Rebecca Wolff is an award-winning poet and founding editor of Fence and Fence Books. She received an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is the author of three books of poems: Manderly (University of Illinois Press, 2001), Figment (Norton, 2004), and The King(Norton, 2009), as well as the novel The Beginners (Riverhead, 2011). Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Paris Review and A Public Space. Wolff lives in Athens, New York and teaches at the NY State Writers Institute in poetry and creative writing.
Eileen Myles was born in Boston and moved to New York in 1974 to be a poet. Snowflake/different streets (poems, 2012) is the latest of her 18 books. Inferno (a poet’s novel) came out in 2010. For The Importance of Being Iceland/travel essays in art she received a Warhol/Creative Capital grant. In 2010 the Poetry Society of America awarded Eileen the Shelley Prize. She is a Prof. Emeritus of Writing at UC San Diego. She’s a 2012 Guggenheim fellow. She lives in New York.
This has been a fun week, and it’s gone by too quickly. I want to leave you with one more book recommendation and some wise words from another poet I deeply admire. Stepping Stones, the collection of interviews with Seamus Heaney conducted by the late Dennis O’Driscoll, is like a portable literature seminar and MFA program all rolled into one. It reminds me, in fact, of a “mini-course” I took as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, taught by the great Leo McNamara; we met once a week with Leo Mac and he guided us page by page through a close reading of Heaney’s entire Selected Poems.
I read Stepping Stones always with a pencil in hand. Here are a few of the lines I underlined:
“I learned what inspiration feels like, but not how to summon it. Which is to say that I learned that waiting is part of the work.”
Poetry “creates a pause in the action, a freeze-frame moment of concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back upon ourselves.”
“…One of the gifts of poetry is to extend and bewilder, and another is to deepen and give purchase.”
“When you write, the main thing is to feel you are rising to your own occasion.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about the things we keep returning to as writers. Our obsessions, I heard an old novelist call them once, speaking to a group of students. You all have them, he said, you just may not know it yet.
I guess this started because a friend invited me to contribute to an anthology she’s putting together of poems about ______. (A quick Google search doesn’t turn up the title, so I’ll keep this cat in its bag.) And I’ve learned ______ is something she’s really very interested in, both personally and as a writer. Whereas I’d really never written or thought too much about ______. But I am also not one to say, “Oh, no thanks,” when someone asks me—not that they ask so often, but it happens—to write something for their anthology or journal or website. (See, here I am guest-blogging right now.)
So after glibly saying, “Yes, of course, I’d love to,” I spent the next couple months worrying and wondering, trying to find my way into this subject I’d never much thought about before. How would I do it? Where’s the door, or at least the window, I could slip through to get into this poem?
Whereas if someone asked me to write a poem about New York, or about food, a poem that works in a jazz reference or two, or plays on internal rhymes, well, I’d be on my way.
So what did I do? I wrote a poem that deals with ______, but by way of New York, food, jazz and internal rhymes.
* * *
The flip side of obsessions, in a way, is re-invention. Like Miles Davis going from Birth of the Cool to Kind of Blue to In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew and on and on and on. Or like my mother-in-law. “Try something new!” she says to my wife and me when we go to a Chinese restaurant. But then 90% of the time we end up wishing we’d ordered our usual kung bo gai dingor mapo tofu.
Recently I saw a terrific documentary, Under African Skies, about Paul Simon’s trip to South Africa to record the earliest tracks of what would eventually become Graceland, and about the political fallout and controversy that trip generated.
One very interesting moment in the film comes when he says that because his previous album, Hearts and Bones, had been a flop commercially, he didn’t feel any pressure or expectation about what he’d do next. The record company executives weren’t calling to check up on him, so he felt free to just explore what interested him and make the music he wanted to make – which turned out to be, well, arguably the best album of his career. (And of course there are in fact some terrific songs on the generally underrated Hearts and Bones, starting with the title track.)
* * *
I like bold departures and reinventions. But I also admire poets who do something again and again, playing all the variations on a theme or a form. Like Baron Wormser in his book Subject Matter, a collection of dozens of 14-line poems. Or Marianne Boruch’s latest, The Book of Hours, in which each poem is composed of four quatrains.
And it’s not just a formal thing. Think of Monica Youn’s Ignatz(a book at least partly about obsessions, by the way) or others that delve into a particular subject or place or theme with an intense focus.
But I also remember Seamus Heaney saying in an interview that when you realize what you’re doing, it’s time to stop and do something else. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader, in Frost’s version.
