Denise Duhamel picked Sherman Alexie's "Pachyderm" for The Best American Poetry 2013. On composing "Pachyderm" Alexie writes:
“Lying in a university town hotel, unable to sleep, I watched a National Geographic documentary about elephants. There was a scene if a mother elephant coming upon a dead elephant’s bones. The mother elephant carefully touched the bones with her trunk. She seemed to be mourning the loss of another elephant.. It was devastating. Then, a few days later, I watched a CNN story about an Iraqi War veteran who’d lost both of his legs to an impro0vised explosive device. He was confident in his ability to rehab successfully, but I also detected an undercurrent of anger. So, while I was working on a novel the mourning elephant and wounded soldier merged in my mind. And that’s where ‘Pachyderm’ had its origins.”
You can read "Pachyderm" in The Best American Poetry 2013.
Earlier this week, I mentioned that Jerry Seinfeld’s series called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” inspired my coffee interview series with poets. Each episode shows Jerry Seinfeld driving a notable car to pick up a comedian. He drives them to a coffee shop, and they drink their coffee and chat. Today's post includes an interview with Josh Weiner, who is one of the poets we included in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemorary Jewish American Poetry. By the way, we have a full list of events related to the book. We'd love to see you!
Poets, of course, don’t just drink coffee.
Josh Weiner ordered carrot juice.
Let me be clear here. The carrot juice order gives the person craving chocolate some pause. Does one proceed with the hot chocolate order (yes to whipped cream) or select one of the organic herbal teas made by extremely happy people in another country?
If not for Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, I may well have fallen into ordering something similar to show solidarity. In his book, psychologist and behavioral economist Ariely explains one should be the first to order in a restaurant. Ordering first prevents one from the desire to express individuality by ordering something they do not like in order to be “different” or by expressing solidarity by ordering what someone else orders. The result is often ordering something you don’t like—and being “irrational.” Order first, and these challenges are avoided, my friend.
Despite Josh’s good example—and thanks to Dan Ariely—I kept my original order of hot chocolate with whipped cream. It came with a hair (at no additional charge). Josh said he would not blame me for not wanting to drink bacteria, so I sent it back and got coffee. I ended up with something slightly healthier after all, but the caffeine made me talk a lot.
Our Meeting Place: Busboys and Poets, Hyattsville, MD
Side note: Busboys and Poets is a restaurant named for Langston Hughes. Hughes, if you recall, was a busboy at the Wardman Park (now called the Marriott Wardman Park and a favorite of the AWP and MLA conferences for you English professor/writer types) in Washington, DC. When Vachel Lindsay dined there, Hughes placed his poems in front of the great poet. Lindsay was annoyed, but he picked up the papers and read them. He liked “The Weary Blues" and helped Hughes with his career.
Let’s get to the cars.
Cars Involved: Josh drove a Mini Cooper. I drove a Corolla.
Joshua Weiner is the author of three books of poetry—The World’s Room (2001), From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013)—published by the University of Chicago. He’s received a Whiting Writers Award, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship. In 2014, he’ll be a fellow of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park and is poetry editor at Tikkun. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, the novelist Sarah Blake, and their children.
We started off our conversation talking about topics I was writing about for this week of blogging—Jewish last names, identity, the definition of a Jewish poet or poem.
“I’m not not a Jewish writer,” Josh replied as we talked about Jewish identity. In this, he echoes a number of poets I’ve spoken to about identity. Writers may not use a Jewish label to define themselves, yet their background ends up seeping into their work.
Josh and his family lived in Berlin for a year after he won the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, which awards funds to poets to live outside of the United States for a year.
I mentioned knowing two families who moved to Germany. A third family has expressed interest and might move. I asked him what was the allure of Germany and did he notice a lot of non-Germans living in Berlin?
“A lot of Israelis are buying property in Berlin. Jews are returning to Germany and the “synagogues are reopening,” he said.
I could not help but notice that the synagogues are reopening only now, seventy or so years after the Holocaust. We have so little idea of the full impact of that time in history. Josh pointed out the Holocaust is front and center in Germany, which he says has become a “country of conscience.”
"In Berlin, I sometimes felt like I was living inside a giant Holocaust memorial that turned into a rave party at night," he said.
“If you live in Germany, you can’t escape what the country did to Jews. It’s at the front of everything.”
It’s even in the stones.
A poet I know who moved to Germany posted photos of Holocaust memorial stones on Facebook, so I was slightly familiar with them. Bronze stones have been placed outside the houses and apartments from which people were taken and killed.
“The stones indicate who they were, when they were taken and when they were killed. Might be one person or twelve,” Josh said.
He pointed out the difference between how the United States views slavery and how Germany views the Holocaust: “The US went to war against itself. The Germans had to be defeated by the world, or it would not have stopped. They owe their reformation to the rest of the world. That comes up all the time in Germany.”
In Germany, Josh and his family lived in a prewar walkup, a building with a number of elderly residents. “You walk around and wonder what they [the older people] did [for a living] between 1937 and 1978.”
That gave me a creepy feeling. I get that same creepy feeling driving through Northern Virginia (the land of some creepy spy movies). I wonder how this conscience, how hiding from the past in plain sight, and the guilt of what their country did could affect art.
“What is the poetry like in Germany?” I asked.
“The poetry is forceful. There’s no creative writing industry.”
Josh pointed out that Germans are interested in the idea of workshops and what is done inside one. I joked we could create a million-dollar poetry industry in Germany by offering workshops. (I’m such an American!) Having grown up in a “workshop world” in the U.S., I have trouble imagining a culture and a country where “the workshop” doesn’t exist and, in fact, is a mystery to people.
Using the word “industry” in reference to creative writing programs is an interesting choice, so I asked him about it. Josh has taught at the University of Maryland for twelve years, and he taught before that too. He points out that creative writing programs can help people who want to try to be a writer.
"A program can give aspiring writers access to the expertise of more experienced writers. That's why they are popular. It’s more confusing because more are trying, but that doesn't make it bad," he says.
Right before we left, I asked someone at the hostess stand to take our photo for this blog post. She had us stand in several different places because she found the lighting unsatisfactory. I admired her desire for perfection. Josh and I stood next to each other like people who had just met, because we just had.
“Aren’t you going to put your arms around each other?” she asked. She thought we were a couple, and I had to smile to myself at how hard she was working to make this a good photo. I was amused.
“This is professional!” Josh said with a laugh.
“Our spouses wouldn’t like it,” I added.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And, if not now, when?
The Hillel I reference is Hillel the Elder. He was the leader of the Jewish Supreme Court in the Land of Israel in the early part of the 1st Century CE.
Gathering material for an anthology and spending hours on the book requires attention to detail, the willingness to cheer for others, and a small dose of insanity.
When it came time to write these blog posts, Hillel’s quote kept popping into my head. What is he saying here, and why do I keep thinking about it in relation to the Jewish poetry anthology Matthew Silverman and I edited?
