See the poems Solmaz Sharif reads in the interview and find links to some items discussed during the interview.
Once I Walked Out
Once I walked out and the world
rushed to my side. The willows bent
their willowy necks, tossed green hair hugely.
The hawk cried by the well.
The crows kept counting their kind.
Once I walked out and the sheep
bleated with sensitivity, touched
black muzzles to the grass.
I was followed by dogs, by flies,
by horses both curious and spiteful.
The field of beans worked its sums
under green, the corn licked the air to haze.
I said goodbye to the house
with its sagging porch, attic hung with bats.
Goodbye braided rug, rabbit hutch, corn popper, copper tub .
The green world greened around me—
Virginia creeper, crown vetch, thistle, mullein, sumac.
I was full in my limbs, my laugh, pinkish skin.
I swung my arms, pulled air into lungs—
pine pollen, dust mote, mold spore, atomized dew,
bright wheel of flame twisting in the heavens
flushing the eye with light.
Mark Wunderlich is the author of The Anchorage which received the Lambda Literary Award, and Voluntary Servitude, which was published in 2004 by Graywolf Press. He teaches literature and writing at Bennington College in Vermont, and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
At a party last Thursday night after a full day at this year’s AWP conference, I broke one of my own absolute rules – never, under any circumstances resort to quoting The Big Lebowski. Out of some mixture of awkwardness and that day’s hang over, I recited a line from my high school idol the Dude to another poet. I was simply passing a good piece of advice along, a bit of practical philosophy – some times you eat the bar, and, well, sometimes he eats you. It seemed appropriate, as she’d just finished a tirade, and we’d both lost interest in the subject. By the time I got to bar, she was speaking the line loudly, with panache. She was in on the joke, eager for me to know it, which is what I continually find so gross. At some point in the last 5 years (maybe longer?) seemingly everyone was let in on a joke that I once selfishly held as my own. In turn, The Big Lebowski stopped being the reference-pantry raided by me and my small circle of friends, the endless source of weird one-liners good for boggling those unhip to the film. It’s now become collective knowledge, and worse, quoting the movie has become a norm for so many people my age (who hit puberty mid to late 90s) who probably, I assume, have no understanding of the Cohen brothers’ meticulous talent, or worse, in fact appreciate it as deeply as I do, making it that much less special. So many voices right now across North America are attempting their best Donny or Walter, again trying to remake that initial Edenic moment when someone dropped a burrito down their T-shirt and their friend turned, laughed a little, and coughed out, this a bummer man…that’s a bummer. In that first instant—a miming of the already dramatic, immediate recognition, and thus a new context invented. Lebowski became a movie not only to buy late at night in a Wal-Mart bargain bin, to watch again and again noticing new congruencies and minutiae, but a movie to quote. And in that instant, that quotation became the thing to mimic, rather than the movie itself.
So how does one function in a post-Lebowski world? A world where the thing you loved growing up—the sense that a unique moment is possible, the comradery built around the surprise of both responding to a new joke and remembering it all at once—feels played out? Do you take it to the next extreme, attend an official Lebowski Fest donning shooting-range glasses and a canvas vest? Would you find those beloved people waiting there for you, the real fans, or would you still feel that sense of competition and frustration?
The next day was Friday, and I was prepared for a repeat—hung over, sitting through panels and readings at my first ever AWP conference, conveniently set in my home, DC. I would greet even casual acquaintances warmly, stalk my favorite publishers, push myself to try and drink in all the poetry I could stomach, given my nausea from the last night. I had avoided the conference in past years for practical reasons like money and semester workload. I’d also pictured a monster: a sea of writers confined to a single space all vying for attention. I had imagined the conference as one long stretch of feeling bad like you do when a guy by the metro asks for change and you keep walking, or when a shiny BMW full of laughing college kids pulls up by you at a red light. Pity in the first, envy in the second. Self-deprecation on both fronts. I imagined being sick of people selling me their artistic ethos and ranking it against mine.
In part, I was right. By the end of Saturday, I had a strange feeling, uncanny, some mixture of confidence and deflation, of me and not me. I felt a sense of writerly persona, but also the sense that I had to recoup something important. Some good college friends were in town for the conference, and so there was that—the long, nostalgic nights of bar hopping I so often drunk-dial demanding. There were wonderful readings by some of my favorite writers, and even better by writers I’d never heard of. And there was the realization when I first arrived on Thursday that in a moment I’d be surrounded by thousands of like-minded people, all scraped from the floor wearing similar dirt.
But there was also the feeling that somehow the nametag around my neck stood as a two-word resume, making me easier to read. People cut in line after readings to pass a card or book to a speaker, and subsequently drew out conversations while the rest waited. There were questions after panels which included mostly credentials and never actually reached a question mark. There was the too-muchness of the book fair in an endless basement of rooms busting with people. There was an air of emptiness to so many that sprang from more than beer or jet lag. People who seemed large to me in the past now looked tiny.
The writers who convinced me to believe in writing were Kerouac and later Ginsberg. In college when I was so ready to be moved by something and directed, I found ‘On the Road,’ which preached no direction, and ‘Howl,’ which celebrated revolt. I had my first transcendent experiences walking through crowds of students who I imagined couldn’t possibly understand the world’s beauty at that moment. I read and believed in what writers do: drink and yell together, break the past, push their every limit, and sing each others’ praises. So I helped a friend edit a home-made journal and organized a reading series in the back of a bar. I read and reread Bukowski. I caroused with and debated the poetry kids. Got smashed like any college student. I took every possible poetry workshop and then applied to MFAs looking to continue in that same vein. I’ve now lived in DC for almost 3 years honing my craft, attending readings, meeting the local writers. All of this under the assumption that I’m following my love, that poetry is my creative vehicle, and that along with my few acquaintances, I’m pushing this thing forward, keeping it alive. It sounds ridiculous, but how else to go on in a medium that favors the individual, without on some level believing you’re an individual?
