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Poetry News in Review
 
 
April 17, 2011
 
Specimen Days: April 17
 
1297 – Willem van Afflighem, Flemish poet, dies at about 86
.
1622 – Henry Vaughan, English poet, is born.

1699 – Robert Blair, Scottish poet (Grave), is born.

1920 – Bengt N. Anderberg, Swedish poet/writer (Kain), is born.
1937 – Yi Sang, Korean Poet (b. 1910), dies.

1945 – Ion Pillat, Romanian poet/senator (Umbra timpului), dies.
1987 – Richard Wilbur appointed as US poet laureate.

1996 – Eva Jones, poet/novelist, dies at 82.

2008 – Aimé Césaire, French Martinican poet (b. 1913), dies.
 
Vain Wits and Eyes
 
Vain wits and eyes
Leave, and be wise
Abuse not, shun not holy fire,
But with true tears wash off your mire.
Tears and these flames will soon grow kind,
And mix an eye-salve for the blind.
Tears cleanse and supple without fail,
And fire will purge your callous veil,
Then comes the light! which when you spy,
And see your nakedness thereby,
Praise Him, who dealt His gifts so free
In tears to you, in fire to me.
    —Henry Vaughan (1621 - 1695)
 
 
Poetry in the News

Civil War Documents Transcribed by Walt Whitman Unveiled
National Archives Releases Nearly 3,000 Documents and Records Marking the 150th Anniversary of Start of the Civil War
Walt Whitman, one of America's most revered authors and poets, is best known for his "Leaves of Grass" collection but the National Archives revealed today a new perspective on his past in the form of newly discovered Civil War-related documents and records, all written in his hand. To mark the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War, the National Archives unveiled nearly 3,000 documents and records Whitman transcribed while working as a clerk in Washington, D.C., in the decade after the Civil War. Although the documents unveiled today do not contain Whitman's original thoughts, they provide insight into Whitman's post-war writing and thinking. Read more at ABC News.
 
Poet David Ferry Wins Ruth Lilly Prize for Lifetime Achievement
Poet David Ferry, a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Suffolk University since 2009, has won the 2011 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which recognizes the extraordinary lifetime accomplishments of a living U.S. poet. The $100,000 prize is sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, and is considered one of the most prestigious awards given to American poets. Read more at Broadway World.
 
Poetry Classes Give Confidence to Homeless
Homeless people in Reno have advanced degrees, professional jobs and, after an eight-week class, enjoyment of writing poetry. "The people here are not the stereotype people think of," said Shannon Jones, program coordinator for the Volunteers of American family shelter in downtown Reno. The shelter houses 27 families, many of whom are people who have been hurt by a tough economy. Jones said some living at the shelter are families where one parent has lost a job, and they just can't make it on one income with four children. Read more at Reno Gazette-Journal.
 
 
World Poetry

Syria's Teenaged Prisoners of Conscience
Tal al-Mallhoui's story must be told. On December 27, 2009, she was forced from her home by Syrian state security officials. "She was detained," an anonymous Syrian official said, "On the accusation of spying for a foreign country." Another official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, "She was accused of espionage and sending information to the American embassy in Egypt through her blog." What kind of information can a seventeen-year-old girl send a foreign government through a blog? What Tal had done, in fact, was to post poems and essays that focused on the suffering of the Palestinians, restrictions on freedom of expression, and her hope for peace in the Middle East.Tal al-Mallouhi was detained at the age of 17 in Syria for the crime of blogging, and is serving a five-year sentence. Read more at Al Jazeera.
 
Literary Society Welcomes Poet-activist
Seoul Literary Society still going strong after five years
Lars Vargo, the Swedish ambassador to Korea, right, introduces Korean poet and activist Kim Ji-ha, seated at right, to members of the Seoul Literary Society on March 15 at the ambassador’s residence in Seongbuk-dong, northeast Seoul. Kim read four of his poems in Korean, which were then interpreted into English for the approximately 40 members of the society who were present. The Seoul Literary Society carried on its tradition of hosting readings with famous Korean and foreign writers at a gathering on March 15 at the residence of Lars Vargo, the Swedish Ambassador in Korea, in Seongbuk-dong, Seoul. The guest of honor that evening was Kim Ji-ha, a poet-activist who became famous for the poems he wrote in protest against the dictatorial governments of the 1960s and 70s. Vargo, who is well-known for his love of literature, had translated Kim’s poems into Swedish and later had them published in Sweden. Read more at Oongang Daily.
 
