Pick-a-Poem: Peter Balakian

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Hello and welcome to another installment of Pick-a-Poem! Each Wednesday we feature a new poem here on the Jet Fuel blog. I find these poems at the lovely site, Poetry Daily. It’s a great site that features a different poem from a different poet each day. We’re not as ambitious here, so we only feature a poem each week. This week’s featured poem is Hart Crane in LA, 1927 by Peter Balakian.

According to the bio page on his website, Peter Balakian has written five books of poetry. The most recent of these is June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974-2000. His other titles include Father Fisheye (1979), Sad Days of Light (1983), Reply From Wilderness Island (1988), and Dyer’s Thistle (1996). His work has also appeared in publications such as The Nation, The New Republic, Partisan Review, Poetry, and The Kenyon Review. He also wrote The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, winner of the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize and a New York Times Notable Book. 

Hart Crane in LA, 1927 by Peter Balakian

We sat in leather chairs
around cocktail tables and the candidates

came and went with badges on their jackets, proud and scared,
full of knowledge and uncertainty.

Everyone was animated as the conversation
drifted toward an idea of the idea of the text.

One colleague pointed out in an interview that it was here
right in this room under this chandelier that a poet

once came for a while in uncertainty and fear;
that he rode into LA’s great pink vacuum of

sunsets and spewed Rimbaud out on the Boulevard.
The candidates kept coming and going,

other colleagues dropped over to say hi or to chat about
the menu at the other hotel; and someone else said

that the poet loved this place and that we should stay here
where he had come to devour pâté and lobster,

where Ivor Winters met him for old-fashioned cocktails
and noted later that his hands looked

like a seasoned pugilists’, his face like bad road.
Another colleague said you couldn’t understand Crane’s big poem

without context, the other said you couldn’t understand
context without the poem. Another said listen to the

strange sound the words make when you let the silence in.

The first colleague said the words were so clotted and glued
that it was impossible to decipher meaning, real meaning.

But someone else reminded the others that the poet
was so desperate he pawned his grandmother’s watch

and then wrote to Gide “no Paris ever yielded such as this.”

Later when things got worse, when the houses
turned the color of stale mayonnaise,

he went down to the beach to read Hopkins
and claimed the drawling mockingbirds drowned out the spondees.

The first colleague said his idea of the poem was
too big for any life to carry and so the end was inevitable.

Then the waiter appeared, slightly harassed, and everyone
ordered a lobster club and a diet coke, before the next candidate arrived

as another colleague repeated with an edge in her voice, “inevitable?”

I hope you enjoyed this week’s featured poem. For more of these posts on the blog, click here.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

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