Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A New Reading List

Been reading a bit more lately. Crashed through The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. (Somebody left it in the freebies pile in the lobby of our last apartment in Boston. Ah, Boston -- I miss its bookishness.) Also have been keeping up with this year's issues of Poetry magazine. My dad got me a couple collections of poetry for my birthday; have been enjoying those. And I keep coming back to my favorite anthology, Robert Pinsky's Singing School.

So: a new reading list. Anthologies and magazines are great for getting a cursory sense of a bunch of authors so you can gather a list of names to dig into. Here's mine in no particular order:

John Berryman
J.V. Cunningham
Jean Garrigue
May Swenson
Robert Duncan
William Meredith
Howard Nemerov
Edgar Bowers
W.D. Snodgrass
Galway Kinnell
Irving Feldman
Robert Pinsky
Sharon Olds
Kay Ryan
Henri Cole
Rae Armantrout
Max Ritvo
Mary Karr
Peter Cole
sam sax
Mary Oliver
Adam Zagajewski
Rolf Jacobsen
Valery Larbaud
Edward Field
Wang Wei
James Applewhite
Kenneth Rexroth
Tu Fu
Zbigniew Herbert
Raymond Carver
Linda Gregg
Constantine Cavafy
Rainer Maria Rilke
Anna Swir
James Tate
Wislawa Szymborska
Anna Kamienska
Stevie Smith
Thom Gunn

Here's that list on Goodreads.

I'm more inclined to start by digging into the lesser knowns -- less known to me at least. Maybe start with Stevie Smith? Or W.D. Snodgrass? I'm kind of fascinated by Max Ritvo. He and I were studying at Yale at the same time, and though I'm sure we never met before his death I'm also sure there's no way we didn't cross paths, maybe attended the same readings or lectures. I'm not certain what to do, but I'm excited to be beginning again.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Fame is a bee" by Emily Dickinson

Tried and failed: in short, my literary life. But many things that are finished endure, myself included.

When I was seventeen I played guitar in a band and after a show late at night walking back to my car I made a remark about wanting to be a famous guitarist and someone I respected made me feel guilty about wanting fame and I did feel guilty and I've felt guilty ever since. Never before but always after: guilt at desiring fame. But I've never stopped wanting it.
Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.

— Emily Dickinson, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation website
Only two verbs, "is" and "has", both of them elemental or rather elementary. The same sentence structure repeated four times with only a small interjection of "Ah, too," to break the litany. Of eighteen words only five carry any real imaginative weight: "Fame", "bee", "song", "sting", and "wing". Humble words stitched together with plain thread. None of the riddling or high-diction we find in Dickinson's more famous poems.

She's belittling fame while admiring it. She's giving it a body to make it graspable (Ouch!) but acknowledging that that body is independent of her own—it takes wing.

This poem couldn't have made Dickinson famous. If this poem alone of her many had survived she would have been considered at best a minor talent. From a certain point of view, it's a failure. She knew it. The poet writes another poem because the last one wasn't enough. Try and fail and try again and fail again. But what failures! Tried and failed: a literary life.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Further thoughts on "The Ticking Clock (1971)" by Campbell McGrath

Yesterday I read this poem by Campbell McGrath from the latest issue of The American Poetry Review. I really enjoyed it. It struck me that most contemporary poems I read focus so intently on everyday truths (or the kind of stuff that passes for everyday in poetry: the smell of a woodlot, the sound of chickens roosting at the edge of the yard) that it was unusual to read a poem that took a broad view of history. More than that: took a broad view of history by focusing on its Key Players and Big Names. McGrath name drops again and again and again, leaning more toward the bathetic ("Snoop Dogg is born") than the pathetic ("Mohammed Atta is three years old"). We're far from the intimate lyric voice.

It's the sort of thing one would read to friends of one's own generation. It elicits small laughter and small "ah" moments, and then it ends. It's a dinner piece. Its Sitz im Leben — setting in life — is a cocktail party.

Hmm.... It's kind of hard to imagine, actually. "Campbell, old boy, why don't you recite us one of your poems?"

Of course this doesn't happen anymore. The real Sitz im Leben of this poem—of any poem by an academic like McGrath—is the poetry reading. I'm no fan of poetry readings. Except in rare instances, they're dull and awkward and unsatisfying. Most writers of poetry are bad performers of poetry. It's a rare master who can read her poems as well as she writes them. Billy Collins, I've heard, is such a master. His reading voice and his writing voice are one. When he reads, he controls a room. Or so I've heard. I wonder how Campbell McGrath does in front of a crowd....

But is that correct either? Isn't the real Sitz im Leben of most contemporary poems the page? "I was born for the page." No matter how well McGrath may or may not perform his poems at readings, he certainly is a master of the-poem-on-the-page. I've read a couple of his poems here on the blog before: "Georgia O'Keefe" and "Aurora Perpetua". For my money, he's one of the best contemporary American poets. Maybe that's an unambitious bet, but so what?

