Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Previously Unpublished Elizabeth Bishop Poem is Beautiful

Due to the erotic nature of the work, you could perhaps forgive her for hesitating.

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lighting struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one's back
All things might change equally easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.  

from Poems: the Centenary Edition

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Horror and Sweetness in Alignment: You Should Still Be Reading Yeats

There's not much to say when you find perfection except to read it again. This is Yeats. You should know before you read that a "stare" is, as Yeats explains, "our West of Ireland name for a starling."

The Stare's Nest by My Window

 The bees build in the crevices
 Of loosening masonry, and there 
 The mother birds bring grubs and flies. 
 My wall is loosening; honey-bees, 
 Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

 We are closed in, and the key is turned 
 On our uncertainty; somewhere 
 A man is killed, or a house burned. 
 Yet no clear fact to be discerned: 
 Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

 A barricade of stone or of wood; 
 Some fourteen days of civil war: 
 Last night they trundled down the road 
 That dead young soldier in his blood: 
 Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

 We had fed the heart on fantasies, 
 The heart's grown brutal from the fare, 
 More substance in our enmities 
 Than in our love; O honey-bees, 
 Come build in the empty house of the stare. 

A. Norman Jeffares' marvelous, crazy-good old research standard, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats features Yeats' remarks on this poem:
I was in my Galway house during the first moths of the civil war the railway bridges blown up and the roads blocked with stones and trees. For the first week there were no newspapers, no reliable news, we did not know who had won nor who had lost, and even after newspapers came, one never knew what was happening on the other side of the hill or of the line of trees. Ford cars passed the house from time to time with coffins standing upon end between the seats, and sometimes at night we heard an explosion, and once by day saw the smoke made by the burning of a great neighboring house. Men must have lived so through many tumultuous centuries. One felt an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to loose all sense of the beauty of nature. A stare (our West of Ireland name for a starling) had built in a hole beside my window and I made these verses out of the feeling of the moment:
[and here, Yeats quotes first two stanzas] 
That is only the beginning but it runs on in the same mood. Presently a strange thing happened. I began to smell honey in places where honey could not be at the end of a stone passage or at some windy turn of the road, and it came always with certain thoughts. When I got back to Dublin I was with angry people who argued over everything or were eager to know the exact facts: in the midst of the mood that makes realistic drama.
Eamon Grennan describes the poem as "the final gesture away from history towards prayer, possibility...a moment where possibility and its sweetness intervenes on the horrors. Here is a poet trying to bring horror and sweetness into some sort of alignment so we can feel the truth of the condition rather than one or other side of it." 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

In Case You've Never Read "The Wall," The Sonnet Donald Justice Wrote to Get Into Berryman's Workshop at Iowa...

 ...well, here it is. 

The Wall

The wall surrounding them they never saw;
The angels, often. Angels were as common
As birds or butterflies, but looked more human.
As long as the wings were furled, they felt no awe.
Beasts, too, were friendly. They could find no flaw
In all of Eden: this was the first omen.
The second was the dream which woke the woman.
She dreamed she saw the lion sharpen his claw.
As for the fruit, it had no taste at all.
They had been warned of what was bound to happen.
They had been told of something called the world.
They had been told and told about the wall.
They saw it now; the gate was standing open.
As they advanced, the giant wings unfurled.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why You Write

I've been thinking about the moment of epiphany a lot lately.  Google the term and you'll find religious and literary iterations, but though they're accurate in one way, they're rather, on the whole, misleading. Yes epiphany is "an experience of sudden and striking realization" and "breakthrough" and may be "manifestation of a deity" yes, yes. But here's the issue with such definitions for me.  Epiphany is therefore conjured as a rare occurrence, a kind of wondrous, magic experience, an Oprah "Aha" moment in which one enters into a spiritual struggle and eventually sees a kind of light and learns acceptance and is inspired and things get better...

But who says that epiphany leaves you feeling so much better? In James Joyce's quintessential epiphany story "Araby," a young boy moves, in a brief three pages, from the romantic, moist, sustaining illusions of childhood into the darker, dry, difficult world that is reality. The plot in brief: a boy has a crush on a girl, and promises to buy her a keepsake at the local fair.  He gets there late, and there really isn't anything much to buy. The story ends with these lines:
Gazing up into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
My students are usually not impressed with their first reading. Nothing happens! they say.  It ends so quickly, without resolutionIt's not about anything! He's so dramatic! Our discussion usually focuses on how the boy, throughout most of the story, has used his imagination to illuminate and beautify his world.  Carrying packages for his aunt through a dingy market, he pretends to be a knight on a quest:  "I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes." He dreams of the girl he hardly knows and believes that by getting her a small keepsake he can win her love. What is a crush, after all, but a thoroughly imagined love? 

