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Daniel Westover
East Tennessee
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Robert, you certainly did that for me. It was very rewarding to revisit my graduate student days and reengage with this material. Doing so helped me realize just how influential it really was. Warmest, DW.
Thank you, David. It was really rewarding to revisit these essays, and I'm grateful for the forum that provided me the opportunity.
Mark, thank you for taking the time to read this. I appreciate it very much. What you and Robert did was bold, and I always admire boldness. If I ever write something that is still being talked about 30 years later, I'll be very satisfied indeed.
When I applied to the MFA program at McNeese State, the application process was straightforward: you sent some poetry or some fiction, and you either got a phone call or you didn’t. Test scores, previous publications, and GPA didn’t factor in. I sent the only six poems I had written. They were dreadful imitations of what little I had read, something like a mash-up of Robert Frost and William Stafford, but any grain of potential within them can be attributed to a gifted teacher, Peter Makuck, who taught my undergraduate poetry workshop with remarkable dignity and discernment. When I speak to poets about how they came to be writers, there are as many different stories as there are poets, but it is worth noting, especially in a climate where educators are increasingly devalued, that most of their stories feature an inspired teacher. I arrived in Louisiana hungry for direction. I spent every spare minute in the Frazar Memorial Library consuming collections, quarterlies, and criticism. I read every poem in A. Poulin Jr.’s Contemporary American Poetry anthology and then started it again. On my third time through, the binding broke, and I was afraid to tell the librarian (I had no money to buy it, and there was no way I was letting them pull it), so I bound it together with rubber bands and, when I wasn’t reading it, hid it on the Government Documents floor. (There was never anyone on the Government Documents floor). One night while looking through old magazines, I discovered one called The Reaper, which Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell had edited in the 1980s. I liked it immediately. The eponymous Reaper was an imaginary personality who wrote criticism, conducted interviews, and issued manifestos. He (She? It?) condemned the obfuscating nature of contemporary poetry and argued for a return to narrative. Narrative was the genre I found easiest to understand, so I was seduced by excerpts like these: Navel gazers and mannerists, their time is running out. Their poems, too long even when they are short, full of embarrassing lines that “context” is supposed to justify, confirm the suspicion that our poets just aren’t listening to their language anymore. Editors and critics aren’t listening much, either. Despite their best, red-faced efforts, their favorite gods—inaccuracy, bathos, sentimentality, posturing, evasion—wither at the sound of The Reaper’s whetstone singing. The Reaper maintains that both the accurate image and the narrative line, two determining factors of the poem’s shapeliness, have been keenly honed and kept sharp by the poets included here, whereas many of their counterparts, forgetting these necessities, have wandered into a formless swamp where only the skunk cabbage of solipsistic meditation breeds, with its cloying flowers. Reading this again, I see why it appealed to me so much. The unabashed confidence was attractive to a writer who had no confidence, and the sardonic tone made me feel better about the fact that I didn’t understand a great deal of what I was reading. It gave me permission to... Continue reading
Posted May 31, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Last month while scrolling through my Twitter feed I came across a link to an article by Adam Kirsch in The New Republic titled “The Greatest English Poet you Haven’t Heard of.” This kind of title never fails to bring me running (or clicking) in the hope of discovering a writer I’ve been missing out on, someone I will fall in love with. It reminds me of the time I discovered a dusty copy of Patrick Kavanagh’s Selected Poems in Dauphine Street Books or, to go back a little further, the time my cool Aunt Jill, seeing my twelve year-old self tapping his foot to the latest twee pop album, slipped me a copy of Peter Gabriel’s Security and said, “You need to listen to this.” Every bibliophile has an inbox of books that keeps growing, and I’m no different. Just knowing that there are words out there to hunt down, unearth, or stumble upon randomly, and that at any moment someone can add genuine value to my life, maybe even completely change its course, by offering the unexpected—well, that’s one of the things that gets me out of bed. So I was a little disappointed when Kirsch’s piece turned out to be an introduction to the poetry of Edward Thomas and, in part, a review of Matthew Hollis’s (partial) biography of Thomas. To be clear, the piece itself is not disappointing. Kirsch is a fine writer. I enjoy his thoughtful essays on Modern poetry, and this one is absolutely worth your time, especially if Thomas is a poet you haven’t heard of. But I found Kirsch’s title puzzling. Thomas is represented in every major anthology of twentieth-century British literature that I own. He was one of Robert Frost’s dearest friends. Anne Stevenson, Andrew Motion, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill all admire him as an important predecessor. R. S. Thomas cut his poetic teeth on Edward Thomas. Ted Hughes called him “the father of us all.” In short, his was, and remains, a known voice. Kirsch says as much in the article, pointing out that Thomas, once he had found that voice, “became one of the most beloved poets of the twentieth century.” So I was scratching my head a little. I also have quibbles with calling Thomas an “English Poet” since he was Welsh by blood and much of his work is motivated not chiefly by a love for the English countryside, as is commonly assumed, but by hiraeth, as Andrew Webb demonstrates in his brilliant new book on Thomas. But never mind. For the sake of this post, let’s say that an English poet is any poet who writes poetry in English. I don’t happen to believe this, but I will pretend to for a moment because even though I was disappointed by Kirsch’s teasing title, it did lead me to consider just who is, in my view, the greatest English poet (of the twentieth century, at least—I didn’t stray into earlier territory) that most people have never... Continue reading
