When I applied to the MFA program at McNeese State, the application process was straightforward: you sent some poetry or some fiction, and you either got a phone call or you didn’t. Test scores, previous publications, and GPA didn’t factor in. I sent the only six poems I had written. They were dreadful imitations of what little I had read, something like a mash-up of Robert Frost and William Stafford, but any grain of potential within them can be attributed to a gifted teacher, Peter Makuck, who taught my undergraduate poetry workshop with remarkable dignity and discernment. When I speak to poets about how they came to be writers, there are as many different stories as there are poets, but it is worth noting, especially in a climate where educators are increasingly devalued, that most of their stories feature an inspired teacher.
I arrived in Louisiana hungry for direction. I spent every spare minute in the Frazar Memorial Library consuming collections, quarterlies, and criticism. I read every poem in A. Poulin Jr.’s Contemporary American Poetry anthology and then started it again. On my third time through, the binding broke, and I was afraid to tell the librarian (I had no money to buy it, and there was no way I was letting them pull it), so I bound it together with rubber bands and, when I wasn’t reading it, hid it on the Government Documents floor. (There was never anyone on the Government Documents floor).
One night while looking through old magazines, I discovered one called The Reaper, which Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell had edited in the 1980s. I liked it immediately. The eponymous Reaper was an imaginary personality who wrote criticism, conducted interviews, and issued manifestos. He (She? It?) condemned the obfuscating nature of contemporary poetry and argued for a return to narrative. Narrative was the genre I found easiest to understand, so I was seduced by excerpts like these:
Navel gazers and mannerists, their time is running out. Their poems, too long even when they are short, full of embarrassing lines that “context” is supposed to justify, confirm the suspicion that our poets just aren’t listening to their language anymore. Editors and critics aren’t listening much, either. Despite their best, red-faced efforts, their favorite gods—inaccuracy, bathos, sentimentality, posturing, evasion—wither at the sound of The Reaper’s whetstone singing.
The Reaper maintains that both the accurate image and the narrative line, two determining factors of the poem’s shapeliness, have been keenly honed and kept sharp by the poets included here, whereas many of their counterparts, forgetting these necessities, have wandered into a formless swamp where only the skunk cabbage of solipsistic meditation breeds, with its cloying flowers.
Reading this again, I see why it appealed to me so much. The unabashed confidence was attractive to a writer who had no confidence, and the sardonic tone made me feel better about the fact that I didn’t understand a great deal of what I was reading. It gave me permission to dismiss the difficult stuff. If I couldn’t understand a poem, it must be the poet’s fault. There were millions of poems in the world; I shouldn’t waste my time with the inaccessible.
I also liked that The Reaper gave me rules to follow. I needed rules. Poetry was this big thing that I really wanted to write, and I needed someone to tell me how. I wanted an instruction manual. I found one, of sorts, in the third issue of the magazine, which included “The Reaper’s Non-negotiable Demands.” Technically this was as much a list of what not to do as it was an instruction manual, but I took it as gospel, and like any convert to the true faith I also became an evangelist. I remember making photocopies for my peers in the writing program and spreading the good word of The Reaper, The New Narrative School, and Story Line Press. (I’m poking fun at myself here, not The Reaper.)
This past week I pulled out my copy of The Reaper: Essays (selections from the magazine collected in a single volume) because I was curious to see how I would react to what I had once admired so much. I am going to share some of those reactions here, hoping that others might find them worthwhile, or at least interesting, even if they may disagree. Specifically, I want to revisit “The Reaper’s Non-negotiable Demands,” which are:
1. Take prosody off the hit list.
2. Stop calling formless writing poetry.
3. Accuracy, at all costs.
4. No emotion without narrative.
5. No more meditating on the meditation.
6. No more poems about poetry.
7. No more irresponsibility of expression.
8. Raze the House of Fashion.
9. Dismantle the Office of Translation.
10. Spring open the Jail of the Self.
I will briefly summarize the arguments associated with each of these demands. Each item from the list is in bold, followed by an italicized summary of what The Reaper says about it. Beneath each summary is my present reaction.
1. Take prosody off the hit list.
The major defect of contemporary poetry is that it consists of artless, chopped sentences, with no sense of form. Attention to the line is lost. A knowledge of prosody should be used to exclude that which is not poetry rather than describe everything that purports to be.
It was Pound, in his own list of demands, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” who warned, “Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.” That’s still good advice. But I don’t think there has ever really been an anti-prosody faction among serious poets. On the contrary, most poets care a great deal about their craft. Yes, I’ve taught plenty of students who think that feeling the poem is all that matters, but they outgrow this. And even though I was not writing poetry in the 1980s, I’ve read plenty of poetry and criticism from that time, and I’ve never encountered anything resembling a hit list, real or figurative. The Reaper also contends that the poetic line has been compromised. I agree with that contention. But is that such a terrible thing? Over time, the poetic line has gradually become less determinate. We no longer require a specific number of feet, syllables or stresses in a given line. We do not ask poets to capitalize the first word of every line, or to mark line endings sonically with rhyme, as Dr. Johnson required when he called for “every verse unmingled with another as a distant system of sounds.” This is one area in which I’ve changed my thinking significantly since first encountering The Reaper. At the time I believed in “line integrity,” a term often used by formalist critics. In general, it suggests a preference for line autonomy. That is, lines should regularly be broken at natural pauses in syntax or points of punctuation, with non-syntactical breaks being employed only for occasional rhetorical effects—surprise, emphasis, etc. The idea is that when pauses bookend a line, they establish boundaries which, especially in the absence of meter, syllable count or any other strictly measurable unit, give the line an integrity it would otherwise lack. However, I have come to believe that arguments such as these disregard basic fact: the end of a printed line is a boundary. Indeed, it is the only boundary that allows enjambment to function at all. I have seen lineated texts that I would describe as chopped prose, but I have also seen many poems that use systematic enjambment—degrees of enjambment, or what John Hollander calls “Sense Variously Drawn Out”—in artful ways. The final claim in this section is that prosody should be used to exclude non-poems. That sounds like a hit list.
2. Stop calling formless writing poetry.
Not every grouping of four lines is a quatrain. Fourteen lines do not a sonnet make. A poetic form is more than how the words are placed on a page. If anything is allowed, then nothing is selective.
I like it when poets play with inherited forms—Hopkins’s curtal sonnets, to name one magnificent example. Why shouldn’t a poet blend rhyme and meter with heavily enjambed free verse, like Patrick Kavanagh does in The Great Hunger? Why shouldn’t she “roughen” the villanelle by slightly altering the repeating lines, as Elizabeth Bishop does in “One Art”? To me, this is a way of reinvigorating a form and making it appropriate to the Modern world, where things to not fall nicely into neat formations. As a graduate student I wanted to be told what was and was not poetry, so the idea of selectiveness appealed to me. I now carry a much larger umbrella. Exclusive notions of poetry can cause us to miss the value in what is extraordinary simply because we do not understand it. To be clear, I am not against evaluating poetry. As readers and as critics, that is part of the job. If we think a poem is bad, or that it fails according to the rules it sets out for itself, we should say so. But I’m wary of carrying around ready-made containers and disregarding poems because they don’t seem to fit into them.
3. Accuracy, at all costs.
Avoid generality that masquerades as insight. Avoid poetic shorthand. A poem should not require guesswork. Don’t force readers to look outside the poem for what should be in it.
I don’t care for guesswork in poetry. As my friend Morri Creech used to say in workshop, “If ten careful readers of poetry don’t get what you are doing, then you are not actually doing it.” I still think “Don’t kick the reader out of the poem” is a good maxim for a poet. But I have also come to value ambiguity. Some of my favorite poems are not “accurate” in the way The Reaper demands. What exactly does Ted Hughes mean, for example, in his magnificent poem “Wind,” when he writes that “wind wielded / Blade-light, luminous black and emerald, / Flexing like the lens of a mad eye”? What does it mean that the speaker of Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” “must enter again the round / Zion of the water bead, / And the synagogue of the ear of corn” before he will consent to mourn the child’s death? I feel the meaning of these lines in my gut. If pressed, I could probably explain their symbolism. But they cannot be called “accurate”; indeed, replacing them with more “accurate” lines would be a travesty. In fairness to The Reaper, there is such a thing as metaphorical laziness. I once saw a Mad Lib-type exercise called “How to Write a Bad Poem,” and it began with “In the [insert noun] of my mind, / the [insert noun/verb/direct object].” So you might wind up with something like, “In the refrigerator of my mind, / ghosts follow an albatross.” That’s deep stuff, man! Complete with Coleridge allusion! I suspect some people write like this. (All the editors of literary journals are nodding.) But I tend to think most poets are better than this, and as a reader I will always accept inaccuracy if you give me a reason to.
4. No emotion without narrative.
Emotion is irrelevant unless it is the result of a story. Poems should be communicative, transferring the emotion to the reader, and this requires narrative.
