Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir

Francis_BarberHow did a Jamaican slave end up as the chief beneficiary of Samuel Johnson’s will? This biography tells the remarkable story

At the Menil Foundation, a huge Renzo Piano-designed museum in Houston, Texas, there hangs a painting by Joshua Reynolds of “A Young Black”. The sitter has high cheekbones and a face that is dignified, solemn, even sad. The image is often reproduced and is widely believed to be a likeness of Francis Barber, who is today known for having been the manservant of Samuel Johnson and the chief beneficiary of his will.

In his lifetime Barber was regarded as the great lexicographer’s chattel, rather than as a person of interest in his own right. He was referred to as “the Doctor’s negro servant”; among the nicknames foisted on him were “poor Blacky” and “the Ethiopian”. Modern accounts tend to be hazy or wayward. In Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, an impressive history of British anti-slavery, Barber is described as Johnson’s “valet-butler-secretary”, and in Robert Winder’s Bloody Foreigners he is “a poet and protege of Johnson”. Michael Bundock sets out to correct such narrow or inexact senses of Barber’s existence. His crisply written, empathetic biography scrupulously documents Barber’s life and illuminates the experiences of black Britons in the 18th century.

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Love After Love: Derek Walcott’s Poetic Ode to Being at Home in Ourselves

Derek_WalcottThe great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written beautifully about why learning to love others begins with learning to love ourselves — a sentiment that the reactive modern cynic might dismiss as the vacant fodder of self-help books, but one which more considered reflection reveals to be deeply truthful and deeply uncomfortable. What, after all, does loving oneself even mean — particularly if we’re aspiring to be unselfish and generous, and to outgrow the illusory ego-shell we call a self?

That’s what Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott (b. January 23, 1930) — a writer of such extraordinary poetic prowess that his 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature appears a wholly inadequate measure of his mastery and mesmerism — addresses with a luminous sidewise gleam in a poem titled “Love After Love,” found in his Collected Poems: 1948–1984 (public library).

On an archival On Being episode titled “Opening to Our Lives,” mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn reads Walcott’s masterpiece — undoubtedly one of the greatest, most soul-stretching poems ever written. Please enjoy: Read and listen to the poem

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On Disliking Poetry

Ben Lerner in the LRB

LRBIn ninth grade English Mrs X required us to memorise and recite a poem and so I asked the Topeka High librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew and she suggested Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’, which, in the 1967 version, reads in its entirety:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect
contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I remember thinking my classmates were suckers for having mainly memorised Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet whereas I had only to recite 24 words. Never mind the fact that a set rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter make 14 of Shakespeare’s lines easier to memorise than Moore’s three, each one of which is interrupted by a conjunctive adverb – a parallelism of awkwardness that basically serves as its form. That plus the four instances of ‘it’ makes Moore sound like a priest grudgingly admitting that sex has its function while trying to avoid using the word, an effect amplified by the awkward enjambment of the second line and the third (‘in/it’). In fact, ‘Poetry’ is a very difficult poem to commit to memory, as I demonstrated by failing to get it right on any of the three chances I was given by Mrs X, who was looking down at the text, my classmates cracking up.

My contempt for the assignment was, after all, imperfect. Even now I routinely misquote the second sentence, but who could forget the first? I, too, dislike it has been on repeat in my head since 1993; when I open a laptop to write or a book to read: I, too, dislike it echoes in my inner ear. When a poet (including me) is being introduced at a reading, whatever else I hear, I hear: I, too, dislike it. When I teach I basically hum it. When somebody tells me as so many people have told me that they don’t get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe poetry is dead because it is either hackneyed or obscure: I, too, dislike it. Sometimes this refrain has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.