In case you are not familiar with the quote, he’s telling us that we need to be for ourselves. Be nice to yourself. Take care of yourself. Think through what you are doing and how you spend time and revisit whether the actions you are taking are still good choices. However, you can’t only be concerned with yourself. You have to help others, too.
As other writers and editors before me, I wasn't content to be only for myself. Roughly ten years ago, I took on the challenge of founding a journal called 32 Poems Magazine. Becoming a publisher allowed me to find good work and bring it to a place where others could read it. I took particular joy and pride in finding work by writers (unknown and well known alike) and introducing it to the audience we nurtured. Editing an anthology is a similar process.
The same thought process drew me to work on The Bloomsbury Anthology to Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, which we called The New Promised Land back then, with Matthew Silverman.
The power of being for something greater than you is that others will be for the greater experience too. I’ve been impressed and amazed at the outpouring of support for this book. Thanks to the contributors of this anthology, work from the book will be shared at the Center for Jewish History (thank you, Jason Schneiderman) and Poet’s House in New York. Other contributors—Lucille Lang Day, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet, Peter Serchuk, and Susan Cohen—have organized readings in California. Yvette Neisser Moreno helped a reading happen in Maryland. Kim Roberts and others I can't recall right now also helped with contacts and suggestions. Without their generosity of time and their desire to be for others, these readings would not have happened or they would have taken longer to happen.
Generosity did not end at arranging readings and panels. When Matthew asked contributors to answer specific questions, they responded with brief essays. In one essay, Marcela Sulak writes about the importance of listening through our poetry. I share it here because it echoes the sentiment that Hillel shares above and that's so integral to Jewish writings—treat people well. Sulak writes:
For if we have no stable single place from which to view the world, we have the ability and the responsibility of multiple perspectives and the moral imperative that comes with each. While it is important to speak on behalf of the voiceless, it is equally important not to rob anyone of a voice. It is important to listen.
Carly Sachs writes about how the act of writing creates connection between people.
Through writing about identity, struggle, liberation, we come closer to each other. A poem for me breaks down walls between hearts. And in our society, the more that we are able to connect in a way that is real and beyond any adjective or label, whether Jewish, Christian, black, white, omnivore, vegan, gay, straight, young, old---we get to a place that is universal through a specific path. It’s kind of a paradox, right? That no matter which road you take, you’ll eventually get there.
I can’t read what Carly wrote without hearing Hillel asking who we are if we’re only for ourselves.
What follows is the question Matthew Silverman asked of the contributors to our anthology and two of the responses. Today, I will leave you with these essays.
With the role of modern poetry today the way it is, how does Jewish American poetry fit into this?
Carly Sachs responds:
One of my earliest memories of poetry comes from a lesson in Hebrew school. We were studying the Holocaust and the teacher brought in these lines from the paratrooper/poet Hannah Szenes who was only in her earlier twenties when she was captured, tortured, and eventually killed by the Nazis.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor's sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
What I learned is how important it is to stand up for what one believes in both on and off the page. I recently heard Dorianne Laux read and she brought up the idea that one cannot separate him or herself from the time in which he or she was writing. For me, that is an intrinsically Jewish value. Szenes did just that with not only her art, but her life. Szenes became part of the resistance movement and all through her time in prison, she kept her spirits up by singing and writing, which she also used to boost the morale among the other prisoners.
This taught me that the job of the poet is to bear witness, but not just to tragedy, but to great beauty, to the limitless potential that exists within all of us. As poets, we are constantly aware of the world and a good poem will blur the lines between micro and macrocosm; a poem builds a bridge between not understanding and understanding, between one person to another, between humans and nature, between suffering and joy. The line between the sacred and the profane is thin and as poets, we bring people to awareness of the human condition through language. While I learned this value through my Jewish upbringing, I would argue that it is a humanist value that translates across all religious and cultural identities. Through writing about identity, struggle, liberation, we come closer to each other. A poem for me breaks down walls between hearts. And in our society, the more that we are able to connect in a way that is real and beyond any adjective or label, whether Jewish, Christian, black, white, omnivore, vegan, gay, straight, young, old---we get to a place that is universal through a specific path. It’s kind of a paradox right? That no matter which road you take, you’ll eventually get there. I would say that all poems in this way are love poems to ourselves and to each other. At the center of any person or poem is love and as poets it’s our job to remind the world of this one simultaneously small and large truth.
Marcela Sulak responds:
The very phrase Jewish American declares a doubleness of identity and perspective. When the label Jewish is applied to an American poet, the poet is doubled and halved at the same time. A Jewish poet may never speak for herself as a private individual only, though an American poet is mostly seen as autonomous. This doubleness is undoubtedly a generic affect of the hyphenated label. But there are very particular and specific Jewish dimensions as well: Jews have traditionally developed and nurtured the discourse of exile until it has become one of the most salient and defining features (think Passover). To many Jews, America will always be exile, at least ideologically—any place outside of eretz israel, the land of Israel will be. One would hope that “Jewish-American” might imply an ethics and a poetics of empathy with the exile and the most vulnerable members of society (“you are to remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt”).
The generic fact of doubleness is also a contemporary poetic condition (with internet, we are always in two places at once, to reduce it to the most banal) and I think it accounts for the growing emphasis on poetry of witness and documentary poetry. For if we have no stable single place from which to view the world, we have the ability and the responsibility of multiple perspectives and the moral imperative that comes with each. While it is important to speak on behalf of the voiceless, it is equally important not to rob anyone of a voice. It is important to listen. I’ve noticed with gratitude that poetry is seldom written anymore with the expectation of a single, integrated and authoritative “I” as the unifying voice of the poem, when the poem has a speaker. The contemporary poetic I so often includes the other, allows itself to be othered, portrays the way it is splintering, at odds with itself. Or it is increasingly the immigrant, the racial/ethnic/religious minority, the woman who, broken by the birth of a child, will never return to the person she once was. I love this about contemporary poetry.
Months ago, I stumbled upon “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” In each episode, Jerry Seinfeld drives a notable car to pick up a comedian. He drives them to a coffee shop, and they drink their coffee and talk. In the episode with David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld drives a 1995 Volvo station wagon with a racing engine installed by Paul Newman. A Volvo with a racing engine? Even Paul Newman has a sense of humor.
Since this blog post is not sponsored by a luxury car maker, I was not able to procure a Lamborghini—or even a Vespa for that matter—for my coffee date with poet Kim Roberts. To meet her, I took Metro, which has provided me many free lessons regarding self-defense during rush hour.
I am not sure what car she drove.
Our meeting point: The Wydown Coffee Bar, 1320 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009.
Our plan: To have coffee and talk poetry.
Reason: I interviewed her for this week of blogging about Jewish poetry, because we published her work in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry.
