Mark finished it himself, choosing midnight and a garbage littered swamp. He scrawled a note and stuffed it in a pocket: ‘Like shooting a dog. The Vibrations. Someone please try to bring me back.’ They pulled him from the mud and dressed him up and put him underground again. A week before that he’d grabbed me in the street, shaking, speaking in a foreign tongue. Lost for seven years. ‘It’s all right, I’ll move along,’ he said. Cosmic radiation fried his brain. He had tapped a private source of horror clichés; nightmare rushed out, and the gestures that he used in self-defence were worn threadbare with too much fingering. He wove a plot to save the masses; loners, misbegotten, drifting on the edges of Night City. All he needed was ‘charisma’. One day he left a note: ‘The Princess: She must be saved, even at the cost of death, her own death, if need be. I’m sorry that I cut the Cross against the grain, damaging the door. Yours. Mark.’ Vibrations called him from a network on the other side of town. He had scuttled off by the time the medics came to strap him down.
Once, years ago, when he was ‘elegant’, he bought us wine; we ate well, and drank by candlelight. It seemed that sanity was easily bought; one needed only to be young. Methedrine, in moderation, kept him on the track. ‘I’m not interested,’ the doctor said, ‘in arty reminiscences. Find the stupid prick and bring him back.’
This early poem by John Tranter (1943-) has always grabbed the editor of this series. He envies its restless and relentless nature, the way it tries seducing the sympathies of the reader only to have these undermined by a wonderful boomboomboom! final two lines.
The first time I saw my mother naked I didn’t think she was beautiful. If I remember correctly I was terrified. Which is crazy because she was just leaning over to dry her calf. She was in the blue bathroom in her parents’ house and the door had been left ajar. Not even ajar. Just a sliver that I walked past and turned my head and my eye went into. She was leaning over like anyone else. She was looking at her leg. Her eyes, well I couldn’t see her eyes but I could see the way her eyelids were sort of heavy and how dark her eyebrows were. Her head was turned down a bit and her hair was wrapped in a towel, which is something I’d try to do after that. I don’t remember much about her being effortless but this was effortless, she was leaning down sort of like you do when you’re shaving your legs. Her foot may have been resting on the edge of the tub. I’m not sure anymore and I was just seeing her through the sliver of the door. The tile was light blue, I think. I saw her breasts, which were really large. I saw the folds of her skin. She was really overweight by then. It was probably the medication. I got so scared somehow. She was not looking at me. I could say she wasn’t thinking of me but I don’t know if that’s true. I remember she looked peaceful and also sad.
Maybe I just wanted her to be sad. I wanted all sorts of things from her. I wanted her to be heartbroken and ashamed that she wasn’t well enough for me to live with her. Then she’d say, “I’m heartbroken” and I’d look at the floor and turn around and walk outside to throw a ball against the garage door. She was leaning over and looking at something. I don’t think she meant for the door to be open. Her skin was olive where mine was stark white. Her hair was black, though it was nestled under the towel on her head. I couldn’t see the front of her, just her breast hanging like any ordinary woman’s breast would hang if they were bent over like that. Of all the things I can’t remember about my mother I remember that. Can you imagine how long I must have stood there to take it all in and get scared and add her weight to my list of ways she’d failed me.
If I look at her body now, like this, building the door in my mind and turning my head and seeing her it’s clear she’s not really so heavy at all. Or. She is no heavier than I am now, which is about twelve pounds heavier than I’d like to be. I don’t have the excuse of medication. For me it’s pleasure: biscuits, good wine, teaching a lot and not walking the pasture enough. I’ve been here before. Five months before I fell apart all those years ago I was just this same weight. I may actually be a bit bigger now. At the outer range of my comfort zone. At the limit of my waistband’s compassion. I went to the doctor and said, “I’m overweight” and she said, “You look fine” and then she looked at the number the nurse had written on the chart and said, “Wow. You carry that well.” I went home and joined Weight Watchers, I walked a few miles a day up and down the Berkeley hills. The weight came off, along with my defenses. That’s another story. The months of meetings with the most marvelous people: new mothers, elderly couples, old friends, the group of flight attendants who’d come over on their way to Oakland airport. Another piece of luck in my lucky life. Another reason I got to get thin, fall apart, and make it through.
