Tuesday 29 October 2013


"[I]t’s a perfect system with all gears clicking. That isn’t to say that a poem has to be some streamlined over-engineered Ducati motorcycle (Seidel may convince you otherwise). Even the great awkward ones that clank along like a Dr. Seuss thingamajig seem somehow necessary in all their little bits and pieces."
Danny Jacobs considers some of the elements of a "great" poem.

Human Dissatisfied

Adam Plunkett takes issue with what he calls Stephen Burt's "blurbing good cheer":
The gnawing condescension at the heart of Burt’s essays and reviews is the premise that criticism is far less important than praise because not enough people read poetry, as though poetry were too delicate for yelling. “I have written reviews I regarded as negative,” Burt writes, but “such pieces do their work upon their first appearances, losing, often enough, what value they have after the waves that they track have hit the shore.” Burt has to know that the history of taste has worked otherwise, with negativity galvanizing preferences and poets from T. E. Hulme on Romanticism to Langston Hughes on “The Negro-Art Hokum” and Adrienne Rich on female poets’ entrapment in patriarchy, from high modernism to the Harlem Renaissance and second-wave feminist poetry. Taste has to exclude as well as include; and when it includes, it must be with reservations as well as unconditional love. It would go a long way toward Burt’s “helping you enjoy” new poetry if he were to help you to articulate why you do not enjoy some of it, rather than leaving you with the uncomfortable sense that there is something wrong with you if you do not. This kind of attitude suits pedantry more than pleasure, and better to be a human dissatisfied than a prig satisfied.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Sunday Poem

An immense precision is necessary, coming as it does,
amazed at the arrangement, between last light and field. 
The land accumulates, always curving, apart from itself
as if everything depended on its arrival, as if its contents 
were a cruel consequence, purposeful, crowding the sky.
No single pattern emerges, no sleight-of-hand topology,

undefined, escapes this field of gravity, this philosophy
of continuous time. All repercussions are immeasurable.

In this singularity, the human touch melts in acceleration,
an equation we maintain in history, in a future boldly 
composed as if it were really going to happen, as if one
last array might bring us all to see what we least expect.
Begin full of mystery, joining of shade and light, the shape
of nothing in particular, at some point unformed, plainly

fluid, amorphous. Everything unites, at odds with itself,
opposite in flow, hard to combine, harder still to undo.

There is no thinking past its form, no scene less worthy
of the thought. The landscape, an extraction, emerges out

of itself, ambitious, embodying a frame that has no face.
No brutal fare cools the heart of this expression, no wise 
illusion of the moment divides its rising points of light.
The occasion is geometric, the far horizon a mongrel line

rapidly moving away. All reason fades, all angles vanish,
the daybreak annealing this timely marriage of convenience.
Put into words, the nightfall finds itself translated, a meeting
of ripe perfumes, clouds awash, an attraction low in the west. 
What are we to know of this? That there is only one clear way
into the night, its confession a confident dream in us, its canopy

a burning storyline of gods and goddesses? We see the horizon
lingers, speaking in tongues, slowly releasing the sky. Yet, hard

as it is to imagine, the night patiently awaits us, perfectly at ease,
safely celestial. It anticipates us at the head of the last remaining

light, a dark metaphor of itself. Then we will find sleep, dreaming
of rare fictions, unearthing a vital currency of stars falling loose

from the hybrid sky. In the end, will we find this to be what is here
for us to wonder, what dark embrace we covet, identical as heaven? 

From Birds Flock Fish School (2013) by Ed Carson

Sunday 20 October 2013

Sunday Poem

‘I didn't really say everything I said.’–Yogi Berra. 

I join hundreds on the platform at Union
Station in New Haven. This is the Yankee Clipper
that carries Connecticut fans to ball-
games in the Bronx. They know what to wear:
white shirts with the names in blue of Gehrig,
Ruth, Berra, Mantle, Mattingly and the rest.
Teenage girls wear halter-tops with blue pinstripes
and the interlocked letters: NY—
all made flirty with spaghetti straps.
Sore-thumb conspicuous, I wear no mark
of loyalty, just a t-shirt, shorts, and a splash
of sun-block for this ninety-degree day.
I get the occasional glance—tolerant,
skeptical or just uncomprehending.
                                       Two hours pass
as we stop at the places where Manhattan
sleeps; car after car fills with families,
beery pals, old men, schoolboys, all partisan
and wry. Then 153rd Street Station
where we wind down paths and between fences.
Two years ago, my son and I went to
the old stadium just to say we’d done it
—been there with the ghosts. That night Mussina
pitched a stinker—just to remind us
of the human condition, I suppose,
while that billion and a half of building
next door, the new stadium, promised something.
The ground is level, but the soaring
walls of pale stone trick the eye; it seems
to stand on a hill. Now the greeters swarm
and they hold signs like ping pong paddles:
‘Can I help you?’ Not really. My task is clear.
I go to a booth, buy a cap, put it on
just so I can feel myself disappear.