I can get on board with the idea that a poem should communicate something, especially if you are going to ask someone else to read it. If it doesn’t offer something, why bother to publish it? Just keep it in your journal. But I find the argument that every poem needs to tell a story in order to present genuine emotion to be the least convincing of all The Reaper’s assertions. Certainly poems should move. There should be some kind of engine that both engages and propels the reader. This is what Charles Olson, in “Projective Verse,” calls “the push of the line.” But this doesn’t need to be a story. Does “Ode to a Nightingale” tell a story? Does Plath’s “Blackberrying”? Does Richard Wilbur’s “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra”? These poems progress, and we follow, but it would be difficult to convince me that any of them tells a story. In the chapter “The Death of the Lyric,” The Reaper concedes that lyric poetry used to work but argues that it has now become corrupt and meaningless, too self-absorbed, and that there is a kind of sameness to all of it. I can absolutely think of poems that warrant this assessment. I can also think of dozens, probably hundreds, of contemporary lyric poems that do not. Some poems engage the intellect. Others captivate us with their music. Some bewitch us with their imagery. And yes, some draw us in with great narrative. But let’s not require all poems to tell a story. If sameness is a problem, that surely won’t help.
5. No more meditating on the meditation.
Poems need a subject. If a poem only makes sense to the poet, it is unsuccessful. The act of writing, as a metaphor for thinking, is not an adequate subject for a poem.
I find I still agree with most of this. Tony Hoagland’s piece, “The Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” offers a good overview of the improvisational, wobbly poem and some of its problems. But I also find that narrative can take the poet too far from an experience. Sometimes we need the distance and perspective that narrative offers, but sometimes that would kill a poem. I think Ellen Bryant Voigt is a wonderful example of a contemporary poet who uses narrative when it is needed and avoids it when it is not. Her poem “At the Movie: Virginia, 1956” is a narrative poem that requires an adult speaker, one who is now fully aware of the racial tensions that the girl in the poem was trying to understand when she was “wanting to look, not knowing how to see.” On the other hand, her poem “The Cusp” eschews narrative:
So few birds—the ones that winter through
and the geese migrating through the empty fields,
fording the cropped, knuckled stalks of corn:
all around us, all that’s green’s suppressed,
and in the brooding wood, the bare trees,
shorn of leaves or else just shy of leaves,
make a dark estate between low clouds
that have the look of stubborn snow.
In a purely scientific exercise --
say you came from the moon, or returned
like Lazarus, blinking from the cave—
you wouldn’t know if winter’s passed or now beginning.
The bank slopes up, the bank slopes down to the ditch.
Would it help if I said grieving has an end?
Would it matter if I told you this is spring?
I suggest that if we knew who was grieving in this poem, or why, or even the identity of the “you,” the poem would lose some of its power. There is, clearly, a story here, but it took place "off-stage." As Voigt writes in this interview with The Atlantic, the narrative always hovers behind a lyric poem, but it isn’t always necessary or even desirable to offer the story itself. We need lyric poems because poetry often is an act of thinking or of feeling or of praying, and because immediacy sometimes trumps rationality and, yes, even clarity.
6. No more poems about poetry.
No more poems about poetry.
This subject has been debated almost to death, but to me it's a non-issue. There are a lot of really bad poems about poetry. There are a lot more really bad poems about love. Shall we ban love poetry? Wallace Stevens is supposed to have said, “All poems are about poetry.” I don’t know if he ever really said it, but I like it.
7. No more irresponsibility of expression.
If you choose a form, you must adhere to the limitations of that form and follow its rules. If you choose a subject, you must be faithful to its expression. There should be a perfect marriage of content and form.
This is the item on the list that I most agree with. While I don’t like the idea that there is a formal buffet from which to choose the form you want—a Spenserian sandwich today, a terza rima trifle tomorrow—a perfect marriage of content and form is the goal, though I say that with the belief that the “perfect” form is often messy (see my earlier comments about “roughing up” form). Perfection is a lot to ask, but poets should all strive for it, and prosody gives them the tools to try.
8. Raze the House of Fashion.
Poets should always be looking to go in a new direction. Whatever is in fashion should be avoided.
Of course this appealed to me when I was beginning to write poems. Who doesn’t want to be new and original? But what a walking paradox I was! I wanted someone to tell me, to give me rules for, how to write original poetry. The Reaper painted itself as a counter-cultural magazine, comparing itself to BLAST and Kayak, and maybe it was like those magazines in the sense of presenting an alternative to what it saw as a dominant, dangerous trend. But Jarman and McDowell also, by their own admission, sought to begin a new trend, and I have come to believe that artistic movements, even well meaning ones, are almost always antithetical to art because they promote a limited agenda. To be clear, I’m not saying art can never be political, or that artists and critics should never fight for what they believe in. What I’m saying is that art answers the demands of the artistic moment rather than the demands of trends. A manifesto is an instruction manual for avoiding old trends and following a new one.
I now realize that what I really hungered for as a graduate student was not an instruction manual or a list of demands, but craft, and that these are very far from being the same thing. My father-in-law has a garage full of tools, and every time I walk in I am amazed that he not only knows what all of them do, but that he can actually create things with them. My Grandpa Darrell is the same way. If it can be made out of wood, he can make it. But the tools don’t tell either of these men what they can and cannot make with them. They had teachers who taught them what each of the tools does, and certain tools were used whenever needs arose. Eventually, after a lifetime of work, the tools became part of them so that they didn’t seem like tools at all but extensions of their vision. This analogy may seem simple to some, but it works for me.
9. Dismantle the Office of Translation.
Poems in translation become indistinct from one another. They sound like their translators and not the poets who wrote them. Too much bad poetry gets translated into English.
Dafydd ap Gwilym. Rilke. Neruda. Catullus. Botev. Akhmatova. I can only read one of these poets in the original language. Should I forget about the others? Having attempted to translate poetry myself, I can readily believe that no translation is perfect. I’ll settle for the imperfect ones.
10. Spring open the Jail of the Self.
Poets exist as part of a world, and the poems should reflect that world. The distinct self is only important when we see the world in which it exists.
In my first poetry workshop as a graduate student, someone said of one of my poems, “This is a poem set in the city that could have been written before the invention of the automobile or electricity.” Point taken. One thing I’ve learned from my study of Welsh poetry is that poets exist as part of a community, and that they have an important function to perform beyond introspection. But I also believe that highly personal poems are often the most communal. This is one of the strange paradoxes of writing: in order to approach the universal, art requires those authenticating details of individual experience. The truth is, we will never know enough about the world. And too many of us prefer not to know. Ideally every poet would be familiar not just with literary history, but also with art history, music theory, political history, and science. The irony of my early reading of The Reaper is that even though it was encouraging me to be aware of the world, it caused me to close off part of the literary world. I initially dismissed some of my now-favorite poets—Wallace Stevens, Geoffrey Hill, even T. S. Eliot—because their poems were difficult. (Incidentally, The Reaper argues, in one of its essays, that Wallace Stevens ruined contemporary poetry. My response to that essay would require a separate post.)
But what is closed off can be reopened. Looking back, I don’t regret the period I spent as a member of The Reaper’s congregation, and my purpose in revisiting The Reaper’s "non-negotiable" demands has not been to show how wrongheaded they are, or to cast myself as having evolved beyond them, but to, in fact, negotiate with them. Even though I no longer fully agree with many of them, I value their existence, and on reflection, I still believe that the principles helped me. They gave me the confidence to write, and even though I now see it as a false confidence, writing is what I most needed to be doing. And for all I know, The Reaper is still doing that for some young writer hiding out in Government Documents.
I want to tell you about one of my favorite poems at the moment. It’s from Lord Byron’s Foot, by George Green, which was selected last year by David Mason for The New Criterion Poetry Prize and recently published by St. Augustine’s Press. As an editor at The New Criterion, I was thoroughly delighted by Mason’s choice, since I had championed George’s work on a number of occasions, both in the magazine and in The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets.
I remember showing up several years ago to a marathon reading organized by Roddy Lumsden at a bar up by Columbia University. We were asked to write a poem based, I think, on some theme—the theme, like the poem I produced, was eminently forgettable.
After a couple hours of poems sliding by like fried eggs off of memory's Teflon, George got up (he may have been the last reader, in fact) and read “Bangladesh.” So surprising and so weird was this poem, we were rapt. You could have heard the reshelving in Butler Library. And funny! So funny. The abrupt, associative segues and the logic-defying half-slapdash, haphazardness of the narrative resolves, quite mysteriously, into a unified, warmly satiric portrait of an age that we lived though in Downtown New York and loved for its Bohemian craziness and, and, now, in hindsight, for the wince-making tartness of its bittersweet excesses. He wrote the poem the night before, he told me, when I said how much I liked it.
Riotous and sweetly sad: such a killer combo. Bravo, George Green!
We have to start in 1965,
when all the gay meth heads couldn’t decide
which one they most adored, Callas or Dylan,
both of them skinny as thermometers,
posing like sylphs in tight black turtlenecks.
Then, gradually, a multitude of Dylans
began to fill the park, croaking like frogs,
strumming guitars, blowing harmonicas,
hundreds and hundreds, several to a bench.
But there was only one Maria Callas,
sequestered in her gloomy Paris pad
and listening to Maria Callas records
(and nothing but), her bulky curtains closed,
which works for me because it worked for her.
