Saturday, March 6, 2010

Elegant Thorn Review Is on Hiatus

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Sadly, with school and all of my other writing projects and blogging duties, I do not have time to maintain this site right now. I am putting the Elegant Thorn Review on hiatus indefinitely.

If you have sent me submissions, please consider them rejected and send them to magazines that will love them and appreciate them.

Apologies for having to do this - but no sense in pretending.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Elizabeth Iannaci Reviews "An Urgent Request" by Sarah Luczaj,

I'm very pleased to feature a guest review by Elizabeth Iannaci of An Urgent Request (published by Fortunate Daughter Press) by Sarah Luczaj, a book I was supposed to review (I read it and loved it - HIGHLY recommended) but never did. I featured three of Sarah's amazing poems back in August of 2009.

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An Urgent Request, Sarah Luczaj, Fortunate Daughter, an imprint of Tebot Bach. 2009, $10.00

With An Urgent Request Sarah Luczaj has given us an astonishing collection of 21 poems that at once, manages to slow-dance with the intangible, yet is rooted firmly in everyday reality. This is a collection that underlines and embraces the contradictions inherent in the human condition. A poet of exceptional ability, Luczaj moves fluidly from the surrealistic to the concrete and back again. Take the opening lines of the book’s first poem, “For José Drouet (1968 - 1989)” which establish a real sense of place in a real world:
José, the light is moving in the water
José, I carved a poem in the walls of a room
Then suddenly we are taken on a leap with:
the room was dust
and the planets were
trapped as the people
in it were, and it broke
on them, and the room
broke on the sky which
is made of dirt as
the room is made of
dirt, and the people
are made of dirt
and also the stars
This is indeed a leap. We understand that the neither sky, nor the people are made of dirt. Yet we recognize the truth of it. After all, aren’t we and everything in this universe star stuff, created from that one moment, that big bang? So, when we read the next lines: it broke / on your body made of stars we recognize the truth of that as well.

The poem is the perfect opening for this book as it has, dare I say, a sense of urgency befitting the title. As do many of the poems in this beautifully varied collection. Like the prose piece “The Noise is Still There”: “Whether I am aware of my breathing or drunk, if I practice the violin or not, / and particularly when opening doors.” Again, Luczaj has expertly created a sense of urgency. The piece has a velocity fueled by its structure. Except for its title, there is no mention of any noise in the poem and we are compelled to add the poem’s title to the sentence fragments which propel us forward.

With some poems the title echoes and reverberates as in her short piece, “Missing The Dead” :
If I could catch some daylight
as I catch
the snow melting from the roof
I could bring a bucketful
inside
and pour it out until it fills the room
in the middle of the night
Without the title it’s a pretty little poem. But the words “Missing The Dead” add a fragrance that not only elevates the piece, but might cause a reader who has ever missed someone gone from this world, to pause and take a breath.

Luczaj displays various styles including the superbly-crafted villanelle, “Child Song”. Here, the repeating lines do exactly what they should, they bear the weight of repetition, yet gather additional significance from the lines they bump up against: “Wood, warp, feather fish scale, skin / The world is stamped, the world goes in.” are not only incantatory, but also almost magically embody the macrocosm outside in the sing-song microcosm of the child.

These poems are overflowing with a love apropos of Luczaj’s Buddhist and psychotherapist background: a mother’s love in the breathtaking “Oh My Girl”:
oh my girl with the endless water
looking for a bank to knock against
looking for a boat to carry
oh my girl, wondering what’s wrong with you that the
world isn’t right
love and straightforward gratitude in “My Life Is Brilliant” which is nonetheless, a kick-in-the-solar-plexus indictment of injustice:
I was not sentenced to death for infidelity
blasphemy, murder
or not having put enough salt in the soup.
and her vast love and understanding of humanity with, what I take to be a persona piece, “Here Is A List Of Things I Ate Yesterday”:
For one blank moment
on the floor of the toilet cubicle
the whole damned world was eaten
There’s a proliferation of wonderful contradictions in the book, as in “Washing Her”: “‘I can’t / move’, she says. And moves.” In the title poem, “An Urgent Request”, the speaker claims: “I don’t need poetry. / I already have a body.” (a fabulous contradiction in a poem) and ends with: “Just give me the words”. Yet in “Imperative” which can be thought of as terms for a deal, the speaker says:
Take off your voice
Leave your eyes for now
And I’ll take off my arguments…
I’ll take off words
One can argue that poetry exists in the spaces between juxtaposition. But this is more than that. The poems in An Urgent Request demonstrate the endless contradictions that exist in the physical universe, the laws of which we are all subject to.

