Posts from July 2011

July 25th, 2011

Poetry Class: Blue-Ringed Octopi!

My acquaintances among you will have glanced at the Table of Contents for the 22 July TLS, seen a poem titled “Elegy” and guessed right away that I would love it – but in this one isolated instance, you’d be wrong! No, my poetry pick of the issue – in fact, my favorite poem of the year so far in any forum – is called “Blue-Ringed Octopi” by John Kinsella:

To hunt shores at night evokes a word we lack:

as greater frustrates lesser, both having deadly

bacterial bites: the painless nip that makes paralysis

look inward though wide awake, watching your

tranquility of demise. This isn’t purely fact

collated from texts, but first-hand news: hand

touching the hand that touches the skin and agitates

a calm rockpool near mangroves to rings of bright

blue that mesmerise: liquid eyes of peacock tails.

Dying mixed metaphors, lays you out flat on the sand.

Welded mouth-to-mouth. Twenty-four hours,

a single breath. Not a breath to be had outside

the host’s, breathless you give nothing back.

A marriage against convention and Nature.

That’s your brother at twelve saying, “Watch it move!”,

flattened swirls across needles and jags of rock,

eight small legs that collect a space to hold

the pulsing head. Inkless inscription warning

small boys it will strike fingers through water

bending with the sun. Blue wedding rings.

And waiting for an electric shock that never

manifests, to pass through body unto body,

my pulling him away to break the shock.

You rarely feel the bite. And too late

if you do, as there’s no cure but breath.

And repeated in cold southern waters, where

the lesser lurks in bottles and shells, neat beak

that rips a tiny crab apart, vacuuming flesh. The swell

incites rockpools, and tides bring on the scuttle.

To treasure such poisons – tetrodotoxin, maculatoxin –

the child who picks over innocence, loves risk,

loves fear, half-lulled by the ravaging of that great

amnion, the ocean. Or surrounded by mangroves

up north where it’s hot and putrid and salty, where

infection sets into the smallest cut – mangroves’

false sense of security, mudflats stretching out as far

as tides can ever go – blue-ringed octopi lying low

in brine tepid with waiting. Hungry but shy.

June 5th, 2011

Thinkers and Stinkers in the Penny Press!

Those two Old Standbys of the Penny Press, New York magazine and The New Yorker, almost always deliver the goods. I remember well the dreadful week when there was nothing in either of them – it was the week George W. Bush was elected in a populist landslide/called in favors from his father’s apparatchiks on the Supreme Court, and generally there was nothing much to crowe about. It was a long wait for the TLS.

But that hardly ever happens. Usually, like clockwork, at least these two New York-centric magazines arrive in the trusty PO box and provide some pleasure, some stimulation, so irritation. They employ the steadiest writers, they return over and over to the steadiest subjects, and they have the slightly grubby work-ethic of weeklies, where an enormous amount of content has to be generated constantly. Other periodicals among the staggering horde to which I subscribe are more glamorous, and more often than not one of those others will hit the week’s high note (it’s tough to match the brainy glitter of a perfect Vanity Fair piece, and The London Review of Books is generally great when it isn’t all political, and I need hardly repeat my reverence for the mighty TLS) … but these two are like the evening’s first bottle of plonk: hard-working, ground-clearing, mood-setting. I don’t know what I’d do without them – and I don’t like to think about an all-digital future five minutes from now in which I find out.

Certainly last week’s New York started out in the best possible way: with not one shot of Matt Bomer’s gorgeous puss, not two, but three – the new promo for the TV series “White Collar” features Bomer in his preferred environment, standing in front of a three-way mirror (you thought I was going to say ‘in a three-way,’ didn’t you, you filthy-minded little woodchucks, didn’t you?). Bomer is a genuinely nice guy (and extremely talented – as sharply written as “White Collar” is, it only scratches the surface of what this guy can do) who looks a lot like one colleague of mine and acts a lot like another (he himself is not a colleague, although any time he wants to write an essay for Open Letters, he can consider himself invited), which can feel mighty inviting.

It’s tough not to feel that the whole issue is downhill after that visual stunner, but there are some fascinating bits here. Probably most fascinating is Jessica Pressler’s little “Intelligencer” report on a new video-conferencing service called Expert Insight, in which assorted “gurus” on subjects ranging from sports coaching to economics to poker playing give hour-long video-chats with clients who are willing to pay an hourly fee to pick the expert’s brain. Pressler’s piece – being located up front in the “Talk of the Town” section of the magazine – treats the subject lightly and goes for laughs (she asks her ‘expert,’ Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, what he’s wearing). But the idea is an obvious winner – reading this little piece about it gave me a chill, as though I were reading something about Friendster ten years ago: In the dawning world of instant, omnipresent celebrity, where everybody has a blog and nobody knows which blogs to read, something like Expert Insight could become the intelligentsia’s new version of speed-dating. Find an expert whose advice actually works for you, and pay that expert for an hour of his time in order to ask him specific questions and get specific answers – it could be a virtually interactive Wikipedia. Those experts could build followings much like YouTubers do (well, not exactly the same – I doubt many experts would be helping themselves to go topless), and ideally it would all be based on the simplest possible criterion: does their advice work? And if so, what is that advice worth? I serve as a ‘book guru’ for roughly 100 people right now, and I would never dream of charging money for that service (quite the opposite – I give them the books), but what if I did? What if I created a video-conferencing channel where people could sign up for hour or half-hour sessions of my book-advice (or, for example, my dog-training advice)? What if my Open Letters colleagues all did the same? Need a hot tip on some currently-writing novelist? Call Sam Sacks! Need help threading the thicket of Victoriana? Dial-a-Rohan Maitzen! Trying to get your debut novel published? Video-conference John Cotter! Need to know which ‘adult’ bookstore on Staten Island is the one for you? Give Greg Waldmann a call!

Silly ideas, perhaps, but the background one is rock-solid: if I were the investing type, I’d want some shares in Expert Insight’s less-dorky, more user-friendly successor.

