L to R: Kenneth Koch, David Lehman, John Ashbery. Photo by Stacey Harwood
On May 6, 2001, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery and David Lehman appeared at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Mass to celebrate The Stamp of Impulse: Abstract Expressionist Prints, the first exhibit to show the influence of Abstract Expressionism on printmaking. The exhibit was spectacular, with works on display by 100 pioneering Abstract Expressionist printmakers including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Nell Blaine, Louise Nevelson, Richard Diebenkorn, Claire Falkenstein, Helen Frankenthaler, Cy Twombly, and Joan Mitchell. Ashbery, Koch, and Lehman read their work and reminisced about a time in America
when artists, writers and musicians were experimenting with creative
It was something of a surprise to the literary world when
William McPherson published his first novel, Testing the Current, in 1984. Not that Bill was exactly an unknown—a
former book editor at Morrow in NYC, founding editor of The Washington Post’s Book World section (and later a Post columnist), and winner of the
Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism in 1977, Bill seemed to know
everyone on the East Coast who had ever written a noteworthy paragraph. At Book World, he opened the doors to
coverage of contemporary poetry and even recruited people like me, Michael Lally,
and Doug Lang as frequent reviewers. His
creative and generous spirit really set him apart from other members of the
literary establishment. Though he’d
published some poems in The New Yorker
and elsewhere, Testing the Current was
to be a turning point in his life. He would, eventually, permanently leave the
reviewing stand for the stage itself. (above: William
McPherson, 1987. Photo (c) Nancy Crampton)
Maybe if the book had bombed, Bill would have remained primarily
a journalist, but Testing the Current
was met with the kind of reception writers fantasize about. In my copy of the original, I stuck three of
the reviews that greeted the novel’s
appearance. Russell Banks, in the NY
Times, opens his piece with this: “William McPherson’s first novel is an
extraordinarily intelligent, powerful and, I believe, permanent contribution to
the literature of family, childhood and memory.” People
proclaims that Testing the Current is “a beautiful first novel that provides a
sharp, glowing portrait of a Midwestern town on the eve of World War II.
McPherson’s loving attention to detail and the ... funny, moving point of view
keep the writing constantly fresh and involving.” USA Today says the novel “...is brilliant. In places it is absolutely
breathtaking.” Testing the Current tells the story of a boy of around eight years
old named Tommy MacAllister. Bill followed up on Tommy’s story three years
later with To the Sargasso Sea, also
Ever the adventurer, Bill headed to Europe in 1989 to
witness firsthand the fall of the Communist empire, winding up on and off for
most of the next six years in Rumania, where he became something of a national celebrity.
While that intriguing and amazing sharp turn resulted in some first-rate reporting
for several journals, it left his readers still awaiting the third novel in the
MacAllister saga. What’s more, the first two novels had long been out of print. (right: Michael Dirda & William McPherson, Politics & Prose Bookstore, DC, 26 Jan 2012)
But, now, thanks to New York Review Books and D.T. Max (who
wrote the Afterword), Testing the Current,
originally published by Simon & Schuster, is back in print. And last night at Politics & Prose
Bookstore in D.C., a multitude of Bill’s friends and fans turned out for a
Q&A between Bill and the eminent writer and critic Michael Dirda, all to
mark this significant comeback of an American classic.
Bill McPherson signs a book for DC artist Susan Campbell, Politics & Prose, 26 Jan 2012.
Amy Glynn Greacen's poems and prose appear in The New Criterion,
Orion, Southwest Review, New England Review and elsewhere. She was a
fall 2012 writer in residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington,
CT. Her poems have been included in The Best American Poetry 2010 and The Best American Poetry 2012.
In other news . . .
Where did I read that poem? Search the complete Best American Poetry archive here.
Our friend Bill Cohen writes to tell us he's compiling the
installment of his popular “The Tattooed Poets Project.” Every year since 2009 during National Poetry Month (April), Bill features poets who share their tattoos and the stories behind
them. As a bonus, he includes a generous sampling of the poet’s work complete with links and such.
You can be part of this year's line-up and by doing so you'll join the ranks of Joy
Harjo, Kim Addonizio, Brendan Constantine, Eileen Myles, and Noelle Kocot. If you sport ink,
please contact Bill at Tattoosday@gmail.com.
Find the index of 120+ poets who have
participated The Tattooed Poets Project here.
Thanks Bill for sharing this great project with us.
Dee and I are about to wrap up Paradise. It’s been a long journey, through Hell, Purgatory, and
now, The Ultimate: in these last few cantos we are about to meet God. That in
itself will make this 18-month endeavor worthwhile, but, boy, am I walking away
from this project with a lot more than a little imaginary face-time with the
Creator of All Things, a lot more than I expected, and Dee is too.
