Monthly Archives: February 2018

Killdeer

Nick Flynn

killdeerYou know how it pretends

to have a broken wing to

lure predators away from its

nest, how it staggers just out

of reach . . . if, at this moment,

you’re feeling metaphorical,

nest can be the whatever

inside us that we think needs

protection, the whatever that is

small & hasn’t yet found its

way. Like us it has lived so long

on scraps, on what others have

left behind, it thinks it could live

on air, on words, forever almost,

it thinks it would be better to let

the predator kill it than to turn

its back on that child again,

forgetting that one lives inside

the other.
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About This Poem

“I generally have a problem with anthropomorphizing, with what’s called the pathetic fallacy, forgetting that we are all part of the deeper mystery of the natural world. I think our minds are the limits of what is measurable. I sometimes think that everything is measurable, yet the fact that a killdeer does this dance fills me with unspeakable sadness and joy.”

—Nick Flynn

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“The End Is Where We Start From”: On Evan Kindley’s “Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture”

By Bradley Babendir

The End Is Where We Start FromIN AN ESSAY for The Best American Poetry blog on his selection process for the 2015 issue, Sherman Alexie noted that “[a]pproximately 99% of the poets are professors.” The percentage, in actuality, is a little bit lower than that, but like many jokes, there is a kernel of truth to it. Academic institutions are now the biggest steward of poets, who teach everything from freshmen composition courses to graduate workshops. While the financial viability of this arrangement for writers seems to be waning, as universities and colleges find it easier and cheaper to exploit the labor of academics, it is still the uncomfortable status quo.
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Evan Kindley’s Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture tells part of the story of how this system came to be. With the stories of a handful of prominent modernist poet-critics, he traces the shift in culture from the private stewardship of artists to their employment by academic institutions between the 1920s and ’50s. On the impact of the modernists, Kindley writes, “hardly any modernist managed to avoid leaving behind a sizable corpus of literary criticism […] they were the first to establish a particular archetype that still pertains nearly a hundred years later, a job description that those who desire a career in poetry still have to fit.” The transformation of the role of the poet-critic during the modernist period created the world wherein poets attempt to make a living through criticism and teaching.

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Enigma

Leonora Speyer

It would be easy to forgive,

If I could but remember;

If I could hear, lost love of mine,

The music of your cruelties,

Shaking to sound the silent skies,

Could voice with them their song divine,

Red with pain’s leaping ember:

It would be easy to forgive,

If I could but remember.
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It would be easy to forget,

If I could find lost Sorrow;

If I could kiss her plaintive face,

And break with her her bitter bread,

Could share again her woeful bed,

And know with tears her pale embrace.

Make yesterday, to-morrow:

It would be easy to forget,

If I could find lost Sorrow.
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Enigma“Enigma” was published in A Canopic Jar (E. P. Dutton & Company, 1921)

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Do Politics Matter In Poetry? New Biography Explores The Case Of Ezra Pound

MAUREEN CORRIGAN

Do Politics Matter In PoetryIn the winter of 1949, a group of judges — including poets T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell — met to decide the winner of the prestigious Bollingen Prize for the best book of poetry published in the United States the previous year. They gave the prize to Ezra Pound for his collection The Pisan Cantos. Then all hell broke loose.
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Pound wrote The Pisan Cantos while he was in a prison camp in Italy in 1945. He’d been charged with treason for making more than 200 radio broadcasts from Rome during World War II in which he voiced support for Mussolini and Hitler, and railed against a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.
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At his 1945 treason trial in Washington, D.C., Pound, who’d suffered a nervous breakdown, was spared the death sentence because his doctors ruled him “mentally unfit” to stand trial.
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That’s why, four years later, when Pound won the Bollingen Prize, he was residing at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a government facility for the mentally ill. The disdainful headline about the award in The New York Times read, “Pound, In Mental Clinic, Wins Prize For Poetry Penned In Treason Cell.”