This issue also features a great little interview with Christopher Plummer, who plays a gay father in Beginners and who will always have my gratitude for doing such a wonderful, wonderful voice-over job in My Dog Tulip. At one point Plummer is talking about his kissing-scene with Goran Visnjic:

“[Visnjic] was nervous ’cause he’s very butch, and he would be pacing up and down saying, ‘My God, my God, we’ve really got to kiss,’ and I began to get petulant about it and said, ‘What’s so bad about kissing me?’ It was nerve-racking, but once it happened, it was rather pleasurable, actually … We fell into it as if we’d always been gay.”

The issue’s most interesting piece (once one has flipped past the longer bits about a man being cured of AIDS and a serial killer on Long Island, that is) was Claude Brodesser-Akner’s meditation on the new economics of Hollywood blockbusters. He writes that “real movie stars have been losing leverage in Hollywood over the years” and then points out that of the ten sequels opening this summer, only one has a bankable star: Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. This is just a bit odd – if Brodesser-Akner doesn’t consider Ryan Reynolds or Shia Labeouf ‘real movie stars,’ there’s just a chance he’s letting nostalgia cloud his view of the situation. And his premise is off just slightly, since several of the movies I think he’s referring to – Green Lantern, Captain America, most of all Conan, etc. – aren’t sequels or even prequels.

But even so, the sentiments behind the piece – summarized by one producer like this: “In the eighties, the star was the brand. In the nineties, visual effects became the brand. Now the brand is the brand” – is fascinating. Big-name movie-opening movie stars, he reports, have been demanding bigger and bigger cuts of their movies’ profits – with the inevitable Darwinian result that many of them have priced themselves right out of the franchises they helped to create. The Hollywood thinking reflected in this piece is that since visual effects and brand-name recognition are now the keys to carrying a summer blockbuster, star-name recognition isn’t worth such enormous price-tags, and it’s hard to disagree – especially when the lesser-wattage stars do fine work. In the bad old days, it might have been a 30-something Mel Gibson hamming it up as Thor, instead of its relatively unknown but just-as-good star Chris What’s-His-Name; the result would almost certainly have been a worse movie, and even in the din of special effects and CGI technology, aren’t the movies the point? If we remove glamour-grabbing stars from the equation, don’t we free the professionals to hone their craft?

Considering its longevity in the magazine market, one would expect nothing but professionalism from the venerable New Yorker – and those expectations would be shattered upon first glancing at the 6 June issue: just look at that crappy cover! It’s titled “Moral Guidance,” and it’s by Bruce McCall, and literally every detail of it is not only inept but annoyingly, distractingly inept. It would take all morning just to list them: the proportions are all wrong, everywhere (the walking couple are nowhere near each other in space, and they are midget-sized compared to the guy standing in the doorway), the sidewalk is seventy feet wide, the stockades are on a different plane than the storefront, the storefront awning has no depth, the shadows of everything are falling in different directions, the stockade wouldn’t actually hold its prisoners, since there’s eight or nine inches of open space in the hand-and-head-slots, etc. And really, that last bit is the straw that broke the camel’s easel: it’s not just that McCall’s covers are bad, it’s that they’re SO bad that the badness has just got to be self-conscious, a part of his shtick – that same contempt for craft we’ve bemoaned here many times. His covers – this one is a perfect example – are full of plain-old mistakes, things that would have taken five seconds with a brush to fix. Which raises the obvious question: doesn’t the New Yorker have an art editor anymore? Why didn’t anybody at any point in this issue’s production look at that stupid, talentless cover and say, “Look, this is the New Yorker – our covers have been famous for a century, some of them are hanging in art museums – send this back to the artist and tell him to fix it or he’s fired”?

Fortunately, things get better once you actually open the issue! Ryan Lizza turns in a very good piece about the health insurance bill asshole idiot Mitt Romney passed when he was briefly pretending to care about being governor of Massachusetts. Lizza is far more fair and balanced on the subject than the subject deserves, although you could use all the balance of a Barnum & Bailey high-wire act and Romney would still come off looking and sounding like John McCain all over again: just another borderline-insane narcissist who will say or do anything, literally anything, to be President of the United States (“Oh, I know where Osama is, my friends, and we’re gonna get him! Just give me the job, and I’ll get him! Just give me the job, and we’ll start drilling in ANWR the same day! We’ll drill anywhere you like! Just give me the job!”).

There’s also an excellent, thoughtful essay by Louis Menand about just what we expect from colleges, and what we have a right to expect. Some of Menand’s provisional premises are a bit shaky, this one being the worst:

The theory goes like this: In any group of people, it’s easy to determine who is the fastest or the strongest or even the best-looking. But picking out the most intelligent person is difficult, because intelligence always involves many attributes that can’t be captured in a one-time assessment, like an I.Q. test. There is not intellectual equivalent of the hundred-yard dash.

This is tricky, especially since it flies in the face of Menand’s own experience of living day-to-day – and the experience of all the rest of us: it’s actually extremely easy to determine who the smart people are in any random gathering. Hell, I can usually do it visually, before anybody in the group has even opened their mouth. Like athleticism or even musical ability, intelligence very often has an affect, and once you’re good at reading that affect (which Menand most certainly is, making his comment all the more mysterious), determining intelligence can be done even quicker than the hundred-yard dash. I think Menand only puts forward his contention because he doesn’t want to face the fact that a college education actually proves absolutely nothing about a person’s intelligence. Just yesterday, on the subway, I eavesdropped on a conversation between two young women reminiscing about their time together at Brown, and it was like listening to two crickets in tall grass: neither one of those young women had ever had even so much as a single thought in their entire lives – they were morons, despite their diplomas. Likewise, the smartest human I know left college after one year, and I know plenty of intelligent people who never went at all. The value of college is entirely social, not intellectual, and this also Menand – a long-time educator – must know. But he kicks the discussion around in a quite lively manner just the same.

This issue had lots of other good stuff in it (including a worrisomely thoughtful review of “The Hangover 2″ by David Denby that, again, gives the subject a disarming amount of credit), but let’s close with the single best thing from our Old Standbys this time around, an arrestingly good – and wrenchingly sad – poem by Franz Wright called “Recurring Awakening”:

I stop a tall girl all in blue on the hall

and receive first a harried and desultory apology

then, point blank, news that you passed late last night.

You passed at three-thirty in the morning.

What is it, some sort of exam?