I’d been wanting to reread the poems for a while, ever since
a friend who taught a kind of spiritual-inquiry course based on The Divine Comedy gave me a copy of the
text he used for the course. It sounded intriguing. Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine
Comedy, written by Helen Luke, a Jungian psychologist, follows Dante’s travels
and encounters as an archetypical journey that humans on the path toward
“individuation” – Jung’s term for self-actualization or wholeness – take. It
seemed so intriguing, in fact, that I grouped the book along with the various
translations of The Comedy that I’d
read in college and sat them on a special shelf, just waiting for the project
to begin. That was in 1996. The books sat on that shelf for about 15 years.
At last, in the summer of 2011, the time was right. I was
beginning to suspect after these 15 years that I wasn’t going to undertake the
project on my own, and so I took a leap and asked Dee. She is intelligent,
well-read, open to new ideas. Would she be game? No timeline, no agenda, just
read and discuss, just the two of us, flying blind through the afterlife with
no one but the unknown Helen Luke to guide us. Yes, she’d be game.
After leafing through multiple translations, we settled on
Dorothy Sayers’s. What a treat! She cleaves to the original terza rima, and her poetry is a delight.
Most importantly, as it turned out for our reading, she has a clear sense of
the “divine” in TheDivine Comedy. One gets the sense from
comparing her translation and notes to others such as John Ciardi, Mark Musa,
or John Sinclair, that she, like Helen Luke, was interested in the application
of Dante’s journey to living souls, and that one could read the poems as guides
to living well in this life as opposed to reading them merely as a narrative of
who Dante saw, where, and why in the afterlife. Dante, after all, will return
to his life on earth with a clear directive to tell the story of what he experienced
on his journey. The poems are meant to be more than a strong and illustrative
warning to those whose fate hangs in the balance. It’s clear the poems are meant
as a guide for good living and right thinking in the here and now.
It’s especially easy to miss that point if you stop with the
Inferno, which, unfortunately, not
only a lot of readers but so many translators do. Hell is action packed and
grizzly with scenes of mayhem and violence. It makes for great reading, and one
gets the real sense that everyone there deserves what he got. Purgatory seems
lightweight in comparison, with souls not so much eternally suffering for their
sins as being sorry for them. It’s a little namby-pamby, not the stuff of 21st
century thrills at all. Interestingly enough, though, the sins and sinners in
Purgatory are almost identical to those in Hell, with one important difference:
in Purgatory, the souls are on the road to Heaven; in Hell, they are damned for
all eternity. What differentiates the two groups of sinners is that the souls
in Purgatory are able to purge the weight and shackle of their sins because
they take responsibility for their previous wrong-thinking and wrong-action.
They see their part in the error of their ways and are willing to clean up
their side of the street. In Hell, the sinners take great glee in blaming
others for their downfall, and that blame will keep them stuck in their misery
for all time. In one of the loveliest tropes of the book, just before the final
cantos of Purgatory, Dante finds
himself wandering alone through a Sacred Wood. It is, in a very real way, the
same wood he was in when he began the poem, though that was dark and terrifying.
Dark is transformed to Sacred here because of the gleeful and willing shift of
the burden of responsibility, just as the souls in Purgatory are transformed in
comparison to those in Hell.
Part of the joy of reading through all three books of The Comedy is witnessing the pilgrim
Dante develop and transform as he moves along the circles of the afterlife. He
is able to walk alone in the Sacred Wood – no longer dark and terrifying –
because he has absorbed the lessons and information that have been shown to him
along the way. He’s not only seen the condemnation of others for their acts,
he’s come to understand these tendencies toward evil are also his own. After
all, the opening lines of the poem are a confession that somehow, somewhere,
he’d lost the right way in his life’s path. His guide Virgil tells him his path
up and out must go down through hell first because Dante has to see how bad
things can get before he can transform himself.
And transform he does. He eventually comes to admit his
pride; his short-sighted love of things, people, power; his placing of
intellect over matters of the spirit. He has changed and grown in his insight
and understanding of what is truly enduring and important as being human is
concerned. And though Dante’s personal ultimate sight is set on being closer to
a Christian God, the lessons are broad and roomy enough for all of us,
including me and Dee.
In Paradise, Dante sees the souls who’ve made it to their
final, joyful destination. These are the souls who’ve learned to love the whole
fabric of life. There is no jealousy, there is no regret, there is no sorrow.
There is only the happy understanding that they have lived their lives the best
they could, putting spiritual principles first as often as was possible. And as
Dante gets closer to meeting God, he encounters a wonderful paradox: as his
understanding of right living blossoms into understanding divine love, he comes
to realize that, no matter how close to God he becomes, he’ll never know it
all. In fact, part of getting closer to the Divine is accepting the ineffable.
The Divine is a mystery, and the more one accepts the mystery, the closer one
is to the Divine.
