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On Poetry

The Poetaster

December 1, 2014 | by

_Red_Laughter_-

Kārlis Padegs, Red Laughter (detail), 1931.

In 1876, Julia A. Moore published The Sweet Singer of Michigan Salutes the Public, a best-selling series of poems to honor our nation’s centennial. Moore was an obituary poet: the elegy was her preferred mode. Local death notices and tales of wartime derring-do moved her to versify. She was especially fond of addressing poems to dead children.

Her work is, in a word, bad.

In fact, her collection sallied forth with such cloying sincerity—a note from the publisher claimed that any profits would be used “to complete the Washington monument”—that the satirists of the time decided to have a field day with it. Mark Twain parodied her in Huckleberry Finn; Bill Nye—the nineteenth-century humorist, not the contemporary scientist—said that hers was a poetic license that ought to have been revoked; the Hartford Times noted her collection’s “steady and unremitting demands on the lachrymal ducts”; and a critic in the Rochester Democrat wrote of her work, “Shakespeare, could he read it, would be glad that he was dead … If Julia A. Moore would kindly deign to shed some of her poetry on our humble grave, we should be but too glad to go out and shoot ourselves tomorrow.”

Best of all, maybe, was the review in the Worcester Daily Press: “[Moore] reaches for the sympathy of humanity as a Rhode Islander reaches for a quahaug, clutches the tendrils of the soul as a garden rake clutches a hop vine, and hauls the reader into a closer sympathy than that which exists between a man and his undershirt.”

And so Moore gathered renown, like William McGonagall, as a poetaster, i.e., an inferior poet. (The word has fallen into disuse lately, but maybe it can have a renaissance in 2015.) You may chide her critics for their ironic jeering—it took some time, apparently, for Moore to get the joke, and eventually she was cowed into silence. By 1878 she’d been mocked from coast to coast and lampooned at her own public appearances. “Literary is a work very difficult to do,” she said to those who teased her.

But before you cluck, have a look at Moore’s poetry, which may make you want to throw tomatoes at her.

Here’s the whole of “Grand Rapids Cricket Club”: Read More »

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William Meredith’s “Parents”

November 26, 2014 | by

James Vaughan, via Flickr

INTERVIEWER

Some of the poems in The Cheer revolve around a single, central, and somewhat mysterious idea. I’m thinking of poems like “Parents”…

MEREDITH

I’d love to tell you the story about “Parents” because it occurred one time after I’d gone to a Thanksgiving dinner where a couple I’m very fond of had three surviving parents. The three parents seemed to me valid, charming, interesting people, about my own age, and to their children they seemed, as parents normally do, embarrassing, stupid, tedious, albeit lovable. I saw my friends suffering and I remembered such suffering. The poem says essentially, “It is in the nature of things that one’s own parents are tacky, and this should give you compassion because your children will find you tacky.” The poem came out of that particular experience.

—William Meredith, the Art of Poetry No. 34, 1985

What it must be like to be an angel
or a squirrel, we can imagine sooner.

The last time we go to bed good,
they are there, lying about darkness.

They dandle us once too often,
these friends who become our enemies.

Suddenly one day, their juniors
are as old as we yearn to be.

They get wrinkles where it is better
smooth, odd coughs, and smells.

It is grotesque how they go on
loving us, we go on loving them

The effrontery, barely imaginable,
of having caused us. And of how.

Their lives: surely
we can do better than that.

This goes on for a long time. Everything
they do is wrong, and the worst thing,

they all do it, is to die,
taking with them the last explanation,

how we came out of the wet sea
or wherever they got us from,

taking the last link
of that chain with them.

Father, mother, we cry, wrinkling,
to our uncomprehending children and grandchildren.

