Denise Duhamel, Barbara Hamby, David Kirby, and David Lehman are hilarious and beautiful. This happens to be my favorite combination for poetry and people, so last night's reading for the 2014 Moorman Symposium was like going to a town where "candy canes grow on trees," "the streets are paved in pastries," and "there are no clocks," somewhere a lot like Gnürsk (a city in Poland you can visit in David Kirby's poetry).
I want everyone to experience Gnürsk. It would be a shame for anyone to miss out. But if you haven't had the pleasure of hearing these poets read, there's another way to travel -- buy their books! Until your Amazon Prime box arrives, here are a few excerpts. (Posting just parts of these poems is a little like pouring the white dust that collects inside the candy cane's clear plastic wrapping into your hand, but even these bits are sweet!)
Denise Duhamel read "Victor," from her collection Blowout, a 2013 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award.
and see what happens you almost drop the cardboard
and the mound of sawdust
that you wish didn't look so much like a mound
and you say are you crazy and the handyman sulks
well it was worth a try and you ask
why did you wait so long to ask me out
knowing he would have had a much better chance
when he first started the tile work
and you probably would have given anything
just to have someone hold you
Barbara Hamby read "Reading Can Kill You" from her 2014 book of new and selected poems On the Street of Divine Love. Below is a choice snippet, but read it in full at Poetry Daily.
and we sat in the dark next to the blazing enamel stove
and for breakfast drank tea from the samovar sweetened
with jam and talked about Gogol's sentences and Mandelstam's
despair, and then at night it would be love and vodka,
so when Satan showed up with his entourage, we were borne along
on his cloud of smoke, joining his diabolical magic show,
David Kirby, who you can hear at The Cortland Review's site, read the opening poem from his collection A Wilderness of Monkeys, "Do the Monkey, Yeah," and the audience's aardvark associations will be forever changed.
at least in the sense that I aardvark as well as
the next fellow--as long as the next fellow
is Don Giovanni or Casanova! Just kidding
In closing, David Lehman took us out and up into the stars by reading "Yours the Moon," from his New and Selected Poems.
endless, wears her
necklace of stars
over her dress
under my scarf
that she wears
against the cold
Books were brought and bought and signed. But I'd feel remiss if I didn't mention the animal kingdom. At the post-reading reception, we talked poetry and taxidermy. Turns out looks can kill, books can kill, but bullets are pretty brutal, too.
The second day of the Moorman Symposium began with an informal Q & A with poet Angela Ball and visiting poets Billy Collins, Denise Duhamel, Barbara Hamby, David Kirby, and David Lehman. Lehman started things off by asking everyone about their favorite writing assignments. Here are summaries of their advice on how to get to good writing:
Angela Ball: Give obstructions. Which may or may not include writing the poem in Cuba (an exercise in writing based off the Danish film The Five Obstructions)
Denise Duhamel: Haiku hurricanes. Make it rain, good lines of poetry. (Students write lines of 5 and 7 syllables on slips of paper. Then, just as human paraphernalia is picked up, mixed up and laid back down in real deal hurricanes, the lines are collected and redistributed.)
Billy Collins: Haiku memorization and destruction. (Students write a haiku, walk around campus memorizing the haiku, then return and destroy all paper evidence of the haiku. The survival or extinction of the poem is now their responsibility.)
David Lehman: Translation and mistranslation. (Have students translate a poem written in a language they don't know. It helps them give up some of their self and collaborate with language.)
Barbara Hamby: Poets' letters, read them. (Let students see Ovid, Keats, Dickinson, Rilke, and Rimbaud struggle with life - and the gruel of finding an artist's life).
David Kirby: Soul Siblings. (At the beginning of the term, have students write down three poets who are not influences but who they would like to be at a beach house with for a weekend. These are their guides.)
Billy Collins: Create and destroy a happy farmer. (*Disclaimer, this is for writing fiction.* Part 1: Write of a happy farmer - everything is coming up giant squash and healthy children. Part 2: Destroy his happy life.)
David Lehman remarked that this story had been done before and was called the Book of Job, which made everyone laugh and seriously contemplate the inescapable-ness of the Bible. What story can be new?
Hearing the poets talk about their influences was another highlight of the conversation. Even though David Kirby said influence is "something you see in the rear-view mirror" and Collins added "the rear-view mirror of influence wears a flag of convenience", this did not stop each from sharing a bit of what inspires them.
Angela Ball spoke of the female painter Paula Modersohn-Becker's Self-Portrait with Amber Necklace and Denise Duhamel talked about contemporary French artist Sophie Calle mailing her bed from Paris to a stranger in San Francisco.
When David Lehman discussed popular songs, jazz standards, and what they can teach about wit, economy and rhyme, things took a decidedly musical turn. He noted connections between Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130" and "My Funny Valentine". Reciting some lyrics to illustrate the point soon turned into singing. A Lehman and Collins duet! Audience members came in on the refrain, and it felt as though this sing-along answered all the questions we did and did not ask that afternoon. What more could be said (sung)?
David Kirby, answered this question by reciting, "Take your spoon out of your cup, when you drink your tea, take good care of yourself, you belong to me." Explaining that the lyrics show the leaps that poetry thrives on - the escape from having to explain in prose, something like "because your spoon will almost certainly stick you in your left or right eye."
The slapstick humor of hitting yourself with your own spoon lead Collins to comment upon how many songs start funny, and then become very sad in the end. A last round of singing began:
I make a date for golf, and you can bet your life it rains.
I try to give a party, and the guy upstairs complains.
I guess I'll go through life, just catching colds and missing trains.
Everything happens to me.
I fell in love just once, and then it had to be with you.
Everything happens to me.
The sad love song silenced the singing. Now, even more was understood.
Before his reading,
Billy Collins explains the
of butterfly wings
to fellow poets
David Kirby, Angela Ball,
and David Lehman.
Stacey Harwood talk
about Girls, the show, the pros,
the cons. And how miniature,
chocolate-covered cake is so
and accompanying body,
was enthralled when feature-
poet Billy Collins took the
stage and read from
Day 1: Moorman Symposium, Hattiesburg, MS
Graduate students from the Center for Writers took visiting poets out to lunch before the Q & A. The restaurant, whose giant tomato nobody mentioned, wanted us to fill up on conversation, so they delayed the food for as long as possible, just waiting for silence. It never happened, so eventually they brought the food anyway.