In terms of weight, what I know looking at my mother through the door I’ve made in my memory, is that she carries it much better than me. If she looks up at me I’ll see her violet eyes rimmed by dark eyelashes that make her always look dressed up whether naked or in a towel, in jeans and a man’s button up with chopsticks pulling her hair back, in a beige tracksuit at her stepfather’s funeral so overmedicated that my father’s mother shook her head and talked about it all the way home, “She never would have chosen to wear something like that. Never. Her mother put her in that to embarrass her.” If she stands upright and faces me, if she pulls the towel off her head her dark brown almost black hair will tumble down below her shoulders and I’ll think as I always do that I wish I had hair like that. If she stands and looks at me looking at her I’ll see all of her and if I ask she’ll hold me. I’m sure now that she will.
I didn’t ask, though. I made her monstrous instead. That body just minding its business, not doing anything out of the ordinary. Even then I knew she was beautiful. How could someone that beautiful not want me? How could someone that beautiful want me? Getting older is knowing neither of those questions were the ones to ask myself as I walked out the door. What I’d do now is walk into her bedroom and wait for her to come in. I’d do the thing I see in the movies about mothers and daughters, I’d sit on the bed and watch her go over to the table where her brushes lived. I’d watch her brush her hair. I’d look at her face in the mirror and marvel how she looks like Elizabeth Taylor. Not Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Elizabeth Taylor but older, fuller, differently sexy Elizabeth Taylor. Cleopatra. Studio 54. “Mom, you look like Elizabeth Taylor.” She’d meet my eyes in the mirror, doing that thing where she’d look steadily at you and not blink. She’d know it was true. It wouldn’t change anything. It’s not that kind of memory or movie. I wish I’d stayed in the room, though. So I’d have something to hold onto after she was gone.
Every anthologist thinks about how to organize the book. When Matthew and I organized The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, we chose alphabetical order. The purpose of this decision was twofold. We wanted to present the poems as individual responses to the world and Judaism instead of grouping them in themes (think Passover, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, high holidays). We wanted to make the book “usability friendly” as they say in the ecommerce world. In this book, a reader may simply look up the poet they want to read by last name. It never made sense to me why I’d have to flip to the index to find a poem by a poet and then flip to the page with the poem.
Given that we left it to the reader to conclude what it means to experience the world as a contemporary Jewish American poet, we decided it would complement the book to ask contributors what they thought of the very questions that might arise as you read it. Think of this as a companion piece to the book and as the finale to a week of blogging about Jewish American poetry.
Below, you'll find Matthew Silverman's questions and the responses from the contributors to the book.
How are issues raised in contemporary Jewish American poetry applicable to a multi-cultural modern society?
Judaism is a historical religion—we are people of the book—that sometimes conflicts with the currencies of American life. As Americans, we like to think that we make ourselves up. We dwell in a perpetual present, in a hurry, on the move. But there is also something else working inside of us, something related to our ancestries, which often links us to the past, to those who have come before us. We dwell in the present, but we also feel something alien working inside of us that we don’t entirely understand—an exiled longing from some other country, a vague memory of wandering in the desert, an anguished quest for freedom. The American Jewish poet models this divide, this dual heritage; we are always moving forward while looking back.
Many of the issues faced by the Jewish Community are relevant to other religious and ethnic groups. Assimilation and intermarriage are two issues that affect each religious and ethnic group in the United States. The issues of immigration are universal themes, as are the loss of customs and beliefs from one's country of origin. So are the inevitable tensions between parents born in the "old country" and children who are born or raised in the United States. Jewish American poets can educate readers about the unique aspects of Jewish culture while touching readers about the universality of many of the issues that affect Jewish American poets. I have found non-Jewish readers to be open to poetry about Jewish themes, beliefs and rituals which have had a profound impact on my life or the Jewish community as a whole. Poetry plays a unique role in creating a bond between poet and reader, particularly at a poetry reading. Given the power of good poetry, poems can build bridges that polemics cannot.
I organized an annual Community of Jewish Writers event in the Capital Region of Upstate New York. It has been well received by both Jews and non-Jews. This past year one of our poets was the child of an intermarriage. Her father had come from a secular Jewish family and she had not received any education on Judaism. The issue of her father's Jewishness came up rarely but when it did, it fascinated her. Her writing on the subject and the choices she subsequently made in her own intermarriage resulted in a very lively discussion.
For me, issues raised in Jewish American poetry have everything to do with participation in national and international dialogues exploring cultural/religious/personal identities histories, narratives, politics, outside and insider stories, and traditions. Jewish American literary issues and Jewish American writers and their works are for me always part of that larger, complicated, rich, ever evolving landscape.
