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.”
1. You have to wonder, when considering Frank Stanford, if poetry isn’t a little like science in that individuals matter only in so far as they resemble other individuals. Stanford’s exclusion from anthologies, his obscurity even to other poets, and the sense that, as one reviewer confessed, “it was difficult to explain where [his] orphic power came from,” all contribute to the myth that Stanford, who killed himself in 1978 (aged 29), eluded recognition because he rose de novo from the same Arkansas red soil into which he fell. The additional fact that, as a physical specimen, Stanford was a latter-day Adonis only enhances the myth of his exceptional nature. “His eyes,” wrote a friend, “were soft to the point of bovine.” His wife, Ginny, an artist, recalled that when she first saw Frank “it was like getting hit on the head with a brick.” There’s truth in the romanticized Stanford: He was undoubtedly a rare and beautiful creature. Some critics classify him as a “swamp rat Rimbaud.” But that’s more cool than accurate. He didn’t really know swamps. He knew levee camps, the dark wooded expanse of rural Arkansas, and the gutted mobile homes of the downtrodden. While the id-leakage and surrealist tinge of his work—all of it available in one volume, What About This—hint at Rimbaud, such qualities evoke more a caricature of Rimbaud than the itinerant absinthe addict seeking literary companionship in the metropolis. That kind of quest was one that Stanford, who would have rotted internally at a New York literary gathering, wasn’t eager to undertake. “I don’t give a shit about a lot of the literary goings on I hear about,” he wrote to the poet Alan Dugan, one of his few reliable correspondents. He brushed aside his better-connected contemporaries as overeducated aesthetes “who school up on theories and shit like minnows.” Others trying to assign Stanford an influence often suggest Walt Whitman. But what poet with any affection for the hurly-burly of everyday life isn’t classified as Whitmanesque? And Whitman, for all his admirable range and tolerance, would have blanched at the slow countrified violence that marked Stanford’s experience (so different than the hot Civil War gore that Whitman confronted) and informed his early works such as The Singing Knives (1972) and Field Talk (1974). Stanford took a class with Miller Williams, but the only thing I find him saying about Williams (father of Lucinda) is, perhaps affectionately, “that SOB Williams.” And so it seems fair to suggest that the anxiety of influence—a creative necessity for so many poets—may have failed to penetrate the mobile-homed hamlets where Stanford roamed, rambled, mused, and wrote with prolific intensity. 2. Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives (2015) offers a lot to support the thesis. It suggests that Stanford’s primary poetic wellspring was a radically regionalized and isolated Stanford. This febrile volume, which is essentially a controlled chaos of letters, lists, drawings, scraps, photos, and poems (published and unpublished), highlights the kaleidoscopic flow of Stanford’s all-too-brief poetic existence, an existence ultimately marked by innocence that was, as one friend put it, “smuggled out of childhood.” As the title indicates, water runs strong throughout Stanford’s poems. But what roils beneath it, what seems to never leave the page, is the steamy subculture of country life, the kind of subculture that, if you’ve never known it directly, can be vaguely imagined by driving though L.A. (Lower Alabama), central Mississippi, or Stanford’s rural Arkansas, and peering beyond the tree walls into weed-choked pockets and piles of poverty and decay. Stanford worked as a land surveyor. He knew this terrain as well as anyone, and it was into that scrambled wilderness that he went when it was time to encounter (to quote Patti Smith on Sam Shepard) “lonely fodder for future work.” Stanford’s friend Steve Stern noted as much, saying that “to see Frank in the streets of Fayetteville, where I knew him, was like meeting Marco Polo back from Cathay.” Stanford, a southern poet by temperament and geography, surveyed himself into a literary landscape far away from the conventional southern tradition. “I don’t like Tate and Ransom and that crew,” he wrote to Dugan in 1971, referring to two founding members of the Fugitives, a group who would later, as newly fashioned “southern Agrarians,” publish a bombastic literary defense of the south called I’ll Take My Stand (1930). In another letter to Dugan, probably written while intoxicated (“I was drunk when I wrote that letter,” he once admitted), Stanford ratcheted up the critique. “I say piss on the neo-fugitives...piss on the Southern Review.” These “scalawags” were nothing more than “exploiters of the truth, the black man, the white. There. I know all this but none of it enters my mind when I write my poems. I have no stand when I write. I write about what I know; what is the truth. I know this other stuff is counterfeit, but they will always have the power. Fuck.” Stanford’s anti-Fugitive rant follows a much longer passage dealing with race. Stanford wrote, “You probably think I am fucked up with my ‘association’ with BLACKS. This is the way I’ve always been. Most of my life was not spent with white people. My experience, I took for granted. I was actually in high school before it dawned on me I was probably only one of the only white boys in the world who had done what I’d done. This was in 63, when my father died. He told me this.” Only after making the connection between his upbringing and his deep affiliation with black people does Stanford (before pleading with Dugan “please don’t laugh at what I’m saying”), declare with ineffable tenderness: “I knew I was a poet.” Other letters, photos, and poems confirm that Stanford’s engagement with African-American culture intensified during adulthood and shaped his view of the world. When he wrote about “what I know; what is the truth,” it was knowledge obviously absorbed through daily interactions with people such as Claude, a black man with whom he’d often share a meal of “whiskey and pigs feet” and spend hours, sometimes days, engaged in discussions. Some of these discussions were more eventful than others. On Jan. 13, 1972, he wrote to Dugan, “Claude and I were talking about when he used to be in jail down in Louisiana [when] someone started shooting. All his children hit the floor. Claude said, ‘sorry about that Frank, some crazy fool’s been shooting that pistol all week.’” The party went on, though. “For the next few weeks we drink, shoot the shit, play dominoes together. We get drunk and talk about years gone by...in our midnight talks, while listening to old music sessions we talk about how close we have (and others near and far) come to death. It is getting to be a big joke: all the stories of pistols and knives.” Stanford, born in a home for unwed mothers, was immediately put up for adoption. He never knew his biological father and, as perhaps his affection for Mr. Jimbo Reynolds, an older black man for whom he wrote the poem “Blue Yodel of Mr. Jimbo Reynolds,” had long entertained the idea—or fantasy—that he had black parentage. The connection between Stanford and African-American culture—an inventory of 119 records in Stanford’ collection, thoroughly jazz and old country blues, includes only two white musicians (Stan Getz and Stéphane Grappelli)—in addition to his outright rejection of the Agrarian legacy and his stern poetic solipsism, suggests a reconsideration of the entire idea of a southern literary renaissance. Michael Kreyling, in his classic study Inventing Southern Literature, writes how “Although I’ll Take My Stand has, since its publication, been taken as a kind of sacred text, and its message a kind of revelation, in fact it serves as a script for inventing southern identity through anxiety.” Stanford embraced a southern identity. But he rejected the many-sided anxiety the Agrarians brought to it. (Stern actually hypothesized that “anxiety was wasted on Frank.”) In this disposition, I would argue, Frank Stanford was not alone. The “southern renaissance” happened, but it started with the Mississippi flood of 1927 (the hidden water of southern literary history), Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, and Skip James more than Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and I'll Take My Stand. My favorite photograph in Hidden Water is one of Stanford sitting on the porch with a paperback on his lap (Federico García Lorca). His legs are propped on the railing and his face looks slightly annoyed at being interrupted. Three pairs of shoes surround him, two resting on the railing, one on the porch floor. It’s tempting to see those shoes as a metaphor—the very items that Stanford, in his mysterious “orphic power,” will never fill. But perhaps there’s something else going on in that photo. Perhaps those shoes contain giants who, for far too long, have gone unseen.