About Kim: Kim Roberts is the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly and the anthology Full Moon On K Street: Poems About Washington DC (Plan B Press, 2010), and she has written three books of poems. She’s received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the DC Commission on the Arts, and the Humanities Council of Washington.
Her research on Walt Whitman’s ten years as a resident of Washington, DC has been published in The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, as well as being featured in articles in The Washington Post and The Washington Times, on radio programs on WAMU and WFPW, and in panel presentations at Rutgers University, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and at the annual Washington Historical Studies Conference. She coordinated a citywide festival in 2005, "DC Celebrates Whitman: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass."
We both drank tea from large white cups. The coffee shop worker kept opening the front door, and we withstood blasts of icy air while discussing the significance of Jewish last names.
Kim pointed out her last name doesn’t sound Jewish, because her family changed it upon coming to the U.S.
“I was left without a Jewish name and with a record of antisemitism in the family,” she said.
I asked her to explain.
“They came to the U.S. and pretended not to be Jewish,” she said. “As a result, I did not practice Judaism until college.”
“Which branch did you join?”
“Conservative, because I wanted to learn the ropes.”
I wrote her an email a few days after our conversation to ask her to expand on what we’d discussed during our conversation. She replied:
Although both my parents are Jewish, I was not raised with any strong religious identity. My parents were atheists who saw religion as a kind of personal weakness–a crutch…I came to Judaism late–it wasn't until I was in college that I started reading books about Jewish history and celebrating holidays. My last name was changed by my grandparents when they immigrated to the US–both sides changed their names. At various times I actually considered changing it back since “Roberts” strikes me as nothing less than a record of my family's internalized antisemitism. But in the end I couldn't change it–it's the name I've always been known by, and anything else feels fake. I guess I'm stuck with it.
Immigrants, already outsiders, had their names removed and modified for convenience. The name, whether kept or changed, labeled those immigrants as outsiders due to the fact that the keeping or changing of a name was raised at all. In an essay about American Jewish poetry, John Hollander suggests the idea that both poets and Jews are outsiders while, at the same time, carrying a greater burden: “It is not merely that modern poets and Jews are outsiders, it is more that both carry the burden of an absolutely inexplicable sense of their own identity and history.”
It’s the burden of every artist to carry a sense of identity and history. Have you felt that burden before? Identity and history weigh a lot. They take time. They are not the sorts of suitcase with rollers. They have to be dragged through crowds at the airport. The relationship to them is physical and often involves struggle. I have wrestled with them and asked them to go away. In the end, I am glad they have not disappeared. I’m drawn to them. What would I do without them and their burden? I, like all writers, have carried them so long that I do not know another way.
With American Jewish poetry, the poet balances art and non-art lives, Jewish and American identities and histories, geographical dysphoria between where they are and Israel. To be a Jewish poet is to carry all of this and still have the ability to document, to witness, and to explore.
The role of Jews in contemporary American poetry simply underscores the role of all poets—to speak the unspoken and the unspeakable, as beautifully as possible. As perpetual outsiders, Jewish poets may be especially well suited to the task. It seems so to me, based on the work in this anthology. —Liz Rosenberg
The question Matthew Silverman and I grappled with when putting together The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry was about what constituted a Jewish poem. The poets we solicited for poems wondered, too. A good number of poets wrote us to say they did not write on “Jewish themes.” We reassured them that this was fine.
In the essay “The Question of American Jewish Poetry,” John Hollander asks the same question:
The first hard question is: “Well, do these Jewish American poets write Jewish American poetry?” But that question is itself misleading. And matters are not made clearer by rephrasing it in the apparently sophisticated literary language . . . “Which poems reflect Jewish experience?” Such terms . . . mean little to poets, and perhaps even less to serious and inquiring literary critics. After all, can anything a Jew experiences—even apostasy—not be “Jewish experience”?
Matthew and I were at times no more certain than John Hollander. In a reflection that appears in the back of the anthology, Philip Terman states, “Judaism provides a good deal of the structures and tropes with which my personality is constituted and to which I’m drawn when I sit down to write. My childhood was guided by two calendars, my poetic education by two traditions. Every good poem transcends any one category.” We agree. Good poems go “beyond”—beyond Jewishness, beyond any single tradition—to explore, document, and reflect upon human experience.
After much discussion, we decided to include anyone who considered themselves Jewish, because we thought—and still do—that any American Jewish poet who writes poetry is writing both American and Jewish poetry even if they do not declare this outright. That said, we did not check ID cards. As editors, we decided to trust how others identified themselves.
Our job as poets is to make new what may be old and unoriginal. We do that each day we sit down at the desk to write. We recognize that words are screens—that, as Picasso said, “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” that we’re here to make art and not check every fact. Hollander points out that if someone asks—naively, Hollander stresses—how American Jewish poetry reflects American Jewish experience, then that person is referring to a fictional book called “Experience” written by Modernism. We know that the writer must make new what’s old and can “steal” as long as the theft turns into original work. If, as Hollander says, “the true text of the world is always fresh and always renewing itself,” then every poem in this book aims to do the same whether or not it refers overtly to Judaism.
It's been a big week for David Lehman. His New and Selected Poems launched, representing four decades of his poetry. We're over the moon. Here are a few highlights:
Interview with NPR's Camila Domonoske (November 2, 2013)
Garrison Keilor highlights David Lehman's "Radio" on the Writer's Almanac (November 7, 2013)
And that's not all . . .
David Lehman's Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man is now available at Amazon as a Chu Hartley Publishers e-book. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called the book, "superb" and "fascinating": "It stands as a lucid and fiercely intelligent study of the disturbing implications of deconstruction, and at the same time, as an impassioned argument for a more humane study of literature."
And there's more!
Read about the festival here:
In Whitman’s Backyard, a Salute to Poetry By Aileen Jacobson (The New York Times, November 1, 2013)
Huntington holds Walt Whitman poetry fest by Stacey Altherr (Newsday, November 1, 2013)
I had the happy chance to review Ron Padgett's Collected Poems (Coffee House Press) for Publishers Weekly. Here are my first two grafs and a link to the rest. -- DL
Long a mainstay of the New York School’s second generation, Ron Padgett—the self-styled “Tulsa Kid,” as the title of one of his books has it—left Oklahoma to attend Columbia University and become a big city poet. He studied with Kenneth Koch, met Frank O’Hara, made the pilgrimage to Paris, read and translated Reverdy, Apollinaire, Cendrars. From the start his poems had a joyous nonchalance about them—the Renaissance term for it is sprezzatura. Five decades fuel his Collected Poems, a tome teeming with Padgett’s trademark traits: comic energy, good humor, alert intelligence, constant curiosity, and the determination to put it all into poems.
is prolific, buoyant, confident that the day will yield its poem,
nothing forced. He has written affecting memoirs of Ted Berrigan and Joe
Brainard, two close friends from Tulsa days. His Collected highlights
an array of New York School
strategies. But though he mentions his wife and friends in poems, even
ending a poem with the phone number of one of them (Larry Fagin),
Padgett’s poems are not crowded with people and events in the O’Hara
manner. If there is a consistency of purpose it is Padgett’s devotion to
an esthetic path, his trust in the imagination and the associative
logic that powers it. In “My Room” the logic leads quite naturally (and
hilariously) from a lamp that Ted Berrigan once took from a hotel room
to the value of studying Latin.
