DAVID YAFFE ON TRYING TO KEEP UP WITH AN ICON
When I was 15, I had a high school girlfriend who was a couple of years older than me—dog years in those days. She had a piano and a stereo in her room, and very tolerant parents. We were both music students at an arts high school in Dallas; she sang, I played piano. We had a ritual of lying on her bed together in pitch-darkness, taking in what we were hearing with everything we had—the Velvet Underground, Miles Davis. One day, she played me Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Years later Joni would tell me that when she made that album she was totally without defenses, as vulnerable as “a cellophane wrapper on a packet of cigarettes,” as she once put it. When one is 15, everything is new and raw. I was falling in love with a girl and falling in love with this music. Neither came to you. You had to come to them. I held on tight in those tender, cellophane years.
In time, I would learn that while Joni was famous for being tender in public she also had to be tough in private. By the time Blue was released in 1971, she had survived polio and a bad first marriage, and recently fended off a marriage proposal from Graham Nash, whom she had loved. I didn’t know about these things yet. But my need to know about this woman I heard on the record eventually brought me closer and closer.
Over the years, I would turn to Joni’s music, sometimes when I needed to hear her tell me, as she does in “Trouble Child,” that I really am inconsolably on my own: “So what are you going to do about it / You can’t live life and you can’t leave it.” Ouch. And yet, in that voice, in those chords, there was nevertheless an implicit promise that life would go on, and would be full of surprises. And in her music, as again and again she sought someone who could understand her, who could offer a counterbalance to her ramblings and yearnings, she would tell us not to listen for her but to listen for ourselves. She wanted us to have some sort of transference. It was not a delusion to listen for yourself. It was an injunction.
Excerpted from David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter
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David Yaffe was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1973. He is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University and a 2012 winner of the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. His writing has appeared in many publications, including The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times, Slate, New York, The Village Voice, The Daily Beast, and Bookforum. He is the author of Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown and Fascinating Rhythm.
A selection of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics will be included in our study of “The Poetry in Popular Music” on October 26. Please bring your own favourite examples – whether on the original or expanded topic – and, preferably, post them first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.
See the SCHEDULE PAGE for submissions to-date.
Curtis Fox talks to poets Robin Coste Lewis and Marcus Wicker about the recent US election and they read some appropriate poems.
Stratford veterans Colm Feore and Seana McKenna describe what Shakespeare demands of his actors; how his characters embody the essential qualities of humanity, and why Shakespeare in the 21st century is more relevant than ever.
Listen to this, from the CBC Radio show Sunday Edition: The timeless genius of William Shakespeare
Filed under Audio, Interview
Harold Bloom is 84 and a little under the weather. He is one of Yale’s more famous professors (where he’s been teaching for 60 years) and the author of dozens of books (including an anthology for “Extremely Intelligent Children”), many of them best sellers, many of them fascinating and enlightening, some of them infuriating or confusing (if you are not up on your Gnostic texts or the Kabbalah), and all of them written in his unmistakable voice — imperious, sympathetic, melancholy, intimate, playful, and brilliant in both depth and breadth. Long before we were friends, and in an academic pool in which I don’t so much as dip a toe, he was also a major pot-stirrer. I gather that the admiration he expresses for many women poets, for many gay poets (“Three out of four poets in America are gay or bisexual,” he says. “More than half of all the great poets are”), for James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (“A great friend, a magnificent writer, his Invisible Man is a novel as powerful as Magic Mountain”), for the poets Jay Wright and Thylias Moss, for writers as contemporary as Don DeLillo, Carl Phillips, and Henri Cole, didn’t count for much with the opposition when he wrote The Western Canon in 1994. He was seen as a forceful, unpleasantly old-fashioned defender of the Canon As Was. As he says, he was described as someone who partook of a cult of personality or self-obsession rather than of the “special vision” of critics focused on issues of gender, color, and power — and Lacanians and deconstructionists. He coined the catchy phrase “School of Resentment” (“I think, really, they resent difficult poetry and aesthetic splendor”), and he made a lot of people understandably angry, some of whom are angry still.
