternatives were considered and rejected by the poet before he settled on just exactly the right word, in this case, “meddled.” I think we are inclined to agree with Pinsky’s final assessment, that “by memorizing his poem imperfectly, I had received a creative writing lesson from a great poet.”

However, a lot of poems in the world, even very good ones, are probably more like large mammals, with many of the word choices working well enough, but not necessarily representing some optimum, even a local one. (There is of course, the question, in biology and in poetry, of to what extent one can talk coherently about optima, but that’s a post for another day.) But this process, deliberate or accidental tinkering, is critical both to the creation of great things, and to understanding how greatness is created.

Sharma RP, & Chopra VL (1976). Effect of the Wingless (wg1) mutation on wing and haltere development in Drosophila melanogaster. Developmental biology, 48 (2), 461-5 PMID: 815114

What would baseball’s poet laureate actually be like?

So, apparently, there’s this guy, Tom Martin, who has been tweeting haikus about the Milwaukee Brewers (@brew_haiku). According to the Times baseball blog, Bats (via the Poetry Foundation), Martin is lobbying to become baseball’s poet laureate:

Tom Martin texts haikus about Brewers games on Twitter, and he wants to be baseball’s poet laureate, a role that has been vacant since, well, forever. (The late, great Dan Quisenberry wrote some pretty good poetry, but never earned the national superstardom and universal acclaim that comes with the title of poet laureate.) Martin’s verses celebrate the joys and sorrow of following the Brewers. Joys, from Sunday: “At Miller Park now/ready to go with game two/packed house is rocking!” Sorrows, from Wednesday: “It’s tough to win when/we can’t keep the ball in yard/see you on Friday.” It is as if Dick Stockton were calling a game, only concisely. 

Martin would be willing to work for no money, taking his compensation in the form of booze, just like any good poet. However, even this alco-altruistic stance is not consistent with baseball’s actual economics. The fact is, if baseball were to have a poet laureate, not only would the poet not get paid, they would have to pay baseball for “promotional consideration.” This would ultimately wind up with the poet laureate position being held by some multi-national corporation.

Which means that the haikus written by baseball’s poet laureate would look something like this:

Poet Laureate Citibank Group:

          Step up to the plate!
     Open a checking account,
          you’ll hit a home run!

Poet Laureate Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America:

          Steroids can be safe
     and effective. Unleash
          your inner champion!

Poet Laureate Bank of America:

          B of A, leading
     the league in stolen “bases,”
          by which we mean homes.

Poet Laureate Goldman Sachs:

          Slide into second
     quarter earnings with our new
          accounting methods!

Poet Laureate Novartis, makers of Ex-Lax:

          Try our new bunt cakes!
     Is your last meal “stuck on third”?
          Drop one in the grass!

Transistor Rodeo in Cafe Review

So, it’s been a little while since I’ve done poetry-related self promotion, and I know you’ve been missing it.

A few months ago, the Cafe Review published a Festschrift dedicated to Agha Shahid Ali. This was exciting for a few reasons:

1) Agha Shahid Ali is awesome, and every literary magazine should devote a Festschrift to him.

2) I learned what a Festschrift is. Apparently it’s German for “party paper.”

3) Since Transistor Rodeo won the Agha Shahid Ali prize, they were kind enough to review it in the issue. They also included a few new poems of mine, which are sort of modified ghazals. I tried writing some actual ghazals, but found that I could not pull it off. So I started tweaking the form. And tweaking it. And tweaking it. Eventually, I settled on a form that now goes by the name “Thus in the Limit.”

Here’s the generous and thoughtful review, by Michael Macklin:

If you are looking for poems that surprise, let me mention this unassuming mother lode. Try these lines from “Love Song”: 

      Words leapt from your mouth then
      like a gymnast on the moon.  You were so
      lively and full of pockets. 

Don’t worry, I am not giving away secrets: There are a number of poems entitled “Love Song” in this slender volume. But I would use this opening stanza as a description of what Jon Wilkins, the poet, does. Using the same title for each of a series of poems, he sends words zipping and zinging through our senses like a knife-throwing magician, then ducks behind the nearest title for a new and completely differently balanced set of knives: 

      Always assume it is your lover
      who stands
you said at the end
      of every tunnel and is waving 

      a scarf or an axe. . . . 

Leap to the next “Love Song,” and so on. But Wilkins is not just fast of flashy; he prays, catalogues, theorizes. He does these things by himself in the loneliness of space, or else naked and drunk after the prom with William Carlos Williams in his own Mean-Joe-Green-meets-the-boy-with-a-Coke version of “Kenneth Koch’s Unfinished Sestina.” 

