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Vincent Katz
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For my final Guest Author post (already!) I am going to do a survey of things I see around my desk that are inspiring me as I look out the windows at water dripping off pendulous icicles and streaks of shadows and dying sun on the softening snow. First off, there is Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002), in which Carson makes a representation of the classical text in its original language. She makes the fragmentary textual condition palpable. Many ancient poems come to us from papyruses that have been irreparably torn, resulting in the loss of words, lines, stanzas. Other fragments come to us in citations from later authors. Unlike most previous translators, who chose to translate only poems of Sappho’s that approach or can be made to emulate a complete state, Carson translated all the fragments we have. In her introduction, Carson writes: In translating I tried to put down all that can be read of each poem in the plainest language I could find, using where possible the same order of words and thoughts as Sappho did. I like to think that, the more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through. This is an amiable fantasy (transparency of self) within which most translators labor. Carson is funny when discussing the uses to which poetry may be put by grammarians and pedants. We possess one of Sappho’s lines because someone named Apollonios Dyskolos in the second century CE cited it in his treatise On Conjunctions. The line is, “Do I still long for my virginity?” What a fantastic line! And how tantalizing not to have the rest of the poem. She even goes on to that most remote category all classicists are familiar with, alternately delighting and despairing: when a song of Sappho’s is referred to but not quoted. In this category is a famous line from Solon recounted by Stobaios: Solon of Athens heard his nephew sing a song of Sappho’s over the wine and since he liked the song so much he asked the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked why, he said, So that I may learn it and then die. Carson writes, “As acts of deterrence these stories carry their own kind of thrill—at the inside edge where her words go missing, a sort of antipoem that condenses everything you ever wanted her to write…” The Solon story reminds us that Sappho, as most ancient Greek and Roman poets, was a musician as well as a lyricist. In addition to her poems, she is credited with inventing the plectrum and the Mixolydian mode. Carson’s translation of fragment 118 reads in its entirety: yes! radiant lyre speak to me become a voice Jane Harrison’s Prolegomena to the study of Greek Religion, first published in 1903, helped to introduce a much more various method of understanding the ancient Greek world. She was one of the first to examine pre-Olympian cults and rituals, extending the study of... Continue reading
Posted Feb 3, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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I am thinking about satire. The literary genre, not the political kind, though that can be useful as well. In these times, comedy can be the thing that really helps us survive. And most of the best comedians these days that deal with political topics are having a field day with satire. But that’s not poetry. The OED informs us that satire’s etymology is uncertain. One idea was to connect, via the root that gives us “saturate,” to the Latin expression lanx satura, or “full dish,” i.e. a miscellany of prose and verse. Another theory is that the word is of Etruscan origin, with obscure significance. Satire was also at one time associated with satyrs, and thus with the genre of satyr plays. Satire as a literary genre began in Rome, and the first practitioner of it whose work has survived was Horace, in his poems known in Latin as Sermones, which could perhaps be translated nowadays as Riffs. Roman satire is appealing to me because of its form. There is something about the form that seems quite modern to me. Like Propertius in his use of elegiac couplets, Horace, in his first book of Satires, published in 35 BCE, when he was 30, takes advantage of a conversational tone to give the poems an expansive, improvisational quality. Satire 1.9 is almost a Frank O’Harian “I do this I do that” poem. As the poem tells it, Horace is walking along the street in Rome when he is accosted by a drag of a person, who pesters Horace to introduce him to his patron, Maecenas. Horace is only saved at the last minute by a plaintiff in a court case against this person who drags him off to court. Between Horace and Juvenal, there was another Roman satirist, Persius. Kenneth J. Reckford’s 2009 book, Recognizing Persius (Princeton) is an excellent introduction to this poet, who died at 27 and left six satires that we still have today. Reckford writes: Persius gives us traces of an Aristophanic contest, or agon, between the Old Literature and the New: between the rugged old Classical authors