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On Poetry

Rita Dove’s “Canary”

July 17, 2014 | by

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Billie Holiday and her dog Mister, New York, ca. June 1946. Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Billie Holiday died fifty-five years ago today. Many eminent American poets have elegized Holiday, attempting to capture something of her exquisite voice, whose unique tough-tender grain suggested a life of extremes. Langston Hughes’s “Song for Billie Holiday,” Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Rita Dove’s “Canary” are just a few of the diverse poetic responses to the loss of Lady Day; Kevin Young’s anthology Jazz Poems devotes an entire thoughtfully curated section, “Muting (for Billie Holiday),” to her memory.

These works belong to the larger tradition of the jazz elegy, a genre that attempts something next to impossible: to commemorate and preserve music that’s defined by its immediacy and transience. The grain of the voice. The physicality of the performer. The improvisations and flourishes and intangibles that exist for one night only. If the essence of jazz exists in the moment of performance, then much of the work of the jazz elegy is to make such music legible while also acknowledging the futility of such a project.

Rita Dove’s “Canary,” from 1989, begins:

Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.

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Those Who Hope Not to Be Erased: An Interview with Carol Muske-Dukes

July 8, 2014 | by

Photo: Carlos Puma

Photo: Carlos Puma.

A writer and poet whose verse recently appeared in the Spring issue of The Paris ReviewCarol Muske-Dukes has long been interested and active in presenting a public face of poetry. A former poet laureate of California and a teacher for many years, she founded the Ph.D. program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and began a writing program, in 1972, at the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island in New York. On the heels of National Poetry Month, I spoke with Muske-Dukes at her home in Southern California about the many contemporary approaches to reading, writing, and thinking about the art of poetry, from hip-hop to “unoriginal genius” and how language matters.

What do you think the public face of poetry looks like?

Recently, a judge of the prestigious 2014 British Forward Prize for Poetry was moved to observe that “there is an awful lot of very powerful, lyrical, and readable poetry being written today,” but we need education, because “we have lost the sense that poetry sits halfway between prose and music—that you can’t expect to read it like a novel.”

A few years ago, the New York Times published an op-ed of mine, about learning poetry by heart. The response to it confirmed that people of all ages think about poetry as a kind of inspired music, embodying beauty and insight. On one hand, poetry has always flowed from music, as rap and hip-hop remind us big-time. Rappers know how poetry walks and talks. So we have music, or deeply felt recitations of poems that belong to collective memory. On the other hand, we have overly instructive prose poems, as well as the experiments of certain critical ideologies, or conceptual performance art. These aspects seem to represent the public, Janus face of poetry.

Is there a particular critical ideology you have in mind?

I’m thinking of the idea of “unoriginal genius,” though no one outside of the academy much cares about how some academic critics are now promoting it. “Unoriginal genius,” oxymoronic as it sounds, means simply that you can call yourself a genius in this age of technology if you’re savvy at editing, deleting, and erasing certain words from canonical poems and calling what remains proof of your genius. Read More »

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Mad with Desire (Kind Of)

June 24, 2014 | by

The peculiarly virginal hero of Orlando innamorato and Orlando furioso.

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From Gustave Doré’s illustrated Orlando furioso.

Love stories center on a problem—two people love each other, or one person loves another, and how are they going to get together? Sex is part of the solution, or usually is. There are, in literature, those strange cases where it isn’t.

In the literature of antiquity, sex is almost a last resort for the expression of love, and it seldom ends well. It’s the classic pitfall of the Old Testament. The transformations that compose the Metamorphoses are often brought about by sexual peril: Daphne turns into a tree to avoid having sex with Apollo. Syrinx turns into marsh reeds to escape pursuit by Pan. Io is turned into a cow as a bizarre result of having been raped by Zeus. Actaeon, the hunter, is famously turned into one of the very stags he hunts as punishment for seeing Diana naked, and is torn apart by his own dogs. The beautiful youth Hermaphroditus is so repulsed by the idea of erotic contact with a female nymph; she, obsessed, tries to take him by force. She wraps herself around him as he fights her off and prays to the gods to join them as one. And so one they become: a single two-sexed being.

In the realm of myth, sex is transformation, metaphor. Later on, in Arthurian and Carolingian romances, it is the concept of virginity that transforms—and not women’s virginity, but men’s. For the knights of Arthur’s Round Table, undistracted by any real political conflict during the reign of peace, the pursuit of God in grail form is the definitive test of purity. Only the virginal knight Galahad can see the Holy Grail, because of his virginity. “I never felt the kiss of love, / Nor maiden’s hand in mine,” Tennyson has him admit.

Galahad finds his Carolingian counterpart in Orlando, the idealistic, probably virginal hero in the Matter of France. The fifteenth century’s Orlando furioso (and its less-read predecessor, Orlando innamorato) revolves around the physical manifestation of Arthurian religious idealism: the religious wars between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Both stories concern Orlando’s doomed pursuit of the seemingly nondenominational Angelica, a woman whose sexuality is so potent that to escape pursuit by nearly everyone she meets, she must turn invisible by the use of a magic ring not unlike Tolkien’s. She is much closer to the template Ovid lays out in Metamorphoses, the stalked female relying on bodily transformation to escape abuse, though she is, ostensibly, the villain of the tale.