In the section called “Prayers,” Wilkins uses the titles to place us in a specific time, physical space, and attitude, i.e. “7:34 am, styrofoam cup, metal table / Prayer”: 

      Still too early
      for beautiful
      people. Just
      the dust
      mask / leaf
      blower who
      may / may not
      regret former
      truancies and that scar.

His prayers are bright, twisted pieces of cellophane that wrap the everyday in what feels like the mathematics of modern meditations. He uses slashes to turn his short lines into fractions, as though he were working out the balance necessary to prove his theories on God / world. He ends this prayer, “Lord, make me hot as coffee, / and I’ll melt this world like sugar.” Wouldn’t we all like to believe that of ourselves? 

If I had been taught prayer or mathematics by Wilkins, I might have stuck with them. Not because I always agree with him, but because he would keep me fascinated by what was coming next. His ability to keep us off balance and interested is uncanny. As he says in “Please don’t hate me because I’m perfect”: 

      God, I wish I had a nickname like Rabbit.
      I wish I’d spent more time swimming as a kid. 

He leaves us wishing as well.

And here are the three poems that were included in the issue:

Thus in the Limit

Just like you, she came here for the fountains
of youth and chocolate. She found them occupado.

Occupational hazards and other children follow
her through the streets, but the alleys disobey,

dissolving like salt behind her. You can find her now
tucked in behind the baking soda with her umbrella,

unbearable to her parents, who claw at the old country,
backs to a black hole of immodesty and television,

transvestites and flavored mayonnaise, of mountains,
moonless nights that almost resemble, almost reassemble

Thus in the Limit

Just like you she came here with a bag full
of chalk and yellow tape. Her fear of snakes

sneaks up on her now and again, coiling her
on herself like the long braids of the peculiar

pelacur girls she used to watch with a braid
of envy, fear, and desire. She is a tidal wave,

a tiny wafer, lingering on the tongue
of a Priest, full of unsprung anticipation,

an incipience and a retrospect and the twisted cable
connecting them, impossibly long and longing

Thus in the Limit

Just like you she came here overflowing
with a need to feel superior, an age-old

rage holds her heart – gentle but joyless,
resentful, like holding the hair of the girl

hurling in the dorm toilet. Still beautiful –
still never going to fuck you. One day she

may see you again, and generations later
erupt like a pimple on a weedy chlapec,

slapstick now, from far away, but the boy
is a killer, has no nation, no hesitation

Negative Capability (Two Toys for the War on Terror)

So, John Keats famously coined the term Negative Capability, by which he meant the ability to observe and contemplate the world without succumbing to the impulse to cram that experience into a rational framework. To Keats, this ability to live with mystery, with doubt, with uncertainty, was key to the appreciation and creation of beauty.

In modern usage (in my experience), people often use the term negative capability to refer to the universal human capacity to hold two contradictory perceptions or beliefs at the same time.

That’s sort of how I feel about these items, which invoke their contradictory feelings in very different ways. I want to say that each is simultaneously compelling and disturbing, but somehow that undersells the complexity of the response. In one case, the complex response is clearly deliberate. In the other case, maybe not so much.  See what you think.

The first is this art project called Casualties of War (link), which really conveys all of its own complex resonances without explanation.

Second is this figurine, issued on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and immortalizing the death of Osama bin Laden. In this case, I think the figurine would elicit your negative capability on its own, but the video really heightens the effect.

The green army figures are not for sale, but the Obama figure is.

Transistor Rodeo in Apalachee Review

So, here’s some shameless self promotion. My book, Transistor Rodeo, was just reviewed by Amanda McCormick in the Apalachee Review.

This is an awesome review for a few reasons: (1) it’s positive, and I like praise, (2) I don’t actually know Amanda McCormick personally, and (3) it is not written in that stereotypical poetry-review language that you so often see, where the reviewer’s primary goal seems to be to draw attention to themselves — in fact, I think it does a really nice job of conveying a sense of what the book is actually like.

So, thank you Amanda McCormick for your generous and thoughtful words.

What follows is the text of her review:

    More than a prize-winning collection of poetry, Transistor Rodeo provides readers with a sharp view of ordinary life. Throughout the collection, Jon Wilkins creates a world in each poem that is vivid and earnest. Love here is something unedited, worthy of examination as it exists in a world of battling power and competing questions about religion, art, and the construction of society.
    Transistor Rodeo is broken up into nonlinear sections. In the first section we are presented with the idea that the state of the world is amiss:

Only astronauts and
angels know how
difficult it is and how
improbable to run
across true love once
you learn to fly.

