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Posts Tagged ‘Wallace Stevens’

To the Crematorium with Patricia, and Other News

October 16, 2015 | by

A 1909 postcard of the main gates to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

  • Susan Howe on Wallace Stevens and just plain old liking the guy’s poems: “The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy. This is the simple truth. Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper. No matter how many theoretical and critical interpretations there are, in the end each new clarity of discipline and delight contains inexplicable intricacies of form and measure … I don’t often remember Stevens poems separately except for the early ones, but they all run together, the way Emerson’s essays do, into one long meditation, moving like waves, and suddenly there is one perfect portal. The quick perfection.”
  • In 1987, Patricia Highsmith, then at her most misanthropic and having found a malignant tumor on her lung, paid a visit to Brooklyn, where she wrote an abortive essay for the New York Times about Green-Wood Cemetery. It never ran, perhaps because its pivotal moment finds her sticking her hand in an industrial furnace, still warm, at the crematorium. “The warmth of that retort, even though it may have come from a pilot flame, brought home death to me as none of the stone monuments above ground had,” she writes. She also likens the cemetery to a passing garbage truck: “Its apparently inexhaustible drip of squashed vegetable matter or leftover orange juice reminds me of human mortality, with its attendant ugliness, stench and inevitability.”
  • Susan Cheever has looked into America’s long lust for booze, and she’s discovered a few things. First, that a drunk Nixon once claimed he’d made a great pope. And second, that the link between writers and alcohol is a fairly new one: “In the nineteenth century, writers didn’t drink. Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow. Nope. No drinkers. It’s not about the writers. It’s about the drinking culture. Some writers drink a lot, so much so that the five people who won the Nobel Prize for literature were all alcoholics [Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck]. I hadn’t really done the math, and then it occurred to me that, of course, it came out of Prohibition, that Prohibition made drinking that much more attractive to writers.”
  • Today in vintage hate-reads: a newly discovered transcript of Ayn Rand’s remarks to the 1974 graduating class at West Point finds her up to her usual tricks, i.e., disguising out-and-out bigotry behind a tissue-thin veil of “philosophy.” “Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent,” Rand said to the group of dewy-eyed officers-to-be. “It is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights … Racism didn’t exist in this country until the liberals brought it up.” Important words to remember the next time you spot a malleable young person reading The Fountainhead and claiming it’s just “a really good story.”
  • Notes toward a theory of Playmobil, with its bizarre, intensely Euro-zone aesthetic, its fascination with the civil service, its tendency to exalt the bourgeois: “As I examined the Playmobil version of Vermeer’s Milkmaid, I realized how Vermeer’s popularity as a painter rests on the same sort of generic, domestic scenarios as Playmobil, with all those charming, joyful, bourgeois little details, the depiction of the everyday things of our lives … Next to Lego … Playmobil can seem downright dowdy and boring … One of the best-selling sets is a Christmas manger scene. The fastest-selling Playmobil figure of all time was launched this past winter: Martin Luther, complete with quill and German Bible!”

The Afterlife of the Voice: An Interview with Peter Gizzi

March 16, 2015 | by


Last year saw the publication of In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems 1987–2011, a significant retrospective of the work of poet Peter Gizzi. Gizzi—who also has three poems in the latest issue of The Paris Reviewhimself selected and arranged In Defense, which not only samples nearly twenty-five years of his poems but finds a new order and a new context for them—both for Gizzi and for his readers. The titles of his earlier books provided points of location and navigation. His first collection, Periplum (1992), takes its title from an Ezra Pound line about a journey, and the notion of the poem as a journey is something Gizzi has carried throughout his career. The Outernationale (2007), his fifth collection, gives a sense of the landscape these journeys cross—at once internal and external, subjective and universal. In Defense of Nothing, which will be published in paperback in April, was recently named a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

I spoke with Gizzi by phone about assembling the volume. At the beginning of our conversation, I told him that we had met once years before, at an event, and that after our conversation he had given me the copy of Artificial Heart from which he had been reading. He couldn’t remember our interaction, but for him, that individual connection—between the poet and the poem, the poem and the reader, and the reader and the poet—is the heart of the poetic experience.

What does it mean to assemble a selected-poems volume, and how does a project like this begin?

It began as a conversation with my editor of fifteen or more years, and now my dear friend, Suzanna Tamminen. She has a good sense of my work and she knew there had been a lot of changes in my life, some difficult, and that I was taking stock, as it were. So she proposed that I do a selected poems.

Did you learn more about what that means over the course of the project?

