About Me

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Mark Olival-Bartley studied applied linguistics at Hawaii Pacific University, attaining B.A. and M.A. degrees in TESOL. He is now writing a dissertation on the sonnets of E. A. Robinson at LMU München, where he tutors composition alongside editing flyers on poetry and style. He teaches English at Münchner Volkshochschule and leads the Amerikahaus Literaturkreis. He is also the resident poet at EcoHealth, where his science-themed verse is regularly featured.


by William Shakespeare

So oft haue I inuok'd thee for my Muſe,
And found ſuch faire aſſiſtance in my verſe,
As euery Alien pen hath got my vſe,
And vnder thee their poeſie diſperſe.
Thine eyes,that taught the dumbe on high to ſing,
And heauie ignorance aloft to flie,
Haue added fethers to the learneds wing,
And giuen grace a double Maieſtie.
Yet be moſt proud of that which I compile,
Whoſe influence is thine,and borne of thee,
In others workes thou dooſt but mend the ſtile,
And Arts with thy ſweete graces graced be.
But thou art all my art,and dooſt aduance
As high as learning,my rude ignorance.



by E. A. Robinson

There is a drear and lonely tract of hell
From all the common gloom removed afar:
A flat, sad land it is, where shadows are,
Whose lorn estate my verse may never tell.
I walked among them and I knew them well:        
Men I had slandered on life’s little star
For churls and sluggards; and I knew the scar
Upon their brows of woe ineffable.

But as I went majestic on my way,
Into the dark they vanished, one by one,       
Till, with a shaft of God’s eternal day,
The dream of all my glory was undone,—
And, with a fool’s importunate dismay,
I heard the dead men singing in the sun.

Note: A recitation can be heard here.


A Chat with Merwin on Robinson's Sonnets

5 January 2016:  Kahului

It’s late in the evening, and we’re heading back to Oʻahu and home.  The past two days with my brother here—from our first hour on the island (where the three of us went skinny-dipping at Iao Valley) to this contemplative respite at the airport gate—have been nothing short of superlative. There’s so much to journal about, but, for now, I need to pen a memory before it slips away.

Some months back in Munich, I wrote a letter to W. S. Merwin, who has lived on Maui for some thirty years, inquiring about his take on the sonnets of E. A. Robinson, whom he had read and admired while at Princeton.  Two weeks later, a signed note dictated by his wife came, apologizing for a less detailed reply, explaining that while the poet was appreciative of the letter, he was nearly blind and unable to respond in kind.  After our doctoral group’s excursion to Brunnenburg in November, I wrote again, knowing of Merwin’s encounters with Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, sharing the sonnet I’d written and adding that I’d be on Maui in a month to visit my brother. No letter came.

I’d brought some books with me on the trip to buck up for my proposal—Wright’s Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, Leech’s A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry, and Robinson’s Sonnets.  For reasons unknown, I’d been compelled to bring not my battered trade copy by Macmillan but my prized autographed volume by Crosby Gaige.  Christmas in Kailua came and went; the President’s stay down the street (and the huge security apparatus) came and went; and then, just days before our trip to Maui, while reading “To the New Year” at dawn on New Year’s Day, the idea hit me:  To distinguish my letter from the chaff, I’d give Merwin the book.  And so, via express, along with a note that included my e-mail address and Hawaii cell number, I did.  No response came.

With his girlfriend, Clover, Scotty gave us the royal tour of their digs and playgrounds, workplaces and hangouts on Maui's north shore—Iao, Wailuku, Makawao, Kahului, and Paia.  We had a lot of fun tooling around in his catering van.  As Merwin lives just twenty minutes away in Haʻiku (and we were then heading outward and away toward the south shore), Scotty indulged my request to drive to the reclusive poet’s house, which is near the end of a long dirt road.  

The gate before us was not insurmountable, but the prospect of breaching Merwin’s desire for privacy was now revealed to me in a clearer light:  I couldn’t do it.  So, instead, we drove a couple hundred meters to the head of a coastal trail that led into a grand and sweeping vista of a series of bays with crashing surf.  We shot some pictures.  

As a kind of blessing, I read “To the New Year” again, this time aloud to the four of us.  And we left, happy to have trod the same ground that certainly had inspired much verse. The totality of our day was nothing short of amazing, and, at its end—just three hours ago—we found ourselves sitting in the sand on Big Beach at Makena, Scotty and I massaging our partners’ feet and all of us looking southward toward the island of Kahoʻolawe and the islet of Molokini, both of which were resplendently backlit by an array of modulating pinks and oranges, yellows and reds.  We watched the humpbacks breach, their splashes and spray clearly evident a kilometer away. A singular peep came from my cell phone.

The voice mail was from Paula Merwin, asking me to call.  I dialed straight away, getting up to seek a quieter part of the beach.  She answered, explaining that her delay in calling was due to that she’d lost the envelope and that my signature was wholly illegible.  These days, they weren’t having visitors, she explained, for both were in poor health—that said, her husband had been moved by the gesture of the book and wanted to thank me.  She called out to him, and he came to the phone.  

His voice was deep and his speech as modulated as in all the interviews and readings I’d seen.  As the cell reception was weak and the beach windy, I listened for all I was worth.  There was a slight slur to his otherwise crisp enunciation.  He spoke of Robinson’s sonnets and how they had moved him while at Princeton, recalling “Reuben Bright” especially.  He spoke of how John Berryman was inspired by them, which certainly must be evident in the Dream Songs.  He thanked me for the book, though, because of his eyesight, he would need to have the sonnets read to him.  I offered to mail a recitation via CD, and he said he’d like that.  He asked about our time in Maui, about our flights home (Honolulu-Newark, Newark-Munich), which made him wistful about travel and his time on the East Coast.  I spoke of how his work had inspired my own from the start. He said, genuinely, that that was nice to hear.  

He wished me well on the dissertation and was getting ready to say goodbye when I asked if I could indulge in one more question.  “Of course,” he said.  As I began, I recalled a conversation with Sascha Pöhlmann months before:  “Given Robinson’s effect on you, John Berryman, Yvor Winters, Donald Hall, and a host of other great poets of your generation, how can one account for why he is no longer read?”  He paused for a moment to chuckle and said, “You know, Mark, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why anyone would bother to read or, for that matter, write poetry.”  I chuckled at that, too, thanked him, and said goodbye.