“No Man Frightens Me.”

A friend, who’s quite a talented poet himself, asked me about great contemporary British poetry and I was frankly a bit at a loss. I welcome suggestions, but among living British poets significantly younger than Hill and Harrison, both of whom were born in the 1930s (and both of whose work I love greatly), I can’t find any that really capture or hold my interest. Here is a poem by celebrated poet Jo Shapcott, which reminds me strongly of several older poets (some lines of it read like a straight Plath pastiche, for example). Mind you, it’s not bad, but, you know?

The version below is taken from www.thepoem.co.uk. On my tumblr, I also posted a video of Shapcott reading the poem (click here), a version that differs slightly from the one I am posting here.

Jo Shapcott: Thetis

No man frightens me. Watch as I stretch
my limbs for the transformation, I’m laughing
to feel the surge of the other shapes beneath my skin.
It’s like this: here comes the full thrill of my art
as the picture of a variegated
lizard insinuates itself into my mind.
I extend my neck, lengthen fingers, push
down toes to find the form. My back begins
to undulate, the skin to gleam. I think
my soul has slithered with me into this
shape as real as the little, long tongue in my mouth,
as the sun on my back, as the skill in absolute stillness.
My name is Thetis Creatrix and you,
voyeur, if you looked a little closer, would see
the next ripples spread up my bloody tail, to bloom
through my spine as the bark begins to harden
over my trunk. Already I’m so much of the oak
I lean everything towards the black oxygen
in the black air, I process delicious gases
through my personal chemistry, suck moisture
from the earth to a pulse so slow you can’t detect it.
Next tigress. Low tremendous purrs start at the pit
of my stomach, I’m curving through long grass,
all sinew, in a body where tension
is the special joy and where the half-second
before a leap tells it all. Put out a paw
to dab a stone, an ant, a dead lamb. Life,
my life, is all play even up to the moment
when I’m tripped up, thrown down, bound,
raped until I bleed from my eyes,
beaten out of shape and forced to bring forth War.

“A Golden Age for Poetry”

Bad news from California:

One of the country’s most prominent poetry series, New California Poetry, from the University of California Press, is to be suspended. The pause in publishing, after next year’s three spring titles, likely will become long-term or permanent unless an angel steps forward to provide substantial assistance.

The series, founded in 2000, has published 33 titles by 25 poets, with three more in the pipeline. (…) Alison Mudditt, who took over as UC Press director early this year, said today, via e-mail: “Like all university presses, we are currently facing increasing financial pressures, partly as we continue to feel the impact of the global economic recession and partly as we reshape our publishing program and our organizational structure to ensure our continued success in the digital age.”

She acknowledged what the editors of the series and many poets say of the series, that it “has included many extraordinary and memorable collections” and “is both prestigious and award-winning.” In 2009, for example, Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy won the National Book Award, while Fanny Howe’s Selected Poems received an Academy of American Poets prize for the most outstanding book of poetry published in 2000.

But the press’s action does not signal a crisis in the publication of American poetry, [Brenda Hillman, a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of California, said by e-mail]: “I feel hopeful about poetry publishing in general.” Many other university presses are “doing amazing things,” she said. “It is really a golden age for poetry, I believe; we need it more than ever.”

Short note on J.D. McClatchy

Two or three days ago, I raved to a friend about two poets I admire greatly, Richard Wilbur and J.D. McClatchy. It was easy picking a few excellent canonical poems by Wilbur as samples of his work. But McClatchy? He doesn’t appear to receive the attention and praise that his work deserves. I happen to believe that McClatchy is one of the last great poet-critics that we have. His essays on poets and poetry are always insightful and on point. I specifically recommend his 1998 collection Twenty Questions. He’s done impressive work as an editor (among many other things, he edited the Library of America selection of Longfellow’s work). And he’s a poet in the tradition of the great ones like James Merrill to whom his voice seems especially indebted. Below, a poem from Hazmat, a sometimes uneven but really excellent collection of poems published 2004. I took the poem from the excerpts offered by Random House. I strongly recommend this book, and its predecessor Ten Commandments (1999). McClatchy, like Merrill, writes brilliantly on love and loss, on desire and the allure of beauty. Well, as I said, I admire McClatchy greatly. What about you?

J.D. McClatchy: Pibroch

But now that I am used to pain,
Its knuckles in my mouth the same
Today as yesterday, the cause
As clear-obscure as who’s to blame,

A fascination with the flaws
Sets in-the plundered heart, the pause
Between those earnest, oversold
Liberties that took like laws.

What should have been I never told,
Afraid of outbursts you’d withhold.
Why are desires something to share?
I’m shivering, though it isn’t cold.

Beneath your window, I stand and stare.
The planets turn. The trees are bare.
I’ll toss a pebble at the pane,
But softly, knowing you are not there.

