Available for pre-order:
April 11, 7:00 PM: Tishman Auditorium, Alvin Johnson/J. M. Kaplan Hall, 66 West 12th Street, New York, NY. With Robert Pinsky, David Lehman, Mark Doty, Edward Hirsch, Richard Howard, Marie Howe, Major Jackson, Lawrence Joseph, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sarah Manguso, J.D. McClatchy, Paul Muldoon, Meghan O'Rourke, Tom Sleigh, Susan Wheeler, and C. K. Williams. Details here.
from Donna Seaman's review in Booklist:
Each year a new volume in the Best American Poetry series, founded by poet Lehman, appears, each edited by a distinguished American poet, the likes of A. R. Ammons and Amy Gerstler. To celebrate the series' twenty-fifth anniversary, Lehman asked former poet laureate Pinsky to select 100 "best of the best." The result is a concentrated,
high-caliber, and exhilarating overview of the intensity and artistry
that have made American poetry so splendidly varied and vital since
1988. . . . Pinsky, an inspired poetry advocate, explains that his criteria were "ear, imagination, and urgency". . .Given the depth of Lehman's and Pinsky's opening essays and the concise poet biographies and the poet's original statements about the writing of the poems, this is an anthology of broad scope, serious pleasure, and invaluable illumination.
For this final post, perhaps because I just saw Dustin Hoffman’s debut film as a director, Quartet, which achingly portrays the trials of senescence; for this last commentary, I want to pay a brief and inadequate tribute to Ruth Stone, my predecessor as Vermont Poet Laureate.
Ms. Stone was remarkable in every way: until the last of her 96 years, and despite being all but completely blind, the woman still generated some of America’s most compelling poetry.
Compared to her, I’m a mere youngster, just past 70. And yet, like anyone blessed to live past middle life, I feel a profounder sense of loss with every year: dear friends and family die; faculties and physical resources fade; I anticipate more funerals than weddings. I scarcely expect to know a life-span like Ruth’s, but if I did, such losses as I have known up to now would surely have lodged themselves among the multitude that followed.
It is entirely understandable, then, that at her great age Ruth Stone should have been a chronicler of sorrow; but in fact she suffered gut-wrenching loss even before she reached 50. Her husband committed suicide in 1959, and to one extent or another, we sense the man’s presence (or rather his absence) in all his companion’s work. She once described her production as “love poems, all written to a dead man.” Consider the following:
When you come back to me
it will be crow time
and flycatcher time,
with rising spirals of gnats
between the apple trees.
Every weed will be quadrupled,
The crows, their black flapping
bodies, their long calling
toward the mountain;
relatives, like mine,
hooting and tearing.
And you will take me in
to your fractal meaningless
babble; the quick of my mouth,
the madness of my tongue.
By my reading, the speaker here finds herself looking forward from winter to the warmer seasons so brilliantly evoked by her meticulous attention to natural detail. That will be a fecund time, a time when poems returns to her; and yet “when you come back to me” seems poignantly to suggest the return as well of an absent lover. The tragic subtext here is that the human “you” will not come back after all, that the speaker must settle for what she calls “fractal meaningless/babble.”
Lyric poetry, however, more than any other mode of discourse, can contain opposite impulses without lapsing into mere self-contradiction. While this is, yes, another Stone poem about grief and loss, and about the resulting erasure of meaning, it’s also about “the quick of my mouth,” the life-force that this valiant woman enacted by means of her own eloquent speech. The “madness of my tongue” was the madness of desolation –but also of exhilaration. The reader can all but hear the sound of spring freshets in her diction.
For me, “Poems” captures in very short span what it is to be human. Our lives do not consist of a simple good day/bad day dialectic; for as long as we draw breath, we will experience pain and fulfillment simultaneously.
Ms. Stone invited my admiration and gratitude: the very music of a phrase like “fractal meaningless/babble” makes me feel more alive, no matter the losses that I, like anyone else, have known, and that I, like anyone else, am bound to know further.
