Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, generally falls around the end of the federal government's Oct. 1-Sept. 30 fiscal year, as Cato Institute fellow Chris Edwards reminds us. So Edwards, who is also the editor of www.DownsizingGovernment.org, mischievously proposes that to do penance for the sin of sipping—or in some cases, supping—at the government trough, we all try a fiscal fast.
"Let's see if we can go a day," he suggests, "in which we live without the federal government's welfare and services." More seriously, Edwards proposes that "Congress institute a day of atonement during which members go to the floor of the House and Senate and apologize to the American people for making no effort to the avert the fiscal train wreck that threatens the well-being of fuutre generations.
Blame it on heightened passions just before a presidential election. But my annual Yom Kippur poll of analysts on economic sins that should be atoned for has provoked an unusual degree of Old Testament-style anger at both the state of the economy and statements about the economy by the two main presidewntial candidates.
-- Gene Epstein, "Congress, Forecasters Have Much to Atone for" (Barron's, Septmber 24, 2012)
from home life is essential to
balm the tedium of everyday thistle,
an eye over the world’s scatter,
deliver a dance or two,
share the sofa with a luxurious feline
five times sleepier than you.
hosts aren’t castle owners
hot to accommodate the inevitable feasting
by a visit from the Earl of Cherry St
(“just in the neighborhood”) so he
back at your kitchen table.
Leisure was fine work in the 11th century.
traveled with a camp of followers
not just horn blowers and squawkers but bands
strolling players; dancing bear trainers; buffoons on
personal retainer; beggars snatching at crusts; and women holding
in dark lots until the wine
ran thin, the barns and larders
and the King’s
train on its way like the plague
on a new resting place.
Visits of modern day temper
in houseguests, can
exalt the keepers to the kept,
longing in the houses to swap
zip codes and rest.
Reading and writing are solitary pleasures, and yet both can offer a profound sense of connection. Writing these posts, I hear what I always do when I write, a version of my own voice, sometimes confident—as though I’m convinced by my own posture that someone wants to hear what I’m saying—sometimes trying too hard to sound confident, as though I’m fighting against the vulnerability of it all. After all these years of writing, I still haven’t learned how to write without aspiring to authority (pun intended, I guess), which is (he writes with apparent confidence) one of my biggest weaknesses.
I taught “Saint Judas” the other day, and the poem’s last line has been on my mind. “I held the man for nothing in my arms.” For nothing—for free, and for no reason, with no hope. Judas is redeemed—exchanged into meaning, into life—only when he doesn’t seek any compensation. We want our love to matter. We want to build monuments to our love*. But when we do so, even inspired by our love, we begin to misconstrue. Or, if not misconstrue, reveal. That we are human, that we want to be more than human, that in our moments of selflessness some self-interest lurks. Nothing grotesque, necessarily. Just a wish for this passion to be valuable, meaningful, true.
So it is when we love poems, and even more so when we love poetry, when we become, in some public way, people who read, write, love poems. We want to redeem our love. And so we do build monuments—National Poetry Month; “men die miserably every day.” And sometimes (I think) we misconstrue and reveal and we get territorial, and love looks less like love than a domain.
“Love should be put into action!” shouted Elizabeth Bishop’s hermit. And then the echo “tried and tried to confirm it,” the slightly funny feminine (can we come up with a better term for this?) rhyme mocking as gently as the echo itself. When I started writing poems, I was certain that what I was doing mattered. I could feel it. Now, as I grow less convinced that poetry matters in its own right and, maybe related, less convinced that my own writing has particular worth, I find I’m more drawn to usefulness—teaching, publishing, writing criticism. I think of the people who go into prisons and teach poems, who do indeed put their love into action, and powerfully so. And I think of the poets and critics who look for a political purpose in their art, sometimes plausibly, sometimes less so.
This is all a long way of saying something painfully obvious: when we write or read or teach poems, we’re still people. And if the poem serves as a cue for us to think and hear in a slightly different key, that’s only a translation. We still do the things people everywhere do—we delude ourselves, we get carried away, we answer to or resist the codes of behavior we’ve learned, we try to place ourselves in relationship to others.
I’m always amused by Larkin’s title: The Less Deceived. It’s a hilarious boast—superiority as humility, like Socrates bragging that he was the only person who knew how little he knew. But these are the kinds of calculations we make when we make or find meaning, conscious or unconscious balancings between grandeur and humility. We congratulate ourselves on having thrown off the fussy old costumes, unaware that we’re in a new costume now (I read somewhere that the wardrobe of the Hasidim began as a rejection of the outdated and overly formal religious clothing of the time.) It’s easy to get tired of it, and I do long to hold something “for nothing,” but of course that desire has already given it a purpose.