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Puns for Poets

Ozymandias-31. King Ozymandias of Assyria was running low on cash after years of war with the Hittites. His last great possession was the Star of the Euphrates, the most valuable diamond in the ancient world. Desperate, he went to Croesus, the pawnbroker, to ask for a loan. Croesus said, “I’ll give you 100,000 dinars for it.” ” But I paid a million dinars for it,” the King protested. “Don’t you know who I am? I am the King!” Croesus replied, “When you wish to pawn a Star, makes no difference who you are.”
2. Evidence has been found that William Tell and his family were avid bowlers. Unfortunately, all the Swiss League records were destroyed in a fire. . . . and so we’ll never know for whom the Tells bowled.
3. A man rushed into a busy doctor’s surgery and shouted, “Doctor! I think I’m shrinking!” The doctor calmly responded, “Now, settle down. You’ll just have to be a little patient.”
4. An Indian chief was feeling very sick, so he summoned the medicine man. After a brief examination, the medicine man took out a long, thin strip of elk rawhide and gave it to the chief, telling him to bite off, chew, and swallow one inch of the leather every day. After a month, the medicine man returned to see how the chief was feeling. The chief shrugged and said, “The thong is ended, but the malady lingers on.”
5. A famous Viking explorer returned home from a voyage and found his name missing from the town register. His wife insisted on complaining to the local civic official, who apologized profusely saying, “I must have taken Leif off my census.”
6. A skeptical anthropologist was cataloging South American folk remedies with the assistance of a tribal elder who indicated that the leaves of a particular fern were a sure cure for any case of constipation. When the anthropologist expressed his doubts, the elder looked him in the eye and said, “Let me tell you, with fronds like these, you don’t need enemas.”

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A Lot from a Little: Demystifying the Aphoristic Poem

By Stefan Strychar

Auden-6Aphoristic poems are a verbal sleight of hand: minute, almost indecipherable movements generating outsized effects. In his paper, “Aptness and Truth in Verbal Metaphor,” David Hills writes that a contracted metaphor “plays itself out in the narrow confines of a single word or phrase” and “can occur as one constituent of a sentence whose interpretation is otherwise entirely literal.” Through precise word choice and contracted metaphor alone, an author can impart a scope of meaning disproportionate to the length of the poem. Where longer poems elaborate metaphors, aphoristic poems pare metaphors to their essence. Deleting the least relevant details concentrates the importance of the details that are included.

Divorce,” by Billy Collins, is a superb example of these two considerations—lexical precision and contracted metaphor—working in tandem:

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks
across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

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Saving grace: how WB Yeats helped Eavan Boland to become a poet

The_Stolen_ChildAs a teenager I escaped to a Yeatsian world of lakes, of spirits hidden inside mountain winds and of heroic legends. Then I started out on my own struggle to write a poem in which I could hear my own voice.

I read WB Yeats first when I was a teenager. In boarding school, after dark, I took out the sturdy book with its burgundy covers and turned over page after page. In winter I used a torch. In summer I read by the late light. I got to know lines, then stanzas, then whole poems.

Later I would look back at those times not with wonder but with something more like puzzlement. I wasn’t particularly bookish in school. I wasn’t even studious. But I turned to that book, and then to some others he wrote, with a sense of adventure and intensity that I would rarely replicate later in my life.

But why? If poets have tribes, and many do, I had nothing at all to do with his. By the time I was reading him he had gathered the sort of adherents for whom I felt little sympathy. Ardent modernists, canonical close readers, high-caste theorists. Why was I adding myself to this readership?

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An early reminder that we will be discussing the great Irish poet (2015 is the 150th anniversary of his birth) on October 22nd. Bruce will give a very brief introduction. Please bring your own favourite Yeats poem to read, but please post it first on the blog via the “Comments” link or the Contact Us page.

More links to articles about WB Yeats:

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A final reminder about our session on the poetry of R. S. Thomas this Thursday, September 24th

Please visit the SCHEDULE PAGE for a list of poems to be featured.

Black-cat-clifftopThe Cat and the Sea
by R. S. Thomas

It is a matter of a black cat
On a bare cliff top in March
Whose eyes anticipate
The gorse petals;

The formal equation of
A domestic purr
With the cold interiors
Of the sea’s mirror.

by R. S. Thomas

The disingenuousness
of the dawn, showing everything
it possesses even to the kid
gloves waiting on the table

of the board meeting for the directors
to put on before beginning
their gang warfare – the dawn with
its one cloud the colour of the carnation

in the chairman’s buttonhole, and smells,
myriads of them, spiralling
upward from the sacrifice of
integrity to the clogged nostril of God.

