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David Yezzi
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No doubt you have seen this headline from The Onion, one of their best: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.” In recent years, the young director Arin Arbus (the daughter of the recently deceased actor Allan Arbus, whose fist wife, the photographer Diane Arbus, was the younger sister of Howard Nemerov) has been demonstrating, through her brilliant, critically acclaimed productions of Othello, Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, and Much Ado about Nothing--all at Theater for a New Audience--that Shakespeare unadorned by heavy directorial concepts still has what it takes to reveal to us our humanity like nothing else in the theater. (Whew! I should probably go back and break up that endless sentence!) The point is that the plays work. They are reliable box office—people love Shakespeare!—and as dramas (if left alone to do their thing) they never miss. It is always worthwhile hearing a production of Shakespeare, no matter how amateurish or mean. As long as one can hear the words, the play will take care of itself. I find something new every time. Even shallow productions take you deeper. Several years ago, my sister Katie (an educator and co-author of a wonderful book called Practice Perfect, on the importance of practice in any significant achievement) directed a phenomenal production of Macbeth at the San Francisco public school where she was teaching. There was a kind of Road Warrior feel to the mise en scène—instead of fighting with swords they fought with led pipes (and occasionally someone would get conked!). I’ll never forget Lady Macbeth coming out in an evening gown, with a glass of red wine in her hand, and slurring her way though “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold.” There was some slight issue with her remembering her lines, but it still knocked my socks off! This week I cuaght a delightful (and often funny) dress rehearsal of Romeo & Juliet, by my daughter’s grade-school class. Despite numerous technical glitches (a bad dress means a good opening!), the show was both delightful and eye-opening. First, I was struck by how well the comic tone worked, right up until the play becomes tragic. This seemed just the right touch, and I remembered seeing a brilliant and hilarious hippy-monk Friar Laurence at Columbia University a while back that was side-splitting and also scary in how his touchy-feeliness opened the way to destruction. Hearing my daughter’s production (she was one of three Nurses; I think there were at least four Juliets), I caught some of Shakespeare’s lines that I hadn’t paid much attention to before and whose music reminded me of the Sonnets. I had known about a connection between R&J and the Sonnets before—the play contains a number of sonnets and sonnet fragments. Anthony Hecht gets at it very nicely (as well as at the connection to Love’s Labour’s Lost), in his introduction to the New Cambridge Shakespeare Edition of The Sonnets, edited by G. Blakemore Evans: In the 1870s Walter... Continue reading
Posted May 3, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I want to tell you about one of my favorite poems at the moment. It’s from Lord Byron’s Foot, by George Green, which was selected last year by David Mason for The New Criterion Poetry Prize and recently published by St. Augustine’s Press. As an editor at The New Criterion, I was thoroughly delighted by Mason’s choice, since I had championed George’s work on a number of occasions, both in the magazine and in The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets. I remember showing up several years ago to a marathon reading organized by Roddy Lumsden at a bar up by Columbia University. We were asked to write a poem based, I think, on some theme—the theme, like the poem I produced, was eminently forgettable. After a couple hours of poems sliding by like fried eggs off of memory's Teflon, George got up (he may have been the last reader, in fact) and read “Bangladesh.” So surprising and so weird was this poem, we were rapt. You could have heard the reshelving in Butler Library. And funny! So funny. The abrupt, associative segues and the logic-defying half-slapdash, haphazardness of the narrative resolves, quite mysteriously, into a unified, warmly satiric portrait of an age that we lived though in Downtown New York and loved for its Bohemian craziness and, and, now, in hindsight, for the wince-making tartness of its bittersweet excesses. He wrote the poem the night before, he told me, when I said how much I liked it. Riotous and sweetly sad: such a killer combo. Bravo, George Green! Bangladesh We have to start in 1965, when all the gay meth heads couldn’t decide which one they most adored, Callas or Dylan, both of them skinny as thermometers, posing like sylphs in tight black turtlenecks. Then, gradually, a multitude of Dylans began to fill the park, croaking like frogs, strumming guitars, blowing harmonicas, hundreds and hundreds, several to a bench. But there was only one Maria Callas, sequestered in her gloomy Paris pad and listening