Just a reminder:
This Thursday, the Poetry Foundation will host two gifted Latino poets at its HQ for a reading, book signing, and reception: Dan Vera -- author of Speaking Wiri Wiri, which won the inaugural Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press prize -- and Orlando Ricardo Menes, who judged the contest and whose newest collection, Fetish, won last year's Prairie Schooner Book Prize.
Thursday, Oct 24, 7:00PM
61 West Superior Street
And here's a preview.
Overdrawn, repoed Grand Prix, workshop in hock
To the dogs, Papá mends houses of refugees
Who niggle over how much grout to squeeze
Into a crack, who bathe in their girdles and socks
To skimp on Fab. Checks bounce, taxmen hound, the truck's
Muffler shot, Papá scouts groomed lawns for settes,
Divans, chaises meant for Goodwill, windfall antiques
To fix with mallet, strainer, needle, twine, & chalk.
"Waste is for gringos," he'd say, tapping brass nails
That wiggle on warped pine or straining buckram
On a crippled carcass, my hands dull as I shear
Chintz for skirts, though Papá, reverent with details,
Irons burlap, measures the tweed sleeves & trim
In metrics, smoothes out horsehairs to cashmere.
--from Fetish (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), by Orlando Ricardo Menes
-- Learn more about the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press Poetry Prize here.
-- Visit the Letras Latinas blog here.
“Inventive and often winningly sincere…Lehman is candid as well as ironic—sometimes, both at once. He generates a maniacal, irreverent, fast-thinking range of references to movies, poems, history.” —Robert Pinsky, Washington Post Book World
“Lehman uses many conveyances—including the prose poem, the sestina, and curt rhymes—to travel across the writing life of a poet whose instinctive romanticism is always bracing and tough-minded, brimming with a rare generosity.” —Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly
Scribner is pleased to release a new collection from David Lehman, the editor of The Best American Poetry. Lehman’s extraordinary generosity and love for the genre, and his stature among writers, are well-known: the Poetry Foundation describes Lehman as “one of the foremost editors, literary critics, and anthologists of contemporary American literature,” as well as “one of its most accomplished poets.” Crowning these accomplishments is Lehman’s latest collection of poetry, NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (Scribner; November 5; 978-1-4767-3187-2).
Drawing from a wealth of material produced over the course of more than forty years, this collection opens with a gathering of stunning new poems, prose poems, and translations of Goethe and Apollinaire. Selections from Lehman’s seven published collections—including Yeshiva Boys, When a Woman Loves a Man, and The Daily Mirror—follow and are capped off by a coda of important early and previously uncollected works.
"Lehman’s poems are often described as at once witty, inventive, romantic, ironic, and brainy," writes Gwyneth Stansfield. "This collection is certainly all of those things and more. My own favorite poem,"Yours the Moon," displays a tough sincerity I find especially evocative and lovely":
the sky, distant,
endless, wears her
necklace of stars
over her dress
under my scarf
that she wears
against the cold
NEW AND SELECTED POEMS is David Lehman at his best―a collection that displays the full range of his poetic genius.
New York, NY November 6 / 6pm
New York University Bookstore (Broadway and Waverly Place, NYC)
Reading followed by conversation w/ Ken Tucker
Long Island, NY November 8-9
Best of the Best American Poetry Festival
In collaboration with the Walt Whitman Birthplace and the Book Revue
Next week, the Poetry Foundation will host two gifted Latino poets at its HQ in Chicago for a reading, book signing, and reception: Dan Vera -- author of Speaking Wiri Wiri, which won the inaugural Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press prize -- and Orlando Ricardo Menes, who judged the contest and whose newest collection, Fetish, won last year's Prairie Schooner Book Prize.
Poetry Off the Shelf: Orlando Ricardo Menes & Dan Vera
Thursday, Oct 24, 7:00PM
61 West Superior Street
And here's a poem from Vera's winning collection. Next week, before the reading, we'll offer one from Menes' book as well.
I tease you about the dog's affections.
You have his eye when you're in the room
and when you walk away his ears keep pace
in case his feet must follow.
He wants for you so dearly when you've departed.
I tell you, What am I, chopped liver?
But you are his beef bourguignon.
You are the steak tartare of his every dream.
but the truth is, he is my clearest mirror.
If I lived in the lovetime of a dog
and thought that every time you left
you might not make it back
wouldn't I climb the chair near the window?
wouldn't I pace the floors in deep distress?
--from Speaking Wiri Wiri (Red Hen Press, 2013), by Dan Vera
-- Learn more about the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press Poetry Prize here.
-- Visit the Letras Latinas blog here.
Dan Nester's Incredible Sestina Anthology will soon hit the shelves. He tells us about the book here. Check out the awesome table of contents. "When the readings happen, when the poets who were generous enough to allow me to include their work in this book get together and read their sestinas in front of people, and with a stack of those books sitting on a table nearby, I’m going to be teary-eyed," Dan reports. "Verklempt. Misty. I’ll be grateful and proud and a little overwhelmed." Furthermore, he is "going to look like Michael Landon toward the end of an episode of Little House on the Prairie."
What the eye sees and what the mind remembers has changed with the takeover that technology has meant in our lives but we, as 21st century humans, are nothing if not persistent. As the pace of life seems to quicken, each moment takes on a seeming greater importance as the flickers of our existence speed up. Technology has closed gaps but also created a new abyss.
The original daft punks, poets have traditionally held as one of their roles gatekeeper for collective memory, although poetry also obviously provides pleasure and has no need to be useful in a strict sense. Andrei Codrescu's poetry serves several unique functions in addition to providing pleasure. It's an invaluable record of what the writing life of this poet became, which is transformative, as well as the details of how life on planet earth has changed in the past few generations as our 21st century lives become more complex. All of these facets are preserved here. Yet
memory disregards context
it is an enemy of experience
therefore unreliable and since
basic memory is a condition of survival
i assume that we survive
in spite of experience
when one forgets as a philosophy
each forgotten thing is raised to the status
of a god (i.e. objective condition)
and makes everyone else remember<
things that they haven't experienced
some memories bring with them brand new
from the original contexts in which they occurred
and thus set up the conditions
for brand new memories
most things endowed with memory die
prenatal memory is common property
but it is not
words and pictures are the only
things one can forget at leisure
and look up later
His underlying worldview always seems a bit more Buddhist and less Freudian. Codrescu emigrated to the United States in 1966 from Romania and his time here has sharpened his eye rather than dulling it. If he sometimes seems like the canary in the coal mine of our consumer driven society, he performs that operation with much humor, although of the black variety.
a petite histoire of red fascism
are made by energy.
