If I can’t keep up, who can? And if nobody can keep up with all of it, how does anyone decide what slice, what segment, what section, to follow instead? I think I can keep up with books, more or less, which are countable, finite sets of things (especially since they do come in the mail): but if the proliferating, ramifying, exciting discourse about poetry now takes place in a million web journals, at all hours of the day and night, I’m not sure I can keep up with them. I’m not sure that I could have kept up with them when I was 20, or 25, or 29
Archive for the 'On Poetry' Category
Andrei Voznesensky is a difficult writer (…) yet he is particularly easy for us to like and admire. He comes to us with the careless gaiety of the twenties and Apollinaire, with a flippant magic, effervescent intensity, and imagination so boisterous and high-spirited that only a Russian could survive it. He says, “We do not burn to survive, but to step on the gas.” Voznesensky us not likely to burn out (…). When he looks at himself, I think he’s glad he is only life-size, or a bit smaller. Everywhere in his poetry is something fine-boned, fragile and sensible. With humor, with shrewd amazement, with rushes of defiance, he is able to be himself, a gift no one is born with, and which is only acquired by the most heroic patience and ingenuity. (…)
This is a hard time to be a poet, and in each country it is hard in different ways. It is almost impossible, even where this is permitted, to be directly political and remain inspired. Still the world presses in as never before, prodding, benumbing. We stand in a sort of international lull. Like a cat up a tree, we want to climb down without falling. It’s too much, we’ve lost our foothold. The other night, I found myself shaving. An impatient, just-lit cigarette was sighting me down from the soap-dish, and the bathroom door was ajar to catch messages from the world news roundup. It’s too much, it’s too tense. We want another human being. We want Andrei Voznesensky (…) to juggle us back to the real world for a moment.
I was reminded last night that Andrei Voznesensky had died last week (a horrible month so far; we lost Voznesensky and David Markson, as well), and I found this brilliant essay by Robert Lowell, a speech to introduce a reading by Andrei Voznesensky, written in the early 1960s. It is from Lowell’s Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux)
I have neither the time nor the weaving skill, perhaps,
for the intricate medallions the Persians know;
my rugs are the barbaric fire-worshipper’s:
how blue the waters flow,
how red the fiery sun,
how brilliant a green the grass is,
how blinding white the snow.
This is section/poem seven from a sequence of poems by the masterful Charles Reznikoff. It, and countless other poems, including selections from Holocaust, can be heard at PennSound, a vast collection of recordings of the man’s voice. If you know Reznikoff, enjoy! If you don’t, take this opportunity to get to know a magnificent voice in 20th century American poetry. Click here to access the recordings.
I’m still in free verse, written in the blue period after sickness, when I felt I could do nothing else well. On the balance side and on the side of formality, I am told all my lines are lines. I do scores of revisions to make them so. I use iambics often loosened into anapests. I suppose definitions of words in the dictionary can be made to do this – anything can be scanned but not made into decisive lines. (…) How different prose is; sometimes the two mediums refuse to say the same things. I found this lately doing an obituary on Hannah Arendt. Without verse, without philosophy, I found it hard, I was naked without my line-ends.
- Robert Lowell (in a letter to Elizabeth Bishop (April 15, 1976), available in the magnificent, indispensable book Words in Air: The complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (eds. Travisano and Hamilton). You need to read it. You know you do.)
The artist’s problem is to make life show itself. Homer, Aeschylus, Vergil, Shakespeare – a great deal of Western art has made life show itself by dramatizing crisis and disaster. (…) Again and again, insight is dramatized by showing the conflict between what is ordinarily seen, ordinarily understood, and what is experienced as real. Cracking the shell of the world; or finding that teh shell is cracking under you. The unrealizable ideal is to write as if the earth opened and spoke. I think that if the earth did speak she would espouse no one set of values, affectations, meanings, that everything embraced would also somehow be annihilated and denied.
this is from Frank Bidart’s stupendous book In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90 (more precisely, from an appended interview with Bidart) Bishop has praised Bidart’s first volume, and almost every poem in this book is very good, some are really great. One of the very best living poets.
I have, on occasion posted videos and links to videos of readings (like this one) and talks (like this one) and of John Berryman. Berryman is, I think, currently my favorite American post-WWII poet. In my review of a critical study of Berryman you may find some reasons for this. Recently, another interview has been put on-line. It was recorded in 1970, two years before Berryman’s departure, the interviewers are William Heyen and Jerome Mazzaro (whose books on Lowell I enjoyed a great deal). It’s in six parts, below you’ll find part 1 and 2. Double-click on any of the videos to access youtube and the other parts.
Part 1 begins with a reading from his poem “The Song of a tortured Girl” (in: The Dispossessed (1948). Click here for the full text)
Harold Bloom recites Stevens’ marvelous poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”. Here is the video, below is Stevens’ text.
Tea at the Palaz of Hoon
Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.
What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?
Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
Occasionally I see myself, or the ghost of myself, in the places where I first became a poet. On the pavement just around Stephen’s Green for instance, with its wet trees and sharp railings. What I see is not an actual figure, but a sort of remembered loneliness. The poets I knew were not women: the women I knew were not poets. The conversations I had, or wanted to have, were never complete.
Sometimes I think of how time might become magical: How I might get out of the car even now and cross the road and stop that young woman and surprise her with the complete conversation she hardly knew she missed. How I might stand there with her in the dusk, the way neighbours stand on their front steps before they go in to their respective houses for the night: half-talking and half-leaving.
Poetry and doubt require one another, they coexist like the oak and ivy, like dogs and cats. But their relationship is neither harmonious nor symmetrical. Poetry needs doubt far more than doubt needs poetry. Through doubt, poetry purges itself of rhetorical insincerity, senseless chatter, falsehood, youthful loquacity, empty (inauthentic) euphoria. Released from doubt’s stern gaze, poetry -especially in our dark days- might easily degenerate into sentimental ditties, exalted but unthinking song, senseless praise of all the earth’s forms.
from Adam Zagajewski’s essay collection A Defense of Ardor.
You remember I posted two videos of Berryman reading? Well, aparently there’s more where that came from. I found more stuff online today. It’s a reading that a youtube user has put online in six parts. Below is the video to the first part, below that I added the links to the other parts. Berryman is an incredible poet, he soars, crawls, shouts, whispers, cries, beseeches, and all this with an amazing control of language and form. One of the greatest poets of the 20th century. These readings are highly enjoyable.
Mahoney, Blair (2009), Poetry Reloaded, Cambridge University Press
If you know me, you know I collect and recommend books on poetry; I keep recommending especially introductions to poetry. Good introductions are hard to come by, especially as my chosen field of specialty is often not well served by critics. And it’s worse for children. The few good introductions and guides I know are targeted at adults and mostly not fit to be used with younger kids. The only book I ever found commendable for children was Randall Jarrell’s effulgent The Bat-Poet, which remains highly recommended to all and any. There is now, however, a new book that I would add to said list.
