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The Best American Poetry
Welcome to The Best American Poetry blog. We launched this blog in January, 2008, to create a place where we and friends can exchange, discuss, and argue about poems and poetry. We soon discovered that it would be even more fun to post about anything that fuels our passions, be it movies or sex or baseball or ballet or cocktails or finance or music, because these are, after all, the same subjects that generate poems. Then we flung the doors open and invited others to join in. And we decided that contributors to the blog need not be poets as long as they share a love of good writing and poetry. The only things we ask our regular and guest bloggers to avoid are personal attacks. You'll find enough of that stuff elsewhere. We celebrate freedom of expression. The opinionS of our contributors are their own and not necessarily those of the blog's editorial team or of other contributors. We welcome comments as long as they keep within the bounds of civil discourse. Our roster of correspondents is always changing. We are large! We contain multitudes! Please visit often.Our roster of correspondents is always changing. We are large! We contain multitudes! Please visit often.
Interests: music, food, finance, cocktails, movies, baseball, sex, poetry, mad men.
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Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series about the Todos Santos Writers Workshop, a new under-the-radar program that flourishes in Todos Santos, Mexico. Find posts one through five here. sdl I stayed at the exquisite Hotelito, which is ten-minute walk down a sandy road to the workshop’s HQ at Casa Dracula. Zipping my sweater against the cool morning air prepares me for the walk that allows me to gather my thoughts on current work. It’s also the final procrastination for my ADD-addled brain - look! Flora! Fauna! - before I get down to the business at hand. The sloppy trek over the uneven terrain mirrors my inner landscape, wild and rolling, until, suddenly, both are smooth and solid, ready. Morning Walk Inviting thoughts lurking beneath the din, freed now, competing to be acknowledged, maybe captured, we’ll see: Learn Spanish like a native Sombrero, casita, amigo And next time, don’t wear black shoes Jacinto, playa, pescadero Because the white dust from the road Blanco, calle, Tortuga Coats them like sugar on buñuelos. Jabon, derecho, mañana Decoding an inner exquisite puzzle Fabuloso, arropas, muertos Confounding and familiar huevos, curioso, puerta When a truck whose passengers, a baby and a dog, bambino, Huichol, pero Regard me, and would wave if they could. baja, baile, Pueblo Magico The sand then settles Tranquilo, la picero, libreta Giving way to asphalt Esplendido, inspiración Orange flowers trumpeting my poised readiness. Hola, Casa Grande, llegué Sue Scarlett Montgomery has lived in NYC for 36 years and works as a writer, filmmaker or musician, depending on the day. Continue reading
Posted 10 hours ago at The Best American Poetry
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It’s Johnny Mercer’s birthday from Natchez to Mobile in the cool cool cool of the evening very cool with Barbara Lea singing Marian McPartland playing the greatest revenge songs of all time hooray and hallelujah you had it comin’ to ya while I clap from a front row seat with a bottle of Rodenbach Alexander red ale from Belgium with cherries and “Tangerine” in the background in Double Indemnity when Stanwyck and MacMurray are finished he had a feel for the lingo, “Jeepers Creepers” as Bing Crosby sang it on my eighth birthday in 1956 I just played it three straight times and an all-American sense of humor what does Jonah say in the belly of the whale he says man we better accentuate the positive that’s it happy birthday and thanks for the cheer I hope you didn’t mind my bending your ear -- David Lehman (2000; from The Evening Sun, 2003) Harold Arlen wrote the music, and Johnny Mercer the words, for that great 1945 hit, "Accentuate the Positive." Continue reading
Posted yesterday at The Best American Poetry
I approached reviewing this book with a stratagem—blinding the names—and then I read the poems randomly. It was liberating to concern myself only with the lines and not to focus on the authors and their accolades. I couldn’t see who wrote what and I did not read the introduction. I still recall the 2015 anthology, which included a poem that fooled editor Sherman Alexie because a white poet had used an Asian-sounding name. All I knew going in was that the editor of this particular book in the series is Natasha Trethewey. On the whole the poems in this installment of the Best American Poetry series work beautifully—readers are reminded of these dire times in some truly memorable lines. In “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czeslaw Milosz” (p. 100) the sparest lines recount what we’ve all been reading in the news. If lasting poetry is news that stays news, this poem doesn’t expend energy on embellishment and hits the mark like a stray bullet to the heart. I was wounded anew as a witness reading Can we agree Kevlar backpacks shouldn’t be needed for children walking to school? Those same children also shouldn’t require a suit of armor when standing on their front lawns, or snipers to watch their backs as they eat at McDonald’s. They shouldn’t have to stop to consider the speed of a bullet or how it might reshape their