Thursday, April 28, 2011

Poems: Clerihewmania

As some J's Theater readers may know, in my capacity as the Harriet_Poetry tweeter (twitterer sounds a bit flightier), I have been nightly posting poetic forms for people seeking a short National Poetry Writing Month (#NaPoWriMo) writing project. The goal is a poem a day, so that by the end of the month, you'll have 30 drafts.  The forms and genres each day I've suggested have been as follow: nocturne (April 1), sestina (April 2), senryu (April 3), mesostic (April 4), ekphrastic poem (April 5), biopoem (April 6), palinode (April 7), cento (April 8), bop (April 9), alphabet/abecederian poem (April 10), ghazal (April 11), concrete poem (April 12), triolet (April 13), gigan (April 14), limerick (April 15), acrostic (April 16), villanelle (April 17), tanka (April 18), blues stanza (April 19), sapphics (April 20), pantoum (April 21), S+7/N+7 (April 22), haibun (April 23), erasure poem (April 24), sonnet (April 25), rhyme royal (April 26), and the clerihew (April 27). Tonight's form was the seguidilla (April 28!).

Some of these forms (sonnets, villanelles, ghazals, N+7, etc.) are quite common in contemporary American poetry, others, like the rhyme royal or mesostic are rare, and others, like tanka and sapphics, have their diehard adherents. Most surprising are the forms like the erasure poem that provoked eager responses, attempts, and links; another very popular was has been last night's entry, the clerihew. I won't reprise my tweet-length intro to this light form--and I've wanted to include lighter forms as well as those, like the ghazal or blues stanza, that often treat serious themes--except to say that it's named after its founder, Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) a British poet, novelist and humorist of the late 19th and early 20th century, who invented the "clerihew," a four-line poem of (necessarily) irregular meter, with a simple rhyme AA-BB. Clerihews are supposed to be witty, droll, sarcastic, silly, but with some level, however minimal, of humor. I needed a bit of humor today as I waited for the repair people at Meinecke to rebuild my car's break system (as well as something called a "control panel" that was in very bad shape), to the tune of...well, let's not get into that. As I sat I found myself returning to this simple form, and once I got into I penned the ones below, all about political figures. Some aren't so humorous, some are, but I think a few are a bit catchy. (Someone get the one about Michelle Bachmann or Newt Gingrich into the mainstream media....) I've even thrown in the leaders of our two closest neighbors, for good measure.

Anyways, enjoy, and if you're feeling that bit of dyspepsia before having to fork over a lot of money for anything, write a few clerihews. They're more charming than limericks, I think, and light, but with a bite.

CLERIHEWS (All by yours truly)

Is Bill Clinton
still resenting
that the star of the national drama
is not Hillary but Barack Obama?

Only voluble Joe Biden
decides when
he's going to stay quiet
or open his mouth and provoke a media riot.

Mitt Romney
takes an omni
approach to every issue; one minute
he's against it before he's for it before he's against it.

Al Franken
has been cranking
up more critiques and votes than guffaws
since going to DC to make not jokes but laws.

Florida's Allen West
has managed to wrest
the title of "Craziest Brother" in DC
from the current holder, SCOTUS's Clarence T.

Michelle Bachmann
took one
or twenty bad ideas, born out of ignorance and fear
and turned them into a rising career.

Illinois's Dick Durbin
is perturbing
because it's clear that all the GOP has to do is deliver
a stern look to make him quake and quiver.

Paul Wolfowitz
spits on his comb then splits
whenever anyone presses him as to why
he told those tall tales that caused so many to die.

Donald Rumsfeld
unlike the old Rust Belt
is an entity for which no one yearns
and will do their darnedest to ensure never returns.

Donald Trump
seeks to jump
into the race to be president,
but needs to first find where his soul and sanity went.

Mike Huckabee
how lucky he
finds himself in a GOP field that's changed
to mostly liars, hucksters, and the certifiably deranged.

Rand Paul
would presumably crawl
over broken glass, through fire rings, and a maze of ice
to reach his libertarian paradise.

Paul Ryan
is dying
to impose his extreme plan
which he copied from the fantasy books of Ayn Rand.

Haley Barbour
might harbor
some tall tales about his alma mater Ole Miss
that would make quite a few historians start to hiss.

Rick Santorum
adore him
they didn't in the Keystone State
because of his frequent, frothy tide of hate.

Ex-Gov Sarah Palin
is steadily sailing
into a sea of ignominy
and growing richer fast as 1-2-3.

President Barack Obama
again proved that his mama
in a Hawai'i hospital had done
what was required to register his US birth in 1961.

When will George W. Bush
start to push
to find WMDs hidden near his palace
in Dallas?

Newt Gingrich
has an itch
not to sit in the Oval Office with his finger on the nuclear button
but to have cameras endlessly covering him saying nothing.

Harry Reid
has no need
to do much more than widely share
that the GOP aims to murder Medicare.

Scott Walker's
a talker
who likes to claim his state is broke,
except when warbling valentines to a fake Koch.

Governor Jan Brewer
once would skewer
any reasonable appeal or bill, which she rejected,
but has changed her tune a bit since she was elected.

Nancy Pelosi
has become ghostly
to the media, who barely remember
how effective she was right up till last November.

Dick Cheney
remains the
only man elected to the second slot
who outdid his boss in the horrors he wrought.

Sonia Sotomayor
will not cry for
the departure of her colleagues on the (far) right,
whether they leave yesterday, today, or tomorrow night.

France, tu l'aimes, Nicolas Sarkozy,
or does he
still raise your hackles
as when lightning crackles?

Prime Minister David Cameron
by saying he would not cut
all the things he's since tried to gut.

Daily Nick Clegg
will beg
voters to recall
nothing he promised before he took office last fall.

Felipe Calderón
might want to own
a mansion on this side of the border
since he's leaving his country in worsening disorder.

Steven Harper
appears sharper
than his opponents might have tallied.
They've slain the government but he's swiftly rallied.

Copyright © John Keene, 2011.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chicago Reading: Poetry for Labor, May 1, 2011

This upcoming Sunday, May 1, 2011, International Labor Day / May Day, in conjunction with Red Rover Series and Chicago Durutti Skool, I am organizing an informal public reading on behalf workers everywhere, and in commemoration of the 125th Anniversary of the Haymarket Affair, which occurred in 1886.

The event will run from 9 am to noon, in the West Loop at 165 N. Desplaines Street at W. Randolph Street. It's reachable by CTA trains. If you are in or around Chicago, please drop by, bring your own poems, those by writers you admire, or journal entries and prose pieces about workers and labor!

Come read, recite and perform your and others' poems!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Poem: Mary Ruefle

To those who celebrate the Holy Day of Easter, holiday blessings.