An Australian teacher called Blair Mahoney has just published Poetry Reloaded, which is, strictly speaking, a textbook for teenage students, but it’s actually a great introduction into poetry that I recommend to anyone who might be interested in it. It’s fresh, well conceived and very well written. But, oh, you don’t have to take my word for it. If you follow this link, you’ll land at the publisher’s page that allows you to view a couple of sample pages and a plethora of other kinds of information. In a field where even decent publications are few and far between, a book like Mahoney’s is not just welcome, it’s necessary.
In this country, as in others (see Stanley Fish’s commentary), the uselessness of the Humanities is frequently claimed, an assertion that supports and provides the rationale behind cuts at universities and schools. As someone who’s currently preparing a phd on American poetry, my everyday concerns can seem downright quixotic when I look at the syllabus of our department and its academic priorities. Poetry matters! He shouts at the windmills. But appreciation of poetry doesn’t just fall into yr lap just like that, or it doesn’t usually. Reading poetry, properly appreciating it required a special kind of knowledge. To instil this knowledge, this capability of appreciating poems we often, and rightly so, turn to introductions, simple as this may sound.
For adults, who are ready to invest work on their own accord, who may see the worth of acquiring a knowledge of poetry, good introductions abound, by poets and critics both. There is mediocre poet Timothy Steele’s (for sentimental reasons, I think, Steele’s even less accomplished student Vikram Seth has been granted a place in Mahoney’s book) very good introduction, there is The Making of a Poem , Mark Strand’s and Eavan Boland’s amazing anthology, there are various books by Mary Oliver and Mary Kinzie, both highly accomplished poets in their own right. And then there are other books, collections of critical writings or interviews that can be enlightening, as well (J.D. McClatchy would be an example of such an enlightening writer).
But kids? Of all my close high school friends I was the only one who stuck with poetry and made it his life. The poetry classes at university tend to be rather empty; it gets so bad that a friend of mine suggested reading Billy Collins in school to get kids to like poetry. We need to have writers and books who both seduce children into liking poetry and challenge them at the same time. We don’t need to push the likes of Collins on kids, assuming they’re too dense to understand anything else. What we need are books like Poetry Reloaded. Blair Mahoney uses poems by the divine John Donne, he may start a chapter with a poem by Collins but proceeds, in the same chapter, to use Sandburg, Plath and Hardy. He may put in Seth’s waffle but the poem used just before is Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. If I had world enough and time, I’d go into further details, but suffice to say that Mahoney’s project is remarkable and the end result, as far as I see it, is terrific.
So, if you feel the need to turn to an introduction, if you have someone to introduce to poetry, I advise you to turn to Blair Mahoney’s fine and lively introduction, born from many years’ experience as a teacher, according to the bio on the publicity page I linked above. Poetry matters, remember. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Mahoney’s book is out this week. Don’t miss it. I’ll close with the first lines of another great text that is used in the book, Beddoes’s “Last Man”:
Sing on, sing ever, and let sobs arise
Beneath the current of your harmony,
Breaking its silvery stillness into gushes
Of stealing sadness: let tears fall upon it,
And burst with such a sound, as when a lute-string,
Torn by the passion of its melody,
Gasps its whole soul of music in one sound,
And dies beneath the waves of its own voice!
I don’t know why I point out that this thing exists, since it keeps making me look bad but since I pressured Donny, lord and master of Bookbabble, into posting them, I could at least mention them and hope it blows over. Last sunday’s episode of bookbabble has finally been posted, in two parts. Go here for part one and then go here for part two. Ignore the idiot with the funny German accent. Concentrate on Lord Donny, Sparkly Irene, Brilliant Bjorn, Luscious Lorne and the grand and wonderful new babbler, Splendiferous Liam. This is not just fun to listen to, Donny has also assembled a fuckload of links to all sort of poets and poems. It’s worth it.
Roethke, Theodore (2006), Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, Copper Canyon Press
Edited by David Wagoner
Before I started to write this down, I spent quite a while thinking about how to describe this book. What is it? On the surface of it, a few things are clear. The edition I own and review here is the 2006 reprint of a book that has actually been published first in 1972. The reprint has been published in the commendable “Lannan Literary Selection”, to which I also owe my copy of Rexroth’s stunning Complete Poems and Geoffrey Brock’s rendition of Pavese’s poetry (Disaffections). Apparently, Straw for the Fire is a selection “From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke”. Roethke is one of the best American postwar poets; the editor of the volume, David Wagoner is a good poet in his own right, all in all, this sounds interesting. Leafing through it, the book appears to contain a few poems and selections of prose, as well as a handful of facsimile reproductions of pages from those notebooks. This is the premise that made me buy the book. I have long adored Roethke’s poetry, poems like “The Waking” and “In a Dark Time” have constantly haunted my life as a writer and reader of poetry, however much other writers dropped in and out of favor. Here’s the second stanza of “In a Dark Time”:
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
So. I was overwhelmed to discover that there was more work of Roethke’s around. But, though the book is indeed „from the Notebooks“ of Roethke, to a large extent, it’s also from the brain of David Wagoner. According to Wagoner’s introduction, what happened was the following: as a former student and friend of the poet, he knew about the wealth of material buried in these notebooks. So he chose almost at random 12 out of the 277 notebooks saved by Roethke’s widow. After that, he chose passages that he considered publishable. Then he did what irritates me most of all. He sorted the pieces he extracted from the notebooks into ‘poetry’, by looking for coherence and arranged them in accordance with the ‘typical’ structure of Roethke’s poems. In the introduction Wagoner spends considerable time explaining to his audience what that structure looks like. I admit that this is frequently insightful but that does not vindicate his project. Indeed, there is so much wrong with the assumptions behind Wagoner’s project that I don’t even know where to begin. What struck me most, however, was the disrespect towards Roethke the poet that this method shows, since it suggests that Roethke, as a poet, is little more than an algorithm of sorts: string together a few ideas, slap on a title and presto! a poem! I can’t begin to tell you as how strange an enterprise this strikes me.
As a poet, Roethke has developed a very distinct style, sounding the drums of tradition yet couching all of this in a language that seems hewed from a very strange and unique tree. In the slim but really indispensable book that is his Collected Poems, not everything is a success, not everything works as well as it should, Roethke never makes it look easy. Roethke is almost always dry, a very earnest poet, who can be witty, but it’s a scholarly wittiness, a learned, dour, bookish wittiness. His writing explores a limited range of themes, but within that range, he has written some of the best poems to deal with those themes. Madness, sadness and spirituality, one could describe them; he’s one of the better modern writers to put religious experience, doubt and ecstasy into poetry. For my money, he’s also one of the best postwar poets to write about love and desire. And, in his masterpiece, the amazing “North American Sequence”, he has proven himself to be one of the best landscape poets of his generation. That sequence of poems, which everyone interested in modern poetry is herewith encouraged, no, urged to read, charts a spiritual journey, but at the same time also an actual journey through the US, through different landscapes and weather conditions, all of them committed to paper by a writer with an eye for the strange and miraculous in nature.
