Category Archives: Reviews

Dear Rose

By Ocean Vuong

Introduction by Ben Lerner

Dear RoseOceans and roses are surely among the most shopworn images in poetry, as Ocean Vuong is well aware: “I place your finger on a flower so / familiar it’s almost synthetic.” In this poem, however, Rose is not only the English name of the speaker’s mother, Hong, but a metaphor for displacement: from Vietnamese to English, and from speech to writing, since this is a poem addressed to a mother who cannot read it. The rose is no longer Shakespeare’s (or whoever’s) symbol of fleeting beauty. Instead, “like something ruptured / by a bullet,” the rose is a wound or, later, the open mouth of the infant Ocean. We’ve been told that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but Hong, who has become Rose as a result of a colonial war, knows that a name must “bear the scent of its corpses.”
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Part of the power of this poem derives from its eloquent ambivalence about its own power. A book seems to open like a door, only to shut like a coffin lid. The poet admits that he imposes the significance he hopes to discover in the zigzagging patterns of ants. In lieu of action, vacillation: “I put in the fish sauce I take out / the fish sauce.” Other voices discourage him: “stop writing / about your mother they said.” And so on. Vuong’s compelling mixture of determination and doubt shapes the form of the poem, which combines a strict stanzaic pattern with heavily enjambed lines, one meaning dissolving into another across the margins like the “linear / fish-spine dissolved by time” in the sauce that Rose prepares. The fish sauce is Rose’s art and, like Ocean’s, it both preserves and destroys, transforms and crushes — a composition that depends on decomposition: “these words these / insects anchovies bullets salvaged / & exiled by art.”
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On January 25 we will celebrate the use of the rose as a poetic symbol or metaphor. Please bring your own illustration of this for reading and discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.

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ON POETRY IN FULL COLOR

ON POETRY IN FULL COLORA new Johns Hopkins book, That Swing: Poems 2008-2016, takes its title from Duke Ellington’s song “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”  That statement seems to fit a collection of verse almost entirely written in meter—regular rhythms—-and might be taken as an objection to free verse.  To write in meter and rhyme, I know, is to risk being branded as old-fangled.  But then, nearly all the tremendous body of poetry in English prior to our century is old-fangled too.   The rise of free verse, said Stanley Kunitz, has made poetry easier to write, but harder to remember. Poetry that doesn’t bother to rhyme and scan often strikes me as pallid, like black-and-white television.  Poetry needs all the music it can get,  T.S. Eliot once told a poet he’d rejected for The Criterion that he had “found it advantageous in correcting [his] lines to read them aloud to the beat of a small drum.”
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Some think a poem has to be a memory of actual experience, a faithful diary entry.  But if indeed the poem derives from memory, I believe in letting it lie flagrantly, as much as it likes. As Frank Lloyd Wright remarked, “The truth is more important than the facts.”

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The voice of America

The voice of AmericaRobert Lowell’s pacifism in the Vietnam era was courageous. Tom Paulin finds a matching heroism in his Collected Poems

The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell

As a teenager, in 1967, I remember reading these lines of Lowell’s quoted in a review of his latest volume, Near the Ocean, in The Observer.
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Pity the planet, all joy gone

From this sweet volcanic cone,

Peace to our children when they fall

in small war on the heels of small

war – until the end of time

to police the earth, a ghost

orbiting forever lost

in our monotonous sublime.
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Reading these lines from ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’, I immediately saw their relevance to the Vietnam war, which raged in the news and in our minds. Lowell, I knew, had marched on the Pentagon in protest. With Norman Mailer, Denise Levertov and Alan Ginsberg, he had opposed his country’s brutal prosecution of that unjust war. Reading his lines, with that deliberately stumbling enjambment on that second ‘small’, I knew that this was a prophetic, public poet and a courageous pacifist.
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Rereading his lines now, on the heels of another unjust, small war, I see that Lowell is drawing on Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (that sweet volcanic cone) and adapting Marvell’s octosyllabic couplets and stanza form allusively to reinforce his public stance. He knows the heart of darkness in the American imperial sublime, as his fascination with Melville shows – Ahab in Moby-Dick is ‘the fanatic idealist who brings the world down through some sort of simplicity of mind’. He adds that this is ‘in our character and in my own personal character’.

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The Language of Flowers

The Language of FlowersEdited by Jane Holloway

[From the publisher] A uniquely international anthology–in a beautiful pocket-sized hardcover–that explores the richly symbolic expressiveness of flowers through poems from around the world and through the ages.
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Floral symbols adorn the earliest poetry, and over the centuries they became increasingly entwined with myth and legend, with religious symbolism, and with herbal folklore. By the early nineteenth century the “Language of Flora” was an elaborately refined system, especially in England and America, where books listing flower meanings and illustrating them with verse were perennial bestsellers.
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Transcending the charm of its Victorian predecessors, this anthology creates an extended, updated, and more robust floral anthology for the twenty-first century, presenting poets through the ages from Sappho, Shakespeare, and Shelley to Ted Hughes, Mary Oliver, and Louise Glück, and across the world from Cuba to Korea, Russia to Zimbabwe. Eastern cultures, rich in flower associations, are well represented: Tang poems celebrating chrysanthemums and peonies, Zen poems about orchids and lotus flowers, poems about jasmine and marigolds from India, and roses and narcissi from Persia, the Ottoman empire, and the Arabic world. The most timeless human emotions and concepts–love, hope, despair, fidelity, grief, beauty, and mortality–find colorful expression in The Language of Flowers.
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Read an excerpt: The Language of Flowers_Excerpt
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We will be reading and discussing the enduring role of the rose as a poetic symbol and metaphor on January 25 2018.

