Monthly Archives: July 2015

Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life

Denise_Levertov-coverAWARDS AND RECOGNITION: Honorable Mention in the Biography category for the 2013 Georgia Author of the Year Awards.

The powerful interconnections of poet Denise Levertov’s life and work.

Kenneth Rexroth called Denise Levertov (1923–1997) “the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound, . . . and the most moving.” Author of twenty-four volumes of poetry, four books of essays, and several translations, Levertov became a lauded and honored poet. Born in England, she published her first book of poems at age twenty-three, but it was not until she married and came to the United States in 1948 that she found her poetic voice, helped by the likes of William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley. Shortly before her death in 1997, the woman who claimed no country as home was nominated to be America’s poet laureate.

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Tea With Harold Bloom, on the Occasion of His 45th Book

Harold_BloomHarold Bloom is 84 and a little under the weather. He is one of Yale’s more famous professors (where he’s been teaching for 60 years) and the author of dozens of books (including an anthology for “Extremely ­Intelligent Children”), many of them best sellers, many of them fascinating and enlightening, some of them infuriating or confusing (if you are not up on your Gnostic texts or the Kabbalah), and all of them written in his unmistakable voice — imperious, sympathetic, melancholy, intimate, playful, and brilliant in both depth and breadth. Long before we were friends, and in an academic pool in which I don’t so much as dip a toe, he was also a major pot-stirrer. I gather that the admiration he expresses for many women poets, for many gay poets (“Three out of four poets in America are gay or bisexual,” he says. “More than half of all the great poets are”), for James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (“A great friend, a magnificent writer, his Invisible Man is a novel as powerful as Magic Mountain), for the poets Jay Wright and Thylias Moss, for writers as contemporary as Don DeLillo, Carl Phillips, and Henri Cole, didn’t count for much with the opposition when he wrote The Western Canon in 1994. He was seen as a forceful, unpleasantly old-fashioned defender of the Canon As Was. As he says, he was described as someone who partook of a cult of personality or self-obsession rather than of the “special vision” of critics focused on issues of gender, color, and power — and Lacanians and deconstructionists. He coined the catchy phrase “School of Resentment” (“I think, really, they resent difficult poetry and aesthetic splendor”), and he made a lot of people understandably angry, some of whom are angry still.

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Teenage James Joyce’s Beautiful Letter to Ibsen, His Great Hero

Joyce_lettersOne need only look at the canon of quiet champions behind creative icons to be reminded of how deeply and lastingly a young person setting out on a creative path can be touched by a simple word of encouragement from one of his or her heroes – one of the “spiritual and mental ancestors” we choose for ourselves, which are essential to our identity. Would Whitman be Whitman without Emerson’s generous letter? Would Sendak be Sendak without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support? Would Bukowski have remained a mere postal worker without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job to be come a full-time writer? Would young Hermann Hesse have sunk into resignation without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters?

Among the beneficiaries of these small yet life-changing kindnesses was teenage James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).

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Happy Birthday, Gerard Manley Hopkins

HopkinsBorn at Stratford, Essex, England, on July 28, 1844, Gerard Manley Hopkins is regarded as one the Victorian era’s greatest poets. He was raised in a prosperous and artistic family. He attended Balliol College, Oxford, in 1863, where he studied Classics.

In 1864, Hopkins first read John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro via sua, which discussed the author’s reasons for converting to Catholicism. Two years later, Newman himself received Hopkins into the Roman Catholic Church. Hopkins soon decided to become a priest himself, and in 1867 he entered a Jesuit novitiate near London. At that time, he vowed to “write no more…unless it were by the wish of my superiors.” Hopkins burnt all of the poetry he had written to date and would not write poems again until 1875. He spent nine years in training at various Jesuit houses throughout England. He was ordained in 1877 and for the next seven years carried his duties teaching and preaching in London, Oxford, Liverpool, Glasgow, and Stonyhurst.

‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’

BY GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament

Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent

To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

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Robert Graves on Love and Lust

Robert_GravesLove is really a recognition of truth, a recognition of another person’s integrity and truth.”

Poet, novelist, mythologist, essayist, and translator Robert Graves (July 24, 1895–December 7, 1985) is among the most influential artists of the past century — a piercing mind carried on the wings of a thoroughly free spirit, an unflinching idealist with a certain Mad Hatter quality to his genius. Jorge Luis Borges called him “a soul above.” Virginia Woolf mistook him for a tabloid reporter or a nosy fan and nearly chased him out when he showed up on her door step, “a bolt eyed blue shirted shockheaded hatless man in a blue overcoat.”

