Sunday, May 31, 2009


How a good idea turned into a great website--Poetry Daily.

By Michael Chitwood
Poetry Media Service

For Don Selby, a good idea was born with a glance.

In 1995, Selby was publishing law books. He had stepped into the office of colleague Diane Boller, and there on the shelf beside a book titled Liability of Corporate Officers and Directors was a very different sort of book, a collection of poems by W.S. Merwin. Selby knew Merwin's much-lauded reputation among contemporary poets but was surprised to see that another person at the decidedly nonliterary publishing firm did. It didn't take long before he and Boller were trading favorite poems. "I think the first poem Diane showed me was a Frank O'Hara, and I'm sure the one I gave her was an A.R. Ammons, who I was reading at the time," Selby said. Ammons is a North Carolinian but taught many years at Cornell.

From the exchanges, the excellent poetry Web site Poetry Daily ( was born.

"The law publishing business was one of the first to get involved with electronic publishing," Selby said. "We had that experience, and Diane and I knew that poetry publishers struggled to get poets their deserved audience."

The two hatched the idea of online poetry publishing that would feature a new poem every day, drawn from established print poetry journals. During business travels, they made side trips to visit such influential editors as Joseph Parisi, then editing Poetry magazine in Chicago, and Peter Davidson at the Atlantic Monthly. Everyone they talked with thought the idea was a win-win. A poem would be selected from the magazine and featured each day. The poet and the magazine would get well-deserved attention, and Poetry Daily would have its content.

So, in 1997, Poetry Daily came online, and it's been onward and upward every since. There are a number of poetry Web sites now, but I think Poetry Daily is the best in both design and concept. It's been my home page for a number of years, and it's always a treat to log on each morning and see what new poem the site will bring me. The site is my daily literary supplement, a singular tablet that can be taken first thing or returned to later.

You can read "Today's Poem," which comes from prestigious magazines such as Poetry, Paris Review, Threepenny Review, the New Republic, Southern Review and others. Some days the poem might come from one of the very fine smaller magazines that perhaps aren't known to as wide an audience but should be--journals like Field, crazyhorse and Beloit Poetry Journal. Selections are also made from recently published books from both mainstream and small literary publishers. There's a brief bio note about the writer and information about the publishing source.

"We read like crazy," Selby says. "We are getting more review copies now in addition to the literary magazines. We are looking for authentic poems, poems that aspire to serious art but we try to avoid aligning ourselves with a particular school or approach. We just want to make the general reading public aware of what's being published in poetry."

If you want to dip deeper into the poetry world, the site also features "From the Newsroom," a section that contains links to reviews and news items concerning poetry. On a recent day, there was a review from the New York Times, an announcement of the Washington State Book Awards, Mary Karr's poem selection for the Washington Post and an article about four poets and their "day jobs." In that delightful piece, Irish poet Dennis O'Driscoll notes that at Revenue and Customs he "got a life from work: a living which freed me from literary drudgery; access to a distinctive linguistic register; stimulating subject matter; and the welcome distraction a busy office provides from the obsessive anxieties which bedevil the isolated full-time poet." Not what you might expect a poet to say. Poetry Daily delivers that kind of surprise every day.

In addition to the online version, PD has published two print anthologies (full disclosure, I have poems in each) of poems drawn from the Web site.

There's a lot happening in contemporary poetry. If you're not plugged in to the world of small literary magazines and college reading series, you might not know about it. But with Poetry Daily, you can get a regular dose or just an occasional tonic. Either way, you get the real thing right at your fingertips.

Michael Chitwood's poetry, book reviews, and articles appear widely. This article originally appeared in the News & Observer. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2009 by Michael Chitwood. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Paul Muldoon's translation of Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's latest collection.

By Carmine Starnino
Poetry Media Service

The Fifty Minute Mermaid, by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Tr. by Paul Muldoon. The Gallery Press.

Hands up, anyone who knew that the merfolk's language was "pelagic"? I certainly didn't. Much remains unknown about these mythic creatures, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's new book can help. A bluffer's guide to those from "Land-Under-Wave," The Fifty Minute Mermaid is based on close imaginative contact with its citizens, their history, and the trauma that "left them oddly out of the swim."

Merfolk are mermaids; or, more specifically, they are an Irish species called "merrow" who have the ability to assume human form. According to Ní Dhomhnaill, merfolk were driven to land two centuries ago, a race on the run. Why they fled "the warm bosom/of the ocean" has never been explained, and the mermaids themselves are mum on the subject. Were they victims of "some sort of ethnic cleansing"? Casualties of a Paradise Lost cataclysm that now leaves them struggling "to climb back again/to the place from which they first fell"? It's a mystery. But whatever happened, there's no going back: they've renounced water, their gills long defunct. Aquatic refugees in dry diaspora, the merfolk seem cursed. Worse, the general population they live among, while fascinated, can't muster much in the way of sympathy--as Ní Dhomhnaill says, "anyone with so much bad luck and misfortune following them/must have done something to deserve it."