Today's poem derives directly from the daily poetry projects I suggest on the Harriet_Poetry twitter feed. Tonight's was an "erasure poem," based on a form that poets such as Tom Phillips, with his remarkable 1980-20?? art book/work A Humument, a visual and textual refashioning (still underway) of a forgotten 19th century novel by W. H. Mallock; The Human Document; Jen Bervin's Nets (stripping Shakespeare's sonnets "bare to the nets"); Janet Holmes's The MS of M Y Kin (drawn from Emily Dickinson's 1861-1862 Civil War era poems), and Ronald Johnson's 1977 volume Radi Os (drawing, literally, on the source text of John Milton's Paradise Lost).  Wave Books has even made the process digital, providing source texts and then posting the altered projects.  One way of viewing this sort of repurposing and appropriation is another form of détournement, as the Situationists defined it, though to quite different purposes; another is as a form of collaboration of a kind that would otherwise be impossible; a third is as another form of translation, with radically transformative effects.

A recent example of this genre that I came across and deeply enjoyed was poet Mary Ruefle's (1952-) A Little White Shadow, one of many examples of her erasure practice that Wave Books published in 2006.  She transforms the 19th century volume by whitening out large chunks of the source text, with the resulting visual text embodying the eponymous theme and metaphor in the original.  Ruefle, a highly lyrical poet at all times with a gift for striking imagery and metaphors, employs her poetic craft to great effect in this little collection, creating something both light and haunting with her resultant text, and I found myself never tiring of the resulting pieces, even the ones that worked less well than others.

Here are two pages that I found on the Poetry Foundation's website from the text. The full text is only 56 pages and you can read it in an hour, so I recommend checking it out when you can, and if you feel creatively stuck or just want to try a new direction, perhaps try out this method and see what you devise. Enjoy!

Mary Ruefle, excerpt from A Little White Shadow. Copyright © 2006 by Mary Ruefle. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Poem: Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee (1957-) is one of those poets who entered my consciousness like a meteor when I was younger; in fact, it was his book The City in Which I Love You (Boa Editions Ltd., 1990), that rocked me so profoundly. I read those poems like a sacred text over and over, and I cannot say that they had any direct influence, though I do quote him in my first book. The lyrical exploration of his family and past, the way he wrote about his Chinese-American ancestry and his experiences, his capacity for abstracting his life and yet emotionally grounding it were all key in ways I have not yet fully acknowledged. I went to hear him read several times during that period, and responded like a fanboy, but I must admit I haven't read his work much in recent years, and I'm told he lives in Chicago, though I have never heard him read t/here in the 8 years I've lived in the city.

Today I came across the poem below by Lee in the New York Times, which seldom prints poetry nowadays, except on special occasions, like holidays or the beginning and ending of seasons. (They very well may feature poems commemorating the upcoming British royal nuptials, given their class fixations....) The special occasion for today's Times poetry feature was Spring, the current season now darting about coquettishly, and so, in the "Opinion" pages--not the "Arts" pages, tellingly--they published four poems on the theme of Spring, by Lee, Ellen Bryant Voight, Kiki Petrosino, and Billy Collins. Not much aesthetic diversity there, and just one poet of color, but the bigger issue is why the Times doesn't regularly publish poetry; it should, for multiple reasons, not least because, as one of my favorite poets, William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) once wrote, in his late, long and revelatory poem, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower":

My heart rouses
  thinking to bring you news
    of something
that concerns you
  and concerns many men.  Look at
    what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
  despised poems.
    It is difficult
to get the news from poems
  yet men die miserably every day
    for lack
of what is found there.

Well, yes indeed, and soon I will post an entry on the (mis-)use of metaphor and metonymy, so central to poetry and fiction, and its effects on our ways of thinking. As for the Times, one might say, what should I expect. Yes, I know, but.... I nevertheless recommend reading all the poems, and snipping the section, which is a .jpg file, for your files.  Here is Li-Young Lee's poetic contribution, "The Word From His Song," which, rather than retyping, I digitally snipped from the paper. "The voice is a sighted brink"--okay, maybe his poetry has sunk more deeply into my imaginary than I thought.... Enjoy!

From The New York Times © Li-Young Lee and The New York Times, 2011. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Animation: Codex vs. Tablet

Last summer, when I immersed myself in making simple animations on the iPad, I created a shorter version of the following animation, "Codex vs. Tablet." It's one of the longest animations I've ever created, and the issues it broaches are fairly straightforward and relevant, especially now that we're in a material shift, at least in the US and other developed countries, in terms of the relationship between print books and other printed materials, and their electronic and digital cognates. At the end of my winter quarter class, "The Situation of Writing," I realized that this video would illustrate some of the key points we'd explored all along, so I played it for the class. But it was the shorter (3/4 frames/sec) version, and it zipped by so fast that they urged me to lengthen it. So here it is, slowed down. J's Theater readers should be able to watch it without a problem. Also, please note that the animation software doesn't allow me to type in text, thus my crude lettering, to match my rough drawings. Enjoy!

PS: Do wait for the note at the very end!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Poem: Kenneth Koch

I'm not sure why I'm obsessed with this poem, which I did not know before I heard Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) read it as part of the Poetry Foundation's Essential American Poets podcast, but I have listened to it repeatedly, and it's begun to sediment in my head. I very well may write something based on it. As for Koch, he's a writer I have read quite a bit, especially when I was younger. I believe he was the only one of the four major male New York School poets who appeared in the non-Norton middle-school anthologies I had to read, and I think it was one of his parodies, perhaps "Mending Sump," which sends up Robert Frost's iconic "Mending Wall," that I read and laughed at. It was and is quite a funny poem. At that point, and for many years after--until I met Thomas Sayers Ellis, I think--I was under the impression that while poems could be witty, ironic, sly, as cutting as a stropped razor, they ought not be outright silly and funny. Such poems were basically jokes, and politically suspect. Encounters with the Language school and Black Arts poets didn't help (wit, irony, etc., yes, goofiness, no sirree.)

That did not mean I wasn't reading Koch, however, but I found that I was more drawn to his three dear, queer friends, each of whom shot through my consciousness like a rocket: John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler. (I didn't read Barbara Guest or the subsequent generations of this school till somewhat after.) Ashbery was the poet on people's tongues in college; O'Hara I happened upon one day in the library, and could not put down; Schuyler, I was told, I had to read, because he'd co-written a novel with Ashbery and had won the Pulitzer Prize. I'm glad I made my way through his work, and still adore it. But what about Koch? I dutifully went back and tried to get through all those long poems of the 1960s, which are insistently playful and often quite lyrical but also a bit of a slog, I'm sad to say, lacking as they did something--the campy lightness mixed with gravity that O'Hara's long poems often possess, or the sort of dizzying quality Ashbery's do, or the groundedness in the real and nature that Schuyler's have. From Koch I drifted away.

Until I was teaching the youngsters, and realized that he'd written a number of marvelous, effective books about teaching poetry to children that really did reach children and adolescents. And that took me to his poetry, and plays, and little stories inspired by Yasunari Kawabata's Palm of the Hand stories, and his very late, delightful poems, funny and profound in equal measure, New Addresses (Knopf, 2000), which comprises a series of addresses or apostrophes, to various entities. Open it and you'll see. I even heard him read in the late 1990s. But somehow, though I'd read Koch's earlier poem entitled "The Circus," from 1961, I had never come across the later one, which I think is superb. (I also worked with his late wife Janice Elwood Koch's brother briefly, but didn't put two-and-two together until a friend pointed out the link. By then, though, that Mrs. Koch was no longer with us.) So here it is, and I think you'll see why. (You can hear him read it here.)