Aristotle, Percy Shelley, Matthew Arnold, John Keats, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Pinsky. Poetry has had its fair share of apologists. In Why Write Poetry?: Modern Poets Defending Their Art, Jeannine Johnson documents a tradition of poetic apology, but notes two important shifts. Shelley “contends with a charge that poetry has become culturally obsolete,” and Matthew Arnold “links the activity of defending poetry with that of defending literary criticism.” Johnson explains that “poets in modern poetic defenses converse with their own anxieties.” In poetry, as in other elements of life, it is more dramatic to have a villain than a friend. Poetry is not the only genre that requires resident apologists—you won’t have to wait long for the next article announcing that the novel is dead—but poetry's form and function inherently require defense. Simply put, prose is our default mode. Poetry is a process of selection, of white space and rhythm. If prose is prayer, poetry is hymn. In my own teaching experience, poetry is best sold to students as one of two extremes. There is the utilitarian mode, in which poetry is weight-training for prose (the syntactic and verbal difficulties of poetry make even layered prose seem conquerable; it is easier to read William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison after first reading Countee Cullen). Then there is the dream-like approach, where poetry is a surreal escape from everyday life—a realm where rules defer to feelings. Both extremes, of course, are exaggerations. But hyperbole has a useful home in the classroom. I love poetry, and I want others to love poetry—or at least listen, for a long moment, to words made with care. I suspect that my job might become a little easier after Why Poetry, the new book by Matthew Zapruder, who recently finished his yearlong tenure selecting poetry for The New York Times. For his final poem, Zapruder selected “The Afterlife” by James Tate, a poem that reminds me of W. Somerset Maugham’s version of “The Appointment in Samarra.” “A man fell out of the tree in our backyard. I ran over / to help him,” it begins, those odd but plain lines following the heavy title. A conversation follows, the dialogue running across lines, with tags peppering the poem—another prosaic stake into this whimsical ground. I shouldn’t spoil the end; channeling Zapruder, I think poetry is better experienced than explained. While Zapruder’s book enters an established canon, he isn’t interested in throwing scholarly elbows. He writes with clear and inviting prose. His tone is careful, but direct. Early in the book he laments that the “act of treating poetry like a difficult activity one needs to master can easily perpetuate those mistaken, and pervasive, ideas about poetry that make it hard to read in the first place.” Poetry shouldn’t be difficult. Now, that might sound easy for as talented a poet and teacher as Zapruder to say, but he reminds us we each have particular weapons. “We are all experts in words,” he promises us—well-versed in our own ways. And in a pleasant quirk of the book I love, he sends us to dictionaries (how we have lost that communion of searching, skimming, reading, learning, and returning to a text with understanding!). “The better the poem,” Zapruder asserts, “the harder it is to talk about it.” Zapruder’s book avoids the eschatological tone that mars other pronouncements about poetry. He doesn’t think poetry is in danger, and “Probably even robots will write it, just as soon as they get souls.” But for someone like Zapruder, we don’t need sickness for attention. Why Poetry is part-inspiration, part-guidebook, and part literary memoir. We learn his hesitance toward poetry in high school, how he fell for the work of W.H. Auden without fully understanding it. Rather, he offers, we are naturally inclined toward verse: “the energy of poetry comes primarily from the reanimation and reactivation of the language that we recognize and know.” Zapruder walks us through how select poems develop, rather than “what” they mean. Poems remind us of the “miraculous, tenuous ability of language to connect us to each other and the world around us.” He excerpts a speech from Pope Francis to demonstrate how “To live morally, to avoid self-delusion and even monstrosity, we have to think about what we are saying, and to avoid euphemism and cliché.” Poems help us be honest; poems help us be true. They are like whispers of faith, “that unending effort to bring someone closer to the divine, without pretending the divine could ever be fully known or understood.” Zapruder’s spiritual undercurrent raises Why Poetry into something rare: the cogent and lively argument that poetry truly matters, fueled by passion rather than pretense.
Jill Bialosky author of Poetry Will Save Your Life, and Matthew Zapruder, author of Why Poetry, discuss the state of poetry, their own connection to the art, and their shared experiences as poets and editors. Matthew Zapruder: What prompted you to write Poetry Will Save Your Life? Jill Bialosky: I didn’t start out to write a book about poetry. My original conception was a short anthology of poems to live by. I saw a special on PBS introducing poems for children and it struck me that there may be a correlative for adults. Not to dumb down poetry, but to open the door to it for readers who haven’t yet been interested or aware of the possibilities in a poem. As a poet and a poetry editor, I am frustrated by the marginalization of poetry and believe that there’s a larger audience for poetry that it hasn’t reached as of yet, particularly in this country. So I suggested to my editor that perhaps I might curate a short anthology of poems that does just that—speak to a larger constituency and attempt to show how certain poems are made up of and are about everyday living. My focus was not on the theory or making of the art itself, or the writing of the art, but more an appreciation through my own subjective lens. I collected the poems and wrote short headnotes and an introduction and turned it in to my editor. And his response in essence shaped the idea for this book. He said that I hadn’t yet made the book my own. I knew exactly what he meant. Why are these poems important to you? I stepped back and began to think about when I encountered a particular poem and what it meant to me and means to me now, and I found that telling my own stories gave me access to do this. And then the form found its voice. Or the voice found its form. I wrote into my own experience, narrating pivotal moments in my own life to show how certain poems—written through the ages, from poets who have led completely different lives—still can capture a moment, emotion, or experience while using language that is unique to poetry. How about you, Matthew—what was your original conception for Why Poetry? Did you have a particular audience in mind? MZ: I wanted to try to directly engage with the typical questions and anxieties so many people have about poetry. I’m sure you have had plenty of experiences with people saying that they don’t get poetry, that they feel like it’s confusing, hard, etc. When I found myself in those situations, instead of turning away, or getting frustrated, I started to talk more with people, to ask them lots of questions, to try to get to the deeper reasons for these feelings about poetry. Eventually, these conversations led me to consider genre: that is, the purpose of poetry as a distinct act in the world. What does it do that is different from prose? Why does it feel so necessary and also so elusive? Is it possible to talk about these things in simple, direct, language, to get to the essence of poetry, without leaving something vital out, or destroying the experience? These were some of the questions I was asking during the writing of the book. I tried to write it for anyone: I feel like my audience is curious people who have any interest at all in literature, or art, or experiences that are beyond the purely functional. Our books combine personal experience with an impulse to dig into poetry in a way that is careful and close, without becoming purely academic. What did you feel like you learned, about poetry and about yourself as a poet, when you were writing your book? JB: I love what you say about considering the genre, the purpose of poetry as a distinct act in the world. It’s an art form that in some ways is completely unique. It is the compression and use of language (the craft as it were) and the channeling of actual experience, of lived life, that give it universal power. My presumption is that those who fear poetry or fear an inadequacy in themselves regarding “not getting it” haven’t learned how to read a poem. In Poetry Will Save Your Life, I purposefully chose to write about poems that I found accessible: Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” for example, a portrayal of a young boy’s evolving consciousness as he awakens to hear his father making a fire to heat the house, or Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” because the form—the villanelle—is playful, and the reader can delight in its use of rhyme but also experience something deeper. What did I learn while writing the book? That’s a great question. A number of things. Most significant, I recognized how grateful I am that I happened to walk into a poetry workshop as an undergrad, and how that moment eventually led to a direction and purpose I hadn’t yet discovered. I began to see how significant poems can be, and how important it has been through the ages to have poets chart their own experiences. I discovered, in fact, that poetry may indeed have saved my life from a less interesting one had I not discovered it, and it gave me a path forward. The immersive pleasures of poetry have shaped who I am and what I do. And in writing this book I was able to recall those poems that in a sense led me forward or became deeply ingrained in my thinking and imagination. When was the moment you knew that poetry was essential in your own life and what were some of the poems that awakened you? MZ: I was telling someone the other day that writing this book was like getting a Ph.D in poetry, except without the benefit of a dissertation advisor. I could have used one. I was reading a lot of poetry, of course, but also trying to read as much as I could about poetry—classic poetic statements from Aristotle to the present. Many of my instincts were confirmed: for instance, that there are, across times and cultures, similar ways of