1 COMMENT

The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri

November 25, 2014 | by

A man unzipping his fly is vulnerable to attack.
Then the zipper got stuck.
An angel flies in the window to unstick it.
A drone was monitoring all this
In real time
And it appears on a monitor on Mars,
Though of course with a relay delay.
One of the monitors at the Mars base drone station
Is carefully considering all your moves for terror output.
But not to worry. Forget about about about it.

The body of the man you were
Has disappeared inside the one you wear.

Reminds me of the story of the man who had nipples
Where his elbows should be and whose skeleton
Was on the outside of his body.
The guy walks into a shop on Madison to buy some clothes
And buys some and walks out wearing them
Wearing them and into the Carlyle bar.
One of the waiters, originally from Algeria of all places,
Recognizes him and says with the strong accent
He has despite many years of living in the United States:
Your usual?

A man has disappeared inside his corpse.
His corpse has disappeared inside a cause.

Reminds me of the video of Robert Kennedy
Announcing to a largely black audience at an outdoor campaign rally
At night in Indianapolis
That Martin Luther King had been shot
And killed and by a white man.
Martin Luther King is dead.

Skin color is the name.
Skin color is the game.
Skin color is to blame for Ferguson, Missouri.

The body of the man you were
Has disappeared inside the one you wear.

I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County.

A man unzipping his fly is vulnerable to attack.
Then the zipper got stuck.
An angel flies in the window to unstick it.
Here comes light-skinned Billie Holiday, Lady Day, no angel!

A drone was monitoring all this,
Which appears on a monitor on Mars,
Though of course with a relay delay.
One of the monitors at the Mars base drone station
Is carefully considering all your moves for terror output.
But not to worry.
Fuhgeddaboudit.

Reminds me of the story of the man whose smile
Shot out flames and whose skin
Was on the outside of his body.
The guy walks naked into a shop on Madison Avenue to buy some clothes
And buys some and walks out on fire wearing them and goes straight
Across the street in flames to the Carlyle bar.
One of the waiters looks as if he’s having a stroke
And raises his hands in Arabic,
Palms in, and murmurs a prayer,
And brings God a glass of humble water.

You can change
From chasing Communists
And chasing Jimmy Hoffa, the mobster union president
Who however supported civil rights,

And change to blessing and being blessed.

Some victims change from a corpse to a cause.
You can change

Reminds me of the video of Robert Kennedy
Announcing to a largely black audience at an outdoor campaign rally
At night in Indianapolis
That Martin Luther King had been shot
And killed and by a white man.
Martin Luther King is dead.

 

Frederick Seidel received the 2014 Hadada Prize. This poem will appear in our Winter Issue, available next month.

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Walt Whitman, “Election Day, November, 1884”

November 4, 2014 | by

1900_New_York_polling_place

A polling place in New York ca. 1900.

A reminder: Walt Whitman really, really liked Election Day. Nothing could quicken the man’s pulse like a good showing at the polls.

As “Election Day, November, 1884” has it, he preferred the spectacle of democracy—the “ballot-shower from East to West”—to any of our nation’s natural wonders, including, but not limited to, Niagara Falls, the Mississippi River, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Great Lakes … you name it, Whitman thought the vote was better than it. (You’d think someone could’ve sold him on the Rockies, at least.) One can imagine a latter-day Whitman passing up a trip to the Grand Canyon and instead hunkering down at the TV, flipping anxiously from network to network as the precincts begin to report, wringing his hands. Not, mind you, that he would have any particular stake in the outcome; he’d just be along for the great democratic ride, clucking his tongue at the gerrymanderers of the world.

(If you need an antidote for all this unalloyed patriotism, try Charles Bernstein’s “On Election Day,” which contains, among many excellent lines, “The air is putrid, red, interpolating, quixotic, torpid, vulnerable, on election day.” I know which poet would get my vote.)

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest
         scene and show,
’Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor
         your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-
         loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—
         nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name— the
still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the
         quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland
         —Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia,
         California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and con-
         flict,
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:)
         the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the
         heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.