So this past weekend, walking into my first AWP, the conference that consistently draws a wealth of today’s talented writers and teachers of writing, what should I have expected? Culture or the mime of culture? Ginsberg first reading ‘Howl’ in 1950s Frisco while Kerouac passed cheap jugs of wine and shouted? Or that moment’s retelling in the recent film Howl with its more gorgeous Ginsberg, its less gorgeous Kerouac? Poets like so many thousands of Jeff Bridges decoys, all in matching white v-necks, pacing like lunatics, uttering the same 10 lines back and forth? I think as a poet and person, I often live too much in the imagined past, reliving memories, idolizing personas invented through literature, saving friends in my mind as they once were. But that doesn’t mean I believe the present isn’t real, and that poetry should accept its place as just a teacher’s art, though teaching is incredibly important. There is a reason so many poets are right now budding in MFA programs, and it’s not simply the push for professionalization, the economy, etc. Nor do I think, looking back on my full experience, that AWP should be cornered as some sort of backwoods, yet fancy, family reunion, rife with inbreeding, as was my initial cynicism. I did hear moments of life, feel excitement, swallow poetry and sweat it out. On Friday, Sonia Sanchez stood up during the Split this Rock panel on Langston Hughes, for which she presented. She paused to keep from crying, and said something to the effect of: You don’t understand what this is all about; you have to read Langston Hughes, I mean really go back and read him. I knew she really felt it, even if she couldn’t explain fully just then—just like any good artist really means what they make, no matter the layers of irony we’re asked to sift through. The dramatic voice, fragmentation, wrenched syntax. The CVs, business cards, mingling. Underneath, there must be sincerity, and so often there is. Most writers I meet really believe in the vitality of their craft, even if it doesn’t immediately show. Not everyone’s confident, and not everyone’s talented. The next poet will always on some level be the competition; it’s there in the edicts of contemporary art. But I think we all savor those moments we don’t have to suspect, that just happen, really happen. Those moments you can’t manufacture, which make all the bullshit tolerable. If I have the money, I’ll be in Chicago this time next year doing it all again.
…“This is the world,”
I think, “this is what I came
in search of years ago.” Now I
can go back to my single room,
I can lie awake in the dark
rehearsing all the trivial events
of the day ahead, a day that begins
when the sun clears the dark spires
of someone’s god, and I waken
in a flood of dust rising from
nowhere and from nowhere comes
the actual voice of someone else.
-from “The Music of Time”
As we have been trained over decades to expect from Philip Levine, his latest book of poems, News of the World, is an unsurprisingly likeable collection of environmental portraits rendered with acute sensitivity to history and class. Those who know Levine’s work will find much familiar about many of these poems—and happily so, as his strengths as a poet have resisted dulling over time and profuse exercise.
The spoken quality of this master’s voice and the guileless feel of these poems’ shapes are subtle forces in News of the World. In the above closure of “The Music of Time,” Levine’s loping parataxis, his casually exacting “someone’s god” and “actual voice of someone else,” his flirtation with negative capabilities—above all else his unique narrative space of a kind of American subaltern—are prominent features of these recent works. Yet for Levine’s fans and the uninitiated alike, News of the World delivers on the promise in its title. The real force behind the collection is its gentle insistence on dialogue as a source of inspiration—the interplay between Levine’s liminal yet capacious narrative space and other voices in these poems. Vital statements, questions, and ironies are threaded throughout in exchanges that begin between a “you” and “I” (which occasionally resolves to “we”) in “Our Valley,” the opening piece, to be sustained in the various voices of Levine’s family and intimates, historical and literary figures, writers, songsmiths, and of course the poet himself. Whereas in so many works the voices of others become foils for or extensions of the author’s own voice, some of the best poems of News of the World suggest the possibility of hearing “the actual voice of someone else”—with a stress on the actual.
Perhaps nowhere is Levine’s dialogical bent more evident in News of the World than in its third of four sections, which is comprised entirely of prose poems. This section opens with an overheard exchange between a doctor and a young patient—a prose poem ironically titled, “Fixing the Foot: On Rhythm”—which is surely what Levine referred to in a March of 2008 interview as “the first good prose poem I ever wrote,” and closes with the book’s namesake. Many of these fine poems embody such actual listenings and recastings of speech, effectively assuming postures of tenderness, fractiousness, and play—all with Levine’s signature restraint and regard for humanity. They treat us to the voices that enlarge and enrich our own individual humanities. What once might have been seen as Levine’s anger and righteousness is transformed into an impulse to listen and share what he hears—an experience that he creates for his readers rather than telling us, ‘you don’t know what ______ is.’ This is a truly engaging facet of the new Levine collection, and just part of what makes these poems well worth experiencing first-hand.
So, while News of the World certainly offers some typical-feeling moves to those familiar with Levine’s oeuvres, it also contains formal variations and preoccupations that will amuse and surprise both his admirers and those who don’t yet know his work. And most hopefully, at least possibly, we might find “actual” other voices here—voices that waken in us the best and most thrilling aspects of what it means to live.
Read some of Deborah’s poems here and find links to some of the things Ben and Deborah talk about in the interview.
