June 6, 2013 | by Catherine Lacey
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.
March 14, 2013 | by Rachel Hurn
At Bluestocking Books, my favorite indie bookstore in Hillcrest, San Diego, I pick up a glorious-looking object. The cover is textured, beige with a blue inside flap—a look typical of the publisher Black Sparrow Press. On the front is a painting by Nicole Eisenman of twenty women in a brawl, or having sex, or both. All over the cover and among the cream pages are hand-scrawled notes. It looks like a literature student once owned the book. Probably someone studying creative writing. Probably someone at UCSD. I hold up the paperback to the woman behind the register, and ask, “What is this?”
“That’s Eileen Myles. She’s a lesbian poet. She’s amazing.”
That day I read the entire thing. Read More »
November 19, 2012 | by Casey N. Cep
“I used to want to live / to avoid your elegy,” Robert Lowell confessed in “For John Berryman.”
The death of one poet is an extraordinary occasion for another poet. It is like the day a stonemason dies and another has to carve his headstone. Like a rough ashlar, the elegy sits waiting to be shaped into a memorial for the one who is gone. The death of a poet so great as Jack Gilbert last week pains, but also promises remembrances fitting the one who died.
Gilbert devoted most of his elegies to his wife, Michiko Nogami, but poets have forever elegized one another. We can trace the canon through the poems that poets have written to mourn their own: Henri Cole grieving Elizabeth Bishop; Bishop remembering Robert Lowell; Lowell lamenting the death of John Berryman; Berryman longing for Roethke, Jarrell, Hughes, Plath, Schwartz, and William Carlos Williams; W.H. Auden elegizing Yeats; Shelley bemoaning the loss of Keats; all the way back to Ovid mourning Orpheus.
November 14, 2012 | by Drew Bratcher
The fall I moved to Washington from Nashville, Tennessee, the poet Jack Gilbert gave a reading at the Library of Congress. During my first days in the city, Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven had become for me something of a vade mecum. On wobbly Metro rides to and from work (my first experience with public transportation), I read and reread the book, drawn to its fierce, lapidary verses as a kind of antidote to homesickness and the political blather emanating from Capitol Hill.
The poems trembled in my hands on the train yet somehow steadied me. Gilbert’s lines might have come from any continent in any century. They wouldn’t have seemed so out of place scrawled on papyrus or etched in stone.
October 29, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
Lord of the winds! I feel thee nigh,
I know thy breath in the burning sky!
And I wait, with a thrill in every vein,
For the coming of the hurricane!
And lo! on the wing of the heavy gales,
Through the boundless arch of heaven he sails;
Silent and slow, and terribly strong,
The mighty shadow is borne along,
Like the dark eternity to come;
While the world below, dismayed and dumb,
Through the calm of the thick hot atmosphere
Looks up at its gloomy folds with fear.
They darken fast; and the golden blaze
Of the sun is quenched in the lurid haze,
And he sends through the shade a funeral ray—
A glare that is neither night nor day,
A beam that touches, with hues of death,
The clouds above and the earth beneath.
To its covert glides the silent bird,
While the hurricane’s distant voice is heard,
Uplifted among the mountains round,
And the forests hear and answer the sound.
He is come! he is come! do ye not behold
His ample robes on the wind unrolled?
Giant of air! we bid thee hail!—
How his gray skirts toss in the whirling gale;
How his huge and writhing arms are bent,
To clasp the zone of the firmament,
And fold at length, in their dark embrace,
From mountain to mountain the visible space.
Darker—still darker! the whirlwinds bear
The dust of the plains to the middle air:
And hark to the crashing, long and loud,
Of the chariot of God in the thunder-cloud!
You may trace its path by the flashes that start
From the rapid wheels where’er they dart,
As the fire-bolts leap to the world below,
And flood the skies with a lurid glow.
What roar is that?—’tis the rain that breaks
In torrents away from the airy lakes,
Heavily poured on the shuddering ground,
And shedding a nameless horror round.
Ah! well known woods, and mountains, and skies,
With the very clouds!—ye are lost to my eyes.
I seek ye vainly, and see in your place
The shadowy tempest that sweeps through space,
A whirling ocean that fills the wall
Of the crystal heaven, and buries all.
And I, cut off from the world, remain
Alone with the terrible hurricane.
—William Cullen Bryant, 1854
Painting Credit B.F. Gribble, Clipper in Stormy Sea, nd, oil
October 12, 2012 | by Belinda McKeon
Every morning, when my sleeping pill wears off, I am up about five, in my study with coffee, writing like mad—have managed a poem a day before breakfast. All book poems. Terrific stuff, as though domesticity had choked me.
—Sylvia Plath, letter to her mother, October 12, 1962
They were “dawn poems in blood,” those lines stormed onto paper while the children slept; several of them were written through fevers, and the heat seared onto the pages, those old memorandum sheets marked Smith College, or the back of a manuscript marked The Calm. That had been a radio play, drafted by Ted Hughes in their flat in London early the previous year; now Sylvia Plath was in the Devon farmhouse they’d bought soon afterward, and Hughes was back in London, banished, their marriage over. It was late 1962, and in the space of eight weeks, it brought Plath forty of what would become her Ariel poems. They were, she wrote to the poet Ruth Fainlight, “free stuff I had locked in me for years,” and now they were out. And they were astonishing. Only pain could have released them, only fury and outrage and jealousy and panic of the sort into which Plath’s daily universe had plunged. “I kept telling myself I was the sort that could only write when peaceful at heart,” she told Fainright, “but that is not so, the muse has come to live here, now Ted is gone.”
All of these poems would be in the black binder found in Plath’s London flat following her suicide just three months later, on February 11. They were poems so extreme they would be turned down by several magazines (only to become suddenly suitable for publication after the sensation of her death). Look how they came, one after the other, during that ferocious fall. September 26: “For a Fatherless Son.” September 30: “A Birthday Present.” October 1: “The Detective.” October 2: “The Courage of Shutting Up.” From October 3 to 10, Plath wrote her five bee poems, including “Stings” and “The Arrival of the Bee Box.” On October 10, “A Secret.” October 11 brought “The Applicant” (“It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk”). And fifty years ago today, on October 12, Plath sat down at the writing desk Hughes and her brother had made for her from a plank of elm, and she wrote her most famous poem. She wrote her father, and she wrote her festered grief, and she wrote her maddened Electra, and she wrote the unforgiving child who still ran riot in her veins; she finally got it down, so much of what had been propelling her from the moment she wrote her very first poem. “You do not do, you do not do”—what a line. What a spiel. What a fit of incantation. Whatever you think of “Daddy”—wherever you stand on the question of whether its tirades are transgressions, whether its swoop into Holocaust imagery is a mere looting and parading of angers not the poet’s own—there is no denying its extraordinary power. It stops the breath; it bothers the heart. What must it have been like, that morning, beneath the quaint thatch of that Devon farmhouse, for Plath to find herself writing this fireball of a poem?