The American Scholar introduces its podcast series. Click below -- or here -- for an intro:
The American Scholar introduces its podcast series. Click below -- or here -- for an intro:
During my hiatus, I worked diligently to figure out what “bad poetry” meant to me, and once I become empowered to disappoint, how I could appall myself in a poem. I felt vicious, intemperate, outrageous, sleazy, hysterical, cantankerous, willful. I made poems with unconscionable and irrelevant leaps, poems with overblown abstractions heaped upon abstractions (who will ever forget “the turpitude of forgiveness”?), poems with speakers pronouncing upon every character in sight (because “I” always knows so much better than her or his family), poems with social toxicities heightened further by specious speechifying. I made poems that clanked and thumped, beset by sneaker-in-the-dryer iambs, and conversely, poems that used non-metrical speech oblivious to all considerations of sound, the kinds of poems that deserve to be chopped up, but are too often just divided into lines and called free verse. I made poems that ended four times without beginning once, poems that left out crucial details, poems with no details. I made poems that suffered from gender whiplash, empathy deficit, emotional aphasia, and narrative ataxia. I hated every line I wrote (who will ever forget “the hounds of my heartbeat”?), and wanted nothing more than to ball up each of my poems and drown them in a bucket of my crocodile tears.
And I read appalling poems, too. I searched for well-known poets I thought over-rated, bought a book by each, scoured the Amazon algorithms for like-minded horrors, and read on, McDuff. Bruising poems that attempted to meld unethical politics and self-righteousness, those bedmates always stealing the too-small blanket. Vapid poems that combine cosmetically, in the name of originality, unrelated subjects—as Lear says, “two pernicious daughters join'd” (King Lear, 3:2:22). I drank each drop of the soured milk in my summer’s failing fridge.
I crawled inside the zeitgeist and curled into a ball. Oh, the ekphrasis! Oh, the Self as our One Hero! I read fourteen ekphrastic poems on the Dutch Masters by fourteen poets, and forty-seven ekphrastic poems on Frida Kahlo by forty-one poets. (Where goeth Van Gogh? Where fleeth O’Keefe?) I read eighty-eight poems in which the last two lines begin with “I...,” after not using the first-person throughout the whole poem (“Sudden I Syndrome”). I read forty-three poems that begin at dawn or at dusk, but only three that begin after lunch. I read an even two-dozen poems that are centered by Microsoft Word because the software can. I read sixteen poems that mention breasts in the first four lines metonymically. I read—and I believe this is a coincidence, but I cannot be sure—five poems in the month of May about pets running away, poems in which I began to cheer for the pets, “Run, Sparky, Run! Run from the horrid poem....” (I wondered if the pets running away in May had anything to do with April being National Poetry Month.) In one of these poems, the narrator promises to ‘whup’ the dog beater, but doesn’t, because the dog beater turns out to be an elected official: that poem ends with the line, “and this is an allegory, people.” I read thirty-one poems with “Why” in the title, twenty of which also have “Why” in the last line. In the moment, out of time, and bad poem mad, I read so many bad poems I couldn’t tell where the poems ended and my emotions began.
I began to believe there was sand in my mouth, Jell-O in my shoes. I felt as though I had done a Morgan Spurlock, and super-sized all of the awful poetry I could consume. The lines were too salty, my glass of metaphors too fatty: I was threatening my psyche with The Poetry Arteriosclerosis.
After two months of the most god-awful poetry, I became mean to those around me. I kicked my bicycle whenever the chain fell off; standing on the sidewalk, I kicked and kicked. One time, I was so mad at how my own new poem ended, I drove my car straight onto a restaurant’s lawn, and insisted to the policewoman that I receive a moving violation. I felt as though I had enlisted in a poetry assassination squad, a private cohort of beauty slayers, and my code name had become Buzz Kill.
But nevertheless, all the while, keeping a working notebook in which I recorded my abjection, I began to clarify what had ruined my work too often, and especially the kinds of go-to conventions of free verse I had inherited, and learned to teach.
And then I stopped, the alarm went off, and adorned with my obsessions once again, though a little more sure of my weaknesses, I began to write what I hoped might be “good” poetry.
My poems had changed: my poems had become zanier, woofier, airier, less subject to fad-ism, more emotionally unpredictable, both sadder and happier, less touristic, more polyphonic, more intuitive. I had become skeptical of the comma and the period—I, a badge-wielding member of the Punctuation Police. My poems had learned to bang around in the inexplicable, and I had learned to trust how the darkness felt.
And now I’ll tell the story backwards, at least partially. Here’s a passage that might help explain my initial motivation, aside from the endorphins of the self-flagellant. In “The Use of Theory,” an essay first developed in 1955 and revised again in 1963, French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet writes:
"There is no question, as we have seen, of establishing a theory, a pre-existing mold into which to pour the books of the future. Each novelist, each novel must invent its own form. No recipe can replace this continual reflection. The book makes its own rules for itself, and for itself alone. Indeed the movement of its style must often lead to jeopardizing them, breaking them, even exploding them. Far from respecting certain immutable forms, each new book tends to constitute the laws of its functioning at the same time that it produces their destruction." (Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction; Northwestern U Press, 1989; trans. Richard Howard)
Substituting the word “poem” for the word “novel” here, and thinking about the unrecognizability of “each new book” to the readers of the moment, I am interested in the notion that a poem “makes its own rules for itself, and for itself alone.” Even within received forms, isn’t this what happens, the work of art becomes a combo of promises kept and un-, the poem a linguistic and prosodic entity predicated upon the appearance of constant reinvention? Consider, in this context, the opening of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet V”: “I am a little world made cunningly / of elements....” I believe that Donne is talking about the poem itself here, and the behaviors within the poem consistent with specific physical constants and the text’s idiosyncratic rules of gravity.