The inert masses
know nobody & not
themselves. Nobody &
Not Self are well worth
knowing but connecting
them takes energy
so they are known
only by their masks
of inert proletarian
statues. The people
with the most energy
to know the statues.
The statues are well-known
by the inert masses.
The people with just
a little less energy
are then employed
to interrogate the inert
proletariat. One energy
grade below, the police &
energize the inert mass
which is now for the
first time broken up
Breaking it up releases
to respond to questioning.
The police level then ex-
tract a primitive narra-
tive from the recently
inert & this narrative
generates enough energy
& excitement to produce
a two-level discourse which
makes sense to the upper
energy level. New
energy is created & soon
the top echelons are
introduced to the dis-
courses of Nobody &
Not Self. Together,
the brass & the mass
envision the statues:
the energy of the mass
will henceforth be em-
ployed to make statues
of the brass.
It's this production, procreation, which provides the only new energy, which provides fresh resources to serve as grist to be thrown back into the mill of the system. In a sort-of circle jerk of meaningless repetitive political motion, the masses exist only to validate the worthless existences of the rulers. This cycle of manipulation is commemorated by the observance of hollow statues but in a complete breakdown of life over time the manufacture of these simulacra has become the only occupation. Life is a pursuit of energy, an increasingly rare commodity, and happiness no longer figures into anything. Not a poet to ignore the absurdities of American life, Codrescu at least gives us a laugh, while diagnosing some of the maladies of our current social condition.
Codrescu has always been able to quickly slip into and out of various personae. His first book was written in 1970 in fact from the perspective of a persona of his own invention, Julio Hernandez, a Puerto Rican living on the Lower East Side of New York. As an immigrant himself, it's no surprise that he writes that Hernandez "hovers saintly on the edge of all my action." Codrescu uses the persona of Hernandez to navigate what he calls "prison reality."
(p. 101)from a trilogy of birds
in birds is our stolen being, from summer to summer
they carry on my destruction, more obvious
as i get closer to death.
in the kitchen powerful lights stay on at night
watching the summer passage of birds.
the sea contains
their thick excrement, our longing to fly,
the sea changes color.
weak ships over the water.
i am seasonal.
i offer poisoned lights to passing birds
through the guarded door of the kitchen.
it suddenly opens.
i catch the sea when it is taken away
by disciplined clouds of birds.
In this world of new identities it makes sense that birds symbolize our desire and longing for some indefinable escape. If Codrescu's poetry has represented to some extent a mordant or ironic paen of the schizophrene, this observer has loved it. By providing this illogical logic, often using a surrealist lens, Codrescu illumines just how fractured our lives have become. He does so with a deft painterly touch. In his poems, image and metaphor usually figure large. As with Artaud there is a grand gesture at play.
I have been altered like a suit
to accommodate a much larger man.
Dedication & appalling motives support this enlargement
like crossbeams in a simple church in Transylvania.
I have gone against nature
and now I have fur.
I am the most ruthlessly hunted
but the most ecologically abundant animal.
My name is victory over mother and father.
In the transformation that Codrescu assumes, to the extent we are able to bear it, may be recognized, if anything, a suit of mirrors. Although in this poem the implication is that a Romantic victory over the pitfalls of the preceding generation involves a feat that might look similar to lycanthropy. The poet is tasked with a dangerous role and she may even be metaphorically hunted for it.
An epigraph by Romanian poet Mircea Cărtărescu to a later poem (p. 393) called "Walnuts," reads "I don't like the substances from which poetry is made… you have to consume your own self too much… the truer prose writer consumes others." If Americans seem to like writing poetry but not reading it, this epigraph may hint at the reason. Codrescu provides the kind of self-analysis in his poetry that recreational readers of best seller lists would find repellent.
Codrescu, in his poem "Epitaph" (p. 222) hints of a poetry that doesn't exist to placate the masses.
he was a young guy with surrealist connections.
this tombstone does not lie
it merely stands imbedded in the sweet dark stew
waiting for the connoisseur
...in 1913, a jewish boy
fresh out of the ghetto of moineşti in the kingdom of romania
bursts into a concentrated violence of guffaws before the swiss
releasing centuries of repression and fear combined with a strict
alphabet that until now left no airy gap for youth's springtime
and he does so in public, the war be damned and propriety, too.
he is staring at the nude legs of a mannequin bei in a shop window
and it's cracking him up: her beige ceramic ankles signal
the death of his required ancestral gloom.
lenin gives him a look as he ambles toward the library.
death is suddenly upset and sets her minions to work.
we must recover tzara's laugh! we know what happened later.
Other than humor and prescience, Codrescu has always excelled at producing some of the most memorable imagery of any living poet.
toltec submarine with dragonfly wings
mating with two or three of your kind on the wet ass
of the beloved floating downstream on a frog floatie
He's able to diagnose our maladies on the grandest of scales but the bedrock of his dark, yet amiable, agenda is a talent for the razor sharp one-liner:
I had a youth once
I was very good at it
At their best, Codrescu's poems carry a sublime disorder that can seem simultaneously elegant and grotesque. In his poem "intention" for the poet Tom Clark he writes
Poems be not intended
therefore I be always writin
is to order which is why
it is important to make
without a plan. Intention
lands one in bed with cliché,
which is somebody's old plan
to bed somebody else's old
In Codrescu's bendable world we are all allowed to try on his insouciant thoughts and walk around in them for awhile. If you find his clothes out of fashion, it may be that he's always been a few steps ahead. He is one of the most well-known poets in the world but seems most at home in those liminal spaces that defy description, but this is a poet whose gags are quite serious. In this new and selected book of poems, Codrescu is still one of our most skilled interlocutors and he sings above the abyss skillfully, reminding us that:
There is only one subject: the abyss between theory and practice
The abyss is interesting: both theory and practice suck.
I first “met” Rosie Schaap, author of Drinking with Men, in a most unusual and literary way. Damiano and I had just finished up our “Poetry & Translation Song & Dance Routine,” as we call it, for this past spring’s group of University of Washington Rome Center students. One of them came up to me and said, “I really liked your poem that was on that podcast.” “What podcast?!?” I hadn’t known.
So when I got home, the first thing I did was google it, and this is what I found. Have a listen if you want to hear a smart and interesting discussion of poems more or less related to drinking and bars. I was delighted to be in such august company (Shakespeare, Gary Snyder, Heather McHugh) and to hear Curtis Fox's very interesting take on Mr. Shakes’s “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” I was also delighted to hear how deeply and completely Ms. Schaap “got” my poem.
