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Songs of Ourselves: Searching for America’s Epic Poem

Although 1820 was more than a generation after the Revolutionary War, British critic Sydney Smith was perhaps still smarting when he wrote in The Edinburgh Review, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” He claimed that the recently independent Americans have “done absolutely nothing…for the Arts, for Literature.” American writers have since been involved in a two-century process of crafting a rejoinder to Smith’s scurrilous assertion. We called this endeavor the “Great American Novel,” and since Smith’s royalist glove-slap the United States has produced scores of potential candidates to that exalted designation. But for all of our tweedy jingoism, the United States seems rare among nations in not having an identifiable and obvious candidate for national epic.  After all, the Greeks have The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Romans have The Aeneid, the Spanish have El Cid, the French The Song of Roland, Italy The Divine Comedy, and the British The Faerie Queene. Even the Finns have The Kalevala, from which our own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cribbed a distinctive trochaic tetrameter in his attempt to craft an American national epic called The Song of Hiawatha. What follows is a list of other potential American epic poems, where the words “American,” “epic,” and “poem” will all have opportunity to be liberally interpreted. Some of these poems reach the heights of canonicity alongside our ”Great American Novels,” others most emphatically do not. [Editor's Note: See our "Correction" to this list.] The Four Monarchies (1650) by Anne Bradstreet Anne Bradstreet’s collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America inaugurated what we could call “American literature.” Scholars have often given short shrift to her so-called “quaternions,” long poems encapsulating literature, history, theology, and science into considerations of concepts grouped in fours (like the four elements, seasons, ages of man, and so on). Her epic The Four Monarchies follows the influence of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas in recounting the historical details of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, which are commonly associated with the four kingdoms of the biblical book of Daniel’s prophecy. While a committed Protestant (even if her private writings evidence a surprising degree of skepticism), Bradstreet was inheritor to a particular understanding of history that saw the seat of empire moving from kingdoms such as the ones explored in her quaternion, to a final fifth monarchy that would be ruled by Christ. It’s hard not to possibly see a westerly America as the last of these monarchies, as taking part in what John Winthrop famously evoked when he conceived of New England as being a “city on a hill” (incidentally that sermon was delivered aboard the Arbela, which was also transporting Bradstreet and her family to America). Reflecting on that passing from Old World to New, Bradstreet wrote that her “heart rose up” in trepidation, even if she ultimately would come to be the first poet of that New World. Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton Despite John Milton being one of “God’s Englishmen,” Paradise Lost is consummately American in its themes of rebellion, discovery, and the despoiling of paradisiacal realms. The poet’s radical republican politics seemed to prefigure that of the country in the way his native England never could embrace. A century later, in the burgeoning democracy across the Atlantic men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin read the Milton of the pamphlets Eikonoklastes (which celebrated the execution of Charles I) and Areopagitica (which advocated for freedom of speech) as a prophet of revolution. Scholarship about the poem has often hinged on how Lucifer, he who believes that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” should be understood: as traitor or romantic rebel. For a monarchical society such as England’s, Milton was always more a poet for the radicals than he was one to be celebrated with a monument in the Poet’s Corner.  As early Christians once believed Plato and Socrates prefigured Christ, I’ll claim that Milton prefigures America. The Day of Doom (1662) by Michael Wigglesworth Milton’s colonial contemporary Michael Wigglesworth has fared less well in terms of posterity, and yet his long apocalyptic poem The Day of Doom stood alongside John Bunyan and the Bible as the most read book in New England well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Wigglesworth epic was the first to fully capture the American public’s obsession with Armageddon (first sacred, now secular), depicting a shortly arriving Judgment Day whereby those who were “Wallowing in all kind of sin” would soon view a “light, which shines more bright/than doth the noonday sun” with the coming of Christ and the destruction (and redemption) of the world. Yet its deceptively simple rhyming couplets about the apocalypse betray an almost ironic, gothic sensibility. A critical edition of the book has yet to be published in our own day, yet the book was so popular that virtually no copies of its first printing survive, having been read so fervently that the books were worn to oblivion. The Rising Glory of America (1772) by Philip Freneau with Hugh Henry Brackenridge Four years before the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia, the New York born Huguenot poet Philip Freneau stood on the steps of Nassau Hall at Princeton University with his Scottish born classmate Hugh Henry Brackenridge and declared that “here fair freedom shall forever reign.” Six years after that, Freneau found himself held captive for six weeks aboard one of the stinking British prison ships that filled New York Harbor, only to escape and write verse about the ordeal, confirming his unofficial position as the bard of the American Revolution. Those prison ships were notorious at the time, with the bleached skulls and bones of their cast-over victims washing up onto the shores of Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey into the early-1800s; as such, Americans thirsted for a soldier-poet like Freneau to embody the republican ideals of independence from British tyranny. Now, two centuries later, the “poet of the American Revolution” is all but unknown, except to specialists.  But at the height of his esteem, patriotic Americans, in particular those of a Jeffersonian bent, saw Freneau as an American poet laureate whose verse could extol both the virtues of democratic governance, and the coming prestige of the “Empire of Liberty,” which was to be built upon those precepts. In Freneau’s writings, whether his poetry or his journalistic work for James Madison’s The National Gazette, he envisioned “America” as a type of secular religion, the last act in human history providentially heading towards its glorious conclusion “where time shall introduce/Renowned characters, and glorious works/Of high invention and of wond’rous art.” He may have failed in his goal of being counted among these “Renowned characters,” yet the “wondr’ous art” he predicted to soon arise in this new nation would eventually come to pass. Proposed Second Volume (1784) by Phillis Wheatley We do not know what her real name was. She was kidnapped from her West African home at age seven, and rechristened first “Phillis” after the name of the slave ship that pulled her across the Atlantic, and then “Wheatley” after the pious Boston family who purchased her as chattel. We cannot understand how the Puritan family was able to personally justify ownership of this girl who was translating Horace and Virgil at the age of 12. We do not have record of the hours-long examination she underwent at age 18 with the same number of men (including John Hancock and the Rev. Samuel Mather) to successfully prove herself the author of the volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The reading public refused to believe that she could have written verse evocative of John Dryden and Alexander Pope without confirmation from those white men who constituted that committee. We cannot tell how genuine her belief is that it “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” as a child on the Middle Passage, where almost a quarter of Africans died before they reached land. We do not know with what intonation she delivered the line “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”. We cannot know what may have constituted the conversations between colleagues like the fellow slave Jupiter Hammon, or the Indian poet Samson Occom; we can only read their odes to one another. We do not know how much the shift in her celebrations of George III to George Washington evidence a change in ideology, or the necessary calculus of the survivor. We do not have record of the deprivations she experienced when finally manumitted but forced to work as a scullery maid, or of her husband’s imprisonment in debtor’s prison, or of her pregnancy (her child dying only a few hours after Wheatley herself died at the age of 31). We do not have her second book of poetry, nor its contents. We do not know if this lost epic sits in some sleepy college archive, or is yellowing in a Massachusetts attic, or rebound in some British library. We only know that in her Augustan classicism, her elegant couplets, her poetic voice always forced by circumstance to speak in her oppressors’ tongue, that we are reading one of the finest American poets of the 18th century. Visions of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807) by Joel Barlow In first his Visions of Columbus, and later The Columbiad, Barlow attempted to consciously write an epic befitting his new nation, whose drama he saw as equivalent to that of universal mankind. Borrowing the narrative structure of Paradise Lost, Barlow envisions a westerly angel named Hesperus as appearing to Christopher Columbus in a Castilian prison cell and revealing the future epic history of the continents he (supposedly) discovered. In The Columbiad Barlow wished to “teach all men where all their interest lies, /How rulers may be just and nations wise:/Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee, /Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.” Columbus may have been a strange heroic subject for the eventually steadfastly secular Barlow, but in the mariner the poet saw not the medieval minded Catholic zealot of historical reality, but rather a non-English citizen of Renaissance republicanism (and thus an appropriate patron for these new lands). Barlow’s contemporary Percy Shelley famously wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; in Barlow’s case language, whether poetic or diplomatic, was central in the project of constructing these new men of the New World. Barlow had long rejected the religion of his youth, and saw in the United States a new, almost millennial nation, which would fulfill humanity’s natural inclination towards freedom, where “that rare union, Liberty and Laws, /Speaks to the reas’ning race ‘to/freedom rise, /Like them be equal, and like them be/wise.” America: A Prophecy (1793) by William Blake Already critiqued as turgid in its own day, Barlow’s The Columbiad has only become more obscure in the intervening two centuries. Yet what it loses in number of overall readers, the poem makes up for it in the genius of those who were inspired by it, with that mystic of Lambeth William Blake reading Barlow and penning his own America: A Prophecy in visionary emulation of it. Blake is deservedly remembered as a poetic genius, Barlow not so much. The non-conformist eccentric genius “looking westward trembles at the vision,” saw in the rebellion of “Washington, Franklin, [and] Paine” the redemption of all mankind. Inspired by a heterodox religious upbringing, the rich poetic tradition of England, the coming fires of Romanticism, and the particular madness and brilliance of his own soul, Blake composed the most emancipatory verse of his or any era. With his vocation to break the “mind forg’d manacles” which enslave all mankind, Blake saw the great 18th-century revolutions in America and France as not just political acts, but indeed as ruptures in the very metaphysical substance of reality. The narrative is typical Blake, encoded in a biblical language so personal that it remains inscrutable as it is beautiful. The angel Orc, rebelling against the anti-Christ surrogate Albion, prophecies that “The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations/The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.” In a rejection of his servitude, this spirit of independence declaims, “no more I follow, no more obedience pay.” An Englishman writing in England with a heart more American than any of the revolutionaries he celebrates, Blake writes, “Then had America been lost, o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic, /And Earth had lost another portion of the Infinite;/But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.” But Blake’s hatred of all kings was consistent, he rejected the idolatrous apotheosis of the god-president Washington, and as is the fate of all revolutionaries, America would ultimately break his heart. For Blake, no nation proclaiming liberty while holding so many of its people in bondage could claim to be truly independent. Freedom was still to be found elsewhere. Madoc (1805) by Robert Southey Because his and his friend Samuel Coleridge’s dreams of founding a utopia on the Susquehanna River would be unrealized, Southey’s American dreams remained in England, where he composed an unlikely epic charting a counterfactual history imagining epic battles between the Welsh and the Aztecs. The poem is based on legends surrounding the Welsh prince Madoc, who in the 12th century supposedly escaped civil war in his home country to travel west and dwell among the Indians of America. There is an enduring quality to these sorts of apocryphal stories of pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic contact. The Elizabethan astrologer John Dee used these legends as justification for English colonization of the Americas, explorers ranging from Spanish conquistadors to Jamestown natives claimed to have found blonde-haired Welsh speaking Indians, and in Alabama and Georgia historical markers reporting these myths as facts stood as recently as 2015. The undeniable excitement and romance of such a possibility is threaded throughout Madoc, which pits Celt against Aztec and druid against pyramid high-priest, with a council of Welsh bards naming the prince a “Merlin” to the Americas. The poem is ready-made for the cinematic treatment, even as its imaginary medieval battles allowed the once idealistic Southey to overlook the unequal violence of historical colonialism, and in the process to embrace an increasingly conservative politics. Yet the Arthurian fantasy of the story is inescapably fascinating, as Southey asks, “Will ye believe/The wonders of the ocean? how its shoals/Sprang from the wave, like flashing light…/language cannot paint/Their splendid tints!” The Song of Hiawatha (1855) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Once Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the greatest American bard, the most accomplished of the Fireside Poets, whose verse celebrated Yankee independence and liberty. The question of what America’s national epic was would be easy for a good Victorian -- it could be nothing other than Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. And yet the literary critical history of the 20th-century was not kind to the bearded old New Englander. The degradation has become such that current poet Lewis Putnam Turco derides Longfellow as “minor and derivative in every way… nothing more than a hack imitator.” In the years and decades after its composition, generations of American school-children memorized the opening lines of Longfellow’s poem: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee, /Of the shining Big-Sea Water, /Stood Nokomis, the old woman, /Pointing with her finger westward,/O’er the water pointing westward,/To the purple clouds of sunset.”  