What doesn’t work is three David Lee Roths,
one checking bags at Trash and Vaudeville, one
strutting with ratted hair up St. Mark’s Place,
and one zonked out in tights and on the nod,
surrounded by the Dylans in the park.
David Lee Roth times three would mean the times
would have to change, and so a roving band
of punk rockers began to beat the Dylans,
chasing them through the park and pounding them
senseless, then busting up their folk guitars
or stealing them. They even torture one
unlucky Dylan by the children’s pool,
holding him down to burn him with Bic lighters,
then cackling when he begs to keep his Martin.
Later on at the precinct, deeply troubled,
a sensitive policeman contemplates
the crimes. Why were marauding gangs of punks
beating the Dylans in the park? He asks
himself, repeatedly, not realizing
that they, the punks, were cultural police
determined to eradicate the Dylans
and purify the park of Dylanesque
pollutions and corruptions, rank and abject
folk rock recrudescences, and worse—
that odious and putrid piety,
the sanctimoniousness of all the Dylans,
the phony holiness that peaks for Bob
(his faddish Christianity aside)
during the benefit for Bangladesh,
where George insists that Yoko not perform
and John agrees ’till Yoko blows her stack,
and they start primal-screaming at each other,
John flying out of JFK and nodding,
and Eric flying into JFK
and nodding. Well, Ravi would go on first,
the one and only Ravi Shankar, folks.
I saw him five times, three times high on acid,
the first time straight with Richard and his mom,
Debbie, who drove us down from Podunk High
to see him at the Syria Mosque (long gone,
bulldozed in ’75). Debbie’s not well.
Last August she was totally Alzheimered
and, my sweet lord, she made a pass at me,
which was embarrassing. Rebuffed but proud
she sat down on the porch swing with a thump,
and, chirping like a parakeet, she swung.
Tomorrow: I attend the dress rehearsal of my daughter’s grade-school production of Romeo & Juliet and come away impressed not only by the performances, which were super, but also by the playwright who clearly has what it takes!
Arguably the biggest occupational hazard of the poet is that sooner or later, your lover will request a love poem.
If you are either very cocky or very skilled, you might whip out a fountain pen and write a fitting ode upon a cocktail napkin.
But if you possess the slightest doubt about your abilities, or about the notion of "love poems" in general, you might quiver in your oxfords.
Most writers I know agree the love poem is the hardest to write. Breakup poems? Child's work. Meditations on death? No problem. Pastoral portraits and comic scenarios? They can be rendered with fair effort. But the love poem risks sentimentality, vulnerability, cliché -- and worst of all, the probability of falling short in its attempt to capture the enormity of the emotion.
For all of these reasons, love poems impress and intimidate the heck out of me. So on the eve of March, an hour before kissing February good-bye, I find myself researching the history of love poems, revisiting modern favorites and distilling some lessons from them all.
When I think of love poems, the verse that pops into my head is "roses are red / violets are blue." It's inevitable, and it makes me equate all love-y verse with shallow greeting cards. Who wants any part of that?
But as is the case with so many clichés, this flower stems from an interesting seed.
Edmund Spenser (pictured at the top) immortalized the image of red roses and blue violets in 1590 with his epic poem, The Faerie Queene:
It was upon a Sommers shynie day,
When Titan faire his beames did display,
In a fresh fountaine, farre from all mens vew,
She bath'd her brest, the boyling heat t'allay;She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowers, that in the forrest grew.
In the following stanzas, Chrysogone falls asleep in the grass and is impregnated by sunbeams, leading to the birth of faerie twins. The goddesses Venus and Diana steal the newborns. Not exactly the stuff of greeting cards!
Spenser was more concerned with supporting Queen Elizabeth I and the Reformation than writing a transcendent love poem. But the sensuality in his verse is far more inspiring than the versions that arrived centuries later.
He's also known for "Amoretti," a sonnet cycle exploring his courtship and marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. She's rendered as his practical if not unromantic counterpoint, which gives the poems a tantalizing tension. In the sonnet "One Day I Wrote her Name," Spenser writes:
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
(If you're interested in Spenser, you'll enjoy this thorough biography over at the Poetry Foundation.)
The rose is red, the violet's blue,
The honey's sweet, and so are you.
Thou are my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou'd be you.
And a hundred years after that, in 1862, the image swam the English channel to appear in Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, in which Fantine sings "violets are blue, roses are red / violets are blue, I love my loves." It sounds lovely in French, which gives us the pleasurable slant rhyme:
Les bleuets sont bleus, les roses sont roses,
Les bleuets sont bleus, j'aime mes amours.
So our Valentine cliché has an alluring literary tradition, and simply knowing that helps me embrace the love poem a little more. Next Thursday, I'll share some favorite love poems and lessons from current writers.
Until then, xo February.
Prompt: Find a love poem you admire, be it classic or modern, and determine what makes it successful. Next week - some prompts to help write one.
Images: "Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen" by Henry Fuseli (middle) and 1901 edition of Mother Goose (bottom).
From the Editors of Green Mountains Review -- Over the next ten days, Green Mountains Review Online will present in four installments J. Chester Johnson’s groundbreaking essay “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre,” which probes deeply into one of America’s deadliest and least discussed race massacres – an event that also directly led to a more progressive U. S. Supreme Court judgment toward equal protection and thus helped usher in the civil rights movement. Driving Johnson’s exhaustive research is a personal connection to the massacre and its mysterious circumstances that brings to the fore those powerful emotional questions that lie always beyond the larger historical ones.
Across the sweeping canvas of American history, two markers–inherited and ineluctable–from the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 in Phillips County, Arkansas of the Mississippi River Delta invite a degree of attention to the episode yet to be received from public consciousness. First, the sheer number of persons who died in the massacre–-more particularly, the countless African-Americans who perished-–would certainly cause this massacre to be judged one of the most deadly racial conflicts–-perhaps, the most deadly racial conflagration-–in the history of the nation. Second, the wellspring of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s drew constantly from the 1923 U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Moore v. Dempsey that emerged out of the legal proceedings in Phillips County against African-American defendants, charged with the murders of whites allegedly committed during the massacre. The ruling in Moore v. Dempsey broke a long chain of Supreme Court decisions brutally adverse to the safety and rights of African-Americans.
Two heroes whose individual backgrounds could not have been more dissimilar share in this American saga. Most apparent, Scipio Africanus Jones, African-American lawyer, who started as a laborer in the Arkansas fields to become a 20th century Moses, climbed, through brilliance and tenacity, to forensic heights to free the black sharecroppers, unjustly found guilty of crimes in the aftermath of the massacre, and, at the same time, developed the legal strategy that, ultimately, through the intervention of the U. S. Supreme Court, altered the application of the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution to protect the individual rights of and due process for American citizens. The other hero, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston patrician and distinguished jurist, who wrote the majority opinion for Moore v. Dempsey, not only opened the door to freedom for wrongfully convicted Arkansas sharecroppers, but also articulated a new judicial precedent and principle under which the federal government would more forcefully thereafter engage in the constitutional protection of its citizens.
Continue reading at Green Mountains Review Online.
Walking Delhi with Himanshu Verma, an emerging arts curator, follows a trail where poets share top billing with rulers and religious leaders. Poets get prominent positions in India’s history – literally – with their shrines and tombs near those of emperors and saints across Delhi.
The place to be buried in Delhi from the 14th to 19th C was Nizamuddin, a village named after the exalted Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Not far away is a vast World Heritage site, the tomb of Humayun, the second of six powerful Muslim Mughals who controlled Northern India from 1527-1707. Eternity in the vicinity was a mark of status for nobles and warriors too. But who is buried closest to the white marble mausoleum of Nizamuddin who died in 1325, none other than his disciple and eminent Muslim poet Amir Khusrau, who died just six months later.
If all you know about Hindu-Muslim relations in India is the wrenching partition in 1947 and subsequent political assassinations, the relationship between this saint and poet and the broader culture is a good place to get perspective on why India is simultaneously the Hindu capital of the world and the second largest Muslim nation.
Most, not all, of the Islamic Mughals were tolerant of people of other faiths, including the indigenous Hindus. Khusrau was a cultural cross-pollinator, writing poetry primarily in Persian but also in Hindi. He drew on both languages for the first known printed dictionary. His poems take several forms, but Khusrau may be best known for expanding the development of ghazal. Khusrau mined ghazal for lyrics with his fusion of Persian and Indian musical traditions to create the Sufi devotional music, qawwali. Hindu and Muslim pilgrims, not to mention music lovers, still crowd the courtyard between the tombs of saint and poet for Friday afternoon qawwali.
The path to the tombs twists through narrow alleys and bazaars, a bustling Muslim marketplace since the Middle Ages. One route goes past a still-preserved sandstone step well built by Nizamuddin to provide water and a scenic meeting place in the neighborhood.
Then picture eight or nine singers and musicians, called a party, performing powerful poetic lyrics of love and longing. The intoxication with the beloved is understood to be the divine, but oh how well the metaphors work for the mere human as in a Khusrau excerpt below:
O sweetheart, why do you not take me to your bosom?
Long like curls in the night of separation,
Short like life on the day of our union.
