Paul Petrie
Photo: courtesy of the University of Rhode Island  
Seldom does a book as important as Paul Petrie’s Collected Poems come along. His work is greatly admired by many of the country’s major poets and was published in leading journals and magazines, as well as in his eleven poetry collections. The work is astounding in its emotional depth, range of emotion, and variety of form. Of it, X.J. Kennedy has written, “When the best American poems of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries are assembled, it won’t matter who copped more prizes or was the subject of more dissertations. All that will matter will be the poems and whether people want to remember them. And then, if there is a just God in Heaven, or even if there isn’t, Paul Petrie will have some poems in there. He did so much that will keep.” And this from Philip Levine in the April issue of Ploughshares: “In his modest introduction to his collected poems, Paul Petrie refers to himself as ‘a very quirky individual,’ and while he may have been that, this capacious final collection (the book was assembled by the author but published after his death) demonstrates that he was an enormously talented, mature writer of boundless energy and inspiration. Considering how little attention the poetry reading public—if there is such a thing—gave his work, his seventy-year commitment was both miraculous and heroic. He also tells us, in the introduction, that he had no pretensions to a consistent philosophy; in practice he took the world as it came to him in all its beauty and terror, transforming his experience into an astonishingly varied and rich body of work. Like Theodore Roethke he was able to move into any form that suited the occasion—traditional or experimental—and still maintain the unmistakable voice that marks the work as genuine. Even in the late poems there is a willingness to enter into the spirit of play and thus discover a kind of sanity beyond sanity. Poem after poem discovers the magic that resides in daily life, those transformations that are so common we’ve forgotten they are part of us.” Many other poets have been equally excited about Paul Petrie’s work. Concerning the poet’s 1984 book, Strange Gravity, Richard Wilbur wrote, “In Paul Petrie’s new poems I am particularly taken by those which have the character of song. Song is not necessarily light; it can also be the mode in which we engage those deep, inescapable things which are not to be solved but must be said. ‘Dying Vision of the Dollhouse Maker’ is such a poem; so are ‘The Pause,’ ‘The Cancer Patient to Her Dead Husband,’ and many another.”

  Front cover painting by Sylvia Spencer Petrie
Paul Petrie was born in 1928 in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up in what, at that time, was the outer fringe of the city, an area both urban and rural. From this fact may have arisen his abiding love of nature, while his interest in poetry was first inculcated by his mother’s passion for verse, which included her memorized recitals of long passages from Longfellow and Tennyson. In 1946 he attended Wayne State University, where he was a member of the Miles Poetry Group and began to write poetry in earnest. He earned his BA in 1950 and his MA in 1951. While still finishing his thesis, he was drafted into the army and spent the next two years in the Service, much of that time being passed with the Intelligence Corps in Alaska. After his discharge, he enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop, studying with Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Paul Engle. In 1957 he was awarded a doctorate in Creative Writing. Paul Petrie was the author of eleven books of poetry and received numerous awards, including the Capricorn Award. In 1968 he was the Phi Beta Kappa Poet at Brown University. His work appeared in most of the country’s major literary journals, magazines, and newspapers including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, The Southern Review, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Times. For thirty-one years he taught at the University of Rhode Island, during which period he spent sabbatical leaves in Devon, England, as well as several months in Settignano and Amsterdam. He was married to Sylvia Spencer Petrie, a printmaker and painter who illustrated several of his books, including the front cover of The Collected Poems. Paul died in 2012. The three Petrie children are Philip, Emily and Lisa, who themselves have five children.

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ISBN 978-1-936482-60-3

Copyright © 2014 by Sylvia Spencer Petrie

7" x 10" cloth bound, 784 pages


copyright © Sylvia Spencer Petrie



A trifle turned my head, and there it was:
frivolous with light, crisscrossed with streams
that raced their running banks, confused with blooms
stung by hired bees to colored towns,
a sudden land of wings that flew like birds.
(But farther in the forest, busy night
hangs her purple mischief on the trees,
and Long John Silver stumps the pirate glades
scything black-eyed Susans with his leg.)
There, within a bird-shot of their hearts,
a boy and girl once chased the stiff-legged clouds,
tamed the rolling hills, ran down the wind,
and dared the sun to do them into gold.

