Saturday, June 03, 2006


Zoe Strauss: Detail I-95 (Camden Mattresses)


You only have until June 11
to catch the work of Zoe Strauss,
Philly’s hottest artist
in this year’s Whitney Biennale
in NYC,

But you can hear her on Sunday
discuss her work at
the Institute for Contemporary Art
1:00 PM

Though you’ve already missed
her annual one-woman show
held each year under the I-95 Freeway
at Front & Mifflin Streets.

She has a blog too
& received
a Pew Fellowship last year.

Zoe Strauss gives art a good name.


The 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize
has been awarded to
Sylvia Legris
for Nerve Squall


Pinoy penman visits Oz

This article deserves an award
for how well it contextualizes
two languages at once.


Carl Rakosi’s oral history
(PDF format)
is 244 pages long!


The new online issue of Action Yes
has an “Idaho Special” feature
well worth reading,

especially Catherine Wagner


See also Barbara Jane Reyes
in that same issue

& I love the way you can toggle
between translation & original
in Jen Hofer’s
rendering of Dolores Dorantes


Or go to VH-1
where you can watch all four of
Jim Berhle’s episodes
from the TV series
Can’t Get a Date.


Robin Kemp
tries to get my goat.



I have some new work
in the latest issue
of mark(s)
which goes live

Friday, June 02, 2006

When I read the sexist language in Olson’s “Projective Verse,” my instinct is to see Olson as a not-too-atypical male of his generation, chronologically positioned midway between my grandfather’s generation born in the late 1890s & my father who was born in 1927. He sounds like a case of testosterone poisoning & is no doubt the person intended by the rubric given to the macho side of the New American Poetics as the Wounded Buffalo School. Yet dismissing that language as a sign of generational ignorance – Zukofsky & Pound & Eliot all had their visibly patriarchal sides – and keeping in mind that the Allen anthology has just four women among its 44 contributors – is not too unlike dismissing the equally unmistakable anti-Semitism in Pound, Cummings, Stevens or Eliot. You do it at some risk.
You could also take exactly the other tack, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis did about ten years back in an issue of Diacritics, in an essay called “Manifests” that likewise close reads “Projective Verse,” but as a sexual text rather than merely one on poetics whose arteries are clogged with the prejudices of the time. It’s a fascinating alternate path into the work, informed externally by the discovery of Tom Clark’s – the real literary coup of his Olson bio – that Olson’s primary mentor in the post-War years before he met up with the chicken farmer from New Hampshire named Creeley was a book designer, Frances Motz Boldereff, with whom he had an intense & informing affair that he subsequently kept secret from very nearly everyone, so that it came as news two decades after his death. Reading Olson through the Boldereff correspondence, now quite thoroughly in print, reminds one of nothing so much as Olson’s own way of reading Shakespeare into Melville, the informing thesis of Call Me Ishmael. The cover of the Wesleyan University Press edition shows photos of Olson & Boldereff from the 1940s – his (from the same shoot as the photo I used on May 23, wearing dark shirt & tie) above the title, hers below. So far as I know, no photo of the two together was ever taken.
In that wonderful way she has in her poetry as well as her criticism of looking at an issue from all perspectives, DuPlessis doesn’t just dismiss the replete sexism with a sigh, nor throw Olson overboard for it, but uses it to interrogate Allen Grossman’s critical work, Summa Lyrica, which, in DuPlessis’ words “announces the force of poetics as ideology.” Nor does she stop there, but rather proceeds to read the text through the works of other recent theorists, including Deleuze and Guattari (there is that question of incest to deal with, after all, and, following Grossman, the whole oedipal ball o’ wax), Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous. But then DuPlessis does this both ways, reading them through Olson & Grossman. It’s a process that eventually will lead you to understand what DuPlessis means when she claims that “I don’t write ‘poetry,’” a tricky position to hold if you’re one of the best poets going, which she is.
Nor does DuPlessis let Boldereff off the hook. What does it mean for a woman to be a muse, to choose that role rather than put her own work forward for what it is? The answers aren’t simple, and they may not even be answers, certainly not in the “settled argument” sense of that term.
You can get DuPlessis’ essay from Diacritics if your library belongs to the appropriately named (for this discussion at least) Project Muse, a service whose sole function is to keep critical writing out of the hands of independent scholars and general readers, so as to maintain the two-tier (or more) system of authorities by which the tenured speak only to the tenured & tenured-to-be (they hope). Or you can wait until Blue Studios comes forth as a book, which I am told it shall, very soon, from the University of Alabama