Flash forward to Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), a master of ghazal, who was alive during the unsuccessful Indian rebellion against the British in 1857. Traditionally ghazal is a short poem of divine anguished love, in couplets all using the same rhyme, with the poet’s name in the last stanza. Ghalib expanded the focus to philosophy and the troubles and mysteries of life. For example, he compared his unhappy arranged marriage to a second imprisonment following the confinement of life itself.
Reading samples of Ghalib’s poetry at his tomb in Nizamuddin and his house in another old Delhi neighborhood invited comparisons to American contemporaries Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. His subject matter is as broad as Whitman, but his spot-on death metaphors more powerfully conjure up Dickinson.
In between chronologically is Rahim, Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana (1556 – 1627). A Muslim who wrote Hindi couplets, Rahim was a powerful minister in the Mughal court of Akbar. The Hindu god Lord Krishna is often featured in his poetry. The marble and sandstone on his tomb in Nizamuddin were stripped off and recycled for an 18th C tomb elsewhere. The base remains intact as does respect for the wisdom of his couplets:
The tree does not eat its own fruit, the lake does not drink its water.
For the welfare of others, the good one accumulates wealth, so says Rahim.
Here’s my video of Verma reading Rahim. Verma runs several multidisciplinary arts initiatives, including Red Earth and 1100 Walks. (Don’t miss his food-centric street tour of Old Delhi if you’re in town.) Verma is himself a devotee of Krishna.
The thread of poet prominence continues in India’s modern political history. Nobel Laureate Tagore Rabindranath died in 1941 before independence but was an influential intellectual friend of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. Tagore first called Gandhi a Mahatma, or great soul, and the name stuck. In 1913, Tagore became the first non-European to win a Nobel prize, for a collection of poems Gitanjali in Bengali and English.
Words of the poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, songwriter, artist and educator pop up all over India. He even gets the last word at the Taj Mahal where a Tagore quote fills a huge wall near the exit and describes the marble marvel as a “tear drop… on the cheek of time for ever and ever… a garland that would blend formless death with deathless form.”
The experimental school Tagore founded educated Indian leaders in a variety of disciplines including Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate economist, and Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and the prime minister for 15 years. (She was lucky enough to get the surname Gandhi from her Parsi husband.) Gandhi kept a framed picture of Tagore with an English excerpt from Gitanjaliin her home study; words in a prominent vitrine in her museum that lead a mind without fear to “where the clear stream of reason/ has not lost its way.”
Find out more about the exhibit here.-- sdh
The controversy surrounding Chuck Hagel's proposed appointment as US Secretary of Defense has not been well understood. The Vietnam veteran and former Nebraska senator is a Republican, and yet the Republican establishment has raised doubts about his fitness to serve as chief of the nation's military industrial monopoly. Why? Is it because, initially in favor of the Iraq war in 2003, he realized belatedly that he had been duped and he turned dovish? It is true that his judgment has been questioned; he opposed the "surge" that seems to have been the most successful US military maneuver in the sourly disappointing years following "shock and awe," a phrase that you don't hear much anymore. In other quarters Hagel has caused concern because of his alleged softness on Iran and on violent Islamist outfits such as Hamas and Hezbollah. All this has been duly reported in the newspapers (or the crude electronic successors of that twentieth-century instrument of information control). But what the pundits and the pols have omitted, perhaps disingenuously, is the secret reason for the opposition to the senate's ratification of Obama's choice to head the defense department.
What has been completely overlooked is the relation between Chuck Hagel's philosophy and that of his distinguished ancestor, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the most systematic of the post-Kantian idealists in nineteenth-century Germany. In brief, Senator Hagel may be said to subscribe with such zeal to the Hegelian dialectic that the usual Washington big mouths have had to take crash courses in the work of that famously forbidding philosopher of history. Hagel's link to Hegel is such that the Magritte painting "Hegel's Vacation," in which a glass of water stand precariously atop an open umbrella, would apply to either of them. Sources close to the candidate are leaking the rumor that he plans to be sworn in with his hand on The Phenomonology of Spirit rather than the traditional Bible.
A leader of the opposition spoke to me on condition of anonymity. "The simple truth is that a vote for Chuck Hagel is an endorsement of Hegelianism, and that particular ism -- though less scary than the isms of Marx, Lenin, and the Commune -- arouses suspicion if only by association. Everyone knows that Hegel said history repeats itself and Marx revised Hegel to say that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This line is quoted so frequently, and almost always as an admonition, that suspicion attaches to Hegel for being hoodwinked by either Marx or by History." More particularly, Hegel's belief that “Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two” arouses worry among hard-liners because it acknowledges compromise as inevitable. Hegel also has the habit of speaking in different languages, which may simply be one way of disguising his penchant for repeating himself. "Nada de grandioso se faz no mundo sem paixão." "Rien de grand dans le monde ne s'est accomplis sans passion."
Hegel has been attacked for his oracular pronouncements on history. For example, "We learn from history that we do not learn from history,” or the same sentiment re-stated, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” On the other hand, Hagel could acquit himself by stating unequivocally that the study of history and civics should be mandatory in a democracy.
It could be argued that Hagel's nomination is itself an illustration of the Hegelian dialectic. It is the thesis to which the senate's opposition is the antithesis. And if Hegel taught us anything, it is that mind or spirit realizes itself in the temporary truces in the perpetual conflicts between, say, nature and freedom. Partisans of Hegel point to his ringing endorsement of freedom on the one hand and the sublime on the other at a commencement speech given a few years ago at the US Military Academy. “It is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained," he told the cadets at West Point. "The individual who has not staked his or her life may, no doubt, be recognized as a Person; but he or she has not attained the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.”My own sense of Hegel is complicated by the fact that every time I think I understand him, I realize that I don't understand him. This, too, the great philosopher anticipated. “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn't understand me,” he liked to say, and somehow it didn't sound like a German smart-ass showing off in an Oxford pub. He was a great bullshit artist in an age that prized that activity. Although the era of the World Historical Individual is gone, Hegel's analysis was subtler than people realize. He liked pointing out that world-conquerors were seldom happy. When they succeeded there was nothing left for them to do -- they were "like empty hulls from the kernel." Hegel shrugged. "Alexander died young, Caesar was murdered, and Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena." It was always amusing to see Hegel shrug.
I suggest that the question be put directly to Senator Hagel, who has never been a shilly-shallying sort. Do you believe that "history in general is the development of Spirit in Time, as Nature is the development of the Idea in Space”? And what, sir, did you mean when you said that “America is the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World's History shall reveal itself”? -- DL
“In any great adventure, if you don’t want to lose…you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.” Eric Idle
When I was an undergraduate with limitless energy and cranking out poems left and right for my workshop classes, all I wrote about was my family. There were poems about everything from my grandfather’s hands to the years he spent working in a field. Even the paisley print of one of my grandmother’s shirts made it into a poem. As did my brother, mother and father, even a certain rude classmate whose name or face I can no longer remember made an appearance as a giant rat.
Some of these poems, in spite of how poorly made they were, brought my mother to tears when she read them because there we were, our family, our struggles, on a piece of paper. It was a record, albeit a weak one, that we had lived and suffered and were still here.
Take all the records the government could use to prove someone’s existence (deeds, bills, social security card, pay stubs, etc.) and they would say little more than my family had lived on a certain street and used X number of watts of electricity to power our washer and microwave and the TV that once the day’s robberies and Reagan’s pearls of ignorance had been reported by news anchors and Johnny Carson had bid us goodnight, began broadcasting pure static snow all through the night until the morning brought the national anthem and our beautiful, waving flag. None of this ever made it into my poems back then because I was, in my ignorance, mining what I knew and being a third-rate Confessional.
Later, when I was a graduate student and I had run out of things to write about in my life, I tried slipping into the lives of others and liked it, so much so in fact, I never tried to put myself in a poem again, aside from the minor personal detail I might secretly slip in like my tendency to mumble or my awful memory, details no one would ever know unless I pointed them out. What’s more, I tried to hide these details in scenes that might be filled with Johnny Carson and images of patriotism sitting snugly beside a microwave dinner.
I was, to put it simply, trying to obliterate myself in my poetry so that I could make up stories about people and places and things that were far more interesting than I was, stories that might help a reader meet someone new or travel somewhere different. In Lord Jim, Conrad writes, “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Conrad had it easy, as do most writers of fiction, in that if a reader could be made “to see” something, she would most likely not think the character who spoke about writing and seeing was Conrad himself, just as no one I know has ever mistaken Huckleberry Finn for Twain or Gatsby for Fitzgerald.
And yet, it is our burden as poets is it not, to be confused for our speakers, even if they be of a different age or gender or species, all of which was the subject of conversation while my family and I passed turkey and dressing and peach wine during Thanksgiving. Try as I might, I could not convince them that the book I had written and whose poems they had carefully read—a thousand blessings on their heads for that—was not written by a 200 year old half man/half bear who had moonlighted as a soldier, a prisoner of war, a Soviet scientist, a preacher, and countless other things.
Having to choose between thinking that I could spin a really good yarn or that I was a centuries-old hybrid creature living among them, they happily picked the latter, a choice which delights me to no end because it is just one more of a thousand masks I am happy to accept and wear and for which I will always gladly give thanks.