The tragedy of the merfolk--namely, that they are a people cut off from their own legend--can also be said to define Ní Dhomhnaill's poetic project over the last twenty years. The Fifty Minute Mermaid, her fourth book in English, is translated by Paul Muldoon. This is because Ní Dhomhnaill writes exclusively in Irish, a once-suppressed language she loves for the way it effortlessly incorporates "quick and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and mythological." As it happens, the description captures the magic of her English voice, just as merfolk--who use words "still imbued/with the old order of things"--capture the proud exile of Ireland's Gaelic speakers.

The half-human "morph" of the merfolk as a metaphor for the act of translation is something else Ní Dhomhnaill is exploring in The Fifty Minute Mermaid. The book provides facing originals, but the accuracy of Muldoon's work will, for most North American readers, be hard to judge, even while his quirky embeddings are unmistakable ("I don't give a hoot," "to scare the living daylights," "discombobulated," "thingammies"). This, however, isn't our first look at Ní Dhomhnaill. She is already known--via earlier distillings by Michael Hartnett, Seamus Heaney, and Medbh McGuckian--as a compulsive storyteller. And Muldoon's version jibes with her celebrated billing. In their English skin her poems are hugely playful, practicing a subversiveness just fractionally above unclassifiable. Ní Dhomhnaill is a nuts and bolts poet: she puts her ideas and subject-matter right up front, while somewhere in the background extraordinary meanings assemble:

Whatever you do don't ever mention the word "water"
or anything else that smacks of the sea--
"wave," "tide," "ocean," "the raging main," "the briny."
She'd as soon contemplate the arrival of frost in the middle of summer
than hear tell of fishing, boats, seine or trammel nets, lobster pots.
She knows such things exist, of course,
and that other people
have truck with them.

She thinks that if she covers her ears and turns away her head
she'll be free of them
and she'll never hear again the loud neighing of the kelpie or water horse
claiming its blood relation with her at the darkest hour of the night,
causing her to break out in goose pimples and having sweat lashing off her
while she's fast asleep.
--From "The Mermaid and Certain Words"

Ní Dhomhnaill's mode isn't exactly satiric or surrealistic, but derangedly reportorial. The poems are filled with fascinating crypto-anthropological details: the merfolk susceptibility to disease, their difficulty holding a tune, their antipathy toward breastfeeding. It's tongue-in-cheek scholarship that eventually runs to the horrific: a chilling mention, at the end, of merfolk returning to "Land-Under-Wave" to find Auschwitz-like "heaps of gold teeth" and "old garments in garment-piles." Ní Dhomhnaill always works this way--allegorically, she goes deep. There is rarely a point-for-point match, yet her major targets are impossible to miss: colonialism, female sexuality, the Catholic church. But The Fifty Minute Mermaid, constructed out of two parts, is significantly darker than her previous books. The first part is merfolk-free but discontent-rich. It closes with a seemingly autobiographical narrative where the poet, during a drive, replays a series of grim memories: a dying friend, news of Serbian atrocities, her husband's recent six-day coma. She is readying herself for the ultimate "task"--"to take it all in, to make room in your heart without having your heart burst."

Here, then, is the heart-bursting genius of this book. Ní Dhomhnaill's merfolkian epic--part two of the collection--is the alternate reality of a woman trying to "take it all in." The frantic fabulating, with its deadpan exaggerations, suggests a desperate wish-fulfillment. Like The Decameron, The Fifty Minute Mermaid explores the way our lives are constructed of fictions--fictions that both shelter us from painful facts and allow us to face up to them. It is a tale told in crisis, and a must-read.

Carmine Starnino's newest book of poems, This Way Out, is forthcoming from Gaspereau Press in spring 2009. This article first appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2009 by Carmine Starnino. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


German poet Durs Grünbein offers candid and chilling versions of history.

By Helen Vendler
Poetry Media Service

Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems, by Durs Grünbein. Translated by Michael Hofmann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16.00

Although some poems by Durs Grünbein had been published in journals here and in England, it was not until the appearance of this volume, crisply and colloquially translated by Michael Hofmann, that an English-speaking reader could approach Grünbein's coruscating writing. Grünbein was born in Dresden, in East Germany, in 1962, and moved to East Berlin as a young adult. "I was happy in a sandy no-man's land," the poet wrote in 1991, evoking his student life in the East by casting himself, in his devastatingly ironic sonnet sequence "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog (Not Collie)," as a patrol dog "in the suicide strip, equidistant from East and West." With the fall of the Wall in 1989, with even the "two or three names for the place of separation" vanishing into oblivion, "nothing is left to recall the trick/By which a strip of land became a hole in time."

"Being a dog," says a defining poem early in "Portrait of the Artist," "is having to when you don't want to, wanting to/When you can't, and always somebody watching." The frustration of being restricted in will and placed under surveillance emerges in the iron grip of Grünbein's epigram. The young poet left the East as soon as possible, only to discover the vices and the disappointments of the West. Although he became permanently ill at ease with respect to place, he is supremely at home in language. There is hardly a page here that does not contain a real poem, out of Grünbein by Hofmann, a poem "real" enough--in emotion, in cadence, in imagination--to make a reader's hair stand on end.