like Pacuvius and Accius, nostalgically misremembered and praised by grumbling elders, and the smooth, effeminate, precious, hyper-Alexandrian verse beloved by modern youth, all about orgiastic Maenads and self-castrating Attises. It is all special effects nowadays, all style and no substance. Modern poetry has no balls. And not just poetry: for rhetorical pleading in the lawcourts, once the vital center of Roman political life, has also become theatricalized; defendants give artificial performances for show, just as their prosecutors do, and both sides hope mainly for applause. Underlying the parody is a dangerous thought. As Tacitus was later to demonstrate in his Dialogus, oratory atrophied under the empire because the lawcourts’ decision-making power had been taken over the emperor; what was left was flattery and self-display. Horatian satire is generally considered to be lighter than that practiced by Juvenal some hundred years later. That has something to do with the... Continue reading
Posted Feb 2, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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Aaron Johnson as John Lennon in Nowhere Boy (2009) “I was writing poetry and singing since she [his aunt Mimi, with whom he lived] had me. All the time I used to fight and say, 'Look, I'm an artist, don't bug me with all this maths. Don't try and make me into a chemist or a vet, I can't do it.' I used to say, 'Don't you destroy my papers.' I'd come home when I was fourteen and she'd rooted all my things and thrown all my poetry out. I was saying, 'One day I'll be famous and you're going to regret it. I'd seen these poems around, the sort you read to give you a hard-on. I'd wondered who wrote them and thought I'd try one myself. Mimi found it under my pillow. I said I'd been made to write it out for another lad who couldn't write very well. I'd written it myself, of course. When I did any serious poems, like emotional stuff later on, I did it in secret handwriting, all scribbles, so that Mimi couldn't read it.” — John Lennon, The Beatles Anthology I am listening to Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott’s performance of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” on WQXR. It’s Schubert’s birthday, and also Philip Glass’s. And I am thinking that John Lennon’s song “Julia” is as good as Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” They both rely on an ostinato pattern, and they are about the same length. Schubert used a pre-existing text; Lennon wrote his own ode to his mother, who may have been bi-polar and with whom he had a complicated but very meaningful relationship. I am trying to learn to play “Julia” on the guitar. So I am watching a YouTube tutorial (props to my son Isaac, who has learned to play largely via YouTube tutorials combined with his dedication and skill!). The instructor makes a good point. To the casual listener, “Julia” flows along easily as anything, giving the impression that Lennon is lightly strumming the guitar, and allowing the listener to focus on the highly evocative lyrics. But when you start to break down what he is actually playing, first of all it is an impressive technical performance, and second, as often with the Beatles, songs that sound simple reveal harmonic complexities in their chord choices and rhythms. The point is, you might never have known this — though somewhere you feel it, listening to the song — had you not taken the time to learn in depth what this great artist has actually done to create the effect. And this is quite like the process of translation. Translating takes you deeper inside something, where, hopefully, there can be a moment in which you gain a greater respect for another artist’s work. Coincidentally, while I am working on my translations of Hesiod’s poems, some poems of mine are making their ways into other languages. I wrote a poem for Nicolas Leong and Judy Chung’s project of combining Nicolas’s photographs of Italian sites... Continue reading
Posted Feb 1, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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I’ve been thinking, looking out at the bright snow that fell all day yesterday, knowing that the temperatures will be in the teens for the next three days, how music is always such an integral part of poetry. After dinner last night, someone mentioned having heard a performance of Ancient Greek music. Only a couple of scraps of notation survive, and it is not at all clear how to interpret those. Greek and Roman music is essentially lost to us as to how it was composed. On the other hand, from visual depictions and accounts by ancient authors, we know quite a bit about the kinds of instruments they had and the uses to which music was put in society. Music accompanied just about every social activity in ancient Greece, from religious ceremonies to athletic spectacles, to private dinner parties, known as symposia, because everyone drank together, to funerals. And it is safe to say that music probably accompanied most, if not all, presentations of poetry. Epic poetry was recited by professional rhapsodes, who travelled from place to place, giving performances of selected episodes from the epics. Those performers were also known as aoidoi, or singers. Lyric poetry gets its name from the tortoise-shell lyre that was played to accompany it. