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Dante Micheaux
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The envy of all other arts organizations (because of its titanic wealth), the Poetry Foundation “aspires to alter the perception that poetry is a marginal art, and to make it directly relevant to the American public.” If this is a truly an aspiration, perhaps it might make more sense to move past racializing the information it provides the public. I know that the trendy intellectual stance is to have no opinion or have all opinions—which in my thinking amount to cowardice. I am nitpicking here but it is an easy matter to clear up. Jay Wright is, unequivocally, the greatest living American poet. I can say this because his poetry represents everything that America is and, unlike any of his contemporaries that might come close to possessing his gifts, not what he would like it to be. So, it goes without saying that I am vexed at the Poetry Foundation’s description of him, in what is otherwise an astute biography, as “one of America’s leading African-American voices.” Not surprisingly, John Ashbery is described as “one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets.” Because Mr. Ashbery is simply described as American, is it given that he is white? In fact, nothing is mentioned about Ashbery’s identity (white, wealthy, homosexual or otherwise) and the biography discusses his poetry on it merits. I believe Mr. Wright deserves the same approach. His work demands it! Wright’s poetry flattens his “great” peers with a range that is simultaneously philosophical and concrete. He has achieved his goal of uncovering the weave of American culture. Wright is a difficult poet but, paraphrasing Harold Bloom, there are difficult pleasures to be had from his high song. Moreover, he would be less difficult if the teaching of history were more accurate and reflected Wright’s range. Derek Walcott once said that he refuses the saga of Europe as center and this is Wright’s position. “But it is not enough to / to sip the knowledge / of our failings.1” There is a way into Wright’s language and his poetry, if given the proper attention, is redemptive. He asks “if the world is real enough / to measure [his] intention2” and teaches his readers that “[i]t is time to rewrite the history of darkness / and the way our ballbearing stars slip around / and away from each other.3” Our country needs this poetry more than any other. I am not sure how the Poetry Foundation decides who gets to be a great American poet. It is unfortunate that the formula African-American < American is still true in the USA. My apologies to anyone who is tired of Ellisonian argument but it does matter. Ignorance of semantics perpetuates racism. Wright says, “I shall walk carefully / about this contradiction— / the changed dimension / that marks my native speech, / the salutary inscription that settles / my bones.4” There are enough resources at the Poetry Foundation to walk carefully and get it right. 1. from “The Dead” – Wright, Jay. Transfigurations. Baton... Continue reading
Posted Sep 4, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
“From that time forward a profound change set within me.” —Edward Carpenter, after reading Leaves of Grass “Because you have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart…For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature.” —Edward Carpenter to Walt Whitman, July 12, 1874 When I read Carpenter’s autobiography, particularly passages on the experience of reading Walt Whitman, there was such a familiarity. Years ago, I too had what Will Self describes as an epiphanic moment of empathy, when I first read a poem by Carl Phillips. I will not mention the title of the poem, as Phillips has since annulled it, but it was the gateway to all of his poetry. He is the only poet whose work has evoked the same emotions in me as music does. Reading a poem like “Custom” is very much like listening to Jessye Norman sing “Thy Hand, Belinda” or Yolanda Adams sing “In the Midst of It All”—I know myself better having done so. It is an immense gift that poetry gives its readers and why we must never lose it. Here is Carl Phillips at his best: Parable There was a saint once, he had but to ring across water a small bell, all manner of fish rose, as answer, he was that holy, persuasive, both, or the fish perhaps merely hungry, their bodies a-shimmer with that hope especially that hunger brings, whatever the reason, the fish coming unassigned, in schools coming into the saint’s hand and, instead of getting, becoming food. I have thought, since, of your body—as I first came to know it, how it still can be, with mine, sometimes. I think on that immediate and last gesture of the fish leaving water for flesh, for guarantee they will die, and I cannot rest on what to call it. Not generosity, or a blindness, trust, brute stupidity. Not the soul distracted from its natural prayer, which is attention, for in the story they are paying attention. They lose themselves eyes open. Epigraph 1: Carpenter, Edward. My Days and Dreams. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1916. Epigraph 2: Traubel, Horace. With Whitman in Camden. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961. "Parable": Phillips, Carl. Quiver of Arrows. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Continue reading
Posted Sep 3, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
