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Dean Rader
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Earlier this week, I was invited to participate in a reading with Anne Barrows and Chana Bloch that acknowledged Kristalnacht. So, I dug out some translations I did back in the early 1990s of some lesser-known Paul Celan poems. Here is one of them: There was earth inside them, and they dug. They dug and dug, and their day passed, their night. And they did not praise God, who, so they heard, wanted all this, who, so they heard, knew all this. They dug and heard nothing more; They did not grow wise, invented no song, created no language. They dug. There came a stillness, there came a storm, there came oceans, one and all. I dig, you dig, the worms dig, too, and the singing out there says: They dig. O one, O none, O no one, O you: Where did it lead when it lead nowhere? O you dig and I dig and I dig through to you, and on our finger, the ring wakes up. Continue reading
Posted Nov 14, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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So, today is my son Gavin's birthday--dude turns 2. Armistice Day seems like an apt holiday for celebrating entrance into the world. An acknowledgment of peace; a remembrance of violence. It's all there. Here's hoping my guy veers toward the former . . . On Tuesday, I gave a reading at the fabulous Albany Library Series and I was asked by two different people if I had written poems about my son. I confessed that for two years now, I'd thought about it a lot, even tried a couple of times, but had, in my mind at least, failed miserably. I admitted to them that I had never really found poems about sons that I loved--certainly not the way I love poems about lovers, spouses, or, for that matter, parents. This bothered me but intrigued me. I don't know about the rest of you, but for me, writing poetry about a child--especially a young one--is incredibly difficult. In general, it's hard to reach the emotional register commensurate with your feelings for your child without being sentimental. This is especially true for celebratory poems. There are a few other good poems about sons (are they harder to write about than daughters?), but not as many as you might think. Galway Kinnell's "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps" is memorable, as is Yeats' "A Prayer For My Son." Fabulously laced with fear, that poem always makes me think of Ben Johnson's wrenching "Epigrams: On My First Son," which, if I'm honest, scares me so thoroughly I often can't finish the poem. Similarly, David Ray's Sam's Book, a collection of poems about his son's death is a fantastic book. It's tragic but riveting. I channeled my interest in writing about (and celebrating) my son through blogging, but that project is beginning to lose its charm. My goal, then, is to write a poem about Gavin before he turns 3. Perhaps I'll check back in with an update in a year or so. In the meanwhile, I'd love for folks to post poems about sons that they find particularly compelling or enjoyable. Poets.org has gotten us off to a pretty good start, but we can certainly add to the list. Along those same lines, I was struck by how struck I was when I came across this sculpture of Silenus and Dionysus not long ago. Is it just that there are so few non-commercial images of fathers and sons in what we have come to think of as high culture? Or is this just a particularly well-done piece? Emotionally bold without being manipulative. I envy that. Continue reading
Posted Nov 11, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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In his op-ed piece in the New York Times earlier this week, Nicholas Kristof admitted that he would likey a little poetry: Please, Mr. Obama! The prose needn’t be as dry as the Harvard Law Review. And we wouldn’t mind being lifted by an occasional verse of poetry. I love the fact that the de facto genre for lifting Americans is poetry. I couldn't agree more. For the past few days, I've been thinking about what poems or snippets of poems the American public would like to hear. If I were chief poetry advisor to the President (and shouldn't such a post exist?), I'd run these by him: Walt Whitman's "To Thee Old Cause" ("To thee old cause / Thou peerless, passionate, good cause, / Thou stern, remorseless, sweet idea") Wislawa Szymborska, "The People on the Bridge" ("It's difficult at this point to keep from commenting. / This picture is by no means innocent. / Time has stopped here. / Its laws are no longer consulted" ) Pablo Neruda, the final canto of "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" (Join together across the earth / all silent scattered lips / and speak to me from below, all this long night / as if I were anchored among you, / tell me everything" ) & ("Give me silence, water, hope") Czeslaw Milosz, "Hope" (Some people say we should not trust our eyes, / That there is nothing, just a seeming, / These are the ones who have no hope") Edward Hirsch, "Song" ("Listen, this song is for you even if / you can't listen to it or join it") I also thought about some funny poems, poems about poverty, poems about love but settled, I think, on this William Matthews poem from Sleek for the Long Flight (itself perhaps a metaphor): Attention Everyone Gloom is the enemy, even to the end. The parodies of self-knowledge were embossed by Gloom inside our eyelids, and the abrasion makes us weep, for no reason, like a new bride disconsolate in the nightgown she had sewn so carefully. The dog comes back from the fields, lumpy with burrs. I put down my pen and pull them out; it is a care I have taught him to expect. I’ve always said it would be difficult. I’m declaring a new regime. Its flag is woven loam. Its motto is: Love is worth even its own disasters. Its totem is the worm. We eat our way through grief and make it richer. We don’t blunt ourselves against stones—their borders go all the way through. We go around them. In my new regime Gloom dances by itself, like a sad poet. Also I will be sending out some letters: Dear Friends, Please come to the party for my new life. The dog will meet you at the road, barking, running stiff-legged circles. Pluck one of his burrs and follow him here. I’ve got lots of good wine, I’m in love, my new poems are better than my old poems. It’s... Continue reading
