Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Poems

I promise to get back to regular posting soon. Until then, here are some "thanksgiving" poems in honor of the holiday, courtesy of The Academy of American Poets.

* * *

by W. S. Merwin

The Thanksgivings
by Harriet Maxwell Converse
We who are here present thank the Great Spirit...

Around Us
by Marvin Bell
We need some pines to assuage the darkness...

A List of Praises
by Anne Porter
Give praise with psalms that tell the trees to sing...

by Marilyn Nelson
Thank you for these tiny...

For the Fallen
by Laurence Binyon
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children...

by Eleanor Lerman
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to...

What Was Told, That
by Rumi
translated by Coleman Barks
What was said to the rose that made it open was said...

Lift Every Voice and Sing
by James Weldon Johnson
Lift ev'ry voice and sing...

Rabbi Ben Ezra
by Robert Browning
Grow old along with me...

For the Twentieth Century
by Frank Bidart
Bound, hungry to pluck again from the thousand...

Slow Waltz Through Inflatable Landscape
by Christian Hawkey
At the time of his seeing a hole opened—a pocket opened...

The Routine Things Around the House
by Stephen Dunn
When Mother died...

The Teacher
by Hilarie Jones
I was twenty-six the first time I held...

The Triumph of Time
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Before our lives divide for ever...

Two Countries
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Skin remembers how long the years grow...

Visiting Pai-an Pavilion
by Hsieh Ling-yun
translated by Sam Hamill
Beside this dike, I shake off the world's dust...

Friday, November 7, 2008

Final Cut: The Selection Process for Break, Blow, Burn by Camille Paglia

A very interesting and somewhat controversial article by Paglia on her selection process for Break, Blow, Burn. She disses some "canonic" poems and poets, which is sure to provoke some anger in professors.

Posted at Arion.

Final Cut: The Selection Process for Break, Blow, Burn


(click here to view the pdf version)

BREAK, BLOW, BURN, my collection of close readings of fortythree poems, took five years to write. The first year was devoted to a search for material in public and academic libraries as well as bookstores. I was looking for poems in English from the last four centuries that I could wholeheartedly recommend to general readers, especially those who may not have read a poem since college. For decades, poetry has been a losing proposition for major trade publishers. I was convinced that there was still a potentially large audience for poetry who had drifted away for unclear reasons. That such an audience does in fact exist seemed proved by the success of Break, Blow, Burn, which may be the only book of poetry criticism that has ever reached the national bestseller list in the United States.

On my two book tours (for the Pantheon hardback in 2005and the Vintage paperback in 2006), I was constantly asked by readers or interviewers why this or that famous poet was not included in Break, Blow, Burn, which begins with Shakespeare and ends with Joni Mitchell. At the prospectus stage of the project, I had assumed that most of the principal modern and contemporary poets would be well represented. But once launched on the task of gathering possible entries, I was shocked and disappointed by what I found. Poem after poem, when approached from the perspective of the general audience rather than that of academic criticism, shrank into inconsequence or pretension. Or poets whom I fondly remembered from my college and graduate school studies turned out to have produced impressive bodies of serious work but no single poem that could stand up as an artifact to the classic poems elsewhere in the book. The ultimate standard that I applied in my selection process was based on William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a masterpiece of sinewy modern English.

Ezra Pound, because of his generous mentoring of and vast influence on other poets (such as T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams), should have been automatically included in Break, Blow, Burn. But to my dismay, I could not find a single usable Pound poem—just a monotonous series of showy, pointless, arcane allusions to prior literature. The equally influential W. H. Auden was high on my original list. But after reviewing Auden’s collected poetry, I was stunned to discover how few of his poems can stand on their own in today’s mediasaturated cultural climate. Auden’s most anthologized poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” inspired by a Breughel painting, felt dated in its portentous mannerisms. A homoerotic love poem by Auden that I had always planned to include begins, “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm.” But when I returned to it, I found the poem perilously topheavy with that single fine sentence. Everything afterward dissolves into vague blather. It was perhaps the most painful example that I encountered of great openings not being sustained.

Surely the lucid and vivacious Marianne Moore, so hugely popular in her day, would have produced many poems to appeal to the general reader. However, while I was charmed by Moore’s ingenious variety of formats, I became uncomfortable and impatient with her reflex jokiness, which began to seem like an avoidance of emotion. Nothing went very deep. Because I was so eager to get a good sports poem into Break, Blow, Burn (I never found one), I had high hopes for Moore’s beloved odes to baseball. Alas, compared to today’s highimpact, aroundtheclock sports talk on radio and TV, Moore’s baseball lingo came across as fussy and corny.

Elizabeth Bishop presented an opposite problem. Bishop is truly a poet’s poet, a refined craftsman whose discreet, shapely poems carry a potent emotional charge beneath their transparent surface. I had expected a wealth of Bishop poems to choose from. With my eye on the general reader, I was keenly anticipating a cascade of sensuous tropical imagery drawn from Bishop’s life in Brazil. But when I returned to her collected poems, the observed details to my surprise seemed oppressively clouded with sentimental selfprojection. For example, I found Bishop’s muchanthologized poem “The Fish” nearly unbearable due to her obtrusively simmering selfpity. (Wounded animal poems, typifying the anthropomorphic fallacy, have become an exasperating cliché over the past sixty years.) Even splendid, monumental Brazil evidently couldn’t break into Bishop’s weary bubble, which traveled with her wherever she went. It may be time to jettison depressiveness as a fashionable badge of creativity.

Charles Bukowski was another poet slated from the start to be prominently featured in Break, Blow, Burn. (Indeed, he proved to be the writer I was most asked about on my book tours.) I had planned to make the dissolute Bukowski a crown jewel, demonstrating the scornful rejection by my rowdy, raucous 1960s generation of the genteel proprieties of 1950s literary criticism, still faithfully practiced by the erudite but terminally prim Helen Vendler. I was looking for a funny, squalid street or barroom poem, preferably with boorish knockdown brawling and halfclad shady ladies. But as with Elizabeth Bishop, I could not find a single poem to endorse in good faith for the general reader. And Bukowski was staggeringly prolific: I ransacked shelf upon shelf of his work. But he obviously had little interest in disciplining or consolidating his garrulous, meandering poems. Frustrated, I fantasized about scissoring out juicy excerpts and taping together my own ideal Platonic form of a Bukowski poem. The missing Bukowski may be the surly Banquo’s ghost of Break, Blow, Burn.

Read the whole article.

Friday, September 5, 2008

In praise of the praise of poetry

A nice article from Slate to get things moving again over here. Sorry for the long delay in posting - life got in the way.

New Literary Art Form Discovered!In praise of the praise of poetry

I believe I've discovered a previously unrecognized genre of contemporary writing that deserves commendation for its distinctiveness and frequent excellence. It's practiced mainly by contemporary poets, but it's not poetry. In fact—at least for me—it's much better than most contemporary poetry, in the sense that it's much more readable, much better crafted, and often beautifully compressed in a dazzling haikulike way.

