(Ed note: This post originally appeared on March 11, 2008. Read Part I here. Mark Doty is guest editor of the Best American Poetry 2012. You can catch him at the BAP launch reading on September 20. Find out more about Mark Doty here.)
Thinking about what's difficult in poetry makes me want to talk about a book I've been reading with great pleasure, Susan Howe's SOULS OF THE LABADIE TRACT, which New Directions published in 2007.The contexts of these poems are complex ones, but Howe's book artfully establishes the grounds of her inquiry. She begins with two bits of prose, the first describing the Puritan preacher and writer Jonathan Edwards, and how he'd ride through the wild country of Western Massachusetts thinking through his essays and sermons, and scribbling on scraps of paper which he'd pin to his clothes, using their location as a mnemonic device. It's a beautiful figure of the poet, wearing words in the wilderness, clothing the body in fragments of text. Then Howe offers a riveting ars poetica, a description of her research time in the library at Yale, the crumbling books of American language, fragments of history. Such dislocated bits of speech float up even through her prose.
"Often walking alone in the stacks,' she writes, "surrounded by the raw material paper afterlife, my spirits were shaken by the great ingathering of titles and languages. This may suggest vampirism because while I like to think I write for the dead, I also take my life as a poet from their lips, their vocalisms, their breath."
The vocalisms and breath of the dead are indeed present in the short poems that follow, each a small rectangle of text in the center of the page composed of six to eight lines. There's a strange and exhilarating feeling of space between words and phrases, as if these fragments had sifted out of those library stacks, out of the gathered words and yellowed books our ancestors have become. Howe's especially interested in the Labadists, a group of 17th century utopians of whom almost nothing remains, seeking the faint echoes of their presence, and her tracing of a kind of ancestry leads her to the doorstep of none other than Wallace Stevens -- who also was interested in tracing his ancestry, and who seems one of the most potent of the souls that ghost Howe's own poetics. A group of poems that bear Stevens' address as a title have the odd sense of being whispered, half-overheard conversations with spirits of the past. And, as in Stevens' own poems, they try to worry out the nature of beauty. This poem might be spoken by Stevens in his study, or by Howe in her own study, or Howe looking into Wallace Stevens' window on Westerly Terrace in Hartford.
Face to the window I had
to know what ought to be
accomplished by precedecessors
in the same field of labor
because beauty is what is
What is said and what this
it -- it in itself insistent is
Those last three lines are such a ringing esthetic credo. Like all Howe's work, they ask for full engagement, inviting the reader work out the relations between these words and lines, relations which are not fully determined already but contain the possibilities for multiple meanings. But how rewarding this work is, and how startling that such a forceful and intelligent definition of beauty -- that old Romantic problem! -- is made here in 17 words, most of them tiny, and together they make an abstract and irresistible music: "it -- it in itself insistent is" is music for ear and mind.
And these poems, of course, would be impossible without the poet's allegiance to her method:her crabbed, curious, gnomic collecting, her cobbling of order in the detritus of time.
You don't read such a book straight through and be done with it; you don't expect each part to yield meaning right away, and some of it may never come clear. That's what it's like, listening to history: confusion and multiplcity, glimmers of clarity, waves of inscrutable speech. How's book part library, part forest, spaces in which an American woman is walking and thinking with words pinned to all of her clothes.
The Best American Poetry 2012 will be making its debut appearance this Saturday, September 1, at the AJC Decatur Book Festival, the largest independent book festival in the country.
First stop: the Keynote Address by US Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, August 31, 8 PM at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University.
On Saturday, September 1, from 11:15 am-12:00 pm the Best American Poetry 2012 Series Editor David Lehman, BAP 2011 Guest Editor Kevin Young, and BAP 2012 Guest Editor Mark Doty with celebrate the anthology and share their work along with poems from the current volume. Decatur Presbyterian Sanctuary Stage. A book signing will follow the presentation.
There's a lot going on in Decatur this weekend! Find out all about it here.
Thai Jones’More Powerful than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and
New York City’s Year of Anarchy (Walker & Company, April 2012) is literary proof that history
authenticates our age. Reading it, one is seized with a feeling of bewilderment
at the absence of this chapter from public schools’ core history curriculum.
This bewilderment is followed by a sense of annoyance, perhaps even outrage at
academia’s neglect of America’s radical past in the early twentieth century.
The book is about a New York City mass movement that
preceded that of Occupy Wall Street by nearly a century. But it is clear from
reading Dynamite that OWS is not a resurgence of the
aroused sleeping lion that is the American radical spirit; it is merely its
extension. Or in the words of latter day political prisoner Tom Manning, "Revolution is never begun anew, only
continued where others left off."