(PS: An incident involving Kenneth Koch--once in 1968, the anti-art affinity group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers showed up at his reading at St. Mark's Poetry Project and, incredibly, a member of the group pointed a gun at Koch, screamed out "Koch!," and fired--a blank! Koch, from what I heard on the Poetry Foundation's Avant-Garde All the Time podcasts, didn't cry out with fear or duck or faint or have a heart attack. I don't even think he pissed or shat his pants. Instead, after regaining his composure, quickly, he retorted to the hooligan revolutionary the one thing he probably needed to hear: "Grow up!")


I remember when I wrote The Circus
I was living in Paris, or rather we were living in Paris
Janice, Frank was alive, the Whitney Museum
Was still on 8th Street, or was it still something else?
Fernand Léger lived in our building
Well it wasn’t really our building it was the building we lived in
Next to a Grand Guignol troupe who made a lot of noise
So that one day I yelled through a hole in the wall
Of our apartment I don’t know why there was a hole there
Shut up! And the voice came back to me saying something
I don’t know what. Once I saw Léger walk out of the building
I think. Stanley Kunitz came to dinner. I wrote The Circus
In two tries, the first getting most of the first stanza;
That fall I also wrote an opera libretto called Louisa or Matilda.
Jean-Claude came to dinner. He said (about “cocktail sauce”)
It should be good on something but not on these (oysters).
By that time I think I had already written The Circus
When I came back, having been annoyed to have to go
I forget what I went there about
You were back in the apartment what a dump actually we liked it
I think with your hair and your writing and the pans
Moving strummingly about the kitchen and I wrote The Circus
It was a summer night no it was an autumn one summer when
I remember it but actually no autumn that black dusk toward the post office
And I wrote many other poems then but The Circus was the best
Maybe not by far the best Geography was also wonderful
And the Airplane Betty poems (inspired by you) but The Circus was the best.

Sometimes I feel I actually am the person
Who did this, who wrote that, including that poem The Circus
But sometimes on the other hand I don’t.
There are so many factors engaging our attention!
At every moment the happiness of others, the health of those we know and our own!
And the millions upon millions of people we don’t know and their well-being to think about
So it seems strange I found time to write The Circus
And even spent two evenings on it, and that I have also the time
To remember that I did it, and remember you and me then, and write this poem about it
At the beginning of The Circus
The Circus girls are rushing through the night
In the circus wagons and tulips and other flowers will be picked
A long time from now this poem wants to get off on its own
Someplace like a painting not held to a depiction of composing The Circus.

Noel Lee was in Paris then but usually out of it
In Germany or Denmark giving a concert
As part of an endless activity
Which was either his career or his happiness or a combination of both
Or neither I remember his dark eyes looking he was nervous
With me perhaps because of our days at Harvard.

It is understandable enough to be nervous with anybody!

How softly and easily one feels when alone
Love of one’s friends when one is commanding the time and space syndrome
If that’s the right word which I doubt but together how come one is so nervous?
One is not always but what was I then and what am I now attempting to create
If create is the right word
Out of this combination of experience and aloneness
And who are you telling me it is or is not a poem (not you?) Go back with me though
To those nights I was writing The Circus.
Do you like that poem? have you read it? It is in my book Thank You
Which Grove just reprinted. I wonder how long I am going to live
And what the rest will be like I mean the rest of my life.

John Cage said to me the other night How old are you? and I told him forty-six
(Since then I’ve become forty-seven) he said
Oh that’s a great age I remember.
John Cage once told me he didn’t charge much for his mushroom identification course (at the New School)
Because he didn’t want to make a profit from nature

He was ahead of his time I was behind my time we were both in time
Brilliant go to the head of the class and “time is a river”
It doesn’t seem like a river to me it seems like an unformed plan
Days go by and still nothing is decided about
What to do until you know it never will be and then you say “time”
But you really don’t care much about it any more
Time means something when you have the major part of yours ahead of you
As I did in Aix-en-Provence that was three years before I wrote The Circus
That year I wrote Bricks and The Great Atlantic Rainway
I felt time surround me like a blanket endless and soft
I could go to sleep endlessly and wake up and still be in it
But I treasured secretly the part of me that was individually changing
Like Noel Lee I was interested in my career
And still am but now it is like a town I don’t want to leave
Not a tower I am climbing opposed by ferocious enemies

I never mentioned my friends in my poems at the time I wrote The Circus
Although they meant almost more than anything to me
Of this now for some time I’ve felt an attenuation
So I’m mentioning them maybe this will bring them back to me
Not them perhaps but what I felt about them
John Ashbery Jane Freilicher Larry Rivers Frank O’Hara
Their names alone bring tears to my eyes
As seeing Polly did last night
It is beautiful at any time but the paradox is leaving it
In order to feel it when you’ve come back the sun has declined
And the people are merrier or else they’ve gone home altogether
And you are left alone well you put up with that your sureness is like the sun
While you have it but when you don’t its lack’s a black and icy night. I came home
And wrote The Circus that night, Janice. I didn’t come and speak to you
And put my arm around you and ask you if you’d like to take a walk
Or go to the Cirque Medrano though that’s what I wrote poems about
And am writing about that now, and now I’m alone

And this is not as good a poem as The Circus
And I wonder if any good will come of either of them all the same.

Kenneth Koch, “The Circus” from The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 2006 by Kenneth Koch. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Poem: Kenneth Fearing

Two summers ago, I came across a contemporary poet writing a praisesong to Kenneth Fearing's (1902-1961) poetry, and I was intrigued. I knew Fearing as the author of the 1946 novel The Big Clock and had heard of his poetry, but had never read it. I also didn't know that he was the founding editor of The Partisan Review, As a result of that essay, and because I was carrelling at the New York Public Library, I went and found his New and Selected Poems (Indiana, 1956), and read through them, stopping on ones that particularly caught my eye.

Many did, in no small part because Fearing is a forgotten experimentalist of a very American sort, a predecessor in the best way to numerous writers of today in his interests in popular culture, different social languages and discourses, the political and critical as poetry, and a certain urbanity that finds in city life what the mass media regularly obscures. I found myself picking up the language of comic books (see below), advertising jingles, newspaper headlines, and popular songs, bringing into light with complexity, humor, sadness, and irony the rich river of life and culture from the Depression era up to the moment of his death in the Kennedy years.  "Dirge," printed below, first appeared in book form in Fearing's 1935 volume Poems, and was excerpted in the Library of America's Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems, edited by poet Robert Polito. As I read it I felt like it was appropriate to today; it could easily have been written in and about 2008 or 2009, or 2011.  I wish someone would volunteer to read it aloud on the floor of Congress, or to the President in the Oval Office; it's the kind of truth they need to hear, because people are dying every day from "lack of what is found there." Truly.


