Poetry and America have rarely been seen as the likeliest of bedfellows. In fact, the nature and stature of poetry in the United States of America has been questioned pretty much since the latter first existed.
In his book Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville fired shots at the very concept. “I am not afraid that the poetry of democratic peoples will prove timid or that it will stay very close to the earth,” he wrote. “I fear that the works of democratic poets will often offer immense and incoherent images, overloaded depictions, and bizarre composites, and that the fantastic being issuing from their minds will sometimes make one long for the real world.” Within a decade or two, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman would prove him wrong.
The concerns over the form in this country continue today, in a very different way. Contemporary poets and poetry lovers often bemoan not the dizzying heights of the form but, rather, its marginalized status in modern times. Even the increase in poetry’s market share, thanks to Instagram poetry’s big sales numbers, isn’t seen entirely in a positive light. Instead, many poets feel that those sales are leaving the majority of poetic tradition behind.
And yet there’s another perspective on American poetry: that its history is rooted both in tradition and experiment; that it is for both the poets and the people; and that, contrary to popular belief, it still plays an important role in many lives—and could in even more, if given a chance. That’s where Poetry in America, the PBS television show created, directed, and hosted by Elisa New, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University, comes into play.
The show, which has returned for its second season, appropriately, during National Poetry Month, has begun airing on PBS stations around the country and will air nationwide on the WORLD Channel. The show will continue airing through the spring, summer, and fall, and episodes will also be available to stream on pbs.org and on the show’s website. Each episode focuses on a single poem, with New discussing works by Marilyn Chin, Elizabeth Bishop, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marianne Moore, Mark Doty, Stephen Sondheim, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman, with guests including Katie Couric, Vice President Al Gore, Sheryl Sandberg, Bill T. Jones, Secretary of State John Kerry, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nas, John Hodgman, Tony Kushner, Justice Elena Kagan, Raúl Esparza, Maxine Hong Kingston, and more.
The concept for the show, New said, came out of a set of online courses she was creating at Harvard. “Just as they were going into online learning and they didn’t have many rules, I commandeered video crews and started making content that was more like documentary television,” she said. “In the beginning, it was really just going to Brooklyn and filming, say, the ‘A Song of Myself’ marathon and talking to people there.”
Soon, though, New’s access to great minds across the board gave her the opportunity to interview visitors ranging from Justice Kagan to hip hop artist Nas. After six months, she said, she had “filmed some extraordinary conversations with people not known as poetry experts,” and reached out to Boston’s PBS member television station, WGBH. And thus the show was born.
The hope, New said, was to help people get over their apprehension of poetry. “The show evolved out of my sense that people are afraid of poetry,” she said. “They don’t know how to navigate a poem. And I thought that bringing the resources of a group to bear would give them a glimpse into the joy that one can feel by discovering both what everyone has always seen in a line of this poem—how Bill Clinton and a kid in a Harlem schoolyard, upon reading a poem, see exactly the same thing—and the joy of seeing how our language is so plastic and so multivalent that we all keep seeing new things in it.”
The variety of guests on the show serves a number of purposes, including showing that all sorts of people read poetry and that each brings a very different understanding of the use of language to the work of reading. As examples, New pointed to Justice Kagan, trained in the art of legal writing, and Nas, trained in the art of the lyric. “Both of them brought to their conversations with me their own writing practices, and explained their writing practices to me, and those practices intersect, in many ways, with the practices of poets—and of course Nas is a poet, and an extraordinarily gifted one,” New said.
But even those who are not writers themselves, New said—such as Vice President Joe Biden and Shaquille O’Neil, who were guests in the show’s first season—bring their own different understanding of the power of language to reading poetry. New spoke of Biden using language “that is drenched in affect” as “a kind of emotional signaling system,” and of O’Neil being “so accustomed to the fast patter of basketball talk,” and bringing that understanding to bear on his reading of poetry. “Everybody brings their own theory of language, from the kind of precincts of language in which they most comfortably dwell,” she said. “And if you can sort of match that with the right kind of poem, they’re just experts at reading it.”
New’s objective is to help viewers feel comfortable in poetry’s arena. And by focusing on one poem in a half-hour of television, adapted to the screen visually and aurally, and accompanied by carefully-matched selections of music and images and historical context, she believes she can do just that—and not in the same way as, say, Instagram poetry.
“I think that for the inexperienced reader of poetry and viewer of the series, the idea is that the series will show that you can sit tight and have an experience that’s different from any you’ve had before, and that you might’ve been afraid of before, and that that experience will be rewarding for you,” New said.
The trick, of course, with creating a public access television series about such an art form as poetry, coveted and beloved intensely by its practitioners and students, and often considered arcane and unreachable by the masses, is pleasing both parties. And New knew that, too. But in the end, she knew where to draw the line.
“For the initiated reader of poetry, I of course want to enhance that, that reader’s experience as well—and I always have the voices of the experts in my ear, sitting on my shoulder, warning me: Don’t dumb it down, don’t cheapen it, don’t oversimplify it,” she said. “But I would like, actually, to restore to some of them, their original joy and wonder, and also help them think about poetry as a more common pleasure. Walt Whitman said, ‘I am what is easiest, cheapest, freest.’ And we in the poetry world can be a little bit precious. So, even as I want to be as rigorous as my most rigorous viewer, I want that viewer to bear in mind what Frank O’Hara told us, which is that poetry should be fun, right? It should be like having a cocktail. It should be fizzy and delightful—even when the subject is grave.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
Poetry and America have rarely been seen as the likeliest of bedfellows. In fact, the nature and stature of poetry in the United States of America has been questioned pretty much since the latter first existed.
Deus escreve direito por linhas tortas, goes the Portuguese saying: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” The sentiment inspired Brother Antoninus, a Dominican lay brother from California, to publish a book of poems titled Crooked Lines of God in 1959. “God writes straight,” Antoninus began his foreword. “My crooked lines, tortured between grace and the depraved human heart (my heart), gouge out the screed of my defection.” He writes that the “crooked is made straight only in anguish.”
Brother Antoninus was William Everson, born and raised on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley. First agnostic, and then pantheist, Everson converted to Catholicism, largely inspired by the “fabulous Latin beauty, this Latin sensitivity” of his wife, the poet and artist Mary Fabilli. They separated, and Everson joined the Domincan Order as a lay brother in 1951, beginning one of the most fascinating religious interludes in contemporary poetry. Everson would renounce his vocation—but never his Catholicism—during a dramatic poetry reading in 1969. The latent sensuality of his religious verse had become sexual, and his life followed suit.
Everson’s grand departure makes me think of a poem, “The Priest at the Pool Party,” from Christian Wiman’s masterful new collection, Survival Is a Style. “Bound with vows / like Ulysses strapped to the mast,” a priest “drifts past / the white sirens” of women’s thighs, past “scooped fruits and toothpicked meats” at the party, “and is almost able / to taste the love a lack completes.” Much like the priest of this poem, Everson longed for romantic love again, but the tension between vocation and desire became too much for him.
