This is Sydney Lea's Typepad Profile.
Join Typepad and start following Sydney Lea's activity
Join Now!
Already a member? Sign In
Sydney Lea
Newbury, Vermont
Sydney Lea is Vermont Poet Laureate
Interests: Conservation, literacy, my children and grandchildren.
Recent Activity
It has been a pleasure to be guest blogger on the BestAmPo site, and interesting to gather responses to my comments. (There were a couple of instances in which I was criticized for saying things I never said, but in my experience that’s the norm.) For this final post, perhaps because I just saw Dustin Hoffman’s debut film as a director, Quartet, which achingly portrays the trials of senescence; for this last commentary, I want to pay a brief and inadequate tribute to Ruth Stone, my predecessor as Vermont Poet Laureate. Ms. Stone was remarkable in every way: until the last of her 96 years, and despite being all but completely blind, the woman still generated some of America’s most compelling poetry. Compared to her, I’m a mere youngster, just past 70. And yet, like anyone blessed to live past middle life, I feel a profounder sense of loss with every year: dear friends and family die; faculties and physical resources fade; I anticipate more funerals than weddings. I scarcely expect to know a life-span like Ruth’s, but if I did, such losses as I have known up to now would surely have lodged themselves among the multitude that followed. It is entirely understandable, then, that at her great age Ruth Stone should have been a chronicler of sorrow; but in fact she suffered gut-wrenching loss even before she reached 50. Her husband committed suicide in 1959, and to one extent or another, we sense the man’s presence (or rather his absence) in all his companion’s work. She once described her production as “love poems, all written to a dead man.” Consider the following: Poems When you come back to me it will be crow time and flycatcher time, with rising spirals of gnats between the apple trees. Every weed will be quadrupled, coarse, welcoming and spine-tipped. The crows, their black flapping bodies, their long calling toward the mountain; relatives, like mine, ambivalent, eye-hooded; hooting and tearing. And you will take me in to your fractal meaningless babble; the quick of my mouth, the madness of my tongue. By my reading, the speaker here finds herself looking forward from winter to the warmer seasons so brilliantly evoked by her meticulous attention to natural detail. That will be a fecund time, a time when poems returns to her; and yet “when you come back to me” seems poignantly to suggest the return as well of an absent lover. The tragic subtext here is that the human “you” will not come back after all, that the speaker must settle for what she calls “fractal meaningless/babble.” Lyric poetry, however, more than any other mode of discourse, can contain opposite impulses without lapsing into mere self-contradiction. While this is, yes, another Stone poem about grief and loss, and about the resulting erasure of meaning, it’s also about “the quick of my mouth,” the life-force that this valiant woman enacted by means of her own eloquent speech. The “madness of my tongue” was the madness... Continue reading
Posted Apr 5, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
My "Puritan" background is actually Pennsylvania "Dutch" (Mennonite) on my mom's side. But the work ethic was and is strong in that community, believe me. I believe in hard work, of course, but not (anymore) to the point of neurosis. I took my mother's APPLY YOURSELF as an indication that I never had nor would. Have a good weekend, S
I’ve been writing newspaper column for five regional papers ever since January of 2012, when my stint as Vermont Poet Laureate began. A number of people have asked if I’ll ever present the thoughts I’ve offered there in book form. That seems unlikely. I doubt any publisher would sponsor a volume consisting of one- and two-page essays. I am nonetheless honored by these expressions of interest –and a bit surprised: a late-comer to poetry as a mode of inquiry, which seems a reasonable way to describe it, I still find it remarkable that readers should be at all concerned with my opinions about it. Still, I will self-advertise to the extent of saying that a book of literary criticism by my hand, A Hundred Himalayas: Essays on Life and Literature, was published last autumn by the University of Michigan Press. Its essays are more expansive than these have been, and they cover a span not of one and a half but of almost forty years. In those four decades, I’ve been both teacher and poet, each function a blessing to me, and furthermore, I hope, honorable pursuits. In selecting essays for the book, however, I confess I had a qualm or two. That, I concluded, accounted for my having so long deferred their presentation between covers. Why the qualms? I’ve already hinted at one reason: my depressive’s sense that no one would be much interested in my opinions and speculations. But that was less compelling a reason than another, namely the ambivalence I feel even about old-fashioned practical criticism (not to mention the supersonic literary-theoretical sort), whether my own or others’. Not that I don’t enjoy it –I do, a lot– but that I sense the critic’s grasp must always fall short. Or rather, it often becomes so inventive that it’s less a response to any given text than it is its own hybrid art form. The critic’s response, that is, turns primarily into something on his or her mind, which is likely altogether different from what the author had on his or her mind. But what does any author have in mind? A common question I’ve heard over the years, from aspirant commentator, person-in-the-street, and academic specialist alike, is “What is the poet trying to say?” It’s as if that author had some terrible throat disease. There’s a way in which a good poem is itself what it is trying to say, in which the poem is its own “meaning.” And yet, when all is said and done, that meaning does in some respects remain obscure. When the obscurity is part of its design I grow impatient with it, but even if the poem seeks precision and lucidity, if it has anything going for it, it is surely at least other than one-dimensional. No translation of its “ideas” will account for its power. Truth is, I believe that an ambitious poem will possess its own hidden allegory, an allegory hidden not only from the critic but also from the... Continue reading
Posted Apr 4, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I'm with you, kid.
