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Culture

PSALM 151

In his epigraph, poet Merrill Leffler raises William Carlos Williams’s bold claim that men die miserably for lack of what is in poetry. It’s a claim that many practical folks would dismiss on the face of it, for if the news of our world is purely a matter of dollars and sense, then how much could poetry matter? Leffler is in a position to answer that question, for he is not only a poet but also a practical man, who has studied science and engineering, and who also has wrestled with the very difficult problem of the small press publisher, who manages the magic of turning airy poems into real books.

Leffler, a longtime resident of Takoma Park, Md., has spent the last 30 years on his labor of love, the distinguished Dryad Press. To earn his bread, he has written about the science and ecology of the Chesapeake Bay and also has taught literature at the University of Maryland and the Naval Academy. His two collections of poetry are “Partly Pandemonium, Partly Love” and “Take Hold.” A new collection, “Mark the Music,” is coming out in 2005.

To answer Williams’s challenge, “What We Want of It,” makes use of a number of biblical allusions: The gazelles in the first line leap out from the Song of Songs, while in the last line Jacob’s ladder of dream revelation is set up in a suburban backyard. These references aren’t accidental. The “news” Williams refers to is the revelation that poetry still carries even into our secular age: The poem, Leffler suggests, can guide us through the desolation of mere material life, as the pillar and cloud guided the Children of Israel in the desert.

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What We Want of It

It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there. — William Carlos WilliamsWe want it to graze like gazelles and soar with the aplomb of hawks.We want it to rise like a palace out of syllables of breath.We want it to open locked gates with obscure incantations.We want it to kick locked doors and lead us into meadows of starlight.We want it to light up the night with meteors of radiance and desire.We want it to inflame the coldness of our hearts and set passion on fire.We want it to waken the mountain gods and startle the dead from boredom.We want it to revive our ancestors and ask them for blessings.We want it to guide us through the deserts year after year and lead us to water and wild fruit.We want it to open our eyes and reveal the angels rising and descending in our own backyards.

— MERRILL LEFFLER

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