One of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed African American writers of her generation, poet, playwright and essayist June Jordan was known for her fierce commitment to human rights and political activism. Over a career that produced twenty-seven volumes of poems, essays, libretti, and work for children, Jordan engaged the fundamental struggles of her era: for civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual freedom. A prolific writer across genres, Jordan’s poetry is known for its immediacy and accessibility as well as its interest in identity and the representation of personal, lived experience—her poetry is often deeply autobiographical. Jordan’s work also frequently imagines a radical, globalized notion of solidarity amongst the world’s marginalized and oppressed. In volumes like Some Changes (1971), Living Room (1985) and Kissing God Goodbye: Poems 1991-1997 (1997), Jordan uses conversational, often vernacular English to address topics ranging from family, bisexuality, political oppression, African American identity and racial inequality, and memory. Regarded as one of the key figures in the mid-century African American social, political and artistic milieu, Jordan also taught at many of the country’s most prestigious universities including Yale, State University of New York-Stony Brook, and the University of California-Berkley, where she founded Poetry for the People. Her honors and awards included fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and the National Association of Black Journalists Award.
How do we come to be here next to each other
in the night
Where are the stars that show us to our love
Outside the leaves flame usual in darkness
and the rain
falls cool and blessed on the holy flesh
the black men waiting on the corner for
a womanly mirage
I am amazed by peace
It is this possibility of you
and breathing in the quiet air
STEPHEN SPENDER: A Literary Life
By John Sutherland.
He must have been incredibly charming. Stephen Spender (1909-1995) pops up everywhere in Anglo-American literary history and seems to have known everyone. In his most famous poem, Spender wrote “I think continually of those who were truly great.” In his life he did more than think; he came to know the eminent as disciple, friend, confidant and adviser. He is like Zelig in Woody Allen’s film, there in the background or off to the side everywhere one turns — at a garden party with Virginia Woolf, hunched in the boy bars of 1930s Berlin with Christopher Isherwood, near the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War with Hemingway and Malraux, co-editing Horizon with Cyril Connolly during the Blitz.
And that’s just the start. When young Spender — scion of a comfortable middle-class family — traveled up to Oxford, he fell in among poets, and before long was part of “Macspaunday,” as a contemporary critic dubbed the cutting-edge group consisting of Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden, C. Day Lewis and the tall, shock-haired Spender. Soon T.S. Eliot welcomed him as the lyric poet of the age, while Woolf urged him to devote his manifest talents to fiction.
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It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
………………………………………………I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
On June 28, we will read and discuss poetry inspired by a piece of music, or vice-versa. Please bring your own favourite example 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.
Listen to Billie Holiday sing “Summertime”
Despite Kinsella’s radical change in form, his thematic concerns have remained the search for meaning and self-knowledge, the power of love, artistic creativity and the artist’s role
Born into the working-class neighbourhood of Inchicore, Dublin, in 1928, just six years after the founding of the Irish Free State, Thomas Kinsella is one of the most distinguished living Irish poets, with a body of work unlike that of any other Irish writer. Kinsella’s remarkable art is a reflection of his lifelong search for understanding and meaning amid the chaos of lived experience, and he has characterised his work as a process of “eliciting order from significant experience.” A prolific poet, he has published more than 30 collections, starting with Poems in 1956 and, most recently, Late Poems, in 2013. Kinsella continues to be a critical voice in Irish poetry, as evidenced in the latest edition of Poetry Ireland Review, published on September 12th, 2015. Edited by Vona Groarke, this special issue dedicated to WB Yeats includes detailed analysis by Kinsella of two important early Yeats poems, To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time and To Ireland in the Coming Times.
Kinsella did not start out as a writer, but instead spent many years working in the Irish Civil Service. He attended the Inchicore Model School and the O’Connell Christian Brothers’ Secondary School, where he won a scholarship to study science at University College Dublin. Realising that science was not the path he wished to pursue, he took the entrance exam for the Civil Service, and in 1946 he began working as a junior executive officer in the Land Commission, eventually rising up the ranks to the position of private secretary to TK Whitaker in the Department of Finance. While working as a civil servant by day, Kinsella was writing at night in his city-centre flat on Baggot Street, a location celebrated in one of his best-known early poems, Baggot Street Deserta. During this time he met the two people who were to have a formative influence on his life and career, Liam Miller, the publisher of the Dolmen Press, and Eleanor Walsh, his future wife. In 1955 Tom and Eleanor were married, and from their union emerge many poems on the theme of romantic love and its ability to survive the ordeals of life. Love poems commemorating their relationship are a large part of Kinsella’s first major collection, Another September (1958), which brought him to the attention of English as well as Irish readers. Subsequent early work garnered great critical acclaim in Ireland and England, and he received numerous awards including the Guinness Poetry Award in 1958 and the Denis Devlin Memorial Award in 1967.