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, grew out of the choral dithyrambs, which were dedicated to Dionysos. Music and dance formed essential elements of Greek tragedy and comedy. So it’s only natural that we should continue to associate poetry and music. For myself personally, I’ve always thought that popular song of any genre is a form of poetry. Everybody needs poetry, and everybody gets it. Most people get it from songs. Which leaves me thinking about poetry per se. Why did it separate from music, and where does that leave it? Poetry seems stranded in some sparsely populated zone, where some people light up at the sound of it or read it peacefully by a window, but where often it is met with complete incomprehension, even by those interested in the other arts. What should poets do about this state of affairs, if anything? Should they simply listen to their own playlists, as everyone does, go to their own concerts? Should they try to dosomething with poetry, to bring it back into contact with music and movement and the stage? I believe that they can and should. Collaboration, as a process, is always fruitful, and the results of such experimentation can be spellbinding. To a certain extent, though, these questions are rhetorical. Poetry is what it is, and those who need it will find it somewhere. Gregory Corso spoke of being a poet as a higher calling, or at least a level of verbal composition not achievable elsewhere. He made a point of denying that Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison were poets. I think he is right to make a distinction between what we call poetry and what we call song lyrics, and I applaud his pride in being a poet,... Continue reading
Posted Jan 30, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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I am on a train on my way up to Yaddo, where I'll be for the next three weeks. Last time I was up there, it was also February. I like it in winter, when the isolation is increased. A certain kind of person is attracted to that extreme. That other time, I wrote a poem for the people I met there, who impressed me with their dedication to their art. It’s called “The February People.” I’m curious who will be there this time. While I look at the snow on the tracks and the ice in the river, I am listening to The Beatles’ Anthology 1collection. I’ve also been reading about why Pete Best was fired. Apparently, it was a combination of his playing ability, his lack of a sense of humor, and his refusal to comb his hair forward. It is interesting to think about the Beatles' Hamburg period. They did three stints there over a two-year period, and it was there, over many hours of club playing, that they honed their arrangements and their commitment to the lifestyle. There has always been a connection between poetry and music. To paraphrase Mr. Pound, if you can’t dance to it, it can’t be very good. I’ll be working on a few things up at Yaddo. One is a translation of Hesiod’s poem Works and Days. I’ve now finished his Theogonyand hope to get close to finishing Works and Days during these weeks away. Works and Days is 828 lines long. I’ve got about 600 to go. When I finished my translations of Sextus Propertius, I decided I wanted to go back to Greek poetry, as it forms such an undeniable basis for the Roman poets. Almost all they wrote — in terms of the genres, the ideas, the mythology — comes from Greek poetry. Of course, the great Roman poets altered and innovated, and in at least one case — satire — they invented. But to understand Roman poetry, you have to know Greek poetry, and poetry only truly lives in its original language. The translation of a poem into poetry in another language is the creation of a new poem based on the original. So, I pondered for a long time. Archilochos, Kallimachos, Sappho, Alkaios — they all hold enticements — but I finally decided on Hesiod. I was most fascinated by the Theogony, as I wanted to delve more deeply into Greek mythology. I’ve always had a hard time keeping it straight — who has had sex with whom, which gods or demigods are the offspring of which parents, and in which versions, as Greek and Roman writers famously invented or sought out variants to suit their purposes. There was another reason for choosing Hesiod. He is so highly regarded among ancient poets, and yet the existing translations into English make him sound terribly dull. I was certain Propertius, among many others, wouldn’t have had time for a dull poet, not matter how edifying. I had a... Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
