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Stephanie Paterik
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Arguably the biggest occupational hazard of the poet is that sooner or later, your lover will request a love poem. If you are either very cocky or very skilled, you might whip out a fountain pen and write a fitting ode upon a cocktail napkin. But if you possess the slightest doubt about your abilities, or about the notion of "love poems" in general, you might quiver in your oxfords. Most writers I know agree the love poem is the hardest to write. Breakup poems? Child's work. Meditations on death? No problem. Pastoral portraits and comic scenarios? They can be rendered with fair effort. But the love poem risks sentimentality, vulnerability, cliché -- and worst of all, the probability of falling short in its attempt to capture the enormity of the emotion. For all of these reasons, love poems impress and intimidate the heck out of me. So on the eve of March, an hour before kissing February good-bye, I find myself researching the history of love poems, revisiting modern favorites and distilling some lessons from them all. Lesson No. 1: Follow Clichés to their Roots When I think of love poems, the verse that pops into my head is "roses are red / violets are blue." It's inevitable, and it makes me equate all love-y verse with shallow greeting cards. Who wants any part of that? But as is the case with so many clichés, this flower stems from an interesting seed. Edmund Spenser (pictured at the top) immortalized the image of red roses and blue violets in 1590 with his epic poem, The Faerie Queene: It was upon a Sommers shynie day, When Titan faire his beames did display, In a fresh fountaine, farre from all mens vew, She bath'd her brest, the boyling heat t'allay; She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew, And all the sweetest flowers, that in the forrest grew. In the following stanzas, Chrysogone falls asleep in the grass and is impregnated by sunbeams, leading to the birth of faerie twins. The goddesses Venus and Diana steal the newborns. Not exactly the stuff of greeting cards! Spenser was more concerned with supporting Queen Elizabeth I and the Reformation than writing a transcendent love poem. But the sensuality in his verse is far more inspiring than the versions that arrived centuries later. He's also known for "Amoretti," a sonnet cycle exploring his courtship and marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. She's rendered as his practical if not unromantic counterpoint, which gives the poems a tantalizing tension. In the sonnet "One Day I Wrote her Name," Spenser writes: One day I wrote her name upon the strand, But came the waves and washed it away: Again I wrote it with a second hand, But came the tide, and made my pains his prey. "Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay, A mortal thing so to immortalize; For I myself shall like to this decay, And eke my name be wiped out likewise." (If you're interested... Continue reading
Posted Feb 28, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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I’ve been a happy renter all of my adult life, relishing the freedom of a short-term lease. But in the fall, without warning, the unfamiliar desire for a place of my own crept into my bones. It might have started at last year’s AWP conference in Chicago, where a group of poets lectured on the craft of assembling a manuscript. They said you need a room of your own, a space where you can hang poems on walls – live with them, listen to them, rearrange them. New Yorkers in the audience (myself included) laughed out loud as we pictured our studio and one-bedroom apartments with wall-to-wall furniture. But, wouldn’t it be nice? Pretty soon, I couldn’t stomach the cranky landlady, hang artwork on other people’s nails, or live with Rental Apartment White on the walls. Quickly and miraculously, my husband and I found a good deal, closed on a home and hired contractors to begin renovations last week. Every other night, we take three trains to Brooklyn to visit our home. I bring a book and enjoy the anticipation. When we arrive, we swing open the door, turn on the lights and find our space transformed. On Day 1, the floors were meticulously covered with paper. Day 2, a living room wall disappeared and old brick, wood and piping were exposed. Day 3, brick and wood gave way to gleaming white columns. We order pizza and sit on the floor of our empty apartment, appreciating all of it. Tomorrow, a light fixture might show up. A countertop might come down. We never see the workers – we never see the work – so it feels as if our home is inventing itself day-by-day, eager to surprise and please. I know it’s the product of sweat and craft, but I like to pretend there’s some magic involved. I felt the same way watching my parents’ first house rise out of the desert. We would visit the dirt lot to take pictures and appreciate every plank. The stakes with little red flags marking the construction perimeter seemed to grow straight out of the ground. Perhaps not coincidentally, I’m rediscovering the joys of being a reader as I wait for my home to manifest. Usually, periods of reading but little writing fill me with guilt. I should be making something! I should be knocking down walls and writing lines! Who am I to enjoy another’s hard work without doing my own? But this week, I’m content to admire other people’s creations – an indulgence we writers sometimes strip from ourselves. I wonder, when you became a serious writer, did you also become a serious reader? Did you start studying the workmanship of novels and poems, breaking them apart to understand how to put yours together? And did that enhance your appreciation but diminish your ability to get lost in it a little bit? Did you start measuring how your own writing stacked up against everything you read, endlessly calculating the balance? The... Continue reading
Posted Feb 21, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you, Corinne.