1-2-3 was the number he played but today the number came 3-2-1;
bought his Carbide at 30 and it went to 29; had the favorite at Bowie but the track was slow—

O, executive type, would you like to drive a floating power, knee-action, silk-upholstered six? Wed a Hollywood star? Shoot the course in 58? Draw to the ace, king, jack?
O, fellow with a will who won't take no, watch out for three cigarettes on the same, single match; O democratic voter born in August under Mars, beware of liquidated rails—

Denouement to denouement, he took a personal pride in the certain, certain way he lived his own, private life,

but nevertheless, they shut off his gas; nevertheless, the bank foreclosed; nevertheless, the landlord called; nevertheless, the radio broke,

And twelve o'clock arrived just once too often,
just the same he wore one gray tweed suit, bought one straw hat, drank one straight Scotch, walked one short step, took one long look, drew one deep breath,
just one too many,

And wow he died as wow he lived,
going whop to the office and blooie home to sleep and biff got married and bam had children and oof got fired,
zowie did he live and zowie did he die,

With who the hell are you at the corner of his casket, and where the hell we going on the right-hand silver knob, and who
the hell cares walking second from the end with an American Beauty wreath from why the hell not,

Very much missed by the circulation staff of the New York Evening Post; deeply, deeply mourned by the B.M.T.,

Wham, Mr. Roosevelt; pow, Sears Roebuck; awk, big dipper; bop, summer rain;
Bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong, Mr., bong.

Kenneth Fearing, "Dirge" from Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems. Published by The Library of America, 2004. Reprinted by the permission of Russell and Volkening, Inc., as agents for the author. Copyright © 1994 by Jubal Fearing and Phoebe Fearing.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pulitzer Prizes + Poem: Roberto Bolaño

Congratulations to this year's winners of the Pulitzer Prizes for Letters, Drama and Music! I was especially gladdened by three of the winners in these areas. Kay Ryan, for long an unacknowledged stylist of the first rank, received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press).  Jennifer Egan, a consistently outstanding writer, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, Welcome to the Goon Squad (Alfred A. Knopf), which includes the inventive use of MS  PowerPoint slides. And Eric Foner, whom I met personally many years ago when a good friend was a post-doctoral student at the university, received the Pulitzer Prize for History for his nuanced portrait of Abraham Lincoln's affective and political evolution on the issue of race and racism, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (W. W. Norton & Co.). Other winners include the provocative Chicago-area playwright Bruce Norris, who received the drama prize for his playful take on Lorraine Hansberry's (1930-1965) landmark 1959 work A Raisin in the Sun; the New York Times's Dave Leonhardt, easily one of their best writers, who has provided some of the soundest commentary on the unfolding financial crisis; and Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein of ProPublica, a New York-based non-profit research and investigative journalism organization that has, since its founding several years ago, demonstrated the best of what journalism can do. It also becomes the first online journalistic organ to win 2 Pulitzer prizes, having won the first by any online publication last year.


Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003). A name anyone even modestly knowledgeable about contemporary global literature would be passingly familiar with.  Chilean native Bolaño's fame was already waxing, his esteem as a writer in the Hispanophone literary world among the highest of his peers, when he passed away just 8 years ago. During 10-year period from 1993 to 2003, when he published some 14 or so books in just 10 years (8 novels, 3 collections of stories, 2 collections of poetry, and 1 collaboration), recognition of his genius built and approached its apogee. The year he died, US publisher New Directions published one of his masterpieces, the strange and remarkable novel By Night in Chile (Nocturno de Chile, 2000), translated by Chris Andrews, and his American acclaim began; since then, it has continued to ascend.

Between New Directions and Farrar Straus & Giroux, nearly all of his work in prose, large and small, has or will be translated; a number of the stories, collected in Last Evenings on Earth (selected from Putas Asesinas [Killer Whores], 2001 and Llamadas Telefónicas [Telephone Calls] 1997), and two novels in addition to By Night in Chile, The Savage Detectives (Los Detectives Salvajes, 1998) and 2666 (2004), have anchored his reputation as one of the most extraordinary and inventive fiction writers in any language, and the latter novel is astonishing in its vision and aesthetic daring, offering writers of today new possibilities for what a novel might do, and how it might do so.  In all of these works, a constant is the character of the poet; in each of the novels I've mentioned, poets are central to the plot; often they're protagonists, sometimes villains. Even when not overtly depicted or only casually so, poets are frequently the source, in part, of the fiction's thematic core, its aesthetic self-regard, its narrative drive. This was not a random element of Bolaño's work, but derives from the writer's own history and story, as a poet early in his career. Such has been the case for many a great fiction writer: immediately William Faulkner, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and José Saramago come to mind. All wrote poetry early on, but came to great fame as fiction writers (in Beckett's case it was also his dramaturgy).

Recently I was listening to a podcast with one of his translators, Natasha Wimmer, who beautifully brought 2666 into English, and I believe she stated that he was not a very good poet. Or perhaps that was Hector Hoyos in conversation with Robert Pogue Harrison, on the latter's intellectual chatfest, Entitled Opinions. Maybe they both expressed this opinion, that Bolaño was not a very good poet, perhaps even a bad poet. I beg to differ. His poems often seem like seeds for later works, but they have tremendous energy, more metaphorical richness and inventiveness than a good deal of contemporary American poetry, and are often quite funny and provocative, in multiple ways. I sometimes wonder if critics say such things just to say them--especially if they are not creative writers themselves--or if they truly believe them. I have read a lot of poetry, and Bolaño's is "bad." I think his fiction is better, and both are better than his essays, one of which, "Exiles," containing incorrect statements and problematic assumptions, is now available for reading on the New York Review of Books' website. Few can do it all, but Bolaño was and died a poet, even if his greatest and most sustained achievements are in prose fiction. The heart and ear and eye of the poet, this particular poet named Roberto Bolaño, is evident in all of his finest work.  Here is a poem from the collection The Romantic Dogs (Los Perros Románticos: Poemas 1980-1998, 2000), translated by Laura Healy and published in the US in 2008.

First the Spanish, with its particular rhyme scheme, then the English, which, though quite different approximates something nevertheless lyrical.


El automóvil negro desaperece
en la curva del ser. Yo
aparezco en la explanada:
todos van a fallecer, dice el viejo
que se apoyo en la fachada.
No me cuentes más historias:
mi camino es el camino
de la nieve, no del parecer
más alto, más guapo, mejor.
Murió Beltrán Morales,
o eso dicen, murió
Juan Luís Martínez.
Rodrigo Lira se suicidó.
Murió Philip K. Dick
y ya sólo necesitamos
lo estrictamente necesario.
Ven, métete en mi cama.
Acariciémos toda la noche
del ser y de su negro coche.


The black automobile vanishes
around the curve of being. I
appear on the esplanade:
everyone will die, says the old guy
leaning against the façade.
Stop telling me stories:
my path is the path
of snow, not of seeming
taller, handsomer, better.
Beltrán Morales died,
or so they say,
Juan Luís Martínez died,
Rodrigo Lira killed himself.
Philip K. Dick died
and now we only need
what is strictly necessary.
Come, slip into my bed.
Let's caress all through the night
of being and its black car.