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As this is my final post as guest author, I would like to cast my net and highlight some of the interesting books that have come across my desk in recent months: Diane di Prima Revolutionary Letters (Last Gasp of San Francisco, 2007) Forrest Gander, Eiko & Koma (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #8, 2013) Ferreira Guilar, Dirty Poem (New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #18, 2015), translated from the Portuguese by Leland Guyer Mike DeCapite, Radiant Fog (Sparkle Street Books, 2013) Thomas Devaney, Calamity Jane (Furniture Press Books, 2014) Thomas Devaney, Runaway Goat Cart (Hanging Loose Press, 2015) Elaine Equi, Sentences and Rain (Coffee House Press, 2015) David Meltzer, No Eyes: Lester Young (Black Sparrow Press, 2000) I have been getting more and more involved in the work of Diane di Prima of late. This summer I taught a course at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program entitled “Theogonies: What Poets Do When They Write Gods.” We examined the role of theogonies in poetry, particularly epic poetry, beginning with Hesiod, looked at Plato’s objections to Hesiod and Homer, and then jumped to the 20th century, where we studied how Charles Olson took epic and the idea of modern mythologies in a completely different direction. We took a careful look at di Prima’s work, in particular her Revolutionary Letters, which attains epic sweep in its role of speaking for the tribe, elucidating its beliefs, and stirring it to action. We also looked at her epic Loba, which embodies a shamanistic, feminist, animist, and animalist worldview. While at AWP last spring, I picked up two pamphlets from the new New Directions series. At 85, Ferreira Guilar continues to be an important figure in contemporary Brazilian poetry. He started out an ally of Concrete Poets (Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos, Décio Pignatari, among others), who were based in São Paulo. Guilar, who was living in Rio, branched off on his own path of neo-concretism, embracing the Communist Party after the military coup of 1964 and pursuing poetry of a humanist bent, while reveling in informality of style and language. Many Brazilian artists had to flee the dictatorship, and Guilar wrote his remarkable poem while in exile in Buenos Aires in 1975. In it, he attempts to return to the city of his youth and to re-create all he experienced then: Or when we wake up early and stay in bed musing through the early-morning process: the first steps in the street the first sounds in the kitchen until from rooster to rooster a nearby rooster erupts (in the backyard) and the tap of the laundry tub opens to gush the morning Forrest Gander’s contribution to the ND pamphlet series is a group of texts that work around the Japanese dance duo Eiko and Koma, who have been performing their spectacular, primal, work for over four decades now. Gander uses a constantly shifting poetic approach to come to terms with their timeless, yet highly physical, performances, in which they often perform completely naked in slow, writhing,... Continue reading
Posted Sep 20, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Over the past 5 years, Tom Clark has been quietly publishing some of the best work of his life (which is saying a lot). I identify the following books of poems: Feeling for the Ground (BlazeVOX, 2010) Something in the Air (Shearsman, 2010) At the Fair (BlazeVOX, 2010) Canyonesque (BlazeVOX, 2011) Distance (BlazeVOX, 2012) The Truth Game (BlazeVOX, 2013) Evening Train (BlazeVOX, 2014) There may be others. These seven books account for some six hundred plus pages of poetry that see Clark deeply investing his earliest poetics with a hard-hitting concision in the facture, combined with a wistful yet ultimately optimistic sense of observation. This observation can take place in the poet’s immediate neighborhood, the changing fabric of north Berkeley, where he lives with his wife, Angelica, or it can travel the universe, via Clark’s omnivorous reading and wide-ranging research. He uses his knowledge knowingly, that is, specific details are marshaled in the service of a deeper message, delivered with wit and sophistication. There is much that is elegiac in the tone of these poems, but the emphasis on the mind thinking and the eloquence with which these tonalities are orchestrated add up to an experience that is terrifically energizing. The way Clark uses line-endings and continuations is unerringly precise. We know we are in the presence of a master. Here is an example, the poem “To a Certain Friend,” from Something in the Air: Presence comes before everything, even before being The you to whom everything once belonged If by everything one means the fullness of nature’s beauty You must remember now that much has been taken from you Grief too will go from you as from sorrowing songs Sorrow goes, leaving nothing for you after a while But the memory of the melody, some old familiar tune That’s lingered on long past the moment you first sailed Gracefully into the room, as if all the modern languages Were coming down to me so that I could say these things Then there are poems that are haiku-like in their brevity, American takes on the immediate and