bodies. But one winter, back in Detroit, I had one student who opened a door and died. The ending provides nearly the only poetic device, a metaphor: “The deadbolt of discourse/sliding into place.” Like many of the poems in this book this is a necessary poem of witness. It illustrates our terrible situation as a nation dealing with the two-headed monster of racism and gun violence, recounting a litany of school shootings and the lack of resolution in dealing with the problem as gun violence rages again and again. The late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, a poet I admire, haunts this anthology. He wrote “What is poetry [that] does not save nations or people?” Many of the poems in this book aim to do both through the ancient arc of song and narrative storytelling. The poem “Emanations” (p. 117) seems like a lone outcropping among the other poems because it doesn’t deal with the weighty themes in much of the rest of the book. Its long laborious lines are riddled with ampersands and general observations. Whitmanic in its intent, this poem is journalistic, and although it aspires to some rhythmic driving force, it has little, so this excerpt of what may have been a longer poem seems prosaic. As a meditation on a journey to Big Sur—the land of Robinson Jeffers—it holds our interest nevertheless. "Infinitives” (p. 163), one of the best poems in the anthology, “is a list of the aforementioned grammatical constructions." ...To walk around all day buttoned wrong. Light is coming from rocks, the little froggie jumps even though he hasn’t been wound... Continue reading
Posted 3 days ago at The Best American Poetry
Thank you for your comment. Walter Carey, who watches the show religiously, tells us that she supposedly died in a helicopter crash when she was accompanying a wounded patient to a hospital.
It would be nice if, as St John of the Cross teaches, My soul would leave my body each night and wash Itself clean of worldly desires, as if sin could be divested Like calories from beer, and I could wake up with The same kind of hangover just guilt-free— But I don’t expect my soul to strive for heaven While I sleep—I’d settle for the kitchen, if it could Wipe down the benches and take out the trash, maybe Do the dishes, so I no longer have to wake to the smell Of stale whiskey and cigarette ash. If it needs to leave The house then it can go out and settle some of my debts, Or visit upon my rivals, put their hands in bowls of warm Water while they sleep so that they piss the bed next To their lovers; or it can head to the crossroads, in New York That would be Broadway & 42nd St, lean back against The wall with one foot raised and sell itself. It’s not a high-rent fame I’m looking for, not a Robert Johnson kind of influence or Dylanesque endurance— At this age I’d take a one-hit-wonder, a reality TV show, an Electoral college. Best of all it could go door-to-door, not to sell, But to coax or buy, if necessary, its mate, the other half of me— The soda I always forget to add to the whiskey, the lighter I never bring, Or perhaps it has been doing that each night for the the past thirty- Three years and doesn’t have the heart to tell me -- Thomas Moody Continue reading
Posted Nov 10, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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(Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series about the Todos Santos Writers Workshop, a new under-the-radar program that flourishes in Todos Santos, Mexico. Find previous posts, by co-founder Rex Weiner, here, by Bianca Juarez, here, by Joy Wright Abbot here, and by Nicholas Triolo here. sdl) Just when you think you’ve arrived, you have a little further to go. The customs line at the Cabo airport is crawling, and the drive to Todos Santos will add another hour or two to an already long coast-to- coast day. The landscape grows stranger: scrubby, prickly desert rises to soft, rounded brown-green ridges. Above the range, majestic clouds morph and roil but never wander far; the mists and mountains seem symbiotic. You’ve been driving for over an hour, but there always seems to be another dirt road, another sharp turn, another dip down. In another context you’d at least consider turning tail and heading back to the security of the Manhattan grid. But here you go forward—willingly, almost—deeper into the wilds of Baja. In Jeanne McCulloch’s memoir workshop, each prompt sent me down a path I thought I recognized. Then the story would confound me, veering off, twisting, and bouncing around before miraculously settling into strange but true terrain. I was able to write about real agonies and ecstasies, to let the chaos of my memory find peace on the page. One afternoon, after an early class under the palapa, I set out to find the beach closest to my hotel. Walking west, the impatient New Yorker in me expected to find the glorious Pacific any minute. But the dusty road went on and on, past farmland, horses, children—life being lived. Finally, the path rose to an endless expanse of soft sand, a glittery but unforgiving ocean pounding its edge. A blowfish, so shiny and perfect it should have been alive, lay alone on the shore. There was not another human being in sight. I could keep going-- running into the furious waves or seeking out the sea turtle hatchlings. Instead I stood still, closed my eyes, listened. I was there; even if I had further to go. Deirdre Dempsey-Rush has been writing since she can remember, now crafting stories from life with an eye toward a memoir. She is a madwoman by day, supervising copywriters at a large Manhattan agency. Continue reading
