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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

She Jazzes That Dazzling Verse

July 28, 2014 | by

Ansel Elkins YUP

Courtesy of Yale University Press

Congratulations to Ansel Elkins, our poet-in-residence at the Standard, East Village, who’s featured in The New Yorker this week. (Complete with a terrific caricature by Tom Bachtell.) Elkins, who recently finished her residency, speaks to Andrew Marantz in the Talk of the Town section, discussing her time at the Standard, her unique position on the height spectrum (“between Lolita and Lil’ Kim”), and her persistent yearning for HoJo ice machines.

Elkins spent her days indoors, napping and listening to Hank Williams and revising her poems with colored pens … Most nights, she went out for three-dollar tacos on Second Avenue and walked back slowly, gazing up at the gargoyles on East Sixth Street. “This late-night walking is the one thing about the city that’s most saturated my work,” she said, mentioning a new poem, an ode to Mae West, that she began writing here. (“Singing in two languages— / English and body; / She jazzes that dazzling verse.”)

Read the whole piece here.

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The Vale of Soul-Making

July 25, 2014 | by

How Keats coped with fever.

keats_pic

Tuberculosis seemed to pursue Keats his whole life.

In 1821, three months after he learned of Keats’s death, Percy Shelley wrote Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, in which he described the poet as a delicate, fragile young flower of a man:

Oh gentle child, beautiful as thou wert,
Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men
Too soon, and with weak hands though mighty heart
Dare the unpastured dragon in his den?

That dragon was a cruel critic who had mocked Keats’s literary ambitions—John Gibson Lockhart, who, writing under the pseudonym Z, had scolded Keats as if he were a child, insisting in a review of Endymion that “it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr John, back to the ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’ ” Lockhart had classed Keats among the Cockney School of politics, versification, and morality, known—at least by readers of Blackwood’s Magazine—for its “exquisitely bad taste” and “vulgar modes of thinking.” In Shelley’s formulation, it was this bad review that sent Keats to an early grave, and gazing back through history, one begins to accept this two-part narrative of Keats’s legacy. The fallen poet had lived a life of abstractions—he was not only an aesthete, but the aesthete—and he had been, as Byron quipped, “snuffed out by an article,” too beautiful and frail for this harsh world.

But Keats was immersed in the realities of life; his poetry and letters reveal an allegiance to radical politics as well as a concern with economic and scientific issues. Far from childlike and apolitical, he’s now thought of as having been “dangerous … a poet who embodied and gave voice to the anxieties and insecurities of his times … a poet whom the establishment would be obliged to silence,” as the scholar Nicholas Roe puts it. We often overlook, for instance, that Keats spent six years studying medicine, successfully earning a license to practice in London from the Society of Apothecaries—hence Lockhart’s insult about the “plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.” To think that he was “snuffed out by an article” trivializes the intense pain he experienced as his lungs were slowly consumed by tuberculosis, robbing him of his work, his love, and his life at the age of twenty-five.

The myth of the frail genius is attractive, even to contemporary readers, because of its quintessential Romanticism. But the truth is that Keats’s writings—especially when they seem fanciful or escapist—are grounded in real-world concerns. And nowhere is this more evident than in the letters and poems of his that deal with feverish suffering. Read More »

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Rita Dove’s “Canary”

July 17, 2014 | by

Billie_Holiday_and_Mister,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._June_1946_(William_P._Gottlieb_04271)

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.

Read More »

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Blue True Dream of Sky

July 15, 2014 | by

The schooner Isaac Evans, under full sail on Penobscot Bay in Maine. Photo: Joe Berkall

“You’ve certainly had good weather,” people keep telling us. They say this almost resentfully, as if we do not appreciate the honor being conferred, could never understand the rarity of a full eight days of cloudless blue skies and temperatures in the midseventies, in coastal Maine, in early July.

The weather forecasts have been equally dour. Don’t get your hopes up, they seem to say. Each morning, the icon on my phone will show a sun cautiously peeping out from behind a cloud. If the forecast must admit to the possibility of sunshine, it does so reluctantly: Yes, it is fair now (say the icons) but at three P.M., there will be a cloud. Not three? Four. Five, then. Certainly by six. Well, anyway, sunset is at seven, so then your fun’s over. Never once has that cloud departed from the screen, even as the skies have stayed stubbornly blue.

I don’t care; nothing can dim my excitement. I have not gone on “vacation” in many years. I am not sure how to do it, although I have notions. I read E. B. White and The Lobster Gangs of Maine in preparation. Streamed Stephen King adaptations. Isn’t that what you do? Thus warned, I came braced for a range of weathers. I packed slickers and boots and ghost stories. (Puzzles, I was told, the house already had.) I privately harbored gingerbread-related plans.

Instead, the aggressive, unflagging beauty began to feel vaguely tyrannical: it seemed an act of gods-tempting hubris to miss a single moment of potential hiking or swimming or general beauty-celebrating. We did not take our luck for granted; to the contrary, each day, when I set out for a walk or a ride on the bicycle I was borrowing, I tried to give a little ecumenical prayer of thanks. Read More »

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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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Radical Middle

July 2, 2014 | by

John_Constable_-_A_View_at_Hampstead_with_Stormy_Weather_-_Google_Art_Project

John Constable, A View at Hampstead with Stormy Weather, ca. 1930.

July 2 is the midpoint of the year—we’re 182 days into 2014 with 182 to go. This is obscurely depressing, although there is something neat about its falling on a Wednesday. It’s all downhill from here, you might say—although sometimes people use that expression as a positive, meaning smooth sailing, so take it as you will.

Everyone finds New Year’s Day dreary. But summer, for all its promise of leisure and romance and ease, has an urgency that is sad in its own way. From the moment it starts, it’s on the wane—days ever shorter, relentlessly shifting sands in a Wizard of Oz–style hourglass. Outside my window, someone is actually playing “Summertime” on a saxophone. He’s probably thinking that we are in New York in hot weather, and it is iconic. The pressure is immense. The high-pressure weather is stifling.

Ashbery touched on it. “Soonest Mended” is about much more than the mundane, although it conjures the mundane vividly. Amidst the dissection of proverb—and allusions to pressures of art, and youth, and time—he manages to put into words the particular melancholy of the midpoint.

Alas, the summer’s energy wanes quickly,
A moment and it is gone. And no longer
May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.
Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
Now there is no question even of that, but only
Of holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off
With an occasional dream, a vision: a robin flies across
The upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away
And cannot quite see, or a wound will flash
Against the sweet faces of the others, something like:
This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

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