Melancholy and Light
Stephen Fraser Tennant Watson, writer and educator, born November 6 1954; died April 10 2011 
Stephen Watson, who has died of cancer at the age of 56, was a distinguished and influential South African poet, essayist, critic and academic. A professor and long-serving member of the department of English at the University of Cape Town (UCT), he was in recent years also the director of the highly successful Centre for Creative Writing at UCT. In that capacity, he acted as a mentor to a generation of young South African writers. In nine volumes of poetry, beginning with Poems 1977-1982, published in 1982, and ending with The Light Echo and Other Poems, published in 2007, Watson established himself as one of South Africa’s foremost poets. His dense, layered poems, characterised by chunky stanzas and long lines, generally unrhymed, became, in the almost 30 years since the publication of the first volume, a recognisable terrain for his readers -- to them, a poetic place both familiar and ­unpredictable. Read more at the Mail and Guardian.
 
 
New Books

The Garbage Eater: Poems
by Brett Foster 
[Paperback] Triquarterly, 80 pp., $16.95 
The “Garbage Eater” of the title poem in Brett Foster’s provocative collection is a member of a religious sect (some would say cult) in the Bay Area who lives an ascetic life eating scraps from dumpsters. Just as this simple way of life exists within the most technologically advanced region in the world, Foster’s poems are likewise animated by the constant tension between material reality and an unabashed yearning for transcendence. The titles of Foster’s poems—“Like as a ship, that through the Ocean wyde,” “Meditation in an Olive Garden,” “Little Flowers of Dan Quisenberry” —nod to the poems of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance masters he studies as a scholar. 
 
Curses and Wishes: Poems by Carl Adamshick 
[Paperback] Louisiana State University Press, 64 pp., $17.95 
The unusual voice encountered in Curses and Wishes carries a quiet, slightly elevated conversational tone, which flows from intimate secrets to wider social concerns. The poet has faith in economy and trusts in images to transfer knowledge that speech cannot. In Curses and Wishes the short, simple lines add up to a thoughtful book possessed with lyrical melancholy, a harmony of sadness and joy that sings: ''May happiness be a wheel, a lit throne, spinning / in the vast pinprick of darkness.'' By the close of this ambitious work the poet has inspired readers to see the multifaceted effects of our human connections.
 
[Hardcover] Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 84 pp., $30.00
Wright's poems mix a relentless intensity with the capacity to take inspiration from almost anything—passing thoughts, feelings and memories; other writers; whatever's out the window or nearby in the room. Wright is nothing if not prolific, and this third selected volume gathers poems from his last five books, published since the late 1990s, including the complete text of the book-length poem "Littlefoot," which asserts, "You can't go back,/ you can't repeat the unrepeatable." In Wright's trademark stepped lines, all of these poems—which find a voice not unlike a darker W.S. Merwin—are sobered by assertions like the above, but also by intense notes of ecstasy, which, it turns out, is not always quite pleasant: "Each second the earth is struck hard/ by four and a half pounds of sunlight." Wright is at his most distilled (though also at his most repetitive) in the six-line poems of Sestets, his most recent book, which fix an unearthly glare on thing after thing, yielding, more often than not, cold wisdom: "It is not possible to imagine and feel the pain of others./ We say we do but we don't./ It is a country we have no passport for,/ and no right of entry." —Publishers Weekly
 
 
Recent Reviews

Why I Chose Fall Higher
by Camille T. Dungy 
Dean Young’s newest collection, Fall Higher, is a compendium of failure.  Love’s failure, human failure, poetry’s failures, the heart’s failure, reason’s failure, the body’s failure, failed ambitions.  Each associatively-driven poem reminds us of how gorgeous the practice of failure can be. As Young writes in the poem “Late Valentine”:
…even lightening can go wrong but when the smoke

blows off, we can admire the work the fire’s done

ironing out the wrinkles in favor of newer ones… 
These are not self pitying poems.  They find potential even in the face of destruction. So much corruption, but also such a light, humourous touch.  Young has built his literary career creating poems that are, as the Academy of American Arts and Letters calls them, “entertaining as a three-ring circus.”  Just as you want to feel pity for the poor tiger, out he lopes with his hat on sideways and a genuine grin on his mug.  The poems won’t sit still.  They don’t linger on one emotion, image, or sound for very long before they are up and moving again, careening even, on to the next new thing.  What amasses is an associative blur that implies more than it means.  And this seems right for Fall Higher.  Young is circling around concepts that are quite difficult to get a handle on: mortality, heart break, corruption, and loss.  I’m reminded of the child, in Elizabeth Bishop’s “First Death in Novia Scotia,” who won’t look, won’t look, won’t look at the dead body before her.  Young’s poems map out the landscape of loss, pulling everything into their tumble. Read more at The Rumpus.
 
