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Posts Tagged ‘poems’

The Poets Speak

November 20, 2014 | by

Angelou

Maya Angelou backstage at the 92Y.

At 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, The Paris Review has copresented an occasional series of live conversations with writers—many of which have formed the foundations of interviews in the quarterly. Now, 92Y and The Paris Review are making recordings of these interviews available at 92Y’s Poetry Center Online and here at The Paris Review. You can consider them the deleted scenes to the printed interviews, or the director’s cuts, or the radio adaptations, or—let’s not dwell on it …

The latest editions to the collection are three poets: Maya Angelou, Denise Levertov, and Gary Snyder.

In this recording from 1988, Maya Angelou, who died this past May, speaks to our founding editor, George Plimpton:

I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool—and I’m not any of those—to say that I don’t write for the reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues.

Denise Levertov died in 1997—Kenneth Rexroth called her “the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound, the most modest, the most moving.” Here she speaks to Deborah Digges in 1991:

Where I live in Seattle, I see a good deal more—more sky, more trees. I can see the lake. And from one upstairs window I can see a bit of Mount Rainier—when it’s out ... Who would want a mountain that was out all the time? You’d stop seeing it. It’s wonderful when it comes and goes.

And Gary Snyder, “the poet laureate of deep ecology,” talks to Eliot Weinberger circa 1992:

There’s no question that spending time with your own consciousness is instructive. You learn a lot. You can just watch what goes on in your own mind, and some of the beneficial effects are you get bored with some of your own tapes and quit playing them back to yourself.

We owe these recordings to a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, who worked in the art department at The Paris Review and volunteered as an archivist at 92Y’s Poetry Center.

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William Carlos Williams’s “Election Day”

November 4, 2014 | by

An abandoned grade school in La Prairie Center, Illinois, used as a polling place in 1973. Photo: National Archive

Your typical polling center seldom evokes the poetic. In my neighborhood, we’re assigned a local elementary school. There are student projects lining the walls: family trees, doggerel, pictures. (“Children only!” a volunteer yelled at me when I tried to use the girls’ room—which, fair enough. But everyone in the place was over eighteen.)

Enter William Carlos Williams. His “Election Day,” from 1941, is spare and sardonic; vote before reading.

Warm sun, quiet air
an old man sits

in the doorway of
a broken house—

boards for windows
plaster falling

from between the stones
and strokes the head

of a spotted dog

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Walt Whitman, “Election Day, November, 1884”

November 4, 2014 | by

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A polling place in New York ca. 1900.

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
         quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland
         —Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia,
         California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and con-
         flict,
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.

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Galway Kinnell, 1927–2014

October 30, 2014 | by

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Photo via GalwayKinnell.com

Galway Kinnell, who aspired to a poetics that “could be understood without a graduate degree,” died on Tuesday in Vermont, at eighty-seven. A winner of both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, Kinnell wrote poems that “dwell on the ugly as fully, as far and as long as I could stomach it,” as he once told the Los Angeles Times. “I think if you are ever going to find any kind of truth to poetry it has to be based on all of experience rather than on a narrow segment of cheerful events.”

Tony Hoagland said that Kinnell’s primary subjects were “mortality, erotic love, and creatureness.” That might make him sound solemn, But Kinnell, who was born in Rhode Island, could also be exceptionally warm, especially when his subject was New England. An obituary by the Associated Press quotes Major Jackson, who included Kinnell among “the great quintessential poets of his generation”:

In my mind he comes behind that other great New England poet Robert Frost in his ability to write about, not only the landscape of New England, but also its people … Without any great effort it was almost as if the people and the land were one and he acknowledged what I like to call a romantic consciousness.

It would be hard to overstate the effect of Kinnell’s poems on the form at large. “I don’t think Galway Kinnell influenced me, but what’s more important, he inspired me,” Philip Levine said in his Art of Poetry interview:

When I read his great poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” I said, My God, this is how good the poetry of my generation can be. I can remember exactly where I was when I first read it, on the second floor of the library in an armchair holding The Hudson Review and shivering with excitement.