talking about concepts like the poetic symbol, associative movement (the leaping, intuitive aspect of poetic thinking), metaphor, and how poetry renews language. It was thrilling to come upon statements by poets as different as Bashō and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Tracy K. Smith, for example, and to see that they are saying very similar things. I structured some of the chapters around these ideas, and I attempted to show how these concepts recur throughout the history of poetry, in all sorts of eras and cultures. But a lot of my ideas were changed. For instance, my thinking about symbolism changed pretty radically. When I first started the book, I was pretty sure that symbol hunting—the idea that all poems are codes, that they have secret messages, and that the words in them “stand in” for big, often banal, ideas—was one of the things that we were taught in school that ruins poetry for a lot of people. I still think this is true. But I became very interested in a more historical idea about symbolism, that it has to do with an idea that language is not merely for the purpose of communication, but also points the way toward unseen realms, ideas that we intuit, but are just out of reach of the conscious mind, our everyday experience. I saw this idea stated in many different ways, and saw true symbols in almost all of the poems I love. At some point in the book I say that all poets are, more or less, symbolists, which is the opposite of something I would have said when I first started writing! My book is, like yours, also structured around the poems that meant a lot to me at various times. The first chapter, “Three Beginnings and the Machine of Poetry,” describes two of my earliest memories of reading poems: Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which I came across in high school, and, somewhat embarrassingly, Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” which is, to say the least, a racially insensitive poem, but also has a kind of beauty to it that appealed to me. I also have a chapter on a poem by Ashbery, “The One Thing that Can Save America,” which I read when I was first deciding to study poetry instead of being a Ph.D student in Russian literature at Berkeley. I also write about “Those Winter Sundays,” as well as a formal poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “Sestina.” Did the experience of writing Poetry Will Save Your Life change, reaffirm, or open up certain ideas or possibilities in your own creative work? JB: Like you, I learned a great deal about poetry writing Poetry Will Save Your Life. It was interesting for me to record the poems I came across and poems taught to me in various classrooms from early childhood—the first poem I remember connecting with was Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” for instance. It was read aloud to my fourth grade class. I was an awkward and shy child, and hearing that poem, I made the association that I was different, and that being different might be a strength. In writing my book I was able to chart my own experiences through the poems that were meaningful to me, and in doing so, from a poet’s perspective, I was able to recognize my own influences. For instance, when I took my first poetry workshop in college, we were studying the “deep image” poem and reading poems by Robert Bly and James Wright, so that in essence was my first association with how to make a poem—through an image. In graduate school the narrative poem became fashionable, and we were reading and studying poems by Robert Hass and Larry Levis. I can see that my early poems employed these methods of narrative and image and through employing these methods I discovered more about the possibilities of what a poem could do and be, and what it might unlock in the unconscious. I’m interested in what you said about whether “symbolism,” looking for clues in poems to solve a puzzle, turned off students from poetry. I recently re-read a Wallace Stevens poem called “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.” This is an astonishing poem on many levels, but what struck me recently is that it describes the art of writing poetry, that a poem creates a new way of seeing or experiencing reality. That, in essence, is “symbolism!” Poems should be read and experienced the same way we experience seeing a play or watching a movie, or looking at a piece of art. Not picked apart. All to say that in writing the book, I was not only seeing the poems that enchanted and provoked me in my coming-of-age with fresh eyes, but also looking at how they were made and what is possible in a poem. The form is elastic and poets through the ages are continually reinventing the form. If anything, writing the book has given me more confidence to explore and take risks. We are both poetry editors as well as poets. Has writing your book informed the decisions you make about poets you want to take on for the press? And how has writing Why Poetry informed your own creative work? MZ: I’m not sure it has changed how I edit, at least not yet. My experiences in life and in writing have, over many years, changed me as an editor. I think it’s natural as a young writer to be a little dogmatic, to be searching for what is and is not “good” in poetry, and rejecting certain things, often in extreme terms. In my editing, teaching, reading, and writing, I’m always working on getting outside myself, so I can see and accept more and more poetry. Robert Irwin has that great book of interviews with Lawrence Weschler, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a quote from Paul Valéry, a poet whose writing about poetry is central to my book. As a poet, editor, teacher, and writer about poetry, I want to forget what I think I know about poetry, in order to be able to see it directly and clearly. That’s what I tried to do in writing Why Poetry: to go back to the basics, so that I could investigate and see and explain to myself and others, clearly and honestly, what it is that makes something poetry, and not prose. As far as how writing prose affected my poetry, mostly it just made me miss writing poems. It’s been pretty blissful to get back to the particular thinking only poetry allows, and as I have come to realize, my own experience moving from poetry to prose and then back again only reaffirms everything I express in the book about the necessity and distinctiveness of poetic thinking. Do you feel like the next poems you write will be different or similar to what you have done before? And does that have anything to do with Poetry Will Save Your Life? JB: Writing this book brought home in a concrete way how the craft of poetry has affected my process of writing fiction, prose, and memoir. And in an off-kilter way it has informed many of the choices I make as an editor. One of the many gifts of a poem is the way it makes clear what I have come to call the overstory of a piece of writing, and the understory. I learned this as a poet, and then later understood it as a reader. A poem’s surface, the way in which it is made through finely tuned attention to craft, argument, and idea gives the reader a pathway to the poem’s understory—what it attempts to say or mean that may not be explicable in any other way. The focus as a young poet on developing my ear, my use of language and of image, of tone and voice, was necessary for all forms of writing. Though I didn’t know it then, when I began to take poetry writing seriously, those early skills allowed me to not only develop as a writer but also as a human being in the world. And these same skills—sensitivity to language, to story, to the way in which a piece of literature expresses that which only that piece of literature has to say—has informed the books I choose to publish and edit. In other words, poetry instructs us to pay attention, to look deeply, and those skills are relevant in all forms of writing and thinking. I would venture to say that poetry writing and reading ought to be required in the same way composition is a requirement in college. As for whether writing Poetry Will Save Your Life will have anything to do with the direction my new poems will take, I’m not sure. Writing a poem is a mysterious act. I don’t know where a poem will take me until I’ve found a form or image or scene that leads me through it. I always hope to continue to find new ways to reshape and stretch the nature of the medium and see what more a poem can discover and do. Whether I’m successful at it or not is also a mystery. MZ: Throughout your career as a poet, writer, and editor, you have been committed to creating and supporting literature that makes a difference in people’s lives. You have written about and brought out into the light difficult, intimate subjects that touch so many of us, including the suicide of your sister. You have published so many authors whose work has mattered to so many people. So I think there is no better person to ask: what, if anything, do you think poetry can do for us in these difficult times, when the forces of reaction and anti-intellectualism and spiritual and physical violence seem to be gaining strength? JB: I have come to believe that being a writer and an editor means that one must also contribute and serve the literary community and to strive to extend beyond that community. As you well know, words are powerful and have the ability to move forward a constituency. As an editor I am privileged to have worked with Adrienne Rich, Ai, Martín Espada, Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, Eavan Boland—and a number of other essential voices in poetry including newer voices such as Major Jackson and Cathy Park Hong—and to witness the ways in which their poems speak to a powerful constituency. Of course, strong poems have the ability to enlighten and to advance change in the reader. It’s a crucial moment for poetry. I fear the forces of reaction and anti-intellectualism, too, and believe that poets have the sensitivity and power to be voices of witness in historic moments. After the election I wrote a poem called “Hot Tub After Skiing: December 2016” that was published in The New Yorker. It is allegoric to a certain extent and it is about this fear you mention, and yet it received a multitude of responses from non-poetry readers who connected with its shared experience. We need poetry now more than ever, if only as an antidote to the corruption, dishonesty, and constant noise surrounding this political moment. If 50-word tweets can excite people, think of what a poem might do!