His Forked Voice Licked My Mortal Ears Clean
by Saara Raappana 
In The Flight Cage, Rebecca Dunham adopts and manipulates the personas of historical, usually literary, women to explore the various confinements and resistances that they—and by extension, all women—endure. True confession: I’m lazy when it comes to history. I have yet to read about any historical event without first having my interest piqued by hair-sprayed, exfoliated actors in ensemble-cast Hollywood productions. I’d like to thank The Tudors for inspiring me to read up on Henry VIII and the origins of the Church of England; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for getting me to catch up on the James-Younger Gang and the American Old West; and someday, I swear I will sit through enough of Pearl Harbor to want to learn everything I can about the non-Michael Bay version of WWII. In our heavily televisioned/movied/YouTubed zeitgeist, I don’t think I’m so uncommon—for further evidence, see Oliver Stone’s bank account. It is uncommon, however, for a book of poetry, however well wrought, to have a widescreen-esque effect on the atrophied curiosity centers of my brain—but Rebecca Dunham’s sophomore book, The Flight Cage, has done it. Read more at The Rumpus.

Philip Larkin, the Impossible Man
How the most exasperating of poets met his match
by Christopher Hitchens  
In May 1941, Philip Larkin was the treasurer of the Oxford University English Club and in that capacity had to take the visiting speaker George Orwell out to dinner after he had addressed the membership on the subject of “Literature and Totalitarianism.” Larkin’s main recollection: “We took Dylan Thomas to the Randolph and George Orwell to the not-so-good hotel. I suppose it was my first essay in practical criticism.” Nudged and intrigued by this potential meeting of minds, I once attempted a comparison and contrast between Larkin and Orwell, as exemplars of a certain style of “Englishness.” Both men had an abiding love for the English countryside and a haunting fear of its obliteration at the hands of “developers.” (Here I would cite Larkin’s poem “Going, Going” and Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air.) Both were openly scornful of Christianity but maintained a profound respect for the scripture and the Anglican liturgy, as well as for the masterpieces of English ecclesiastical architecture. (See Larkin’s poem “Church Going” and the same Orwell novel, as well as numberless letters and reviews.) They each cherished the famous English affection for animals and were revolted by any instances of human cruelty to them. (Here consult Larkin’s poem “Myxomatosis,” about the extermination of the country’s rabbit population, as well as at least one Orwell work that’s too obvious to require mentioning.) Read more at The Atlantic.
 
 
Correspondences

Small Press Spotlight: Jacqueline Jones LaMon
by Rigoberto González
Jacqueline Jones LaMon is associate professor of English and director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Adelphi University. She is the author of a previous poetry collection, Gravity, U.S.A. and the novel In the Arms of One Who Loves Me. The collection Last Seen received the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry.

In the section “The Elsewhere Chronicles,” you include a preface about consulting the online site for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and mention how you gravitated to the stories of missing African American girls in particular. That preface ends with a startling paragraph that reads: “What we hear in our daily lives is the voice of their absence. This silence is the source of these poems.” One interesting choice you made was to avoid persona poems in the points of view of these young people you might have come across, but to allow those on the periphery (a suspect mother, a facial reconstructionist, a TV network news director, among others) to present various angles to narratives that, suddenly, are not so simple or straight-forward. Yes, the child is missing, but that’s just a fact in what is otherwise a multi-layered, unfinished story. How did you determine which perspectives would best serve the telling of these stories while preserving the dignity of those affected? Were there moments when you tread cautiously? And why not invoke the voices of the missing children more often? Read more at the Critical Mass.
 