to Maria Callas records (and nothing but), her bulky curtains closed, which works for me because it worked for her. What doesn’t work is three David Lee Roths, one checking bags at Trash and Vaudeville, one strutting with ratted hair up St. Mark’s Place, and one zonked out in tights and on the nod, surrounded by the Dylans in the park. David Lee Roth times three would mean the times would have to change, and so a roving band of punk rockers began to beat the Dylans, chasing them through the park and pounding them senseless, then busting up their folk guitars or stealing them. They even torture one unlucky Dylan by the children’s pool, holding him down to burn him with Bic lighters, then cackling when he begs to keep his Martin. Later on at the precinct, deeply troubled, a sensitive policeman contemplates the crimes. Why were marauding gangs of punks beating the Dylans in the park? He asks himself, repeatedly, not realizing that... Continue reading
Posted May 2, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
If you can keep your head, while Dennis Hopper recites Rudyard Kipling’s “If” on the Johnny Cash Show, then you are a better man than me, my son. Check it out: The poem (still wildly popular in England) and Hopper are both quite good. Personally, I have been unsuccessful thus far in recruiting celebrities to recite my work on television. My fallback is to read the poems myself, occasionally in public. There's an open mic near me that I like called Carmine Street Metrics, though it takes place on Ave. B (after getting bounced from the Bowery Poetry Club last year). If I have a new poem, I like to try it out there. Reading a poem out in front of an audience has become an important step in finishing it, or in seeing if it is, in fact, finished. When, several years ago, I started teaching a class in performing poetry (it’s basically an acting class for poets), what struck me most was that performing a poem invariably led to revision. But testing the poem on the voice—where, more and more, I’ve come to feel the poem really lives, i.e., in its spoken music—the rough spots become more appaent. I can easily hear places where the rhythm falters, where the clarity and precision of the expression are obscured. Not surprisingly, people are often much better at reading other people’s work than at reading their own. The difficulty of presenting one’s own poems is two-pronged, I think. On the one hand, our own poems are so personal, so close to home, so connected to our sense of self-worth that it can be terrifying to present them to an audience. (Even if one's poetry is not autobiographical, it is a charged expression that can be ticklish to read in public.) And, on the other hand, the poem may have gone cold for us, written, as it was, sometimes months or years earlier. It reminds me of the wonderful passage in G. K. Chesterton’s book on Robert Browning: “There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: 'When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.' ” The fact is that, over time, we lose touch with the emotions that gave rise to the poem; we become dull to the very intensities of sound and meaning that we were at pains to include in the poem. In order to give the poem its due in performance, we have to reawaken our emotional connection to the words. It’s just what we would do if we were called upon to read out the work of another poet, so why not do it with out own work. I’ve gone on too long here, so I won’t get into specific exercises at this point. For an unbeatable example of how... Continue reading
Posted May 1, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Of poetry, Marianne Moore famously wrote: “I, too, dislike it.” I wonder what she might have said about poetry readings? Moore herself was, I think, a charming reader, but, like her poems, also idiosyncratic. Sometimes the recording is at fault (I have a copy of a reading she gave at the 92nd Street Y with W. H. Auden that is grainy and hard to hear), but sometimes it’s just the way she reads—too quickly in spots, without careful articulation. Still, it is breathtaking to hear her voice. Hearing poets read can tell you so much about their work that you might not ever catch on the page. I remember understanding (I mean really getting, on a musical level) for the first time the polyvocal nature of so many of James Merrill's poems when I actually heard him do all of the voices. (I also learned that he liked to wear violet socks and Birkenstocks with his blue blazer.) Some poets are extremely fine readers of their own work—Auden (though I know some folks disagree), Larkin and Bishop (both marvellous, sounding exactly as you’d expect), Geoffrey Hill (simultaneously plummy and fierce), Brooks (delightfully musical), and Berryman (growly and antic). Some poets are bizarre readers of there own work, but great fun to hear nonetheless—Eliot (so Anglican), Cummings (so Unitarian), and Ginsberg, so wacked out and hip, as in this clip of a poem he wrote while on LSD read to William F. Buckley on Firing Line: But many poets fail to do justice to their own work—far too many to mention in fact. You will know immediately