I began a presentation at a recent AWP on something like this topic by pointing out that no less mainstream an American than Henry Adams – related to not one but two American presidents – begins his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams this way:
Under the shadow of the Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street, skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street on the summit of Becaon Hill; and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Books Adams.
Had he been born in Jerusalem, under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would scarcely have been more distinctly branded, and not much more severely handicapped in the races of the as the coming century, in running for such stakes as the century was to offer.
What could be more astonishing? In order to write his own American autobiography, this inheritor of American tradition, this Henry Brooks Adams, had to liken himself to Israel Cohen! A half-century later, Robert Lowell – again, the scion of one of the first families of Boston, a man related to two important American poetic predecessors – James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell –makes sure his readers of Life Studies know that Mordecai Myers, Jewish hero of the Was of 1812, was his ancestor. I’d always assumed that Myers – or at least Lowell’s connection to him, was invented, but the New York State Council on the Humanities tells me otherwise, identifies Myers, in fact, as Lowell’s great-great-grandfather. But whether it’s true or not, the interesting fact for me, is how anxious yet another Boston Brahmin writer was to establish himself as having some sort of Jewish credential. I suppose it’s their way of describing the fundamental placelessness of any literary person – but particularly a poet -- in our utterly practical country.
But it also has to do with the hybrid quality of the American experience. Take Thanksgiving, since it’s coming up. In my house, we always had chopped liver, chicken soup and turkey with cranberry sauce. In an Italian friend’s house, they always had lasagna and turkey with cranberry sauce. A Chinese friend: dumplings, wonton soup and then turkey with cranberry sauce. And so on. To be American is to have at least one foot or hand (the writing hand?) in another culture. I gave my kids’ holocaust-survivor great-aunt an Amy Tan novel to read. She loved it and felt like she was reading about herself. If Jewish-American poetry is doing its job, it is quintessentially American poetry. At least, I’m always writing on that assumption.
Cheryl J. Fish:
Jews may be of any race; there is not one type of Jewish-American experience. Just like any other group of hyphenated-Americans (African-American, Latina-American, Italian-American, etc); we have varied backgrounds and affiliations, and our Jewish identity or experience probably overlaps with that of our other identities, like gender, social class, sexuality identity, and being American. But in terms of persecution, in Nazi Germany, if you had any Jewish background, you'd be classified a Jew, so we have that connection with each other, and when someone is against us they don't really care about our nuances. Many of us probably relate to the persecution of other oppressed groups; Some Jews in history have been outspoken radical activists who supported the rights of other minorities. Others did not.
Jewish American poetry raises all kinds of issues that apply to our multi-cultural modern society, like what it means to feel or not feel Jewish, to draw on a rich history and culture,express faith and identity, connect to music and art, clothing and language, romance and death, holidays and family relations. Jewish-American poetry can challenge or revisit stereotypes, make political statements or address nature and community. You cannot pin it down, nor would you want to. We should be included in the mulit-cultural conversation.
What is the role of Jews in contemporary American poetry?
The role of Jews in contemporary American poetry simply underscores the role of all poets-- to speak the unspoken and the unspeakable, as beautifully as possible. As perpetual outsiders, Jewish poets may be especially well suited to the task. It seems so to me, based on the work in this anthology.
My answer to this question is very simple. The “role” of all poets is to produce beautiful poetry—that is, poetry that achieves “excellence” in some way (and granted that what we mean by “excellence” is not always clear and that taste enters into our judgments). “American” poets, for the most part, are poets who write in English; but whether it is English, Spanish, or some other language, the task of the poet is to produce poetry that is excellent in and of itself. The role of the Jewish poet, in this respect, is no different from that of the Catholic or Muslim poet: all poets have as their responsibility the task of producing poetry that matters, first and foremost, as poetry. But the Jewish poet, whether or not he defines himself as such, has certain experiences and has inherited certain traditions that may be different from the experiences and traditions of non-Jewish poets; and so these will necessarily come into play in his work on the level of its content (not necessarily of its form). An American poet writing in English, no matter how much he may want to distinguish himself in national or regional terms, is still in a certain sense an “English poet”; his work falls under the purview (and history) of English poetry. Similarly, a Jewish poet writing in English is an “English poet.” If poetry is an art, the language in which it is written is primary; national, regional, religious, or ethnic distinctions must then be seen as secondary. “Jewish-American poetry” is simply poetry written by Jewish Americans; the category has no ontological or metaphysical reality or validity; it is not a genre unto itself; it is merely a description of who the individual poet happens to be. It may be pleasant or consoling to think otherwise, because to think otherwise lends credence to the category and gives it heightened importance; but in my view, this is mere ideology and has nothing to do with poetry as an art form.