It's something that gives people like me who don't find themselves drawn to much contemporary poetry a sense of the verbal facility of contemporary poets—and contemporary poetry critics—when they're writing prose about contemporary poetry.

The past century has taught us that good writing can appear in unexpected forms: film scripts, Sopranos-type series, the storytelling of R. Crumb or Art Spiegelman, for instance. And writing about poetry, particularly praising contemporary poetry, is a fine but extremely difficult art. It has to distill the presumed poetic genius of the writer being praised in a way that at the very least equals the supposed brilliance of the work itself. So in a way it's more elevated than prose; it's prose-poetry (remember that?) about poetry.

Recently, British poet* James Fenton cited something that the mandarin of poetic modernism, T.S. Eliot, wrote about the supremely difficult and delicate art of blurbing poetry:

"Everyone engaged in publishing," Eliot wrote when he was an editor at the august London house Faber & Faber, "knows what a difficult art blurb-writing is; every publisher who is also an author considers this form of composition more arduous than any other that he practises. But nobody knows the utmost difficulty until he has to write blurbs for poetry: especially when some are to appear in the same catalogue. If you praise highly, the reviewer may devote a paragraph to ridiculing the publisher's pretensions; if you try understatement, the reviewer may remark that even the publisher doesn't seem to think much of this book: I have had both experiences."

Let me explain the roundabout way it came to me, the discovery that the praise of contemporary poetry, either in blurbs or reviews, is itself a neglected form of poetry, meta-poetry. Even if it comes from the most corrupt and sordid favor-trading, grant-grubbing, academic back-scratching sources, it's clear that those who are good at it are so very good at it that their work rises above its origins and deserves special recognition. It is not some degraded adjunct of contemporary poetry but perhaps its very apotheosis. It would be a tragedy to lose the poetry, of course, but to lose the even more brilliant blurbs! Sometimes I wonder whether in fact the poetry being praised even exists or has been dreamed up to provide the rationale for the praise.

In any case, my recognition of this underappreciated genre began with my attempt to find a proper way to praise Keats' ode "To Autumn." A poem whose melancholy perfections I've had a lifelong obsession with.

With autumn—and specifically Sept. 19—coming upon us, I wanted to commemorate Sept. 19, the day in 1819 when a tubercular, slowly dying young Keats took a walk on the hills outside Winchester overlooking the just-harvested stubble fields and watched

... barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.

as he would put it in the poem he wrote in the aftermath.

I wanted to write about the way I felt inextricably linked to the poem, even before I made a kind of pilgrimage to that very hill, overlooking those very stubble fields, and beheld the phenomenon of the "barred clouds" as the crimson sunset light that lit them turned those stubble fields a rosy, almost blood-red hue.

Being there made a difference: I felt I understood the shadow of death and dying, of death's final harvest and its grim reaper, a shadow that lies behind the poem's beautiful bucolic scene. And gives it its aura of approaching mortality.

I wanted to revisit a point of dispute I had with the great Helen Vendler, Harvard's poetry goddess (author of the incomparable study, The Odes of John Keats) over the sex of Autumn in the poem. I wanted to take issue with Jack Stillinger, editor of an important edition of Keats' works, who appears to believe that (despite "hinting of death") the ode is "unambiguously affirmative"—which I believe is unambiguously wrong.

But there was one problem: I wanted to find a way to praise the poem that would do justice to it after so many others had praised it to the point of exhaustion. I wanted to convey to others why I thought "To Autumn" was probably the greatest lyric poem in the language. I know others will leap to defend other poems' claims to that honor, and there are times when other poems come to my mind. ("Lycidas"? "Upon Appleton House"? "Winsdor Forest"? "At Melville's Tomb"? Do "Pale Fire" and "Venus and Adonis" qualify?)

So I was worrying over the problem of praise, realizing how difficult it is to breathe life into the exhausted form, when I happened to land on the bookmark of one of my favorite Web sites, The Page. No, political junkies, I'm not talking about Mark Halperin's site of the same name. This Page contains nothing but two-line excerpts from reviews of poetry. It was while reading The Page that I came across a link to James Fenton's piece in the Guardian that contained the Eliot quote about the difficulty of blurbing poetry.

And it was on The Page that I came across a thoughtful essay by one of my favorite critics, Adam Kirsch, which centered around an unusual new book of reflections on Keats, Posthumous Keats by poet Stanley Plumly. I got hold of the book and found that—though nothing compares with Helen Vendler's 50-page ode to the ode—Plumly does a pretty good job of describing what is remarkable about "Autumn," its burnished bucolic surface, and the Modernist shadows it harbors.

"Autumn" presents itself on the surface as a simple pastoral ode, reminiscent of Virgil's Georgics. And yet there is that "soft dying" in it, and it has a kind of completeness—the self-containment of a private universe—in the way it really resembles only itself. Hard to explain, but Plumly gives it a go:

Can a lyric poem of thirty-three lines achieve the awe and spaciousness of the sublime? "To Autumn" is ... a twilit symbolist masterpiece realized independently—it seems—of its implied author, as if it were an object, self-created. …

An object self-created. I don't like the anachronistic "symbolist" reference here, but there is something ineffably "self-created" about the poem, a melancholy Grecian urn of the psyche (in ode-speak) set down like the monolith* in 2001 and leaving us little to do but gather round and gibber at its flawless alien perfection.

He's onto something, Plumly, but his essay illustrates the difficulty of being precise in a realm of imprecision. It drew my attention to the current contents of The Page. Especially that essay by James Fenton that references Eliot on blurbs. Reminded me how difficult praise was to pull off, made me realize praise is underpraised. After so many centuries of poems and poets, it's difficult to be persuasive about some contemporary poet's place in the pantheon.

On the home page of The Page, there are about a hundred two-line entries, each linked to a longer review.

But if you forget about the review they link to and just read each two-liner as a kind of haiku, you can apprehend each as a beautifully distilled "object, self-created."

So many are so well-written! Almost all of them! They undertook what Eliot called the task of poetry, a "raid on the inarticulate," and came back with pure gold. Much have I traveled in realms of gold, in the Keatsian sense, and this was the real thing, almost every one of them a gem. (Credit here goes not only to the poets and critics doing the praising but to the editors of The Page for distilling them into two-line epigrams. Modestly, they only identify themselves at the very bottom of the page, this way: "The Page is edited by Andrew Johnston with occasional contributions by Stephen Burt.")

I became greedy for the felicity of the two-liners—Twitters of poetic genius—and found myself just reading them sequentially for the pleasure they gave. So many of the quotes were so thought-provoking and original, often offering what I usually fail to find in contemporary poetry. They seem to be suggesting seductively something I must be missing, something that I now will look for more attentively.

And so I'd like to present some of the best two-liners to you and hope you can find the same pleasure I do in them, the pleasure of heightened language well-used. The pleasure of poets blurbing each other. And the excellence of some of the critics specializing in a genre not widely read or appreciated.

What's remarkable is how variegated the pleasures offered by the two-line quotes are, some particularity felicitous turns of phrase, some epigrammatic nuggets of wisdom, some unexpected prospects and vantage points on words and the world.

