Poems about the Arts.

Descant on a Herrick Lyric

Descant on a Herrick Lyric

To say or sing in two voices.

Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free
O how that glittering taketh me.

The merest moment justifies
the labor to perfect the song.
Life is short, art is long.

Exactness captured like a bee
in amber may endure
even to eternity.

Whenas in silks my Julia goes
The merest moment justifies
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
the labor to perfect the song,
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Life is short, art is long.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
Exactness captured like a bee
That brave vibration each way free
in amber may endure–
O how that glittering taketh me–
even to eternity.

John Barr

Bonsai Master

The trick is not to neglect it just enough
but to deny it just enough.
Decades of managing the stresses
of survival–the exacting balance
of staying alive but only just;
the importance of suffering
to the sublime, against
the inevitable grounds for remorse.

John Barr / from Dante in China

image represent in Mss, poem by John Barr


Since I start things on the margin
–cocktail napkins, cancelled checks,
timetables trying to be reliable–
and since I save it all, I know
there are good words buried and lost
in those fat accordion files, words
that sounded good at the time,
that I promised to get back to,
rhyme trains that never left Grand Central,
monikers that chattered like silverware
at 30,000', sounds struck
sheer of sense–coin of a realm–
from a currency of air, pronounced
like blessings on an express world,
soul puffs, plain mistakes,
angels, working definitions of.

John Barr / from The Hundred Fathom Curve 

Book poem by John Barr

The Book

There is no Frigate like a Book
to take us Lands away
-Emily Dickinson

I find you in these sunless stacks.
Your poems might be uncommonly fine
but your pages darken to brittleness
and you've never been checked out. Unless
your anchor's weighed and you proceed
to find the harbor of another's mind,
nothing will come of the cargo in your hold.
I stand in the gloom of the unread, and read.

John Barr / from Dante in China

Dante In China

Exiled for life, he conceives the Inferno.

Had his wanderings brought him here–Take Bus 9
for the Red Seabeach– he might have been stunned
to find Nature so unequivocal.

An endless flat grows nothing normal,
while a weed–arterial red–unrolls
a welcome mat to the unwell.

He sees the tidal river crawl
through deep reversals,
looking for the sea.

He walks the Bridge of Nine Turnings.
Posted up ahead, warnings–
in language he cannot divine.

Strutting cranes patrol
the muck, stab for clams–their
shells like voided efforts at immortality.

Flaring well-gas night and day,
towers rise as if to say,
"Pollution can be beautiful."

He cranes to see what all this will become,
beyond the reach of naked eye,
beyond what earth's receding curve allows.

Sooner or later the bay
will merge with ocean swells,
the only way he can imagine getting home.

John Barr / from Dante in China 

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Art Of The Fugue

The title of Bach’s last work,
at the printer when he died.


The left hand iterates, then waits
for the reiterating right.
Then together they expound
in notes both single and in chord,
constructions that exceed
the sum of part and counterpart.

Invention is the word of art.
Whether or not the fugal line,
that cantilevered on its past
never fails to fit
off-center with itself,
is in fact invented
or like the statue in the stone
is there already, who can tell?


You do know this. Against entropy,
lost linearities,
the one-wayness of things
a line of notes assays.

With plenties low, food stocks low,
when there is death at birth, the lines
exalt enlargement of the crazed,
anastomose and disembogue.

Despite opinion's angularities,
patronage–or not–of princely states,
the teeter-totter paradox
rejoices in the fitted key.


So does the maple's double clutch
wrest symmetry from earth from air
that its empowered sphere may render
pollen to the wind, then wait.

A great storm sheds the substance of itself
that reservoirs receive, drought recedes.
The new moon waiting for its light discovers,
earth and sun rejoice in syzygy.

How can snowfields on the blackest night
be so bright they give back light
that wasn't there, if not to show
the reach of inward radiance?

For old men, impeccabled by loss,
the lovely alertness of road signs in the Fall
evokes the brotherhood of foxholes.
A siren at dawn, its slow fall
and urgent re-gatherings, recalls
the winnowy thing called song–to sing, sung.
They watch young lovers in the park and see,
athwart the fixed conveyance of the past,
a future opens out ... antiphonates.
Where once were two there may again be two.


You do know this. After the hands
have worked their figures and stays,
the silence of the room will close
like water without seam. When said and done
the quick decaying notes will leave behind
an unaffected winter afternoon.

Nevertheless they play for us.
The left hand iterates then waits

John Barr/from Dante in China

Dial Painters by John Barr image

The Dial Painters

"Over the past two decades, the bodies of at least a dozen women who once painted watch and clock dials with radium have been laid out here for a final measure of radioactivity."
–The Wall Street Journal September 19, 1983

you made your points punctiliously
(big hand, little hand, 1,2,3...)
made faces readable on wrists,
in bedside dark.

Chorus of good girls, busy bees,
waiting for the whistle's blow
you painted your toes day-glo,
seeing the possibilities
clowned circles on your cheeks, in jest

like wraiths, the best
of spirits. From afar
townspeople could remark
the green fire in your hair.

Twirling in lips
the radium tips,
unaware your brushes were
with death,
how could you, hazarding a hair-
line numeral,

know that you enlightened yourself as well?
Seldom has artist been
so taken by his work,
seldom illumination seen

so unintentional
or unconventional.
Elgin ladies, your bones protest
that marking time at best
is hazardous to health.

By the time
it dawned on you that to ingest
even a trace of these trace elements
involved grave consequence,
you were possessed:

Host to an unholy ghost
who farmed your flesh for tumor's bloom,
who made of your skin a palimpsest,
who made of your bones a metronome
that beat time to the stars.

Slightly to our chagrin
you showed mere industry–
punching out, punching in–
can gain the immortality
the rest of us quicken for.

Mute furies,
interred in the circle of the clock,
you roam
as Greek as tragedies
the stations of your zodiac.

Saints of our time,
Mme. Curie's
to the leaden ark containing your phosphor
skulls, italicized bones we come.

Alive with salts
whose half-life
is your afterlife,
in university vaults
you shine for thousands of years.

John Barr

Still Life poem by John Barr image

Still Life

Standing out of time, the

"porcelain bottle
monochrome sang de beouf
Kang Hsi, early 18th c."

does better than the bronzes whose verdigris comes

from a compromise with air,

than silver under nightfall of tarnish,
or iron, fresh-cut the color of daylight,

but soon recouped to rust,

the cup the crack travels a millimeter

the millennium,

tapestries larvally tatterdemalion,
the rest of this place losing its grip to

arms of the damp, acids of air, pell
of the particulate.

The ceramic hull does better than the Liberian

charter whose economics preclude paint,

and the potter who, the story goes, unable to please

the emperor with more of the blood-red ware
that occurred when a pig wandered into his kiln,
himself jumped in, in despair, thereby repeating
the right reducing atmosphere.

From sleep in the hill, long weathering, the levigation

of the basins;

thrown in a time of peace between pressures from the East

and pressures from the West;

compelled by the unlabored decisions of hands to bloom;
it excels in the way it avoids excess:
debased court tastes, self-imitation, virtuosity.

From its base it plums for an ordinary use,
but gathering to the top of its round
it turns, at the same time, into neck,
continuing to rise and taper,
and refuses, at the top, to flare.

From the family of reds found by copper

sacrificial red               tea dust
sky-clearing red         souffle
ox-blood                        liver
rust                                   coral

comes this bing cherry from the accidents of fire.

Displayed in a case
made of Wisconsin molecules, assembled in Queens,
it bears to futures that will welcome it or not
red chemistry and a musical note.

by John Barr