Posted Nov 10, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Auden in New York. Why does he seem so inviting? Angela Patrinos reports. <<< Even with all the rain, last night’s event at the New School was standing room-only. Yet again. David Lehman presented a lecture on W. H. Auden, giving us in one hour’s time the vital details and contradictions of the poet’s life and work, and addressing such questions as “Can a flawed poem be a great poem?” By the age of twenty-two, Wystan Hugh Auden was the most prominent poet in England, with a sound more modern than any of the day. For example: “It’s no use raising a shout./No, Honey, you can cut that right out.” And yet, in January of 1939, he left England and moved to New York City. His reason for coming to NYC—not definitively clear: “He’d become accustomed to peregrinating,” David said. Perhaps NYC was the next place on his list. But perhaps, too, Auden desired to be a less-known entity. Or perhaps it was because he fell in love with a young man from Brooklyn named Chester Kallman. He seems to have been happy in New York —it certainly was his choice to be here—and yet he wrote “Refugee Blues” and “The Unknown Citizen,” and he spoke of loneliness. Perhaps this was a loneliness that followed him here. David read a poem that Auden wrote just before his arrival in NY, a poem inspired by a painting he’d seen in a museum in Brussels. “Pay attention to the adjectives and adverbs,” David said. In order of appearance, they are “human, dully, reverently, passionately, miraculous, dreadful, untidy, doggy, innocent, leisurely, forsaken, important, white, expensive, delicate, amazing, calmly.’ The poem is titled “Musee des Beaux Arts” and the painting is Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Without a title placard for this uncanny painting, it’s unlikely that a viewer would know to search for, and find, the very subject of the painting. No clues can be gotten from the gaze of the personages in the foreground, who leisurely turn away from what’s taking place in the horizon—the disaster, the forsaken cry, the unimportant failure of the fallen Icarus. The poem begins: “About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” (David points out that to reverse the inversion in the first two lines to “The Old Masters were never wrong about suffering” would be to lose the eloquence.) The poem is an example of Auden’s later style—which held more gravitas than his earlier work. It was a style of poetry that was wordy, discursive (too wordy, too discursive, said his critics). You can contrast the style of “Musee des Beaux Arts” with that of the conversational, idiomatic style of William Carlos Williams’s poem, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” written twenty years later and inspired by the same painting. In Williams’s poem, there is only one word... Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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(Ed. note: On Monday, November 6, at the elegant Salmagundi Club, I was one of five who told stories inspired by Jewish cooking. The event was part of the Jewish Food Society's ongoing mission to preserve Jewish recipes from around the world. It's a great organization. You can find out more about it and discover terrific recipes, here. sdl) Photo(c) Caitlin Hoop “There was a time when you could walk into any lobby in the Bronx and you would smell kasha,” says Stacey Harwood-Lehman, a writer and the poet laureate of the New York City farmers markets. She’s referring to the 1960’s when the borough was home to a large Eastern European Jewish community, including her grandparents who emigrated from Russia to escape the pogroms. The scent of kasha simmering away also perfumed her mother’s kitchen at their home in Monsey, a town northwest of the city. “My mother wasn’t an enthusiastic cook at all,” Stacey says. Infact, when she was 12, her mother “called a moratorium on cooking and my sisters and I had to take turns preparing dinner.” But her mother did have a handful of recipes she turned to, including kasha with brisket, which she took from the back of a box of Wolff’s kasha. Unlike her mother, Stacey became an avid cook and baker, helping form the second community supported agriculture program in the country and even courting David Lehman, who would become her husband, with challah that she baked, froze, sealed in a shoebox and mailed to him when they were living in different cities. To hear a recording of the full story and for a recipe for kasha, go here. Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
207 is also mighty fine. -- DL
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This week we welcome back Kristina Marie Darling as our guest author. Kristina is the author of twenty-seven books, which include JE SUIS L’AUTRE: ESSAYS &amp; INTERROGATIONS (C&R Press, 2017), DARK HORSE (C&R Press, forthcoming), and THE DISAPPOINTMENT ACTS (C&R Press, forthcoming). Within the past few years, Kristina has been honored with three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, three residencies at the American Academy in Rome, and a Visiting Researcher Fellowship from the University of Washington’s Helen R. Whiteley Center. She is the recipient of grants from Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund, the Whiting Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Ora Lerman Trust, the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, and the Rockefeller Archive Center. A graduate of NYU’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and the PhD Program in Literature at SUNY- Buffalo, Kristina serves as Editor-in- Chief of Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor-in- Chief of Tupelo Press, and a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly. Welcome back, Kristina --sdl Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