In his best poems he is heads and shoulders above writers like Ammons when they work on similar themes. One major difference to a writer like Ammons is economy. All of Roethke’s poems are studiously worked into shape; although he is a moving, beautiful writer, he is never sentimental in a way that is not contained by artifice and learning. Roethke is careful, he prunes his poetical language with great circumspection. I have always been drawn to him because he suffered from depression and in his poetry I recognized the temptation to look for easy shortcuts, cheap connections that can present a quick, effective rendering of the blackness that can choke one’s soul. And Roethke, in contrast to many other writers, managed to get this under control and make it work for him. And he never, as I said, makes it look easy. Exactly how difficult this was is showcased by Straw for the Fire, which contains little that Roethke would consider publishable, I’d wager; most of it has rolled straight off his tongue onto the page. To publish it the way Wagoner did I find unbelievable. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box, this book nowhere near meets the poet’s own standards. The probability is high that both would be deeply uncomfortable, dismissive, even, with the results. Neither editor (in Bishop’s case, that’s Alice Quinn) does right by the poet whose material they use. That does not, however, mean the book is not readable. In fact, I recommend it.
Why do we read and write poetry? In Straw for the Fire we are witness to someone’s exhibition of the sheer joy in writing, putting words together to make sense of things. Wagoner’s selection, reprehensible though I think it, does have its advantages at times, especially in that it helps us see how Roethke ruminated, obsessed even, about certain subjects, it helps us see how certain phrases and ideas bounced back and forth in his mind; some of them turned up later in published poems, some didn’t, but, overall, the relationship with the published poems is rather subdued. Wagoner refrains from offering us multiple drafts of finished poems (assuming such were to be found in the mysterious notebooks), the texts in this book are exclusively short ideas, frequently just one or two lines of verse or prose (and it’s an indicator of Roethke’s abilities to shape the rhythm of a line that this division is both possible and plausible), so any repetition is more an iteration of a certain idea than a revision of something already written. There are personal and spiritual elements battling in these fragments. Fear on the one side and certaintly, hope on the other. I said that the book demonstrates the joy in writing. But that’s misleading, in a way. It rather shows us the necessity of writing.
One passage proclaims that, “[b]y singing we defend ourselves from what we are.” Poetry as a defense mechanism from our darker selves, from our bad instincts, our depressions. In one of his most memorable poems, “Dolphin”, The Bostonian Robert Lowell called his poetry “an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting“. The slippery nature of what Roethke wants to contain isn’t lost on him either, so he makes numerous attempts, hence the motivation, the necessity. Many writers have talked of this, of the urge to write, the need to put pen to paper, to give vent to a voice or a song that blooms within yourself. In Straw for the Fire you have Roethke’s urges, his poetical needs preserved. The things, tiny ideas and phrases that you jot down to get something off your chest, to preserve a fragment of song before it flutters away, pin down a thought, fix an image. Looking at the facsimiles, I wish someone would publish them as they are, jumbled together, unsorted, full of a strange energy. There are thing written down and left like that, and then there are passages that were worked on, with crossed out words and boxed-in sentences, which is very fascinating to see, but all that is lost in the final book. Yes this is something to lament, but on the other hand the fact remains that what we have in Straw for the Fire is still moving, beautiful, inspiring. It’s less like a collection of poetry and more like a journal but that’s not too shabby now is it.
In “The Longing”, the second poem of the “North American Sequence”, Roethke wrote: “Out of these nothings / – All beginnings come.” The texts in Straw for the Fire are the beginnings, the wellsprings of Roethke’s wonderful poet’s mind. They are warm, tender objects, fragments, “flowering out of the dark”, to borrow a phrase from the last poem in the sequence. This book is as much Wagoner’s as its Roethke’s, but it’s Wagoner’s part that drags the book down and Roethke’s part of the book that makes it worth reading. So, while the whole enterprise is shadowy at best, we would not have been able to read these fragments at all if not for Wagoner’s meddling. Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. And in this case the good is really good.
by Christoph Meckel
Da ich mich in den Nächten verlor,
Samt meinem kalten Tod, meiner unsteten Spur,
Meutert mein riesiger Schatten, er kann mich nicht finden,
Raunt mein lautloser Schatten, er möchte mich küssen,
Murmelt mein schwarzer Schatten, er möchte mich verdunkeln,
Ich soll zu ihm unter die Tarnkappe kommen.
Doch geborgen unter dem Schirm verfinsterter Monde
Geh ich auf Abenteuer und habe viel zu tun,
Ich muß mit meinem Namen leben lernen
Und mit meinem Alter hausieren gehn,
Ich muß für mein leeres Zimmer Blumen stehlen,
Denn mein Schutzengel kommt zu mir zum Abendessen.
It is late at night, cold and damp
The air is filled with tobacco smoke.
My brain is worried and tired.
I pick up the encyclopedia,
The volume GIC to HAR,
It seems I have read everything in it,
So many other nights like this.
I sit staring empty-headed at the article Grosbeak,
Listening to the long rattle and pound
Of freight cars and switch engines in the distance.
Suddenly I remember
Coming home from swimming
In Ten Mile Creek,
Over the long moraine in the early summer evening,
My hair wet, smelling of waterweeds and mud.
I remember a sycamore in front of a ruined farmhouse,
And instantly and clearly the revelation
Of a song of incredible purity and joy,
My first rose-breasted grosbeak,
Facing the low sun, his body
Suffused with light.
I was motionless and cold in the hot evening
Until he flew away, and I went on knowing
In my twelfth year one of the great things
Of my life had happened.
Thirty factories empty their refuse in the creek.
On the parched lawns are starlings, alien and aggressive.
And I am on the other side of the continent
Ten years in an unfriendly city.
The skin on the back of your hand
slowly loses its elasticity;
That shouldn’t be a consideration
In our not searching for mysteries;
And here is a link to his best work so far.
Ted Berrigan: Words for Love
Winter crisp and the brittleness of snow
as like make me tired as not. I go my
myriad ways blundering, bombastic, dragged
by a self that can never be still, pushed
by my surging blood, my reasoning mind.
I am in love with poetry. Every way I turn
this, my weakness, smites me. A glass
of chocolate milk, head of lettuce, dark-
ness of clouds at one o’clock obsess me.
I weep for all of these or laugh.
By day I sleep, an obscurantist, lost
in dreams of lists, compiled by my self
for reassurance. Jackson Pollock René
Rilke Benedict Arnold I watch
my psyche, smile, dream wet dreams, and sigh.
At night, awake, high on poems, or pills
or simple awe that loveliness exists, my lists
flow differently. Of words bright red
and black, and blue. Bosky. Oubliette. Dis-
severed. And O, alas
Time disturbs me. Always minute detail
fills me up. It is 12:10 in New York. In Houston
it is 2 pm. It is time to steal books. It’s
time to go mad. It is the day of the apocalpyse
the year of parrot fever! What am I saying?
Only this. My poems do contain
wilde beestes. I write for my Lady
of the Lake. My god is immense, and lonely
but uncowed. I trust my sanity, and I am proud. If
I sometimes grow weary, and seem still, nevertheless
my heart still loves, will break.