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Contradictions

R S Thomas

Contradictions‘No need to apologise,’

says God to his conscience.
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‘Speak a little louder,’ time says

to eternity, ‘I am heavy of hearing.’
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Are the machine and the tiger

related by more than a purr?
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‘The answer is at the back

of the mirror,’ says Alice, ‘where truth lies.’

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Les Murray and the Poetry of Depression

By Meghan O’rourke

Les Murray and the Poetry of DepressionThe signature quality of a Les Murray poem is anger — a visceral smoldering that freshly lights up the tired old landscape and turns conventional pieties inside out. A lifelong outsider and champion of the underdog, Murray grew up among impoverished farmers in rural Australia, where, as an overweight “redneck” teenager, he was mercilessly tormented at school. Today he is the closest thing Australia has to a national poet. A sui generis autodidact (he now suspects he has Asperger’s syndrome) equipped with a fierce moral vision and a sensuous musicality, he writes subtly about post­colonialism, urban sprawl and poverty and, in his most intimate poems, reminds us of the power of literature to transubstantiate grievance into insight. (His admirers have argued he ought to be considered for a Nobel.) But he is equally capable of writing emotionally simplistic and strangely soured poems in which the enraged adolescent emerges all but unmediated. This mercurial doubleness can make his work hard to categorize or describe: this is a mind at once revolutionary and reactionary. Or maybe just a poet who’s willing to show more id than most.
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Now comes a book that offers a powerfully candid view of Murray’s struggles with depression — one that will speak even to readers unfamiliar with his work. “Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression” is an unusual book. One half is a prose memoir (first written as a 1997 lecture, with an afterword composed in 2009) about his long struggle with serious depression. The second half comprises what Murray calls the “Black Dog” poems (the phrase is Churchill’s term for depression, and has a long history) — 24 poems written over the course of his life that deal squarely either with his depression or with the subterranean anger that he believes led to it. It’s a pungent, forthright primer in what depression can look like — and surely will make many suffering from the disease feel less alone with it. It also lifts the curtain on the stagecraft of poetry and offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour, elucidating just what the special abilities of poetry are.
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Read the complete review
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Graeme Hughes will lead a reading and discussion about the major Australian poet, Les Murray, on March 22. Please bring your own favourite Les Murray poem and, preferably, post it on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.

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Wolves

Lorna Crozier

WolvesThe wild in you has gone out

to meet the wolves who are hunting
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on the other shore. You can’t see

this wayward part of you
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like you see your breath in winter,

but you feel the bite of canine teeth
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as if you now live

in the throat of a panicked deer.
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You’ve never understood before

what beauty means, how it
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blasts the blood and leaves you

shaken, demanding more
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than you can ever,
in this human body, be.
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From The Wild in You: Voices from the Forest and the Sea by Lorna Crozier (Author),‎ Ian McAllister (Photographer)
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A final reminder that we will be reading and discussing the poetry of Jan Zwicky and Lorna Crozier on February 22. Please bring your own favourites by these two BC poets for reading and discussion and, preferably, post them first on the blog (no later than Tuesday morning!) via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.

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FROM MIDCENTURY CONFESSIONAL POETRY TO REALITY TV

How Did “Confession” Become A Dirty Word?

By Christopher Grobe

FROM MIDCENTURY CONFESSIONAL POETRY TO REALITY TVStudies of confession—even offhand remarks on the subject—must, by custom, begin with a few sweeping claims about Confession in the West. No essay on personal poetry, no think-piece on memoir feels complete until someone has lit a candle at the shrine of St. Augustine. Having witnessed a few such acts of historical hand-waving, you could be forgiven for thinking that a council of 13th-century bishops—or was it an 18th-century philosopher?—made the debut of The Real World in 1992 a historical inevitability.
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There is, however, a serious point to be made on this millennial scale. Our current culture of self-awareness, self-expression, and self-care rests on foundations laid long ago. We’ve risen to penthouse levels—millions of life stories high—so it’s only natural if we’ve lost sight of the ground. If we could just get our heads out of the clouds, maybe we’d see that other foundations were poured—or were possible. As it is, we have trouble “imagin[ing a] self absent the imperative to scrutinize and . . . articulate it.” In the famous words of Michel Foucault: “Western man has become a confessing animal.”