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“repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise”: Poets Mourning Poets

By Casey N. Cep

repeat, repeat, repeat“I used to want to live / to avoid your elegy,” Robert Lowell confessed in “For John Berryman.”
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The death of one poet is an extraordinary occasion for another poet. It is like the day a stonemason dies and another has to carve his headstone. Like a rough ashlar, the elegy sits waiting to be shaped into a memorial for the one who is gone. The death of a poet so great as Jack Gilbert last week pains, but also promises remembrances fitting the one who died.
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Gilbert devoted most of his elegies to his wife, Michiko Nogami, but poets have forever elegized one another. We can trace the canon through the poems that poets have written to mourn their own: Henri Cole grieving Elizabeth Bishop; Bishop remembering Robert Lowell; Lowell lamenting the death of John Berryman; Berryman longing for Roethke, Jarrell, Hughes, Plath, Schwartz, and William Carlos Williams; W.H. Auden elegizing Yeats; Shelley bemoaning the loss of Keats; all the way back to Ovid mourning Orpheus.

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Leonard Cohen’s last book, finished ‘days before his death’, due out next year

The Flame collects unpublished poetry, as well as notebook entries and song lyrics, and offers ‘an intimate look inside the life and mind of a singular artist’

Alison Flood

Leonard Cohen's last bookA book of Leonard Cohen’s final poems, completed in the months before his death and tackling “the flame and how our culture threatened its extinction”, according to his manager, will be published next year.
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Describing the collection, The Flame, as “an enormously powerful final chapter in Cohen’s storied literary career”, publisher Canongate said that the Canadian singer-songwriter had chosen and ordered the poems in the months before his death in November 2016. The overwhelming majority of the book, which will be published next October, will be new material, it added.
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Cohen, who died at the age of 82, originally focused his career on poetry, publishing the collections Let Us Compare Mythologies in 1956, The Spice-Box of Earth in 1961, and Flowers for Hitler in 1964. By the late 60s, he was concentrating more on music, releasing his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967.
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Cohen’s manager and trustee of his estate Robert Kory said that pulling The Flame together had been a key ambition for the singer-songwriter at the end of his life. “During the final months of his life, Leonard had a singular focus – completing this book, taken largely from his unpublished poems and selections from his notebooks. The flame and how our culture threatened its extinction was a central concern,” said Kory.

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A selection of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics will be included in our reading and discussion of “The Poetry in Popular Music” on October 26. Please bring your own favourite examples of this, or on our expanded topic of poetry that has inspired music, or vice-versa, and 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.

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Joni Mitchell’s Openhearted Heroism

She made the best music of her generation by falling in love, over and over, while defending her sense of self.

By Dan Chiasson

Joni Mitchell_s Openhearted HeroismIn 1969, Cary Raditz, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, quit his job in advertising and headed to Europe to bum around with his girlfriend. They ended up in Matala, on the island of Crete, where they found a bunch of hippies living in a network of caves. Raditz soon decamped for Afghanistan in a VW bus; when he returned, his girlfriend had bailed, but there was word that a new girl was headed to Matala. Raditz didn’t know much about Joni Mitchell, but “there was buzz” among the hippies, and, soon enough, he found himself watching the sunset with one of the most extraordinary people alive. Raditz and Mitchell shared a cave for a couple of months, travelled around Greece together, and parted ways. That’s where you and I come in, because Mitchell wrote two songs, among her greatest works, about her “redneck on a Grecian isle”: “California” and “Carey.” I’ve been singing along to those songs, or trying to, since I was fifteen. I learned from them what you learn from all of Mitchell’s music, that love is a form of reciprocity, at times even a barter economy: “He gave me back my smile / but he kept my camera to sell.” Mitchell’s songs were the final, clinching trade.
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Joni Mitchell’s gift was so enormous that it remade the social space around her. As David Yaffe’s new biography, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (Sarah Crichton Books), suggests, it is no small burden to possess something as valuable as Mitchell’s talent, and it meant that this girl from the Canadian prairie would be in the world, whether she liked it or not. All she needed was her lyrics, preternaturally analytic, wry, and shrewd; her chords, largely self-invented, a kind of calligraphy of the moods; and her voice, which modulates from patter to rue to rhapsody in a single phrase. In concert, she sometimes trained her attention on a single listener in the front row, casting the stranger as the vivid “you” of a song who in real life may have been Sam Shepard, James Taylor, or Leonard Cohen. The best pop music is often preening and shamanic. Mitchell’s is almost always about what two articulate adults mean, or once meant, to each other.

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A selection of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics will be included in our study of “The Poetry in Popular Music” on October 26.