She smiles at herself,

epicenter of this

revelation, I find myself walking along

a high ridge in the wake of an ice storm

at the heart of some annihilated fairy tale

of forest in West Virginia,

a redwing blackbird’s

feet clenched to one crystal branch

per deceased tree: eyes stitched shut

and beak wide open.

And finally, there it is: your face, floating

at my feet with nose pressed to transparent black ice;

yes, you are certainly dead, all the signs point to it.

Wrapped in white cerements,

white face more youthful

and grave than I have ever seen it, frowning slightly

as though it were reading, one eye blind

in a blond swath of hair,

vague smile like the velvet depression

the lost diamond has left in its case;

now strangely you are moving

in a wide circle around me, stepping

sideways in time

to some slow stately dance

hand in hand

with the handless

in their identical absence

of affect, lips moving in unison.

I can’t hear a thing, but it’s said

the instant of being aware we are sleeping

and the instant of waking are one

and the same – and thus, against delusion

we possess this defense.

Only if you refuse

to respond, if I can only write you,

and write on black wind-blurred water, what’s the use?

May 3rd, 2011

Poetry and the Age!

Our book today is Randall Jarrell’s magnificent 1953 classic Poetry and the Age – after all, just because we’ve stopped reading poetry now that National Poetry Month is over doesn’t mean we have to stop reading about poetry! The problem with that goal, however, is that truly good poetry criticism is really tough to find – most of it, the gigantic preponderance of it, is utterly unreadable, lost in a sargasso sea of cant and jargon, in a hysterically over-excited sub-language so absurd that the TLS isn’t the only mainstream critical journal over the decades that’s had some fun lampooning it. In the years since T. S. Eliot moved poetry firmly into the realm of the pinhead scholar (and in the aftermath of the Beats entering that realm and closing the doors firmly behind them), the genre has almost entirely stopped speaking to anybody but its own practitioners – an inherently losing game, since each new generation of poet is far less intelligent and well-read than the previous one. The result, alas, is absurd: poetry ‘experts’ (who couldn’t recite a line of Keats to save their condos) writing nonsense (“these verses strap on their sneakers and run – they run! Dogs chase them! Sometimes they stop for a soda! All is pomegranates!”) to an audience that not only doesn’t care but is contemptuous of all efforts to get it to care. The auditorium seats are empty, and the professor is turned around, talking gibberish to the blackboard.

It wasn’t always so, however. In the first half of the 20th century, smart, involved poetry criticism still lingered in some isolated pockets of the literary world. And with all due respect to Sam Daniel, Jarrell’s book might just be the single greatest volume of poetry-criticism ever assembled.

It’s a collection of previously published works, of course – Jarrell, like countless other great critics in the last two millennia, often found it convenient to patronize the literary journals of his day, since a) they paid upfront (usually) and b) they reached an active, volatile audience … they could make a name for somebody who was good enough (or, in the case of Michiko Kakutani, bad enough). They certainly made a name for him – his hatchet jobs became justifiably dreaded by poetasters everywhere, and more importantly, his extended considerations of both well-known and obscure poets often changed the very flow and nature of the discourse about those poets. That’s what the best literary criticism does, after all: it takes us aside at a loud, inane party, pulls from the shelf a volume we’ve either ignored or dismissed, and says “Have you ever thought about this in this way? What about this way? I think this is better than you give it credit – why not try it again?” Sometimes these attempts get lost in the noise of the party and go nowhere – but far more often, they lodge somewhere and do their work, prompting readings and re-readings, germinating reconsiderations. Literary journalism is the reason we still study Virgil. It’s the reason we remember Melville. Unfortunately, it’s also the reason we currently denigrate Dryden and Longfellow – although even those things are testament to its power (and the process is ongoing: in the latest American Scholar, Jill Lepore makes an utterly masterful attempt to reclaim Longfellow for serious consideration – and not just any Longfellow, but “Paul Revere’s Ride”!).

Jarrell was well aware of that power – these essays are most certainly not the professor going slumming. Here he takes on such figures as John Ransom, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman (in a bravura essay from which Whitman studies may never fully recover – or want to), Marianne Moore, and James Russell Lowell, and he subjects all of them to his unsleeping inquiry, struggling with them right in front of us and rendering the results in that inimitable and hypnotic prose-style of his:

Anyone who compares Mr. Lowell’s earlier and later poems will see this movement from constriction to liberation as his work’s ruling principle of growth. The grim, violent, sordid constriction of his earliest poems … seems to be tempermental, the Old Adam which the poet grew from and only partially transcends; and a good deal of what is excessive in the extraordinary rhetorical machine of a poem like “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket,” which first traps and then wrings to pieces the helpless reader – who rather enjoys it – is gone from some of his later poems, or else dramatically justified and no longer excessive.

But as great as his various analyses are, the true joy of Poetry and the Age comes from the fact that Jarrell, as Harold Bloom says about Shakespeare, could never stop watching himself perform: yes, he’s doing what he was hired to do, talking about X poet or Y poet – but a good deal of this book is also about the purpose of writing literary journalism itself, regardless of subject. It was a notion on which Jarrell could reliably be brought to a voluble boil while he was still alive, and it loudly echoes throughout all his work, where in one way or another he’s always asking that central question:

What is a critic, anyway? So far as I can see, he is an extremely good reader – one who has learned to show others what he saw in what he read. He is always many other things too, but these belong to his accident, not his essence. Of course, it is often the accident and not the essence that we read the critic for: pieces of criticism are frequently, though not necessarily, works of art of an odd anomalous kind…

“Criticism,” Jarrell wrote, from the depths of his own personal experience, “demands of the critic a terrible nakedness: a real critic has no one but himself to depend on.” What he meant by this but would never think to say was that good criticism, real criticism, is a brave act – and he himself was among the bravest ever to try it. In his view the critic was an integral part of the perfecting of reading – both for the critic’s own sake and for the sake of the reader. It’s this sense of nerve-ending open looking that makes his literary journalism so thrilling even half a century after it was written. “Around the throne of God,” Jarrell writes here, “where all the angels read perfectly, there are no critics – there is no need for them” – but literature will always need passionate, eloquent readers, and those angels would have to be nuts not to read Randall Jarrell.

April 30th, 2011

Poetry Anthologies!