Some are ingeniously inventive descriptions:

"James K. Baxter can be crabby, difficult, bombastic, tortuous and tricky. He is, in nearly equal measure, astonishing and heartbreaking."—Rebecca Porte, Contemporary Poetry Review

"Juan Felipe Herrera's worst poems seem disorganized, excessive, frantic; his best seem disheveled, excited, uncommonly free."—Stephen Burt, the New York Times

"Matthea Harvey has Stevie Smith's knack for writing throwaway lines that in the end seem less like Post-it notes than ransom letters."—David Orr, the New York Times

"Their giddiness in the face of despair, their animal pleasure in gossip, their false bravado, their frantic posturing and guilelessness and petty snobberies—and these were O'Hara's virtues—give us as much of a life as poetry can."—William Logan, the New York Times

Some are intriguing, mysterious:

"Sometimes we live as if we know more about the experiences we don't have than about the experiences we do."—Adam Phillips on Larkin, The Threepenny Review,

"These poems have a permanence about them that belies their fragility. Some of them even approach that supposed impossibility: The tautology that contains knowledge."—Laurie Duggan on Gael Turnbull, blurb on book jacket

Some are witty and contrarian:

"If there is one lesson to be drawn from Shelley's life and work, it is that you can't trust a man who believes he is an angel."—Adam Kirsch, The New Yorker

"If one were forced to select a single word to exemplify Bishop's peculiar charm and power, it might well be 'No.' "—Brad Leithauser, the Wall Street Journal

"To test oneself, Oppen recognized, is to know failure. Oppen's victories are no less great for being small."—James Longenbach, The Nation

Some are casually thought-provoking:

"Hass's latest poems remind us that to be fully human is itself an act of political subversion."—Cynthia Haven, San Francisco magazine

"If we can give up on consolation, there may be room for something more promising."—Adam Phillips on John Burnside (and Henry Reed), the Observer

Some of them helped with capturing why I felt the way I did about Keats' "Autumn":

"In any poem of value there seems to be some poetic element, some inner intensity, which is separable from the language it is embodied in."—Clive Wilmer on Ted Hughes' translations, TLS

And I must admit I admired some of them, however over-the-top, for witnessing how much they cared about contemporary poetry:

"Only rarely do lay readers experience poems as a cross between an orgasm and a heart attack." —David Orr, the New York Times

Since I've gone out on a limb and suggested Keats' "Autumn" is the greatest lyric poem in the language, I invite readers to post their choice—just one!—for this honor in "The Fray." Perhaps along with an approximately two-line description. Let's say, a Twitter-like 140-character limit. After all, almost prophetically, the last line of "To Autumn" somewhat ominously observed:

And gathering swallows twitter in the sky.

Correction, Sept. 14, 2008: This piece originally said James Fenton is the British poet laureate. He is not. It also said the central object in the film 2001 is an "obelisk." In fact, it is a monolith. (Return to the corrected sentences.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Poem: Nick Masesso Jr.

Iconoclast Direct from Hollywood Heaven

Robert Altman is dead,
but Francis Coppola is still alive.
“They hit him with six shots
and he’s still alive.
Well that’s bad luck for me,
and bad luck for you,
If you don’t make that deal
with Sonny”.

Marty Scorsese is running down Mulberry Street
with a knife in his back. Death is chasing him
like a freight train
and he’s still dreaming of Italian Cinema.

Stanley Kubrick is floating in a space odyssey
with naked women like Norman Mailer’s somnambulist.
He sports an orange clock around his neck,
Public Enemy style.

Sam Pekinpaugh is riddling
Alfred Hitchcock’s bloated corpse
with silver bullets
while Sam whistles over
John Ford’s grave.

Robert Altman is dead
He’s hunting deer
with Michael Cimino and Dino de Laurentis,
unconventionally subverting the genre.

Robert Altman is dead.
He’s whispering
“suicide is painless”
while Arthur Penn
Is turning the crank
of a vintage Model-T
for Clyde Barrow.

Robert Altman is dead.
He’s stopping the bleeding in Korea,
singing on stage in Nashville
and slowing slipping away
chest deep in the western snows.

He deconstructs and demythologizes
our romantic visions
in non-heroic, breathtaking, masterpiece
while Leonard Cohen wails.

He watches as Oliver Stone
shows Jack Kennedy
what happened in Vietnam,
how the bullet
made his head
go back
and to the right,
made us all go back
and to the right.

* * *

~ Born August 12, 1948, Nick Masesso Jr. grew up in the 1950's of suburban Chicago. In the late 1960's he co-founded a commune. He traveled throughout North America in the 1970's and made treks to South America, Southern and South Central Africa also in the 1970's. His Book “Walking the Midway in Purgatory, a Journal” is available on-line and through bookstore.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ron Silliman on the History of Poetry

While education tends to stress the great works, Ron Silliman feels that the real history of poetry is in the unpolished, not-perfect works.

I know I’m repeating myself, but this seems to be a point that a lot of people get stuck on. Plus this is my 2,000th post to the blog, and I’m feeling feisty. The history of poetry, like the history of any art form, is not a procession of its “best works.” Indeed, the well-wrought urn is, if anything, the deservedly forgotten one. Having codified and smoothed out the rough edges of any given tendency in poetry, such works are monuments to triviality and soon ignored.

In the 1960s, there were dozens of young poets who wrote “just like” Robert Creeley or any of a number of other, first-generation Projectivists. John Sinclair was a terrific approximation of Charles Olson transplanted to Detroit. Ross Feld had Jack Spicer down cold. More than a few poets during that same period “did” John Ashbery almost better than Ashbery himself. And there quite a few Allen Ginsbergs & Gary Snyders as well. Where are they now? Those that persevered – many did not – have changed, sometimes quite radically. There were a hundred Ted Berrigans, but it is worth noting that Alice Notley has not been one of them. Last I heard, John Sinclair was a DJ down in New Orleans – his great magazine Work has had its title appropriated by some folks out in Oakland – I wonder if they even know the literary heritage of that name.

In The New American Poetry, Ron Loewinsohn – just 23 when the book was first published – demonstrated an uncanny ability to channel the style of William Carlos Williams. A look at his professor emeritus page at UC Berkeley shows no publication of new poetry since 1976, no new writing of any kind in over twenty years. Yet Against the Silences to Come, Loewinsohn’s 1965 chapbook from Four Seasons Foundation, arguably is the best work ever written “in the Williams mode” of stepped free verse. Who (but me) celebrates that?

That’s the phenomenon in micro- form. It has a macro- variation as well. Articulating the possibilities of the prose poem, say, or dramatic monologue, or free verse – the three great formal innovations of the 19th century – has meant dramatically transforming what those genre mean. Charles Olson’s Maximus is possibly the only innovation in dramatic monolog in the 20th century even worth discussing. But look at how Pessoa’s heteronyms carry the underlying dynamics of dissociating author from speaker in a completely different direction. Now, a few decades hence, heteronyms are a dime a dozen as well.