What challenges do you perceive in engaging readers in poems that address the Jewish experience?
The glib response first. Some folks think the poetry world and publishing is run by a Jewish Mafia, just as a different set of bigots think poetry is run by a Gay Mafia. I don't think there's much a Jewish writer can do for these readers. But more seriously I think about questions any minority writer entertains: what's the scale of his or her suffering (or for that matter joy?) We don't want to get in the business of comparative suffering, comparing the holocaust to slavery, and so on. That's a challenge we have to rise to for our readership. And I think it's any writer's job to write authentically, not to commodify his or her religion or ethnicity for acknowledgment or celebrity. I think sensitive readers look for this scale and balk at work that appears whiny or smug.
Beyond that, I balk at generalization. I'm completely secular: my Jewishness is urban, intellectual, ironic, playful, concerned, either interms of rage or compassion, with justice. So for me there's a voice, it's almost familial, a syntax I first heard in Brooklyn, a vulgarity I often find expressive, that I want in my poems. That may be hard for more civilized folks, who feel attached to a more traditional canon (truth is beauty), to hear. Then there are practicing Jews -- reformed, conservative,or orthodox -- whose whole centers of being are mostly foreign to me. Whose sense of otherness or history or of the bible is core for them. There are midwestern Jews who seem generally more gentile to me in their manners. If they're from the upper-middle class they seem more reserved than New York Jews (or New Yorkers in general). How are we all absorbed by readers of American poetry? I'd say differently from one another. I think someone from a city has a better shot at inhabiting my poems than someone who's history is rural or small townish. Ditto someone who comes from a similar social class. These issues inform my challenges to readers every bit as much as my ethnicity, proud as I am of being a Jew.
(Ed note: Every volume of The Best American Poetry includes contributors' notes for which the poets share something about the inspiration for the poem chosen for the book. Here's what Major Jackson writes about "Why I Write Poetry," which Denise Duhamel selected for The Best American Poetry 2013. -- sdh)
Some mornings, I wake and say to myself: “I am a poet.” I say this mostly in disbelief, but mostly it is an utterance that connects me to writers of poetry (some of them friends, many not) in other countries and throughout the ages who have decided to courageously break through the anonymity of existence, to join the stream of human expression, to stylize a self that feels authentic, and quite possibly, timeless. The kinship is palpable; the rewards are many; and the act of writing and reading poetry is one that has afforded me endless hours of meditative pleasure and contentment. Other people’s poems afford me the greatest pleasures. On occasion though, a devastating feeling hits me, not unlike that absurdist moment during puberty of looking into a mirror and being startled by the person looking back. “I am a poet.” How did I end up here, in this life? I’ve talents in other areas: why not a career as an orthopedic surgeon or a foreign service diplomat or a partner in some firm? Yet, my life could not have been scripted and nor would I change it. Attempting to identify the significant decisions that have led me here is mostly futile. Over the precious years, the person returning my gaze in the mirror has become increasingly familiar, an old friend and interrogator. But occasionally, I need to write poems that point to the mysteries and attempt to explain the unexplainable.
Join Major Jackson and David Lehman at the New School (66 W. 12th Street, NYC) on Wednesday, December 11, at 6:30 pm for the final poetry forum of the season. After reading from his work, Major will join David Lehman in conversation and take questions from the audience. FREE More information here.
Let me be clear here. The carrot juice order gives the person craving chocolate some pause. Does one proceed with the hot chocolate order (yes to whipped cream) or select one of the organic herbal teas made by extremely happy people in another country?
If not for Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, I may well have fallen into ordering something similar to show solidarity. In his book, psychologist and behavioral economist Ariely explains one should be the first to order in a restaurant. Ordering first prevents one from the desire to express individuality by ordering something they do not like in order to be “different” or by expressing solidarity by ordering what someone else orders. The result is often ordering something you don’t like—and being “irrational.” Order first, and these challenges are avoided, my friend.
Despite Josh’s good example—and thanks to Dan Ariely—I kept my original order of hot chocolate with whipped cream. It came with a hair (at no additional charge). Josh said he would not blame me for not wanting to drink bacteria, so I sent it back and got coffee. I ended up with something slightly healthier after all, but the caffeine made me talk a lot.
