Monthly Archives: June 2016

It’s unfashionable to call someone a “genius” – but William Empson was one

William_EmpsonWilliam Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

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VermeerThose blessèd structures, plot and rhyme— 

why are they no help to me now 

I want to make 

something imagined, not recalled? 

I hear the noise of my own voice: 

The painter’s vision is not a lens, 

it trembles to caress the light.

But sometimes everything I write   

with the threadbare art of my eye 

seems a snapshot, 

lurid, rapid, garish, grouped, 

heightened from life, 

yet paralyzed by fact. 

All’s misalliance. 

Yet why not say what happened? 

Pray for the grace of accuracy 

Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination 

stealing like the tide across a map 

to his girl solid with yearning. 

We are poor passing facts, 

warned by that to give 

each figure in the photograph 

his living name.

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What’s The Matter With Poetry?

What’s The Matter With PoetryFor Ben Lerner, poems are the perfect medium for failure. So how can they negotiate with the politics of real life?

By Ken Chen

Once, in my youth, I took a graduate philosophy seminar I thought would be about law and justice: Instead we discussed the semantic implications of punctuation marks. After class, I found myself venting to a friend who’d been a literature professor. I told her I was unsatiated by the course—it felt like when I had discovered poetry and found, in practice, this most lyric of arts often meant writing about flowers or describing an epiphany in the grocery store checkout line. My friend laughed. “You know your problem?” she said. “You thought that philosophy would be Truth and poetry would be Beauty.”

Apparently, this is Ben Lerner’s problem too. In his new book,The Hatred of Poetry, the poet, novelist, and MacArthur “genius” argues that if you love poetry’s promise of transcendence, you must also hate poems for their failure to keep up their end of the bargain. “Poetry,” Lerner writes, “arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical—the human world of violence and difference—and to reach the transcendent or divine.” The only problem? Poems are ultimately human rather than divine in character. “As soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem,” he continues, “the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. In a dream your verses can defeat time… but when you wake… you’re back in the human world with its inflexible laws and logic.” In other words, if you’re a poet, you may declare yourself the unacknowledged legislator of the world, but you’re really just a hobbyist in the verse game.

The Hatred of Poetry is a beefed-up version of Lerner’s 2015 London Review of Books essay, which he expanded to include a chatty tour of the Western tradition, from original poetry-hater Plato, to John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, and concluding with contemporary poets Amiri Baraka and Claudia Rankine. What’s nice about Lerner’s book is how it provides an occasion to discuss issues at the heart of mainstream poetry. He assesses the gains and the costs of poetry’s metaphysics and asks how lyric poetry can negotiate with the politics of real life, rather than Truth and Beauty.

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By Gwen Harwood

A-game-of-chessNightfall: the town’s chromatic nocturne wakes 

dark brilliance on the river; colours drift 

and tremble as enormous shadows lift 

Orion to his place. The heart remakes 

that peace torn in the blaze of day. Inside 

your room are music, warmth and wine, the board 

with chessmen set for play. The harpsichord 

begins a fugue; delight is multiplied. 

A game: the heart’s impossible ideal– 

to choose among a host of paths, and know 

that if the kingdom crumbles one can yield 

and have the choice again. Abstract and real 

joined in their trance of thought, two players show 

the calm of gods above a troubled field.

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The Single Artificer – Book Review

by Bruce Bawer

The Single ArtificerWhen Robert Frost shuffled off this mortal coil in 1963, the New York Times notice began at the top of page 1 and jumped to page 5, where it was accompanied by a critical appreciation (“Frost’s place in the history of American letters is assured”) and an article headlined “President Leads in Tributes to ‘Great Poet of Our Time.’” A couple of months later, the Times obituary for William Carlos Williams also started on page 1; ditto T. S. Eliot’s 1965 obit, the bulk of which took up most of page 30, along with a selection of passages from his work and a sampling of tributes from colleagues. (Robert Penn Warren: “He is the key figure of our century. . . . This is his age.”) Two years on, Carl Sandburg’s passing occasioned not only a sizable page 1 headline but also a page 1 “appraisal,” as well as an editorial, “Carl Sandburg, American,” and, a few days later, a tribute, “Carl Sandburg, Newspaperman.” Sandburg, the Times pronounced, “caught in his pages a certain moment and a certain place in our history. Anyone who would know them must consider him part of the permanent record.”