I’ve discovered there are several versions of Peter Gizzi. Over the course of this book there is the Peter Gizzi who lived in New York City, the Peter Gizzi who lived in the Berkshires, in Providence, in California, in Amherst, and so on. I learned that twenty-five years of life accumulate, as does one’s work. And yet I found that there is an uncanny consistency to the variety and reality of address in my poetry in whatever form I happen to be working—small lyric, series, long form, prose poem. It was illuminating to me simply because my inner life can be a turbulent experience, and I live one poem at a time and one book at a time. Read More »

Renaissance Painters Gone Wild, and Other News

February 2, 2015 | by


Piero di Cosimo, Scena di caccia (A Hunting Scene), ca. 1490.

  • “Among twenty reasonable comments, / The only livid thing / Was the caw of the trollbird.” From an anonymous versificator striking at the very quintessence of the contemporary experience: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Trollbird.”
  • The paintings of Piero di Cosimo, a Renaissance-era artist who ate nothing but boiled eggs and painted scenes of alarming violence and sensuality, are coming to America for the first time in seventy-five years. “While Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci were all making worlds of ideal perfection, their contemporary, Piero di Cosimo, had set out on a different, more twisted path, bewitching his fellow Florentines with his visual fables and mythological fantasies … Piero’s ability to conjure the macabre, the monstrous and the miraculous offers its own distinctive pleasures and a rare insight into the more neurotic recesses of the Renaissance imagination.”
  • On Prince Albert Hunt, a twentieth-century fiddler from Texas who met a grisly end: “Prince Albert recorded only nine sides … and they are fiercely sought after due to their forceful, bluesy nature … Although Hunt didn’t alter the course of vernacular folk music, and his influence on Western swing is minimal, he did leave a testament etched in the shellac grooves of his few recordings to an idiosyncratic sound that reflected the mongrel eccentricities of his time and place. Hunt played exactly what the people of Deep Ellum wanted: uninhibited fiddle dance pieces and an occasional waltz.”
  • How to destroy the history of painting: make a black square on a white background, hang it on the wall of a Soviet gallery in 1915, and tell others to jump through it, where “the free white sea, infinity, lies before you.” Kazimir Malevich did this. Worked like a charm.
  • The “quotative like” (“I’m like, What do you mean I have to be in by ten?”) is now “one of our language’s most popular methods of talking about talking … linguists see these expressions as something like the Swiss Army knives of reported conversation. Their versatility and usefulness means they’ll probably be around for a long time.”


A World Beyond the Glass: An Interview with Mary Szybist

April 8, 2014 | by

Image: Meilani Kirkwood, courtesy of Graywolf Press

Photo: Meilani Kirkwood, courtesy of Graywolf Press

Mary Szybist may not have been the best-known writer on the poetry shortlist for the 2013 National Book Award, but her book Incarnadine was ambitious and thoughtful enough to overcome this. Her second collection, after Granted (2003), Incarnadine comprises poems focused on the Annunciation. Szybist, who was raised Catholic, uses this intimate moment as an opportunity to explore the relationships between poetry and prayer and to explicate an encounter between the human and “the other”—something outside of human experience, be it nature or, in this case, God.

The National Book Award judges called Incarnadine “a religious book for nonbelievers.” It opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, which sums up Szybist’s approach to the project: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Receiving the award, she said, “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.” I spoke with Szybist recently about religion, poetry, prayer, and the meaning of her name.

Incarnadine deals with the Annunciation—the visitation of Mary by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will have God’s son—and the implications and meaning of such an event. It’s an encounter between the human and something beyond human understanding. Your book is an attempt to describe the indescribable through poetry—which is something that prayer can do, also.

Prayer is one way to do this—and yes, I have thought about the connections between poetry and prayer for a long time, and sometimes I am even tempted to believe that they are similar engagements. When I was young, I reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.

I have always been attracted to apostrophe, perhaps because of its resemblance to prayer. A voice reaches out to something beyond itself that cannot answer it. I find that moving in part because it enacts what is true of all address and communication on some level—it cannot fully be heard, understood, or answered. Still, some kinds of articulations can get us closer to such connections—connections between very different consciousnesses—and I think the linguistic ranges in poetry can enable that. Read More »


Crusoe in California

March 6, 2013 | by

1977anniehall3The September after I finished college, I moved to Orange County with my boyfriend. He was going to graduate school to study Shakespeare. I had decided to become a famous writer, though I had no idea how to go about it. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to be the kind of writer who gets shipwrecked on a South Sea island, and not the kind of writer who gets an M.F.A. in the Midwest. I belonged to the Melville school, I told myself. I was going to have a lot of adventures. Southern California didn’t seem particularly exciting, but it was closer to the South Sea than New York. At least, I thought so. I had a poor grasp of geography.