Our Meeting Place: Busboys and Poets, Hyattsville, MD
Side note: Busboys and Poets is a restaurant named for Langston Hughes. Hughes, if you recall, was a busboy at the Wardman Park (now called the Marriott Wardman Park and a favorite of the AWP and MLA conferences for you English professor/writer types) in Washington, DC. When Vachel Lindsay dined there, Hughes placed his poems in front of the great poet. Lindsay was annoyed, but he picked up the papers and read them. He liked “The Weary Blues" and helped Hughes with his career.
Let’s get to the cars.
Cars Involved: Josh drove a Mini Cooper. I drove a Corolla.
Joshua Weiner is the author of three books of poetry—The World’s Room (2001), From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013)—published by the University of Chicago. He’s received a Whiting Writers Award, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship. In 2014, he’ll be a fellow of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park and is poetry editor at Tikkun. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, the novelist Sarah Blake, and their children.
We started off our conversation talking about topics I was writing about for this week of blogging—Jewish last names, identity, the definition of a Jewish poet or poem.
“I’m not not a Jewish writer,” Josh replied as we talked about Jewish identity. In this, he echoes a number of poets I’ve spoken to about identity. Writers may not use a Jewish label to define themselves, yet their background ends up seeping into their work.
Josh and his family lived in Berlin for a year after he won the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, which awards funds to poets to live outside of the United States for a year.
I mentioned knowing two families who moved to Germany. A third family has expressed interest and might move. I asked him what was the allure of Germany and did he notice a lot of non-Germans living in Berlin?
“A lot of Israelis are buying property in Berlin. Jews are returning to Germany and the “synagogues are reopening,” he said.
I could not help but notice that the synagogues are reopening only now, seventy or so years after the Holocaust. We have so little idea of the full impact of that time in history. Josh pointed out the Holocaust is front and center in Germany, which he says has become a “country of conscience.”
"In Berlin, I sometimes felt like I was living inside a giant Holocaust memorial that turned into a rave party at night," he said.
“If you live in Germany, you can’t escape what the country did to Jews. It’s at the front of everything.”
It’s even in the stones.
A poet I know who moved to Germany posted photos of Holocaust memorial stones on Facebook, so I was slightly familiar with them. Bronze stones have been placed outside the houses and apartments from which people were taken and killed.
“The stones indicate who they were, when they were taken and when they were killed. Might be one person or twelve,” Josh said.
He pointed out the difference between how the United States views slavery and how Germany views the Holocaust: “The US went to war against itself. The Germans had to be defeated by the world, or it would not have stopped. They owe their reformation to the rest of the world. That comes up all the time in Germany.”
In Germany, Josh and his family lived in a prewar walkup, a building with a number of elderly residents. “You walk around and wonder what they [the older people] did [for a living] between 1937 and 1978.”
That gave me a creepy feeling. I get that same creepy feeling driving through Northern Virginia (the land of some creepy spy movies). I wonder how this conscience, how hiding from the past in plain sight, and the guilt of what their country did could affect art.
“What is the poetry like in Germany?” I asked.
“The poetry is forceful. There’s no creative writing industry.”
Josh pointed out that Germans are interested in the idea of workshops and what is done inside one. I joked we could create a million-dollar poetry industry in Germany by offering workshops. (I’m such an American!) Having grown up in a “workshop world” in the U.S., I have trouble imagining a culture and a country where “the workshop” doesn’t exist and, in fact, is a mystery to people.
Using the word “industry” in reference to creative writing programs is an interesting choice, so I asked him about it. Josh has taught at the University of Maryland for twelve years, and he taught before that too. He points out that creative writing programs can help people who want to try to be a writer.
"A program can give aspiring writers access to the expertise of more experienced writers. That's why they are popular. It’s more confusing because more are trying, but that doesn't make it bad," he says.
Right before we left, I asked someone at the hostess stand to take our photo for this blog post. She had us stand in several different places because she found the lighting unsatisfactory. I admired her desire for perfection. Josh and I stood next to each other like people who had just met, because we just had.
“Aren’t you going to put your arms around each other?” she asked. She thought we were a couple, and I had to smile to myself at how hard she was working to make this a good photo. I was amused.