Posted Nov 10, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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The work being done by a new generation of Native American poets is among the most exciting in American poetry. One of my favorite recent collections is Heid Erdrich's National Monuments. Her poem "The Theft Outright" is a fantastic response to Robert Frost's famous inaugural poem, "The Gift Outright," read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. As I suggest in a post at The Weekly Rader, Frost's poem is a swan song for the chauvinism and ethnocentrism of Manifest Destiny. Suffice it to say that when in the first line the speaker says, "The land was ours before we were the land's," he was not channeling Chief Seattle, Wovoka, or any person of color. Frost, frosty as they come, embodied whiteness. Erdrich (Ojibwe) plays with Frost's line and its sentiment, inverting the poem's claim to land by invoking the transgressive history of land reclamation, removal, and theft. Here are the first few lines of this gripping poem: We were the land's before we were. Or the land was ours before you were a land. Or this land was our land, it was not your land. We were the land before we were people, loamy roamers rising, so the stories go, or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul— What's America, but the legend of Rock 'n' Roll? Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands swimming being from women's hands, we originate, originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage. Two other poets you should know are Navajo writers Sherwin Bitsui and Orlando White. Bitsui’s Shapeshift (2003) and White’s Bone Light (2009) are laced with a skepticism toward and an embrace of language. Both poets eschew an expository poets of theme and opt instead for an elliptical lyricism characterized by brevity, elision, and interiority. In Bitsui’s “Apparition,” for example, blanks and clipped lines send the message that the world is, among other things, fragmented, indeterminate, absent: I haven’t ________ since smoke dried to salt in the lakebed, since crude oil dripped from his parting slogan, the milk’s sky behind it, birds chirping from its wig. Many of Bitsui’s poems explore how different values, concepts, and ideas are when experienced in Navajo as opposed to English. In fact, at times, English (and its poetic tradition) feel more like an enemy than a mode of connection: “Read this, / understand their language, / or sleep in a bottle of broken nails for the rest of your life. White, on the other hand, sees language as a means to an end—if not also an end in itself. For him, letters are works of art, little people, signs and symbols of liberation and confinement. In the opening piece, “To See Letters,” White makes an emotional connection with the alphabet as a means of populating his poetic landscape: Everything I write requires this: Alphabet. It was a notion I did not know when I was six years old. In kindergarten I was more interested in the image of a letter on a flash card. I noticed its shape... Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Earlier in the year, a student in my Contemporary American Poetry class asked me if there were any "great" contemporary American poems. I told her there were many great ones, including, for example, everything on her syllabus. Yeah, yeah, yeah, she said. Why, she asked, did anthologies of contemporary American poetry have different selections of poems, when pretty much every anthology agreed on what 19th and early 20th century poems were "great?" I told her greatness was a tough thing to define, especially in the present. When I pressed her, though, she admitted that what she meant was more like what contemporary American poems will, like "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "The Snow Man" or "The Red Wheelbarrow," always be taught? Are there recent poems everyone has acknowledged are iconic? Her question intrigued me, in part, because it wasn't a query about the "best" poems but rather about poems that had been (or would likely be) entered into the bizzare and unpredictable canon-making machinery of the postmodern era. Such things don't always have a great deal to do with how "good" or "memorable" a poem is but how emblematic of x or y it might be. Enduring poetry, like so many things, is often largely about luck and timing. Is "The Red Wheelbarrow" really Williams' best poem? "In a Station at the Metro," Pound's? I'd take "The Man on The Dump" any day over "The Snow Man" or "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" or "The Emperor of Ice Cream," but "The Man on the Dump" is not connected to Harmonium or Imagism, or Modernism. It's nothing but an absolutely fabulous poem (that's almost never taught nor anthologized). So, I asked a few friends what poems written after 1970 they thought were the most iconic. Which ones will get written about, anthologized, quoted? Which poems from this era will emblamatize American poetry? There was, to understate, no concensus. And so I turn it over to you. Post your 5 (five) nominees below in the comments section, or email me your list (rader@usfca.edu). We'll see what emerges. At the end of my tenure as guest blogger, I'll post any meaningful results. And, if I'm able to steal enough smart ideas from your lists, I'll cobble together one of my own. Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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No city in America is producing more good poetry right now than San Francisco. Its older generation of poets altered poetry's landscape, and its newer crop of writers, who seem to be winning every possible award, are shaping poetic terrain as well. New York might stake out a claim as the country's fiction center, but San Francisco has planted its flag as the poetry capital of the United States. Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Nov 4, 2010