The history of poetry is the history of change in poetry, an account not of best works, but of shifts in direction, new devices, new forms, as Williams once put it, “as additions to nature.” The cruder writing & rougher edges of the first to do X, whatever it might be, invariably are preferable. Better Spicer than Ross Feld. Better Howl than _________ – you can fill in that blank yourself.

There are of course poets and readers who hate change, sometimes hate it intensely. There are, for example, those who claim that Pound’s “good” writing stops basically at “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” avant The Cantos. Pound in those years was something of a stylistic gigolo, plagiarizing all that was interesting in Victorian poetics. Had he stopped there, he would have been the Ron Loewinsohn of his generation. And you would never have read him.

This may be why, actually, the School of Quietude generally does such a poor job of celebrating, preserving and carrying forward the work of its own stalwarts. Does anyone think you could fill up an auditorium at Columbia for a weekend, for example, to celebrate the centenary of Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, Robert Francis or Richard Eberhart, the SoQ poets closest in age to Louis Zukofsky? Why is it that the London Review of Books still thinks it necessary to order a hit piece of Zukofsky when all these contemporaries of his have long since disappeared from view? Or that Charlie Simic does the same to Robert Creeley (or William Logan ditto to Frank O’Hara)? It’s not that the SoQ poets, then and now, were bad writers – I think you can demonstrate that it’s objectively not the case. But they didn’t create change for poetry in their poetry (and, indeed, the most interesting of that earlier quartet are the two who helped to create institutional change in the academy through their critical writing, tho they did so precisely to thwart a modernism that was already threatening our shores). The assaults on Zukofsky, Creeley & O’Hara are little more than tantrums on the part of writers who understand that they’re the Robert Francises & Richard Eberharts of today, and are doomed to be just as widely read. They’d love to be able to curb the influence Zukofsky et al are having and will continue to have on younger writers, but they know already that this is impossible. Their pain is real.

Each art form has its own dynamic around issues such as form and change.

Go read the rest of the article -- and if you have some thoughts, please come back and share them here.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Denis Darzacq - The Fall (2006) - Photos

In 2006, Denis Darzacq asked dancers and athletes to perform jumps against background that he had found and prepared. Wearing ordinary clothes chosen in agreement with the photographer, the performers executed their leaps in these precisely defined settings.

Everything had been prepared in advance. Everything was ready. The models launched themselves into space. There is nothing false in these scenes . These moments really occurred. There is no fiction, no retouching or special effects. Photographed in the courtyards of buildings or in streets in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, in Nanterre and in Biarritz, these young people were just being themselves, simply performing jumps in a modern urban setting. And the photographer shot the images, intervening only to give a few guidelines as to their movement. However, at the moment of the leap, chance and gravity also intervened. (Text by Virginie Chardin)

* * * *

The Fall

* * * *

* * * *

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Two Poems: Tim J Brennan

Other Woman

she says whisper
the words, kisses
my cheek

it is so cold
this day her lip
imprint freezes
on my skin

i rub it
for luck

* * *

The Poet Reads

the poet speaks
to them from behind
his invisible moon

they become
to his prayers

* * *

~ Tim Brennan lives in Austin, MN. He is a frequent contributor to Elegant Thorn Review.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Jay Parini - Why Poetry Matters

From Jay Parini at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Why Poetry Matters

Poetry doesn't matter to most people. They go about their business as usual, rarely consulting their Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Frost. One has to wonder if poetry has any place in the 21st century, when music videos and satellite television offer daunting competition for poems, which demand a good deal of attention and considerable analytic skills, as well as some knowledge of the traditions of poetry.

In the 19th century, poets like Scott, Byron, and Longfellow had huge audiences around the world. Their works were best sellers, and they were cultural heroes as well. But readers had few choices in those days. One imagines, perhaps falsely, that people actually liked poetry. It provided them with narratives that entertained and inspired. It gave them words to attach to their feelings. They enjoyed folk ballads, too. In a sense, music and poetry joined hands.

In the 20th century, something went amiss. Poetry became "difficult." That is, poets began to reflect the complexities of modern culture, its fierce disjunctions. The poems of Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens asked a lot of the reader, including a range of cultural references to topics that even in the early 1900s had become little known. To read Pound and Eliot with ease, for instance, one needed some knowledge of Greek and Latin poetry. That kind of learning had been fairly common among educated readers in the past, when the classics were the bedrock of any upper-middle-class education. The same could not be said for most readers in the 20th century — or today, when education has become more democratized and the study of the classics has been relegated to a small number of enthusiasts. The poems of the canonical poets of high modernism require heavy footnotes.

Yet poetry can make a difference in the lives of readers. I've always known that myself, having read and written poems for at least four decades. Every morning I begin the day with a book of poems open at the breakfast table. I read a poem, perhaps two. I think about the poetry. I often make notes in my journal. The reading of the poem informs my day, adds brightness to my step, creates shades of feeling that formerly had been unavailable to me. In many cases, I remember lines, whole passages, that float in my head all day — snatches of song, as it were. I firmly believe my life would be infinitely poorer without poetry, its music, its deep wisdom.

One tends to forget that poetry is wisdom. I was in Morocco recently, and a devout Muslim mentioned to me that the Prophet Muhammad, in his book of sayings, the Hadith, had said as much. But the Koran also teaches, I was told, that poets are dangerous, and that decent people should avoid them. That reminded me of Plato, who wished to ban all poets from his ideal republic because he thought they were liars. Reality, for Plato, was an intense, perfect world of ideas. The material world represents reflections of that ideal, always imperfect. Artistic representations of nature were thus at several removes from the ideal, hence suspicious.

But Plato also had other worries about poets. In the Republic, he complained that they tend to whip up the emotions of readers in unhelpful ways. They stir feelings of "lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure." Poetry "feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up," he said, while only the "hymns of the gods and praises of famous men" are worthy of readers. The law and reason are far better.

Although Plato didn't quite sink the art of poetry, he cast suspicion on the craft, and poets since then have rarely been comfortable with their place in society. Even the popular Romantic poets — Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and others — lived on the edge of the social whirl, not quite respectable. More recently figures like Allen Ginsberg have derided their country. Poets have an unruly streak in them, and have not been the most welcome guests at the table of society.

Teachers and professors have long considered poetry a useful part of the curriculum, and one of the last places where poetry remains a central part of the culture is the classroom. To a degree, poets have been "domesticated" by the academic village, welcomed into its grove. Frost was among the first poets to get a big welcome on the campus, and he taught at Amherst College for much of his life, with stints elsewhere. He spent his last decades crisscrossing the country, appearing at colleges, reading and lecturing to large audiences. He believed firmly in poetry as a means of shaping minds in important ways.

In "Education by Poetry," one of his finest essays, Frost argued that an understanding of how poetry works is essential to the developing intellect. He went so far as to suggest that unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values, "you don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you." Those are very large claims.

Poets do make large claims, and they are usually a bit exaggerated. In his "Defense of Poetry," Shelley famously wrote: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." I prefer the twist on that offered by a later poet, George Oppen, who wrote: "Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world."