I then did what any grateful poet in the 21st century would do: I found her email address and wrote her a thank-you message. And I told her I was going to be giving a reading in Brooklyn in June. And, on the appointed Sunday, there she was, in the audience at the Lunar Walk Reading at the Two Moon Café.
In the meantime, I’d gotten hold of a copy of her terrific memoir, Drinking with Men, which I began to devour. How could anyone not love a book that mentions, in the very Introduction, one of the great classics of urban single life: Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis. This is a book that I own and tongue-in-cheekily cherish, a manual for the single career gal living the 1930s city life, which instructs on such useful topics as Necessary Kitchen Equipment. You might think she’s going to tout that then-newish invention, the electric toaster, but no, she’s more concerned that every single woman have a proper set of martini-mixing equipment for entertaining purposes. Gal after my own heart.
And Rosie’s is a book after my own heart. There are so many, many memoirs out there, as you know, and some of them make me want to cry – with boredom. I have discovered, in my recent years of memoir reading, that the ones I really like use as their foundation something like an objective correlative (yes, I’m a poet). They focus on a very specific theme or image, and present the life viewed through that particular lens. Peter Trachtenberg’s Seven Tattoos was maybe the first one that I read of this sub-genre: a lyrical yet fiercely intelligent meditation with each chapter focused, quite like a poem, on one of the author’s (then) seven tattoos.
Drinking with Men is a smart and beautifully written memoir organized around the search for the perfect bar. Journeying from the bar car on Metro North, where our protagonist whips out her tarot cards to do readings in exchange for beers, to various bars and pubs in Ireland, Montreal, Massachusetts, and New York (of course), we are given significant glimpses into a lyrical, wide-ranging, and ever-exploring psyche. Though I felt a real kinship at many points with this “narrator,” you don’t need to have an Irish soul – real or imagined – to be moved by the various poetic and personal journeys that she takes us on.
At a couple of points (for example, while I was on the bus to and from New York for the visit during which I would Meet the Author in Person, at her Bar), I just had to stop reading in public because I get very pink and misty when I start to cry. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn some wonderful things – about martinis, metaphors, and making a life on your own terms.
A coda: When I visited Rosie at the wonderful little neighborhood joint where she tends bar of a Tuesday evening, I got to be an honorary “regular.” This was a real thrill, as, on that podcast, she’d so brilliantly situated my “Bar Napkin Sonnet #11” within the problematic context of “regularhood” and being a woman. Not to mention it was so much fun to meet the real regulars.
I knew that Rosie would “pull” a good Guinness, and she did, but I also got to experience some things at her bar that, well, we just don’t have so readily in Italy. For one, and I hope I’m writing it correctly, an Oliver Twist martini – yes, with olives and a twist. A real treat. Then, and the Italian readers of this blog should probably go elsewhere right now, a most amazing concoction: a grilled cheese sandwich with kielbasa, and grape jelly on top. Salty, sweet, smoky: it was perfect. Thank you, Rosie, and thank you, Regulars.
Rosie Schaap writes the “Drink” column for the New York Times, and is the author of Drinking with Men, a memoir that will make for great late-summer reading.
As series editor of The Best American Poetry, I get to have a say, sometimes a large say, in the cover art we use each year. As I love looking at pictures, the need to produce a new cover each year has given me an extra reason to frequent galleries and museums. It is fun to be constantly on the lookout. It can change the way you look at a painting, a photograph, or a collage, adding a new dimension to the experience. Choosing cover art is not a unilateral process: My editor at Scribner, others at Scribner, including the art director and the publisher, and my literary agent (Glen Hartley), are among those whose opinions matter. Here are the covers we have run. We hope you will weigh in, too. View the slide show in full screen and select the "show info" option to see the names of the artists and titles of the art work. -- DL
As some of you may already know, a massive project has been undertaken called The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project. The goal is to create, accretively over time, the largest database of women poets in the world. We know it took thousands of workers almost 200 years to build the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The Mezzo Cammin timeline is the same idea. Think Sappho to Sapphire. It will be an intellectual edifice built by many hundreds of contributors.
A panel was convened again at the West Chester Poetry Conference this June to discuss the progress of the Mezzo Cammin timeline. The project was launched in March 2010 by the poet Kim Bridgford, who is also a professor and director of the West Chester conference. Here’s how it works. Each entry on the timeline includes a photo or drawing, a data sidebar and an essay written specifically for the project by accomplished women poets and scholars. Whenever available, poems or links to poems by the author are included. The timeline project was originally sponsored by Mezzo Cammin, the online journal of formalist poetry by women, also spearheaded by Kim Bridgford. Many essays have been generated for the timeline through seminars held from 2009 through 2013 at the West Chester conference. There are now 46 essays up on the site, with 26 more in the works. The database includes canonical poets such as Sylvia Plath but also lesser-known figures such as Enheduanna (arguably the first recorded poet in history) and Christine de Pizan. Many of the essays, especially those on non-English speaking poets of the past, require original research and translation. The importance of the Mezzo Cammin timeline was illustrated recently by a discussion on the poetry board Eratosphere, prompted by Wendy Sloan's essay on Gaspara Stampa.
Women poets and scholars interested in writing an essay for the database should contact the essay coordinator, the poet Anna M. Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org), with credentials and a suggested poet.
Then there’s the poet George Green. At the West Chester Poetry Conference this June, George read from his new book, Lord Byron’s Foot. His collection aptly won the 2012 New CriterionPoetry Prize. George blends technical skill with pop-culture literacy, the vinegar of satire, literary literacy, the chipotle sauce of unblinkered wit, and sphincter-loosening humor. The poet and regular BAPster David Yezzi posted an entry here in May suggesting that George Green had composed, perhaps, the funniest poem ever written, “Bangladesh.” David’s post was called “The Greening of Bohemia.” I recommend it, and I agree with David to a point, but I would propose that “Bangladesh” is the second most comical poem ever written. The funniest poem ever written in the Age of Man is “Lord Byron’s Foot.”
When George read this poem to a packed house at West Chester, I saw respectable people and estimable poets bent over from wheezing, unable to sit up in their chairs, brought to the brink of tears. Some auditors—with cardiac conditions—looked to be at death’s door. The power of this poem is mighty. It’s about Lord Byron and his friggin’ foot. I can do no further justice to the poem than quote it in full, but this, I tell you, is nothing compared with hearing George Green read it live:
Lord Byron's Foot
That day you sailed across the Adriatic,
wearing your scarlet jacket trimmed in gold,
you stood there on the quarter deck, beglamored,
but we were all distracted by your foot.
Your foot, your foot, your lordship’s gimpy foot,
your twisted, clubbed and clomping foot, your foot.
Well, Caroline went half-mad for your love,
but did she ever try to make you dance?
No, never, never, never would that happen;
no, never with your limping Lordship’s foot—
your foot, your foot, your lame and limping foot,
your limp and lumbering, plump and plodding foot.
