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Matthew Thorburn
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This has been a fun week, and it’s gone by too quickly. I want to leave you with one more book recommendation and some wise words from another poet I deeply admire. Stepping Stones, the collection of interviews with Seamus Heaney conducted by the late Dennis O’Driscoll, is like a portable literature seminar and MFA program all rolled into one. It reminds me, in fact, of a “mini-course” I took as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, taught by the great Leo McNamara; we met once a week with Leo Mac and he guided us page by page through a close reading of Heaney’s entire Selected Poems. I read Stepping Stones always with a pencil in hand. Here are a few of the lines I underlined: “I learned what inspiration feels like, but not how to summon it. Which is to say that I learned that waiting is part of the work.” Poetry “creates a pause in the action, a freeze-frame moment of concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back upon ourselves.” “…One of the gifts of poetry is to extend and bewilder, and another is to deepen and give purchase.” “When you write, the... Continue reading
Posted May 24, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Lately I’ve been thinking about the things we keep returning to as writers. Our obsessions, I heard an old novelist call them once, speaking to a group of students. You all have them, he said, you just may not know it yet. I guess this started because a friend invited me to contribute to an anthology she’s putting together of poems about ______. (A quick Google search doesn’t turn up the title, so I’ll keep this cat in its bag.) And I’ve learned ______ is something she’s really very interested in, both personally and as a writer. Whereas I’d really never written or thought too much about ______. But I am also not one to say, “Oh, no thanks,” when someone asks me—not that they ask so often, but it happens—to write something for their anthology or journal or website. (See, here I am guest-blogging right now.) So after glibly saying, “Yes, of course, I’d love to,” I spent the next couple months worrying and wondering, trying to find my way into this subject I’d never much thought about before. How would I do it? Where’s the door, or at least the window, I could slip through to get into... Continue reading
Posted May 23, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Tonight I’d like to recommend some summer reading. I’ve long admired Marianne Boruch as a poet. Her work is beautiful, quirky, wonderful to read aloud, and absolutely her own. Her poem “Still Life,” from Grace, Fallen from, for instance, is one of my favorites. (And what a great book title.) It’s hard to quote from without just giving you the whole poem, because where to stop? But here’s how it begins: Someone arranged them in 1620. Someone found the rare lemon and paid a lot and neighbored it next to the plain pear, the plain apple of the lost garden, the glass of wine, set down mid-sip— don’t drink it, someone said, it’s for the painting. And the rabbit skull— whose idea was that? There had been a pistol but someone was told, no, put that away, into the box with a key though the key had been misplaced now for a year. … This gives you a sense of how her work can move very swiftly from thought to thought across the lines. It’s associative, makes leaps—and that “don’t drink it… it’s for / the painting” and the way the people here, their impulses and actions, are a little... Continue reading
Posted May 22, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Philip Larkin once remarked that he would like to visit China, but only if he could come home the same day. (I could do another week here on funny and/or curmudgeonly things he said.) He also said in his Paris Review interview that writing a poem was, for him, a way “to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.” (As coldly scientific as that sounds, he of course also wrote some of the most beautiful and moving verbal devices in 20th century English. And he did go on at least one overnight trip abroad, to Germany, or so I’ve heard.) Having written and now recently published a book of poems about traveling in China, Iceland and Japan, I’ve often thought of Uncle Phil (as I think of him) and these remarks of his when someone asks me what my book is about, or especially why I wrote it. But to tell you what I tell people, I first have to share another quote. Jasper Johns said that sometimes life gets so close we can’t see it anymore. Small children and the outrageously wealthy aside, who doesn’t sometimes feel like... Continue reading
Posted May 21, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I want to kick off my stint here with a painting, a favorite poet, and a poem called “Poem.” At the beginning of last year I paid a visit to the Tibor de Nagy Gallery for what felt like a belated Christmas gift. It was one of those January days in New York – cold but sunny, no snow, milder than a January day ought to be – when you half-forget it’s winter, and I had brought my wife along to check out a compact but wonderful show of pictures by Elizabeth Bishop. “Small paintings on paper,” the Times called them; a selection of her works in watercolors, gouache, ink and graphite. Some I recognized from other places. Merida from the Roof you would know as the cover art of The Complete Poems 1927-1979, the salmon-colored paperback we all owned (and probably still have, because it’s so portable) before the Library of America edition and the one simply called Poems were published. And her painting of a tiny-looking Louise Crane kicked back on an enormous bed I’d seen reproduced in The New York Review of Books, in a piece celebrating her centennial. The show also included an assortment of “Bishopiana”... Continue reading
Posted May 20, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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May 20, 2013