When I was about eleven, my job was to grade the eggs with my step-mother when I came home from school. We worked in the basement, grading each egg separately on a small hand scale, brushing the dirty ones by hand with a sandpaper brush. Hilda sat on a low box in front of an upturned crate which held the scale. We both pushed a case of graded eggs away; periodically my father would appear and stack the crates one on top of another, labeling them with his co-op number so that they could be identified and he would get paid. From sitting thus for years, bent over the hand egg scale, my stepmother's shoulders got so round that she appeared to have a hump. One of the last modern machines to come onto our farm was an automatic egg-grader. It was then possible to stand and put dozens of eggs on the scale at the same time. But it was too late for Hilda's back to straighten out.
. . .
All the farm women and girls I knew packed eggs and did other chores on the farm. Some of the women worked right alongside their husbands, cleaning out chicken coops, preparing the outdoor ranges for the chickens, doing the same heavy manual work as the men. These were the women who peopled my world. I looked at them, at their work-worn hands and faces, their rough clothing, indistinguishable from the men's and I resolved never to live on a farm or have anything to do with a farm when I grew up.
-- from The Land Was Theirs: Jewish Farmers in the Garden State by Gertrude Wishnick Dubrovsky (University of Alabama Press, 1992)
Constance Rourke wrote many books, including biographies of John James Audubon, P.T. Barnum, and Davy Crockett. Most importantly, she wrote American Humor: A Study of the National Character. Greil Marcus penned the introduction to a 2004 NYRB reissue of the book and Luc Sante posted a glowing tribute to Rourke on her birthday last year. I found a used copy years ago at the Montague Book Mill and reading it brought immediate recognition with every sentence. Rourke traces the American character first through three different archetypes: the Yankee peddler, the backwoodsman, and the minstrel. She goes on to sketch how these various strains of humor, these ways of approaching life, manifested themselves not only in everyday Americans but in the work of Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, James, and other American writers.
Luke Hankins has written on this blog about devotional poems, and the anthology he edited, Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets, in which three of my poems appear, offers the reader a diverse selection. Starting with excerpts from Eliot’s Four Quartets, the anthology travels through the second half of the 20th century into the 21st, offering up hymns by poets like Brother Antonious, John Berryman, Denise Levertov, Yehuda Amichai, A.R. Ammons, Leonard Cohen, Louise Glück, Marie Howe, Carl Phillips, and Sufjan Stevens. Luke connects the devotional mode in the West to the Metaphysical Poets like Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Southwell, and Bradstreet but includes other traditions, such as Hebrew, Islamic, Buddhist, Zen, and American Transcendentalism. Rourke’s book acts as prelude for that last one. In a country where almost 90% of the citizens feel they have a direct connection to the divine, this devotion—simultaneously to the real in front of us as well as to our own imagination—is a testament of another kind, as we hold together a nation-state while following 300 million distinct personal religious impulses, whether to Yahweh, Christ, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s in this realm that the devotional poem, for me at least, edges from the metaphysical to touch the ’pataphysical.
I wanted to use a passage from American Humor as an epigraph to my collection, Green Mountains, as so many of the humors Rourke writes about seem to be roaming around these poems. And the mode is certainly devotional, if anarchic, a carnival. Each time I thought I had settled on one, maybe two, I found another. I wanted to use the whole book as epigraph: the ranges of the Green Mountains were containing the echoes in a much grander vista than I first thought, one that put them on the same plane of conversation and back-and-forth, rather than one text supplementing the other.
But this makes it sound like publication of Green Mountains is imminent. ’Tis not. H_NGM_N published Ranges I and Forklift Ranges II, but Ranges III still needs a home before I started sending out the entire manuscript for rejection. ’Til then, enjoy some samples of would-be epigraphs.
The farther he receded from view the more completely he changed into a sly thin ogre something greater than human size.
Peddlers may have been chockfull of metaphysics. Their secret has been closely kept.
Scratch the soil in China or Tibet or North Africa, and up would spring a Yankee, exercising his wits.
The Yankee was often called practical, but in the bits of story and reminiscence quickly accumulating about him, his famed ingenuity seemed less a practical gift than a knack for making changes.
The Yankee would often spend hours whittling; in his hands unexpected and fanciful shapes would emerge from white hickory, which added nothing to a practical existence.
Listless and simple, he might be drawn into a conversation with a stranger, and would tell a ridiculous story without apparent knowledge of its point. With not a change of tone, out would leap an odd figure. “He walked away as slick as a snake out of a blackskin.” “There we was amongst an ocean of folks and cutting up capers as high as a cat’s back.” A gulf often yawned between the large facts and his scanted version of them; as he marshaled the characters in a story he was an actor and a troupe.
But this reluctance was only another form of masquerade. These bits of indirection were social; direct replies would end many a colloquy: questions or evasions prolonged the talk and might open the way for more.
He could even take the Revolution as a joke; most of his songs about it streamed nonsense.
Though he talked increasingly his monologues still never brimmed over into personal revelation.
A barrier seemed to lie between this legendary Yankee and any effort to reach his inner character. The effect was so consistent, so widespread, so variously repeated that the failure to see him closely must be reckoned not a failure at all but a concerted interest in another direction. He was consistently a mythical figure; he appeared in the forms of expression taken by myth, in cycles of short tales, fables, and plays. Plain and pawky, he was an ideal image, a self-image, one of those symbols which peoples spontaneously adopt and by which in some measure they live. Overassertive yet quiet, self-conscious, full of odd new biases, he talked—this mythical creature: that was one secret of his power. A deep relish for talk had grown up throughout the country, on solitary farms, in the starved emptiness of the backwoods, on the wide wastes of the rivers. The response seemed an outcome of isolation; yet the same thirst existed upon the denser populations of the East. His slanting dialect, homely metaphor, the penetrating rhythms of his speech, gave a fillip toward the upset of old and rigid balances; creating laughter, he also created a fresh sense of unity. He ridiculed old values; the persistent contrast with the British showed part of his intention; to some extent he created new ones. He was a symbol of triumph, of adaptability, of irrepressible life—of many qualities needed to induce confidence and self-possession among a new and unamalgamated people. No character precisely like him had appeared before in the realm of the imagination. In the plays he may have stemmed at first from the Yorkshireman of early English plays; the framework of many a situation in which he appeared may have been borrowed; but he had existed in life outside all these; and his final character was newly minted. It was to survive in many fanciful manifestations an as outline of the American character; it has never been lost.
His slanting dialect, homely metaphor, the penetrating rhythms of his speech, gave a fillip toward the upset of old and rigid balances; creating laughter, he also created a fresh sense of unity.
He not only created a bestiary; with the single digression to the floral he insisted that he was a beast—a new beast, and the records prove that in this contention he was often right.
He was in fact a Mississippi river-god, one of those minor deities whom men create in their own image and magnify to magnify themselves.
Crockett’s philosophy was simple: he wanted to save the land from the speculator.
Inflation appeared with an air of wonder, which became mock wonder at times but maintained the poetic mode.
. . . he lied from the delight of invention and the charm of fictitious narrative. . . . The truth was too small for him.
Sometimes the songs were adorned with corals and dolphins and fireflies. Most of them kept the rolling choruses with a touch of nonsense.
The young American Narcissus had looked at himself in the narrow rocky pools of New England and by the waters of the Mississippi; he also gazed long at a darker image.
To sustain burlesque something more than grotesqueries is needed. Satire enters into its attentions; once a territory is invaded by burlesque, all its objects are likely to look puffed and stretched, pinched and narrowed. But pure satire stands aloof, while burlesque wholly possesses its subject and wears the look of friendship.
The action included many digressions of plot, and minor travesties. Showers of puns and double entendres fell, underlined in the text and no doubt sufficiently stressed as spoken, yet never appearing as palpable hits, for they came in enormous abundance, tumbling one over another; they effervesced and overflowed; they often chimed and were musical.
This lawless satire was engaged in a pursuit which had occupied comedy in the native vein elsewhere. As if it were willful and human, the comic spirit in America had maintained the purpose—or so it seemed—to fulfill the biblical cry running through much of the revivalism of the time: to “make all things new.” It was a leveling agent. The distant must go, the past be forgotten, lofty notions deflated. Comedy was conspiring toward the removal of all alien traditions, out of delight in pure destruction or as preparation for new growth.
All their modes were outward, rhapsodic, declamatory, full of song, verging upon the dance, adorned with symbolic costume, moving toward that oratory which was half burlesque.
He always demanded an audience: yet in the end, though he included the critic, though his self-consciousness grew noisy and acute, his finest efforts seemed mainly for his peers.
Half magnification, half sudden strange reversal, these tales were likely to culminate in moments of “sudden glory” that had a touch of the supernatural.
The strangest, most comic experiences, quiddities, oddities, tales, and bits of novel expression were treasured and matched one against another.
Grotesquerie and irreverence and upset made their center.
What he did in that walk, was from the irresistible promptings of instinct, and a disinterested love of art.
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I’ve worked at The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts since at least last Wednesday.
