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On Poetry

I Heart Suburbia

March 21, 2014 | by

The light verse of Phyllis McGinley, born on this day in 1905.

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Friends Over for Tennis, Douglas Crockwell, 1949

In 1960, W. D. Snodgrass won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “The following year,” he says in his Art of Poetry interview, “it was given to Phyllis McGinley, which was horrifying; she used to write little silly verses for The Saturday Evening Post.”

McGinley was on the cover of Time; her work appeared in the Atlantic and The New Yorker. And yet this scathing, passing reference is the only mention she receives in our entire archive. How can we have passed over such a popular and laureled poet?

Chalk it up to, let’s say, a difference in sensibility. As Ginia Bellafante put it a few years ago in an excellent essay for the Times, McGinley wrote “reverentially of lush lawns and country-club Sundays … [she] is almost entirely forgotten today, and while her anonymity is attributable in part to the disappearance of light verse, it seems equally a function of our refusal to believe that anyone living on the manicured fringes of a major American city in the middle of the 20th century might have been genuinely pleased to be there.” Read More »

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Love and Friendship

March 4, 2014 | by

DublinVermeer

Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, oil on canvas, c. 1670-71

Do you remember Amish Friendship Bread? Basically, it’s like a chain letter, except you give people bags of gloppy, smelly starter, which they grow and mix with various strange ingredients, and distribute along with loaves of bread; the idea is you pass it along in perpetuity. It’s easy to find the recipe online. One—which attributes it to a “Mrs. Norma Condon of Los Angeles”—describes it thusly: “This is more than a recipe—it’s a way of thinking. In our hi-tech world almost everything comes prepackaged and designed for instant gratification. So where does a recipe that takes ten days to make fit in? Maybe it’s a touchstone to our past—to those days not so very long ago when everything we did took time and where a bread that took ten days to make was not as extraordinary as it seems today.” (Well, those days not very long ago when you made a bread with a box of instant vanilla pudding, anyway.)

Name notwithstanding, the bread apparently bears very little resemblance to anything made by the Pennsylvania Dutch. Wikipedia was good enough to address the issue, informing us that “according to Elizabeth Coblentz, a member of the Old Order Amish and the author of the syndicated column ‘The Amish Cook,’ true Amish friendship bread is ‘just sourdough bread that is passed around to the sick and needy.’”

As memory serves, I was neither particularly needy nor infirm the long-ago summer it came into my life, but, perhaps knowing that I liked to bake, a church friend of my grandmother’s brought me the Ziploc bag of starter, and I dutifully fed and stirred it every day before forcing sacks of it on three hapless neighbors, along with the obligatory mimeographed paper bearing the instructions and recipe. Not making it did not even occur to me: this was on the order of a sacred trust. And while the final product—which is somewhere between a gently-spiced snack and a dessert—may leave something to be desired, it’s true that making the friendship bread was a fun experience. Read More »

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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

balcony with birds horia varlan

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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