I was with some poetry friends in a pub near Holborn, shooting the breeze before a reading two of us were participating in. The breeze was fairly dark on that day, for various reasons. It was the weekend following Donald Trump’s inauguration for one thing; it was January in London for another. Let us hope that it was genuine curiosity, at least as much as the need to keep the conversation going, that caused one friend to ask which poet I thought of as the main background presence for my own writing. He did not quite phrase the question in terms of influence. I did not have to think to know that the answer was John Ashbery. But for some reason, the name felt a little flat on my tongue, as if this was an important fact about myself that I had not been nourishing or had grown inattentive to. Further comment seemed called for, and what I found myself saying next was that, for me, Ashbery was the sky. It was true, and of course it remains so. The sky is not something that just goes and dies one day.
(Containing sundrie small Poemes of the Worlds Vanitie.)
Suppose you want to know whether a given Czesław Miłosz poem rhymes in the original. Or you want to know if it’s in meter. If you don’t speak Polish, friend, you have some serious fuss ahead of you.
Tell you one thing. You won’t find out by reading the introduction to any English translation of Miłosz I’ve ever looked at. Questions of this sort are regarded as matters of absolutely no interest. Why would you want to know anything about a poet’s prosody. Read More
- These days, it often seems the world has tilted on its axis: nothing is the same, we’ve broken with the past, there’s no going back. But we’ve still got an old friend kicking around—the barf bag. In these uncertain times, Hollywood’s horror filmmakers still turn to sick bags as a primo promotional gag. For there is still vomit in this realm, and still a need to contain it in the face of extreme spectacle. Cara Buckley writes: “After a moviegoer apparently vomited during a Los Angeles screening of the French coming-of-age cannibal flick, Raw, the theater began handing out barf bags … The move is a vintage publicity stunt going back some fifty years. Among the standout bags in movie history: The keepsake vomit bag from the 1963 splatter film Blood Feast came with an encouragement, ‘Spill your guts out!’ ‘Guaranteed to upset your stomach!’ proclaimed the bag from the 1981 Italian film Cannibal Ferox. The bag for The Beyond (1981) came with the thoughtfully worded warning, ‘Individuals with sensitive constitutions may experience stomach distress,’ and advised that the bag be used only once and not overfilled.”
- For a while, Marianne Moore taught at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a dubious institution in Pennsylvania that aimed to “assimilate” Native American youth basically by flogging their culture out of them. This was not, as one might imagine, a bright spot for Moore’s career. Siobhan Phillips notes that “even at the time Moore taught there, the school’s obvious wrongs were noticed and decried. Moore knew of ‘cruel neglect and abuse,’ as her mother put it in a letter included in [Linda] Leavell’s biography. Moore did not protest. In 1914, federal investigators examined conditions at CIIS and dismissed the superintendent … Congress found financial corruption and mismanagement as well as incidents of wrongful expulsion and physical harm. A student in Moore’s department organized the petition requesting the investigation, which 276 students signed. Moore was accused of supporting insurrection, but she sidestepped the charge, as she reports in a letter to her brother: ‘I crush out disrespect and rancor whenever I see it, and I give the students as thorough a training in political honor as I can.’ When inspectors came to Carlisle, she dodged them. Her brother advised her not to say anything definitive or particular. She took his advice.”
How the Brooklyn Bridge became a living landfill.