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The publisher of the Beats talks about Ginsberg the showman, the Albert hall ‘happening’ and how one of his own poets emptied the City Lights till.
Breast the brow of Stockton Street in North Beach, San Francisco, and the bay opens up before you, framed by the cream-white clapboard buildings that predominate in this old Italian neighbourhood. The island of Alcatraz prison is visible just across the water. Turn right and in a few hundred yards, on a corner, is an unprepossessing three-storey house. Press the middle bell and be prepared to wait. The occupant is old: 96. A slow footfall, and there he stands, still erect and tall: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher to the Beats, poet laureate to his home town.
He directs me upstairs to the kitchen of his second floor apartment, past a scrappy unframed poster of Vladimir Mayakovsky taped roughly to the wall. “It’s a real Italian building,” he says. “The kitchen is the entire width of the house.” Ferlinghetti has lived here, on his own, for more than 30 years. I’m here to talk to him about a confluence of significant events: the 60th anniversary of the company he founded, City Lights, publishers of a celebrated poetry list that includes Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and an extensive range of titles in radical politics and offbeat fiction; the appearance later this year of a collection of his correspondence with Ginsberg, and a compilation of his own travel writings; and another anniversary, that of the International Poetry Incarnation, held in the Albert Hall in London 50 years ago this summer. There, followed by Beat poets Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, he read to an audience of 7,000 at an event billed as Britain’s first “happening”.
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I came to Cracow on a foggy day just before Christmas 2003 to interview Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, for the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten. After having lived most of his life in exile, it is no surprise that Milosz chose to spend his final years in Cracow – no other Polish city offers such a fascinating fusion of culture, tradition and modernity.
Milosz was born in 1911 in Lithuania, at that time a part of Russia. He studied in Vilnius and made his debut as a poet in 1933. He was considered to be one of the most promising young Polish poets in the years between the First and Second World Wars. Shortly before the start of the Second World War he left his post as diplomat and sought political asylum in France. In 1961 he accepted an offer of a professorship at the University of California in Berkeley, where he lectured for over 20 years, devoting his time simultaneously to academic duties, writing and translating.
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The Hennessy Hall of Fame poet looks back on her childhood and the path that led her to ‘stand up for the word’
When Michael D Higgins hosted a cultural evening in the Forbidden City in Beijing on his state visit to China in December, he invited Paula Meehan to read six poems from her book Dharmakaya, a collection inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Translations by Huiyi Bao, a student at University College Dublin, were inserted into the programme. Obliquely, the poems were a cry from the heart of a philosophy under threat.
It’s more than 40 years, and nine books, since Meehan emerged from childhood in the inner city Dublin tenements to give voice to the disenfranchised everywhere, less in anger than with compassion and an intuitive understanding that, through verse, imbued their lives and memories with mythic dignity.
“The work of poetry makes a better fist at arriving at what is human in the world than most things,” Higgins said in 2013. He was announcing Meehan’s appointment as Ireland professor of poetry, a three-year job rotating between Queens University, Trinity and UCD during which, through workshops and readings, she hopes to bring together “the energies of the academy and the energies of the street”.
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Carol Ann Duffy talks to Nicholas Wroe about turning the spotlight on poetry, writing verse for the Queen and why she won’t be appearing on I’m a Celebrity.
When Carol Ann Duffy was appointed poet laureate in 2009, the first woman to hold the post in its nearly 350-year history, she set herself several goals that included setting up new prizes, giving support to new festivals and helping to generate commissions for poets. But she had only one goal for herself as a practising poet. “I wanted to continue to write as I always had, and I have tried very hard not to write a poem I previously wouldn’t have written. There always had been a public element to my work, particularly during the Thatcher years, and I think all poets, to a greater or lesser degree, need to have a finger on the national pulse. Poetry provides an important alternative voice to journalists or pundits or academics as a way of dealing with things that matter to us all. But, for me, it was about finding the moment when my interests and my voice ran parallel to something that could be seen as public.”
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