Jenny, you made my day! I'm a big fan of yours, too! Thanks for taking time to offer such valuable comments. "Fugacity" is wonderful, and I didn't know the meaning until you shared it. The poem you placed it in is very lucky.
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The word utterance keeps coming to mind this week. It’s not a word I’ve thought about before. If I saw it on the side of the road, surely I would drive by. It means a cry, an animal’s call, a power of speaking ... one or more words preceded and followed by silence. It derives from the Middle French outrer, “to go beyond.” Why's this on my mind? Perhaps because I’m reading poems by prisoners, preparing for a community poetry reading at St. Paul’s Chapel, and trying to crystallize my thoughts into daily blog posts. All three remind me of the limits of language and the human desire to go beyond it. And that reminds me of speaking in tongues. One quirk of my upbringing is that until I was 10, my parents ministered a small church in Phoenix, Arizona, called Springs in the Desert. Being a charismatic congregation founded by people who came of age during the Pentecostal movement, it was home to the kind of worship you don’t see every Sunday. The elementary school cafeteria that the church rented out would fill with guttural sounds, an eruption of dancing, singing and praying, voices layered over voices and tambourines. When someone faced a hardship, worshippers lay hands on the shoulders of the people in front of them, creating a human conduit of prayer. Some prayed in words, others prayed in tongues. Like Alice in a mysterious wonderland, I was fascinated by the idea of a secret language of the soul. I imagined that one day I would open my mouth to say something perfectly plain, and an otherworldly utterance would fly out. It never happened. My family moved on. But that early image of adults sending fervent, unintelligible words into the ether still mystifies me. Glossolalia is the term for speaking and writing in tongues, and it means “utterances approximating words and speech.” Some studies have found that when people practice it, their language centers go dark and emotional centers light up, suggesting it’s not about language so much as emotional experience. Augustine of Hippo looked askance on glossolalia but recognized jubilation, or “sounds of exaltation without words.” As a writer, I connect with his idea: What is it to sing with jubilation? To be unable to understand, to express in words, what is sung in the heart. For singers, either in the harvest, or in the vineyard, or in any other busy work, after they have begun in the words of their hymns to exult and rejoice, being as it were filled with so great joy, that they cannot express it in words, then turn from actual words, and proceed to sounds of jubilation. The jubilee is a sound signifying that the heart laboureth with that which it cannot utter. How often do you labor with what you cannot utter? I do all the time -- at this very moment, in fact! Utterance, then, is a yearning for pure expression, a desire to communicate something weightier than traditional... Continue reading
Posted Jan 25, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Folks, our favorite literary television show announced today that it will return April 7 with a two-hour, movie-style premier. Brush up your O'Hara, stock up your vermouth and plan your parties accordingly -- and invite me, please! "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner isn't giving much away about the penultimate season opener. But new cast photos suggest that Pete grows sideburns, Betty slims down and our favorite women, Megan, Peggy and Joan, are still in the picture. "It has some cliffhanger elements to it, it does propel you into the rest of the season -- it does foreshadow a lot what the season is about," Weiner told The New York Times. "But I was like, I want to write a movie here, that we can create the atmosphere and vibe of the season.” I don't know about you, but I'm always a little amazed that the show gets away with poetry. When Don Draper reads section four of Frank O'Hara's "Mayakovsky," it's like bumping into a good friend in an unexpected place. "What, you go here, too?" Confusion and happiness ensue. Because of this, I find myself wondering, who are these writers? How did they find themselves in TV? And how can I take their jobs? It turns out Weiner does most of the writing himself. He studied literature, philosophy and history at Wesleyan and got an MFA from USC. He penned the "Mad Men" pilot back in 1999 while working for "Becker."(!) The strength of that script landed him a gig with "The Sopranos," and he waited until the mob show wrapped to shop around his period drama. Weiner spoke about the writing process with the Times last year, saying, "There's about a three-week rumination period, which involves a lot of napping, a lot of holding books. Whether I'm reading them or not, I cannot say." Sounds familiar. When he started writing season six, he put off his best ideas, saving them for that nebulous "later." Finally, his producers told him, “go for broke, use up everything you have.” “So I decided to throw it all in,” Weiner told the paper. David Lehman offers the same advice to poets. Don't put off writing the poem. Catch it when it comes to you. I can't wait to watch "Mad Men" go for broke, and can't help but wonder which 60s poet we'll run into next. *** Your daily prompt: Recap a televesion show episode in poetic form. -Stephanie Paterik Photos by Frank Ockenfels/AMC Continue reading
Posted Jan 24, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you, David!
