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Jay Parini
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In my mid-twenties, I moved from Scotland to New Hampshire, taking up a teaching job at Dartmouth. I recall that I missed Scotland very badly, especially as I had established a close relationship with several poets there – Alastair Reid, Norman MacCaig, and Anne Stevenson. Each of these had exercised a very strong influence on me, shaping my understanding of what poetry was and why it mattered. I didn’t have a terribly well-developed awareness of contemporary poetry in the U.S. at this time, although I had some favorites: Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, and Richard Wilbur. But I didn’t really know their work well, not yet. But I lucked out. Just across the border, in the village of West Wardsboro in Vermont, lived Robert Penn Warren and his wife, Eleanor Clark. I met them through a mutual friend, and their openness to young people – especially young writers – was palpable. I took to Warren at once, and we became friends. Their house, near Mount Stratton, was a modern affair, open-plan, woodsy, unpretentious. There were several “shacks” on the property, and guests would occupy one or two of them. Warren and Clark each had their own writing shed. I liked how they lived their lives: writing in the morning, breaking (in summer) for a swim in the cold pond on their property, where we would drink sherry on a small raft before lunch. Red – that was how he was known -- always took a nap after lunch, and then he went for a long walk in the woods. I loved joining him on those walks, and we talked mostly about poetry. Warren was in his seventies when I met him. I only knew him for the last decade or so of his life. But he had come into his own as a poet after a long life of writing that included ten novels, including All the King’s Men, and lots of essays, even a play or two. He taught classes at Yale and elsewhere. In many ways he put before me a kind of model of how to assemble a literary life, a life in teaching, a life in poetry and prose. He told me never to bother about genre. “Write whatever you like, and pay no attention to critics.” That was good advice, and I’ve ever since not worried about crossing the boundaries of genre. Although I’ve kept poetry at the center of my life, I’ve never fretted about whether I wrote poetry, fiction, criticism, or whatever. I worry about the quality of writing – not its genre. Warren had, late in life, really found a deep poetic vein, and this inspired me then, much as it inspired me now. I often reread, for instance, a late poem of his called “Heart of Autumn.” It’s a poem written by an older man who sees the birds flying south. He wonders where they go, and where he will go. The poem rises to an amazing finale: I stand, my face... Continue reading
Posted Apr 22, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
My old mentor Alastair Reid died only two years ago at 88. He was a Scottish poet and translator, and we met him in 1970 in Scotland, where I lived for seven years. He was an astonishing fellow: wry, witty, learned, and lavishly gifted as a poet and critic. My sense of what a poem should “sound like” came from reading him carefully. There was a deep musicality in his work, an accessibility as well, that struck me then and has remained with me throughout my life. I met Alastair in a pub, having been introduced by a mutual friend. He invited me to bring him poems to read, and I accepted this offer gratefully. I would pedal out to his cottage by the sea in the afternoons, at tea time. We sat in his kitchen, drinking mugs of tea, eating toast and biscuits. He would hunch beside me and silently “correct” my poems, as he put it. He circled words, crossed out lines, rearranged stanzas. Sometimes he would just draw a thick line through the whole poem and push it back to me. I knew exactly what that meant! Alastair directed my reading as well. (I was not enrolled in any course with him. Indeed, he had nothing to do with the university, where I was a graduate student when I met him, in the midst of writing a thesis on Gerard Manley Hopkins and the influence of St. Ignatius Loyola on his poetry.) I had never before heard of Borges or Neruda; but Alastair turned me in the direction of their work, which he was translating. Indeed, he introduced me to both Borges and Neruda – the former came from Argentina to visit Alastair in Scotland. The latter, Neruda, came to London at one point from Paris, and we went to dinner together – a vivid evening for me. Learning to write was, for me, also learning to read. I remember reading “Among School Children” by Yeats and complaining to Alastair that it was beyond understanding. So he led me stanza by stanza through this complicated poem and its stream-of-conscious movement toward a blazing final stanza where the whole poem focused in the symbol of the chestnut tree, which cannot be separated into leaf, blossom, and bole. Often I can hear Alastair’s voice in my own as I write and read. His accent – a mild Scottish lilt – seems vaguely to undergird my own way of speaking, although only I can notice this. His impeccable ear for the sound of poetry certainly taught me how to listen to a line of verse. Frost once said that a poem has to carry a tune. I still believe that, and I listen for the tune in any poem. I want to believe its music. I want it to play freshly on my ear. I’m always looking for what Frost famously called “the sound of sense.” In Scotland at that time, there was a kind of poem afoot that Alastair... Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
I was at a literary festival in Montreal this past weekend, and I met a man – middle-aged, with a white beard, Canadian – who asked what I wrote. When I explained that poetry lay at the heart of my writing project, he grimaced: “Ah, poetry. I can’t understand it. And I no longer seek it out.” Early – in my twenties, as a student – I swore to myself that I would never write a poem that I myself didn’t understand. This has proved more complex at times than one might imagine. The fact is, I’ve spent a good deal of my life teaching “difficult” poetry to students – from T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens to Charles Wright and Louise Glück. I still gravitate naturally to poets like Frost and Seamus Heaney, poets I have very little trouble “following.” But I appreciate the complexity – the necessary difficulty – inherent in some verse, which in its obscurities pushes toward the boundaries of thought and feeling. My sense is that, at their best, Eliot and Pound, Stevens, and others in the camp of difficulty, move toward a beautiful clarity. I love moments in The Waste Land, in Four Quartets, where Eliot achieves a kind of pellucid beauty – in the latter more than the former, these passages abound. He himself addressed the difficulty of writing in “East Coker,” where he notes that “each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.” I understand that only too well. His friend Pound actually crumbled