These things don’t all line up exactly, obsessions, repetitions and reinventions, variations. I’m still thinking through them. But I remember when I finished This Time Tomorrow, a book that includes more than a few longer poems, that involved (for me) quite a lot of research and fact-checking about specific places and people, some learning on the job about volcanoes and Chinese scholars’ gardens, I thought: time for something new. I really wanted to write short little poems that were only about themselves, that made up their own facts.
But what happened? Well, life happened, and I wound up writing a book-length poem set in more specific places (The Bronx, central Jersey, Miyajima, Shanghai) and that involved some medical learning (how we translate thoughts into speech). But now that that’s done as well, I’m writing—yes, finally—those little self-enclosed, un-factcheck-able poems.
Ultimately we write what pulls at us, the things we need to, or feel most satisfied by. Who knows just what they'll be. Maybe you'll hear a cassette someone made for you, labeled in Sharpie "Accordion Jive Hits No. 2," and decide you need to catch the next plane to Johannesburg to find that band and make music together.
As Charles Simic says in one of his wonderful essays, "It took me years to realize the poem is smarter than I am. Now I follow it wherever it wants me to go."
They asked me to write "poetry in real time," and I said I would do it if I could do it in prose. "Even better," they said.
So I sat and waited, waited and sat, and read the news, turning as always to the financial pages first.
Einstein said that "the most
powerful force in the universe is compound interest." Twice in one week I
have come across this quote -- in an annual report and in today's Wall
You’re looking as dismissive as you
did fifty years ago. "That's poetry? You call that poetry?"
I looked as lofty as Shelley,
repressing a cruel sneer. “I merely proposed it as the first line of a Pope
"And what will you follow it up with?"
"It may sound a bit sensationalistic, but the bearish death cross has
been an excellent predictor of the 10-year yield's significant slide
over the last six years," said Abigail Doolittle, a technical analyst at The Seaport Group.
The death cross is what happens when the yield on the fifty-day moving average of the ten-year treasury bond falls below its 200-day moving average.
Isn't that beautiful?
In other news, Apple reportedly (1) pays no tax on billions of dollars of revenue earned abroad, and (2) tells its investors that it pays more tax than it does on domestic revenue.
"There are lies, damn lies, and statistics," says a character actor who looks a bit like Edmund O'Brien but is not dressed like a grown-up. Meanwhile, everyone else on the beach is naked when the tide goes out, as Warren Buffett, the oracle of Omaha, is fond of saying with a twinkle in his eye.
A man with two first names gets on television thumping the table demanding that Congress apologize to Apple.
One senator whispers to another, during a lull in the hearings. What do you think they are saying? Can you read lips? I'd like to believe that the comely senator from Oregon is asking, "Do you think it is a coincidence that the Beatles called their recording company Apple and that Steve Jobs chose the same name for their computers?" And the courtly senator from Virginia, nodding sagely, mentions Sinatra's choice of Reprise for his outfit when he fired Capitol just as Columbia had once fired him.
Sooner or later that's what's playing in the background of this old movie.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Charles Baudelaire for his wonderful prose poems such as the one about the loss of a halo -- or the one I would translate as "Let's Beat up Some Beggars."
I was reading Northrop Frye last night. He was a great lecturer. He was also a great Canadian. In one of his books, "The Modern Century" I believe, he remarks that the name Canada derives from a Portuguese phrase meaning "nobody here." In the same book, Frye says that Satan tempting Eve in the garden was the prototype for modern propaganda and advertising campaigns.I love his name: Frye. Like Miss Froy in "The Lady Vanishes."
My friend Maggie, a Henry James fanatic whom I knew in graduate school, phoned today and casually mentioned her new novel in progress about a modern-day Adam and Eve named Elbert Renwick and Eureka Janeway, two ordinary kids in the vast middle America of fading memory, who were high-school sweethearts but drifted
apart, married others, raised families, lived on opposite coasts, got
divorced, got promoted, read Rilke, changed their lives, met at a class reunion and now they are living
together, making their own beer, growing their own high-octane pot. The two are known by their nicknames, Butch and Jane. They dress provocatively. They have
experimented. They have strong opinions on sports teams, national politics,
abortion, the Middle East, the twenty-first century, the 1960s as a decade, drugs,
and music. But I bet I can teach them a thing or two about the death cross and its significance, whether symbolic, semantic, or poetic -- as a financial markets indicator, on the one hand; on the other hand, as a magnificent
figure for the religious impulse, which is always threatening to make a
Tonight I’d like to recommend some summer reading. I’ve long admired Marianne Boruch as a poet. Her work is beautiful, quirky, wonderful to read aloud, and absolutely her own. Her poem “Still Life,” from Grace, Fallen from, for instance, is one of my favorites. (And what a great book title.) It’s hard to quote from without just giving you the whole poem, because where to stop? But here’s how it begins:
Someone arranged them in 1620. Someone found the rare lemon and paid a lot and neighbored it next to the plain pear, the plain apple of the lost garden, the glass of wine, set down mid-sip— don’t drink it, someone said, it’s for the painting. And the rabbit skull— whose idea was that? There had been a pistol but someone was told, no, put that away, into the box with a key though the key had been misplaced now for a year. …
This gives you a sense of how her work can move very swiftly from thought to thought across the lines. It’s associative, makes leaps—and that “don’t drink it… it’s for / the painting” and the way the people here, their impulses and actions, are a little scattered, a little inappropriate almost, and funny-sad, is all quintessentially her.