Readers will surmise from the book’s title
(taken from a quote by Walter Lippmann) that its content involves a radical
theme. It is centered on several coinciding factions of a progressive political
movement. The time is 1914. New York City serves as a microcosm of America as a
whole. The most prominent factions are the Industrial Workers of the World, better
known as the Wobblies, represented by William “Big Bill” Haywood and John Reed;
and the Anarchists, represented by Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman.
Intertwined, and not without competition, are the liberal, progressive, and
socialist factions. These elements converge on the streets of New York,
challenging the status quo of class inequality and the oppression of
labor. It is a panorama of
demonstrations, violence, and reform. Jones succeeds in painting a picture
where these forces of change can be viewed from afar as a citywide
conflagration, while at the same time highlighting the differences between
them. Jones’s sympathies clearly lie with the Anarchist movement. The most
radical actors figuring in the book decry the ineffectiveness of mainstream
liberals and socialists, and it is not difficult to envision Jones arguing the
same points on his own.
Jones is clever in his blending of mainstream
political history with the radical alternative. He gives us an overview of
domestic social conditions intersecting with international crises. As World War
I erupts, tensions mount with Mexico, then in the midst of revolution. Both
major political parties have embraced the language of progressive reform. (This
is one area where 1914 largely differs from 2012: numerous politicians today
have eschewed progressivism for austerity measures.) Both President Woodrow
Wilson and New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel have been elected on
progressive platforms. The events covered in Dynamite illustrate how radical organizing and street demonstration
challenged the grip of these mainstream liberal authorities and of the
reactionary forces of such capitalist titans as Andrew Carnegie and John D.
is not a romantic narrative of World War One-era New York City radicalism in
the mold of Allen Churchill’s The Improper
Bohemians or the epic 1981 Warren Beatty film Reds. Far from romantic, Dynamite
is a close examination of an environment that has become sadly familiar. The
title of the second chapter -- “The Jobless Man and the Manless Job” -- sums up
the feelings of hardship, hopelessness, and despair that are tangible in the
present day Great Recession. We
encounter starving families and a city unable to cope with the influx of the
homeless and unemployed crowding the streets and overflowing the shelters. In the
midst of this turmoil an unsung hero emerges; teenager Frank Tannenbaum, an
out-of-work dishwasher and devotee of the IWW cause. Young Tennenbaum’s story
is one of countless prisoners of politics and principle. He is arrested for
leading a throng of homeless citizens into a church for the purpose of claiming
shelter. Charged with incitement to riot, he is railroaded through a trial,
denounced for leading a “mob,” and sentenced to a year at the workhouse on
Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). Tennenbaum would later graduate from
Columbia University to become a distinguished labor historian. In what can only
be described as a clear example of historical whitewash, his 1969 New York Times obituary makes scant
reference to his radical early life.
(Ed note: This post first appeared here on March 10, 2008. Mark Doty is the guest editor of the Best American Poetry 2012. You can catch him at the BAP launch reading on September 20. Find out more about Mark Doty here.)
I've just gotten home from school (I'm a guest teacher at Cornell University in Ithaca this semester)which means I've walked a bike-path through the woods, still ice-coated from this weekend's storm. It's amazing. When the wind blows the trees crackle, with a sound that's a bit like hissing oil in a skillet and a bit like the sound that that the highest lick of seawater makes as the tide comes in and sinks into dry sand. I like this walk and it's a good time to sort through the conversation and events of the workshop I've just taught.
Today we were looking at poems by Terrance Hayes from WIND IN A BOX. My workshop's centered on the poetic sequence, so we're interested in poems composed in groups, or longer poems in sections. I think my students were slightly frazzled by the daylight savings timeshift today, and I was feeling sort of spun-around myself, because right before class I'd been reading an essay by Charles Harper Webb in the current issue of THE WRITERS CHRONICLE. Webb's essay concerns difficulty in poetry, which he thinks there's too much of; I paraphrase here, but he seems to feel that many poets write for an elite group of other poets who appreciate coded gestures and opaque language that may be incomprehensible to the general reader. The thing that startled me about the article was that Webb says that such poetry has turned away from "natural human taste."
Whoa. It's clear that it's in the nature of human beings to make things, but as to calling what we make "natural" or "artificial" -- well, that's a scary business. Webb feels that poems that are readily understood by the general reader (he cites Billy Collins and Sharon Olds as examples) are natural, and that more demanding work isn't; astonishingly, Webb identifies the general reader as someone who'd probably like A Prairie Home Companion.