August is an especially strong month for debuts, and includes the collected poems of an essential American voice. Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in August. Depression & Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim Benaim’s debut is charged and honest, but the reader is eased into this journey through a direct invitation voiced on the first pages. True to the title, this is a book about depression, and about the occasional magic tricks that spur us against anxiety. “explaining my depression to my mother a conversation” is masterful, the type of poem I wish could reach so many teenage ears. “mom, / my depression is a shape shifter”—the narrator struggles to distill her world, but her mother’s interrogations are skeptical and curt. Benaim captures the complexity of depression, how “insomnia sweeps me up into its arms, / dips me in the kitchen by the small glow of stove light.” She tries going on walks at night, but her “stuttering kneecaps clank like silver spoons” and “ring in my ears like clumsy church bells, / reminding me i am sleepwalking on an ocean of happiness / i cannot baptize myself in.” So many of these poems made me pause on the page, with quotable lines aplenty: “when my father tells me i am beautiful, / i always hope it’s because i remind him of my mother” and “i don’t know how to connect in a world like this; / in times like these, / where i can’t even speak about myself in first person.” This is a book to share, a poetic window into someone “standing in line / behind you / the girl you’re pretending not to notice.” Rummage by Ife-Chudeni A. Oputa A powerful debut, structured around four themes: shame, identity, physicality, and spirituality. “Kwansaba For My Mother” is a seven-line wonder, the type of poem to read again and again to reflect on its weight. A woman’s body “tenses at his / cold touch under her Easter dress, lace / stained by trusted hands.” But this is a praise poem, and a daughter is praising the resolve of her mother, wounded by the past. In “Portrait of Memory With Night Terror,” another poem of shame, a family drives to a carnival “three counties over.” The children want to go on rides, “to slick their fingers with sugar and grease,” but the adults “hadn’t come for fun. / We needed them to feel at home among the grotesque.” They bring the children to the sideshow, teaching them that the mere action of perception often results in objectification. I also think of lines later in the book, when the narrator says she remembers “how good the glint of the strange can be // when you stumble / toward it.” In Rummage, there’s a constant movement closer, as in the palpable “How Not to Itch:” “You have learned how slow // the pulse of grief beats.” Just when I felt settled into the tangible, Oputa turns to the spiritual. I loved “The Prophet Wants to Atone,” which begins “Ask me what it’s like to be a world / always in need of rescue.” What truth. Dots & Dashes by Jehanne Dubrow The heart of Dubrow’s poems originate from an autobiographical truth: her husband is a career Navy officer, so much of their marriage exists at a distance. While that subject is apt for personal narrative, Dubrow taps into a general feeling of longing that makes her poems feel in the tradition of works about lovers separated by war. Dots & Dashes is a nuanced take on patriotism and service, and the anxiety created by distance. In “Old Glory,” the narrator watches as a neighbor’s flag “jittered in the rain” during the night. The narrator knows a flag “shouldn’t be torn or crumpled;” although she sees the neighbor “drop it, / leave a mudprint on the corner,” she says nothing, leaving “the stars unthreaded / on his patriotic lawn.” Inert and silent, the narrator of “Old Glory” helps the reader understand the unique anxieties of milspouses, who can feel inert while their other halves travel. Dubrow evens-out those emotions with moving love poems like “The Long Deployment” (“I breathe his body in the sheet / until he starts to fade, made incomplete.”) and “Liberty” (“I believed / in the seam our bodies made, / but when in the morning he put on / his uniform, it was what I’d sewn / myself that held, miraculous, / our warmth.”). Despite the pain in many lines of this collection, there’s a genuine thread of inspiring hope for reunion. So Where Are We? by Lawrence Joseph Joseph’s poems are necessary, immediate, somehow absolutely now and eerily ancient. Themes of his previous collections—Lebanese and Syrian Catholic faith and culture, the memory of Detroit, life in New York City—are resurrected here, but this new book feels like a stake in the ground. The interrogation of the title is whispered throughout as a fear. Maybe we are in a moment unlike any others? If so, Joseph has the care and reach to document our present. Poems like “And for the Record” are tight and heavy, capturing surreal moments—a man babbling in the street—that contain unfortunate truths. After all, “the mind, / like the night, has a thousand eyes.” Joseph documents the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, how the “flow of data // since the attacks has surged. / Technocapital, permanently, digitally, // semioticized, virtually unlimited / in freedom and power, taking // billions of bodies on the planet / with it.” It is not paranoid to feel that something is happening. There is “Too much consciousness / of too much at once, a tangle of tenses / and parallel thoughts.” Harried and brutal, we’ve reached “the point at which / violence becomes ontology.” Joseph is the kind of poet who helps us parse the prophecies from the noise. Testify by Simone John Whenever I see the word “testify,” I think of a scene from James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain when the congregation joins Brother Elisha on the church floor: “the tarry service moved from its first stage of steady murmuring, broken by moans and now again an isolated cry, into that stage of tears and groaning, of calling aloud and singing.” John’s method in this notable debut is incantational. She mixes court transcripts and dashboard recordings with prose poems and personal narratives to create poetic testament. The book is a memorial to Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland, to black transwomen and more lives taken early (in “Back Seats,” John writes “We know we age in dog years” and “We savor our youth knowing / midlife ended in middle school.”). This is a book of anger and lament, as in the searing “Trayvon,” how the narrator says she saw her own brother “Fall prey to baited / traps. Some boys can overcome, / but that requires // the luxury of / time.” In Testify, there is not much time. Poems like “Mourning Rites (Or: How We Bury Our Sons)” are acknowledgments that we’ve heard these threnodies before, and they continue to wound as they accumulate. “When the sound of Jays on concrete / makes a sob crawl up your throat, finger // the nylon like prayer beads.” John’s book offers poetry as solace, knowing it is only a temporary salve for the pain. “Eventually you’ll develop / an inner compass to navigate / this path,” one narrator says to her son. “I am laying the groundwork / to keep you alive long enough to get there.” A Doll for Throwing by Mary Jo Bang In a concluding note to this volume, Bang writes “These poems are not about her but were written by someone who knew of her.” She is referring to Lucia Moholy, a Czech-born photographer whose work was infamously used without attribution (Bang notes this was done to raise the prestige of the Bauhaus school). While A Doll for Throwing is certainly not meant to be autobiographical, there is the spirit of a photographer throughout. Many of these prose poems are dream-like, philosophical takes that require time and reflection (this is a collection to move through slowly). It is a book about creation, art, and distance, and begins with “A Model of a Machine,” and lines out of an ars poetica: “In the blank space between the following day and the previous night, you see the beauty of a propeller, for instance, and think, yes, I want that silver metal to mean something more than just flight.” These poems reach that ambiguous space. I returned to “Two Nudes,” a tight example of Bang’s style. The narrator escapes work by going on a walk with a friend. The poem seems like it will be a casual jaunt through a day, but by the end of the second sentence, she’s married. Her poems splice time—“Every day was a twenty-four-hour standstill on a bridge from which we discretely looked into the distance, hoping to catch sight of the future”—as easily as they split identity. “I constructed a second self,” she writes. “I photographed myself as if I were a building.” With those second selves, those photographic negatives, Bang can make her narrators find the surreal moments from their pasts that ring curiously true: “The cheek waits to be kissed by air as it was once kissed by the dark-haired boy in the boathouse whose late-night lesson was that the distance between what had been described and what was now happening was immeasurable.” In that distance lies poetry. Half-Light (Collected) by Frank Bidart A massive book that covers 50 years of words, Bidart’s collected contains enough routes and themes to produce years of reading. His style—capitalized words, italics, shifting speakers, personae, autobiography—result in a modern mythmaker who channels the old masters. A poet finely attuned to the contours of sensuality, he can simultaneously be spare and weighty, as in “In the Western Night:” “Two cigarette butts— / left by you // the first time you visited my apartment. / The next day // I found them, they were still there— // picking one up, I put my lips where / yours had been.” Bidart's Catholicism has always been central and generative to the tension in his poems. He's said “something very fundamental to the Catholicism that at least I grew up in was the notion that there is a kind of war between the mind and the body, between the spirit and the body…there is tremendous disparity between the demands of the spirit and the demands of the body, between what the body can offer the spirit and what the spirit wants or needs.” Art “is the closest thing I have found to God. Art is the way I have survived. It has deflected the hunger for the absolute.” Art has been a way of crafting his own sense of a soul, as in “Queer:” “For each gay kid whose adolescence // was America in the forties or fifties / the primary, the crucial // scenario // forever is coming out— / or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.” Perhaps what allows Bidart to so fully, and sometimes so shockingly inhabit the lives of others through dramatic monologues is that longing for the absolute in a world with incorrect guideposts: “A journey you still most travel, for / which you have no language // since you no longer believe it exists.”