I could hardly let National Poetry Month come to a close without paying some kind of tribute to the main venue where most readers encounter poetry, now could I? Once, ages ago, that venue would have been the bard in the hall, the singer on the portico, but for most readers since Gutenberg, the main place where they encounter poetry is in books – and not just any books, but poetry anthologies. Poet jostling against poet, centuries eliding into centuries, styles and movements recklessly colliding with their polar opposites. Most readers out there first read poetry in just such heterogeneous company … it was only later, as a mature-feeling act of adulthood, that some of them began buying entire books of poetry written by only one person.

Since the poetry anthology is perfectly adapted to pedagogy, they proliferate in schools, and this forces us to specify our terms. In terms of sheer numbers in print and sheer numbers of eyeballs that have scanned its pages, by far the most important poetry anthology of all time is the Norton Anthology of Poetry, the various incarnations of which have been mainstays in schools for three or four generations. But there are two kinds of poetry anthologies: the itemized tour and the personal statement. The Norton Anthologies are very much the former – they have to be, if they’re going to work in classrooms. And while I don’t discount the viral vitality of all literature (you can get infected regardless of the vector), I’m concentrating today on the other kind of poetry anthology, the personal statement. These are usually no less scholarly, and in their hearts they’d certainly like to be as impartially inclusive … but they’re not boardroom-generated, so they end up being as much reflections of their creators as they are reflections of the state of the art when they’re made.

The ground-breakers in (more or less!) modern times were Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of Verse … and the main thing we notice about their original versions today is how narrow and parochial they seem, how limiting their personal statements are. We know there’s a bigger verse-world out there than all those syrupy pastorals, but you certainly can’t tell that from the neat and well-tended confines of the volumes themselves. I’ve got three very different – one can’t help but think “better” volumes in mind.

The first is one that might actually compete with the Norton Anthology for academic sales: Hayden Carruth’s hugely popular 1970 book The Voice That Is Great Within Us. There was a time when I could walk into the ramshackle apartment of any young poet and find a dog-eared copy of this book with its signature white cover. Carruth was a rotten poet himself, but with the overseeing of this particular volume, he hit a fascinating balance – like all the best ‘personal statement’ poetry anthologies, this one can be very pleasurably read from front to back like a novel, rather than picked and pecked through. Although I’ll peck for you now, since I’d like to share one poem I love from each of the three anthologies mentioned here. From Carruth’s book it’s got to be Countee Cullen’s quick ditty “Incident”:

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

The most august of the three volumes I’m writing about today – indeed, quite possibly the most august poetry anthology in English – is Helen Gardner’s mighty successor to the Quiller-Couch Oxford Book of English Verse. I prefer the Gardner even to its own successor, since that later version seems to me to be an Oxford Book that’s finally more concerned with what it’s not leaving out than with what it’s including, if you follow the distinction. Any personal statement that even so much as acknowledges consensus is irredeemably craven, which is why I prefer the magisterial perfection of Gardner’s version. Here are all the greatest names of English poetry, to an absolutely remarkable degree unmixed with baser matter, and here, unapologetically, are all the greatest poems by those great names, one after another in an astounding, uplifting fusillade. I’ll again pick only one, well-known and well-loved by me: Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which starts like this:

It little profits that an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

And that ends, wonderfully, like this:

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;

There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me –

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads – you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

And naturally, in any post like this, we must come at last to simple personal favorites, and I have one: the magnificent 1998 soup-to-nuts update of Mark Van Doren’s Anthology of World Poetry, this one edited by Katharine Washburn and John Major and full of 1300 pages of endless variety and wonder. Where the Gardner volume has one immortal standard after another, this volume is a steady stream of surprises, whole worlds of the unexpected on every page. It’s broken down roughly chronologically and sprawls across the whole of recorded human history – African chants, Elizabethan madrigals, Chinese miniatures, Beat imponderables. This is my single favorite poetry anthology, the book I would hand to somebody if they stood next to me in the Poetry section of the Brattle and asked me “What one book should I get?” In part this is due to the elastic range of the contents, because more than anything poetry should be about not letting our aesthetics calcify – but mainly due to the sheer beauty of so much of what’s in here. I could pick a dozen examples instantly, but I’ll stick to just one: a very loose adaptation of Horace by J. D. McClatchy, a poem called “Late Night Ode” that I’ve loved for long enough so that some of its terms are already outdated (CNN, beepers…):

It’s over, love. Look at me pushing fifty now,

Hair like grave-grass growing in both ears,

The piles and the boggy prostate, the crooked penis,

The sour taste of each day’s first lie,

And that recurrent dream of years ago pulling

A swaying bead-chain of moonlight,

Of slipping between the cool sheets of dark

along a body like my own, but blameless.

What good’s my cut-glass conversation now,

Now I’m so effortlessly vulgar and sad?

You get from life what you can shake from it?

for me, it’s g and t’s all day and CNN.

Try the blond boychick lawyer, entry level

At eighty grand, who pouts about the overtime,

Keeps Evian and a beeper in his locker at the gym,

And hash in tinfoil under the office fern.

There’s your hound from heaven, with buccaneer

Curls and perfumed war-paint on his nipples.

His answering machine always has room for one more

Slurred, embarrassed call from you-know-who.

Some nights I’ve laughed so hard the tears

won’t stop. Look at me now. Why now?

I long ago gave up pretending to believe

Anyone’s memory will give as good as it gets.

So why these stubborn tears? and why do I dream

Almost every night of holding you again,

Or at least of diving after you, my long-gone,

Through the bruised unbalanced waves.

I can’t recommend World Poetry eagerly enough – if you ever find a copy, snatch it up. And if you should have the option to spend a few warmly drunken nights exchanging favorite finds with a beautiful young poet, don’t hesitate to do that too. It definitely adds to the experience.

April 27th, 2011

The Collected Poetry of Thom Gunn!

Our book today is 1994’s The Collected Poems of Thom Gunn, who was born in England and followed his lover to California at the height of the drug-soaked ‘counter-culture’ movement then cresting there. He dove into that movement with the same studied abandon he released on all the things that interested him, becoming at once its warden and its bard.

