See some of the poems Colin reads in the podcast and find links to items discussed during the interview.
The first poem I ever loved was The Raven. Specifically, one line from the poem haunted me when I was young, and still does: “The silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.”
Writers today might say that the line isn’t a very good one, now that it has become the fashion of writing workshops to balk at any overuse of adjectives. But in this line the words used to describe this minute detail suggest that the mind perceiving the rustling curtain (the mind that is obsessed by the loss of Lenore) is frantic to most accurately describe and interpret the fleeting details of his life.
A world that is indifferent to our sorrows and our ecstasies produces these details, but we can’t help but infuse them with our own meanings. These details are what the mind attaches itself to, are what move us, and—when we are privileged enough to even frantically attempt to record them, even as the wind dies and the sad uncertain rustling stops—they are what sustain us.
they told me a surgeon sat down in the hospital morgue
next to your body.
He yelled at the aide to get out.
His two sons had been your students.
–me, too, little-knowing–
I’m always, my young fathers,
out in the air, loving you.
Water to water.
Jean Valentine won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book,Dream Barker, in 1965. Her eleventh book of poetry is Break the Glass, just out from Copper Canyon Press. Her previous collection, Little Boat was published by Wesleyan in 2007. Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965–2003 was the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. The recipient of the 2009 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, Valentine has taught at Sarah Lawrence, New York University, and Columbia.
I like art museums. I’ve been to the museums and frequented museums in every city I’ve ever spent any time in. Seeing Jackson Pollock at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was like a religious experience, a moment of revelation, and I saw what I never could have seen in the art book reprints and cheap, dorm room posters of Pollock’s drip paintings. The Howard Finsters at Atlanta’s High Museum are amazing. Toledo has a surprisingly good museum, for a little industrial city, and Portland has some really good examples of American painting, including Albert Bierstadt‘s Mount Hood, and George de Forest Brush’s paintings of Native Americans, including The Sculptor and the King. I got to see Gustav Klimt‘s work in Vienna, and discovered and immediately loved HAP Grieshaber‘s woodcuts in a castle that’s been converted into a museum on the edge of the Bodensee.
I worry about museums, though. They can add a seriousness that weighs a work down until it’s dragged down to the ground. They can add a weigh that’s like chain mail on a sparrow. Sometimes the seriousness and officialness, the somber formality of a museum, means art is void of joy.
And joy is good in art.
Art can be light, and it can be fun. It can convert one into a child with surprise, and I like art that does that.
I like art that’s like a sudden laugh. Art that’s unexpected joy.
The thing that bothers me about museums occurred to me when I was in a museum. I was in the one in Philadelphia, the one with the famed “Rocky Steps” — by any measure one of the best museums in the US — and there was a group of people standing around one of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. It was the bike wheel that’s attached, upside down, to a kitchen stool. A couple of more people were peering carefully at the plaque where the title of the work, which is the most self-obvious title in the history of art titles, was duly inscribed. The whole scene was very somber. People weren’t stroking their chins and saying in faux foreign accents, “very interesting,” but they could have been.
Then, walking away, I heard a woman say to her friend that she just didn’t get it. “It’s just a bike wheel,” she said.
I really wanted to say, “exactly!” I could be wrong, and maybe some disagree, but to me, for me, Duchamp’s work is hilarious. I like Dada and early Salvador Dali specifically because it’s so unserious. Lobster phones are funny. Signed toilets are funny. I don’t think you’re supposed to “get it,” but just supposed to laugh. This is a ridiculous situation we’re in, being human, and to “get it” is to laugh, at least sometimes. The hush of a museum can make that hard, though. It all seems so high art.
If I had a bike wheel screwed in to a stool in my apartment, I think it would be fun, sometimes, to just give it a whirl. I think that’s the point, and I think it’s too bad that sometimes, in museums, the presentation of the art what makes it great.
To some conservative tastes that silliness means the art is not art. It doesn’t strike the right tone. Yet, I find that the ridiculousness of this art is liberating. It allows me to see things in new ways, and think about things in different ways, and always makes me want to go out and create. Which means, for me, it does exactly what I want art to do.
One of my favorite sculptures is Leo Sewell’s Rolling Suitcase. There are personal reasons for this — I used to live right by the airport, so close the airplanes would fly about 50 feet overhead, the jets overwhelming everything with their roar, and I could drive by the sculpture every day — but I love the fact the whole idea of the permanent installation is art as surprise. The suitcase is made out of old road signs: INTERSTATE, and STOP, ONE WAY and WARNING CHANGED SIGNAL AHEAD. If you sit outside the airport and watch people as they wheel their suitcases from the parking garage to the Delta counter, sometimes they stop and stare at the sculpture, sometimes they laugh, or point, or sometimes they take pictures.
