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Posts Tagged ‘sylvia plath’

The Hatred of Poetry: An Interview with Ben Lerner

June 30, 2016 | by

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What do we want from poetry? To read a poem is, on some level, to loathe it—both poem and poet aspire to fulfill a set of impossible expectations from the culture. In his new book, The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner argues that a disdain for poetry is inextricable from the art form itself. Earlier this month, Michael Clune spoke to Lerner at Greenlight Books, in Brooklyn. The exchange below is an edited version of that conversation. —Ed.

INTERVIEWER

One of the most striking things you do in The Hatred of Poetry is to reorient our sense of value. Your canon is “the terrible poets, the great poets, and the silent poets,” as opposed to the merely good or the mediocre. You write about the worst poet in history, McGonagall, and his horrific masterpiece, or antimasterpiece, “The Tay Bridge Disaster”:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remembered for a very long
time.

LERNER

Wikipedia says that he’s widely considered the worst poet ever. Read More »

Surrendering to Your Own Maneuvers: An Interview with Jana Prikryl

June 21, 2016 | by

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The After Party, Jana Prikryl’s debut collection of poems, is divided in two. In the first half, the reader is mainly in New York, swaying between the modern and the classical, easing between Internet aphorisms and well-dusted literary lives; in half a dozen gently mocking, moving lines in “Ars Poetica,” we find ourselves falling from an observation about Kelly Oxford’s tweets into Arthur Conan Doyle and the history of spiritualism. The collection’s second half switches modes, and we find ourselves engaged with a long, bold sequence of fragments that carry an air of nostalgia. These later poems explore the natural world, the interplay between femininity and masculinity, and a lingering sense of not belonging. Perhaps it’s an odd comparison, but the closing sequence, “Thirty Thousand Islands,” made me think of Matisse and his 1940s cutouts: the preeminent sense of environment, but also the way that techniques of balance and contrast seem to give the work its structure and much of its impact. Read More »

The Looming Dark: An Interview with Linda Pastan

January 6, 2016 | by

Photo: Carina Romano

There’s a popular story about Linda Pastan: she won her first poetry prize as a senior at Radcliffe in the fifties, and the runner-up was one Sylvia Plath. It was an auspicious start for Pastan, even if she had never heard of Plath at the time. She’s gone on to publish fourteen books, amassing a host of accolades along the way. Her latest collection, Insomnia, appeared last fall. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review since 1987; the most recent, “The Collected Poems,” was in the Fall 2015 issue.

“There is no self-pity,” May Sarton wrote of Pastan’s Five Stages of Grief: “she has reached down to a deeper layer and is letting the darkness in. These poems are full of foreboding and acceptance, a wry unsentimental acceptance of hard truth.” The same could be said of Insomnia, in which Pastan, who is eighty-three now, reckons with old age in lines that are variously restless and serene, spirited and subdued. “Why are these old, gnarled trees so beautiful,” she writes, “while I am merely old and gnarled?” In these poems, the bucolic and the morbid are never far apart. In “Root Ball,” she likens an asteroid that lands in her garden to “a giant brain, ripped from its skull.” I spoke to Pastan, who lives in Potomac, Maryland, about sleep, dreams, and manure.

Did a lot of the poems in this collection emerge from sleeplessness?

I do suffer from insomnia myself, and on more than one occasion, while I’m lying in the dark, the solution to a problem I’ve been struggling with in a poem actually, and magically, comes to me. But more usually I try to put myself to sleep by thinking about the plot of a book I’m reading or a movie I just saw. Many people my age seem to have trouble sleeping, and I suppose it may be because that long and final sleep is just ahead, and even if we don’t acknowledge it, we want to be awake and aware as long as possible. I was warned early not to give a book a title that would make it easy for a reviewer to slam you. Such as, If you have insomnia, try reading this book and it will put you right to sleep. And it has occurred to me that one or more people might buy the book thinking it will help them with their own sleep problems. But more seriously, I chose Insomnia as my title because the word conjures for me a struggle with consciousness itself as well as a struggle with the looming dark, just outside the window. Read More »

Give Those Old Ladies a Break, and Other News

October 29, 2015 | by

Joachim Martin Falbe, Portrait of an Old Lady, ca. 1755.