I don't especially want poets to make laws or rule the world. For the most part, they would perform very badly in those public ways. The world of the poet is largely an interior world of the intellect and the emotions — where we mostly live, in fact. And poetry bolsters that interior realm. In a talk at Princeton University in 1942, when the world was aflame, Stevens reflected on the fact that the 20th century had become "so violent," both physically and spiritually. He succinctly defined poetry as "a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pushing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of poetry, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives."

The pressure of reality is indeed fierce, and yet poetry supplies a kind of counterpressure, pushing back against external forces that would overwhelm and obliterate the individual. Poets give a voice to the world in ways previously unacknowledged. We listen to the still, small voice of poetry when we read a poem, and that voice stands in ferocious contrast to the clamor in the culture at large and, often, to the sound of society's explosions.

I always define poetry for my students as a language adequate to our experience — to our full experience, taking into account the interior valleys, the peaks, the broad plains. It gives voice to tiny thoughts, to what the Scottish poet and scholar Alastair Reid, in a lovely poem, calls "Oddments Inklings Omens Moments." One does not hope for poetry to change the world. Auden noted when he wrote in his elegy for Yeats that "poetry makes nothing happen." That is, it doesn't shift the stock market or persuade dictators to stand down. It doesn't usually send masses into the streets to protest a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.

Language defines us as human beings. We speak, therefore we exist. We have the miraculous ability to gesture in words, to make statements and requests, to express our feelings, to construct arguments, to draw conclusions. Poetic language matters because it is precise and concrete, and draws us closer to the material world. In Nature, Emerson argues that the sheer physicality of words points us in directions that might be called "spiritual." He puts forward three principles worth considering:

"Words are signs of natural facts."

"Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts."

"Nature is the symbol of the spirit."

Those statements formed a platform of sorts for the Transcendental movement, which studied nature closely for signs of spiritual life. The principles remain worthy of reflection. At some level, words suggest natural facts: "rock," "river," "bird," "cloud." The leap comes in the second statement, which posits a spiritual world. One can, I think, leap beyond conventional notions of spirituality here and acknowledge a deep interior world wherein each of us lives, no matter what our religious persuasion. I think of a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins: "O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed." The mind has those heights and depths, and few have not sensed them, stood in awe of their terrifying majesty. That is the spiritual realm, which one can extend in any direction. Nature becomes, at last, Emerson's "symbol of the spirit," and poetry itself embodies that nature. It is part of it. It mirrors the vast interior world, populates it with images and phrases, provides a basis for the reality of individual lives.

I could not live without poetry, which has helped me to live my existence more concretely, more deeply. It has shaped my thinking. It has enlivened my spirit. It has offered me ways to endure my life (I'm rephrasing Dr. Johnson here), even to enjoy it.

Jay Parini is a novelist, poet, and professor of English at Middlebury College. His latest book, Why Poetry Matters, was published in April by Yale University Press.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Robert Pinsky: Frequently asked questions about the business of verse

From Slate Magazine. Please bear in mind that Pinsky has a sense of humor as you read his responses to these questions, especially at the end.

1. Sometimes I see a poem in Slate or another magazine, and it doesn't do a thing for me. Half of the time I can't figure out what it means—what is that all about?

Generalizing won't do. We'd have to discuss a particular poem. At times prominent magazines publish things that aren't very good.

Magazines sometimes make me think of four lines the 18th-century actor David Garrick wrote as part of his poem praising poet Thomas Gray. About a certain kind of reader, Garrick wrote:

The gentle reader loves the gentle Muse.
That little dares, and little means;
Who humbly sips her learning from Reviews,
Or flutters in the Magazines.

2. Isn't so-called "free verse" just prose chopped into lines?

Read the following aloud, listening to the vowels and consonants, the sentence movements:

William Carlos Williams, "Fine Work With Pitch and Copper"

Now they are resting
in the fleckless light
separately in unison

like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos

about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn

The copper in eight
foot strips has been
beaten lengthwise

down the center at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping

One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it

Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"

3. How come modern poets don't write in rhyme?

Read the following aloud, listening to the vowels and consonants, the sentence movements:

Thom Gunn, "Still Life"

I shall not soon forget
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tight: nothing of his,
No tremor from within,
Played on the surfaces.

He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscure knack.
I shall not soon forget
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,

Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.

Thom Gunn, "The Reassurance"

About ten days or so
After we saw you dead
You came back in a dream.
I'm all right now you said.

And it was you, although
You were fleshed out again:
You hugged us all round then,
And gave your welcoming beam.

How like you to be kind,
Seeking to reassure.
And, yes, how like my mind
To make itself secure.

4. How come real poetry—in our great-grandparents' time or, anyway, some other long-ago time—was easy to understand and great?

Do you mean like this?

Emily Dickinson, "I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl"

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life's little duties do—precisely—
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—

I put new Blossoms in the Glass—
And throw the old—away—
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there—I weigh
The time-twill be till six o'clock
I have so much to do—
And yet—Existence—some way back—
Stopped—struck—my ticking—through—
We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman—When the Errand's done
We came to Flesh—upon—
There may be—Miles on Miles of Nought—
Of Action—sicker far—
To simulate—is stinging work—
To cover what we are
From Science—and from Surgery—
Too Telescopic Eyes
To beat on us unshaded—
For their—sake—not for Ours—
'Twould start them—
We—could tremble—
But since we got a Bomb—
And held it in our Bosom—
Nay—Hold it—it is calm—
Therefore—we do life's labor—
Though life's Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—

Or do you mean like this?

Edgar Guest, "Home"

It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home,
A heap o' sun an' shadder, an' ye sometimes have t' roam
Afore ye really 'preciate the things ye lef' behind,
An' hunger fer 'em somehow, with 'em allus on yer mind.
It don't make any differunce how rich ye get t' be,
How much yer chairs an' tables cost, how great yer luxury;
It ain't home t' ye, though it be the palace of a king,
Until somehow yer soul is sort o' wrapped round everything.

Home ain't a place that gold can buy or get up in a minute;
Afore it's home there's got t' be a heap o' livin' in it;
Within the walls there's got t' be some babies born, and then
Right there ye've got t' bring 'em up t' women good, an' men;
And gradjerly as time goes on, ye find ye wouldn't part
With anything they ever used—they've grown into yer heart:
The old high chairs, the playthings, too, the little shoes they wore
Ye hoard; an' if ye could ye'd keep the thumb-marks on the door.

Ye've got t' weep t' make it home, ye've got t' sit an' sigh
An' watch beside a loved one's bed, an' know that Death is nigh;
An' in the stillness o' the night t' see Death's angel come,
An' close the eyes o' her that smiled, an' leave her sweet voice dumb.
Fer these are scenes that grip the heart, an' when yer tears are dried,
Ye find the home is dearer than it was, an' sanctified;
An' tuggin' at ye always are the pleasant memories
o' her that was an' is no more—ye can't escape from these.