I got to talk to Sewell, once, and ask him about the suitcase. He said he liked the idea of his art at the airport because he liked the idea of art as unexpected. People don’t go to the airport expecting to see art; they’re in a rush, with things to do, and they’re thinking about their ticket and boarding pass and passport. They’re hoping the line won’t be too long and the security check will go smoothly and they’ll get off the ground on time. And then, right there, in the midst of all those practical worries and everyday concerns, maybe they’ll see the giant suitcase made out of road sign scraps, and maybe they’ll smile.
All of Sewell’s work is like this, fun and inspiring, full of the joy of a kid at the dump. I think it’s great:
I wouldn’t want to suggest that art should never be serious. I find Cormac McCarthy more compelling than almost anything, and I love Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner. I think Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a work of genius and find I cyclically need to re-read the part of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 that most people found too violent to bear. Whether dark or light, though, I want art to surprise me. I want it to put the world off kilter, and to make me think, and to make me think about what it is to be human.
Sometimes, I know, this idea of art works out to odd ends. For instance, I think the world’s largest ball of twine is really interesting. I know why it wouldn’t normally be considered art, but I don’t really know how not to take it as art. It’s not like I disagree with any of the points one might make in dismissing it as ridiculous, but I look at it in its ridiculousness and think, this is us, this is human. This is what it’s like to be alive. On the other hand, I find a lot of poetry readings unbearable. The stilted, self-serious, breathless and constipated style of reading so common among contemporary poets has, I find, almost nothing to do with world I know. If anything, that imbued seriousness insulates the listener from any serious thoughts: rather than surprising us out our normal torpor, it confirms in us our own sense of being serious.
If all art does is make us stroke our chins and say in somber tones, “very interesting,” then art isn’t worth it to me. I worry, sometimes, even though I love museums, that what they do is lay this hush down over art, smothering it with the kind of officialness. A formality. There’s something about the space, the lighting, the tone of the presentation, that can, too often, be inhibiting instead of liberating. It’s as if the art communicates its own artness, and the aura of high culture, and we’re ensconced in that like bugs in amber. There’s something about it that makes it so we can’t laugh, even though, look, it’s a bike wheel on a stool! Even though, look!, the title of this work is “Bicycle Wheel,” and it’s not even the original one, like that would matter or be extra special, it’s a replica!
I still love museums. There’s all sorts of really amazing work I never would have had access to, without them. In a world without museums, all the Vermers and Rembrants and Twomblys and Picassos would be owned by the rich, and I would have only ever seen photos in books. Without museums, and their guiding idea of democratic access to art, a person like me might never have been exposed to great art at all.
I’ve also learned to really love the kind of art that thrives outside formality, though. The stuff that will never be and can never be enshrouded in the hush of officialness. I love the extra crazy art that exists outside of art environments, the art that’s “out there,” in the wild, so to speak, ready to surprise. There’s something liberating and wonderful about the junk sculptures at the airport in Atlanta, something liberating and wonderful about the skittery strandbeasts on the beaches of Holland:
If anyone wants to say what Theo Jansen’s doing isn’t art, then I say let’s all give up art and do what he’s doing instead. It would be, I think, a wonderful thing to see his giant bug-devices centipede-stepping up the beach, wings aflutter in the wind from the sea. We wouldn’t have to “get it.” There would be no hush or stilted seriousness, but I think if I was walking one way on a beach, and Jansen’s art went walking the other, then I could rightly say, “this is what it’s like to be alive.”
I think it’s a plausible mission for artists to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit, to steal from something Kurt Vonnegut once said. I think it’s good for art to surprise us, and that might be the only way to make us appreciate what it is to be human. If I had to name a living artist who pulled that off, I might reply, “Leo Sewell and Theo Jansen did.”
I have a copy of Milosz’ Facing The River, which is translated both by the author and a poet I greatly admire, Robert Hass. In it, there is a wonderful and spiritual dance between memory and effacement, and, yes the effacement of memory, for anyone who has ever lost a person, or a country, or a language knows that there is a double hell: the effacement that transpires when one must “move on” from that place, or language, or person, and perhaps worse: the effacement that memory assures since to remember anything is to distort it, to make a sort of selected works out of that which once had full life and depth, and which breathed independent of one’s own consciousness. Kafka, speaking of writing, said: “the minute you write, ‘she opened a window’, you have already begun to lie.” Memory is lie, but it has an ethos, a virtue and grace in that one feels this awful gap, one does not tread lightly as one remembers. Nostalgia has no such conscience which is why it ought to be feared as a sort of sociopathic order of memory. It lies without caution, without even the slightest troubling of the waters it fouls with “the happy good ole days.” Memory, especially, in its intimacy with loss, has the terror of the angelic and the beautiful, but it is a distortion, a much more covert yet more powerful form of effacement, and, the best way a poet or writer knows if they are affecting memory rather than mere nostalgia is if they feel this weight, this sense of effacement.