David Kirby got a chicken salad but could not find the chicken. "Where's the chicken?" he asked. "It's chopped up and mixed in," said the waitress. David was skeptical but determined to get to the bottom of things. Billy Collins's chicken came similarly camouflaged. The hunt was on.
For dessert we had stories about Jimi Hendrix, Kirby and Collins both saw him perform (because Collins is older than Cheerios, as was mentioned frequently throughout the day).
Then it was over to the panel discussion and "real" Q & A on New York School poetry, moderated by David Lehman. Here is what things looked like just before:
Lehman began the discussion with comments on the New York School poets' "premium on inventiveness" and inclusiveness. Then brought up a fictional ad man as proof of the New York School's vitality. After Don Draper read Meditations in an Emergency O'Hara's sales "boomed by 1,000 per cent," according to The Independent.
In closing the introduction, David recited even better proof that O'Hara is still a vital presence, "Poem"
His delivery of the poem evidenced the conversational and casual pedestrianism that makes O'Hara poems great. Take a listen - ,David Lehman reads "Poem". Maybe David and Don can have an O'Hara read-off some day?
Next, Angela Ball read her poem "Spring" and described wanting to reach "towards transparency," in the poem, "a voice you can see through." This is captured (if you can say captured about transparency) so well in the final stanza:
I had this feeling once before, when I was walking through rain
And wet leaves in shoes that were red and navy.
Much of me hadn't been tried out, and I liked that.
One of O'Hara's influences, Mayakovsky, spoke up!
I'll be absolutely tender,
not a man, but a cloud in trousers!
It looked as if everyone on the panel might float away, but the microphone and its heavy base were passed to Billy Collins. Structure rematerialized in the present with his reading of "Drinking Alone, after Li Po"
No, the only way this is after you
is in the way they say
it’s just one thing after another,
A casual description of influence, "one thing after another" and general reminder of our mortality.
After all, you had your turn,
and mine will soon be done,
then someone else will sit here after me.
What a bunch of seat warmers we all are! Perfect. The after of Collins for this afternoon was Denise Duhamel. She read O'Hara's "Having a Coke with You" and her poem "Having a Diet Coke with You." After which, we all felt better about love poems, specifically, and life, generally.
O'Hara in his manifesto Personism
one time thinking about his sweetheart realized he
"could use the telephone instead of writing the poem"
and so I think you and I have been talking
our collaborative poems with each Skype encounter
Things went from love to "Viking dudes," "big-dog cock-of-the-walk / "raping and pillaging" when Barbara Hamby took the mic. She talked of encountering Kenneth Koch's expansive titles in New Addresses.
Koch titles like "TO JEWISHNESS, PARIS, AMBITION, TREES, MY HEART, AND DESTINY and "TO KNOWLEDGE, MY SKELETON AND AN AESTHETIC CONCEPT," gave her liberty to create poem titles "Ode to Anglo Saxon, Film Noir, and the Hundred Thousand Anxieties That Plague Me Like Demons in a Medieval Christian Allegory" and "Ode to Airheads, Hairdos, Trains to and from Paris."
But a dog who doesn't like cats or children is not
a dog you'd want to own, even though taking a nip out
of Tabby's hindquarters or Josh or Kimberly's chubby
little leg is very much au naturel for your dog, very much
the very essence of dogginess, you might say.
He followed his reading with Facebook comments on the nature of MFA workshops and the forced subject matter of twigs and fish if you are writing in the Northwest (where, luckily, none of our fine panelists reside).
David Lehman followed Kirby reading "When a Woman Loves a Man", which explained a lot.
When she says tomorrow she means in three or four weeks
When she says, "We're talking about me now,"
he stops talking. [...]
For further explanation, a Q&A started with the audience. Here are some choice answers from the panel:
Angela Ball on the "I" in poetry: I is a fiction, but it's a lovely construct. "Energy is eternal delight" William Blake
David Lehman on the "I" in poetry: You is also a great pronoun!
Billy Collins on voice: It's not in your spleen. It's in the library.
David Kirby on Facebook: The more interesting things are the comments, not the posts. "I just hate all of this foggy, disembodied poetry"
Of course, these are only snippets from a conversation that can't fit into this trouser-wearing cloud of a post!
The Moorman Symposium starts tomorrow. To prepare for the panel discussion on New York School poetry, I thought it would be good to sit our visiting poets -- Billy Collins, Denise Duhamel, David Lehman, David Kirby and Barbara Hamby -- down with New York School poets -- John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler -- for an informal Q & A.
In this mock-panel, questions found in New York School poets' work are answered with lines from contemporary poets. This conversation is so seamless you wouldn't know that decades, wars, and multiple presidents all existed between the questions and replies!
*special thanks to my New York School studying peers Nicholas Benca, Jennifer Jacob, and Tracie Dawson for help "facilitating" this Q&A
O'Hara: "Am I looking handsome?"
Kirby: “if not handsome, beau-laid, / as the French say, or handsome-ugly, as we all are / in our way.”
Schuyler: “‘What are the questions you wish to ask?’”
Duhamel: “When James Taylor and Carly Simon / broke up, I was shocked. Taylor’s drug use or not, / couldn’t they work it out? [...] How could they part having written all those love songs? And how could they go on / singing those love songs after the divorce?”
Ashbery: "What can we achieve, aspiring? And what, aspiring can we achieve?"
Hamby: "Well, we're in hell, and like Persephone fighting dark Hades, it's a waste of time."
Koch: "How many people I have drunk tea or coffee with / And thought about the boiling water hardly at all, just / waiting for it to boil / So there could be coffee or chocolate or tea. And then / what?"
Lehman: “The dog walked in and peed on the carpet and the chaplain’s wife / Said, ‘Oh, Rosebud, you’re being boring.’ / Boring meant something other than boring.”
O'Hara: "Dear god, I think that iron gate I put up as a weather vane is creaking. An angel must be arriving. Who do you suppose it could be?"
