Category Archives: Reviews

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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Celebration of the World: ‘Let Us Watch: Richard Wilbur’

By William H. Pritchard

Celebration of the WorldThe poet Richard Wilbur is ninety-six, old enough that his poet-contemporaries—Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, James Merrill, Anthony Hecht—have been gone for decades. Wilbur’s most recent and probably final book of poems, Anterooms, appeared in 2007,  an attractive completion to the Collected Poems published three years earlier. Altogether his career has yielded ten individual books of poems, five books of illustrated poems for children and adults, fifteen translations of classical French drama, and two collections of literary essays—an achievement to be wondered at. Now comes a biography by Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg, the former a poet and translator of distinction, the latter a freelance editor. Their book suits Wilbur’s kind of career: a “biographical study” in which chapters focusing on the life alternate with ones devoted to some of his best poems and translation. A critical intelligence has been applied both to the man and to the reason we are interested in the man.
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The early chapters take us through Wilbur’s boyhood in New Jersey, where he lived with his parents and brother on a sort of estate presided over by a patron of the arts who had befriended Wilbur’s father, a graphic artist celebrated in one of the son’s best early poems, “My Father Paints the Summer.” In secondary school and at Amherst College, the young Wilbur was an outspoken, even radical student journalist, opposing America’s entry into World War II. At Amherst he joined a fraternity, where he was later informed by one of the “brothers” that his selection had been made in the hope that the fraternity’s grade point average would benefit. Undoubtedly his most significant action at college was to fall in love with a girl from Smith, Charlotte Ward  (“Charlee”); they married after Wilbur’s graduation in 1942, just prior to his entering the Army to engage in the war he had opposed. Originally he joined the Signal Corps, but was expelled for “subversive” activities like subscribing to the Daily Worker and having a copy of Das Kapital in his footlocker. In a subsequent interview for an assignment as a cryptographer, the interviewing officer warned that “if we catch you overthrowing our government, out you go.”

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Listen to Richard Wilbur read “Lilacs,” “Seed Leaves” (twice), “Praise in Summer,” “The Puritans,” “Museum Piece” and other poems.

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A Poet’s Tempestuous Romance in Brazil: ‘Reaching for the Moon,’about Elizabeth Bishop

By NICOLAS RAPOLD

A Poet_s Tempestuous Romance in BrazilInspired by the 1995 Brazilian best seller “Rare and Commonplace Flowers,” Bruno Barreto’s “Reaching for the Moon” likewise imagines Elizabeth Bishop’s extraordinary relationship with the Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. It’s an abridgment of a composite, which leads to the biographical equivalent of plot-point summary. But Mr. Barreto and his lead actresses do stage a battle of creative and romantic egos, as Bishop (Miranda Otto) and Lota (Glória Pires) push up against the bounds of what the heart can take.
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Bishop’s 1951 visit to Rio de Janeiro, which turned into a 15-year stay, readily blooms into melodrama. Bishop, a New England native, stays at Lota’s spectacular country estate and becomes part of Lota’s customarily outsize plans. Deeply attracted, Bishop enters into a volatile domestic arrangement with the safely ruling-class Lota and her long-suffering lover, the American exile Mary Morse (Tracy Middendorf). In Mr. Barreto’s vintage-dress paradise, which also celebrates an era of promise in Brazil’s history, Bishop writes, loves and sometimes drinks herself senseless.
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We will be reading and discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems thus far.
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Please note that for the September 28th session only, we will be meeting in the mezzanine meeting room.

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The Love of Her Life

By EMILY NUSSBAUM

The Love of Her LifeRARE AND COMMONPLACE FLOWERS: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares.

By Carmen L. Oliveira. Translated by Neil K. Besner. Illustrated. 192 pp. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. $26.