The Orlando cycle may be, in fact, the epic text most densely populated with imperiled virgins since the Metamorphoses itself. Read More »

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“Mum and the Sothsegger”

June 15, 2014 | by

Game of Thrones and medieval poetry.

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An illustration of apiaries from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, fourteenth century.

Game of Thrones, of which the season finale is tonight, is the rare show that affords Middle English enthusiasts a chance to geek out: the series makes many nods to medieval literature. Scholars have noted that it draws on the themes and features of such canonical medieval works as the Canterbury Tales and Beowulf. But as I watch, I’m reminded of another, more obscure work from the period, the fifteenth-century dream-vision poem “Mum and the Sothsegger,” which bears a number of striking parallels to Game of Thrones.

“Mum” is a strange, alliterative work about gossip and government and bees (yes, bees). No one is sure who wrote it, and its beginning and end are missing, which only adds to the mystery surrounding its composition. The poem essentially investigates whether it’s better to stay mum or to speak the truth; the titular Mum and Sothsegger personify the two sides of the debate. The work is a product of Lancastrian England, a time when—after Henry IV had overthrown and executed Richard II to become king—the royal court used severe censorship to quell dissent. Measures like the Arundel Constitution of 1409 meant you could be burned at the stake for expressing any vaguely defined “heretical” beliefs. In light of its historical moment, “Mum” is most convincingly read as a poem about succession anxiety and managing dissent. The poem is interested in the same questions of political philosophy that drive GoT, trying to work out how a person should be and how the state should comport itself toward its citizens.

Henry IV’s status as a usurper, much like Robert Baratheon’s after the overthrow of the Mad King in Thrones, sets a possible precedent for overthrow, raising the question of whether the old rules of succession still apply. In the face of brute force, lineage and birthright appear to be irrelevant—now if you kill the king, you are the king. In “Mum,” the anonymous poet walks a fine line in bringing the justness of Henry’s rule into question. He couches backhanded compliments in what appear to be lavish bouts of praise for the new king. He lauds Henry for being “witte and wise” and “cunnyng of werre,” but the passage is incendiary by dint of what’s left out—there’s no mention of lineage (the defining kingly quality), because the king has none. Henry is characterized as a “doer in deedes of armes”: seemingly a compliment to his battle skills, but also a way of carefully underscoring the violent means by which he took the throne. Read More »

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Lunch Poem Letters

June 11, 2014 | by

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Toward the end of college and for several years after, I kept two postcard photographs taped above my desk: one of Anaïs Nin, the other of Frank O’Hara—the mother and father of my literary interests at the time. Nin was a gateway for me into feminist writing and into thinking about creativity and the self. My love for O’Hara, on the other hand, was ecstatic. I was infatuated—and still am—with the conversational tone of his poetry, the ease with which he moves from Russian novels to bad movies, Robert Frost to Busby Berkeley, Bayreuth to Hackensack; his poems are like letters to a friend, and when I read them, I am that friend.

As collections go, none brings this quality to the fore more than the thirty-seven Lunch Poems, published in 1964 by City Lights. It is number nineteen in their Pocket Poets Series, an apt category for poems that O’Hara wrote during hour-long lunch breaks from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he was a curator. He roved through midtown, recording the “noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon” as well as his “misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth,” as O’Hara himself described the volume—“while never forgetting to eat Lunch his favorite meal.” Read More »

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I’d Like to Make You Smile

May 30, 2014 | by

the cherWhen the poet William Meredith passed away seven years ago today, Poetry published the third and final stanza from his “Accidents of Birth” in memoriam:

                     But it’s not this random
life only, throwing its sensual
astonishments upside down on
the bloody membranes behind my eyeballs,
not just me being here again, old
needer, looking for someone to need,
but you, up from the clay yourself,
as luck would have it, and inching
over the same little segment of earth-
ball, in the same little eon, to
meet in a room, alive in our skins,
and the whole galaxy gaping there
and the centuries whining like gnats—
you, to teach me to see it, to see
it with you, and to offer somebody
uncomprehending, impudent thanks.

It was a beautiful move on the magazine’s part, taking Meredith’s wonder and gratitude for his beloved and letting those words refer to the poet himself. When the verse is turned to epitaph, it becomes Meredith who teaches us to see; his lucky appearance in the room of our lives demands that we bow our heads, or else lift up our eyes, and stammer what thanks we are able to articulate.

I met Meredith nine months before he passed away, at Bread Loaf’s annual writers’ conference, to which he’d been invited as a special guest and at which I was a student. He’d taught on the mountainside campus in the late fifties and sixties, first in the English program and then at the conference, and now he’d returned to read for us in their Little Theater, a long, skinny rectangle of a room, the walls white, the chairs wooden, the light—admitted through banks of mullioned glass doors to either side of the audience—everywhere. It was more like a chapel than a theater.

Meredith read only a few poems, supported at the podium by his partner, Richard Harteis. For the remainder of the event, he sat in the front row, audience to a tribute whose meaning no one could have missed, while Harteis, Michael Collier, and Thomas Sayers Ellis offered up anecdotes and praise and read their own selections of Meredith’s work. Here was a dying man, a man who was loved. Read More »

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