It was the novel, specifically The Brothers Karamazov, that once and for all set me on the path toward dedicating my life to literature. Only recently has poetry come to occupy a similarly sacred space as the novel in my outlook. This delay is not due to any prejudice on my part, but more to a simple lack of sufficient exposure.
The main catalyst for this awakening was John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” When I first encountered it, I had been studying Pynchon, Barth, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. Namely, practitioners of the massive, whose major works will undoubtedly stand as monuments to our historical and cultural moment. “Self-Portrait” is one such undertaking.
The sheer philosophical, epistemological, formal and emotional scope exhilarates me every time I read it. It is a virtuosic, dynamic, and ultimately heart-wrenching meditation on self-consciousness and loss, central notions of late twentieth-century art. Like those masters of narrative I mentioned, Ashbery causes me to pause and reflect with awed humility that I could never do what he did in this poem.
Everyone in it dead now––Dad,
three, in a skirt––and I see her
again, the unnamed woman. She
is me. No one to introduce us:
Hello, Me. Unruly eyebrow woman,
eyes sepia but blue––they must be;
hair pulled slant, frame bent
lensward, skeptical mouth
smiling––I know you. How did you
leash your mind, when you
looked through the small window
or stared through water
at your veined hand?
James Schuyler is back from the dead with the lovely “Other Flowers” a posthumous book of his unpublished, uncollected poems. Everything I have come to know and love about Schuyler’s eye and heart is here in generous supply. The poems are – like so many of the poems published in his lifetime – made from a kind of brilliance disguised as innocence; a sadness disguised as joy. They feel closer to jazz and painting than to another kind of poetry. And, like they are peculiarly of their own time: still timeless as any poetry this indelible (though more in the sense of memorable than something held down or restricted by an era), but they are also poems that feel (somewhat like Frank O’Hara, Joe Brainard and, later, Frank Bidart) almost immediately nostalgic.
The subject matter here is still the same as it’s always been: New York, adventures in intimacy, pop culture, gossip, longing and traveling and most of them are famously brief in scope of time and how they fall upon the page. In their brevity, they feel as important and quietly beautiful as leaves we use as summer bookmarkers.
What I find most fascinating about Schuyler’s poems (and probably one of the most interesting aspect of this collection is the fact that there are probably more not so good poems than in his other collections) is how slight they may appear and yet are not slight at all. Like interpretive inkblots that use tea for color instead of ink, the poems are there and not there; emphatic, authoritative, but also whispered. There’s confrontation and resistance – exemplified, in part, in “Vila Della Vite”, which tracks the desire to be a different kind of thinker than he already is:
I’m not happy
My spirits that lifted
me so high, went off like smoke
after a shot. How can
I fear so many diverse things?
I want to think of other things.
Is it all
in how you think?
I want to think of a washing machine
in a basement….
Being a different kind of thinker than he is or wants to be is actually one of the aspects that makes Schuyler such a great poet, if that makes sense. His intelligence is fixed in time but it is also mutable as the subjects it lands on, and rather than the heavy hand of the writer casting a shadow on the subject and/or cadence of the poem, the poem casts the shadow on the writer. In this way, each poem is its style:
It darkens, brother
and your crutch-tip grinds
the gravel the deer stepped delicately along
one breakfast, you were a kid.
Mother says after thirty,
decades clip by
‘and then you have the sum’
or spent it.
(From “Coming Night”)
And each poem – especially this one – is stacked in terms of form – a way of making information happen by making each line take on a different subject – what Richard Hugo talks about in his book on poetics, “The Triggering Town”. Here, each next line in that first stanza stands in unison and independently: it darkens, there’s a crutch-tip, gravel and deer, breakfast, Mother, decades, the sum, and then “or spent it” – the culmination.
And while the eye in many of Schuyler poems is in a beautiful gaze about making the moment larger, the mind is also wondering what is really being seen, considered and what the stakes are. Each poem in a way – whether it literally asks a question or not – is wondering who someone is, what something is. Each poem is deceptively simple in that inquiry, but mysterious, too:
The mind dies down.
Nerves, unsheathed, stir.
Radios. A water tap
Depart, flesh, trailed
by barbwire hair. Sea salt
explores lips of lacerations
cut on you like a christening
nick. A yellow light
in blue light. Twilight
and hydrangeas watery
through hedges. Was the hideous
lesson worth the pleasure?
(From “The Exchange”)
It’s so good to have these poems in the world now; to have James Schuyler back, uncollected, saluting the various field: these other flowers.
Marianne Moore probably would have hated my guts, considering my rather sloppy, and sprawling ways, and she would have been right to do so. She scares me the way Cordelia scares me–by dint of her absolute integrity. She makes me love her the way I once loved an impossibly precise and severe girl in the fourth grade, who in addition to precision and severity, took an absolute delight in whatever she found worthy, surpassing any delight I had previously witnessed. It was calm, yet intense, and of a constancy once formed that made me wish I was a better person. I realized her delight was far greater, and of far more depth than my unbridled enthusiasms. Until then, I had thought myself substantial. Without ever insulting me, or explicitly disapproving of my shallowness, this girl dismantled my high self-notions. I loved and feared her, and wanted more than anything to be someone she would admire. It didn’t happen. I caved into the whims of my classmates, and played the fool, and she knew better.
But all this is fairly common knowledge concerning Marianne Moore. What no one seems to speak of is that this sort of integrity (Katherine Hepburn minus beauty or Hollywood) counts on a quality of character we might not think a virtue, but is, in a sense, an aspect of divinity: arbitrary favor.