During the last sixty years I have taken every opportunity to see and hear famous writers. I took notes on their appearance and performance, and their readings have always helped me to understand their character and works. At the University of Michigan in 1958 Aldous Huxley looked tall, thin, haggard, weary and bent over. In his upper-class English accent he explained that chickens could be controlled by putting electrodes in their brains and warned that this could also be done to human beings, especially to helpless prisoners and insane patients. This danger now seems more real than ever as millions of people throughout the world are robotically attached to their iPhones and could conceivably be dominated by electronic commands. As an undergraduate at Michigan I’d also seen Robert Frost, snowy-haired, vigorous and handsome at the age of eighty-four, give an impressive reading of his poems and remembered this experience many years later when writing his biography. His wife Elinor had died when he was sixty-five. After her death he had published some lyrical love poems and the received view was that he continued to write about his late wife. But I didn’t think the energetic and attractive Frost would have been ready at that time to giveup his sexual feelings and wondered if, during his last twenty-five years, someone else was at the center of his emotional and erotic life. The most likely candidate was Kay Morrison, the wife of Ted Morrison, a tenured lecturer in the Harvard English department. Kay was Frost’s secretary when he taught at colleges in New England and manager when he went on lecture tours. My suspicions were confirmed at the University of Virginia when I read the papers of Lawrance Thompson, Frost’s authorized biographer, whose deletions about Kay were far more interesting than his published book. At Harvard law school in 1959 I went to three literary readings. W. H. Auden’s corrugated face did indeed (as he said) resemble a wedding cake left out in the rain. He seemed drunk, slovenly and shambling, kept leaning forward and pushing his papers off the edge of the lectern, and seemed surprised as they fluttered down to the students in the front row. As they rushed forward to retrieve the papers and hand them back, out of order and upside down, he seemed more confused than ever, but the old pro manfully soldiered on. In the satiric “On the Circuit” he explained his weariness and desperation for a drink: I bring my gospel of the Muse To fundamentalists, to nuns, To Gentiles and to Jews, And daily, seven days a week, Before a local sense has jelled, From talking-site to talking-site Am jet-or-prop-propelled. As Theodore Roethke was introduced by a trembling Harry Levin, I wondered why that eminent and widely feared professor was so nervous. (When I was writing my life of Edmund Wilson many years later Levin, still nervous and dying of leukemia, cared greatly about how I might portray him in my book.) Roethke, a... Continue reading
Posted Nov 6, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Devaney/Rail: Earlier today you said “something something, baby” and were kind of charting a geography of a tone: connecting a sound in Virgil Thomson’s voice, which you said Frank O’Hara was picking up on. Did you know Thomson through O’Hara? Berkson: Yes, but also through my mother (Eleanor Lambert). It was very interesting to know him. He had such an interesting speech pattern—this kind of Kansas. It was Kansas, but it was your grandmother. Very high pitched. Rail: I know your mother worked in the fashion world. How did she get to know Thomson? Berkson: He got real fixed on my mother. There was a wonderful man named Morris Goldie who was a friend of the musicians, and he gave some of the most terrific parties. He was not a musician, he was not an artist, and he and his brother had an office supply business, I think that they made things like shredders. Morris had met my mother and thought it would be a great idea to put her and Virgil together. So we had this dinner which was Virgil and my mother and me, and a very close friend of my mother’s named Sybil Connolly. Sybil was an Irish clothes designer (pleated linens and Irish textiles), and also very much involved in rescuing old Irish crafts like glass blowing and tatting and so forth. The five of us had dinner, and so forever after when I would see Virgil (this is an example of how I can get to his tone) the first thing out of Virgil’s mouth would be “How’s Mama!” INCONVERSATION BILL BERKSON with Thomas Devaney http://brooklynrail.org/2017/11/criticspage/BILL-BERKSON-with-Thomas-Devaney -- http://brooklynrail.org/2017/11/criticspage/BILL-BERKSON-with-Thomas-Devaney Continue reading
Posted Nov 5, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
