January 2010

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Sharon Olds and Elizabeth Bishop

Due to my ongoing interest in any and all times Bishopian…

This excerpt is from a review by Moira Richards at Rattle of Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics and the Erotic by Alicia Suskin Ostriker:

In another essay, about the work of Elizabeth Bishop and Sharon Olds, “I Am (Not) This: Erotic Discourse in Elizabeth Bishop and Sharon Olds,” Ostriker takes that feminist approach to the way the poetry of those two women is often misread, misunderstood–perhaps “pigeon-holed” is a better word–by patriarchal readings. She looks at marginalisation and argues and illustrates her points with lines of poetry in a way which is both inviting and accessible for a lay reader like me. Perhaps the cornerstone of this essay is her point that:

Bishop mostly evades, Olds mostly asserts erotic connection – but for both, the erotic is a power preceding and defining the self; for both, it exists at the liminal border between language and the unsayable; for both, it abuts on a realm we may call spiritual. Technically, however cool the voice of Bishop, however seemingly overheated the voice of Olds, the metaphors of both poets enact the erotic.

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Breath Me, Light

Behind Perfume, Only Solitude

Ink will come. Lamp lung
breathes light at the edge
of an idea. The edge
an idea, also the door

of the room
that silence opens.

The pen sighs, a lens
for the shut-in light.
Breathe me, light.
Have the idea to have me
.

–Liz Waldner

I was introduced to Waldner’s poetry through an essay by Joan Houlihan at Contemporary Poetry Review.

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Rehearsals for the New Order

The courthouse is empty now ablaze
with holly, wreathed and ribboned for the season,
standing firm against a thrill of breezes,
the grinding arcs of stars, grackles crazed
and dizzying the turret, the drunken hair
of winter gardens at its feet, while inside
great mahogany walls, no judge presides,
no footstep polishes the marble stair,
no clerk turns to the window, rubs his eyes
and turns again: time to free the animals
into the evening air, to let them howl
from yard to yard; somewhere a solitary
stem of smoke blossoms from a chimney;
an old man watches his money wither
and rise, then fall again, over and over
without peace; somewhere a nation moves;
its body is a ship foaming in the water;
somewhere a small tree brittles in its silver
and glass; all night we feel the sky there
listening, the tap that drips like tiny hooves.

–Bruce Bond

I discovered Bond’s work from an article written by Joan Houlihan at Contemporary Poetry Review.

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Human beings are in some ways like bees. We evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don’t do as well when freed from hives.

Nicholas Kristof included this quote from Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis in his recent column in the New York Times. Entitled “Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving,” Kristof makes a case for why it makes sense to walk the talk:

Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.

The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.

Kristof is my consciousness muezzin whose steady focus on what really matters is my kind of call to prayer. He repeatedly reminds us of what it means to be human and how to stay connected to that humanness. In addition to wrirting an op-ed column, he and his wife Sheryl WuDunn cowrote Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Tireless. Passionate. Empathic.

The proclivity in all of us to serve others has been writ large over the last few weeks as the outpouring of giving and concern for Haiti’s beleaguered population has flooded our lives. I am humbled and grateful by this response, especially at a time when so many of the features of life in 2010 make it easy to slip into a place of cynical detachment.

Hive mind, social capital, collective consciousness, the wisdom of crowds—I embrace the power of the collective and our need to feel part of that pulsing plasmatic energy that is life on this planet. Whether standing shoulder to shoulder in a stadium full of fans or just cascading through the never-ending blinking of updates on Facebook, there is a hum of connection when we are communing with each other. But as an artist whose work only happens in solitude, I feel an essential tension between these two polarizing nodes. How do you successfully craft a both/and life, one that is in flow when in the gaggle as well as when you step away?

I’m not expecting to find an answer since I don’t believe a perfect algorithm exists. Too much of one cries out for more of the other, then the teeter totter shifts. And the ballast will be different for you than it is for me.

So here’s a hats off to all of you who have given of your time and your money for relief to Haiti. Hats off to the fact that we can still be mobilized, that we can still marshal a collective consciousness of caring. Thanks be.

With that let me sign off for 10 days. I am headed for California, both north and south (which, as a Californian, I know is a distinction that matters) to visit my daughter who just recently moved from Florence Italy to Glendale California. I’ve queued up a few of my favorite poems to show up here while I’m gone. So stay tuned, there are some knock your socks off poets coming your way!

I’ll be back online for real February 7.

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Poetry Tracking

How much can you know about a movie, a book, a poem from a snippet, be it a trailer, the first page, the first few lines? Joan Houlihan in Contemporary Poetry Review makes the case that the quality of a poet’s work can be determined with some accuracy by “previewing” a poem’s first few lines.

