Today, the 5th of June, is the birthday of three of my favorite writers, as well as the beginning of a Transit of Venus – that most rare of astronomical events. As I understand it, a Venus Transit involves a complicated conveyance of planets wherein Venus passes directly between sun and earth. Thus, trapped and illuminated, the Morning Star will take its time (today and tomorrow) moving through this celestial passage, and will appear to us here on earth as a distinct black dot moving across the massive, orange-red face of the sun. We won’t see it again until 2117. It’s marvelous to look at. Just please take precautions if you do... http://www.transitofvenus.org/june2012/eye-safety
You can embellish your experience of this rare phenomenon by reading Transit of Venus, a book of poems by Harry Crosby, the Jazz Age/Lost Generation/ American expatriate poet and publisher who founded Black Sun Press in Paris in 1927. It used to be de rigueur for English majors studying 1920s American and continental literature to learn about Black Sun and the amazing list of writers (Proust, Lawrence, Joyce, Crane, Pound, Wilde, Poe!) whose early works it produced in small, hand-set, exquisitely bound editions. (Not sure it still is…) Crosby’s Transit of Venus appeared in 1928 with a preface by T.S. Eliot.
Segue from the astronomical: I consider the presence in my life of the three writers whose work I will share with you today as rare a gift in my life as a Transit of Venus...
Mark Jarman, born June 5, 1952, is my colleague in the creative writing program at Vanderbilt University. Jarman is widely considered to be one of (I would say THE) most eminent practical critic of poetry who is writing today. He stands collegially alongside John Crowe Ransom, and Randall Jarrell, two poets who also wrote highly regarded criticism in addition to their fine poetry, and who preceded him here at Vanderbilt where he has taught since 1983. Jarman was born in Kentucky, spent an important part of his childhood in Scotland, and most of the rest of his early life in southern California – all settings which figure in his poetry. In 1974, he earned his B.A. from the University of California at Santa Cruz where he was a student of George Hitchcock, the legendary editor and publisher of Kayak magazine, and avidly pursued his love of surfing (about which he later wrote the greatest surfing poem ever written: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15642). He received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1976, and published, North Sea, the first of 14+ books of poetry and prose, only two years later. In the late 1970s, Jarman and his friend and fellow poet, Robert McDowell, founded what quickly established itself as a controversial literary magazine. The Reaper flourished in the early days of the 1980s culture wars. It was fresh, cheeky, and didn’t suffer poetry fools gladly. Above all else, however, it was SMART. It cut right through much of the noodle-headed murk and lax practices arising from the final days of 1960s stones and bones literary surrealism, pushing its way assertively into the emerging theory-ridden ideas that the LANGUAGE movement in poetry was beginning to espouse. In its call for a reassessment of narrative in poetry, and its respect for traditional forms, The Reaper managed to outrage – but also entertain – almost everyone. If you have not ever read The Reaper Essays (1996), I urge you to take a look…
Although he is sometimes characterized as one of the instigators and foremost practitioners of what’s been called The New Formalism in American poetry, Jarman’s work, in fact, has explored far beyond the small, fenced-in terrain that term suggests. A reading of his poetry reveals a panoply of styles and forms, ranging from free verse, to entire volumes of sonnets, to a book length narrative poem, to a collection of prose poems, in addition to what I would describe as his most characteristic piece: a free verse poem with an obviously formal impulse at its center that carries the weight of tradition and influence with all due respect and affection, but with enough confidence in its contemporary imagination, and its way-over-the-top linguistic abilities, to veer from the pattern when the poem demands it. Rhythm and form were early preoccupations of Jarman’s – from the ocean waves of southern California where he spent his youth, to the forms of worship that pervaded his daily life as the son and grandson of Christian ministers, to the memorization exercises his father taught him. He practiced them in his parents’ back yard, pacing out the lines of Bible verses and poems in order to commit them to memory. Although poets are noted for their prodigious facility for memorization, Mark knows more lines by heart than any poet I have ever met – a kind of walking Google, permanently at work in poetry search mode…
I would not be true to my own understanding and love of MJ’s poetry if I did not mention the ways in which religious faith and spiritual life are crucial components of his grave and thoughtful vision of life. His poems suggest that earthly, everyday life is most worth living when it finds itself in dialogue with the metaphors that the mundane forms of daily life present to a charged, and brilliantly ruminative consciousness like Jarman’s. His poems document the inner of life of a man in constant conversation not only with himself, but with something other than his Self, something other than ourselves, something possibly eternal and infinite, something probably not describable. This constantly present, but mostly invisible Other that is sometimes called God, could also be called Soul. It constitutes itself as a kind of meterological atmosphere that pervades Jarman’s poetry, as constant and foundational as a musical baseline, as aspirational and otherworldly as the untouchable galaxies that decorate the firmament and create for us marvelous astronomical phenomena like the Transit of Venus. Read here http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/241978 “Five Psalms,” a poem by Mark Jarman, one of our finest and most important contemporary poets.