I’ve been writing newspaper column for five regional papers ever since January of 2012, when my stint as Vermont Poet Laureate began. A number of people have asked if I’ll ever present the thoughts I’ve offered there in book form. That seems unlikely. I doubt any publisher would sponsor a volume consisting of one- and two-page essays.
I am nonetheless honored by these expressions of interest –and a bit surprised: a late-comer to poetry as a mode of inquiry, which seems a reasonable way to describe it, I still find it remarkable that readers should be at all concerned with my opinions about it.
Still, I will self-advertise to the extent of saying that a book of literary criticism by my hand, A Hundred Himalayas: Essays on Life and Literature, was published last autumn by the University of Michigan Press. Its essays are more expansive than these have been, and they cover a span not of one and a half but of almost forty years.
In those four decades, I’ve been both teacher and poet, each function a blessing to me, and furthermore, I hope, honorable pursuits. In selecting essays for the book, however, I confess I had a qualm or two. That, I concluded, accounted for my having so long deferred their presentation between covers.
Why the qualms? I’ve already hinted at one reason: my depressive’s sense that no one would be much interested in my opinions and speculations. But that was less compelling a reason than another, namely the ambivalence I feel even about old-fashioned practical criticism (not to mention the supersonic literary-theoretical sort), whether my own or others’. Not that I don’t enjoy it –I do, a lot– but that I sense the critic’s grasp must always fall short. Or rather, it often becomes so inventive that it’s less a response to any given text than it is its own hybrid art form. The critic’s response, that is, turns primarily into something on his or her mind, which is likely altogether different from what the author had on his or her mind.
But what does any author have in mind?
A common question I’ve heard over the years, from aspirant commentator, person-in-the-street, and academic specialist alike, is “What is the poet trying to say?” It’s as if that author had some terrible throat disease. There’s a way in which a good poem is itself what it is trying to say, in which the poem is its own “meaning.”
And yet, when all is said and done, that meaning does in some respects remain obscure. When the obscurity is part of its design I grow impatient with it, but even if the poem seeks precision and lucidity, if it has anything going for it, it is surely at least other than one-dimensional. No translation of its “ideas” will account for its power.
Truth is, I believe that an ambitious poem will possess its own hidden allegory, an allegory hidden not only from the critic but also from the author. Oh, that author may tell you what gave rise to this or that piece of writing, and he or she may do so in entirely good faith. But I insist that his or her prose explication of the poem’s origins must always be far less than complete. In my own case, for example, I may claim that a recent and as yet unpublished poem was tripped off by my observing a particularly outsized oak leaf, and the claim is at once “true” and scandalously insufficient. The poem does somehow illuminate aspects of my own spirit that I didn’t know were there, but it is powerless to render them in full. Yes, I noticed that oak leaf. But what in me turned it into such a big deal (at least in my own heart)? I confess I don’t know. Why, say, should that leaf have arrested my attention more than further recent news of drought’s effects on a part of Kansas that I have come to love? Why more than my oldest grand child’s recent fifth birthday? I don’t know, and I don’t know.
Let me illustrate where I’m going by reference to another example from my work, which it took me a long time to comprehend even in part. In the early eighties, my younger brother died suddenly of an aneurysm. He was barely into his thirties, so needless to say, this catastrophe was just that, coming, so it seemed, out of nowhere. One unsurprising effect on me was a rather protracted abandonment of poetry. What, I wondered, was the point of “art” in face of something against which it would forever be ineffective?
Six months passed. I was out hiking with my dogs. One of them came upon some piece of rotten nastiness on the woods-floor and, doglike, began to roll in it. This put me in mind of a situation which by then was well behind me. Five years before, a certain local clan had gutted a deer right across from where my family lived, leaving the guts there to putrefy. I was and am a hunter, so it was not the kill that bothered me; it was that they would leave that mess for my dogs to gobble up and, to put it genteelly, to redeposit inside our house.