Arbitrary favor differs from whim in so far as it rides on precision and integrity, and, yet, we might call it the most laudatory form of caprice. No one could predict what Marianne Moore would love, only that, if she admired it, looked upon it with favor, she would appreciate the thing, or animal, or person with the utmost decorum and skill. Her enthusiasm for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and for her Protestant faith do not seem consistent (the Dodgers of that time were anything but waspish), yet constancy is not the same as consistency, and, for this reason, constancy is always fresh, never stale. It carries within its scope a sense of “oh Brave new World,” and yet makes ordinary and even habitual the mechanisms of wonder.
So when I first read Marianne Moore in 7th grade, I experienced a rather Proustian recall of the girl in 4th, and found myself entering the poems with a kind of gingerly tread I reserve for people I don’t wish to look stupid around. The first poem I was exposed to was “To A Snail.” It was sister Irene’s favorite, and, though she knew better, she made a valiant attempt to export her admiration to the class. “Moore is both sensible and ecstatic,” sister said, “and to read her well, to appreciate her genius, you, too, must be both sensible and ecstatic.” (lots of dumbfounded stares, not a few yawns.) Here’s the poem:
If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
In the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
In my fifty-second year, I am beginning to understand what Sister Irene meant. At the time, she asked the class what Moore was trying to say. “Snails are interesting,” Barbara submitted. “Yes,” Sister replied, “no doubt, but could we go a bit further?” I slowly raised my hand. I was known for making the best fart noises by putting my hand in my arm pit and flapping my arm. I could also make myself sneeze at will. I was not known for being a literary analyst. “She is saying that the best thing about details, the best thing about anything said, or about the snail’s horn is that it shows the underlying principle underneath everything, and that’s what makes it good style. And she is saying it isn’t just that the snail’s horn is interesting, but that it is… (I groped for a word, a mighty word, a word that would drag me into the most glorious light)… exemplary?” “Yes!” sister exclaimed, and touched her lips three times with the chalk, “yes! That’s certainly more to the point! It is as Aquinas said, ‘all in nature that I see, shows me the creator I have not seen.’” Barbara rolled her eyes. Tommy Mc Gowan whispered, “show off.” Sister said: “Mr. Weil, every so often, you throw off your dunce cap and astound me! Here…” and she threw a book at me (she loved to throw things) It was 101 American poems. It was the first time anyone had given me a book of poetry. “Read it, Mr. Weil. Do not be tempted to regress to your natural state.”
In the years since I have often regressed, but I did read the book, and I re-read it. It was worth showing off in a manner different than my usual attempts to be ingratiating. It was worth my classmate’s contempt. On the way home from school, I could not stop thinking about the girl in fourth grade, her tremendous love of insects, her refusal to giggle at any other child, her forthrightness. And, as I walked home, I thought, if she had not moved away, if only she had been there,she may have been as delighted as sister Irene, and, for the briefest moment, I would have been more than a fool.
Assignment: Write a poem in which you take note of an animal, or object, but also use description to get at some underlying principle beyond the mere details.
If you are a poet writing in English, you carry Horace in your own voice. I’m convinced there really is no way around this. I’m not sure there’s any possible strain of English poetry that can avoid his influence. And who would want to? Horace is a master of lyric poetry. To learn better how we speak as poets, we should all be looking at and coming to grips with Horace.
This looking back (not so much ad fontes as Jacob wrestling God) is made difficult by the fact that most of us don’t know Latin (or the Greek of the poets Horace learned from). And even for those who do, the collapse that exists between Latin and English can seem insurmountable. I was a terrible student when I studied Latin and Greek and have since forgotten much of it. Looking back now, I can see that I looked at foreign languages more as a different speaking-code that could be translated into English (with a few admitted bumps along the way), rather than another way of thinking–perhaps even another way of being. I’ve realized that language is a rite of sorts into which we are initiated over a very long period of time. Whenever I feel frustrated with my students inability to grasp certain ideas of language, I look up at a large poster of Greek verb endings that I’ve posted in my cubicle to remind myself of the difficulty of learning another language. It keeps me humble (I hope).
Because language is a rite of initiation of sorts, it has to be done with humans. You can immerse yourself in a dead language, but at the end day who knows whether you’re working with the language in a way the original speakers would have been familiar with? I remember reading some translation commentaries in which several possible translations–all very different–were posited by the commentators who then shrugged, essentially, saying–we honestly just don’t know how to translate this. This is maddening if you’re trying to render a translation that is as close to the original in every way possible. At the end of the day, most translators have to admit that they are only able to be accurate in one or two ways, and that these accuracies come at the expense of other accuracies. A translator may, for example, attempt to imitate the free and easy rhythm of the original, but to do so in English, the translator may need to reorder the ideas and images in the original.
A few months back I wrote a sort of prologue to this book review in which I concluded that fruitful translation is possible as long as we are able to recognize and appreciate the “extra layers” of intent that must be layered over top of a translation to make it possible. That is, we first must recognize the limits of translation, while also acknowledging (and appreciating, I think) what the translator adds to the translation.
The collection that J.D. McClatchy has assembled renders the totality of Horace’s four books of odes. The translations are from contemporary English-speaking poets of all varieties, from Paul Muldoon to Charles Simic to Rosanna Warren. All (or almost) have had some experience translating from a classical language. All the poets, with the exception of Simic, grew up speaking one of the major incarnations of modern English (American, British, Irish, Canadian, Australian).
