Well, it's been a fun week. I thought I'd use my last post to respond
to some of the comments and thoughts raised by my post of a couple of
days ago, in which I asked whether and why folks write book reviews.
Rather than be particularly organized, I'm just going to list some of
my thoughts and opinions on the subject. And then, I'll be signing
-It seems to me poetry reviews have a relatively small impact on poetry
sales, because most poetry books are bought by libraries (for whom
pre-pub reviews in PW and LJ matter most) or by an extremely educated
audience. Therefore, I think the purpose of poetry reviews is mainly
to keep the art form in line, meaning to generate a conversation around
books. So, though I rarely write them, I don't think negative reviews
are a bad idea.
-That said, negative reviews written for the purpose of making the
reviewer look smarter than the book under consideration are always a
bad idea. People trying to look smart rarely do look smart.
-A primary concern for a reviewer should be writing an interesting
piece of prose, a piece worth reading. This may be more important--I
tread lightly here--than being right, or even accurate. It's certainly
more interesting. See the reviews of Randall Jarrell and, more
recently, William Logan.
-To Mr. Hummer, who seemed so inflamed by the notion of a poetry
publicist, understand I'm not referring to some weird world where poets
themselves have publicists coordinating their appearances. If you've
published 11 books, someone has done the publicity work on
them--sending out review copies, pitching them to the distributor,
maybe trying to line up a review or two--whether it was a publicist at
the press or the editor or you. It's an essential part of the
publication process. But poetry hasn't sold out.
-I review books to help myself read them better, to get inside some of their thoughts.
-I review books to make a small part of my living.
-I review books because I think it's important to practice writing
prose. There is no excuse for poets who can't string a standard
sentence together, but can wield fragments like knives.
-I review a lot of prose so that I am made to read books I wouldn't otherwise read.
-I don't necessarily believe that poetry needs to strive to reach a
wider audience. It's one of those things that needs to be sought.
Those who need it find it. If more people need it, more people will
find it. Poetry is its own gatekeeper.
Because it is Halloween, and because I love all that is dark sparkle and lore, I settled in last night and read one of the Grimm Brothers' bleaker fairy tales - Hansel and Gretel. It's the last chapter of a collection I've kept since I was a child and I don't think I've opened the book since then either. I recalled a sketch of the story - a brother and sister lost in the woods, trying to find their way home, and a witch who traps them because they are hungry and her house is made of gingerbread and cake.
Well. There's that, but there's also the whole other part I forgot about, such as that the reason they are lost to begin with is because their father and stepmother have deliberately left them to die in the forest. Twice.
The first time, the resourceful Hansel finds the path back because he marks the way with pebbles that shine in the moonlight. The second time he uses bread crumbs to track his trail, but they disappear into the mouths of grackles and rabbits and the like. The witch cages Hansel and fattens him to eat; Gretel is made into her kitchen slave. Eventually the clever girl shoves their captor into an oven, and the two return to their father without grudge. As if it was that easy to forgive betrayal.
I once loved the macabre theatre of these tales. It seemed to me, in my little girlness, that while the world was dangerous, at least it was interesting, a place where spells might explode at any moment or where children could rescue themselves. Last night I thought of H&G, now grown, perhaps choosing to forget the crone with the red eyes and the keen animal nose, the father who abandoned them. Perhaps not.
Here is their future, as seen by Louise Gluck, who authored the line I pinched for the title of this post.
Gretel in Darkness
This is the world we wanted. All who would have seen us dead are dead. I hear the witch's cry break in the moonlight through a sheet of sugar: God rewards. Her tongue shrivels into gas...
Now, far from women's arms and memory of women, in our father's hut we sleep, are never hungry. Why do I not forget? My father bars the door, bars harm from this house, and it is years.
No one remembers. Even you, my brother, summer afternoons you look at me as though you meant to leave, as though it never happened. But I killed for you. I see armed firs, the spires of the gleaming kiln--
Nights I turn to you to hold me but you are not there. Am I alone? Spies hiss in the stillness, Hansel, we are there still and it is real, real that black forest and the fire in earnest.
Poor Keats. A Scorpio with Virgo rising and, just to clinch the deal, his moon in Gemini. This is the equivalent of being dealt the Fool, the Lovers (inverted), and the Tower as the three culminating cards in an eleven-card Tarot reading. There is sadness in his life, illness, a consumptive cough. But he has a generous soul, he meets afflictions with renewed resolve, he is capable of great feats of self-discipline. Willing to work hours on meters and rhymes he is a born dreamer, who can shut his eyes and transport himself in a second to fairy lands forlorn, an enchantment of mist, an early Autumn of heirloom tomatoes and three varieties of peaches. Life is a struggle, but he prevails, and then dies young.
