Category Archives: Biography

One Long Poem

HEATHER TRESELERElizabeth_Bishop-2[Elizabeth] Bishop’s confessional peers made it easy for her to be miscast as a cautious dowager. In the late 1950s and ’60s, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Anne Sexton, among others, boldly capitalized on the mid-century zeitgeist of domestic rebellion, writing poems that explored alcoholism and suicide, incest and infidelity, nuclear bombs and non-nuclear families—subjects that many Americans still regarded as taboo. By contrast, Bishop’s poems had a “Cordelia-like” quality, as Seamus Heaney described it: a sense that secrets were held in abeyance or dimly glossed as she rendered natural tableaux, ekphrastic meditations, and impersonal love poems, offering the reader startling moments—“the little that we get for free, / the little of our earthly trust”—without the full, wearying poignancy of what it took to arrive at them.
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Bishop indeed avoided what she termed “the tendency . . . to overdo the morbidity” that became common as confessionalism—or Robert Lowellism—came into vogue, spearheaded by her close friend and correspondent. Lowell’s Life Studies was published in 1959, offering portraits of his Beacon Hill childhood and bipolar episodes, his dread of Eisenhower, and his drunken nights with Delmore Schwartz and a taxidermied, rum-pickled duck. A few years later, Sexton, Lowell’s student, electrified the Boston poetry scene with her rock band and poems about suburban despair—thrilling audiences with her well-dressed rebelliousness, chthonic verse, and lean good looks. The poetry reading had not been so sexed up since W. H. Auden had read at Harvard in his scuffed-up bedroom slippers.
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Bishop did not approve. Writing to Lowell from her expatriate residence in Brazil in 1960, she asserted that Sexton’s poems “had a bit too much romanticism and what I think of as the ‘our beautiful old silver’ school of female writing. . . . They have to make quite sure that the reader is not going to mis-place them socially, first.” Aware of how a poet might capitalize on gender, class, and family name, Bishop largely steered clear of autobiographical conceits and political critique in her first collection, North & South (1946). Later, as her poems engaged more directly with the plights and pleasures of the individual, they never showed up with a bassist, a menstrual cycle, or an aristocratic clan primed for desecration. Alongside the confessionals’ striptease, Bishop appeared reliably clothed.
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We’ll be reading and discussing the poetry of Anne Sexton on July 27 and that of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28.

 

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Czeslaw Milosz: One of the most fascinating poets of the past 100 years

By Troy Jollimore

Czeslaw Milosz-100-yearsAt 4 in the morning on Oct. 9, 1980, Czeslaw Milosz’s phone rang. The caller was a Swedish journalist who informed him that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It can’t be true,” Milosz said, and hung up and went back to sleep.
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This, at any rate, is the story Milosz told later. Most likely it isn’t true. But there is at least a grain of truth in it: Many people, not just Milosz himself, must have thought, “It can’t be true” on learning that the 69-year-old Lithuanian-born poet and author, who since the early 1960s had been laboring in obscurity as a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, had suddenly been transformed into a celebrity by winning the most prestigious literary prize on the planet.
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In America, he was practically unknown as a writer; most of his work had never been translated into English. In Poland, his writings had been banned for decades, ever since his 1951 defection to the West, which followed several years during which he worked as a diplomat for the Soviet-controlled government that had run the country since the end of World War II. There were those in Eastern Europe who remembered him, some with antipathy, labeling him a traitor, others with fondness and admiration. His work circulated, unofficially and in often in small, hand-produced formats, despite the efforts of the Polish regime to squelch it.
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Elizabeth Bishop and Modern American Poetry