We see you posing with your catamite,
a GQ fashion-spread from 1812,
but one shoe seems to differ from the other.
Is that the shoe that hides your hobbled foot?
Your foot, your foot, your game and gimping foot,
your halt and hobbled, clumped and clopping foot.
And why did Milbanke sue you for divorce?
T’was buggery? I really do doubt that.
It was your foot, and everybody knows it.
It’s all we think about—your stupid foot.
Your foot, your foot, your clumsy, clumping foot,
your limp and gimping, stupid, stubby foot.
And after you had swum the Hellesponte,
“A fin is better than a foot,” they’d say.
Behind your back they’d say, “a fin is better,”
meaning your Lordship’s foot was just a fin.
A fin, a fin, your foot was just a fin;
your flubbed and flumping foot was just a fin.
And when you went to Cavalchina, masked,
with Leporello’s list (only half male),
what were your friends all whispering about?
What had they been remembering—your foot?
Your foot, your foot, your halt and hampered foot.
Your hobbled, clubbed and clopping foot, your foot.
When Odevaere drew you on your deathbed,
with laurel on your alabaster brow,
he threw a blanket on your legs—but why?
Could it have been to cover up your foot?
Your foot, your foot, your pinched and palsied foot,
your crimped and clumping, gimped, galumphing foot.
It’s best if we just contemplate your bust,
a bust by Thorvaldson or Bartolini,
and why is that you ask, and why is that?
So no one has to see your friggin’ foot,
your foot, your foot, your clomping monster foot,
your foot, your foot, your foot, your foot, your foot!
Great work, George.
Many, many thanks to Stacey Harwood and David Lehman for inviting me to blog here this week!
I hope readers will visit my new website: www.johnffoy.net.
The shenanigans of Eros aren’t unrelated to the comings and goings of the Muse. We know in a thousand different ways the upending power of desire, but the link between desire and inspiration is not always self-evident. The poet Robert Graves wrote a long treatise on the Muse, called The White Goddess. It’s among the strangest books ever written. In one of his more straightforward passages, Graves writes that, “poetry is rooted in love, and love in desire, and desire in the hope of continued existence.” This is a kind of poet-friendly, procreative Platonism. Graves equates poetry with our wish not to die, and in the middle of his equation are desire and love, but desire comes first. Plato would probably have agreed with Graves here.
Physical beauty arouses our desire because of the excellence inherent in it. (Sexual orientation in this regard is irrelevant.) Our desire to get close to carnal excellence puts us on a path, so Plato’s theory goes, toward higher forms of excellence—ethical, intellectual, spiritual. When confronted with uncommon beauty, a male asks, how good a man must I be to be worthy of this excellence? What must I do, how hard must I work, what must I believe in, how must I conduct my life? But it all begins in the beer hall of the physical. Plato, the philosopher, moves upward from Eros toward the sublime. Graves, the poet, lingers with Eros back on the footpaths of the earth, among the trees and birds. But Eros, in both cases, is the starting point.
How do we talk about Eros? And how do we talk about the actions of the Muse? The words and phrases that describe the erotic happen to be the same that apply to poetic inspiration: pleasure, a deep satisfaction, mystery, unknowing, a chance encounter, the unpredictable, a letting go, a giving over, a giving into, a reception, a forgetting of the self, and the getting of a gift.
The points of correspondence, I hope, are clear. When the Muse enters your room, you obey. You are filled with an uncanny sense of abundance. You give in and over, abandoning the internal regulators. If things go well, you’re left with the feeling of having been touched inside and inevitably by… an angel or a succubus! For a poet, the result is the same.
The problem, though, is that the Muse is transitory. Poets want her to stay, but she doesn’t. It’s in her nature to come and to go. When she comes, you are grateful, and you work as best you can to satisfy her. When she leaves, you try to call her back. You try through futile stratagems to persuade her to return. But gifts and pleadings mean nothing to the Muse. When she wants to come back, if she does, she will. It’s the poet’s task to be alert, trained, and ready.
To talk about the Muse is to talk about where poems come from, and how. They come to us from people, places, ideas, things, sensations, experiences, memories, the dead, and our own intense emotions. Then we ask how they come. Usually, a part comes first, like an image or a phrase or a rhyme. But then what? We have to work this little gift up into a complete, coherent, pleasing unit—a poem. In doing so, we learn to distinguish between the words we intend to put down on the page and those words and phrases and swerves in logic that come to us in the struggle of composition, from elsewhere. As we labor and sweat in the hothouse of the act, the Muse sometimes comes to help us turn a phrase, find a metaphor, or make a discovery for the poem that we had not foreseen. Is this a magical visitation, or is it merely a loosening-up and freeing-up of the mind under the stress of composition, during which the poet, fatigued and despairing, unintentionally lets down the internal controls and opens up, in exhaustion, to other possibilities as the only way to keep the poem alive? Whatever you call it, the result is the same: ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. The Muse lives elsewhere and comes from thence when she wants to. And Eros? He too arrives from elsewhere and presides in unexpected ways. In these acts of play, be they compositional or erotic, we cede some control, acknowledge the primacy of the senses, and lose ourselves for a while in pleasure.
Yesterday, I wrote about the question of poetry and employment. Today’s posting is closely related. If you’re a poet, what do you do with yourself? Consider poor Francis Thompson, an English poet from the late 1800s who was not wealthy but who nevertheless, to his own grave disadvantage, sought no means of work at all. Wikipedia refers to him charitably as an ascetic. The voice below is neither Thompson’s, nor mine, but Philip Larkin's. The quoted text is from Larkin’s essay on Thompson, called “Hounded” (from Required Writing, with a foreword by David Lehman!). Because my sense of humor is rather dark, these passages always have me doubled-over. Here’s Larkin (the book he’s referring to is J. C. Reid’s Francis Thompson: Man and Poet, London: Routledge, 1959):
“This book is fascinating because Thompson is fascinating, with all the fascination of character produced to excess. Born in Ashton-under-Lyne in 1859, the son of a Catholic-convert doctor, he had a happy childhood—indeed, too happy: after the nursery fantasies of dolls and his toy theatre, adult life was an anticlimax. An attempt to enter the priesthood was foiled by the percipient Fathers at St. Cuthbert’s, Ushaw, and he was sent instead to study medicine at Owens College. Daily he went by train to Manchester, to please his father, but once there he spent his time wandering about, reading and sleeping in Manchester Public Library, and watching cricket, in this way pleasing, or at least not displeasing, himself. Every so often he failed an examination. Incredibly, he kept this up for six years, and would no doubt have been content to spend the rest of his life travelling backwards and forwards on this misunderstanding if his father had not lost patience, and demanded at last that his son go to work. It was too late. Thompson had already found the answer to growing up: laudanum.