Enthusiasms and me (monologue)

I have, throughout the past year, received various complaints about my review style, and while I can’t do anything about my English or the length of individual reviews, I can at least explain why I seem to bubble with enthusiasm about books so much, unless I am absolutely negative about them, like I tend to be in respect to Paul Auster’s books. There is a shared perception among some readers that there is no middle path with me. I would disagree, pointing to reviews like the one I wrote of Ander Monson’s Other Electricities, but why not concede the point for now. The fact of the matter is not that I try to be as positive as possible about a book, it’s that I am a person chiefly governed by enthusiasms, or that’s how I like to see myself. It is probably the one thing I really like about myself and I appreciate it in others, as well. I get shouty, excited and even a tad stuttery over things I love (in some Bookbabble episodes you can hear me getting excited). It doesn’t matter whether it is my considered opinion that these things are, in fact excellent, and indeed, I frequently do not hold the same exalted opinion of some of these books or writers any longer, but that’s not important. I think genuine excitement over books or music or the sun coming up at 5 in the morning, it’s so valuable, and in writing about books I decided against curbing this instinct of mine to praise excessively. Because art is worth exalting, worth praising. So am I misleading what readers I have? I don’t think so. I think my reviews hold up reasonably well (all things and limitations considered), even of books that I would have a more negative opinion now, because I think the basic descriptions of the books are sound, or as sound as I can manage them to be. This is a secondary concern to me though. I stand by what I said earlier: enthusiasms are important to me. I am easily enthused. I found an old Odetta record today that I haven’t listened to for years and then the mailman brought a mangled used copy of Dimitri Obolensky’s The Byzantine Commonwealth, as well as a clean copy of the Charles Olson/Frances Boldereff correspondence and I was giddy half the evening. With women or men I fall suddenly intensely in love and just as suddenly out of it (usually at the point when I seem most ‘in it’). That’s just the way it is. I love people, books and art. There’s a supremely gifted friend of mine who’s an astonishing artist, currently traveling through Europe, and if I could, I would rave about her art everyday to everyone on the interwebs who would listen. The same is true for a fantastically good writer of (mainly) horror fiction, who I am also lucky to call a friend. I like to think I’m a very enthusiastic person whenever I can manage to be. So often, I am not, silent, quiet, hollow. Enthusiasm is preferable. Books are great things to be enthusiastic about. I love books. I write this in my study, which is a room lined with books, there are books everywhere here. Poke me and I will talk about all kinds of books all day. I study books, writing my Ph.D. about poetry, and I admire booksellers like few other professions on this planet (see also this recent post). Look at a good book, not a great book, just a good book. See what a marvel it is. How it is made, how it works, how its words fit it just right. And great books…they are something else. Next to my computer right now is my copy of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Clarel. I don’t have the words to describe the love I have for books like this. There is so much shit in the world. But here there are books. And outside there are people, each of them a marvel, too. And elsewhere are works of art. Take a moment to look up the work of Lucien Freud who died today. Take a pause. Look at it. It’s night here. In two hours, the sun will rise. There are so many things to love, so much to feel enthusiastic about. So what if I don’t feel the same excitement about Hilde Domin’s poetry, Notwist’s music or that girl’s smile that I used to have. How could I have known at the time. At the time, I was giddy with excitement, rosy with delight and glowing with enthusiasm. This will happen again and again. As it should. Stop complaining.

Que pourrais-je répondre à cette âme pieuse?

Reading Lowell today, some of his poems reminded me of Baudelaire, and specifically, his excellent early-ish poem Mother Marie Therese, which put me in mind of this Baudelaire poem. Clicking on this link, you can find various translations of it (including one by Lowell), which all have their faults but, together, will give you a decent sense of the poem, if you can’t read French. And now enjoy:

Charles Baudelaire: La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalouse

La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalouse,
Et qui dort son sommeil sous une humble pelouse,
Nous devrions pourtant lui porter quelques fleurs.
Les morts, les pauvres morts, ont de grandes douleurs,
Et quand Octobre souffle, émondeur des vieux arbres,
Son vent mélancolique à l’entour de leurs marbres,
Certe, ils doivent trouver les vivants bien ingrats,
À dormir, comme ils font, chaudement dans leurs draps,
Tandis que, dévorés de noires songeries,
Sans compagnon de lit, sans bonnes causeries,
Vieux squelettes gelés travaillés par le ver,
Ils sentent s’égoutter les neiges de l’hiver
Et le siècle couler, sans qu’amis ni famille
Remplacent les lambeaux qui pendent à leur grille.
Lorsque la bûche siffle et chante, si le soir
Calme, dans le fauteuil je la voyais s’asseoir,
Si, par une nuit bleue et froide de décembre,
Je la trouvais tapie en un coin de ma chambre,
Grave, et venant du fond de son lit éternel
Couver l’enfant grandi de son oeil maternel,
Que pourrais-je répondre à cette âme pieuse,
Voyant tomber des pleurs de sa paupière creuse?

“How did they ever have hanky panky?”

Novelist Deeanne Gist demonstrates the difficulties of using Victorian underwear in this short piece by Alexandra Alter at the wsj (there’s a video too. 😉 ).

“How did they ever have hanky panky?” asked novelist Annie Solomon.

With great effort, it turns out. Women wore blouses under their corsets—making actual bodice ripping fairly pointless. Corsets fastened in front and laced up the back and couldn’t be undone in a single passionate gesture. “You’ll see pictures of corsets on bare skin. That’s completely historically inaccurate,” Ms. Gist told her audience.


Man hands on misery to man.

So this is a well known poem, almost a cliché, but I might do something tomorrow that might make me very unhappy for pretty fucked up reasons, and had a discussion with my sister about it tonight, and although we’re different in so many ways, and 8 years apart in age, we have the same fucked up instincts when it comes to other people. Well, I’ll rethink it tomorrow. But this evening, this poem sounds pretty on point. If you live in or near Bonn, Germany, I’m inviting you to a cup of coffee tomorrow or the day after 🙂 How’s that. Coffee and a Philip Larkin poem.

Philip Larkin – This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.