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.
Lehman Is Shutting Loan Unit
“Lehman Is Shutting Loan Unit”
I was leafing through the Times, heading
for the sports page because I’ve become
a bit of a Yankee fan though I live in
Cincinnati, and even in Cincinnati I’m
aware of the chaos in the housing industry,
but all the exigencies and catastrophes had
eluded me until there, eye-poppingly, I read
“Lehman Is Shutting Loan Unit”!
Oh I’ve acted perfectly disgraceful when
it comes to amortization, and the date
due remains for me an approximation but
I’ve never actually defaulted on anything,
and I’m making progress, I’ve learned
debentures aren’t false teeth, oh I can’t
imagine closing an entire unit of loaning!
Lehman, we love you, keep forking over!
-- Jim Cummins
So your birthday is September 8
and we celebrated it on that day
or perhaps a day earlier
at La Closerie des Lillas where
the second bottle of wine cost
20 francs but tasted better than
the first bottle at 100 francs,
all figures approximate, and I will
not name the avid participants
but simply cite the occasion
as precedent for celebration
of you et les toits de Paris
whether on your birthday or
today or September 5, the date
of this poem from 1999:
Latrell Sprewell is the Marlon Brando
of the Knicks and the definition
of schadenfreude is my hollow laugh
when I tell you how Frank Kermode
lost two-thirds of his library
to the men he thought were movers
who were actually garbagemen
and the one-third of his library
spared was literary theory
which he used to be tolerant of
in a laissez-faire spirit but
has grown to detest now that
it no longer matters what
he thinks and you say Columbia
paid him not to teach the way
the government pays farmers not
to farm their land and now I know
how I want to spend this lazy day
the Sunday of Labor Day weekend
with a pot of coffee in my pajamas
all morning and you on the phone
from The Evening Sun (2002)
As Stacey Harwood reminded me--when I said that food editors always go on about loving Fisher but then don't seem to want to print good prose--"Yeah, but they've never actually read her. Everybody always uses the same quote."
Fair point. So when she asked me to guest blog this week, it seemed only right that I should pay tribute to Fisher beyond the one usual quote (for the record, it's the one where she answers the question "Why do I write about food?" She says, "It seems to me that our three basic needs for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it...There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.")
Fisher was a sensualist. She wrote frankly about desire and about her several love affairs. Others know her mainly for How to Cook a Wolf, a collection on how to stave off hunger during the war days of strict rationing. But as the oft-quoted line itself punctuates, she's talking about something "more than our bodies." Folded into Fisher's essays are meditations on every kind of love, not just erotic, and every kind of hunger, not just libidinal.
To wit: in The Gastronomical Me, Fisher describes (in one of several chapters called "The Measure of My Powers") a meal shared, at age 19, with her uncle Evans and his son Bernard, both of whom she desperately wanted to impress. Her uncle has spent five days gently guiding her gustatory coming-of-age. Then, in Chicago, asked what she'd like to eat, she says, "Oh, anything...anything, thank you."
Instantly, she realizes her mistake: "I looked at my uncle, and saw through all my gaucherie, my really painful wish to be sophisticated and polished before him and his brilliant son, that he was looking back at me with a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes."
Her "phony nonchalance" has disappointed him. She sobers herself and studies the menu with real effort. And then:
'Just a minute, please,' I said, very calmly. I stayed quite cool, like a surgeon when he begins an operation, or maybe a chess player opening a tournament. Finally I said to Uncle Evans, without batting an eye, 'I'd like iced consomme, please, and then sweetbreads sous cloche and a watercress salad...and I'll order the rest later.'
I remember that he sat back in his chair a little, and I knew that he was proud of me and very fond of me. I was too.
And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, 'Oh, anything,' about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone, with death in the house or in my heart.'
So, when Fisher says she writes about more than the body, she's saying the stakes never drop, not even for a second, not even during a sad meal taken alone. There is always someone's effort to consider--the cook, the waiter, the farmer--not to mention one's self-regard. She's writing about becoming an adult, with all the responsibility and delight that entails. The happy conclusion of the dinner is that both she and Uncle Evans learn that she has been worth his time and attention. That is a purely adult satisfaction.
And what a broad, generous vision of love and hunger, to say that they pervade all, so that nothing may be taken for granted.