The Beat Lives On
In a rare interview, the 92-year-old poet who played a pivotal role in the Beats' countercultural revolution remains defiant
by John Kercher 
When writer and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco in 1953, he had no idea  it would change the face of American literature. Three years later he published Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl. San Fransisco police seized copies of the book and arrested Ferlinghetti on obscenity charges relating to Ginsberg’s powerful and explicit poetry about sex, sexuality, drugs, politics, religion and power.  The rest is history, poetry, literature and  now cinema. Howl – a film dramatising Ferlinghetti’s highly-publicised trial after which he was sensationally acquitted in October 1957 – appeared in February. A screen version of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On The Road, starring Sam Riley, is due later this year. More than half a century on, the fascination with the Beat Generation which gripped the world during the Ferlinghetti trial shows no sign of abating.  Read more at the Big Issue.
 
 
Broadsides

Poetry Now, Here
By Ava Kofman
There is not a “school” of poetry at Yale. There is not a dominant contemporary poetry scene with dominating characteristics. There is not — entirely — a story here about the birth/ revolution/ death/ rebirth of poetry. That is not it at all. But this is “a good thing,” really. The lobby of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library today is unusually flooded with light. April is starting to stand for spring along with National Poetry Month. “Poetry can be kind of below the radar, and yet, it’s such a lively world and there’s so much going on. All you really have to do is scratch the surface,” said Nancy Kuhl, a poet and the curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature, housed in the Beinecke.
As curator, Kuhl programs the American Poet speaker series, directs the academic community to the Beinecke’s resources and co-leads the Working Group in Contemporary Poetry.
Not only does the Beinecke function as home to the University’s manuscripts and extensive poetry resources, but also provides funding for postdoc and graduate fellows, whose specialized research brings poets’ letters, drafts and processes to life. After all, one of the draws for any artist and/or academic at a university is the unparalleled opportunity to get his hands on so many good books. All of this exchange makes the Beinecke (arguably) the liveliest center of poetry at Yale, a crossroads where a cross section of the community (grad/undergrad/professional/aspring/faculty) intersects most often. Read more at Yale Daily News.
 
Mark Strand: Five Poems
by Nicholas Christopher
Over a long and distinguished career, with honors that include a Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. Poet Laureateship, Mark Strand has compiled a body of poems that display a remarkable unity of vision and variety of content. Since his first book, Sleeping with One Eye Open, appeared in 1964, Strand has published eleven poetry collections, including a Selected Poems in 1980 that incorporated work from his first five books. His recent New Selected Poems both supplants that volume and picks up where it left off, setting before us the supple, luminous arc of his poetic achievement to date and testifying to his place as one of our great poets. The most alluring qualities in Strand’s early lyrics—clean lines, taut narratives, and carefully framed mise-en-scènes—also marks his most recent poems, which, with a deepened pathos and heightened polish, work over a good deal more of life lived, sights seen, women loved, children grown, friends dead or dying, and the author’s own mortality. The breadth has widened, but the timbre remains distinct; the earliest and most recent poems mirror one another, sometimes uncannily so. Read more at the Boston Review.
 
Taxonomy and Grace
By Joseph P. Wood
When I first heard W.S. Merwin’s poem “Berryman,” I didn’t know who either writer was. Instead, I sat mesmerized as Olga Broumas—a poet whose own reputation I scantly appreciated—recited the poem in my undergraduate creative writing workshop. Her voice began with her usual airy breathlessness but quickly demanded attention. . . . As a twenty year old, there was something romantic about the terms “passion,” “genius,” “good,” and “write.” They embodied my driving need to express a distilled, pressing urgency — to write poems. It was my hope that somehow my limited experience could reach someone else. I believed that the poem itself could change how just one person saw the world. Likewise, I also believed that other writers’ poems could fundamentally shake me to my core and offer me wisdom, hope, and faith in humankind and could connect me to another soul I might never meet. Read more at Open Letters Monthly.
 
 
Drafts & Fragments

Iowa Writers' Workshop
, Famous for Training Top Writers, Turns 75
 
 
Envoi: Editor’s Notes

What's Wrong with Popularizing Poetry? Well, the Poets Don't Seem to Like It . . .
by Sam Leith
Garrison Keillor – anecdotalist, radio host and laureate of small-town wholesomeness – is publishing a book of poetry, 77 Love Sonnets. Interviewed about the book, Keillor found himself discussing the reaction to an anthology he published a few years ago; specifically, the admired modernist poet August Kleinzahler's full-frontal assault on Keillor's "appalling taste". I looked it up: a dismissive review that took two and a half thousand words in the dismissing. It's been said that criticising PG Wodehouse is like "taking a spade to a souffle". This was something similar; and if you hit a souffle with a spade, you get egg on your face. Keillor's taste in poetry may differ from Kleinzahler's, and his understanding of what it's for may differ – caricaturally, he thinks it does the soul good, and that makes Kleinzahler wince with embarrassment. (Not that the does-you-good school of thought isn't without well-respected adherents: F. R. Leavis, for instance, or George Eliot, who said: "If art does not enlarge men's sympathies it does nothing morally.") Read more at the Guardian.