by Jonathan Ellis

Elizabeth Bishop and Modern American PoetryAmerican poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was one of the most praised poets of her generation. Yet she was never the most read or respected at the time. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965) both sold more copies than any of her collections, while Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) continues to take the critical plaudits as the key work of poetry for most post-World War II readers. Lowell was godfather to the Confessional poets. His gift was somehow to fuse the radical themes of Beat writers like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac with the formal ingenuity of poet-critics like Randall Jarrell and Allan Tate. As a teacher at Harvard in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, he also acted as an informal mentor to a new generation of younger poets, including Plath and Anne Sexton. Bishop’s influence, on the other hand, took time to make itself felt and is still something of a well-kept secret. While each of her four collections of poetry gained recognition from her peers in the form of various fellowships and prizes, this acclaim did not immediately translate into much academic interest or popular success. At the time of her death there was just a single critical book on her work, a short introductory study by the poet Anne Stevenson. Poetry readers knew her, if at all, as the author of the much-anthologised piece, ‘The Fish’ (Bishop called it ‘that damned Fish’, [2] so sick was she of requests to republish it).
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Much has changed since the 1980s. Bishop, rather than Lowell, is the poet new writers usually cut their teeth against. She is a favourite poet of authors as diverse as Thom Gunn and Paul Muldoon, Jorie Graham and Louise Glück, Lavinia Greenlaw and Jo Shapcott. In fact, poets have been instrumental in raising Bishop’s profile, as well as providing some of the most acute and intelligent assessments of her work. Adrienne Rich’s 1983 review of Bishop’s Complete Poems is central to this. It was one of the first feminist readings of Bishop’s life and art, connecting ‘her experience of outsiderhood’ with ‘the essential outsiderhood of lesbian identity’. [3] While other poets disagreed with this assessment – notably Alicia Ostriker, who characterised Bishop in 1987 as one of those ‘poets who would be ladies’ [4] – it laid the groundwork for women poets’ re-reading of Bishop in the 1990s as a more sensual and sexual writer than had previously been thought. The poetry of Deryn Rees-Jones in England, Caítriona O’Reilly in Ireland, and Sandra McPherson in America, all owe something to Bishop’s understated, almost invisible, focus on the human body.

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An early reminder that we’ll be discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28

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The Circuitous Path of Papa and Ezra

The Circuitous Path of Papa and EzraErnest Hemingway and Ezra Pound’s friendship spanned continents—and ideologies.

By ALLEN MENDENHALL

Ernest Hemingway, fresh off his marriage to Hadley Richardson, his first wife, arrived in Paris in 1921. Paris was a playground for writers and artists, offering respite from the radical politics spreading across Europe. Sherwood Anderson supplied Hemingway with a letter of introduction to Ezra Pound. The two litterateurs met at Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and struck up a friendship that would shape the world of letters.
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They frolicked the streets of Paris as bohemians, joined by rambunctious and disillusioned painters, aesthetes, druggies, and drinkers. They smoked opium, inhabited salons, and delighted in casual soirées, fine champagnes, expensive caviars, and robust conversations about art, literature, and the avant-garde. Pound was, through 1923, exuberant, having fallen for Olga Rudge, his soon-to-be mistress, a young concert violinist with firm breasts, shapely curves, midnight hair, and long eyebrows and eyelashes. She exuded a kind of mystical sensuality unique among eccentric highbrow musicians; Pound found her irresistible.
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Pound was known for his loyalty to friends. Although he had many companions besides Hemingway—among them William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Robert McAlmon, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Pablo Picasso, Wyndham Lewis, T.E. Hulme, William Carlos Williams, Walter Morse Rummel, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Cocteau, and Malcolm Cowley—Hemingway arguably did more than the others to reciprocate Pound’s favors, at least during the Paris years when he promoted Pound as Pound promoted others.
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Pound was aware of Hemingway’s talent for publicity: he and Hemingway had combined their genius to promote Eliot’s The Waste Land. Hemingway introduced Pound to William Bird, an American reporter who arranged to publish an autobiographical piece about Pound’s childhood. Bird was instrumental to the eventual publication of Pound’s A Draft of XVI Cantos. Pound, for his part, secured for Hemingway a position as assistant editor of The Transatlantic Review. Their relationship matured into something symbiotic and mutually beneficial.

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Today’s Birthday: Carl Sandburg

Carl_Sandburg(From poets.org): Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on January 6, 1878. His parents, August and Clara Johnson, had emigrated to America from the north of Sweden. After encountering several August Johnsons in his job for the railroad, the Sandburg’s father renamed the family. The Sandburgs were very poor; Carl left school at the age of thirteen to work odd jobs, from laying bricks to dishwashing, to help support his family. At seventeen, he traveled west to Kansas as a hobo. He then served eight months in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American war. While serving, Sandburg met a student at Lombard College, the small school located in Sandburg’s hometown. The young man convinced Sandburg to enroll in Lombard after his return from the war.
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Fog

By Carl Sandburg

fogThe fog comes

on little cat feet.
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It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.
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Read this excellent article about Carl Sandburg: A Workingman’s Poet

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American Poet W. S. Merwin Discusses His Inspiration

ws_merwinIn a rare New York appearance, American poet W. S. Merwin discusses his inspiration.
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Another reminder that Bill Ellis and Graeme Hughes will be reading and discussing a selection of poems from W. S. Merwin’s book, The Shadow of Sirius, on January 26, 2017. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems.

