Category: Poetry

Post Identity

Carmen Giménez Smith for LitHub
CARMEN GIMÉNEZ SMITH

Excerpt from a new poem by Carmen Giménez Smith on LitHub.

am I reclaiming separatist
or redefining epithets
fiction fable or fact
a shift or a sharing
who leads this tango
the thief or the judge
the huckster or the king
can I trust the momentum
or is it pure performance
will I be claimant or
defendant there
plough or oxen
is this like any other insistent
duality are we going to get
ahistorical because of
the thing with the thing
covered up with things
quashed and censored
unnameable inexpressible
untame hard to pronounce
things better left in the past
sounds like shrimperial
I could just leave the grid
leave it behind me
for some tentative exile
but what island might
I become where would
my allegiance be
and how would I construct
reasonable interventions
into culture or where might
I occupy where might I find
the suitable therefore inferior
slot meant for this labor
and could I live there
interminably and how
civil would I have
to perform like arboretum
or like the city public statue
of a settler or like skate park
or sanitarium or fallow field
with a pile of burning tires
and then how would you define
what I was or if I was
what you had hoped true
erotically or temperamentally
therefore intrinisically
how should I transfigure
and where should I locate
the self because it’s loose
and hot and deranged
it’s hot and ill-tempered

(…)

With Love and Love and Rage and Love

Stephanie Anderson for Guernica
america-800x450

Stephanie Anderson’s poem in Guernica:

Wednesday we discover several things.
First that some consider memory
to be a lilting luxury. But it’s science she says

and reading is the most beautiful
posture. I agree, I can’t explain, I throw it up.

We use several because singularity sounds
like woe. How can they not believe in science

out the window white water. Lyric sounds
like pretty nation but we’re going to spit it up.

Why do I leave furrows in all these texts dragging
my bad memory beside. We’ll show these men
our lyric. It’s not modesty it hurts she says

what they forget. Lyric is supposed to
hurt he said while I choked it up.

All these minutes of questionable consent.
When I spoke he said how unfair.

They sang of sweets as the girl starved.
It’s not a simile it’s a scene it’s not an allegory

it’s an event. On the map, great gasps
of land are already gone. When we sleep
we are heaving about power.

I Used to Go for Long Walks in the Evenings

Stephen Sexton writes for Granta

Stephen Sexton’s poem in Granta 135: New Irish Writing

My celebrity accumulated like a kidney stone:
children, pets, even some corvids recognised me
so it was time for my appointment at the wax museum.
I was to be measured and charted with lasers and calipers,
from the depth of my philtrum to the balls of my feet.
Finally, the fellow admired The ears like little queries,
he said, What do you think about that!
Just then the Director of the museum, a man
with no more scruples than a cat o’ nine tails has pulses,
entered to inspect his investment.
Very expensive, he grumbled, footfall, overheads,
gallons of Japanese beeswax, apiarists’ strike in Osaka
and I passed the time naming the counties of Ireland.

When it was December, I came in to view
my likeness the night before its exhibition.
There was a little party. Because I loved myself
I had plenty of wine and made my acquaintance.
Every detail was present: itchy Velcro hooks of stubble,
pink threads of blood vessels in the sclera.
I had the sensation of looking in a mirror about a year ago.
After an hour or so I pretended to quarrel with myself
and the long and short of it is that the model went over
and broke off at the waist. It was accidental.
The Director exploded like a good break in a great game of pool.
I’d be arrested, prosecuted, fined, executed unless
we came to some sort of arrangement. I had no choice.
It hasn’t been easy learning to stand perfectly still
but from 10 until 6 each day, I do in the East Wing.
The days are long but the evenings are mine.
This is why my eyes are so glassy, this is why my legs are so sore.

You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday

Michael Robbins writing for the Paris Review

Michael Robbins’ poem in the Spring 2017 issue of the Paris Review:

