A Week in Culture: Dan Chiasson, Poet


The Culture Diaries


6:15 A.M. Our children wake us up. Nobody wants anything read to them this morning. They are involved in some kind of acrimonious negotiation involving Lego heads (“That’s my head!” “It’s MY head!” “No, mine!” et cetera) so I go into the next room and start thinking about a class I am guest teaching today at BU. I’ve been reading (and writing) father-son poems, and I think, Why not just tell the students what’s on my mind: Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem for his son, “Three Things There Be.” The poem comes in several variants; I print them out and look at a brief discussion of the variants as well as the provocative “spoiled riddle” poems (poems that act like riddles but give their solutions away) on Slate, by Robert Pinsky.

I go to the Times website, and there is (fortuitously) this article on metaphor and the brain. I skim it for something I can say to the class. Neuroscience is very keen on poets and poetry these days: It turns out that when you call someone a cockroach, you activate the same part of your brain that can recall the picture of an actual cockroach

8:30 A.M. I head into Boston. It’s an hour drive this time of day. I get a four-shot latte at Karma Coffee, Route 20 in Sudbury (do yourself a favor). I am listening a lot to the Byrds’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo these days, especially “One Hundred Years from Now.” I have a problem that technology has solved. When I like a song, I listen to it over and over for weeks at a time. You used to have to keep rewinding the tape, and the tape would snap or come unraveled. Now, with iPods, it’s no problem.

9:30 A.M. I meet the students in this storied room, where Robert Lowell once taught (he wrote a great poem about teaching at BU and living a few blocks away, “Memories of West Street and Lepke”). Lots of stuff comes up: Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, the online virtual world Second Life, Chris Marker’s film La Jetée, James Bond—two hours, and the list could be ten times as long. One nice thing about poetry: Anything and everything is its subject.

12:00 P.M. I get a sandwich at a remarkable place in Brookline Village. My friend Katie told me about it. Go for the ham and piemento. In the car, I keep switching between an interview with Ann Beattie on a local NPR show called Hear and Now (I’ve never read Beattie, but I like the way she talks about her work) and the morons on WTKK, Boston’s Talk Radio Revolution. I like listening to talk radio. I like argument almost for its own sake. But the white guy anger really disturbs me. I’ve noticed more and more I’m getting shouted at and otherwise roughly handled by men in big trucks behind me on the road (must be my Bernie Sanders bumper sticker, or perhaps my general air of being a privileged weenie). Often these guys are in the trades, and their drywall or plumbing business is advertised right on their trucks. Now, is that any way to drum up business?

1:00 P.M. I have two hours to read before I pick up our kids. I’m working on a piece on the poet C. D. Wright, so I’m going back and reading her books: today, One Big Self and Rising, Falling, Hovering. I’m also writing a blog post for the New York Review of Books on The Magnetic Fields, whose first two albums, The Wayward Bus and Distant Plastic Trees, are playing in the background. I am back and forth on e-mail with Claudia Gonson, who plays with the band and is one of my heroes; her post appears beside mine and can be found here.

8:00 P.M. I read Louis Menand’s piece on late-night TV. The hero is Dick Cavett. A few years ago, I bought everything available of The Dick Cavett Show on DVD. I sometimes show my students his interview with Paul Simon. Simon is in the middle of writing “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”: He brings his guitar on and asks Cavett for feedback on a couple of chord progressions. I use it as an example of aesthetic openness. And I tell them how lucky poets are: They can carry their instruments around with them everywhere they go.

9:00 P.M. My wife and I watch the famous Woodstock episode of the Cavett show. It’s the day after the festival. The set is done in a ridiculous sixties style, with little mushroom puffy chairs. All the guests seem like completely insufferable pricks, especially David Crosby. Cavett makes a joke with Grace Slick about going to prep school, and she rolls her eyes.

Pricks, with one exception: Joni Mitchell, whose ethereal thing seems utterly real and not an act, like the others; and when she sings, particularly an a capella anti-American thing called “The Fiddle and the Drum,” she is so clearly on another aesthetic plane that the other guests look like they want to die.

Dan Chiasson is a poet, critic, and professor. His latest collection of poems is Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of his culture diary.