Stories on this scale (Western man!) can take your breath away. They can also suck the air out of the room. They’re not harmful in themselves, but they turn deadly when we use them not to explain new phenomena, but to explain them away. There’s nothing new under the sun. Just read your Augustine and Rousseau—your Wordsworth, your Sade, your Freud! But here’s the thing: midcentury Americans had read them—well, all right, maybe not Sade—and still they felt that they were witnessing something new. I want to start by taking this sense of newness seriously.
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Consider American poetry, which took a “confessional” turn around 1959—in April of that year, to be precise.
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April 1st, Newton Lower Falls, MA—Anne Sexton, a little-known poet, declares herself “the most about to be published poet around.” Boy, she’s not kidding! Before ten weeks more can pass, she’ll have poems out in Harper’s, the Hudson Review, the New Yorker—the list goes on. She will write about her brushes with madness, about suicide attempts, about sex in (and beyond) the marriage bed. Pretty soon, she’ll be known as the confessional poet par excellence.
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April 13th, New York, NY—Knopf publishes W. D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle, in which the poet deals frankly with his recent divorce and subsequent estrangement from his daughter. The book would gain national attention and go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
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April 28th, New York, NY—Farrar, Straus & Cudahy releases Robert Lowell’s tell-all book Life Studies. In a series of memoirs—some in prose, some in verse—Lowell exposes his troubled youth and confesses to an ongoing struggle with mental illness. Life Studies flies off bookstore shelves and drugstore racks. It would go on to win the National Book Award.
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This sudden swell of confession, rising and breaking as one, quickly pulled in other people, too. Emerging poets were caught in the undertow (see: Sylvia Plath), while established figures (Ginsberg, Berryman, Roethke, Rich, etc.) suddenly found that they were riding a wave. It turns out they’d been writing “confessional” poems for years already. Reviewing Life Studies for the Nation, M. L. Rosenthal dubbed this book “confessional,” and the name stuck like tar. Many—though not Rosenthal—meant it as an insult, but the public didn’t care. Pretty soon, confessional poetry was America’s most popular genre of verse.
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Telling this story of confession’s sudden ascent, poets and critics reach for the same word again and again. This was a breakthrough—past formalism, past repression, past social restraint—into emotion, into experience, into the world. “A breakthrough back into life,” Lowell famously called it. A “breakthrough into . . . very personal, emotional experience,” Sylvia Plath chimed in. So overworked was this word that, pretty soon, a critic could roll her eyes and refer to that “famous ‘breakthrough’ that it is the custom to talk about.”
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This supercilious tone about “confessional poetry” and its “breakthrough” has been available to critics ever since. Take Laurence Lerner, for example, author of the 1987 essay “What Is Confessional Poetry?”: “Everyone knows who the confessional poets are,” Lerner begins, “Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, plus a few other candidates.” Everyone knows, he says, but what he means is, Everyone but me. By the end of the essay, he has concluded that we grievously “overstate [the] newness” of this genre. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Romantic poets, William Shakespeare—heck, even “Sappho and Catullus . . . look like confessional poets” to him. “Confessional poetry,” in other words, is as old—or is practically the same thing—as poetry itself.
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Other critics have rushed to the genre’s defense, but they find only the narrowest position defensible. Confessional poetry was new, Diane Middlebrook retorts in an essay pointedly titled, “What Was Confessional Poetry?”—but properly speaking, only a tiny group of poets belong to the genre. “This was thoroughly middle-class postwar art—produced by [a small number of] WASP writers”—by her reckoning, only Lowell, Sexton, Snodgrass, and Plath. Narrower still, only “certain poems” by these writers truly count as confessional, and all were published “between 1959–1966.” Middlebrook’s careful historicism might seem totally opposed to Lerner’s wide-eyed genre essentialism, but these critics do agree on one thing: midcentury responses to the genre were overheated and uncritical, and therefore should not guide our thinking. Well, I disagree.