The distinctive trochaic trimeter, borrowed from the Finnish epic The Kalevala gives the epic a distinct beat intentionally evoking an Indian pow-wow as imagined by Longfellow. Critical history has not only been unkind to Longfellow, it has also been unfair. While Freneau and Barlow consciously mimicked European precedents, and Southey constructed his own imaginary representations of the Aztec, Longfellow tried to tell an indigenous story as accurately as he could (even if his own identity may have precluded that as a possibility). Based on his friendship with the Ojibwa chief Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh and the Sauk chief Black Hawk, the poet attempted to use indigenous history and religion to craft a uniquely American epic. For much of its reception history American readers took the poem as precisely that. Longfellow’s tale sung of Hiawatha, a follower of the 12th-century Great Peacemaker of the Iroquoian Confederacy who preached in the western hills around Lake Superior and of New York and Pennsylvania. Though little read anymore, the poem still echoes as an attempt not just to write an epic for America, but also to transcribe a genuinely American epic. “Song of Myself” (1855) by Walt Whitman Both The Song of Hiawatha and “Song of Myself” were published in 1855; and while the former sold 50,000 copies upon release, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, self-published in a Brooklyn print shop, didn’t even sell out its small initial run of 800. Of the few reviews published, most seemed to repeat some variation of the critic who called the slender volume “reckless and indecent.” And yet a century and a half later it is Whitman whom we hold in the highest esteem, as America’s answer to Milton or Blake. For in Whitman we have the first genuine rupture in American literary history, with the New York poet following Milton’s lead in “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” For Whitman abandoned the conventional rules of prosody, loosening tongue and ligament to craft a lusty and hearty free verse equal parts Bowery dock-worker and King James Bible. So what, exactly, was Whitman’s epic about? In short, it took as its subject -- simply everything. The poem is about the “marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,” and “The runaway slave” who came to a house and “stopt outside,” and also “The young men” who “float on their backs” whose “white bellies bulge to the sun,” and “The pure contralto” who “sings in the organ loft,” and “The quadroon girl” who is “sold at the auction stand” and “The machinist” who “rolls up his sleeves,” as well as “The groups of newly-come immigrants.” He understood that in a truly democratic society the Golden Age platitudes of the traditional epic form could not truly confront the vibrant, egalitarian reality of lived experience, and so rather than sing of Columbus, or Washington, or Hiawatha, Whitman asks us to “celebrate yourself.” The “I” of “Song of Myself” is not quite reducible to Whitman as the author, and therein lies the genius of his narration, for he elevates himself in a sort of literary kenosis, becoming an almost omniscient figure for whom the first-person personal pronoun comes to almost pantheistically encompass all of reality. And though Whitman was a type of mystic, he was always consciously American as well, penning that most American of genres -- advertisements for himself. Complete Poems (c.1886) by Emily Dickinson Dickinson is not the author of any conventional epic, nor would she have considered herself to be an epic poet. What she offers instead are close to 2,000 lyrics, so finely and ingeniously structured, so elegant in the relationship between line and image and rhythm, that taken as a whole they offer a portrait of a human mind anticipating death that is as consummate and perfect as any offered by any other poet. Like Leaves of Grass, the fragments of Dickinson scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper present an epic that is secretly, yet simply, the reader’s own life story. Dickinson belongs among that collection of the greatest philosophers, whose orientation towards truth is such that she is able to tell us that which we all know, but were unable to say. Take the line “I am Nobody! Who are you? /Are you – Nobody – too?” With her characteristic idiosyncratic punctuation (that capitalized “Nobody!”) and the strange, almost-ironic interrogative declaration. In her logical statement of identity, which is built upon negation, she offered a Yankee version of God’s declaration in Exodus that “I am what I am.”  The Cantos (c.1915-62) by Ezra Pound His Cantos are the strangest epic, a syncretic alchemy of American history, Chinese philosophy, and ancient Greek poetry. Almost impenetrable in their hermeticism, Pound’s actual phrases were able to distill the essence of an image to their very form. Yet he was also an anti-American traitor, madman, war criminal, propagandist, and defender of the worst evils of the 20th century. He was an ugly man, but as a poet he could cut excess down to crystalline perfection: “The apparition of these faces in the/crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Some 20 years after his infamous wartime broadcasts for the Italian fascists, a faded, broken, wrinkled, and ancient Pound found himself living in Venice. Sitting before the elderly man in that Venetian villa was a balding, magnificently bearded Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and Jewish Buddhist, there to break bread with Pound. Ginsberg brought along some vinyl to play; he wished to demonstrate to Pound the distinct American speech that threaded from the older poet through Ginsberg and to that other Jewish folk troubadour, this one named Robert Allen Zimmerman. The younger poet, reportedly forgiving and gracious to a fault, claimed that Pound apologized for his anti-Semitic betrayals during the war.  Yet this was not an act of contrition -- it was a request for cheap grace. Beautiful verse can sprout from poisoned soil. We can still read him, but that does not mean that we need to forgive him, even if Ginsberg could. John Brown’s Body (1922) by Stephen Vincent Benét The writer from Bethlehem, Penn., attempted his classically structured epic poem at an unfortunate cultural moment for classically structured epic poems. Though it won a Pulitzer Prize a year after it was written, John Brown’s Body remains largely forgotten. Though Benét’s conservative aesthetics that call upon the “American muse, whose strong and diverse heart/So many have tried to understand” may seem retrograde, what’s actually contained is the fullest poetic expression of the definitional moment of American history. John Brown’s Body, which teaches us that “Sometimes there comes a crack in Time itself,” returns to slavery, the original sin of American history, and to the incomplete war waged to bring an end to the horrors of bondage. Benét, most famous for his story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (which if anything has reached the level of fable, its author’s name largely forgotten) attempted to craft an epic to commemorate the Civil War while its veterans still lived. His task is conscious, perhaps thinking of Barlow, Freneau, and others, he writes of his nation “They tried to fit you with an English song/And clip your speech into the English tale. /But, even from the first, the words went wrong.” The poem would be mere affectation if not for how beautiful lines of the poem could be, and if not for how important the poet’s task was, and if not for just how often he comes close to accomplishing it. The Bridge (1930) by Hart Crane From his apartment at 110 Columbia Heights the poet Hart Crane could see that massive structure that began to span from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan. Like Barlow, Crane borrows the character of Columbus, as well as other semi-mythic American personages such as Pocahontas and Rip Van Winkle in leading up to his own experience of seeing this new wonder of the world unite two formerly separate cities.  Beneath the shadow of the bridge he asks, “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest/The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him, /Shedding white rings of tumult, building high/Over the chained bay waters Liberty.” The poem was written as a rejoinder to the pessimism in that other epic, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Crane’s own life could be desperate: alcoholic and dead at 32 from his own hand after being savagely beaten by a homophobic crowd. Yet in The Bridge he tries to marshal that definitional American optimism, this sense of a New World being a place that can make new people.  A contemporary critic noted that the poem, in “its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails.” And yet whether this is said fairly or not, it misses the point that all epics must in some sense be defined by failure, the only question is how well you failed. By this criterion, in its scope, breadth, ambition, and empathy, Crane failed very well.  "Middle Passage" (c.1940) by Robert Hayden Benét intuited that slavery was the dark core of what defined this nation, and that no understanding of who we could be can ever really begin till we have fully admitted to ourselves what we have been. The poet Robert Hayden concurred withBenét, and his "Middle Passage" was a black expression of the horrors and traumas that defined American power and wealth, a moral inventory that explicates the debt of blood owed to the millions of men, women, and children subjugated under an evil system. His epic is one of the fullest poetic expressions of the massive holocaust of Africans ripped from their homes and transported on the floating hells that were the slave ships of the middle passage, telling the narrative of “Middle Passage:/voyage through death/to life upon these shores.” No complete personal memoir of the middle passage survives (with the possible exception of 1789's The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano) and so Hayden had to make himself a medium or a conduit for voices that were silenced by the horrors of slavery, writing of “Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, /the dark ships move, the dark ships move.” Hayden had certainly never been in the stomach of a slave ship himself, and yet he conveys the knowledge that “there was hardly room ‘tween-decks for half/the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;/that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh/and sucked the blood.” "Middle Passage" is such a consummate American epic precisely because it enacts the central tragedy of our history, but its ending is triumphant, depicting the emergence of a new hybridized identity, that of the African-American. The conclusion of Hayden’s poem is inescapable: all that is most innovative about American culture from our music to our food to our vernacular to our literature has its origins in the peoples who were brutally forced to this land. Paterson (1946-63) by William Carlos Williams Of course a town like Paterson, N.J., could generate an epic five-volume poem, penned by her native son, the pediatrician-bard William Carlos Williams. True to his Yankee ethic, Williams's philosophy was one that was vehemently materialist, practical in its physicality and imploring us to “Say it! No ideas but in things.” In Paterson Williams's answered Eliot’s obscure Waste Land with a poetic rejoinder, one that rejected the later poet’s obscurity and difficult language with a paean to the lusty American vernacular every bit the equal of Williams’s fellow New Jerseyite Whitman. That language flowed as surely as the Passaic River across those five volumes, and over two decades of writing. What the poem provides is a thorough and deep history of this particular place, using it as a reflective monad to encompass the history of the entire country from colonialism, through revolution and industrialization into the modern day. In Williams’s epic the reader experiences, “The past above, the future below/and the present pouring down: the roar, /the roar of the present, a speech –/ is, of necessity, my sole concern.” Howl (1955) by Allen Ginsberg The Blakean New Jerseyite may have implored us to topple Moloch’s statue, but we used his poem to sell coffee, jeans, and computers. A criticism of the Beats was always that their modus operandi was more style than substance, a disservice to Howl, which when read free of the accumulated cultural debris that surrounds it is still thrillingly inspired. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked” (at a tender age I inscribed those very lines around the white edge of a pair of black Converse hi-tops with a purple felt pen). Howl can seem a mere product of the mid-century counterculture, but that doesn’t mean that his bop Kabbalistic vision of the sacred embedded within the grit and muck of marginalized people -- the radials, and junkies, and queers, and addicts, and drunks -- doesn’t remain profoundly beautiful. Ginsberg sings the song of “Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection/to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Dedicated to one of these lost children of America, Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met in a Patterson mental hospital, Howl’s vision is profoundly redemptive, despite its depiction of an America that is more Babylon than “City on a hill.” The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (1972) by Frank Stanford The poet Frank Stanford marshaled that Southern history that hangs as thick as a blanket of lightning bugs on a humid July night in his brilliant The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. If not America’s great epic than it is surely the South’s, where the poem is all moonshine and Elvis Presley, yet not reducible to its constituent parts. Following the lead of modernists like E.E. Cummings, Stanford produced a massive poem devoid of punctuation and reproduced without any stanzas, one that never reached the heights of canonicity despite being celebrated by poets like Alan Dugan as among the greatest American works of the 20th century. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You endures as a half-remembered phantom born out of a particular Southern dark genius, and now almost folk-myth as much as it is actual text, out of print for years at a time. Stanford, who killed himself with three pistol shots to the chest at the age of 30 in 1978 endures as a literary ghost, still searching for a deserving audience. As he wrote, “Death is a good word. /It often returns/When it is very/Dark outside and hot, /Like a fisherman/Over the limit, /Without pain, sex, /Or melancholy. /Young as I am, I/Hold light for this boat.” The New World (1985) by Frederick Turner Perhaps a central anxiety of American literature, which reflects on the endlessly novel and regenerative possibilities of this Golden Land, is that as the clock ticks forward we become less and less new. Hence the necessity to continually reinvent, to “make it new” as Pound put it. The Neo-Formalist poet Frederick Turner takes this injunction very literally with his provocative science fiction epic appropriately titled The New World. Set in a fantastic 24th century, Turner envisions a fractured and disunited states of America born out of the fissures and inconsistencies that always defined American cultural identity. There are now groups like the anarchic Riots, the Eloi-like Burbs, the theocratic Mad Counties, and the Jeffersonian Free Counties. What follows is an archetypal story of family feuding, exile, and messianism across these designated polities, and in the process Turner tells a narrative about America’s history by imagining America’s future. Invoking the muse, as is the nature of the epic convention, Turner writes “I sing of what it is to be a man and a woman in our time.” What follows is a circus-mirror reflection of America, brilliantly harnessing the potential of science fiction as a modern genre and using the vehicle of the seemingly moribund epic form to sing a new story. The future setting of Turner’s epic serves to remind us that this mode, so much older than America, will also outlive us. The Forage House (2013) by Tess Taylor As genealogy-obsessed as we may be, many Americans have an anxiety about fully recognizing their own reflections in past mirrors, with the full implications of where we’ve come from steadfastly avoided. Poet Tess Taylor writes, “At first among certain shadows/you felt forbidden to ask whose they were.”  In The Forage House she crafts an American epic by writing a personal one; she interrogates the long-dead members of her own lineage, pruning the tendrils of her family tree and discovering that while genealogy need not be destiny, it also must be acknowledged. A native Californian, she is descended from both New England missionaries and Virginian slave owners, with one ancestor in particular, Thomas Jefferson, as enigmatic a cipher as any for the strange contradictions of this land. Jefferson may not have admitted that branch of his family tree sired through his slave Sally Hemings, but Taylor seeks out her black cousins. To do this isn’t an issue of political expedience, but one profoundly and necessarily urgent in its spiritual importance. Perhaps it is in the collection of people that constitute a family, and indeed a nation, where we can identify an epic worthy of the nation. Rugged individualism be damned, we’re ultimately not a nation of soloists, but a choir. Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine The dark irony of the word “citizen” as the title of Rankine’s poem is that this postmodern epic explores the precise ways that this nation has never treated its citizens equally. Combining poetry, creative nonfiction, and a stunningly designed image, Citizen has the appearance of a photography magazine but the impact of a manifesto. The cover of the book depicts a gray hood, isolated in a field of white, presented as if it were some sort of decontextualized object or museum piece. But the hoodie calls to mind the murdered Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; Citizen ensures that we can never view an artifact as this out of context. The awareness that Citizen conveys is that this is a nation in which a black child like Martin, simply walking home from the store with iced tea and Skittles, can be killed by an armed vigilante who is then acquitted by a jury of his peers. But it would be a mistake to think that Rankine’s poem is some sort of sociological study, for as helpful as the adoption of terms like “privilege” and “intersectionality” have been in providing a means for political analysis, Citizen displays the deep, intuitive wisdom that only poetry can deliver -- racism not simply as a problem of policy, but also as a national spiritual malady. From Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” to Citizen, conservative critics have purposefully obscured the purposes of these poetic sermons. Yet what Rankine attempts is profoundly American, for Citizen conveys that any America falling short of its stated promises is an America that betrays its citizens. As she writes, “Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” In answering what our national epic is, Uncle Walt said that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem;” the importance of Citizen is that it reminds us that this poem has yet to be fully written. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
On Poetry