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Thursday, June 01, 2006


Charles Olson between
Robert Duncan &
Ruth Witt Diamant
San Francisco State
, 1958

Of the slightly more than 4,500 words that make up “Projective Verse,” 1,198 – just over one-quarter – appear in part II. Whereas the first part was devoted, both strategically & tactically, to poetics, II is concerned with the status of the poem in the world, as object & as knowledge:

Which gets us to what I promised, the degree to which the projective involves a stance toward reality outside a poem as well as a new stance toward reality of a poem itself. It is a matter of content, the content of Homer or of Euripides or of Seami¹ as distinct from that which I might call the more “literary” masters. From the moment the projective purpose of the act of verse is recognized, the content does — it will — change. If the beginning and the end is breath, voice in its largest sense, then the material of verse shifts. It has to. It starts with the composer. The dimension of his line itself changes, not to speak of the change in his conceiving, of the matter he will turn to, of the scale in which he imagines that matter’s use.

I myself would pose the difference by physical image.

It sounds as if Olson is about to head into Williams’ machine-made-of-words territory, but, even tho what he will say eventually leads to the idea, first voiced in Spring & All, that poems are objects as additions to nature, this isn’t the path Olson will take to get there. Instead, Olson makes what is decidedly the oddest detour in this essay, distinguishing – or trying to – what he’s after from an Objectivism that he patently seems not to understand or know. 1950, it is worth remembering, is the absolute nadir of Objectivism, 19 years after Louis Zukofsky coined the term to justify his gathering of the younger poets of the Pound-Williams tradition into Poetry. Late modernists who were, for the most part, Marxists or fellow travelers, the Objectivists were at odds with the vulgar poetics of the so-called New York Intellectuals (who would, in fact, be morphing soon enough from their lightly held Trotskyism into becoming the base for the first wave of the neoconservative political movement). And the Objectivists were – with the notable exception of Basil Bunting (a notable exception on many counts, working as a British spy in Persia) – quite apart from the expat culture of the high modernists in Europe. During the 1940s, virtually all had stopped publishing. Some had stopped writing. In an age where books were far harder to come by than they are today, when the idea of Googling a source wasn’t even fathomable, Olson’s characterization of Objectivism as opposed to a simplistic School of Quietude confessionalism that had, in his terms, “excellently done itself to death, even though we are all caught in its dying,” is understandable, tho hardly accurate & more interesting for what it projects onto Zukofsky et al than as an analysis of that poetry.

After the better part of two paragraphs on the topic, Olson finally turns toward his point:

For a man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages, the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use. It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself, and shall sing, nature has such paradoxical ways, by way of artificial forms outside of himself. But if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share.

It isn’t the poem as object that Olson here is after, but the poet. Olson is very much proposing an ecological vision of human activity, just one species among many. And his argument is not that it will be good for the planet, but rather good for the poems, because the poet will be closer to a world of species & artifacts, each of which has, as Pound might have put it, its virtue. There is more to this than just the idea that your dust bunnies are keeping secrets from you, or that animations like Toy Story are right, at least in spirit. And this is where he begins to sound very much like the William Carlos Williams of 1923:

And by an inverse law his shapes will make their own way. It is in this sense that the projective act, which is the artist’s act in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the man. For a man’s problems, the moment he takes speech up in all its fullness, is to give his work his seriousness, a seriousness sufficient to cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature.

To give his work … a seriousness sufficient to cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature. This is almost Spring & All verbatim.