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By way of analogy, compare the genre “reality TV.” Any scholar of that genre could pull a Lerner and tell you that Cops (1989–present), An American Family (1973), or Candid Camera (1948–present) did “reality TV” first. After a few drinks, you might even get them to say that TV is reality TV. Or else they could do the Middlebrook and argue that The Real World certainly counts as “reality TV,” but only the first four seasons—and later shows called “reality” belong, in fact, to another genre, which we really ought to name. But to a cultural historian, distinctions like these seem beside the point. If all of sudden a certain phrase is on everyone’s lips (reality television, confessional poetry), this alone is a fact worthy of our attention. If, in the process, these genres slosh out of the containers we critics have built for them, then so be it. Genres, after all, aren’t just categories-ideal in some theorist’s or critic’s taxonomy; they’re also cultural events we undergo together. As surely as “reality TV” happened in the 1990s, “confessional poetry” belongs to the turn of the 1960s. And just as “reality TV” was defined backward—its features deduced from the shows of the 1990s and 2000s that popularized the term—so “confessional poetry” was a backformation from the personal poetry of Lowell & Co.
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Such reverse definitions—no one’s creation and everyone’s property— might feel out of place in the scholarly realm, but they exist in the world whether we like it or not, and they exert their force on the things scholars study. Loose and baggy though they may be, they tightly shape how art is produced and received—across platforms and media, across continents and centuries. In this sense, Lerner’s claim that Sappho and Catullus “look confessional” to him is an example—not a refutation—of that postwar formation called “confessional poetry.” And the sudden insistence on a deep, unified history of confession in the West—this, too, is a product of the postwar culture of confessionalism. We see this happening right now with “reality TV”—not only in our growing desire to look backward at shows like An American Family or Candid Camera, but also in the way reality TV’s formal features and ways of being are spilling over into film, scripted TV, politics, and everyday life.
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“Confessional poetry” had precisely this kind of outsized impact. This genre soon became “the whipping boy of half of a dozen newer schools”—an effigy of what Gillian White calls “lyric shame.” When subsequent poets were caught identifying with their speakers, or when critics smelled too ripe a mode of expression in their poems, the poet had to kneel in repentance, or else stand in defiance—but always, now, one of the two. This wasn’t the first time that poets had mixed art with life, but somehow the chemistry had changed. Art and life were now potassium and water: they never met but sparks went flying. If you want to understand the culture of confession this created, you can’t afford to be a wet blanket. You must be ready to catch fire.
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Rosenthal was ready. Reviewing Life Studies, he knew that personal poems had been published many, many times before—many of them dealing, as these did, with subjects that were, in their time, beyond the pale—but he insisted that these latest poems were different somehow. They certainly felt different in the wake of modernist poetry, whose practitioners often preferred to keep their poems “impersonal.” And, in the heyday of New Criticism, with its principled insistence that poems should be autonomous from their authors, it surely must have felt bold to see such personal poems for what they were. But beyond feeling different, they also were different from the poems critics named as precedents. While it is true, Rosenthal concedes, that the Romantics “spoke directly of their emotions” in their poems, they also transformed these emotions posthaste into “cosmic equations and symbols” for something else. They hoped to lose their sorrows and their selves as quickly as possible “in the music of universal forlornness.” Midcentury poets, for their part, resisted such transformations—they protected themselves against such loss. Rebelling with equal force against the Romantic legacy and the modernist tradition, these poets chose personality as their second medium, alongside (or even, at times, above) the written word. The I they uttered would be an obdurate thing, gumming the works of transcendence, slowing the enrichment of life into literature.
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Whether readers (then or now) approve of the genre, whether they even believe it exists, a generation of them could take the idea of “confessional poetry” for granted—and this alone is an important fact. But most readers weren’t simply aware of confessionalism; they were thirsty for what it had to offer. They didn’t wait around to see which poems the critics would deem properly “confessional.” Instead, they looked for confession everywhere. Restless and suspicious, these new readers could spot the least hint of fact, could sense the faintest whiff of abjection. Whether poets liked it or not, the rules had changed. Poetry had once been abstract until proven confessional; now it was the other way around.
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From The Art of Confession: The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV
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Consort of Viols