    The second section is more meditative, presented as prayers, keen to time and physical details. This is where Wilkins really invites the reader to chew on the idea of the spiritual self. Through his somber view of religion, we can’t help but feel optimistic:

And the hope that burdens future generations,
let that lie forever in the desert as well,
and water all around your feet, standing
water all around your feet.

    As the collection reads on you can’t help but admire how Wilkins, through seemingly mundane scenes of life-stuff, considers the world as the inevitable factor of life. Questions will remain unanswered yet continue to be asked, but still life is lived.

and Memphis,
dirty as a window 

or a plate
of grits.
Buicks melt 

into the city like
butter and the man
unlocking the pawn 

shop is happy because
someone is dead.

    In each line we sense an un-urgent sense of importance, a respect for how things naturally fall into being.
    Through his light, yet sharp and strikingly analytical verse, Wilkins’s poems allow readers to stop and read just long enough to notice life’s invisible landscape and emotional grain.

Reflected Glory: Hark, a vagrant Yeats

So, if you don’t read Kate Beaton’s excellent webcomic Hark, a vagrant, you should. It has a historical focus, as in, many of the comics focus people ranging from Ben Franklin to William the Conqueror to a whole bunch of (apparently) Canadian people I’ve never heard of.

One of my favorite things about her drawing style (not evident in the strip below) is how many of her characters seem to have been caught by surprise with their mouths full.

Also, they’re consistently dorkily hilarious.

Every now and then, the historical intersects with the poetical, as in this piece on Yeats:

Bookmark this, and check back about once a week.

Shalizi, Shalizi, Shalizi

So, a couple of weeks ago, Cosma Shalizi, who is one of the smartest guys I know, was kind enough to link to me in a post on his blog in which he shared some found haikus that his brother had assembled from answers to science questions by 5th and 6th graders in Japan.

In response, I wanted to share this very old poem of mine. If you don’t know him, Cosma writes hands-down the best statistics blog on the internet, which also includes other interesting stuff.

If you don’t already read it, you should.

Here are two things you probably already know, but just in case you don’t, I’ll lay them out here for context.

1. The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot ends with the line Shantih shantih shantih. Eliot’s own note on the line is: “Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is a feeble translation of the conduct of this word.”

2. If you repeat the name Shalizi three times, Cosma will appear in your mirror with a posse of frequentists and kick your Bayesian posterior.

The Piece Which Passeth Understanding
   There was one piece left
I left half for you, but you
   Were too full to eat
The Peas’ Switch Passeth Understanding
   A woman once had
To turn off all the lights be-
   Fore she could eat peas
The Pee Switch Passeth Understanding
   Two boys in eighth grade
Swap urinals in mid stream
   They laugh and eat lunch
The Peach-wich Passeth Understanding
   A man once ate a
Peach between two slices of
   Bread and he liked it
The P’s Which Passeth Understanding
   Three letter P’s walked
Under where I was standing
   They ate garbanzos
The Peace Witch Passeth Understanding
   A witch found a spell
For peace on earth, but she ate
   The ingredients

Reflected Glory: Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues

So, according to YouTube, 133,000 people have already seen this.

This post is for the other 6.8 billion of you.

This awesome video features the poem The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes, as read by Allen Dwight Callahan. The visuals are of Cab Calloway. If you’re older than me, or if you’re a big-band buff, you’ll know Calloway as one of the great bandleaders of the 30s and 40s. Otherwise, you’ll recognize him as the Hi-De-Hi-De-Hi-De-Ho dude from The Blues Brothers.

This is part of the Moving Poetry Series by Four Seasons Productions.

Also, apropos of nothing, here’s a little Cab Calloway fun fact. He apparently fired trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie from his band in 1941 following an “incident” between the two. According to Gillespie’s wikipedia page,

Calloway did not approve of Dizzy’s mischievous humor, nor of his adventuresome approach to soloing; according to [band member Jonah] Jones, Calloway referred to it as “Chinese music.” During one performance, Calloway saw a spitball land on the stage, and accused Dizzy of having thrown it. Dizzy denied it, and the ensuing argument led to Calloway striking Dizzy, who then pulled out a switchblade knife and charged Calloway. The two were separated by other band members, during which scuffle Calloway was cut on the hand. 

I wonder what ever happened to Gillespie’s “Chinese music” style.