This is a brief reading of one of the most famous poems of post-WWII American poetry. I have not read or used any secondary literature, so probably most of these points have been made ad nauseam already, so feel free to skip this skimpy post. I wrote it to make up my mind about this poem, so instead of preparing notes, I wrote this bit here. I’m a wee bit drunk so, y’know, blame it on the Vodka. Also, let me say that you can find the poem here and to really give it its due you might look at a famous essay of Ammons’ called “A Poem is a walk” and at Emerson’s even more famous essay “Nature” (even if you skip this post and can’t stand Ammons, you still need to read Emerson’s essay, btw.!).
The two word line “continuous overcast” ends what after finishing the poem is clearly an introductory section. It starts with action. The speaker walks “over the dunes” and returns along the shore. In this small section the poem introduces its main themes. The shore as the place where land and sea meet fits in with the two stanzas with descriptions of the weather. It’s “muggy sunny”, i.e. humid, oppressive. The word “sunny” in descriptions of weather tends to have positive connotations. The modifier “muggy” reverses the usually positive image. There is a steady inland wind which is apparently creating the humid weather, interrupted by “crisp” “breakthroughs of sun”, which cannot relieve the atmosphere. The last line/stanza of this section consists of only two words, “continuous overcast”, practically creating a hanging cloud all on their own.
This is a good place to point out some issues about Ammons’ use of lines. His lines do not fit a metrical scheme, although they do ‘break into song’ at times, such as in “along the inlet shore”, but often breaking patterns in the middle of a line. The lines are indented in a way that conforms with content. The line mentioning breakthroughs is indented as are the two lines wherein the poet recounts rounding the headland. The two lines thus form a headland of their own within the text of the poem. This is a basic property of his style in the poem: he creates small units of order. It seems “free verse” but every line break, every indented line, it all seems purposeful. There is no scheme that covers the whole poem but this is the point, isn’t it? “small clumps” of poetical order.
The first section is an exposition, preparing the ground for the next section that follows, which basically contains the argument that the poem is trying to make. That section, too, is preparatory, although in a different manner: The poem started with the speaker recounting his actions, segued over into a description of the weather and is now returning to the speaker, as he describes the effect the walk had on him. It liberated him, it released him from what, in short, could be called ‘reason’. It is reason that categorizes things, that, in a sense, creates forms by making patterns visible in what could be seen as unordered chaos. The word “perpendiculars” is curiously upbeat. It breaks up what could be read as a somber argument. The alliterative “blocks, boxes, binds” especially create a strong audible stream. The “perpendiculars”, on the level of sounds, already form “eddies” of sorts. On the other hand, the very fact that it breaks up the flow of enumerative phrases makes it very fitting, since thought, i.e. reason is contrasted with sight, which is characterized by “flowing bends and blends”. Interestingly the two contrasting elements are not a perfect fit. “hues”, “shadings” explicitly refer to color, whereas only in hindsight the boxes, for instance, can be said to imply color.
This is the poet’s first clear statement of the dichotomy he is about to expand on. Although, in the context of this poem, “dichotomy” may not be the best word, it is suitable at this point, since we as readers are furnished with a dichotomy here. The second stanza starts differently. The line “I allow myself eddies of meaning” is ambiguous. It may mean “to let do or happen; permit” or . The poem doesn’t resolve this. Instead it enters into a communication with the reader, fitting, since the poem is rather didactic. The address to the reader is, in tone, reminiscent of Whitman, the speaker is opening up an internal landscape to his reader. Not internal as in within the speaker, but within the poetry. The directness of the communication is further underscored by the fact that the word used is “sayings” not “writings” or anything like it. He likens his writing to nature, by saying that in his writing there is not just ye olde perpendicular reason, there are also “eddies of meaning”, places where his writing is like nature. This lets us reconsider the word “sight”. Apparently he was not talking about the faculty at all. It was not about seeing, it was about things that can be seen, i.e. external things.
The fact that the self is disembodied is remarkable and points to a certain ease with human society. The speaker is not situated, he has leisure enough to perambulate along the beach but this is no indication of status. It’s safe to assume the speaker’s a ‘he’, by the way, since he appears to be norm personified, at least as far as his involvement/ties to the biopolitics of the society he belongs to are concerned. As an aside: small wonder Ammons is a favorite poet of Harold Bloom’s if the taste on display in “Genius” is anything to go by.
There is a limit to the similarities with Whitman. Although Whitman boasted he could “contain multitudes”, the speaker in Ammons’ poem claims nothing of the sort. Instead he proclaims that, while being similar to nature in parts, he is unable to understand the “Overall”. Here’s one of many instances that Ammons uses repetition to make a point. The contrast between “overall wanderings” and “Overall”, the capital ‘O’ indicating transcendence, is enough, actually, to make his point. Instead of making a point he is, so to say, pointing things out. Sometimes it’s to create an effect as his indenting of lines does, as in his repeated use of “reeds” which point out to the reader what a sensation –sight!- it may be walking through a swamp where mainly reeds, “not reeds alone but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all / predominantly reeds” grow. Another point where he uses repetition is the repeated use of “flight”, which is once used in the sense of describing the harmless act of travel through air, and later points out that flight can also refer to the act of fleeing from something or someone. In this case the first “flight”, on reread, becomes ambiguous, although the reader had no reason to assume other meaning apart from the obvious before. A last, very similar instance are the swallows which recur in “swallowed”. Both this example and the last stress the closeness of peaceful and violent acts in nature.
The basic argument of the poem is quite easily summed up. Ammons doesn’t just do it once, he repeats and repeats and repeats his point until it starts to feel like watching someone flog a dead horse. There is a surprising twist at the end but until then it’s the same over and over again. Why don’t I just quote one of the many mentions: “in nature there are few sharp lines”. The third section of the poem deals with this property of nature and the speaker’s acceptance of this. He is “willing to go along”. Nature as it presents itself also seems to prove its point. The gull, a symbol for freedom and autonomy, the waving in and out of the waterline, “manifold events of sand / chang[ing] the dune’s shape” and a flock of birds.
O but I promised a twist. It’s violence. As in many other poems celebrating the steady unsteady property of nature, the order of natural things, this poem, too comes to terms with the violence inherent in acts of nature. Gulls killing crabs, swallows fleeing winter, minnows with full bellies. Orders are without, such as the “order held / in constant change” of the swallows. Orders, however, are also within, such as the “orders swallowed, / broken down, transferred through membranes / to strengthen larger orders”. The twist turns out not to be a twist so much as another instance of the same phenomenon.