Proust’s great work is neither of memory or nostalgia since these are exactly the forces which adhere the final death masks to all that is vital within consciousness. Proust is in search of lost time, not remembrance. Remembrance is effort. The Proustian moment has no sense of effort, but is grace: for a brief thunder clap, one has recovered the exact co-ordinates of lost time, and, by this recovery, time itself is made unstable. It sputters, and loses its death grip. Time and space flicker, and, in the flicker, time is shown for the inconstant fraud and cheat it is. So let’s make a distinction between memory, nostalgia, and Proustian invocation, which, though most finely delineated in Proust’s great work, is not Proustian at all, but is at the source of all great poems: invocation, the raising of the dead, through style, through verbal ceremony, through the liturgy of man’s ontological fear of oblivion. We must remember that even the triumphs of a great poem are temporary. This is what gives them the power of the sacred: we go down into the underworld, perform the rites just so, the dead speak, yet, when the poem ends, the dark that has surrounded the poem floods back in. In the poem, “A Certain Neighborhood,” Milosz plays with all three registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation. Like many fine poems, this work by Milosz, is a hortatory act—a meditation on the registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation, and the great dance of intimacy and distance between restoration and effacement. When I first read this poem I was reminded of my father making a thirty mile detour to show his children and my annoyed mother the street he once lived on in Chester, New Jersey. We complained. We grew bored, but he was a man on a mission. He wanted us to see, but what he wanted us to see was not possible: the sudden longing to collapse thirty years of distance, to reclaim a landscape that did not exist, and, perhaps, had never existed as he “remembered” it. The “driveway”, he kept passing turned out to be the street. Memory had distorted space, expanded, enlarged what was small, and nondescript, and far less attractive to us than the diner nearby where we could pee. I will never forget the look of shame on my father’s face, and of stunned grief. My brother laughed at him, and he turned on my brother, and, seething, hissed: “you’re a smug little bastard.”
We must always be as careful with nostalgia as we are with most forms of vulgarity: it is too close to the whore’s heart, and can be used by politicians to promote a “purity,” an Edenic return that supports the most vile sense of the volk. Nostalgia carries the worst ideas of the purgative. It is amoral or immoral, but true memory is moral in that it proceeds with caution, and Proustian invocation is pre-moral, the origin of consciousness and of our sense of the beautiful and the good. At any rate, the poem:
I told nobody I was familiar with that neighborhood.
Why should I? As if a hunter with a spear
Materialized, looking for something he once knew.
After many incarnations we return to the earth,
Uncertain we would recognize its face.
Where there were villages and orchards, now nothing,
Instead of old timber, young groves,
The level of the waters is lower, the swamp disappeared
Together with the scent of Ledum, black grouse, and adders.
A little river should be here. Yes, but hidden in the brush,
Not, as before, amidst meadows. And the two ponds
Must have covered themselves with duck weed
Before they sank into black loam.
The glitter of a small lake, but its shores lack the rushes
Through which we struggled forward, swimming,
To dry ourselves afterwards, I and Miss X, and one towel
My research currently has me looking into the surrealist-Beats, and I recently read Bob Kaufman’s Solitude Crowded With Loneliness. This was Kaufman’s first book, published in 1965, which brought together work from the late fifties that had made him famous, including The Abomunist Manifesto and Does the Secret Mind Whisper?
I am in awe of how completely Kaufman was able to embody a multitude of traditions. His work is absolutely Beat, absolutely jazz/blues and absolutely surreal. He is thinking, living and writing with all three in mind—indeed, all of these “philosophies” were in the very core of his being—and he made them perfectly harmonious, crafting poetry that enacts revolt and social critique at the same time as it heals the primitive, hard-knocked soul. The reader familiar with the Beats will probably sense intuitively that jazz and Surrealism are highly compatible with the Beat ethos and that it makes perfect sense for the Beats to draw on them, but these poets still had to transmute these influences into a singular, shamanic, “howling” voice.