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Filed under Biography, Study
Now out from Rizzoli, a new book collects the collages of the recently-deceased poet and erstwhile art critic
They Knew What They Wanted, edited by Mark Polizzotti and out with Rizzoli this week, places a lifetime of John Ashbery’s collages in conversation with his poems. The book selects poetry that either references the visual arts or uses collage as a compositional method, such as the ‘The Painter’, from his first book, Some Trees (1956), the pantoum ‘Hotel Lautréamont’ (1992) and the fragmentary ‘37 Haiku’ (1984) (‘Old-fashioned shadows hanging down, that difficulty in love too soon’). The collages share many traits with Ashbery’s poems: the collision of literal and figurative meanings, and of high and low culture, hilarious mise-en-scène, the intrusion of the comic on the sentimental and emphasis on games and formal playfulness.
The best of Ashbery’s collages date from the early 1970s, when he made a body of work from postcards in the company of artist and poet Joe Brainard and poet James Schuyler, including one called ‘Diffusion of Knowledge’ (1972) that shows Captain America and some other sinewy superhero looking inappropriately triumphant while blocking our view of the Smithsonian Institution. The collages offer a useful glimpse into Ashbery’s impish mind, and while almost always entertaining they could never match the range or inventiveness of the poetry. Sometimes the title – ‘Bingo Beethoven’ (2014) anybody? – outwits the collage itself. Yet the book serves to demonstrate the enduring importance of collage, in both poetry and the visual arts. Comte de Lautréamont, in his long poem Les Chants de Maldoror (1869), may have invented the collage when he couldn’t find a metaphor that would adequately express the beauty of a 16-year-old boy. ‘As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!’ he wrote, replacing conventional emotion with comic violence. Lautréamont’s collision of images summoned a fresh, unstable beauty. Driven by juxtaposition, the poem becomes a self-rejuvenating machine. It’s a method that Ashbery has taken to heart.
When I first embarked on writing a biography of Pablo Neruda over a decade ago, I wanted to explore the political power of poetry and its capacity to inspire social change. Neruda’s social verse was an integral part of the humanity he expressed; even without pen in hand, he boldly inserted himself into direct action.
I happened to finish the book—Neruda: The Poet’s Calling—at the end of Trump’s first hundred days in office. As a result, the questions that I’d been exploring for years suddenly took on new urgency. As resistance increasingly becomes the operative word in our current political reality, what can one of the most important and iconic resistance poets of the past century offer us? What might he give us as we continue to shape the next chapter in our own cultural story? Some answers, or at least perspectives, can be found in the vivid details of Neruda’s life and work.
Neruda’s legacy was directly shaped by the historical events in which he played a part. In his early youth, during Chile’s revolutionary student movement, he played the role of an activist-writer, the voice of a young generation challenging the country’s controlling aristocracy. In his final years, he vigorously defended Chile against U.S. intervention and, as ambassador to France, represented Salvador Allende’s historic socialist government. His relationship to readers and to his own writing was shaped by these periods of acute political crisis and authoritarianism.
Craig Morgan Teicher
Galway Kinnell was often compared to his favorite poet, Walt Whitman, whose “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Kinnell movingly read aloud every year on the far side of the Brooklyn Bridge at a benefit for the New York poetry library Poets House. Like Whitman, Kinnell — who died in 2014 having won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and a MacArthur, among other honors for books published between the 1960 and 2006 — was a poet of capacious interest in the natural world, profound commitment to social justice, and deep sympathy for the people he saw.
He was a poet of his time, meaning both that he depicts the world, concerns and values of the last third of the 20th century, and that his poems are like those of many of his peers born at the end of the 1920s — A.R. Ammons, Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich — who broke free of the strict formalism of 1950s American poetry to create the more impressionistic, sometimes surreal, nature-focused poetry of the late 1960s and 1970s. For many, Kinnell’s poems are exactly what one thinks of when one thinks of contemporary poetry. All of his books are collected here, along with a handful of late poems. It is impossible to consider the landscape of the last 50 years of American poetry without Kinnell.