The fact that Keats's moon is in Gemini, that the nocturnal northeastern quadrant is predominant in his natal chart, and above all that Mercury is his ruling planet, supports the view of this poet as a divinely-ordained messenger of the gods trapped in the frail body of an undernourished London lad with his face pressed against the sweet shop window, as Yeats wrote. [Note: If you mix up the names Keats and Yeats, or pronounce one as if it were the other, the chances of your appreciating either are diminished by a seventh but not eliminated. The two names are separated by nearly five decades but linked by lyrical genius, with the prophetic mode ascendant in Yeats, while Keats -- brainy, anxious, and quick as befits a son of Mercury -- wins the laurels for sensuality and freshness: the palpable bubbles in the wine glass, the burst of a grape in the satyr's mouth, the humming of flies on the porch screen in August, keen fitful gusts of wind.]
Keats's Venus is, like his sun, in Scorpio. This is crucial. It means he is as passionate as he is sensitive and a gambler not by instinct or by social association but by his intransigent attachment to his ideals. Among Sinatra songs "All or Nothing At All" comes closest to expressing Keats's point of view. He is one who can be loved by many but who reserves his own love for one. Auden's poem "The More Loving One" depicts a conflict that Keats resolved each time he picked up his pen to write. He knew he was destined to be the more loving one in any partnership, and he would not have had it any other way.
Keats loved the four elements and presented their interaction with the cool exactness that Vermeer brought to the study of light. Not surprisingly, the two share a birthday: the 31st of October. Neither of them enjoyed trick or treating, though Keats did have an impish nature as a youth, and he loved his junkets.
The position of Mercury in the third house has caused the greatest amount of comment among professional astrologists. The consensus view is that Keats resembled certain musical geniuses in his extraordinary talent, his humble origins, and his early death. Though he was less dashing than the noble Byron and less angelic of aspect than Shelley, all the women polled said they would welcome a relationship with Keats, especially if she is in England while he is in Italy writing long gorgeous letters to her about Shakespeare plays, the nature of inspiration, the smell of mortality, and what Adam felt like waking up in Eden. Emily Dickinson, tipsy on lovemaking with Byron, said she nevertheless preferred to spend the night with Keats, despite his well-known proclivity for premature ejaculation. In his poems (ED wrote) Keats proved that greatness descends on the novice only after he has opened himself up to the risk of failure or embarrassment.
If Shelley is the poet of the autumn wind, the wind that destroys and preserves, animating the leaves and the waves and the clouds in a fury of activity, Keats is the poet of autumnal ripeness. Consider his great ode to the "season of mist and mellow fruitfulness." The final stanza of "To Autumn" is as sensual in its handling of language and rhyme as in its vision of the fullness of the harvest-time:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them,
thou hast thy music too,— While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day, And touch the
stubble-plains with rosy hue; Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn Among the river
sallows, borne aloft Or sinking as the
light wind lives or dies; And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; Hedge-crickets sing;
and now with treble soft The redbreast
whistles from a garden-croft; And gathering
swallows twitter in the skies.
The closing music shows that Keats took his own advice to Shelley ("load every rift with ore") to heart. A comparison of the two poets -- the one prospective, anticipatory, the other all righteous fire and visionary fury but also retrospective and melancholy -- is a fascinating study in comparative astrology. It has been said that the single most revealing piece of information you may have about a potential dating partner is whether he identifies himself more with Keats or with Shelley.
The muse visited Keats often in the spring of 1819. First came "The Eve of St. Agnes," the lovers rushing away into the night; then "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," the lover seduced and abandoned. And then came the odes, the greatest odes that English has to offer: to Psyche, to a Nightingale, on a Grecian Urn, on Melancholy, to Indolence. No poet ever packed as much magnificence in a line or wrote stanzas of such melodious charm that a simple, naive statement of Platonic optimism, which in lesser hands would be anticlimactic or worse, should seem to penetrate the heart of the mystery: "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty."
As promised, today is my birthday. I'm 30 years old, pretty much twice
as old as I was 15 years ago. Birthdays are very strange: it's as if
one can really mark the passage of time, can stop and take a look. As
I write this, I'm already making my way to 31.
So, in a
celebratory spirit, I thought today I would share a series of random
facts I have in my head which aren't particularly useful, a kind of
momentary constellation of me...
1) I once heard, maybe in a movie, Bob Neuwirth referred to as Bob Dylan's "amanuensis." 2) The Diaper Genie requires special bags. The Diaper Champ requires no special bags. That's why The Champ always wins. 3) I was a collector from a young age, storing my GI Joe figures posed in a cabinet, not ever playing with them. 4) I do not play piano, though I wish I did 5) As a kid, I once asked me dog if she was excited that it was my birthday. 6) I have smoked many thousands of cigars. 7) Roy Haynes subs for Elvin Jones, who was apparently in rehab, on one of Coltrane's "Live at Newport" albums. 8)
Harlem--125th St.; Fordham...Mount Vernon West...Bronxville; Tuckahoe;
Crestwood; Scarsdale; Heartsdale; White Plains; North White Plains. 9) When I used to be able to write a poem in one sitting, I used to write a poem every year on my birthday. 10) I'm not sure if my Friendster account is still active. 11)
States I've visited: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island,
Florida, Texas, Arizona, Washington, Hawaii, Oregon, Illinois; New
Jersey, Pennsylvania, Missouri, California, New York, Georgia,
Colorado. 12) At least two magicians have pulled a coin out of my ear. 13) Morning People. Why? 14) There is no rule number 6. 15) I didn't drink soda till well into my teens. Now look at me.