<<< On the cover of this pocket-sized edition of John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the poet stands in a doorway. He wears the somehow simultaneously ill-advised and completely stylish ensemble of a half-unbuttoned patterned shirt and tight beltless pants. Looking closer, the doorway seems to open not to a room or to the outside but to a closet: on a shelf behind him there is a pot or urn, and the flatness of the photograph makes it seem a bit as if he is wearing it on his head, like a bizarre hat. He is looking straight out of the front of the book, with a direct, slightly furrowed expression. He is about to smile beneath his full mustache. Something strange is just about to happen. When I bought this copy of Self-Portrait, in 1993, I had just begun a doctoral program at UC Berkeley. Full of a desire, secret to everyone including myself, to live a creative life, I was skeptical about, but also attracted to, poetry. Now, holding this same book in my hand, I remember that time, and how Ashbery’s poems at first didn’t seem to make any sense, or go anywhere, or do anything. I felt angry reading them, as if I were in the presence of a giant literary hoax that I had the choice either to sanction or to condemn. The situation felt profoundly ethical to me. The poems offended my sense of what poetry, and art, should do. I remember how I carried into the reading of the book all the notions I had gathered, from my education and upbringing, about art. And also how I felt, despite my anger and resistance, like the poems somehow were addressed to me. That the poet not only needed to say these things but also needed someone to hear them. Something huge and important was at last beginning. What I thought was my principled resistance to meaninglessness was really a fear of, and attraction to, a new life. Here is the first stanza of the poem that changed my mind about Ashbery, and therefore about contemporary American poetry, and I guess therefore my life: The One Thing That Can Save America Is anything central? Orchards flung out on the land, Urban forests, rustic plantations, knee-high hills? Are place names central? Elm Grove, Adcock Corner, Story Book Farm? As they concur with a rush at eye level Beating themselves into eyes which have had enough Thank you, no more thank you. And they come on like scenery mingled with darkness The damp plains, overgrown suburbs, Places of known civic pride, of civil obscurity. >>> For more of this article, adapted from Matthew's recently published book Why Poetry? (HarperCollins). buy the book -- or link here for the article as it appeared in The Paris Review. Continue reading
Posted Nov 4, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
I found myself nodding my head in agreement and sleep. -- DL
SESTINA for HARRY And for Marie Not sure you’re here or where in solitary Splendor. Truth, our life and letters not a wreck Waiting to happen quite yet, your absence less raw Than real -- dark, stormy, bright as the keys Of your Florida piano, the constraint Like your upright performing a wheel In a wheel on a roll like Earth less than we’ll Know who turning every which way recall some solitary Hope you understood of ours where the constraint Was to live all you can if today you’re a wreck Tomorrow discovering what? -- the keys In pocket where you left them, all the raw Material – your double espresso thermos’d against a raw Wind whipping home plate dust at Shea, or a wheel Of Brie less needed in my then raw downtown space of chi’s Aflow with life force than, of my solitary Stove, it seemed, third-hand Magic Chef, or my wreck- ing bar, clarified butter you asked for, arriving. Constraint Making do with the years, what stranded constraint Alive on an island we thought up, my job raw Fish to spear, Bill Gass record-keeper, our very shipwreck Driftwood for Harry to cook on, spar, mast, even wheel, Survival mysterious -- no solitary, Chenetier, our fourth, but his job? Keys To the island? the salt? a future? a life? -- words keys Only sometimes, say Paris, Tlooth, silence, constraint. In Siena one night when Calvino lay gone, solitary the hours till dawn of your wake for him raw- boned American friend, life’s own fame of itself will Spin into, then out of control this mute req we embody, for you, Schubert, Perec, say, brothering posthumous keys To us many and one our wheel spinning eye to e- absence constraint to twin fullness by you. Writer at risk in the raw You knew in us and you solitary What? Raw rookie’s post-season constraint? Keys left to our reckoning hopes? The wheel to windward, solitary west by east. Here is Joseph McElroy's note on the poem, composed for delivery at a memorial for Harry Mathews: <<< Intro: Familiar faces here. The many ways we knew Harry and he us. Always the mystery of many and one. A trek up and down several canyons in New Mexico in search of the shrine of the Stone Lions. A fierce squash match at Beekman Place. Readings we gave including one Harry asked me to join him in for his friend Georges Perec, whom he had brought into my life. Many copies of Harry’s books inscribed to me so encouraging as he constantly was. One in which he said I had taught him how to be a friend. An odd moment after a conversation between the two of us in front of a large audience in Brooklyn and I thought just maybe I might have rubbed him the wrong way introducing Oulipo with more emphasis than I myself give it in Harry’s writing and aesthetic. So much more to his work than that.... Continue reading