I could talk about what I disagree with in this position for several weeks worth of blogging, but suffice to say that the presumption inherent in calling any kind of art "natural" is unnerving, because of course it implies that whatever the critic doesn't care for will go tumbling into the abyss of the other category. "Natural" has a long history of ugly usage. There are plenty of states remaining where I could be arrested, if the authorities so desired, for my private practice of "unnatural acts," and one doesn't have to look far back in time to find the ways in which what was presumed to be "natural" for women or for people of color was in fact simply an expression of the prejudices of the moment. "Natural," as they say, pushes my buttons.
I can only be grateful that poets refuse to take such a position seriously. The two greatest of American poets were, of course, practioners of disparate poetics practically incomprehensible in their own time; how long did it take Whitman and Dickinson to find their audience? Should they have attempted to speak to the "general reader"? (Whitman, of course, did so, as time went on, and not always with very happy results. His great poems are the demanding, uncompromising ones.)
What looks difficult to us is often merely different, and isn't it a pleasure to encounter what we don't know how to read yet? There ought to be room in the huge house of American poetry for all sorts of practice, from the plainspoken to the highly wrought, from the direct to the encoded, from the open to the secretive. And besides, if what we strive for is to be "natural" -- well, which to prefer, the artifice of the spider or of the bee, the termite or the paper wasp, all makers of intricate systems? I am not convinced that nature is all that plainspoken.
Okay, enough rant. I was thinking about my class, and about how my dear and earnest Cornell students, who dwell in a culture that places great value upon intellectual achievement, on working hard to find correct answers, seemed to struggle with finding their way in Terrance's poems. What I understood, after we talked about two pieces, was that they weren't quite hearing his tone; they hadn't found access to the voice that informs the work, the over-riding or indwelling current of feeling. For them, the poems were emotionally difficult - which presents another, more interesting dimension to Webb's argument. There are many sorts of difficulty, after all, and what "difficult" is depends on who's doing the reading.
Ed note: With poetry reading season upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to bring back this post, from 2008. If you're planning on giving a reading, you might want to heed Sharon's advice:
Ever since the launch of Mobile Libris in 2005, Sharon Preiss's traveling bookstore has sold thousands of books at hundreds of readings in and around New York City. Mobile Libris is our go-to bookseller when we hold readings in bars, churches, classrooms, libraries, and other locations that don't ordinarily sell books. Preiss (above) or one of her twenty or so employees arrives on time with an attractive book display and, most importantly, a good supply of the author's books for sale. With the fall reading season upon us, Sharon agreed to share her observations about readings: What makes them succeed? What can those who give readings do better? Post your questions for Sharon in the comment section and she’ll answer them. -- sdh
1. Can you identify the key ingredients that make for a successful reading? That is, what can a reader do that will give his or her audience pleasure and make it more likely that they will want to read (and buy) the author's book?
There are so many variables that can affect a reading, it's just about impossible to guarantee a great one. Even things like technical problems, weather, and the temperature of the room make an impression on the audience. The best thing authors can do, though, is concentrate on thing that matters most — their presentation. Rehearse, know your material, time your talk. The better prepared you are, the more likely it is that you will come across as authoritative and confident. If you're feeling good about what you're about to say, you'll speak clearer, slower, louder, with more ease — you'll be taking care of some of the little things that can turn an audience off. You may not be able to stop the snowplows grinding by the window battling the worst blizzard of the year, but you're going to make sure the people who braved the storm to show up will be glad they did.
Also, some of the best events I've been to are those where authors limit their amount of actual reading from the book but talk about the book instead — some background on the subject, what brought them to it, how they researched, what the writing process was. This background stuff really engages and intrigues the audience, piques their interest in the book and doesn't give too much of it away. But that probably applies more to fiction and non-fiction than poetry.
With poetry it's always the poems that matter most. A little bit of between-poem chat is good but I've seen audiences get restless and embarrassed for the poet when the talk becomes too revealing or personal. I recommend that if you're in doubt about what to say between poems, just read the poems.
It helps if the audience knows that books will be for sale.If there’s advance publicity, be sure to mention that books will be available for purchase and that the author will sign them.The event host should make such an announcement at the beginning of the event and at its close.And readers:your audience likes it when you sign their books so plan to stick around.
2. What are some of the most common mistakes you have seen authors make, things one might do to turn the audience off or make them lose interest in an otherwise great book?