the kind of thing I mean—when, for example, instead of using the natural music of speech they trot out their “poetry voice.” It’s what G. Burns Cooper, in his book Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse, calls the Generic American Poetry Contour: “a slight but sustained rise at the end of each line or intonation phrase.” (Hat tip to Natalie Gerber!) It's aternately painfuland hilarious to listen to. Image if Frost read that way: gold Nature’s first green is hold. Her hardest hue to flower; Her early leaf’s a hour. But only so an The up-rising lilt is often accompanied by a breathiness that signals the numinosity of "poetry." The problem is not just that this way of reading creates an irritating repetition in the vocal music; it’s that this arbitrary vocal pattern actually obscures the meaning for the listener by disregarding what Frost called “the sound of sense” (though Frost had something even more profound in mind). As Frost famously explained in an interview with the critic William Stanley Braithwaite, originally published in the Boston Evening Transcript for May 8, 1915: Words in themselves do not convey meaning, and to [ . . prove] this, which may seem entirely unreasonable to any one who does not understand the psychology of sound, let us take the example of two people who are talking on the other side of a closed door, whose voices can... Continue reading
Posted Apr 30, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I like E. A. Robinson. I really do. No, I mean it. I really like his stuff much of the time. Especially the lyrics. The long poems, not so much (except maybe as sleep aids). Well, anyway, I want to like him a lot, but sometimes I get put off by a certain tone of . . . what? Fustiness? Creakiness? More and more, I’m realizing, though, that it is not always Robinson’s voice I am hearing in the poems, or not just his voice. The more I think about his poems—such as “Reuben Bright” and “Richard Cory”—the more I begin to understand the dramatic nature of his work. (The dramatic element in lyric poetry is something I’ve been interested in for a while now, and you can read more about that here. I hope that this post might serve as an extension of some of the ideas put forward in that earlier essay.) For my money, “Eros Turannos” is Robinson’s greatest poem. (This is just me talkin’ here.) I love that poem deeply and unequivocally, and I’ve always admired Yvor Winters’s take on it, as adopting the music of W. M. Praed’s vers de société for tragic ends. (In fact, more successfully than Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, the poem uses the conventions of Greek tragedy to elevate its subject to devastating dramatic effect.) The poem is a love story as Gothic horror tale. A woman’s fear of growing old alone is greater than her fear of a man she knows deep down she should refuse. The result is a loveless union, isolation, confusion, and despair. The poem ends with these two stanzas: We tell you, tapping on our brows, The story as it should be,— As if the story of a house Were told, or ever could be; We’ll have no kindly veil between Her visions and those we have seen,— As if we guessed what hers have been Or what they are, or would be. Meanwhile, we do no harm; for they That with a god have striven, Not hearing much of what we say, Take what the god has given; Though like waves breaking it may be, Or like a changed familiar tree, Or like a stairway to the sea, Where down the blind are driven. The “we” is a choral voice (a dramatic voice!) that Robinson uses often and which lends his poetry its particular social cast. Here is how the poet and critic D. H. Tracy describes the effect, from an essay in Contemporary Poetry Review: Robinson’s use of the choral presence is innovative and, in its particular form, remains strikingly rare. It came to him early but not always easily: the drafts of “Eros Turannos” show that the fifth stanza, where the “we” is introduced, went through the most revisions. The Robinsonian “we” is not simply a means of lending generality to discourse or speculation, or a casual way of implicating the reader. It is not the French on. It has... Continue reading
Posted Apr 29, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Here's a little intro I wrote for Don Paterson, who read at the 92nd Street Y last night with Paul Muldoon. It's not much of anything, and certainly not even a shadow of Paterson's gorgeous reading, but it has a few biographical facts that might interest folks who don't know Paterson's work. Unfortunately, I had to leave out quotes from poems I thought he might read. Here's one from his latest book, Rain, called "Correctives" that breaks my heart (the second-born of his identical twin boys, now 10, has a hand tremor, as the result of a difficult birth): The shudder in my son’s left hand he cures with one touch from his right, two fingertips laid feather-light to still his pen. He understands the whole man must be his own brother, for no man is himself alone; though some of us have never known the other hand’s kindness to the other. Don Paterson, 92nd Street Y, October 14, 2010 When Bernard Schwartz from the