Wiman’s new book makes him the poet that Everson might have become. This is not to devalue Everson’s life and poetry, but to merely suggest that Everson’s religious verse would have likely evolved in the direction of Wiman’s vision. Although the poets differ in generation, subject matter, and influences, Wiman’s poetry demonstrates a similar mixture of sincerity and gentle satire when it comes to matters of faith.
In his prologue to the book, Wiman writes “I need a space for unbelief to breathe”—and that space is within his poems. His treatment of religious belief and doubt in his work is not merely refreshing, it is endearing and illuminating. We can feel the struggle, the longing, for God. “Good Lord the Light” is perhaps his finest explanation of how belief is sustained by doubt. “Good morning misery, / goodbye belief, / good Lord the light / cutting across the lake / so long gone / to ice—” the poem begins, with “good Lord” functioning as both prayer and sigh. Despite our winter world, “There is an under, always, / through which things still move, breathe, / and have their being.” He ends the poem: “good God the winter / one must wander / one’s own soul / to be.”
Wiman has written of illness, ambition, doubt, and pain. A former editor of Poetry magazine who now teaches at the Yale Divinity School, Wiman has documented the crooked lines of his own life—his wavering routes of faith. He has always been a seeker. Survival Is a Style makes this search into song, and it could not have arrived at a better moment: “It may be Lord our voice is suited now / only for irony, onslaught, and the minor hierarchies of rage. // It may be only the crudest, cruelest transformations touch us, / gauzewalkers in the hallways of a burn ward.”
The search offers no easy answers; in fact, it might offer no answers at all. In one poem, “The Sound,” Wiman writes of a “bird sanctuary with no birds. / Eerie the beauty of the empty marsh.” Here the silence of God becomes the loudest speech, a stirring toward despair. In a long elegy for his father, Wiman wonders: “What happens when we die, / every child of every father eventually asks. / What happens when we don’t / is the better question.” Later in that poem he writes “The love of God is not a thing one comprehends / but that by which—and only by which—one is comprehended.”
Those lines bring me back to Everson’s foreword. A poet concerned with his own mythos and reception—he had an infamous row with James Dickey over criticism in The Sewanee Review—Everson’s ambitious plans for his poetry were powerless compared to God. “The Divine writing goes forward,” Everson admits, “with an excoriate straightness, but never in the manner one supposes; nor does it ever relate precisely what one hopes to hear.” I suspect Wiman would appreciate that sentiment, as he closes his new book with a confession: “The more I think the more I feel / reality without reverence is not real. // The more I feel the more I think / that God himself has brought me to this brink / wherein to have more faith means having less. / And love’s the sacred name for loneliness.”
Two superficially different poets, united by a longing for God. Everson’s vision helps reveal Wiman’s tenacious embrace of belief in the face of doubt—or perhaps through doubt. “I wrote; I have written; I will write,” Everson ends his foreword. “But no matter how crooked I set it down, God writes it straight.”
Bonus Links from Our Archive:– Fail Like a Poet: Ambition and Failure in Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’ — Absence of Inspiration, Absence of God: On Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’
Today we continue our new series of poetry excerpts with a poem from clinical psychologist, novelist, and poet Hala Alyan. Her fourth book of verse, The Twenty-Ninth Year, is full of swift lines and crisp images. “Oklahoma,” a prose poem from her new book, appears among a variety of poetic styles and subjects—each united by Alyan’s intense language. The confident narrators of her poems shift between sensuality and sentiment, between lust and the lure of family. Even in the prose form of “Oklahoma,” her poetic syntax strikes: an appropriate lament for a state that she once called home, whose memory she can’t shake. “For a place I hate, I invoke you often”: Alyan captures the terrible millstone of memory.
For a place I hate, I invoke you often. Stockholm’s: I am eight years old and the telephone poles are down, the power plant at the edge of town spitting electricity. Before the pickup trucks, the strip malls, dirt beaten by Cherokee feet. Osiyo, tsilugi. Rope swung from mule to tent to man, tornadoes came, the wind rearranged the face of the land like a chessboard. This was before the gold rush, the greed of engines, before white men pressing against brown women, nailing crosses by the river, before the slow songs of cotton plantations, the hymns toward God, the murdered dangling like earrings. Under a redwood, two men signed away the land, and in history class I don’t understand why a boy whispers sand monkey. The Mexican girls let me sit with them as long as I braid their hair, my fingers dipping into that wet black silk. I try to imitate them at home — mírame, mama — but my mother yells at me, says they didn’t come here so I could speak some beggar language. Heaven is a long weekend. Heaven is a tornado siren canceling school. Heaven is pressed in a pleather booth at the Olive Garden, sipping Pepsi between my gapped teeth, listening to my father mispronounce his meal.
“Oklahoma” excerpted from The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2019 by Hala Alyan. Published and
reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Here are four notable books of poetry publishing in December.
Who is Mary Sue? by Sophie Collins
Before the core of this book—a sequence that considers the pristine “Mary Sue,” a female character in fan fiction who often seems to be the “author’s idealized self”—Collins includes a gorgeous prose poem. “Sister, listen to me—tonight our father will pull open the heavy door of our home, walk with his large boots into the kitchen and drop a pig on the table. In the morning, peasants with children and glassy-eyed babies will enter, sniffing at us like animals, noting the absence of a mother who lays out cold plates, white bread.” It is folkloric, surreal, and suggestive of a poet who can channel new energies. In “The Engine” sequence, Collins writes: “On my walks I began to notice more bonfires than ever before. I was reluctant to speculate on a cause, but the hillside fields were plainly covered in scabs.” Sleepless and suffering, the narrator heads into the cold. She gets a tick bite. She finds “an empty shed with unbroken windows,” and sleeps in a dog bed. She dreams of dogs, and awakens to “a mongrel with cataracts” that “stayed looking for a moment before leaving, unhurried.” Somewhere among these dreams, nightmares, and fantasies Collins hits a spiritual longing, a place where bodies are not enough. From “A Course in Miracles”: “Sometimes a divinity is more / than a mortal can stand.” Collins’s debut is inventive, unique, dynamic.
Silence, Joy by Thomas Merton
In 1940, Merton’s mentor Mark Van Doren sent the monk’s first manuscript to James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions. Thirty Poems was published in 1944, and ever since then New Directions—admirably, and thankfully—has continued to publish Merton’s poetry and prose. Silence, Joy is pocket-sized, but bursting with what made Merton great: he could be simultaneously dark and audaciously sentimental. So many of his lines ring perfectly true, even 50 years after his death. “For me to be a saint means to be myself,” he offers. In “Trappists, Working”: “Now all our saws sing holy sonnets in this world of timber / Where oaks go off like guns, and fall like cataracts, / Pouring their roar into the woods.” I admit to carrying this book around, sneaking glances to keep me honest: “We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.” We all need a voice like Merton, whose prose-poetic vignettes pair nicely with his sincere lines: “I am earth, earth // Out of my grass heart / Rises the bobwhite. // Out of my nameless weeds / His foolish worship.”