From The Romantic Dogs, New Directions, Roberto Bolano © 2008. Translated by Laura Healy. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Santorum Stupidity Over: Poem: Langston Hughes

This weekend brought news of a brouhaha involving the extreme right-wing, homophobic Republican former US Senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, he whose last name has, through the deft work of columnist and author Dan Savage, become a particularly vivid eponym. But our concern here isn't with the eponym and its figurative associations, apt as they are for Santorum, but with a bit of foolishness on his part. (C can probably already hear me pronouncing this word in the Deep South-fashion as "foolnish.") For Santorum selected a phrase that to him sounded just right for his potential Presidential campaign, Quixotic though we all know it will be--or Quayline, since he lacks even an iota of Don Quixote's sense and all of Dan Quayle's limitations; a phrase that, to his, or his campaign staff's ears, sounded just right: "Let America Be America Again."

As it turns out, the progressive website Think Progress saw this slogan and grasped that it came from Langston Hughes's (1902-1967) "Let America Be America Again," a pro-union, pro-immigrant, pro-equality--progressive!--poem he published in 1935, during the era of the Great Depression.  Hughes, as I need not tell anyone, was black, and gay, and a committed leftist. He was a cosmpolitan and an internationalist, a strong advocate of black consciousness and of Diasporism. He was the grandson of the abolitionist Charles Langston and a nephew of abolitionist and educator John Mercer Langston. He was even a correspondent for and member of Communist organizations, etc. All of this is searchable on Google, as is the slogan Santorum selected, which was, for those of us with even the slightest memory, already in the political air as Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry had not just sampled, but recited a selection of it in 2004. (How could anyone forget a Presidential candidate being able to quote a poem, especially one by Hughes?)

Nevertheless, Santorum went with the slogan. Until a Think Progress reporter, Lee Fang, asked him about the words and their background. This is how Gawker reported it:

"No I had nothing to do with that," he said. "I didn't know that. And the folks who worked on that slogan for me didn't inform me that it came from that, if it in fact came from that."

When he was later asked what it means to him, Santorum replied: "Well, I'm not too sure that's my campaign slogan, I think it's on a web site."

But he also used it in the official press release announcing his exploratory committee earlier this week....

Et cetera. Santorum isn't getting anywhere the White House, the Senate, or the Pennsylvania State House for that matter, but the flap did provoke the following question: can he read? Because if or his minions did even pass a cursory eye over the following poem, it would be evident what Hughes was arguing here. Some poems are admittedly difficult to grasp. I have written a few of those myself. Hughes has as well. But some do not, as Wallace Stevens wrote in his poem "Man Carrying Thing," "resist the intelligence / Almost successfully." Some are quite straightforward and evident even to the dullest of minds. A category that, as his past record would attest, includes Santorum.

Here is Hughes's poem in full, easy to grasp, and quite beautiful and moving, in my humble opinion. It shakes me up a bit every time I read it. More of our politicians need to read it, and recite it to themselves as they cut deals with plutocrats and carve what remains of our government and society up, what remains of our threadbare social safety net, for their friends and patrons.


Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used with permission.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Poems: Muriel Rukeyser

I have been thinking about poetry, politics, political poetry and the politics of poetry quite a bit of late, and one poet from the middle years of the 20th century whose work was insistently political, often successfully so and not to its aesthetic detriment, pressing on in her attempt to address the social, political and inequalities in and through her verse was Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980). Whether it was covering the Scottsboro Boys Case or writing about the effects of silicosis, whether it was speaking as a feminist or talking about her identity, as Jewish woman, her sexuality in all its complexity, whether it was being before the letter before the letter was dreamt off, composed and mailed off to poetry's many precincts, Rukeyser was there. Her first collection, Theory of Flight (1935), was selected by judge Steven Vincent Benét for the Yale Younger Poets Series, and she went on to publish numerous books, of poetry, critical essays, memoir and autobiography, anthologies, drama, and her rich store of correspondence. The two poems below are among my favorites by her; both are political, fairly straightforward on the surface, and yet contain powerful currents below. First, the more lyrical of the two, then what could be read as an ars poetica, the title rippling out, despite its simplicity, into multiple meanings, which is to say: a poem.



When I wrote of the women in their dances and
      wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone
      down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from
There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,
the fragments join in me with their own music.

From Muriel Rukeyser: Selected Poems by Muriel Rukeyser. Published by Library of America (American Poets Project). Copyright © 2004 by William Rukeyser. All rights reserved.


I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

Muriel Rukeyser, “Poem” from The Speed of Darkness. New York, Vintage Books, 1968. Copyright © 1968 by Muriel Rukeyser. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Poems: Wislawa Szymborska

When Wislawa Szymborska (1923-) received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, I recall saying: "Who?"  My knowledge of 20th century Polish poetry was five writers deep: Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), Adam Zagajewski (1945-), Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969), and Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909-1983). Milosz I knew of because he won the Nobel Prize in 1980, and I began seeing his work here and there, then started reading it, with astonishment, when I got to college. Zagajewski because when I was in college, one of his major translators, the poet and critic Stanislaw Baranczak, was on the faculty, and perhaps as a result, Z's poetry seemed to appear everywhere. Herbert I learned about from one of my fellow Dark Room members--they abounded in information like that. Gombrowicz was a name I'd seen for years, always in relation to his highly praised--but unread by anyone I knew--novels Ferdydurke (1937) and Pornografia (1966). I would lying if I said I had gotten more than 25 pages into either. Andrzejewski--I don't even know, though he was allegedly on the Nobel shortlist as well, like Zagajewski probably is. Not a single woman, no Szymborska, among them.

Then Szymborska came to world attention, and I started to see her wry, wittily ironic, deeply human and humane, often melancholy, sometimes heart-piercing poems in translation.  She has, at least to my ear and mind, a gift for boring utterly into the core of the moment the poem invokes, with wit and an undertone of sadness, sometimes so plangent, as is the case with the second of the poems I'm posting below, that it's almost painful.  A few years ago, 2006 I think it was, the writer Thomas Glave came to the university, and as part of his preparation for speaking to my "Situation of Writing" class, he asked that I have them read several poems that broached the writer's ethical responsibilities and challenges by Szymborska. I had not read these myself, so they were a revelation (I should have expected no less from Thomas, who is himself a revelation).

I say all of this as a set-up for me to post two poems by Szymborska, who remains one of the great living poets. The first I came across on the Nobel Prize site, and the second I read first in The New Yorker, and as soon as I read and reread it about 10 times, I tore it out and put in my "poetry" file.  Once upon a time, in my pre-professor days, that little file was a "sanity" file, and I would paste the poems up on the glass walls of my office, and whenever I'd hit of rough patch of bureaucratic nonsense, or my then-boss would, well, perform as the entire staff dreaded, I'd look at those poems and be transported to another place. And I'd write (a bad) one myself. Back to Szymborska: We're lucky to have her around, and if you like these poems, I urge you to go read more.