in middle age into deep obscurities. The Cantos are general a mess. But I’ve spent a good deal of time with his Cantos, and I do so partly to treasure those breakthroughs into bright light, as in LXXXI, where he writes: The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world. Pull down thy vanity, it is not man Made courage, or made order, or made grace, Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down. Learn of the green world what can be thy place In scaled invention or true artistry, Pull down thy vanity, Paquin pull down! There is a stately radiance in passages like this. Wallace Stevens, of course, can be mind-bogglingly complex, and it requires a huge effort to move through even the best of his poems. Yet I love it when he gathers his wits and writes with absolute clarity and force, as in the last stanza of “Sunday Morning” – an early poem – or in those very late poems where he strips reality of its caked mud, where “After the leaves have fallen, we return / To a plain sense of things.” Stevens seems to me among the finest poets in the language, and I keep his Collected Poems near my writing desk for refreshment, inspiration. I wouldn’t like my life as much without “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “Sunday Morning,” “The Snow Man,”... Continue reading
Posted Apr 20, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
I find it hard to get Robert Frost out of my head. Of course I wrote a long biography of him in the late nineties: Robert Frost: A Life. That book, in one way or another, took about twenty-five years to write. I had adored the poems of Frost in high school and college. But in the summer of 1975, I arrived on the campus of Dartmouth College, to begin a career in teaching that continues to this day. I had an office in Sanborn House, only a few steps from the Baker Library, and remember going into the manuscripts room only a couple of weeks after my arrival. I asked the man at the desk what was there, and he mentioned some notebooks and letters belonging to Frost, who had once studied at Dartmouth. He took them out for me to examine, and my journey with Frost began in earnest. There were many people in the area who knew Frost, who had died just over a decade before. One of these was a retired Dartmouth president, John Dickey. Another was the elderly poet Richard Eberhart, who became a very close friend of mine. They introduced me to others who knew Frost, including Peter Davison – an editor and poet living in Boston. I began to accumulate material for what would become my own biography, written to some extent in response to the biography by Lawrance Thompson, a man who knew Frost well. Thompson knew Frost a little too well, in fact. Both he and Frost were interested in Kay Morrison, who was Frost’s secretary. Thompson grew to dislike Frost, and his biography reeks of his distaste. I loved Frost’s work --- the beautiful simplicity of the writing, the alert mind, his sense of metaphor, an ability to phrase things in memorable ways. Auden once described poetry as “memorable language,” and Frost was insanely good at finding a memorable phrase or line. Sometimes these were sentimental, of course, as in the last line of “Birches,” where he writes: “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” Oh, dear. Nevertheless, even that sentimental poem is filled with strangeness marked by a strong Freudian undercurrent: the boy wants to “subdue” his father’s trees. There is a hidden sexual element to the poem. And some astonishing beauty: “Earth’s the right place for love.” Frost’s ability to frame an aphorism powered his short poems, such as “Fire and Ice.” Anyone who has ever tried to write a brief, aphoristic poem will know how difficult it can be. The ancient Greek were good at it; but one doesn’t find many examples of great short aphoristic poems in English. Frost could do anything in verse. Some of his sonnets – “Design,” “A Silken Tent” – rank easily among the best of American sonnets, or sonnets written in English. But then he could do conventional stanzas, as in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” or run at some length with blank verse: “Directive” is... Continue reading
Posted Apr 19, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
My New and Collected Poems, 1976-2015 has just appeared from Beacon Press, and I couldn’t be happier with the results – a lovely looking book that has allowed me to gather my poems of the last ten years – the “new” part of the title – and reprint most of the poems I really want to stand by from earlier volumes. It’s not a “complete” poems, but it’s close. As a young man writing poems – mostly in Scotland, where I spent seven years at the University of St. Andrews – I never really envisioned a day when, as approached the age of 70 (I’m 68), I would have an opportunity like this, to gather my poems of four decades under one cover. I remember holding in my hands the collected poems of Eliot and Frost, Stevens, Roethke, Bishop, and others. There was something immensely satisfying about seeing the work of a lifetime in a book. Of course, I hope this is not “the work of a lifetime.” I wouldn’t mind having a couple of more decades to write poems, and I’m assuming that with the experiences I’ve had in poetry down all these decades, somehow I’ll be equipped to face my later years freshly, finding a language adequate to this experience. I’ve always been drawn to the work of older poets. Frost, for instance, found the most perfect poem, “Directive,” and quite late in his writing life. It’s the best of Frost: subtle and deeply in command of the kind of blank verse he had made his own, with memorable lines, with a spry and off-kilter humor, with a ruefulness that only Frost could muster. It doesn’t have the slightly cute feel of “Mending Wall” or “Birches” – poems I love, but not in the same way. This long poem is about winding your way “back” into the woods, back to a house in the woods that has been reduced to a cellar hole, near a brook. It ends: “Here are your water and your water-place. / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” For Frost, life was confusing. A poem for him was “a momentary stay against confusion.” It was a clearing in the crazy woods of our time, his time, his own psyche. And I can’t help but thinking Frost’s own mind was, at times, a miserable thicket – I wrote a biography of Frost in 1999, so I’m familiar with the issues that drove him: a lack of self-confidence, a narcissistic turn, a persistent battle with depression. I’m not a shrink, but it seems obvious that Frost struggled with a mood disorder that informs his poetry from the beginning to the end. I’m going to be writing these blogs for the coming week, and in them I will explore some of the difficulties that poets have faced in the later parts of their careers. I’ll look at Yeats and Stevens. I’ll think about T.S. Eliot. I’ll talk about my old friend and mentor Robert Penn Warren,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 18, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Apr 18, 2016