In 1963, Graves sat down with Italian actress, photojournalist and sculptor Gina Lollobrigida — one the most prominent European actresses of the era and an international sex symbol — for an invigorating conversation, later included in the wholly rewarding anthology Conversations with Robert Graves (public library). Although they discussed a wide range of subjects — from poetry to gender to the evils of commercialism in literature — the conversation somehow kept circling back to love, the subject of much of Graves’s poetry.

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Classical Intoxication

Sappho-2Love through the lens of Sappho

Much of what we think we know about Sappho is apocryphal, conjecture, invented, or wrong, maybe even her name. (Sappho calls herself Psappho.) Yet somehow we feel we know her, that she is speaking directly to us across chasms of time, language, geography, and alphabets. And this is only from one, perhaps two, complete poems and a smattering of fragments from the nine-scroll corpus known in antiquity.

What we can reasonably say is that she was born on the island of Lesbos and flourished around 600 b.c., that she composed in the Aeolic dialect, that she probably had a daughter named Cleis—and thus, by deduction, a mother named Cleis, since (then as now) Greeks named grandchildren after their grandparents. She was a musician as well as a poet—her poems should properly be regarded as lyrics—and she was considered by the ancients to be the inventor of the plectrum—roughly, a guitar pick—and the Mixolydian mode. (It’s as if she invented the blues note.) Her poems are often addressed longingly to young women.

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‘The Bright Field’ by R.S. Thomas

Bright_FieldI have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

A very early reminder that we’ll be discussing the poetry of R.S. Thomas on Thursday, September 24. The session will be led by Susan Koppersmith, but please bring your own favourite Thomas poem, and post it ahead of time on the blog via the “Comments” link or the “Contact Us” page.

More links of interest about R.S. Thomas:
The enduring wisdom of a strange Welsh bard
Uncollected Poems: By R.S. Thomas Edited by Jason Walford Davies and Tony Brown
Best Famous R S Thomas Poems
R.S. Thomas: Poet of the Cross

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A final reminder that we will be reading and discussing our own favourite poems this Thursday, July 23.

favourite_poemsSee the SCHEDULE PAGE for featured poems.

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What is poetry? Three masters look for answers

What-is-poetryBeekeeping, Belfast and Buddhism: books of lectures by Harry Clifton, Paula Meehan and Michael Longley cast the net wide.

The Ireland Chair of Poetry is a solemn, formal, academic institution. The poets who hold it, however, tend to be anything but. Gather the three most recent Ireland Professors of Poetry around a table for a conversation – the incumbent, Paula Meehan; her predecessor, Harry Clifton; and the 2007-2010 chair holder, Michael Longley – and you’ll find yourself dancing across an anarchic range of topics punctuated by recitations, jokes, snatches of song, back-and-forth banter and moments of sudden, striking profundity.

The occasion for this gathering at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin is the publication of the first book in a new series called The Poet’s Chair. The slim hardback, One Wide Expanse, has been beautifully produced by UCD Press and contains Longley’s three formal lectures. It will be followed, later this year and early in 2016, by those of Clifton and Meehan.

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti: ‘Most of the poets were on something, but somebody had to mind the shop’

City_Lights_BookstoreThe publisher of the Beats talks about Ginsberg the showman, the Albert hall ‘happening’ and how one of his own poets emptied the City Lights till.

Breast the brow of Stockton Street in North Beach, San Francisco, and the bay opens up before you, framed by the cream-white clapboard buildings that predominate in this old Italian neighbourhood. The island of Alcatraz prison is visible just across the water. Turn right and in a few hundred yards, on a corner, is an unprepossessing three-storey house. Press the middle bell and be prepared to wait. The occupant is old: 96. A slow footfall, and there he stands, still erect and tall: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher to the Beats, poet laureate to his home town.

He directs me upstairs to the kitchen of his second floor apartment, past a scrappy unframed poster of Vladimir Mayakovsky taped roughly to the wall. “It’s a real Italian building,” he says. “The kitchen is the entire width of the house.” Ferlinghetti has lived here, on his own, for more than 30 years. I’m here to talk to him about a confluence of significant events: the 60th anniversary of the company he founded, City Lights, publishers of a celebrated poetry list that includes Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and an extensive range of titles in radical politics and offbeat fiction; the appearance later this year of a collection of his correspondence with Ginsberg, and a compilation of his own travel writings; and another anniversary, that of the International Poetry Incarnation, held in the Albert Hall in London 50 years ago this summer. There, followed by Beat poets Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, he read to an audience of 7,000 at an event billed as Britain’s first “happening”.

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