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About once a year, I'm compelled to humiliate myself in the form of a hip-hop workout class. As a perfectionist, I don’t give myself many chances to fail. So it’s weirdly thrilling to slip into a studio alongside lithe, muscular men and women who learned to move their bodies to a beat in youth while I sat in a windowsill reading Madeleine L'Engle. I get a little rush knowing that I can’t do what they do, that the next hour will bring fresh embarrassments, that this will be ugly. Every time I attend a class, I build up my tolerance to imperfection. Ten years ago, I walked out of a funk aerobics workout five minutes in. Yesterday, I stuck it out for 45 minutes before feigning an emergency phone call. My lack of rhythm is what you might call “the bruise on the apple.” Lane DeGregory, an amazing writer and Pulitzer winner with the Tampa Bay Times, tells reporters to think of their subjects as apples. From a distance, the fruit is red, waxy, beautiful. But if you turn it in your hand, you are liable to find a bruise. Show the bruise on the apple, and your writing crackles with authenticity. In verse, we call this balancing the poetic with the antipoetic. A tony studio full of agile dancers is poetry. The sight of me in the back row trying to grind my pelvis, do a hip pop and flip my hair to the tune of Genuwine's "Ride it My Pony" is antipoetry. I make the class more interesting! The class makes me more interesting! Everybody wins? This was a hotly discussed topic at the New School, where the worst insult you could give a piece of writing was to call it “a Poem with a capital P.” That is to say, a poem with no antipoetry, no reality, no roughness. I’m grateful for a community that supports beauty but is skeptical of perfection. Every artist walks this aesthetic tightrope, and I draw inspiration from five who do it particularly well. Who are your favorites? 1. Louis CK No city exemplifies the bruise on the apple better than, well, the Big Apple. Living here means experiencing the constant tension of life's glorious and revolting extremes. No one portrays this better than the comedian Louis CK, whose TV show is disgusting and heartwarming in nearly the same beat. Check out Season 2 Episode 6, which opens with a shot of a masterful musician playing the classical violin in the subway, then pans to a man undressing and bathing on the platform. This scene comes next: 2. Kohei Nawa While wandering through the Met one day, I spotted a stunning object: a deer made out of giant glass beads. When I stepped closer, I realized the beads covered a real, taxidermied deer. Pix-Cell-Deer #24 lures me in and makes me recoil about 10 times whenever I visit it. The artist says, "By covering [the] surface of an object with transparent glass... Continue reading
Posted Jan 23, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks, Stacey! I've never heard of heteroscedasticity or multicollinearity. Love it.