But Olson’s ultimate goal – and this is worth thinking about in a man who stood at 6’9” & must have weighed somewhere in the vicinity of 300 pounds – is size:

But breath is man’s special qualification as animal. Sound is a dimension he has extended. Language is one of his proudest acts. And when a poet rests in these as they are in his proudest acts. And when a poet rests in these as they are in himself (in his physiology, if you like, but the life in him, for all that) then he, if he chooses to speak from these roots, works in that area where nature has given him size, projective size.

It is projective size that the play, The Trojan Women, possesses,

Olson reiterates, ticking off his three examples – the other two are Homer & Zeimi’s Nōh play, Hagoromo, all of which bear the notable stamp of Ezra Pound.

Nor do I think it accident that, at this end point of the argument, I should use, for examples, two dramatists and an epic poet. For I would hazard to guess that, if projective verse is practiced long enough, is driven ahead hard enough along the course I think it dictates, verse again can carry much larger material than it has carried in our language since the Elizabethans.

This is a man who has, in 1950, not yet come to know the work of Robert Creeley, who would seem to me absolute proof that scale is not the issue, regardless of what Olson would do with Maximus, a project that Olson began this same year, or what Duncan might do a 15 years or so hence with Passages.

But Olson cannot stop here – he has to turn in yet another direction to pick a last fight, with the plays specifically of the poet then known best for writing works of drama: T.S. Eliot.

Eliot is, in fact, a proof of a present danger, of “too easy” a going on in the practice of verse as it has been, rather than as it must be, practiced.

Olson concedes that he likes Eliot’s line, especially in early works like ”Prufrock.” But,

it could be argued that it is because Eliot has stayed inside the non-projective that he fails as a dramatist — that his root is mind alone, and a scholastic mind at that (no high intelletto despite his apparent clarities) — and that, in his listenings he has stayed there where the ear and the mind are, has only gone from his fine ear outward rather than, as I say a projective poet will, down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama has come from, where, the coincidence is, all act springs.

That is, I think, an interesting, even curious, place to end such a piece as this manifesto. It shows Olson the neurotic as well as Olson the theorist. Had he in fact had more the courage of his convictions, he might instead have turned his attention elsewhere, skating, as Wayne Gretzky puts it, to where the puck will be, rather than where it seemed at rest mid-century. As powerful as Eliot was as an organizing figure, especially for the School of Quietude in this country, in 1950, his reputation had virtually nowhere to go but down, and that’s a slide that has been almost entirely uninterrupted now for more than a half century. Far from being the central figure whom one has to position in order to have a theory that proposes to accommodate the whole landscape, he now is a footnote, someone who produced some raw footage that Pound edited down into something akin to a fine flarf fugue.

It is too soon to consider, in 1950, what the New Americans might produce. For all purposes, they hadn’t at that point. But if only Olson had known the Objectivists, had thought more historically about their absence at that moment in history, and actually read the work, “Projective Verse” might well have had a much more interesting end. Admittedly, Olson’s disinterest in Zukofsky, even 15 to 20 years later, appears to have been match only by Zukofsky’s disinterest in Olson. But there has to be more to it than the fact that one was the most anal retentive poet in existence & the other his absolute polar opposite. For, tho Zukofsky does not rely on Olson’s folk physiology, what work at mid-century better poses itself as the test case of Olson’s thesis than “A”?


¹ Olson is referring to Zeami Motokiyo, 14th & 15th century Nōh master, one of whose works, Hagoromo, or Robe of Feathers, was translated by Ezra Pound & Ernest Fenellosa, Jo Kondo’s recent opera for which was recorded in 2002 by the London Sinfonietta, Paul Zukofsky conducting.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006


But the syllable is only the first child of the incest of verse (always, that Egyptian thing, it produces twins!). The other child is the LINE. And together, these two, the syllable and the line, they make a poem, they make that thing the – what shall we call it, the Boss of all, the “Single Intelligence.” And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending – where its breathing, shall come to, termination.