Collins: "I am the dog you put to sleep / as you like to call the needle of oblivion / come back to tell you this one simple thing: / I never liked you - not one bit."
Padgett: "I don’t know anything about hemorrhoids / Such as if it hurts to sit when you have them / If so I must not have them / Because it doesn’t hurt me to sit/ I probably sit about 8/15 of my life"
Ashbery: "Meanwhile what am I going to do?"
Hamby: “Pass me the beer and the goddamned pool cue, / Romeo.”
Koch: "Haven't I Lost that sweet easy knack I had last week, Last month, last year, last decade, which pleased everyone And especially pleased me?"
Lehman: “...do you recall/ when I visited Cambridge/ I left you a note// with the Clare porter./ The world is charged (I wrote) with / the grandeur of you!”
Schuyler: “Are you a larch?”
Collins: “It might interest you to know, / speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world, that I am the sound of rain on the roof. // I also happen to be the shooting star, / the evening paper blowing down an alley, and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.”
O'Hara: "Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious as if I were French?"
Duhamel: “To tell you the truth, / it’s easier to be blonde because the gray blends in, / just the way I’ve always wanted to blend in and not.”
Hamby: “...testosterone run amok, / or so I’m thinking here from my present perch
Ashbery: "Then what unholy bridegroom / did the Aquarian foretell? / Or was such lively intelligence / only the breath of hell?"
Kirby: “Holy moly-- / the Antichrist!”
Koch: "The connection here is how serious / is it for the tree / To have its arms wave (its branches)? How did it ever get such flexibility / In the first place?"
Collins: "The leafless branches against the sky / will not save anyone from the void ahead,”
Koch: "Almost any amount of time suffices to be a 'minor poet' / Once you have mastered a certain amount of the craft / For writing a poem, but I do not see the good of minor poetry, / Like going to the Tour d'Argent to get dinner for your / dog, / Or 'almost' being friends with someone, or hanging / around but not attending a school, / Or being a nurse's aid for the rest of your life after / getting a degree in medicine, / What is the point of it?"
Kirby: “My psychodynamic electrohelmet / would have explained everything, but I never got / to use it.”
Compiled by the American Booksellers Association, and based on sales at hundreds of independent bookstores across the United States, for the twelve-week sales period ending April 27, 2014. For information on more titles, please visit IndieBound.org
1. Dog Songs Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, $26.95, 9781594204784
2. Aimless Love Billy Collins, Random House, $26, 9780679644057
3. A Thousand Mornings Mary Oliver, Penguin, $16, 9780143124054
4. Love Poems Pablo Neruda, New Directions, $11.95, 9780811217293
5. Poems to Learn by Heart Caroline Kennedy, Jon J Muth (Illus.), Hyperion, $19.99, 9781423108054
6. The Prophet Kahlil Gibran, Knopf, $15, 9780394404288
7. New and Selected Poems, Volume One Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, $18, 9780807068779
8. I Carry Your Heart with Me E.E. Cummings, Mati Rose McDonough (Illus.), Cameron & Company, $16.95, 9781937359522
9. The Essential Rumi Jalal al-Din Rumi, Coleman Barks (Trans.), HarperSF, $15.99, 9780062509598
10. Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems Paul B. Janeczko, Melissa Sweet (Illus.), Candlewick Press, $16.99, 9780763648428
11. The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems Emily Dickinson, New Directions, $39.95, 9780811221757
12. Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford William Stafford, Graywolf Press, $16, 9781555976644
13. The Conference of the Birds Peter Sis, Penguin, $18, 9780143124245
14. Poems That Make Grown Men Cry Anthony Holden, Ben Holden, Simon & Schuster, $25, 9781476712772
15. Sailing Alone Around the Room Billy Collins, Random House, $14.95, 9780375755194
Support your independent book seller. Visit IndieBound.org for more information.
If you haven't visited New York City's Grand Central Terminal in a while, this weeked would be a great time to go. Take in the beauty and energy of this New York City landmark and enjoy the POETRY IN MOTION SPRINGFEST:
A Two-Day Festival of Poetry, April 26-27, 2014
Vanderbilt Hall, Grand Central Terminal
On Saturday, April 26 and Sunday, April 27, in celebration of National Poetry Month, MTA Arts for Transit & Urban Design presents Poetry in Motion Springfest, in partnership with the Poetry Society of America, the nation's oldest poetry organization. The program was inspired by New York State Poet Laureate Marie Howe, Arts for Transit's de facto Poet in Residence, who is dedicated to bringing poetry to everyone in the metropolitan area.
The celebration is free and open to the public and takes place in Grand Central Terminal's Vanderbilt Hall from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on both days, featuring a variety of poetry activities:
"Springfest brings our beloved Poetry in Motion® program to a grand setting, with a weekend of poetry and music inside the elegant Vanderbilt Hall. Millions of riders discover poetry in subway cars, but Springfest gives them the opportunity to experience firsthand the feeling of reciting and writing it. Whether it is meeting poets or engaging in one of the interactive installations, there will be so many ways to create a personal moment in an inspiring public space," said Sandra Bloodworth, Director, MTA Arts for Transit & Urban Design.
"The Poetry Society of America is committed to placing poetry at the crossroads of American life, and Grand Central Terminal is an ideal arena for fulfilling this mission. The PSA is honored to collaborate with MTA Arts for Transit & Urban Design and New York State's Poet Laureate Marie Howe and all the other marvelous artists and poets who will contribute to this exuberant feast of literary and artistic offerings. Come one, come all to Vanderbilt Hall on April 26 and 27, 2014," said Alice Quinn, Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America.
For a full schedule of events, please consult www.mta.info/art or www.poetrysociety.org/events
My mother was a grade school teacher for over 30 years. She taught both 3rd grade and kindergarten in the public school system and was one of those teachers who changed the display outside of her class room for every season and holiday. She made intricate murals that were quite beautiful and imaginative. She used craft paper and cotton fluff and whatever else was on hand and would cut out shapes with scissors and paste them to the background. I seem to remember helping her but I'm not certain that I did.