Posted Nov 3, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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(Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series about the Todos Santos Writers Workshop, a new under-the-radar program that flourishes in Todos Santos, Mexico. Find the first post, by co-founder Rex Weiner, here,the second, by Bianca Juarez, here, and the third by Joy Wright Abbot here. sdl) You there. You with that oversized plane ticket in your hand, the one that says: Destination Anywhere. Come with me; I’ve got an idea. Come with me for a flash journey along the Tropic of Cancer and let’s see what we find along this latitudinal cummerbund. Why? Because trust me: the Tropic of Cancer is a Songline, a circumference etched in story, and it needs yours added to it. But before we leave, I think you should know a few things: First, there will be sharks. Hungry ones. At some point you’ll stumble upon marooned honeymooners, archipelagoes, and daiquiris, too. Further afield someone might hand you a yogurt lassi sweating in India at midday. And you should be ready for your heart to shatter a million different ways after discovering gross incivility in Myanmar and its refugee crisis. Egyptian Pyramids, Saudi oil fields, bone fishing in the Bahamas—all these things fall along the Tropic of Cancer, a cross-section of our living, breathing planet. One last thing before we set sail, one last place you should know about, a quieter emergence along this, the Northern Tropic: It’s a place called Todos Santos. Since 2003 I’ve been traveling to this Mexican pueblo each winter, an artist-surf town hugging the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. It’s proper magic. Not rabbits-out-of-a-hat magic but something far more elemental and rhythmic, something felt through the senses—sensual, embodied, graceful. We’ll be stopping here for a week, and when we do, be sure to look around and listen. You’ll see migrating whales and flitter along with the song of hundreds of different wintering bird species. Again, Tropic of Cancer. Again, magic. We’ll stop for a little dose of magic, to rest here for a week of story crafting at the Todos Santos Writing Workshop, and begin to ask ourselves: What’s our story? Why does story even matter? Who cares? What do bad stories sound like and why? Why might the world need new ones? Aren’t stories the compass we use to navigate life? Along life’s latitudes you’re bound to experience perennial tragedies and triumphs, villains and heroes. You’ll discover desecrated landscapes and wild ones, too, the very stuff that composes legend, folktale, the Great Conversation, and the stories worth sharing. Each winter, for one week a group of artists and writers congregate in Todos Santos, Mexico, where the Tropic of Cancer bisects the finest taqueria in town. Here you will find magic. You will find the elements of solitude and camaraderie to help tell your own story. And when it comes time to return home, you will pack your belongings and stories and head home to cast them into your community. You grow. They grow. We grow. You carry... Continue reading
Posted Nov 1, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
John Updike attaches two epigraphs to Rabbit as Rich (1981), the third in his tetralogy of novels centering on Rabbit Angstrom. The reader can more easily grasp the pertinence of the first epigraph than that of the second, but it is precisely the tension between the two that conveys Updike's complexity of feeling about his epic protagonist. <<< "At night he lights up a good cigar, and climbs into the little old 'bus, and maybe cusses the carburetor, and shoots out home. He mows the lawn, or sneaks in some practice putting, and then he's ready for dinner." --- George Babbitt, of the Ideal Citizen The difficulty to think at the end of day, When the shapeless shadow covers the sun And nothing is left except light on your fur. . . --- Wallace Stevens, "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" >>> TIME magazine featured John Updike on its cover of April, 26, 1968, taking his novel Couples as a statement of the Zeitgeist.in the late 1960s. -- DL Continue reading
Posted Oct 31, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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The voice of Eleni Sikelianos’ Make Yourself Happy (Coffee House Press, 2017) rings with an infectious energy which is only enlivened by the emergency of which it warns — the critical condition to which our species has brought our planet, and the other species who once shared it with us. Sikelianos’ unique poetics distills this disarming yet hard-hitting journey into an artistic entity as refined as it is relaxed, as profound as it is unpretentious. These poems have the depth and resonance of folk wisdom — in a tradition as capable of honoring Stein, Guest, and Waldman as Sappho, Dickinson, and Whitman. How does Sikelianos square the abuse we have inflicted on our only home with the injunction to make ourselves happy? By no more nor less than a radical re-comprehension of happiness itself, and its relationship to responsibility. The poems in the first section, “Make Yourself Happy,” unpack that titular exhortation, while those in the second, “How to Assemble the Animal Globe,” elegize a sampling of the species we have eradicated. A long poem, “Oracle or, Utopia” rounds out the endeavor, which is closed by an Epode and a Rider. Sikelianos sets the stage in this opening poem: THROUGH THE LOWER window I see a man pass his bald head is ecstatic in that way it can be smashed in a second shining bound with drunk flowers & hot to