Posted May 29, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I am one of the (relatively) few American academics specializing in the English-language literature of Wales, sometimes referred to as Anglo-Welsh literature. The term that most of us working in the field use is Welsh writing in English, to distinguish the writing from the much older yet still thriving tradition of Welsh-language literature and to avoid being limited by the colonial connotations of anything following “Anglo” and a hyphen. As I travel to conduct and present research, the most frequent questions I am asked are not about the research itself, but about how I came to be interested in Wales at all. These questions move beyond the kind of friendly interest one takes in other people’s careers and often approach something closer to bewilderment. Both in the US and UK—and especially, as it turns out, within Wales itself—I am asked questions like “How on earth did you wind up in Wales?” and “What is an American doing studying Welsh literature?” These are put to me by academics and non-academics alike, and they are often immediately followed by, “What’s the connection?” The implication, of course, is that there must be some family association or unusual circumstance that led me to Welsh studies. But as much as I’d like to claim that I’ve traced my genealogy to the small Welsh village of a distant ancestor or that my great-grandfather left the Welsh valleys and came to America to find work, there is no such romantic connection. Westover is a very English name, and the only family connection I have to Wales is my second cousin Brian, also an American of English descent, who owns and operates a hostel in the Snowdonia National Park. The easy rejoinder to these questions, and the one I’m sometimes tempted to offer, is Why not Wales? Really, why should it seem weird? No one would blink if I went to London to study the Bloomsbury Group. It’s okay to like Virginia Woolf just because, you know, she’s awesome and stuff. But not Welsh literature, it seems. Having answered the question so many times, I admit to having tried out a few tall tales to see how reactions would differ. I once told an archivist at the National Library in Aberystwyth that my ancestors were from Merthyr and were converted to Mormonism by Captain Dan Jones—a famous missionary who translated the Book of Mormon into Welsh—and that they immigrated to Utah and founded the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She was completely satisfied and even pulled a first edition of the Welsh Book of Mormon from the archives, for which I still feel guilty (but not too guilty since it was a beautiful book). The real answer to the question of Why Wales? (and the one I usually give, I promise) is much simpler than people expect it to be: I was exposed to the writing of several writers from Wales, and I felt a pull. I didn’t know what Welsh writing in English was or how it did and... Continue reading
Posted May 28, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Although I didn’t know it as a kid, my grandfather, Eugene (Eugenio) James Martinis—“Jimmy” to his siblings, “Marty” to me—was a Screaming Eagle, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne. Technically Marty was my step-grandfather, but I didn’t know that, either, and it wouldn’t have mattered to me. When I was six, I visited a petrol station in the Mojave Desert, and the owner, a man that I later learned was my biological grandfather, gave me a mesh baseball cap with “Esso” stitched across the front. It was a cool hat with really loud plastic snaps, and I liked that it smelled like gasoline, but I lost it soon after. There was no relationship behind the gift to make it valuable. Marty, for his part, was aloof and even cold at times, but he was there, and, as it turned out, he gave me one of the most enduring lessons of my childhood. It would be a stretch to say that I loved Marty. He was too quiet, and he preferred the company of his dogs to my own. But I did like him. He smelled like menthols and coffee beans, and sometimes he would wake up—that’s how I thought of it—and tell a really great joke, like the one about what the Dalmatian said after dinner (“That hit the spots!”). He could do a perfect Foghorn Leghorn impersonation, his Italian spare ribs didn’t fall apart as you were picking them up (but they fell apart perfectly in your mouth), and he always kept the candy jars stocked. He bought us our first VCR, and when “Old Blue,” my dad’s Datsun 510, finally got to the point where he couldn’t resurrect it (Dad had been hotwiring it with paperclips during its final years), Marty gave him his Ford Pinto, a bright orange car we named “Julius,” which Dad kept until 2002, long after Marty was gone—he died of lung cancer in 1991. I never knew Marty well, even as a teenager. By the time I was old enough to value what he gave me and want to know him better, he was sick, and then he was dead. One day in the summer of 1985, my cousins and I were “playing war”—an awful phrase, but it’s the one we used—in Marty’s front yard, trying to avoid the dandelion flares and dog poop land mines. I had just stormed the beach of the flowerbed when I realized Marty was on the front porch. There was a lit cigarette in his hand, but he wasn’t smoking it. He wasn’t moving at all. To say he was watching me doesn’t quite get it right. He was looking in my direction, but he wasn’t seeing me. I didn’t understand the look on his face. How could I? I was a ten-year-old Mormon kid who’d been raised in a bubble. I hadn’t even seen an R-rated movie. I had no reference for genuine horror. I stepped backwards into the yard, but I was unable to turn... Continue reading
Posted May 27, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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May 23, 2013