My mother was also a talented seamstress: She made aprons and a set of kitchen curtains for every season. She made a play circus tent that fit over a card table. She made fake-fur slip covers for giant rolls of bubble wrap that we used for seating (my father was a plastics salesman and "sealed air" was one of his customers). She knew how to mend things and taught me how to do the same. ("Mend" is such an antique word.) She sewed our Halloween costumes and matching outfits for my sisters and me. A lot of cross-stitch and rick rack were involved.
This is all to say that in addition to working with her mind, my mother loved working with her hands; it breaks my heart that she is unable to do so anymore because of her severe arthritis. It is only with great difficulty that she can unscrew a bottle or open a bag of frozen vegetables. Plus, she's in constant pain. "You don't know the half of it," she said, when I asked her how bad it had gotten.
When I read about the relief that marijuana brings to arthritis sufferers I was eager to find a way for my mother to try it. I didn't want her to get high -- she lives alone -- so the usual delivery systems were not an option. There were recipes online for a tincture that could be applied topically but I had no way of controlling the strength or safety of something I would concoct myself. I've followed the medical marijuana scene closely and am impressed with what the communities are coming up with in California, Seattle, and Colorado. It seemed we would have to wait for marijuana use to be legal in New York. Given that our legislature is particularly corrupt and unable to act, I'm not expecting legalization to happen any time soon.
Then, a few months ago friends visited from San Francisco. Turned out that they knew someone who knew the person behind "Doc Green's Pain Relief Cream." A few weeks after our friends returned home, a well disguised package arrived with a 4 oz jar of lavender scented theapeutic cream inside. My mother's early April birthday seemed the perfect occassion for her to give it a try.
The cream has a silky texture and is lightly scented. "It feels lovely when I put it on," says my mother. And yes, it helps a lot with the pain. She's been using it on her shoulder. The only downside she says, is that she doesn't get high. Maybe I'll bring a joint the next time I visit her. -- SDH
Who would have guessed that the path to legalization would go through medicine first and then commerce? You would have thought the example of Prohibition -- how ineffective it was, how unpopular, how much crime it bred -- would have brought about reefer acceptance twenty years ago.
No doubt the odds would have been better if Clinton hadn't said "I didn't inhale." (Notice the syntactical repetition: "I didn't inhale," "I didn't have sex with that woman.") My friend points out that the two Super Bowl teams this year came from the two states that have legalized pot for recreational use: Colorado and Washington. CNBC is running hour-long documentaries on how growers are handling product, reaping profits. Tax revenues are enticing. Whole new markets are opening for aroma-free pipes to give you a pure experience.
It's happening not only because greed is a great incentive but also because the product in question has many beneficial effects and is highly popular among almost every political constituency but mostly because greed is a great incentive. I say it's happening because I can see the wall of worry that will have to be climbed for Mary Jane to make it -- or, to alter the metaphor, the residue when your dreams go up in smoke.
On such a day it's pleasant to recall that Louis Armstrong kissed Mary Warner daily, not just on 4:20 of 4/20, but maybe especially so on the day after the end of pailndrome week, when each day was numerically the same backward and forward ( 4 / 19 / 14). Such mathematical certitude is as blessed and rare as the conjunction of the mind and the opposition of the stars in Andrew Marvell's "Definition of Love."
If you read Brooks' reply you see immediately the man's intellectual dishonesty and bad faith. His first sentence launches an ad hominem attack: since Lehman is "already on record as a vehement detractor" of de Man, this naturally discredits all Lehman's opinions about de Man. This obvious ploy conveniently allows Brooks to avoid addressing any of the documented evidence that led Lehman to his (supposed) vehemence in the first place. (By the way, is calling de Man a "scoundrel" really vehemence, or just a simple statement of fact?) In this manner, Brooks is able to occlude and dismiss the real issue(s) at hand! Incredible.
But this is in keeping with what Brooks does to Barish: he substitutes his own trope--in her case, "Mr. Ripley"--then attacks the trope as if it were her argument. Again, as with Lehman, he conveniently allows himself the freedom to smear Barish with a trope that has nothing to do with Barish, Paul de Man, or the facts at issue, thereby relieving himself of the responsibility for answering any of her actual arguments. A few flaws in her book somehow dismiss the overwhelming case she makes against de Man? I don't think so.
There's some poison in the Charles River that has been seeping into the soil and air there since 1620 at least. I did a study a few years ago in which I researched three books of essays on Mark Twain. These books were from a series called generally the "Twentieth Century Views" series--each volume was a collection on one major writer--that were published in the 1960's and sold widely to undergraduate populations as basic critical support of the pantheon. I forget the precise figures, but the essays had something like almost an 80% correlation to Harvard; that is, nearly 80% of the authors of the essays had been educated at Harvard, or taught there, or both. One of the authors, Leo Marx, is primarily responsible for the negative reading of the last third of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that obtains even to this day for most readers. From our perspective, Marx's reading can now be seen as a whitewashing, unconscious or not, of the smug racist (and anti-Semitic) "liberalism" that permeated the genteel WASP boys'-club culture at Harvard (not to mention the other Ivies)--a culture that Twain sought to razz and expose and demolish in HF.
Peter Brooks took his B.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard. Throw in the disgraceful actions by Harry Levin, et al, and the entire American side of the de Man saga ends up being a Columbo episode, where the whole Harvard muck out of which Brooks surfaces becomes apparent to the viewer, if not to the villain(s). With this tasty addition: the irony of deconstructionists and their apologists pulling in an authority-system from "outside" the "language game" is rich, very rich, indeed.
Last fall, I enrolled in a literature seminar in the New School writing program unlike any literature class I’ve ever taken: the AshLab. The project of the class involved contributing to creative and scholarly research documenting John Ashbery's poetry as well as his 19th-century Victorian residence in Hudson, New York. The work is intended for a general audience to read on a website.
On Monday, April 8, The New School hosted a presentation by the collective hive mind of faculty and students that over the course of four semesters has produced this new virtual archive, which went live last week. I was honored to be included in this presentation and to share my remarks here in this forum.
I joined the class because I was interested in the relationship between a poet’s environment and a poet’s work. The minute I entered John Ashbery’s house, I got a sense of this connection.