But somewhere between reinvention, promises kept and dashed, and style, I had suffocated in my old little world, in my AMP-ocentrism. It’s a struggle, I think, to act upon a mature vision without parodying whatever artistic progress one has ostensibly made. A mature vision may yet generate a single (and singular) poem: however, a mature vision that corresponds too easily and too readily to Robbe-Grillet’s notion of the “pre-existing molds” that yield to “immutable forms” – which I believe the mature artist invents for herself or himself – threatens subsequent works with the prospect of being paler imitations of art already done well.
In other words, if you’re in the box, it’s because you are the box. And the box might look pretty, but that’s because you made it.
I’m no Kenneth Goldsmith, and this is not a stump speech for the uncreative; I’m much more inclined to Cathy Park Hong’s understanding of the history of the avant-garde anyway. Nor am I arguing to write against one’s own talents, which I realize constitutes an extremely complicated idea packed into a gnomic truism. Nor am I saying the zeitgeist is only a prison. Instead, I’m trying to endorse a healthy skepticism of the familiar: lesser versions of our own best poems need to be preempted by continued experimentation.
When I wrote bad poems on purpose — and hold your tongues here, social media wags — informed by my reading of bad poems, I found myself filling in the silences and the spaces between the words. Appearances aside, I’ve never been a narrative poet: my poems often perform what I call “the attitude of narrative,” and present in narrative ways their lyricism without succumbing to story. Filling in the silences and spaces, for me, might have meant adding plot, undermining inference, dumbing down ambiguity — but really, what it means, and what I think may be the best individualized lesson I learned during my Season of Hell, is that sound by itself isn’t a sufficient poetic phenomenon until dynamically interpellated by white space and silence. Perhaps I’ve come upon a commonplace in music composition, and/or a truism implicit to my earlier work, but the idea seemed a newly articulated notion for me.
You might expect a rant in a piece I’m calling “Bad Poems,” as I detail all that is execrable in the art form today, and name the worst offenders. I’m not going to do that —in part because I have an allergy to negative campaigning, and it’s a bad year for vitriol, but also because I wrote horrifyingly bad poems myself, and now I know they’re in me.
Besides, I wouldn’t trust me. Whose opinions aren’t provisional anyway? What working artist could possibly believe in an idea beyond its utility in the studio? Although I want what I want from a poem, and I tend to teach what I want, my desires have proven fungible with age, disproven as I go. Moreover, I remain a man suspicious of what I call “managed aesthetics.”
I am often reminded of a moment in 1993 when I was adjuncting at Rutgers University, and moderating a forum at "Writers at Rutgers" with visiting Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. A persistent questioner insisted upon asking Milosz to share his “world view,” a mode of inquiry I couldn’t seem to countermand; the questioner was trying to pin down Milosz, to get the great poet to collate all of our truths for us.
Milosz was gracious — he raised a spectacular eyebrow and smiled at me; he could handle this one, his gesture said — and answered wryly: “A world view is a world order.” I feel that way about learned experience in poetry writing, about my “moves” and their power over my aesthetics, but bad poems have now helped me work toward unlearning such vanities.
Here’s Milosz reading on March 26, 1998. At the 8:35 mark, he reads one of his masterpieces, “The Day the World Ends,” first in English and then in Polish; that’s the wild, good Milosz poem for me.
Cartoons © Felicia van Bork, 2016
Alan Michael Parker is the author of The Ladder (Tupelo Press), his eighth collection of poems, along with four novels, including Christmas in July, forthcoming from Dzanc Books. He has edited or co-edited five books, including The Manifesto Project (with Rebecca Hazelton), to be published in January 2017, by the University of Akron Press. His awards include three Pushcart Prizes, two inclusions in Best American Poetry, the Fineline Prize, the 2013 and 2014 Randall Jarrell Prize in Poetry, the North Carolina Book Award, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. Parker is the Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson College. He also teaches in the University of Tampa’s low-residency M.F.A. program. More about Alan Michael Parker can be found at here. Follow him on twitter here.
In Russia, according to the Independent, a vodka-soaked advocate of poetry killed a prose partisan in a brawl. Last month, apparently, a similar dispute, with the same fatal outcome, occurred over the theories of Immanuel Kant.
When Stacey and I visited Russia, I breakfasted with a novelist and asked her whether she could write while drinking. She said: "My der David, if you could not write while drinking, there would be no such thing as Russian literature."
This story comes to my attention thanks to Beth Gylys:
from The Independent
Russian teacher 'kills friend in heated poetry versus prose argument'
Suspect stabbed his friend to death after victim insisted prose was superior as literary genre
The discussion on the merits of poetry over prose soon escalated into a lethal brawl GETTY IMAGES
A Russian teacher allegedly killed a friend in a drunken argument over literary genres, investigators have said.