Poetry forces us to slow down, sit, and pay attention. Poets make us work, and we should be thankful for that; language is resurrected when it’s spun and stretched and smoothed. 2017 is a banner year for poetry: debuts, new takes by established authors, and collections that span careers. In this monthly column, I’ll profile new titles that are worth your time. Stories of transfigurations and conflagrations. Poets affirming their existence on the page. Poetry that cuts through the daily noise and does justice to words. Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in July. Lessons on Expulsion by Erika L. Sánchez Sánchez’s debut collection begins with “Quinceañera,” a poem about desire born when “Summer boredom flutters its / sticky wings.” Cooking wine is guzzled. Old whiskey is downed. “In the warmth of your bedroom,” the narrator pierces her navel with a safety pin, and tumbles backward in time as her skin remains pressed against the present. Out “in the murky dance clubs,” music “vibrating / your face and skull,” there is a pain that “suckles you,” and “Everywhere, / you hold its lumpy head to your breast like a saint.” I put a lot of worth on a poet’s opening salvo, and Sánchez sets her heels into the dirt. Her lines pop and pivot, from sex to God (and divine absence), to immigration and identity. I keep going back to the elegiac “Amá” (“I know you think only white people leave / their families. / I undid my braids too early, I know.”) and a searing thunder of a poem, “Baptism,” whose final lines cut: “Watch me dance / on borders in this dirty dress, / until my wig catches fire.” This is a collection that outlasts its final page, that feeds us endless questions to ponder, that makes us want more: “Amá, I leave because / I feel like an unfinished / poem, because I’m always trying / to bridge the difference.” Some Say by Maureen N. McLane In McLane's poetic-memoir, My Poets, she's written about how listening to recordings of poets transforms their works: "recordings offer a great way to refocus one's attention on the poem." McLane's columnar, phrase-long lines in Some Say made me want to read them aloud. I find that white-paged poems, lines short and margins wide, really help coax the language alive because there’s nowhere to hide (as in prose). “If I say abstract,” she writes, “I don’t mean ideal. / I mean real.” Yes. McLane’s poems often wander into nature, but they always turn back to language, our terribly insufficient but tonally beautiful attempts at naming, placing, cataloging, and feeling the world. She’s also hilarious, as in “Tips for Survival,” which include: “Don’t date flyboys. / Carry blister tape” and “Accept no gift / unless you want that relationship.” My favorite poem here is “Yo,” which bends language without breaking it: “Talking to birches / I am an idiot // & I know you get it / reader—no idiolect // this dialect / riddled with defects // time will fix / or forget/ Whatevs.” All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned by Erica Wright I loved the strangeness of Wright's debut, Instructions for Killing the Jackal, and she’s back with her unique storytelling touch (Wright is also a crime novelist—The Granite Moth and The Red Chameleon—and burns a profluent path through her poems). There’s humor in the face of apocalypse, too: “Quirks of survival leave us roaches / but not pterodactyls. So much for majesty.” In “Spontaneous Human Combustion,” there’s a sense of unknowing: “Someone was here, and now he’s not.” Appropriate to the book’s title, many of these narrators tell strange tales, shrug their shoulders, and move on—but the readers are left transfixed. Take the sublime “American Ghosts:” “These see-throughs want to shake your hand, / none of this calling out to mirrors, letting // daughters burn their locks with matches.” Their translucent forms assemble, and once “outfitted with hymnals,” they “push the light from their palms / until bells ring like rivers cracking in spring.” Although the dead “remember the weight of boots” they “prefer the company of dust.” There’s a matter-of-factness to Wright’s crisp lines, as if we are entering a weird but valid world between these covers. It is not the final poem in the collection, but I recommend doubling-back to the open atmosphere of “American Highways in Billboard Country,” and one epitaph-worthy couplet in particular: “What if the exit we choose / isn’t the one we wanted?” Thousand Star Hotel by Bao Phi "Survive long enough / and eventually / everything becomes a revolution.” “Being Asian in America,” one of the shortest poems in Phi’s collection, reverberates outward through the book. There’s sparkling range within these poems, and the reach is fluid. In “Vocabulary,” we begin with two minimum-wage workers pushing shopping carts along the parking lot asphalt to where they rest in the corral. One winter, two workers stand “near the weak warmth of the rattling heat vent.” Like the narrator, the other man “was a nonwhite boy from a poor family.” The man missed his girlfriend, but they’d spent the previous night together, and his joy was obvious: “He said it like their love / saturated every atom of his being, / and shook him, / as if all his veins were laid bare.” The man soon became ashamed that he’d opened his heart to another, and never speaks of his emotions again. Phi might have ended the poem there, but as he does throughout Thousand Star Hotel, he takes disparate and precise moments of family, work, fatherhood, and shows their wider echo. Twenty years after that co-worker closed his heart to the narrator, he turns to the reader: “I make my living with words” but “I still can’t reach out to my friends, / especially my fellow straight boys...I find myself wanting to tell my mother and father I love them and / I just / can’t.” Such piercing laments contained in these lines. Distant Mandate by Ange Mlinko Mlinko's notes for the collection read like a dense prose-poem of poetic ancestry and influences. She writes that her title is taken from László Krasznahorkai's novel Seiobo There Below: “everything is forcing him to take part in a dream that he himself is not dreaming, and to be awake in another's dream is the most horrifying burden—but at the same time he is a favored being, as he can see something, for the sight of which there is only a distant mandate, or there isn't one at all, this cannot be known, he can see, in any event, the moment of creation of the world, of course all the while understanding nothing of it.” A recursive and accurate definition of poetry. Mlinko’s verse calls to mind W.B. Yeats's concept of “Spiritus Mundi,” a depository of souls and spirits, a place where poets’ minds drift in that space between sleeping and waking moments. Distant Mandate feels like it exists in that purgatorial setting, starting with “Cottonmouth:” “A levitating anvil. Omen of seagull / Blown inland. Ranch gate said RIVERSTYX, / but it was the woodland that looked lethal: // no place to put down your foot.” Mlinko’s poems tend to burrow into the dirt and dust while their words lift the prosaic world into abstraction. It’s a collection that demands attention and patience, but there are so many rewards, as in “The Fort:” “From the weathered boards knots pop / like the eyes of potatoes. From brick / salient not a clink of a pupil in a loop-/ hole.” Read those lines aloud, feel your tongue go. Close your eyes, and there you are in the scorched Texan land, with a poet whose ear is tuned to myth.
Poetry was, and continues to be, the thorn in my literary side. For many years, verse and rhyme poked at me, guarding themselves from my attempts to understand. So I kept the world of poetry at arms length. They seemed to offer me confusion in the place of benefit. The words iamb and trochee crashed around in my ears during my university poetry course. Even the mention of poems flooded my mind with images of Petrarchan sonnets and archaic language. When I could muster enough attention, the mechanics of poetry complicated things. The most enjoyment I found in poetry came from Homer’s The Odyssey and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which, for a lazy reader, can be read similar to novels. I was surprised then, when I came across Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Beginning their jointly published Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge and William Wordsworth wrote in their preface: The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination The truism ruling my mind was poetry felt too poetic; it concerned at the same time matters unimportant, or much too important for me. Reading these words, my opposition to poetry met its first challenge. According to Romantics, the good poem must extend an invitation for the reader to enter the dance. The focus is on the everyday. The only qualifier is they share the same "coloring of imagination.” For Coleridge, imagination was an acquired taste. Following the death of his father, he found himself a schoolboy in London as a rambunctious, young child. An exceptional scholar, his schoolmates still described him as lonely and wistful. Coleridge spent many years as a political radical. Always in the midst of action, he spent years under the noise and disturbances of London. In 1795, Coleridge met Wordsworth and in the encounter, changed his poetic style. His work reflected "situations from common life" and his tone grew more relaxed. Leaving London, he relocated to rural life. Coleridge's move to Nether Stowey accompanied the period of his changing tone. The young poet found refuge from the pressure of city life within the small village. He was free to experience nature—the consuming subject of Romantic poetry. The move was, in many ways, the result of his fascination with the new world presented by Wordsworth. His cottage is also where he first introduces his readers to the frost. My excitement from the preface fueled my study of Coleridge’s poems. When I arrived at “Frost at Midnight”—I heard the verses as if they were describing my journey through the collection of poems: The frost performs its secret ministry, unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry came loud—and hark, again! Loud as before” The city boy is now relating his move to the countryside. Wordsworth writes of his friend Coleridge, “thou, my Friend! Wert reared in the great City, 'mid far other scenes,” speaking of his upbringing in London. The poet is accustomed to life in the city. He relates the process by which he grew accustomed to the natural world—expressed by the cold of the frost. Frost is chilling and harsh, usually not associated with the realm of poetry. Still, Coleridge is a preacher of its ministry. Reading Coleridge, I understand we share the bond of allowing what is unfamiliar to captivate and overtake—I learn to lean in to the secret ministry of the frost as I wrestle with a new poem. In spite of (and maybe because of) my initial difficulty in reading poetry, I allowed myself to be drawn in by the poems in the Lyrical Ballads. The world of poetry opened. That which was previously foreign and even distasteful became an object of pleasure. 