(For M.P. and R.N.)

Kathleen Raine

Consort of ViolsThe seven musicians tune their instruments

Listen and let silence speak

As symphony moves, now fast, now slow

From recollection diaspason

Diatessaron, diapente flow.
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Held in their now

Moving in time about its centre

The seven come and go, each sphere

Uttering its single sound for ever,
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Now far, now near.

Now fast, now slow they flow.
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What waves utter ear can know;

The shell formed by the sea can hear

And fall, their ebb and flow.
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Viols, all lovers know

Answer one another without touch of bow.

The seven are lovers, for so

Harmonious with the Word

That calls the living from the dust,

Mute wood, mute string, and rude

Humanity trembles, whether high or low

The numbers flow.

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From Alexandria to Alexandra: Parallel Visions of Loss in Cavafy and Cohen

By Kutay Onaylı
From Alexandria to AlexandraLeonard Cohen’s song-poem “Alexandra Leaving,” at first glance, is a rather simple refashioning of Constantine Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony”: a similarly-named woman replaces the city as an object of loss, resulting in the creation of a tale of failed romantic love that is commonplace in Cohen’s repertoire. A more careful reading of Cohen’s work, however, would reveal that there is more to the adaptation than a dropping of the letter i: Cohen does not only restate the story Cavafy tells in “Antony” in a different framework but also expands and modifies it. This paper is an attempt at outlining some of the deliberate additions and reductions Cohen made to create an Alexandra that represents, in the same way that Cavafy’s Alexandria is more than a mere re-telling of Plutarch, not a mere lost lover but a vision of loss and dignity that is derived from and remains in strong dialogue with that of Cavafy.
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The first important departure Cohen makes in his adaption of Cavafy’s work is the removal of the “invisible procession.” In “The God Abandons Antony,” the procession that announces Alexandria’s loss is introduced as early as the second line of the poem and is referred back to over and over again through the work. Cavafy clearly connects the sounds heard by the person spoken to by the narrator to this procession at least twice in the poem: The lines “when suddenly, at midnight, you hear/ an invisible procession going by/ with exquisite music, voices,” and “listen…to the voices/ to the exquisite music of that strange procession,” constitute one fifth of the entire work and provide the framework the rest of the narrative takes place in. In Cohen’s version, however, there is absolutely no mention of the procession—the initial sensory experience that happens “suddenly” is instead that “the night has grown colder.” The movement, furthermore, is modified to come not from outside the window but from inside a dwelling and the individual himself when Cohen says: “the god of love preparing to depart./ Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder, they slip between the sentries of the heart.” Hearing –and taste, an addition Cohen makes- is introduced with the line “They fall amongst the voices and the wine.” and referred back to with “Go firmly to the window. Drink it in./ Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.” In both lines, the source of the sensory experience remains unclear. This deliberate unclarity, in combination to the references to wine (and the connection formed between the voices and the wine, evoking a tavern-like setting) and the audibility of Alexandra’s laughter from afar indicate that the thing that is being lost is moving across space and time—essentially echoing Cavafy’s representation of Alexandria as a space and time that is transforming into something different than Anthony’s Alexandria. Cohen, however, in expressing his perception of the phenomenon of loss, makes the “procession” literally invisible in his verses and buries the source of the sensory experience within the object of loss itself.
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Read the complete article, plus “Alexandra Leaving” by Leonard Cohen and “The God Abandons Antony” by C.P. Cavafy (See also The God Abandons Antony)
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Listen to Leonard Cohen sing “Alexandra Leaving”

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