The pair engaged in an animated discussion on the merits of poetry over prose during a drinking session, which soon escalated into a lethal brawl, after the suspect stabbed his friend insisting that poetry was superior.
In a statement, federal police in the Russian region of Sverdlovsk said: "The host insisted that real literature is prose, while his guest, a former teacher, argued for poetry.
"The literary dispute soon grew into a banal conflict, on the basis of which the 53-year-old admirer of poetry killed his opponent with the help of a knife."
The suspect fled his home in the town of Irbit in the Ural mountains, where the 67-year old victim was killed on 20 January, before he was found in a nearby village and arrested by Russian police on charges of murder.
The incident comes four months after a similar argument over the theories of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that reason is the source of morality, resulted in a man being shot in a grocery store in southern Russia.
This week we welcome Lynn Domina as our guest author. Lynn is the author of two collections of poetry, Corporal Works and Framed in Silence, (Four Way Books) and the editor of a collection of essays, Poets on the Psalms (Trinity University Press). She lives in Marquette, MI on the beautiful shores of Lake Superior and serves as Head of the English Department at Northern Michigan University. You can read more here: www.lynndomina.com.
In other news . . .
"Best American Poetry 2016" Launch Reading: Sept 22 at the New School in NYC 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm. David Lehman, poetry coordinator for the Creative Writing Program and series editor, will moderate the event. He will be joined by contributors to the anthology as well as Edward Hirsch, guest editor of the 2016 volume.
The Auditorium, Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall 66 West 12th Street, New York, NY 10011
David Lehman, poetry coordinator for the Creative Writing Program and series editor, will moderate the event. He will be joined by contributors to the anthology as well as Edward Hirsch, guest editor of the 2016 volume.
With poets Christopher Bakken, Catherine Barnett, Jill Bialosky, Paula Bohince, Michelle Boisseau, Marianne Boruch, Lynn Emanuel, Martín Espada, Charles Fort, Emily Fragos, Juliana Gray, Linda Gregerson, Mark Halliday, Jeffrey Harrison, Cynthia Hogue, Garrett Hongo, Erin Hoover, Richard Howard, T. R. Hummer, Major Jackson, Lawrence Joseph, Julie Kane, John Koethe, Loretta Collins Klobah, Keetje Kuipers, Deborah Landau, Robin Coste Lewis, Paul Mariani,, Debra Marquart, Hai-Dan Phan, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Stanley Plumly, James Richardson, Patrick Rosal, Brenda Shaughnessy, Anya Silver, Taije Silverman,Tom Sleigh, A. E. Stallings,Susan Stewart, Nomi Stone, Adrienne Su, Lee Upton, Eleanor Wilner . . .
It will be historic.
Sponsored by the Creative Writing Program.
From the "Next Line, Please" corner of The American Scholar. A weekly challenge in verse.
The prompt for this week—to rewrite two to six lines of Milton’s “Lycidas”—turned out to be one of the most stimulating we’ve had in a long time. What wonderful submissions we’ve received. “Put it in the books,” as Mets’ radio announcer Howie Rose says after a New York victory. This is one for the books. John Milton, author of "Lycidas," the greatest elegy in the language, is pictured at the left. He was a handsome young man as a student of Christ's College, Cambridge.
I am happy to reveal that from now until the onset of winter, each week’s winner will receive a complimentary copy of The Best American Poetry 2016, edited by Edward Hirsch.
First place this week is divided between two different entries:
So what’s the point in striving every week
To pen some verses fit for “Next Line, Please”
While straining every sinew of the mind?
Why not seek pastimes of more common kind,
Abandon art, with YouTube take some ease,
Watch shady porn or kittens tangling skeins?
Which is, as she says, “(De)based on”
Alas! what boots it with uncessant care
To tend the homely, slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done, as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neæra’s hair?
This happens to be my own favorite quotation from “Lycidas,” and the very passage that I undertook to translate into a modern idiom (see below). I admire Millicent’s balance of contemporary reference (YouTube, “shady porn”) with the noble accents of the master (“While straining every sinew of the mind”). Nicely done.
Co-winner is Berwyn Moore’s
So spirals the seeds of the sunflower,
its buttery lattice a mathematical marvel.
Though Helianthos fades at summer’s end,
in time our friend will bow his studded head again.
After lines 168-171 of Milton’s poem:
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
Berwyn says her entry was “inspired by the Fibonacci sequence.” I like and use the Fiboinacci formula but don’t quite see how it applies here. This looks more like an “n + 7” exercise formulated by OuLiPo, the French association of writers and mathematicians devoted to creating new strict literary forms. (I hope Berwyn will elaborate on her method here.) In any case, there is something lovely in the alliteration of Berwyn’s first line, and the poignancy of “Though Helianthos fades at summer’s end” reminds me of my favorite line in Shakespeare’s sonnet # 18, “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”
First runner up is Paul Michelsen’s eloquent
Another Perfect Day
The sweetest friends make the most bitter ends
Not the first or last perfect day death ruined
Not too young, but too young for our liking
Our preferences no match with those of wild nature.
Once we sang together, now I sing alone,
but tomorrow’s silence here will lead to somewhere
else a chorus.
Inspired by the following lines:
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
Here is my own effort to capture the pith and meaning of the lines both Millicent Caliban and I chose:
Why study poetry, major in English, climb the stair—
Way to failure as you struggle with an obsolete art,
And woo a fickle muse, forsaking wealth and fame?
