The I as hieroglyph (PoemTalk #84)

H.D., 'Helen in Egypt'

Photo credit: H.D. Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University and New Directions Publishing.


Julia Bloch, Dee Morris, and Annette Debo joined Al Filreis for this extended episode of PoemTalk, and their task — to give a sense of the whole of H.D.’s lyric epic Helen in Egypt through a discussion of five selected small parts — certainly pushed at the limit of PoemTalk’s scope and mode. But afforded an extra fifteen minutes of air time, and given what we like to think is a careful selection of poems, we hope and expect that new readers of this modernist epic — this radical revision of the Helen myth — will be intrigued enough to purchase a copy of the 304-page New Directions volume and explore further for themselves. And even those experienced with the open-ended ways of this long poem will find something new in these expert responses to each other and to Al’s questions. 

The first three poems are sections 6, 7, and 8 of Palinode, Book One, pages 11–17 in the book — where (in all three) Helen is encountering Achilles in Egypt (not in Troy); they are near the ocean, on the coast in the dark. Then we move to a section later in the work, section 3 of Palinode, Book Four (pages 53–54 in the book). The speaker here is apparently Achilles, and he is recalling what happens to him when he met Helen’s gaze as she (or her specter) stood on the ramparts of Troy. Finally we discuss a poem near the very end of the book — section 7 of Eidolon, Book Three (pages 251–52 of the New Directions edition). Here the speaker uses the third person and seems to speak from Achilles’s point of view; this beautiful poem makes a notable distinction on the matter of Helen’s beauty.

(At left: H.D. visiting Egypt in 1923. She was present at the opening of King Tut’s tomb.) The Helen of Egypt recordings are the only recordings on PennSound’s H.D. author page, and apparently they are the only recordings of H.D. extant. She taped herself reading from this work in Zurich in 1955. Our five sections of Helen in Egypt take H.D. some seven and a half minutes to read, approximately three times the usual length of poems featured on PoemTalk. We ask our listeners’ indulgence as they wait for us to return with our commentary on the work. Here are links to the recordings and (in four of five sections) the texts of the selected poems:

Palinode, Book 1, section 6: MP3 [TEXT, see below]
Palinode, Book 1, section 7: MP3 [TEXT]
Palinode, Book 1, section 8: MP3 [TEXT]
Palinode, Book 4, section 3: MP3 
Eidolon, Book 3, section 7: MP3 [TEXT]

BONUS TRACK: PoemTalk proudly presents an additional recorded conversation about H.D. featuring Annette Debo, Dee Morris, and Julia Bloch. With Al Filreis they discuss H.D.’s version of imagism, with a look in particular, toward the end, at the poem “Sheltered Garden.” Here is a link to the text of that poem, and here is a link to the recording of this additional discussion.

PoemTalk this time was engineered by Chris Martin and edited by Allison Harris. Special thanks to Annette Debo for making the long journey from western North Carolina to join us at the Writers House for these conversations. We recommend to all Annette’s scholarship on H.D., for example The American H.D. and her edition of Within the Walls and What Do I Love?


Palinode, Book One, section 6:

How did we greet each other?
here in this Amen-temple,
I have all-time to remember;

he comes, he goes;
I do not know what memory calls him,
or what Spirit-master

summons him to release
(as God released him)
the imprisoned, the lost;

few were the words we said,
but the words are graven on stone,
minted on gold, stamped upon lead;

they are coins of a treasure
or the graded weights
of barter and measure;

“I am a woman of pleasure,”
I spoke ironically into the night,
for her had built me a fire,

he, Achilles, piling brushwood,
finding an old flint in his pouch,
“I thought I had lost that”;

few were the words we said,
“I am shipwrecked, I am lost,”
turning to view the stars,

swaying as before the mast,
“the season is different,
we are far from — from —”

let him forget,
Amen, All-father,
let him forget.

On reading & teaching the modern long poem, with reference to Williams's 'Paterson' & two passages from Eliot's 'The Waste Land'


Eric Alan Weinstein and Al Filreis spent some time in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House talking about the problematics of the modern long poem. Can it be taught? Why is it so challenging, despite its central importance? The discussion is intentionally general at first, but soon Eric and Al turn to Eliot's The Waste Land, and in particular to two modally quite distinct passages from the poem.

This is a PennSound podcast, number 46 in the ongoing series. To see all episodes at once in the PennSound archive, go here.  To see the series as part of Jacket2 magazine, go here

Eric Alan Weinstein is the academic coordinator of the Unbinding Prometheus Project. He hosts the Penn Shelley Seminars, is co-director of the Prometheus Collaborative Digital Initiative, and director of Open Learning’s “The Great Poems Series.”  Eric has recently begun a project entitled "Singing 'Myself' Together: 52 Collaborative Close Readings of Walt Whitman’s Song Of Myself" in which he will close read each section of Song of Myself in collaboration with 52 poets, critics, artists, and other people from around the world who appreciate Whitman’s poetry.