You haven’t texted
since Saturday,
when I read Keith Waldrop’s
translation of Les Fleurs du mal
on a bench by whatever
that tower is on the hill
in Fort Greene Park
until you walked up
late as always and I do
mean always
in your dad’s army jacket
and said “Hi, buddy”
in a tone that told me
all I needed to know,
although protocol dictated
that you should sit next to me 
and spell it out
and we should hold each other
and cry and then pretend
everything was fine, would
be fine, was someday
before the final
trumpet, before heat death,
zero point, big rip
sure to be absolutely
perfectly completely
probably fine. And 
though it wasn’t and 
wouldn’t be, 
I walked you to the G
then rode the C
to Jay Street–MetroTech.
Just now I took a break from 
this retrospect
to smoke one of the Camels
in the sky-blue box marked
IL FUMO UCCIDE
you brought me from Italy
and page through a book
on contemporary physics.
“Something must be
very wrong,” it said,
and I agreed,
although it turned out
the author meant that “no theory
of physics should produce
infinities with impunity.”
I’d point out that every theory
of the heart
produces infinities
with impunity
if I were the kind of jerk
who uses the heart
to mean the human
tendency to make
others suffer
just because we
hate to suffer
alone. I’m sorry
I brought a fitted sheet
to the beach. I’m sorry 
I’m selfish and determined
to make the worst
of everything. I’m
sorry language is a ship 
that goes down
while you’re building it.
The Hesychasts of Byzantium
stripped their prayers
of words. It’s been tried
with poems too. But insofar
as I am a disappointment 
to myself and others, it seems fitting
to set up shop in almost 
and not quite and that’s not 
what I meant. I draw the line at the heart,
though, with its
infinities. And I have to say 
I am not a big fan 
of being sad. Some people 
can pull it off. When 
we hiked Overlook, you
went on ahead to the summit
while I sat on a rock
reading Thomas Bernhard. 
I’d just made it to the ruins 
of the old hotel
when you came jogging back down
in your sports bra
saying I had to come see the view.
But my allergies were bad
and I was thirsty,
so we headed down the gravelly trail,
pleased by the occasional
advent of a jittery
chipmunk. You showed me pictures
on your phone of the fire 
tower, the nineteenth-
century graffiti carved
into the rock, and the long
unfolded valley
of the Hudson. At the bottom, 
the Buddhists let us
fill our water bottles
from their drinking fountain.
We called a cab and sat
along the roadside
watching prayer flags
rush in the wind. I said the wind
carried the prayers
inscribed on the flags
to the gods, but Wikipedia
informs me now that 
the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread good will and compassion into all pervading space. 
So I was wrong, again,
about the gods. Wherever
you are, I hope you stand
still now and then
and let the prayers
wash over you like the breakers
at Fort Tilden that day
the huge gray gothic 
clouds massed and threatened to drop
a storm on our heads
but didn’t.

Burns night: the battle over Scottish identity continues

Annalena McAfee writing for the Guardian
rose street poets

In 1950s and 60s Edinburgh, the Rose Street poets led a Scottish renaissance that kindled today’s independence movement. Language remains at the heart of the debate today. Annalena McAfee writes for the Guardian:

Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden wrote. It does, however, provide an excellent excuse for a late-January bacchanal. The annual Burns Night supper, marking the birth of Scotland’s national poet, reprises the excesses of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, with a ritualistic meal, strong drink and verse recitations standing in for carols.

Accessorised in tartan, in pubs, clubs and private homes throughout the UK, revellers raise glasses to the immortal memory, musically recall Auld Lang Syne and, in robust rhyming Scots vernacular, praise haggis then spear, eviscerate and serve it. The rite, with optional ceilidh dancing, is observed from Abu Dhabi to Hawaii, Singapore to Moscow, as well the more obviously diasporic regions of Canada, New Zealand and America (although haggis is currently banned in the Land of the Free).

Some native Scots, however, are sceptical about the tradition, and Scottish scepticism, forged in the birthplace of David Hume, has a particularly abrasive quality. One of the most high-profile dissenters from Burnsian orthodoxy was Scotland’s other national poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, who, in 1926, in his most celebrated poem, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, wrote of the Ayrshire bard: “Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name/ Than in ony’s barrin liberty and Christ.” MacDiarmid attacked the Burns cult for its reactionary kitsch and “kailyard” sentimentality: “You canna gang to a Burns supper even/ Wi-oot some wizened scrunt o a knock-knee/ Chinee turns roon to say, ‘Him Haggis – velly goot!’ /And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.”

Burns had his “shortcomings” – MacDiarmid, perversely, singled out “a tendency to jeer at foreign things and express a sort of xenophobia”. But it was the “church of Burns”, not the poet himself, who earned MacDiarmid’s true ire: “Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts/ And aa their fancy freens rejoicin/ That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo/ Bagdad – and Hell, nae doot – are voicin/ Burns’ sentiments o universal love,/ In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots”. The devotees didn’t even understand his language, argued MacDiarmid: “No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote.”

The same could, of course, be said about MacDiarmid’s own Scots verse, but for this fierce contrarian, who never claimed the easy charm of his predecessor, accessibility or popularity was not the aim. If the English were baffled by his Scots poetry, so much the better. This was an unsurprising stance from someone who, in his Who’s Who entry, described his hobby as “Anglophobia”. MacDiarmid took pride in contradiction – “Caledonian antisyzygy” he called it – and had the unique distinction of being expelled from the National Party of Scotland, forerunner of the SNP, for being a communist and from the Communist party for being a nationalist. In 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, when thousands of British communists left the CP in protest, MacDiarmid rushed to rejoin the party.