At Trinity College he’d absorbed phenomenal amounts of information and spent countless hours straining his way through what he called ‘a thicket of forms.’ He learned the names and measures of all poetic styles; he learned their limitations and their freedoms; he learned how to do them all, and how to make them do his bidding. In short, he learned what virtually no poets writing today bother to learn: the craft of poetry. Poets – especially young poets – today conceive of the status of ‘poet’ as something inborn, something cellular that they only need to proclaim in order to brandish. They call themselves ‘poets’ with the lazy arrogance endemic to work-shirkers, and they scurry from ill-lit reading to ill-lit reading with the bitter collegiality of people who’ve decided that as bad as ‘the scene’ is, it sure beats sitting down and studying quatrains. In the tangle of this misperception, “I’m a poet” is tortured into synonymity with sloth, or even disfunction. “I’m a poet” becomes the reason why “I don’t write well,” or even why “I don’t write at all.” Show me a ‘poet’ under the age of 25 today, and I’ll show you someone who couldn’t pick a sestina out of a police lineup and who thinks quintain is the crusty old shark-killer in “Jaws.” And worse: if you confront them with this ignorance, you won’t get shame – you’ll get a sneer: “I’m a poet – I don’t bother with those things.”

In the bright new light of a paradise state, Thom Gunn explored all the loose verse-styles making the rounds, and I read all the results (because this is one of the 20th century’s greatest poets) with interest and often pleasure, not because I like those looser styles but because I knew that with him they weren’t the results of mere cowardice – only genuine craft has the right to abandon itself: poets who don’t want to be charlatans learn poetry before they start crapping around with it.

Gunn paid his discipline the honor of knowing it in every quirk and detail, and his “Collected Poems” spans his whole working career, from his earliest volumes like Fighting Terms and My Sad Captains to the late masterworks he created when his fierce talents and fierce heart was confronted with the onset of the AIDS epidemic.

These styles and moods range from the urbanities of Catullus in “A Map of the City”:

I stand upon a hill and see

A luminous country under me,

Through which at two the drunk must weave;

The transient’s pause, the sailor’s leave.

I notice, looking down the hill,

Arms braced upon a window sill;

And on the web of fire escapes

Move the potential, the grey shapes.

I hold the city here, complete:

And every shape defined by light

Is mine, or corresponds to mine,

Some flickering or some steady shine.

This map is ground of my delight.

Between the limits, night by night,

I watch a malady’s advance,

I recognize my love of chance.

By the recurrent lights I see

Endless potentiality,

The crowded, broken, and unfinished!

I would not have the risk diminished.

To the deceptively delicate miniature-work of Basho, as in “Considering the Snail”:

The snail pushes through a green

night, for the grass is heavy

with water and meets over

the bright path he makes, where rain

has darkened the earth’s dark. He

moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring

as he hunts. I cannot tell

what power is at work, drenched there

with purpose, knowing nothing.

What is a snail’s fury? All

I think is that it later

I parted the blades above

the tunnel and saw the thin

trail of broken white across

litter, I would never have

imagined the slow passion

to that deliberate process.

And all of it sadly culminates in the grey angers of his greatest book, The Man with Night Sweats, including what is for me one of the most true and agonized renditions of the sheer haplessness of surviving a loved one’s death, here at the close of the poem “Lament”:

Outdoors next day, I was dizzy from a sense

Of being ejected with some violence

From vigil in a white and distant spot

Where I was numb, into this garden plot

Too warm, too close, and not enough like pain.

I was delivered into time again.

– The variations that I live among

Where your long body too used to belong

And where the still bush is minutely active.

You never thought your body was attractive,

Though others did, and yet you trusted it

And must have loved its fickleness a bit

Since it was yours and gave you what it could,

Till near the end it let you down for good,

Its blood hospitable to those guests who

Took over by betraying it into

The greatest of its inconsistencies

This difficult, tedious, painful enterprise.

Thom Gunn was a resolute explorer. He sought out drugs to learn their gifts (of course they addicted him in the end), he sought out all conversations, always, to learn their speakers, he disdained no ‘pop culture’ until he’d searched it for both strengths and bankruptcies, and while it’s true that his open-mindedness stopped tragically short of appreciating the Legion of Super-Heroes (“there’s just too many of them!”), it had few other limits. And his talent, strong and resourceful to the end, met the catastrophe of its age with the only weapons at its disposal. And they were enough.

April 20th, 2011

The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick!

Our book today is the 1968 Norton printing of J. Max Patrick’s 1963 edition of the complete poetry of Robert Herrick, if that isn’t too derivational for you. Patrick’s volume is a no-nonsense scholarly affair, the kind of thing that features very few concessions to the educated layman who has always been Norton’s key audience. The notes are extensive but often recondite, although they wouldn’t have seen themselves as such back fifty years ago. Herrick was steeped in the Greek and Roman classics in the very best way somebody can be: he loved them, he absorbed them through his very reading pores, and he breathed their air when he was singing his songs and composing his verse. Some critics have complained that his verses smell of the lamp, that he’s at times merely showing off his pithy allusivity. I disagree: it’s not the quotation-hunting fug of the study that fills his verses but instead the quiet joy of the reading-chair, the side-table crowded with much-read and much-beloved volumes, the marvellous feeling that classical world gives of being an actual place, a retreat into sanity from the chaotic modern world.

Herrick certainly knew his fair share of that chaos, although he devoted quite a bit of energy to avoiding it. He was born in London in 1591 to a prosperous goldsmith and banker who the following year died in a fall from one of his house’s high windows. Suicide was suspected, and if it had been proven, the family would have lost everything. Herrick’s mother – a thoroughly remarkable woman named Julian Stone – called in every favor she could think of and fought to prove accidental death … and eventually she succeeded. The result was that young Robert could be apprenticed to his uncle, another prosperous goldsmith, and sent to Cambridge, where he got a B.A. in 1617 and an M.A. in 1620. He was ordained deacon and priest in 1623 and was the Vicar of Dean Prior in Devon by 1630.

So by age 38 he had a comfortable living (and a small inheritance from his mother when she died), no wife, no children, and no very pressing demands on his time – which was all good news, since he was an incurable reader and writer in the best English clerical tradition. He filled his days, his months, his years with Ovid and Juvenal and Virgil, and it’s perhaps no surprise that by 1640 he was in the Stationer’s Register as a writer of poems.