Petty Theft by Nicholas Friedman
“And so they reveled in self-luminescence, / sneezed lightning through the pitch of bedroom sky / and glowed like faint auroras in their beds.” “Undark,” a poem that memorializes the fate of factory workers poisoned by radium, captures Friedman’s distinctive style: his phrases turn on the porous border between the lush and barren, between the lyric and corroded. “Fear only turns the key on what it knows,” the narrator notes, as one woman “daubed her teeth to spook a lover / in the grin-lit dark.” A few poems in, and I’m already in Friedman’s poetic trust, ready for the switches and swivels of poems like “In Flight”: “the plane quakes suddenly / and dips us like a bobber. A light dings on. / I count the smooth blue seats, doing the math / they’ll use to make a headline out of us.” Dazed, chomping on peanuts, mishearing the flight attendant, the narrator looks out the window: “a river has bunched itself / into omegas, blinding where the sun / moves over them—while here, above all that, / the body shudders, and carries us along.” Friedman extracts the poetic out of the pungent, as in “A Cut Path,” when a couple feels a bit lost on a California trail: “The cows stand frozen / in portrait below, casting their doubles down the slope. / For us, a bit of wishful thinking has made / this hill a mountain, and we are now descending.” A strong, skillful debut.
Collected Poems of Robert Bly
When asked about Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), his first collection, Bly said “myth brings up a mystery that the rational mind doesn’t really faze.” Bly’s Collected Poems begins with that volume, and that Midwestern mythos. In “Three Kinds of Pleasures”: “Sometimes, riding in a car, in Wisconsin / Or Illinois, you notice those dark telephone poles / One by one lift themselves out of the fence line / And slowly leap on the gray sky— / And past them, the snowy fields.” The haunting chill of “Hunting Pheasants in a Cornfield”: “What is so strange about a tree alone in an open field? / It is a willow tree. I walk around and around it. / The body is strangely torn, and cannot leave it. / At last I sit down beneath it.” Bly would emerge from his snowbound self for The Light Around the Body (1967), marked by poems of activism and frustration, yet also including introspective pieces like “Melancholia”: “There is a wound on the trunk / Where the branch was torn off. / A wind comes out of it, / Rising, swelling, / Swirling over everything alive.” A decade later, Bly would write to Tomas Tranströmer: “Poems are best when there are incredible mysteries in them.” Bly’s Collected Poems are full of these incredible mysteries, on to his final works, as in “Longing”: “The old man lying in bed writing poems / Feels his brain light up, and he knows / That in some odd way he is approaching heaven.
I only revise poems on a clipboard. Masking tape is wrapped around the clip, the words “Cross Country” written in marker. My wife used it during her coaching days, and I leave the tape on. Poets are sentimental; it is one of our defining traits.
Poems command a space. They are structural objects. I need to hold them, see their type on the page. Prose can live on the screen for me, but poetry needs to get out and breathe. A poem on a clipboard is a statement: it’s time to get to work.
I learned this method from Erin Aults, a friend from college. We went to a small school on a river where people took writing seriously. I was inspired by how she would revise her poems: she had a clipboard at the library, or sitting around campus, and it seemed like there was a little bit of ceremony to the action. Her poems were wonderful, and she had a great eye as an editor for our school literary magazine, so I trusted her methods. The other defining trait of poets: we believe in ritual and superstition.
Years after college—when memories of then had become a little fuzzy, yet still comforting—I was reading an article about an archive of 30,000 horticultural periodicals at the Royal Botanical Gardens. The project was methodical, and necessary. The catalogs ranged back to 1853. More than simply the story of seeds (although that would be enough, I think), they are the stories of cultures and lives. And halfway through the article, I saw someone familiar: Erin. She’s in charge of the archive.
How does a poet become an archivist? I think I suspected the answer before I asked Erin: you approach objects with care.
I like to see the routes that lives take, and Erin’s has got me thinking about what draws us to poetry—and what we draw from it. She still feels “almost a euphoria about the language and directness of poetry, that it has both exactness and expansiveness.” After college, she worked at a used bookstore in Columbus, Ohio, which began her “love of the book as an object.” She remembers “especially during the heavy ‘buy season’ (usually spring and summer when the public was selling off their books to us), as this grand battle between me and making order of these objects. The backroom and processing area of the bookstore would be overflowing with books. There was a lot of learning how to ‘conquer’ the books as objects either through stacking or ordering or selling.”
Soon after, she was working at the Ohio State University libraries, where she “dissected and mended books and paper, learning their science, understanding materials, form, and outside pressures that affected them.” Later, she handled books of Catholic history at the John M. Kelly Library at University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. Some texts were from the 1500s, and she was “aware that I am one of so many people who have touched this book, that the book is a perfect machine—moveable parts and all. I understood my purpose as a conservator, librarian, and archivist is to help it last another 500 years and to make sure that people have the chance to work with it and be close to it. This is a piece of history that will not tell you what it contains unless you touch it, move it, and work with it.”
That sounds like the mechanics of poetry to me.
And those 30,000 catalogs at the Royal Botanical Gardens? There’s poetry in them, too. “I can see them as a mix of chapbooks, book art, with a healthy dose of late-night local-channel half-hour-long product commercials,” she says. She finds stories and lives in those books, like ME Blacklock, a “nursery owner and plant breeder during a time when women didn’t often get to do that work.” Isabella Preston, the Queen of Horticulture in the 1920s, who bred lilies, lilacs, and roses.
I asked Erin if caring for, and curating, this collection might intersect with poetry. She sees “both poetry and archival work as potentially radical and political acts. Both of them are relying on words and language to create opportunities of recognition, change, and justice.” Poetry and archiving are “done often as solitary work but are really reliant on the person who is receiving and interpreting the work…Similarly, the internal logic in both poetry and archives is always present within the creator but the logic is not always evident at first glance. Both reader or researcher might need to dive deep to tease out the meaning the poem or archives holds.”
Poems and archives, she says, are “both historical records. They both can be about providing access. Of course, they both require care and observation.”
I like that. Let’s think about poems as objects that deserve care, observation, and preservation. An inspiring way to commemorate the work of others—and maybe the right spirit to help us create poems that can last.
Image Credit: Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images.
After 17 drafts over two weeks, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” was completed on November 4, 1975. The poem began as notes, and evolved into a villanelle. She changed the title. She deleted words. She reached for possible rhymes. Brett Candlish Millier says the “effect of reading all these drafts together one often feels in reading the raw material of her poems and then the poems themselves: the tremendous selectivity of her method and her gift for forcing richness from minimal words.” Revision is art.
Denise Levertov said it was dangerous to revise a poem unless “you are hot in it.” Some poets suffer through revision. Other poets find life in revision. All poets do it. Here are 15 poets on the worthy work of revision.