Luczaj is not without a sense of humor. “Holiday” is a three-page poem that reads like a short, short story which chronicles something akin to a Moroccan Hotel California:
This isn’t
a swimming pool’ he cries,
‘It’s a trap! It’s specially designed
to drown people. There’s no way in!
There’s no way out!’
Yet she leaves us with a reprieve and the image of her grandmother’s now waterlogged watch, lying useless in the sun.

Constantly exploring the terrain of the internal the results of which are manifested in the external, Luczaj artfully articulates what it is to be human. In reading An Urgent Request, we have an opportunity to become more so.

—Elizabeth Iannaci

~ Elizabeth Iannaci is a poet living in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts and for five years served as one of the Directors of The Valley Contemporary Poets (a not-for-profit poetry organization) where she was coeditor of their yearly anthology. She was a finalist for the 2009 New Letters Literary Award and her work has been widely published in journals and anthologies throughout the United States and Europe.


Wallace Stevens - Armchair Visionary

A great review of Wallace Stevens' recent collection of Selected Poems - seems a new one comes out every few years. He's been dead for a while, so you think they'd just issue a Collected Poems that is definitive and be done with it.

This comes from More Intelligent Life.

WALLACE STEVENS, ARMCHAIR VISIONARY

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When Wallace Stevens died, few of his Connecticut insurance colleagues even knew he was a poet. With the recent release of his "Selected Poems", Ryan Ruby revisits a man who proved that to be a great poet, no great experience is necessary ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

You can find them anywhere you go. Unshaven young men who slam down cheap liquor in remodelled dives. From their stools they hold forth on the doctrines of this obscure mystic or that obscurantist philosopher, and then they brawl for brawling’s sake. They swap stories about the tiny towns they reached by thumbing a ride or hopping the rails, tales that invariably end with a night in jail or the gutter and a rescue from some local angel. This is what’s known as Experience, to be distilled into stanzas that can fit within the circumference of the bottle stains on their cocktail napkins.

These are lifestyle poets, the Beats of yesteryear. Should you find yourself in the presence of one, ask him (always him) whether he likes the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Not one will say yes.

To a lifestyle poet, Stevens’s biography presents a problem. Born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Stevens never quite became a member of the Lost Generation. He considered moving to Paris to become a writer, but caved to pressure from his lawyer father and stayed in the States, where he studied at Harvard and earned a degree from New York Law School. In 1916 he and his wife abandoned the bohemia of New York's Greenwich Village for sleepy Hartford, Connecticut, where Stevens began work for a local insurance company. By 1934 he had become vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, a post he would keep until his death from stomach cancer in 1955, aged 75.

Stevens published "Harmonium", his first book and one of the most important collections of 20th-century verse, when he was 44. He went on to win two National Book Awards, a Bollingen and the Pulitzer, yet when he died, his office colleagues were surprised to learn that he had been anything but an insurance executive. "It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job," he once said in a newspaper interview.

“I have no life except in poetry,” Stevens once wrote to himself in the late 1930s. To put it another way, he was a square. But lifestyle poets–like autobiographical novelists–are wrong to believe that experience is the necessary foundation for what one writes. The faculty sustaining the literary enterprise has always been the imagination. This "is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos," Stevens wrote in "The Necessary Angel", a book of his essays published in 1951.

Lifestyle poets remind me of the critics in Stevens’s poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”, who tell the titular musician:

‘But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.’

What these critics fail to understand is not only that, “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar,” but that this transformation is necessary for any form of transcendence to be possible. Like the tune, a poem cannot be both "beyond us, yet ourselves" if it all it manages to do is describe things "exactly as
they are".

In Wallace Stevens the transformative power of the imagination has found an enduring champion. His oeuvre is densely populated with poems bearing unashamedly cerebral titles, such as “Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination”, “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”, “The World as Meditation” and “The Poem that took the Place of a Mountain”. According to the Online Concordance to Wallace Stevens’ Poetry, a handy tool set up by John N. Serio, the editor behind the recently released "Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems", the word "imagination" appears 47 times in his work (not including cognates such as “imagine”), beating out such poetic tropes as “sight”, “shadow” and “image.”

Stevens proved that to be a great poet, no great experience is necessary. You needn't go off to war like Byron or take to the road like Kerouac to have yourself an adventure. If your mind is expansive enough, you needn’t even leave your chair. “Merely in living as and where we live” the air is already “swarming / with metaphysical changes,” as he wrote in “Esthetique du Mal”, a long poem featured in the collection.