Ye've got t' sing an' dance fer years, ye've got t' romp an' play,
An' learn t' love the things ye have by usin' 'em each day;
Even the roses 'round the porch must blossom year by year
Afore they 'come a part o' ye, suggestin' someone dear
Who used t' love 'em long ago, an' trained 'em jes t' run
The way they do, so's they would get the early mornin' sun;
Ye've got t' love each brick an' stone from cellar up t' dome:
It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home.

5. Who is Edgar Guest?

The most popular poet in American history. Sold a million copies when a million was a million; wrote a syndicated poem-a-day column; had his own radio show and even, for a while, his own TV show in the early days of that medium. Here's a poem by a poet more or less his contemporary, less popular than Guest was though more read today:

Marianne Moore, "Silence"

My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "Make my house your inn."
Inns are not residences.

6. How come American poets don't write about politics or current events?

Read the following:

Allen Ginsberg, "America"

America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can't stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don't feel good don't bother me.
I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I'm sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my
......good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don't think he'll come back it's sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I'm trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I'm doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven't read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes
......on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I'm not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there's going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I'm perfectly right.
I won't say the Lord's Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven't told you what you did to Uncle Max after he
......came over from Russia.

I'm addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I'm obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It's always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious.
......Movie producers are serious. Everybody's serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

Asia is rising against me.
I haven't got a chinaman's chance.
I'd better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of
......genitals an unpublishable private literature that jetplanes 1400
......miles an hour and twentyfive-thousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underprivileged who
live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I'm a Catholic.

America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his
......automobiles more so they're all different sexes.
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your
......old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell
......meetings they sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket
......costs a nickel and the speeches were free everybody was
......angelic and sentimental aboutthe workers it was all so sincere have no idea what a good thing the party was in 1835 Scott
......Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother Bloor the
......Silk-strikers' Ewig-Weibliche made me cry I once saw the Yiddish
......orator Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have been a spy.
America you don't really want to go to war.
America it's them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants take our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader's Digest. Her
......wants our auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running
......our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black
......niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
......factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Robert Lowell, "Waking Early Sunday Morning"

Muriel Rukeyser, "Mearl Blankenship"

7. But what about living American poets—how come they don't write about politics or current events?

C.K. Williams, "Fear"


At almost the very moment an exterminator's panel truck,
the blowup of a cockroach airbrushed on its side,
pulls up at a house across from our neighborhood park,
a battalion of transient grackles invades the picnic ground,

and the odd thought comes to me how much in their rich sheen,
their sheer abundance, their hunger without end, if I let them
they can seem akin to roaches; even their curt, coarse cry:
mightn't those subversive voices beneath us sound like that?

Roaches, though … Last year, our apartment house was overrun,
insecticides didn't work, there'd be roaches on our toothbrushes
......and combs.
The widower downstairs—this is awful—who'd gone through
and the camps and was close to dying now and would sometimes

was found one morning lying wedged between his toilet and a wall,
naked, barely breathing, the entire surface of his skin alive
with the insolent, impervious brutes, who were no longer daunted
by the light, or us—the Samaritan neighbor had to scrape them off.


Vermin, poison, atrocious death: what different resonance they have
in our age of suicide as armament, anthrax, resurrected pox.
Every other week brings new warnings, new false alarms;
it's hard to know how much to be afraid, or even how.
The second world war was barely over, in annihilated cities
children just my age still foraged for scraps of bread,

and we were being taught that our war would be nuclear,
that if we weren't incinerated, the flesh would rot from our bones.
By the time Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off over Cuba,
rockets primed and aimed, we were sick with it, insane.

And now these bewildering times, when those whose interest is
to consternate us hardly bother to conceal their purposes.
Yes, we have antagonists, and some of their grievances are just,
but is no one blameless, are we all to be combatants, prey?


We have offended very grievously, and been most tyrannous,
wrote Coleridge, invasion imminent from radical France;
the wretched plead against us
… then, Father and God,
spare us
, he begged, as I suppose one day I will as well.

I still want to believe we'll cure the human heart, heal it
of its anxieties, and the mistrust and barbarousness they spawn,
but hasn't that metaphorical heart been slashed, dissected,
cauterized and slashed again, and has the carnage relented, ever?

Night nearly, the exterminator's gone, the park deserted,
the swings and slides my grandsons play on forsaken.
In the windows all around, the flicker of the television news:
more politics of terror; war, threats of war, war without end.

A half-chorus of grackles still ransacks the trash;
in their intricate iridescence they seem eerily otherworldly,
negative celestials, risen from some counter-realm to rescue us.
But now, scattering towards the deepening shadows, they go, too.

Frank Bidart, "To the Republic"

Ann Winters, "The Displaced of Capital"

8. Aren't a lot of contemporary song lyrics the real poetry of our time?

Read them aloud in your own voice, without the music, and see how they hold up compared with this:

Robert Hayden, "Those Winter Sundays"

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

Or this:

Jack Gilbert, "Measuring the Tyger"

Or this:

Yusuf Komunyakaa, "Facing It"

Or this:

Louise Bogan, "Several Voices Out of a Cloud"

9. Well, I like poetry that is amusing, that maybe makes me chuckle a little. I'd rather read something reassuring and light than something complicated or gloomy. Is that bad? Does that mean I am a jerk?


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Why Don't Poems Rhyme Anymore?

John Lundberg at Huffington Post has offered an interesting article for poets: Why Don't Poems Rhyme Anymore?

Before I post this, a personal statement: I struggled to write formal verse for five years, or more, before I ever attempted free verse. When I did begin trying to write free verse, I used William Carlos Williams and Robison Jeffers -- two very different poets -- as my models. It was a very useful experience to study the natural meter of Williams and the Biblical meter of Jeffers at the same time.

I tend to believe that we, as poets, have to know the traditions before we try to break them, so I guess that makes me a classicisit.

The Queen's English Society may sound like the name of a Monty Python sketch, but I assure you it's very real. The group aims to protect "the beauty and precision of the English Language," and it's currently up in arms about supposed poems that--egad!--have no rhyme or meter.

The President of the QES, a man named Michael George Gibson (it may be a QES requirement to use three names), recently told the British newspaper The Guardian, "For centuries word-things, called poems, have been made according to primary and defining craft principles of, first, measure, and second, alliteration and rhyme. Word-things not made according to those principles are not poems."

I'm sorry...word-things?

Anyway, the QES isn't alone. Here in America, a movement called New Formalism has been pushing for a return to formal verse for decades. The poet and critic Dana Gioia in his "Notes on New Formalism" ticked off what he perceived to be the problems with contemporary free verse poetry:

The debasement of poetic language; the prolixity of the lyric; the bankruptcy of the confessional mode; the inability to establish a meaningful aesthetic for new poetic narrative and the denial of a musical texture in the contemporary poem. The revival of traditional forms will be seen then as only one response to this troubling situation.

I can hear the QES members tapping their canes in agreement.