“Sooner than work, he quitted Ashton for London. Whether this sole decisive action of his life was simply an evasion, or whether it was in its pitiful, maimed way a gesture of independence, its consequences were terrible. Between 1885 and 1888 Thompson lived as miserably as any English poet before or after. Begging, selling papers or matches, running errands for a kind of bookmaker, spending what money he had on laudanum while he ate vegetable refuse in Covent Garden and slept on the Embankment, it is unbelievable that any many of sensibility could have voluntarily endured it—voluntarily, because his father sent him an allowance of seven shillings a week to a reading room in the Strand. But to collect it would have required conscious exercise of the will, a recognition of reality, a degree of self-discipline. Thompson preferred to starve.
“[He] just wanted to escape crushing responsibilities like getting up in the morning. Though there had been some talk of a literary career at home, he wrote nothing—certainly no poetry—and it was not until a tentative and long-disregarded contribution to Merry England had aroused the curiosity and compassion of the editor, Wilfrid Meynell, not until Thompson had been persuaded into a private hospital and broken of his addiction, that ‘from this man of thirty who had had only two rather mediocre poems printed, poetry now poured in a turbid torrent.’ In 1893 Elkin Mathews and John Lane published his first book, Poems. From then on he lived the rest of his life—another fourteen years only—in the Meynell’s kindly ambience. He was no more efficient, and not much happier, but at least he was never without food and lodging. Laudanum reasserted its hold, perhaps to dull consumption, and he died in 1907, murmuring ‘My withered dreams, my withered dreams’.”
This is Larkin at his bitter best, and it’s a good argument for poets to seek refuge in the Church, the Corporation, the Academy, or perhaps the Military. The message: get a job.
All jobs seem real to the people who have them, but poets like to make distinctions. They refer typically to “real” jobs when talking about employment outside of academia (illogical though that may be). I’m a poet, and I’ve been told that I have a real job. I work as a senior financial editor at a Brazilian investment bank. Despite an urge early on to enter the teaching profession, for which I had some talent, I went down another road. I had to support my family in Manhattan. By the year 2000, my black beret and cape were gone, but the calling was still with me, so there was nothing for it but to change my way of thinking about the literary life. Over the years, through friendships with many poets and writers, I’d come to see that the only thing that mattered in a so-called literary life was generating literature, and in this case, writing poems. No surprise, then, that I’ve been fiercely interested in major poets who lived “unliterary” lives. We all know the usual suspects.
Wallace Stevens was trained as a lawyer and spent most of his working life as an executive for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. The guy won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955, and he was offered a position at Harvard, but he turned it down. He chose to stay at his job. He liked being a vice president. He was often seen walking along the leafy suburban streets of Hartford in a suit, mumbling to himself. We know what he was doing.
In 1917, when he was 29, T. S. Eliot signed on with Lloyd's Bank in London as a clerk in the Colonial and Foreign department. He would stay for eight years. The writer Lisa Levy, in her article called “A Peaceful, but Very Interesting Pursuit” (The Rumpus, January 31, 2012), notes that Eliot thought himself very fortunate to have found this job, and she quotes from a letter he wrote to his mother in 1917:
“I am now earning £2 10s a week for sitting in an office from 9:15 to 5 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in the office… Perhaps it will surprise you to hear that I enjoy the work. It is not nearly so fatiguing as schoolteaching, and is more interesting. I have a desk and a filing cabinet in a small room with another man. The filing cabinet is my province, for it contains balance sheets of all the foreign banks with which Lloyd’s does business. These balances I file and tabulate in such a way as to show the progress or decline of every bank from year to year.”
It’s both riveting and appalling to hear Eliot speak with such affection about his filing cabinet. Yet in the midst of such a life he conceived The Waste Land, which was published in 1922. Eliot didn’t leave the bank until 1925, when he went to join the publishing house Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber). Granted, this new job was all rather literary, but it was also corporate, and he became a director and went about, happily, in a three-piece suit.
There are other examples. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda labored as a diplomat. Philip Larkin worked for 30 years as a librarian at the University of Hull. During these years—more deprivation, perhaps, than daffodils—he wrote most of his glum, bilious and brilliant poems. William Carlos Williams, a doctor, delivered 3,000 babies in the grimy industrial zones of New Jersey. Are there other major poets who’ve delivered even 30 babies? Or 3? If so, I would like to know. We’re talking 3,000 here. I verified this arresting fact with Herbert Leibowitz, whose masterful biography of William Carlos Williams, Something Urgent I Have to Say, was published by FSG in 2011.
Then there is the louche and sublime C. P. Cavafy. In 1892, at the age of 29, he took a job as a low-level clerk in the Irrigation Department of the Ministry of Public Works in Egypt. He would stay for 30 years! According to the Official Website of the Cavafy Archive, when he “was finally able to gain employment… at the Ministry of Public Works, he was hired as a temporary clerk, since his Greek citizenship excluded him from any permanent position. Being an assiduous and conscientious worker, Cavafy managed to hold this temporary position (renewed annually) for thirty years. He was always mindful of his finances, both out of necessity and out of vanity… He started working at the Alexandrian Stock Exchanges early on, and was a registered broker from 1894 to 1902.”
The most “poetic” side of Cavafy’s life—aside from his poems—were his wanderings about the streets of Alexandria after he left the office. We know what he was doing.
I’d like to conclude with James Merrill’s affectionate and counterintuitive thoughts on dear Elizabeth Bishop, who for most of her life never had any job at all, real or otherwise. The quotation below comes directly from the famous Paris Review interview that Sandy McClatchy conducted with James Merrill (Summer 1982, Issue No. 84). This is Merrill speaking:
“Oh, I suppose I’ve learned things about writing, technical things, from each of them [Stevens, Auden, Bishop, a few others]. Auden’s penultimate rhyming, Elizabeth’s way of contradicting something she’s just said, Stevens’s odd glamorizing of philosophical terms. Aside from all that, what I think I really wanted was some evidence that one didn’t have to lead a “literary” life—belong to a ghetto of “creativity.” That one could live as one pleased, and not be shamefaced in the glare of renown (if it ever came) at being an insurance man or a woman who’d moved to Brazil and played samba records instead of discussing X’s latest volume. It was heartening that the best poets had this freedom. Auden did lead a life that looked literary from a distance, though actually I thought it was more a re-creation of school and university days: much instruction, much giggling, much untidiness. Perhaps because my own school years were unhappy for extracurricular reasons I didn’t feel completely at ease with all that… It was du côté de chez Elizabeth, though, that I saw the daily life that took my fancy even more, with its kind of random, Chekhovian surface, open to trivia and funny surprises, or even painful ones, today a fit of weeping, tomorrow a picnic. I could see how close that life was to her poems, how much the life and the poems gave to one another. I don’t mean I’ve “achieved” anything of the sort in my life or poems, only that Elizabeth had more of a talent for life—and for poetry—than anyone else I’ve known, and this has served me as an ideal.”I sign off today on that happy note.
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.