In the Great Hall are photographs of old
warriors: I am glad to see Thurman
Munson’s long banner and so many pictures;
a squat grumpy catcher, his numbers used
to hold me each morning, .307
or .312, and the ribbies mounting
in September till he had his hundred.
In 1971, he made no errors at all
until he was knocked cold on the base-path
and was obliged, at last, to drop the ball.
At 32, he crashed his jet near Akron.
Always MVP of a boy’s imagining --
my mind never did retire his number.

Everywhere, in this hall, is the face
of Derek Jeter, balletic shortstop—
known for the high leap, the mid-air turn,
and throw to first. Elegant, good-hearted,
he is the hook they hang the legend on
here in this odd shrine where I too bend down.

I take my seat clutching a huge pretzel
encrusted in an ocean’s worth of salt—
followed on an emergency basis
by a beer. Vendors work the steep aisles
with trays of Budweiser on their heads.
Others shout and hurl bags of Cracker-Jack
with Jeter-like accuracy to middle seats.
Even hotdogs come in a pinstriped box.

There are 45,000 people here
on Tuesday night to see the poor Mariners.
Twenty-seven flags blow towards the outfield.
My seat is good, view obstructed only
by children waving blue styrofoam fingers,
their fathers the famously erudite
Yankees fans who talk the scorekeepers’ code:
Melky drops the ball in centre-field and I hear
a disgusted, ‘E-8, no doubt about it!’

Alex Rodriguez sprints from the dugout—
if that man has an injured hip, may I be
so injured. He gazes up almost over-awed
at the scoreboard, replaying his latest
home runs on the way to a landmark
six hundred. But for all that, A-Rod
lifts no hearts. A-Rod lacks the magic.

I look to the bullpen and think I see
the closer, Mariano Rivera,
his face like a Latino Henry Fonda.
The New York Times says that he was so poor
as a boy in Panama that he learned
to play using a crushed milk carton
for a glove. A friend asks, ‘what did he use for
a ball?’ I don’t know—perhaps a jam jar?
Among priapic athletes he is thought a saint.
When young, he had a religious experience
and even now credits God for his split-
finger fastball; I agree, it is a miracle of sorts.
He prays and gives away heaps of money.
On his glove is stitched chapter and verse,
Phil. 4:13: ‘There is nothing I cannot
do in the one who strengthens me.’
Occasionally, he fails, but he never fears.

Mystique is big business, I suppose;
and razzmatazz is what we buy, knowing
that our strong minds still love all this.
What did the poets and the songwriters
see? What did Paul Simon see? What did
Marianne Moore in her broad hats see?
A chance for the ordinary life to be
a part of the great struggles of the world?
Some hidden tale of youth and age, told
over and over again? It is Santiago
pitying DiMaggio for his bone spurs:
‘Have faith in the Yankees my son.
Think of the great DiMaggio.’ And we know
it is the magic of the thing imagined.
From Dante's House (2013) by Richard Greene 

Death Is Not The End

Remembering the late American poet Rachel Wetzsteon, Adam Kirsch reflects on an immensely promising career cut short:
The manner of her death—she committed suicide, on Christmas Eve—has had the paradoxical effect of making her at once better known and less understood. More people have probably heard Wetzsteon’s name after her death than while she was alive; the poet-suicide is an archetype we understand all too well, and she seemed to fit it neatly. Yet this fame, such as it is, has not yet provoked much serious critical attention to her poetry. (In 2009 the New York Times published her obituary, but it had not yet reviewed any of her books.) Even now, the sense lingers that Wetzsteon’s work is not complete, that it is not yet time to start assessing her achievement. To acknowledge that in fact her achievement really is complete, because there will never be much more to her body of work than we already have, is thus a recognition of tragedy. But it is also a recognition of Wetzsteon’s success. For the truth is that, in her four books, she established her mastery over a style and a set of themes in a way that only true poets manage to do.
David Yezzi ponders the effect of Wetzsteon's death on the poems she left behind:
Some poems grow on us over time; others are diminished. Occasionally, we embrace a poem beyond criticism, beyond its value as literature; we internalize it for its life-value. Some poems synchronize with our breath, take root in our hearts, where they assume a private and indelible meaning. Death is not the end when a poet dies. What we dearly miss is everything they have to tell us about the minutiae of life, about head colds and deadlines, restaurants and articles, embarrassments and triumphs. And gossip, always gossip—about our doings and others’. But the poems keep talking. They talk with even greater clarity and power, in fact, because they are no longer in process. They are finished. Yet like all good art, they continue to unfold, have things to say, even new things to say that we hadn’t heard before.

Saturday 19 October 2013


"I grew up with much older parents. My parents were very fun and they were very eccentric, but they were also very mannered. When I was growing up it was the way we got things done—in a mannered but not uptight way. So I think it’s just I feel more comfortable with the constraints, I feel like there’s more freedom. You have something to work within and you can be subversive within that context."
Alexandra Oliver explains her preference for formal poetry.

Sunday 13 October 2013

How Did That Happen?