The frequent criticism, by others, of Grünbein's bleakness is embedded in his "Memorandum":
Poets, so they tell us, are awkward customers
Not up to much. Even laughter has a keener, full-throated edge
When they're not around. They're not very amusing.
No, poets are not very amusing. The discontented demand by some readers that poetry should be "healing" or "uplifting" or "optimistic" or "humane" (or "accessible") re-affirms the truth of Eliot's observation that "human kind cannot bear very much reality." Yet it is, in fact, an optimistic act to write any poem at all: the act implies the trust that another mind will meet the poem half way, and an even deeper trust that language can become adequate to a human predicament.

There are even, for Grünbein, disheartening moments "when the books close ranks and it transpires they don't speak." Here the poet, speaking in the lyric first person, is the man of letters who looks for a sustaining word in the daily paper and finds none. The muse of history, Clio, will not reveal any significance in current events:
I have breakfasted on ashes, the black
Dust that comes off newspapers, from the freshly printed columns.
When a coup makes no stain, and a tornado sticks to half a page.
And it seemed to me as though the Fates licked their lips
When war broke out in the sports section, reflected in the falling Dow.
I have breakfasted on ashes. My daily bread.
And Clio, as ever, keeps mum.... There, just as I folded them up,
The rustling pages sent a shiver down my spine.
And yet Clio, for all her intermittent silence, is Grünbein's principal muse. He came to consciousness within the disastrous history of twentieth-century Germany and has had to re-imagine that history for himself, to meditate on the fire-bombed Dresden where he was born, and to judge the unified but invisibly divided Berlin where he now lives. It must give a shiver to citizens of Berlin to see their contemporary city-sites given sharp definition by Grünbein, with his perpetually simmering sense of an imperfectly buried past.

It is in the formidable 1994 eleven-poem Dresden sequence, "Europe after the Last Rains," that we see the most melancholy (and angry) Grünbein. He returns to the place of his youth, but it has disappeared. "Memory has no real estate no city / where you come home and you know where you are." Remembering the World War II firebombing of the city, Grünbein asks, "Is it the same city in the valley/as the pilot saw in its phosphorescent glory?"

Germany's earlier twentieth century, led by a Fuhrer and his followers, and populated by combatants, resisters, refugees, camp victims, children, "righteous Gentiles," and a host of subsidiary figures, has had its chronicles written and rewritten, just as the later twentieth century, with the Russian and American occupation, the Wall, the airlift, and the fall of East Germany, has had its own distinct forms of retrospection. One candid and chilling version of this history has been, and is being, told by Germany's poets. Durs Grü-nbein's account stands as an illumination and corrective to the more impersonal accounts of historians and scholars.

Helen Vendler is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article first appeared in The New Republic. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2009 by Helen Vendler. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


A recollection of poet Howard Nemerov.

By Eleanor Wilner
Poetry Media Service

A perennial problem with our poetry is that the journals, understandably, publish primarily the living, and some of our finest poets can easily get mislaid. A few of their poems may turn up in anthologies, but they disappear from the larger world of attention, something which creates at times the illusion that there are vanishingly few poets of the first water between the great Modernists and the poets now in circulation.

As I venture this return, a memory unfolds: the seventies, a college lounge, Howard Nemerov an avuncular guest poet chatting informally with students--I can't quite see him, there is a blur of light around him coming in from the sunlit windows of the past, but I can hear him talking: the subject was an argument he'd had with Allen Ginsberg, which had to do with how language finds its way, and in what shape, onto the page--the hyper-Whitmanian sprawl and spill of Ginsberg versus Nemerov's more measured, poised, and reticent lines. Nemerov recapitulated for the students an argument he'd had with Ginsberg, in which each had said with utter conviction of the other's prosody: "That's not how the mind works!"

Two bulls in one pasture--and plenty of grass for both (though Nemerov preferred alcohol). Truth be told, he was as great an enemy of convention, complacency, war, and prevailing consumer values as Ginsberg, and turns an elegant blank verse, a razor-edged irony, and metaphoric brilliance into weapons against "old violence petrifying where it stood." The brutal follies of US policy in the Vietnam war era (only outdone by those of the present regime) found their searing indictment in his mocking "Great Society" poems in The Blue Swallows (1967).

An enemy of every kind of vanity and pretension, both in his acerbic wit (describing a poet crossing Walt Whitman bridge: "Fame is the spur, he figured; given a Ford/Foundation Fellowship, he'd buy a Ford") and in the deeper currents of his meditative voice, his verse offers the kind of mastery that restores proportion by demanding self-forgetfulness. In "Maestria" (1960), long after history's worst has been done, its rationalizations rusted like old machinery:

There remains

A singular lucidity and sweetness, a way

Of relating the light and the shade,

The light spilling from fountains, the shade

Shaken among the leaves.

* * *


Rising sometimes from hatred and wrong,

The song sings itself out to the end,

And like a running stream which purifies itself

It leaves behind the mortality of its maker,

Who has the skill of his art, and a trembling hand.

This I was mad for as a young reader, when, as I now realize, I had scarcely begun to understand it. But it was the longing for art's particular kind of mastery--not to mention "lucidity and sweetness," even in shorter supply now than back then--a mastery that drives toward excellence, not reputation or rewards. A mastery based, paradoxically, as I was to learn, on relinquishment of will. It's there in his closing lines: the vast difference in scale between the song and "its maker," and the awe that the insignificant self experiences, imaged in that "trembling hand."