The outside of his house is grand. There is a rise of stone steps, a bend of stonework supporting a large stained glass window, the kind that makes a cathedral of a fine house. However, the house inside is smaller than these details make it seem. There’s even a fake outside window that suggests more rooms than there are. This is not an accident. The house was built in the 1890’s by a nouveau riche family to create exactly this illusion of a bigger scale.
Which might make it the perfect environment for an illusionist like Ashbery.
Ashbery’s work has a similar way of gliding out of view. The meaning is deferred elsewhere: references to sources as varied as a Greek myth, a fragment of popular culture, or something in a 1960s newspaper.
I’ve been intrigued by the ways I’ve seen the environments of Ashbery’s poems overlap the environments he’s created in the rooms of his home. I’ve found correlations, connections, echoes, allusions, webs of reference between specific objects I’ve researched in Ashbery’s collections of art and other obsessions on the one hand, and poems of Ashbery’s that I’ve studied thoroughly and annotated on the other.
Often these connections have seemed quite explicit and solid to me. But as with everything Ashbery, they can quickly feel slippery and elusive, and difficult to defend beyond my own sense of play and imagination. But solid or slippery, the paths have always taken me farther and farther inward — into Ashbery’s house and deeper into his complex and complicated and wonderful poems.
So the experiment of correlations I made for myself is something I want to share with you.
I invite you to explore Ashbery’s house and some of his poems, pulled by your own associations and curiosity. I hope this opens new paths, new way-finding into Ashbery’s oeuvre, paths marked by play and exploration.
There can obviously be many such paths. Some of mine can be found here. -- Nora Brooks
Since 1978, when Mark Strand was denied a Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his book The Monument on the grounds that the poems were not in verse, prose poetry has fought a battle—which it has largely won—for legitimacy in the eyes and heart of the reading public. It has won in no small part because prose poetry blurs the boundaries between genres. On April 8 at The New School poetry forum, Alan Zeigler read to us from his new anthology, Short: An International Anthology of five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, the third major anthology of the short prose form. Ziegler has been one of our foremost supporters of the form, both as a writer of prose poetry as well as a professor at Columbia University, where he has long taught his renowned Short Prose Forms class.
As Ziegler commented to moderator David Lehman, there have been two previous “gold standards in this form”: Michael Benedikt’s 1976 The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, and Lehman’s own Great American Prose Poems: from Poe to the Present (2003). Benedikt’s volume “introduced many of us to the form in a way that was not available before.” Both of these volumes have been hugely influential in inspiring new writers of short prose. Ziegler in fact “could not have put this together without sending the introduction and table of contents to David.”
As Lehman remarked, Short puts forth the perspective of an international collection, allowing the inclusion of many early writers in the form such as Baudelaire’s “Get Drunk” in Lehman's translation: “On what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, your choice. But get drunk.” Ziegler read this to us as well as another amusing poem translated by Lehman, Henri Michaux’s “My Pastimes” which elucidates the speaker’s love of beating people up.
Another twentieth-century French practitioner was Max Jacob. Ziegler remarked he seemed to have “skipped modernism entirely and went straight to post-modernism,” and read to us John Ashbery’s translation of “The Beggar Woman of Naples.” In fact, many of these older pieces have a contemporary feel, as if written in modern diction and stride. Ziegler noted that one difference with these older pieces is that today there is a place for such work, whereas many of these pieces remained in notebooks until discovered later.
Ziegler himself has been celebrated as a seminal writer in the form. Michael Benedikt published him in The Paris Review in the seventies just after his anthology came out, and then chose him to be one of two poets to represent the future of The Paris Review, though George Plimpton then vetoed the nomination. Lehman inquired if he ever learned the cause, and Ziegler said he did eventually end up at a party at Plimpton’s house, where he worked up the nerve to ask him why. Plimpton said: “You’re a prose poet. A prose poet can’t be the future of The Paris Review.”
However, the future is looking very bright for short prose these days. Short captures the full blossoming of the form in all its manifestations since Benedikt’s groundbreaking volume: the prose poem, the short short story, the lyric essay, and the fragment. Some pieces defy categorization and live double lives. One example would be our own Stacey Harwood’s “Contributor’s Notes,” which like many of the pieces, subverts a nonliterary form. Another example Ziegler read was Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s very short fiction, “The Future of Something Delicate,” which, like Lydia Davis’s work, is almost indistinguishable from fiction. And Mark Strand’s “The Mysterious Arrival of a Letter” lands just on this side of the prose poem but barely, hovering somewhere in between.
Lydia Davis of course is famous for insisting that her pieces, often a line long, are stories. Lehman joked that he tried to get his publisher to call his latest book a novel, but the problem lay in the title: New and Selected Poems. In the end, aside from the marketplace, it may not matter. Ziegler remarked humorously that what genre a piece is called ultimately comes down to a unilateral decision. As his mother often used to say, “because I said so.”
This slipperiness is one of the form’s great strengths: it is a fertile and inclusive ground for experimentation and escape from the strictures of tradition, something entirely its own. Ziegler remarked: “My favorite prose poems are those that can’t be anything else. Any longer or shorter, and it’d be a totally different thing.”
-- Nora Brooks
"How Would a Book like Harold Bloom's 'Western Canon" Be Received Today?" The NY Times Book Review raises the question in its issue of March 23, 2014. The occasion: the twentieth anniversary since Harold Bloom published his book on The Western Canon. One of the two men asked to respond was the author Pankaj Mishra, who is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a contributor to the New York Review of Books and its London counterpart of the same locution.
Mr. Mishra writes that the study of literature classically conceived, the whole "great books" curriculum, is the product of "bow-tied men on East Coast campuses." This is no mean feat: the canon "became central to the cultural self-definition of a budding superpower's elite."
Now I understand and can appreciate that it is open season on patrician white-haired men, especially dead or dying ones, and twenty years in journalism equals an era (which is why my old Newsweek editor Ken Auchincloss forbade the use of the phrase "the end of an era"). But leave aside how Pankaj Mishra reduces the complex and original Harold Bloom to the status of a quixotic knight in an age that scoffs at chivalry. Look at the hidden signifiers in his writing. I mean especially the use of "bow-tied men" and indeed "bow-tie" in general as a metonymy for anything defunct and discarded, outmoded and out-of-touch. How unfair this is to a sartorial accessory that men of all persuasions have used for decades without risking the implicit abuse and prejudice that is so manifest in Mishra's sentence! Can't you picture FDR in a bow-tie, and Bogart too in his late movies, and Sinatra when his voice made the girls swoon?
