The Daily

On Poetry

I Have Wasted My Life

June 23, 2015 | by

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Niels Frederik Schiøttz-Jensen, An Afternoon’s Rest, 1885

The narrator of “Yancey,” Ann Beattie’s story in our new Summer issue, is an aging poet; she tells of her encounter with an IRS agent who shows up to audit her. Toward the end, she recites a poem to him—James Wright’s famous “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”:

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses

Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

As it turns out, that poem first appeared in The Paris Review; it was published some fifty-four years ago alongside his “How My Fever Left” in our Summer-Fall 1961 issue. Since then, that last line has inspired reams of analysis and debate—is it a lament? Is it a joke, a kind of boast? Did Wright intend to undercut or to bolster his pastoral scene with it? Could it be a winking response to Rilke, whose “Archaic Torso of Apollo” concludes with the imperative “You must change your life”? Beattie’s IRS agent isn’t sure what to make of it: Read More »

No Slouch

April 7, 2015 | by

The widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

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An undated photo of Yeats by the Bain News Service.

A recent Russia Today headline suggests that Europe is “slouching towards anxiety and war.” According to the title of Robert Bork’s latest best seller, the United States is Slouching Towards Gomorrah. A new book by W. C. Harris, an English professor, claims we’re Slouching Towards Gaytheism. A casual reader might wonder why the nations of the world have such terrible posture; is it that the earth is slouching towards bedlam? Have things fallen apart?

The only thing not doing any slouching these days is the “rough beast” in W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the 1919 poem from which the phrase originates: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

But Yeats’s beast, it must be said, isn’t deteriorating or dying in its slouching, as the many references to the phrase would have you believe; rather, it slouches in steady, dedicated progress toward a goal. It’s actually a terrifying sight: the poem’s narrator intuits that the beast is coming to wreak some untold havoc. (At least one blog got this subtlety right in a headline about the 2012 election cycle: “Romney slouching toward GOP nomination.”)

“The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration. But how many of them get it right? Read More »

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The Space Between Everything

March 12, 2015 | by

The elliptical life of Etheridge Knight.

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Etheridge Knight

This piece is part of a lecture for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series, a nonprofit that provides poets with the opportunity to explore in-depth their own thinking on the subject of poetics. Terrance Hayes will deliver his lecture, Three Acts of Love: As You Leave Me, Upon Your Leaving, and Feeling Fucked Up,’ ” tomorrow at five P.M. at NYU.

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grandfathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style, they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me; they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee. —Etheridge Knight, “The Idea of Ancestry

Who was Etheridge Knight, and why should he be of interest to me, or more important, to you? Knight himself thought it was enough simply to say, on the back of his 1968 debut collection, Poems from Prison, “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound, and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” If you’ve read anything about him, you’ve likely encountered these lines. Just behind their resurrectional vibe are several unwritten chapters in the biography of a talented, ex-con, con man, blues-blooded rambling romantic.

Knight died in 1991. He was born in 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi, a town founded only about around eighty years before his birth. Thus the “ancestors” of his most anthologized poem, “The Idea of Ancestry,” only go back not to Africa but to his grandparents. The Cozarts on his mother’s side of the family counted themselves among the town’s founders; they were landowners, cotton farmers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and storytellers. His father, on the other hand, was a laborer from Ramer, Tennessee, a smaller-than-small town twenty minutes from Corinth. According to Eunice, Knight’s younger sister, their mother, Belzora Cozart, didn’t know a thing about being poor until she married Etheridge Bushie Knight, and then moved with their children nearly two hundred miles north to Paducah, Kentucky, when he took a job working on the Kentucky Dam. Knight was just a boy at the time, but as he writes in “The Idea of Ancestry,” “the brown hills and red gullies of Mississippi” were already calling him back with “their electric messages, galvanizing [his] genes.” Read More »

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My Lost Poet

February 23, 2015 | by

Anger and tenderness in Philip Levine.