We live in the world, and sometimes we live so deeply inside it that we forget we’re there. I know plenty of people find that idea unappealing, want poetry to disenchant, and sometimes I want that, too. But it’s worth remembering that even there, we’re finding a kind of enchantment, a sense that we will, for instance, enact radical, societal change by writing poems most people won’t want to read. That’s no reason not to write them—many of them are wonderful (pun intended here, too, I guess)—but it is a good reason to be humble about it all.
I don’t mean to be bleak. The good news, too, is that we read and write as humans, even in our aspiration to be less fallibly human, even in the double calculation of trying to be the less deceived. It’s worth being a person, I think. There’s certainly plenty of company to be found there, and the odd mix of humility and aspiration it entails appeals to me. I no longer believe poems or poetry are essential. I haven’t believed that for a very long time. But I still sometimes experience them as though they are, and it’s nice to have people around who sometimes feel the same.
*Yesterday, after I had finished the first few paragraphs of this, a review copy of Susan Wheeler’s meme showed up in the mail. It contains the following lines from Propertius, translated by G.P. Goold: “As for the poems you composed in my honor,/burn them, I pray: cease to win praise through me.”
I’ve just finished a review of Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems for next month’s Slate Book Review. I wanted to cover the book for a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that some of Clifton’s poems have been immensely important to me. But I wanted to write about it, too, because I’m the only poetry critic for the Review, and I think it’s important that the poetry there represent some of the diversity that makes up American culture.
It’s a challenging assignment, which was also part of its appeal. In the book’s afterword, Kevin Young places Clifton’s poetry in the context of the Black Arts movement, writing of “a public poetry—one aware of its audience and even pitched at times toward a newfound audience that it was both meeting and making.” As someone who is, among other things, white, male, straight and the child of college graduates, I’m not used to waiting for a poem to reach out to me. Anxiety and insecurity may have defined much of my identity, but I’ve approached most texts in my life with an unexamined confidence that they were there for me—that I belonged in reading. But sitting down to a poem that takes its time to make others welcome, as Clifton’s occasionally do, I have to learn to listen in context, to overhear sometimes, be self-aware of myself as someone with a race and a gender and a non-universal (privileged) place in the society we share. And to still be present in the middle of that.
I teach an amazing group of 10th graders* right now, and I decided to try out a Clifton poem on them: “homage to my hips.” Some loved it. Some found it simplistic, at least at first. No one talked about race, which was interesting to me. The language of empowerment has become so generalized in our culture, I think, that even a phrase like “these hips have never been enslaved” can easily slide into mere metaphor. Too, the specifically “black” diction, which is such an essential component of Clifton’s power as a poet—her persuasive claim to authority—has been widely and variously co-opted, and at the same time we have learned to deal with race by pretending it isn’t there.
I suspect that I struggle with these things, too, with the challenge, at least in some poems, of hearing Clifton clearly across not only my difference but also our difference—the years that have passed since Clifton first sat down to her incredible life’s work. To their immense credit, though, my students were able to cross over with me, and with agility, to speak and think perceptively about the ways the poem matters in its very specific context—the black body, which was the thing a slaveholder owned; the black female body that is still judged by its “whiteness”; the freedom implied by a woman, especially an African American woman, choosing to exercise her ability to elicit male desire.
It is an odd thing for me to enter the community that Clifton was creating, and yet it’s an essential one, too (and amazing, but that’s in the review.) The other day, after spending some time on Adrienne Rich’s “21 Love Poems,” I asked my students what they thought about poems that apparently depend on the some component of the writer’s identity for their meaning. After all, I said, we’ve been told that poems are supposed to be universal. The answer delighted me: all poems come out of some person’s specific situation and identity. The same goes for our reading, even as we use it to enlarge the situation where we begin.
*I should mention that I teach amazing 7th and 8th grade students, too.
“Kind” and “kind”—adjective and noun. They go back to the same root, one they share with “kin.” Family, sex, rank: it’s all in there. An idea of belonging, or not. Enlarging the circle, or not. As I get older, I value kindness more and more. And yet I’ve never been able to get all that excited about my membership in the human family, or the family of all living things, or the family of poets, aspiring and otherwise. Whatever we are, we aren’t one, and spare me the poem that says otherwise. Kindness, for me, is a humbling—not ignoring distinctions, but imagining the ways I am obliged beyond likeness; living in the possible irrelevance of my own unique being, out on a margin of the itself-eccentric world.