As one who does not condone the use of derogatory comments directed at exotic accessories -- be the item in question a turban or a burnoose, a yamelka or a fez -- I feel, as a matter of principle, that I must stand up for my freedom of sartorial expression. The determination to sport a bow-tie and fedora when it suits me is not only a statement of aesthetic style but the exercise of a first-amendment right as a subdivision of freedom of speech. (I believe, moreover, that a dapper-looking three-piece suit may yet make a comeback, which would have obvious benefits for the worlds of fashion and journalism and for both management and labor in the garment industry,)
I therefore hereby declare my intention to wear a bow-tie at least once or twice a month -- and to teach, in my classes, such stalwart examples of the Western Canon as Genesis,The Odyssey, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, Gulliver's Travels, Crime and Punishment, Civilization and Its Discontents, Pride and Prejudice, Nietszche and Freud, Wordsworth and Keats, Whitman and Dickinson. Maybe I'll even work in some references to bow-tied humanists on the order of Erich Auerbach, M. H. Abrams, Northrop Frye, Anthony Hecht, Jacques Barzun, Frederick Dupee, Cleanth Brooks, and Mark Van Doren.
-- David Lehman (March 28, 2014)
From The New York Times Book Review, April 12, 2014, p. 6. In the version printed in the Times, the "bow-tied humanists" in that last graf are Auerbach, Abrams, Frye, Barzun, Edmund Wilson, F.R. Leavis, and Lionel Trilling.
Too much journalism gets written for pure consumption -- on the toilet, or seat-belted on a plane, or in the waiting room -- and then flushed down or thrown away. Yet journalism, if only because of medical and dental waiting rooms, has a half-life far beyond the misleading date on the magazine cover.
So on the eighth of April 2014 I read The New Yorker of October 21, 2013 and I see that the biography of Norman Mailer is the challenge facing the house critic. This is an enjoyable assignment if only because of the chance to blend narrative with cosmic opinion, as when the critic, in this case Louis Menand, gets to tell the story of how Mailer stabbed his wife at a party in 1960. This magical moment in Mailer's career speaks for itself and the critic need not sweat or smoke his way through a paragraph of analysis.
But then comes the watershed moment, at least in Menand's mind, the crisis that led to the downfall: Mailer versus the women, Germaine Greer et al, at a Town Hall Meeting in 1971. Menand quotes Mailer at his most hyperbolically mystical: "The whole question of women's liberation is the deepest question that faces us, and we're gonna go right into the very elements of existence and eternity before we're through with it."
Mailer was wrong, Menand maintains, although he does not summarize Mailer's opinion except by misleading implication when he says "The point of the women's movement was not to create a society in which exceptional women can produce great work. It was to create a society in which the life chances of a mediocre woman are no different from the life chances of a mediocre man."
Leave aside what Mailer said on the subject in his book The Prisoner of Sex, which I do not defend except to the extent that it is stated compellingly and in a way designed to provoke a strong reaction. What Menand articulates is a policy wonk's idea of the women's movement -- in intention and certainly in consequence. To reduce the movement to a rally of "mediocre" women, as if it had everything to do with pink collars and Friday paydays, is objectionable, and I wonder that no one has called Menand on it. The many remarkable women associated with feminism may be proof enough that he is wrong. The practice of reading the newspaper on a daily basis should persuade even a cultural critic in Cambridge that the CEOs of Pepsi, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard are not mediocre, and neither are the women who, for example, cover male sports on TV, or run the Fed, or publish poems in the pages of The New Yorker, or demand a place in the power room behind the scenes of the Master's golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia.
The social changes wrought by the women's movement go so far beyond the base economic that I almost laughed off my chair when Menand says that Mailer is wrong about the significance of the women's movement "unless you are the kind of person who thinks that the Beatles pose an urgent eschatalological problem." It is "eschatalogical" that is the caricaturing word in that sentence. I have no doubt that the writer will have no problem producing three-thousand words of high-minded bullshit to mark the fiftieth anniversary of some Beatles' album or other.
The emergence of a previously unknown and uncharacteristically fiery essay by Lionel Trilling is all the buzz in intellectual circles. Our stringers at far-flung camupuses report the excitement at faculty clubs and academic production centers where Trilling's essays in criticism, particularly those written between 1940 and his death in 1975, command a respect accorded to few contemporaries, not because he had a penchant for oracular pronouncements (he did not) but because of the nuanced style of exposition in his writing, which reflected a mind of immense subtlety, irony, and complexity. By indirections he found directions out.
The reputation for what champions admired as subtlety (and detractors considerd coyness) may change with the posthumous appearance of an essay Trilling was said to have begun in 1967 but never completed to his satisfaction. The essay's working title was "I Hate the Liberals." Victor Mathis, the archivist who discovered the draft in Trilling's papers, insisted that marginal handwritten comments in the legendary Columbia prof's distinctive script imply "that this jest was a place-holder for an ultimate title along the lines of 'The Liberal Dilemma in an Age of Economic Decline'."
That Trilling, author of "The Liberal Imagination," had commenced on an essay critical of New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay and of what was vulgarly known as "limousine liberalism," a phrase Trilling dissects, made news wherever talking heads shmooze. "It's like an intellectual version of Tom Wolfe's outing of Leonard Bernstein's black panther party as 'radical chic'," said Jenna Clauss of the Brookings Institute. Marvin Murdeck of the McLuhan School of Publc Information emphasized that the title, though evidently a joke Trilling enjoyed, was "deliberately reductive of his thoughts on the whole question of political hypocrisy among union-smashing NIMBY elites who are incredibly full of shit but should not be cariacatured nevertheless."