Formalists have been tapping their canes for about a century now. Literary history records a sprinkling of early free verse poets like Walt Whitman and Christoper Smart, but the movement began in earnest in the early 1900s. Ezra Pound, who many consider to be the movement's figurehead, was a devoted student of poetry's traditions and a strong believer in the power of form, but he found the strict adherence to rhyme and meter limiting and artificial. He wrote many formal poems himself and thought poets should study the art's traditions before moving beyond them. He also felt they shouldn't move too far, writing "poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from the music."

Nonetheless, the free verse movement was something of a jailbreak. Freed from formal constraints, poets quickly pushed the limits of what could be called poetry. Here's a Gertrude Stein poem that could only be called Roast Potatoes:

Roast Potatoes

Roast potatoes for.

No, that's not an excerpt. Stein means to focus your attention on the transformation of the word "roast" into a verb.

Most contemporary poets take a mixed stance on free verse versus formalism. There's a general feeling that metrical, rhyming verse strikes the ear little too harshly these days, but poets haven't abandoned form altogether. Poets make use of subtler techniques like internal rhyme (rhyming within, rather than at the end, of lines) and slant rhymes (words that almost rhyme like "black" and "bleak"). Most poets still write with a music, but it's far more varied (and usually more subtle) than music typical of traditional verse.

I think most poets would also agree that you don't have to use rhyme and meter to write a great poem. Take the well-known word-thing This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams.

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

If that doesn't protect "the beauty and precision of the English Language," I don't know what does.

Still find yourself a fierce proponent of poetic purity? You're welcome to join the QES at the New Cavendish Club in London every other Thursday. And who doesn't enjoy a brisk debate about grammatical standards! Trust me, one might ensue. The QES's wikipedia entry--and I guarantee you they are all over their wikipedia entry--states "a commitment to standards should not preclude the possibility of grammatical change; nor does it mean, however, that change should be mindlessly celebrated for its own sake."

Mindless celebrating! Dare they forget how they got booted from Old Cavendish!

As working writers out there, where do you come down on this issue? How do you feel about the move away (mostly) from formal verse, and even away from musical verse?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Janice N. Harrington on Poet Phyllis Wheatley

Janice N. Harrington's Poetry Month Pick, April 18, 2008, from Poetry Daily.

"On Imagination"
by Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784)

Thy various works, imperial queen, we see,
How bright their forms! how deck'd with pomp by thee!
Thy wond'rous acts in beauteous order stand,
And all attest how potent is thine hand.

From Helicon's refulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:
To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,
Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.

Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov'd object strikes her wand'ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th' empyreal palace of the thund'ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th'unbounded soul.

Though Winter frowns to Fancy's raptur'd eyes
The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise;
The frozen deeps may break their iron bands,
And bid their waters murmur o'er the sands.
Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow'ry riches deck the plain;
Sylvanus may diffuse his honours round,
And all the forest may with leaves be crown'd:
Show'rs may descend, and dews their gems disclose
And nectar sparkle on the blooming rose.

Such is thy pow'r, nor are thine orders vain,
O thou the leader of the mental train:
In full perfection all thy works are wrought,
And thine the sceptre o'er the realms of thought,
Before thy throne the subject-passions bow,
Of subject-passions sov'reign ruler Thou;
At thy command joy rushes on the heart,
And through the glowing veins the spirits dart.

Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from the earth, and sweep th'expanse on high;
From Tithon's bed now might Aurora rise,
Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,
While a pure stream of light o'erflows the skies.
The monarch of the day I might behold,
And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,
But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy's flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

* * * * *

Janice N. Harrington Comments:
When I first read Phillis Wheatley’s “On Imagination” it felt like a wash of impossible ice water in a humid Midwestern summer. Its elegant formality stopped me. Yes, she wrote in the manner of her times: its classical rhythms and rhymes, its grand loftiness. But still—my mind trembles—she sang like that? Despite enslavement, despite loss, despite limits unfathomable to modern minds, she lifted her pen and mastered the meter of her day, made it ring with her voice, and believed that on pinions we can “surpass the wind.”

In seven stanzas of iambic pentameter, her poem meditates on the force of imagination, as in Dickinson’s “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—”. But Wheatley’s poem does not have the spare tetrameters and clean lines of a protestant hymnal, it is self-consciously grand. The reader meets Greek gods and muses. She argues that imagination is monarch of mind, passion, and joy. Yet Wheatley’s consideration ends with these words: “Winter austere forbids me to aspire, / And northern tempests damp the rising fire; / They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea, / Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.” A poet’s ponderings ended by a chilly morning? The odd “unequal lay” at the end of the poem which clunks and fumbles after lines consistently shaped by true and off-rhyme—is this a poet’s humility or is it artful proof that she is more than up to the task? What of that winter—so carefully italicized—what is the cold, barren season that would stall a poet’s pen? Ah, she makes me sad at the end of the poem because she dares to betray her argument. I want to believe in the rising fire and that like imagination and with imagination it is never vanquished.

About Janice N. Harrington:
Janice N. Harrington is a poet and children’s writer. Her first book of poetry, Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone (2007), won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize from BOA Editions and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for poetry. She is now Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Four Photographs: E.J. Peiker

E.J. Peiker is a remarkable nature photographer. Many of his photos show the natural beauty of Arizona, although he takes pictures all over the world. Here are four amazing images.

Great Blue Heron Sunrise; Everglades National Park, Florida

Lower Antelope Canyon; Navajo Nation, Arizona

Porcupine; Southwest Utah

Tufa Start Trails; Mono Lake, California

Monday, January 28, 2008

Essay: Finding the Form - Kristen Ogden

This cool essay, Finding the Form, appeared at the Kenyon Review blog on Sunday, written by Kristen Ogden. She riffs on some quotes by Denise Levertov and other poets -- a meditation on the idea of form following content. I'd like to hear from other poets out there -- does the content of your poems determine the form, or do you fit the content into a form? Obviously, those of you working with formal verse will have a different take on this, but I'd still be interested in hearing your views.

Denise Levertov’s Question: Is there inherent form that the poet can discover and reveal?

This is us, in each moment at the paper, fretting over what it should be and will do in the world. We might say,

Dear Poem. I have had a synergetic moment. The rain falls from the roof and down to the ground like fringe on a flapper dress. In the spaces between each dance, leaves grow on branches down toward the ground, which is covered in rotted leaves from the days without rain. In this room, my feet are too cold, and the space heater hums. See on that postcard, the haystacks in the fields of rainbowed grass? Where, poem, should I begin? With what word or phrase–and how, then, to lay you all out onto the paper so that these not-yet-fully-formed emotions are transformed?

“Form is never more than the revelation of content.”–Levertov

Content transformed to what? This cold makes me think of winter. It rains here in winter. The people rush at the slightest sprinkle, and I am left to contemplate the cold–and this lovely hat my sister knitted for me for Christmas, which doesn’t match the scarf because she ran out of the yarn half-way through the project.

Running out of yarn half-way through.
Content is exploratory, got at through the process of
pulsing along the vein; discovering
the form that wants to
be the poem.

If we are to base form on an ‘intuition’ of order, are we discovering what it is–the poem–supposed to do and how to be in the world? Is this what is called an absence of form, or is it the finding of your authentic vision?