Wouldn’t it make better sense to enter the frame
Of the picture, kiss the girl and capture her heart
And glory in every last curl and wave of her hair?
For more, click here.
This week we welcome back Lisa Vihos as our guest blogger. Lisa's poems have appeared in numerous journals both print and online. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, her third chapbook, This Particular Heaven, will appear in 2017 from Aldrich Press. She is the Poetry and Arts Editor of Stoneboat Literary Journal and the Sheboygan, Wisconsin organizer for 100 Thousand Poets for Change. She recently was the recipient of a Time-Out Grant from her undergraduate alma mater, Vassar College. In the coming year, she will be planning and building a children's reading garden to support literacy in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.
Welcome back, Lisa.
It could be because I have read the work of too many self-absorbed novelists who favor such sentences as these: "The next day I got up early and shut myself in the bathroom. I took a long shower. I dried my hair carefully, worrying that the hotel hair dryer, which blew violently, would give it the wrong wave." If this is the sort of thing you hate, read on for a recommended alternative.
Michel Houellebecq's new novel Submission, translated from the French by Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, and officially published this week by Farrar Straus and Giroux, comes as refreshment because it is about the great world outside and beyond the self -- the world of history in the making, as Hobbes might depict it if he were around. It is a world of wars and surrogates or warnings of war: threats, pronouncements, failed diplomacy, mob behavior, and murderous violence of an infinitely greater magnitude than that of a hotel hair dryer.
A moment ago I said that Submission came as refreshment to one who is tired of memoirs by individuals who have never done anything memorable. But while refreshing in this sense, the new novel is terrifying. It is a vision of the future that defies the policemen of political correctness. It dares to spin out a plausible scenario extrapolated from the acts and proclamations of ISIS, Al Queda, the Ayatollah, and terrorist entities whether organized or consisting of indoctrinated loners.
Some novels are like the needless elaboration of a Facebook entry. Not Houellebecq's. Submission is a work of invention and speculation. What happens if, in the next decade, the political alignments in France evolve to the point that the nominee of a Muslim political party wins the presidency? Is "Eurabia" the future of Europe? The vision of "submission" that is central to Islam informs this first-person narrative in which, inevitably, a proud people submits to fanatic religious dogma, women submit to men, and "submission" represents an impulse and a drive that would have merited Freud's attention. It is a fact sometimes neglected by commentators that Sharia represents a triumphant form of patriarchy -- a fact Houellebecq goes to town with.
Francois, the narrator, is a tenured professor, a scholar whose lifework centers upon J. K. Huymans, the late nineteenth-century author of A Rebours, a book that has been aptly called the "breviary of the Decadence." The conduct of university administrators, professors, and intellectuals is expertly skewered by the skeptical, world-weary Francois: "Over the course of the twentieth century, plenty of intellectuals had supported Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot and had never been taken to task. For the French, an intellectual didn't have to be responsible. That wasn't his job."
The prose, always good enough to sustain the reader's attention, sometimes rises to eloquence: "We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we've lived there; whether we live well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace."
Effortlessly provocative, informed as much by resignation as by ire, Submission may just be the most important novel published in the United States this year.. -- David Lehman [originally posted 10/23/15]
This week we welcome back M.J.Fitzgerald as our guest author. M.J. is the author of novels, short stories and essays, and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota.
Yearbook is part of an ongoing project, Drifts of Chance, a daughter's discoveries, a book of essays about the poet Robert Fitzgerald, best known for his translations of The Odyssey, The Iliad and The Aeneid. An earlier essay, Plots and Sisters, was posted on The Best American Poetry Blog in October 2014.
Welcome back, M.J.
Katy Evans-Bush is a New York-born poet and blogger who has spent most of her life in London. Author of two collections with Salt Publishing, her latest book is Forgive the Language, a collection of essays published by Penned in the Margins. Find her at baroqueinhackney.com
Thank you, Katy.
This week we welcome back Amy Allara as our guest author. Amy's poems, essays and book reviews have appeared in the following publications: Denver Quarterly, Psychoanalytic Perspectives, The New Review of Literature, OR: A Literary Tabloid, 26, Sycamore Review, and others. Her chapbook Variation was published by Highway 101 Press. She lives and writes in Pennsylvania. To learn more about her go to her website which can be found here.
Welcome back, Amy.
Today -- Yeats's birthday.
If our age is apocalyptic in mood—and rife with doomsday scenarios, nuclear nightmares, religious fanatics and suicidal terrorists—there may be no more chilling statement of our condition than William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” Written in 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the epoch-ending disaster that was World War I, “The Second Coming” extrapolates a fearful vision from the moral anarchy of the present. The poem also, almost incidentally, serves as an introduction to the great Irish poet’s complex conception of history, which is cyclical, not linear. Things happen twice, the first time as sublime, the second time as horrifying, so that, instead of the “second coming” of the savior, Jesus Christ, Yeats envisages a monstrosity, a “rough beast” threatening violence commensurate with the human capacity for bloodletting.
Here is the entire poem:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
As a summary of the present age (“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”), stanza one lays the groundwork for the vision spelled out in stanza two, which is as terrifying in its imagery as in its open-ended conclusion, the rhetorical question that makes it plain that a rough beast is approaching but leaves the monstrous details for us to fill.