Her bottom line could be seen as an extreme position:

As we move into the next decade, it seems very likely that a subset of all published poetry will, like music, become readily experienced or viewed for free, and that readers will “sample” poems and make any buying decisions based on these samples. Readers will become sophisticated enough in their own judgments, or tuned in enough to trusted recommenders wherever and however encountered, and soon the disappearance of reviews in mainstream periodicals won’t be missed. It may even turn out that the book of poems as physical object no longer holds us, cannot maintain its presence through the next ten years, cannot justify its 65 or more pages of poems all bound into one place—we might instead purchase only 5 or 10 poems at once, or a “mixed tape” of poems we love, or a subset of poems by a favorite poet. The packaging and distribution mechanisms are already in place; we, the readers, will only need to become proficient at making our own selections. Just be sure to read the first lines before you buy.

She employes her poetic critiquing skills on four recently published poetry volumes—Word Comix by Charlie Smith, The History of Forgetting by Lawrence Raab, Blind Rain by Bruce Bond and Trust by Liz Waldner. While you may not agree with her assessment of these four writers, I found the article worth the read. The poems of the last two, Bond and Waldner, particularly interested me. More of them to come.

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Boredom and Bliss

The essay on the last page of the Sunday Times Book Review by Jennifer Schuessler this week is provocative. Her topic: Boredom. Ah, that dreaded word. Full of moral implications. Antithetical to everything I learned (and probably inherited through epigenetics) from my pioneer heritage. You never left yourself get bored, and you never admit if for some reason you do. NEVER.

As Schuessler points out, “As a general state of mind, boredom is morally suspect, threatening to shine its dull light back on the person who invokes it. ‘The only horrible thing in the world is ­ennui,’ Oscar Wilde once wrote, suggesting that boredom doesn’t feel much better in French. ‘That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness.’”

In fact, says Schuessler, boredom has some benefits. Brain research suggests that when we are awake but not doing anything in particular, our central processors are churning along, particularly in those parts responsible for memory, empathy with others and imagining hypothetical events—in other words, many of the skills needed for a successful literary experience. Hmmm. Something to consider.

Schuessler makes the discussion lively:

It’s common to decry our collective thaasophobia, or fear of boredom, manifested in our addiction to iPhone apps, the cable news crawl and ever mutating varieties of multitasking. One cellphone company has even promoted the idea of ­“microboredom,” which refers to those moments of inactivity that occur when we’re, say, stuck waiting in line for a latte without our BlackBerry. But novelists, for all their own fears of being dismissed as boring, continue to offer some bold resistance to the broader culture’s zero-tolerance boredom eradication program.

Bringing the discussion around to books, Schuessler highlight the posthumous publication of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished manuscript, The Pale King:

In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro…For all the mundanity of its subject matter, the excerpt presents boredom as something more strenuous and exalted than the friendly helper depicted by the neuroscientists, keeping our minds revved up even when we think we’re idling. Boredom isn’t just good for your brain. It’s good for your soul. “Bliss — a second-by-­second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom,” Wallace wrote in a note left with the manuscript. “Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

Boredom and bliss. Who knew?

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John Markoff, technology journalist at the New York Times, invited Gary Snyder to write about technology, in this case his Macintosh computer.

Says Markoff, “Mr. Snyder might not seem the best person to ask to reflect on the milestones of the digital age. He is 79 and lives in the Sierra foothills in Northern California…Word of an Apple book replacement had not yet reached him in the California backcountry where he lives without electricity. He almost never uses a cellphone and has no use for BlackBerrys. He considers texting ‘abhorrent.’ But Mr. Snyder said he liked his laptop.”

So here’s Snyder’s homage. Those of you who, like me, consider their computer to be an intimate friend, will find communality here.

Why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh

Because it broods under its hood like a perched falcon,

Because it jumps like a skittish horse and sometimes throws me,

Because it is poky when cold,

Because plastic is a sad, strong material that is charming to rodents,

Because it is flighty,

Because my mind flies into it through my fingers,

Because it leaps forward and backward, is an endless sniffer and searcher,

Because its keys click like hail on a boulder,

And it winks when it goes out,

And puts word-heaps in hoards for me, dozens of pockets of gold under boulders in streambeds, identical seedpods strong on a vine, or it stores bins of bolts;

And I lose them and find them,

Because whole worlds of writing can be boldly laid out and then highlighted and vanish in a flash at “delete,” so it teaches of impermanence and pain;

And because my computer and me are both brief in this world, both foolish, and we have earthly fates,

Because I have let it move in with me right inside the tent,

And it goes with me out every morning;

We fill up our baskets, get back home,

Feel rich, relax, I throw it a scrap and it hums.

–Gary Snyder

Published in the New York Times by permission from the author.

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Arthur Koestler, 1905-1983

Anne Applebaum has written a superb review of the newly released biography, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, by Michael Scammell, in the New York Review of Books. Koestler’s writings, particularly Darkness at Noon and The Sleepwalkers, had an enormous influence on me during my adolescence. He seemed like the ultimate genius polyglot, spanning so many topics with an enviable mastery.

