Tag Archives: James H. Billington

“And you were? Where were you this hour o’ need?”

One night early last week, I walked past my kitchen window. “Huh! What was that searing flash of white light in the sky?” I thought, and turned around to go back and look. Lo and behold–or “Aye and begorrah”–it was THE MOON. [“Good one, you cretin,” murmured my cerebral cortex]. Subsequently in the mood to look at lunar marias–and who among us has not been in the mood to look at lunar marias of an evening? Who, indeed?–I went into my room to get my telescope out of the closet. It wasn’t where I thought I’d left it, and I tried to recall the last time of its usage. “Pip pip,” I said at last; “it was the lunar eclipse, in February.” And I remembered how cold it had been, and how I had called my sister, and how when I got off the train that night, near-to-swooning with impatience to get home and set up shop, all the people waiting for the bus on the street-level were standing with their backs to the moon, and I wanted to tell them to look up look up look up, and to be the Paul Revere of exciting outer space moments visible to the naked eye.

A few nights after this ring-a-dingingly idiotic error, I was on the back porch, on the phone, and as I talked I watched a broad, luminous light shining through a tree in a backyard across the way. When I turned my head in a certain direction, the light transformed into a faint–but unmistakable–shade of blue. I couldn’t decide what this light was–had some well-intentioned dreamer of dreams mounted a newly-purchased lighthouse light in their window, to guide trawlers out on Lake Michigan? Had an extraterrestrial space vehicle docked on a roof?–and finally stood up to get to the bottom of things. Once again, it was THE MOON, rising behind the branches. A firm handshake to the person who can tell me why I mistook the moon for something else, not once, but TWICE in one week. Or formulate the best metaphor regarding same. That’s a thought! Man, I love metaphors. They droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, you know what I’m sayin’?


In terribly exciting poetry news, James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress [I love saying “James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress” so much it gives me nosebleeds] has named our new poet laureate, Kay Ryan! La la la! Unacquainted with Kay Ryan, I set out to acquaint myself. A friend and I agreed that our initial reading forays were unsuccessful; we didn’t get her. And then–of a sudden!–we did, and we’ve been talking about her for days, up to and including this weekend in the merciless sun at Pitchfork Music Festival [another story entirely, and one that I’m too tired in the head to write]. I’ve included a Kay Ryan poem in its entirety at the end of this post, but others to read:

All Shall Be Restored


Paired Things

I look forward to you, Kay Ryan, and the things you’ll do and say! Already you have delighted me, Kay Ryan, in your e-mail exchange with a New Yorker writer on the day of your laureate appointment! The New Yorker writer wrote: “Your poem, “Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard”…begins with the lines “A life should leave/deep tracks.” Do you think that a poem can leave deep tracks?”

Her response: “A few poems, or a few bits of a few poems, leave tracks as deep as those of the pioneers’ covered wagon wheels crossing Utah.”



On the selfsame day that Kay Ryan was appointed the poet laureate, I discovered a poet named Brian Henry. I read his poem “Baited Sonnet” in the Boston Review, and I liked four lines of it very much, and looked for more Brian Henry poems, but they were never quite what I wanted them to be. In other words, it was not like reading Kay Ryan, where every new poem read reverberated, made good, kept getting better. But I liked those four lines, those Brian Henry lines, and they stuck in my head all day long:

And you were, where were you this hour o’ need?
By foot/by car/by bus/by train/online?
By where/what plane? Before/by whose design?
To flout us is to flout yourself, that past.

Annie Dillard writes: “I collected poems and learned them…I found Asian and Middle Eastern poetry in translation–whole heaps of lyrics, fierce or limp–which I ripped to fragments for my collection. I wanted beauty bare of import; I liked language in strips like pennants.”

I like “language in strips like pennants”. And so it’s all right to collect four lines of a poem and leave it at that.

But Annie and I part ways on the first point: I do need import in my beauty. I need import. Big time.

“Big Time Import” sounds like a shipping company with two different versions of the accounting books, if you know what I mean.

The Pieces That Fall To Earth
One could
almost wish
they wouldn’t;
they are so
far apart,
so random.
One cannot
wait, cannot
abandon waiting.
The three or
four occasions
of their landing
never fade.
Should there
be more, there
will never be
enough to make
a pattern
that can equal
the commanding
way they matter.

Kay Ryan


Filed under Annie Dillard, Brian Henry, Kay Ryan, Poetry