The Wright choice for poet laureate

The Library of Congress exercised superb judgment earlier this month by selecting Charles Wright to succeed Natasha Trethewey as  U.S. poet laureate. Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 11.05.21 AMThere are few modern giants still standing in the world of poetry -- there's W.S. Merwin, of course, but I have a hard time identifying too many others (I welcome any and all of your suggestions, my friends).

Let's see ... Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon, Mary Jo Salter, Carol Ann Duffy ... ?

Wright is undeniably a part of this group. He's not only prolific; he also practices his craft well within that shimmering notion of a "tradition" that T.S. Eliot described in his famous, foundational essay.

Which made me a little surprised with some of the announcements of Wright's naming, especially in the Washington Post, because they emphasize (and over-repeat) that Wright is a "Southern poet" who was born in Tennessee.

They refer to his Southern background so many times that it seems like they're surprised by it, or else it's some kind of novelty. I can't help visualizing him in some stereotypical way -- as having a drawl or listening to Carrie Underwood (I don't know, maybe he does).

It's not that: It's just that the geographic insistence gives the impression to unfamiliar audiences that Wright is some kind of regional talent, not the bearer of literary tradition in a grander, older context (which he is).

The Wright I know is the admirer (disciple?) of Dante who describes his experience of reading Inferno during a summer in Laguna Beach, Calif., in an essay included in the volume The Poet's Dante (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Or else, for me, Wright is the speaker  who has an intriguing encounter in the poem "A Journal of the Year of the Ox":

Who is it here in the night garden, Gown a transparent rose Down to his ankles, great sleeves Spreading the darkness around him wherever he steps, Laurel corona encircling his red transparent head cap, Pointing toward the Madonna?

This mysterious figure has some advice for the poem's speaker about his craft, about life in general:

Brother, remember the way it was In my time: nothing has changed: Penitents terrace the mountainside, the stars hang in their                      bright courses And darkness is still the dark:                      concentrate, listen hard, Look to the nature of all things....

There are many works in which poets describe imagined meetings with other poets. Dante meets Arnaut Daniel in Purgatorio ... Eliot encounters a poet (Yeats?) in Little Gidding ... Heaney meets Joyce in Station Island .... and Wright speaks to Dante in the above passage. There now, do you see it? Tradition.

A full circle.

There's a linkage to the distant literary past that's vitally alive in Wright's poetry, as this passage might suggest, and I'm excited by the Library of Congress' decision for a simple reason: It may give an immensely important poet a chance to become even more widely known.


Paris Review: J.D. McClatchy in conversation with Charles Wright


'I contracted myself to words': Geoffrey Hartman's luminous poetry

earthimage What happened on the eighth day of creation after God's long day of rest on the seventh?

According to poet Geoffrey Hartman, God remembered all those things he forgot to make during the first week:

On the eighth day God saw what he had not created. And it was good. And he blessed it saying: This is the silence of my breath. This is the voice in the stillness of the wind.

Creation, in other words, exists in a counterbalance with contemplation.

Hartman is a figure much to be envied. He bestrides two worlds -- as a Holocaust scholar and as a literary critic and poet (maybe that makes three worlds). And as a refugee from Nazi Germany who describes the Kindertransport in his book The Longest Shadow (ok, make that four).

8thDayThese many worlds inform his exquisite book of poems, The Eighth Day: Poems Old and New (Texas Tech University Press).

How could they not? Open this book to any page, begin reading, and immediately you'll find that you are quickly descending into metaphysical depths normally reserved for  books three times its size (this volume is just under 100 pages, including notes). History, especially in its tragic moments, echoes in these poems, along with encounters with unexpected figures, like the following one:

...I who passed over saw and told what I had seen: Once more I contracted myself to words. A clerk of bloods, as sure in his counting as the idiot voice of command...

says the Wandering Jew in "Ahasuerus." It's an extraordinary poem of reclamation and redemption for that cursed mythical figure -- here, his eternal status enables him to stand as a witness for all who perished in the Holocaust. His wandering isn't condemned or without purpose; now, he is a record-keeper, a "clerk of bloods," for all those whose memory would otherwise be forgotten.


What you'll also find here is the presence of a poetic tradition, the grand tradition that T.S. Eliot envisioned. It moves through these poems like a pulse.

When the wind blows in these poems, the English Romantic understanding of inspiration is behind it (Hartman established his critical career with his magisterial study of 'Wordsworth, The Unmediated Vision); the Song of Songs dances lightly among the imagery of  "her lashes dark spears,/dawn at the hem of her skirt"; and a multitude of quests shimmer around the narrator of "Quest" who comes upon "another door. Rough planks/as in a country john, moldy unmarked greens."

A recent volume of Hartman's critical essays, The Third Pillar, explores a broad, formidable terrain -- ranging from biblical themes and the validity of Judaic Studies in the groves of Academe to the complexity of midrash, which is "neither literature nor commentary and yet simultaneously both," notes Monica Osborne in her view of Hartman's book for The New Republic.

But to get an appreciation of Hartman's work, you won't have to turn to this book or the Wordsworth one.

No, all that you need are just two simple things to get started: this book of poems  (which also includes helpful notes and a marvelous introduction by Hartman that manages to capture the essence of his career and concerns in a short amount of space) and a quiet contemplative moment ... like the one God probably enjoyed on the eighth day.