For contrast, see the Times article, published on August 3, 1955, that announced the death, the day before, of Wallace Stevens. Back then, let it be remembered, a Times page contained eight anorexically narrow columns; Stevens’ obituary took up slightly less than a full column on page 23, which made it just a tad longer than the report, two columns away, of the demise of one Crown Prince Ruprecht, a pretender to the throne of Bavaria. Although the headline, for the edification of readers who didn’t know who Stevens was, identified him as a “Noted Poet” (the headline writers for the Frost, Eliot, and Sandburg necrologies hadn’t felt obliged to include job descriptions), the text gave priority not to Stevens’ career as poet but to his position as vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company; only after identifying Stevens by this title did the obituarist mention that he had also been a writer of verse. All in all, a feeble tribute from the newspaper of record, but almost certainly a better one than he’d have received had he not won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award only three months earlier.

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Your Favourite Poems – especially if they’re from Ireland – on July 28


Thanks to everyone who participated in an entertaining, informative and occasionally controversial session on Gerard Manly Hopkins yesterday. This is an early reminder that on July 28 we will continue with our summer tradition of a “free-for-all” with everyone bringing a favourite poem or two. This year we will focus – although not exclusively – on poetry from Ireland. Post your favourite poem(s) for reading and discussion on the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. I will prime the pump with two poems from the Irish master, W. B. YeatsThe Wild Swans at Coole” and The Host of the Air.”


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Patrick Kavanagh and Hopkins: A Strange Combination

By Una Agnew, Milltown Institute, Dublin

Patrick KavanaghWhile Gerard Manley Hopkins was a classical scholar, Oxford Don, well versed in the aesthetics of Ruskin and the philosophy of Duns Scotus, Patrick Kavanagh, on the other hand, a poor farmer, had probably never heard of either. He completed his formal education at 14 years of age; school records indicate that he has not been promoted into Sixth Class. Yet, they both found God compellingly present in the created universe.

To argue any strong resemblance in background, temperament and upbringing of the distinguished Oxford Don, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the socially inept, self-educated farmer-poet Patrick Kavanagh, must surely appear ludicrous. Hopkins was born into a Victorian upper middle-class family in Stratford in 1844, got the best English public-school education available, while Kavanagh, the son of a cobbler was born sixty years later in the townland of Mucker, Inniskeen, Co Monaghan and did not progress beyond fifth standard in the small, rural, two-teacher, at Kednaminsha.

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A final reminder that we’ll be celebrating the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins on Thursday, June 23. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for a list of featured poems.

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Ted Hughes in Hebden Bridge

by Tom Overton 

Hebden_BridgeIn ‘Stubbing Wharfe’, a poem from Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes writes about sitting with Sylvia Plath in a pub ‘Between the canal and the river’ in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire:

This gloomy memorial of a valley,
The fallen-in grave of its history,
A gorge of ruined mills and abandoned chapels,
The fouled nest of the Industrial Revolution
That had flown

Hughes was born in Mytholmroyd, his birth registered in Hebden. Plath is buried on the other side of the Calder Valley, at Heptonstall.

Bernard Ingham once described Hebden as ‘the lesbian Capital of Great Britain’; in 2001 he lamented the influx of ‘trendies, yuppies and weirdos’. In 2014, the BBC’s Evan Davis made a wilfully eccentric argument for rebranding it as the UK’s second city (population: 4200), because of the number of ‘professional couples’ who’ve settled there so they can commute to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. Jez Lewis’s 2010 film Shed Your Tears and Walk Away documented the rates of suicide and drug addiction among those left behind by the gentrification. Meanwhile, the ability of the wuthering heights above the town to handle the run-off of rainwater is being compromised by a millionaire landowner burning moorland for grouse-shooting.

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Love Calls Us to the Things of This World



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Pantoum of the Great Depression


Our lives avoided tragedy

Simply by going on and on,

Without end and with little apparent meaning.

Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on

We managed. No need for the heroic.

Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

I don’t remember all the particulars.


We managed. No need for the heroic.

There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.

I don’t remember all the particulars.

Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.


There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows. 

Thank god no one said anything in verse. 

The neighbors were our only chorus,

And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.


At no time did anyone say anything in verse. 

It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us, 

And if we suffered we kept quiet about it. 

No audience would ever know our story.


It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us. 

We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor. 

What audience would ever know our story? 

Beyond our windows shone the actual world.


We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.

Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world. 

The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.


And time went by, drawn by slow horses.

We did not ourselves know what the end was.

The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.

We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues.


But we did not ourselves know what the end was.

People like us simply go on.

We have our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues,

But it is by blind chance only that we escape tragedy.


And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry.

The pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century as a short folk poem, typically made up of two rhyming couplets that were recited or sung. However, as the pantoum spread, and Western writers altered and adapted the form, the importance of rhyming and brevity diminished. The modern pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first.

The pantoum was especially popular with French and British writers in the nineteenth-century, including Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo, who is credited with introducing the form to European writers. The pantoum gained popularity among contemporary American writers such as Anne Waldman and Donald Justice after John Ashbery published the form in his 1956 book, Some Trees.

PantoumRead more about the pantoum.

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