Mark Doty is daunted by the implications of turning sixty:
All my life sixty has been a demarcation point, a line in the proverbial sands of time, and when I try to visualize a person at sixty what comes to me are received images, old news. I suspect I'll be struggling with this for a bit. Five years ago, when I was a guest at Stanford, I wandered into a thrift shop in a neighboring town and found a sweater I liked, a copy of a vintage black pullover with a nice coppery stripe around the collar. When I took it up the counter, the woman behind the cash register said, "Would you like the senior discount?" I imagine my face crumpled a bit, because she immediately said, "You only have to be 55," and then I found myself fighting back tears. It's a little theatre of mortality, that sort of moment. It asks you to attend to the cumulative changes in your own body, to the odd experience of that current that seems barely to move at all and then—as a perception so universal as to constitute a cliche of aging goes—suddenly there you are. My sister just wrote this to me in a birthday card: I work up one day and I was old, how did that happen?

Sunday Poem

Refuse recyclable paper yard bags. Refuse gloves.
Collect yard trimmings the way you know how—
I’ll do likewise. My friend, don’t hurt your head.
Afternoons, slide down the avenue. At every intersection,
karate kick crosswalk buttons. Show up mornings
a very macho character, a little threatening. Show up
fawning, a little flirtatious. Talking religion, bitches.
Going on about your lady—in the mirror, lipsticked.

Gang boy in Colombia. Gang man. You left that life.
Yes, they found you in Miami. They killed your wife,
your two kids, they threw you off a balcony. Now lay
down your head. With strands of yourself off in the trees,
running quiet and clear in the quick creek water.
With your arms wrapped around surgical scars.
With your collection of scars. Miami to Vancouver? I think
I walked. Lay down your English. Por favor! Scowl
and explain to me in Spanish that you don’t speak
Spanish anymore. Or Portuguese. Or the Quebec French
that jumps out of you. Explain to me that North Vancouver
has the most beautiful cemetery you’ve ever slept in.
No landlords, no need to pull a knife. With the different
parts of your brain in the right places, explain it.

With your jumble of words, lay down your head.
With your jumble of words. With your single joint
per day and the pain gone out of your skull. Let
the sections of your head click into a proper machined fit.  
Yes, killed so many times, scattered in so many places,
you can’t say—say a loud Fuck you! in the direction
of your every past boss. Say it at your every Refugee Board
hearing, at your every income assistance interview.
Consult the cemetery’s visiting bear, coyote and deer.
Consult the community of the dead flowing in unison
beneath your head. Then make your many decisions
and rule the parts of your head. My friend, my co-worker,
here’s a coffee, a set of garden tools and plastic yard bag.
Come do your expert work. Whistle all day the songs
that came to you in the night through the cold clean dirt.
From Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (2013) by Russell Thornton

(Illustration by Rik Reimert)

Saturday 12 October 2013

Giving a Damn

In an excerpt from her new book of essays, The Mystery Shopping Cart, Anita Lahey argues that writers—especially when it comes to reviews—need to toughen up:
An author’s ego may be a fierce and flimsy thing, but it’s not the reviewer’s job to mollify or tame it. As a writer, I know that when I put my work in the world, I’m letting it go: to be taken up, interpreted, misinterpreted, enjoyed, disdained or ignored as the case may be. If a reviewer doesn’t “get it,” that may be my own fault. If a reviewer is not caught by my subject, or finds my treatment of it clumsy, shallow or been-there-done-that, I want to be told. Sometimes a reviewer’s bluntness is a relief. This is not to condone nastiness or attacks disguised as reviews. We should never be blasé regarding someone’s heartfelt endeavour: humility and common sense demand basic awareness of the difficulty inherent in creating anything. But here’s the thing: I want to be challenged. By readers, by editors, by reviewers—by people who give a damn about what I’ve written and what I may be capable of writing and who make no bones about letting me know.

Monday 7 October 2013


Patrick Warner raises his concerns about Mary Dalton's collection of centos, Hooking, in the form of a "cento" review—that is, an essay spliced together from bits and pieces of other essays.

(Photo by Paul Daly)

Sunday 6 October 2013

Sunday Poem

Boys on the sidewalk, young men really, walking their bikes
one hand on the crossbar. Casual. As if the bikes were wolfhounds.

Yesterday’s early snow, an extra curb between sidewalk
and street, framing the solemnity of the single file. Thunder
snow, it’s called: Weather’s sudden shift lit up like revelation. 
Because the cab pulls away, I don’t see them lean
their bikes against a shop, and one after another, walk in.
Or, at the end of the block, mount their bikes, ride off.

In another time, the four of them—before
a reviewing stand—sat erect in their saddles,
their head-gear stowed, hair to their shoulders.
Or, they walked at the horses’ heads—a hand on
the bridle strap—leaving the arena, the games done. 
In this or that century, I’ve seen them up close.
Dark, non-committal eyes—their interest off
somewhere else—acknowledging my glance
with a nod. Courtesy, as practised as a sword arm.

Their kind have fused will and body, an infant discipline
they’re born to. But I have—in my time—held them,
lulled them, breathed the talcum of their sleeping,
knowing even then they’d be slipping from me. Sons,
I say, to the darkening cab, be as you are—ages becoming—
the world a backdrop to your inscrutable bearing.
From Alongside (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013) by Anne Compton