but I couldn’t keep it to myself”, says the refrain of a gospel song, close to my heart—especially when sung by Mother Eloise Knight of Jerusalem Baptist Church, in Trenton, New Jersey. And I suppose the truth must have out: it bothers me that I have never had a poem published in The New Yorker. It bothers most American poets, even the ones who claim they couldn’t care less about the magazine. It bothers younger poets to an even greater extent. The magazine has a reputation for making journalists and literary artists feel as if they “have made it”, or at least for creating the illusion of success. After reading the August 30th issue, my personal upset has reached a level of fury! What in the hell was the editorial staff thinking when it let David Musgrave’s “On the Inevitable Decline Into Mediocrity of the Popular Musician Who Attains a Comfortable Middle Age” slide through? Surely, of the thousands of poems that arrive in the mail at 4 Times Square, there was a haiku more deserving of the space. David Musgrave is a fine poet, worthy of all the awards he has received, and all published poets have at least one poem out there cast away as the awkward stepchild. But, come on, Mr. Musgrave, put me out of my misery and say this one got into your submissions pile by mistake. Richard D. Allen’s critique was on the money! Let’s pretend I’m David Remnick. One of two things is being said to my poetry editor right now. 1) I’m so pleased that readers are paying attention to the drivel I approved that I couldn’t wait for Condé Nast's livery service, so I hopped a train from Penn Station to Princeton Junction and am taking you out for wings at Chuck’s; or 2) Perhaps you’ve just gotten of track. A trip back to your roots might help, County Armagh and all that. Pass me that ruler over there, please. Place your hands palms down on my desk. I can only imagine poor Jenna Krajeski rolling her eyes with a sigh, mouthing It’s-not-my-fault to her fellow staffers. If you were not certain of it before, you can be certain now that when it comes to poetry, quality is not high on The New Yorkers’ list of priorities. Thank God, for Hilton Als and the excellent cartoons; I will be renewing my subscription promptly!Postscript: Knowing how smart Paul Muldoon is and what a trickster he can be, his editorial pitch was probably along the lines of, “Let’s put this in just to piss people off.” Well, it worked. Continue reading
Posted Sep 2, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Besides making the best crab cakes in world and winning the Nobel Prize for astonishingly graceful yet epic prose, Toni Morrison is a consummate poet. On May 26, 2006, friends and family gathered to celebrate her retirement from Princeton University. Some of us had been President of the United States, some us were legendary performers and some of us had accosted her with so many questions as an adolescent that she never forgot us. As selected guests were each given time to discuss an aspect of her colossal artistry, a colleague, Paul Muldoon, got the honor of speaking in her poetry. Composed almost exclusively to be set to music, Morrison’s poems are highly imagistic and of the natural world. Like her novels, there is always a [sic] historic lesson. One of my favorites is “I Am Not Seaworthy”, part of the song cycle “Honey and Rue”, commissioned by the soprano Kathleen Battle for a Carnegie Hall performance. I Am Not Seaworthy I am not seaworthy. Look how the fish mistake my hair for home. I had a life, like you. I shouldn’t be riding the sea. I am not seaworthy. Let me be earthbound; star fixed Mixed with the sun and smacking air. Give me the smile, the magic kiss To trick little boy death of my hand. I am not seaworthy. Look how the fish mistake my hair for home. One of the great moments of my life was sitting at her knee, in Saint Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, eating gumbo. She critiqued our lunch by adding, “It’s all right but it’s not as good as my mama used to make!” In contrasting her poems to those written by some of her highly-overrated contemporaries, a similar chord is struck in me: they’re all right but not as good as Toni Morrison makes. "I Am Not Seaworthy", ©Toni Morrison, 1995 Continue reading
Posted Sep 1, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Jorie Graham is among the best poets writing in English and her poems have changed, both visually and in aspects of content, in a dramatic way—most evident from one collection of poems to the next. Helen Vendler, in a book that studies the changes in style of three different poets, theorizes that if “a poet puts off an old style (to speak for a moment as if this were a deliberate undertaking), he or she perpetrates an act of violence, so to speak, on the self”, (The Breaking of Style, 1), and goes on to apply this notion to Graham’s ever-expanding work. Vendler states in her lecture Jorie Graham: The Moment of Excess that: “When a poem is deprived, in critical discussion, of its material body—which is constituted by its rhythm, its grammar, its lineation, or other such features—it exists only as a mere cluster of ideas, and loses its physical, and therefore its aesthetic, distinctness” (The Breaking of Style, 71). Her specific interest is in Graham’s individual line, which has metamorphosed from being short in early poems to idiosyncratically long in more recent poems (those written before 1994 when Vendler delivers the aforementioned lecture). “When a poet ceases to write short lines,” she posits, “and starts to write long lines, that change is a breaking of style almost more consequential, in its implications, than any other” (The Breaking of Style, 72). Though Vendler subsequently makes some undeniable observations about excess in Graham’s work, her basic supposition on the importance of style is flawed, if only due to the fact that she does not account for the possibility of Graham, at some point in the future, returning to short lines—or creating a composition that depends on both long lines and short lines, as she has in her most recent collection, Sea Change. By recycling the examples that Vendler offers in her study and adding a few others, it is clear that what is significant, or most consequential in Jorie Graham’s work is not lineation—long or short. The strength of her composition lies in a highly-evolved, demanding addressee and the process by which she communicates with it, called, for the sake of argument, vocative sublimity. The rhythm, grammar, lineation or other such features are rendered differently by Graham depending on unknown variables to the reader but what shapes those features into a whole, the communication with the addressee that exists on the plane of poetic thinking, is consistent. Vocative sublimity might better be defined as thus: “to be knitted up, chainmail of vocables—link / by link— / till even the air all round you suddenly seems to / shine—really now—there where it means, / or means to mean, because mostly of course it is just talk…” (The Errancy, 75). No better understanding of this process is to be found than, perhaps, those lines that limn the geography of a poetic mind and attempt to fix a dialogue that is at once clear and completely metaphysical. The philosopher, Martin Buber, describes the... Continue reading