These Poems Will Never Become a Nostalgic Object

This essay is the introduction to the new NYRB Poets edition of The White Stones by J.H. Prynne. Very few books of poetry published in England in the 20th century have the aura of J.H. Prynne’s The White Stones. The essential beauty of Prynne’s work is a quality of mind. I vividly remember reading it for the first time in 1986 and being struck by its gorgeous surface structure and energetic belief system: It is a bright element, even psychedelic at times. Hard to believe that such a book would need an introduction, a book that has been passed from poet to poet for decades. It has long been, and remains, a touchstone. The poems of The White Stones were written between 1964 and 1968. This was a period of great activity for Prynne, a time of many and new correspondences with British and American poets, and the inaugurations of various journals, most notably the Cambridge-based The English Intelligencer, edited by the poets Andrew Crozier and Peter Riley. Prynne was a central contributor of poems, essays, and letters to The English Intelligencer, where the majority of the poems in The White Stones were first published. Thirty-six issues appeared between 1966 and 1968, serving as a laboratory for an extended group of poets purposefully creating an English countertradition. A year before the publication of The White Stones in 1969, Prynne published Kitchen Poems and Day Light Songs, the latter included in this new volume, as is the 1969 essay/prose poem “A Note on Metal.” Now, almost 50 years on, there is a large body of discourse about Prynne’s work, but as soon as one tries to pin down the original signal of these poems it gets slippery. They refuse to be categorized: If they’re Marxist, they’re also heterodox; if they’re romantic, they’re also analytic; if they’re scientific, they’re also magical. And while Prynne’s method shares cardinal features with Charles Olson’s projective verse, the romantic philosophical inflection is closer to William Wordsworth, Friedrich Hölderlin, and late Wallace Stevens. When I first encountered Prynne’s work, I felt that there was a braiding, like a double helix, of the Pound/Olson tradition with the Romantic/Stevens tradition, of high romanticism with physical, investigative, transhistorical inquiry. In the course of the '60s Prynne developed deep and important friendships with some of the New American Poets, most notably Olson and Edward Dorn. In fact, after a voluminous correspondence with Olson, Prynne was responsible for preparing and editing the holographic manuscript of Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI. No mean task. There is an edition of the Prynne/Olson letters forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press, which will further illuminate this important correspondence between these two brilliant and original men. For this reason, it is worth rehearsing the elegant system that Olson proposed for an emancipatory poetics in his now venerable but still deeply relevant essay “Projective Verse.” As Olson had it: . . . The two halves are:            the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE            the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE Olson further elucidates: “I am dogmatic, that the head shows in the syllable. The dance of the intellect . . .” and goes on to say, “And the threshing floor for the dance? Is it anything but the LINE?” The line in The White Stones works both the line break and in the clausal phrases that keep the machine humming and dancing from one idea to the next, one subject to the next, while constantly opening the horizon of meaning that each poem proposes. The work is full of necessary and productive restlessness in the service of discovery, you can feel the breath driving the poem.The contracted and sometimes crabbed grammar creates rhythm, but the percussive quality of the diction creates something very physical. The ending of the poem “Song in Sight of the World” is a clear example of the syncopation produced from the technique of line and comma working together to both further and interrupt meaning: The light will do all this, to love is the last resort, you must know, I will tell you, this, love, is                          the world. There is a feeling in this book that a language is coming to the speaker of the poem in the very act of composition -- that is, in real time. For example, in “First Notes on Daylight” we find: Patience is truly my device, as we wait for the past to happen, which is to come into the open. As I expect it to, daily. . . These poems are faceted like crystal to daylight, or as Prynne would have it: “The striations are part of the heart’s / desire.” In many of the poems, this massing of clauses and perspectives creates an effect whereby any given singularity of personhood is defined and perhaps generated by a multiplicity of larger structural forces. In the magisterial poem “The Glacial Question, Unsolved,” the temporal structure is the geologic time and weather of the British Isles: The falling movement, the light cloud blowing in from the ice of Norfolk thrust. As the dew recedes from the grass towards noon the line of recession slips back. We know where the north is, the ice is an evening whiteness. We know this, we are what it leaves: the Pleistocene is our current sense, and what in sentiment we are, we are, the coast, a line or sequence, the cut back down, to the shore. In “Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform,” one of the most romantically charged poems in this volume, we encounter an interiority, a private meditation on the costuming of the court in which Joseph Haydn composed; we feel the pressure of composition and aesthetics within a ritualized social structure: I walk on up the hill, in the warm sun and we do not return, the place is entirely musical. No person can live there & what is similar is the deeper resource, the now hidden purpose. I refer directly to my own need, since to advance in the now fresh & sprouting world must take on some musical sense. Literally, the grace & hesitation of modal descent, the rhyme unbearable, the coming down through the prepared delay and once again we are there, beholding the complete elation of our end. A metamorphic language is at play in these poems, where the voice is more observational than sentimental: Naming is the prerogative for knowing. In Prynne’s conception, both court systems and glaciers are players in a larger formation, they endure now in their afterlife as a lyric poem. There is an utopian energy in The White Stones continually wheeling outward, which is why this work will never become a nostalgic object: It is constantly happening. Its readers will find binding narratives, science, economics, romantic love, history, prehistory organically deployed throughout the book’s soundscape. To dramatize this multiplicity, to make it real and active on the page is one of the standing achievements of The White Stones, the ambition of a voice enunciating scale. This book retains a deep glamour by means of its undeniable beauty and phenomenal architecture, its intellect, its vocabularies, and its singular way to song.
Lists, On Poetry

Enormous Zippers Unfastening: Ten Poems for the End of the World

We don’t know when it will happen -- whether some April or July or December will be the cruelest month -- but we know poets are fascinated with the end of the world. Novelists and essayists ponder the apocalypse, but poems are particularly suited toward capturing the anxiety of the end. Consider Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk,” which narrows from the grand expansive -- a hawk's wing that “scythes down another day” along the “crashless fall of stalks of Time” -- to the airless and anxious: “If there were no wind we might, we think, hear / The earth grind on its axis, or history / Drip in darkness like a leaking pipe in the cellar.” The relative brevity of Warren’s poem enables its power. We don’t need volumes upon volumes to proclaim the end: we need one final, focused gasp. In a letter dated May 16, 1945, Wallace Stevens posed a question as a statement: “At the moment, the war is shifting from Europe to Asia, and why one should be writing about poetry at all is hard to understand.” Faced with destruction and death, the action of criticism feels cold and academic. Poetry, on the other hand, becomes necessary as the world crumbles. After 9/11, poetry seemed natural; many of us in New York City and its shadow carried folded copies of W.B. Yeats's “The Second Coming" and “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden. If we accept Stevens’s definition of the poetic act as “the desire to contain the world wholly within one's own perception of it,” then poems about the end are simultaneously selfish and heroic attempts at survival. Here are 10 poems to prepare us for the end of the world. 1. “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo “The world begins at a kitchen table,” Harjo starts. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Communion and community thread throughout her poem. “It is here,” at a table, where “children are given instructions on what it means to be human.” Harjo thinks our end has been foretold: “We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.” Her poem concludes with resigned hope: “Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” Her focus on a shared domestic space helps us forget about the enormity of the poem’s backdrop. 2. “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost Is Frost’s poem a microcosm of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno? Maybe. Yet I also like the origin story from astronomer Harlow Shapley: while Frost was a poet-in-residence at Harvard, he twice in one night asked Shapley how the world would end. Shapley’s response formed the polarities of the poem. Read by countless middle-school students in requisite units on American poetry, “Fire and Ice” is heavier than its nine lines appear at first glance, and like much of his other work, darkly comic. Equally apocalyptic in spirit, and perhaps even more final in its small-town sadness, is Frost’s poem “Out, Out,” which ends with a minor apocalypse: a boy’s injury leads to amputation and then death, but the townspeople, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” 3. “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” by Adam Zagajewski The September 24, 2001, issue of The New Yorker had a black cover, and on its back page waited this poem. Zagajewski wrote the poem before 9/11, but like the verse of Yeats and Auden, sometimes words need to wait for their proper moment. Note the evolution of the titular statement throughout the poem: we are called to “try to praise,” and then “you must praise,” “you should praise,” and finally the exasperated, exhausted, and yet somehow calm final “Praise the mutilated world / and the gray feather a thrush lost, / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.” Zagajewski said there was not one particular event that birthed the poem, rather, “it’s the way I have always seen the world” -- on the brink, and yet beautiful. 4. “Disappointments of the Apocalypse” by Mary Karr Maybe we will be laughing at the end. Mary Karr seems to think so. “Warring factions” will set the date for the end of the world. Physicists will send “copies of the decree to paradise / in case God has anything to say.” A lunar eclipse portends the end, and “Those who hated the idea stayed indoors” but will step out “onto porches and balconies to see / the human shapes twist and rise / through violet sky and hear trees uproot / with a sound like enormous zippers / unfastening.” Karr’s lines unfurl toward hilarity and back again, and yet her lines capture quite what we’d expect an absent God to sound like as he watches his creation combust: “where the last spreadeagled Xs clung like insects, / then vanished in puffs of luminous smoke, // which traveled a long way to sting his nostrils, / the journey lasting more than ten lifetimes.” 5. “A Song On the End of the World” by Czeslaw Milosz “Those who expected lightning and thunder / are disappointed” on the day the world ends. From bees circling clovers to fishermen mending nets to vegetable peddlers shouting in the street, the world moves on, unknowing of its end. We almost certainly will not know when the end will come, and Milosz especially thinks those who expect “signs and archangels' trumps” will be disappointed at the lack of ceremony. If Harjo thinks our end is our beginning -- or perhaps symbolic of one of our daily customs -- then Milosz thinks our end will be a surprise for most. Except one: “Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet / Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy, / Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: / No other end of the world will there be, / No other end of the world will there be.” 6. “How it Ends: Three Cities” by Catherine Pierce Three iterations of the end of the world: Austin, Texas; New York, N.Y.; Okemah, Okla. In Austin, grackles line the pavement, “tails oil-black.” Nobody calls out of work. Instead, they “just sleepwalked to the Red Pony Lounge and dropped into silence.” There a man “reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a bird.” The narrator wants to wake it up. On the east coast, at lunchtime, the city smells sweet. Everyone hunts for one last taste. Even a “feuding couple falls silent in front of a window display of petit fours, chocolate tortes, marzipan apricots.” Finally, in the Midwest, the animals slowly become strange. “Goldfish leap down the street's puddles. Hermit crabs scuttle over lawns, and cockatiels preen dirt from their wings.” A horse gallops down the street. The narrator's dog “dives into her lap, and as the stars go black she is laughing.” 7. “End of Winter” by Louise Glück All stories about the end of the world are really about the end of our own worlds, the little, often unnoticed deaths that surround us daily. Glück's poem has always felt strangely personal and interrogative for me. It begins with a bird's call during the “still world” of the winter, but then immediately becomes direct in the second stanza: “You wanted to be born; I let you be born. / When has my grief ever gotten / in the way of your pleasure?” Later: “never imagining the sound of my voice / as anything but part of you— / ... only / persistent echoing / in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye.” Is this a mother? Is it God? It might be both: creators alike, after all. 8. “Econo Motel, Ocean City” by Daisy Fried I love the skill and restraint needed to develop a poem in a single room -- a motel room, no less. Who among us has not felt that his or her particular end would come in some aberrant motel room, “Korean monster movie on the SyFy channel, / lurid Dora the Explorer blanket draped tentlike / over Baby's portacrib to shield us from unearned / innocence.” If we are to believe Pierce and others, the end will arrive with a bit of blurring: “Grease-dusted ceiling fan / paddles erratically, two spars missing. Sheets whirled / to the polluted rug.” The family is splayed in this comfortably uncomfortable place: “My glasses on the side table / tipped onto scratchproof lenses, earpieces / sticking up / like arms out of disaster rubble. Your feet hooked over my feet. What miasma / lays gold dander down on forms of temporary / survivors wandering the promenade?” They are at peace in this “Sad Armageddon / of marriage: how pretty much nice / we meant to be, and couldn't make a difference.” 9. “The End of the World” by Dana Gioia We should lighten up a bit as we near the end of the list -- a little poetic calm before the concluding storm. The narrator and his companions “stopped the car where the river curled,” at what is called the end of the world. They “scrambled down” beneath a bridge, cross the “gravel track of a narrow ridge” and thread the woods to reach the actual river. The narrator stands alone where the “white water goosetailed with eddying swell.” As in many of Gioia's poems, he brings us to the final resting place of the poem and then steps back. We are with the narrator at the end of this world, looking downstream, where “There was nothing but sky, / The sound of the water, and the water's reply.” 10. “The End of the World” by Archibald MacLeish This is how the world ends: at a circus. MacLeish's sonnet is actually a single swollen sentence. “Quite unexpectedly,” it begins, as Vasserot, the “armless ambidextrian” lit a match between his toes, and the lion is biting a performer's neck -- while the theater of the absurd reaches its pinnacle, “Quite unexpectedly the top blew off.” The final stanza is masterful, garbled, clunky, recursive, and as close as our inadequate minds can image to the real, messy end. Most likely then, above our paled faces and “our dazed eyes,” there will be “nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.” Image Credit: YouTube.
Lists, On Poetry

The Whispered Language of Secrets and Fears: Ten Poems for People Who Hate Poetry