The Review published Kinnell’s poems throughout his career; his work first appeared in our Spring 1965 issue. We’ve made available one of those earlier poems, “On the Frozen Field,” which begins:

We walk across the snow,
The stars can be faint,
The moon can be eating itself out,
There can be meteors flaring to death on earth,
The Northern Lights can bloom and seethe
And be tearing themselves apart all night,
We walk arm in arm, and we are happy.

You can also read “The Geese,” from our Summer 1985 issue, and “Lackawanna,” from Fall 1994. But best of all is “Another Night in the Ruins,” which Kinnell read at a Review salon in 2001; you can hear the recording here.

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To Suit the Occasion

October 20, 2014 | by

Kronungsmahl_Joseph_II

School of Martin Van Meytens, Coronation Banquet for the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II in Frankfurt, 1764.

In the spring of 2000, The Paris Review published an issue dedicated to poetry—dubbed, in fact, the Poetry Issue—including a series of prompts for poets and an essay by Robert Pinsky, who was then the U.S. Poet Laureate. Pinsky is seventy-four today; an excerpt of his essay, “Occasional Poetry and Poetry on Occasions,” follows.

What does it mean that so many distinguished and gifted poets responded to the somewhat goofy games and assignments suggested by The Paris Review for this issue? Not just willingly, but with spirit, they have composed poems to strange titles like “An Empty Surfboard on a Flat Sea” and “Lavatory in a Cathedral,” written commentaries on worksheets—written, in other words, to suit the occasion.

Occasions have elicited poems throughout history: coronations, birthdays, weddings, victories, executions, seductions (successful and unsuccessful), births, and deaths have their genres and great examples. Poems responding to specific circumstances have ranged from the agonized majesty of Yeats’s “Easter 1916” to the humblest good-humored verses produced for benign laughs at the office retirement party or a family anniversary. Donne wrote “the Anniversaries” on assignment and Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” is the most gloriously entertaining in-group, after-dinner speech in the language.

Does this play of talent in response to occasions and assignments tell us anything about the art of poetry? Many poets have been unwilling or unable to write on assignment, in response to circumstance but even their work has been used after the fact—quoted in speeches, inscribed in stone, read at the graveside or after the victory. (Anyone who writes or studies poetry can remember being asked for something suitable to be recited at a wedding or a funeral.)

Occasional poetry is a reminder that poetry is related to speech a little bit in the way dance is related to walking: it is more playful, as well as more serious. Poetry’s medium is not merely light as air, it is air: vital and deep as ordinary breath. Read More »

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Carolyn Kizer, 1924–2014

October 13, 2014 | by

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I’ve been enormously fortunate. People say, How do you feel about your reputation? My real belief is that I have exactly the reputation I deserve … on the whole I feel comfortable with myself. You know I’ve always always loved that line from Chaucer’s Criseyde, “I am meyne own woman wel at ease.” That’s the way I feel. Of course, there are always disasters looming, both cosmic and domestic. But even if it should all end tomorrow I would just hope I’ve burned enough bad drafts and old love letters!
—Carolyn Kizer, the Art of Poetry No. 81, Spring 2000

Carolyn Kizer died last Thursday at eighty-nine, the New York Times reports. Her poems are immaculately crafted and very smart, often with a steely feminism; she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her collection Yin. As the Times says, “She was writing as early as the 1950s about the conflict for women between the creative imperative and social expectations—but it was far different in character from that of her contemporary Adrienne Rich. Where the poems of Ms. Rich, who died in 2012, landed like bombs flung from the barricades, those of Ms. Kizer felt more like a stiletto slipped between the ribs.”

Ursula K. Le Guin called Kizer’s poetry “intensely, splendidly oral, wanting to be read aloud, best of all to be read or roared by the lion herself.” Kizer, born in Washington, was known for her long, careful periods of revision, as evidenced in the manuscript above. (She was an honest self-critic, too; note that “Re-write this LOUSY couplet” scrawled in the margin.) She took more than thirty years to edit the sequence “Pro Femina,” which contains one of her most famous lines: “We are the custodians of the world’s best-kept secret: Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity.”

In addition to her Writers at Work interview, The Paris Review published many of Kizer’s poems, including “Twelve O’Clock,” in our Winter 1990 issue; and “Gerda,” which opens with an old Swedish children’s prayer, from Spring 1987. To celebrate her life, we’ve made them both available online. Read More »

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