As an instance of Yeats’s epigrammatic ability, it is difficult to surpass the last two lines in the opening stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The aphorism retains its authority as an observation and a warning. We may think of the absence of backbone with which certain right-minded individuals met the threats of National Socialism in the 1930s and of Islamist terrorism in the new century. Both dogmas demand of their followers a “passionate intensity” capable of overwhelming all other considerations.
Yeats works by magic. He has a system of myths and masks—based loosely on dreams, philosophy, occult studies, Celtic legend, and his wife’s automatic writing—that he uses as the springboard for some of his poems. In a minute I will say something about his special vocabulary: the “gyre” in line one and “Spiritus Mundi” 12 lines later. But as a poet, I would prefer to place the emphasis on Yeats’s craftsmanship. Note how he manages the transition from present to future, from things as they are to a vision of destruction, by a species of incantation. Line two of the second stanza (“Surely the Second Coming is at hand”) is syntactically identical with line one (”Surely some revelation is at hand”), as if one phrase were a variant of the other. It is the second time in the poem that Yeats has managed this rhetorical maneuver.The first occurs in the opening stanza when the “blood-dimmed tide” replaces the “mere anarchy” that is “loosed” upon the world.
The phrase “the Second Coming”—when repeated with the addition of an exclamation point—is enough to unleash the poet’s visual imagination. The bestial image that ensues, “A shape with lion body and the head of a man,” is all the more terrifying because of the poet’s craft: the metrical music of “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”; the unexpected adjectives (“indignant desert birds,” “slow thighs”); the haunting pun (“Reel shadows”); the oddly gripping verb (“Slouches”); the rhetorical question that closes the poem like a prophecy that doubles as an admonition.
In a note written for a limited edition of his book “Michael Robartes and the Dancer,” Yeats explained that “Spiritus Mundi” (Latin for “spirit of the world”) was his term for a “general storehouse of images,” belonging to everyone and no one. It functions a little like Jung’s collective unconscious and is the source for the “vast image” in “The Second Coming.” Yeats writes in his introduction to his play “The Resurrection” that he often saw such an image, “always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction.”
As for “gyre” (pronounced with a hard “g”), in Yeats’s system it is a sort of ideogram for history. In essays on Yeats I have seen the gyres—two of them always—pictured sometimes vertically, in the shape of an hourglass, and sometimes horizontally, as a pair of interpenetrating triangles that resemble inverted stars of David. The gyre represents a cycle lasting 2,000 years.
But I maintain that knowledge of the poet’s esoterica (as set forth in his book “A Vision”) is, though fascinating, unnecessary. Nor does the reader need to know much about falconry, a medieval sport beloved of the European nobility, to understand that there has been a breakdown in communications when the “falcon cannot hear the falconer.”
Read “The Second Coming” aloud and you will see its power as oratory. And ask yourself which unsettles you more: the monster “slouching toward Bethlehem” or the sad truth that the best of us don’t want to get involved, while the worst know no restraint in their pursuit of power?
—Mr. Lehman’s “New and Selected Poems” (Scribner) appeared in 2009. He teaches in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City.
from The Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2015
As the founder and director of Women's Voices Mentorship Program for Writers, I'd like to ask your help. Our program is a way for women writers of all expressions to find advanced writing instruction and mentorship outside the MFA. I'm honored to be working with an extraordinary group of writers who are also experienced and committed teachers. One of those is poet Jessica Piazza, author of Interrobang (Red Hen Press 2013) and co-author with Heather Aimee O'Neill of Obliterations (RHP 2016). Jess is raising money to fund program scholarships for women writers of under-served populations. Jess explains:
"We all know that creative writing isn't the most lucrative field in the world, but true writers are still driven by passion and talent to bring their voices to the world. We write after work, between diaper changes, between shifts. We take loans for MFA programs that we know might be impossible to pay back. We do our best to make it work and to share our unique vision....
...unless we can't. So many writers--especially women from under-represented populations--aren't able to afford quality, empathetic, graduate level creative writing mentorship and education. Ironically, these are the very writers whose voices our industry most needs: women of color, single mothers, lgbtq writers, women of small financial means.
These are the stories that need to be heard and the poems that need to be written, honed and published. But in the literary industry, who you know and where you've gone counts; most people who publish widely have done university masters programs or PhDs in writing. But the artists who would write the stories we so need to hear often can't afford to spend the money, time or energy on graduate writing programs, or they feel ostracized because higher education historically treats women in these positions (and their stories and poems and memoirs) with less dignity, vision and respect than other students.
The Women's Voices Mentorship Program (WVMP) was created specifically to address these problems. Mentors work one on one with writers to nourish, guide and hone their work, treating each student to a level of indivudal guidance and education many MFA programs can't match. We make targeted writing goals and plans with each student, give them readings and assignments, edit and work through each piece of writing, truly building toward a full body of work and publication with every session and every meeting.
As a mentor, published poet, university professor and literary citizen, I'm proud to help women achieve their writing goals. But even though our program costs far less than the price of a master's education in writing (with far more individual attention), I recognize that not all women can afford even our program's rates. So I decided to raise money to provide scholarships to three or four women writers this summer. I believe that as a mentor in the WVMP I can offer these poets and fiction writers something that they might not otherwise ever have: graduate level creative writing education that's focused specifically on their unique voices, goals and talents.