Novels might bore, and short stories can frustrate, but poetry is the only genre of literature that elicits consistent hate. People hate poetry because it is obscure, elitist, vague, complex, somber, trite, ornate, pretentious, out-of-touch, and dated. William Shakespeare is blamed. Secondary school teachers are blamed. Contemporary poets are blamed. Poet voice is blamed. Tumblr is blamed. Greeting cards are blamed. James Franco is blamed. Perhaps it is the way we talk about poetry that is to blame -- we being those who have already been converted, who read and write and share poetry. Love is a private emotion; it risks withering when shown public light. We who love poetry think it will save the world. Why must it save the world? It should be enough to save a single minute. If a poem pauses someone, that is enough. This list is an olive branch to the poetry skeptics. Prose is great for fiction, essays, and belabored introductions to lists, but poetry has its own place in this world. Poetry is the grand language of ceremony and spectacle, as well as the whispered language of secrets and fears. Many wonderful poems exist, but the following selections will appeal to readers of prose: work that is approachable, funny, smart, but still verse. Take a chance on these 10 poems. 1. “A Perfect Mess” by Mary Karr (Sinners Welcome) “It’s not law but the sprawl / of our separate wills that keeps us all flowing.” Our world is a perfect mess: just when you think things could not get any worse, small miracles right the course for a few important moments. Poetry is a snapshot form, and Karr’s poem captures the feel of the city, the world unraveling in a million directions. The narrator watches the “unprecedented gall” of piano movers “shoving a roped-up baby grand / up Ninth Avenue before a thunderstorm.” Those movers “knew what was coming, / the instrument white lacquered, the sky bulging black / as a bad water balloon and in one pinprick instant / it burst.” They are saved by unlikely heroines. “A Perfect Mess” ends on an ellipsis, because, she says, “You only unplug from [the city], the current never stops ...” 2. “Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion” by Matthew Olzmann (Mezzanines) I might have chosen Olzmann's hilarious and sweet “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” but there's something extra special about his Isaac Newton poem. It has been said so often that poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary, and yet that transformation is often a romantic one (think a farmer standing in front of a field moved by wind, or someone looking down at Earth from an airplane). Yet equally appealing to me is how a great poet can make you appreciate stasis and even boredom. “Matthew Olzmann / is an object at rest, and will remain at rest, / reclining on the couch while drinking Guinness / and watching football.” I can't trust a poet without a sense of humor. Olzmann has my trust, so I'm willing to follow his lines everywhere. Next time someone calls you lazy, share this poem and proclaim your leisure art. 3. “Blue Prelude” by Saeed Jones (Prelude to Bruise) If Jones wrote a two-line poem it would still hit me with the power of an epic. “Last night, the ceiling above me / ached with dance.” What brings me back to poetry are those single-word decisions: “ached,” how that one note pulses through the entire line. We've all known the feeling of longing, of being so close to joy and yet so far away, and Jones follows the emotion from that upstairs room to the empty bed of the narrator. There he “dreamed / the record's needle / pointed into my back, spinning / me into no one's song.” 4. “Ode to Browsing the Web” by Marcus Wicker (Maybe the Saddest Thing) “I've been told the internet is / an unholy place — an endless intangible / stumbling ground of false deities / dogma and loneliness.” I'm worried that a poetic traditionalist would make such a claim, but thankfully poetry has embraced the online world. Wicker packs so much material into his lines, modulating speed and pivots with care: “The camera pans to another / pocket of the room where six kids rocking holey / T-shirts etch aerosol lines on warehouse walls.” The beautiful thing about language is that it makes ugly action sing—in the right poet's hands. This poem is an ode to sitting in front of a “holy streaming screen / of counterculture punks,” blinking the day away “without care for time or density.” 5. “Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Lucky Fish) For years I’ve been sharing Nezhukumatathil’s poem “Baked Goods” as an example of a perfect love poem, and “Break-Ups” might be the perfect explanation of how poets must lie. In popular culture, poetry is often presented as the purgation of unfiltered feelings -- a genre of writing where writers lose all self-control and bleed on the page. Catharsis without craft. Poetry is actually a space for play. If every love in Nezhukumatathil's poems were real, “Can you imagine the number of bouquets, how many / slices of cake?” There would be husbands making a “great meal,” one could change the baby while another reads the newspaper, “and every single / one of them wonders what time I am coming home.” 6. “That's Incredible!” by Michael Robbins (The Second Sex) When I read a poem, I expect a poet to surprise, shock, or confuse me with language. If you hate poetry, than you might have read poets who only confuse -- or who don't speak to your particular experience or anxieties in life. I have called Robbins “the most provocative Christian poet in America” with appreciation, but he is truly one of the most inventive writers working. For the uninitiated, it might take a Robbins poem or two before you get his style, but once it clicks, you feel as if you're part of a very smart inside literary joke. Robbins is like a poetic machine who takes the entirety of popular culture, history, politics, music, and God, and then remixes them into poems with beats worthy of recording. 7. “Double Dutch” by Gregory Pardlo (Digest) Often people who hate poetry hate the poems that served as their introduction to the form. Inevitably that poetry is “older:” formally staid, metered verse that feels antiquated. Of course older poetry is beautiful, the foundation of modern verse, but to the new eye, older poetry feels like a series of abstractions without contemporary reference. Say what you will about our embrace of free verse, but many contemporary poets mix detail and sound to create magic. Pardlo, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, hails from the Garden State, and I haven’t found a better contemporary poet to capture the songs of my home state’s peculiar mix of asphalt and grass. Give “Double Dutch” to someone who has never studied poetry, but has spent hours on the blacktop like those girls “shadowing each other, / sparring across the slack cord / casting parabolas in the air.” Watch them nod when they recognize the truth of his lines: “she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish / as she flutter-floats into motion / like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos / thumbed alive.” Watch them smile at how a poet renews youth: “She makes jewelry of herself and garlands / the ground with shadows.” 8. “Before” by Ada Limón (Bright Dead Things) If we share song lyrics to ease the pain of loss and distance, than why not great poetry? Limón’s short lines in “Before” arrive as a sequence of phrases and breaths. In poetry, so often honesty has become another word for brutality; a poet is only authentic if she is raw. Limón’s authenticity is on another level; it is like hearing the confession of a friend. She is able to capture the particular grief of separation experienced during youth. “Before the road / between us, there was the road / beneath us, and I was just / big enough not to let go.” A great poem brings us back to our own tenuous moments, to our own “hazardous bliss.” 9. “Intersection” by Kerrin McCadden (Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes) McCadden, a fellow high school English teacher, knows how to offer poetry to a skeptical audience. There is an accepted narrative structure to prose. Sentences scaffold paragraphs, and paragraphs are the links for pages. Poetry is somewhere between a dream and a scream. “Intersection” moves in a surreal manner; first, there is that tedious interaction at the four-way stop. Then, love: “Your hands cup the wheel / at ten o'clock and two, then float / past my knee and only sometimes land.” How quickly, and yet how smoothly, McCadden moves us. If this were prose, we would ask: is this really happening? In poetry, we ask: why does this not happen more? 10. “Nothing Is Haunted” by Sandy Longhorn (The Alchemy of My Mortal Form) In many great poems, there is a space of absence. It might be a chasm or a pinhole, but it is a space of uncertainty, and it must not be so big as to swallow the rest of the poem. “Nothing is Haunted” is that type of poem. The first lines are surprising enough to invite us in: is it true that “Nothing is haunted / in quite the way small Midwestern farms / are haunted”? Longhorn convinces us. The source are these lithe girls who “lie awake through summer's / liquid heat and listen to the rattling window screens.” We can hear the panting between the lines; this is horror in verse. “The girls throw off / their bleached sheets and untangle their legs.” Hot and uncomfortable, they want to run, but instead “huddle” while “quivering in one weak circle of light.” Are these girls or ghosts? Longhorn carries that absence, that confusion, on to the final lines, and then hands it off to us, to you. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
On Poetry, Reviews

Rival Muses: on Jonathan Bate’s ‘Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life’

Long before its publication, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of the English poet Ted Hughes was being circled by crows. This is fitting, since the crow was one of Hughes’s favorite animals and most recurrent images. In his 1971 collection Crow, written after the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the bird-protagonist is questioned at the gates of Hell: “...who is stronger than death?” Crow replies, “me, evidently,” and is allowed to pass. Hughes’s story is so calcified with rumour and controversy that any biographer, even one of Jonathan Bate’s caliber, was doomed to wade through a mire. The monumental book he has given us, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, is at the very least the story of a man who was stronger than death, capable of turning death into startling and important art. Whether his biographer has such strength is a critical question. Bate certainly spent his time in the mud: almost as soon as The Unauthorized Life hit the shelves, Hughes’s widow publically defamed the book via a solicitor as “inaccurate” and “offensive,” going so far as to comment that “[t]he number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts,” and demanding a public apology for insinuating that on the way to his burial, casket in tow, Hughes’s family stopped for “a good meal.” But the relationship between Bate and the Hughes estate, controlled almost solely by Hughes’s widow Carol, was not always so strained. As Bate reported to The Guardian last year, Carol Hughes began as an “enthusiastic” supporter of the project, providing the Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar with unprecedented access to the seemingly limitless Hughes archives, held in substantial private collections as well as at Atlanta’s Emory University and the British Library. But after four years of digging, Bate reportedly received a letter from the estate, terminating the offer of an authorized biography with “no reason” given. Bate determined to go on with the work, and his guess about the reasoning behind the estate’s abrupt renunciation was that his project was becoming too biographical: what had started out as a “literary life” was developing into a more invasive, and potentially damaging, wholesale examination of a man as famous for his promiscuity as he was for his power with a poetic line. In his preface to the biography, perhaps anticipating the storm to come, Bate goes out of his way to keep things civil. He writes that “[t]he cardinal rule” he will apply to the project is that “...the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected.” In other words, the literature, not the life, will be his primary concern. But even in the short distance it has already traversed by this passage, Bate’s biography has gone a long way toward proving that such a distinction is impossible to maintain. Though Ted Hughes was famously allergic to biographers (who could blame someone who spent so much time protecting his children from the vendetta-mongering paparazzi that haunted him, as the executor of Sylvia Plath’s estate?), Bate summarizes “[t]he argument of this biography” as the assertion “that Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency...” “The tragedy of his career,” Bate adds, “is that it took so long for his elegiac voice to be unlocked.” By the elegiac, Bate means the confessional. The argument here is that Hughes’s greatest poems were written when he allowed his biography to fully penetrate his art. The explicitly autobiographical collection Birthday Letters is the iconic example of this style from Hughes’s career, but as his published legacy expands, collections like Capriccio (a series of elegies to the woman for whom he left Plath) and even the much less erotic River take on clear biographical overtones in retrospect. In his exquisite interview for The Paris Review, Hughes once answered a question about the confessional element in poetry by asserting that “Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry.” By this stage in his life, looking back on a volume of output that even the most prolific competitor would find intimidating, Hughes was willing to label it all “confessional,” to guess that an element of biography is what gives all poetry its vitality. Though during the exhausting legal battle surrounding her novel The Bell Jar, Hughes tried to escape ridicule from Plath’s admirers by insisting that hers was the work of “a symbolic artist” -- in the open air he felt free to observe that what a true poet always works into symbols are the passions and events of his or her own life. Why, then, Bate’s insistence on the lifelong tension between Hughes’s “symbolic” and “confessional” sides? None of his readings of Hughes’s poems hinge on this polarity. In fact, the most energized sections of The Unauthorized Life are those that cover the two poets’ life together. In these, Bate is able to intersperse lines from Birthday Letters to illuminate biographical details. His scan of Hughes’s signature poem “The Thought Fox” similarly treats the piece exclusively for its autobiographical significance, barely quoting the poem itself, and giving extensive space to Hughes’s reflective commentary about it. As often as Bate insists that his book is about Hughes’s “work and how it came into being,” he rarely pauses for detailed analysis of that work. Few lines are dissected for their technical elements. It is the story of Hughes’s life, not the content of his poetry, that dominates the narrative. And as Bate delves again and again into Hughes’s tangled and often abusive sexual relationships -- these sections are certainly his most electrifying and detailed -- an uncomfortable, though understandable, reason for his lingering insistence that Hughes was “torn between the symbolic and the confessional” presents itself: Bate felt the need to keep things civilized. With an archive of blistering personal data at his disposal, but Hughes’s very human survivors more or less at his mercy, Bate faced a crushing ethical dilemma. The work that followed seems perpetually caught between the thrill of scandal and compulsion to soften the blow by selectively presenting Hughes’s most incendiary work as “symbolic.” This compulsion blunts Bate’s criticism especially when he describes Hughes’s volatility towards women: the shadow of a living wife and family understandably makes him waiver. In his chapter about Hughes’s infidelity to Plath, he reflects that one of the poet’s “most tasteless lines” falls in his Birthday Letters poem about Assia Wevill, where he describes his mistress as “Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.” Yet any serious reader knows that in the Hughes canon, this line is nowhere close to the most tasteless. My personal pick would be the line from his poem “Crow’s First Lesson,” where Crow, asked by God to pronounce the word “love,” instead regurgitates a “woman’s vulva” which drops “over man’s neck” and “tightens.” In fact, almost any passage from Crow more than equals Bate’s choice for “tastelessness.” We can infer that the problem with this line was not its imagery, but how it showcased Hughes’s potential for vitriol against the women he most loved, some of whom are still living. This sense of hesitation between analysis of the writing and emphasis on its biographical implications snags Bate’s scholarship at almost every crucial juncture. The lesson here is that no line, especially from an openly confessional poet, can be totally isolated from the life from which it sprung. Neither can it be analyzed only in terms of that life. The poet’s life and work are two branches derived from a single root, and Bate’s attempt to uncouple them only results in hindered growth. But there were other methods available to him -- precedents already set by great biographers. Beyond their shared surname, Jonathan Bate’s work on a poet so frequently compared to John Keats invites comparison between The Unauthorized Life and another heavy-hitter: the Harvard scholar W. Jackson Bate’s 1963 biography John Keats. A look at the two texts side by side makes for a striking contrast. W.J. Bate’s prose is muscular and unsentimental, and though he captures Keats’s personal struggles with sympathy, his scholarship of the poetry is just as excellent. His work on Keats’s vowel interplay in “The Eve of St. Agnes" and "Hyperion" remains groundbreaking, and is conveyed with crisp clarity: The frequency of Keats’s complex assonance, W.J. Bate writes, “far exceeds that in any other major poet,” and is not found anywhere in English poetry except in “poets whom we should assume to have other pressing concerns in mind: Shakespeare...and Milton.” His conclusion is that genius in form and content reinforce each other; an observation that could just as easily apply to Hughes, though Jonathan Bate seldom ventures deep enough into his versification to resurface with such conclusions. Instead, his commentary keeps a strange distance from mechanical analysis of the lines, though his syntax sometimes gives in to the temptation to mimic the staccato voice of his subject, with strained results: “The words of [Hughes’s] poems -- which he obsessively refined, revised, rewrote -- are complicated, freighted with meaning, sometimes darkly opaque, sometimes cut like jewels of crystal clarity.” A “jewel of clarity” sounds almost Hughesian, but only almost: converting nouns to verbs was one of the poet’s habitual gestures, but to end lines with an abstracted noun phrase like “crystal clarity” was something he got beyond early in his writing life, knowing that abstractions make weak images. Still, to hold Bate’s Unauthorized Life of Hughes in your hand is to experience something as hefty and monumental as a good Hughes poem. Hughes’s enormous Collected Poems has been compared to “a hunk of Stonehenge” for both its magical overtones and its sheer physical weight. Bate’s book is undeniably important, just as hefty, and often movingly written. His last passages about Sylvia Plath’s undying importance to Hughes are instantly memorable; his last flourish like poetry itself: “Before him stands yesterday.” If only every line of it were so good. But Bate was torn between his own rival muses: the personal and the symbolic strains of Hughes’s work, which he pitted against each other in the preface, turn out to be two sides of the same coin, the same monolith viewed from two angles. The intriguing rivalry he suggests between them turns out to be a false one. They were the same stone goddess that ruled all of Hughes’s work. Better to affirm, with the poet himself, that all poetry “is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say.” That to write is to confess in symbols. That the poetry is the biography. To have tracked this line of thinking directly through Hughes’s work would have made for a true “literary life.” Instead, Bate has given us a life informed by literature, where the most scandalizing moments are diffused by claims that they are important to a deep analysis that never occurs. Yet if what Bate gave us is not what it could have been, it is a riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps the best literary life of Hughes will have to wait until there is no one living left to hurt. In the meantime, the page is printed.
On Poetry