Unfortunately for me, I also belonged to the Alvy Singer school. (Would Melville and Alvy Singer get along?) I was a native Manhattanite who had rarely ventured west, and I soon found that Southern California didn’t suit me one bit. With no seasons, no job, and no driver’s license, I felt that I was going nowhere, both literally and metaphorically. Time seemed not to pass, and books were my only friends. Read More »


What We’re Loving: Bourbon, Poetry, and Mead

October 12, 2012 | by

This week, Lorin and I made a whirlwind trip to Houston, where we had the chance to visit the wonderful Brazos Bookstore. While browsing their well-curated cookbook selection, my eye was caught by a volume called 101 Classic Cookbooks, curated by the Fales Library. Published by Rizzoli, it is as much an art book as a recipe primer (although there are plenty of those too, from such luminaries as Julia Child and Alice Waters). Images of antique receipt books and mid-century food art make for great cultural history. —Sadie Stein

Charles Portis is that rare literary legend too few have read—me included. When I spotted a copy of his 1979 novel, The Dog of the South, on a friend’s shelf, I knew it was time to find out if the rumors are true. They are. There’s a hopped-up futility to this tale of a man in pursuit of his wife and her lover south of the border, and when Ray’s surrender is set off against small moments of truculence, it’s comic gold. One passage in particular, of Ray trying to outrace another car in a total clunker, reminds me a bit of the pie-fight scene in Gravity’s Rainbow, which was published only six years before; though the setup is far less surreal, it’s rife with absurdity:

I’ve had enough of this, I said to myself, and I was just about ready to quit when the exhaust system or the drive shaft dropped to the highway beneath the Chrysler and began to kick up sparks. Jack was down for the day. I shot over a rise and left him with a couple honks. Harvest yellow Imperial. Like new. Loaded. One owner. See to appreciate. Extra sharp. Good rubber. A real nice car. Needs some work. Call Cherokee Bail Bonds and ask for Jack. Work odd hours. Keep calling.

—Nicole Rudick

Walker Percy, the National Book Award winner and Paris Review interview subject, has a delightful and underappreciated piece called “Bourbon, Neat” on a topic near and dear to my heart. Percy claims that bourbon does for him what a bite of cake did for Proust and goes on to expound an aesthetic approach to bourbon in which the chief pleasure comes from, “the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bit of Tennessee summertime,” words that make this Kentuckian’s breast swell with pride. More importantly, this piece provides a ready-made, literary-minded rebuttal to accusations of alcoholism. A defense, I imagine, that might prove useful to more than a few of our readers. —Graham Rogers

I recently picked up The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine, which was released in celebration of Poetry Magazine’s centennial (thanks to Sam Fox for lending it to me!). If you need to be reminded of the incomparable poems that the magazine published first in its pages (including those of Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and Sylvia Plath), read excellent poetry by an author you might not have discovered yet, or simply remember why poetry is worth loving, this is the book to turn to. I recommend getting together with a few friends, taking turns opening to a poem at random, and reading out loud—knowing that you (and they) won’t be disappointed. —Emma Goldhammer

According to Robert Louis Stevenson in “The Secret of the Heather Ale,” the last Pictish king chose to have his son put to death and be killed himself rather than reveal the secrets of his favorite beverage to an invading Scottish army. You could try and re-create the ale that “Was sweeter far then honey, / Was stronger far than wine,” yourself this weekend by boiling five ounces of flowering heather tops (any color, although white is allegedly the luckiest) and boil in a gallon and a half of water. After an hour add seventeen pounds of honey and boil for a further half hour, before leaving the mixture to rest for another thirty minutes. Strain into a seven gallon wine fermenting bin and fill the bin to the top with cold water. Stir through one sachet of champagne yeast, skim off any foam that forms on the surface and decant into clean wine bottles. It should be ready after a week or two. —Charlotte Goldney

This week the loveable geeks over at A.V. Club published a tripartite list of the 1990s’ best films. It’s a neat little nostalgia trip on its own, populated by Tarantinos and Jarmuschs and Scorseses and such. But web-surfers were quick to point out that the skinny white dude aesthetic of the Club list-makers resulted in the absolute omission of black and female directors from this particular record of the nineties canon. Weirdly, this didn’t yield a firestorm: it produced a thoughtful discussion of the nature of institutional bias (think Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have Their Been No Great Women Artists” in 140-character tidbits), and the chance to reflect upon the contingency of our cultural consumption. Start at Slate if you’re interested. —Samuel Fox