And in some ways he was an intellectual version of Forrest Gump. From Applebaum’s article:

He began his education in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at an experimental kindergarten in Budapest. His mother was briefly a patient of Sigmund Freud’s. In interwar Vienna he wound up as the personal secretary of Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement. Traveling in Soviet Turkmenistan as a young and ardent Communist sympathizer, he ran into Langston Hughes. Fighting in the Spanish civil war, he met W.H. Auden at a “crazy party” in Valencia, before winding up in one of Franco’s prisons. In Weimar Berlin he fell into the circle of the infamous Comintern agent Willi Münzenberg, through whom he met the leading German Communists of the era: Johannes Becher, Hanns Eisler, Bertolt Brecht. Afraid of being caught by the Gestapo while fleeing France, he borrowed suicide pills from Walter Benjamin. He took them several weeks later when it seemed he would be unable to get out of Lisbon, but didn’t die (though Benjamin, denied passage into Spain at the French border, took them and did).

Along the way he had lunch with Thomas Mann, got drunk with Dylan Thomas, made friends with George Orwell, flirted with Mary McCarthy, and lived in Cyril Connolly’s London flat. In 1940, Koestler was released from a French detention camp, partly thanks to the intervention of Harold Nicholson and Noël Coward. In the 1950s, he helped found the Congress for Cultural Freedom, together with Mel Lasky and Sidney Hook. In the 1960s, he took LSD with Timothy Leary. In the 1970s, he was still giving lectures that impressed, among others, the young Salman Rushdie.

It is difficult, in other words, to think of a single important twentieth-century intellectual who did not cross paths with Arthur Koestler, or a single important twentieth-century intellectual movement that Koestler did not either join or oppose. From progressive education and Freudian psychoanalysis through Zionism, communism, and existentialism to psychedelic drugs, parapsychology, and euthanasia, Koestler was fascinated by every philosophical fad, serious and unserious, political and apolitical, of his era.

Brilliant, yes. But also a man who was exceedingly destructive, selfish, narcissistic, cruel and a flagrant misogynist. Even before the news of his suicide (which was tandemed with the suicide of his much younger wife), ugly accounts and unseemly stories emerged. Scammell’s book does not mince with any of these accusations. In his personal life, Koestler was undeniably a monster.

But what struck me most profoundly about Applebaum’s take on the book is the harsh light she shines on Koestler’s legacy: “To put it bluntly, the deadly struggle between communism and anticommunism—the central moral issue of Koestler’s lifetime—not only no longer exists, it no longer evokes much interest.” The big 20th century causes that he fought for and those he fought against are gone. As Applebaum suggests, perhaps it will be some time before his contributions can be seen in a clearer light: “At the moment, he still seems like yesterday’s man, unfashionable and obsolete. His better qualities might eventually be visible to a younger generation, just as an elegantly restored art nouveau table now appeals to collectors and connoisseurs.”

I can’t help but contrast Koestler’s much reduced posthumous position with the cultural contributions of others, many that feel as timely and lively today as they did when they were new. Contexts, ideas, art styles, points of view take on lives of their own, moving up and down on the register of any given culture’s current flash points. For example, interest in Shakespeare has not always been at the high point it is now, nor has fascination for the medieval genius of Josquin des Prez.

Perhaps the poignancy of Koestler’s demise is more pronounced for me because I came of age at a time when what Koestler wrote about mattered. As Applebaum points out:

As for “Darkness at Noon”, it was not just a popular book, it was one of the primary reasons that the Communist Party never came to power in France, a real possibility at the time. Hard though it is for us now to imagine, it was not at all obvious, in 1946 or even 1956, that Western Europe and the United States would remain solidly united for fifty years. Nor did it seem at all inevitable that the West would win the cold war. Along with Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Victor Kravchenko’s “I Chose Freedom”, “Darkness at Noon” was one of the books that helped turn the tide on the intellectual front line, and ensured that the West prevailed. But unless one understands all of that, the political and literary achievements of Arthur Koestler are, to a contemporary reader, easily outweighed by the extravagance of his sexual and personal transgressions.

Great article, and worthy of the full text read.

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Snow, and part of a shoe

If we don’t offer ourselves to the unknown, our senses dull. Our world becomes small and we lose our sense of wonder. Our eyes don’t lift to the horizon; our ears don’t hear the sounds around us. The edge is off our experience, and we pass our days in a routine that is both comfortable and limiting. We wake up one day and find that we have lost our dreams in order to protect our days.

–-Kent Nerburn

This quote is from Nerburn’s book, Letters to My Son. He is the author of Neither Wolf Nor Dog, and The Wolf at Twilight. And thanks to Whiskey River for the introduction to Nerburn.

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That the Science of Cartography Is Limited

—and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses
is what I wish to prove.

When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.

Look down you said: this was once a famine road.

I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in

1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.

Where they died, there the road ended

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

–Eavan Boland

These insights are from an interview with the Irish poet Eavan Boland in Caffeine Destiny:

I’ve often said that I don’t think poetry is a particularly good form of expression. I know that goes against the grain, but I believe that. Photographs are more accurate. Theatre is more eloquent. But poetry is a superb, powerful and true form of experience. That’s the satisfaction for me. I don’t write a poem to express an experience. I write it to experience the experience. And the unforgettable poem I read, the one I remember, is the one that manages to convey the experience to me, which someone else once had -maybe hundreds years ago- and, by a poise of music and language, convey it almost intact.

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