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Halfway through a poetry reading in a Greenwich Village bar where Bob Dylan used to perform, a peculiar trend emerged. The word “whale” was slipping out of the mouth of every other poet. In a workshop a few days later, another whale swam into the room. After class, I flipped through a poetry collection only to find more blubber. There were blue whales, gray whales, humpbacks and orcas. Sperm whales, bottlenoses, delugas and fins. What was up with poets and whales? I was a newcomer to New York and to poetry, and like the village outsider, I saw the place with fresh eyes. Yet the more readings I attended and the more poets I befriended, the more I felt the pull of poetry clichés. My vision grew cloudy. At the height of this blindness, I wrote a dreadful note to myself: Write a poem about how when you first entered the poetry world, you found they were all obsessed with whales. Comical. End poem on a note about whales and their mysterious beauty. Praise Whitman, I never wrote that poem. I don't mean to pick on whales or anyone who has written about them, myself included! I mean to ask, how do we resist the poetry cliché? I'll tell you what I do, and I hope you'll share what works for you. *Make a list of banned diction. This is a good bar game to play with poets--everyone shouts out words like moon and sycamore, someone makes a list, and you agree to exclude them from your next round of work. This is like when Top Chef contestants cook with one hand tied behind their backs and stun the judges with creative dishes. *Take notes during your day job. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished to make a living just writing poetry. But if that wish came true, my poems would suffer. Working in another field gives you access to an orphanage of language just waiting to be adopted by poetic parents. Rescue words wherever you can! While editing a business magazine, for example, I open a Word document and copy all of the unusual language I come across. I met the term hot-swappable that way. *Use the language of your hobbies. David Lehman taps his knowledge of Jewish composers to lively effect in his poems. My friend Amanda Smeltz makes sonnets out of hip-hop lyrics. Julie Sheehan introduced us to the language of cocktails, and Louise Glück to the language of flowers. I'm thankful for them. *Watch old films from the '40s and '50s. In The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn defines the archaic word “yare.” It’s wonderful. ("It means, oh what does it mean? Easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, bright -- everything a boat should be.") The only time I’ve read this word is in The Tempest, and I can't find it in my Webster's dictionary. Classic films are time capsules for dated phrases, transatlantic accents and sing-songy cadences that no one, save... Continue reading
Posted Jan 22, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks, Alissa!
You're welcome, and thanks for sharing this! I love poems based on tidbits of thought. A former instructor once asked our class to carry notebooks for a week and capture all of the weird and wonderful tidbits that come to mind, which led to great/unexpected poetry.
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My husband celebrated his 40th birthday last week, and being a planner, he sat me down six months ago. “I’m going to have a nervous breakdown,” he said quite calmly, holding my hands. “At the very least, a midlife crisis.” “OK...” I said. “Are we talking red convertibles?” “No, no. Not like that. I'm going to search for meaning.” I exhaled. Then fretted. I had been planning to whisk him away to the kind of mindless resort that plies you with Mai Tais and corn fritters and lets you nap in five different kinds of hammocks. Clearly, I had to reverse course. I needed a meaningful gift. I brainstormed. I made spreadsheets. I googled “my husband is turning 40 and would like to do something meaningful what should I give him any ideas please I will give you my credit card number without using PayPal just please ok?” This search turned up breath mints emblazoned with the phrase, “Look Who’s 40!” They were only sold in bulk. That’s when I noticed the grimy brass bowl of pennies and keys balancing precariously on our windowsill. It was a singing bowl, left behind by my mother-in-law when she passed away. Unsure of what to do with it, we had used it as a coin dish for six years. I backed away from Google and went to work cleaning the bowl, polishing it, and purchasing a suede mallet to make it sing. I packaged it with a gift certificate for a meditation retreat and congratulated myself. My husband was thrilled with the retreat. But the bowl, he set aside without much comment. It lay in a pile of wrapping paper for several days before I dug it out and placed it in his hands. “Aren’t you curious?” “I never was able to make this bowl sing,” he confessed. “That’s not possible.” I handed him the mallet, and he rolled the leather stick around the metal lip. His shoulders slumped. It made no sound. I gave it a try. How hard could it be? But the only way I could coax any sound from it was to bang it like a gong. I had envisioned offering up an instrument that would connect my husband with his mother, a spiritual mentor whose guidance he needed. Instead, I’d made him feel disconnected and inept. The Silent Bowl was the worst present of all time. Even worse than the Look-Who’s-40 mints. Desperate, I went to YouTube for instructions and found that we had been playing it all wrong. We mistakenly glided the mallet around the inside of the bowl instead of the outside. We flicked our wrists when we should have held them steady. We gripped the bowl rather than turning our hands into flat, supportive pedestals. My husband tried again. The room was silent. The bowl began to shiver. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, an otherworldly hum rose from its mouth. Before long, the bowl was shaking and our apartment was filled with song. *** I play the... Continue reading