If you get that joke, then you’ve probably been to The Bookstore where you’ve probably met owner Matthew Tannenbaum. Matt’s been in the book business for a little while now. He recounts the beginning of his career as a bookman in the chapbook-sized My Years at the Gotham Book Mart with Frances Steloff, Proprietor (on sale during business hours; come on in). He’s working on a longer memoir, so I won’t, nor for reasons of plausible deniability do I particularly want to, divulge the details—which are wild, heartbreaking, historic—suffice it to say that The Bookstore came into his care during the nation’s bicentennial year and, despite claims to the contrary, he’s been serving the people of Lenox and the greater community ever since.
The Bookstore is a New England City Lights: a thriving counterculture symbol not simply because of Matt’s connection to banned-book champion Steloff nor solely because of his own place in that continuum (e.g. the poster trumpeting Matt’s reading of Kerouac’s Dr. Sax with Michael Gizzi and Clark Coolidge, the photo of him shaking hands with Vaclav Havel) but precisely because it’s a shop stocked by a man who knows that reading a book, whether the pulpiest mass market, the most surreal love poetry, or the humblest picture book, can reveal in any person of any age limitless reservoirs of imagination, of wonder, of hope. In the E-Age, selling print books is about as countercultural an activity as you can engage in in these United States.
That’s one of the reasons, but not the only, that puts me in my car 2 ½ hours ’round-trip three days a week. On one of those three days, I usually get a compliment on the store’s selection, which has been cultivated by Matt through nearly four decades of his own literary love affairs—but is also the result of a bookman having a deep and ongoing conversation with his community. Because he loves to hear what people love to read, whether they’re old friends or new acquaintances, they in turn allow Matt to suggest books they might not otherwise consider, enlarging their own point of view. It’s buoying to observe and it happens all the time.
If you’ve read Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, you might have seen Matt’s name before. This contemporary epic of motherhood and community was written on December 22, 1978 at 100 Main Street in Lenox, down the street and around the corner from The Bookstore. Almost everything in Lenox is down the street and around the corner. Matt appears a couple of times, but the most notable occurs near the end of Part III, on page 53 of the latest New Directions paperback (NDP876). On the preceding page, standing in the health food store, the question comes: “You think something like a book will change the world, don’t you?” The answer, in the next line: “I do, I take pleasure in taking the milk with the most cream”. A few lines later brings us to this wonderful decision:
Let’s go in to the bookstore to see Matthew Tannenbaum
The dream figure of the boy-father-mother who turns into
The recalcitrant bookseller as we do
I look over the shoulder
Of a girl flipping through the pages of a book of women’s faces
All beauties, bigger than life, black and white
Scavullo on Beauty
You study poetry and read magazines upstairs
Let me tell you
The titles of all the current books:
The Suicide Cult, The Ends of Power,
The Origin of the Brunists, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
War and Remembrance, The Winds of War, The Dogs of War, Dog Soldiers,
Mommie Dearest, My Moby Dick, My Mother Myself, By Myself, Uncle,
Mortal Friends, Nappy Edges, Tender Miracles,
Song of Solomon, Delta of Venus, The Women’s Room,
Ladies Man, Six Men, The Water-Method Man, Watership Down,
The Night People, Shepherds of the Night, A Dream Journey,
Daniel Martin, Delmore Schwartz, Edith Wharton,
Time and Again, Better Times Than These, Centennial,
The Professor of Desire, The Honorable Schoolboy,
Heart Beat, The Third Mind, Jack’s Book,
Beasts, The Magus, The Flounder, The Fabricator,
Words of Advice, Secrets and Surprises, Dispatches,
Prelude to Terror, Full Disclosure, Final Payments,
The World of Damon Runyon, The Stories of John Cheever,
Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe, Praxis,
The Annotated Shakespeare, The Last Best Hope
There are lots of beautiful things about this passage. There is no more “upstairs”—it’s now a slightly elevated section of the store with our children’s books. We don’t sell magazines; you can find a selection at Loeb’s Food Town next door, as well as newspapers. You can, however, still come and study poetry, as we’ve got an entire wall of it in the adjacent Get Lit Wine Bar, where I bartend on Friday nights, sometimes Thursday mornings.
It’s also a delightful snapshot of the publishing world in the late 1970s. One title in particular stands out: My Moby Dick by William Humphrey, a romp about a colossal trout and the fanatical angler out to hook him. It’s out of print, and we recently tracked down a used copy for someone. The Lenox connection is significant: Melville wrote Moby-Dick not but a few miles from The Bookstore at Arrowhead, on the Lenox-Pittsfield line. I pass by it every day on the way to work.
In my own decade-long career as a bookman, I’ve worked at various Borders and Barnes & Noble locations. I was the textbook manager at the Yale Bookstore. For a number of years, I was a manager at another great independent, the Northshire Bookstore, in Manchester Center, Vermont. I’ve worked for and with great people who have enriched my literary vocabulary, often in ways I never would’ve predicted. I’ve also worked for and with people who, in the end of the day, could’ve been selling hemorrhoid cream for all they cared, so long as you bought something from them.
The Bookstore is different.
Every once in a while, I’ll get a customer who, rather wistfully, goes on about how great it would be to own a bookstore. I try not to disabuse them. Those reveries of lounging around, talking literature the live-long are quickly erased when you have to deal with the day-to-day operations of unpacking, stocking, ordering, organizing the store. It never ends. But since we’re working with books, it’s a joy, and occasionally, moreso than any other bookstore I’ve worked at, we do get a chance to kick back and talk. About books, yes, but also about life. That is, after all, where the books comes from. It helps when Bookstore friends like Alice Brock, Bill Corbett, Harry Mathews, or Geoff Young stop in to say hello.
Anyone drawn to this blog is probably aware that the publishing industry is in—O clichéd phrase—a state of flux. We talk about this from time to time at The Bookstore. The conclusion we always come to is to keep doing what we’re doing, which is: to stock the best books, new and old, by the best writers from a variety of eras and styles and let great readers come find us. And they do. Every day.
Anyway, it’s too late to stop now. We don’t have every book ever printed available in the store for you to purchase. No one does, not even Amazon. But we do have a lot of great books, and there’s a good chance a few of those great books you’ve never heard of. So, like I said, come on in. I think of The Bookstore as like Ruthie in her honky-tonk lagoon.
We may not always have what you need, but we definitely have what you want.
* We always have lots of readings at The Bookstore, but one that Best American Poetry readers might be interested in is Peter Gizzi and Bernadette Mayer, Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.
Posted by Michael Schiavo on November 12, 2012 at 02:57 PM in Art, Book Stores, Collaborations, Dylan Watch, Food and Drink, Guest Bloggers, History, Music, Poetry Readings | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Banned Books, Bernadette Mayer, Bookstores, Gotham Book Mart, Guest Blogger, Lenox, Matthew Tannenbaum, Michael Gizzi, Michael Schiavo, Peter Gizzi, Poetry, The Bookstore, The Bookstore in Lenox
My mother and her sisters were born in Ishqabad, “the city of love,” in Turkmenistan. She was educated in Cypress as a nurse, speaking both Turkish and Greek. She then went to Tehran, met my father and married him. This is how I came to be born in Iran. And what a country! A place where in every home you almost always find a copy of poems of the revered Iranian poet, Hafez; a country where even the illiterate can recite a line or two from the poems of Rumi, Hafez, Saʿdī or any other classic poet to make his or her point in a conversation. It’s a country where an amusing children’s game—and I played this as a twelve-year-old with much gusto—is moshaereh, a game of poetry and memory where using poems learned by heart, one child recites a line of a poem, and the other child using the last letter of the poem must recite another poem that begins with that letter. For example:
Child one: A seasoned traveler on the road to love’s door
Your blood leaves its mark on every step [i]
Child two: Prophets of words! You pen-wielding idols.
If your message was the Truth, why did it crash
like waves at the shores of degradation? [ii]
Child one: Not for the sake of forests or for the sea
but for a leaf, for a drop brighter than your eyes. [iii]
… and so on. There was so much poetry stored in our little heads that we sometimes kept the game going for as long as a half hour.
For Iranians, as for people living in many parts of the world, poets occupy a lofty position and to them poetry is like bread, air, and colors. It is in this way that poets wield power, and at the same time set trembling the hearts of politicians, dictators, and even religious leaders. Indeed from Damascus, to Beijing to Tehran in every revolution or uprising, poets are among the first to be jailed. But the voice of the poet cannot be arrested, and that makes them dangerous to oppressive regimes such as Iran and China.
As an Iranian-American poet, I have always been a great advocate of literature in translation. As a poet who writes in English and saddles two languages and cultures, I have made it my duty to spend a portion of my time translating the poetry of Iranian poets. Not having access to the literature of a culture, movies like Argo and Not Without My Daughter, and news reports from sources such as Fox network bring to focus a whole nation through a single, and sometimes distorted, lens. I consider this kind of one-sided distorted presentation of any story dangerous, unfair, and in opposition to the peaceful direction towards which most human beings in this world wish to move.