(…)

Say Something Back by Denise Riley

Kate Kellaway on Denise Riley's latest collection
denise riley

Kate Kellaway explaining in the Guardian why Denise Riley’s poetry is ‘deeply necessary’: 

It sometimes seems that contemporary poetry divides into two sorts – those poems that did not need to be written and those written out of necessity. Denise Riley belongs to the second category – her writing is perfectly weighted, justifies its existence. It is impossible not to want to “say something back” to each of her poems in recognition of their outstanding quality. Her voice is strong and beautiful – an imperative in itself. But her subject is not strength – it is more that she is robust about frailty. She describes in A Part Song, the most important of her poems, the death of her adult son, Jacob – to whom, along with his sisters, the volume is dedicated.

Maybe; maybe not starts the collection on a wing and prayer – in which Riley refashions the biblical with a new take on Corinthians – I love her line about putting away “plain things for lustrous”. Although written with certainty, it is a poem about doubt, and leads naturally to A Part Song, which follows it. Here she begins by doubting song itself: “You principle of song, what are you for now.” And in song, it is the plain, not the lustrous, she craves. She dismisses the conventional lyrical solace of elegy. “I can’t get sold on reincarnating you/ As those bloody ‘gentle showers of rain’/ Or in ‘fields of ripening grain’ – ooh/ Anodyne.” Instead she wishes her son’s “lighthearted presence, be bodied forth/ Straightforwardly”.

It is a poem of several tones – but never hushed, reverent or docile. This is part of its originality. At one point, she startles with a mum’s scolding tone – painful to read – as she urges her son to be alive almost as you might tell a teenager he has had one sleepover too many and urge him to come home (death the never-over sleepover). And she complains: “But by now/ We’re bored with our unproductive love,/ And infinitely more bored by your staying dead/ Which can hardly interest you much either.”

(…)

Say Something Back is published by Picador (£9.99).

The Hatred of Poetry

by Ben Lerner
Fitz.cover_Ben-Lerner

Today is the publication day of the fifteenth book from Fitzcarraldo Editions: Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry. Buy the book from our website and read the first few pages of this essay below.

In ninth grade English, Mrs. X required us to memorize and recite a poem, so I went and asked the Topeka High librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew, and she suggested Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” which, in the 1967 version, reads in its entirety:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I remember thinking my classmates were suckers for having mainly memorized Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet, whereas I had only to recite twenty-four words. Never mind the fact that a set rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter make fourteen of Shakespeare’s lines easier to memorize than Moore’s three, each one of which is interrupted by a conjunctive adverb—a parallelism of awkwardness that basically serves as its form. That, plus the four instances of “it,” makes Moore sound like a priest begrudgingly admitting that sex has its function while trying to avoid using the word, an effect amplified by the deliberately clumsy enjambment of the second line and the third (“in / it”). In fact, “Poetry” is a very difficult poem to commit to memory, as I demonstrated by failing to get it right each of the three chances I was given by Mrs. X, who was looking down at the text, my classmates cracking up.

My contempt for the assignment was, after all, imperfect. Even now I routinely misquote the second sentence; I just Googled the poem and had to correct what I typed out above, but who could forget the first? I, too, dislike ithas been on repeat in my head since 1993; when I open a laptop to write or a book to read: I, too, dislike it echoes in my inner ear. When a poet is being introduced (including myself) at a reading, whatever else I hear, I hear: I, too, dislike it. When I teach, I basically hum it. When somebody tells me, as so many people have told me, that they don’t get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe that poetry is dead: I, too, dislike it. Sometimes this refrain has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.

“Poetry”: What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike, even encourages it? An art hated from without and within. What kind of art has as a condition of its possibility a perfect contempt? And then, even reading contemptuously, you don’t achieve the genuine. You can only clear a place for it—you still don’t encounter the actual poem, the genuine article. Every few years an essay appears in a mainstream periodical denouncing poetry or proclaiming its death, usually blaming existing poets for the relative marginalization of the art, and then the defenses light up the blogosphere before the culture, if we can call it a culture, turns its attention, if we can call it attention, back to the future. But why don’t we ask: What kind of art is defined—has been defined for millennia—by such a rhythm of denunciation and defense? Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is. I, too, dislike it, and have largely organized my life around it (albeit with far less discipline and skill than Marianne Moore) and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are for me—and maybe for you—inextricable.