sing himself human O human head stuffed with ideas and noises good and not good which I say (good) which I say (not good) the syntactical violence inside a head Beast head Get on a donkey and learn some grammar Get on a donkey and ride If, as Delmore Schwartz observed, in dreams begin responsibilities, happiness might be the most essential, and potentially lethal, dream of our beautiful, dangerous species — and our weightiest responsibility. Illuminating the wreckage we have made of our planet by focusing on the species we have eradicated, this book begins by regarding the prototypically human. Why? Because, Sikelianos reminds us, we are the problem, and hence the best, and only, solution. To the extent that we (spoiled) have despoiled our home in pursuit of our pleasure, it is not abstinence, austerity, nor lament we must adopt, but responsibility. That is, it’s up to us to ‘make yourself happy.’ Consider the bald head seen passing “through the lower window,” in which the narrator discerns the vulnerable menace of our species. The hairlessness of the “shining” scalp makes it especially “human O / human.” That culpable head, “stuffed / with ideas and / noises good and / not good” embodies the crux of the crisis in which we have stranded ourselves. It is the disease as well as the cure. Notably, its pleasure is its vulnerability: “his bald / head is ecstatic in that way / it can be smashed / in a second.” (Emphasis mine). Note Sikelianos’ mastery of enjambment, here and throughout the book, enacting a conceptual, graphic, and sonic erosion of the boundaries... Continue reading
Posted Oct 31, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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(Ed note: I can't begin to count the number of times I've heard David introduced before a reading. These introductions are always respectful, sometimes celebratory, and often quite eloquent. The introduction below , written and delivered by Lucas Smith before a packed house at Shippensburg University last Thursday night, hit me hard. In addition to Lucas's deep engagement with David's work, I responded especially to the third and fourth stanzas. He brings to mind Frank O'Hara's line in "Meditations in an Emergency": ". . .it’s my duty to be attentive, I am needed by things as the sky must be above the earth." I've spent a lot of time over the past several years in those doctors' office waiting rooms;Lucas's keen eye for just the right details had me nodding in recognition. He says that it was his responsibility to take what he observed and "make some kind of art out of it." He has certainly succeeded. Thank you Lucas for letting me share your poem here. sdl) L to R: David Lehman with Shippensburg University Professor Nicole Santalucia and Lucas Smith, before last week's reading. photo(c) Stacey Lehman In a 2013 interview with NPR, David Lehman commented on his book, The Perfect Murder, which analyzes homicide mystery and crime thriller novels. He said that he could discern certain elements that linked hard-boiled detectives with the life of an American poet, going on to say that sometimes he feels like he has a secret identity, like a spy. Lehman talked about feeling this way when he was a journalist for Newsweek and during the years he spent in England and France while he was a Kellet Fellow at Cambridge.</p In what ways do poets become spies? I think they have an ability to act as a spectator and digest the world around them without disturbing the order of that world. While at a recent cancer check-up for my father in Philadelphia, I sat in the waiting room and wrote down everything I saw that I couldn’t see somewhere else: a woman pushing a red walker with a black wreath draped over the front of it, the plaque that said “The Sarah and Dan Keating Waiting Room” on it, because of course someone has to pay for those sorts of places. The pamphlet on the corner table beside me about pancreatic cancer, and the older gentleman in the chair at the end of the row across from me wearing a red, white, and blue track jacket, gray hair slicked back, the fingers of his left hand interlocked with the fingers of his wife’s right. I felt like it was my responsibility to take what I saw there and make some kind of art out of it. Something to convey the surrealness of that room, and, like a spy, take my evidence and expose The Sarah and Dan Keating Waiting Room for what it really is, for how cozy and clean it looked when just beyond the doors behind me I would... Continue reading
Posted Oct 31, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Undoubtedly. Contrariwise! I love "Comment c'est" a title, which is also a pun on "Commencer." -- DL