It is this lyrical self-effacement, combined with such discernment, that drew me to him--the transparency of a perceiving self not trying to get the world's attention, but using all his faculties in order to see and hear better the world speak of itself. As he says, ending his sixties poem, "The Blue Swallows":

O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind's eye lit the sun.

Of poetry, Nemerov wrote, its "tradition, ideally, has to do with reaching the beginning, so that, of many young poets who begin with literature, a few old ones may end up with nature." Which requires, of course, that art speak of its own vanishing. One of my favorite Nemerov poems, "Writing," which I wish I could quote in its entirety, likens writing to skaters,

scoring their white

records in ice. Being intelligible,

these winding ways with their audacities

and delicate hesitations, they become

miraculous, so intimately, out there

at the pen's point or brush's tip, do world

and spirit wed.

His lovely figure, grace recording its own passage on ice, is not unlike his own reserve, the measured movement of musing mind, one armored against its own depths. But an imaginative mind is one in dialogue with its contradictions, so the counterforces appear in the poem and finally overwhelm the figure, as if to reprove its elegance and the writer's impertinent play for permanence:

Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.

That those lines about the eventual obliteration of our writing should be themselves so memorable is one of the great charms of this poem, for, while I have forgotten so much over the years, these lines have stayed with me--poetry's enduring power inseparable from the poignant awareness of its, and our, mortality.

Eleanor Wilner's most recent books are The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (2004) and Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems (1998), both from Copper Canyon Press. This article first appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Howard Nemerov, and his poetry, at

© 2009 by Eleanor Wilner. All rights reserved.


Two new memoirs by poets Lavinia Greenlaw and Sarah Manguso.

by Carla Blumenkranz
Poetry Media Service

The Importance of Music to Girls, by Lavinia Greenlaw. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23.00

The Two Kinds of Decay, by Sarah Manguso. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22.00

Few writers are memoirists by profession, and it's hard to imagine what the qualifications might be. A compelling and even awful life history helps (Mary Karr), but it's not really necessary or a guarantee. Exceptional success in some other field (Barack Obama) also creates basic narrative interest, but a talent for politics, for example, doesn't always translate into a talent for meaningful reflection.

What does seem to distinguish many great memoirists, though, is an almost supernatural intuition with language: the ability to take recollections that have personal resonance and make them echo for readers in written sentences (Joan Didion, Jamaica Kincaid, and Elie Wiesel). In comparison with this gift, experience seems almost beside the point.

It's no surprise, then, that poets so often write memoirs, and that they take to the prose form so naturally. Karr is the blockbuster example of a contemporary poet-memoirist, but other young poets who have written in the form in recent years include Nick Flynn and Paisley Rekdal. Most recently, both Sarah Manguso and Lavinia Greenlaw have written memoirs that press on the boundary between poetry and prose and affectingly describe, in intentional fits and starts, the poets' tumultuous girlhoods.

Sarah Manguso was 20 when she was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), an obscure neurological disorder. Manguso describes what happened to her in about 80 discrete sections, each focused on one character or moment and none longer than two or three pages. The paragraphs, or perhaps stanzas, tend to be short and are separated by one-line breaks that function like intakes of breath. Manguso's writing is similar to poet Paisley Rekdal's in that, as one reviewer wrote of Rekdal's memoir The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, the writing is poetic "not in its dictions but in its elisions." Like Rekdal, Manguso tends to let the most significant moments in the text fall in the line breaks between thoughts.

At the same time, in what she chooses to describe, Manguso is strenuously precise. Most often, this is the facts of her illness and treatment, and how both physically felt. For example, when Manguso explains that she had a central line implanted into her chest, she writes that she would like the reader to know exactly how the cold blood infusions felt. She would like to invent a metaphor, she writes, but instead it seems most accurate to say that "it felt like liquid, thirty degrees colder than my body, being infused slowly but directly into my heart, for four hours."

Memoirs of sickness are common; what is remarkable about Manguso's is that it conveys more subtle developments. The years she describes as nothing were, as she slowly explains, not entirely empty. They were also the moment when an incessantly driven young adult had to pause, and so look around her, and start becoming a writer.

Lavinia Greenlaw was lucky enough not to suffer physical crises so early in life. Instead, her adolescence in Essex, England, in the late 1970s was characterized by intense but more benign influences. Her most formative experiences involved pop music, and she writes her memoir by describing her first encounters with it. Like Manguso's memoir, Greenlaw's The Importance of Music to Girls is written in short sections that often verge on poetry.

Greenlaw takes 56 of these sections to describe how she went from being a small girl who danced on top of her father's feet to the type of young mother who has an ex-boyfriend and a Public Image record with her on the day she takes her daughter home from the hospital. Greenlaw often casually plays with chronology, but at the same time she remains intensely aware of the contradictory and painful aspects of her adolescence. Greenlaw recalls being at a school dance where she "shrank and veered, and felt in any given situation that I was wrong--standing in the wrong place and making the wrong shapes, the wrong noise." The song for this is David Bowie's "Laughing Gnome," and it echoes how Greenlaw adapted to her new surroundings. "I looked around, took note, and changed. I was a small person in a small place. I developed a small voice and a small laugh ha ha ha, hee hee hee." Here and elsewhere, Greenlaw uses music not only to situate her young adulthood but also to convey exactly how it felt.