'Tis calm indeed! So calm, that it disturbs and vexes meditation with its strange and extreme silentness. The cottage where he lives in Nether Stowey is new and unfamiliar. The cry of the owl seems louder than in the streets of London. There is too much time to think and there is not enough noise to fill his mind. The poet steps into life in nature, into a new setting—to find discomfort. But the discomfort doesn’t seem to bother. Rather, Coleridge celebrates the vexation and the strangeness. Central to the ministry of the frost, then, lies difficulty. The reward of intimacy with what was previously foreign can only come about through a harrowing process. This explains my affinity for the Romantics and Coleridge. My initial efforts in the realm of poetry disturbed and vexed; Coleridge offered comradery with his experience with the ministry of the frost. My first poetic breakthrough was understanding the difference between iambic and trochaic meter. With a pen in hand, I drew dashes and dots above the lines in William Blake’s “The Lamb” to show stressed syllables. I chose a corner in the library to assure no one would see me violently mouthing “little lamb” and protruding a finger with each syllable. I shouted when, at last, I correctly identified Blake’s meter. The practice was my frost. Uninviting and unfamiliar—the exercise somehow became a ministry. Difficulty which once challenged now intrigued. The poet wrestled with his new environment, seeking only to turn discomfort to peace. Following his example, I hurried into memorizing various rhyme schemes and mastering new poetic vocabulary. Enjambment, spondee, volta. My feet were planted in unfamiliar terrain, only to discover a fresh vitality, and growing enjoyment of verse and rhyme. Today, Coleridge and his poems draw from me the consent to feel—rather than to understand. His reminder is to step into new terrain—encouraging me to tackle the metaphysics of John Donne and even the disjointed work of Ezra Pound. I must dismantle the mental trap where it is so very easy to place poems, and surrender to a willingness to not understand. The invitation from "Frost at Midnight" is not to explain, but to experience. "Frost at Midnight" is addressed to Coleridge's son, Harley. The frost performs its secret ministry, says Coleridge, and so wonderful is this ministry that he shares it with an infant who can neither understand or respond. The ministry is communal. He calls the daring boldness out of his son as Wordsworth called it out of him. But thou, my babe! Shalt wander like a breeze by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds, Harley roams breezily through sandy shores and lakes, unfamiliar to his father, Samuel. He connects with ease to the ancient mountain, skipping the disquiet with which the poet arrived at Nether Stowey. This is where the poem become my invitation. The call, for me, is to continue wandering. My initial distrust of rhyme and meter will turn to affection; changing within me the same way Samuel entrusts his son, Harley, to nature. “Frost at Midnight” works as an invitation, but also encourages as a benediction. All seasons shall be sweet to thee I find it hard not to snatch the phrase away from Harley, and stand in the way to receive the encouragement myself. Needed encouragement to be sure, for sometimes not all seasons—in my case, poetry—are sweet to me. My mind may never be able to comprehend the dense metaphors of Donne or make sense of the changing perspectives of T.S. Eliot. Still, I find company with Coleridge and his preaching of the frost’s ministry, received as a token of consolation. Vexation and intrigue are potent when they work together. Discomfort, too, can be a strong catalyst, as it was for Coleridge in coming to terms with a new life in the countryside and a new way of writing poetry. Years later, I find myself sharing his invitation to be lulled by the unfamiliar. My reward comes in my growing connection with poetry—my highest literary hurdle. But Coleridge’s verses remind me the unmapped spaces are best for exploring. He calls it the ministry of the frost. I call it studying poetry. Image Credit: Pixabay.
1. The pageant of digits comprising the number pi doesn't stop at the page's edge. It goes on across the table, through the air, over a wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, clouds, straight into the sky, through all the bottomless, bloated heavens. Oh how brief - a mouse tail, a pigtail - is the tail of a comet! How feeble the star's ray, bent by bumping up against space! --Wisława Szymborska, “Pi” The poet Jane Hirshfield stands on the stairs that lead down to the Dupont Underground arts space in Washington D.C. It is 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 20. Dismayed by the actions and proposals of the Trump administration, Hirshfield has traveled to D.C. to read at a series of events related to the March for Science. She is part of a delegation from Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center who together have organized a group they call Poets for Science. In an hour and a half, Hirshfield will read her poem “On the Fifth Day.” (“The facts were told not to speak / and were taken away.”) She will use her time on stage to talk more broadly about the importance of empirical exploration to both science and poetry. But until that happens, she needs to find someone who would bring the banners up to New York for another science and poetry event on Monday. Hirshfield and David Hassler, director of the Wick Poetry Center, had spent the past two months designing 21 seven-foot banners that featured poems related to science, empiricism, and discovery. The poems they had carefully chosen were penned by living American poets, such as W.S. Merwin, Camille Dungy, Vijay Seshadri, Tracy K. Smith, Arthur Sze, Pattiann Rogers, Linda Pastan, Gary Snyder. The only notable exception to this criteria was the inclusion of two poems by the late Wisława Szymborska, a Polish poet. Hirshfield, Hassler, and three others from the Wick Center arrived early to set up the enormous free-standing banners at the Dupont Underground. Seeing the final product “thrilled” them after having worked so hard on creating them, Hirshfield says. “I wanted to support scientists by letting them see how their work appears in the daily, inhabited understanding of our lives that is found in poems,” Hirshfield writes in an email about a month after that Thursday evening in D.C. Standing there on those stairs down to the decommissioned trolley station and one-time fallout shelter, Hirshfield comes upon Alexandra Chang, a curator and director of the global arts program at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. She asks Chang if she knows anyone who could take some banners up to New York, and Chang immediately sends an email to see if the posters could go up on the buses returning to NYU’s Greenwich Village campus on Saturday. Contact information is exchanged -- Hassler emails another woman affiliated with NYU -- and the banner problem is settled. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings and Jennifer Benka of the Academy of American Poets will be able to reuse about half of the banners, including one featuring Szymborska’s “Pi,” at their “Universe in Verse” event in Brooklyn the following Monday. 2. After President Donald Trump was elected on November 8, many sought out poetry. Poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets, saw a surge of visitors in the day after the election. Almost 150,000 users visited the AAP’s website. “People just were looking for words to help them make sense,” says Jennifer Benka, director of the Academy, of November 9. Many Americans, in times of political crisis, turn to the work of Polish poets like Czeslaw Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, as Jane Hirshfield and David Hassler did for the March for Science events. But there is a beautiful paradox at the heart of most Americans’ use of the work of Miłosz, Szymborska, and others: these Polish poets’ verse is highly politicized but for the most part, vehemently apolitical -- sometimes because it was a matter of survival. Miłosz and Szymborska wrote much of their work during the post-World War II era, when Poland was the Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite state with strict censorship laws. In his The History of Polish Literature, Miłosz says that poets writing in the first decades of Communist rule were keen on experimentation. As he puts it, poetry of this era had had its “laboratory privileges” restored -- no longer did writing poetry seem like a frivolous act, like it did in the face of the fighting and suffering of the second World War. Along with formal experimentation, irony and a stoic attitude toward existence characterized much of the verse of that time, according to Miłosz. In the days following Trump’s victory, a number of people circulated Adam Zagajewski’s September 11 poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” on Facebook. The Poetry Society of New York was one of the several people and organizations who posted the poem. “Nothing on the scale of 9/11 had happened, of course, but I wanted to acknowledge the very real threat the Trump administration posed (poses) to so many people,” writes Michelle Houslanger, social media coordinator for the Poetry Society of New York. Slightly more political than Szymborska and Miłosz, Zagajewski came to prominence in the 1970s when the political situation in Poland had become more tense, as Poles began to tire of Soviet rule. Poets like Zagajewski and Stanisław Barańczak bristled at the censorship imposed by the Communist regime and decried its propaganda and official-speak in their poems, according to Miłosz’s History. Zagajewski’s poem goes: “Remember June's long days,” “and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine. / The nettles that methodically overgrow / the abandoned homesteads of exiles. / You must praise the mutilated world.” The poem has hints of the political -- “exiles,” for example -- but