Conspiring with the Dead: On the Power of Reading Poetry Aloud

1. Over the last few years, my lit geek friends and I have enacted a tradition wherein we gather for an evening at someone's house, often mine, and read poetry aloud until late into the night. For those who didn't know better, such a description might conjure images of Robin Williams circa 1989 -- middle part, expression of rapt sincerity -- crouched in a New England shrubbery with a pubescent Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, solemnly intoning from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, and whoever the hell wrote "Invictus," contemplating with awful shudders the brevity of life and the perils of conformity. Ours, though, is no dead poets society; we're adult people who've cracked 30 and are largely locked into our life paths, academics adrift in a digital age yet still aware of a need for rhythmic communal chant. Typically my friends show up at around eight p.m., toting bags swollen with John Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, and bottles of Trader Joe's vaunted $2.99 vintage; I fire up my waffle maker (I like fancying I've invented nighttime waffles); and we sit in a circle taking turns reading, sometimes going as late as one or two. We're English academics by training, but we deliberately avoid analyzing the poetry. For once, we're just going to enjoy, to muzzle the close readers within us and indulge an appetite as elemental -- as bodily -- as that for waffles, gleaning pleasure from syllables that take shape along the lips and vibrate in the viscera. For once, we'll merely be moved. (At a gathering last year, one attendee performed Hart Crane's "Voyages," and the poem's mysterious last stanza prompted another guest to begin dissecting it instinctively, only to be cut off by a third guest with a scornful "Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!") Why do we crave this ritual? Clearly it satisfies some fundamental need: My friends spontaneously clamor for it, texting me with some variant of "OMFG need poetry in my lyfe, plz accommodate." And it's common for one or more of them to write me the day after the event to the effect that they feel lighter, physically and spiritually replenished, that their limbs are more lissome. It's tempting to reach for an explanation of the numinous sort. Algernon Swinburne, the Victorian poet, had a theory that the rhythms of the best poetry were in mystic synchrony with the cadences of the cosmos; chanting these poems, he thought, we can feel ourselves momentarily aligned with the beating of waves, the earth's punctual tiltings, the patterns of tides as the world's waters yearn for the moon then dutifully recede. But the answer is at least as likely to be a mundane one: These evenings promise oases of togetherness that, harkening back to a direct oral tradition largely vanished into the past, relieve the aridity of lives dominated by social media. Across the Western world there has lately been a resurgence of interest in reading out loud. In a 2013 Guardian story, Elizabeth Day tells of a popular book club she organized at a London art gallery, a ritual she conceived as a pointed riposte to the alienation of postmodern life. Day describes experiences of shared, unconcealed intimacy -- of listeners crying; finding temporary relief from chronic pain during the readings; approaching her afterward to say, for example, that a particular novel's protagonist appeared to be suffering from PTSD, and that they'd felt a kinship with him in this regard. In a historical moment obsessed with "awkwardness," when young people, donning irony like a breastplate, studiously avoid being moved, pastimes like Day's reading club promise windows of vulnerability in the company of others. But our gatherings center on poetry, specifically, which imparts to them a quasi-liturgical dimension that I suspect gets to the core of why we keep coming together. So many of us stodgy, skeptical academics find ourselves living in a post-religious shell, incapable of entertaining the promises of scripture but thirsting, no less, for whatever remains of church-going when we've drained it of the dogma. Mind and body still long for incantation, still look to rhythmic utterance to fasten social bonds, still find in poetry's pulses and open-mouthed vowels the grammar of praise. Praise isn't a thing we literary academics tend to excel at. Weaned on the likes of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, our critical minds are wired to "problematize" not praise. Here, we are trained to say, is how this particular text is complicit in this or that insidious ideology -- or, somewhat more positively, how it helps us critique an ideology, or a form of oppression or inequality. And who can blame us? We live in a country where the less affluent 50 percent of the population now possesses around 1 percent of its wealth, and each successive week seems to bring a new instance of racialized violence. Not to critique these ills, as they become visible in literary texts, would amount to self-delusion. Yet we are left, many of us critics, with a deep-down impulse to praise, and the above formula does little to sate this need. If we are only going to "interrogate" literature (that favorite word!), why read at all, much less devote our careers to these works in spite of all the pressures, monetary and otherwise, that scream at us to stop and turn around? Critique is a fundamentally negative gesture, and as one's default readerly mode it leads to a kind of attrition. At the end of the day we all need to eat -- and praise may be the first step toward attaining sustenance, the utterance of thanksgiving before the feast. A world transfigured by praise is one worth living in -- and, crucially, one worth renovating, endeavoring to reform. Praising it, we impose on ourselves a degree of humility and receptivity to others and their gifts, to nature with its superabundance of beauty and wonder that cries out to be cataloged and shared. We remind ourselves that humans can be remarkable during a time when being human is so frequently cause for shame. Our poetry gatherings answer this need in part by allowing us to praise the poetry itself. Having listened to someone read Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning," we have that rare freedom to lean back, heroin junkies on the nod, lost in a dream of pleasure. "How could it be so good?" someone will mutter. "Ambiguous undulations," I'll say, quoting from the poem's last lines and shaking my head. "Jesus Christ, dude." But they also enable us to use the poetry as a vehicle for praising a world that can seem emphatically undeserving of celebration. One pattern I've observed in our readings is the frequency with which guests choose poems that foreground praise. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, has been a recurrent favorite through the years. Few if any of my friends are Catholic, but we find bracing release in belting out Hopkins's "Pied Beauty." We relish its opening hurrah, "Glory be to God for dappled things!", its breathless effusion of gratitude for the mottled splendor of the created world -- a gratitude that finally extends to the force that engendered all this wealth: "He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him." We may be a pack of Marxist-atheist-Derrideans for whom life itself is a condition of epistemological undecidability, but goddammit, glory be to God for dappled things. Both within academia and in certain circles outside it, a reflexive tendency toward complaint is often touted as a badge of honor -- indeed as the only reasonable response to the atrocities of postmodernity. Yet, in a sense, we are far more insulated from suffering than the legions of the long dead, people who inhabited pre-modern worlds for whom the likes of plague, of every manner of tyranny and cruelty, were commonplaces; for whom childbirth and death were phenomena conjoined more often than not. These are also people who left, in their wake, acres of celebratory poetry and song -- the ghazals of the ancient Middle East and India, the exuberant chants of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Josquin. We can, if we like, dismiss these works as mere exercises in escapism, or embarrassing manifestations of lizard brains more robust in people of previous ages. That such praise might instead of have been a heroic, transcendent gesture, that the everyday specter of death might have pummeled these people into praise, pressuring them to seek out footholds of sustaining joy -- this seems to me the fresher thesis. Long before Stevens came along to teach us that "death is the mother of beauty," people who wandered through worlds of affliction saw the luminousness of reality the more glaringly for all the surrounding darkness. Humans, then, have long looked to poetry as an organ for acclaiming creation. Witness the Psalms (literally "praises") or, more recently, miniature masterpieces like A.R. Ammons's "The City Limits" and Denise Levertov's "O Taste and See" (itself a homage to Psalm 34.8). Poems like these enjoin us to delight in the world, the feast of it all, and are themselves a feast to speak out loud. But they constitute a banquet the wider American public is largely unaware of, though it is starving for lack of it. How do most Americans think of poetry, to the extent they think of it at all? In the same way, maybe, as they do a piece of antique farm equipment -- a John Deere steam tractor, or an iron push-plow -- left over from an era when eloquence, like husbandry, was a skill the import of which went without saying, an assumed fixture of reality. A curiosity to be dragged out, dusted off, and deployed at weddings, then shunted back into storage again; a thing invariably about love or "nature," enfolding glib life lessons on the superiority of less-traveled roads. Worst of all, Americans think of poetry as a "learning device." I just tried Googling "The World is Too Much with Us," William Wordsworth's great sonnet on the spiritual bankruptcy of an early 19th-century Britain enthralled by "getting and spending." Among the initial batch of 10 results, five were as follows: Sparknotes, a study guide called Shmoop, Gradesaver, Cummings Study Guides, and something called 123helpme. I clicked on Shmoop, the slogan of which is the delightfully pithy and confidence-instilling "We Speak Student," and which boasts of being the brainchild of "PhD students from Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley." The site had carved up Wordsworth's poem into categories like summary, analysis (which consisted of headings including "Tough-O-Meter" and "Sex Rating;" except when he's ravaging violet bushes, old Billy's sexiness quotient is generally pretty low, it turns out), and themes. I decided to click on themes, one of which was sadness. "Does our obsession with getting and spending make you sad?" ran one of the study questions. An advertisement for Land Rovers materialized in the side bar. Poor poetry! Colonized by cheesy pedagogical guides, mined by academics for revolutionary truths, reduced to tepid adages better left to fortune cookies. What if we valued it instead for the elegantly simple reason that it promises connection -- of mind to body, one reader to another, living to dead. Machinery of praise, mode of being moved, repository of pleasure, poetry is finally, above all perhaps, that which connects. And the way it accomplishes this seems to me to have everything to do with breath. 2. Poetry is a uniquely visceral art form. A poem, after all, is distinct from a painting, or a piano sonata, or an instance of architecture, insofar as our own bodies provide the medium in which it takes shape. No physical remove separates audience from artifact; we apprehend it with the intimacy of a thing that has quickened to life in our lungs. As incantation, poetry can implicate readers-aloud in meticulously managed breathing patterns. I suspect many people are now turning to it in part for the same reason they seek out yoga meditation: They've grown alienated from their bodies. Purposeful breath-work is one of the best ways of reclaiming those bodies, since breath is perhaps the ultimate dramatization of the oneness of mind and flesh. In some very real sense, which inveterate meditators grasp, the stream of your breath is the stream of your thoughts. Far from a removed, autonomous entity, the mind is tethered to the lungs, themselves reliant on a shared substance that only lately pervaded someone else. In this way, breath is an index not just of the psychosomatic nature of thought, but our interdependence as humans. But breath may also be the dimension of poetry that binds the bodies of living readers to poets lost past. For guidance on how this works, we might look to none other than John Keats, one of poetry's great theorizers about breathing. Keats had a profoundly ambivalent attitude toward breath: As a teenager he watched his mother surrender to tuberculosis, an illness the symptoms of which included coughing and blood spitting and that climaxed in the precipitous waste of the body. Eight years later, he witnessed his brother die of the same disease, and around 1818, at age 23, contracted it himself, writing his greatest poetry with an awareness that his lungs were slowly collapsing. These ghastly experiences guaranteed Keats would be alert to the mouth's stunning efficacy as a point of entry into the body and intellect. Death visited one at the mouth, "taking into the air" one's "quiet breath" as Keats imagines it doing in the "Ode to a Nightingale," just one of the many death/breath rhymes in his oeuvre. Yet breathing, while mortally perilous, also carried the potential -- orchestrated by poets, reproduced by performing readers -- to be therapeutic, even to offer the poet a measure of immortality. Poems were monuments of embodied eloquence that, when spoken, enabled the reader to breathe in time with the poet. Keats's term for this synchronized breathing was conspiring, a phenomenon whereby readers were involved in the breathings of the poet. Poetry was, in this regard, twinned in his imagination with eroticism; love, as "Endymion" makes clear, was a "fellowship with essence" achievable through a "commingling of passionate breath." "I cannot breathe without you," he wrote fiancée Fanny Brawne in 1819. By that same year, cognizant of his faltering breath, Keats began composing a series of poems that crystallized that same breath. These "life masks" took the form, not of the plaster cast that famously preserved his face, but respiratory relics that redeemed from oblivion his modes of inhalation and exhalation. "To Autumn" is one of these. At its core it's a poem about breathing, one that begins by imagining an eroticized union of the autumn goddess with the Apollonian sun, whose "conspiring" brings about the wealth inventoried in the lines that follow. But the poem seeks to establish an analogous union with the reader. It achieves this partly through a sibilance (e.g., "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness") that gives the poem its ductility, its ability to accommodate a largely unobstructed stream of breath. It does so, too, through a succession of oblate, open-mouthed vowel sounds -- sounds that occur in monosyllabic, Ango-Saxon-derived words (e.g., mourn, gourd, bourne) that help give "To Autumn" the quality of meditative chant. And the poem is breath-like in its structure. The first stanza, with its heaping of infinitives -- unconjugated verbs that build toward an illusion of infinite plenty -- represents an inhalation of a sort, an in-spiring that will yield fruit later on; the second stanza, evoking a fleeting pause amid the harvest, that momentary suspension following an intake of breath; the final stanza, a breathing out. That last stanza's subject is expiration itself: of a day, a season, the swarm of animal life that supplies its "music," and finally the poet himself, whose troubled, tubercular breath is just audible in the ode's sibilance, liberated afresh each time we read the poem aloud. Performing "To Autumn" entails conspiring with Keats. Conspiring with Keats -- praising season or urn, plangent song or piquant mood -- readers resurrect him for a time. Breath, if an entryway for death, has the power to transcend it; habitually linked with ephemerality, it is paradoxically freighted with the potential to endure. In poetry's respiratory patterns, frozen in verse forms that enable us to breathe in concert with their authors, we may discover evidence of a shared humanity. Early on in what would become the century of séances and mediumship, Keats offered a secular version of resurrection, one in which the breath-shapes of the dead, distilled in the amber of poetry, materialize afresh in the lungs of the living. 3. This was a version of rebirth one senses Keats -- scornful of religion but entranced by the prospect of immortality -- could get behind. Maybe, to the extent we enact such resurrections in gathering to chant poetry, my friends and I do make up something like a dead poets society after all. Maybe we gain access to the physiological rhythms of generations who flourished and died in the drawing rooms, the fields, the streets of worlds ever more alien to ours, suspiring in time with them; converted, as we do so, into mediums in whose mouths the breaths of bygone people take shape. Maybe there's a connection in this, ghostly in its immediacy and tactility. What's certain, anyway, is that we discover a connection with one another. Depleted from the remorseless round of workaday responsibilities, from checking Facebook and Instagram 12 times an hour, safely insulated from each other and the natural world by noise-canceling headphones, we make our way, enervated and starving, back to this reliable reservoir of cohesion. Here is a heightened register of language that embarrasses all the flotsam and jetsam strewn across Twitter and Buzzfeed. Here is a chance, for all the world's seemingly incurable infectedness, to cry back to it an utterance of thanks. Hallelujah: from the Hebrew hallēl, a very breathy word, "to praise." Praise: from the Latin pretium -- price, worth, reward. For a passing interval, gathered together and conspiring with the dead, we might convince ourselves that the world is worth redeeming at whatever price; that notwithstanding its flaws, it's laden with inconceivable riches -- rewards that we, granting our own shortcomings, might even deserve. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
On Poetry, Reviews