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T. S. Eliot on Idea Incubation, Inhibition, and the Mystical Quality of Creativity, Plus a Rare Reading

Use-of-poetryWe do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on.”


In this passage from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (public library), cited in the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, celebrated poet, playwright, and cultural critic T. S. Eliot adds to previously explored theories of how creativity works by taking a curious look at how physical illness brings a near-mystical quality of poetry, driven by two key elements of creativity: the presence of an incubation period when unconscious processing of existing ideas takes place, and the removal of habitual inhibitions, or something John Keats has termed “negative capability”.

That there is an analogy between mystical experience and some of the ways in which poetry is written I do not deny … though, as I have said, whether the analogy is of significance for the student of religion or only to the psychologist, I do not know. I know, for instance, that some forms of ill-health, debility or anaemia, may (if other circumstances are favourable) produce an efflux of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing — though, in contrast to the claims sometimes made for the latter, the material has obviously been incubating within the poet, and cannot be suspected of being a present form a friendly or impertinent demon. What one writes in this way may succeed in standing the examination of a more normal state of mind; it gives me the impression, as I have said, of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers — which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden. … This disturbance of our quotidian character which results in an incantation, an outburst of words which we hardly recognise as our own (because of the effortlessness), is a very different thing from mystical illumination. The latter is a vision which may be accompanied by the realisation that you will never be able to communicate it to anyone else, or even by the realisation that when it is past you will not be able to recall it to yourself; the former is not a vision but a motion terminating in an arrangement of words on paper.

Complement this with a rare recording of Eliot reading his celebrated 1915 stream-of-consciousness poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” found in his Selected Poems.

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Happy Birthday, William Carlos Williams

WC_WilliamsOn September 17, 1883, William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey. He began writing poetry while a student at Horace Mann High School, at which time he made the decision to become both a writer and a doctor. He received his MD from the University of Pennsylvania, where he met and befriended Ezra Pound.

Pound became a great influence on his writing, and in 1913 arranged for the London publication of Williams’s second collection, The Tempers. Returning to Rutherford, where he sustained his medical practice throughout his life, Williams began publishing in small magazines and embarked on a prolific career as a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright.

The Red Wheelbarrow

by William Carlos Williams, 1883 – 1963

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


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Drunk Confessions: Women and the clichés of the literary drunkard


literary-drunkardWHAT MIGHT BE called “the artistic temperament” is a subject about which many people have grandiose, romantic notions. All those biopics with people staring hard out windows at beautiful scenes, pen in hand, bearing the fruits of louche genius while maintaining excellent dental hygiene. Whoever the culprit, we clearly like our geniuses to be “consumed” by their craft, and we like them tortured—and if possible, drunk. The idea, broadly put, is that the liquor frees up creative energy. Or else, that an artist drinks to soothe the ravages of creativity on his psyche.

Artists have rarely wanted to correct the public on this point. This was especially true of writers in the middle of the twentieth century, laboring in the long interval between Prohibition—-when writing, celebrity and drink got tangled up at the Algonquin Round Table and in the lives of modernists—and the 1970s. (Hard drugs slipped in after that but began to signify a certain cynicism rather than angst in the writer.) The trite liquor-soaked romance of their craft suited these writers, it seemed; it gave them a handy excuse. However many degenerate nights were lost at a bar, however many times a person might be rushed to a hospital with a suicide attempt, it was worth it. The blackouts and bad marriages and every sordid bit of it could be explained away by art with a capital A. Who wouldn’t trade a few years of misery to write something like Gatsby? Or A Farewell to Arms? Or “The Swimmer”? Or “Fern Hill”? Put that way, the math of art and drink comes out looking attractive, glamorous, in spite of the death and in spite of the suffering.

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