Yet Stevens’s mind was not merely expansive, but a universe unto itself. As he described in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

Even when he tries his hand at spare minimalist stanzas, for instance in his often anthologised “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird” (a poem whose depths a critic could surely plumb for obscure biographical references if so inclined), Stevens is simply unable to suppress his lyrical musings on whether to prefer:

The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos.
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

More than any other American poet, Stevens became a visionary, a status
that Arthur Rimbaud–that great adventurer and mediocre poet–rightly
claimed was the goal of writing verse. In "Lettre du Voyant", Rimbaud wrote that poetry, through a poet's "long and systematic derangement of the senses", could change ordinary reality into something extraordinary, a "factory into a mosque". For Stevens, too, a poet’s “choice of the commodious adjective” could reveal the divine qualities of the objects that make up “grim reality”. This is because it is the poet’s “description that makes it divinity”, even when the reality may be nothing more than “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.”

"Selected Poems" (Alfred A. Knopf) by Wallace Stevens, edited by John N. Serio, out now

Picture credit: Bettmann/Corbis

(Ryan Ruby is a writer based in New York. He is working on a novel set among the bohemians in postwar Greenwich Village. His last article for More Intelligent Life was "How I learned to stop worrying and love Frank O'Hara".)


Thursday, December 17, 2009

John Gallaher - Winner of the twelfth annual Boston Review poetry contest

Congratulations. Interesting poems.

John Gallaher

Winner of the twelfth annual Boston Review poetry contest

In John Gallaher’s series of “Guidebook” poems, Big Brother (or some other faux Reality Show) is on tape loop in the Cartesian theater. Shards of jaded narrative are locked in a house together, and they hate each other! The poems are full of paratactic leaps, each a desperate attempt at escape, except, we find out, escape is just another schtick, e.g., “Adam turned aside to indulge a passion for turning aside.” But Gallaher gives us to understand that all the digression, all the zigzagging in the world won’t really get us outside the “penopticon.” Our moves are written into the script. This is disturbing, of course, but “Rosie was mostly happy though and knew that all would one day be another day.” These poems may be the boxes we’re always trying to “think outside of.” ‘Lots of luck!’ they tell us. “Now there is relentless war between us, says the senator, as he goes off to dine with Buffy.” With their cast of recurring characters, the poems in Gallaher’s series are as bitter and skeptical —and funny!—as (old) Bob Dylan songs. We may not know the way out, but we’d better not get too comfortable here in the endless preview. Are we being warned? Near the end, “Chicken Little and the Boys have some words.”

—Rae Armantrout, Judge

Go read the poems.


New York Times: John Ashbery, Toying With Words

Helen Vendler on John Ashbery.

PLANISPHERE: New Poems
By John Ashbery
143 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.
$24.99

John Ashbery, Toying With Words

Published: December 8, 2009

John Ashbery’s new collection, dedicated to his partner, David Kermani, draws its exotic title — “Planisphere” — from Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Definition of Love,” in which two perfect lovers have been kept apart by the goddess Fate, since their perfection would be her ruin:

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have placed
(Though Love’s whole world on us doth wheel),
Not by themselves to be embraced,

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear.
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.

A three-dimensional globe is flattened to two dimensions, and the distant poles at last can touch. Such an image fits Ashbery’s surreal imagination, with its arresting leaps and resistant incoherence.

Ashbery’s conjuring mind is full of huge amounts of information — philology, movies, Old French, camp slang, archaeology, cartoons, the poetry of the ages, bibliography, Victoriana, television ads and more. Ashbery’s own mental inventory is a comic one, the contents of a trading ship straight out of the pages of a colonizer’s journal:

It is still being loaded by natives with cone-shaped
hats on their heads. Here come the transistors,
bananas, durian (a fruit said to have a noxious smell),
baby bottles, photocopiers, and souvenirs,
such glorious ones! Nothing useful except key-chains,
lockets to be furnished, a ball to stuff with life.

