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On Poetry

A Chain on the Great Feelings

February 11, 2014 | by

The deceptively breezy poems of Stevie Smith.

NPG x133107; Florence Margaret ('Stevie') Smith by Jane Bown

Photo: Jane Bown

Stevie Smith’s playful, carnivalesque poems, tiny on the page but emotionally trenchant, are getting a new life—her Best Poems were reissued in December. 

It’s high time. Smith’s work has been nearly forgotten, her books having fallen out of print. She is not, on the surface, tenderly lyrical or feminist enough to court contemporary readers. Born in England in 1902, she enjoyed some popularity in the sixties for oddball performances of her poems, which she often sang, or read with spooky dramatic flair, but she might just have been too original, or too variegated, for any one school of poetry to champion her work. Perhaps she has also been dismissed because she comes off as cold and hard, a person of uncertain likeability: her so-called comic verse roils with death wishes and sneering attacks on other poets. (“Let all the little poets be gathered together in classes / And let prizes be given to them by the Prize Asses,” she says in “To School!”) She has been put in with Blake, Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson. Fine company, but Smith is far more varied, unfettered, and disenchanted than all that. Her lines have scope. They contain a high-low mix of childlike diction, plain speech, formal rhymes, and heroic couplets, with a register that ricochets between folk tunes, hymnals, liturgy, nursery rhymes, and lyrical verse. She deliberately set many poems to the tunes of hymns, and sang them as such. Given all the wit and intellect that animate her poetry, why has she been forgotten? 

A profoundly independent and, by all accounts, slightly peculiar woman, Smith—born Florence Margaret, and only later Stevie—lived in the same house in North London from the time she was three until her death, taking care of an aunt she treasured, without the need to insert a proper man or children into her life. She worked as a secretary in the women’s magazine business for her entire career, which perhaps is why, in her poems and in her letters, she tilts to seeing women as acutely silly. She avoided serious relationships, settling instead into easily reciprocated, caring friendships and a familial bond with her aunt. Read More »

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The Leaves’ Leavetaking

January 22, 2014 | by

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Photo: Horia Varlan, via Flickr

Howard Moss, the late poet, was born today in 1922. Moss’s Selected Poems won the National Book Award in 1972; he served as The New Yorker’s poetry editor for nearly forty years, from 1948 until his death in 1987. The Paris Review published his poem “A Balcony with Birds” in our fourth issue, circa the winter of 1953; an excerpt follows.

The light that hangs in the ailanthus weaves
   The leaves’ leavetaking overtaking leaves.
The actual is real and not imagined,—still,
   The eye, so learned in disenchantment, sees
Two trees at once, this one of summer’s will,
   And winter’s one, when no bird will assail
The skyline’s hyaline transparencies,
   Emptying its architecture by degrees.

Roundly in its fury, soon, the sun
   Feverish with light, goes down, and on
Come ambitious stars—the stars that were
   But this morning dimmed. Somewhere a slow
Piano scales the summits of the air
   And disappears, and dark descends, and though
The birds turn off their songs now light is gone,
   The mind drowned in the dark may dream them on.

 

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W. H. Auden at the 92nd Street Y

January 22, 2014 | by

W. H. Auden at the Poetry Center, 1966. Photo: Diane Dorr-Dorynek, courtesy of 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center

W. H. Auden at the Poetry Center, 1966. Photo: Diane Dorr-Dorynek, courtesy of 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center

75 at 75,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here, Cynthia Ozick reflects on W. H. Auden, whose readings she remembers attending as a Poetry Center subscriber in the fifties.

There must be sorrow if there can be love. —From “Canzone”

Ah, the fabled sixties and seventies! Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs! The glorious advent of Howling! Of Getting Stoned! The proliferation of Ginsbergian Exclamation Points! To secure the status of their literary subversion, these revolutionary decades were obliged, like the cadres of every insurrection, to denigrate and despise, and sometimes to blow up, their immediate predecessor, the fifties—the middling middle, the very navel, of the twentieth century. The fifties, after all, were the Eisenhower years, stiff and small like Mamie’s bangs (and just as dated), dully mediocre, constrained, consumerist, car-finned, conformist, forgettable, and stale as modernism itself. Randall Jarrell, one of its leading poets and critics, named this midcentury epoch “The Age of Criticism”—and what, however he intended it, could suggest prosiness more? And what is prosiness if not the negation of the lively, the living, the lasting, the daring, the true and the new? The reality was sublimely opposite. It was, in fact, the Age of Poetry, a pinnacle and an exaltation; there has not been another since. Its poets were more than luminaries—they were colossi, their very names were talismans, and they rose before us under a halo of brilliant lights like figures in a shrine. It was a kind of shrine: the grand oaken hall, the distant stage and its hallowed lectern, the enchanted voices with their variegated intonations, the rapt listeners scarcely breathing, the storied walls themselves in trance—this was the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in the heart of the twentieth century. Read More »

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Teeth Marks: Three Early Poems by Albert Cossery

December 3, 2013 | by

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Image via 3ammagazine.com.