In a normal world, Herrick might have expected to go on like that, serenely serving his flock and filling his evenings with writing in his study. But when Cromwell and Parliament took up arms against King Charles I in 1642, the world stopped being normal. Like most people, Herrick kept his head down and hoped the turmoil wouldn’t touch him. But if you believe in your bones that the king is the king and your country is taken over by men who believe otherwise, turmoil will find you – and it found Herrick. He was expelled from his vicarage in 1647.

For twelve long years, he was adrift. It happened to countless other men in the England of his time, and it arguably hit hardest the ones just like Herrick – the ones who for whatever reason found it next to impossible to shift with the times. Those twelve years have resisted detailed historical inquiry – probably his relatives supported him for part of it (despite his long apprenticeship to his uncle years before, it’s permissible to believe he was never a very good goldsmith, and those contacts need to be scrupulously upkept anyway, not allowed to wither while you write sermons in Devon). It’s possible he tried to be optimistic about the unwanted changes in his life, possible he sought a small re-invention of himself. 1648 was the year his big work, the Hesperides, was published, but we have very little historical indication of what that meant to him.

It should mean more to us today than it does. The Hesperides and the Noble Numbers contain a great many wonderful things. Patrick lays both works out alongside various other verses of various lengths, works that were almost certainly written by Herrick, and the resulting volume is probably the closest we’ll ever come to a definitive collection of his work. Here we get our poet using all the voices at his command – never a great array, but all fully inhabited. He can quip:

I’ll write, because I’ll give

You Critics means to live;

For should I not supply

The Cause, th’ effect would die.

And he’s not afraid to echo the great authors who provided so many happy hours in his study, as in this salutation to his book as it journeys out into the world:

While thou didst keep thy Candor undefil’d,

Deerely I lov’d thee; as my first-borne child:

But when I saw thee wantonly to roame

From house to house, and never stay at home;

I brake my bonds of Love, and bad thee goe,

Regardless whether well thou sped’st, or no.

On with thy fortunes, then, what e’er they be;

If good I’le smile, if bad I’le sigh for Thee.

Or when he offers a pretty – and familiar – little note on a child who’s died:

Here she lies, a pretty bud,

Lately made of flesh and blood:

Who, as soone, fell fast asleep,

As her little eyes did peep.

Give her strewings; but not stir

The earth, that lightly covers her.

The Restoration of course changed his stunned and rootless life back into something resembling its old shape: in 1660 he was returned to his vicarage, and there he lived in resumed peace and presumed happiness until 1674 when death took him at a ripe old age (and, we can hope, quickly and quietly, in his study, after a particularly good night of reading). He had to wait a while for critical reception to warm to his work, but there have been some wonderful recent books about him – most especially Floris Delattre’s Robert Herrick from 1912 and S. Musgrove’s The Universe of Robert Herrick from 1950 – but as always with poets, he epitomizes himself as well as anybody, including during one of his thrice-yearly melodramatic renunciations of his art:

Ile sing no more, nor will I longer write

Of that sweet Lady, or that gallant Knight:

Ile sing no more of Frosts, Snowes, Dews and Showers;

No more of Groves, Meades, Springs, and wreaths of Flowers:

Ile write no more, nor will I tell or sing

Of Cupid, and his wittie coozning:

Ile sing no more of death, or shall the grave

No more my Dirges, and my Trentalls have.

He kept right on singing about all of those things, naturally – probably right up to the end. Poets have very little choice about that, after all.

April 11th, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Wordsworth!

Some Penguin Classics might almost fairly be said to overdo things, and if ever there were such a case, it’s the two-volume edition of the poems of William Wordsworth that came out in the Penguin Classics line in 1990. These two volumes, called The Poems: Volume One and The Poems: Volume Two, are edited by John O. Hayden, and each is a brick of over 1000 pages. They run more or less chronologically for the entire ghastly length of time Wordsworth was churning out poetry, and even at their finished length, horrifyingly, they don’t represent the whole of the man’s catalogue: his epic, “The Prelude,” isn’t included here, nor are any of the five or six variant editions of that impenetrably dull work. So, believe it or not, the 2045 pages of these two volumes represent only about a working half of the extant verse. It boggles the mind – I don’t know of any other Penguin Classic like it. There are many other ‘complete poems’ volumes, true, but the life’s work in those cases is always that of an ordinary poet, not some dodderer caught in the grip of a logorrhoea mania as helpless as it was unsleeping.

In other words, apart from ruefully satisfying that bitter little rump of Wordsworth-fans that has existed in the world since their idol first decided, at age 15, to write a gaseous ode about something that happened to him five minutes ago (and then keep revising it for the next sixty years), there can’t really be any good editorial reason for anybody – even Penguin Classics – to publish two volumes containing every single poem Wordsworth ever wrote. It goes beyond being zealous; it’s just plain rude.

Nevertheless, here these two fat volumes sit on the shelf, offering the same mildly dyspeptic reprimand they always have to readers who glance at them, consider for half a second finally grappling with all the Wordsworth in the whole world, and then veer off and take a slim volume of Keats to the park. Being Penguin volumes, they’re attractively made and beautifully researched. Hayden’s end-notes are masterpieces of succinctness, including both his own glosses on Wordsworth’s obscurities (a going business, that) and brief relevant extracts from the glosses of those glossers who’ve glossed before him. Those obscurities most certainly extend to whole poems, as anybody who’s ever actually read “The Prelude” can attest. As noted, these two Penguin volumes don’t include “The Prelude,” but since they include everything else, there are still plenty of examples of poems that might have turned out sharper and more memorable if they’d been in less sententious hands. Think, for instance, how evocative this one might have been if its author hadn’t been so hell-bent on thinly-veiled political commentary:

‘Who but is pleased to watch the moon on high’

Who but is pleased to watch the moon on high

Travelling where she from time to time enshrouds

Her head, and nothing loth her Majesty

Renounces, till among the scattered clouds

One with its kindling edge declares that soon

Will reappear before the uplifted eye

A Form as bright, as beautiful a moon,

To glide in open prospect through clear sky.

Pity that such a promise e’er should prove

False in the issue, that yon seeming space

Of sky should be in truth the steadfast face

Of a cloud flat and dense, through which must move

(By transit not unlike man’s frequent doom)

The Wanderer lost in more determined gloom.