The poem, finally, ends with a return to the speaker. He iterates the limits of his capabilities, and closes with a statement of intent: he will try to contain as much in his poetry (“fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder” is clearly poetological) as possible, feeling freed by the knowledge that ultimately, Order, with a capital ‘O’, eludes him, that “tomorrow a new walk is a new walk”. The poem is rich with allusions to philosophy and literature, but they are mostly very similar, in a way. Expected. Whitman? Check. Emerson? Check. Heraclitus? Check. Ammons’ poetry is about reading a poet who controls language fully knowing that his control is, by its very nature, limited. Language will find a way out, as nature does. Ammons is, in poems such as this one, an affirmative poet, affirming life, the course of nature and, it bears repeating, the biopolitical frame he is working in. He is constantly, blandly, affirming the norm, which makes reading him for a sustained period of time boring and thus difficult yet he is worth your while since his limitations and gifts have led to one of the most idiosyncratic bodies of poetry of our time.
What follows are short remarks on a poem by the wonderful James Wright. I’ll link the poem, not quote it.
I’ll post readings of three different poems during the coming weeks. The first of these poems is “Autumn begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”. As with many of Wright’s poems of that period, it starts from a single image, here it is the “Shreve High football stadium”, and spins other images from it. Read superficially, one could think that all it contains are a few observations, slightly enhanced poetically. This is not the case. The second line already is startling: in that stadium he thinks of “Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville”, completely dashing the reader’s expectations. What is happening in that stadium? We are not allowed a peek, not a single observation. Instead, the poet turns inside. What is happening in the stadium? Thinking. The stadium is but a backdrop to the poet’s thinking, and the reader has been tricked to read it as observation, both by the title and the first line.
Now, the thinking process of the poet, in turn, does not contain abstract thoughts or concepts either, as we would think, but, in turn, images. The whole poem is like a Matryoshka doll, shuffling images into other images, leaving the reader to hunt down what they contain. So, in rapid succession, we get aforementioned Polacks, then “gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood” and then the “night watchman of Wheeling Steel”. These three places (Wheeling Steel, today “Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel) are neigbors along the Ohio river, even though Benwood and Wheeling are both in West Virginia whereas Tiltonsville’s in Ohio. These three locations, together, form a community, of sorts, and thus, in a way, we have caught up with the football stadium and the implied community in that image. The poem does not, however, let us off so easily; from these images it spins an idea, not just of community but of the other need behind public consumption of sports: the three individuals (which are so much more than simple individuals) are, the poet maintains, “[d]reaming of heroes”.
This first stanza, which has apparently moved away from the stadium has, on the contrary, spend this time away, to concentrate upon the depth of the image it introduced in the first line. The second stanza is like an afterthought, shorter in length and considerably less focused, formally, although it partly mirrors the first stanza. It shows what depth the image of the first stanza actually had, demonstrating that we were served a complete cultural context, and it reinforces some central issues, fear, shame and power. The oxymoronically Freudian last line of the stanza, “Dying for love” forms an eerie unity with the last line of the preceding stanza, “Dreaming of heroes”.
It is the third stanza which really packs a punch. Again, we are informed that we have been offered an abbreviated analysis through these pictures by the word “therefore”, which implies that we are present in an ongoing argument. As the poem, matryoshka doll by doll slipped from the grander social context to the family as the smallest social unit of despair, it is fitting that the poet is now focusing upon “[t]heir sons”, who “grow suicidally beautiful”. I must honestly admit that this image troubles me and I am reduced to guessing. It appears to me to invoke a doomed bloom, the suicidal aspect mostly due to the fact that the investment into becoming an accomplished, muscular football player, i.e. beautiful, comes with a detriment to the other faculties, it means being not cautious, giving your all at the start of the season, so the sons will not follow in the footsteps of their shamefaced fathers who live a life of drudgery in the industrial area of Martins Ferry, Tiltonsville, Benwood and Wheeling. The sons make a full-throated pitch for success, which is suicidal because of the energies it depletes. They “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies”, the poet tells us in the last line, invoking another kind of place, a different stadium, and keeping both the homoeroticism of this stanza as well as the desperation.
The image also continues a strain of animal imagery in Wright’s poems, which, in “Autumn begins at Martins Ferry, Ohio” already produced the phrase “Their women cluck like starved pullets / Dying for love”. As with James Dickey’s famous disturbing poem about folksy sodomy, this poem, too, mischievously, suggests a reason for the lack of matrimonial warmth. What we are also left with is an image of someone who is not running of his or her own accord, the sons are driven not by personal ambition but by desperation, which sits on their necks like an imp and whips them forward. It is not personal choice, it is the need born out of circumstances that the families may find hard to bear. This power and urgency are what we leave the poem with.
The second poem is, incidentally, the very next poem in the same collection. It’s called “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”. More next week.
John Ashbery, together with Paul Muldoon and Geoffrey Hill, is quite possibly my favorite living poet. Here he is, reading his poem “Interesting People of Newfoundland”. My professor used to say that seeing Ashbery read or speak made one want to protect the fragile man from harm, although he does not look fragile.
“Did you make that song up?”
“Well I sort of made it up,” said Pooh. “It isn’t brain,” he went on humbly, “[...] but it comes to me sometimes.”
My favorite quote on how (my) writing works from one of my favorite books of all time, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh
“Did you make that song up?”
“Well I sort of made it up,” said Pooh. “It isn’t brain,” he went on humbly, “[...] but it comes to me sometimes.”
My favorite quote on how (my) writing works from one of my favorite books of all time, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh
Like a fiend in a cloud,
With howling woe,
After night I do crowd,
And with night will go;
I turn my back to the east,
From whence comforts have increas’d;
For light doth seize my brain
With frantic pain.
A progression of commentators on both Metafilter and Dan Savage’s blog mention the discovery of a reference to a Mark Doty poem in the most unlikely of places—a letter sent to eleven bars with a predominantly gay clientele in the Seattle area, threatening to poison “at least five” patrons with Ricin. The anonymous writer states, “All I can say is the targets won’t care much that they’ll be dead and nearly frozen, just as, presumably, they didn’t care that they were living,” repeating nearly verbatim lines from Doty’s poem “A Display of Mackerel”:
They don’t care they’re dead
and nearly frozen,
just as, presumably,
they didn’t care that they were living
Adding to the horrific resonance of the letter is the circumstance in which Doty wrote the poem—six months after the death of his partner, from AIDS. Doty later wrote, “Epidemic was the central fact of the community in which I lived.” (The letter’s implied parallel between a poison which has no antidote and AIDS makes the threat particularly sinister.)
Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine, -
Will write my story for my better self,
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.
The first lines of Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s stunning epic poem “Aurora Leigh”
Metrical poetry is about: breath. Breath as an intake and a flow. Breath as a pattern. Breath as an indicator, perhaps the most vital one, of mood. Breath as our own personal tie with all the rhythms of the natural world, of which we are a part, from which we can never break apart while we live. Breath as our first language.