The clan in question was a hard-luck, hard-living kind. One of the sons would shortly die in a hideous car crash; another had beaten a neighbor to death during a drunken party, and had only lately been sprung from behind bars. In a word, these were not men to whom, if you had any sense, you whined. I let the whole matter pass, having scooped up the deer’s paunch and hauled it deep into the woods several miles away. In that moment, however, I imagined what might have happened if I had complained, imagined how an escalating controversy between their family and my own would have turned out.
When I got home, I sat at my desk, the itch to write having seemed to return. I then wrote a poem called “The Feud,” in which I played out that fantasy of violent vengeance. When I typed the last word, I sat back, my body literally shaking. The poem had ended up at fifteen typescript pages– which I wrote in an hour, and, uncharacteristically, revised almost not at all before publication. Once I found the almost laughably simple narrative scheme –they do something, I retaliate; I do something, they retaliate– the poem appeared to write itself.
Being a good Puritan, of course, I was certain that anything that came so quickly could not be any good. As the cliché has it, I hadn’t “earned” it. And yet various confidants pronounced “The Feud” one of the best things I’d accomplished.
Now here was the sort of hidden allegory I’ve referred to, though it took me about eight more years to see it, though I’m sure I still see it incompletely.
The relationship between the I of the poem and its hardscrabble antagonists was very much like my actual relationship to my late brother. We were the closest of five siblings in age, and were the closest otherwise too. And the most adversarial. I was something of a scholar and an athlete, which caused him to construe both those endowments as bogus and even odious. As I understood upon his tragic death, my smug sense of myself as his superior was much akin to the self-styled decent-honest-God-fearing narrator’s sense of himself vis-à-vis the unfortunate neighbors with whom he feuded. At the resolution of the poem, he has an epiphany: namely that all the virtues he has ascribed to himself are in fact paltry as measured against the grand moral stakes of his community, never mind of the universe.
The poem came so quickly, I now believe, because without even knowing it, I had for six months, so to speak, been doing research for it; indeed, I had been doing that research all through the course of the life I’d shared with my poor brother.
How would a pile of guts have led to such an insight? I still don’t know. And even as I present this plausible account of what my own hidden allegory was, I am conscious that even after thirty years I have at best decoded a mere fraction of it. So don’t tax yourself if you feel that you often don’t “get” this or that poem. You have a lot of company, even among poetry’s practitioners.
Piccolo flute: ears’ toothpick.
Piccolo’s passages: scraping of the nervous system.
Flute: skeleton of an exotic bird.
Flute in the low register: unheard of.
Alto flute: melted flute.
Bass flute: imaginary friend that makes an occasional imaginary appearance.
Block flute: a child’s toy, requiring a highly specialized professional to perform.
Oboe: permanently out-of-tune instrument, so much so that the rest of the orchestra has to tune to it.
Oboe: harmonics’ condenser.
Oboist: a man who always tastes his instrument before playing it and smacks his lips in satisfaction.
English horn: is neither English nor a horn.
First clarinet: exhibitionist of circular breathing technique.
Clarinet (instrumentation advice): don't write p (piano, i.e., quietly) for clarinet or he will melt into his musicianship and vanish without a trace.
Bass clarinet: unfunny bassoon.
Bassoon: royal jester.
Contrabassoon: grandfather of the royal jester.
Contrabassoon’s staccato: old king's farts.
French horns: cellos of the brass section with violinists' ambitions. Please note: 1. Horns do not have horns, but curves. 2. French-horn players are, supposedly, good kissers, but not everything that has French in its name is either French or sexy (French fries, for example).
Piccolo trumpet: spilled silver.
Trombones: howling bones.
Trombones: throw a glissando at them and see what happens.
Bass trombone: Mr. Macho-Machissimo, married to Tuba.
Tuba: the golden halo of the orchestra.
Mute for the tuba: Wouldn't you wish to have one for your spouse?
Celesta: music box, always sounding ahead of the orchestra.
Orchestral pianist: percussionist who cannot count.
Percussion section: the brains of the orchestra.
Symbols crash: time to wake up!
Timpanist: arrogant percussionist.
Harp: amplifier of silence.