the passing, such as “Fame” from At the Fair: A hot dog paper blows across the infield, passing into shadows near third base. Other poems register, in language that becomes surprisingly activated, a particular scene observed. One such poem is “Full Moon through Clouds” from Canyonesque: Illuminating the brief deep blue middle of the night window between the third and fourth in a series of cold Pacific storms through an opening in the flotilla of big low rain saturated city light pink underside tinted clouds a brilliant full moon Some of Clark’s observations take place on the web, and those familiar with his blog Beyond the Pale can attest to his acuity in combining words with carefully researched images. Here’s one example, a poem embedded within a series of images, Clark’s usual posting technique. This time, the poem comes from painter Jim Dine: Beyond the Pale And Clark himself adds a comment: “In... Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Tonight I went up to Columbia for the opening of “The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books” at the Kempner Gallery Rare Book & Manuscript Library on the sixth floor of Butler Library. It is worth the trip! Curated by Sarah Arkebauer and Karla Nielsen, the exhibition includes about one third of the astounding 164 books Granary (proprietor, Steve Clay) has published since beginning operations in 1985. Some of the earliest Granary publications seemed to pick up from the tradition of Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Books, which got its start in the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, at the instigation of Charles Olson, who told Williams, “Don’t ever be intimidated by the disdain or the disinterest of the world. Get yourself some type, get yourself some paper, and print it.” This statement could serve as the motto for the Mimeo Revolution that flourished in the 1960s and ‘70s and was a mainstay for the dissemination of poetry that had small but passionate followings. In its early days, Granary published books by Williams, Fielding Dawson, and John Cage, all of them with BMC credentials. Granary is also devoted to the Mimeo Revolution itself, as anyone who saw the inspiring 1998 exhibition at the New York Public Library will remember. Clay and Rodney Phillips, a curator at the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, organized the exhibition, and they co-edited the accompanying book, published by Granary: A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980, which documents many of the poetry zines of that era and the poets and artists who created them. This book should be required reading, and it probably is in the most advanced literature classes around the country and beyond. As time went on, Granary’s interests expanded to include such artists and writers as (and this is only a selection!) (in roughly chronological order) Johanna Drucker, Buzz Spector, Susan Bee, Lewis Warsh, Jerome Rothenberg, Kimberly Lyons, Robert Creeley, Alex Katz, Charles Bernstein, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, George Schneeman, Joe Elliot, Julie Harrison, Carolee Schneemann, Bernadette Mayer, Lyn Hejinian, Emilie Clark, Pierre Joris, Larry Fagin, Trevor Winkfield, William Corbett, Clark Coolidge, Keith Waldrop, Kenward Elmslie, Alison Knowles, Joe Brainard, Susan Howe, David Antin, Emily McVarish, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Simon Pettet, Duncan Hannah, Leslie Scalapino, Marina Adams, Anne Tardos, Ron Padgett, Maureen Owen, Yvonne Jacquette, John Yau, Archie Rand, Bob Perelman, Francie Shaw, Norma Cole, Alice Notley, Alan Halsey, Steve McCaffery, Marjorie Welish, James Siena, Jen Bervin, John Ashbery, Kiki Smith, Kathleen Fraser, Hermine Ford, Ceclia Vicuña, Edward Sanders, Raphael Rubinstein. (Page from Johanna Drucker and Susan Bee's A Girl's Life, Granary Books, 2002) Granary’s books are remarkable because each one is unique in design. Clay has a sixth sense for knowing which approach — whether trade edition or limited edition artist’s book — is appropriate for each outing, and he knows exactly how to achieve the end he and his collaborators have in mind. Often, these... Continue reading
Posted Sep 16, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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I am thinking about time, how it divides and separates. I have been attempting to locate myself in the present, and I think I am getting better at it, but it is hard work. The mind wants to slip back into the past, to glory over supposed triumphs and fret over past defeats — or to pump itself up over things it is looking forward to or cower over things it is apprehensive about. Yeah, you know the drill. But to be in the present, when one can achieve it, is a gift to oneself, and ultimately to everyone else as well. Meditation is a practice for this, and so is going to poetry readings. I’ll always remember an early poem of Anne Waldman’s called “Things That Make Me Nervous” — and the entire poem reads “Poetry readings. / People. / Dope. / Things I really