I don’t know that Dee and I can claim we’ve come closer to
the Divine, but, I admit unashamedly, it sure feels like it. As a non-Christian,
I hadn’t expected the poems to resonate with me on the level they did. Dee, who is
a practicing Catholic, says her faith and understanding of the journey to God
has been deepened. Certainly, our friendship has deepened, as we spent week
after week parsing the poetry together and following Helen Luke’s lead in
seeking the application for The Comedy’s
lessons in our own lives. By the way, the poem is called a comedybecause it has a happy ending. It’s
worth reading all ninety-nine cantos to come to it.
Dee and I are planning to expand our two-some to include a
few others for our next book. Anyone care to join us in Troy?
The word utterance
keeps coming to mind this week.
It’s not a word I’ve thought about before. If I saw it on
the side of the road, surely I would drive by.
It means a cry, an animal’s call, a power of speaking ... one
or more words preceded and followed by silence. It derives from the Middle
French outrer, “to go beyond.”
Why's this on my mind? Perhaps because I’m reading poems by prisoners, preparing for a community poetry reading at
St. Paul’s Chapel, and trying to crystallize my thoughts into daily blog posts.
All three remind me of the limits of language and the human desire to go beyond it. And that reminds me of speaking in
One quirk of my upbringing is that until I was 10,
my parents ministered a small church in Phoenix, Arizona, called Springs in the
Desert. Being a charismatic congregation founded by people who came of age
during the Pentecostal movement, it was home to the kind of worship you don’t see every Sunday.
The elementary school cafeteria that the church rented out would
fill with guttural sounds, an eruption of dancing, singing and praying, voices
layered over voices and tambourines. When someone faced
a hardship, worshippers lay hands on the shoulders of the people in front
of them, creating a human conduit of prayer. Some prayed in words,
others prayed in tongues.
Like Alice in a
mysterious wonderland, I was fascinated by the idea of a secret language of the soul. I imagined that one day I would open my mouth to say something
perfectly plain, and an otherworldly utterance would fly out.
It never happened. My family moved on. But that early image of adults sending
fervent, unintelligible words into the ether still mystifies me.
Glossolalia is the term for
speaking and writing in tongues, and it means “utterances approximating
words and speech.” Some studies have found that when people practice it, their language
centers go dark and emotional centers light up, suggesting it’s not about language
so much as emotional experience.
Augustine of Hippo looked askance on glossolalia
but recognized jubilation, or “sounds of exaltation without words.” As a writer, I
connect with his idea:
What is it to sing with jubilation? To be unable to understand, to
express in words, what is sung in the heart. For singers, either in the
harvest, or in the vineyard, or in any other busy work, after they have begun
in the words of their hymns to exult and rejoice, being as it were filled with
so great joy, that they cannot express it in words, then turn from actual
words, and proceed to sounds of jubilation. The jubilee is a sound signifying
that the heart laboureth with that which it cannot utter.
How often do you labor with what you cannot utter? I do all the time -- at this very moment, in fact! Utterance, then, is a yearning for pure expression, a desire to communicate something weightier than traditional language can bear. This could be the very definition of poetry.
Kei Miller’s poem “Speaking in Tongues”
helps me understand the idea of utterance, and it’s worth listening to him read it
here. The speaker recounts being
dragged to church by his grandmother, and standing in awe of the language he
I remember my grandmother unbecoming
the kind of woman who sets her table each Sunday,
who walks up from the river, water balanced easily
on her head. My grandmother became, instead,
all earthquake – tilt and twirl and spin,
her orchid-purple skirt blossoming.
She became grunt and rumble – sounds
you can only make when your shoes have fallen off
and you’re on the ground
crying raba and yashundai and
The poem pivots when the speaker,
older now, meets a friend who ridicules tongue-speakers. The opportunity for embarrassment hangs low. Instead, the speaker surprises me by drawing his
grandmother close and defending her practice, reframing it with his poetic
[...] Years later a friend tells me
tongues is nothing but gibberish – the deluded
pulling words out of dust. I want to ask him
what is language but a sound we christen?
I would invite him to a tent where women
are tearing their stocking, are on the ground
pulling up fresh words to offer as doves to Jehovah.
I would ask if he sees no meaning here
and if he never had the urge to grunt
an entirely new sound. The poem, always,
would like to do this, always wants to break
from its lines and let a strange language rise up.
Whether we are prisoners, parishioners or
poets, skeptics, believers or agnostics, we are united in our frustration with language.
And yet language is the best we have. So
we pick up these humble words, we smash them into sounds, and if we’re writers,
we glue them together again. We press our poems against the bars and hope something breaks through the clink.
When Bishop’s Crusoe eyes the knife,
when Eliot dares to eat a peach, when Ammons beholds the garbage heap, they crack through -- they “go beyond” language to achieve a state of
Sometimes we prevail. Sometimes we fail. Dear
reader, I love that we try!