For me, the power of words, including their unreliable, enchanting power to connect, rests in their ability to divide. Each word is a grouping, yes, but also a distinction. My mentor, Alan Shapiro, insists: all poetry comes down to pattern and variation. So do our words. There is something comforting in existence, odd as that may sound, and I grow selfish of my ability to be not-you sometimes. It feels protective—encircling. I am in me enclosed. It’s a place to start.
But being a poetry person—it makes me feel claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time. It’s like the joke from Annie Hall: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know. And such small portions.’” It’s such a big space—poetry—and there are so many people in here, too. It gets ugly on both ends—the too-easy identification of us all with each other in some kind of one-note harmony, and the too-fierce attempt to plant the tallest flag on this tiny plot.
If poetry is a moral enterprise, it’s never moral in its own right. Taste, by itself, has to do with pleasure, not positioning, and our attempts to imagine otherwise often seem to serve unethical ends—the need to denigrate, relegate, refuse. We police each other’s enjoyment with such outrage that there must be some ulterior afoot. The obvious answer: our own identities are encroached on. I’ve written about one example elsewhere*—have written unkindly myself, I realize now, though one of the unkindest comparisons still seems apt. The ways that we want to outlaw each other’s affections remind me of the ways people fear that someone else’s love will somehow impinge on their own.
Of course, the consequences are monumentally smaller here, but it’s still worth keeping in mind that pleasure is partly cultural, and if taste is not itself a moral position (no matter how often certain critics try to make it so), it does have a moral dimension, in as much as it represents other identities that have moral significance in our society: race, class, etc. And so the denial of a given taste—the refusal to allow for its validity—can itself be immoral, and our own attempts to enlarge our imagination of other people’s joy and meaning is a powerful, literary act, one I’m trying to get better at myself.
*David Lehman has since pointed out to me a major and embarassing (though he was very nice about it) mistake in this article: Dove's BAP came out in 2000; Bloom's BEST OF BEST came out in '96 and omitted Adrienne Rich's selections, not (obviously) Dove's.
Writing coach, editor, and entrepreneur Victoria Rowan writes to tell us that she has a few seats available for tomorrow evening's summit of four of New York City's most prominent literary experts.
With space for book reviews shrinking in the traditional press and with the enormous expansion of new multimedia platforms, blogs, and commerce site consumer reviews, there are now more headaches and more opportunity than ever before for authors and reviewer.
Victoria has enlisted these experts talk about how you can navigate this changing landscape:
These days, in this country, if you ask someone why poetry matters, she probably won’t reach for Shelley. Poets had a much better chance of being the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” back when some of the acknowledged legislators still read poems—and the emphasis on power and control doesn’t sit as well with the democratic ideals that shape so much of the thinking about American poetry. Now, you’re more likely to hear from William Carlos Williams:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Williams sets it up: “despised poems.” Despised but, apparently, essential. I love the poem, but for my own purposes I prefer to misread those lines. The implication for Williams and those who deploy him seems to be that men (and women) die miserably because they are missing something that’s found exclusively in poems. I don’t buy that. Instead, I think we die (and live) miserably for lack of something that can be found in poems—and in many other places, too. Movies, concerts, mountains, love. We need meaning, and pleasure, and poems are one way to find those things.
And yet: some of the meaning of poems, some of the meaning that comes from caring about poems, seems to depend on the feeling that they are essential. When poetry first courted me, it did so by offering conviction—a moral enterprise, quality counting for everything, every word, every sound. Even as I shied away from calling myself a poet, I found an identity in my care for poems. I found myself called to a halfway point—a medium—and imagined I’d arrived.
Sometimes it feels like we’re circling, warily, not wanting to say what it means to be one of us. We step away from the too-easy identity it can confer. Louise Glück: “I use the word ‘writer’ deliberately. ‘Poet’ must be used cautiously; it names an aspiration, not an occupation. In other words: not a noun for a passport.” I agree, and yet: sometimes it seems silly not to acknowledge where the hours go, what they’re lost to. If I fail, I fail at this. It seems worth noting—at times. And if the pleasure I derive from reading poems, teaching poems, talking about poems, publishing, writing about, editing, even trying to write them myself…. If part of the pleasure and meaning that comes from that comes from being able to say I do this, I am someone who does this—well, what else should we do?