Which is, hopefully, where you come in.
The cost per scholarship is $3250 (plus GoFundMe fees.) If we can raise $9750 plus fees, we'll be able to provide writing mentorship to three talented women whose voices desperately need to be heard. $13,000 will allow us to fully fund four women writers. These scholarships will go to women who demonstrate excellent writing potential already, and they will all be women of color, single mothers or LGBTQ writers, as so often these are the communities that lack access to comprehensive education (in the arts and elsewhere!)
If we do not raise enough money to fully fund three scholarships, we'll fund as many full programs as possible and offer the rest as partial scholarships. If we meet our goal of three scholarships, we'll continue on to try to fund four women's mentorships.
Each mentorship session runs the length of a university quarter and provides a comprehensive apprenticeship and education. You can read more about the program and exactly what I do as a mentor here: http://www.womensvoicesmentorship.com
I truly hope you'll kick in even a few bucks to help bring these voices to the world. Any amount will help. Also, consider chipping in with friends to sponsor one woman's scholarship on your own! It's an amazing way to be a patron of the arts for someone who truly deserves it."
Please consider donating. Even a small amount can make a big difference. You can find our GoFundMe page here: DONATE
We welcome the publication of In the Empire of the Air: The Poems of Donald Britton, a posthumous collection by a wonderful poet who died in 1994, entirely too young. The publisher is Nightboat Books, and the work of editing it was shared by Philip Clark and the late Reginald Shepherd. I knew Donald well; he is represented in an anthology I edited, Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, for which he wrote a statement about the occasion and objectives of one of his poems. It may be the only critical statement that he ever published. Three of Donald's poems appeared in a low-circulation magazine I edited, Poetry in Motion, in the late 1970s. There will be a release party for the book at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City on Friday, May 20, at 6 PM.
In he picture above, Donald is the fourth poet from the left. To his right is Tim Dlugos, with Dennis Cooper standing on the other side of Tim. Amy Gerstler is second from the right. Also in the picture are Michael Silverblatt, Bob Flanagan, and Ed Smith. The venue is the Ear Inn and I'd have to guess the date as early 1980s.
Here is the first paragraph of Douglas Crase's afterword to the new collection.
<< The appearance in print of the selected poems of Donald Britton is an affront to cynicism and a triumph over fate. When Donald died, in 1994, it was sadly reasonable to assume that the influence of his poetry would be confined to the few who had preserved a copy of his single book, the slender, deceptively titled Italy, published thirteen years earlier. As the few became fewer it seemed all but certain the audience for his poems would disappear. Donald never taught, so there were no students to mature into positions of critical authority. There was no keeper of the flame to incite publication, no posthumous foundation to subsidize it, not even a martyrology in place to demand it out of sentiment. The survival of his work would have to come about, instead, as a pure instance of “go little booke”—an instance that must now warm the heart of anyone who has ever believed in poetry. It was the poems in Italy themselves, free of professional standing or obligation, that inspired the successive affections of two remarkable editors and the confident publisher of the present selection. Donald, who despite his brilliance was a modest and self-effacing person, would be surprised.
Crase's afterword concludes with this thought about the "longevity" of poetry as opposed to a "career" in the field.
<<< Donald’s posthumous success in inspiring the publication of his selected poems, coupled with the undeniable failure in worldly terms of his career, is occasion to wonder if the career is ever the same as poetry itself. From time to time a critic will observe that Hart Crane’s suicide, for example, or Joe Brainard’s decision to stop making art, may be regarded as proof the artist realized what his admirers don’t, that the work was a failure and the career could not be sustained. The critic doesn’t quite dare to draw the same conclusion from the abjuration of Rimbaud or the suicide of Sylvia Plath, which reveals of course that the logic in the first case was as opportunistic as it is preposterous. Someday a critic will do us the service of disentangling poetry from the standard map of a professional career. The map is a convenience to committees but meaningless to the future reader—the twelve-year-old boy or girl in San Angelo—the very reader poets must hope to have. What is useful to that boy or girl is sometimes no more than a phrase, perhaps a book or poem, amounting to a style of mind in which to escape or dwell. I recognized such a style of mind in Donald Britton and it made us friends. The first time I heard him read his work in public was at the Ear Inn in New York, the afternoon of March 7, 1981. Blond as ever, he was in that environment an apparition of nervous grace. I can’t say he connected with the audience; he certainly didn’t flatter it. He conveyed, perhaps too clearly for the occasion, his sense of an audience beyond the room. One got the feeling he expected to reach across time and elicit a response composed of the same respect for intellect and desire that we had there, in the Ear Inn, that Saturday afternoon. Donald's poems were not lessons or anecdotes. They are invitations to the unending contemplation of ourselves, and things beyond us, that makes the human species a window on creation.
Here is a poem by Donald Britton from the new volume:
Notes on the Articulation of Time
It becomes a critical account
of all that’s spoken, done:
the drawing in of breaths, even,
these nights whose atmosphere
reminds us of mountains,
white volumes of air. We need
these narratives, we want them:
the city lies before us
and some one person in the sleeve
of a streetlamp awaits
our enraptured attention
as we await the concept of the city
which tells us how we move
in the particolored geographies
about us. We can’t be certain
we are moving toward this person
nor do we require certitude.
It is enough to acknowledge
the movement itself, shavings
of light inscribing a circle.