One of the most powerful tools the Beats employed was the catalog or anaphora. This is prominent in almost every famous Beat poem, including “Howl.” When surrealist-Beats infuse images of dissonance into their catalogues, the effect becomes one of controlled (but threatening) hysteria. Call it the hysterical catalog. Here’s one from Kaufman’s “I, Too, Know What I Am Not”:
No, I am not death wishes of sacred rapists, singing on candy gallows.
No, I am not spoor of Creole murderers hiding in crepe-paper bayous.
No, I am not yells of some assassinated inventor, locked in his burning machine.
No, I am not forced breathing of Cairo’s senile burglar, in lead shoes.
No, I am not Indian-summer fruit of Negro piano tuners, with muslin gloves.
No, I am not noise of two-gun senators, in hallowed peppermint halls.
No, I am not pipe-smoke hopes of cynical chiropractors, traffickers in illegal bone.
As with “Howl,” the catalog slowly overwhelms the reader with its unrelenting monotony.
Playing against the monotony is the energy and bursts of thought in the images themselves, each one packed with jarring disjunction, political parody, social criticism and humor. As I read Solitudes, I began to wonder how the Beats consistently discovered images to contain all these elements simultaneously (not to say that their poems do not vary in quality). With Kaufman, the images are enhanced by courageous comparisons, yet remain firmly fixed in the mode of socio-political critique:
Hawkeyed baggy-pants businessmen,
Building earthquake-proof, aluminum whorehouses,
Guaranteeing satisfaction to pinstriped murderers,
Or your money back to West Heaven,
Full of glorious, Caesarean-section politicians,
Giving kisses to round half-lipped babies,
Eating metal jazz, from cavities, in father’s chest,
Purchased in flagpole war, to leave balloon-chested
Unfreaked Reader’s Digest women grinning at Coit Tower.
Kaufman and other surrealist-Beats transposed Surrealism’s “chance meeting of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissection table” into more direct images of social dissent and protest. To do so, they moved away from automatism toward images that float around the semantic fields of recognizable political and social concerns. Their parodic statements, most of the time, are actually quite vague, but the poetry has a distinct political subtext.
Paradoxically, the Beats depicted themselves and the society they were rejecting in surreal imagery. America, in their estimation is a surrealist circus, full of absurdities. The Beat, likewise, lives a life of contradictions, dream-reality and contorted madness because of the context in which he finds himself. The Beat incarnates the body politic and becomes a martyr on behalf of humanity. He becomes the landscape of maligned conditions that oppress the Beat virtues of love, life and liberty. This is the premise of the Beat lifestyle, but it is especially poignant in a writer like Kaufman, whose “mongrel” heritage of Creole, African American, Jew, Catholic, sailor, peyote-smoker, poet and jazz enthusiast exposed him to, and makes him the inheritor of, a broad range of cultural prejudices and injustices. Kaufman draws all these forces and beatness into himself with images that are centered on his body:
My body is a torn mattress,
Disheveled throbbing place
For the comings and goings
Of loveless transients.
. . .
My face is covered with maps of dead nations;
My hair is littered with drying ragweed.
. . .
The nipples of my breasts are sun-browned cockleburrs [sic];
Long-forgotten Indian tribes fight battles on my chest
Unaware of the sunken ships rotting in my stomach.
Like Whitman, Kaufman “contains” America, but this kind of containment does not resolve the contradictions, absurdities, atrocities and madness. So the Beat becomes one who is absurd, atrocious and hysterical—but he is not a hypocrite. He restores himself by embracing the contradictory nature of life (as well as the pleasure-principle and a few other Beat tenants). This allows the Beat to survive and even thrive in a society blinded by moralism and paranoia—a society whose misguided premises preclude it from containing contradiction. Thus, by simply affirming the contradictory nature of reality (in the abundance of surreal configurations of life available to him everywhere he looks), the Beat poet reverses his condition. Thus, Kaufman’s triumphant body is restored to life:
The hairy little hairs
On my head,
Millions of little
Filled with dead
That won’t stay
When I die,
I won’t stay
On this basis, Beat poets like Kaufman, Corso and, to some extent, Ginsberg, utilize the Surrealist strategy of radical juxtaposition to transform the political landscape. It is in Beat poetry that Surrealism finds its first widely-visible expression—a poetics that embraces poetry’s revolutionary potential.
A song cycle of David Shapiro’s sonnets called Unwritten has been written by the great young composer Mohammed Fairouz and will be played at Carnegie at Recital Hall on March 21st. Word on the street is that David Shapiro himself may play the coda.
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.