I too saw the satin ribbons, the scrunchies, the clothing tags, the fat knots of underwear and panty hose, had my eyes dazzled by the foil of a bag of potato chips, the ripped labels of Poland Spring water bottles, look’d on the clear plastic rosary with a cross, the teak mantra beads strung on red thread, look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of a plastic spoon, and saw how four black locks neatly proselytized in gold marker (JESUS <3’S YOU, BE A CHRISTIAN, KEEP GOD <3 FIRST <3, GOD IS GREAT). Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge one evening last week, I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me when I saw the white diaphanous fluff of tampons—unused, I hope—that had been tied to the railings by the living crowd. Read More
- If you’ve been listening to pop music your whole life, you might think that love is a many-splendored thing, subject to the vicissitudes and vagaries of the human condition. You would be wrong. Love has exactly seven stages—no more, no less. Stendhal said so: “In 1818, Stendhal—then an unsuccessful writer in his midthirties named Henri Beyle—met one of the loves of his life, Méthilde … But Méthilde kept Stendhal at arm’s length, and even limited their interactions, only allowing him to visit her once every two weeks, which, in turn, gave Stendhal time to develop and nurture his fantasy of her, to exaggerate his love and admiration to truly grandiose proportions. ‘This is a love that lives only through the imagination,’ Stendhal recorded in his journal … Stendhal kept track of his emotions, and began to think about love with an almost scientific scrutiny. The result of this project was called De l’Amour, in which he described his famous concept of the stages of love. There are seven stages in all—which could conceivably follow like episodes on a season of The Bachelor—evolving in a form of crystallization: ‘a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.’ ”
- While we’re talking love—David Rees found his grandma’s diaries, and they are full of it. Mainly the object of her affection is ice cream; sometimes boys, too. “My teenage grandmother’s great genius was flirting,” he writes: “Those amazing boys! The peachy, dandy, charming boys of Gloversville, anointed with adjectives now reserved for Yelp reviews of bed-and-breakfasts. I can barely keep up with her crushes, or their fluctuations in status: ‘But what do you suppose [Peggy] told me? That Bill was mad at me because he thought I was mad at him because he talked to Velma Thorne! And there I didn’t even know he’d been talking to her! Wasn’t it funny. … So I told [Ralph] to tell [Bill] I wasn’t mad and it didn’t bother me how much he talked to Velma!’ It turns out poor Bill, being ‘stout’ and a cigarette-bummer (‘I hate to see a fellow smoke when he’s with a girl on the street, don’t you?’) was no match for Grant. Or Jonsey. Or the mysterious ‘Sunshine,’ who, if my grandmother is to be believed, was, for one summer in 1911, the most alluring young man in the universe: ‘one grand rower, fisher and sportsman. Really I never saw anybody like him. Emma & I are both dippy over him!’ ”
- So like imagine you’re a young Karl Ove Knausgaard and you get on the elevator in a fancy midtown building and hey now, it’s some hotshot publisher and you’ve got about thirty seconds to pitch My Struggle: “Ah, hello. Yes, going up. I haven’t chosen a floor yet. You may know me. I’m a writer. Imagine: A young man boards the bus to his grandparents’ flat in Elvegaten. He usually sits on the left side of the aisle, a few rows from the back, by the window, if the seat is available. It is: He sits there. He—there’s more to it, actually, but—yes, have a nice day.”
- Marianne Moore revised her poems restlessly, constantly—and sometimes publicly. In her willingness to let her readers see a poem in different iterations, she anticipated the Internet, Ali Pechman writes: “Particularly with respect to the way she changed her work, Moore has always struck me as more of a digital-age artist than any of her contemporaries. Her poems were as malleable as something written online … Her process gives a hint of how a poetic mind might use the Internet. In poems such as ‘An Octopus,’ she collages together text from newspapers, guidebooks, and overheard remarks at the circus in a shimmering representation of Mount Rainier. ‘Marriage’ contains roughly thirty sources from Francis Bacon to Ezra Pound to the inscription on a statue in Central Park. Such poems are a reflection of the hours she spent scouring countless books at the library and attending lectures. Her democratic sphere of influence apes the Internet—and, to follow, her aggressive self-editing reads like a symptom of that kind of capacity. One wonders what she would have written if she had had references at her fingertips.”
- Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, an Oulipo project, tells a love story without ever referring to gender—a feat that’s all the more impressive in French, which has gender baked into its grammatical constructs. “To get around these rules, Garréta digs deep into the French language. Instead of the passé composé she uses the literary form of the past tense, the passé simple, which does not employ participles that require agreement, and relies heavily on the imparfait, which describes continuously-occurring past actions. Sometimes Garréta uses sentence fragments to avoid the verb altogether. She describes A***’s body indirectly, taking advantage of the fact that, in French, an arm (un bras) is masculine even if it belongs to a female and a leg (une jambe) is feminine even when it belongs to a male. No primary or secondary sex characteristics are ever mentioned, of course: in the sex scenes thighs and crotches end up doing the erotic and narrative heavy lifting. And in one important instance a genderless English noun stands in for its gendered French equivalent.”
In the clip above, our founding editor George Plimpton recalls hearing Muhammad Ali give a lecture to thousands of Harvard graduates, and the poem that emerged from it:
He gave this wonderful speech … It was moving, it was funny at the same time, and there was a great roar of appreciation at the end of it. And then, someone shouted out, Give us a poem! Now the shortest poem in the English language, according to Bartlett’s Quotations, is called “On the Antiquity of Microbes.” And the poem is “Adam / Had ’em.” It’s pretty short. But Muhammad Ali’s poem was, “Me? / Whee!!” Two words. I wrote Bartlett’s Quotations and I said, Look here, that’s shorter than “Adam / Had ’em.” You wanna put it in? It stands for something more than the poem itself: Me, whee. What a fighter he was, and what a man.