Our childlike sense of the other
bears these forces toward
completion and renewal,
a lexis of infatuated sounds.
-- Donald Britton
The guardian of the riddle must speak in riddles.
Logical interpretations are the Miracle’s modesty.
So long as you trust in anything else, the miracle shall be withheld.
To acquire a third eye, one cannot blink.
Trust in longing to sing itself.
One definition of success might be: refining our appetites, while deepening our hunger.
Fear of success betrays a greater self-mistrust than fear of failure.
It’s easier to be fearless, when we remember that we are deathless.
For those who discount dreams, consider this: relationships might start, or falter, while we sleep.
As we make peace with ourselves, we become more tolerant of our faults — in others.
All who are tormented by an Ideal must learn to make an ally of failure.
Our salvation lies on the other side of our gravest danger.
Where there are demons, there is something precious worth fighting for.
Poor rational mind, it would sooner accept a believable lie than an incredible truth.
Every Messiah is reluctant - at least, initially.
Intuition asks: what use are two open eyes when you're in the dark?
All languages are rough translations of our native tongue: the Spirit.
Poems are like bodies—a fraction of their power resides in their skin. The rest belongs to the spirit that swims through them
And when we think we are stealing from life's fleeting pleasures, we are stealing from our own Eternal Joy.
The ascetic does not deny pleasure; he shuns the coarse, in favor of the refined and exalted.
(Art by Agostino Arrivabenne)
The ascetic ideal speaks, thus: indulge, and forego Vision.
Spiritual fast food leads to spiritual indigestion.
Said a poem to a poet: Can I trust you? Is your heart pure to carry me, are your hands clean to pass me on?
For the sake of a good line a poet, like a comedian, must be willing to risk everything.
From what you have, create what you have not—the poem teaches the poet.
Numbness is a spiritual malady, true detachment its opposite.
You can't bury pain and not expect it to grow roots.
If we care for ourselves, we may turn our pain into gifts for others.
If we do not care for our souls, we become a burden for others.
(Photograph by Zakaria Wakrim)
If there is someone we might ask forgiveness of, then there is no one we can deny forgiveness to.
We steal from ourselves when we share an idea, or a feeling, before it has ripened.
Why announce to the world your few good deeds, when you hide your many bad ones—even from yourself?
The more closely we listen to ourselves, the more likely we are to overhear others.
To evolve means we’ve been listening.
If we ask life for favors, we must be prepared to return them.
Just as mysteriously as spiritual favors are granted, so they may also be revoked.
Wings are, always, on loan.
If our hearts should harden and turn to ice, we must try, at least, not to blame the weather.
Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets.
Poetry is what we say to ourselves, when there's nowhere to hide.
Poetry is the distance between us and our pain.
It’s not easy to speak to ourselves – we must devise ruses, interventions.
What we look for in a good book, painting, music or conversation? A stretch of runway to take off, and return us to ourselves.
We scramble the first half of our lives to assemble a self; and, in the second half, if we are wise, to dismantle it.
Self is a labyrinth, at the heart of which sits Spirit, hoping to be found.
Character is what we are in company—alone we are everyone.
Conversation, there’s nothing like it – except silence.
Poetry: the native tongue of hysterics—adolescents and mystics, alike.
Mysticism is the disappearing act that takes a lifetime.
To become a mystic is not impossible; one must only endure being a beggar, mad and dead.
It is possible to subsist entirely on a diet of honey and wine, or poetry and mysticism.
Know your Muse, and its diet.
When the Muse is silent, confess ignorance.
—Yahia Lababidi is the author, most recently, of Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems (1993-2015) which debuted in April, 2016 at #1 on Amazon's Hot New Releases, under Middle Eastern poetry. Lababidi's first book, a collection of original aphorisms: Signposts to Elsewhere was selected as a 2008 Book of the Year, by The Independent (UK). For more information, please, visit his Page.
It’s early in the evening at the Poetry Brothel, and the Madame, aka the poet Stephanie Berger, is introducing the line-up of poetry whores: writers dressed in corsets and fishnets, or waistcoats that could have belonged to a riverboat gambler. They have alter-egos for the evening, the way strippers do. Tennessee Pink, or Obsidienne.
Tonight, the brothel has popped up in a speakeasy down a set of dirty cellar stairs near Delancey. My friend and I have stumbled into a hidden world of velvet wallpaper and naked lady paintings. Two burlesque dancers wait on a small divan to perform a floorshow. Through a small door in the back of the lounge, there are beds curtained off in velvet where for a fee, a poetry whore will softly read a poem to you. We palm flowered teacups of absinthe and consider our options.
A young poet draped in rhinestones reads a couple of stanzas as a sample of her wares. Berger, red hair in a swirl supporting several peacock feathers, approaches the mic. “This poem,” Berger says in a flat, girlish voice, “is very expensive.”
It’s a statement that upends the common observation that poetry doesn’t pay, or that the general public out for some light entertainment will not pay for it. There seems to be something subversive at work here, something pushing back against how poetry is currently positioned somewhere just on the edge of the national stage. To investigate, I spoke with Berger and her co-founder Nicholas Adamski from the road on their recent West Coast tour. They have the rapport of longtime friends, voices overlapping down the scratchy phone line, occasionally interrupting to finish each other’s sentences. Berger told me: “Poets just give their work away for the most part.” Adamski added: “The Poetry Brothel’s mission was and continues to be training poets that the work that they do is worth money. And convincing the public that poetry is also worth money.”