One feels that one is supposed to look out of windows, not into them. At my 9th-floor office at my family's small HR consulting firm, where I now work, my desk faces the window. When I look out, which I do a healthy bit of (it's a better quick break than Facebook, I think), I see only stacked rows of other windows, fourteen columns wide, framed in white panels, squares and rectangles . The windows belong to the Westin Hotel across the street. Besides a thin sliver of blue sky on either side, hotel windows and white panels are all I can see. My window is tinted; the ones facing me are not. Reader, I look into them.
As you can see from the picture, most of the windows are fully shaded, but the odd five or six are not. You can see the ghost of my telephone and some wires on my desk. Normally, the space between the curtains is, from my view, an impenetrable black rectangle, but at least once a day, a figure fills part of the space, though rarely for very long. Once, there were a gaggle of children who seemed to climb up the curtains until a girl who I took to be the eldest sister came forward to manage them. She stood, looking out, as the siblings calmed themselves.
Once there was a couple gathering their things, but most people appear alone. There have been some who close the curtains, usually identifiable as service staff; others gaze out. At least four times, the gazers have been buck naked.
I have so much affection for them. What are they doing at 11am or 2pm naked in a hotel room on a Thursday, staring out the window at what I know to be a limited view? Maybe nothing spectacular, but still they have taken a moment to be unclothed, unready to rejoin the workaday world just yet. So they look out the window.
It isn't much. The view out is impoverished. They won't see a whole hell of a lot. Though a bird could fly past. Something could drop from the sky. Or they could feel some emotion, or have an idea. Or a memory. I'm proud of them. They are open to something that, if they stared only at their phones, and got dressed right away so they could bustle around and leave the room, they might not otherwise find.
Think about that. Honor it.
Possibly the New York School's biggest secret --because the publicity-shy poet died young -- is Joseph Ceravolo. His poetry is wonderful, it is distinctive, in some ways it seems anomalous in the New York context; it has captured the enthusiasm of poets as various as, say, Charles North, Jordan Davis, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Ron Silliman, Terence Winch, David Shapiro.and the late Paul Violi.
Today, on his always stimulating blog. Tom Clark posts an irresistible Ceravolo poem from Spring in the World of Poor Mutts, the 1968 volume that won the first Frank O'Hara Award. The judges were FOH's close allies, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. (Subsequent winners of the award were Michael Brownstein, Tony Towle, Kenward Elmslie, and John Koethe, a formidable quartet.) A "civil engineer and regular family guy" (in Clark's words), Ceravolo was born in Queens in 1934, went to City College, began writng poetry when serving in the US Army, and took a class with Kenneth Koch that proved decisive in his development as a poet. Many of us got our first exposure toi Ceravolo's poems in the Paris Review when Tom Clark edited its poetry pages. Before dying of cancer in 1988, Ceravolo wrote and published several other books with small presses, but what many readers, including ardent fans of Ceravolo's work, don't realize is that the man produced hundreds of pages of poetry in the last twelve years of his life. The poems -- some of which have dates in lieu of titles -- stand on their own and also figure as part of one long project: a chronicle of the poet's sensibility. Gathered together with his previous books, these "new" poems will wow the literary public when they are released, and that will be soon: Wesleyan University Press will be publishing Ceravolo's Collected Poems, edited by Rosemary Ceravolo (the poet's widow) and Parker Smathers. The announced publication date is December 2012. You'll find more details in this space as we approach the date. -- DL
self-described "slowest scat singer in the world"
The movie wisely does not to go into a long explanation of how this miraculous event came to be, leaving this to the viewer’s imagination. The Greens don’t ask questions, they accept this gift from God or Mother Nature without hesitation and agree to raise the child as their own, all the while keeping his legs covered in long socks so as not to reveal his telltale leaves. Two things are made clear: he is a composite of all the traits the parents had wished for in a son and he seems to be of a species of botanical origin. This is apparent by his consistent show of basking in the glare of the sun throughout the movie. The kid — the Timothy of the title — of course, is perfect. So well-behaved it is almost too good to be true. The kind every parent longs to have. He goes to school, is oblivious to the jokes and pranks that bullies make at his expense, tries out for the soccer team, proves to draw expertly with a pencil, and even shows talent with a drumbeat.