Poetry Center contacted me about this evening with Don Paterson and Paul Muldoon, it wasn’t immediately clear to me if he was putting together a poetry reading or a rock concert. I mean, on the one hand, we have Paul Muldoon—rhythm guitarist, songwriter, and co-founder (with the Milton scholar Nigel Smith) of the “Stones-via-Cream-via-Hendrix” influenced rock band Rackett, performing at the Knitting Factory and other venues—and on the other hand Don Patterson, jazz guitarist, songwriter, and co-founder with Tim Garland of the Euro-jazz-Celtic-folk ensemble Lammas, whose numerous albums include tracks such as The Water in the Rock, a setting of a poem by Antonio Machado for voice and 12-string guitar. What kind of evening are we talking about?, I asked Bernard. Strictly poetry, he assured me. And yet I can’t help feeling that, despite the absence of Marshall stacks and gleaming Zildjian symbols, what we have in prospect tonight is, in a very important sense, an evening of music. Given the innumerable nuanced sounds that good poetry makes—its rhythms, its chimes and hiccups, its hectorings, its sentence sounds and melodies, its organ tones and wave-laps of syntax: in other words, its music—it is not surprising that the poet and the musician should often be the same person. Originally from Dundee, Scotland, Don Paterson left school at 16 and moved to London to join a band. Poetry, for him, came later, even as music remained a constant companion and a companion project. Music may be found throughout Paterson’s poems—sometimes as the subject itself. Take his poem “The Box,” from his collection Landing Light, a poem written in the shape of a guitar—the box of the title refers to the hollow body of an acoustic guitar, as in guit-box. Like his poems, this instrument is so well-made, so attuned to and expressive of the sounds of feeling that, as he says, “it takes no more than a dropped shoe or a cleared throat on the hall landing to set its little blue moan off again.” Or there... Continue reading
Posted Oct 15, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
My squib today is about the epigraph to The Waste Land, which I had forgotten refers to the Sybil of Cumae, about whom more below. I’ve read the epigraph (and its translation) many times in the Norton Anthology and more recently in The Oxford Book of American Poetry and elsewhere, but only this week was I reminded by the composer Thierry Lancino--who had included a few lines of Eliot in a recent composition—of the wider resonances of the reference. (Again, apologies, if this is old hat.) First, there’s the epigraph to Eliot’s poem, taken from Petronius’s Satyricon: Here is the translation: “For once I saw with my own eyes the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked the Sibyl, ‘what do you want?’ she answered 'I want to die.’” The story the Sybil of Cumae (quoted off the Web) goes something like this: “During the seven years when the Theban prophet Teiresias had been a woman . . . he was said to have had a daughter, Daphne, radiant as the day. It is no surprise that she caught the attention of a god, Apollo no less, who granted her the gift of prophecy and anything else she asked for. She grabbed up a handful of sand and demanded to live as many years as there were grains of sand in her grasp, but neglected to ask for eternal youth. When she spurned Apollo’s love, he refused to grant the omitted boon, and she was fated to grow old. She became the Sybil of Cumae, in Italy, and continued to age, withering away until she was hung upside down in a bottle, saying only that she wished to die.” The allusion gives particular poignancy to Eliot’s poem, not least of all when Teiresias speaks in the third section, The Fire Sermon: I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea, The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights Her stove, and lays out food in tins. Out of the window perilously spread Her drying combinations touched by the sun's last rays, On the divan are piled (at night her bed) Stockings, slippers, camisoles and stays. I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest-- I too awaited the expected guest. He, the young man carbuncular, arrives, A small house agent's clerk, with a bold stare, One of the low on whom assurance sits As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire. The time is now propitious, as he guesses, The meal is ended, she is bored and tired Endeavors to engage her in caresses Which still are unreproved, if undesired. Flushed and decided, he assaults at once; Exploring hands encounter no defense; His vanity requires no response, And makes a welcome of indifference. (And I Tiresias have foresuffered all Enacted on this same divan or bed;... Continue reading