McClatchy’s Odes favors a variety of translators (and inevitably, translational perspectives). As such, it is a valuable collection to add to the stable of Horace translations. From them, you can learn a lot about Horace as a poet. But I suspect you can also learn more about the translators as poets themselves, and that makes this collection a valuable addition to the study of modern poetry as well.
It would be much too large of a task to review how each poet approaches Horace. The good news is that almost every one of McClatchy’s translators take on several Odes each, which creates a sort of arc from which you can study and learn about each poet’s translational perspective. One poem is not probably enough to enlighten us about how the contemporary poet relates her or his poetics with that of Horace, but thankfully, McClatchy has given readers enough to make a study of each individual poet if a they so chose.
Given my own weak knowledge of Latin, I cannot assess well the various ways in which the translations of McClatchy’s edition mediate the gap between Horace’s Latin and modern-day English. The best I can is muddle an assessment in triangulation with another modern edition of Horace I have come to love and admire: David Ferry’s. Where McClatchy’s Odes features variety, Ferry’s translations have a consistency of translational perspective. Over winter break, I also picked up a copy of Mitchie’s translations (which are, amazingly, often done in the original meter–something neither Ferry nor McClatchy’s translators attempt). Legend has it that Auden was scared off from doing his own translations of Horace by what he perceived as the self-evident greatness of Mitchie’s.
As far as recent poets go, however, I believe that Ferry’s translations will last for a long time as a node upon which modern poetics can hang its relationship with Horace. McClatchy’s Odes exists more as a collection of statements of relationship between modern poets and Horace. For comparison’s sake, let’s look at Ode I.23, by both Ferry and Heather McHugh.
i.23 / To Chloë
Chloë, it is as if
_____You were but a little fawn
Needlessly fearful of every
_____Littlest breeze that stirs,
Ready to run as far
_____Away as it possibly can,
Seeking its timid mother
_____Anywhere but here
Where its heart beats fast and it trembles
_____In every limb for any
Slightest shimmer or shiver
_____Of newly opening leaf,
Signs of the spring beginning,
_____Or if a lizard’s foot
Disturbs a single twig.
_____Chloë, I am neither
A lion nor a tiger;
_____I have no wish to hurt you;
Do not run to your mother;
_____Now is the time for love.
You dash from my sight, little Chloë, the way, wth fear,
a stray fawn bolts from path to bush in search
of her lost mother, trembling utterly at each
sweet nothing of the woods, each stir of air.
Let any thorn tree spring the briefest leaf,
let any lizard make the least green streak
toward any under-tangle–and she’ll freeze,
blood knocking, heart at knees.
But I’m no predatory cur, no wildcat appetite,
to rack a baby down and eat her up. I’m only
human: I’m a man. The time is right, in you, for some
bold move. Now let your mother go. Now, let me come.
McHugh, with her percussive wordplay, has turned Horace’s speaker into a sweaty, groping, borderline (if not already there) pedophile. In truth, it’s also there in Ferry’s poem, but ambivalently. The tactfully discharged imagery of Ferry’s poem could be one playing a role in a game of “hard to get” as easily as it could indicate a smooth, but predatory operator. I’ll admit, however, that after reading McHugh’s poem I have a hard time not seeing it her way (that might also be because I just finished watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU, but that’s neither here nor there).
McHugh takes the central conceit of the poem and thrusts the reader into it (“You dash from my sight”). Ferry, on the other hand, layers the desire below the conceit (“Chloë, it is as if…”). McHugh makes the not-at-all subtle equation of Horace’s desire (and the instrument thereof) to the lizard (which itself sparks other associations); in Ferry’s poem, that image is tidied away as a “lizard’s foot.” The way we see both Ferry and McHugh dealing with these images brings me to a larger point about Horace: one of the most impressive things that Horace does–one thing that I badly wishI could ape from his craft–is his ability to introduce a multitude of objects and hold them all in balance. We see what could be Ashbery’s wandering mind under the disciplinary curtain call of form. Whether the “formal feeling” that gives us a sense of the poem’s beginning or end is a “romantic standby,” I’ll leave for other poets to hammer out at this point. In these translations, there is no formalism, but how the translators perceive Horace’s intent becomes a form, of sorts. They must wrestle with all the objects, by squeezing them in, ordering and directing them to their will. This reinterpretive ordering says much about how the translators as poets relate to Horace.
If I had a wider range of knowledge about all the contributing translators, McClatchy’s collection of new translations could do with a thorough comparison, a catalogue of what each poet is doing with Horace in his or her own right. That exercise would, no doubt, yield a large number of insights, and I hope that the readers of this review would do this and return with their findings (perhaps shared in the comment section?). Ezra Pound suggested that there are three major components to poetry: sound, image, and word play. In this review I mostly focused on image (the most easily translated of the three aspects according to Pound). I was hoping to tackle tone, which floats around Pound’s three aspects. I wanted to write about Mark Strand’s translations, but honestly I just didn’t have time (this was supposed to go up at Christmas!). Maybe some other day.
What I wanted to end this review with, however, is with a demonstration of the way that we all carry Horace in our voice, using a poem I wrote as an example. While a student at Hunter, I was given a side-by-side comparison of Wyatt’s “My Galley, Charged with Forgetfulness” and O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster.” Wyatt’s poem was itself a translation of Petrarch’s “Canzionere 189.” I decided to do my own loose rewrite of O’Hara and Wyatt, and the resulting poem turned out to be a bit of a cipher (to me at least) for the rest of my poems.