Greenlaw studied the charts, got a transistor radio, and acquired her first tastes from listening to John Peel. The sounds she heard acted upon her as though she were "a cloud struck by lightning," and these were not only music but also the church bells in the village, the singsong and interruptions of dinner conversations, siblings' arguments, and the murmur of her parents' medical language. It seems natural that Greenlaw's imagination also led her to poetry. The ping of the typewriter was everywhere, she writes, "the ratcheting revision of the carriage return."

In almost any memoir by a writer, there is a way that, by the end of the story, the author seems to have found his or her calling. The process of becoming a writer isn't treated directly in Greenlaw or Manguso's memoir, but it is constantly present in the example they set with their language and in their shared emphasis on growing powers of attention. Their young lives have so little in common except, it turns out, the powers they apply to them in retrospect.

Carla Blumenkranz has written for Bookforum, n+1, and The Village Voice. This article first appeared on Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2009 by Carla Blumenkranz. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 04, 2009


After early success, Robert Lowell strove for a new style--and revolutionized American letters.

By Adam Kirsch
Poetry Media Service

Even before Robert Lowell published Life Studies, his masterpiece, in 1959, he was widely regarded as the best American poet of his generation. In his debut volume, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lord Weary's Castle (1946), his combination of relentless rhythmic force and apocalyptic moral vision had issued in poems worthy of comparison with Milton, such as "The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket":

When the whale's viscera go and the roll
Of its corruption overruns this world
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Woods Hole
And Martha's Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat?
In the great ashpit of Jehoshaphat
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears ...

The book is in every sense a virtuoso performance; even today, its ferocity is mesmerizing. Yet after Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell found himself increasingly unsatisfied with the style he had forged. The very strengths of Lowell's early style--its elevation, density, rigor, and symbolism--prevented him from writing about ordinary subjects and everyday life. "It's hell finding a new style," he complained, "or rather finding that your old style won't say any of the things that you want to."

What Lowell discovered, in the mid-1950s, was what all the great poets of his generation --Berryman, Bishop, Roethke--eventually had to confront: the limitations of poetic modernism. The modernists had triumphed through what T.S. Eliot called "impersonality," a rigorous separation of the language of art from the language of everyday life. The man that suffers, Eliot proclaimed, was entirely separate from the mind that creates.

It was a revolutionary moment in American poetry, then, when Lowell began to question all these modernist dicta, and stripped off the "armor" of impersonality. Under the influence of psychoanalysis, he began to think about his early childhood, trying to locate the sources of his increasingly serious manic depression. In the midst of all this poetic and psychological ferment, Lowell's writer's block began to thaw. But the poems he was writing now were unlike anything he had produced before. When he showed them to
Allen Tate, once his most important father figure, the older poet was horrified: "All the poems about your family . . . are definitely bad," he wrote Lowell. "I do not think you ought to publish them . . . ."

But in 1959, when those poems appeared as the heart of Life Studies, readers did not share Tate's qualms. On the contrary, Lowell's first book in eight years not only confirmed his place at the head of his poetic generation, it made him one of the most influential poets--one of the most influential writers--of the 20th century in America. And it was exactly the things that Tate the modernist objected to--the intimacy, the autobiographical detail, the conversational tone--that made Life Studies a triumph.

The first line of the first poem in the Life Studies group, "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow," reads: "I won't go with you! I want to stay with Grandpa!" It is a child's guileless cry, which could never have been accommodated in the style of Lord Weary's Castle. But it is also a hint of the defiance to come. For it is the poet's own voice we are hearing, and his preference for his grandfather over his parents is a symptom of domestic misery.

The nature of that misery is made clear in poems such as "Commander Lowell," an acid character study of the poet's weak-willed, unworldly father. Lowell senior earns his wife's and his son's contempt: "Cheerful and cowed / among the seadogs at the Sunday yacht club, / he was never one of the crowd." This portrait is elaborated in successive poems such as "Father's Bedroom," in which Lowell allows us to deduce a whole thwarted biography from a collection of objects.

But the satire and bitter nostalgia of the sequence takes an abrupt turn in "Sailing Home from Rapallo," where we see Lowell, now an adult, escorting his mother's coffin back to America: "The corpse / was wrapped like panetone in Italian tinfoil." This trauma seems to provoke the harrowing mental collapse dramatized in "Waking in the Blue," perhaps the most famous poem in the book. Set in a psychiatric hospital populated by Brahmin psychotics, it transposes the apocalyptic New England vision of Lord Weary's Castle into a desperately realistic key:

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

The ominous last line, which leaves the threat of suicide to echo in the silence, shows how much of the power of Life Studies is owed to indirection and implication. Equally important is the unmistakably Lowellian music of the verse--not the overpowering music of "Quaker Graveyard," now, but a subtler, suppler richness.