Elizabeth Bishop — in person and in her poetry — was wry, discreet and a little peculiar. A Vassar girl and a disciple of Marianne Moore, Bishop rejected the confessional, politicized bent of her contemporaries. (She refused even to be included in anthologies of women’s poetry.) Shunted about unhappily as a child, Bishop chose as her theme displacement, and as her aesthetic self-abnegation: a sometimes arid neutrality, the opposite of attention seeking.
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How stunning, then, to learn that the love of Bishop’s life was a swaggering Brazilian woman, the aristocratic self-trained architect Lota de Macedo Soares. A bold and funny self-promoter, Soares spearheaded the development of Parque do Flamengo, an elaborate public park in the center of Rio de Janeiro.
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There was a fairy-tale intensity to the women’s romance, which began when Soares nursed Bishop back to health during what was intended to be a brief visit to Brazil. Instead, Bishop stayed on, and the couple nested happily together for 12 years, spending much of their time in the ultramodern home Soares had designed in nearby Samambaia. But the love affair that began blissfully ended in sorrow: alcoholism, depression, adultery and, finally, suicide. “Rare and Commonplace Flowers” is an account of this romance, and in its mix of novelistic techniques and biographical reportage, it might well have appalled the more introverted of its two subjects.

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A reminder that we will be reading and discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry on September 28. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems.
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Please note that for the September 28th session only, we will be meeting in the mezzanine meeting room.

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Poetic Artifice: A Theory of 20th-Century Poetry by Veronica Forrest-Thomson

Poetic ArtificeThis classic study, reprinted after more than 30 years, prefers bad new things to good old ones

By David Wheatley

The death of Veronica Forrest-Thomson in 1975, aged just 27, is among the most galling and tragic losses to modern British poetry. Born in Malaya and raised in Glasgow, she published a first poetry collection at 20 and gravitated to Cambridge, where she was taught by JH Prynne. Heavily influenced by the close reading tradition of IA Richards and William Empson, her criticism also drew on French structuralist and poststructuralist theory, then much in the air.
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Published posthumously in 1978 and now reprinted for the first time, her classic study Poetic Artifice marked a provocative intervention. There is a widespread and mistaken assumption, Forrest-Thomson argues, that poetry is important for what it tells us about the external world. Not so: poetry is important for its vindication of “all the rhythmic, phonetic, verbal and logical devices” that make it what it is, and the production of “alternative imaginary orders”. Anything else is flim-flam. It is not the job of poetry to deliver states of “inarticulate rapture”, but to be the articulation of that rapture.

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A Possible Keats

Fleur Jaeggy
A Possible KeatsJohn Keats (1795-1821) was seven years old and in school at Enfield. He was seized by the spirit of the time, by a peculiar compulsion, an impetuous fury—before writing poetry. Any pretext seemed to him a good one for picking a fight with a friend, any pretext to fight.
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Fighting was to John Keats like eating or drinking. He sought out aggressive boys, cruel boys, but their company, as he was already inclined to poetry, must have provided some comic and burlesque treats. For mere brutality—without humor, make-believe, or whimsy—didn’t interest him. Which might lead a person to extrapolate that boys aren’t truly brutal. Yes, they are, but they have rules and an aesthetic. Keats was a child of action. He’d punched a yard monitor more than twice his size, and he was considered a strong boy, lively and argumentative. When he was brawling, his friend Clarke reports, Keats resembled Edmund Kean at theatrical heights of exasperation. His friends predicted a brilliant future for him in the military. Yet when his temper defused, he’d grow extremely calm, and his sweetness shone—with the same intensity as his rage had. The scent of angels. His earliest brushes with melancholy were suddenly disrupted by outbursts of nervous laughter. Moods, vague and tentative, didn’t settle over him so much as hurry past like old breezes.
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From These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor.

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With a Perfect Contempt: On Editing Marianne Moore

Heather Cass White

With a Perfect ContemptIn trying to sum up the experience of having spent the last ten years editing the poetry of Marianne Moore, most recently in the New Collected Poems, I think of a recent classroom interaction I had. Toward the end of a course on twentieth-century poetry, one of my students, clearly at the end of her patience with me, demanded to know why I kept asking them, “But what is a poem?” It’s probably a measure of how deeply I feel that question that I hadn’t noticed I’d asked it even once before she pointed it out.
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I do know why I am stuck on it, however. Editing Moore’s work will deprive anyone of their certainty about what a poem actually is. All poetry editing raises a fundamental issue: Is a poem a specific ordering of words on a page? And if so, which page? The one the poet originally wrote, whether by hand or type; or the one that was first published; or the one that was last published? If all of those arrangements of words are identical, one may duck the question, but they rarely are. Typesetters and proofreaders make mistakes, and they also make corrections which poets find agreeable. Poets change their minds. Conventions of spelling and punctuation vary from house to house, and change over time. There are competing theories about how to handle such issues, and consensus views to guide practitioners, but the questions must always be confronted.

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