Later, after “discovering” Horace (that is to say, I had begun to read seriously and enjoy), I found that Petrarch’s was itself a rewrite of Horace’s 14th Ode from Book I. It was a very clear demonstration for me that tradition, for better or worse, was a part of all our voices, and–in a sense–we all need that tradition to speak as poets. So I present you with 5 different “versions” of the same poem, the last of which is my own (not to suggest that I am, in any way, an equal to the poets in this list).
i.14 / To the Republic
O ship, O battered ship, the backward running waves
Are taking you out to sea again! Oh what to do?
Oh don’t you see? Oh make for port! The wind’s gone wild!
Your sails are torn! Your mast is shaking! Your oars are gone!
Your onboard gods gone overboard! How long, how long
Can the eggshell hull so frail hold out? O ship so proud,
Your famous name, your gilded stern, your polished decks,
Your polished brass, so useless now, O Storm’s play thing,
O ship my care, beware, beware the Cyclades!
O ship, a ground swell threatens
to set you adrift–look out!
Hurry to reach the harbor–no, don’t stop
to look, but you’ve lost your oars.
The mast has snapped, sails slap at the wind,
your hull needs rope to tie it back together,
canvas has torn, but you no longer
have gods to get you out of trouble.
Though you’re built of the best pine
from the most noble forest, upon a plank
of which your famous name is lettered–
and so beautifully–who can trust paint?
You make a sailor nervous. Be careful
or you’ll become a toy of the storm.
You who, not that long ago, were just
my headache, my pain in the neck,
but who now have my heart aboard,
steer clear of those narrow seas
that cut past the bright lights
marking the rocks of the Cyclades.
My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness
My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness,
Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
‘Tween rock and rock; and eke mine en’my, alas,
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;
And every owre a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the weared cords great hinderance;
Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain;
Drownèd is Reason that should me comfort,
And I remain despairing of the port.
To the Harbormaster
I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.
Like a forgetful, wind tottered garbage scow
I float. Pity me now
that I have eaten the sun god’s
cattle, and hunger still grips my body.
I wanted to shield it from the gulls
who followed the fat, dull
smell of death from port to
port, pulling out intestines of trash. For you
I have been terrible, increasing,
lashed to a green whale, desiring
spontaneous prose from secret thoughts
to hold me now. Oh how sorry
I am that I ate the sun’s cows
and didn’t feel sorry about it.
Click here to see some of the poems Ben Mirov reads and find some other links to items from the interview.
Ben Mirov, Part 1
Ben Mirov, Part 2
Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Weldon Kees’s poem “1926.”
What inspires us to write poetry?
I would think that the commonly accepted assumption about poets is that if one is a poet, he or she has always been a poet. The obvious question which should follow this then is “Can someone be a poet without having any knowledge of poetry?” “Are we born poets?”
Let’s begin with this: Most primary, intermediate, and secondary schools include some study of poetry in their curriculums, and yet for the majority of these schools, this is not the primary focus, nor is it rendered a very crucial one. I suppose my first encounter with poetry was a poem written in a photo album of my formative years by my father and mother: “I drop, you catch,/ I cry, you fetch,/I kvetch, you kvetch” (cleverly scrawled next to a picture of me, naked, crawling along the carpet). Of course, this isn’t Pulitzer worthy by current literary standards, but it is actually a good poem in terms of iambic dimeter and rhyme. If I learned anything about the music and rhythm of poetry (two essential ingredients) during my first reading experiences, it was almost directly related to that three line poem I read over and over again. In addition, there were nursery rhymes and clapping-song games that we played early on in elementary school: “Miss Susie had a steamboat/the steamboat had a bell/Miss Susie went to heaven/the steamboat went to hell–/–o operator/give me number nine…” etc. The clever twist about the Miss Susie song was that the words at the end of every fourth line were words that became other words at the beginning of the subsequent line, simply by sound, and so we didn’t get caught singing crass words and obscenities at that young of an age.
Moving on: In fifth grade, there was a lesson on limericks. If we read anybody’s famous limerick, it must not have been very memorable, since I couldn’t right now recite one or provide a poet’s name to help contextualize this point. But I did learn to write a limerick myself, and incidentally won first prize for the limerick’s address to dental hygiene and its advantages. It must have been a good poem, but my memory is foggy and I couldn’t right now recall any of the lines, except that it was handwritten on the lines inside the shape of a very big bicuspid.
In sixth grade, as a part of “The Odyssey of the Mind” competition, my team and I rewrote and parodied the words to a William Blake poem: “William Blake ate too much cake…” etc. I turned into a wild dramatic production with me as writer/director and the four other members of my team as actors, set designers, and costumers.
I don’t know the psychology behind how people train for and develop an ear for poetry, but some of these things must have been of the essence. In the eighth grade, my final project was an assignment to write a book of twenty poems. At that point, I assumed, like most adolescents do that poetry was supposed to be sad. So one of the two poems I remember from that book was a narrative about two of my friends who were very close to one another, until one of them (Betsy) was killed instantaneously when the driver of a car hit her. I thought (at the time) that it was a fantastic poem. I included details. I infused the poem with emotional tropes.
The other poem I remember from that book was partially stolen from one of my parents’ inspirational book of love poems from the 1960s. “Each line in the poem began “Love is”…(with ellipsis, and followed by some simile, and then following an anaphoric structure until the end). So I ripped off the anaphoric structure, took some of the poet’s similes and then wrote some of my own. I feel terrible about this. I don’t remember the other poems, but they were all original poems written by me. I don’t have any idea why I stole that poem. I guess because that was the first year that I was beginning to appreciate poetry as a serious craft, and the poem inspired me enough for me to want to have been the one who wrote it.