Like many of Ashbery’s descriptions, this one becomes allegorical in the end, as the composer/artist acquires, besides his ironically exclamatory “glorious” souvenirs, aids to artistry: a chain for keys (music? metrics?), a locket for pictures of beloved people, a mini-globe (Stevens’s “Planet on the Table”) to “stuff with life.” Whitman too, as comic and appetitive as Ashbery, imagined himself as the terrestrial globe, “stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over.” But the accumulation of a lifetime’s printed poems can also cause eventual revulsion: the “River of the Canoefish” is charming when the first canoefish is spotted, followed by another. But today the sight can hardly be borne, the fish have so overpopulated the river of life:

Today they are abundant as mackerel, as far as the eye can see,
tumbled, tumescent, tinted all the colors of the rainbow
though not in the same order,
a swelling, scumbled mass, rife with incident
and generally immune to sorrow.
Shall we gather at the river? On second thought, let’s not.

Ashbery has always liked to play games on many planes. This volume is an “A to Z” of life (like the guidebook line, “London A to Z”): we know this because the titles are arranged in alphabetical order, from “Alcove” to “Zymurgy” (“the chemistry of fermentation in brewing” — not a bad description of the making of a poem). Overturning clichés is another familiar Ashberian game: we’re not startled when someone says “King Alfonso of Spain,” but we are when we hear “Alphonse I of Bemidji.” The bane of language, for Ashbery as for Flaubert, is the “received idea” — the idea everyone mouths and takes for granted. Even after the received idea has been overturned (say, by a war), the agents of cliché immediately try to restore it:

About fourteen passengers working overtime
by the end of the war restored challenged idées reçues,
set things to rights.

The poet persistently undermines that restoration of the status quo in order to render the mind once again “new, tender, quick,” as George Herbert said.

Ashbery also juggles the infinite possibilities of genre, his mind running through many exhausted topics at once, trying for one that still has life in it:

Why what a lovely day/street/
blank canvas/pause/orb/
old person/new song/milestone/
caned seat this is! I think so.

Some of the games “prove out” exhilaratingly for the reader, some are perhaps too private, some too abstruse, some too silly (there are a couple of Steinish collages that don’t earn their keep, one of them made from the titles of movies). But when the Ashberian associative complex works (as in the cases cited above) the mind is delighted by its unexpectedness. Conversation is nearly always the pretext, as in the poet’s shorthand summary of life in old age: “This is how my days, / my nights are spent, in a crowded vacuum / overlooking last year’s sinkhole.” Depending as I do on the poets to tell me — even via comic despair — what each decade of life feels like, I laughed with gratitude at the “crowded vacuum” of one’s 80s as a point of vantage, and grimly took in the melancholy shrug of “last year’s sinkhole.” “Where is Rumpelstiltskin when we need him?” Ashbery asks, and then himself spins the straw of experience into the gold of a page.

Ashbery, the master of sinuous syntax (see his “Three Poems” or “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”) has performed surgery on his poems here, often bringing them into the wry epigrammatic domain of Dickinson:

I made a joke about how
it doesn’t dovetail: time,
one minute running out
faster than the one in front
it catches up to.
That way, I said,
there can be no waste.
Waste is virtually eliminated.

But several poems, notably ­“Planisphere” and “Pernilla,” belong to Ashbery’s ambitious longer lyric mode. I quote, for readers longing for the lyric Ashbery, the conclusion of the love poem “Alcove,” which opens this volume with a wondering joy at the return of spring and ends with a vista of love, despite its inevitable separateness, surviving the worst days of old age:
We indeed
looked out for others as though they mattered, and they,
catching the spirit, came home with us, spent the night
in an alcove from which their breathing could be heard clearly.
But it’s not over yet. Terrible incidents happen
daily. That’s how we get around obstacles.

In his rendering of American speech, slang, cliché, Ashbery has surpassed most of his contemporaries. But his persistent reach into the “rut” of tradition should not be forgotten. He could say (with the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío) that he is very 18th century and very archaic and very modern, daring and cosmopolitan. When he becomes most serious, it is in the presence of either catastrophe or truth. His onslaughts of tragedy, emotional or physical, are of geological force while not relinquishing the vocabulary of irony: “and the land mass teeters once more, crashing / out of gloaming onto the floor near your heels.” As for truth, it always hovers out of reach: he speaks of “today’s version of the truth,” on which “The enamel is just not going to keep.” Or, in a more sinister vein, the desired truth “just kind of sails overhead / like a turkey vulture, on parenthetical wing, / empty as a cupboard.”

There are self-elegies here: I feel a pang hearing Ashbery say, “Time to shut down colored alphabets’ / flutter in the fresh breeze of autumn.” His “small museum / of tints” has provided ambiguous prophecies, curdled recollections, menacing prospects, emergencies, landscapes and puzzles; it has no less provided memories of youth, intimacies of love, the comedy of the ephemeral, the ­transhistorical speech of painting, and the ­literary in its quoted quintessence. The poet’s last look here is a “glimpse of / the books in the carrel, sweet in their stamped bindings”; one of these days, the carrel will hold his “Collected Poems.”