“I revise incessantly. Usually when I’m starting to work on a poem, I don’t read it aloud—not until it gets to a certain point. You can lull yourself with your own voice; but I hear it in my head.” — Rita Dove
“The energy of revision is the energy of creation and change, which is also the energy of destruction.” — Maggie Anderson
“I revise constantly. I used to revise whole poems; now I revise as I go along, from line to line. Sometimes I erase so much I tear a hole in the paper.” — Charles Wright
“You can get expert at teaching and be crude in practice. The revision, the consciousness that tinkers with the poem—that has something to do with teaching and criticism. But the impulse that starts a poem and makes it of any importance is distinct from teaching.” — Robert Lowell
“Revision teaches me how to push beyond the choices that come easily. It restrains me, challenges me, forces me back and back and back again to my failures. Process saves me from the poverty of my intentions.” — Traci Brimhall
“The poets who influenced me most were Yeats and Valéry. Both were poets who revised endlessly, and I believe in revision. But I think you can only do it when you’re inspired. In other words, the poem goes dead if you don’t revise it white heat. You can’t revise it cold, as far as I’m concerned. It’s like playing a very stiff three sets of tennis one after another.” — May Sarton
“Sometimes going over something is a way of entering into a whole new process of writing, finding new layers in a piece of writing. I think of it that way. Again, one of the people I learned a great deal from was Robert Graves, who felt that going over a piece—the revisions—was almost more valuable than producing an original draft.” — W.S. Merwin
“Revision is to occupy a poem as spectator instead of as creator. We clean a room so that it looks unoccupied; in revision we work to efface affect, idiosyncrasy and error so that the poem is a hotel room with the sheets turned down, a mint on its pillow.” — Carmen Giménez Smith
“I don’t actually revise, or it’s very seldom that I revise. What I do is write so leisurely that all the revisions occur in thought or in the margins of the page. It can make for a page which is as dense, graphically, as some men’s-room walls. Which is not to say that a poem is like going to the men’s room.” — Richard Wilbur
“I do sometimes use a reading as part of the revision process. I write wanting the poems to be heard, to be thought of, to be read out loud, as human speech.” — Thomas Lux
“I revise endlessly. Even after publication.” — Clarence Major
“A poem rarely comes whole and completely dressed. As a rule, it comes in bits and pieces. You get an impression of something—you feel something, you anticipate something, and you begin, feebly, to put these impressions and feelings and anticipation or rememberings into those things which seem so common and handleable—words. And you flail and you falter and you shift and you shake, and finally, you come forth with the first draft. Then, if you’re myself and if you’re like many of the other poets I know, you revise, and you revise. And often the finished product is nothing like your first draft. Sometimes it is.” — Gwendolyn Brooks
“I do read the poems aloud, yes—not while writing, as much, but in the revision stage. I want to test for where things are too rough, or aren’t rough enough, where they fall into patterns of sound and whether or not those are meaningful or distracting patterns.” — Carl Phillips
“I revise purposefully and constantly and playfully, as often for sound as for meaning. I lean, too, on the weight of a lifetime of reading poetry. I think back, even, to weekly Mass growing up: its wildly varied poetry, its varying metrical cadences, the call and response, the repetition. I still call on these tools in my poems. — Kerrin McCadden
“Sometimes I go through the first revision, the second revision, the third revision, the fourth revision, the fifth revision, the sixth revision and then go, ‘Hold it!’ You wanna throw the poem down, you want to say all kinds of things. It’s sometimes at about the fourth revision that you tear it apart, but if you can just make yourself go past that, it will turn a corner later and it will say, ‘Here I am, come get me.’ At sometime, by the ninth or tenth revision, when you are practically despairing about it, it turns that corner and that is the most exquisite moment when it happens. And all this is worth the days, the weeks, the months you’ve spent, and then it flows and the rhythm is there, the imagery is there and it’s so wonderful. All that process made it happen. Sometimes you put it down for the night and then you pick it up from the bed in the cold light of the morning. When you read it out loud, in the early morning hours when things are clear, the poem becomes clear also. I always maintain that it’s revision that makes that poem turn a corner—and you really don’t know how it happens.” — Sonia Sanchez
Image Credit: Pxhere.
Any argument about poetry is one worth having. So it’s been equally thrilling and disappointing to see recent debates decrying the proliferation of “artless” poetry in a market irrevocably changed by social media. A particularly scathing review of Hollie McNish’s Plum has now further inflamed the debate. Rebecca Watts’s article in the PN Review’s latest issue has inspired some heated responses. There isn’t much in the original piece that hasn’t been written or insinuated before, especially concerning the poet Rupi Kaur’s meteoric rise. If I had a bitcoin for every time I heard social media is dumbing us down, I could buy shares in Amazon. What really caught my attention, however, was something else; the refashioning of a longstanding brand of exclusivity as a minority position. Repeating age-old prejudices while casting oneself as a beleaguered truth-teller is truly a feat to behold. As an admittedly “young female poet” hell-bent on destroying poetry, I felt it was only right to respond to the sentiment behind Watts’s piece.
I write poems. Sometimes I get paid for them. Sometimes I read them and get paid for that too. Sometimes they are published months later in a journal or magazine or anthology and I get paid for this too. Yes, there isn’t much money in poetry but there is still money behind it. Poetry is as transactional as any other form of work. This means it is also dramatically stratified according to the gendered, raced, and classed social antagonisms that organize our world. Some poets clarify these antagonisms, in a variety of subtle and unsubtle ways. Some poets choose to maintain a critical distance. All remain a part of the game. Any poet who tells you they have transcended this political economy is lying. In its desire for imagined freedoms, some poetry aims only for what Theodor W. Adorno termed the “aesthetics of redemption.” For some people, that means a solipsist Instagram sound-bite of a poem that appeals to both the specific alienation of young women of color and the common experiences of a wider audience. For some people, that’s enough. This is what they need to get through their day. For many, this is what they choose to enjoy in whatever little leisure time they have amidst the generally intolerable conditions that make up their daily lives. This generates a lot of attention/readership/money for Instagram poets, who become symbols of everything that is wrong with audiences and not everything that is wrong with the conditions of this world. As Watts argues, cults of personality are constructed around these young women. But we already have a wealth of personality cults within the Poetry (with a capital P) world. Except we call it a canon. Our personality cults are endorsed through policy and propaganda and have been as globally exported as any post with thousands of likes.