I would not turn young virgins into flame;
but time will hear its ribald pranks retold.
Once in a berry bush where bears were not,
a boy and girl were picking royal blue,
and even to their ears were kings and queens,
when in flew a backward thief who could not tell
a flower from a boy, and gave a sting
where pain cannot be covered by a blush.

All sympathy and tears, she would have spent
her very bluest plunder for his ease,
but hurt with a more-than-mortal wound he ran
to quench his scarlet image in the lake.

Night drew off the valley’s face of dreams.

He never circled back. Some said Le Fey
took him in her swan boat like the king,
and some that Long John pressed him off to sea,
but I, who knew the boy and still can find,
when trifles turn my head, that country,
imagine that no magic filched his heart,
although I call his name and hear the hills.


Dearest, when I can see
the end of you-and-me—
the dark tears swelling out like buds
on the tree of ecstasy—

and think how all things waste,
how nothing we love can last,
how even the very rocks and stones
hurry into the past—

what is there to do but stare
into the blank-faced air,
and with an unbelieving mind
and feelings’ madness swear

that what I know’s a lie—
that this being, you-and-I,
once having bloomed upon love’s blackening tree,
shall always be.


Snow from the branches,
the jewelled tiara of twigs—

Once more the trees stand bare,
black-rutted trunks
looming, a crisscross tangle of heads.

Bushes beside the road,
like whips unstrung,
pools in the fields, brown-faced,

the ground frizzled with tufts—
I am not immune
to wintry theatricals,

the white descensions of clouds,
or the slow, upward pushing
of shoots.

But now in this nameless season
rest content
with the starched backgrounds of things—

grainy pavements of roads,
black earthen wounds,
the caked refuse of leaves,

and the way the light falls strictly
on houses, faces, woods
and will not lie.


Each year the court expands,
the net moves back, the ball
hums by—with more spin.

I use my second serve,
lob deeper, slice more,
stay away from the net, and fail
to win.

As any fool can tell
it is time
to play the game purely
for the game’s sake—to applaud
the puff of white chalk,
shake hands
and grin.

Others retire
into the warm corners of memory,
invent new rules, new games
and win.

Under the hot lances
of the shower, I play each point over,
and over,
and over

Wisdom is the natural business
of old men—
to let the body go,
the rafters, moth-eaten and decayed,
cave in.

But nightly in dreams I see
an old man
playing in an empty court
under the dim floodlights
of the moon
with a racket gone in the strings—
no net, no ball, no game—
and still playing
to win.


Having come to this moment backwards
it is time
to accept my life.

Not as it should have been
but is—

What I am, and am not,
what I did, and did not do—
regrets, humiliations, failures—
all the meaningless meanings
of my life, embraced
in the finished

As in a landscape, trees
clumped here and there, a barn
propped on a sloping ridge, brown cattle
a patch of silk-white clouds,

when caught in the slanting rays
of a half-down sun, all seem
suddenly to cohere
in the stark beauty of evening.


When the weights of the body droop
towards the end,

and the mind’s weights and the spirit’s weights
weigh down, both mind and soul,

no wonder minor clouds
seem enviable—

green lilac fronds,
the upright tops of oaks.

Solemnities must fall
and bend the flowers,

thresh the memories of trees
to dead wood,

and scour the skies with supernumerary thunders,
lightning and wind;

but admire the answering pomp
of freedom, the whistling arc

of stars, exploding into the heads
of many flowers,

trailing long arms of scarlet, green
and gold,

and dissolving with such fine delicacy
to dark.


I wished to hold your face between my hands—
and feel the light stream through my fingers—warm,
lustrous, sweet—like light from a lantern’s heart.

Now through the fingers of another man
your beauty moves—more passionate, more free—
and escapes—as through your own linked fingers
it must slip out, dissolve, turn dark, be gone.

Suns spend their giant powers on the night,
their fiery wattage dwindling into points;
and even the stones, trapped in unyielding forms,
long for the rain’s downfalling, the hands of winds.

Desire is a dying into air.
Love leads us out—out of our own strict forms
toward other forms, that as we touch them melt,
ray out like suns and are lost—but whose rich light
falls backwards, shining, into the lantern’s heart.

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