Rule # 1-10: DON'T GO ON TOO LONG. Really, it's the worst thing you can do. Even if you're absolutely sure your audience wants to hear more, stop. Let 'em buy the book and get the rest of the story there. Seriously. I can't emphasize this enough. I know you think they're dying to hear more. They're not. They're just dying. Adhere to your time limits or be prepared to make lifelong enemies!
Also, think about the difference between being modest versus being self-denegrating. It's pretty awkward to hear readers say how terrible their work is or make excuses about its quality. Even if your doubts about your work are real, assume that people are there because they want to hear you read. Don't apologize for your writing.
3. You've sold books at poetry, fiction, and non-fiction readings. Which kind of audience is most likely to buy the books? Can you speculate why?
I'm not sure genre has much to do with sales, at least at readings. Really, it seems to have more to do with how special the event or the book feels. Take The Best American Poetry, for example. We've sold BAP for the last three years at the annual September launch reading held at the New School [Thursday, September 20, 2012, 7:00 PM. 66 W.12th Street -- ed] People are excited about the book. It's just been published and many people are seeing it for the first time. It's a special event just for that book. Everyone's focus is on showcasing it, presenting it in its best light. It's like a coming out party for the book. Sales are tremendous. Everyone wants a copy. You feel special walking away with one, and you're going to remember the night you bought it. I guess someone who's more of a business person than a book person would call that marketing, but that sounds really crass. I like to think of it more like giving every book its due moment in the spotlight, even if it's just at a small reading at the corner bar. It takes a lot to write a book, and each one is sort of like its own person, with looks and personality and charm. They deserve to be treated special.
4. What is the craziest/funniest/most outrageous/ thing that has happened at a reading?
Our bookseller, Ben, came back from an event at the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison and 34th and told us a crazy story about what had just happened there. Normally, the library events are pretty small and uneventful. We generally don't expect to sell a lot of books there and it's just a simple in-and-out for the bookseller. On this particular day we were selling Galileo's Gout by Gerald Weissmann, a doctor and researcher at NYU. Nothing special, really. It's a book, like a few others recent ones I can think of, that examines the relationship of science to politics and calls to question some current US government policies.
Well, I'm not sure exactly why, but the room was packed. Middle of the week, middle of the day, but standing room only and turning people away at the door. The librarians had to push people out of the room and actually lock the door to keep all these unruly professors and doctors from storming in. There was shouting. There was cursing. There was gnashing of teeth and raising of blood pressure. They all wanted to hear Dr. Weissmann, but there was no way they were all going to fit in the room. We sold out of books within short order, and Ben made it out of there without any major injuries. It was quite a scene. That PhD crowd! Totally out of control.
The best New Yorker sentences of the summer appeared in John McPhee's piece "Editors & Publisher" (July 2, 2012).
<< Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative -- that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New Yorker -- Vogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors' habit of replacing an author's title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourist's head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong. >>
I chose this passage for the wonderful outlandish simile that nails it down and because I agree with McPhee in principle. He is certainly right about editors' sense of entitlement, to use the apt word. When I wrote for Newsweek, I rarely got to title any of my pieces, though I must admit that my senior editor very often improved on whatever I had proposed. The late Ken Auchincloss was especially gifted at headlines. And these are important. I have called headlines and captions the haiku of journalism, and I remember being pleased (though some associates grumbled) when Ken ordered writers to write the captions under photos illustrating their articles. (I forget what embarrassment provoked this change.) Among my favorite headlines: the sublime "Rose is a Red" (which was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when Pete Rose returned to Cincinnati in the 1980s). The Newsweek caption I enjoyed writing most was "Laurels for Mr. Warren's Profession" when Robert Penn Warren was named the nation's first official poet laureate in 1986 (if memory serves).
That takes care of the good. As for the bad, well, sometimes the bad is so bad it's good ("Though a strapping five-nine today -- closer to five-nine and a half, really -- in the prepubescent days of my love affair with sports I was a shrimp"), or it's bad on purpose ("A little history is always useful"), or it's just bad when stripped out of its context when that context consists of banal word-clusters (e.g., "in a world characterized mainly by mobility, change, and uncertainty"). The quotes come from Louis Menand's pre-Olympics navel-gazer, "Glory Days," in the issue of August 6. The last is followed immediately by this: << No matter what happens to us next year, there will be a Super Bowl. >> The statement, while not nearly as funny in context as out of it, should have an admonitory effect on writers who value their sentences as much as their paragraphs. Perhaps the magazine might use "there will always be a Super Bowl" as a tag for odd witticisms on the order of "there will always be an England." Was it the same author who, in an earlier piece, characterized his father as a snob on the grounds that he favored good grammar and correct usage? -- DL