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Boundary Conditions: Adrienne Rich’s collected poems

By Dan Chiasson

Boundary Conditions“One rainy day in the spring of 1960, the San Francisco poet Robert Duncan arrived at my door,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her essay “A Communal Poetry.” Duncan was a daemonic bard with a Homeric attitude, who often wore a black cape and a broad-brimmed hat. Rich made him tea while trying to comfort her sick son, who moved between the high chair and her lap; Duncan, whom Rich cautiously admired, “began speaking almost as soon as he entered the house” and “never ceased.” Later, driving him to Boston in the rain, Rich realized that her car was on empty and pulled into a gas station. Throughout it all, Duncan, the oracle, was still talking about “poetry, the role of the poet, myth.” Apparently, Rich’s “role” was to make tea for him, and to keep things like sick children and empty gas tanks from interrupting the great man’s groove. Rich concluded, generously, that Duncan’s “deep attachment to a mythological Feminine” made it hard for him to manage “so unarchetypal a person as an actual struggling woman caring for a sick child.”
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Rich, who died in 2012, had these kinds of run-ins with literary men throughout her life. Her father was an eminent doctor and a professor at the Johns Hopkins medical school, who made her copy out verses from Blake and Keats from an early age, and graded the results; her mother, who had studied in Vienna to be a concert pianist and a composer, put aside her art to raise the family. Rich’s sense that she was the benefactor of her mother’s sacrifice and the object of her father’s fixations never left her. (Her mother died in 2000, at the age of a hundred and three.) Rich’s first book—“A Change of Life” (1951)—was published when she was just out of Radcliffe. It was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets prize by W. H. Auden, who contributed a slightly creepy foreword: the poems are, he said, “neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs.” Rich’s three children were born within a four-year span in the late fifties; in those days, she wrote, “women and poetry were being redomesticated.” Even Randall Jarrell, the best poetry critic of the era, proclaimed her work to be “sweet,” and wrote that Rich seemed “to us” to resemble “a princess in a fairy tale.” An unidentified poet friend, visiting her in the nineteen-eighties for the first time in years, expressed the abandonment felt by many male poets and critics, first-string bonhommes who had admired her early work and had counted on her to add some depth to the literary bench. “You disappeared!” her friend said. “You simply disappeared.” Women could also be unkind. Elizabeth Hardwick, a formidable feminist in a different key, declared, “I don’t know what happened. She got swept too far. She deliberately made herself ugly and wrote those extreme and ridiculous poems.”

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A TALE OF TWO SYLVIAS: ON THE LETTERS COVER CONTROVERSY

What Do We Look For In A Literary Icon?

By Nichole LeFebvre

A TALE OF TWO SYLVIASSylvia Plath has been on my mind all summer. I first hear about the October publication of never-before-seen Letters of Sylvia Plath (1940-1956) while visiting my hometown in Western Massachusetts and wandering around Smith College. I head to their Special Collections Library and am disappointed to learn it’s closed, for renovations.
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Instead I thumb through my dog-eared Unabridged Journals, focusing on her first years at Smith: social anxiety around other women in her dorm; rigorous goals for publications and straight A’s; fears about losing her mind. I return to my own journals from this age and wince. Ambition coupled with strict standards. Self-punishment at any hint of failure. Plath dates often, with confidence in her beauty and anger at society’s double-standards: “hate, hate, hate the boys who can dispel sexual hunger freely, without misgiving, and be whole, while I drag out from date to date in soggy desire, always unfulfilled” (August 1950). A few days later, she writes, and Plath fans know this quote intimately: “If only I can find him . . . the man who will be intelligent, yet physically magnetic and personable. If I can offer that combination, why shouldn’t I expect it in a man?”

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Frank Bidart’s Mirror

HEATHER TRESELER

Frank Bidart's MirrorHalf-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2016

Frank Bidart

Searching for a metaphysic in a fallen, libidinal world, Frank Bidart has, by necessity, made one. His oeuvre, ten books now gathered in one 718-page volume, provides an incisive index of the latter half of the twentieth century, a startlingly truthful mirror of its myths and multiplicities.  His characters—dramatic personae, epic subjects, and lyric I’s—live hard up against the realities of empire and domination; the ligatures of filial piety, queerness, and modern marriage; the scandal machines of politics and religion; and the inescapable cruxes of desire. With one ear tuned to Marcus Aurelius, another to Augustus Hare, Bidart’s music of voices weaves allusive echoes and refrains, attending to “something crowded / inside us always craving to become something / glistening outside us.”
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Articulating that “something crowded / inside us” has been Bidart’s cynosure from the beginning. In 1971, he wrote a telling letter to his friend Elizabeth Bishop, praising her poem “In the Waiting Room,” which had been published in that week’s New Yorker. The poem describes a six-year-old’s revelations about living in the world as a girl, “an Elizabeth” who is inherently connected to the people sitting with her in a dentist’s waiting room, to the people in Africa she reads about in a National Geographic magazine, and to “the War” raging in Europe in 1918. A heady rush of realizations—“I scarcely dared to look / to see what it was I was”—leaves the child utterly changed in her sense of the world and her place in it.

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