Watching Timothy Green evokes the memories of similarly themed films as 1985’s superb D.A.R.Y.L. and 2001’s moodier A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Like the preteen-aged boys of those movies, Timothy is not quite human, and it shows in his quirky, offbeat behavior. Unlike the earlier films, Timothy Green fails to explore the full depths of this behavior, preferring to focus more on the parents and their observations of and reactions to this miracle child of theirs. This is a mistake on the movie’s part, as Jim and Cindy, despite the complexities of their characters and their obvious insecurities with being thrust full-time into parenthood (Jim is determined to become an improvement over his own less-than-supportive father Jim Sr., played by David Morse) do not sustain as much interest as the fantastical Timothy.
Consider the early scene where Timothy is bullied in school for his noticeable differences — he is brand new to this world and needs to be told how things work and what they mean. This theme was visited in D.A.R.Y.L when the boy-robot of the title is winked at by a girl and responds by blinking with both eyes, not knowing the meaning of the gesture. Only in Timothy Green, Timothy’s relationships with other kids are not adequately explored. His friendship with an alienated girl Joni (Odeya Rush) is presented without much dialogue at all. Joni figures out early on Timothy’s secret physical characteristics, i.e. his leaves and origins. But the interplay between the two does not go much further. Joni’s presence does not lead Timothy’s character development in any new directions. This is in direct contrast to the much more dynamic relationship between Daryl and his young friend “Turtle” in D.A.R.Y.L., where Turtle teaches Daryl that, because parents don’t want their children to be too perfect, he needs to display a mischievous side once in a while. Timothy Green does not offer Timothy such opportunities for exploration.
Recently, I've been thinking a lot about mistakes and errors. In everyday usage, these can be interchangeable, but for our purposes, they do refer to two distinct ways to get something wrong. Let's let Aristotle explain:
Within the art of poetry itself there are two kinds of faults—those which touch its essence, and those which are accidental. If a poet has chosen to imitate something, [but has imitated it incorrectly] through want of capacity, the error is inherent in the poetry. But if the failure is due to a wrong choice—if he has represented a horse as throwing out both his off legs at once, or introduced technical inaccuracies in medicine, for example, or in any other art—the error is not essential to the poetry.
So: capacity versus choice. An error touches the essence, a mistake does not. "I didn't see that coming" (capacity of vision) versus "I should have seen that coming" (choice of where to cast your gaze). When I taught in Bangladesh, this distinction was particularly salient as I tried to figure out whether my students' misuses of English stemmed from not knowing the rule (an error) or from forgetting or ignoring the rule (a mistake).
This became even more complicated with my poetry students. What is an error in English might not touch, as Aristotle puts it, the essence of the poem. In yesterday's post, I printed two poems by one of my students. The idioms are not always standard. She writes, "I want to leave here but I had lost myself in deep of darkness."
Would a native English speaker use this idiom instead of "in the depths of darkness?" Or, in the first poem, the line "steal my accompany" instead of "companion," when referring to the shadow stolen by the sun? Probably not, and so much the worse. There is something essentially right about using "accompany" as a noun for "that which accompanies me," given that "accompaniment" sounds too cold and still and "companion" too warm and human. The poem is cool; the shadow is between thing and being.
A poem and a mistake. My students knew exile. Not only were they away from their homes, among sudden peers of many different faiths, nationalities, backgrounds, but some of them had spent part of their childhood as refugees. We read lots of poems about exile and foreignness. For them, language was already estranged from habit and custom. It would be an error to think there is no room for a mistake in a poem.
Last year, I taught poetry to first-year college students from five countries in Asia. It was hard and wonderful. One of the hard things was to convince my students to revise. Many of them felt that the original power and sentiment would be lost in the dryness and technicality of revision. On the other hand, one of the wonderful things was their interest and appreciation in one another's work. I put the latter in service of the former by asking them to "translate" a peer's poem into their own poetic language.
Through this task, they saw that revision was a creative, generative exercise, not just a program of correction and deletion. It also helped them to see, more clearly, what they did as poets, in a way that comparing their work to published poets hadn't. Before, when asked to describe their writing style, they rarely went beyond whether they liked to write short or long poems, with short or long lines. But once i asked them to engage seriously and actively with a peer's work, to the point that they had to create a writing prompt for their peer (an idea from Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook), over half of them said to me something like, "I love her poetry but it is nothing like mine."