And then, at the fair, in an instant—an unremarkable, tiny instant—he sees the folly of his thinking. He sees how the world he has always accepted—his imagined world—is only that. What was I thinking? he seems to be saying. In this way he is no different from all of us who have to, one day, move from a childhood or innocence through our particular door of experience, one way or another. No matter what happens from then on in his life, this moment, this realization, will always be a part of his experience, a tincture to his view. It will be the aesthetic which shapes his life's materials. If there is a light involved, it is light only that it illuminates a life less rose-colored. If there is inspiration, it is inspiring only in the true definition of the word inspire: to breathe life into. That is, it will be as much a part of his daily life as each breath he takes and probably as imperceptible as well.
And it is no different for us all. Your epiphany, too, which you may not have realized: you have already had that one. And it has been a part of all you have done and will do. If you write, you may not even be fully aware of it. Depends what kind of writer you are, I suppose. But it's there. Your tiny, essential epiphany, when you moved from innocence to experience.

Each of us has had that moment when we realized that the world as we had always imagined it was not the world as it was in reality.  If I asked you to name that moment for yourself, what's the first thing that comes to mind?  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Your Moment of Social Class

From Amor Towles' Rules of Civility:

    "The butterfly display was easier on the eyes, but it too evidenced a certain amateurishness.  The insects were pinned on the felt in such a way that you could only see the topside of their wings.  But if you know anything about butterflies, you know that the two sides of their wings can be dramatically different.  If the top is an opalescent blue, the underside can be a brownish gray with ocher spots.  The sharp contrast provides butterflies with a material evolutionary advantage, because when their wings are open they can attract a mate, while when their wings are closed they can disappear on the trunk of a tree.
    " It's a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon: a person who can changed his colors from environment to environment. In fact, not one in a million can do that.  But there are tens of thousands of butterflies: men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings—one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage—and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings."

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Michael Klein has generously tagged me for The Next Big Thing interview series. Here's my self-interview about my recent book.

What is your working title of your book?

The book is called Dear Editor.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was trying to figure out what makes a poem a poem. It's not line breaks, because we've all seen work with line breaks that isn't poetry-there's something else, something I couldn't but wanted to define that contributes to the poem, a way of thinking, as Blackmur says in his wonderful definition, an "animating presence."

When you write a poem you use a different mind than when you write, say, a generic submission/cover letter. It's something vital, something wander-y, in the poetry mind, and I wondered: is there a way to isolate the essence of that restlessness, even find a form that emphasizes this? One day, I thought: what if, when she goes to compose the cover letter for submission to the editor, the poet doesn't, or can't, turn off that part of the mind and voice and heart that's actively involved in writing poems? What would happen if her poetry mind overruled her cover letter? And then, as I drafted each day, the discipline of the letters evolved into something that seemed apt and evocative of the daily act of getting oneself into the world, about the nature of being, not to mention the letter writer's insistence on a reality that is more in her sense of the world than the world outside. 

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry. Epistolary.

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Anyone with a Super 8 camera, really.  You. Also: Lena Dunham before Tiny Furniture, Tavi Gevinson before Rookie, Lili Taylor in Say Anything. This isn't real, right? I'm using my imagination. Speaking of which, forget the movie, can I just have Lili Taylor read it out loud? Because I love her voice.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Dear Editor is a book of poems in the form of cover letters to an unseen, all-knowing editor.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Dear Editor was published by Persea Books.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I write over the summers, so: three years of summers.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The story of a writer wondering in the world seems to me to be a part of every writing endeavor.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Dear Editor emerged from a strange intersection: a combination of trying to trying to figure out what makes a poem a poem, and a conversation I had with one of my students about sin and daily penitence. It seemed to me that there the two issues bewildered me equally. I mean bewildered in a kind of archaic sense: 'be” meaning "thoroughly" and “wilder “ meaning "lead astray, lure into the wilds." I felt led into a wild, but it was not a pathless wild, It had many intersecting paths, like in a fabulous maze, and then I walked in.

What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

I've talked elsewhere about her frustration with metaphor, and her fascination with chess and with girl saints, both iconic narratives concerning power, strategy, and discipline. The Amy Newman of the book is especially interested in the girl saints' ability to break into blossom or burst into fire at the slightest hint of bullying. She much admires that ability, and her letters become increasingly concerned with what it means to persevere in spite of the silences she encounters, to quietly continue in the private monologue—what she fervently hopes is a dialogue—she has begun.

But she's also just a lonely girl in high school, exploring her sense of being in her world: am I a part of it? Am I outside of it? Am I a pawn? In any case she is enthralled by it. And I think this feeling is not limited to her, but extends to all us.