It is especially necessary to dwell on the artistry of Life Studies now that an artless literature of trauma and recovery has become so popular. The critic M.L. Rosenthal, in a review of Life Studies, coined the phrase "confessional poetry," and for the next several decades, confession became the standard idiom of American poets. Just as Marx was not a Marxist, so Lowell was not really a confessional poet, and Rosenthal's metaphor conceals more than it discloses about Life Studies. In the confession booth, all that matters is honesty and sincerity. In a poem, even the most heartfelt recital remains inert if it is not brought to life with cunning artistry. And nothing could be more artful than the way Lowell, in his masterpiece, turns the pain and risk of his own life into the catharsis and consolation of great poetry.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article originally appeared in The New York Sun. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Robert Lowell, and his poetry, at

© 2008 by Adam Kirsch. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


Three newly discovered poems by Langston Hughes have their first known publication in the January 2009 issue of Poetry magazine.

By Arnold Rampersad
Poetry Media Service

Langston Hughes wrote these simple poems* in 1930, as the Great Depression loomed in America. By the end of 1933, in the depths of the crisis, he had composed some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American. These pieces include "Good Morning Revolution" and "Columbia," but above all, "Goodbye Christ." Here the speaker of the poem ridicules the legend of Jesus in favor of the radical reality of Marx, Lenin, "worker," "peasant," "me." Around 1940, under severe pressure from conservatives, Hughes repudiated "Goodbye Christ" as an unfortunate error of his youth. However, in 1953 he was again forced to condemn this poem when he appeared, by subpoena, before Senator Joseph McCarthy's infamous subcommittee probing allegedly "un-American" activities by some of our leading scholars, scientists, and artists.

At his core, Hughes was a lyric poet entranced by the charms and mysteries of nature. Nevertheless, political protest was a key aspect of his writing virtually from his high-school days, when many of his classmates were the children of Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Europe who taught him the importance of protesting against injustice. A stirring voyage to colonial Africa in 1923, when he was barely twenty-one, only intensified his commitment to protest art.

These discoveries are minor poems, but reflect some of his abiding concerns and images.
The second poem, which begins "I look at the world," is cut from Hughes's radical poetic cloth. Again one hears echoes of some of his better-known poems. The words "And this is what I see" followed, as in a sermon-like refrain, by "And this is what I know" is a familiar rhetorical device in his work. Familiar, too, are the conceits of narrow assigned spaces that almost suffocate blacks, "silly" walls that pen them in, and, both ominously and beautifully, "dark eyes in a dark face."

The brevity of these poems conserves their power and, in doing so, prevents them from becoming boring. Again, they are simple-- but we must remember that Hughes lived as an artist by the idea that simplicity at its best is or can be complex. Surely these three poems do not widely expand our knowledge of Hughes or his art. However, they remind us poignantly, in their lancing grace, of the qualities that made him the poet laureate of his people and an American master. Hughes saw such poems both as "mere" propaganda and also as necessary acts of the committed poet. As a black writer facing racism on a daily basis, he had a remarkably precise sense of scale, as well as an inspired knowledge of the words and rhythms of speech that would best convey his messages to blacks and whites alike. The truth is that we cannot have too many poems by Langston Hughes, no matter how modest they seem to be on the surface.

*These poems were written in pencil on the endpapers of Langston Hughes's edition of An Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry (Active Press, 1929). They were discovered by Penny Welbourne, a rare book cataloger at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, where the Hughes Papers are housed. Please visit to see a facsimile slideshow of the original.

I look at the world

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face--
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face--
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind--
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that's in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

Arnold Rampersad is the author of the two-volume The Life of Langston Hughes and editor of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. This article first appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Langston Hughes, and his poetry, at

© 2009 by Arnold Rampersad. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 02, 2009


A close look at Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Moose" shows why it took her twenty years to write it.

By Toby Eckert
Poetry Media Service

Elizabeth Bishop claimed that it took her around 20 years to finish her poem "The Moose." Even for a poet as methodical as Bishop, that seems like an unusually long time. Taking up a theme she explored in poems such as "The Fish" and "The Armadillo," "The Moose" meditates on the transcendent power of nature, and its often startling intrusion into our modern lives. The poem also maps the terrain of Nova Scotia, where the young Bishop was taken to live with her maternal grandparents after being effectively orphaned by her father's early death and her mother's institutionalization for mental illness. (The poem is dedicated to Grace Bulmer Bowers, one of her aunts and surrogate mothers.) "The Moose" opens on a lyrical note, describing the landscape and towns along the Nova Scotian coast:
From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

The phrase "narrow provinces" in the first line not only establishes a geographical anchor but also serves as a commentary on the provincial lives of the inhabitants. The local diet "of fish and bread and tea," with its repetitive syntax and tight, iambic cadence, invokes a simple, somewhat monotonous existence. Life's rhythm is reflected in the predictable rise and fall of water, "the long tides / where the bay leaves the sea / twice a day . . . ," which also manifests itself in the consistent rhyme scheme that evokes the sound of the ebbing and surging ocean.