Posted Sep 14, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Here's a thought I had rereading Yeats's slightly curious and gorgeous-sounding late poem "Long-Legged Fly." I am pasting it below, so you can judge for yourself. If you are game for this miniature experiment in what Christopher Ricks might call allusion (intentional and perhaps un-), read the poem and count how many Auden poems it brings to mind. In other words, it seems to me that something of the music of this poem found its way into a number of Auden poems, about which more in a second. Here's the Yeats poem; find the lines that Auden must have admired most: That civilisation may not sink, Its great battle lost, Quiet the dog, tether the pony To a distant post; Our master Caesar is in the tent Where the maps are spread, His eyes fixed upon nothing, A hand upon his head. Like a long-legged fly upon the stream His mind moves upon silence. That the topless towers be burnt And men recall that face, Move most gently if move you must In this lonely place. She thinks, part woman, three parts a child, That nobody looks; her feet Practise a tinker shuffle Picked up on a street. Like a long-legged fly upon the stream Her mind moves upon silence. That girls at puberty may find The first Adam in their thought, Shut the door of the Pope's chapel, Keep those children out. There on that scaffolding resides Michael Angelo. With no more sound than the mice make His hand moves to and fro. Like a long-legged fly upon the stream His mind moves upon silence. Parts of this sound a lot like Auden to me. In the opening ("Our master Caesar is in the tent / Where the maps are spread, / His eyes fixed upon nothing, / A hand upon his head), I hear Auden's "Fall of Rome": "Caesar's double bed is warm". Also: there is in the Auden "civilization" as a subject (as well as the lassitude and concupiscence that have weakened it). In "Quiet the dog" its hard not to hear "Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone" (from "Funeral Blues"); and that line along with the next couple--"tether the pony / To a distant post"--recall for me lines from "Musee des Beaux Arts": "Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree." Now, here's the thing about this last bit: both "Funeral Blues" and "Musee . . ." were (I believe) written first, so who is echoing whom?! And that's just the first stanza. What about "That girls at puberty may find / The first Adam in their thought, / Shut the door of the Pope's chapel, / Keep those children out." That sounds very Audenesque to me (I haven't pinned down the particular echo yet--maybe the contemporaneous "Roman Wall Blues." Thoughts?). What's Audenesque is at times quite Yeatsian. I mean, I guess I knew it was. Auden's great elegy plays... Continue reading
Posted Jul 7, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Dianne Blakely is a phenomenal poet, and just now she's publishing a series of articles on about lesser-known but wonderful Southern poets that is well worth a look. First up are Lisa Russ Spaar, Molly Bendall, and Brian Teare, complete with extensive interviews of each. As she writes: "Charlottesville seems the right place to begin this National Poetry Month. As teachers there, Charles Wright and Rita Dove have received the most acclaimed national recognition, and I’ve written about both in the recent years [here and here], as well as a reminiscence of Eleanor Ross Taylor, whose husband Peter was a mainstay of the fiction department for many years." Dianne wrote her wonderful piece about Taylor months before Taylor received the Ruth Lily Prize from the Poetry Foundation. (I wonder if her article had anything to do with it? Looks like Christian Wiman was already on the case!) Dianne now turns her attention to a handful of vital younger talents, and the result is a real treasure trove. Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Swallow Press & Book Culture invite you to a reading to celebrate The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets with Daniel Brown, John Foy, George Green & Molly McQuade. Introduced by David Yezzi Wednesday, February 17, at 7:00 p.m. Book Culture 2915 Broadway (entrance on 114th Street) Continue reading
Posted Feb 16, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
There's a provocative article in the current issue of the London-based magazine Standpoint titled "Eliot versus Hardy" by Dan Jacobson, an emeritus professor at University College. In it, Jacobson tells of an interesting reversal in his literary tastes: he began with a rapturous fondness for Eliot that over time was supplanted by an appreciation of Hardy's homier virtues. It's a fascinating compare-and-contrast, not least because the two were basically contemporaries. When Eliot wrote (unfavorably) about Hardy in After Strange Gods (1930), Hardy had been dead only two years. Hardy, for his part, copied verses from Eliot into his notebook. The piece is likely to raise eyebrows and even hackles. I'd be curious to hear what people think. My favorite part of the article, though, was the inclusion by Jacobson of a lesser-known Hardy poem that I found both stark and charming. It's musical and strange--pure Hardy--and it's called "Waiting Both." A star looks down at me, And says, ‘Here I and you Stand, each in his degree: What do you mean to do, — Mean to do?' I say: ‘For all I know, Wait, and let Time go by, Till my change come.'-‘Just so,' The star says. ‘So mean I: — So mean I.' Continue reading
Posted Dec 9, 2009 at The Best American Poetry
This is brilliant, Jim. Many thanks for it!