Still, if you write 10,000 verses in your life, you’re bound to write some that Steve will like, even if you do so sarcastically or accidentally. No matter how Wordsworth has bored me over the years (ironic, since I worked for a long time in a bookshop bearing his name), there are poems of his I still turn to every National Poetry Month. Two of those poems are intensely predictable of me, but here they are anyway:

‘She dwelt among untrodden ways’

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the spring of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone

Half hidden from the eye!

Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know

When Lucy ceased to be;

But she is in her grave, and, oh,

The difference to me!

And then there’s this one, probably my favorite Wordsworth poem:

The Solitary Reaper

Behold her, single in the field,

Yon Solitary Highland Lass!

Reaping and singing by herself;

Stop here, or gently pass!

Alone she cuts and binds the grain,

And sings a melancholy strain;

O listen! for the Vale profound

Is overflowing with the sound.

No Nightingale did ever chaunt

More welcome notes to weary bands

Of travellers in some shady haunt,

Among Arabian sands:

A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard

In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,

Breaking the silence of the seas

Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow

For old, unhappy, far-off things,

And battles long ago:

Or is it some more humble lay,

Familiar matter of today?

Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain

That has been, and may be again?

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending;

I saw her singing at her work,

And o’er the sickle bending; –

I listened, motionless and still;

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that those last two poems are frequently anthologized. And come to think of it, they’re always included in the various “Selected Poems” Wordsworth volumes Penguin Classics has published over the years. If you take my meaning.

April 9th, 2011

The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse!

Our book today is 1990’s  The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse edited by Christopher Hicks, in keeping both with April being National Poetry Month and also with my own ongoing fascination with all things Victorian, which has been true since that little slip of a thing came to the throne and made all the left-hand front-page columns in the Boston papers. Of course, it’s a frustrating thing to be fascinated with the Victorian era – more than any other relatively recent time (the ancient Romans surely win for all time), that era has been mischaracterized by subsequent eras, used by them to make points about the present, almost always at the expense of the past. ‘Victorian’ began appearing in dictionaries as a synonym for ‘prissy,’ ‘moralizing,’ and most of all ‘repressed’ almost before the old queen’s corpse was cold, but that was always much more a function of what the Edwardians wanted to believe about themselves than it was ever about the Victorians themselves. Indeed, Victorians who were rude enough to live on into the ‘modern’ age were always surprised by how new generations described those vanished decades.

To the Victorians, they lived in a young age, one exploding with new and undreamt-of possibilities in science, culture, government – and art. They were far more likely to challenge the past than to venerate it mindlessly. And if they were often maudlin and sentimental, well, before modern societies – especially modern America – criticize them too stridently for that, they might want to look at the books currently topping their own bestseller charts. Any good anthology of Victorian verse will present the reader with an age he never met in school. And Ricks’ anthology is quite possibly the best one ever compiled (despite rather too much Arthur Hugh Clough for anybody’s well-being).

The fun starts, as it should be so seldom does, with the Introduction (uncredited, but presumably Hicks’ own), which bemoans the necessity of all such Introductions and the temptations they provide for the unwary sod called upon to write them:

Then there is the anthologist’s temptation to write a review, or at least to see that the reviewers have their work cut out for them; perhaps by covert self-congratulation on the choices and the finds (Remark how unknown are A and B! How hitherto misprized were X and Y!); perhaps, with sheer statistics, by implicit deprecation of the beknighted predecessor.

And further:

The anthologist ought at least not to preclude the chance of being truly surprised, and not just by an unexpected instance of something anticipated; and the trouble with narrowingly circular definitions is that they ensure that the unexpected becomes not only the unlooked-for (and therefore missed) but the uncalled-for (and therefore resisted and resented).

That sense of surprise carries the reader the whole way through this plump volume, even though its A-list roster is as familiar as it is impressive. There’s Wordsworth here, and Tennyson, John Clare and both Brownings, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, a clutch of Brontes, all of “Goblin Market,” Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy, and refreshing amounts of George Meredith and Robert Louis Stevenson. But there are also plenty of lesser lights, shining all the brighter in this more luminous setting, including Digby Mackworth Dolben (1848-1867), whose little “Song”is about as Victorian as Victorian gets:

The world is young today:

Forget the gods are old,

Forget the years of gold

When all the months were May.

A little flower of Love

Is ours, without a root,

Without the end of fruit,

Yet – take the scent thereof.

There may be hope above,

There may be rest beneath;

We see them not, but Death

Is palpable – and Love.

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) is here in all his melodic glory, including this favorite bit from “The Garden of Proserpine”:

From too much love of living,

From hope and fear set free,

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives forever;

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea.

And there’s the aforementioned Arthur Hugh Clough (1819 – 1861), whose excerpt from Dipsychus isn’t as well-known today as it should be:

As I sat in the cafe, I said to myself,

They may talk as they please about what they call pelf,

They may sneer as they like about eating and drinking,

But I cannot help it, I cannot help thinking

How pleasant it is to have money, heigh-ho!

How pleasant it is to have money.

And of course there’s sonorous Alfred Tennyson (1809 – 1892), without whom any Victorian anthology would be unthinkable. That witty Introduction does right by Tennyson too, correctly telling us that “Tennyson could do things that were entirely beyond the capabilities of Tennyson’s apes.” Certainly I could go on reading him all day, as in this excerpt from Tithonus:


The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan.

Me only cruel immortality

Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,

Here at the quiet limit of the world,

A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream

The ever-silent spaces of the East,

Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Of course, no anthology can be perfect, because we all make our own mental anthologies from all we read. My own favorite Christina Rossetti poem, for instance, isn’t in Ricks’ volume. But how could I do even so small a Victorian round-up as this without including it? After all, who knows when I’ll get another chance?

Up-Hill

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?

Yes, to the very end.

Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?

From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?

A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.

May not the darkness hide it from my face?

You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?

Those who have gone before.

Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?

They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?

Of labour you shall find the sum.

Will there be beds for me and all who seek?

Yea, beds for all who come.

April 4th, 2011

The New Oxford Book of 17th Century Verse!

