The Poem Stuck in My Head
January 5, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
I’ve been thinking today of Stanisław Barańczak, the Polish poet and translator who died in 2014 at sixty-eight. He was known for flouting state censors with poems that mocked the euphemistic language of communism, and his work was seditious enough that in the seventies he was barred from publishing in Poland, though he continued to publish underground. By the early eighties, his politics had cost him his job as a professor in Poznan, and he decamped to the U.S. to lecture at Harvard. In a famous speech he likened life as a dissident to breathing underwater, with a nod to a science-fiction story by Stanisław Lem:
Bubbling sounds were the only acceptable means of communication, the official propaganda emphasized the advantages of being wet, and occasional breathing above water was considered almost a political offense—although everyone had to do it from time to time …
I wonder what Barańczak would’ve made of the new PEN International report, published this morning, on writers and government surveillance. It suggests that free expression around the world—even in the U.S., where what we’ve come to call “content producers” aren’t in the habit of fearing violence from the state—is in some ways more embattled now than it’s been since the Cold War.
It’s worth reading the report in full, though it will make you gnash your teeth and hurl invective at various institutions, chiefly the NSA. (And why shouldn’t you? You’ve already got their ear.) PEN International polled 772 writers from fifty countries, with some classified as “free,” some as “partly free,” and some “not free.” But those gradations hardly matter, it seems, when it comes to freedom of expression. Of the respondents, 75 percent in free countries, 84 percent in partly free countries, and 80 percent in not free countries said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about surveillance. Some were so worried that they were afraid to say how worried they were:
As a final indication of the way the current “surveillance crisis” affects and haunts us, I should say that I have had serious misgivings about whether to write the above and include it in this questionnaire. It is clear to me from the information I have given you that my responses to the questionnaire, and presumably also therefore this statement, can be traced back to me. It may be that this information will be hacked by security agencies. Surely anyone who thinks thoughts like these will be in danger—if not today, then (because this is a process) possibly tomorrow.
November 26, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Some of the poems in The Cheer revolve around a single, central, and somewhat mysterious idea. I’m thinking of poems like “Parents”…
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.
November 4, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
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
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland
—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and con-
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.
July 17, 2014 | by Chantal McStay
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.
June 15, 2014 | by Chantal McStay
Game of Thrones and medieval poetry.
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 »
May 21, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
I first came across “The Dishonest Mailmen” my sophomore year of college, when, having become so enamored of Robert Creeley’s oft-anthologized poem “I Know a Man,” I decided to buy a new edition of his collected poems—an indulgence, for someone without an income who was supposed to be reading Milton. (For the record, I carry around a lot of guilt about shrugging off Milton.)
I read “The Dishonest Mailmen” and identified with it immediately for reasons I didn’t understand, and indeed for reasons that specifically elude understanding. In its fifty-some words, it conjured equal measures of anger, tenderness, and apathy, an intoxicating combination … “for a student,” I almost wrote, but what I mean is for anyone. Still, there’s something in that couplet—“I see the flames, etc. / But do not care, etc.”—that remains to me the most profound evocation of a heart-heavy nihilism that seems to afflict people exclusively in their late teens. Mainly, let’s be honest, it afflicts white guys studying literature in their late teens, who don’t know what to do with themselves or how to talk to people or how to live unselfishly, and who are able to voice this not-knowing with increasing, brooding eloquence, and who are thus infuriating to themselves and others. Read More »