Posted Jan 21, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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“There are no words.” That phrase flooded my newsfeed in the minutes and hours after 20 children and six adults were murdered at a Connecticut elementary school yesterday. I understand the feeling. One of my relatives was gunned down in a senseless act of violence this May. My aunt’s brother, a sweet-hearted musician with a penchant for floppy hats and coke-bottle glasses, died when a gunman opened fire in Seattle’s Café Racer Espresso. I didn’t know him, but I shared my loved ones’ grief. There were no words then like there are no words now. Speechlessness can be troubling to a poet, so I was heartened to come across Bob Hicok’s poem “In the Loop” yesterday, which he wrote after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. (Special thanks to Kerrin McCadden for sharing the poem on Facebook.) Ironically, Hicok wrote 230 wonderful words about having no words. Here’s how it begins: I heard from people after the shootings. People I knew well or barely or not at all. Largely the same message: how horrible it was, how little there was to say about how horrible it was. People wrote, called, mostly e-mailed because they know I teach at Virginia Tech, to say, there’s nothing to say. Eventually I answered these messages: there’s nothing to say back except of course there’s nothing to say, thank you for your willingness to say it. Because this was about nothing. At the same time Hicok was experiencing the fallout of these shootings, my husband was writing about them for a national media outlet. He was among the many reporters who hastily packed bags, flew to Virginia and didn’t come home for several days. He called me often, miserable. The sick feeling that there was nothing more to say – that he might be a parasite, an intruder – nearly swallowed him. I never covered a national tragedy, but one of my first jobs as a reporter was covering the night cops shift at an Arizona newspaper. I befriended a police scanner and called the 9-1-1 operators every couple hours hoping there was no bad news. Most of the time, we’d exchange jokes about people finding rattlesnakes in their toilets and the like. But eventually, there is bad news. On those days, I’d duck under the yellow crime tape and watch EMTs drape white sheets over bodies. I’d knock on the doors of people who lost someone they loved in a horrific manner. I still remember the parents of a young fighter pilot who crashed near San Diego. The grandmother of a toddler who perished on the train tracks. Bewildered Blockbuster employees who watched as a customer was gunned down in the video rental line. Honestly, I felt guilty about writing those stories. When I sat on the grieving grandma’s well-worn sofa, asking her that awful question – “how do you feel?” – and watching her cry, I felt like tragedy’s intruder. But at some point, it occurred to me – no one had ever kicked... Continue reading
Posted Dec 15, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Happy birthday to the sensational Jane Russell, who was born on June 21, 1921 and passed away last year. She caused a stir in 1954 when she sang "Lookin' for Trouble" while wearing a bodysuit with three strategic cutouts in The French Line. Producer Howard Hughes reportedly designed the film's outrageous costumes himself. Continue reading
Posted Jun 21, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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“To write in Slovenian is to write in fragility,” poet Aleš Šteger said at a New School poetry forum on March 29. He was speaking of his fractured native language. He and Brian Henry, the Virginia-based poet and translator, visited the university for a cross-cultural conversation about poetry and translation. They collaborated on The Book of Things, which BOA Editions released last November and is a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. At the New School both read their poems, then fielded questions from moderator David Lehman. Šteger is something of a poetry rock star in Central Europe – he has the awards and the haircut to prove it. He published his first book at age 22 in 1995, and Slovenia promptly heralded him as one of its most promising writers. Since then, he has written four books of poems, a fictional travelogue, and a collection of lyric essays. Šteger also helped found the Days of Poetry and Wine Festival in Medana, a village near the Italian border. There he met Henry, who later translated Šteger’s English-language debut. The Book of Things is exactly that – a collection