When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.
Copyright © Wislawa Szymborska, S. Baranczak and C. Cavanagh


I am too close for him to dream of me.
I don't flutter over him, don't flee him
beneath the roots of trees. I am too close.
The caught fish doesn't sing with my voice.
The ring doesn't roll from my finger.
I am too close. The great house is on fire
without me calling for help. Too close
for one of my hairs to turn into the rope
of the alarm bell. Too close to enter
as the guest before whom walls retreat.
I'll never die again so lightly,
so far beyond my body, so unknowingly
as I did once in his dream. I am too close,
too close, I hear the word hiss
and see its glistening scales as I lie motionless
in his embrace. He's sleeping,
more accessible at this moment to an usherette
he saw once in a traveling circus with one lion,
than to me, who lies at his side.
A valley now grows within him for her,
rusty-leaved, with a snowcapped mountain at one end
rising in the azure air. I am too close
to fall from that sky like a gift from heaven.
My cry could only waken him. And what
a poor gift: I, confined to my own form,
when I used to be a birch, a lizard
shedding times and satin skins
in many shimmering hues. And I possessed
the gift of vanishing before astonished eyes,
which is the riches of all. I am too close,
too close for him to dream of me.
I slip my arm from underneath his sleeping head -
it's numb, swarming with imaginary pins.
A host of fallen angels perches on each tip,
waiting to be counted.

Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.
Copyright © Wislawa Szymborska, S. Baranczak and C. Cavanagh

Friday, April 15, 2011

Poem: Tan Lin

Lest we forget that in the digital age new kinds of poems are possible, and that writers are creating them, here is one by Tan Lin (19_?-), my former colleague and one of the most original creative people I know. I'll just say that this piece, from 2002, mirrors several that he discussed, displayed and performed during a brief visit to the university around that period.  One of his aims, he argued, was to create poetry that mirrored early 20th century Modernist French composer Erik Satie's (1866-1925) concept of "musique d'ameublement," or "furniture music." The pieces he showed did not have musical accompaniment, but this piece does, matching an ambient soundworld to (semi-)ambient language. If you're so inclined and have the technological means, you might hook the piece up to your speakers and let it play as you go about your business.

I'll just add that one of Tan's most recent works, Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary. The Joy of Cooking [AIRPORT NOVEL MUSICAL POEM PAINTING FILM PHOTO HALLUCINATION LANDSCAPE], from Wesleyan University Press (2010), is actually a multiplatform, multi-concept(ual) creation, that keeps proliferating, like a (capitalistic) rhizome (which is, in part perhaps, what he's after).  It manages to send up numerous forms by embodying what amount to zombie forms of them all.  I posted photos of the book launch a while back, and I recommend the main book, from Wesleyan too. You can, like the ambient audiovisual piece below, dip and out, and even prepare a meal--it has recipes, of a sort--while you're at it. He also has a novel, wildly heralded by the writers and scholars I know who've read it, on the way. I never know what he's going to come up with, but it's never boring (even when that's his ostensible aim).

Click on the image, or the link below, to see the poem play as it should, and about this one, I can say, enjoy!

OR: click on the link below:
Pennsound: Dub Version

© 2009 Tan Lin. Used with permission of Tan Lin. Distributed by PennSound.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Poem/Translation: Paul Celan

The other day amid a river of tweets I spotted a mention of Paul Celan (1920-1970), and for reasons known only to the deeper currents of my mind, the following poem popped into my head. Almost like an automatism. I even tweeted in response: "Arnica, eyebright." The poem, as is probably well known, was Celan's response to an encounter with his old friend, the esteemed philosopher and Nazi Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). This Wikipedia entry sums up what went down:

On one of his trips, Celan gave a lecture at the University of Freiburg (on July 24, 1967) which was attended by Heidegger, who gave Celan a copy of Was heißt Denken? and invited him to visit his work retreat "die Hütte" ("the hut") at Todtnauberg the following day and walk in the Schwarzwald. Although he may not have been willing to be photographed with Heidegger after the Freiburg lecture (or to contribute to Festschriften honoring Heidegger's work) Celan accepted the invitation and even signed Heidegger's guest book at the famous "hut".

The two walked in the woods. Celan impressed Heidegger with his knowledge of botany and Heidegger is thought to have spoken about elements of his press interview Only a God can save us now, which he had just given to Der Spiegel on condition of posthumous publication. That would seem to be the extent of the meeting. "Todtnauberg" was written shortly thereafter and sent to Heidegger as the first copy of a limited bibliophile edition. Heidegger responded with no more than a letter of perfunctory thanks.
As the poet and critic Pierre Joris points out in his thorough account and translation, Celan, who survived the Holocaust, was expecting an apology, which he never received. The Wikipedia entry suggests Heidegger's indifference, his coldness, in response to the poem, which, at least to me, is unsurprising. He had by this point long retreated into a kind of mental Hütte, no? I won't attempt to interpret the poem, since Joris has already done so (as others, like Hans Georg Gadamer and John Felstiner have before), though I think that careful reading outlines the events clearly (deutlich) enough, but what strikes me so powerfully is the strangeness, the disorientation, the language almost aurally knotting itself; to give one example, there is the moment of hyperbaton at the end, with the humidity of the day, the dampness (from the heat, sorrow and disappointment, or, metaphorically, tears in the heart), preceding its qualification, an amplification (viel--very).  The entire poem feels this way, almost a bit dizzying, a record of--what?--a visit, but also a revisiting, a trip to the Death Mountain ("Todtnauberg") which leaves its grief-mark like the burst of the beautiful and haunting healing flowers'' names,"Arnika, Augentrost," or those ominous "star-dice" on the well's head--in part, as this poem.

Below is my translation, which is admittedly flawed, as my German is rather provisional (I studied it many years ago, in high school, after trying to teach it to myself), but where I think it works is that I have tried to capture not only the literal translation, with the nuances Joris suggests (and his reading was very helpful to me), but Celan's strange music, rendered into English. Rather than suggesting that you enjoy the poem, I'll say instead, read, and reflect.


Arnika, Augentrost,
der Trunk aus dem Brünnen mit dem Sternwürfel drauf,

in der

die in das Buch
—wessen Namen nahms auf
vor dem meinen?—,
die in dies Buch
geschriebene Zeile von
einer Hoffnung, heute,
auf eines Denkenden
im Herzen,

Waldwasen, uneingeebnet,
Orchis und Orchis, einzeln,

Krudes, später, im Fahren,

der uns fährt, der Mensch,
der's mi anhört,

die halb-
beschrittenen Knüppel-
pfade im Hochmoor,


Arnica, eyebright,
the drink from the well with the
star-dice on top,

in the

written in the book
—whose name did it take
down before mine—?
written in this book
the line about
a hope, today,
for a thinker's
in the heart,

forest sod, ungraded,
orchis and orchis, separated,

crudeness, later, while driving,

who drives us, the man,
who is listening too,

the half-
trodden club-
paths on the high moor,


Copyright © 2011, Paul Celan. Copyright © 2011, Translation by John Keene.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Poem: Robert Lowell

Yesterday's poem got me thinking about another poem that treats the US Civil War, a poem I had to read in high school and did not fully understand, could not really understand or bear, even, until I returned to it, and its author, in college. I speak of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), who had died only a decade before and whose name and fame were still widely known and accepted. They have both dimmed quite a bit since then, as his peer and friend, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1917), has seen her star ascend, and many of the poets of his generation (Theodore Roethke, Karl Shapiro, John Ciardi, Randall Jarrell, etc.) are even less invoked. (Another almost exact contemporary, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), has also become better known and canonical over the last 30 years.)  Lowell's career had many stages, controversies, summits and pits, but when he published the poem below, "For the Union Dead," in the eponymous 1964 volume, he was at the zenith of his fame.