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In his most recent book, Laughter of the Sphinx (New Directions, 2016) Michael Palmer gifts us with his characteristically spare and muscular lyricism, as rich and musical as it is bleak. In the meantime, each passing day of the contemporary world’s real-life “endarkenment” seems to validate the prophetic echoes of this book’s sobering lament. Consider this one: A Dream of Sound Inside the Mountain (after Anish Kapoor) It is too brief this life inside the mountain where headless horsemen sing fevered songs of self and war When did we first notice the trees of mottled bone, when first hear the cawing of crows, contention of the orchard orioles, the sleepers’ echoing cries, rehearsing their final words, resisting final dreams (These dreams were mine and not mine say the walls of stone, walls of the poem) Hedge-crickets sing and the white whale its whiteness sings in the stone dream and the lost hours have each their silent song in the heat of bee time and the shock of desire those times when time is not and the endlessly shifting stones carelessly speak and rain floods the rutted roads It is too long this spiral life It is too brief How the wind and light pass through our bodies of glass The first thing to do is listen to this “dream of sound.” I say listen, because this poem (along with the others in this book) is a song. As such, it makes use of rhythm, a variety of sonic effects, and even – perhaps especially – silence, in order to underscore its inextricable relationship to sound, and therefore music itself. Some of the poem’s silence issues from its use of the line break, such as the weighted gap between the first and second lines: “It is too brief / this life,” an irrefutable assertion which is later mirrored, challenged, and echoed: “It is too long / this spiral life // It is too brief.” In this poem, as elsewhere, Palmer probes the dialectical tension between interdependent opposites. Here, a synthesis emerges from the tension between song and silence, to propose a “silent song.” Likewise, in “[t]his life” within these “walls of stone, // walls of the poem,” headless horsemen (the folkloric ‘dark men’ who kill by stopping, and by naming) “sing / fevered songs / of self.” In this poem, their (deadly) song is the poet’s song, which destroys even as it creates — singing its own silence. As always, Palmer’s prosody is gorgeous. Consider the sonic stitches linking “brief,” “life,” and “fevered” in those opening lines, the opening and terminal “f” sounds bringing to mind the exhalation of air from dying lips. Or the assonance and alliteration in “rain floods the rutted roads:” those three “r’s” interwoven with the sprung rhyme of “road” and “flood;” the terminal “d’s” in flood, rutted, road weighing down the phrase with the inevitability of endings. Or the third stanza, in which the long “o” in “crow” and the short “o” in “contention” bud out... Continue reading
Posted Oct 31, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
I didn't fully appreciate the poignancy of this song until I moved to NYC and watched the parade: sdl Continue reading
Posted Oct 31, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
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When I was invited to guest blog for Best American Poetry, I immediately thought of a marvelous post on Harriett by John Beer, in which he thoughtfully explores one poem by Carol Ciavonne (a fine poet and Posit contributor, who has recently become one of our associate editors). Beer’s reminder that reading is at the core of what we writers do and love, evokes “a sense of one reader’s process, not a method per se but a set of explorations,” and seems eminently worthy of emulation. I’ll start by dipping into “breath to oblivion no ladder no chaser” from Finely Tuned Static by Charles Borkhuis, in collaboration with painter John McCluskey (Lunar Chandelier Press, 2017). The conversation in this lovely book between text and image is direct and intense, without seeming constricted or constrained. Although its visual and verbal components are fully capable of standing alone, together they make magic. Seasoned and grave, yet crackling with irony and pleasure, these poems are also erudite, salted with references to Duchamp (a “nude descending an escalator”); Orpheus (a narrator who “turned back to see you disappear”); and Turner (“the red buoy bobbing on the waves.”) Their engagement with the paintings yields a tapestry of responsive, but imaginative, tropes, such as the structure of matter, fragmentation, the entangled relationship between creation and destruction – and, of course, static. This book handily refutes the counsel (mentioned in “where was it I”) of those “frozen in place” to “stay inside the lines.” Here’s John McCluskey’s Plate Five, and the poem (the first of a triptych addressing it): breath to oblivion no ladder no chaser sizzle-cage crossing the shatters or a child’s braces tightening water on lightning my new home on a boat of sticks rowing through a haunted love tunnel the long flow of ink spreads across uncertainty the target pulls an arrow through a stranger’s shadow pinholes of light deep in a deserted sky no one here but animals of ice grazing on the sunset light approaching from a dead star the body displaced by negative space a caesura shimmering between day and night what is it like this striptease of body parts this splintered angle of image crystals watered down to an empty shoe darkness opens me like a tin can my secret light my hand burned down to the wires continues writing to you from another space curled up inside this one don’t paint yourself too thin no going back now red rider come in come in get ready for razor static thundering hooves through the whites of your eyes through the hole in the next word string a sound up and over the yawning toothless abyss this this this Take a look at the efficiency, wit, and depth packed into that incredible opening, which somehow manages to summarize our mortal existence: the passage from breath (life) to oblivion, with no help from any (literal or figurative) ladder, nor hope of a chaser (afterlife). It’s a characteristic Borkhuis line: snappy and funny;... Continue reading
Posted Oct 30, 2017 at The Best American Poetry