There it was (PoemTalk #83)

Wallace Stevens, 'The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain'

Left to right: Susan Howe, Dee Morris, Nancy Kuhl


Among the last things Wallace Stevens wrote was a metapoem, a poem in which a man — a reader and presumably a poet too — does not write a poem but picks his way among the aspects of an old poem, the poem that had once helped him by standing in for a mountain. He composes (or rather “recompos[s]”) the objects and perspectives of the way or path up the mountain. It had been a “direction.” Was it now again? This late effort is called “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain,” and it was published with other new poems in a section of Collected Poems (1954) under the heading “The Rock.” And as Susan Howe, Dee Morris, Nancy Kuhl and Al Filreis variously observe, the precision and yet imprecision (both) of the rock are crucial elements of this retrospective on life (he never visited Europe), career (forty years of poems) and poetic influences (Walt Whitman, William James, Henry Vaughan).

Our recording of Stevens reading this poem was made during his May 1, 1952, reading at Harvard University, in the New Lecture Hall there (now called the Lowell Lecture Hall). The original is in two reel-to-reel tapes housed at the Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library, at Harvard. We at PennSound and PoemTalk are grateful to Don Share and Christina Davis, successive directors at the Woodberry, for working with us at PennSound to bring the Harvard Stevens recordings to our achive and thus to make them available for everyone everywhere. We produced this special episode of PoemTalk with the hope that readers of Stevens who have not yet encountered the poet’s voice in these recordings will return to the poem with a new perspective, looking back, let us say, on the "unique and solitary home" of the poems as they were.

During PoemTalk’s usual “gathering paradise” segment, at which point participants and host recommend “something going on in the poetry world,” we got carried away after Al’s praise of Nancy Kuhl’s stewardship as poet-archivist of the Beinecke Library’s collection of poetry manuscripts. Once Al asked Nancy to cite poets whose unpublished materials are among the Beinecke's collections, and Nancy mentioned the relatively recent acquisition of Susan Howe's drafts, notebooks, clippings and letters, the tone of the group became ecstatic in their urgings of scholars, poets, students and readers to consult the archives as part of — not separate from — the work of the poems.

This 83rd episode of PoemTalk was recorded and engineered by Zach Carduner and edited by Allison Harris.

The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain

There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,

How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:

The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,

Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.

Conversation with Alan Golding, Orchid Tierney, Bob Perelman & Ron Silliman

On canons, anthologies, Language writing, academia and the long poem


For episode #45 of PennSound podcasts, Al Filreis convened an hourlong conversation with Alan Golding, Orchid Tierney, Bob Perelman and Ron Silliman. They began by reflecting on Golding’s 1995 book From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry twenty years later, beginning with a discussion about anthologies in the digital era. Soon talk shifted to Golding's assessment then of opposition to Language poets' anti-academic stance. Finally the group discussed Golding’s distinction between the Poundian long poem — mytho-informational — and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts.

Remote yet present (PoemTalk #82)

Carl Rakosi, 'In What Sense I Am I'

At the Poetry Foundation in Chicago: (left to right) Laura Goldstein, Al Filreis, Anthony Madrid, Don Share


Anthony Madrid, Laura Goldstein, and Don Share joined Al Filreis at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago for a special on-the-road PoemTalk episode, a discussion of Carl Rakosi’s poem “In What Sense I Am I.” The poem appeared in Rakosi’s Collected Poems in the mid-1980s, but otherwise the group was not able to date the poem except through internal evidence — and there’s plenty of that — although taken all together such evidence leaves things open — for instance, the reference to Eliot’s Prufrock. Led by Anthony in particular (who worked out lineation and grammar in an experimental way) the group also pondered the style of line and stanza to guess at whether the poem is early or late. Al insisted on late, influenced not just by the theme of remoteness from self but also by the event in which our recording of Rakosi performing this poem was made. It was a day or two after Rakosi had turned ninety-nine years of age, an audiocast bringing Rakosi’s voice into the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia and thence out to the world of live Internet listeners. We hear the voice of a very elderly poet remembering how the self gets membered in the writing, “barely discernible” (both Prufrock and himself) and “seemingly ageless.”

Because — and the group admires this about the poem — the distinct scenes and references do not cohere, it was difficult to say with any certainty what the poem is “about.” But Al asked anyway. Is it about the way in which the question about what constitutes a written self can only be answered as in a dream” and is thus dream-like? Is it about how such a question consistently “escapes me”? Or is about the way posing such a question about the self leads one inexorably back to thoughts about poets’ “original impulse / to sing” — the originary (“neolithic,” Al suggests) bodying of breathing and voice? Is that what explains the “intentionally naive” (Don’s phrase) presentation of the woman as muse or interior paramour, trapped with the poem-in-the-making inside the voice or breath of poem?

Rakosi was born in Berlin, lived in Hungary until he was seven, but then commenced some Chicago connections that make it perhaps apt that PoemTalk set up camp in this windy city to talk about him: he lived in Chicago for a while, where his father was a watchmaker, and despite the family’s meager means his parents contrived to send him to the University of Chicago; and later it was in Chicago, in Poetry magazine, that Rakosi’s poems were published as part of the famous Objectivist issue of the magazine in 1931.

For the first time in the PoemTalk series, we also offer a bonus track. Laura, Don, and Al were mesmerized by Anthony’s description of his unusual critical metrical practice and asked him to describe it in what turn out to be not just analytical but also pedagogical terms. Listen here to hear that extra talk!

This special episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Ed Hermann and edited once again by Allison Harris. And we wish to thank the staff of the Poetry Foundation for helping us organizing this Chicago trip and the recording session. The text of Rakosi’s poem can be found here.