Posted Aug 30, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
In a 1999 essay published in The Southern Review, literary critic Laurence Goldstein implies Robert Hayden’s “Perseus” to be the greatest poem in the world. Though it may not reach such titular extravagance for me, it is my favorite Hayden poem and the reason why I continue to return to him again and again. Her sleeping head with its great gelid mass of serpents torpidly astir burned into the mirroring shield— a scathing image dire as hated truth the mind accepts at last and festers on. I struck. The shield flashed bare. Yet even as I lifted up the head and started from that place of gazing silences and terrored stone, I thirsted to destroy. None could have passed me then— no garland-bearing girl, no priest or staring boy—and lived. Hayden is an important American poet and should be read more widely than he is. Reasons for his marginalization arise from the racial divide that plagued (continues to plague) American literary politics. Hayden was such an adept poet that he could not be denied by the “white literary establishment” of mid-twentieth century America and that acceptance made him an outcast among the rising Black Nationalist literati of the same era. One had thought him rescued with the posthumous publication of his Collected Poemsin 1985 and its reintroduction by the venerable Arnold Rampersad in 1996. His prominence, however, is still lacking—though for my generation of Black American poets he is the undisputed heavyweight. Like they love posters of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in February, white readers of Hayden love “Those Winter Sundays”; and they love the one about Bessie Smith because, well, who does “the blues” better than Black folk? But there is so much more to Hayden! As Goldstein points out: “For a great-souled author like Hayden there can be no question of choosing one realm, one racial history, rather than another. The Perseus myth belongs exclusively neither to whites nor to blacks, but to all races, because it illuminates the tragic experience of all races.” Hayden knew the path through the desolation of human action and his true contribution to the world was a poetics of peace. Reading him is to show him gratitude. Continue reading
Posted Aug 30, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Mr. Hummer, you lived in the same UK as I do now. There are certainly intelligent Englishman, like the eminent Henry James scholar mentioned in my first paragraph. James Byrne is English and kind and one of the most charming people I've ever met. Surely, there is good company to be found in Arizona.
(home of John Keats) Everything you have heard about the English is true. They are disingenuous and dull except when they are drunk, which is almost all the time, on the cheapest, warmest swill one can imagine; and then they reach a level of unspeakable vulgarity. If I never stepped inside an English pub again, it would be too soon. Beating the streets of London in search of a good cocktail, I might as well have been training to climb Kilimanjaro! Contrarily, the English have great dental hygiene but simply have a different definition of the color white. The country is very deluded about its quotidian racism. Politics here are a mess and murder on the rise. Unlike Americans, however, they do not shoot each other (save the occasional Cumbrian madman) but prefer the knife for bodily assault. And the English loathe Americans despite their constant effort to recreate our popular culture and poetry. The English female’s penchant for vertigo-inducing short skirts, black tights and bedraggled hair leaves much to be desired. Fun and intimacy are utterly foreign concepts. The only remnants I have of my libertine lifestyle, when I am here and away from my beloved island of Manhattan, are: reruns of Dynasty (left) ; a fabulous newspaper column, called “Out in the City”, by Richard Dennen; and, wandering the halls of academia, Bessie Smith’s voice—seeping from a door left ajar by an eminent Henry James scholar. Nonetheless, all is forgiven due to fact that I live in the splendor (vastly apart, mind you, from luxury) of Hampstead. It is an unparalleled quarter of London. From the window of my study, I watch a neighboring couple of squirrels plan their day in the trees and chat with an ornery magpie that is only interested in my leftover baguette. My street is lined with Magnolia stellata, purple-leaf plum, Rhododendron ponticum, Choisya ternata and hedges that are ever green. Whenever there is need to go to the post office, I always make my way past Anna Freud’s garden. How can I help but sing “of summer in full-throated ease”1, living just a short walk from John Keats’ house—where any guest of mine is sure to be taken? If I need a reward at the weekend, I trek the heath to Kenwood House for breakfast. Several weeks ago, I was coming home from Fenton House and decided to walk down Frognal, passing number 97, where the contralto Kathleen Ferrier lived. Immediately, her 1947 recording of Brahams’ Alto-Rhapsodie (a favorite) filled my head. I continued my walk, rounding the corner to catch the sunset on University College School and a small valley of buildings that spanned three centuries. “Turning from these with awe, once more I raised / My eyes to fathom the space every way”2. If only my friend and Virgil scholar, the poet James Byrne, who told me of all this before I had ever seen it, was there to share it with me. Alas, it was only me to say,... Continue reading
Posted Aug 29, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Aug 26, 2010