Harpist: a harpy in disguise.
Harp: skeleton of the piano.
Piano: a coffin for a harp.
Piano: 88 keys for the unlocked door.
Violin: prima donna of the orchestra.
Viola: Prince in exile.
Cello: soul of the orchestra.
Contrabass section: a mythological tortoise on which this world (i.e., orchestra) is built. Slow and clumsy, but it is the foundation and all depends on its solid dependability.
Contrabassist: a man who carries his coffin.
I was at a gathering not long ago –the venue isn’t important– when I heard a soldier recite a poem. He’d been struggling after getting home, and small wonder: twice deployed to Afghanistan, he’d also been twice wounded, one of those times pretty critically. He told us that the poem he gave us had kept him going through several horrific ordeals.
I think the poem was called “Hope.” It was awful.
For all its clichés and bromides, however, that poem had been a literal life-saver for the man, so by what right do I sneer at it?
Driving home after that get-together where I heard the GI, I got to thinking back some twenty years, when my wife and I were sitting one evening in a backcountry restaurant. Apart from us, there were only three patrons: a mother, her adult daughter, and her son-in-law. The daughter had composed a poem for her mom’s birthday, and we couldn’t help overhearing it. That poem too was awful.
But again, how do we claim the superiority of “high art”?
Such a matter provides much food for thought, no? I mean to avoid strong opinionation, to make clear that my judgments are that, period: my judgments, hence not ones with any special authority. So if I ask you to consider quality vs. awfulness here, I mean primarily to raise an issue, not to offer some pat and prescriptive solution to it myself; I’m far from convinced that one is available.
The soldier and the daughter poet moved their listeners, certainly, more than many of the recent (and to me inscrutable) I have seen in print.
What do we make of that?
He’d been lying there most of his life.
When the angel troubled the water, he couldn’t move
fast enough to be first. He had no wife
or brother to carry him: no one that love,
a sense of justice, or pity moved to the task.
So when the wonderworker came, he was resigned
again to seeing someone else cured. He didn’t ask,
even when the healer looked him in the eye
and inquired if he wished to be healed–
not a strange question, considering his vocation
of living in hope denied: he was a professional
at it, with status and a certain reputation.
Take up your bed.... He obeyed before he thought,
luckily, of all he’d have to learn to live without.
This poem is based on a passage from the gospel of John, in which Jesus heals a lame man who has never been able to reach the healing pool by the sheep gate, precisely because he is crippled. It offers an interesting perspective: it suggests, yes, the power of Christ as seen by a committed Christian; but it also makes a reader ponder the fact that human beings can get attached to their own misfortunes, that a depressed state of mind can, for some, become a luxury– which the man healed here will have to do without.
The poem seems excellent to me. It was written by my friend of over forty years, Robert Siegel. Cancer claimed Bob’s life a few months back, and I will miss him, as poetry will. Bob had faced his disease with valor and with faith.
Thinking on his passing led me also to think, scarcely for the first time, about poetic reputation, about which I have never much been concerned. But renown was even less crucial to Bob Siegel, in part because of the faith I just mentioned. Worldly fame had to be relatively inconsequential to him.
Bob had a distinguished career: I knew him first at Dartmouth, from which, as poets, we were both axed, creative work not passing for real publication back in those days. (It’s a very different matter there now, thanks in no small part to the efforts of my friend, the wonderful poet Cleopatra Mathis.) He went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, where he established its MFA program. He published nine books of poems, gathered numerous awards and fellowships, and enjoyed real esteem as a teacher.
But Bob was under-recognized as a poet (though the phrase, of course, sounds redundant: after all, an immensely successful book of poems will sell fewer copies than, say, a mediocre pro baseball team will sell tickets to a given game). I suspect that his relatively small reputation had to do with his lifelong, deeply committed Christianity.
The consensual view of Ivy League liberals (among which –full disclosure– I must be numbered): the consensual view of such folk, whose influence on too much of our public dialogue strikes me as disproportionate, dismisses the religious perspective, often rancorously, sometimes insultingly. My own Christianity is far more heterodox than Bob’s ever was, yet I have frequently had to bite my lip among northeastern “progressives” while they lampoon my beliefs.