[…]

‘Less is Moore’

James Longenbach on Marriane Moore for The Nation
marriane moore

Writing for The Nation, James Longenbach writes around Marriane Moore’s collected poems in various editions but most especially Observations, ‘one of the great verbal works of art of the 20th century’:

On February 29, 1988, John Ashbery gave a poetry reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. The room was packed. Coincidentally, the Folger had mounted “Marianne Moore: Vision Into Verse,” an exhibition including an array of clippings and photographs that Moore includes in her poems—most prominently in “An Octopus,” the longest poem in her 1924 volume Observations. Speaking from the podium, Ashbery called “An Octopus” the most important poem of the 20th century; and while the remark provoked a few titters, he was reiterating a conviction that was neither novel nor idiosyncratic. “Despite the obvious grandeur of her chief competitors,” he’d written two decades earlier, in a 1967 review of Moore’s Complete Poems, “I am tempted simply to call her our greatest modern poet.”

By “chief competitors,” Ashbery meant the usual suspects—Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams—all of whom maintain a permanent claim on our attentions; with the notion that Moore belongs among this company, no 21st-century reader could plausibly disagree. Not only the freewheeling Ashbery but also the fastidious Richard Wilbur reveres her poems, and depending on how one approaches them, the poems themselves seem both freewheeling and fastidious. “She gives us,” said Ashbery, “the feeling that life is softly exploding around us, within easy reach.”

In a sense, this is true of any great poem, which will seem seductively unpredictable, a thrilling journey from first line to last, to the degree to which it is exquisitely constructed. No poet is more formally precise than Walt Whitman at his most expansive, no poet more wildly extravagant than Emily Dickinson at her most curtailed; freedom is not sloppiness, structure is not constriction. But perhaps more clearly than any poet of the 20th century, Moore allows us to see why this is the case. Hence her extraordinary usefulness for other poets, hence her lasting influence even on poets who do not sound like her, much less transform her discoveries into mannerisms.

Moore was born near St. Louis, Missouri, in 1887. Her parents separated before her birth, and subsequently her father, already institutionalized, severed his hand, taking literally the injunction of Matthew 5:30 (“If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off”). To her mother and her brother Warner, who became a Presbyterian minister, Moore remained fiercely, sometimes pathologically close. Though she attended Bryn Mawr College, became a suffragette, moved to a tiny Greenwich Village apartment in 1918, and edited the legendary magazine The Dial from 1925 until its demise in 1929 (an achievement that would ensure our interest in Moore even if she had written no poems), she lived with her mother until her mother’s death in 1947. It’s hard to imagine Marianne Moore sharing a bed with her mother while also composing her fiercely syntax-driven poems—poems in which domestic relations often seem pointedly nightmarish: “the spiked hand / that has affection for one / and proves it to the bone, / impatient to assure you / that impatience is the mark of independence / not of bondage.”

Moore began publishing these poems around 1915, and immediately they were noticed by the poets who became her peers—Pound, Eliot, Stevens, H.D., Williams—poets who would each write admiring essays about her work. Yet Moore remained mysterious. “Does your stuff ‘appear’ in America?” asked Pound after first encountering her poems in England. “Dear Mr. Pound,” replied Moore, “I do not appear.” In 1921, H.D. helped to arrange the appearance of a small collection, called Poems, but Moore was neither involved with the publication nor pleased with the results. She held out as long as she could, finally publishing her first book, Observations, with the Dial Press in 1924; a slightly revised second edition appeared the following year. Though Moore would continue to write superb poems throughout her long life (she died in 1972), she would never surpass the achievement of Observations, which is not merely a collection of discrete poems but a poetic omniverse of Whitmanian proportions.

Moore was a passionate reviser. Prior to being collected in Observations, her poems appeared in little magazines in sometimes drastically different versions, and she continued to revise them for decades to come. Reading a poem from the 1920s in her 1967 Complete Poems, often one is in fact reading a poem from 1935 or 1951; this conundrum was wildly exacerbated by the recent Poems, which reprints (in the words of the volume’s editor, Moore’s friend Grace Schulman) “versions [of the poems] that I liked.” In addition, because Moore’s various selected and collected editions rearrange and omit some of the poems of Observations, the design of this volume has largely been obscured. A facsimile edition appeared in 2002 (Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907–1924, meticulously edited by Robin Schulze), but it is only now that Moore’sObservations has finally been reprinted as a book that devoted readers might hold in their hands.