Hard truths and honey: A mythic master class with Stephen Greenblatt

Primavera (detail), Botticeli (1482) When you look at Botticelli's painting Primavera (detail,  above), what do you notice?

Scantily-clad ladies dancing like they're at Woodstock?

Images of the Eternal Feminine?

Zephyrus wearing a creepy gray bogeyman costume?

Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World and The Swerve, notices something else entirely.

For him, the painting contains a kind of survival.

greenblatt"What you see here is a 'xenograft,' " he told an audience last week at Claremont McKenna College. An image of Primavera was projected on a screen behind him. "What this painting contains is a grafting of one thing into another in order to keep it alive."

The "thing" in question is the pagan worldview nearly smothered by the Holy Mother Church for centuries. His prize-winning The Swerve tells the story of how  the Latin poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius -- a stunning exemplar of that view -- was nearly lost in that climate of intolerance, forgotten on a shelf in a German monastery ... until the book hunter Poggio Bracciolini came along and rediscovered it in the 15th century.

Greenblatt's visit was nothing less than a master class. If he was using notes, I sure didn't see them. He moved easily between references to antiquity and the present day -- and so easily around the actual stage, too -- that I couldn't help thinking, Man, this is how it's done.

Greenblatt also moved nimbly from that epic poem's shocking revelations -- that God doesn't exist, the natural world is built from atoms, nature is in constant flux and full of mutations, organized religion is brutal, our souls will come apart when we do -- to a very simple question:

"How," he asked, "did stuff like this manage to survive? How was the intolerable tolerated?"

The answer: Because it was wrapped up as poetry.

Or, as Lucretius himself explains, near the beginning of Book IV:

For just as doctors, who must give vile wormwood with sweet and golden honey: thus the child, young and unknowing, is tricked and brought to set the cup to his lip; meanwhile, he swallows the bitter wormwood, and though deceived is not infected, but by this trick grows well and strong again: so now, since my philosophy often seems a little grim to beginners ... I wished to tell my tale in sweet Pierian song for you, to paint it with the honey of the Muses....

(from a translation by Frank O. Copley, published by W.W. Norton)

Greenblatt went on to explain other reasons why the poem was copied and not destroyed, but the power of art was the one reason that stayed with me long after Greenblatt's speech was over.

My friends, this was really inspiring to me. It's what I wanted to share with you. Here's another reason why we write and try to create other forms of art. Because art stands a greater chance of survival thanks to the fact that people often tend to revere what they don't understand.

Which is why Botticelli could employ pagan imagery or Shakespeare give atomic views to Mercutio (his Queen Mab speech) with some measure of impunity. The world treats art and dogma differently.

Hard truths, in other words, are much easier to swallow with a bit of honey.

Wait a minute, does that mean that Mary Poppins read De Rerum Natura? That 1964 film just might be another version of Lucretian survival! Move over Botticelli!


Such a cute pagan!


'When a warrior is gone'... Seamus Heaney

GONE FAR TOO SOON: The master in 2009. Ah God, I thought we'd have Seamus Heaney for at least a few more years. The wispy white-haired Irish laureate died in Dublin today, at the age of 74, according to various media reports, and there are no words to properly express what he contributed to poetry and language during his immense career.

He was a makaris; an archeologist of peat bogs and Latinate etymology; a singer of old songs ("Antigone," "Beowulf," from Virgil) in a thrilling modern idiom... and on and on. He was a wonder.

I'm wrong about one thing, though. There ARE very good words appropriate for this moment of loss  -- his own, taken from his best-selling translation of "Beowulf":

It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.

He won plenty of glory, didn't he? I wonder if the thought ever crossed his mind, as he worked on these lines in his farmhouse years ago, that such words could apply to him and his career.

Rest in peace, old artificer.

Rowdy...robust...r.i.p. ... poet John Hollander

poet-john-hollander Well, John Hollander couldn't live forever, could he?

I thought he might. His poetry's  so rowdy and so robust that I figured, if the Grim Reaper showed up at his door, Hollander would tell him to #$%&@ off, and the Reaper would have to listen.

Alas, that didn't happen. The New York Times reported the passing of a great contemporary American poet this Saturday at the age of 83. I have little to add aside from saying that I worked on some edits to an article with him once -- he was the soul of kindness, by the way --  and sharing a poem of his that mixes the high and low as he muses on the battle of the sexes. I hope you enjoy it, my friends.

The Lady's-Maid's Song

When Adam found his rib was gone He cursed and sighed and cried and swore And looked with cold resentment on The creature God had used it for. All love's delights were quickly spent And soon his sorrows multiplied: He learned to blame his discontent On something stolen from his side.

And so in every age we find Each Jack, destroying every Joan, Divides and conquers womankind In vengeance for his missing bone. By day he spins out quaint conceits With gossip, flattery, and song, But then at night, between the sheets, He wrongs the girl to right the wrong.

Though shoulder, bosom, lip, and knee Are praised in every kind of art, Here is love's true anatomy: His rib is gone; he'll have her heart. So women bear the debt alone And live eternally distressed, For though we throw the dog his bone He wants it back with interest.