It turns out that for the self-styled enlightened ones, religionists are the only remaining group in western culture toward whom it seems not merely okay but also commendable to practice intolerance. Men and women who wouldn’t dream of slurring an ethnic community or those with an alternate sexual identity– indeed, people who, like me, would lambaste anyone who did so as a bigot– feel free to see all people of faith as one and the same... and as fair game for mockery or debasement.
In short, it appears that we needn’t reject blanket judgment on any given group of people; rather, we must be sure that we make that judgment on the right group of people. If we honor that principle, you see, we are not narrow-minded. We can say whatever we want about these undesirables.
We must despise orthodoxies...unless they are our own.
But don’t our own orthodoxies, as much as anyone else’s, close us off, say, from a poem as deft and challenging as “Pool by the Sheep Gate”?
Traveling around my little home state as its poet laureate, I’ve especially enjoyed that audience members outside academia tend to ask truly basic questions, which after all represent concerns that everyone feels on contemplating a poem for the first time: who’s talking? why? where? Too much current poetry can’t answer those questions on the page, and even as a lifelong lover of poetry, I turn away from them, conscious of my biological clock’s ticking.
But in fact the most frequent questions I hear involve form and meter. There are those who wonder if something can be called poetry if it does not have a regular meter, regular stanzaic shape, and often as not, a rhyme scheme. A quick reference, say, to Paradise Lost or the Hebrew Bible’s Psalms usually makes the point that needs making in this regard.
Now for the most part I happen to be something of a formalist myself (though I suspect and even hope this is unobvious when I read, because I pause in my recitation when the grammar does, not when a line does). I even use a goodly amount of rhyme and half-rhyme. And yet I employ these tools merely because they enable me, not because they represent capital-P Poetry. Indeed, I steadfastly refuse to grind any ax in the free verse/formal verse debate, since it seems to make advocates on either side suddenly go brain-dead. Of course poetry can exist in an unrhymed and unmetered format: consider our great Walt Whitman. Of course poetry can be formally constrained without being “academic”: never mind my own small example; consider Robert Frost, a die-hard formalist...who managed to capture the sound of actual speech far more effectively than a free-verser like Ezra Pound ever did.
passionate free-verse partisans may still believe that their mode is
anti-establishment, which would of course be the truth– if today were 1920;
since about then, free verse has reigned supreme in virtually every academic
MFA program and among most noted poets. It is
the establishment practice. But then that other sect of blind debaters,
formal fundamentalists, will allege that free verse shows sloppy thinking,
shoddy technique – as if that applied, say, to Robert Lowell or, more contemporarily,
to Louise Gluck. Taking an equal and opposite stab, the free-verse crusaders
will impute coldness, sexual frigidity, political reaction, and – again –
“academicism” to formalist delivery -- as if any of these charges were relevant
to the giants of the twelve-bar Delta blues, a mode that is surely America’s
greatest formal contribution to world culture, and, I would argue, one that
pervades our poetry even when practitioners are unaware of that effect. And how
does such a judgment fit, say, Marilyn Hacker?
And so back and forth the ranters will go for hours, wading through idiocy all the while.
As I hear the free vs. formal debate rehearsed, I am too depressingly reminded of political dialogue in our day. I am never shocked by the slogans on either side of the liberal/conservative divide. It’s as though there were no real need for any of us to look at a given issue from more angles than just one: we liberals are sure we already know what the conservatives are going to promote; but we fail to see how perfectly predictable our own thinking is. And the conservatives have us pegged as well, without needing to hear us out.
When I was appointed Vermont’s state poet, I claimed in my address that a little humility never hurt anyone. The humble but crucial questions I encounter at the state’s libraries assure me that there remain at least a few open minds in the nation.
--Wandrers Nachtlied (1780)
Over the hills
Comes the quiet.
Across the treetops
No breeze blows.
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
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.