This notion would not have been as unconventional as recently as the 1950s, when Dylan Thomas was able to replenish his anemic finances by touring America to sold-out shows, which was arranged by an agent–and by all accounts, he gave a great show. Like W.H. Auden or Edna St. Vincent Millay before him, he was as close as you can get to a poet being a popular performer. On either side of the Atlantic, poetry was entertainment then.
But recreating a lost space and time is a lot of what the Poetry Brothel has been up to from the beginning, when Berger gathered a round table of friends in a conference room at The New School to figure out what exactly a poetry brothel was. “She had like a fever dream, sweat lodge vision,” Adamski remembered. Fellow MFA students at the School of Writing, Adamski was working on a thesis on erotic poetry, and Berger was researching New Orleans sex workers. They were not interested in the standard podium and folding chairs of literary readings. The format they came up with–the lineup, the floor shows, the private sessions–was based on the fin-de-siecle brothels Berger was researching, many of which had doubled as gathering places for artists, writers and musicians operating well outside of polite society. The result is a very different way to hear poetry. “I wanted to see a reading that was as beautiful and intimate as poetry is,” Berger said. “If you’re not dating or related to a poet, the chances of hearing a poem one on one are almost zero,” Adamski went on. “The chances of having someone whisper a poem to you in a bed are definitely zero. We both agreed that that was the poetry brothel experience.”
Eight years later, the poetry brothel experience has proven to be attractive. “From the get go,” Berger said, “We had this idea that it wouldn’t be a thing that was just appealing in New York City.” It now has branches all over the world–from Barcelona to Bogota, Paris to New Orleans–started by like-minded friends and admirers of the format who produce the show independently, with Berger and Adamski sporadically dropping in to perform and share ideas. “We realized the Poetry Brothel works anywhere that artists live,” Adamski said. “We really wanted to bring the Poetry Brothel to every city in the world.”
Usually these far-flung poetry madams and pimps are poets themselves, but the audiences are not. “It took us a while to figure out that our audience is largely people who’ve never had an experience with poetry,” Adamski said. “or had an experience with poetry when they were young but let it go.” What’s more, these audiences are almost randomly diverse. There’s a core group you might expect of younger creative professionals, but they get all kinds. “We’ll have like a 21 year old kid who cannot even believe this exists, and then literally like a couple who are in their 60s who come together on a date who can’t believe this exists,” Adamski elaborated. “It’s super exciting. We can’t believe it exists either, but it does.” Part of what’s turned out to be great about positioning poetry as popular entertainment is that it has been popular, able to span high and low culture to speak to just about everyone.
The momentum is at a point now that Berger and Adamski have been able to take the Poetry Brothel on tour themselves–like a turn-of-the-century roadshow, visiting establishments in distant outposts with their girls (and guys). “We realized we could actually just fly to LA or Portland and produce our shows all on our own,” Adamski said. They currently are putting on up to six shows a month, largely along the West Coast or in New York, but they are also looking to the Eastern seaboard and the South. Berger added. “It’s what we’ve always wanted to do. Like our whole focus is just on bringing the Poetry Brothel to as many particularly American cities right now as possible.”
There’s plenty to catch coming up, whether you’re in New York or elsewhere in the country. This month, Berger and Adamski will head to Philadelphia on the 25th before returning to New York for The Poetry Brothel: Pride Edition on June 12th.
And they’ll be making a special appearance at Michigan electronic music fest Electric Forest, for which they will build a poetry brothel in the woods for four days, June 23rd-26th. Last year, the entry to the space resembled an out-of-order photo booth. “We’d open a prop door behind it and be like you need to come with us right now,” Adamski reminisced. “And we pulled them into this world and it’s just like made of velvet, and there’s these huge beds.” After a brief orientation in the parlor, the guest would choose a poetry whore for a private reading. “It’s pretty eye-opening fun,” Adamski said.
July will see a very special incarnation of what Berger and Adamski do, the NYC Poetry Festival, which they have thrown every summer on Governor’s Island for the past six years. A big theme of the fest, unsurprisingly, is inclusiveness, with three stages, a children’s festival, and over 350 readers. “We’re not positive but we think it’s probably the biggest poetry festival in the world, just in terms of sheer volume of poetry,” Berger said. “The poetry community here, it’s huge. A big part of the festival is to bring everyone together.” This year will kick off the weekend of July 30th and 31st in conjunction with the Queens Book Festival, making it the first ever NYC literary week.
Then beginning in August, the Poetry Brothel will hit the road again along the West Coast, with multiple stops in LA, SF and Portland. For more information on these and other upcoming events, check out thepoetrybrothel.com.
KGB Bar: 85 E 4th St, New York, New York 10003
Renowned Russian-American composer, writer, visual artist and concert pianist Lera Auerbach will be reading from Excess of Being, her new book of aphorisms and original artwork, by turns provocative, dark, ironic and humorous.
Poet David Lehman is a prominent editor, author and literary critic. He serves as the editor of The Best American Poetry series, which he initiated in 1988, and teaches at The New School. His most recent book is Sinatra's Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World. He will read poems from his forthcoming book Poems in the Manner Of (Scribner, 2017).
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.