Constellations. Concentration on constellations can be dangerous. But what is more beautiful? What brings more mythology to light than the constellation, with its gods and goddesses, and the big spoons for holding the magic of the cosmos and ready to ladle it into soup bowls.Constellations retain their forms, but move about in the sky and are wholly dependent upon the temple from which one views each constellation. ‘Recognize what we percieve.’

So the poet stands openmouthed in the temple of life, contemplating his experience, there come to him the first words of the poem.“–Levertov

Please read the whole article then come back and share your thoughts.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Four Photos: Jonathan Moller

I am extremely honored and thrilled to present four photos by Internationally known photographer Jonathan Moller. His work has been seen in many publications, and in the book, Our Culture Is Our Resistance.

These photos are from his portfolio, Stillness.




Friday, January 18, 2008

Epistles: Poems by Mark Jarman

I've been a fan of Mark Jarman for many years. He has managed to make formal poetry fresh and modern in a way few poets have been able. A new book from him is always a time for gratitude, and this one, which explores the prose poem form, is no exception. The following review is from Bookslut.

Jason B. Jones

Epistles: Poems by Mark Jarman

Mark Jarman's new book of poems, his ninth, is a collection of prose poems modeled loosely on Paul's epistles. This is a rather remarkable challenge, for a variety of reasons: Pauline letters are addressed to specific Christian churches and communities -- indeed, their universality arises from this deeply-felt sense of community (see Badiou). But Jarman isn't really addressing a community of believers, or any other community save "the assembly of the lost."

The other challenge Jarman faces is a formal one: The prominent New Formalist has set himself the task of writing in prose poems. Not for the first time in his career, but certainly this is the most sustained exploration of the form.

Epistles faces these twin challenges about as well as can be expected. On the one hand, the work constantly threatens to devolve into a sort of collection of aphoristic essays in the mode that people call "spiritual," rather than religious. They almost have to, in order to preserve what Jarman has called their "heterodox inclusiveness." At such moments, Jarman risks -- but mercifully never succumbs to -- writing Chicken Soup for the Literate Soul. On the other hand, his ear and the precision of his language, as well as the range of human experience he can bring into focus, continually quicken one's interest in the poems.

One of my favorite moments in Epistles comes when Jarman tries to imagine eternity, which will apparently start out a little slowly:

Still, try this. Think of blank times with other people's habits, when you had to eat with strangers and strange hosts, and follow their customs and rituals at table. A glassy patience took over. Through its panels even watching was a kind of starvation, a sort of drought. The portions lay stranded on large plates. The grace was minimal but stiflingly pious. There was nothing to drink. And the time ahead filled a football stadium.

Then you discovered their peculiar passions -- genre fiction, dog racing. Suddenly you were an umbrella stand of questions. Time, almost like the drink you were denied, turned almost sexy. When you left, sated with information, and even a little drunk with a fizzy affection for the plain, stolid family of doorstops, they invited you back.

There's a charm to this image, held together lightly by charged words such as hosts and passions, by repetition and alliteration, and by Jarman's good humor. But this poem, which opens in so folksy and down-to-earth a fashion, pivots suddenly, becoming a reflection on the mutual misrecognition between the living and the dead, despite, or rather because of the universal tendency of the former to become the latter.

Read the rest.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Three Photos: John Craig



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~ John Craig is a regular contributor to Elegant Thorn Review. These photos are from a new series of ambient art, also known, apparently, as Biomorphic art. You can always find more of John's work at Craig Photography.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Three Poems: Diana Lundell

A Plea to the Outstretched Angel

You are a bronzed prayer,
one wing, one bereaving arm.
The pose, overreaching,
uncomfortable even to the eye.
Something of you anguishes,
perhaps knows my pain.

If you’re still a working angel
and not demoted by God
(minus the wing and all),
can you soften the thorn on the rose
bringing no blood from touch?

Alright, that’s probably impossible.

But what of the odor of lilac
spinning spring breeze
the way it fills to bursting?
Can you teach my heart
how to feel this again
past my thundering sorrow?

Or perhaps, just one more hour
hold the blessed twilight
to get lost in the loveliness
of ragged shadows, dying light.

And that’s when you could send
a message beyond the grave
slipped through the thin veil
when other angels aren’t looking.

A postcard would be okay
telling me if they’re all fine and
what the weather’s like over there.

* * * * *

So Far This April

How I yearn to see the leaves
come out in spades again,
fleshy and plump with chlorophyll.

In my backyard, the soldiers are such:
1 lovely, sinewy birch budding
little clay-colored fists;
2 ruddy red maples, burgeoning;
3 dying oaks, stunted, rooted in netherland,
every so often creaking slightly
in wind to whisper, Am I still here?
4 delinquent scrubs, sloven but progressing;
and 6 buxom sugar-plum-fairy pines
holding out their flowing dresses
to block the neighbor’s view.

These gluttons wait to show off,
to dangle, seduce, tantalize,
play hide and seek with shadows,
wear their hearts on fingertips
and fill up with light.

It’s been such a long, godless winter,
all about desolation and war.
Dead everywhere, flying nimble wings.
The air thick with murder,
cold curdling blood.

But this spring you won’t be alive
to watch our little green rebellion
strike victory, despite it all.

* * * * *

Awaking Indigo

As pale indigo light
orphans shadows in my room
claimed by neither
night nor day, I wake.

Across town in the hospital
your love of fear sedated
as you labor under the oxygen mask
face calm, affirming surrender
attached to life’s umbilical cord.

For whole moments, I think of escape,
of finding things to do to avoid
the centurion hours clearly laid out
to be my day’s destiny
guarding your bedside.

All the cleaning to be done.
Or the untouched bills spilt
across table in silent complaint
could give purpose to knocking out an hour.

Someone will call if the end is here, I think,
but the end lives here now.

Instead, I go into the shower,
letting hard drops trample my skin
liquid shock-waves. It feels like life.
My body hairs rise in salute.
But it’s too much.

Tears from me but
of sound outside myself
unleash deep and raw,
a coyote vicious
ripping flesh from bone.
All at once, I am the coyote,
also the prey. I weep
until no more tears come.

At the hospital, they wait for me.
In due time, the nurse wheels in a lamp
for soft mood lighting
and a radio playing Gospel music.

We are the ghosts around your bed,
taking turns at goodbye.
You cannot respond, largely unconscious,
floating morphine’s lovely dream.

They remove the mask,
we stare you down with wait.
I suffer the naked shame
of a first-time voyeur
as if invading your privacy
is stripping away your life.

Long pulls in and out,
we humans do without thinking,
each breath, a gain, a loss.

The last came not as I envisioned
in one long, drawn-out sigh
but mere respiration held
as if you had all the time in the world,
a pebble across a pond
skipping and flying long
the wind before immersion.

Then the short final exhale,
a slight wave of air
passing over your tongue.
Without close attention,
I would have missed it.

* * * * *

~ Diana Lundell lives in Minnesota. This is her first appearance in Elegant Thorn Review. Each of these poems appeared, in a previous form, in Northography.