Last Tuesday I noted that whenever I sense a hinge in Charles Olson’s critical writing, I pay close heed. Just as, in “Projective Verse,” Olson’s discussion of breath takes him to the syllable, a unit of language that he then describes as coming not from the breath, the play of air in vowels or the stops & slides of consonants, but to the ear & explicitly the ear’s proximity to the human brain: I say the syllable, king, and that it is spontaneous… it is from the union of the mind and the ear that the syllable is born. The paragraph cited above is what comes immediately next. Here we have a second definition of poetry, to go with A poem is energy transferred. Now we find the syllable and the line, they make a poem.

What I find most interesting here is Olson’s lack of bona fides for his claim that the line comes (I swear it) from the breath. Of all the literary devices that will become associated with Olson over the next 20 years, none will have the power of his equation of the line with breath – it dictates not only much that will go in projectivist poetics, but even the likes of Allen Ginsberg & Frank O’Hara were known to at least nod in its direction when discussing their own use of the line. By the time I was in college, in the latter half of the 1960s, having an identifiable line was tantamount to finding your voice, that elusive creative writing program quest. Your line was your brand. So it is fascinating here to think that Olson’s first argument for this equation comes down to a parenthetical I swear it. Talk about taking someone at his word!

And what is it that is so privileged here? That only he, the man who writes, can declare…where its breathing, shall come to, termination. The line is defined not by what goes on, but by how it ends.

What Olson preaches & what Olson practices, even here, maybe especially here, in a prose note he was intending to send off to a journal that had no particular reason to favor his stylistic quirks, is quite different. The use of “ungrammatical” commas in where its breathing, shall come to, termination can be accommodated only as pauses within the prose line, a mode of internal organization that any Olson reader will recognize as characteristic, at least up until the final notational poems with which Maximus concludes.

At this moment Olson is able to articulate his double-sided aesthetics, in which one (the syllable) represents freedom, the other (the line) responsibility:

The trouble with most work, to my taking, since the breaking away from traditional lines and stanzas, and from such wholes as, say, Chaucer’s Troilus or S’s Lear, is: contemporary workers go lazy RIGHT HERE WHERE THE LINE IS BORN.

Let me put it baldly. The two halves are:

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE

the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE

And the joker? that it is in the 1st half of the proposition that, in composing, one lets-it-rip; and that it is in the 2nd half, surprise, it is the LINE that’s the baby that gets, as the poem is getting made, the attention, the control, that it is right here, in the line, that the shaping takes place, each moment of the going.

Thus it is breath, the heart, that must be the responsible half, not at all the Freudian model of ego, id, superego here.

“Projective Verse” has a two-part structure, first part poetics, second part philosophy, yet it is here, just halfway through the piece’s two numbered sections, that Olson has already fully articulated his poetics, as such. One might say that what has preceded up to this point has been strategic – the remainder of part I starts off as if tactical. For example:

The descriptive functions generally have to be watched, every second, in projective verse, because of their easiness, and thus their drain on the energy which composition by field allows into a poem.

But this is more than just a warning that story as such too easily turns into vulgar narrative. The problem ultimately is ontological. Consider the broader picture:

Any slackness takes off attention, that crucial thing, from the job in hand, from the push of the line under hand at the moment, under the reader’s eye, in his moment. Observation of any kind is, like argument in prose, properly previous to the act of the poem, and, if allowed in, must be so juxtaposed, apposed, set in, that it does not, for an instant, sap the going energy of the content toward its form.

Form may never be more than an extension of content. But the two have very different relations to the poem itself. One is the poem. The other mostly threatens to get in the way. It is, Olson writes,

a matter, finally, of OBJECTS, what they are, what they are inside a poem, how they got there, and, once there, how they are to be used…. The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself, through the poet and them, into being.