But poetry really didn’t get me to see like a poet until my freshman year of high school: to read a poem and want to understand all the necessary complexities, paradoxes, and layers of meaning that prevail if that poem is well crafted. I stumbled upon Rita Mae Brown’s novels that summer at the local library, and read all of them out by the swimming pool at our house. I wasn’t a lesbian, but found myself oriented toward women. Part of it was an adolescent phase, and must have been since I am now happily married to a man. Anyway, Brown’s characters were typically lesbians (“Rubyfruit Jungle,” the most prominent) and the whole idea about a sexuality with which I was not familiar fascinated me, simply for the theory of it. After devouring all of her novels, I went to the bookstore and promptly bought a book of her poems. The poem that finally made me want to be a disciplined poet went like this:
The difference between
my little cat and I
is that I know
I am going to die.
It occurred to me after I read it that cat’s are simply not conscious of their own mortality, and that the speaker (or so it is implied) must want to be like her cat, because it is easier not to be aware of things we would rather not think about or consider. It had me thinking that if humans just died, and had no precognition that it was one day going to happen, it might save us a lot of grief. So the speaker was longing for this ignorance, which makes implicit a sort of inner struggle between awareness and wanting to remain unaware–wanting to be something other than herself–wanting not to know death as well as she believes she does. There is a struggle in the forward momentum of life, the idea of further life or long life deflected by her fear of a finality and the ineluctable condition of mortality which guarantees that we are going to die. She seems to be addressing the idea of inevitability. And the frank way that the statement is made requires that we think a bit about why the speaker would deflect or ignore the frightening details and rather turn it into a philosophical question which forces us to examine our own relationship to our mortality, while at the same time considering the curious manner in which cats exist, without, according to the speaker, the precognition that they are going to die, or the memory of having been born.
So this brief four-line poem made seriously consider writing poetry. Through the years following my encounter with Rita Mae Brown’s poem, I’ve read nearly all of the major poets (and some minor) in the cannon. I have made poetry a daily discipline: coffee in the morning, a banquet of words to choose from, and the assurance that my heart is beating for something cats don’t know–to live, to love, and to always have the luxury of defining and redefining a purpose for this, with poetry as the venue to let the speaker speak, because it is no less than vital and necessary.
Liz Rosenberg is the author of the novel Home Repair and five books of poems, most recently The Lily Poems from Bright Hills Press and Demon Love from Mammoth. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review and elsewhere. She teaches English at the State U of NY at Binghamton.
It was after an initial reading that left me intrigued yet oddly ill-at-ease, that a tidbit in Caroline Knox’s laconic introduction to her new collection of poems from Wave Books, The Nine Worthies, helped me, if not entirely to penetrate a body of work that at times seems to take as its subject matter the very notion of the impenetrability of language, then at least to begin to understand the cause of my own disquietude. The clue (an apt noun considering that Nine Worthies is perhaps formally closer to a mystery novella than to a standard collection of modern lyric verse) that Knox provides is this: that the eighteenth century New England “real life” characters that inhabit these interlocking prose poems are in the midst of experiencing the “end of [their] Englishness.”
The year, we are told in an epigraph to the book, is 1756; the locations Boston and Newport. If we view history as a series of cataclysmic events interspersed by unremarkable lulls, then it is understandable that an entire generation before the revolution that would make Americans out of a hodgepodge of disgruntled Englishmen-in-name-only would scarcely register as history at all. In choosing as the site of her investigations this historical “negative space,” Knox is laying claim to fertile ground for exploring both the metaphysics of “in-between”ness and our often unsuccessful but poetically rich attempts to craft identity, both personal and national, from the messy medium of language.
It is necessary at this point to reflect briefly on style because this volume makes clear that Knox is a master of it. She shares with her characters both a fixation on accuracy and a reverence for the well-made object.; the latter made abundantly apparent by the beauty of the hand-bound, slightly oversize book itself. The praise bestowed by one of her characters on a Miss Tyndale may equally describe the poet: “This lady is in accurate command of her thoughts, and of those of others as well.” Knox’s obsessive attention to historical detail, as in a poem that is in essence a list of presumably extinct and rather Baroque-sounding varieties of cider apples, suggests the categorizing mind of the librarian or the auction house Antiquarian piecing together from archival flotsam the “story” of the past. However, Knox’s agenda is almost the inversion of the historian’s: rather than laboring to fill in the lacunae to establish a narrative continuity in which events and their artifacts “link up”, Knox’s poems at every turn revel in the disjunctions and inevitable holes, in a self-conscious sense drawing a map of the in-between spaces that give shape to our “knowledge” of the past. In the collection’s opening vignette “[Nathaniel: A Map]”, the painter protagonist of this “verse novella” makes explicit the cartographic intention of the work at hand: “I describe a two-dimensional line in a three-dimensional world. Boston is a map of itself.” The book that follows likewise reads as “a map of itself” in which each personage (one of the “Worthies” of the book’s title) in his or her discrete section attempts, one might say blindly, to draft a portion of it while remaining steadfastly ignorant of the whole.
