Stephen Yenser







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Stephen YenserStephen Yenser was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1941 and is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at UCLA and curator of the Hammer Poetry Series at the Hammer Museum. 


He took his B.A. from the University of Wichita and his M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  His most recent volume of poems is Blue Guide (University of Chicago Press).   The Fire in All Things (LSU Press) received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets.  His other awards include the B. F. Connors Prize from the Paris Review, an Ingram Merrill Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, two appearances in the Best American Poetry series, and two Fulbright Fellowships, one to France and one to Greece, and the Harvey L. Eby Award for the Art of Teaching at UCLA.   He has also taught for a year at the University of Baghdad. 


Yenser has written three critical books (Circle to Circle:  The Poetry of Robert Lowell;  The Consuming Myth:  The Work of James Merrill;  and A Boundless Field:  American Poetry at Large) and is completing a fourth (Extravagant Engagements:  American Poetries beyond the Pale).   He is co-editor with J. D. McClatchy of James Merrill’s work, including the Collected Poems, the Collected Prose, the Collected Novels and Plays, the verse epic The Changing Light at Sandover, and  the Selected Poems (all from Alfred A. Knopf).   An edition of Merrill’s Selected Letters is underway. 





The August sun starts in against the green

And rugged Kansas grain.

The rented Dodge whines on through heat so candid


It puts last year, its palmy days of arak

And cloudy rhetoric,

Flatly in the shade.  The very air


Above the pavement wilts, yet feed corn grows

In ranks of tasseled scarecrows

So tall a boy could lose his way in it.


The posted fields shoot past, glaring bad rhymes,

Flashing close shaves, cheap rooms,

The shrike’s barbed-wire kabob of bug and vole.


Poor, starchy soul, this dry plain seems to say,

Unsoiled habitué

Of souks, casinos, elevating tells,


There are certain states that you must work

Yourself not up but back

Down into.  Like the first.  Stop here, dig in,


Study the disc, the sprouting stump, cicadas,

And all of those old saws.

Acknowledge the corn:  you’ve been plowing sand.


No root, no fruit.  So come on down to earth—

Maybe you’ll spring up yet,

Giving as good as you are bound to get.


 From The Fire in All Things





                            For Willard Yenser


Your wife, who polished verse,

Was duty-bound to quarrel

With much that we’d rehearse

For you at the corner billiard parlor:

The homespun language,

And where to put the accents

For English and massé,

And how to break loose racks,


And cut, and kiss, and bridge.

You never could insist

That we play for small change

But hated to see us risk

Minimum wages

Before we’d learned to hold

Our own with hustlers

Whom you’d have shot blindfold.


Now, shuffling through a haze

Denser than that in Scotty’s

Those hot, long Saturdays

You worry you’ve forgotten

There by your river,

Where duller

Colors carom from bank

To bank across

The fading felt, the rankest


Double-cross, you play

Again.  You’re under the gun

Again and bound to stay,

As always, till you’ve won—

Or followed though

On one last stroke and seen

That the sun has spun

Home under darkening green.


                         From The Fire in All THings





Now LeRoy on the kill room floor

Was almost larger than life.

Mondays the green fatigues he wore

Had creases sharp as the knife


That was his very bread and butter,

And his face was hand-carved ebony.

For the days the new boy with the stutter

Stayed out of LeRoy’s way.


Later that summer he learned to tell

(After LeRoy had his fun)

A skinned pizzle from a skinned tail

And not to grind the one


Into the dogfood mix he’d pour

In boxes, freeze in lots.

He’d scoop up cheeks, sweet and sour

As rotting apricots,


And fill each barrel till it weighed

200 pounds and more.

The elevator rope had frayed

So many years before


He couldn’t look up as he let

His load down 20 feet.

LeRoy laughed to see him sweat

And went on boning meat.


Across the street, at The Blue Moon,

He flashed a friend’s draft card

And drank one tall red beer each noon.

The barmaid made it hard


(He would have said he had “a heart on”),

But he’d punch in on time,

Hose the concrete down, then start on

The tripe, slick with chyme.


He marveled at the huge pink lungs

(“They’s soft as a big gal’s knockers”)

That he hung up with hearts and tongues

On hooks in chilling lockers.


He learned it paid to be precise.

Learned an esophagus

Was really easier to slice

Than greasy radiator hose.


LeRoy owned he’d eaten dogfood.

The kid swore he would last

Till school began.  The pay was good.

“The rules are hard and fast,”


LeRoy’d sigh.  “But they’s the only

Ones,” he’d wink and grin.

“Whatcha do when you get lonely?”

Before the days drew in


He met a girl, wheatshocking blonde.

On weekend nights they drove

Out Sweetbriar Lane and by the pond

Made love, like mad, made love.


 From The Fire in All Things










All poetry on this page
© b
y Stephen Yenser, 2011



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