Alright, that'll do it for this morning. I need to get ramblin' on to the rest of my day. But do go take a look at  The American Poetry Review. Consider subscribing, or just read something and talk to your friends about it. I'll pick up a new poem tomorrow. Until tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"The Ticking Clock (1971)" by Campbell McGrath

I'll look deeper into "The Ticking Clock (1971)" by Campbell McGrath over the next few days. This comes from the latest issue of The American Poetry Review; I urge you to check them out and consider getting a subscription. Anyway, here's the poem:
Snoop Dogg is born, Julian Assange is born. Already it is coming,
already the new century—though we have hardly begun
to imagine the death of the old—is taking shape around us.
Babies are crying in nurseries, toddlers are shaking their rattles.
A tennis star is born in Germany, a footballer in Nigeria.
Downhill skiers are born, prime ministers, business tycoons,
pop stars whose images will paper the streets of Tokyo and Bangkok.
Barack Obama is ten years old. Hillary Rodham has just begun
to date her down-home Yale Law classmate, Bill Clinton.
Vladimir Putin is a student at Leningrad State University.
Major General Idi Amin Dada seizes power in Uganda.
Century of integrated circuits & blue plastic radios,
century of self-conscious fabrication, century of human moons.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin will not be born for two more years,
information technology is a euphemism for paper and pencil.
At MIT, Ray Tomlinson decides to employ the @ sign
in the address of the very first email, which he sends
over the ARPANET to another computer in the same room:
“Don’t tell anyone,” he confesses to a friend,
“but this is not what we’re supposed to be working on.”
Uma Thurman is an infant. Princess Diana is a shy girl
in boarding school; she will not survive the century.
Tupac Shakur is born but he will not survive it.
Jim Morrison dies in a bathtub in Paris—no one here gets out alive.
The south tower of the World Trade Center is topped out
at 1368 feet, officially the tallest building in the world.
In Kafr el-Sheik, Mohammed Atta is three years old.
Coco Chanel dies. Reinhold Niebuhr, Igor Stravinsky
and Louis Armstrong die. Lance Armstrong is born.
The future is being assembled in the expanding neural webs
of six-year-olds, in the atoms of the yet-to-be-incarnated
beings we imagine as holographic ghosts sitting awkwardly
in the waiting room of the future. Adriano Moraes,
the Brazilian rodeo champion, is one; Wyclef Jean is two.
Agnes Martin will not resume painting for three more years.
The 20th Century is vanishing, o radiant century,
century of quarter notes & treble clefs, of chalk on black paper,
century of deliverance & self-deception, expediency & lies.
Duane Allman crashes his Harley, Edie Sedgwick o.d.’s,
Dean Acheson and Gene Vincent die on the same day.
George Seferis dies. Pablo Neruda wins the Nobel Prize
but has only eighteen months to live. Bertrand Russell,
Yukio Mishima and Jimi Hendrix were buried last year.
Ogden Nash has died; no one lives forever, but he tried.
Lin Biao is dead, his coup against the aging Mao a failure.
Deng Xiaoping has been sent to the provinces for reeducation
at the Xinjian Country Tractor Factory: he will reemerge.
China will follow the Capitalist road; to be rich is glorious.
Alan Shepard hits the very first golf ball on the moon.
Daisuke Enomoto, Japan’s first space tourist, is born.
George Lucas directs his first film, Wes Anderson is two
Kubrick releases A Clockwork Orange, Guillermo del Toro is seven.
Jimmy Wales attends a Montessori school in Alabama:
Wikipedia cannot be found in any glossary or reference text.
Soon there will be no need for glossaries or reference texts.
Bird is dead, Monk is crazy, Miles has turned his back,
Elvis is lost, John Lennon no longer believes in Beatles.
As Disney World opens the Manson Family are on trial
and America’s largest underground nuclear test, Cannikin,
detonates beneath Amchitka in the Aleutian Islands.
Behold, I am alpha and omega. The world is being destroyed,
the world is being created anew; the century is dying,
the century is being born. The clock is ticking.

— Campbell McGrath, The American Poetry Review, Vol. 44, No. 5
What's the precedent here? What's the form? Is it wrong or "low" to draw comparisons to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire"? There's a lot of humor, but it's mixed with sadness and even some menace. The prevailing theme is wonder, I guess. The crucial lines, for me, so far, are: "The future is being assembled in the expanding neural webs / of six-year-olds, in the atoms of the yet-to-be-incarnated / beings we imagine as holographic ghosts sitting awkwardly / in the waiting room of the future." That's the real crux. Anyway, I'll return to this tomorrow. Until then.