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A sense of place

Derek Mahon’s work is often linked with that of his Northern Irish peers, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. But he argues that Belfast’s literary tradition has deeper roots

By Nicholas Wroe

a-sense-of-placeIn September 1963 Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley visited the County Down grave of the great Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice, who had died a short time before. Longley, writing recently in the introduction to a selection of MacNeice’s poems, recalled that as they “dawdled between the graves” all three then-unpublished poets were silently “contemplating an elegy”. When they next met, Mahon read them “In Carrowdore Churchyard”: “Your ashes will not stir, even on this high ground / However the wind tugs, the headstones shake”. Seamus Heaney started to read his poem but “then crumpled it up”. Longley says he decided not even to attempt the task. “Mahon had produced the definitive elegy.”
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In the years since, Mahon’s poems, – most famously “A Disused Shed in Co Wexford” and “Courtyards in Delft” – have become staples of anthologies and school curricula. Heaney, writing about Mahon’s 1982 collection The Hunt By Night, said “there is a copiousness and excitement about these poems found only in work of the highest order”. Another critic called him “a Belfast Keats with a Popean sting”.

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For Philip Levine, Poet and Friend (1928–2015)

Joanne Barkan, Jon R. Friedman, and Michael Walzer  March 4, 2015

Philip_LevineColleagues, critics, and obituary writers have described Philip Levine as “poet of the American working class,” “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland,” the poet who explored “his gritty Detroit childhood; the soul-numbing factory jobs he held as a youth; Spain, where he lived for some time as an adult; and the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s, a personal passion since he was a boy.” He was both one of American poetry’s “most intense, elegantly strident voices” and “a thoroughbred moral comedian.” In 1968 he was also “among the writers who vowed not to pay taxes until the Vietnam War ended.”
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When Phil died, flags flew at half-mast at Fresno State, the university where he taught hundreds of students over more than thirty years—many of them with backgrounds like his own, children of immigrants and the first in their families to attend college. The tribute from Fresno State might have pleased him more than any other.
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Phil published twenty volumes of poetry, received every major literary award to be won, and was named poet laureate of the United States for 2011–12. He had a large circle of friends who loved him dearly, including me and my husband Jon Friedman. And to love Phil was, and is, to love Franny Levine, his wife. They were constant companions, and their rapport looked as fresh and joyful after more than sixty years as it must have looked when they met at the University of Iowa in the early 1950s and fell in love.

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The Erotic Bard of Ancient Rome

The life of Roman poet Catullus was stranger than fiction, but a new biography speculates far more than any history should.

BY JAMES ROMM

the-erotic-bard-of-ancient-rome“This bedspread, / Embroidered with the shapes of men / Who lived long ago, unveils the virtue of heroes / Through the miracle of art.” These lines, from a mini-epic by the Roman poet Catullus, speak of a coverlet given to Thetis, mother of Achilles, on her wedding day; Catullus is about to set its embroidered scene into motion using the “miracle” of poetry. With a racy title—Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet—and the use of this quote as epigram, classicist Daisy Dunn lays claim to a parallel miracle: The reanimation, for modern readers, of the poet himself. It’s a noble goal, but one that can be pulled off only by resorting to the dark arts of historical biography—guesswork, speculation, and the reconstruction of characters’ thoughts and feelings. Dunn’s book raises questions about how far these forms of necromancy can be taken before nonfiction passes over into fiction, and scholarship is eclipsed by romance.   

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Brilliant, Troubled Dorothy Parker

By Robert Gottlieb

Dorothy_ParkerWhat are we to make today of this famous woman who, beginning almost a century ago, has fascinated generations with her wit, flair, talent, and near genius for self-destruction? For some, what registers most strongly is her central role in the legend of the Algonquin Round Table, with its campiness of wisecracks, quips, and put-downs—a part of her life she would come to repudiate. For others, it’s the descent into alcoholism, and the sad final years holed up in Manhattan’s Volney Hotel. Pick your myth.

As for her writing, it has evoked ridiculous exaggeration from her votaries, both her contemporaries and her biographers. Vincent Sheean: “Among contemporary artists, I would put her next to Hemingway and Bill Faulkner. She wasn’t Shakespeare, but what she was, was true.” John Keats in his biography of her, You Might as Well Live (1970): “She wrote poetry that was at least as good as the best of Millay and Housman. She wrote some stories that are easily as good as some of O’Hara and Hemingway.” This is praise that manages to be inflated and qualified at the same time.

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