But what I also especially want to recommend here is her memoir, The Glimpse Traveler, about a nine-day hitchhiking trip to California in the 1970s. Written in 77 short chapters, each just a page or two, The Glimpse Traveler reads like a series of prose poems, or postcards from a different world (the American counterculture) and a different time (the 1970s, but also that time in life when you’re 20 years old and struggling to find your place in the world).
These many brief chapters add up; they tell the story in flashes of action and emotion, illumination. But this is prose written by a poet. Which is to say, you should read for language—the sounds of her sentences, their rhythms—as much as for plot.
Here’s how the first chapter starts:
No plan that Thursday but a big breakfast—eggs, toast. The classic college boyfriend’s apartment: milling about and underfoot, one or two other boys and their maybe girls. A straggly neighbor born Harold, called Chug, forever turning up to make a point then stopping mid-sentence. Someone’s cousin crashed there for a week. Someone’s half-sister from Cincinnati figuring out her life. Not to mention the dog, the cat, and nothing picked up off the floor, no sink or toilet cleaned in how long. Books read and loved and passed on, dope smoked or on a windowsill….
You can read the first four chapters here. But better yet, go buy the book.
One of the great things about being an American poet who happens to live in Rome is the proximity to the American Academy in Rome. In recent years, things have become even better for us poetry-loving Romans, thanks to AAR trustee William B. Hart, who endowed an eponymous Residency for a senior poet to join the community at the Academy.
Karl Kirchwey, poet, professor, and, for these past three years, Heiskell Arts Director at the AAR, has provided some wonderful programming in conjunction with the poets' visits (a remembrance of Brodsky, readings and seminars on and in translation [Italian/English and Polish/English], and the fascinating facets and various reworkings of the Ovidian oeuvre, for example).
Poets who have been lured to Rome by this fellowship include Jorie Graham, Derek Walcott, Robert Hass, and, most recently, Seamus Heaney. And you can well imagine the thrill that passed through the DNA of this Irish lass when it was announced that Mr. Heaney would be the Hart Poet in Residence for 2013!
Philip Larkin once remarked that he would like to visit China, but only if he could come home the same day. (I could do another week here on funny and/or curmudgeonly things he said.)
He also said in his Paris Review interview that writing a poem was, for him, a way “to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.” (As coldly scientific as that sounds, he of course also wrote some of the most beautifuland movingverbal devices in 20th century English. And he did go on at least one overnight trip abroad, to Germany, or so I’ve heard.)
Having written and now recently published a book of poems about traveling in China, Iceland and Japan, I’ve often thought of Uncle Phil (as I think of him) and these remarks of his when someone asks me what my book is about, or especially why I wrote it. But to tell you what I tell people, I first have to share another quote.
Jasper Johns said that sometimes life gets so close we can’t see it anymore. Small children and the outrageously wealthy aside, who doesn’t sometimes feel like that? Work or school – or both – plus getting there and home again, taking care of kids (if you went against Uncle Phil's advice and have some yourself), cooking and cleaning and hopefully somewhere in there sleeping… It’s hard not to get caught up in the busy-ness of everyday living and feel that life – real life, the good life, whatever cool thing your friends are doing (and posting pictures of on Facebook) and you’re not – is rushing past you in a blur.
Next thing you know, you’re one of those people who say things like, “I can’t believe it’s already Wednesday” or “Where did the summer go?”
Whereas traveling in another country can have the exact opposite effect. You notice everything – or try to. Because everything is new and different and strange (mostly in a good way). For instance, going to the bathroom in Japan can be an adventure in itself: one involving high-tech toilets and a quick change of footwear. Ordering dinner in Iceland can be too: do I feel like whale pepper steak or is tonight more of a fermented shark kind of night? Should I try the puffin? Or plokkfiskur, perhaps?
Finding yourself in another country is like putting on a new pair of glasses. Everything snaps into focus. Everything seems brighter and sharper.