  • Evil, in fairy tales, often comes in the form of an old woman: the fearsome, embittered crone is a staple of the genre. What will it take for our legends to start treating old biddies with respect—and why did they get a bad rap to begin with? The answer could be psychological (“Children do have a way of splitting the mother figure into ... the evil mother—who’s always making rules and regulations, policing your behavior, getting angry at youand then the benevolent nurturer”) or political (“She’s usually a solitary woman. She’s already marginal. She’s angry at something—at life, or whatever—and she will ‘eat’—that’s the expression—people’s souls, in the sense that she’s going to possess people and then they die a terrible death”). Or maybe we’ve just been reading the stories wrong and failing to see that “old women in fairy tales and folklore practically keep civilization together. They judge, reward, harm and heal; and they’re often the most intriguing characters in the story.”
  • Oh, goody. We might just have, more than fifty years after her death, a new Sylvia Plath sex scandal on our hands: What was she doing the night before she gassed herself? Her biographer Jonathan Bate might know. “Andrew Sinclair, a friend of Plath and [Ted] Hughes, pointed [Bate] to a poem of Hughes’s that made reference to a final lover of Plath’s, and that a book editor in New York, Frances Lindley, met someone at a book party who told her he’d seen Plath’s last letter, which made reference to a call to said lover. Additionally, Plath’s downstairs neighbor attested that she asked for a postage stamp that last night. Next to the phone box on St. George’s Terrace, there’s also a mailbox. Bate says he’s read reports of a collector in possession of Plath’s last letter, but he doesn’t name the collector. He doesn’t name the possible final lover either.” It might be “the critic Al Alvarez, who is still living but has always denied having an affair with Plath (‘Sylvia wasn’t my style—she wasn’t my physical type,’ he told Janet Malcolm) and has expressed guilt about the whole thing.”
  • David Lynch disdains words, and that’s okay as long as you’re not having a conversation with him. Better, maybe, just to listen: “In Lynch’s own speech and in the speech patterns of his films, the impression is of language used less for meaning than for sound. To savor the thingness of words is to move away from their imprisoning nature. Lynch has said, more than once, that he had to ‘learn to talk,’ and his very particular, somewhat limited vocabulary seems in many ways an outgrowth of his aesthetic … Lynch’s aphasia is born of a protectiveness that verges on superstition. Words for him are not just reductive; they are anathema to his view of art as fundamentally enigmatic.”
  • Today in the case for misandry: men are taking photos of beautiful landscapes and allowing their exposed scrotums to creep into the frame. It’s called nutscaping. And no matter how its creator attempts to defend it—it takes “courage, vulnerability and skill to properly execute,” he says, and it’s intended to gratify “a primal urge to connect on a deeper level with Mother Nature”—it’s further proof that men should probably be wiped off the face of the Earth.
  • There’s nothing like a magic trick to restore one’s faith in good old battle-tested irrationality: “Believing in magic is generally considered a callow faith, clung to by foolish young’uns who have a long distance relationship with reality … Carl Jung opted not to explain magic away. Instead, he wrote in 1938, there’s psychological worth in how magic and religion can allow us to function effectively in society: ‘What is usually and generally called “religion” is … a substitute. … The substitution has the obvious purpose of replacing immediate experience by a choice of suitable symbols invested in a solidly organized dogma and ritual.” Magic, in short, allows us to put reality through a strainer … It is the experience itself we’re imbibing, and magic can help with the swallow … Indeed, as Harry Houdini said, ‘Magic is the sole science not accepted by scientists, because they can’t understand it.’ ” (Cue Pilot’s 1975 hit, “Magic”…)

The Last Word

July 16, 2015 | by

The conundrum of writing about the dead.

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Photo: Jennifer Boyer

Recently, I stood in the woods near Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland—the same woods where Jews waited to enter the gas chambers. It was a picnic-worthy spring day. Sunlight filtered through the pine trees. Unable to imagine the horror that had happened there, my thoughts turned instead to a picture I had seen the day before. It was captioned “Sniatyn—tormenting Jews before their execution,” and it shows five naked Jews—four men and a boy—and a handful of Nazis in uniform and civilian clothing holding sticks, apparently gathering before the execution. One of the Jewish men stands looking at the ground with his hands folded in front of him, the Jewish boy is still wearing his hat.

Whenever I see this photograph, I always have the same thought: After all that they have suffered, why should they also suffer the indignity of our gaze? I would not want to be seen in this moment of humiliation. This thought is immediately replaced by another: they are not suffering our gaze. They are dead, they are not suffering anything. And I am looking at them precisely because they were humiliated—without this humiliation, they would have slipped from seen to unseen, as almost all the dead do. They have been chosen for contemporary viewing because this moment tells a larger story that eclipses any squeamishness we have about displaying them in such a scene of degradation. Read More »

Sylvia Plath’s “Nick and the Candlestick”

November 21, 2013 | by

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Collage via Flickr.

I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Waxy stalactites
Drip and thicken, tears

I am writing this while pregnant with my first son, just as Sylvia Plath was when she wrote “Nick and the Candlestick” in 1962.

I wanted him: he was no surprise or trouble at all; he was passion and biology. But I am not happy. No one in smiley U.S.A. is supposed to say this at the news of a baby. An expectant mother is supposed to be ecstatic, full of promise and life. It is true, I marvel; the last thing I ever expected to be good at was creating a small person, that my body could nourish him both inside itself and within the world. He’s evidence that something inside me might work, even if other, less visible things do not.

Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean

Before him, I would read Plath quotes from one of those ubiquitous Twitter feeds, feel recognition—and feel like a cliché. I do genuinely love her work, but it’s so expected, so reductive—even if, with him, it feels newly vital for me. We all know the narrative: marry a handsome, destructive man, go from one to two, three then four, and then kill yourself at thirty. Like so many girl-readers, I worshipped her and selfishly romanticized the tragedy. As a young woman, Plath sought the whirl and illusion of enchanted, swift New York, painfully unprepared for adulthood, and like so many others, I recognized all those standard youthful Manhattan dreams, darker when you feel everything twenty-fold, when you’re unsure of having any talent or worth, paralyzed by sensitivity, maybe a little weak, easy to dismantle. A cliché, yes, but the mythology, and the work, remain captivating and solid. As a writer and a reader and a human being with dark tendencies, I have great empathy for everything Plath. There is a reason she has endured. We may all fail miserably at love, family, and living, but we can try to be brave, especially in our work. As Plath says of her own womb, my stomach was always crawling with white newts and calcification, a gut that betrayed me, even when I tried to convince it of happy otherwise. Read More »

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