Our book today is Alastair Fowler’s 1991 New Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, and it’s as volatile and tremendous a tribute to National Poetry Month as could be imagined. Opinion among those I’ve quizzed is decidedly mixed as to the merit of even having a National Poetry Month (one poet of my acquaintance summed things up by saying “it can’t possibly have any widespread effect other than to further marginalize the most marginalized literature in America”), but that’s surely a debate about browbeating the public, not about the worth of poetry itself. And no other period of human history can rival the ‘long’ 17th century for verse, that glorious epoch from roughly the final years of Queen Elizabeth I to the advent of the Glorious Revolution. As Fowler here reckons that time, it stretches from George Chapman all the way to Alexander Pope, with stops along the way for Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, and Dryden.

There are lots and lots of other names in this updated version of the Oxford classic, including quite a few names that don’t deserve to be here. Fowler is typically British in his diffidence:

A representative selection has meant more Drayton; more Cowley and Marvell; more Oldham and Strode; and many more female poets. It has meant including marginal figures such as the waterman Taylor, the alcoholic Brathwait, and the lunatic Carkesse. It has meant, in fact, including some ‘subliterary’ verse, and some very minor poets. If literature is the nation’s memory, forgotten verse may contain things we need to know.

Or it may not. It’s hard to imagine what even mercifully brief extracts from the life-outpourings of Emilia Lanier, John Chalkhill, or John Digby, the Earl of Bristol could teach us about much of anything, but if they and their ilk are the price of admission to the rest of this mighty host, you won’t hear me complaining.

There’s our old friend Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, writing about the cruelties of mankind and meaning, as she so often does, men, in this excerpt from 1653’s “The Hunting of the Hare”:

As if that God made creatures for man’s meat,

And gave them life and sense, for man to eat;

Or else for sport, or recreation’s sake,

Destroy those lives that God saw good to make;

Making their stomachs graves, which full they fill

With murthered bodies that in sport they kill.

Yet man doth think himself so gentle, mild,

When of all creatures he’s most cruel wild;

And is so proud, thinks only he shall live,

That God a godlike nature did him give,

And that all creatures for his sake alone

Was made for him to tyrannize upon.

And there’s Will Davenant, that weak-willed wit and wannabe wastrel who got his start in literary London while serving in the household of our old friend Fulke Greville and who, amidst stacks and stacks of intensely conventional writing, could occasionally produce something puckish and original, like this from 1673:

O Thou that sleepest like pig in straw,

Thou lady dear, arise:

Open, to keep the sun in awe,

Thy pretty pinking eyes;

And having stretched each leg and arm,

Put on your clean white smock,

And then, I pray, to keep you warm,

A petticoat on dock.

Arise, arise! Why should you sleep,

When you have slept enough?

Long since French boys cried ‘Chimney-sweep’,

And damsels ‘Kitchen-stuff’.

The shops were opened long before,

And youngest prentice goes

To lay at his mistress’ chamber door

His master’s shining shoes.

Arise, arise; your breakfast stays:

Good water gruel warm,

Or sugar sops, which Galen says

With mace will do no harm.

Arise, arise; when you are up,

You’ll find more to your cost,

For morning’s draught in caudle cup,

Good nutbrown ale and toast.

And what of William Drummond of Hawthornden, the able poet and late-life friend of Ben Jonson? Drummond let a long and very active literary life, but in less inclusive anthologies than this one he might nevertheless get crowded right off the stage – either in favor of demographically advisable nonentities or to make room for more Shakespeare. Not so here, where we can read bittersweet little ditties like this bit fro Madrigal II.i, written in the first decade of the new century:

This life which seems so fair

Is like a bubble blown up in the air

By sporting children’s breath,

Who chase it everywhere,

And strive who can most motion it bequeath:

And though it sometime seem of its own might,

Like to an eye of gold, to be fixed there,

And firm to hover in that empty height,

That only is because it is so light.

But in that pomp it doth not long appear;

For even when most admired, it in a thought,

A swelled from nothing, doth dissolve in nought.

I’ve praised these wonderful Oxford Books here before, but when it comes to anthologies this wide-ranging and thought-provoking, I don’t mind repeating myself. And when I’m delighting in the acuity of Fowler’s choices, I don’t even mind all the makeweight names he was forced to mix in amongst them.

March 16th, 2011

Poetry Class!

Well, our Nine Lives (of the Poets) is over for now, and so many of you have emailed me that I thought a brief coda was in order. This series got three times the emails most Stevereads posts do – just as the Nine Lives (of the Composers) did last summer, so it’s safe to say you can count on seeing more. And several of you have written to, ahem, politely suggest directions that ‘more’ might take! For what it’s worth, I am aware that what was originally intended to be a feature spanning the ages got stuck in the long sixteenth century and just sort of wallowed there … a slight failing to which I claim only the custom of the country: if we can’t indulge ourselves on our own book-blogs, what has Western Civilization achieved, finally? Nevetheless, the lack shall be rectified! Contrary to the impression given this time around, my awareness of poetry extends all the way to the 21st century – and includes both genders – and with any luck, more of that will be expressed next time.

For now, thank you for all the emails, and what better grace-note on which to end our poetry-fest than another instalment of Poetry Class, featuring a work so new the ink is hardly dry on the page! I liked it, so of course I’m hoping you do too:

Very similar, very simile –

a smile, a gesture,  a mark on the air

to wave hello, goodbye, to throw a kiss

across the rainbow distances. “The word love,”

writes syphilitic Paul Gauguin, in his journal in Tahiti,

“I’d like to kick whoever invented it in the teeth.”

Gauguin the realist in paradise, painting

cinnamon women in native floral outlines

in real two-dimension, beautiful flat faces.

Then the counterargument: Plato’s homely metaphor

of how, in our first life, we were whole,

male and female, but cut in half

by gods no less fearful than Gauguin,

the way we cut eggs in half with a hair,

the eggs hard-boiled, the hair the thread of a tailor.

When is a thing not like another thing,

like the split sweet heart of an apple?

We’re so filled with absence,

or as Yeats, after Porphyry, puts it,

the “honey of generation,” no wonder we stand

in the street at night, half or wholly drunk, shouting.

That’s called “Verisimilitude” and it’s by Stanley Plumly, and I found it in the new Atlantic.