Gee, coming from the creator of "Merry 'N Square & A Poem," that really hurts. I'll out me quill back in me goose, and bow down to your the high mythic Oirish majesty.
Nah. They were awful.
I agree with Stacey here. I like Don Hall and quite a bit of his poetry, but his assertion (I am not quoting but glossing) that you must attempt to rival Yeats or Milton or whomever each time you sit down to write is the purest nonsense. Who, including Don, cold ever hav e truly started a poem with sort of inbuilt challenge. I recently went back to some unpublished work by my hand and thought, "Well, this is no good. But I just hadn't put in the time yet to have the skills to handle it. Let's try it now." I'm not the one to judge the results objectively, but the experiment was fruitful. Yet what I was really getting at was the fact that patently awful poems -- Hallmarky stuff, say -- often resonate more profoundly with the Common Reader than a lot of our more sophisticated efforts. We need to ponder that, not that I am offering a pat conclusion.
--> I was at a gathering not long ago –the venue isn’t important– when I heard a soldier recite a poem. He’d been struggling after getting home, and small wonder: twice deployed to Afghanistan, he’d also been twice wounded, one of those times pretty critically. He told us that the poem he gave us had kept him going through several horrific ordeals. I think the poem was called “Hope.” It was awful. For all its clichés and bromides, however, that poem had been a literal life-saver for the man, so by what right do I sneer at it? Driving home after that get-together where I heard the GI, I got to thinking back some twenty years, when my wife and I were sitting one evening in a backcountry restaurant. Apart from us, there were only three patrons: a mother, her adult daughter, and her son-in-law. The daughter had composed a poem for her mom’s birthday, and we couldn’t help overhearing it. That poem too was awful. But again, how do we claim the superiority of “high art”? Such a matter provides much food for thought, no? I mean to avoid strong opinionation, to make clear that my judgments are that, period: my judgments, hence not ones with any special authority. So if I ask you to consider quality vs. awfulness here, I mean primarily to raise an issue, not to offer some pat and prescriptive solution to it myself; I’m far from convinced that one is available. The soldier and the daughter poet moved their listeners, certainly, more than many of the recent (and to me inscrutable) I have seen in print. What do we make of that? Continue reading
Posted Apr 3, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks for those good comments. I am grateful the thoughts resonated with you. Look: I'm an Ivy-girt liberal myself, but I trust I have never assumed that my perspective was the only one worth countenancing.