Like his friend, fellow Scorpio, and confidant Albert Camus, Albert Cossery would also have celebrated his one hundredth birthday last month. The patron saint of indolence—who wrote only when he had nothing better to do—died in 2008. But one can imagine that Cossery, had he made it to his centenary, would have been exactly like Cossery at any age. The elegant Egyptian novelist, impeccably dressed, forever held fast to his routine. For nearly sixty years, until his death, he lived in an austere room in the Hotel La Louisiane in St. Germain des Prés. Each day he slept late, venturing out only in the afternoons, to bask in the sun and watch the girls of the Luxembourg Gardens, or to have a plate of lentils and fizzy water at the Café de Flore and linger for hours, doing nothing. Even when, toward the end of his life, he was hospitalized for an operation, Cossery—still wearing the ward’s pajamas—escaped the hospital for the café, pushed in a wheelchair by a beautiful blonde.

“Here comes Tutanhkamun,” the waiters whispered behind his back. Just so, Cossery’s writings, forever returning to the same scenes and casts—of mendicants and saltimbanques, failed revolutionaries and hashish-addled philosophers—preserved a certain consistency over the decades. The young Albert, who attended French schools as a child in Cairo, began his first novel at age ten. At seventeen, he published a book of poems, titled Les Morsures, “The Teeth Marks” or “Bites.” By all accounts the book has been lost, and Cossery himself up until his death coyly refused to aid any devoted readers in search of a copy. Yet three poems were preserved in the monumental anthology Poètes en Egypte, edited in Cairo in 1955 by Jean Moscatelli. The anthology, which brought together over fifty-five Franco-Egyptian writers, captured the collective achievements of a literary community in the twilight of its end. It included Cossery’s friends Georges Henein and Edmond Jabès, as well as Joyce Mansour and Horus Schenouda—all of whom were soon to leave, or had already left, for exile in Paris in the wake of Nasser’s coup. Read More »

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Contra Dancing with Pierre Reverdy

September 11, 2013 | by

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“I’d have to go up or it’s better if you come down and, arm in arm, let’s go somewhere else where no one looks at us,” says Pierre Reverdy in his poem “Further Away Than There.” So many of Reverdy’s tiny geometric poems are like this: refreshingly, dizzyingly cubist. You think you’re reading a poem but are being manipulated to move around it in a way that’s cinematic.

Reverdy’s is the latest in The New York Review of Books’s new poetry-in-translation series. The tiny ultramarine-and-turquoise book is packed with embittered, contemplative, spooky, lyrical, and emotionally honest poems. Reverdy dares to move a sentence into strange and misleading territory but it seldom makes no sense. The fourteen translators, who include Rosanna Warren and John Ashbery, are as disparate in tone, syntax, and translation style as you can get. It’s hats off to Reverdy, then, for producing work so exacting that it reads consistently and lucidly in English.

At the center of the French avant-garde, Reverdy founded Nord-Sud in 1917 with Apollinaire and Max Jacob, and was close friends with the cubist painters Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. It’s because of these friendships that Reverdy became associated with literary cubism. (In March 1917, Juan Gris launched his treatise on cubism, “Sur le Cubisme,” in Nord-Sud.) Though Reverdy’s Nord-Sud lasted only a year, it embodied and advanced the avant-garde movements, especially surrealism and dadaism, that coalesced and overlapped in wartime Paris.

I skimmed the book from the back forward first, to see where Reverdy ended up. The varied forms (prose poems, fractured lines, squares, paragraphs) force you to constantly reassess, but the diction seemed deliberately chosen. Then I looked at Juan Gris’s paintings online. In Fruit Dish, Pipe and Newspaper, the diagonals cut up, down, and across the canvas. Turning back to the Reverdy, I closed in on a few poems, and found a parallel technique in a sentence in Always Alone: “In the street when our arms threw up a bridge, no one looked up and the houses tilted.” What an extraordinary scene—the pull between love and its boundaries, their private public space, houses tilting presumably around the lovers. Read More »

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Henry Doesn’t Have Any Bats

June 6, 2013 | by

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My poetry shelf is slim but holds the most thumbed book I own: John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, and, until recently, I would read several songs a week, rereading my favorites as if they held some kind of clue. I read them to cheer myself or wallow. I read them aloud, alone and to other people. Some nights after having wine, I’d read the meanest, strangest ones aloud. When I found a copy in a bookstore, I’d open to a favorite and hand it to someone. Even his darkest, most dire, most hopeless songs soothe me. Lines worm in me for weeks.

It’s not that I think Berryman is the most talented writer or that he has written the most important poems or that his work has reached some aesthetic pinnacle or that I have nothing better to read. All of those things are untrue, and yet I am compelled to read his work in a way I am not often compelled by anyone else’s work. I am still trying to understand why.

Nearly a decade ago, I almost made myself sick on them during a New Orleans summer. While hurricanes spun toward us from the gulf, dire conversations at the grocery store blended into my Dream Song summer like milk poured into milk.

A note signed J.B. at the front of the book: 

The poem then … is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age … who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.

Read More »

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