Handmade signs declaring "I Hate the Liberals" have sprung up in affluent parts of Ann Arbor, Madison, Colorado Springs, Ithaca, Providence, Rhode Island, and Evanston, Illinois. Some say this is happening in the spirit of a joke. "It's post-modernism, man," said Josh Lucas, a freshperson at Northwestern, who has not yet declared a major but is leaning toward sociology. But there are those who see in the outpouring of anti-liberal sentiment the hyperbolic release of impulses long repressed. Professor Leon Elson, the Hayte-Jacques Professor of Applied Kenesiology at Florida Ache, compares the "I Hate the Liberals" fad with people screaming out the windows, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more." Elson's point: "It's not so much a matter of art following life, or life following art, but life following life, and art, art, depending on how you define it."
Upon receiving an audit report from the International Association of Survey Research Scientists, Poets & Writers magazine will cease publication of the so-called ranking of MFA programs. The rankings had become a fall staple of the magazine. “We’ve come to recognize that the rankings are not just misleading, they’re harmful,” Jason Terry, a P&W senior director said. “What can I say? We have egg on our face. We regret that they may have influenced MFA program applicants to spend money on applying to programs for which they were ill-suited.”
The audit was undertaken on the IASRS’s own initiative. Senior Research Analyst Melanie Cornbluth. (PhD, JD, MBA) explained that the audit was difficult to conduct because, “Poets & Writers had none of the raw underlying data we typically examine. They could not produce the qualifications of the research team. They had no demographic information on those who responded to survey questions so it is impossible to tell how age, geographic location, marital status, income, and such may have influenced one’s reasons for applying to one program over another. We had our job cut out for us."
According to Singh, self-selected surveys by definition do not represent the target population. “There is no way that the ranking reflects the opinions of the full community of MFA hopefuls. And who made the cockamamie decision to rely solely on the opinions of those who have never set foot in an MFA classroom to evaluate MFA programs? No serious editorial enterprise should have touched this so-called research with a ten-foot pole."
For a survey to be credible, every member of the population under study must have an equal chance to participate. “To begin with,” says Singh, “It is well documented that Facebook use is in decline among the under-30 set. An already corrupt process would become more so going forward."
It’s no secret that we’ve objected to the ranking from the start. We’re delighted that P & W has come to the recognition that the ranking issue caused more harm than could possibly be justified by the wished-for publicity, even bad publicity, that helps sell copies of magazines.
Putin (in Russian): Barry, what can I do?
Putin's translator (in English): The president of Russia sends his noblest respects and sentiments to his American counterpart.
Obama (in English): This bullshit of yours -- Crimea, the Ukraine -- couldn't come at a worse time for me. It is so nineteenth-century.
Obama's translator (in Russian): President Obama is very pleased to have a constructive dialogue with you on matters of mutual concern to our great nations.
Putin (in Russian): You have some fucken nerve dictating to me about troop movements considering how many boots you put on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and they aren't anywhere near your goddamn borders.
Obama's translator (in English): All right. This one time I'll let you ask me about my affairs.
Obama (in English): I'm willing to overlook a lot. Like the death of ---- [name redacted for security reasons]. When he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we've chosen; I didn't ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business.
Putin's translator (in Russian): He say: If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.
Putin (in Russian): I don't feel I have to wipe out everybody. Just my enemies.
Obama's translator (in English): That ain't the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I'm smart! Not dumb like everybody says! I'm smart and I want respect!
Obama (in English): We're both part of the same hypocrisy, Mr Putin, but never think it applies to my family.
Putin's translator (in Russian): He says he has been reading Anna Karenina with great admiration.
Putin (in Russian): I'll change...I'll change. I've learned that I have the strength to change.
Obama's translator (n English): He tell anecdote from Gogol's boyhood: Every time he put his line in the water he say a Hail Mary, and every time he say a Hail Mary he catch a fish.
Obama (in English): Tell him I don't like violence. I'm a businessman; blood is a big expense.
Putin's translator (in Russian): He say he no want anything to happen to you while his mother is alive.
Putin (in Russian): I got a business to run. I gotta kick asses sometimes to make it run right. We had a little argument, Freddy and me, so I had to straighten him out.
Obama's translator (in English): There are negotiations being made that are going to answer all of your questions and solve all of your problems. That's all I can tell you right now.
Obama (in English): Tell him he can do me a solid.
Obama's translator (in Russian): President Obama asks his counterpart whether he is ready to use all his powers and all his skills do him the service that he promised.
Putin's translator (in Russian): He don't want his mother to see him that way.
Putin (in Russian): I put a special tape on the trigger and the butt and I left it noisy. That way it scares any pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders away.
Putin's translator (in English): You got everything you need? The chef cooked for you special, the dancers will kick your tongue out and your credit is good. Draw chips for everyone in the room so they can play on the house.
Obama (in English): You can sign up for Obamacare.
Putin (in Russian): Tell your boss he can ask for anything else, but this is one favour I can't grant him.
Putin's translator (in English): Only if I can keep my own doctor!
-- David Lehman
Words become words because we need them. I don’t know what they are before that—impulses, energy, trilobites, Hydrogen—who knows. But once they become words, I believe in them, the power and the glory of them. Even the ugly ones—those terrible angels of our mouths—beating like dark wings from our throats—savage, nigger, half-breed, chink, faggot, indian, redskin. We built them—like bombs—with our need to break each other.
I am drawn to the words that hurt me most—No.—I mean to say: I am not afraid to put into my mouth the words that hurt me again and again. The people who first gave them to me didn’t always tell the truth, so I take them in and spit them back out—the bones of them, the parts nobody wants to talk about now—and I tell them my way because I got tired of choking on them.
History is the name of the greatest American lullaby. When we know the words to it, we feel like better people, church-going people. We feel like we have learned something. Worst of all, we feel like it is over. This is what history really means to most white people: It is over.
It might as well be the title of all the history books in high schools across the nation—
Teacher: Class open up your It Is Over text to “Chapter 2: We Fucked The Indians Again But Jim Thorpe, So It Is Over.”
Tommy: Didn’t we read that last week.
Teacher: No, Tommy, last week we read “Chapter 1: We Fucked The Indians But That Was A Long Time Ago Which Means It Is Over.” This new chapter has blankets in it, and Hotchkiss.
No, the worst part is that when we memorize the words to History, we get sleepy. Our eyes are lulled close. Just like at the end of “Rock-a-bye-baby” nobody asks what happened to the baby because they’re already asleep.