most of the poem is a reflection on life’s good stuff. Wild strawberries. Rosé wine. And later: “Remember the moments when we were together / in a white room and the curtain fluttered. / Return in thought to the concert where music flared.” Miron Białoszewski —- who wrote during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s -— is another example of a Polish poet who was ambivalent about more political writing, says Professor Bill Johnston, a translator of Polish literature. “He was a gay writer and was not just not allowed to be a gay writer, but gay at all. The apoliticism of his poetry was his protest,” Johnston notes. The decades between World War II and the fall of the Communist regime in 1990 were not an ideal time for free expression and the concretization of unhindered consciousness into verse. But then again, Poland has a long history of difficult political circumstances. “Poles have been for better and worse, and often for worse, the specialists in suffering,” says Professor Clare A. Cavanagh, who has translated both Szymborska and Zagajewski. Polish poets who wrote during the Polish People’s Republic stress their individuality. “The things I love about the best Polish poets is their wonderful senses of humor, quirky individual styles, and idiosyncratic passions,” says Cavanagh. Stanislaw Barańczak, Cavanagh points out, loved basketball and wrote a poem about the Celtics. “One of the oddities and interesting things or eccentricities about Polish poetry is that they’re thoroughly engaged but they don’t only want to be defined their opposition to political parties,” says Edward Hirsch, a poet and the director of the Guggenheim Foundation who has been a longtime advocate of Polish poetry. “They don’t think that poetry’s only role is in resistance and opposition. They don’t want totally apolitical poetry, or an ahistorical poetry, but they don’t want poetry to be entirely defined by politics.” Poems like Szymborska’s “Pi,” are almost apolitical, if you believe in scientific empiricism and have any faith in the human race’s capacity for reason. “[Szymborska’s] great fidelity to the actual's naming, leavened with imagination, suddenly feels indispensable as reminder and corrective to our current political condition,” Jane Hirshfield writes of “Pi,” which was used at three science-related protest events in within one week in April. “We need now, more than ever, bedrock to stand on. We need practical truths, observed descriptions, emotion's difficult, subtle namings. We need imagination's freedoms. And there is Szymborska, providing them all, in a poem that is in no way overtly 'political.'” 3. It is almost 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 20. The March for Science rally has ended and the marching portion of the day’s events will start in about an hour. David Hassler and others from the Wick Center begin the process of taking down the Poets for Science tent. They were supposed to be gone by noon, but “people actually did not want to leave the tent,” Hassler says. That morning Hassler and his colleagues had arrived early to set up the 21 seven-foot banners at the Poets for Science tent on D.C.’s Mall. They had placed the banners on both the outside and inside of the tent. They readied 150 smaller poem-posters, which were 18 inches by 24 inches, to be distributed to any March for Science participant who might want to carry one. At 9 a.m. the tent opened to the public. According to Jane Hirshfield, the Poets for Science tent was the “first thing” seen by marchers who entered the rally through the security checkpoint at Constitution Ave and 17 Street NW. The small poem-posters were gone, all distributed, soon after 9 a.m. “Seeing the tent covered on the outside with its poem-banners, many came over to see what it was, and begin to read, take photos, and some would enter the little tent to continue reading the poems on the inside and perhaps write their own,” Hirshfield recalls. But now it is nearly 1 p.m., time to begin to break things down. Hassler and others collapse the banners into their tubes. They carry 12 of them, including Szymborska’s “Pi,” to the rented SUV the Wick Center staff has brought from Ohio. They drive to NYU’s DC campus on L Street between 13th and 14th in NW. They had been told by the NYU organizer to leave the banners in a meeting room, so that the university’s March for Science contingent would see them when it returned later that afternoon. “It was an exhilarating whirlwind,” Hassler says. Later that day the banners would be carried onto the buses returning to Greenwich Village. They would be reused at the “Universe in Verse” event in Brooklyn. The banners, including the one featuring Szymborska’s “Pi,” would be used again.
In March, the acclaimed poet Derek Walcott died at the age of 87. Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Walcott became a literary voice known throughout the globe. Celebrated for his verse and his plays, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, a MacArthur “genius” grant, an Obie award, and countless other prizes. He also taught at a number of institutions, including Boston University (where I now teach, though I didn’t know Walcott personally). Reconciliation was one of Walcott’s great tasks as a poet. He fused the iconography of the Americas and of Europe in order to create a hybrid poetry. He combined allusions to classical myths with descriptions of the landscape of his native Saint Lucia, and he incorporated quotations from countless European authors in his works. This enterprise of poetic fusion reached a peak in perhaps his most famous work, Omeros, a reworking of Homer that loosely follows the terza rima verse form used by Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy. Omeros was published shortly before Walcott won the Nobel Prize in 1992, and, at least if last month’s obituaries are to be believed, will go down as a landmark piece in his poetic oeuvre. While Omeros has gotten most of the headlines, a shorter and much earlier poem, 1956’s “Ruins of a Great House” reveals some of the abiding concerns of Walcott’s work in a more condensed way. In only about 50 lines, it shows how Walcott reworked tradition and reflected on the legacy of colonialism. The poem’s setting is the manor house at the heart of a former lime plantation. The speaker wanders the ruins of the house and conjures hints of the suffering wrought by life on this plantation. The very genre of the poem suggests Walcott’s dialogue with English literature. Many works in the English canon include long descriptions of and meditations upon large estates in the English countryside. The 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell took a Yorkshire manor as his topic in “Upon Appleton House.” Countryside estates such as Pemberley feature in Jane Austen’s work, and Downton Abbey participates in the “great house” tradition. Walcott, too, turned to the figure of the great house in this poem, but he focused on the moral costs of “this Great House.” Violence, coercion, and theft were the foundation-stones for this mansion. The stone cherubs at the gates of the ruins “shriek with stain,” both the marks of time and the metaphorical remnants of blood. Limes appear throughout the poem. The “smell of dead limes quickens in the nose / The leprosy of empire.” The lime serves as an emblem both of the plantation and of the British Empire (the lime being one of the symbols of the British navy during the 19th century). Just as the great house of the plantation was deteriorating, so too was the British Empire during the 1950s. In the decades after World War II, the sun began to set on that empire, as it lost one colonial possession after another. “Ruins of a Great House” is in part about the end of empire, about the transition from one era to the next. The great house once stood with bold majesty and bloody glamor. But now time has laid waste to the scene. The poem reflects on an elaborate wall that cannot protect the house “from the worm’s rent / Nor from the padded cavalry of the mouse.” Death comes even to empire and its institutions. Yet while “the men are gone,” the “rot remains with us.” Empire may be over, but its legacy persists. The legacy of empire permeates the poem. “Ruins of a Great House” is full of quotations from British writers, including the 17th-century writer Thomas Browne and the Romantic poet William Blake. It mentions Rudyard Kipling, author of “The White Man’s Burden,” and “men like [John] Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, and [Francis] Drake,” who were key figures in early English forays into a transatlantic empire. The speaker of the poem has a complicated relationship with these “ancestral murderers and poets;” they provide so much of the material from which Walcott drew, but they also were part of a system that brought great suffering to this island (what the poem calls “evil days”). The final stanza of “Ruins of a Great House” adds to this complexity: Ablaze with rage I thought, Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake, But still the coal of my compassion fought That Albion too was once A colony like ours, “part of the continent, piece of the main,” Nook-shotten, rook o’erblown, deranged By foaming channels and the vain expense Of bitter faction. All in compassion ends So differently from what the heart arranged: “as well as if a manor of thy friend’s...” Reflecting on the cruelty of life at the estate, the speaker fills with rage at the thought of a slave’s body “rotting” in the lake. The following lines, though, counter that rage with a sense of compassion, which is grounded in an awareness of common humanity. England, too, was once a colony -- a possession of the Roman Empire. It too experienced waves of invasion and domination by foreign forces. Thus, the islands of the Caribbean and the isle of Britain share the legacy of being colonies. Historical parallels become a vehicle for revealing human connections. The quotations Walcott included in this stanza come from a passage by the 17th-century British poet and clergyman John Donne: No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Donne’s famous lines (picked up by Ernest Hemingway and others) assert universal connections across mankind. The death of any person “diminishes” Donne because he has some connection -- however distant -- to all other human beings. So when the funeral bell tolls, it proclaims a death that touches us all. Walcott incorporated these lines from Donne in order to underline the theme of common humanity. This incorporation also implies Walcott’s own desire to