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From Stone to Stone [by Matthew Thorburn]
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 main thing is to feel you are rising to your own occasion.” “Who’s to say where a poem begins?”
Posted May 24, 2013 at
The Best American Poetry
Some Lunchtime Thoughts, Posted long after Lunchtime [by Matthew Thorburn]
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 this poem? Whereas if someone asked me to write a poem about New York, or about food, a poem that works in a jazz reference or two, or plays on internal rhymes, well, I’d be on my way. So what did I do? I wrote a poem that deals with ______, but by way of New York, food, jazz and internal rhymes. * * * The flip side of obsessions, in a way, is re-invention. Like Miles Davis going from Birth of the Cool to Kind of Blue to In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew and on and on and on. Or like my mother-in-law. “Try something new!” she says to my wife and me when we go to a Chinese restaurant. But then 90% of the time we end up wishing we’d ordered our usual kung bo gai ding or mapo tofu. Recently I saw a terrific documentary, Under African Skies, about Paul Simon’s trip to South Africa to record the earliest tracks of what would eventually become Graceland, and about the political fallout and controversy that trip generated. One very interesting moment in the film comes when he says that because his previous album, Hearts and Bones, had been a flop commercially, he didn’t feel any pressure or expectation about what he’d do next. The record company executives weren’t calling to check up on him, so he felt free to just explore what interested him and make the music he wanted to make – which turned out to be, well, arguably the best album of his career. (And of course there are in fact some terrific songs on the generally underrated Hearts and Bones, starting with the title track.) * * * I like bold departures and reinventions. But I also admire poets who do something again...
Posted May 23, 2013 at
The Best American Poetry
What to Read this Summer (or Any Time): Marianne Boruch [by Matthew Thorburn]
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 scattered, a little inappropriate almost, and funny-sad, is all quintessentially her. If you haven’t read her poems, the Innisfree Poetry Journal will give you a good taste. Then go read Grace, Fallen from, probably my favorite book of hers, or pick up her earlier New and Selected. But what I also especially want to recommend here is her memoir, The Glimpse Traveler, about a nine-day hitchhiking trip to California in the 1970s. Written in 77 short chapters, each just a page or two, The Glimpse Traveler reads like a series of prose poems, or postcards from a different world (the American counterculture) and a different time (the 1970s, but also that time in life when you’re 20 years old and struggling to find your place in the world). These many brief chapters add up; they tell the story in flashes of action and emotion, illumination. But this is prose written by a poet. Which is to say, you should read for language—the sounds of her sentences, their rhythms—as much as for plot. Here’s how the first chapter starts: No plan that Thursday but a big breakfast—eggs, toast. The classic college boyfriend’s apartment: milling about and underfoot, one or two other boys and their maybe girls. A straggly neighbor born Harold, called Chug, forever turning up to make a point then stopping mid-sentence. Someone’s cousin crashed there for a week. Someone’s half-sister from Cincinnati figuring out her life. Not to mention the dog, the cat, and nothing picked up off the floor, no sink or toilet cleaned in how long. Books read and loved and passed on, dope smoked or on a windowsill…. You can read the first four chapters here. But better yet, go buy the book.
Posted May 22, 2013 at
The Best American Poetry
China in A Day [by Matthew Thorburn]
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 that? Work or school – or both – plus getting there and home again, taking care of kids (if you went against Uncle Phil's advice and have some yourself), cooking and cleaning and hopefully somewhere in there sleeping… It’s hard not to get caught up in the busy-ness of everyday living and feel that life – real life, the good life, whatever cool thing your friends are doing (and posting pictures of on Facebook) and you’re not – is rushing past you in a blur. Next thing you know, you’re one of those people who say things like, “I can’t believe it’s already Wednesday” or “Where did the summer go?” Whereas traveling in another country can have the exact opposite effect. You notice everything – or try to. Because everything is new and different and strange (mostly in a good way). For instance, going to the bathroom in Japan can be an adventure in itself: one involving high-tech toilets and a quick change of footwear. Ordering dinner in Iceland can be too: do I feel like whale pepper steak or is tonight more of a fermented shark kind of night? Should I try the puffin? Or plokkfiskur, perhaps? Finding yourself in another country is like putting on a new pair of glasses. Everything snaps into focus. Everything seems brighter and sharper. Which is, of course, like writing a poem – or like what it takes to write a poem. Traveling and writing poems are both about finding your way, in all the different senses of that phrase. And in both cases you have to pay attention. I think it was Jordan Davis who once said that’s the biggest thing: you have to be present. Show up and pay attention. That’s the job, you poets – and you travelers. And notice...
Posted May 21, 2013 at
The Best American Poetry
"Our Abidance" [by Matthew Thorburn]
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” (the Times again) such as a pair of her binoculars (produced by Abercrombie and Fitch!), two of her desks from Brazil – heavy, rough-hewn, rustic-looking things – as well as some folk art sculptures from South America, a birdcage (I think it was a birdcage) and a couple of paintings. The desks didn’t thrill me the way I thought they might, though I did run a finger along the edge of one just to touch it. No, the moment of amazement came when I looked up from that desk and realized what else I was looking at, hanging a little off to one side. It really was “About the size of an old-style dollar bill”— or so I’d imagine, never having seen one. (I take it on faith, since EB said so.) 4 and 3/16 by 9 11/16 inches, oil on masonite, in an old wooden frame. A mini widescreen landscape: one-third sky, blue-gray and cloudy; one-third dark ground, with light and dark houses and barns; one-third water, vaguely (cloudily?) reflecting the sky and clouds. Poor painting, it didn’t even have a name – or a date. Untitled, nd, by George Hutchinson – “Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George.” It was the painting Bishop describes – and in describing, gradually arrives at a sort of definition of what a poem is for her – in the poem she called “Poem”: Life and the memory of it cramped, dim, on a piece of Bristol board, dim, but how we live, how touching in detail – the little that we get for free, the little of our earthly trust. Not much. About the size of our abidance along with theirs: the munching cows, the iris, crisp and shivering, the water still standing from spring freshets, the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese....
Posted May 20, 2013 at
The Best American Poetry
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