March 29, 2012 | by Robyn Creswell
Adrienne Rich’s first poem in The Paris Review was “The Snow Queen,” which appeared in the magazine’s second issue (Summer 1953). Her last, “Itinerary,” was published this spring in our two-hundredth. Rich was twenty-three when she wrote “The Snow Queen,” but she had already been discovered. Her first book, A Change of World, was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1951. Rich’s early work is formally impeccable, its ideas and idioms rooted in the poetry of Yeats and Stevens (“The Snow Queen” can be read as a variation on Stevens’s “The Snow Man”). But Rich quickly moved beyond her early style. She found its virtuosity too prim, too imitative—“exercises in style,” as she once put it. In her early thirties, she was already looking back at her accomplishments and measuring their limitations. “Necessities of Life,” the title poem of her 1966 collection, was first published in The Paris Review as “Thirty-Three” (Winter-Spring, 1964), which was Rich’s age when she wrote it. It is a poem of retrospection and prophecy. It begins,
Piece by piece I seem
to re-enter the world: I first began
a small, fixed dot, still see
that old myself, a dark blue thumbtack
pushed into the scene,
a hard little head protruding
from the pointillist’s buzz and bloom.
after a time the dot
begins to ooze. Certain heats
“The pointillist’s buzz and bloom” is still Stevensian, but the oozing and heat—here signaling the onset of adolescence—are heralds of Rich's mature poetry. Her great work of the sixties and seventies, the period in which she came out as a lesbian and a radical feminist, are poems of Eros. Not merely eroticism, though there is plenty of that—and it is important—but a poetry of passionate relation and reinvention. It is also a poetry that values plainspokenness over rhetorical expertise. “Now and again to name / over the bare necessities,” as she instructs herself in “Necessities of Life.” Read More »
January 12, 2012 | by Robyn Creswell
Most of the poems stuck in my head are rap songs. Rap is the music I grew up listening to, and the lyrics from those days, the late eighties and early nineties, have stayed with me. I’ve forgotten most of the poems I had to memorize at school; of Keats’s “To Autumn,” I remember only the famous lines. On the other hand, Big Daddy Kane’s “Smooth Operator,” Rakim’s “Mahogany,” or Nas’s “N.Y. State of Mind”—these are poems I know by heart, from beginning to end, and will probably never forget.
Some people don’t believe raps are poems. They have a point. On the page, arranged into lines and stanzas, raps lose most of their appeal. I’m grateful to Bradley and DuBois’s enormous Anthology of Rap, if only because I now know what Raekwon is saying on “Triumph” (which doesn’t mean I understand it: “The swift chancellor, flex, the white-gold tarantula / Track truck diesel, play the weed, god, substantiala.” Can I get a footnote?). But when raps are spelled out like this they lose their fluidity, their life in three dimensions. Rap is not monotonous, though it is almost always composed in couplets and four-four lines. But the good songs always surprise you, leave you wrong-footed, put the emphasis or rhyme where you don’t expect it.
There is no doubt that Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,” is a poem, but it is one of the few that feels to me like a rap—an especially good one. This is because of the way it establishes a pattern and then continually breaks away from it. The poem is based on the repetition of or, but as we read through it, what seemed like a formal constraint becomes a principle of transformation, a hinge that keeps flexing. The poem begins, as I read it, by riffing on the either/or logic of identity questionnaires (“You could get with this, or you could get with that,” as Black Sheep once put it, in a different context). But it quickly ramifies into geography, history, poetics. Read it out loud a few times and you might find you already have it memorized: Read More »
November 7, 2011 | by Robyn Creswell
Last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its renovated and newly enlarged wing of Islamic art, now called Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia. The new space, which is gorgeous, is entirely redesigned. The galleries are now organized by theme and material as well as period. There is more figurative art—paintings, illuminated manuscripts, glazed pottery—and greater geographical breadth. Many of the pieces displayed in the old galleries are also here, newly contextualized. Others, never displayed, have been taken out of the museum’s twelve-thousand-object collection. And some pieces were acquired over the past eight years, while the wing was closed to the public. Among the most seductive of these new objects is a zoomorphic dagger (pictured above) from sixteenth-century Deccan India. I recently took a tour of the galleries with curator Navina Haidar, who talked to me about some of its treasures, new and old. Read More »
September 20, 2011 | by Robyn Creswell
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s first novel, is a book about baseball in the way that Moby-Dick is a book about whaling—it is and it isn’t. The shortstop at the center of the novel is Henry Skrimshander, an idiot savant in the field, who is recruited to play for the Harpooners of Westish College, a small school on the shores of Lake Michigan. Harbach was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail from his home in Brooklyn.
What was your position?
Over the course of my twelve-year baseball career (which ended when I was seventeen), I played the middle infield—short and second both.
Did you have any hopes of playing in college?
Not really. I was Henry-like (though with hardly a shred of his talent) in the sense that I was a good athlete who was too small and slight. I blame my parents for starting me in school early and making me forever the youngest guy on the team. Read More »
August 23, 2011 | by Robyn Creswell
The summer issue of The Paris Review includes a series of poems by Cathy Park Hong. Hong has published two books of poetry, Translating Mo’um (2002) and Dance Dance Revolution (2007). She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
The poems published in this issue come from a longer work, entitled “Fort Ballads.” How does it fit into your forthcoming book, Engine Empire?
“Fort Ballads” is part of the first section in Engine Empire. The poems in the collection range from a trilogy, ranging from Western ballads to love poems set in present-day industrial China to poems set in a virtual future. “Fort Ballads” follows a band of outlaw fortune-seekers who travel to a California boomtown during the 1800s. The boomtown isn’t real; it’s full of strange, violent, sometimes surreal happenings. It’s my own way of mythologizing California, which is where I’m from. The main character is “Our Jim,” who’s half Comanche Indian. In creating him, I was thinking of the typical iconic Western guys, like Billy the Kid, but his story is also reminiscent of Huck Finn and maybe a little of Faulkner’s Joe Christmas. He’s an orphan, a cipher, a boy trapped between identities, both innocent and vengeful. But the section isn’t all narrative—there are sound poems in there as well, where I let myself wallow in kitschy Western vernacular. Read More »
March 18, 2011 | by Robyn Creswell
What is the best poetry anthology to give my father’s new, and much younger, fiancée at her bridal shower? —Rachel
What a lovely, tricky question. I suppose it depends on how you feel about your mother-in-law-to-be, or how you’d like her to feel about you. Gifts, especially when they are books, say so much about the giver. In my experience the best anthologies are unapologetically personal. The pleasure of reading André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor or Kingsley Amis’s The Amis Anthology is the pleasure of discovering the editor’s sensibility, refracted into a choice of readings. Great anthologies surprise us. They make connections we hadn’t noticed before. But these might not make ideal gifts for a bridal shower. Might I then suggest John Hollander’s Marriage Poems? Hollander is one of our finest anthologists—if the marriage results in any children, you might try finding The Wind and the Rain: An Anthology of Poems for Young People—and all his collections include pleasurable surprises.
Alongside the epithalamia there is James Dickey’s “Adultery” (“Although we come together,/ Nothing will come of us. But we would not give/ It up”) and Swift’s “The Progress of Marriage,” about an elder gentleman and his much younger bride. (Be warned: it’s vicious.) In the same Everyman series is Meena Alexander’s excellent Indian Love Poems, which is exactly what it claims to be. Both books are small, elegant, and inexpensive.