Helen Vendler’s Mellon Lectures, “Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill,” will be published next spring.

NYRB - Podcast: Charles Wright’s Sestets

From the New York Review of Books.

Podcast: Charles Wright’s Sestets

Charles Wright reads from his latest collection of poems, and talks to Sasha Weiss about the importance of landscape in his work, his writing process, and how he came to experiment with the six-line form.

December 11, 2009, 12:55 pm

Monday, October 26, 2009

Holloway Series in Poetry - Ann Lauterbach

Ann Lauterbach is one of my favorite poets, and I have never before heard her read. If you know her work, you too have probably wondered how it sounds out loud, how she reads the syntactic and visual elements of her poems. Now you can know.
Holloway Series in Poetry - Ann Lauterbach

Ann Lauterbach is the author of seven books of poems; her most recent book is The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. She is a Professor at Bard College, where she co-directs the writing division of the MFA program.

Recorded February 5, 2009




Whose Words These Are (14): C.D. Wright

A nice post from Open Source - something to keep you busy while I try to get around to reading and posting submissions. I'm working on it - and I also have some nice photos to post.

Whose Words These Are (14): C.D. Wright

Recorded
Wed, October 21

Prompted by last weekend’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival, the question has been: where does poetry come from these days? And where is it going?

C.D. Wright speaks of her output as “a few reams of freedom.” Father was an Arkansas judge and a nearsighted bookworm, like herself. Mother was a court reporter. “Of the choices revealed to me,” she has written in her memoir of life and craft, Cooling Time, “crime and art were the only ones with any real sex appeal.” I love her take on the local and the global in her head and her poetry:

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with C.D. Wright. (61 minutes, 28 mb mp3) [Play]

The Ozarks are a fixture in my mindscape, but I did not stay local in every respect. I always think of Miles Davis, “People who don’t change end up like folk musicians playing in museums, local as a motherfucker.” I would not describe my attachment to home as ghostly, but long-distanced. My ear has been licked by so many other tongues.

Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. Copper Canyon, 2005. p. 89

“I believe in a hardheaded art,” she has written, “an unremitting, unrepentant practice of one’s own faith in the word in one’s own obstinate terms.” Her terms run to the erotic, the choleric, the comic, in her own “luminously strange idiom,” the New Yorker said, “eerie as a tin whistle.” She read for us and talked with us at the Watson Institute here at Brown, where C. D. Wright and her husband Forrest Gander both teach writers.

Q: What talent would you most like that you don’t have, yet?

A: Well, I can’t cook. That’s a big drag, because Forrest [Gander, my husband] can’t cook very much either. It’s a real let down. We both love to eat.

I don’t have another language — I would really like to have a second language. I’ve become very attracted to Spanish. And Spanish is still somewhat doable. I read a lot of Spanish literature in translation.

Q: What kind? New, or old, or … ?

A: This summer I read prose writers: the Argentine writer César Aira, the Spanish writer Javier Marías, I read Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean.

Q: Bolaño speaks to you?

A: Yes, he does. For one thing, he was a poet for twenty-five years. All his protagonists and antagonists are poets — they are completely unruly.

Q: Who does your work in another medium?

A: I love the jazz of the 60s and 70s— Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea — I’ve been missing that lately.

In painting, I love Elizabeth Murray and I love Agnes Martin. Agnes Martin said her paintings were for people to look at before daily care strikes. I found that a wonderful phrase. Elizabeth Murray’s work I find very exciting, very alive. Agnes Martin’s makes me feel like I just had a really good cup of tea and I have a fire going and can look at the day ahead.

Q: Report to the ancestors. What’s the state of the art?

A: American poetry is incredibly various. America’s strength is that is so flexible, compared to other countries. America, as a nation is losing that, though.

Q: What is the quality you look for in a poem?

A: I love language, I like filthy language, hieratic language, I like obscure language, archaic language, technical language — so I probably have the least affinity for the real minimalist writers. I like people who are kind of besotted by language.

Q: What’s the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: Honesty. But I’m not incorruptible. In general, I think that’s the characteristic that I got from my dad, who didn’t believe in any gray areas. I think it’s important to me.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “Be brave, be without malice, be as original as you were made to be.”


Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Music of Austerity: The Poetry of Wallace Stevens

After a bit of a hiatus, ETR is coming back to more frequent posting. Sorry for the disappearance - school has more hectic than I remember from the first time around.

I'll begin the return with this review of Wallace Stevens from The Nation.

A Music of Austerity: The Poetry of Wallace Stevens

By James Longenbach

This article appeared in the September 14, 2009 edition of The Nation.

August 26, 2009

Wallace Stevens SYLVIA SALMI

SYLVIA SALMI
Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems
by Wallace Stevens; John N. Serio, ed.
Buy this book

In the fall of 1936, after a decade of not doing so, this magazine sponsored a poetry prize. Of the 1,800 poems submitted, said the editors of The Nation, "the overwhelming majority were concerned with contemporary social conflicts either at home or abroad." The winning poem, Wallace Stevens's "The Men That Are Falling," was an elegy for soldiers recently killed in the Spanish Civil War, which reads, in part:

Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips,
O pensioners, O demagogues and pay-men!

This death was his belief though death is a stone,
This man loved earth, not heaven, enough to die.

These stand among the most uncharacteristic lines that Stevens ever published. Coming upon them in the elegantly compressed compass of the new Selected Poems, it's difficult to imagine that the author of a quietly unnerving pentameter like "The river that flows nowhere, like a sea" could have written the line "Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips."

Yet to read "The Men That Are Falling" beside some of the greatest poems of the twentieth century--"The Snow Man," "A Postcard From the Volcano," "The River of Rivers in Connecticut"--is to be forced to rearticulate the extremely complex terms of Stevens's achievement. Stevens stands simultaneously among the most worldly and the most otherworldly of American poets, and it is paradoxically through his otherworldliness--through poems whose plain-spoken diction feels spooky--that his respect for the actual world is registered. What is uncharacteristic about "The Men That Are Falling" is not the desire to write about a controversial war; Stevens often did that. What distinguishes the poem is the unconvincingly urgent rhetoric in which that desire is registered.

Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879. After attending Harvard College and New York Law School, he began working in the insurance industry in 1908. He quickly became one of the country's foremost experts in surety law, and in 1934 he was named vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. "The truth is that we may well be entering an insurance era," he wrote in "Insurance and Social Change," published in 1937, the year in which the first Social Security benefits were paid. Surveying the nationalized insurance schemes of Italy, Germany and Britain, Stevens tried to convince his colleagues that the Social Security Administration posed no threat to their business or their personal lives.

Other great modern American poets had full-time jobs. Marianne Moore was an editor, William Carlos Williams a doctor, T.S. Eliot a banker (and later an editor). What distinguishes Stevens is that he never gave the impression of feeling any tension between the different aspects of his life. Once he quipped that "money is a kind of poetry," but more often he emphasized that his legal work was in no way poetic, just as his poems were not meaningfully involved with the logics of law or economics. In an essay called "Surety and Fidelity Claims," he even admitted that his work would seem tedious to almost anyone: "You sign a lot of drafts. You see surprisingly few people. You do the greater part of your work either in your own office or in lawyers' offices. You don't even see the country; you see law offices and hotel rooms." Unlike Ezra Pound, who was an amateur economist, Stevens had a professional's sense of the limitations of expertise. He resembles in this regard George Oppen, who stopped writing poetry for over twenty years in order to devote himself to personal and social problems that poetry did not have the power to ameliorate, however implicated in such problems poetry might have been.

Stevens also experienced extended periods of silence. At Harvard he was the president of The Advocate, a prestigious literary magazine; he exchanged sonnets with the philosopher George Santayana, for whom he would later write "To an Old Philosopher in Rome." But after leaving Cambridge in 1900, he wrote no poems for almost a decade. And when the magisterial "Sunday Morning" appeared in 1915, in Poetry magazine, it seemed to have come from nowhere; almost no apprentice work preceded it.

Stevens's first book, Harmonium, appeared eight years later, when the poet was 44, and it is still the most astonishing debut in the history of American poetry. In contrast, the poems in Pound's A Lume Spento or Williams's Poems barely let us glimpse the great work to come. But after publishing Harmonium, Stevens gave up poetry for another decade. His daughter, Holly, was born. "My job is not now with poets from Paris," he told Williams, who was a close friend. "It is to keep the fire-place burning and the music-box churning and the wheels of the baby's chariot turning."