Its title invokes his friend and former teacher Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead," while also touching upon many of Lowell's touchstones: Boston, especially the city of his youth; New England and its place in the country; political and social liberalism, and his own conflicts concerning his and the country's difficulties in grappling with race and racism; modernization and the shifts the country was experiencing; his own aging; the power and limits of art to invoke, witness, imagine, commemorate; and so much more. Formally, it shows his shift to the looser, more open style of his mid-career, while still demonstrating his skill as a versifier, his sureness of meter, rhetoric, figure.  His use of the "n" word still jars, but far less; I think it stopped me when I was a teenager, tearing more at the wound that its use in other circumstances--by white classmates, in books like Huckleberry Finn and Wallace Stevens's poetry--had already created. Now I can see why it was necessary, for Lowell, here. The national wound that Shaw and the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry confronted in 1863, reanimated so vividly in the 1989 film Glory (which won Denzel Washington his first Academy Award) still festers to some degree, though their bravery and that of all who fought and won that terrible war has gone a long way--including, at the moment of this poem's writing, during the Civil Rights Movement, which involved those "Negro children" on the TV Lowell cites--towards suturing if not fully healing it.


"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam."

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now.  Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back.  I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile.  One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common.  Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now.  He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die--
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year--
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast.  Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The Aquarium is gone.  Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

From Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell, published by Noonday Press (a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.). Copyright © 1964 by Robert Lowell. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Poems: Frances E. W. Harper & Walt Whitman

Just a quick note to congratulate poets Rigoberto González and Joan Larkin on jointly receiving this year's Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America! I know Rigoberto personally and am especially delighted that he has received this incredible honor, whose prior recipients include Ed Roberson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Angela Jackson, Kenneth Koch, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many other great poets.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Confederate assault on Ft. Sumter, South Carolina, which was the opening salvo of the US Civil War (1861-1865), the largest and most destructive war on American soil in our nation's history. At the end of the war, over 600,000 soldiers and civilians were killed and a great deal of the South was physically devastated, but by the horrific institution of slavery, as it had come to be in the US, had ended, and soon, two new Constitutional amendments, the 13th and 14th, would initiate the process begun in parts of the country half a decade before, to ensure equality to all Americans. The country too, though sundered in deep ways we are still reckoning with, was stitched together like the halves of an immense and thick, multicolored quilt that had been torn apart, and it too continues to be expanded and recreated.

Poets wrote about the war during its unfolding and afterwards; in fact, people still continue to write poetry--and novels, historical studies, comic books, etc.--about the US Civil War, not least because of its fundamental role in the new society, the new country, the new America, that it brought into being.  Today's selections are two poems written by figures who lived through the antebellum and Civil War era, two writers without whom the fields of African American and American literature, respectively, could have developed. They are Frances E. W. Harper (1825-1911) and Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Both are well enough known (Whitman certainly, but Harper too, as her works are now central to most explorations of 19th century African American literature and culture, Black/women's writing, feminist studies, and so on.) Harper published her first book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (echoing her and our ancestor Phillis Wheatley's 1773 volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral) in 1854, while the first version of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, one of the greatest collections of poetry in American or any literature, appeared in 1855. Each poem speaks for itself, so I'll just say: enjoy.  


by Frances E. W. Harper

You can sigh o’er the sad-eyed Armenian
   Who weeps in her desolate home.
You can mourn o’er the exile of Russia
   From kindred and friends doomed to roam.

You can pity the men who have woven
   From passion and appetite chains
To coil with a terrible tension
   Around their heartstrings and brains.

You can sorrow o’er little children
   Disinherited from their birth,
The wee waifs and toddlers neglected,
   Robbed of sunshine, music and mirth.

For beasts you have gentle compassion;
   Your mercy and pity they share.
For the wretched, outcast and fallen
   You have tenderness, love and care.

But hark! from our Southland are floating
   Sobs of anguish, murmurs of pain,
And women heart-stricken are weeping
   Over their tortured and their slain.

On their brows the sun has left traces;
   Shrink not from their sorrow in scorn.
When they entered the threshold of being
   The children of a King were born.

Each comes as a guest to the table
   The hand of our God has outspread,
To fountains that ever leap upward,
   To share in the soil we all tread.

When ye plead for the wrecked and fallen,
   The exile from far-distant shores,
Remember that men are still wasting
   Life’s crimson around your own doors.

Have ye not, oh, my favored sisters,
   Just a plea, a prayer or a tear,
For mothers who dwell ’neath the shadows
   Of agony, hatred and fear?

Men may tread down the poor and lowly,
   May crush them in anger and hate,
But surely the mills of God’s justice
   Will grind out the grist of their fate.

Oh, people sin-laden and guilty,
   So lusty and proud in your prime,
The sharp sickles of God’s retribution
   Will gather your harvest of crime.

Weep not, oh my well-sheltered sisters,
   Weep not for the Negro alone,
But weep for your sons who must gather
   The crops which their fathers have sown.

Go read on the tombstones of nations
   Of chieftains who masterful trod,
The sentence which time has engraven,
   That they had forgotten their God.

’Tis the judgment of God that men reap
   The tares which in madness they sow,
Sorrow follows the footsteps of crime,
   And Sin is the consort of Woe.

Online text © 1998-2011 Poetry X. All rights reserved.
From Poems | The Black Heritage Library Collection, 1895


By Walt Whitman


BEAT! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!   
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,   
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;   
Into the school where the scholar is studying;   
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride;  
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or gathering his grain;   
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.   

Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!   
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets:   
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses? No sleepers must sleep in those beds;
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—Would they continue?   
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?   
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?   
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.   

Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!     
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation;   
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer;   
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;   
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties;   
Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie awaiting the hearses,     
So strong you thump, O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.    

From Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay, [c1900];, 1999.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Poem: Ronaldo V. Wilson

"This is a song for the genius child." - Langston Hughes

Hughes was incontestably a genius, as is Ronaldo V. Wilson. (But his soul already runs wild, as did Hughes's.) Ronaldo's first book, The Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008) is a novel-as-poem, or poem-as-novel. And also uncategorizable. It erects chapters-as-mirrors onto a life that is akin to but isn't Ronaldo's. Unless you look closely. But you won't see what you think you're seeing. Or not seeing. And you cannot put it down. The book won the 2007 Cave Canem Prize, which proves that its judges are visionary and a lot more progressive than many people stomping around the literary world claiming to be on the newest tip, but who probably wouldn't have given a book this fresh the time of day, even if they thought they had the moves. Ronaldo's second book, Poems of the Black Object (Futurepoems, 2009), is equally remarkable, worthy of the highest praise, demanding repeated readings. You think you grasp it but you really don't. He's like that.