of fifty poems titled after everyday objects, such as Earring, Aspirin, Toothpick, Cork and Cocker Spaniel. Šteger carefully sets a table — full of objects you know, love and rarely think about — and then he flips it over. Not like a New Jersey housewife, mind you, but a skilled and inquisitive poet. Šteger read a few Things, including “Shit” and “Egg.” The latter begins, “When you kill it at the edge of the pan, you don’t notice / That the egg grows an eye in death.” (Hear the poet read it in English and Slovenian in the video above.) Šteger grapples with metamorphosis and balances the sacred with the profane, said Lehman, the New School’s poetry coordinator. “There are no sacred or banal things among things, no hierarchy,” Šteger agreed. “Every thing has the power to become everything.” Instead of writing about an object in the tradition of Francis Ponge, Šteger said he strives to understand an object’s inherent logic. The series began with a couple of nagging poems. “They were a mystery, a riddle haunting me, tracking me down, and I couldn’t get rid of them,” he said. “I tried to create a different framework that was listening to, not so much speaking for, things.” He described his home country, Slovenia, as a place where language is fragile. It gained independence from former Yugoslavia 20 years ago, and writers feel the honor and the burden of preserving the language. MFA programs are unheard of, he added. As for his translator, Brian Henry studied Latin, French and Spanish, and taught himself Slovenian while translating poems by Tomaz Salamun. If he didn’t practice regularly, he would lose the ability to translate, he said. He relies on Google Images to fine tune his understanding of the language. For instance, he entered what appeared to be the Slovenian phrase “bed head,” and images... Continue reading
Posted Apr 13, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
In May, Norton will release John Ashbery's translation of French poet Arthur Rimbaud's prose poem sequence, Illuminations, originally published in 1886. Click to see Ashbery read and discuss the poem "Promontory" at The New School on February 7, 2011. - Stephanie Paterik Continue reading
Posted Feb 17, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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John Ashbery, who forged his poetry career out of a genius ability to surprise us, spent last Monday evening talking about the art of chance. The poet visited an audience of 300 people at The New School to read poems from his most recent book, Planisphere, and from Illuminations, his translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poems due this spring from Norton. Ashbery repeatedly encouraged the audience to invite chance into their work. Slam words together, he said, welcome surprises in your titles, your sestinas and your writing prompts. His own ability to surrender control and piece together disparate items helped him master both poetry and collage. (He exhibited 30 years of his collages in 2008.) And it has produced astonishing lines like “nobody knows I’m a nudist” and “how can I lick some calendars?” both from poems he read Monday. David Lehman, the event’s moderator and the New School’s poetry coordinator, asked Ashbery how the processes of poetry and collage compare. “In my case, they’re very similar,” Ashbery said. “It’s taking something and saying, ‘that would look nice next to something else, perhaps that thing over there.’ The element of chance plays a very important role. Something is ripped out of its context and forced into a new one, creating a new kind of meaning.” This is why he is so fond of the cento, he said, a form composed of lines taken from other authors. It allows him to preserve his favorite lines of poetry “as a kind of scrapbook.” And the sestina? It’s both torture device and thrill ride, Ashbery said, “a cruel, iron maiden form” that gives one the sensation of riding a bicycle downhill. “The form brings an element of chance to play in a poem,” he said. “The lines will end with six words you couldn’t possibly have imagined before writing the poem. I welcome it as a way of opening and exploring new territory in a poem.” Photo credits: bottom, (c) Star Black (2011); top and jump, Stephanie Paterik. He read a crowd-pleaser of a collage poem, made entirely from movie titles, called “They Knew What They Wanted.” It leaps wildly by piecing phrases like these together: “They all kissed the bride./ They all laughed./ They came from beyond space./ They came by night./ They came to a city./ They came to blow up America./ […]/ They might be giants.” Ashbery is 83, but age has not deterred him from peppering poems with pop culture references and connecting with younger audiences. His visit to Wesleyan University last year prompted one student to write in the school paper: “The poems in Planisphere reminded me of the emotive and insistent lyrics of the songs of an up-and-coming indie rock band.” High praise from Gen-Y, indeed. A retired college professor, Ashbery says the best prompts he gave students were ones that distracted them from the poems they wanted to write. Often, the results surprised him and the writer. When Lehman asked about the appeal of translating Rimbaud,... Continue reading
Posted Feb 12, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Feb 10, 2011