[…]

On Disliking Poetry

Ben Lerner in the LRB
Marriane Moore

An all too brief ‘Diary’ piece by Ben Lerner in the London Review of Books on the hatred of poetry:

In ninth grade English Mrs X required us to memorise and recite a poem and so I asked the Topeka High librarian to direct me to the shortest poem she knew and she suggested Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’, which, in the 1967 version, reads in its entirety:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect
..contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I remember thinking my classmates were suckers for having mainly memorised Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet whereas I had only to recite 24 words. Never mind the fact that a set rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter make 14 of Shakespeare’s lines easier to memorise than Moore’s three, each one of which is interrupted by a conjunctive adverb – a parallelism of awkwardness that basically serves as its form. That plus the four instances of ‘it’ makes Moore sound like a priest grudgingly admitting that sex has its function while trying to avoid using the word, an effect amplified by the awkward enjambment of the second line and the third (‘in/it’). In fact, ‘Poetry’ is a very difficult poem to commit to memory, as I demonstrated by failing to get it right on any of the three chances I was given by Mrs X, who was looking down at the text, my classmates cracking up.

My contempt for the assignment was, after all, imperfect. Even now I routinely misquote the second sentence, but who could forget the first? I, too, dislike it has been on repeat in my head since 1993; when I open a laptop to write or a book to read: I, too, dislike it echoes in my inner ear. When a poet (including me) is being introduced at a reading, whatever else I hear, I hear: I, too, dislike it. When I teach I basically hum it. When somebody tells me as so many people have told me that they don’t get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe poetry is dead because it is either hackneyed or obscure: I, too, dislike it. Sometimes this refrain has the feel of negative rumination and sometimes a kind of manic, mantric affirmation, as close as I get to unceasing prayer.

What if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are – every single one of them – failures? The poet and critic Allen Grossman tells a story (there are many versions of the story) that goes like this: you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure. There’s an ‘undecidable conflict’ between the poet’s desire to make an alternative world and, as Grossman puts it, ‘resistance to alternative making inherent in the materials of which any world must be composed’. Writing about Hart Crane, Grossman develops his notion of a ‘virtual poem’ – what we might call poetry with a capital ‘P’, the abstract potentiality of the medium as felt by the poet when called on to write – and opposes it to the ‘actual poem’, which necessarily betrays the originary impulse. Grossman says actual poems are foredoomed by a ‘bitter logic’ that can’t be overcome by any level of virtuosity.

The fatal problem with poetry: poems. This helps explain why poets themselves celebrate poets who renounce writing. At university in the 1990s the coolest young poets I knew were reading Rimbaud and Oppen – two very great and very different writers who had in common their abandonment of the art (though Oppen’s was only temporary). Rimbaud stops at twenty or so and starts running guns; Oppen is silent for 25 years while living in Mexico to escape FBI inquiries into his labour organising. Rimbaud is the enfant terrible who burns through the sayable; Oppen is the poet of the left whose quiet is a sign of commitment. ‘Because I am not silent,’ Oppen wrote in a poem, ‘the poems are bad.’

(…)

A Poem for Anselm Kiefer by George Szirtes

In RA Magazine
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From the Winter 2014 issue of RA Magazine, a poem by George Szirtes in response to Anselm Kiefer’s show:

Minimenta: Topography for Anselm Kiefer

The topography of ruins. One wave
of grass covers everything. I have seen
a woman bending over a stone.
Everything around her was green.

The desire is to leave everything alone.
The difficulty is knowing what to save.

I am a wreck, says one, but not
with his mouth. Where are his organs
of speech? They’ve been wrecked
by the huge wind that blows, now hot
now cold. Too late to protect
a body fraying at the margins.

The smallest things move me. The rain
as it shakes the leaf. The sound of laughter
in the street. I’m easy to please.
Give me fine particulars, he says,
the microfiction of pleasure. A train
passing. The silence after.

Somewhere within his chest
a crow was croaking. Somewhere not far
from him bodies were decomposing.
Everything in the world was for the best.
Outside leaves lifted. The sky was closing
round a tree on a distant star.

The terrain of grief does not grow any smaller.
The bush fires spread. The dead keep interrupting.
A crowd shouting in the park meets a crowd
shouting in the street. Shouting turns to shooting.
Turn off the film. The soundtrack is too loud.
We don’t need sound. We don’t need technicolour.

But here is colour: hands, eyes and lips,
magnified as if for real, then vanishing
into the sinkholes that punctuate
the landscape.
        I don’t say anything,
says the mouth. You are too late,
say the eyes, hands, and fingertips.

You build ruins we can live in.
You hide our bones in concrete.
The bomb shelter is inside the bomb.

Here is the car we arrive in.
Here is what remains of the street.
Here it all stops. Welcome home.

Fitz Carraldo Editions