Which is, of course, like writing a poem – or like what it takes to write a poem. Traveling and writing poems are both about finding your way, in all the different senses of that phrase. And in both cases you have to pay attention.
I think it was Jordan Davis who once said that’s the biggest thing: you have to be present. Show up and pay attention. That’s the job, you poets – and you travelers. And notice how this thing connects to this other thing. How they are – or aren't – like the things you know back home. How this reminds you of that.
And now we’re making metaphors. And now the world just got a little smaller.
I wrote poems about being in China to create verbal devices that would enable me to go back to China, if only for a day or an hour, and only in my imagination – and so that (so my hope goes) interested readers could do the same. What I wound up with on the page is a mix of memory and imagination, of course, and so not exactly the China I set foot in some years ago.
And interestingly the best part for the poet (for this one, anyway) wasn’t that finished verbal device, but the process of building it, how the words – or the search for the right ones – kept spurring me on to remember more, imagine more, to go back there again and again.
And finally it’s worth remembering too that one of Larkin’s most beautiful poems is about a journey (again, in all the senses), albeit a domestic one. Listen to him read “The Whitsun Weddings,” which picks up steam slowly but surely, like the train the poet travels in--
That Whitsun, I was late getting away: Not till about One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out, All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense Of being in a hurry gone. We ran Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence The river's level drifting breadth began, Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
When I think of bravery in poetry, I think of having the courage
to own the lifestyle. As a now twenty-something who grew up with parents who
worked ceaselessly to give me every opportunity they never had, it’s hard not
to feel certain pressures—pressures to strive and succeed in the conventional,
“American” sense. I occasionally feel that being a writer is somehow my private
rebellion, one which is sometimes difficult to own.
For others, bravery in poetry is about the courage to say what
needs to be said.
Yet we undeniably live in a time and place where “bravery in
poetry” means something very different than it has in the past. This bravery
has sometimes meant putting aspects of one’s life on the line.
Still, bravery is and always has been an infinitely broad rage of
experience. In some cases it manifests most profoundly in what is not said.
All this and more was broached at The Poetry Society of America
and PEN World Voices Festival’s “Bravery in Poetry” presentation last week at
The New School. Several contemporary poets discussed the work of poets they
feel have demonstrated bravery and risk-taking in their work and lives.
Mary Karr talked about the “brute facts in unvarnished terms” in
the work of Zbigniew Herbert.
“Risking something is more than unconventional line breaks,” said
Karr, as though reminding us of a different time and place, one in which what
was risked was significant, one today’s young poets may struggle to channel.
Yet, to Herbert, who shrugged off such accusations, it was never
about bravery—it was simply a matter of taste.
Concluding “The Power of Taste” he writes:
It did not require great character
we had a shred of necessary courage
but fundamentally it was a matter of
that commands us to get out to make
a wry face draw out a sneer
even if for this the precious
capital of the body the head
Herbert raises the important
question of whose place it is to qualify one’s bravery.
Yusef Komunyakaa talked about “the severe bravery” and “lack of
hesitation” in the work of Muriel Rukeyser.
As someone who “breath[ed] in experience” and “breath[ed] out
poetry,” Rukeyser’s life and work were about “learning the so-called Other,”
Edward Hirsch’s depiction of Joseph Brodsky as “a party of one,”
(in “I Sit By The Window”: “My song was out of tune, my voice was cracked, /
but at least no chorus can ever sing it back”) and one who saw poetry as a form
of existence for which he must make the largest possible case came closest to
my own realm of experience, and the tensions between declaring oneself a poet
and standing by the lifestyle (though I would never dare compare my “bravery”
In perhaps the most moving presentation of the evening, Henri
Cole took on James Merrill, who eventually succumbed to AIDS-related
illness, though he, arguably, never directly addressed the experience of his
illness in his work, nor did he tell anyone but his close friends he was
“I hate the word ‘elegant’ to describe him,” said Cole, who sees
the word as a slur by critics for Merrill’s homosexuality.
Merill, said Cole, did not want to be treated as a sick person
despite the moral pressures of the time to speak out.
“His silence was heroic,” said Cole. “He denied himself the
Maybe we don’t have to be as socially and politically courageous
in our work as the writers who came before us, though we struggle still, and
forever will, to be personally courageous. The bravery our predecessors took on
is a luxury for us but, potentially, a detriment as well. Will we ever learn to
be as bold as they were—as they remain in their immortalized words—if not
presented with the challenges they helped remove?
(Ed note: this is a second review of the May 1 "Bravery in Poetry" event. Read Sharon Preiss's take here.)