assimilate the conventions, images, and formal traits of European literature into his own hybrid verse. Realizing the common human condition of both the plantation owners and the slaves, of both Walcott and Donne, breaks down the walls built by blind anger. The final quotation from Donne performs a stunning reversal: the manor house that serves as an emblem of cruelty throughout much of the poem becomes, in the last line, a figure of interconnectedness. “Ruins of a Great House” does not offer an excuse for past wrongs, but in showing compassion for sufferers as well as those who inflict suffering, the poem suggests the limits of vengeance that would populate a caste of ethical untouchables. Combining ethical rigor and personal charity has implications for understanding the legacies of writers, too. Literary accomplishment does not ensure a life free from personal controversy; allegations of improprieties with female students ended Walcott’s bid to become Oxford Professor of Poetry. However, a writer’s work can triumph even when the writer falls short. Throughout his career, Walcott reflected on how artists and writers in the Americas should respond to European influence. In “The Muse of History,” a famous essay from the 1970s, Walcott argued that the task of “New World” poets would be to take on the legacy of European culture (and European colonialism) and use it to weave new narratives of life and art. This weaving would join together the experiences of past victims and victimizers. He addressed the ancestors who bought and sold slaves and his ancestors who rode “in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship,” saying to them, “I give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift.” The “soldering of two great worlds” -- Europe and the Americas -- was one of Walcott’s major projects. Even as a vision of cultural fusion informs the style of his poetry, the soldering of worlds has ethical implications, too. Accounting for the complexities of others’ experiences can remind us of our abiding human bonds, even amidst the blood and muck of the world. “Ruins of a Great House” ends with a vision of compassion -- which surely is a gift. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Poets know form equals function. Even better, poets know form enables function -- which might explain why poets appear more deliberately invested in form than fiction writers. Form is essential to poetry because it requires the union of strangeness and conformity. By nature, poems are acts of selection and deletion. The poet makes her own margins. In fiction, white space is often arbitrary: a clearing of the space amidst dialogue, the breaths between paragraphs. Poems are sculpted art, and it helps to begin them with a sense of form. Edward Hirsch’s The Essential Poet’s Glossary -- what he calls a “shorter and more focused” version of his encyclopedic A Poet’s Glossary -- contains a wide variety of entries. He covers poetic movements and styles, from “abstract poetry” to “zaum,” a “kind of sound poetry, a disruptive poetic language focused on the materiality of words.” A gifted poet himself, Hirsch has long been known as a clear and specific critic. Each entry of this pared volume feels like a tight, concrete prose poem. Lovers of verse are blessed with specific examples and quotable lines. Hirsch’s book sends poets to other books, other poems, and even better -- inspires poets to create new work. My favorite part of Hirsch’s book is his compendium of poetic forms. Many are idiosyncratic and obscure -- adjectives that have never stopped poets before. Each poetic form is an opportunity. A new house for words. In alphabetical order, here are 10 of the most intriguing forms included in Hirsch’s volume. Why not try them yourself? 1. Canzone Petrarch established this form of lyric love poem with stanzas of five or six lines, ending with an envoi -- a half-stanza. Hirsch identifies Dante Alighieri as an admirer of the canzone, and the great poet created his own “maddeningly difficult” permutation of the form, which “uses the same five end-words in each of the five 12-line stanzas, intricately varying the pattern.” See also the recursive wit of Marilyn Hacker's "Canzone:" "sinewy and singular, the tongue / accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ / can." 2. Epinicion Pindar began the tradition of writing commissioned victory odes for 5th -century B.C.E. athletes. These poems “called for an ecstatic performance that communally reenacted the ritual participation in the divine.” A race or a wrestling match became the occasion for eternal significance. Gods and heroes were intoned. Steph Curry and Serena Williams deserve contemporary epinicia, but so might weekend warriors on the pick-up court hustling to recreate glory days. It would not be the first time that poetry has elevated the mediocre. 3. Ghazal A gorgeous form, originated in 7th-century Arabia and practiced until the present. Hirsch finds meaning in both definitions of the word: “sweet talk” and “the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it must die.” Ahmed Ali notes an “atmosphere of sadness and grief pervades the ghazal.” Agha Shahid Ali calls them “ravishing disunities.” The form has several versions, but in one, there are “five or more autonomous couplets. Each two-line unit is independent, disjunctive.” See Patricia Smith's “Hip-Hop Ghazal:” “As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak, / inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.” 4. Kyrielle A French form with “any number of four-line stanzas, usually rhymed. The last line of the first stanza repeats, sometimes with meaningful variations, as the final line of each quatrain.” Hirsch suggests Thomas Campion’s 1613 poem “With broken heart and contrite sigh” as a text that “fits the letter and law” of the form. Campion repeats “God, be merciful to me” before concluding “God has been merciful to me.” Another useful example: Theodore Roethke’s children’s poem “Dinky:” “O what's the weather in a Beard? / It's windy there, and rather weird, / And when you think the sky has cleared / -- Why, there is Dirty Dinky.” 5. Muwashshah Andalusian Arabic strophic poem that “regularly alternates sections with separate rhymes and others with common rhymes.” Think aa bbaa ccaa and so on. Began in 9th-century Spain and delivered in classical Arabic -- although its final couplet often arrived in more vernacular Spanish. Later, Jewish Andalusian poets adopted the form, which became known as “girdle poems.” Peter Cole describes such a poem as one “in which the rhyming chorus winds about the various strophes of the poem as a gem-studded sash cuts across the body.” 6. Pantoum So much in poetry is lost in translation, including the strict original rhyme of Charles Baudelaire's pantoum “Evening Harmony:” “Now comes the time when swaying on its stem / each flower offers incense to the night; / phrases and fragrances circle in the dark-- / languorous waltz that casts a lingering spell!” The spirit remains. Each line of a pantoum includes between eight and 12 syllables. Hirsch likens the pantoum’s disjunctive nature to the ghazal: “the sentence that makes up the first pair of lines has no immediate logical or narrative connection with the second pair of lines.” At first, the connection is made by rhyme, sound repetition, or even pun, but “there is also an oblique but necessary relationship, and the first statement turns out to be a metaphor for the second one.” The pantoum “is always looking back over its shoulder, and thus is well suited to evoke a sense of times past.” 7. Renga A Japanese form, meaning “linked poem.” First created “around a thousand years ago” as a “party game,” each stanza of a renga links to the preceding section. Poets bounced tanka-like sections off each other, honing “their skills at creating images and linking dissimilar elements.” In the traditional Japanese method, the composition begins with an honored guest writing the opening, followed by an accompaniment by the party’s host. Certain renga shifted from playful to serious, but those light-hearted poetic games still remain. 8. Tenson In the 12th century, Provençal poets debated in verse battles. Each tenson “could take any metrical form, through the respondent was often challenged to reply in the same meter and rhyme scene used by the challenger.” If no literal combatant existed, poets sometimes created imaginary enemies. Yet contemporary poets likely would have no problem finding literary adversaries, and they could follow the model of Dante Alighieri and “his one-time friend Forese Donati,” who exchanged “six rancorous and insulting sonnets.” 9. Triolet Eight-lined poem, with two rhymes and two refrains. The subject is introduced in the first two lines. The fourth line is repeated later; between those repetitions include lines that expand the original subject. The final lines “knit the conclusion.” Repeated lines evolve in meaning and connotation. Hirsch describes the form as “intricate, playful, and melodious,” -- but notes the first English triolets were prayers by 17th-century Benedictine monk Patrick Carey. According to Edmund Gosse, “nothing can be more ingeniously mischievous, more playfully sly, than this tiny trill of epigrammatic melody, turning so simply on its own innocent axis.” Innocent, yes, but also sharp, as in the pen of Sandra McPherson: “She was in love with the same danger / everybody is. Dangerous / as it is to love a stranger, / she was in love.” 10. Villanelle Hirsch includes common and tried forms like sonnets, and although I’ve leaned toward the more unique forms, I can’t ignore the beautiful appeal of the villanelle, a true test of poetic endurance and dexterity (one that tempted and strained Stephen Dedalus). A French form by way of Italian pastoral folk songs, the villanelle contains “nineteen lines divided into six stanza -- five tercets and one quatrain.” The rhyme and repetition is as follows: Elizabeth Bishop and other poets have realized the “compulsive returns” of the villanelle form speak to loss: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Others, like Aimee Nezhukumatathil, have spun the form into fresh designs, as in “After the Auction, I Bid You Good-Bye:” “You elbow me with your corduroy jacket / when a box chock-full of antique marbles comes up. / I can’t hear your whispers above the auctioneer’s racket. / / The clipped speech of the auctioneer cracked / me up when you impersonated him in bed.” The best poets spring headlong into forms, and, faced with forced constraints and concision, make all things new.