First paragraph of Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
- Emily Dickinson
I love poetry. I have always read books yet come late-ish to poetry. I must have been 15 when I really dug poetry, having read batches of classics and contemporary novels, from all sorts of cultures, yet mostly in German with the few exceptions of the books I started to read in English at roughly the same time. My discovery of poetry happened when my self awareness really took off, when I was first really manhandled by depressions and desperate. I had, by that time, written hundreds of pages of prose, stories, mostly, parts of projected novels, this sort of stuff, (I burned all of this when I moved to East Germany at 22, because I didn’t want anyone else to read it and wasn’t able to lug the thick stacks of hard cover notebooks to east Germany. No place etc.), so I was familiar with expressing myself through artificially arranged words (yes, that phrase is questionable and imprecise at best, but that all you get for now), but at 15 or 16 I tried more compressed forms. At that time I started to act in our high school theatre, and the theatricality of a few well-placed words intrigued me, hence my early interest in writers like Reiner Kunze, Erich Fried and Said, anyone who knows them in German will probably know what I mean. I can’t stand them now, mostly, and I am embarrassed, even, having liked them so much at the time. The major shift, however, was my discovery (via this story) of Kafka, first (if any prose writer is close to being a poet as far as density and precision is concerned, it is surely ol’ Franz), then Hilde Domin/Rose Ausländer and then Ingeborg Bachmann. Bachmann was the writer who truly pushed me into writing and into poetry. Formal, passionate, humorous, enigmatic and clear at the same time, tender, wondrous and yet harsh and cold, within the same collection of poems, light and yet always at the edge of a strange darkness, if not subsumed by that darkness. Lowry’s explorer from Hell, that was Bachmann, for me. After her, Celan, and then English poets, such as Plath, Hughes and Berryman. These days, although, quantitatively, I read far more prose, fiction and ‘non-fiction’, than poetry, my poetry shelf boards are the core of my personal ‘library’. When I moved to Bonn, with only two bags, a friend’s address and the decision to study literature there instead of economics in Chemnitz, the only books I took in my bag were volumes of poetry. Music and poetry, to sustain myself. The importance of poetry to me cannot be overestimated, although, more and more, my own production of poetry has become at least as integral a part as my consumption of it. Writing poetry can sustain me as well as reading poetry, sometimes. I only notice that now I write it but it’s perfectly true. Strange, isn’t it? I provide my own sustenance. Is that like drinking yr own urine? Does that mean I have developed too enormous an ego?
Poet and American poet laureate Robert Pinsky remembers his friend, the amazing poet Czeslaw Milosz
Years later, after we both had left Berkeley, I saw Czeslaw during his final illness, in a Krakow hospital, a week or so before he died. He was nearly ninety-three.
He greeted me with a familiar mixture of courtliness and attentive self-examination: “I am very moved you have come to visit me. Fortunately, I am conscious.”
A little embarrassed, searching for something to say, I asked, “Czeslaw, have you been composing sentences in your head? Are you writing in your mind?”
He responded, “Nooo,” the one syllable prolonged into two or three, in a crooning, Slavic way. “Only absurd bric-a-brac.”
Then he chose to give an example of the bric-a-brac, a dream he had that day, in his hospital bed: “I dreamed I was in eighteenth-century Boston,” he said. “Arguing with Puritans.” Then, “Everybody was in uniform!” the old basso laughter kabooming, with its sense of absurdity and purpose, conviction and skepticism, grief and renewal: an essential sound not just of the twentieth century, but of art itself.
Oh, well done, folks, well done. The James Merrill Writer-in-Residence Program apparently offered the job to a Mr. Pjotr Gwiazda, whose book I called “exasperatingly bad” (we will not even mention his poetry). Good thing then, that the man who, according to McClatchy, insisted on his biography being written not by a homosexual, is now commemorated by a fool who wrote a whole damn book about Merrill’s homosexuality, basing his whole flimsy argument on that fact, practically wiping his arse with the man’s poems in the process. Whatever he’s going to do in that quaint house, he’s not going to “complete a project of literary or academic merit”, going by his past ‘accomplishments’. Oh, James.
Frieda Hughes (yes, the Frieda Hughes) on poetry
We must always remember that the reader can’t see what was in our mind unless we give them something to go on. A good poem uses the best words for the job. But we shouldn’t just throw them in the air and hope that they will fall in a cohesive heap; they require structure and a sense of responsibility. And we should always be looking for new ways to describe something.
“He was in his own way a hero of his culture, a genuine representative of both its more enlightened impulses and its self-destructive contradictions,” Moody says about Pound. This seems fair. Pound was, in the end, a poet’s poet—he looked like a poet—and, despite the shambles of his political beliefs and the limitations of his poetics, he does stand for something. His claims for literature were free of supernatural mystification, and he believed that the proper organization of language was supremely important. If you are a poet, or any serious kind of writer, you have to believe that, whether you think Pound’s formula is workable or not. Getting the words right is, at a minimum, part of the therapy.
Welsh independent Parthian Books (via the Bookseller) is publishing “an anthology of poems chosen by international political figures [...]“. I thought it would be fun to take a look at what poems our “leaders” like to read, or say they do!
* Gerry Adams: W.B. Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree
* Gordon Brown: James Stockinger’s The Hands of Others
* Ariel Sharon: Naomi Shemer’s We are Both from the Same Village
* Dr Ian Paisley: Pastor James Kyle Paisley’s I Must Go On
* Gerhard Schroeder: Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Panther
* Tony Blair: Rubert Brooke’s The Soldier
* Anders Fogh Rasumussen: Piet Hein’s Living in the Moment
* Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga: Kahlil Gibran’s Pity the Nation
* Hans Goran Persson: Par Lagerkvist’s The Path on Which You are Walking
* Carlos Diego Mesa Gisbert: Jorge Luis Borges’ The Game of Chess
* Jose Maria Aznar Lopez: Rudyard Kipling’s If
Ted Burke looks at a particularly contrived poem and concludes with this wonderful paragraph
The issue, I think, is that O’Hara and Creeley understood the situations when what the poet thinks of what’s happening inside his poem isn’t important and is, in fact, the least interesting aspect to consider; what’s missed in “Just a Tranquil Darker” is that lack of humility that prevents a writer from forgetting that they are a poet and so be able to get at something out of his control, a phenomenon that just wandered into his perceptual field by the odd chance. There are those things which occur that stop time the slightest bit, amaze and confuse our codes, and then are gone, sketchy and yet vivid, a perception that remains in memory and which changes us a bit each day, each year that follows. Getting these incidences right in poetry –right in feel, tone, texture, pitch—and Hodgen hasn’t done it here. But he did remember that he was a poet, and that is exactly how he chose to behave here, and that’s a shame.
Lyrik ist wie ein großes Glockenläuten: damit alle aufhorchen. Damit in einem jeden das aufhorcht, das nicht einem Zweck dient, das nicht verfälscht ist durch die Kompromisse. Und das gilt für das verzweifelte Gedicht und auch für das negative und das ‘ärgerliche’ Gedicht: Es ist ein Glockenläuten. In Wahrheit gibt es kein Gedicht ‘gegen’, das nicht zugleich und weit mehr auch ein Gedicht ‘für’ wäre [...].
Und darin besteht auch die Katharsis: in einem letzten Glauben an den Mensch, ohne den Lyrik nicht ist.
Hilde Domin im “Offenen Brief an Nelly Sachs”
As an old Plath fanboy I found this post on bookslut wonderfully correct and beautiful.