For someone who never showed much, if any, interest in the Objectivists (he will prove this at the start of part II), Olson certainly sounds like an Objectivist here.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Eliot Weinberger responds to Andrew Schelling (and, secondarily, to Curtis Faville) in a new email on the subject of New Directions. I should note that I take the history of New Directions to be of total relevance to many of the social issues surrounding poetry, if only because this is the one press that has kept Pound and Williams in print, however badly, for some seven decades. Weinberger’s assertion that it was a mistake for Robert Creeley to leave New Directions for UC Press is at least a plausible interpretation, even for someone, like myself, who thinks that Creeley’s decision was clearly a no-brainer. The bureaucratic structure of a large university press has its pros and cons, no doubt, but I have a lot more faith in UC Press being here in 20 years, and in keeping the likes of Creeley & Olson in print, than I do New Directions. When we consider how much change is upon with regards to publishers, one index just might be bookstores. The main trade association of independent book sellers has lost two-thirds of its membership in the past 20 years precisely because so many have not adjusted to the dynamics of the new world. As someone will no doubt point out, poetry is only indirectly related to the publishing industry, as say the ad manager of the New York Times Book Review thinks of it. New Directions is the one small press to have survived since the 1930s in anything even remotely approximating its original form. And some on its list have been among the very most influential poets of the past century. Which is why these questions are not idle gossip. The ellipses are Eliot’s.

Dear Ron –

I thought I should respond to Andrew and some of the other correspondents...

Women: My original list was impromptu, and mainly limited to those ND published regularly. There were also various women published during this period, but they tended to be non-avants given single books (Deborah Larsen, Carol Bangs, Stevie Smith, Mary Karr, and others). Laughlin's last wild enthusiasm was for Anne Carson, but after her first book of poetry she decamped for Knopf.

I don't see the usefulness of retro-demographics, but it cannot be said that if Black Sparrow (and later North Point) inherited the mantle from ND, this had anything to do with gender. BS had, as I remember, two women poets (Wakoski and Wanda Coleman) and they were publishing many more books of contemporary US poetry than ND. North Point had Scalapino, did a small posthumous Niedecker, and had – who else?

I'm surprised no one mentioned race. Until their commitment to Brathwaite in the 80's and, recently, Mackey, ND had published only three books by black writers: two by Bob Kaufman and one by John Keene. BS had one black writer: Coleman. Did North Point have any?

I omitted many others from the period, including Jimmy Baca, Toby Olson, various Irish, Scots, and Brits, and single books by Thomas Lax, Emmett Williams (a very thick and fancy selected), Bronk (in the 60's), and Paul Hoover, to name some.

Nearly everything that your correspondent Curtis Faville writes is untrue. His essential narrative – Laughlin was a "gentleman publisher" who lost interest circa 1960, and everything, even the quality of the books, went downhill-- seems to be derived from a New Yorker profile that was written by a young neo-formalist poet who had no interest in any ND poets after Delmore Schwartz, and who was completely bamboozled by Laughlin's old-fashioned WASP patrician self-deprecation.

In his later years, Laughlin was less involved in the day-to-day operations of ND, and no longer read all the fiction manuscripts being seriously considered by the staff. But he personally initiated or approved every poetry book until a year or so before his death in 1997. To say that he was "almost certainly unfamiliar" with Palmer, Antin, Rosmarie Waldrop, etc., is completely false: he chose them. To say that if he were alive today, he'd be publishing Billy Collins and Ted Kooser, is ludicrous: old Modernists like Laughlin were hardly, shall we say, populists.

Before 1960, ND published beautiful books (with Valdonega, Stinehour, and others) and many cheap books. After 1960, they published beautiful books (with Valdonega, Stinehour, and others) and many cheap books.

ND did not publish Oppen, Rakosi, and Snyder when they were already well-known. Oppen's "The Materials" (1962): first book since "Discrete Series" (1934) and his famous silence. Rakosi's "Amulet" (1967): first book since "Selected Poems" (1941 - and published by ND) and his long, less famous silence. By the time of  Snyder's "The Back Country" (1968), it's true that he wasn't obscure, but that was his first trade edition (previous chapbooks by Origin, Four Seasons, etc.).

Other factoids: People recommended by Rexroth included: Everson, Snyder, Tarn, McClure, Rothenberg, Antin. Dubravka Ugresic is Croatian and not Moslem. Antonio Tabucchi is an Italian who lived in Portugal for many years and wrote only two of his many books in Portuguese (one on Pessoa and a great novella, "Requiem: An Hallucination).