In a country like Iran, a great number of laws are passed just so that injustice can be carried out legally. In many cases poets bearing witness to injustices and atrocities are guardians against lies and half-truths perpetrated by the lawmakers and fanatic religious leaders. These poets are harassed, jailed, or forced to flee. It is imperative that their poems are translated into other languages, and that it is done so in a caring manner: as living poems translated by poets who are fluent in both languages and cultures. Carolyn Forché in her groundbreaking anthology Against Forgetting writes, “One of the things that I believe happens when poets bear witness to historical events is that everyone they tell also becomes responsible for what they have heard and what they now know.”[iv] In my opinion, taking on this responsibility is crucial to our progress towards a harmonious and tolerant world society because to know the poetry of a nation means a closer look at its soul. Kenyan novelist and essayist, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who has always urged dialogue between nations through culture writes:
Culture is a product of a people’s history. But it also reflects that history and embodies a whole set of values by which a people view themselves and their place in time and space. Cultural contact can therefore play a great part in bringing about mutual understanding between peoples of different nations. Instead of armaments and nuclear weapons, instead of imposing one’s own version of democracy on tiny islands and continents through Rapid or Low Deployment Forces, let people of the world dialogue together through culture.[v]
Presently, only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the U.S. are translations. Yet, literature in translation is a tool necessary in building bridges that connect people of different cultures and religious persuasions. When there is a bridge, there will be foot traffic; and when we cross and engage with other cultures, through poetry, novels, and plays, we are that much closer to understanding them. That, I believe as a poet and a woman, is a good solid stride towards peace.
[ii] A Homily on Leaving by Nader Naderpour, translated by Sholeh Wolpé and Sahba Shayani. From The Forbidden: Poems From Iran and Its Exiles, edited by Sholeh Wolpé, Michigan State University Press, 2012.
[v] Moving the Center: The Struggle For Cultural Freedoms, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o; Heinmann Portsmouth, NH; EAEP, Nairobi; and James Curry Oxford, 1993.
Louis Simpson, who graced the pages of The Best American Poetry three separate times, died on September 14. Born in Jamaica, the West Indies, in 1923, Louis came to the United States at the age of seventeen and was an ace student at Columbia University, where he favorably impresed Mark Van Doren. One day he told his prof that he was taking a leave. Why? To join the army. He served with the 101st Airborne Division in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany.
In a poem entitled "The Silent Generation," Louis coined that term to designate the prevalent attitude of his contemporaries in the wake of the cataclysmic events that marked the Second World War. The poem is in his book A Dream of Governors (Wesleyan UP, 1959), A subsequent volume won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. I met Louis in 1970 -- he gave the Phi Beta Kappa poem that year to my graduating class at Columbia. Bob Hanning introduced us on College Walk.
Louis was something of a controversialist. He was angry about a lot of things -- entertainingly so, when the subject was critical theory and related bullshit. In 2005 Les Gottesman organized a Columbia Review reunion. I got to moderate a poetry reading that weekend at the Bowery Poetry Club and before the reading, Louis and I talked about an anthology of World War II poems that the Library of America had just published. I expressed my awe at his wartime exploits. Imagine having to parachute into France, just weeks after D-Day, behind enemy lines. You had to pray that your chute would open. You had to pray that you didn't land on top of a tree. You had to pray you didn't get shot down. "You were a hero," I said. Louis laughed. "I wasn't a hero," he said. "If you want to talk aboujt a real hero, think of Harvey Shapiro." Harvey, who had joined the air force during the global conflict, had flown more than thirty missions over occupied Europe. "I'll tell Harvey you said so," I said. I will always cherish the modesty of that moment. -- DL
Here are the last two stanzas of Louis's poem "Old Soldier":
The guns reverberate; a livid arc
From sky to sky lightens the windowpanes
And all his room. The clock ticks in the dark;
A cool wind stirs the curtain, and it rains.
He lies remembering: "That's how it was. . ."
And smiles, and drifts into a youthful sleep
Without a care. His life is all he has,
And that is given to the guards to keep.
Greetings from Sifnos, Greece, an island in the Western Cyclades, quiet sibling to the flashier and better known Santorini and Mykonos. Before I arrived this summer for my tenth return trip, like everyone else I was worried about the economy. How were my friends and acquaintances here handling the Draconian austerity measures Germany insists on imposing? Would Greece quit the Eurozone, default on its loans, return to the drachma? Part of me certainly hoped so: to this outside observer, the currency switch in 2002 had always seemed much better for the rich, worse for the middle and working class, another way for the wealthy to loot the country—as their American fellows do. (Don’t tell me about Greeks evading taxes until Mitt Romney, who may be our next president, releases his tax records.) In 2002, prices of everyday goods and services soared to fit the Euro, but wages for workers stayed low, still tied to drachma rates.
The tourism industry took a hit then, too, as fewer middle class Europeans could afford the hotel rates and meal costs, the hikes in airfares and airport security fees. Athens and the islands were quieter. Even the backpackers from the Antipodes and North America stopped coming in their high-spirited droves, seeking out cheaper beach spots in Turkey and Vietnam.
While international tourism had begun to pick up again in the last ten years, Sifnos is close enough to Piraeus—three hours by high speed ferry—to be popular with Greeks, especially wealthy Athenians. Last summer you noticed their absence, despite the many French (more posey swan-dives from the rocks, less bouzouki-driven pop music, no p.d.a.) who seem to be trying to take their place. Clearly it wasn’t this clan of French who coined the phrase joie de vivre. Although I felt positive about sticking to my plan to return to Greece, no matter what happened in the election on June 17th and its aftermath, part of me worried I’d fill with self-reproach: What kind of opportunist takes a vacation in a country on the brink of fiscal collapse?
But I find instead that as you move away from Athens, particularly Syntagma Square, ground zero for the protests against the austerity measures, people are reluctant to talk to visitors about the suffering. Even my good friend Helena, who is sorting out her mother’s finances, came home from a meeting with the tax officer mostly keeping mum. She did say that she’ll try to sell some property, that the real-estate tax hikes are ridiculous, impossible to meet. But what’s really killing everyone right now is the fee schedule for electric service, which takes a page from the loan shark’s book: every six months everyone—no matter how little electricity one consumes—has to pay a “connection fee”; collecting revenues through utilities is yet another way to make the working and middle class pay, another way to avoid the graduated income tax—which puts the burden on the rich. Helena mostly hinted at this with a series of small jokes and ironic nods, and I filled in the gaps. Hardly what we’d call in New Jersey, where I grew up, complaint.
Greece will survive. Chin up. The sense I get in the Cyclades is that after more than four thousand years of negotiation, of colonizing and being colonized, withstanding attacks from within and without by Ionians, Samians, Minoans, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, Nazis, bankers and every other form of pirate, they must be right to be if not optimistic then stoic. That hasn’t stopped me from asking questions, of course.
From all of the news articles I’ve read lately, three documents have helped me understand the political/economic situation in Greece these days, and here they are:
Arianna Huffington’s New York Times editorial from May 13, 2012, “Greek Tragedy”:
(Huffington makes clear that the Greeks refuse to mortgage the future of their children, so the austerity measures will never be acceptable to most of them. Read this article and then consider our willingness, in the United States, to allow our children, our young people, our college students, to go fifty, one hundred, even two hundred thousand dollars into debt before they receive their degrees.)
John Lanchester’s New Yorker Comment from June 18, 2012, “Greece vs. the Rest”
The third document is an email I received from an old friend who, among other things, is a Hellenic Studies professor:
“The situation in Greece is unbelievable and I avoid Athens at all costs. I just moved back to the US after living in France for four years, during which time I went to Greece often -- but for most trips I flew direct from Paris to Crete and didn't stop in Athens at all; I gave a lecture at the U of Athens a year ago and the only people on the streets after 10pm were junkies and homeless immigrants (many whole families). Nothing really good is being written on "the crisis" in English, partly since it's breaking news and partly since the English press is just reporting from afar (and mainly just replicating the AP wire version of events). One of the grimmest aspects for me is the rise of the Golden Dawn, the fascist right wing party that used to exist mainly in the Diaspora (it was really strong among Greek Americans in Astoria) but now is popular in Greece, too. There is a strong xenophobic thread in all Greek society and it isn't at its best right now. In my view (which is the minority one) they should get out of the Euro, exit the EU, and figure out how to be less dependent on tourism. But I don't think any of that is going to happen.”
I asked my friend, the artist and scholar Blake Bronson-Bartlett, to write us a little essay about Stephen Crane. Blake and I had been discussing Crane’s curious status and reception in the history of American literature. Crane makes possible Hemmingway and Stevens, Jeffers and even Hart Crane, but how many remember that it was the poet John Berryman’s book, Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography, that, in Robert M. Dowling’s words, “single-handedly ensured Stephen Crane’s reputation as a major American author”? Crane’s poems, which on the whole seem over the top and decidedly “minor,” at their best remain potent imaginative reservoirs, pockets of singular and foreign seeing and feeling. Crane was an iconoclast and an original. He is, as Joshua Edwards once said to me, “sort of our Rimbaud.” Please welcome Blake Bronson-Bartlett writing on Stephen Crane.
“‘For my further undoing,’ Stephen Crane: There is Nothing to Say.”