Anyone who cared about American poetry presumed that Stevens's career as a poet was finished, but then "The Idea of Order at Key West" suddenly appeared in 1934. Beginning at age 55, Stevens finally assumed the profile of a poet, and the great books of his maturity (Ideas of Order, The Man With the Blue Guitar, Parts of a World, Transport to Summer and The Auroras of Autumn) were published at regular intervals. He continued working at the Hartford until well after the age of mandatory retirement; he declined an invitation to be the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard. Shortly before his death in 1955, his Collected Poems received both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

One of his last poems was "The River of Rivers in Connecticut":

There is a great river this side of Stygia,
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun. On its banks,

No shadow walks. The river is fateful,
Like the last one. But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it. The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction...
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

The river of rivers feels mythic, as momentous as the river that separates us from the afterlife. But this decidedly earthly river is not crossed only once; we need no ferryman, no Charon, to carry us over. The river is fateful because every moment of human life is fateful. It flows through the familiar towns of Haddam and Farmington, its water flashes in the sun. It is an emblem of our mortality, an endless flowing, but more important it embodies a sweet acceptance of oblivion: the river carries us nowhere, not like the sea but like a sea--like any sea at all.

Stevens once remarked that while we possess the great poems of heaven and hell, the great poems of the earth remain to be written. Both "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" and "The Men That Are Falling" are products of Stevens's lifelong ambition to write such poems--poems that honor mortality without needing to look beyond it. But even as "The Men That Are Falling" disdains the extremities of heaven and hell, it embraces earth in a language of fitful extremity: "This death was his belief though death is a stone,/This man loved earth, not heaven, enough to die." In contrast, the consolation of "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" feels enticingly complex because the poem's diction is so eerily generalized, its syntax so quietly declarative. The poem's celebration of human limitation would not feel convincing if its tone did not make small means feel magical.

This tone is Stevens's great achievement, his most enduring response to the world. Some poems seem relevant because of what they say, because of their subject matter. But all poems are truly relevant, whatever they say, because their manner of saying seduces us to inhabit the poem's language as if it were our own--despite the fact that any great poet's language is witheringly idiosyncratic. We feel, reading a great poem, that a small corner of the soul has for a moment become public property. Stevens describes this feeling with uncanny abruptness in "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm," a poem that makes the act of reading and the act of writing feel indistinguishable: "The reader became the book."

Stevens first became himself in one of the earliest poems reprinted in the Selected Poems. "The Death of a Soldier" was written in response to the letters of Eugène Lemercier, a French soldier who was killed in World War I, but it feels as if the poem could be about anyone.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,
When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

The cycles of the natural world cannot stop to record Lemercier's death; the clouds go nevertheless in their direction, which can't be specified, because it's theirs, not ours. For Stevens, there is immense consolation in this disregard for an individual human life--an assurance that the natural world will prevail despite the human appetite for destruction. The language of Stevens's most characteristic poetry partakes, in small ways, of this consolation: "The Death of a Soldier" does not mention Lemercier, who has already disappeared.

Stevens did not always write with the incandescent plainness that distinguishes poems from "The Death of a Soldier" to "The River of Rivers in Connecticut." Sometimes he is a poet of extravagant verbal energy, a show-off who indulges in lines like "Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan/Of tan with henna hackles, halt!" And sometimes he is more celebrated for such showiness than for the austerity that more truly becomes him. Stevens himself thought that the interplay of plainness and fanciness (or what he called reality and imagination) was central to his work, and he placed a programmatic account of this interplay at the center of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," a long poem that asks to be treated as a masterpiece:

Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined
On the real. This is the origin of change.

"Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" is an enactment of this notion; the poem oscillates between an imperative to perceive the world plainly and a complementary imperative to imagine the world extravagantly. We need continually to create "fictions" that explain our world, and we need, as our world changes, to wipe such fictions away, returning to a plain sense of things that is itself an imaginative achievement. "In the absence of a belief in God," said Stevens in one of his most willed moments of self-confidence, "the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, not alone from the aesthetic point of view, but for what they reveal, for what they validate and invalidate."

This quasi-philosophical aspect of Stevens seemed very attractive in the later decades of the twentieth century, especially after the death of Eliot, whose Christianity sometimes inflected the academic critical establishment that championed his poems. Today this aspect of Stevens feels threadbare--as if the professional lawyer came to imagine that he was also a professional philosopher. I don't find what Stevens called his "reality-imagination complex" very engaging, and neither does John Serio, who says in his introduction to the Selected Poems that while many of the longer poems "do spur us intellectually," they "may not move us emotionally." Serio sees Stevens primarily as a lyric poet, and while he has excluded some of the longer poems from his selection ("Extracts From Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas," "Examination of the Hero in a Time of War," "The Pure Good of Theory"), I have trouble imagining the house growing quiet enough for even a devoted reader of "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" to become the book.