To inhabit this historical no-man’s-land is also to enter into the American idiom in the very process of its creation. It therefore becomes clear that the vaguely unnerving quality of this work results from subtly rendering English as if it has been translated from English. The speakers in these poems use language in such a way as to preclude conversation. It is as though their thoughts have lost something in translation and can only find form when they attach themselves to physical objects, processes or systems. It is, they seem to feel, imperative to establish identity through connoisseurship, erudition or pedigree. Thus it is that our central character, Nathaniel Smibert, reiterates that he is, “playing at” or “practicing” “stichomythia.” Stichomythia, or the dramatic technique of using alternating, syntactically similar lines of dialogue, usually to represent a violent or passionate argument, is an odd, probably impossible thing to be “practicing at,” as it inherently requires both a partner and a purpose. To “play at” it as one might play at solitaire reminds me of the way infants begin to mimic the structure and sound of words and phrases before they have attached any meaning to them. In these poems, the many voices that emerge seem eager not so much to communicate, though their utterances are contained formally within a communicative mode, but to come into being as they speak. Knox’s poems make visible what we all experience abstractly: that language is fluid and that, like most living systems with which we interact, it makes us as we make it.
Likening Nine Worthies to a mystery novella simultaneously makes sense of the formal construction of the book and attempts to delineate the relationship of text and author to reader. On the latter point, it seems unimaginable to read these intricate and supremely mysterious poems and not perceive their wily author tugging at the strings. Like her protagonist the portraitist Nathaniel Smibert, who is both there and not there as he paints and converses with his subjects, the poet herself sometimes seems to disappear into the rarified formality of the language only to reappear as the unmistakable voice behind the moving lips of her dummy-characters. The “mystery” in which the reader of these poems becomes immersed lies partly in uncovering these points of connection imbedded in an often alienating text.
If writer and principal character, both in the business of representation, are foils for one another, then the spectral appearances of the former are mirrored by the latter’s ghost-like ruminations, full of intimations of death and dream-like meanderings through personal history, that interrupt the rhetorically-dense “sittings” of the painter’s subjects. In the charming vignette “[Nathaniel: Noddles Island],” Nathaniel narrates a childhood memory in which a change in vantage point suggests an entire universe inverted:
Time and again father took me–in 1740, 1742 or so–in the shallop or sailboat to Noddles Island in Boston Harbor. He had painted the city from there, looking back west as if approaching for the first time[…]Who or what was Noddles? Father and I conjectured.[…]He wore his clothes inside out, with the armor on the inside; he ate his pudding before the main course, wearing his nightshirt; thinking he had reached Nantucket, he kissed the ground of the island to which he was allowed to give his dubious name.
These images as seen from the other side of the looking glass encapsulate the energy of the book as a whole. In these poems, Knox creates a world in which things are not only not as they seem, but may be found in their precisely inverted forms. In this world, dialogue prevents communication, subject becomes object, representation invites obsolescence.
That Smibert’s subjects speak out in apparent desperation from the positions in which he is trying to fix their portraits suggests that there is a keen correlation between their immortalization in paint and their demise as physical beings. Among the Nine Worthies Smibert has been “commissioned to paint” is Mrs. Mary Davie, “[w]idow of a sea captain,” who has apparently attained her place among the elect simply by having lived to 117. Among her colleagues, she evinces the most dignified understanding of the fact that to be painted is to abdicate biological being to symbolic immortality. “I am near the end of my own days, Mr. Smibert,” she says, “I will sit here as still as I might.”
The “other side of the looking glass” feel of these poems, and the correspondence they draw between representation and death make all the more poignant and chilling the final section of the section of the book, “Nathaniel Smibert, Self-Portrait.” It takes a modicum of sleuthing to figure out that Smibert is painting these portraits in the year of his death at age 22. It is fitting, and perhaps inevitable according to the equation that Knox has formulated, that Smibert’s death and his final act of self-representation should occur simultaneously. The subject of Smibert’s “self-portrait” is a canoe trip to see the famous Dighton Rock, or perhaps the subject is the “inconvenient rock” itself, standing as an apt symbol for any number of human frailties and hopes.
A “mysterious erratic stone” covered in petroglyphs in the middle of the Taunton River, the rock has been the subject of much fanciful conjecture as to the origins of its carvings. According to one of Smibert’s two companions on this pilgrimage, the prolix Mr. Ezra Stiles, the carvings, “have been called Viking, Algonkin, Chinese, and Portuguese.” His preferred theory is that they are Phoenician. It is the other of the two companions, a “bonded child from the inn”, whose eyewitness account of the carvings-in-progress ultimately holds more water. The child describes how he has seen Indians come to this rock to fish, open shellfish, shoot game, and sharpen their knives. It is in this way that they, “hone away their own marks and the marks of other hunters. This is how the marks came to be.” That the more solid and convincing image of Dighton Rock is that of a palimpsest, incessantly erased and re-written, having neither provenance nor author, and ultimately transmitting no meaning beyond what the last knife sharpener might have gleaned therein before he set his own knife upon its surface exemplifies the point Knox’s book makes about language and other forms of representation. Perhaps here, at the end of his life and at the book’s conclusion, Smibert (and we) are confronted with the realization that all our works of art are only knife sharpenings, destined to be effaced or misconstrued. But perhaps our prospects are not so gloomy, for the book ends with Smibert, “from plain contentment,” singing a song that echoes all across the river. And the words of the song describe a sort reconstructed tower of Babel: “And how can it be that we/In our language understand/Medes and Cappadocians and/Phrygians and Pamphylians,/Cretans and Arabians./In our tongues we hear them laud/All the wondrous works of God.”
Nine Worthies is something of a Tower of Babel: multifarious in diction, opulent in detail, complex in meaning and, finally it seems, reaching toward the heavens. Whether its carefully crafted walls and columns contain within them an ur-language that transcends or a cacophony of voices that attempt speech but achieve only noise is ultimately up to each reader to decide.