This post was inspired by a previous post on Best American Poetry, which quotes a high school sophomore who took an interest in a poem by Stephen Crane. When I read the post, I had just finished teaching Crane’s prose and poetry to a class of college students who had never heard of him. So I was surprised and thrilled to discover that Crane’s poetry was being taught in high school and even capturing the attention of students.
Since then, I have become increasingly curious about what I consider to be the author’s “half-presence” in American literary history. His work is read, and perhaps always will be read—or at least The Red Badge of Courage will be. But, even then, the emphasis that is placed on Crane, within and without the classroom, whether in high school or in college, is lacking, I believe, when compared with the emphasis placed on American authors of equal or even lesser “impact.”
Crane’s poetry, in particular, has more to teach us about the grey area underlying the “classical” trajectory of American poetry from Whitman to the likes of Williams, Pound, Moore, etc. Although in recent decades cultural historians have proposed alternative narratives that complicate this trajectory, Crane’s poetry is relatively invisible and unheard. Michael Fried’s Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (1987) and Bill Brown’s The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play (1996) are significant works of scholarship in their own right, but exile the poetry to focus exclusively on Crane’s prose. Meanwhile, the single book-length work devoted to Crane’s poetry remains Daniel Hoffman’s The Poetry of Stephen Crane (1956). Why this silence about the poetry? Maybe it has nothing to say to us.
But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore it, as it waits obstinately, to be drawn out. To elaborate, I think it would be appropriate to share with the readers of Best American Poetry the second poem of the “Intrigue” cycle, from the latter half of War is Kind (1899), Crane’s second collection of poems.
Please welcome the scholar and translator Diana Thow, who for today’s entry has generously provided poems from her translation of Amelia Rosselli's Serie Ospedaliera (Hospital Series) in addition to some illuminating and insightful Rosselli context and commentary.
From Serie Ospedaliera (1963-1965)
Amelia Rosselli/translation Diana Thow
Lifting of weights and particularities of fate
little doves eyed my strength
taken from your take-off like
candy, the vocation melted into
a semantic revision of our quarrels
and birds. None of the soldiers who really
wanted to remarry was able to tell me
who is it that really marches.
….solitary in the didactic regions
I held the brigantella disappointed by
such a miserable fate, oh
see I’m exploding, don’t run away, the
piano’s machinegun subtracts
sensations, metro, camphor, the curved
red lips bricks of the safe.
A thin little voice: enough to open the shutter
of the little window, that changes the world
and its surfaces are a part of your
migraines. Enough to barely open, open, your
sleep measures itself against the sky, where
a tragic image stays.
You open a wall: another appears, to take
your pulse. You can’t razor the wall, you don’t want
to save yourself those few spirit hours, forcing
its mysterious cells. And still, you feel like
a fallen pine between the new pine groves,
straight end to rotten pity.
You scare yourself with all your heart
with the air that shakes and sheds you;
dreams radiate down through the
illiterate facades, you count
blood in fat drops
falling full into your hands
withdrawals from the anguish of knowing
where the air is what does it move why
it speaks, of ills so watered down
to seem, so many things together
but not one you forget, your
dragging night and blood
through immense days.
[Note: “You scare yourself with all your heart” first appeared in the estimable THERMOS]
RF: Who was Amelia Rosselli?
DT: In her words:
Born in Paris afflicted in the epoch of our fallacious
generation. Laid out in America among the rich fields of landowners
and the statal State. Lived in Italy, barbarous land.
Fled from England land of the sophisticated. Hopeful
in the West where nothing now grows.
—from “Contiamo infiniti morti…” in Variazioni Belliche, translation Cinzia Blum and Lara Trubowitz)
Amelia Rosselli (1930-1996) was a dynamic, idiosyncratic and intensely lyrical presence in postwar Italian poetry. She was in a category of her own: not only multilingual (she grew up speaking English, French and Italian), she was often the token female in the largely male dominated field of Italian literature at that time. Rosselli was born in Paris in exile. Her father was the famous antifascist leader Carlo Rosselli, and her mother was British. Her very name bore the scars of Italy’s struggles to liberate itself from the fascist regime in an era that was trying to forget its fascist past. After her father’s assassination, she spent formative years in upstate New York with her extended family. During this time her grandmother read the children Dante in Italian so that they wouldn’t forget their Italian language and heritage. Amelia finished high school in London, and moved with her grandmother to the family home in Florence in the 1950s, eventually relocating to Rome, where she would live for the rest of her life. Her voice was as distinctive as her poetry: she spoke Italian with a hint of a French accent (most noticeable in her French pronunciation of the letter R). In addition to her work as a poet, she also worked as a journalist, editor, and mentor to younger poets.
Librettist ("The Rothschilds"), playwright, and Emmy-award winning screenwriter Sherman Yellen celebrates the jubilee of his marriage in this post via Huffington:
When we married on a sweltering June day in 1953, the chance of our marriage lasting was remote -- even when divorce was something of a rarity in our world. Born in the early Depression years we came of age in post WWII America. I'd just turned 21, a recent college graduate with a determination to make my living as a writer, and Joan was 19, and an amazingly beautiful girl at a time when Elizabeth Taylor and Ingrid Bergman set the standard. We met at college, as many people did who married early. We were far too young to have settled feelings, and we had no jobs or money: a recipe for a marital disaster.
Neither of our parents had been divorced. Mine had soldiered through some difficult years, while hers had enjoyed a good marriage, so divorce was not in our DNA.
We were outspoken, opinionated, stubborn -- oh, so stubborn -- and not afraid of snapping a judgment or having a good fight. No smart bookmaker would have given odds on our marriage enduring for six years, let alone 60. Young people in love in those Eisenhower/Kennedy years didn't live together first as 80 percent of the couples do today; they got married amidst a family celebration and a lot of ugly wedding presents: silver-plated table top cigarette lighters, crystal ashtrays, and enough wooden salad bowls to launch a life devoted to nothing more than smoking and eating iceberg lettuce and pale pink hot-house tomatoes.
We were Depression era babies who married in "The Age of Anxiety" when fear of the bomb, the Russians, juvenile delinquents, and flying saucers lived side by side with Father Knows Best, comedian Milton Berle, the poems of W.H. Auden, and the dreaded, indefinable "existentialism." Although TV had made its steady incursions into movie-going, it was still a time of superb filmmaking. Storytelling was an art that then depended on good writing and performances, not special effects. Brilliant film stars acted in literate movies such as Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve and On The Waterfront and superbly crafted comedies such as Some Like it Hot filled the big theater screen with laughter and glory. And so we have lived from that Age of Anxiety to the Age of Kardashian where a glut of celebrities whose work nobody has ever heard of go in and out of rehab as the cameras roll and turn their sad, soft disorders into hard cash. Life may be far more expensive than it was in the '50s and '60s, but fame and fortune are so much cheaper.
Okay, enough from the grouchy old man -- on with the story.
For more click here.
The Convergence of the Twain
by Thomas Hardy
(Lines on the loss of the "Titanic")
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls--grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?". . .
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
Prepared a sinister mate
For her--so gaily great--
A Shape of Ice, for the time fat and dissociate.
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history.
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one August event,
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
There is much strange in La Vita Nuova, the libello or “little book” that Dante composed fifteen or so years before starting in on the Divine Comedy. Take, for starters, the form of the book, an alternation of prose and poetry that produces effects as dizzying as any in Williams's Spring and All. Or take the central narrative, which describes a love—young Dante’s, for the slightly younger Beatrice—so intense that it causes the poet to faint in public and forces him, poor lad, to write lying love poems to the donne dello schermo, the “screen ladies” he uses to hide the real object of his affection. Take even Beatrice herself, who begins the book as a girl in a girdled dress only to reveal herself not long after as a miracle made flesh.
All of this is strange for us to read, or should be, even if, grinning behind our commentaries, we spot in the donna dello schermo an unacknowledged ancestor of the celebrity beard. After all, when Dante says that Beatrice is a miracle, he isn’t indulging mere hyperbole, the way Roxette did in that song I remember too well from seventh grade. Nor does he mean it less merely in the manner of an established trope, as John Donne did at the end of “The Relic.” Uniquely for the time and all but blasphemously, Dante meant that his beloved’s appearance on earth was a miracle that repeated (and maybe even competed with) Christ’s Incarnation itself. In the young poet’s eyes, Beatrice was the agent of his religious salvation and the summit of all Creation, the radiant filament that binds together heaven and earth.
Dante’s strangeness, his distance from us in time and cultural space, is the reason Eugenio Montale took T.S. Eliot gently to task for suggesting that the Commedia was “extremely easy to read…for a foreigner who does not know Italian very well.” It’s not that Montale felt any need to defend the reluctant intricacies of his native tongue. His point was to insist that “Dante is not a modern poet…and that the instruments of modern culture are not ideally suited to understanding him.”
And yet even if we accept Montale’s reminder as well warranted, and I do, I don’t think it’s careless or unfair to say that there are times when Dante can feel close to us, “strangely close,” as Montale admitted. Graduate school is far enough behind me that I won’t bother you with theories of transhistorical subjective affiliation. My effort here is only to point out, a little like a finger before the moon, a single small moment that I love in the Vita Nuova.
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.