“Story with a Real Beast and a Little Blood”: on Rose McLarney’s Its Day Being Gone

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Kentuckian Chris Offutt chose that line from Joan Didion’s The White Album as the epigraph for his memoir, No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. Appalachian literature plays an elegaic refrain. It is a literature of dislocation and transition and survival. Ron Rash, echoing Offutt, reflects how everybody who lived on the two-mile dirt road that led to his grandmother’s farm was either family or friend. Now, “I probably know three families out of 60 or 70. And that place is gone. The accent’s gone. A lot of the culture is disappearing.” Rash and Offutt hesitate to sentimentalize that passing world, but the pull is inescapable. As Rash says, “there’s something in us as human beings that--we know our lives are transitory, but we want something not to be transitory, something to endure, whether it’s a landscape or a place.” Rash’s poem “Preserves” is a concise dramatization of that process. After a funeral, the dead’s land and property are divided among kin, but the narrator has forgotten a springhouse. He opens the rotting door and he finds “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” The double meaning of the poem’s title is less meant to be clever than funereal, as the family “heaped our paper plates and ate, one chair / closest to the stove unfilled.” Later this year, Rash’s novel Serena gets the full Hollywood treatment. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper will likely send more readers back to his work, including his newest release, Above the Waterfall. For many readers, the life and fiction of Breece D'J Pancake still haunts the discussion of Appalachian literature. Pancake killed himself in 1979 at 27-years-old, and his rough but lyric tales have made him a martyr. Jon Michaud’s recent retrospective at The New Yorker is a fitting tribute. He recommends Thomas E. Douglass’s biography, A Room Forever, and Samantha Hunt’s essay “The Secret Handshake,” which appeared in The Believer. I would add Marion Field’s touching “Complicated Manners” from the Oxford American. But start with the man's fiction; my favorites are "The Way It Has To Be" and "Time and Again." It would be foolish to deny Pancake's literary influence on how we speak about literary Appalachia. The parallel nature of his passionate but short life, his brief output (he only published enough stories to fill one book), and the crafted compression of his tales make him almost too perfect of a symbol. During a review of Rusty Barnes’s story collection, Mostly Redneck, I positively compared Barnes to Pancake, noting that both writers used finely crafted settings to add gravity to the minutia of their characters' lives. In an interview, Barnes pushed back against my comparison, citing a frustration with reviewers using Pancake as metonym for Appalachian literature. While that certainly wasn’t my intention, I welcome his excellent list of other noteworthy contemporaries from the region: Nikki Finney, Frank X. Walker, Lee Smith, Lisa Koger, Maurice Manning, Silas House, James Still, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, Gurney Norman, Denise Giardina, Mark Powell, Pinckney Benedict, and Chris Offutt. Readers should get Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature, edited by John Branscum and Wayne Thomas, or issues of Appalachian Heritage, Still, and Appalachian Journal to see the newest work coming from Appalachia. Countless others could be added to Barnes's list, including Harry Humes, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Bailey, the late Irene McKinney, Ann Pancake, RT Smith, Fred Chappell, Joseph Bathanti, and Scott McClanahan, whose memoir, Crapalachia, is a self-admitted yarn. “God bless those who keep trying to make myths,” he writes. One of the finest mythmakers in contemporary Appalachian letters is Rose McLarney, a poet from western North Carolina. Although she now teaches in Oklahoma, while looking for her first teaching job back east, McLarney "was living without electricity, hiking 17 miles to use the phone or internet." Her first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, hits elegaic notes, as in poems like "Autumn Again," where the sumac-stabbed hills create a beautiful color, but "this time of year, there is always / a wounded feeling." Her first book was not provincial, but her newest release, Its Day Being Gone, widens her range. The book begins with violence. In “Facing North,” the narrator needs to put down a sick goat. “Silent animals” on the farm watch in judgment. She is not without guilt, wondering if she “should have given her southerly pasture,” and then cleverly turning the hesitance on herself, thinking “I should have gone in another direction.” Her threnody might seem archaic. After all, “In this era, when there is no need / to farm, who is drawn to have livestock, / which die so much?” Yet again, the narrator has used “animals / as the figures for my sorrows.” But she is “still here. / I can’t stay away / from the hard images.” Those hard images, like the tenuous truths of McClanahan’s memoir, are no less painful if they are myths. Later in the collection, McLarney writes “much of what you grew up with had already faded-- / there was less paint than rust on the metal, and littler / hope.” This tension between past and present, reality and hope moves the book forward. In “Shadow Cat,” the narrator walks a dirt road, thinking how the “houses on bits of flat / kept their backs to the walls / of mountains, knowing / their place.” The natural world reigns, and is untouched until higher up the mountain, where a man pulling a bulldozer whispered a warning: “Careful out here alone. / Big cat will get you.” She’s been hearing such admonitions her entire life, although few people have actually seen such animals. She wonders if the warnings are a comfort, “keeping alive the belief / that what wildness abides / out there is the danger.” Dangerous, but it is their wildness, and the narrator of “Watershed” defends the local, “murky” waterways. She is not interested in clear water “filtered by mosses and lichens.” She wants an “ancient, worn landscape,” where she can swim over sunken cars. A certain level of toughness is expected. Someone who enters her house must be “unafraid / of stumbling on sagging floors, into low doorframes, features / of old structures, the past, people I know.” Great books can be local, but Its Day Being Gone gains another dimension through the inclusion of McLarney’s chapbook, Hone Creek, originally published in Mudlark. The poems in this sequence dramatize the upheaval of South American communities from hydroelectric damming. “Imminent Domain” introduces the section. Although McLarney does not identify herself as an activist--“as much as [my poems] say what is wrong, [they] end up admitting my complicity”--these poems are written with anger. Although some of these engineers “meant well,” “Power always is sent to serve regions other / than where it is made.” The disparate regions are also connected by methods of storytelling. McLarney’s narrators often smirk, as good yarn spinners do. “Setting,” a story about a thief and his lover, is told “because I want your attention. For you to come for dinner again.” These “bellyful tales,” told “when no one is hungry,” are variations on a theme: No, there’s nothing new in it. But it couldn’t be richer. What would you rather have than a thing you know spiced and simmered, spoken and seconded, in another’s accent? Its Day Being Gone is several books in one, and “Story with a Real Beast and a Little Blood in It” helps decode the synthesis. A bull breaks loose, and after the men, “butted and bruised / with rope-burned hands, give up,” the narrator makes a path of sweet feed that leads into a gated fence. But she pauses the poem to warn that we should “not look to make any allegories, / for any meaning beyond the marvel.” In Its Day Being Gone, McLarney has it both ways. Her stories are real, but they are symbols. Appalachia will remain, but it helps that the region has such skilled writers to document its truths and myths. McLarney’s poems contain enough eloquence to make a passing world permanent. Her work reminds us that when the bull ran, when the past began to fade, you “followed / on your knees down the mountain, noting / even in brambles, as you bled, the stars.”
On Poetry

