October 8, 2015 | by Sarah Howe
The poetry of astrophysics.
It’s not a new idea that poets and scientists should talk to one another. During a visit to Florence in 1638, the young John Milton sought out Galileo Galilei. By then a blind old man, Galileo was living under house arrest, confined by the Inquisition for asserting, after his celestial observations, that the Earth revolved around the sun. Years later, old and blind himself, Milton would pay homage—in his epic poem about the origins of our universe, Paradise Lost—to the great astronomer, who makes a cameo appearance with his telescope pointed at the sun’s dark spots.
Five years ago I got my first job, as a research fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; in the stray hours between thinking about Milton or Donne, I finished my first book of poems. In college, a wooden ramp across the four-hundred-year-old stone steps is the only outward sign of its most famous fellow. Fifty years ago, Stephen Hawking arrived fresh from his Ph.D. (as I did) to take up a research fellowship at Caius, then never left. Within that community, where I would sit down to lunch with friends in maths, genetics, or cognitive science, traces of those conversations began to creep into my notebooks and even into poems. When I got the commission to write a poem on light for this year’s National Poetry Day—today, in the UK—my first thought was paradoxically of its absence: the black holes whose mysteries Professor Hawking has spent his career working to unfold. Read More »
September 11, 2015 | by Eleanor Goodman
How a scandal about a Chinese name has been received in China.
This past February, the Chinese media widely announced that the Chinese poet Biqujibu, an ethnic Yi from western Sichuan, had been shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, international category. Only twenty-three years old, he was selected for his very first book of poetry, a 1,500-line epic poem written in English, called A Poem Sacrifice for a Mountain Dream. Among the literary stars who wrote glowing reviews of the book were Biden Sitland (a famous American poet), Liffen Lushby (a prominent American translator, critic, and member of the Nobel selection committee), and Didian Linda (an American woman poet, a proponent of “rural writing”). This was an astonishing honor for a young ethnic-minority writer living in a country whose great literary works have been largely overlooked by American critics and readers.
But of course it never happened. The entire thing, including the unconvincing names and the assertion that the Pulitzer committee created the “international” prize just for Biqujibu’s sake, was made up. Even the poet in question turned out not to be ethnic Yi, but Han (the majority ethnicity in China). News of this fantastically ambitious ruse never made it to the States. And why should it have? It had nothing to do with the U.S., really; it had to do with the distant fame of the Pulitzer, and a lust for outside recognition in a dusty mountain town somewhere near the border of Yunnan. Read More »
September 11, 2015 | by David Orr
Everyone knows Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”—and almost everyone gets it wrong.
From The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, a new book by David Orr.
A young man hiking through a forest is abruptly confronted with a fork in the path. He pauses, his hands in his pockets, and looks back and forth between his options. As he hesitates, images from possible futures flicker past: the young man wading into the ocean, hitchhiking, riding a bus, kissing a beautiful woman, working, laughing, eating, running, weeping. The series resolves at last into a view of a different young man, with his thumb out on the side of a road. As a car slows to pick him up, we realize the driver is the original man from the crossroads, only now he’s accompanied by a lovely woman and a child. The man smiles slightly, as if confident in the life he’s chosen and happy to lend that confidence to a fellow traveler. As the car pulls away and the screen is lit with gold—for it’s a commercial we’ve been watching—the emblem of the Ford Motor Company briefly appears.
The advertisement I’ve just described ran in New Zealand in 2008. And it is, in most respects, a normal piece of smartly assembled and quietly manipulative product promotion. But there is one very unusual aspect to this commercial. Here is what is read by a voice-over artist, in the distinctive vowels of New Zealand, as the young man ponders his choice: Read More »
July 27, 2015 | by Jake Orbison
Confessional poetry and The Twilight Zone.
Who wants to be a confessional poet?
Those we’ve saddled with the label—Lowell, Berryman, Snodgrass, Sexton, et cetera—usually react to it with frustration, if not outright hatred. That should come as no surprise. Most poetic movements are met by some degree of disapproval, or at least discomfort. Writers are practically obliged to deny this critical tendency: how dare we readers, critics, English students, reduce entire books, careers, or generations to a singular term. Maybe writers resent words like confessional, imagist, or even Romantic because they inevitably blur a poet’s individual edges into something bland, familiar, and more easily shared. Or maybe the anxiety stems from the fact that labels like this often hover over living writers like tombstones, as critics prepare to title their chapter in literary history.
June 23, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
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 »
April 7, 2015 | by Nick Tabor
The widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”
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 »