Despite the poem's travel theme, Bishop is clearly in no hurry to get anywhere in particular. Not until the fifth stanza does the opening phrase, "From narrow provinces," find its verb. Only then does the narrative that propels the rest of the poem truly begin:
a bus journeys west,
the windshield flashing pink,
pink glancing off of metal,
brushing the dented flank
of blue, beat-up enamel;

The effect is unsettling, as Bishop suddenly introduces an ungainly metal machine into what heretofore had been a bucolic scene. From that point on, the reader is conscious of being separated from the landscape, moving through it in an artificial environment in which the outside world flits by the bus windows like scenes in a film: a woman shaking out a tablecloth after dinner, a ship's lantern shining red off the coast, a rubber-booted pedestrian. As the bus picks up speed, the lines do too. It is full night as the bus enters the woods of New Brunswick. Here, another significant turn occurs, with the landscape becoming
hairy, scratchy, splintery;
moonlight and mist
caught in them like lamb's wool
on bushes in a pasture.

It is wilder than the more human-inhabited world of the previous stanzas. The woods have a clinging, dense, claustrophobic feel. The atmosphere of menace outside the bus contrasts sharply with the one inside, where it is cozy and safe:
The passengers lie back.
Snores. Some long sighs.
A dreamy divagation
begins in the night,
a gentle, auditory,
slow hallucination. . . .

The narrator herself starts to drift off, and Bishop's syntax becomes incantatory and hypnotic. But the reverie comes to an abrupt end with the appearance of the poem's titular character:
--Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.

A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.

The domestic dream is punctured, as something huge and wild intrudes. Someone assures the passengers that the animal is "'Perfectly harmless. . . .'"--a sentiment Bishop undermines, or at least questions, by setting off the phrase with quotes and ellipses.
Some of the passengers
exclaim in whispers,
childishly, softly,
"Sure are big creatures."
"It's awful plain."
"Look! It's a she!"

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly. . . .

The driver's observation that moose are "'Curious creatures'" could as easily be applied to the passengers. The poet, even as she shares some of the giddy excitement, questions the emotions stirred up by the animal:
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

The answer is never given. For Bishop, it seems to lie in the curious power of nature to transform a rather ordinary moment into a transcendent one. The creature's sudden appearance reminds these "civilized" humans of that other world they are simultaneously surrounded by and alienated from. The poet is reluctant to leave the scene, craning backward to see the moose "on the moonlit macadam." As the bus moves on, Bishop invokes the scents used to mark territory--the primeval and the mechanical:
Then there's a dim
smell of moose, an acrid
smell of gasoline.

The moment has passed. But for Bishop, those dim and acrid smells lingered powerfully enough to compel the exacting commitment of the memory to paper, even two decades later.

Toby Eckert is an editor and writer who lives in Alexandria, VA. This article first appeared on Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Elizabeth Bishop, and her poetry, at

© 2008 by Toby Eckert. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


A review of Davis McCombs's recent poetry collection.

By Jason Guriel
Poetry Media Service

Dismal Rock, by Davis McCombs. Tupelo Press. $16.95.

Younger poets still making a name for themselves, like Davis McCombs, know that they must be clear and compelling and not take up too much of our time--"for time," as August Kleinzahler smartly reminds us in a recent talk, "has vanished with inflated rents and the blitzkrieg of what's cheerfully called information, information to be attended to, and I'm talking right now." McCombs gets this and--in the first section of Dismal Rock, a sequence on tobacco farming--gets down to business, describing a world with the rigor of an anthropologist in the field:

The people are talking about budworms; they are talking
about aphids and thrips. Under the bluff at Dismal Rock,
there where the spillway foams and simmers,
they are fishing and talking about pounds and allotments;
they are saying white burley, lugs and cutters.
Old men are whittling sticks with their pocketknives
and they are saying Paris Green; they speak of topping
and side-dressing; they are whistling and talking
about setters, plant beds and stripping rooms.

In these lines, from "Lexicon," McCombs's speaker, a good listener, has catalogued his environment's recurring sounds--the "u" in "bluff ," "lugs," and "cutters"; the "w" in "white," "whittling," and "whistling"--and organized them into a brief, cohesive sound loop that captures the aural energy of a rural landscape. Dismal Rock reassures us that words, when used well, can work. They can record the world and, at their best, transform it, as McCombs's do when they describe a bat "crossing / the water on the boat of its reflection," or how "a bulb of gnats flickers on / above the damp leaves."

But while words can be made to work, they can also become workmanlike. And while much of the poetry in Dismal Rock is precise, much of it is also unmemorable nature poetry, opting for the obvious over the transformative:
each moment flaring up

like a match, consuming itself.

--From "Gnomon"

this is the river's

whorled thumbprint, the water's surface dark as ink.

--From "The Tobacco Economy"

the storm that, far beyond him, was purpling

like a bruise.

--From "Hobart"

when the storm spread

like a bruise along the coast.

--From "Bob Marley"

This is the sort of poetry in which things "unspool" (see "Salts Cave Revisited" and "Northtown Well"), in which stuff is compared to "ash" (see "The Tobacco Economy" and "Stripping Room")--poetry, in other words, that's teetering on the cliche of our era's cliches.

McCombs, a Yale Younger Poet, is capable of some fine moments--but then who isn't in an era that valorizes the bite-sized fragment over the fully realized narrative, the poetry over the poem? Instead of working through the implications of a neat idea--that bat "crossing / the water on the boat of its reflection," for example--McCombs merely moves onto the next idea--"it is squeaking / like a rusted hinge"--which is far less startling. The poems in Dismal Rock, then, are less poems than lists of description that never quite cohere into the self-contained pieces that need every one of their words. Like worms and double albums, they can be sectioned and still survive.