One student took my assignment a step further by asking her "peer poetry partner," as they called it, to translate one of her own poems into a new poem. The poet, Nargis Hajran, a striking young woman from Afghanistan, seemed to channel William Blake in turning what was already a powerful, sonically startling manifesto of sorts into a sort of nihilistic, sardonic vision, without changing many words or altering the pace and rhythm. If you have a moment, I entreat you to read these poems aloud to yourself. Spoken, they will nest in you like a song.
Here is the original:
I want to think about everything
About a small obsolete home in a jungle
About a river, that now is a pathway
About a rancher who had lost his mutton
In a mountain, under this wide sky, this blue color
And I, I want to think about the pain of losing
A rancher lost his mutton and I,
I lost my shadow under this blue wide color
When the sun skirt had cover all the earth
I lost my shadow in glare of her eyes
Now my hand are burning
How did I let her to steal my accompany
The street is going , seasons are going
I remain here with a handful of memories
I will cover the sun with my scarf
To show her the pain of losing
I without my shadow is like
The sun without light.
And here is Nargis's translation of her own poem:
Sometimes I want to think about nothing
Who cares if a rancher had lost his mutton?
Who cares if the river is still bubbling or not?
Sometimes even, I do not want to think about myself
I want to forgot who am I, I want to leave my shadow
I want to cover my face with my scarf
I want to hide from the entire world
I do not like my shell; I want to tear it to hundred pieces
To make free my soul out of all these limitations
I want to leave here but I had lost myself in deep of darkness
Wait please do not run anymore for me
Time is over see you never
It is the real pain of losing
Swimming in nowhere
The sun is without light like I without hope.
Well the top news is the warm sun has a chilled breeze these mornings and the sprites and delights are back at school. Everyone’s summers were something, busy or quiet, no one’s summer was exactly like anyone else’s. Presumably as long as you noticed some of yours it was as much of hot days as was needful. Here's us fishing in Prospect Park.
We talked about Bishop’s “One Art” in class last week, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” how she smiles and smiles and lies. The art of losing is doable, but it doesn’t even know the word master. Everyone is an ever apprentice to it.
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,
The garden was let get overgrown this summer. About a year and a half ago we got a puppy and she ripped up the grass with her running and digging. It got so bad there was no grass left and groundcover came in that looked pretty and we left it at that.
Go know groundcover will turn into bushes if allowed - take over the whole place. Too hot out and too distracted with kids and books to get out there and keep things in check so now it’s a bit of a job. Maybe that’s a lie about the kids and books, there was just time with weeding out of mind.
People let things get overgrown, I know, it’s not just us. Nature takes your papers and gets lush. Silverware drawer thins, sink goes much with ceramic and steel, gets lush. I tell myself to hush.
I’ve been writing my book and just handed it in for review. It’s smaller than it is large and has a thing to say that, I’d say, got said. Writing it is what kept me --I think-- from writing to you, though as we all know who’ve tried it, feeling up to writing live is not always what it’s been, it goes lush and thin. But it is true that with a book to write that’s what I wrote.
The book really wants to make a few claims about one point. The title is Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. The thing is that suicide gets lumped in with other progressive issues, rights to make all sorts of personal choices, but I think this one is special and needs to be looked at on its own. I’ve found some historical precedent for saying it is wrong, and for some good reasons.
Bishop’s poem starts out thin and gets lush losing first only little things like keys and later losing whole continents and worse, the imagined loss of the beloved.
Now we’ve got two huge piles of weeds pulled up or clippered off. Branches of good things gone too far as well. But at least there’s a little air where the air should be.
What we need is a little air. Bishop’s poem, like most great art, thickens up and then pulls its own weeds.
I lost two cities, lovely
ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
- Even losing you (the joking
voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Write it! Like disaster. After a whole poem of writing it out of disaster. Well, I won’t speak to real heartache loss this afternoon – given the date it would be too much to do-- but will hew to the side of the loss of a season, the welcome loss of overgrown brush, the sweet yet pangful finish of a project. Each lets in a little air, the sudden room for something else. Even just a breath.
I hope you’ve been well. Don’t kill yourself and I shall return to encourage you again.
Posted by Jennifer Michael Hecht on September 11, 2012 at 02:38 PM in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Lion and the Honeycomb | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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.