I think of Frost: “Earth’s the right place for love:/I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” We’re here. Let’s make the most of it.
Why should not
old men be mad?
Some have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher's wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist;
A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce;
A Helen of social welfare dream,
Climb on a wagonette to scream.
Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort,
Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.
-- William Butler Yeats
The 150 mostly short poems constituting the psalter (the body of psalms) have engendered admiration, emulation, and enduring precedent for a long line of English and American poets. Like so many of those poets before and after him, W. H. Auden regarded the psalms as a special body of memorable poetry. Indeed, during the last years of his life, he was engaged, as a member of the drafting committee, in the retranslation of the psalms, as contained in The Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the famous book that serves as the liturgical guide for The Episcopal Church (USA), which had, at the time, authorized a complete overhaul of the entire book.
While the form for the psalms evolved through our language into different applications, their original construction influenced the direction of our verse. For example, though the ancient Hebrew ear apparently enjoyed more truncated lines and fewer cadences, the English-American ear, as a general matter, extrapolated verse structure into longer lines and more cadences. Notwithstanding many other adaptations, including major adjustments to subject matter and tone, the model of the psalms has persisted to effect a stylistic reference point among English and American writers of verse – in innumerable cases, no doubt, without the literary practitioner’s conscious knowledge of the association.
Modern scholarship has advised that the first psalms began to be written around 1,000 BCE, soon after David, the legendary warrior-leader-poet, forged Israel into a formidable theocracy,. Scholars generally agree that the composition of the psalms occurred continued through the period that followed the rebuilding of the second temple in Jerusalem and ended around 500 BCE. When the Hebrews returned from the Babylonian exile around 535 BCE, they renewed a commitment to the faith of their ancestors by taking a series of redemptive steps, including the codification of a worship book of psalms. So we poets today reach back through almost three millennia to establish a connection with some early architects and engineers of our craft.
Even though Auden viewed his participation in the overall revision of the BCP ambivalently, the project, including especially his more direct role in the retranslation of the psalms, nevertheless, occupied a good deal of his attention and seemed to be central to him during this period, as evidenced by the number and intensity of letters and other writings he wrote at the time.. For instance, Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor and principal biographer, closes his most recent book, Later Auden, by discussing W. H. Auden’s role in and reactions to the project.
Auden’s views on the revision of the psalms for the BCP were protective of the verse, illustrated in a letter to me while we served as the two poets, on the drafting committee: “All I can do is to try to persuade the scholars not to alter Coverdale unless there is a definite mistranslation.” To him, if there were to be a revision to the original 16th century Anglican translation by Miles Coverdale, then Auden’s mission was to make sure the surgery on his beloved psalms happened tenderly.
His attitude toward certain other elements of change to the BCP was not so well-mannered and disciplined. A rather humorous moment occurred during this time that dramatically describes his irritation – no, his vitriolic anger – over aspects of the prayer book’s revision. In a letter to me during the summer of 1971, W. H. Auden shared his outrage over other adjustments then being considered for possible inclusion in the BCP, which dates back to 1549. Auden wrote:
“My own parish (St. Mark’s in the Bowery) has gone so crazy that I have to go to the Russian Orthodox Church where, thank God, though I know what is going on, I don’t understand a single word. The odd thing about the liturgical reform movement is that it is not asked for by the laity – they dislike it. It is a fad of a few crazy priests. If they imagine that their high jinks will bring youth into the churches, they are very much mistaken.”
Taking into account Auden’s strong, opposing views about certain facets (away from the psalm retranslation) of the changes to the BCP, it is a curious irony that the thirtieth anniversary of the 1979 publication of the BCP revision came on the heels of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the passing of W. H. Auden, the revision’s most celebrated participant.
The psalms on which he and I worked have now become part of the official BCP and have been adopted for worship books and services by Lutherans in Canada and the United States and by the Anglican Church of Canada. Auden’s part in the retranslation was quite consequential – one can point to specific and outstanding contributions he made to a number of individual psalms.
English and American poets have often employed their talents in adapting the psalms by having them become metrical and rhythmic for the English language, by using them for launching related or derived insights, by imposing on them personal and stylistic characteristics and devices, or by retranslating them so the poems comport with up-to-date Hebrew scholarship. George Herbert’s translation of the 23rd psalm, John Donne’s poem upon the translation of the psalms by Philip and Mary Sidney, and the Sidneys’ own psalm adaptations stand as outstanding examples. Robert Burns, John Milton, Samuel Coleridge and Francis Bacon also occasionally found ways to draw on the psalms.