Jason Guriel lives in Toronto, and his next collection of poems is forthcoming from Vehicule Press in 2009. This article originally appeared in Poetry magazine. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2008 by Jason Guriel. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Even the avant-garde couldn't resist Helen Adam's ballads.

By Ange Mlinko
Poetry Media Service

A Helen Adam Reader, ed. by Kristen Prevallet. National Poetry Foundation. $29.95.

The publication of A Helen Adam Reader is of historical interest, feminist interest--and poetic interest. Born in Peeblesshire, Scotland, in 1909, Adam was a teenage poet whose Victorian fairy ballads captivated the British public and earned the praise of the Queen of England. Reviewers lauded her "perfect ear" and "delicate imagination." But this fame vanished into the past in 1939 when Adam, who lived with her mother and sister until their deaths, immigrated to the United States virtually by accident. The three women had traveled from London to Hartford, Connecticut, for a wedding; two months later World War II broke out, and relatives warned them against returning to a city of blackouts and rations.

The watershed moment of Adam's creative life came in the late 1940s, when her mother's health problems prompted a move west, first to Reno and then to San Francisco. In the Bay Area, Adam quickly found herself a member--some said godmother, witch or Nurse of Enchantment--of the interlocking Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer poetry circles, which, with the Beats, formed the avant-garde San Francisco Renaissance.

Adam wrote to raise gooseflesh. Her brand of ballad derived from the northern regions of Scotland, where minstrels evoked the grue (whence our "gruesome"). The grue manifests itself physiologically in the audience's shiver: the authenticity of a bodily response is the outward sign of the performer's otherworldly power. Helen Adam had, as they say, "it," as in these lines from "Kiltory":

"Come hither, my lady, lie doun wi' your dear.
A rival sae braw I ha' reason tae fear.
Come lie wi' your true love for ten starry nights.
I'll grudge ye nae hour o' your stolen delights."

Tae the dead man he flung her. He nailed up the door.
"Kiltory, I wish ye the joy o' your whore!"
Awa in the woodlands the wild throstles cried,
And the waters ran red on the brant mountain-side.

Adam combined the narrative economy of ballads--where each line is a discrete unit of information--with the lush sonic tapestry we associate with older Anglo-Saxon and Celtic strains of British verse. It's not just in the way she wields the Lallans dialect (those wi's and ha's, sae's and braw's), trimming consonants to highlight the more musical vowels. To see her sing her ballads--she chants "Kiltory" on the Reader's accompanying DVD--is to appreciate how the language, trilling and seething by turns, possessed its acolyte. Adam gets so lost in it, she dances a jig to her own bloodthirsty tale.

When Helen Adam landed in Robert Duncan's class at the Poetry Center in 1954, the effect was literally electrifying--classmates recalled a thunderstorm erupting at the moment Adam chanted William Blake's "Introduction to the Songs of Experience" from memory for him. Adam also cast a spell over austere, uncompromising Jack Spicer. This conjunction was even stranger, on the surface: Spicer worshiped virile boys, Billy the Kid, Federico Garcia Lorca. Spicer was struck by Adam's rejection of the folky and fey, her chthonic appeal to the grue. No hippie she, in these lines from "I Love My Love":

There was a man who married a maid. She laughed as he led her home.
The living fleece of her long bright hair she combed with a golden comb.
He led her home through his barley fields where the saffron poppies grew.
She combed, and whispered, "I love my love." Her voice like a plaintive coo.
Ha! Ha!
Her voice like a plaintive coo.

How different the ballad's "Ha! Ha!" from the Romantic odist's "O!" (Think of Shelley: "O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being.") The note of mockery imbedded in the nuptial scene is but a foreshadowing of horror: in the climactic stanza "The hair rushed in.... It swarmed upon him, it swaddled him fast, it muffled his every groan":

Like a golden monster it seized his flesh, and then it sought the bone,
Ha! Ha!
And then it sought the bone.

What Duncan's and Spicer's enthusiasm had in common was the belief that Helen Adam was the real thing--a link to an authentic past and authentic power. In an interview, Adam admitted, "One critic called me a pre-Christian poet, which I think is nice...most of my poems are about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

The avant-garde needed Adam not only because she was Romantic, authentic and transgressive. They needed her example to unite their own fractured poetics, their own wounded demos. Despite herself, Helen Adam showed them how to be one again; she exerted authority, and they recognized it. From "Counting Out Rhyme":

Then cam' the unicorn, brichter than the mune,
Prancing frae the wave wi' his braw crystal croon.

Up the crisp and shelly strand he trotted unafraid.
Agin' the lanesome lassie's knee his comely head he laid.

Upon the youngest sister's lap he leaned his royal head.
She stabbed him tae the hert, and Oh! how eagerly he bled!

Now we can read Adam's poems for ourselves and judge whether Duncan was right that "what was important was not the accomplishment of the poem but the wonder of the world of the poem itself." She may not have invented a new form, but she did create a world.

Ange Mlinko's poems and articles have appeared in the Village Voice, The Nation and Poetry. Her latest book of poems is Starred Wire. This article first appeared in The Nation. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at

© 2008 by Ange Mlinko. All rights reserved.