like.” Which, back in the day, all went together. I looked up the poem and found it in Waldman’s collection Baby Breakdown, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1970. It was in a period when major publishing houses thought it made sense to go with the zeitgeist and try publishing some far-out poetry, almost as though they were record companies, gambling that one of these books could be the Next Big Thing. Others in this class include Ron Padgett’s Great Balls of Fire, published by Holt Rinehart and Winston in 1969, and Tom Clark’s Stones, pubished by Harper & Row, also in 1969. These were hardcover publications with dust jackets and very sharp design, seemingly because the decisions were left to the poets. Joe Brainard blanketed Padgett’s book with white stars on a royal blue jacket, cover and endpapers. His hand-lettering of the title and author’s name is exquisite. Clark’s book also has jacket design by Brainard, in this case a large piece of yellow swiss cheese on a black background with the author’s name on the vertical axis. Brainard also contributes a blurb, which begins, “Ron Padgett is a poet. He always has been a poet and he always will be a poet. I don't know how a poet becomes a poet. And I don’t think anyone else does either…” Ted Berrigan’s “liner notes” for Waldman’s book are typically effusive. He starts out casually, “Anne Waldman is easily the most exciting poet of her generation, and Anne and her poems are among the great pleasures of everyone’s generation. Half the population of America is under 25, and Anne Waldman, at the age of 25, is a star. It seems she can do anything, and she has, and does …” Later, he adds something as true today as it was in 1970: “She has altered all our lives for the better simply by her presence, for she is no wielder of power, but simply a presence that permits everybody to be themselves and more often than not their best selves in the world…” He concludes, “This book is an ordinary miracle.” I love that Berrigan dated... Continue reading
Posted Sep 15, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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I am excited to be starting a new season, Fall, my favorite season. It is said that every poet has a favorite month. October was Jack Kerouac’s. For me, it is the season. Even though a friend once said, “Spring is my favorite season, except for Summer,” for me Fall is the season that is filled with new beginnings and renewed buoyancy. It is the season in which classes start again and people migrate back to the city from the country. It is the season of cold evenings and Friday night plans. I actually like the days getting dark earlier and the rhythm of the leaves falling, a dance that will finally end when all the leaves are down, and the trees go to sleep for the winter. It is also Rosh Hashanah. I feel a resonance with the energies that have to do with understanding among peoples, repentance, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. As described in Wikipedia, today should be, literally, “a day of shouting or raising a noise” or, and this I like even better, a Feast of Trumpets. In addition it cites, “three important stages as the spiritual order of the Ten Days of Repentance (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) unfolds: On Rosh Hashanah Jewish tradition maintains that God opens the books of judgment of creation and all mankind starting from each individual person, so that what is decreed is first written in those books, hence the emphasis on the ‘ketivah’ (‘writing’). The judgment is then pending and prayers and repentance are required. Then on Yom Kippur, the judgment is ‘sealed’ or confirmed (i.e. by the Heavenly Court), hence the emphasis is on the word ‘chatimah’ (‘sealed’). But the Heavenly verdict is still not final because there is still an additional hope that until Sukkot concludes God will deliver a final, merciful judgment, hence the use of ‘gmar’ (‘end’) that is ‘tov’ (‘good’).” In my own interpretation, I take this to mean that the writing that we, as poets, do must be held accountable to the highest judgment and that it must contain within it, not necessarily expressed literally or rationally, our most profound beliefs. Again, in my own interpretation, I take this whole period to mean that, through self-reflection, we must make every attempt to be not simply tolerant but actually open to others, particularly those whose opinions and beliefs may be most alien to us. And that thought reminds me of someone who embodied those principles. Born the daughter of a rabbi in Kiel, Germany, she immigrated to New York City at the age of three and lived an exemplary life devoted to the arts and freedom of expression and thought. She once told me it was important to engage those on the opposite end of the political spectrum; otherwise, we would never have a chance of convincing them. No one could accuse her, however, of compromising. Her adult life and art practice were devoted to the core principles of... Continue reading
Posted Sep 14, 2015 at The Best American Poetry