What Watts disparages as the “dumbing effect” of social media is really the creation of new markets, and as a result, competitors. Honesty and accessibility are the currency of this new market and those who don’t trade in these affectations can expect to be shut out. That’s fine. They have their own market, propped up by centuries-old institutions, faculties, presses, awards, and networks. The reader is not “dead,” as Watts declares. The reader just has more options. It was through the web that I discovered the poets who changed my life. I found rare archived poetry journals from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to the Black Arts Movement’s Black Dialogue, tracked passages through forums, listened to Mutabaruka performances on SoundCloud and even accessed PDF collections to share among those of us who could not always afford the hard copies we wanted. Through social media, I and so many other poets I know have connected internationally and met people we would never have come across offline. Those who cannot attend readings or performance can now stream them. There are forms of sociality found on the web that extend beyond a few hyper-visible poets who generate as much backlash as they do praise. If these poets shift millions of copies, well then, the market has spoken.
There’s something to be said for the poet-turned-brand whose aestheticized presence enables literary institutions to absolve themselves, maintain relevancy and, of course, push sales. Marginalization becomes a kind of raw material. Brand building and unbridled commodification can foster an unambitious and reactionary poetry culture. All of that can’t be denied. It can also do the same for criticism, as seen in the uninspired shoe-horning of Donald Trump into any critique of poets from “under-represented” backgrounds. Predictably, Watts falls into this trap. We are told to think of the “middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector” which enables these young female poets by showering them with praise. Please think of them, for they are too terrorized to critique these women properly. No one is too terrorized to critique Rupi Kaur’s work, as they have shown across various platforms, from BuzzFeed to The Guardian. No one is too terrorized to imply that even poets like Claudia Rankine and Vahni Capildeo owe their success to consumer-driven moralism or favoritism by prize judges who share similar ethnic backgrounds. Think back to the furore surrounding Sarah Howe’s 2016 T.S. Eliot-Prize win, which incidentally gave us the #derangedpoetess hashtag.
Still, Watts laments the denigration of “intellectual accomplishments” for the sole purpose of championing a “representative of a group identity that the establishment can fetishize.” That’s an interesting choice of words. Fetish; as derived from the Portuguese feitiço, meaning charm or illusion, originating from the Latin facticius, or artificial. This term emerged from the supposed attachment of Africans to material objects considered to be lower art forms. Unlike the Holy Cross or communion rite symbolism, the objects used in religious ceremonies by West Africans were seen as intensely alien, primitive, and ultimately worthless. These same objects would later fill the museums of Europe. I include this only to stress how established this chronology is. First, non-European expression is devalued, then rapidly commodified, and finally derided once again when its original practitioners choose to reclaim it. Karl Marx likened the accumulation of commodities to fetishism, in the original, mystical sense of the word. “A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,” he once famously wrote. Today’s personality poets lend a likable and honest veneer to the commodities they sell, like all public figures. Their meticulously honed image is what makes them so approachable. They’re just like you and me, with the same concerns and insecurities. Except they can distill it all into simplistic yet relatable bitesize verse. In that sense, they serve their function.
Watts, and many others, are not members of an embattled class. Their anxieties are echoed everywhere from The Times Literary Supplement to Private Eye. When they speak of terror, they mean the tyranny of bad taste. When we speak of terror, we mean something else entirely. Here is where the confusion lies; these young female poets are fashioned into representatives due to the relative novelty and scarcity of poetry stemming from their subject positions. There is often very little choice in the matter. Sure, some play up to it more than others. But that’s a problem Watts and others have to take up with the publishers, reviewers, and journalists who insist upon their predetermined angles (most of whom do not belong to the same backgrounds as these poets). Toni Morrison writes, “Black Literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” The imaginatively bankrupt criticism and scholarship these poets are faced with is a result of many factors, one of which being their historical condition. My own work is often reduced to newsreel topicality when I am just writing about existing. For the next four years at least, it will be critiqued against Trump or Nigel Farage or Brexit or Marine Le Pen or something else I haven’t actually written about. I’ve made my peace with that. As Nikki Giovanni reminds me, “they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was happy.”
Exceptional individuals aside, most of these predominantly performance and spoken word poets are seldom published, reviewed, promoted, or awarded as often as the critics that fear their encroachment. There’s no use mourning the death of a critical culture when such poets are hardly reviewed in prestigious journals and magazines, least of all in the PN Review. Until they are, their critics could try learning to discern between the superficial optics of representation in the marketplace of liberal identity politics and the genuine structural changes which would actually threaten them. Better still, they could say what they really mean. These “debates” are often poorly disguised attacks against poets who are seen to have monopolized on a kind of literary affirmative action (this definition of affirmative action clearly doesn’t extend to the incestuously nepotistic “highbrow” circles that determine quality as we understand it). Critique made in bad faith (most of what has been written on InstaPoets) sounds as elementary and petty as adults belittling teenage girls for their love of boy bands.
I’m against anti-intellectualism. I’m also against the delusional dream of a pure poetry, much less the banality of a “civilized” one. I struggle to take seriously anyone who defends the neutrality and objectivity of governmentally subsidized institutions and claustrophobically narrow-minded academic cliques. Tradition shouldn’t be used as an excuse for provinciality. Different traditions hold differing understandings of craft and its implementation. The same bastions of “critical culture” are the MFA poetry workshops molded by the Cold War and the CIA’s resulting cultural operations. We see another example of this supposed objectivity in the 1970s British neo-Movement’s purge of innovative poets from important magazines and publishing houses during the New Poetry Revival. Such a closely guarded consensus is not in any position to sneer at the populisms of the spoken poetry world. “Against Bourgeois Art!” Amiri Baraka once declared, railing against poets who were “as safe as old toilet paper.” Hyperbolic as that may be, he was right about one thing. The world is heavier than they know.
Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish, and Rupi Kaur have their respective audiences. Watts has hers. I dare to think I have mine. How we master the forms we choose to write in and speak back to our own traditions is a personal choice. We have the right to our own specificity. For some, Instagram and Pinterest will serve as a gateway drug into more complex and messy renderings of the human experience. This is especially true for younger, budding poets who are already hyper-aware of the feminized and racialized biases they will have to contend with. Young poets who want to experiment and grow don’t need to be patronized or lectured to about Real Poetry™. They don’t need to be handed a scroll of revered poets to go off and read as if all those names can’t be found on any reputable first year English Literature undergraduate syllabus. If anything, their online education may lead them to newer and less travelled roads. To “safeguard language” is to draw borders. I can’t speak for all young female poets, but I for one am not remotely interested in the defense of borders.
To bring something into being is an act of poiesis. Poems are composed in classrooms, empty buses, busy squares, public parks, dressing rooms, and prisons cells. They are written at the crack of dawn, between shifts and at the end of long days. Poets are the older women I know who recite traditional epics at weddings. They are the young women who disseminate passages from out-of-print anthologies via Tumblr. They are the bloggers who workshop their poems with a global audience. Once, I took an Uber home after a poetry event. In conversation with the driver, I discovered he was a veteran of the decades-long Eritrean liberation struggle. Before that, he had studied in Russia, learnt the language, and fell in love with Russian poetry. He had even written his own. I still had some unsold copies from my earlier reading. He had lost his verse-filled notebooks long ago and had nothing to share with me. In that moment, it didn’t matter. We were both poets. Leonard Cohen once called the poem the “constitution of the inner country.” We are all entitled to our own poetic homelands, wherever we may find them. It’s a big world out there. So let’s write some poems.