This is an old story from 2004 that we might expect to rear its head again with the forthcoming anthology from Garrison Keillor, as in fact it already has at the Guardian. 
Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not an apologist for those who would use poetry for pedagocial, sociological, psychological, cultural, or political purposes. I deplore the use of art as a stand-in for a case study. I fall on the “l’art pour l’art” side of the divide.  But even that dictum must mean more than sheer adherence to the technical aspects or the entertainment value that a piece of art, or a poem in this case, conveys. As I mentioned last week, reduced to a parlor game it becomes just that. It should have an effect beyond the formal pleasure we derive from it or its own novelty. And poetry isn’t the province of an elite club with special handshakes any more than visual art is. Imagine the empty museums if that were the case.
This is what August Kleinzahler wrote about the Keillor anthology:
“Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, eating, defecating, copulating, shopping, working, catching the latest Disney blockbuster, without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else. Nor will their lives be diminished by not standing in front of a Cézanne at the art museum or listening to a Beethoven piano sonata. Most people have neither the sensitivity, inclination, or training to look or listen meaningfully, nor has the culture encouraged them to, except with the abstract suggestion that such things are good for you. Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.”
Ah, “good for you”! That dredges up the decade-old screed from Charles Bernstein on the topic of National Poetry Month, which got some recent traction form the TLS, and whether poetry should be good for you or not (he thinks not). This was the followup in the TLS:
Since last week, we have been mulling over the remark we quoted from Charles Bernstein on the marketing of poetry as a medium for "uplifting" thoughts. Mr Bernstein was reacting to US National Poetry Month, which comes round each April. "The message is: Poetry is good for you", he said. "I want a poetry that's bad for you."
     The rhetorical force of this is clear, even if it doesn't stand much scrutiny. Obviously, Mr Bernstein doesn't want poetry that will cause actual harm; he wants poetry that's bad for you that's really good for you. The Waste Land might be one example. T. S. Eliot would not have been asked to dress in spring fashions for a special poetry supplement of O: The Oprah Magazine in 1922. [Ed. note: the photo to the left was taken by Cecil Beaton, who worked for Vanity Fair. I don't know if this picture appeared in the journal.] Some of Ezra Pound's early verse was uplifting and good for you; later he wrote poetry that's bad for you that's really good for you; eventually he wrote poetry that was bad for everybody, especially him. "Howl" used to be poetry that's bad for you, but a recent tame movie, with a cool dude miscast as Allen Ginsberg, turned it into poetry that's good for you (and therefore, in Bernsteinian logic, bad for you). Some of D. H. Lawrence's poetry is bad for you. Some of Robert Frost's is good for you, but more bad for you than it seems. The best of Hugh MacDiarmid is bad-but-good; the worst is plain bad. Sylvia Plath's poetry is bad for you; so is Ted Hughes's Crow.
     These brief reflections on Mr Bernstein's dictum have brought home to us how much good sense there is in it (good as in good). The above is intended as a step towards a canon of poetry that's bad for you that's really good for you. Further suggestions would be welcome.
 
But this is what he really says:
National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting examples of the art form at its most bland and its most morally "positive." The message is: Poetry is good for you. But, unfortunately, promoting poetry as if it were an "easy listening" station just reinforces the idea that poetry is culturally irrelevant and has done a disservice not only to poetry deemed too controversial or difficult to promote but also to the poetry it puts forward in this way. "Accessibility" has become a kind of Moral Imperative based on the condescending notion that readers are intellectually challenged, and mustn't be presented with anything but Safe Poetry. As if poetry will turn people off to poetry.
 
Are these the bad boys of poetry? Certainly we can do better. If you want disdain, if you want subversive, how about words from a real bad boy (albeit a seventy-year-old one):

Good and bad, I define these terms

Quite clear, no doubt, somehow

Ah, but I was so much older then

I’m younger than that now

                                                    

                             —David Sanders
 
 





 
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