Americans Love Poetry, But Not Poetry Books

Whether poetry is useless or dead is a question that arrives as regularly as cicadas. Newsweek proclaimed verse a corpse it in 2003; in 2013, The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri called again for a coffin and a shovel. Still, every spring, ivory towers open their gates and a few thousand new Masters of Poetry stroll out. According to Poets & Writers, there are 204 MFA programs and 21 Creative Writing PhD programs, each graduating a new crop of poets each year. When you add on the countless numbers who write poetry outside of academia, it seems pretty clear that poets aren't unicorns—rather, as in sci fi alien invasion movies, they are already among us: what’s interesting is that poetry’s popularity is so often called into question.  People often dismiss poetry by saying it only matters to other poets, but a few minutes spent sifting through the Favorite Poem Project's online archives proves otherwise; these short documentaries present a wide range of Americans—salesmen, construction workers, bakers, nuns, anthropologists, accountants, Marines, and Bill Clinton—reading aloud their favorite poems. To listen to photographer Seph Rodney talk about coming home from a disappointing date to find solace for his loneliness in reading the caustic urgency of Sylvia Plath's“Nick and the Candlestick” poem, despite his surprise that this woman from a “well-heeled New England family” could speak to “me, a man, a Jamaican immigrant—you could hardly get two people in the world more different” is to understand how false the misconception of poetry’s irrelevance is. Robert Pinsky, founder of the Favorite Poem Project, stresses that the organizers didn’t solicit participants; rather they sent out a call for people to apply to share the poems that moved them. “I’m very proud that the Favorite Poem Project didn’t tell anyone to read poetry; we asked people,” said Pinksy, “We had no advertising budget so every time I was interviewed as poet laureate, whenever I published anything anywhere, I asked [them] to advertise it. I used to give the cards to cab drivers and we got 18,000 letters from people who wanted to participate and read their favorite poem on camera.” Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito offers a similar anecdote to illustrate the value people outside the literary community ascribe to poetry, mentioning how a friend who teaches at a military academy frequently receives letters from former students, soldiers who tell her that “the experience of interpreting poems in her class proved the best preparation for the complex and ambiguous circumstances they encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan” Although Americans’ love for poetry has yet to reach the wild heights of Abu Dhabi’s hit reality show Million’s Poet where 70 million global viewers watched dueling versifiers vie for a $1.3 million cash prize, Americans are actively involved in reading it—particularly outside the traditional literary arenas of bookstores and libraries. Since 1992, New Yorkers have enjoyed “Poetry in Motion,” a joint program run by MTA and The Poetry Society of America that showcases poems next to the usual subway car ads for the preternaturally ageless Dr. Zizmor’s dermatological services and Seamless web food delivery; this past spring, the two-day Poetry in Motion festival in Grand Central Station offered an immensely popular Peanuts-inspired “The Poet is In” booth where poets wrote personalized poems for individual commuters. According to Alice Quinn, PSA’s director, “People were weeping; one person even asked ‘Will I be able to win my wife back with this poem?’” The Poetry Society of America’s partnership with New York City’s Botanical Gardens also draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to wander curated exhibitions pairing Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Edna St. Vincent Millay poems with botany. Poets House’s Zoo project, created after the Central Park Zoo asked the nonprofit for help designing on-site installations to evoke an emotional response from zoo-goers the zoo directors felt had been lacking, has proved similarly popular. A study conducted by the Central Park Zoo after the project began showed that significant percentages of zoo-goers felt the poetry enhanced their appreciation of conservation; less than 1% of those surveyed reported disliking the verse. Thanks to the ease of sharing poems through email and social media, it’s possible that poetry’s audience might be greater now than ever. According to The Academy of American Poets director Jen Benka, the Academy’s Poem-a-Day has over 300,000 readers, so large an audience that the Hearst Corporation recently partnered with the Academy to include the poems in their online and print newspapers and magazines. Benka points out, “The general perception of people who read poetry is not fully accurate. We know there is also a dedicated readership—people who love poetry who are not poets themselves who are completely dedicated to the art form and take it as seriously as poets do…The only reason Hearst listened to us [for the partnership] was because our Poem-a-Day audience was impressive to them.” Robert Polito seconds the importance of technology, pointing out that the Poetry Foundation’s website receives tens of millions of unique visitors each year. Perhaps the greatest argument for poetry’s Internet audience is Patricia Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke” which went viral almost immediately after being published on The Awl in 2014—within hours of being posted, the poem had over 10,000 likes on Facebook and was soon fodder for articles on Salon and The Guardian. But book sales belie this wide readership. While there are the occasional poetry-only bookstores, like Brooklyn’s Berl’s Poetry Shop, in 2011, New York Magazine compared the numbers for two poetry big-hitters (Wendell Berry and former Poet Laureate Billy Collins) with a book ghostwritten for a 23-year-old who catches a leather ovoid. The result? Berry and Collins sold 2,928 and 18,406, respectively, while Tim Tebow’s autobiography sold over 282,000 copies within six months. The discrepancy between poetry readership and book sales doesn’t matter for nonprofits which rely on generous donors and endowments, but for the independent presses who publish the bulk of modern poetry, sales are a matter of survival. It’s not enough to break even with printing costs; presses also need to cover overhead, not to mention pay authors, book designers, and the IRS—with such tight margins, what often gives is editors’ paychecks; many independent presses are entirely volunteer-run, with staff putting in long hours on top of their day jobs, personal lives, and their own writing. Low book sales make sense when operating under the commonly accepted fallacy that the primary audience for poetry is other poets, but the challenges independent presses face to stay solvent seem particularly poignant when looking at how extensive poetry's audience really is. It should go without saying that no one goes into poetry for money: presses publish poetry because they love it. Although discussions of sales numbers and strategies to increase readership can sound crass, behind the business-speak are editors who want their authors to find a wider audience because they believe in their poems. And paired with this idealism are reasonable practical concerns: unless a press is affiliated with a university (and not always then: let’s not forget Eastern Washington University Press, closed by the university in 2010) or funded by a generous donor, book sales are part of a grim equation where low sales not only equals fewer readers to experience the poet’s work, but also the possibility the press won’t have the money to publish new books or stay afloat to keep their current catalog in print.  While presses naturally want to increase sales, there’s also an ambivalence about what that entails, particularly since they have scarce resources and have to make hard decisions about how to allocate their budget and time. Editors want new readers, but not all are actively engaged in cultivating new poetry converts as opposed to focusing on readers who already love poetry. Christopher Janke of Slope Editions says that, “[While] we take this issue of general readership very seriously, and we talk of it often...we do not aggressively pursue non-poets/those who aren’t already readers. It is enough work for our all-volunteer staff simply to edit and publish manuscripts that we find compelling.” Gabriel Fried of Persea Books concurs, saying for Persea it’s “[a]n issue of time and money--mostly time. But also money!” It makes sense that editors concentrate on what would naturally appear to be the widest pool for sales: the poetry community itself. That said, if editorial resources are small, those of the poets themselves might be even smaller--rare is the poet whose pocket is deep enough to fund as many book purchases as he or she wishes. And, for that matter, even when the intention to buy the book is there, that doesn’t guarantee followthrough. Joe Pan, of Brooklyn Arts Press, points out “The truth is I've seen many people excited for a friend's book to come out and when it does come out, they don't buy it. Or they put it off for a later time that never comes” This is where I step out from behind the scrim of journalistic objectivity to admit I co-run an independent press, Augury Books. At Augury, we’ve taken a twofold approach: attempting both to widen our authors’ readership within the poetry community and to find new poetry readers from outside the community. The largest step we’ve taken towards finding new poetry readers has simply been to try to broaden our readership in general by publishing other genres—short story collections and creative nonfiction—both as books in our catalog and also as individual pieces in the ad hoc occasional literary journal we run on our website. Our hope is that readers who like the prose we publish may discover, as they poke around our catalog, that they like the poetry too (and vice versa). We’ve also made a consistent attempt to have a mix of poets and prose-writers—both those in our catalog and others we don’t publish but whose work we love—read at our launch parties and AWP offsite readings—again hoping that listeners who are there for an author in one genre may find themselves drawn to work they hear in other genres.  This approach is shared by many presses, including Ugly Duckling Presse. Daniel Owen, one of the collective’s editors, notes “UDP publishes a number of titles that are not poetry.  The annual Emergency INDEX documents performance, we publish at least one playscript a year through out Emergency Playscript Series, and have been doing more prose lately…So, in a sense, we're attracting non-poetry readers by publishing things that aren't poetry.  And readers who are interested in these books might be interested in checking out some poetry books as well.” A more idealistic grounding for the strategy of attracting new readers simply by publishing comes from Nate Pritts, of H_NGM_N, who notes “Publishing poetry in any form – whether stapled sheets of paper or books with spines and national distribution, whether folded pamphlets left on coffee shop tables or online pixels – is a strategy for reaching a wider audience” but follows this with the caveat that “sticking with that endeavor, keeping the magazine or press or activity rolling over time, is another strategy.”  Almost every editor I spoke with listed practical ways to increase sales. These include keeping book costs low, working to widen national and international distribution (both through using distributors like Small Press Distribution and by relying on Internet sales on Amazon), attending book fairs and conferences, sending out review copies, exploring new technology like e-books or smartphone apps (although the development costs sometimes prove prohibitive), and developing relationships with bookstores—all of these strategies keep books within financial and geographic reach of potential buyers, as well as establish the press itself as a recognizably consistent presence in the literary community. Numerous editors also mentioned maintaining a social media presence through email blasts, Facebook posts, Twitter, and Tumblr (although most admitted they delegate these tasks to interns) and almost everyone uniformly pointed out the importance of the poets themselves being involved in the literary community through teaching and giving readings. At Augury, we’ve found using multiple forms of media such as guest blog posts and radio interviews have helped with sales—after a small local radio show in San Diego interviewed one of our authors, we sold 11 copies of her book within a day. Crowd-sourced fundraisers are also a useful sales platform, as they offer the chance for buyers to receive giveaways like posters and first editions; according to Joe Pan, Brooklyn Arts Press doubled their pre-sales with their recent Kickstarter campaign.  While these strategies are all useful, they can apply to any genre. Other strategies are more poetry-specific and these strategies often—much as with many of the poetry institutions—put poetry in unexpected places. Wave Books famously rented a bus in 2006 and toured the country, giving readings in places as varied as Seattle’s Space Needle and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, as well as in galleries, bars, and prisons. Bruce Covey, editor of Coconut Poetry, in his role as chair of the Poetry Council at Emory University, has put poems in elevators, stairwells, shuttle buses, and inside a traveling poetry gumball machine. Cooper Dillon distributes drink coasters emblazoned with poems at local bars. These strategies rely on the idea of “if you build it, they will come”—in this case, “if poetry is there, people will read it / listen to it.” Here, there’s just as likely a chance that those who already read poetry will enjoy the reading in the park or the poem on their coaster as much as that a previously non-poetry-reading drinker will see the lines underneath his or her beer and feel moved by them enough to later—soberly—track down more of the poet’s work; either way, the hope is that being exposed to the poem will lead to someone buying the book it appears in.  Some presses rely on technology to maintain ties with readers: Sarabande Books sends out a weekly poem selected by the editors to their email subscription list. Copper Canyon, Omnidawn, YesYes Books, and many others (Augury included) include the option of purchasing books from their back catalog when submitting a manuscript for consideration. Editors stress that purchasing a book won’t help the submitted manuscript’s chances, but the purchasing option serves as a reminder to prospective authors that it’s important to be familiar with (and support) the catalog of presses you want to have publish your work. Other editors, such as H_NGM_N’s Nate Pritts and Matthew Zapruder of Wave, mention booking readings at galleries or rock shows as a way of bringing their poets to an audience already interested in visual art or music. Rebecca Wolff, of Fence, has made an active attempt over the years to lure visual arts connoisseurs by advertising in magazines like Art Forum and BOMB, as well as soliciting cover art from visual artists whose work seems to visually match the press’s experimental aesthetics. Wolff also occasionally reads poems on her community’s local radio station for National Poetry Month. The appeal of auditory poetry is echoed by poet and critic Stephen Burt’s exhortation “Radio. Almost anything involving radio” when asked about the most effective strategies to attract new people to poetry, as well as the continued popularity of the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud poetry recitation competition which has drawn millions of high school student participants since the program began in 2006, and Black Cake Records, an sort of online poetry album shop.  Many presses use public service and education as a way to reach out to the wider community. Sarabande Books launched Sarabande Writing Labs this past spring, a program that brings literary arts to traditionally underserved populations; most recently, editor Kristen Miller taught a six-week program to recovering addicts at a local women’s shelter. Copper Canyon recently ran a fund-raising campaign to put copies of one of their new titles inside college classrooms and Wave Books sponsors the Bagley Wright Lecture Series, a program that allows poets to present their ideas about poetry in public lectures. Wave also sponsors a biennial festival in Seattle that focuses poetry around other things—translation one year; film another. This seems in keeping with the advice offered by the poetry review magazine Coldfront's Managing Editor Melinda Wilson, who stresses the importance of making launch parties memorable events. Ugly Duckling’s Daniel Owen echoes this, saying “[w]e like to throw parties. Parties…tend to attract people within shouting distance of poetry circles, who might not otherwise be interested.” These social events are an effective way to attract active members of the poetry community, lure in those who like parties and might discover they like poetry, and also appeal to poetry-lovers who are not necessarily interested in published poetry—the wide swath of people mentioned by poet Juan Felipe Herrara while discussing the vibrant poetry scene he encounters in multiethnic neighborhoods and communities of color where “poetry is presented in fairs and festivals, dance parades and, of course, spoken word and slam competitions. Open-air assemblies.”  “[P]oetry is beyond the page,” he claims, and so the question is “how do we work with it, join it, bring it to our ‘pages’?” This is the question faced by any independent publisher: how do you bring readers to your pages—readers who already appreciate poetry but haven’t yet been exposed to an individual press’s catalog, readers whose experience of poetry is auditory or otherwise outside the bookstore, and those readers for whom, as Matthew Zapruder puts it, “would find human things in there and be connected to it if they found the right poem for them at the right time.” Although the audience for poetry is vast, despite the very hard and creative work being done by publishers, this wider audience hasn’t yet crossed the bridge from reading poetry into buying poetry books. This may be somehow tied to poetry’s long history as part of a collective oral tradition or it may be another manifestation of our modern tendency to listen to tracks on SoundCloud rather than buy albums and watch shows on Project Free TV instead of paying for HBO and cable. People’s love for poetry rather than poetry books may also be because of the nature of poetry itself: since each poem is its own complete aesthetic experience, maybe readers feel less inclined to engage with poetry books, no matter how much they’ve enjoyed individual poems. There isn’t a clear answer for presses about how to unlock this wider audience or even if it can be done—just a multiplicity of different approaches. Image via richiec/Flickr
On Poetry