There were two kinds of ancient Celtic poets: bards, who learned songs and stories and recited them, minstrel-style, and filid. The fili were visionary poet-magicians. Like bards, they memorized ancient stories and lore, and wrote eulogies and satires. A bard’s satire was just a poem, but a fili’s satire was both poetry and magic. It was a curse, and if a poet sang a satire about you, it would hurt you or sicken you. It was no small thing to anger, betray or disrespect a poet.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was the premier satirist of postwar American girlhood, but that isn’t the only reason her work is so great. She was a lyric poet, unafraid of verse and the beauty, power and menace it can convey. We’re unlucky enough to live in an era when “no rhyming poetry” is a submission guideline for any number of bloodless literary journals, as if Plath and Eliot and Brodsky never existed. There’s a link between rhythm and power in poetry, and Sylvia Plath’s creepy nursery rhyme rhythms and refrains stay with you, viscerally, emotionally, like a comfortless lullaby in a frightening childhood.
[This is a summary of my M.A. Thesis which is not finished, but I had to hand in a summary, so I wrote this. If anyone has any ideas or criticism or wants to point me in a direction he or she might think I didn't think about, he or she is more than welcome. I have forgotten to include Jaynes in the voices part at the end and chronotope in the middle somewhere but that's not important]
James Merrill’s is, quite explicitly, a poetry concerned with places. An early volume is called The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, which refers to Switzerland, and his last volumes include as transparently named poems as “Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia” and “Walks in Rome”. The speaker(s) of Merrill’s poetry travel(s) to Greece, Italy, Turkey and other countries, coming from the United States. Additionally, he meets fellow travelers. Hans Lodeizen, the Netherlands poet, “The Summer People” and, finally, souls of the dead who travel from the afterworld to spend leisurely nights at the Ouija board with JM and his partner DJ.
At first we will be looking at actual travel and its reflection in the poetry, starting off with a look at the different places the speaker(s) in Merrill’s poetry end up in. The first of these places and arguably one of the most important, is Greece, where hellenism’s historic sites provide a colorful background to tales of loss (Tony: Ending the Life) and love (Days of 1964). Greece is mostly a place to visit: the speaker and his friends are guests, and are never shown to be anything other than that, which makes for a curious inbetween state in poems that seem to be about fixed places and which even develop their own sort of family imagery. Not so with the second group, which is New England, especially Boston and Stonington, Connecticut. Merrill’s childhood poems (The Broken Home) are for the most part set against a refined Bostonian backdrop and it’s chiefly in Stonington where he will receive the visiting souls in his Ouija board sessions. New England is both: a place where others visit Merrill and his friends and the place where Merrill’s at home, born and raised.
Both Greece and New England are such an essential part of his poetry that they are rarely introduced. Names and references are enough to put the reader on the right track. Other places such as Rome and Istanbul/Byzantium have to be introduced by name: “Istanbul. 21 march. I woke today / With an absurd complaint.” (The Thousand and Second Night). However, poems such as “Days of 1964″ also contain a considerable amount of description that might well enable a local to situate the poem into a specific time and place. Places have left their traces all over James Merrill’s poetry. That said, it should be added that descriptions and explicit reference is not the only or even the most important way in which these places have left their traces. The most important -and most relevant for the purpose of this paper- way is via their cultural context.
Places such as Athens or Boston imply clear-cut cultural contexts. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Merrill’s poetry is filled with references to specific cultural contexts. However, they are almost always blended with other contexts, other travels past and present which have left their mark on his poetry. Greece especially is a treasure trove, informing both Merrill’s ecphrastic poems like “Bronze” and leaving traces of philosophy (“We love the good, said Plato? He was wrong. / We love as well the wicked and the weak.” (Matinées)), myth (“I call up / Graces, Furies, Fates,” (An Urban Convalescence)) and language (“Goods, bads, kaló-kakó, cockatoo-raucous” (To my Greek)) everywhere. Greek cultural references are special in that they mostly appear in poems which are set in places outside of Greece. In this, naturally, Merrill reflects the enormous influence Hellenism has had on western culture and literature. Interestingly, Greece as a culture reverses the guest/visitor relation that we saw when looking at (fixed) places. One could see Hellenism as a visitor, appearing in all kinds of settings, in different guises, clad in Rilke, for example.
The opposite, of course, is true for the New England context, which is evoked almost only in the New England poems. These poems refer to a well documented cultural context which has probably found its best decription in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, depicting New England as a place of meetings, where ships and trade arrive and leave, where a certain jet set levity cannot hide a darker, menacing undercurrent (especially in “Skunk Hour”). A consideration of the New England context is helpful in figuring out deceptively simple poems like the sonnet sequence “A Broken Home” and goes a long way towards explaining the dark note in poems such as “18 West 11th Street”, where genealogy is decribed as ‘hatching’ “another generation / Of strong-jawed, light-besotted saboteurs”. Echoes of the skunk mother who “will not scare” reverberate in poems such as “18 West 11th Street”, promting the speaker, for example, to remark upon “The girl’s / Appearance now among us [...] / Naked, frail but fox-eyed.” The religiousness of New England culture has also left its traces in Merrill’s poetry, especially in The Changing Light at Sandover, where he evinces a strong spirituality, if in a mocking spirit and definitely not in a Christian vein.
The third group of places, with cities as Istanbul (The Thousand and Second Night), Rome (Walks in Rome), Venice (Investiture at Cecconi’s) or Alexandria (Tony: Ending the Life), is, interestingly, often portrayed in the past and the present within the same poem. It is obvious that these places are as important for their cultural context, which is inscribed into their very names, as for their reality in a narrative that may take place in modern times. The way that, for instance, Istanbul is sometimes referred to as Istanbul and sometimes as Byzantium, is a giveaway. These places, similar to the New England poems, contain ample reference to Hellenism, for instance, but keep their own cultural contexts to themselves. An exception of sorts is Italy. Neither Rome nor Venice, taken by themselves, do that, but Italy as a whole does provide an important cultural context that the travelling speaker carries with him back to the United States or to Greece. To be more precise, when I write ‘Italy’ I should probably write ‘Tuscany’ because between Dante and Macciavelli and others, these references do not stray outside of that enchanting swathe of Italy. However, as Tuscany is not named, to my knowledge, I have to assume that it is not a category of the poem and the italian refernces refer to the cultural context of ‘Italy’ as a whole.