It should also be said that among the foreign poets published by ND during this period are: Neruda, Montale, Dunya Mikhail, Christensen, Paz, Lorca, Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Shabtai, Jaccottet, Guillevic, Bobrowski, Pacheco, Parra, Lihn, Aygi, Eugenio de Andrade, Supervielle, Lleshanaku, Bosquet, Char, Faverey, Gustafsson, Kusano, Shiraishi, Michaux, Valery, Cendrars, Chinese translations by David Hinton, Greek translations by Guy Davenport, and so on. No other publisher comes close. (I think Black Sparrow had one poetry translation chapbook.)

Finally, Creeley: Regardless of what one thinks of ND, it is undeniable that they are very good at handling estates: keeping the books in print, bringing out new editions and spin-offs, dealing with permissions, etc. If one is thinking of posterity, as Creeley reputedly was, there's no better publisher. UC Press is a giant bureaucracy where editors come and go. There's no guarantee that the inevitable successor to the editor who persuaded Creeley to switch will be equally enthusiastic about his work. It's nobody's business, but most people I know who've mentioned it think it was a terrible mistake.

Apologies for going one so long, but misinformation on the internet has a way of replicating.

all best –


Monday, May 29, 2006


Now that I’m a subscriber to the Chicago Review, I can whine that I haven’t gotten my copy yet of the latest issue. Timothy Yu has a significant think-piece in it, posing as a review of Victoria Chang’s Asian-American Poetry: The Next Generation, a gathering of 28 poets in 194 pages from the University of Illinois. While there are some writers one might identify as post-avant in the list here, including Linh Dinh & Nick Carbo, the bulk of the volume seems to stick much closer to what Yu calls the “lyric” tradition, and which I of course would characterize as the School of Quietude. Of particular interest to an outsider like me is how Yu, placing Chang’s book into an historical context, distinguishes three separate tendencies in Asian American writing: a politicized & populist poetics that has its roots in the identarian movements of the 1970s (Janice Mirikitani would be an example, or Al Robles), an anti- (or at least a-) political assimilationist poetics of the 1980s (a representative figure would be Garrett Hongo, who edited Open Boat, the iconic anthology of that poetics), and a post-avant tendency that is well represented alongside the other two in Walter Lew’s wonderful (but sadly out of print) anthology, Premonitions (Brian Kim Stefans, Myung Mi Kim, Tan Lin, alongside several Canadian poets, such as Roy Kiyooka & Gary Shikitani). One of Yu’s most explosive observations here is a claim, which Yu takes care to document, that Chang misrepresents her book’s relationship to this past – largely by identifying Hongo et al as an instance of identarian writing, when the poets of that generation saw themselves quite differently. A second level of tension here is the idea that newer post-avant poets have a much more complicated relationship to politics than their predecessors have been willing to acknowledge (think of Linh Dinh in relationship to the Iraq war & then in relation to the corrupt bureaucracy that is contemporary Viet Nam). What is needed, Yu suggests, isn’t so much a Open Boat: the Next Generation as an updated version of Premonitions, ideally with the sort of contextual material that would render it easy to use in the classroom.

Eileen Tabios has republished Yu’s essay (in what a note says is a slightly different version) online in Galatea Resurrects #2. You should read it, rather than deal with my clumsy précis. What called my attention to this in the first place is a series of intense notes Pamela Lu posted to her own blog on the questions raised not only by the anthology, but by Yu’s response to it & her response to all of the above. Including the issues implicit in the ideas of these three different tendencies, especially as Lu found them embodied during her student days at the University of California.

Between Yu & Lu, there’s enough here to think about for days. And I feel certain that these are not (will not be) the final words on this topic.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Margaret Rockwell Finch & her daughter Annie


Five Afghani women poets


A great 5-CD set of
Derek Walcott’s selected poems
that doesn’t exist


Not yet “Famous Seamus”
on visiting Hugh MacDiarmid


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