Ed note: Here's the letter MattBurriesci, Acting Executive Director of The Association of Wrtiers & Writing Programs sent to Poets and Writers objecting to the recent MFA rankings. If you agree with Matt, why not send a letter highlighting the same points (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Editorial Director Poets & Writers
90 Broad St, Suite 2100
New York, NY 10004
cc: Elliot Figman, Executive Director
October 26, 2009
Dear Ms. Gannon:
I have the greatest respect for Poets & Writers,
which is why I was so disappointed to see Seth Abramson’s opinion
survey of MFA programs in your November/December issue. The tutelage
of an artist is a complex and serious business, and it cannot be
reduced to a single spreadsheet column sorted in descending order.
Abramson himself seems to concede this point before proceeding. But
even if one could squeeze this universe into one question, from a
statistical standpoint, Abramson’s methodology would still be flawed.
cover headline referring to the article proclaims, “The Top 50 MFA
Programs,” which itself is incorrect. Abramson’s piece is not a ranking or comparison of all MFA programs, but of residential programs, and only those residential programs in the United States. Missing in this analysis altogether are the dozens of low-residency and international programs.
sample audience Abramson used in his survey consists of 500
self-identified applicants to MFA programs. Applicants to MFA programs
are only one of the key stakeholders in the success of MFA programs.
Other stakeholders include faculty, administrators, current students,
the professional association that represents them (AWP), and alumni.
Abramson is correct to point out the problems with previous ranking
efforts, but he falls victim to the same sins of omission and reduction
committed in those attempts. This particular sampled audience, while
interesting, does have its own set of biases in assessing MFA
programs. Some may prefer to be admitted to a high-profile program,
while others may be unaware of their full range of options.
also an unrepresentative sample. There are more than 13,000 applicants
to MFA programs each year. If we ask less than 4% of them to tell us
their opinions about MFA programs, we will arrive at what Abramson
produces: the opinion of this 4% of applicants of 75%
of MFA programs. If you drill down, more questions are raised about
the data. No demographic information appears to have been collected.
We don’t know, for example, if there’s an appropriate geographical,
gender, ethnic, and age variety in the sample. These factors do make a
significant difference in the preference of applicants.
I taught a little class last night to a group of undergrads about
freelance writing and book reviewing. Which makes me think about the
AWP panel I'm leading for the NBCC at next year's conference called
"The Practice and Purpose of Poetry Reviewing." What I always say to
creative writing students when I talk about book reviewing is that
they're entering a landscape vastly different from the one I entered,
and I only entered a few years ago. Obviously, the Internet has
rapidly and irrevocably changed the way books--and anything--are talked
about. We now live in an age where some large segment of
"professional" book criticism takes place in a medium somewhere between
the customer comment and the fancy print book review. Literally,
everyone's a critic, if they want to be and can type.
But then the AWP panel will be specifically about poetry reviewing--why
and how it's done. I'm often asking poetry publicists what a review
means to them--does it help sell books in a meaningful way? Then I
wonder what other reviewers think. To what extent are poetry reviews
there to keep the art form in line? What's the point of a negative
I'm curious whether readers of this blog read many reviews, especially
of poetry, and whether they write them, either on blogs or for print or
online lit mags or newspapers or wherever. Why do you do it--reading
I'm groggy today--it's just too early, no matter what time it is. So
no album today. I'm too grumpy to listen to music. ugh. Tomorrow is
my birthday. Talk to you then.
I went to Kandinsky at the Guggenheim in the rain today the choice was immediate Gelb Rot oder Blau I chose Gelb an aggressive triangle a peaceful square a cosmic circle and thou
On August 1, 1914 hostilities broke out time for one last painting before clearing out of Munich and heading back to Moscow That's my Kandinsky riding blue on a blue horse on a blue mountain the shapes shift but the motion is constant and the people are split between destruction (red) and sunrise (yellow)
If the mountain is blue it's a triangle on graph paper the signature on music paper a wrecked composition The archer is there shooting the arrows of symbolic logic the sky a white trapezoid with ribbons rods billiard balls rubber balls eyeballs keyboard checkerboard planets snakes and canoes they do mean something but you can't tell
what where each of thirty squares has its sign Im schwarzen Viereck so he leaves Germany a second time in 1933a dominant curve in the soft Paris lighthe signs his name with a slightly tilted K in a right angle in the lower left corner and the moon is in F sharp minor can you hear it? and that's what yellow means and why it's my favorite color.