Image Credit: Instagram/Rupi Kaur.
When I really want to feel some measure of control, I write poetry. Poetry is shaped, while prose assumes the shape of the page. Other than indents for dialogue and new paragraphs, prose follows the path set by a document’s margins. We type and let the letters fall where they will—because for essayists and fiction writers, the contours of a sentence are often more of sound than sight. Prose writers are no less precise than poets, but their words have different functions.
A sense of control might be why I so often return to Robert Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” the introduction he penned to the 1939 version of his Collected Poems. My impulse might appear contradictory; Frost’s essay is best known for his suggestion that the route of a poem is not in control, but surprise—for both reader and writer. “It is but a trick poem and no poem at all,” he says, “if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last.”
Yet when I say that I write poetry to feel in control, I don’t mean that I write poetry as an act of coercion or prescription. I have a feeling where my poems might go, but I also have a feeling where most of my days might go. I am usually surprised by both.
Although I appreciate lines such as “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting,” my interest in “The Figure a Poem Makes” is focused on other elements. Frost’s biographer Lawrance Thompson said the poet wanted to see if each poem “had a kind of character and shape or form of its own.” A poem, Frost claimed, “had to show that the poet was ‘getting his body into it.’”
Frost takes a few paragraphs to get his body—or perhaps his focus—into the essay. He begins with a lament about how abstraction “has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day.” He stops and starts, but settles into a rhythm when his own abstractions find that figure of poetry, one that “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I often drift through his sentences, but pause on one particular gem: that a good poem “ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”
While I’m skeptical that poetry will save us, I’ve felt compelled to write poetry again in the past year as a stay against the daily conflagration of argument and noise. Poetry is a salve against the digital exhortation to be constantly engaged in the digital world. I do think poetry and prayer have much in common, but I think good prayer is kenotic; an emptying of self, the hope to be better in how we treat others. If I pray for things I want, I start to feel like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, rambling on in the cathedral.
Writing poetry is a return to the self. A claiming of space and soul. An affirmation of worth.
Lately I have been reading H.D.’s The Walls Do Not Fall, and lines like “Let us substitute / enchantment for sentiment, // re-dedicate our gifts / to spiritual realm” make me think of Frost. Poetry as a momentary stay against confusion. I think Frost’s essential word here is momentary; to entirely escape from the world seems not only impossible, but perhaps a bit selfish. Yet to give in to the cultural—or perhaps capitalist—demand to remain superficially engaged, online or otherwise, is to assert the importance of society over spirit.
Now I write essays—about poetry, culture, and God—but my first two books were collections of poetry. Those books feel like part of a past life. They were written before my daughters were born. The economics of poetry are unforgiving. Poetry is a place of no deadlines. A place of searching. It is also a world of little remuneration. It is romantic to think that such a thing does not matter. But it does.
The writing life is a succession of different acts, with their own failures and conflicts and moments of joy. To live as a writer means to embrace, and perhaps be inspired by, these different seasons. Nostalgia shouldn’t stop us from moving forward, but if we’ve opened a window years before, there was probably a good reason.
Writing poetry is an act of ordering our thoughts and perceptions into lines and sections. By focusing on a form of writing that embraces structure and selection, we can participate in a daily examen of sorts—and whether that poetry is ever published is not really the point. There are greater rewards.
I am writing poems again. And I suspect that I’m not the only one.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Things we need:
Someone wrote the above text on a whiteboard in the Fort Des Moines Museum earlier this year. I’ve returned to it often, ever since a friend retweeted a photo of it, as a reminder of the inherent difficulty in critiquing small presses and literary magazines’ funding practices, especially in light of renewed interest in eliminating the government allocations for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (whose FY2018 allocations are still under congressional consideration).
Each time I revisit this tweet, I imagine being in the conference room for this theoretical planning meeting in Iowa, and I think of the similar scarcity-driven discussions I’ve participated in both as poet and editor, largely—in either role—as unpaid labor.
Things we need: money.
Whatever the reason we each write or publish poetry, it’s safe to say none of us make this art for its promise of riches—and nor should we. Despite this essay’s abundant economic wonk (you’ve been warned), I refuse to make a capitalist argument for poetry on behalf of poet, press, or journal. None of us should turn to profit as the sole engine driving our artistic and professional decisions. I wish to distinguish, early on, this commodifying argument from the claims regarding fair compensation and best financial practices in poetry publishing that follow below. Somewhere in the vast space between profit and solvency, a fraught practice in poetry publishing comes to the fore: the submission fee. Charging a fee in order to have one’s work read by a journal has become increasingly commonplace in our industry, and charging for book-length poetry contests and open reading periods has long been the norm for small independent and university presses. Today, a standard literary journal submission fee hovers around $3 to submit (usually) 3-6 poems, and a book-length submission costs a writer roughly around $25.
Considering the historical data on writing contests, it’s hard to imagine this changing anytime soon. According to a 2015 Poets & Writers article, the overall number of writing contests (across all genres) increased from 471 to 597 from 2004 to 2014; meanwhile, the number of fee-free writing contests decreased from 157 to 115 during that same time period. A similar trend emerges when looking at the cost and prize value of these contests: the average entry fee rose from $19.28 to $23.25 from 2004 to 2014, yet the total amount of prize money decreased from $5,736,104 to $5,366,618. (While the article doesn’t break down individual prize amounts, it’s worth noting that several very large prizes are likely included, making the overall pot available to fewer writers. For instance, there’s the Poetry Foundation’s career-recognizing $100,000 Ruth Lilly Prize, or the genre-spanning Pulitzer Prizes, each conferring $15,000.)
Who sponsors these prizes? The data (from the same article) notes that individual magazines represented 30.5 percent of the overall number of sponsoring organizations for contests in 2014, with presses close behind at 28 percent and government agencies at 3.5 percent. These percentages represent a shift towards more press and magazine contests and fewer government contests: the press and magazine share of the contest sponsorship pie has increased from 2004 to 2014 by 56 percent for magazines and 29 percent by presses, while 39 percent fewer government agencies sponsored contests over the same time period. This left us, in 2014, with 94 presses, 103 magazines, and 11 government agencies sponsoring writing contests. If government participation has lessened while fee-dependent contests have increased in number over the past decade, presses and magazines likely rely more heavily than they did 15 years ago on submission and contest fees to stay solvent; if we lose government funding for the arts, these same organizations may depend on fees even more.