Kinnell was inarguably a great poet. Among the subjects he was best at were steadfastness in marriage and parenthood. In his famous poem “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” Kinnell’s young son Fergus wanders into his parents’ room when “we lie together, / after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodes, / familiar touch of the long-married.” Then Fergus “flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep, / his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.” There is no ball and chain here, no ambitions crushed beneath the weight of child-rearing. Kinnell’s world is enlarged and infinitely specified by his love for his family.
Filed under Biography, Study
The Legendary Playwright On His Brush With The Great Poet
T.S. Eliot I only saw once, some time in 1964. It was on the old Central Station in Leeds, long since demolished, which was the terminus for the London trains. I was with Timothy Binyon, with whom I had been at college and who in 1964 was a lecturer in Russian at Leeds University and was also teaching me to drive. In the early 1960s there had been a long overdue attempt to reactivate the slot machines which all through the war years and after had stood empty and disconsolate on railway platforms, a sad reminder of what life had been like before the war. Now briefly there was chocolate in the machines again and cigarettes too; it had taken 20 years but austerity was seemingly at an end. One beneficiary of this development was a rudimentary printing machine to be found on most mainline stations. Painted pillarbox red it was a square console on legs with a dial on the top and a pointer. Using this pointer, for sixpence or a shilling one could spell out one’s name and address which would then be printed onto a strip of aluminium which could be attached to one’s suitcase, kitbag or whatever. Astonished to find such a machine actually working after decades of disuse, Binyon and I were printing out our names watched by a friendly middle-aged woman who was equally fascinated.
It was at this point the train came in and after most of the passengers had cleared there came a small procession headed by the friendly lady, whom I now recognized as Mrs. Fletcher, a customer at my father’s butcher’s shop, followed by her daughter Valerie pushing a wheelchair with, under a pile of rugs, her husband T.S. Eliot; all accompanied by a flotilla of porters. It was only when this cavalcade had passed that the person we were waiting for made her appearance—namely the current editor of the London Review of Books, Mary-Kay Wilmers, who at that time worked for Faber and Faber and whose titular boss Eliot had been.
T.S. Eliot died early the following year. Timothy Binyon, having produced a definitive biography of Pushkin, died in 2004 and now Valerie Eliot has died. I only met her a couple of times, though was persuaded to attend her funeral if only because, through her family coming to our shop, I had known her longest—if in some respects least. What Valerie Eliot did do, though, was to send me the notes her husband had made on the inside of his program after their visit to Beyond the Fringe:
An amazingly vigorous quartet of young men: their show well produced and fast moving, a mixture of brilliance, juvenility and bad taste. Brilliance illustrated by a speech by Macmillan (Cook), a sermon (Bennett) and an interview with an African politician (Miller, who otherwise reminded us of Auden). Juvenility by anti-nuclear-bomb scene, anti-capital-punishment scene and the absence of any satire at the expense of the Labour Party. Bad taste by armpits and Lady Astor speech (?). Still, it is pleasant to see this type of entertainment so successful.
Robert Bringhurst was born October 16, 1946, in the ghetto of South Central Los Angeles. He was the only child of a migratory family, raised in the mountain and desert country of Alberta, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and British Columbia. He spent ten years as an itinerant undergraduate, studying physics, architecture and linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, philosophy and oriental languages at the University of Utah, and comparative literature at Indiana University, which gave him a BA in 1973. He had published two books of poems before entering the writing program at the University of British Columbia, which awarded him an MFA in 1975.
From 1977 to 1980 he taught writing and English literature at UBC, and for some years after that made his living as a typographer. He has also been poet-in-residence and writer-in-residence at several universities in North America and Europe.
He has lived in Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, France, Peru, Panama and Japan, as well as the UK, the USA and Canada, and has published translations from Arabic, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Navajo and Haida. Since 1985, his linguistic work has concentrated increasingly on Native American languages, especially those of the British Columbia coast.
Bringhurst is first and foremost a poet, but he has published a substantial quantity of prose, invading the domains of art history, typography, linguistics, classical studies and literary criticism, without the least sign of respect for disciplinary boundaries. His book The Elements of Typographic Style (2nd ed., 1996) is now a standard text in its field. His Black Canoe (2nd ed., 1992) is one of the classics in the field of Native American art history, and The Raven Steals the Light, which he cowrote with Haida artist Bill Reid (reissued in 1996 with a new preface by Claude Lévi-Strauss) is among the most popular books in Canada in the field of Native Studies.