And here are the writers I've tagged for the series:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Caddis Fly and Lena Dunham

If you've ever walked by a stream you've likely overlooked the cases of the caddis fly, a small winged insect that usually lives near water and creates a protective, waterproof larvae sheath from its silk and substances in its environment like sand, plant materials, and bits of fish bone. The artist Hubert Duprat, who wondered if the flies would incorporate any material if it were within the environment, brought these members of the order Trichoptera to his studio where he placed them within aquaria containing precious stones, the kind of stuff—to steal from Bogart's Sam Spade—from which dreams are made:

Stunning.  I was so taken with these images, these beautiful cases of precious stones, that I didn't think for a minute of the potential metaphor buried in them, questions of value and environmental determinism. Is this a metaphor for artists who aspire to beauty and worth but are not born to the purple? Is it that the rich are different from you and me, that those who are surrounded by the means more closely associated with the beautiful, or those who have access to what is precious, can create a more intensely beautiful body of work?

My students struggle with this question too: is my sense of my world something out of which art may be made? When they struggle with subjects for their poems, they can't help but note that, in some of the books we read, some of us have had vivid, important lives: delightfully splendid, intense, fantastic, terrific, loud, eye-catching material, more immediately attractive. (It's a popular concern these days; a current Rolling Stone article about the phenomenon that is HBO's Girls recounts a twentysomething tweeting: "Lena Dunham is everything I could've been if I hadn't gone to public school in Nebraska.")

Or is it more likely that we only have to spend more time looking. What immediately glitters here only does so because it has charged the eye with what is a terrifically compelling but quotidian activity. The caddis fly assembles intricate, individual, particular gestures from the material with which it is surrounded, and it does so from instinct, from unstudied desire. In other words, it's what you make of what you have; look beyond Dunham's position in life and her connections, and you'll see someone thoroughly at work, shaping, constructing, continuing. To extend Charles Wright, who has said "what you have to say...may not be news; how you say it just might be," the most important material for the artist is the shape of her activity, the act of instinct realized, whatever shape that takes.  Duprat's drawn our eye by jeweling the caddis fly's activity; he's gilded the art so we might attend.

Here is a caddis fly's sheath in its natural environment: Stunning.

You can read more about Duprat's marvelous project in CABINET.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Anne Sexton, Visible and Invisible

A while ago I spent some time in Austin doing research at the divine Harry Ransom Center. I held in my hands a number of extraordinary items, including letters and journals from some of the most interesting writers of 20th Century literary history. I read a letter of Richard Hugo's in which he lamented being overlooked for a major prize. He signs off: "I am going to see The Birds now, and feed my gruesome nature." Among Anne Sexton's papers were keepsakes from early in her marriage: a program from The Ice Follies; a souvenir of a night out at The Copley; a playbill for the Old Howard Theater when Sally Rand performed. "An unusual nite," Sexton wrote on the page.

I had also arranged a private viewing of Sexton's original oil paintings, including "Still life with white penguins and deer figurines." It's hard to say with precision what it felt like to observe this painting, which had many so problems with representation, but in part it was a revelation. I didn't expect to shift from on-the job research to compassion and to a kind of reverse empathy. I was not inside the scholarship of the poet, but inside a condition. To imagine that Sexton, like me, wanted to try various things even though she wasn't all that great at them and would likely never be; to imagine that she spent therapeutic time attempting perspective in oil—she'd probably, the morning she'd begun, arranged a purple velvet fabric on a side table, and placed the penguin figure just so, aiming for something evocative of a vision—and that she had pretty much failed: that's perhaps the moment I fell more deeply into Sexton. The life of any artist is of great importance to the work, though even as the watershed Confessionals did much to wear away Eliot's barrier, his influence hangs a shroud above poetry still. But we have to bring biography back. Of Eliot's theory of the impersonal, which had come to be a tremendous influence on poetry before the mid-century, Stanley Kunitz has said, "Overnight, subjective poetry fell out of fashion.  I couldn't understand why a theory so obviously false could be taken so seriously."

Once inside the work, you are, of course, inside a life; even persona can't avoid this; even Stevens admits this: It is the poet's sense of the world that is the poet's world.  Eliot instructs us (and he does instruct, always) not to read "The Waste Land" through biography, and he then includes, annoyingly,  Margate Sands. I see what you did there, Eliot.

Because of its immensity and its trivia, its flux and beauty and terror, a life is nearly incomprehensible, really, because it is so much. And yet, poetry aims for just this comprehension of experience. What a large, confounding art.

One afternoon, I came across this note of Sexton's:
"This [ ] is just an exile from God—"

Loneliness? Loveliness? I have read Sexton for years, and I know which one I immediately choose. But coming to know her life and work means I am never sure.


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