More recently, American poets who have reached back to those ancient poems for their own particular purposes include Daniel Berrigan, Robert Pinsky, Kathleen Norris, William Stafford, and Anthony Hecht.
The psalms have also helped allay literary feuds. For instance, in the 1950s, both T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis, titans in the world of letters who disagreed on a great variety of subjects, were asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to serve on the drafting committee for a retranslation of the psalms by the Church of England. Prior to joining the committee, the two had, more than once, traded cutting insults and excoriations. When Eliot first met Lewis, he is said to have derisively remarked: “Mr. Lewis, you’re much older than I thought you would be.” Lewis had previously referred to Eliot as a promoter of irresponsibility, and, at one point, apparently offered: “T. S. Eliot is the single man who sums up the thing I am fighting against.”
However, once they began to work on the psalms, the previously held antagonisms started to evaporate. For example, letter salutations from Lewis to Eliot are said to have changed from “Dear Sir” to “My Dear Eliot.” The ancient poems had broken through the borders of two well organized and well fortified states.
Why do the psalms fascinate poets of every age? It may be as simple as the words of one poet, who said a few years ago, meaning to be only half-facetious: “Poetry hasn’t improved much since the psalms.”
Professor Tolkien of The Hobbit once suggested that the worst thing that ever happened to poetry was the printing press; one can infer from the comment that poetry in the oral tradition, in which the psalms were fashioned, had to be immediate, attractive, intense, emotional and very personal. This view would also partially accord with the words of Auden, who wrote to me at one point: “I don’t believe there is such an animal as Twentieth Century Man.”
“I had yet to share in the communal sense-making procedures (the horizon of expectation, the interpretive community, what have you) that would make this text readable.”
-- Maureen McLane on Frank O’Hara, from My Poets
I’ve been stuck on community lately—community expectations, the promise of meaning, what it means and what it takes to write a poem. Poetry’s a funny business. We work with a relatively marginal art form that seems to insist on its centrality. And one that, while requiring the fewest possible resources for its creation, seems to require more than most from its audience to succeed.
A bit more on that last part: poems ask us to participate—to give voice, make our bodies into their instrument*. They come to us (for the most part) waving their white space, their apparent emptiness-but-for-us. They so often seem encoded, and sometimes are. And books of poems are perverse, in a way; their design asks us to move forward even as the individual poems insist that they aren’t done. Go. Stay.
It helps for me to have someone else who keeps me there—some imagined or eventual friend or stranger or student who will hear what I have to say about this, if I have anything to say. I like poems better when I’m going to teach them or write about them or share them with a friend. That’s not the case—not necessarily—if I read a novel or watch a movie or listen to a song.
The subject—community, poetry, identity—matters to me for a lot of reasons. I’m an introvert. I’m not a very good joiner. I do a lot of my poetry work in imaginary communities, online. I’m prone to a particular kind of despair—the feeling that things should matter, but don’t. And I have a hard time convincing myself that what I write, or might write, in a poem might matter, while at the same time having a hard time feeling my life matters if I don’t write (and somehow, prose doesn’t count.)
You’ve presumably come here because you care about poems—not all of them I assume, but maybe enough that you care about poetry, too. That’s where I’ll start tomorrow, with the broadest applicable community—poetry people—and my ambivalence about being one of them.
*I'm indebted to Robert Pinsky for this idea.
When David Lehman invited me to take on the project of guest editing the Best American Poetry 2012 – the twenty-fifth edition of the annual anthology that appears in September of each year, bringing forth jubilation and curses among poets throughout the land, I was intrigued. I spent some time, just now, choosing that word intrigued. Delighted – though I was, as well as honored and pleased – seems to lack complexity. What I want here is a word that combines pleasure with a degree of challenge, a nuanced acknowledgement that one doesn’t really take on such a task lightly, without thinking about just what you’re getting yourself into.
But on the other hand, the solitary nature of our art makes us long for company, and every poet wants to be heard. Even as private a poet as Dickinson wanted to be read, which is why the terms fame and publication occur again and again in her work; she was summoning her audience into being, even if it took some time for them to arrive.
Join Mark Doty and David Lehman and contributors to this year's volume at The Best American Poetry 2012 Launch Reading: Thursday, September 20, 7:00 pm at the New School (66 W 12th Street, NY, NY) Details here.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.