Now that we have examined places and the other aspect of places, that is to say, cultural contexts, or, as we will refer to them from now on: cultures, we can turn to the, by now, famous theory of “Traveling Cultures” of the eminent anthropologist James Clifford. He claims that for the anthropologist of recent decades, a different sort of travel has arisen as an issue to be dealt with: cultural travel. There are two kinds of cultural travel to be considered. The first one is actual, bodily travel, in the common sense of the word. In this way Merrill’s speaker(s) travel to Rome, Greece, Boston etc. This received idea of travel has informed the commonly used concept of culture quite a lot, the idea being that cultures can be relatively stable concepts, even if they are no longer anchored to a well-defined place or to the local as the person who lives there. Exceeding the scope of a phenomenon such as Hellenism, in the modern age travel has been radically facilitated, so that adherents of a certain culture can travel the world, without, ultimately, being connected by ethnicity nor by nationality to the traditional place associated with that culture. Diaspora and connected concepts are important here. The cultures travel piggyback on a traveler’s figurative shoulders, he or she brings his own cultural contexts. In the case of Merrill it will be a point of interest whether claims made in previous sections (New England culture only in New England poems) can be upheld: doesn’t he carry his contexts with him as well?
The second sort of cultural travel could be called figurative travel. Cultures can travel without the members of the culture moving corporally, for instance through receiving visitors or through being subjected to medial influences, such as television or literature. This time there is a double travelling. Culture travels to the readers/watchers and those on the receiving end are travelling in a sense, too. Reading a book about Greece and visiting Greece might have roughly the same impact in ternms of cultural influence. This is especially relevant for James Merrill’s poetry, as it is swamped in book lore: Byzantium, Dante’s Tuscany, these have, of course, never been visited by Merrill in a literal sense. Yet, as we will see, the impact on his poetry is similar to the impact left by his ‘real’ travels. To not regard these two as two specifictations of the same basic phenomenon is to not understand the importance of travel in the broader sense, as Clifford uses it, to Merrill’s poetry.
These two kinds of cultural influence, which can be viewed as a complex system of visiting and hosting cultures, especially in a writer who travels as extensively and often as Merrill did. The first group of exchanges are the most obvious, between New England and Greece. The wealth of Hellenistic references that populate the New England poems are indisputable and have been remarked upon. A point of interest would be to what extent the New England culture informs the Greece poems. This formulation is crucial. Of course, the New England culture doesn’t influence the Greek culture, as it would in Clifford’s model (Well, it might but we are not interested in anthropology.). The impact of travel will, ultimately, be shown to be something that is part of the poetry, not necessarily of ‘the real world’. As we will see, travel and poetry are intimately connected in Merrill’s oeuvre. A final remark: we will dispense with other cross-references, such as New England/Tuscany, New England/Rome etc., as the most interesting question, whether Merrill could be said to form a sort of tiny New England diaspora would have been answered already and neither Rome nor Tuscany or Istanbul could provide illuminating angles.
The second group of exchanges are between childhood and adulthood poems. Almost all of the childhood poems are situated in New England, whereas, even though a large portion of the adulthood poems are provided with a Greek backdrop, there are many locations in them. Thus it is not possible to juxtapose two distinct locations in comparing these two kinds of poems. I maintain, however, that it still makes sense to talk about child- and adulthood as locations in a figurative sense and to talk about a variant of cultural/fugurative travel taking place between the two. Merrill’s adulthood poetry is so replete with echoes from his past as chronicled in the childhood poems that it’s no wonder so many critics felt justified in scooping with both hands material from the psychoanalytic slop pail. I maintain that to discuss the traces of childhood in the adulthood poems in terms of travel (or, as we will see later: intertextuality) is a cleaner method, and on top of that I will attempt to show that it’s a method that does more justice to the specific requirements of poetry as poetry. To return to the adulthood/childhood travels, we will find that, of course, the travel concept works both ways. The childhood is consistently seen through the lens of the adult speaker, which might seem trivial, but actually contributes to the overall picture in which adulthood emerges as the figurative ‘home’ and childhood as the foreign country visited by the grown-up speaker.
The concept of travel and the importance of this concept for Merrill’s poetry and poetics becomes even clearer once another kind of travel is added. This is the traveling undertaken by the souls of the dead in the Ouija board poems, most notably in The Changing Light at Sandover. This doesn’t fit in the narrow literal/figurative dichotomy established heretofore. Of course, it takes a giant leap of faith to assume the ‘reality’ of the spirits. I would argue that it is a strange idea to take that leap in the context of a poetry where, for instance, the speaker of “The Broken Home” needs assurance of as ‘simple’ a fact as the one “[t]hat you and I are as real / At least as the people upstairs” but this is not an important point anyway. Looking at the poetry the question whether these are real voices or whether these are passages invented by David Jackson or whether this is all just a conceit, is not of interest because the fact of the matter is, within the poem, the visitors from the afterworld are clearly just that: visitors. And this time, too, there is a reciprocal element in all this. As will be shown, contact with JM/DJ does not leave the afterworld unchanged.
After the term ‘travel’ and its connection to Merrill’s poetry has been examined, it is now time to look at the implications of all this for Merrill’s poetics. Clifford’s theory of Traveling Cultures is, at the root, a theory about communication and that term fits Merrill’s poetry like a glove. I’ll show is how that which we leaned about travel can be translated to common literary terms such as intertextuality. First, however, I will expound on the centrality of dialogue to the previous discussions of travel. Encounters with other countries in Merrill’s poetry almost always involves dialogue, foreign languages, etc. This culminates in The Changing Light at Sandover, where dialogue is not only central but basically the only means of travel, as the spirits never appear, their presence is solely signalled by the letters DJ dictates to JM.
The voices speaking, whispering, beseeching, commanding, in The Changing Light at Sandover, are not the only voices. In fact, I will suggest that dialogicity, that well-worn concept of Mikhail Bakhtin’s, is an excellent tool to decribe the poetical implications of travel as we have come to understand that term. There are several elements to this, the first and most obviously being plain intertextuality, which roughly corresponds to what we have called figurative travel early on. The influence of cultures transmitted via books or other media. Another element is translation, which develops from intertextuality, because on the one hand it is a form of intertextuality but it’s a special enough variant of it. Merrill translated poems, used translated phrases (literally translated Greek idioms for instance) and at the same time, translation was always part of the poetics of travel. It is shown to be a facilitator of ‘real’, that is, literal travel, as it is the precondition for communication. Similarly, intertextuality would, without translations, not work as well: Merrill’s poems would teem with German, Greek, Tuscan, French phrases and as such be understandable only to a choice coterie of readers. The best explication of the workings of translation can be found in Lost in Translation. The third element, again, is basically a sort of intertextuality, but, again, it’s special enough to be discussed as a special issue. This is Merrill’s attitude to form and to tradition in general. This wraps up tzhe dialogicity chapter because, of course, using a certain form or genre evokes old and buried voices, Petrarca, Dante, Rilke and many many others. Thus, maybe, The Changing Light at Sandover is a brilliant concretion of this concept, with all these poets, first and foremost of course our dear Wystan, literally speaking to Merrill through David Jackson. I am naturally brief in this part of the summary as this part of the paper relies a lot, and will reference a lot, conclusions drawn in the previous parts.
Travel mediates between contexts: the merging of places -figurative and literal- creates a sort of shared cultural space. Merrill’s poetry can be seen as pursuing just this. I will show that this works on almost every level of his poetry, including form and formulation. His use of metre, pun and metaphor, his descriptions of places and travels, the way he handles autobiographical material, all of this is part of the project of mediation.