The Saddest Poem Ever Written

Spring and Fall,” written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in September, 1880, and collected in his Poems and Prose, is the saddest poem ever written. I have been moved by other poems, including “Rock Me Mercy” by Yusef Komunyakaa, “Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children” by John Updike, and “Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito" by Tarfia Faizullah. There are countless more poems, published and unpublished, seen and unseen, that could scar my heart. Yet in 15 lines and 94 words, Hopkins builds a melancholic, elegiac sentiment that still affects me now, hundreds of reads later. The poem is invoked to a “young child,” Margaret, who is the silent recipient of the adult narrator’s lament. Hopkins composed the poem while serving as a parish priest in Lydiate, England, and occasionally celebrated Mass at Rose Hill, a private home. He was not a successful preacher, and, devoid of a “working strength,” soon left pastoral work. He taught intermediate Latin and Greek for three years, and then became Chair of Classics at University College, Dublin. He found little joy in any of these professional endeavors, and died of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889. His poems were not published until 1918, by his friend, British poet laureate Robert Bridges. Márgarét, áre you gríeving Over Goldengrove unleaving? Hopkins was, by our imperfect hindsight, a depressed man who loved God. Much has been written about the tension between his artistic and ascetic selves, but even that paradox is romanticized. The Spiritual Exercises, the cornerstone of Hopkins’s Jesuit training, is not meant to neuter one’s personality, but rather to focus the mind. His poetic lines pulse with the passion of a believer, and they must be read through that lens. But he was also a profoundly melancholic man. The concept of melancholy was essential to essayist Michel de Montaigne, whose works were poetic in their associations and rhythms. In Montaigne and Melancholy: The Wisdom of the Essays, M.A. Screech argues that this melancholy, then considered one of the four bodily humors (black bile), resulted in both sadness and rapturous ecstasy. The ecstasy of sex, but also the ecstasy of mystical experiences, much like the polarized moods within Hopkins’s poems. Montaigne might have been closer to the humor of Cicero ("Aristotle says that all geniuses are melancholic. That makes me less worried at being slow-witted.") than the darkness of Hopkins, but they share a willingness to explore sadness. “Spring and Fall” is spoken to Margaret. Her name is mentioned in the first and final lines, folding the poem together. Hopkins, like other poets, often accomplishes that wrapping of word and idea through poetic form and rhyme, but the repetition of her name is a reminder that she is being offered advice. She is sad because the trees are losing leaves. We want to tell her to get over it, perhaps, so as to not waste her tears on such a trivial thing. But the narrator reserves his tough and honest love for the moment. Leáves like the things of man, you With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? In the first four lines, Hopkins uses variants of “you” four times, the refrain like a consoling touch of the child’s shoulder. “Unleaving” falls into “leaves.” A question is followed with another question, though the second is directed more towards the reader, who might be the real subject of this poem. That questioning of the reader is the first reason why Hopkins’s poem stays with me. I think the best poetry is a form of interrogation of self. I can move through much of my public day hearing language emptied of its soul by politicians and twisted into service by advertising. But I pray that poetry props-up language. I don’t think language always needs to be resuscitated through a melancholic mode. Michael Robbins smacks poetic language back into life through humor ("I am small, / I contain platitudes."), but melancholy is particularly well-suited toward a poetry of permanence. Ah! ás the heart grows older It will come to such sights colder By and by, nor spare a sigh Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; And yet you wíll weep and know why. Poetry makes us children again. That might sound incompatible with the stereotypical image of young students in rows, searching for meanings that poets never intended, but many of our earliest and most profound experiences with language have been when it is delivered within a poetic mode. The wrenching crux of “Spring and Fall” is that Margaret is you and I. She is my twin daughters, who, barely over a year, speak in cries more than words. It makes me think of the intellectual complexity of parenthood: by loving our children we are also, in some measure, loving ourselves. I don’t want my daughters to ever be sad. It is an unrealistic hope, because “worlds of wanwood leafmeal life.” Yet that hope, however tenuous and naïve, is so necessary. The narrator of “Spring and Fall” wants Margaret -- wants us -- to know that the ultimate melancholy is the awareness of our mortality. Poems about death are legion, but Hopkins’s careful construction allows his notes to bounce off the other lines. Second-person, when used well, is a wonderful poetic mirror. Now no matter, child, the name: Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same. Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed What heart heard of, ghost guessed: Poetry’s brevity and tendency toward paradox through interiority of content make it the perfect artistic vehicle for melancholy. We spend our days living and speaking in prose. Poetry is manual transmission. Poetry is an old vehicle made new. In order to read a poem, we must occupy another, more monastic space. In that sense, melancholy is an excellent fit for poetry, since the feeling is an emotional rattling. Novels have hurt me. Stories have punctured my skeptical skin. Essays have made me rethink the world. But a melancholic poem shatters me, pushes me to another emotional space. It extends my self. The brevity of “Spring and Fall” means that this is a powerful but short affair. I can leave the room, and though the words will return as a whisper, I can go back to life. Longer works drown me in their world, so that my reentry into the real one is difficult. But “Spring and Fall” is small enough to fit inside my pocket and under my tongue. Its soft rhythms lull me into accepting the inevitability of its narrative. It ís the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for. Some readings of “Spring and Fall” criticize the tendency of the speaker and other “colder,” adult hearts to not be moved by nature. An environmentalist reading would be consistent with Hopkins, who found the entire natural world "charged with the grandeur of God." Hopkins certainly crafted an imperfect narrator who seems world-wearied, pained. A speaker who is willing to reveal the end of innocence. A well-placed poem can remind us that our existences are, cosmically, equally as brief as these 15 lines. “Spring and Fall” accumulates toward the heavy conclusion that our truest sadness is the recognition that it is not the falling of leaves that pains us, but our own falls, however public or personal. Although Hopkins held a very particular worldview, “Spring and Fall” knows no exclusive creed, race, gender, or time period. It is a poem about our “blight.” The one we share with those we hate and love. Poetry must sometimes tear us apart before it brings us together. For those reasons, “Spring and Fall” is the saddest poem ever written. Image Credit: Wikipedia
On Poetry

Performance Anxiety: When Poets Read Aloud

American poetry has performance issues. If you go to a lot of poetry readings, you know well the feeling I’m about to describe: you’re feeling good, beer and/ or notebook in hand, when a poet, acclaimed or with just a handful of poems in the world, takes the stage. As the poet approaches the mic, you brace yourself: this could go one of two ways. The poet’s voice could embrace you warmly, like that of a singer, or you could spend the next hour listening to a drone with a slight uptick at the end of each line. The poet could make conversational eye contact with the audience, as poets Naomi Shihab Nye, Forrest Gander, and Toi Derricotte do; or she could never look up from the podium. Why do some poets perform as though they had just come to in a bad dream? Sometimes, because they are amateurs, high school or new MFA students; but just as often, standoffishness about performance comes from experienced writers whose work glows on the page, but whose words just can’t seem to survive the trip from Garamond to the tip of the poet’s tongue. Meanwhile, the other American poetry – the stage-centered continuum that runs from slam to rap and back again – whose lifeblood is making poems sound and feel good out loud, has taken a long time to get a break. In 2000 in the Paris Review, Harold Bloom provided what seemed to be the official "establishment" (some would say “old white dude”) verdict on slam poetry: “I can’t bear these accounts I hear…of these poetry slams, in which various young men and women in various late-night spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other…This isn’t even silly; it is the death of art.” Okay, Harold. But it’s been almost thirty years since the first slam was organized in a working-class pub in Chicago, and since Miguel Algarín made poetry-out-loud one of the pillars of the Nuyorican Poets Café. Slam has now been part of the nation’s poetry vocabulary for long enough to deserve to move out of its parents’ basement and pay its own rent. It’s made publishing careers and recording contracts, and even Broadway stars. Saul Williams, arguably the biggest star of slam’s first generation, is now playing a Tupac Shakur-inspired character on Broadway in “Holler if Ya Hear Me.” The choice of Williams for the role draws a direct line between slam and rap, the closest the average American gets to poetry by turning on the radio. But perhaps most importantly, slam’s near-middle-age means that many young poets – including some now rising to poetry’s version of rock-star status – have grown up in it. Poets who cut their teeth on slam make up the ranks of some of America’s finest emerging and mid-career poets, and have won not only national slam accolades but hallmarks of success associated with poetry print culture: admission to top MFA programs, book publication from leading small presses, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, the Whiting Award, and more. As these poets have developed a new kind of poetry career, where a packed performance tour can predate a first-book publication by years, the line Bloom so firmly drew in the sand has been eroding. Other, less hidebound critics have taken note: Dana Gioia, in his 2004 essay “Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture,” saw that slam and spoken word were inspiring a new poetry audience, one that circumvented the academy and New York publishing houses. Susan Somers Willett, in The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry, notes that slam has, since its inception, put critical power directly into the hands of the audience, making slam attendees feel that they, not the editors of book reviews, are cultural tastemakers and determiners of authenticity. As poets with performance backgrounds rise through the ranks of poetry print culture, American poetry appears caught between a fear of performance and a celebration of it. As these page + stage poets become more prominent in universities, journals, and reading series, are they helping to renew conversations about performance as an aspect of making poems? The thing about the page, as we’ve known since Gutenberg, is that it reaches more people, even if “more” is only a couple thousand. Or in the words of Aaron Samuels, himself a young poet who straddles the worlds of performance and print, “the great thing about print is that you don’t have to be there.” But despite that reach, poetry readings have been essential to building poets’ readerships since the fifties. To disdain them is to shoot yourself in the foot. Jamaal May, a Detroit poet with deep roots in the slam scene there, is among those who have started the campaign to make “page” poets better performers. Before the publication of his first book, Hum, he wrote a blog post for Poets & Writers called “On Giving a Not Terrible Reading.” “Writers tell me they don’t want to perform or be seen as performative,” he writes, but “I would argue that an overly dry, disengaged reading is in fact a performance. No one speaks that way.” With this criticism, May hit on the irony that underlies so many tepid readings by “page” poets: poets may fear that an engaged, even dramatic performance may come off as inauthentic; but as with wooden acting, not allowing the poem’s elements to guide a reading of it can seem far more false than reading with passion. Slam poets have typically not shied away from associations with the theatrical, maybe because slam is more likely to embrace genres, like persona, that lend themselves to character-building. Airea Matthews, a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan and a two-time finalist in the Women of the World poetry slam, is often drawn to persona in both her performance work and her work on the page. Persona and the drama it engenders on paper or on stage, she believes, is mostly about empathy, including “the grand acknowledgment of all you don’t and can’t know.” It’s hard to accuse performance with that sentiment at its core of being false. Susan Somers-Willett suggests that some poets’ fear of inauthenticity may stem in part from white poets and audiences seeing blackness as the most authentic expression of identity. Somers-Willett tracks white poets’ consumption and imitation of black art from minstrelsy to the Beats. These movements, she writes, provide a precedent for the audiences at poetry slams, who are predominantly white while the winners of major slam competitions are predominantly black. Because many slam poets deal directly with themes of social injustice, “…the slam may serve as a rare opportunity for liberal, white, middle-class audiences to legitimately support poets of color who critique white positions of privilege.” Poets who feel their privilege sharply may balk at the use of performance elements they associate with such critiques. Is the opposite true – do poets who came up in performance communities shy away from line and form? There are certainly slam poets who disdain print, but the poets I spoke to for this article – all of them with successful print ventures as well as long experience in and love for slam – said that a poem’s “page” elements are just as important as aspects of performance. For some, performance came first, but that doesn’t mean that performance is an end for every poem. Aaron Samuels, whose first book Yarmulkes and Fitted Caps came out last fall, says that when he sits down to write, “I often don’t know what the best way is for a poem to reach the world. And I think it’s important for me not to know that.” Poets who don’t make use of performance, he suggests, may not feel comfortable with what the experience of being on stage has to offer. “When you’re a high school English student, you know that alliteration is an option,” Samuels offers. “If you grow up with a performance background, you know that that’s something you can do.” Poets with May’s, Samuels’s, and Matthews’s backgrounds are positioning themselves as bridges between “the two cultures” of American poetry. But don’t call them “crossovers” – rather than leaving performance behind, they are helping to build a poetry audience that craves both excellence on the page and a vibrant performance behind the mic. “Page Meets Stage,” a Manhattan reading series run by slam poet Taylor Mali pairs Pulitzer Prize winners with National Slam champions. The series’ success suggests that the audience is there: slam and “literary” listeners alike want to celebrate, and even blend, both traditions, rather than rank one above the other. And poets comfortable with both are aware of the potential for groundbreaking work. While promoting Hum, Jamaal May made a poetry video of himself reading/reciting his poem “I Do Have a Seam.” The poem is a contrapuntal, which means it appears in two columns and can be read three ways: the first column alone, the second alone, or by connecting the two. In between the two columns, naturally, is a seam of space. The video opens with a shot of the left column, folded along its seam, black ink on white paper. Later, we see its right half, white ink on black. By lingering on the text, May calls attention to the form of the poem as it can only be seen on the page, with all three performance possibilities presented simultaneously to the reader. But he also makes his performance of the work essential, moving a hand across his mouth, closing his eyes. At one point, he quietly doubles his voice. What kind of poet does May want to be? Steeped in the familial community of Detroit slam, May is now finding the kind of success most poets in MFA programs dream of: university and writing conference fellowships, major literary prizes. But the video for “I Do Have a Seam,” tellingly, doesn’t choose sides. Instead, in keeping with many stage + page poets’ philosophies of composition, May’s work insists on being the thread that binds performance, with its potential for heightened sonic and dramatic effects, and the quieter, more visual work of the page. Is this inter-weaving of genres, this promising poetry Frankenstein, actually changing the way students and teachers approach poetry and its performance? The litmus test, as usual, is high school and undergraduate students. Keith Taylor, director of the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan, has watched both slam and “literary” poetry rise and fall in popularity. Once, he recalls, young poets talked of “Page vs. Stage,” clearly privileging “page” as the more serious. Now, he says, “it is clearly Stage AND Page. And some of them are making it clear that you can have your cake and eat it too… They are also imagining their poems as different things – poems for performance and poems for print. Two very different kinds of composition.” But fervent supporters of performance, Taylor says, can sometimes alienate the young writers who come to poetry more quietly and bookishly. If beginning writers start to perceive poetry as being only for performance, Taylor fears, this will scare off some great talent. But if we’re lucky, poets like May, Samuels, Matthews, and others will  continue to help both slam communities and university writing programs occupy that middle space – that seam, that delicious gutter where poets use not just our voices or our hands, but all of our tools. When their work is done, I can’t say there will be no more terrible readings; but there might be a great many better ones. Image via sanfinix/Flickr