I carried around one of his manuscripts, dipping into and out of it in amazement, for several years. Whenever I would read it it was as if I were reading something revelatory and unexpected. I always say that there are some poets it's better to see in person before you read their work than after, and some it's better to see after you've read their work, but Ronaldo is an artist and thinker who's worth seeing at any time. He is the only poet and critic I've ever known who can incorporate push-ups, phone conversations, Tagalog, and a host of other things as part of his reading/performance, and pull it off. Flawlessly. His emails are even poems, whether he's reading them aloud or you're reading them on your screen--and some appear in Poems. When I first met him, at NYU, he was doing pull-ups without breaking a sweat. The arms are important. But then what should anyone expect of a Grand Slam champion?  Paris, watch out! Below is a poem from his second book, treading as it does between beauty and menace, splendor and almost unspeakable horror, all of it packed tightly into every fiber of the Black Object's body, breaths, words, silences. Would you remember "red"?


Your face gets to a lake, wind chimes, and pear, sliced near a window. This fruit, laid in a spiral and locked to Jarlsberg cheese, staircased in a row with crackers, is yours. In celebration of your face, you think -- if you were born to vitiligo lips, and naps, instead of clear skin and curl, what $65,000 per square acre land would you ever get to see? On the drive to this spot, there were llamas in a field, African long-horned steer, goats that look like they've been amputated in half. Pine trees wave in the wind and reflect on the glass table on a deck that extends over the water. On the railing is an abalone's husk. Its meat is gutted, mother of pearl left to catch ash. What if your face were stripped away from this house? Would you remember red: the hummingbird's throat?

Ronaldo V. Wilson, from Poems of the Black Object, Futurepoems, 2009. Copyright © Ronaldo V. Wilson. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Poem (Novel Excerpt): Anne Carson

One of the things about original artists is that it sometimes takes a while for their work to be assimilated by the wider culture, if that ever occurs. Sometimes it does, at least to some extent, at other times it doesn't, and in their time, the critics will often ride their same hobbyhorses and commonplaces, usually championing what they know and venturing occasionally a bit out to inspect, with some people being completely passed over except by their peers, or some cases, by peers from generations to come.  An artist whose work suggested to me from the very first that she was an original presence is Anne Carson (1950-). I read her extraordinary collection Glass, Irony and God (New Directions, 1995) immediately when it came out--with its introduction, as if it needed one, by the utterly original and still passed-over Guy Davenport--with stupefaction. Here was a writer whose poetry looked like, well, no one else's I'd seen before, at least no one else really of her time, even as it was in conversation with many works of the past and present. (Just as startling was her 1997 essay in The Threepenny Review, "Economy, Its Fragrance." I remember talking about that piece for weeks on end with writers I knew; its aroma lingers still.)  Carson also published another strikingly original book that year, Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (Knopf, 1995), and, I learned in those days before the internet as we know it, an idiosyncratic scholarly study, Eros, the Bittersweet, with Princeton University Press in 1988 that pointed, in its strangeness, to what would appear 7 years later.

Carson has gone on to become one of the best known poets in the English language. She is widely acclaimed, has won many major awards (though not, unfortunately, the Pulitzer Prize), and now teaches at New York University after having spent many years at McGill University and later the University of Michigan teaching the classics, the area of her training and the subject of many of her critical texts and foundation of many of her creative works. Earlier this year I blogged about her most recent gift to the literary world, yet another utter originality, her accordion-printed elegy-in-a-box, Nox (New Directions, 2011), which is, I felt and feel, less a poem than a poetic performance and artifact. I shall leave it to others to interpret that. Instead, I am posting a snippet from Carson's novel-and-myth in poetry, one of her finest works, the Autobiography of Red (Knopf, 1998), which allegedly retells, as only Carson can, the Greek lyric poet Stesichoros's (632/629 BCE-556/553 BCE) story of Geryon, a queer little red monster. Of course "retells" is a really reductive way of describing what Carson does, which is to animate a distant world with elements drawn from our own, but with such metaphorical and imagistic power that it is a completely new world we both recognize and view in awe altogether.  One of Carson's key skills in all her work is her capacity to, as the Russian formalists described it, enstrange, to make the familiar so strange that it feels new, and the strange and new oddly familiar that we imagine we can, at some level, grasp it.

Here is a one little snippet from Autobiography of Red describing a moment nearly every mother faces but in such a way that it feels as if it were conjured from a mind running on a different track. Enjoy!


His mother stood at the ironing board lighting and cigarette and regarding Geryon.

Outside the dark pink air
was already hot and alive with cries. Time to go to school, she said for the third time.
Her cool voice floated
over a pile of fresh tea towels and across the shadowy kitchen to where Geryon stood
at the screen door.
He would remember when he was past forty the dusty almost medieval smell
of the screen itself as it
pressed its grid onto his face.  She was behind him now. This would be hard
for you if you were weak
but you're not weak, she said and neatened his little red wings and pushed him
out the door.

Anne Carson, from Autobiography of Red, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. Copyright © by Anne Carson, 1998. All rights reserved

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Poem: Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye (1952-) is a poet whose work I came to only as an adult, through my experiences teaching 7th and 8th graders. I had never heard of Nye, a native of St. Louis and the daughter of a Palestinian father and white American mother, but at some point during my combined poetry class, working with fellow poets Mattie Michael and Caitlin O'Donnell, a classmate at NYU, I was flipping through an anthology of poetry--perhaps it wasn't for children though I want to say it was--and happened upon Nye's work.  It seemed as though after that moment I would see one of her poems everywhere, though more likely I just began to notice her poems, and read them.

Sometimes coming to poetry and poets happens this way; it does with me. Nye had released her collection Red Suitcase only a year before, so that might also have been why her name rode the air--or my mind's air--but she has since published a number of other volumes, including most recently You and Yours (Boa Editions, 2005), which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award.  Nye has been a resident at various points of Ramallah, Jerusalem, San Antonio, and many other places, and has received a wide array of awards.  She is now a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, lives in San Antonio, and has traveled around the globe promoting the arts and cultural exchange. The poem below suggests multiple readings, in the various senses of that term. As you read it, slowly, let its language and images ride on your mind's air.


remains all supple hands and gesture

skin of language
fusing its finest seam

in fluent light
with a raised finger

dance of lips
each sentence complete

he speaks to the shadow
of leaves

strung tissue paper
snipped into delicate flags

on which side of the conversation
did anyone begin?

wearing two skins
the brilliant question mark of Mexico
stands on its head
like an answer

From Red Suitcase. Copyright © 1994 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Published by BOA Editions, Ltd. All rights reserved.