At issue here is not a preference for shorter poems; at issue is the particular kind of language that most authentically constitutes Stevens's gift.

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations--one desires
So much more than that.

This opening stanza of "The Poems of Our Climate" begins in an idiom that mirrors the stillness of the scene described, but when Stevens says that one desires "so much more" than an arrangement of pink and white carnations, the poem takes a peculiar turn. I'm convinced that Stevens thought he should desire more, but I'm not sure he actually did. His deepest inclination was (to quote the one phrase in the poetry that sounds like it was written by an insurance executive) to remain "within what we permit." So when Stevens reaches for sensual exuberance ("Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan") or passionate commitment ("Taste of the blood upon his martyred lips") or philosophical profundity ("Two things of opposite natures seem to depend/On one another"), the language often seems willed, as if the poet were embarrassed by his own taste for deprivation. "Is it bad to have come here/And to have found the bed empty?" asks Stevens in a little poem called "Gallant Château." The answer, undeflected by the wish to be different from oneself, is "It is good."

In the poems that matter most, this question needs neither to be asked nor answered: the language carries its own conviction. Early Stevens--"The Snow Man":

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow.

Midcareer Stevens--"The Man With the Blue Guitar":

It is the sea that whitens the roof.
The sea drifts through the winter air.
It is the sea that the north wind makes.
The sea is in the falling snow.

Late Stevens--"The Course of a Particular":

Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind,
Yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less.
It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow.

These poems, like any of Stevens's best poems, make deprivation feel seductively like plenitude.

All the best poems are preserved in this collection, a culling that is considerably more severe than that of the selected volume it supersedes, The Palm at the End of the Mind, edited by Holly Stevens and published in 1972. The whole of Stevens is represented here--the plain, the fancy, the philosophical--but the latter two categories have been pruned, affording the best of Stevens more prominence. This winnowing is over time inevitable (nobody reads the whole of Wordsworth or Tennyson), and I would go further: it's hard to imagine a need to reinhabit "Description Without Place" ("It is possible that to seem--it is to be") or "Late Hymn From the Myrrh-Mountain" ("Unsnack your snood, madanna"). Without the distraction of this willed language, the greatest of Stevens's poems, the movingly stark poems written during the last five years of his life, stand out even more vividly as the culmination of his career:

No soldiers in the scenery,
No thoughts of people now dead,v As they were fifty years ago:
Young and living in a live air,
Young and walking in the sunshine,v Bending in blue dresses to touch something--
Today the mind is not part of the weather.

Some readers might prefer the fanciful or the philosophical; others might argue that austerity cannot fully exist without its complements. But when we hear the sound of Stevens in poems by subsequent poets, it is most often the music of austerity, at once worldly and otherworldly, that we hear. Mark Strand: "From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,/A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room." Louise Glück: "I can't hear your voice/for the wind's cries, whistling over the bare ground." Donald Justice: "In a hotel room by the sea, the Master/Sits brooding." Carl Phillips: "The wind's pattern was its own, and the water's also." To say that these lines are indebted to Stevens is like saying that fish are indebted to water: the sound of Stevens has entered the sound of poetry in the language.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Tricycle Community Poetry Club

Very cool - and membership in the Tricycle Community is free.

The Tricycle Community Poetry Club

August 26, 2009; Posted by James Shaheen

zen poetry tricycle communityWe’ve just launched the Tricycle Community Poetry Club, co-sponsored by Rattle magazine, a biannual poetry journal based in Los Angeles.

We’re kicking off with Peter Harris’s “Will Buddhism Survive.” Peter is a poet and “moonlights” as a professor of English at Colby College, where he teaches American Literature and poetry workshops. Here’s what Peter has to say about the poem:

I am currently a student at the Treetop Zen Center in Oakland, Maine. Three years ago, as part of Tokudo study, I was reading the Diamond Sutra chapter by chapter, explaining my understanding, then writing a poem. The Diamond Sutra stresses discriminating between thoughts about Buddhism and the experience of it.

In Chapter 6, the question arises whether Buddhism will survive. The early Buddhists lived in fraught times, too. I had the unoriginal thought that humans would have a better chance of surviving a while longer if we realized our original or Buddha-nature…

Read the rest here. If you’re not yet a member of the Tricycle Community, join us—it takes just a few seconds and besides, it’s free.