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(issue #2) 



Kelly Cherry

What the poet wishes to say



What the poet wishes to say cannot be said,

in part because it has been said, and often,

before, but this was true when only the second

poet wrote. It becomes no truer with time.


The bigger reason the poet cannot say

what she wishes to say is that she wishes to say

something that seems to be a kind of music,

a word-field of music, as it's less a text

and more a space of time profoundly charged

by feeling, like the awe attendant to

our modest place among the huge events

of universal import: stars and novae,

the initiating burst of Many from

the One-the one what? Impacted point,

or god, or some computer-generated

simulacrum? In any case, the whole

of it.


If everyone could speak the whole,

then everyone would speak poetry, but

Moliere's gentilhomme was perfectly pleased to learn

he had been speaking prose.


Even for those

whose language is poetry, the task requires

a life of: practice, contemplation, prayer.

(The latter two are sham without the first.)

This life begins in echo and extends

into apprenticeship, a period

that may be short or long but always ends,

if it ends, with the achievement of a vision

or "showing," as Julian of Norwich called her visions

of Jesus Christ, but we prefer "a view."

(Transported as we are by art and music,

the leap to faith remains a leap to faith.)

So say "a view," a world view if you must,

but know that you are only halfway home.

Even with the view. Even speaking poetry.

Because poetry is not the only language

you must master. You must also learn

the personal language that will convey your view,

and since your view, so similar to the ones

you love, also differs from them, if only

because the time in which you live and write

is different, you must invent that language,

hoping a few readers follow on the same

path and perhaps they will and perhaps they won't.

But how to make a language of your own?


In short, the process has to do with rhythm.

The racing rhymes of Dante's terza rima

so magnifies the interlocking of

hell, earth, and heaven that the universe,

the medieval universe, becomes one verse.

And Chaucer's Wife of Bath is like a laugh

so full and deep it shakes the ground of England.

And Will, whose way with words created English,

creates as well the tense, or rueful, clash

between the life of action and the life

within the skull, that secret, teeming world.


Or consider a poet less removed

in time, whose reputation for that reason

is hard to know, yet Osip Mandelstam,

arrested and in exile, begging food

and blankets, honed the razor of his lines.

Discussing Osip, poet Joseph Brodsky

notes, "Whatever a work of art consists of,

it runs to the finale which makes for its form

and denies resurrection."


This is true

and not true, as it is, too, when he writes, "After

the last line of a poem, nothing follows

except literary criticism."

Both statements are rather more clever than correct.

What follows a poem is often a poem in response.

It's possible to write a poem that enacts

its own resurrection.


 As for the poet,

the poet aims not at immortality

of self or reputation but of what

he or she wishes to say, the world as it was,

or seemed to be, on that day in mid-October

when the hills were still green, the wildflowers

scattered like birdseed from a hand not seen

nor felt, and the various, changing, falling leaves

swirled up again, caught in a sudden updraft,

then settled on the ground like immigrants,

a huddling, a community of color.


A day when a small boy rushed to open the door

to shout "Bonjour, Madame!" to a woman whom

he'd never met and waked in her a feeling

of sheerest joy, salvific and abiding.

The poet wishes to say what life was like

here on the planet in the twenty-first

disturbing century and might, to do

so, think of her beloved Beethoven,

who, deaf and lonely, brought his art to such

sublimity, it is as if he wrote

his music among the spheres of music, working

at a desk of sky, the innumerable stars for lighting,

a gust of solar wind sending manuscript

flying. In the late piano sonatas,

you hear the composer placing his notes, solid

and silken as they somehow manage to be,

without hesitation but with deliberateness

exactly where they are supposed to go,

thereby fixing the apparatus of heaven

God had let fall idle.


Kelly Cherry is the author of nineteen books, eight chapbooks, and two translations of classical plays. Girl in a Library: On Women Writers & the Writing Life and The Retreats of Thought: Poems were both published in 2009. She contributes to a collaborative poem in our forthcoming "Rat's Nest" issue.


"What The Poet Wishes To Say" appeared in our Spring 2010 issue, How To Read Music.

EMO, MEET HOLE is out!

Emo, Meet Hole cover

Emo, Meet Hole Spring 2011

Our Spring 2011 issue, Emo, Meet Hole is now available for purchase in print on TLR's Homepage, and as an eBook on


It's not just a style, niche, or's a vision, a music, a way of life.  Transcendence gets down.


New work from: Michael S. Glaser, John Kinsella, Elizabeth Eslami, Adam Vintes, Christine Sneed, Jena Salon, Cam Terwilliger, Michael Morse, Kristina Mraie Darling, Micahel Homolka, Katherine Lien Chariott, Alex Lemon, Charles Rafferty, Anthony D'Aries


Thank you for reading,


Minna Proctor

Editor, The Literary Review

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About The Literary Review

The Literary Review is an international journal of contemporary writing that has been published quarterly since 1957 by Fairleigh Dickinson University.