Henri Cole: poet of the in-between

The May/June 2004 issue of American Poetry Review (Vol. 33, No. 3) contains five poems and an interview with Henri Cole, a prominent American poet I hadn’t spent any time with until now. Finding the poems excellent, I waded through the interview, which presented a stark contrast between an eager-to-impress and full-of-himself interviewer and the very straightforward and humble-sounding Cole. Here are a few quotes that particularly impressed me, followed by a poem.

Sometimes, I prefer the company of animals and flowers to humans, who are often not what they appear to be. But is it possible that male and female desire, including gay and straight desire, is all the same thing? That when we lie in the grass and look at the moon or at the face of the loved one, we (man or woman, gay or straight) see the same thing, which is love – an element as pure as oxygen?

* * * *

I have many artist friends. I envy them the physicality of their work. I admire their wonder and horror before the universe. I love the sensuality of their color. “As is painting, so is poetry,” Horace said. At home and faraway, I see all the paintings I can, not to take something from them, but to try to bring more power to my language. Or to put it in another way, I want to borrow from the concrete world and project it into the realm of the abstract, where the lyric exists. My artist friends constantly challenge me to see in an unformulaic, unsentimental way. I’d trade words for paint in a minute, if I thought I would be any good.

* * * *

Why I write when I do remains a mystery and an adventure – even after twenty-five years. The silences in-between are a greater mystery and, also, a source of anxiety. The two biggest influences on my work are sleeping and reading. I wish I could do them simultaneously. They make the little hamster of the unconscious run wild on its wheel. Szymborska says, “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.'” I like the sound of that.

* * * *

The women poets writing today are stronger than the men. This just seems so obvious. We men have written ourselves into a little narrative corner, where we write very confident, professional poems with all the affects of poetry, but the reader feels no explosion of consciousness. This, in my view, is the most dreaded destiny.

* * * *

In my 20’s and 30’s, Allen Ginsberg and James Merrill were gay models of the Dionysian and Apollonian. They were like opposing magnets, and it seemed to me there was nothing in between. Though as a young poet I drank happily from the cup of the Apollonians, as I’ve matured, I’ve sought a hybrid of the two. How to be Apollonian in body and Dionysian in spirit – that is my quest.

* * * *


Hornets, two hornets buzz over my head;
I’m napping and I cannot keep my eyes open.
Do you come from far away? I ask, dozing off.
My gums are dry when I wake. A morning breeze
rakes the treetops. I can smell the earth.
The two hornets are puzzling over
something sticky on the night table,
wiping their gold heads with their arms.
Little things are like symbols. My eyes are watery
and blurred. Then I lose myself again.
I’m walking slowly in a heat haze,
my vision contracted to a tiny porthole,
drawing me to it, like flourishing palms.
I can feel blood draining out of my face.

I can feel my heart beating inside my heart,
the self receding from the center of the picture.
I can taste sugar under my tongue.
All the usual human plots of ascent
and triumph appear disrupted.
Crossing my ankles, I watch the day
vibrate around me, watch the geraniums
climb toward the little mountains
where I was born, watch the black worm
wiggling out of the window box,
hiding its head from the pale sun
that lies down on everything,
purifying it. Lord, teach me to live.
Teach me to love. Lie down on me.

Henri Cole

2 Replies to “Henri Cole: poet of the in-between”

  1. Hello. Thanks for sharing the Henri Cole poem. I love it! Do you have access to his poem “Oil and Steel” which appeared in Threepenny Review? Im also looking for his poem “Ambulance’ which was published in Poetry Northwest. I hope you can help me find them. Thanks.

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