What is my point? Words carry within them the dark things we have done and the dark things those dark things continue to do. It is important that we know our words better than anybody else.
This is what I tell my students: Every word. And not just that word, also the word it was before. And the word that word was before it became the word you are using. Know those words the way they were when they first meant themselves. The beginning of language must have been something else—each sound like an entire song—a want we wanted so badly that it began like a lightning spark in our minds and rushed downhill to the lamp wicks of our tongues where it lit into a word. Fire, someone said for the first time in the universe, and for the first time in the existence of the ear, someone heard, Fire—how it must have burned.
So if every word is Promethean, why shouldn’t I rivet them all to the rock and tear them open?
What a gift: to know every word a word has ever meant.
What a wound: to know every word a word has ever meant—
Our word for policeman translates to the people who rope you, and our word for jail is the place you are roped. It’s the same word we use to describe roping cattle.
The US government used to rope Mojave children, sat on horseback and lassoed them like animals. They put them in the back of wagons or made them walk behind their horse all the way to the boarding school, leaving their mothers wringing the hems of their dresses in grief. My Elder teacher told me this: Grandma used to say that after they rounded up Momma and the other kids and took them away, all the dogs ran in circles in front of the houses and ran up and down the river banks crying and crying because they wanted their kids back. Those poor dogs cried and cried and cried. They went mad with crying. Today, when we talk about the law, the police, the justice system, we are talking about those men on horses who roped our children and took them away. We hear the crying. It is not over. It is happening again and again in those words.
School, or huchqol hapoove, means the place they put and keep children. And they did—they took Mojave children, their best shot at crushing us. And once there—nyayuu hapoove is our word for closet—my great grandmother was given a switching and locked in a closet for the day when she was caught speaking Mojave.
Language is nothing if not violent—No.—Language is silent when it is not violent.
Our word for metal is ‘anya kwa’oor, which means it has a golden light. Metal came to us first in a prophecy, which translated roughly goes something like this: It will come across the ocean and land here. It has no head, no arms, no legs. It is oval-shaped. It will move through us up our shorelines. The metal that was prophesied was not the metal of pots or pans or rakes—it was a bullet. Anytime we speak of metal, we are speaking of the way it first came to us—sometimes by going through us the way bullets have always done.
So when I say know your words, I mean the ones that have shaped your mouth and your page. Look at them, listen to the things they have endured, the things they have done. Even if they are one part memory, they are also another part living. Maybe what I have been trying to say is that when you walk into the room of your poem and hear History playing in the background, you find that poem, you look that poem in the eye and say, Wake your ass up.
In Mojave, the words we use to describe our emotions are literally dragged through our hearts before we speak them—they begin with the prefix wa-, a shortened form of iiwa, our word for heart and chest. So we will never lightly ask, How are you? Instead, we ask very directly about your heart. We have one way to say that our hearts are good, and as you might imagine if you’ve ever read a history book or lived in this world, we have many ways to say our hearts are hurting.
The government came to us first in the form of the Cavalry, then the military fort (which is why we are called Fort Mojave), and finally the boarding school. The government didn’t simply “teach” us English in those boarding schools—they systematically and methodically took our Mojave language. They took all the words we had. They even took our names. Especially, they took our words for the ways we love—in silencing us, they silenced the ways we told each other about our hearts.
One result of this: generations of English-speaking natives have never heard I love you from their parents, which in their eyes, meant their parents didn’t love them. However, those parents never said, I love you, because it didn’t mean anything to them—it was an English word for English people. There is no equivalent to it in the Mojave language—the words we have to express our feelings, to show the things berserking in our chests for one another are much too strong to be contained by the English word love.
But after boarding schools and work programs sent them to the cities for work, our children stopped speaking Mojave—they were beaten if they were caught talking or singing in their language. Maybe when they came home their parents spoke to them all about their hearts, but if they did, the children didn’t understand anymore.
It is true, the Mojave language does not say, I love you—and it is equally true that the government was hoping we would quit expressing this toward one another, that we would never again give each other tenderness. While we don’t say, I love you, we say so much more. We have ways to say that our heart is blooming, bursting, exploding, flashing, words to say that we will hold a person and never let them go, that we will be stingy with them, that we will never share them, that they are our actual heart. And even these are mere translations, as close as I can get in English.
Despite Cavalries and boarding schools, our language is still beautiful and passionate—it carries in it the ways we love and touch each other. In Mojave, to say, Kiss me, is to say fall into my mouth. If I say, They are kissing, I am also saying, They have fallen into each other’s mouths.
The word for hummingbird is nyen nyen, and it doesn’t mean bird—it is a description of what a hummingbird does, moving into and out of and into the flower. This is also our word for sex. Mat ‘anyenm translated to English means the body as a hummingbird, or to make a hummingbird of the body. On a very basic level we have a word that means body sex hummingbird all at once.
I think of the many lame things people say when they want to have sex with someone--imagine how much more luck they would have if they came to you with that lightning look in their eyes and that glisten in their mouths and said just one word: hummingbird. And you would think: bloom, sweet, wings that rotate, heart beating at 1,260 beats per minute, flower, largest proportioned brain in the bird kingdom, syrup,iridescent, nectar, tongue shaped like a “w”—which means something close to yes.
Recently, an adult learner who is teaching her children the language in her home asked our Elders if they could teach her to tell her son that she loves him. They told her that we have no word for that. But, the learner insisted, I need to know because I never heard my parents say that to me, and I will not let my son grow up without hearing me tell him that I love him. The Elders asked her, What is it you really want to tell him? The learner was emotional at this point, her words had caught in her throat. Instead of speaking, she made a gesture with her arms of pulling someone closer to her, and then she closed her eyes and hugged her arms against her chest. Ohhh, one of the Elders exclaimed, Now, we have a word for that—wakavar.
Maybe there is no great lesson to be learned here, but when I sit down to write a poem, I carry all of this language with me onto the page--I try to figure out what I really mean, what the words really mean to me. I don’t ever want to say, love, if what I mean is wakavar, if what I mean is hummingbird, if what I mean is fall into my mouth.
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.