1 COMMENT

Postcards from Another Planet

September 3, 2014 | by

The art of spam.

Stamps_of_Germany_(DDR)_1987,_MiNr_3132

Detail from a 1987 German postage stamp

The Daily gets thousands of comments a day. Nearly all of them are spam. This should be annoying, and I suppose it can be. Problem is, I find myself captivated by our spam, so much so that I keep a running list of my favorite comments. As far as I know, they’re entirely computer generated: an algorithm hurls together bits of text from around the Internet, hoping to rustle up enough verisimilitude to trick our spam filter. The results are unduly captivating—they’re by turns ludic, cryptic, disquieting, emotional, and inadvertently profound. On many days they’re more interesting than the comments we receive from real people.

Here, for instance, is an automated comment from “geniadove”:

If you give it your name it will call you by it when you start up the GPS. These incidences come about quite normally, showing that Peter dislikes his daughter. A huge clue that your ex boyfriend still has feelings for you. —geniadove

That swerve at “Peter dislikes his daughter”—whoa! Dissertations have been written about less. And to see a clinical phrase like “These incidences come about quite normally” next to a casual one like “A huge clue”: What does it all mean? The mind searches restlessly, somewhat desperately, for connective tissue, some semblance of conventional narrative. Like autostereograms, these comments always verge on resolving into a discernible whole; unlike autostereograms, they never do. Read More »

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On the Slaughter

July 31, 2014 | by

A political poem’s ironic new life.

Bialik_ParisReview 001

Bialik at around age thirty.

ON THE SLAUGHTER

Heaven—have mercy.
If you hold a God
(to whom there’s a path
that I haven’t found), pray for me.
My heart has died.
There is no prayer on my lips.
My hope and strength are gone.
How long? How much longer?

Executioner, here’s my neck:
Slaughter! You’ve got the ax and the arm.
The world to me is a butcher-block—
we, whose numbers are small
it’s open season on our blood:
Crack a skull—let the blood
of infant and elder spurt on your chest,
and let it remain there forever, and ever.

If there’s justice—let it come now!
But if it should come after I’ve been
blotted out beneath the sky,
let its throne be cast down.
Let the heavens rot in evil everlasting,
and you, with your cruelty,
go in your iniquity
and live and bathe in your blood.

And cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!
Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child,
Satan has yet to devise.
Let the blood fill the abyss!
Let it pierce the blackest depths
and devour the darkness
and eat away and reach
the rotting foundations of the earth.

Political poems lead strange lives—they often wither on the vines of the events they’re tied to. Old news gives way to new, and the whole undertaking starts to seem, well, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. For many and maybe most American readers, “poetry and politics just don’t mix.”

But sometimes they do. Quite violently.

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking home together from their West Bank yeshivas. They were murdered—most likely within hours of being taken—and, eighteen days later, after an extensive search, their bodies were discovered under some rocks in a field near Hebron. Israel mourned, and raged. Emerging from a cabinet meeting convened just after the corpses were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families and quoted the great modernist Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik: “Vengeance … for the blood of a small child, / Satan has not yet created.” He went on in his own words: “Hamas is responsible—and Hamas will pay.” For good measure, the Prime Minister’s office tweeted the lines as well.

As anyone who hasn’t lived atop a column in the Congo for the past seven weeks knows, a series of violent, retaliatory acts followed. Israel carried out mass arrests on the West Bank, killing six in the process; a Palestinian teenager was beaten and burned alive by a group of Jews; throngs of Palestinians destroyed tracks and stations on the Jerusalem light-rail line; Jewish gangs shouting “Death to the Arabs!” rampaged through Jerusalem in search of victims—and found them; some thirty-five thousand Facebook users “liked” a page called “The People of Israel Demand Revenge”; Hamas fired rockets by the dozen into Israel from Gaza; Hamas officials warned that “the gates of hell” would open if Israel attacked in retaliation for the killings or the shelling. Read More »

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