Pool by the Sheep Gate He’d been lying there most of his life. When the angel troubled the water, he couldn’t move fast enough to be first. He had no wife or brother to carry him: no one that love, a sense of justice, or pity moved to the task. So when the wonderworker came, he was resigned again to seeing someone else cured. He didn’t ask, even when the healer looked him in the eye and inquired if he wished to be healed– not a strange question, considering his vocation of living in hope denied: he was a professional at it, with status and a certain reputation. Take up your bed.... He obeyed before he thought, luckily, of all he’d have to learn to live without. This poem is based on a passage from the gospel of John, in which Jesus heals a lame man who has never been able to reach the healing pool by the sheep gate, precisely because he is crippled. It offers an interesting perspective: it suggests, yes, the power of Christ as seen by a committed Christian; but it also makes a reader ponder the fact that human beings can get attached to their own misfortunes, that a depressed state of mind can, for some, become a luxury– which the man healed here will have to do without. The poem seems excellent to me. It was written by my friend of over forty years, Robert Siegel. Cancer claimed Bob’s life a few months back, and I will miss him, as poetry will. Bob had faced his disease with valor and with faith. Thinking on his passing led me also to think, scarcely for the first time, about poetic reputation, about which I have never much been concerned. But renown was even less crucial to Bob Siegel, in part because of the faith I just mentioned. Worldly fame had to be relatively inconsequential to him. Bob had a distinguished career: I knew him first at Dartmouth, from which, as poets, we were both axed, creative work not passing for real publication back in those days. (It’s a very different matter there now, thanks in no small part to the efforts of my friend, the wonderful poet Cleopatra Mathis.) He went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, where he established its MFA program. He published nine books of poems, gathered numerous awards and fellowships, and enjoyed real esteem as a teacher. But Bob was under-recognized as a poet (though the phrase, of course, sounds redundant: after all, an immensely successful book of poems will sell fewer copies than, say, a mediocre pro baseball team will sell tickets to a given game). I suspect that his relatively small reputation had to do with his lifelong, deeply committed Christianity. The consensual view of Ivy League liberals (among which –full disclosure– I must be numbered): the consensual view of such folk, whose influence on too much of our public dialogue strikes me as disproportionate, dismisses the religious... Continue reading
Posted Apr 2, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Traveling around my little home state as its poet laureate, I’ve especially enjoyed that audience members outside academia tend to ask truly basic questions, which after all represent concerns that everyone feels on contemplating a poem for the first time: who’s talking? why? where? Too much current poetry can’t answer those questions on the page, and even as a lifelong lover of poetry, I turn away from them, conscious of my biological clock’s ticking. But in fact the most frequent questions I hear involve form and meter. There are those who wonder if something can be called poetry if it does not have a regular meter, regular stanzaic shape, and often as not, a rhyme scheme. A quick reference, say, to Paradise Lost or the Hebrew Bible’s Psalms usually makes the point that needs making in this regard. Now for the most part I happen to be something of a formalist myself (though I suspect and even hope this is unobvious when I read, because I pause in my recitation when the grammar does, not when a line does). I even use a goodly amount of rhyme and half-rhyme. And yet I employ these tools merely because they enable me, not because they represent capital-P Poetry. Indeed, I steadfastly refuse to grind any ax in the free verse/formal verse debate, since it seems to make advocates on either side suddenly go brain-dead. Of course poetry can exist in an unrhymed and unmetered format: consider our great Walt Whitman. Of course poetry can be formally constrained without being “academic”: never mind my own small example; consider Robert Frost, a die-hard formalist...who managed to capture the sound of actual speech far more effectively than a free-verser like Ezra Pound ever did. The passionate free-verse partisans may still believe that their mode is anti-establishment, which would of course be the truth– if today were 1920; since about then, free verse has reigned supreme in virtually every academic MFA program and among most noted poets. It is the establishment practice. But then that other sect of blind debaters, formal fundamentalists, will allege that free verse shows sloppy thinking, shoddy technique – as if that applied, say, to Robert Lowell or, more contemporarily, to Louise Gluck. Taking an equal and opposite stab, the free-verse crusaders will impute coldness, sexual frigidity, political reaction, and – again – “academicism” to formalist delivery -- as if any of these charges were relevant to the giants of the twelve-bar Delta blues, a mode that is surely America’s greatest formal contribution to world culture, and, I would argue, one that pervades our poetry even when practitioners are unaware of that effect. And how does such a judgment fit, say, Marilyn Hacker? And so back and forth the ranters will go for hours, wading through idiocy all the while. As I hear the free vs. formal debate rehearsed, I am too depressingly reminded of political dialogue in our day. I am never shocked by the slogans on either side of the... Continue reading
Posted Apr 1, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Sydney Lea is now following The Typepad Team
Mar 29, 2013