Photo: Frances Levine

In the spring of 2012, Philip Levine delivered a lecture at the Library of Congress called “My Lost Poets,” marking the end of his tenure as the eighteenth U.S. poet laureate. In the talk, which was later published in Five Points, Georgia State University’s literary journal, Levine takes us to Wayne University’s Miles Poetry Room in 1948, where, once a month, he and other aspiring poets gathered to talk shop and critique one another’s work. The group comprised four World War II vets and a number of Wayne University students, including a young man who would eventually be drafted to the Korean War, a narcissistic Hart Crane wannabe, a rural Southern Baptist woman from Kentucky, and a young black man obsessed with Walt Whitman. In the wake of the war, Levine explained, the group found urgency and vitality in poetry, regardless of their respective talents. This poetic camaraderie was short-lived, though. The Hart Crane fanboy died in a car wreck at an early age; the Southern Baptist disappeared into the jungles of Latin America; the Whitman worshiper saw his idealism dissolve in the face of fifties-era politics and Jim Crow laws. Still, it was these people, along with the war poets he discovered during that time, who helped shape Levine’s own poetic voice.

That voice, when he finally found it, decried the injustices of our society, of working-class life in particular, lending Levine’s experience a “value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own.” Unlike his great hero, Walt Whitman, Levine doesn’t seem to stand over us, exalting and exalted. Instead, he’s always among the multitude bearing witness to the historical moment. He looks out every so often to address his reader with a plural or a singular you that invites us to share his vision, expanding our own. His poems are full of unrealized dreams, with auxiliary verbs—would, could, should—signaling inevitable disappointments or a foreboding sense of what’s to come. This dissonance between one’s idealistic fantasies and reality conjure a tremendous anger in his work, evident especially in his earlier poems about factory life in Detroit. Read More »

A Green World

February 17, 2015 | by

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William Bronk

Whenever anyone mentions William Bronk, they usually preface the word poet with obscure, or little known, or forgotten. Bronk—born February 17, 1918; he died in 1999—is apparently read so rarely that Daniel Wolff’s piece on him in last spring’s Literary Review was called “Why Nobody Reads William Bronk.”

“First, it’s hard,” Wolff writes. “The second reason is: it’s hard.” He outlines Bronk’s ars poetica: Read More »

Stanisław Barańczak’s “This Is Not a Conversation for the Telephone”

January 5, 2015 | by

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Barańczak in a photo from Ostatni wiersz z Widokówki z tego świata, 1988.

I’ve been thinking today of Stanisław Barańczak, the Polish poet and translator who died last month at sixty-eight. He was known for flouting state censors with poems that mocked the euphemistic language of communism, and his work was seditious enough that in the seventies he was barred from publishing in Poland, though he continued to publish underground. By the early eighties, his politics had cost him his job as a professor in Poznan, and he decamped to the U.S. to lecture at Harvard. In a famous speech he likened life as a dissident to breathing underwater, with a nod to a science-fiction story by Stanisław Lem:

Bubbling sounds were the only acceptable means of communication, the official propaganda emphasized the advantages of being wet, and occasional breathing above water was considered almost a political offense—although everyone had to do it from time to time …

I wonder what Barańczak would’ve made of the new PEN International report, published this morning, on writers and government surveillance. It suggests that free expression around the world—even in the U.S., where what we’ve come to call “content producers” aren’t in the habit of fearing violence from the state—is in some ways more embattled now than it’s been since the Cold War.

It’s worth reading the report in full, though it will make you gnash your teeth and hurl invective at various institutions, chiefly the NSA. (And why shouldn’t you? You’ve already got their ear.) PEN International polled 772 writers from fifty countries, with some classified as “free,” some as “partly free,” and some “not free.” But those gradations hardly matter, it seems, when it comes to freedom of expression. Of the respondents, 75 percent in free countries, 84 percent in partly free countries, and 80 percent in not free countries said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about surveillance. Some were so worried that they were afraid to say how worried they were:

As a final indication of the way the current “surveillance crisis” affects and haunts us, I should say that I have had serious misgivings about whether to write the above and include it in this questionnaire. It is clear to me from the information I have given you that my responses to the questionnaire, and presumably also therefore this statement, can be traced back to me. It may be that this information will be hacked by security agencies. Surely anyone who thinks thoughts like these will be in danger—if not today, then (because this is a process) possibly tomorrow.

Read More »

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