In 2016, I began gathering data on submission fees in preparation for a 2017 AWP panel on “Money, Power, and Transparency in the Writing World.” Via survey, I collected anonymous responses regarding 105 full-length books—I encouraged poets to submit one survey response per book contract they’d signed. The survey included questions about submission fees, prize money, advances, royalties, and other publication-related questions. Respondents’ books were published as early as 2007 and are forthcoming as late as 2018, situating them generally in conversation with the above Poets & Writers data. I next collected responses from 15 poetry-publishing presses and 27 poetry-publishing literary magazines, also anonymously, regarding their use of submission fees in contests, open reading periods (presses), and slush-pile submissions (journals), as well as data about their funding sources and use of volunteer labor.
Here’s what I hoped to discover: How much are poets spending to get their full-length books published? How much do presses and journals depend on submission fees for funding, and what other sources of funding are primary for them? Is the submission-fee model equitable or sustainable for poets and for presses/journals—and if not, can we make it more equitable for either or both groups? What alternatives do we have to the submission fee, both as submitters and publishers?
I found that nearly all surveyed poets spent out-of-pocket money to publish their books, up to—in this survey—$3,000. Royalties and prize money recouped costs for some poets, but not all, and inconsistently. This means poets who financially depend on recovering their costs post-publication cannot dependably publish their books in this model (more on that below).
If the submission-fee model means only poets with a couple hundred (or thousand) discretionary dollars in their bank accounts can afford to publish their books, should presses and journals stop charging them? First, we must consider the degree to which—or whether—our presses and journals can operate without them. The data confirm the wide-ranging degree presses depend on fees to function: while book sales (good news!) still yielded the greatest funding share for surveyed presses, submission fees still comprised a sizable, integral portion—which means we need to consider what might replace them if we ban them as a practice.
In contrast, my findings for literary magazines found that journals have access to radically less institutional support and sales revenue, whether private or public, than do the surveyed presses, and many more editors pay out of pocket to run them. This troubles our ability to remove submission fees as a publishing practice for journals unless more people pay for magazines/subscriptions, or other funding sources emerge as sustainable.
(For a more detailed analysis of the data for all three groups, I’ve written up my findings here. It’s wonky, but important.)
If a sizable majority of poets must spend money to secure publication for their books (and, ever increasingly, to submit to journals), and it’s uncertain whether or not those costs will be recouped upon publication, is the submission-fee model equitable for poets? By equitable, I mean accessible across, here, class: can a poorer or working-class poet submit her manuscript as often as a wealthy or institutionally supported poet? The data is unequivocal: no. So long as we maintain poetry publishing’s status-quo reliance on the submission fee, this system will favor publishing poets with money—poets for whom it’s more of an inconvenience than an impossibility to lose money or break even on a book, or to recover fee costs slowly or unpredictably. And when considering a published collection’s role in accessing other markers of success, including financial success, in the poetry community—the ability for poets to apply for certain academic jobs, be eligible for certain prizes, or secure well-paying reading gigs—this inequality magnifies even further.
However, the data are equally decisive about the large-looming role of submission fees in keeping many journals and poetry presses solvent. As a result, it appears impossible to abolish the submission fee entirely without making other large-scale changes on poetry’s publishing side—especially for journals, which the data show truly represent poetry’s “labor of love” sector. This might be partially due to an overlap in labor roles: many of our poets are also editors, leaving small practical separation when denoting the out-of-pocket cost share of running a magazine. That said, we must also consider the power differential inherent between editors and poets. As editors retain, generally, full control over their publication’s submissions process while submitters retain nearly none, a definition of equity must also take into account that press and journal editors alike, even if paying out of pocket to run their organization, still hold more power than individual poets, including the power to rely to a potentially unreasonable degree on fees.
What might a responsible submission-fee practice look like? One approach could involve establishing an industry-wide fee ceiling for active members of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses: all member organizations might agree, for instance, not to exceed $15 for a book-length contest or open reading period. Perhaps this fee ceiling could incentivize an incremental shift between budget categories for a press, or encourage a move away from relying on contests and towards other book-procurement practices.
Another option for presses and journals: include a good or service with an assessed fee, like a book (presses) or giving editorial feedback, mailing a back issue, or allowing submitters to prorate their submission fee amount via a Tip Jar model (journals). This only somewhat mitigates the bigger problem of submission costs aggregating for a submitter who cannot afford them, but it does mean that “investment” in a press, for an emerging poet in particular, also comes with a crucial tool in their continued participation in the community if the press/journal cannot lower their fees—a poetry book, a magazine copy or subscription, notes from an editor—that may prove otherwise outside their reach.
For poets (or their non-poet friends, family, or even strangers) who can afford to sponsor others, the nomination model presents an outstanding option to assist poets in financial need and should be adopted more widely in poetry publishing to the benefit of both poets and presses. Exemplary practices like YesYes Books’s $12 nomination fee for their Pamet River Prize—a first or second-book prize for women or gender nonconforming writers for which a writer may nominate/pay for either themselves or another writer—and Sundress Publications’s $13 fee for their open reading period, which is waivable with a book purchase and/or coverable by a nominator—both demonstrate accessible, community-driven submissions practices. (Seriously, I see no downside here.)
The above suggestions tackle ways presses and journals can equitably approach submission fees while still charging them; another set of options arrives by decreasing a press or journal’s dependence on them altogether by increasing revenue elsewhere. The most obvious solution here is also, our community knows, the most challenging: give presses money by buying more books. Give journals money by subscribing or donating to them. Go to readings and pay authors cash for their books—give money, in other words, directly to poetry’s creators. We need more people to do this; attracting more people to do this is challenging. Here I praise the ongoing (and crucially, often unpaid) labor of poets who embrace the work of this connection-building: poets who recruit readers by reviewing books, running reading series, and beyond.
And of course, while it may often seem like only poets read poetry, buy books, or attend readings, that’s not true—and perhaps one of our responsibilities as poets is to nurture those future readers lying in wait for our work. To wit: I gave my poetry-lukewarm (but for her daughter, of course) mother a copy of Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler in 2014 as a present, and now—after conversations with me about how the book transformed her ideas about what poetry was and could do—her 12-person book club reads (and buys) at least one poetry book a year. Gifting poetry books, or recommending them when a poetry-wary friend asks what they should read next, might feel like small acts, but practicing them regularly will grow our audiences and—hopefully—loosen our industry’s grip on the submission fee an inch or two.
Lastly, we must continue to fight loudly and consistently for public funding on behalf of poet, journal, and press alike (Things we need: money). I have been rightfully exhorted to “call your senator!” about four hundred thousand times this year, and so have you—and here I am, your four-hundred-thousand-and-first requestor. Government funding at both the state and federal levels continues to dwindle both for the arts and for public universities. If we lose NEA funding—or university funding, or state arts funding—the financial state of American poetry becomes ever more precarious. And, especially in the Donald Trump era, this remains an evergreen risk: if we don’t lose these funding sources in 2018, we might in 2019, or 2020.
