Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
“Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions” . . .
Although these lines from “An Octopus” (1924), Marianne Moore’s ambitious counterweight to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, can be interpreted as a playful analogy for her difficult, relentlessly detailed poetry, they also sum up the challenge faced by her biographer. “An Octopus” juxtaposes an overwhelming amount of precisely observed details yet, in true modernist fashion, refrains from overt declaration of meaning. Instead, the poem invites the reader to find and interpret the patterns that link the details. As in many Moore poems, an identifiable speaker is nowhere to be found, yet everywhere present. No “I” surfaces amidst the poem’s two hundred thirty lines, yet they are saturated with an assertive sensibility. The precise descriptions and shifts of perspective attest to the fineness of the observer: no one else but Marianne Moore could have written this poem.
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Dean Kuipers Reads the Poet’s Posthumous Collection
On the last day of September, 2015, I cooked a simple pomodoro pasta for writer Jim Harrison at his house near the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. I chopped tomatoes grown by his wife, Linda, and I could see the little garden out there as the cottonwood trees released the last of the summer light. She was gravely ill, and while Harrison and I were talking she had called from the hospital to tell him he’d better come in the morning because she was near the end.
I was thinking about this night as I read the new posthumous collection, Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems (Copper Canyon, May 2019). In this unforgiving literary moment, we must deal honestly with his life and work, as they are inextricable in a way that is not true of other poets. Harrison was a man of gluttonous appetites for sadness, for food, for a 1982 Petrus, for full immersion (if not reclusion) in nature, for the legs of a young woman not his wife that he could throw his arms around and declare that he’d found a reason to go on living. His resonant, necessary poems are even hungrier, and more demanding of proof that living matters. These poems bear-crawl gorgeously after a genuine connection to being, thrashing in giant leaps through the underbrush to find consolation, purpose, and redemption. In his raw, original keening he ambushes moments of unimaginable beauty, one after another, line after line. Harrison digs in the dirt and finds the stars.
At nineteen I began to degenerate,
slight smell of death in my gestures,
unbelieving, tentative, wailing…
so nineteen years have gone. It doesn’t matter.
It might have taken fifty. Or never.
Now the barriers are dissolving, the stone fences
in shambles. I want to have my life
in cloud shapes, water shapes, wind shapes,
crow call, marsh hawk swooping over grass and weed tips.
Let the scavenger take what he finds.
Let the predator love his prey.
–from “Returning to Earth,” 1977
By Steve Moyer
W. S. Merwin, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize, first tried his hand at poetry as a child. Growing up in Union City, New Jersey, he was moved to bring pen to paper after hearing his father, a Presbyterian minister, read from the King James Bible at church. Young William realized that there was a “distant connection” between that kind of heightened language and poetry. “And that’s what I wanted to do, to write poetry. And the more I did it, the more I wanted to do it.”
Merwin developed an impersonal formalist style, but in time his poems trended toward a freer and more lyrical approach. His work, steeped in legend, the classics, and the Bible, is also anchored in the present, marked, above all, by a vigilance for all living things. Although he has been an angry poet at times, he has avoided bitterness by learning to transform his rage into art. Transformation is the key to understanding his work, as the hallmark of his poetry since the early sixties has been his mastery of “the turn,” the moment in a poem where an idea turns, often with a surprise, into something else.
His first books of poetry were marked by objectivity, elegance, and formal constraints. He wrote in meter and tried his hand at a variety of poetic forms, including the sestina. One critic observed that his first book, A Mask for Janus (1952), “exhibits a young musician trying out his instrument.” His diction was elaborate, using such terms as “anabasis” (a difficult military retreat), “koré” (an ancient Greek statue of a woman), “saeculum” (an Etruscan word for a specific period of time, usually the length of a generation), and “penates” (household gods in Roman times). To understand the volume’s first two poems, “Anabasis,” parts I and II, it helps to have read Xenophon. History-laden words, as in the poetry of his mentor Ezra Pound, had for Merwin a creative force all their own.
Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, and Madeline Miller’s Circe speak the lost and muted voices of ancient Greek women. Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey focuses on the experiences and especially the injustices endured by female characters in Homer’s poem. Barker’s novel gives voice to the thousands of silenced women in the Iliad, through the specific voice of Briseis, former queen of a city allied with Troy, now enslaved to Achilles. Miller’s novel provides the backstory and afterstory of the witch Circe, Odysseus’s lover for a period during his voyage home.
These three Homeric adaptations are all, in their own ways, piratic feminist manifestos. And in that dimension, they are laudable. But they all also body forth a strong impulse to shut down the moral undecidability that typifies Homer’s art. The Homeric tradition asks readers and hearers to practice forbearance in assigning justification or culpability to characters for their actions. Or, more precisely, the tradition encourages us to accept the fact that, almost always, we are constrained to think, feel, and act without moral certainty, without absolutes. Our heroes are often partially or even mostly self-serving, and our enemies are often brave. But we cheer for our heroes anyway.
These three works are unabashedly feminist, unabashedly trying to set a record—maybe even the record, from the vantage point of European literary history—straight. They create space within which the countless unarticulated voices of ancient women can be conjured and reimagined, so as to resonate across millennia with contemporary readers. And they do a beautiful job at that, each in its own way, though that beauty would have been totally unfamiliar to Homer.
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Filed under History, Reviews
When James Tate died on July 8, 2015, at the age of seventy-one, he left behind more than twenty collections of poetry and prose, including Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, published right around the time of his death. Most of us assumed that this was his final book. But it turned out there were more poems, which have been assembled into a truly final volume, The Government Lake, to be published by Ecco in July of 2019. One of those poems, “Elvis Has Left the House,” appears in The Paris Review’s Spring 2019 issue.
Over the course of his career, Tate won every imaginable award available to American poets, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. He was revered by poets of virtually every aesthetic persuasion, from stern formalists to wild experimentalists. He had a legion of poor imitators, whom my friends and I called “lost pilots” after the legendary, eponymous poem of Tate’s first book, which won the most prestigious prize for young poets of its time, the 1967 Yale Series of Younger Poets award. When he wrote that book, he was only twenty-two, a kid from a deeply religious Pentecostal family in Kansas City, who somehow found his way to poetry and then to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The legend goes that he just showed up, showed them his poems, and was admitted on the spot by the director of the program, Donald Justice. If that story’s not true, I don’t want to know.
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