I attempted to post this as a reply to a Heaney ref. I made in the last post. I typed a Heaney quip off the type of my head, and I misquoted.I believe the correct phrasing is "long live form, mendicant and convalescent."It's from a volume of his called SEEING THINGS. I must have leant mine to someone, or perhaps it's sitting in an MTA lost and found...Unfortunately I can't check.Personally I think SEEING THINGS is Heaney's best work, the sturdiest tree on the property for sure; as far as what I've read, which is a pretty good amount, I'd say it's the best single volume of English language poetry to come out in the last 20 years. I can't think of a single volume of individual poems that forms such a cohesive whole, and in terms of of the ideas it puts down, (and the way it manifests these ideas in poetry) I'd put it right there w/ the best of Stevens.
The lines are from the long 4-part poem Squarings, which forms the second half of the volume. The poem is made up of four twelve poem sections, the best known being an anecdote about a vision that came to monks at Clonmacnoise.An individual section of the long poem "Squarings" is also called "Squarings," and it's my hunch that the lines are from that section.I could be wrong.
At around that point in the poem, Heaney takes up a brief commentary on form, and essentially offers a rebuttal to Yeats' preference for marble, towers, eternal golden Byzantiums, etc. It's serious, but there's also a little of the twinkling eye about the way he does it.You can sniff out, from reading Heaney's prose, that he gets a kick out of the ridiculous Romantic trappings to which the young Yeats was prone.In preparing his apartment to receive a journalist, the young Yeats, for instance, wraps himself in the green cloak symbolic of the Romantic poet, spreads around a number of books, flopped and face down, as it were, and sits in their midst reading Homer.A bit heavy-handed w/ the art direction, you might say....
I too, I must admit, think about the young Yeats.Not so much as I think about the young Rilke, or rather, thought about the young Rilke; Rilke is a poet at whom you inevitably rage at if you do manual type labor.You want to find him and cough soot on him at the moment his contemplation of a flower is most pure.I'd love to see him chain bags of heavy wet food trash for fifteen minutes at the end of a catering event, or even sit hunched at a cubicle, entering data into spreadsheets. I envy the time he has. Would Yeats where a gold chain with his name on it?That is what I would like to know.I think he would. Yeats liked gold. He liked solid, ornate, well-made, lasting things. His proclivity was to look at say, a marble arch, and see it as the outward and visible manifestation of an invisible grace.Heaney's proclivity is, to a degree, to be troubled by such spectacles, and by the very idea of pomp. This is one of the spots where they don't see eye to eye.
Getting closer to the quote, Heaney is asking the question throughout the volume, "Where does spirit live?"Does it live in the world, inside things, twisting through roots of our physical world as it does in, say, Rilke?Or does it live outside things, outside even Time.Or is spirit, simply, the things of this world in and of of themselves, as it was originally, when Jove was the thunder, and the thunder was Jove?Yeats shuddered hard at the idea of the body dying, "an aged man is but a paltry thing," etc., and his vision, of a soul that strengthens almost in indirect proportion to the decay of the body, seems to make almost too much sense. It creates in some ways the strength of the late Yeats, at least as far as I read him. The poetic soul is refined into perfection with age.
Heaney's way in the long poem is unique to him; he's good at it as he is at practically every other aspect of poetry.His approach is informed, for one thing, by the practice of the Stations of the Cross.His book Station Island references this directly, but the concept of stopping before a series of panels, at a series of points, and meditating briefly and completely on each vignette is also all through "Squarings."In practice, what makes this different from a typical serial poem is that there is a sense of destination, a strong pull towards the end, towards the completion of form.... At the end of SEEING THINGS, Heaney delivers too, arriving at a statement that is among the most beautiful that I know, which I'll also no doubt misquote."That day, I will be in step with what's escaped me."It's a similar statement to Paul Valery's "There is a thing in me that is equal to that which is beyond me," which is also a beautiful line.
When I read Yeats, one thing that I have noticed, and maybe others have noticed it too, is that the experience of the poems changes little.The poems of Yeats always seem to be exactly as I remembered them when I last read them.This as opposed to someone like Ashbery, who changes so much each time you read him.Of course this is neither a good quality nor a bad quality, and the variety is in itself on the side of the good.
(ed note: this post originally appeared on June 2, 2009)
Over at delirious hem, Susana Gardner is curating the Audio Advent Calendar. Day 3 features Pattie McCarthy and Elizabeth Bishop. Day 1 pairs Martha Reed with Dawn Lundy Martin and Day 2 pairs Kyle Schlesinger with Robert Creely. Go listen!
Stay: On Growing Up Atheist & Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Secular Argument Against Suicide Alyssa Morhardt in conversation with Jennifer Michael Hecht at luna luna.