Federico Garcia Lorca was born on June 5, 1898 outside Granada, Spain. He is considered by many to be the greatest Spanish-language poet of the 20th century, and is widely associated with the Spanish Civil War. Although born into privileged circumstances, Lorca was a people’s poet. “I will always be on the side of those who have nothing and who are not even allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace,” he said. Utilizing forms of Spanish folklore (particularly the “deep songs” of Spanish peasants) Lorca pretty much single- handedly refashioned Spanish poetry. He was part of what came to be called the Generation of ’27, a group of writers and artists interested in the avant garde. Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel were close friends who introduced him to Surrealism. Not surprisingly, Lorca was marked by the Franco regime early on – not only because of his leftist leanings, but also, perhaps, because he was gay. He is believed to have been executed (shot to death) on August 19, 1936 on a roadside outside of Granada. His remains have never been found.
Few poets of my generation got through the early years without knowing Lorca’s work – not only the poems (including Poet in New York, a volume that came out of his 1929 visit to New York where he hung out in Harlem, and attended a few classes at Columbia), but his fabulous little essay, On the Duende. (I am eternally grateful to my teacher, Gregory Orr, for an add on course he taught in the graduate English program at University of Virginia in the spring of 1977 on modern European poetry – that’s where I met Lorca.) Many of us came to know him first through the efforts of Robert Bly who featured translations of his work in the Fifties, the Sixties, and later published Lorca & Jimenez: Selected Poems.
Happily, there are lots of editions of his work in print and available. My favorite is Christopher Maurer’s FGL: Collected Poems, originally published in 1991, then marvelously revised in 2002. Read Lorca: his poetry will break your heart, but it will enlarge it, too. Click here to get a taste: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15819
Geoff Macdonald was born on June 5, 1958 in Chicago. He grew up in Naples, Florida, and attended the University of Virginia on a tennis scholarship. After a brief career playing the ATP international men’s tennis satellite circuit (competing in the US Open in 1982), he attended the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Florida where he studied with Padgett Powell, Harry Crews, and Donald Justice. His first short story, “The Montana Story,” which he wrote at Florida, won a P.E.N. Syndicated Fiction Award, and was published in a variety of newspapers across the country. Macdonald – full disclosure: he is my husband – moved away from writing during the 1990s while building a career as a collegiate tennis coach (garnering both SEC and ACC Coach of the Year Honors) at LSU, Duke University, and, since 1994, Vanderbilt http://www.vucommodores.com/sports/w-tennis/mtt/macdonald_geoff00.html where he has built one of the premier collegiate tennis programs, combining academic excellence with world class athletic achievement for young women. (Thank you, Title IX.) Four years ago, Macdonald began writing about tennis for the New York Times where his love of literature and his prose skills, his mind for metaphor, and propensity for poetic imagery combined well with his intuitive grasp of the game and his analytical approach to tennis. Read here a piece on Philip Levine, poet and longtime tennis nut: http://straightsets.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/10/for-the-poet-laureate-the-joy-of-tennis-is-in-the-effort/ It appeared last September 10 in the Times, and is an account of a day spent with then-newly appointed U.S. Poet Laureate Levine and his wife Fran at the U.S. Open, watching Rafael Nadal play his poetic game of tennis.
(Happy birthday, baby –)