Why is public funding ideal for poetry? The NEA helps the artistic output of small and underfunded arts organizations, like our poetry presses and journals, to reach all corners of the United States, especially rural and/or high-poverty areas often bypassed or overlooked by private donors. It also funds individual poets directly, allowing them to reduce their labor in other fields to focus on their writing—that rarest of gifts—or to donate more of their time to poetry organizations without losing needed income elsewhere. It also means, inherently, a greater citizens’ investment in the arts, which, with the right advocacy (work done shiningly already by groups like POETS.org and Americans for the Arts), could help grow our audience even further. Were the NEA to receive continual increases in its allocation, as it did in its 2016 allocation, think of the ongoing, equitable stability this could grant our poets and poetry organizations. Think of how many more of the above-analyzed presses could expand their catalogues while simultaneously reducing their dependence on fees.
We must not get used to our public funding, however: we must request it often, and loudly. Here is a motivating exercise—especially for those of you, like me, who loathe making phone calls or writing letters or @-ing government officials directly. Pull a beloved poetry book from your shelf and check the front or back matter for an acknowledgment to either the NEA or a state/local-level arts organization. It may come from the press itself, or from the author in their acknowledgments page.
Found it? That means this book you love may not have existed without public funding. Read your most beloved poem in the collection first, and then pick up the phone, or a pen, and stand up for the arts that save us.
Image Credit: Flickr.
I picked up James Schuyler’s Selected Poems at the Brooklyn Central Library because the cover was beautiful. It was a watercolor painting of a man sitting on a yellow couch, gazing at something unseen with his head against his hand. The man is pensive and polite, but his eyes are far away, like his thoughts have better places to be than the cover of a book.
I took the collection home and the next morning, I carried it outside to read. My stoop doesn’t get any sunlight so I crossed the street and sat on a stranger’s instead. As I opened to the first page, a man opened the door behind me. I froze. “I’m sorry, I’m reading poetry,” I said, as if the fact that I was reading an underdog art form made my sitting on his steps more acceptable. “It’s okay,” the man said. His dog sniffed my feet. “What are you reading?” he asked.
History says James Schuyler belongs to the New York School of poets, but what that really seems to mean is that in addition to knowing many brilliant people (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest), the city was a major influence on his writing. He knew the rumbling sound of the subway that shoots up from the grates. He knew the flattened look the leaves get, run over by countless car tires. He knew the silent sublimity of looking out a window in SoHo and seeing hoards of commuters walking home from work. Time passes in his poetry like time on a crosstown bus. His poems are not often long. They could have been written in the time it takes to walk cross Central Park. They are situated in his mind, but are always looking out. He sees beauty in the sight of two men installing an air conditioner.
“February” opens by giving life to the inanimate: “A chimney, breathing a little smoke.” The poet sees into the secret life of things. It’s five p.m., he writes, and there is “A gray hush / in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue / into the sky.” Trucks rolling into the sky…the image is beautiful. And yet before we consign this poem to a twinkly shelf of poetry where ugly cities are turned into magical playgrounds, the poet admits, “They’re just / going over the hill.” Schuyler’s writing often swerves between wonderful or surreal observations and the facts of a plain reality. It’s as if he can never decide which is more real.
The speaker goes on to notice the green leaves of the tulips on his desk and the streak of cloud beginning to glow out the window. “I can’t get over / how it all works in together” he writes. The poem presents itself like an attempt to figure how nature works together, but it’s also an attempt to figure out how a poem comes together. As if trying to locate the origin of color—and this poem—he sees a baby in the distance and wonders, “Is it the light / that makes the baby pink?” No, it’s not that. “It’s the yellow dust inside the tulips. / It’s the shape of a tulip. / It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.” Which one is it? Life, and the poet’s art, lives in any and all of these things. It leaves him with one answer, which is the final line of the poem. “It’s a day like any other.”
I held up the book to the man and his dog. “James Schuyler,” I said, showing the man that beautiful cover. He nodded. “Never heard of him,” he said.
“February” appeared in Freely Espousing, the poet’s first collection. He went on to publish more than 20 books, win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1981 and become a Guggenheim Fellow. But James Schuyler isn’t a household name. He was gay and manic depressive and he spent most of his life wandering between friend’s cottages, guest bedrooms, and cheap hotels. Time after time, he returns to the city and the unexpected interactions it provokes.
In a poem like, “An East Window on Elizabeth Street,” one finds the poet observing the city like a miracle of adjectives. “Mutable, delicate, expendable, ugly, mysterious,” he writes. Once again, he watches the city. This time, he sees, “seven stories of just bathroom windows” and “a man asleep, a woman slicing garlic thinly in/ oil/ (what a stink, what a wonderful smell).” Influenced by the Abstract Expressionism of artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Schuyler considered the mind of the poet to be a worthy subject for art.
“Hymn to Life” is one of James Schuyler’s great, long poems. It begins with a series of simple observations. “There goes a plane, some cars, geese that honk.” He sees colors, crocuses, and a cat with a torn ear. The tone is wistful and interwoven with memories. The 50-year-old Schuyler remembers sitting in a rocking chair and watching the sun come up. He remembers standing on an ocean liner and watching the waves. He remembers waking up and seeing the tonsils a doctor had removed from his mouth. He’s sorting through the story of his past, trying to figure out what is worth holding onto. “A/ Quote from Aeschylus: I forget. All, all is forgotten gradually and/ One wonders if these ideas that seemed handed down/ are truly what they were?”
“Hymn to Life” rewards multiple readings. As if attempting to solve the problem of life’s inconsistencies, the poet urges the reader to “Attune yourself to what is happening/ Now, the little wet things, like washing up lunch dishes.” Schuyler struggled with mental illness for most of his life. “Hymn” is not an accumulation of pretty phrases. It is a vital reminder to pay attention. Each sentiment carries with it a strong sense of its own necessity.
When death appears in the poem, it is sly and mundane. “In the delicatessen a woman made a fumbling gesture then / Slowly folded toward the floor.” Death is natural and gentle. Listen to the comforting “o” sounds in “Slowly folded toward the floor.” He makes the woman’s ailment as poignant as a flower forced to bend in wind.
Schuyler’s themes stretch to fit time, mortality, memory, and love. In “A Blue Towel,” he writes about a perfect day at the beach in all its ordinariness and tiny wonders: “why are not all days like/ you?” In “A Stone Knife,” the poem takes the form of a thank you letter for a letter opener. Read it closely and it doubles as an ars poetica. It is “just the thing” the poet writes, “an/ object, dark, fierce/ and beautiful in which/ the surprise is that / the surprise, once / past, is always there.”
James Schuyler didn’t have a permanent home in the city, not a real one. If he wasn’t staying at a friend’s place upstate or the Chelsea Hotel, where he spent the last 12 years of his life, he was sitting in his apartment on the East Side, looking out the window for whatever pieces of life he could find and put down on paper.
As I closed his book and crossed the street to go home, I saw the city through Schuyler’s eyes. The stranger’s stoop was no longer strange. The city belonged to each and every one of us. I can only hope that my discovery of this poet might happen to someone else. It could happen to anyone, on “a day like any other.”