Monday 22 February 2016

The Poet's Eye

These photographs by the late American poet William Stafford belong to an archive of 16,000 negatives that, in 1993, his family donated to Lewis & Clark College, where Stafford taught for 22 years. A larger selection—which were part of the William Stafford Retrospective Exhibits in 2014—can be found here.

Galway Kinnell, 1980
W.S. Merwin and Carolyn Kizer, 1966
Charles Wright, 1972

Richard Hugo, 1971

Donald Hall, 1969

Elizabeth Bishop, 1977

William Everson, 1967

Mark Strand,1967

James Tate, 1968

Linda Pastan, 1980

Anthony Hecht and Gwendolyn Brooks, 1987

Howard Nemerov, 1981

May Swenson, 1972

Ted Hughes, 1971

Donald Justice 1969

Karl Shapiro, 1974
Robert Hayden and Daniel Hoffman, 1977
Robert Creeley, 1974
William Matthews, 1971

Sunday 21 February 2016

Sunday Poem

The rain reminds me how I fell
in love with steel drums as a girl 
in Detroit’s Hart Plaza, wanted to hear
that patterned ting-ping-ping all day 
while brushing my teeth, while reading
my horoscope in the Free Press
while unpacking a packed lunch.
My son’s father pours me a glass 
of terrible wine. We joke it has notes
of strawberry, rhubarb, and lake trout. 
I watched a decades-old documentary
in which the author’s father handled 
hemlock on an island outside Ottawa.
My father tells me I’m his greatest 
regret. He means not knowing me, one
hopes. It reminds me of a dumb song. 
My son is asleep after drinking from me
too soon after I consumed that bad booze. 
When I was 22 I drank a bottle of rosé
and zonked out under a tree beside 
the intended tent. I was in a campground
in Menton. France. That’s all I remember. 
Also: the English girls I travelled with didn’t
much love museums. Did I see Jean Cocteau’s 
chateau? Maybe. My son thinks I’m perfect
when I do nothing but lie silently in a room 
feeding him while I try not to dwell on
my mother’s bills so that worry won’t 
pass from my nervous system into his. One
time I drank a rancid mud-thick brew 
that made me see snakes in the floor tile.
I thought I was the Virgin Mary, radiant 
and swaddled in borrowed white skirts
issued to shield my ovarian vibrations. 
We stood up and sat down as we sang
allegedly magical phrases in Portuguese. 
One guy saw light shoot out of my head.
Tonight, I tune the rain. Our least-favourite 
cat trapped in the worst of it. I felt
love as we rescued him from his tiny 
terror. Once he was safe I lost interest.
I cried this afternoon. It’s my new thing.
By Damian Rogers, from Dear Leader (Coach House, 2015)
(Illustration by Sean Lewis)

We Are The Arbiters

Sheila Heiti explains that the idea of "success" for Canadian artists is changing:
We live in a place where the official rewards aren’t so grand, but that means something else happens: Artists slide between mediums, they work on each others’ projects, and new forms emerge. I often think of how the ethos here makes it easy to even find someone to rip tickets at the door of your show. We put hours into each others’ art, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the only rewards we can count on are the rewards of creating, the pleasures of doing it together, and the satisfaction of being in each other’s audience.

It’s a rich, complex, and intelligently critical world we inhabit: a world that produces great art, and that does not burn brightest when the CBC or the Globe take notice, or when the Americans or Brits do. It’s a world populated by writers and artists who give help and recognition without scoping the horizon for whether the arbiters are near. We are the arbiters. Whether the myth of Canadian achievement includes this world or not, this world exists. It’s true.

A Person of Uncertain Likeability

Diane Mehta believes it's "high time" that Stevie Smith's poetry is read again:
She is not, on the surface, tenderly lyrical or feminist enough to court contemporary readers. Born in England in 1902, she enjoyed some popularity in the sixties for oddball performances of her poems, which she often sang, or read with spooky dramatic flair, but she might just have been too original, or too variegated, for any one school of poetry to champion her work. Perhaps she has also been dismissed because she comes off as cold and hard, a person of uncertain likeability: her so-called comic verse roils with death wishes and sneering attacks on other poets. (“Let all the little poets be gathered together in classes / And let prizes be given to them by the Prize Asses,” she says in “To School!”) She has been put in with Blake, Coleridge, and Emily Dickinson. Fine company, but Smith is far more varied, unfettered, and disenchanted than all that. Her lines have scope. They contain a high-low mix of childlike diction, plain speech, formal rhymes, and heroic couplets, with a register that ricochets between folk tunes, hymnals, liturgy, nursery rhymes, and lyrical verse. She deliberately set many poems to the tunes of hymns, and sang them as such. Given all the wit and intellect that animate her poetry, why has she been forgotten?

Knife-Fight in a Phone Box

After a decade of editing poetry reviews for Tower website, Peter McDonald tries to sort out his feelings about his role as an editor and critic: 
Reviewing contemporary poetry is no easy matter; and I, for one, can think of no universal formula for how it is best done. Maybe, indeed, it is best not done at all. The problems are varied, for no two collections strike out in quite the same directions, and no two poets (good, bad, or indifferent) operate in exactly the same ways. Nevertheless, one difficulty for a reviewer is so huge that it is almost impossible to face squarely, let alone to solve: the audience for a review of contemporary poetry is not only tiny by comparison with that for other kinds of writing, but also made up largely of other poets. Maybe, then, not as tiny as all that, for there are really quite a few of these. And poets— as literary history, not to mention common sense, should tell us—are not signed up to many disinterested conceptions of literary culture and critical discussion. They are, on the contrary, interested in often the most heated and intense ways: as vigilant guardians of their own art and its aesthetic (if we want to put it grandly), or as querulous and thin-skinned careerists (if we prefer—and I don’t recommend this—a blunter way of putting things). By and large, nobody listens to things like poetry reviews apart from other poets, and those involved in the forever failing, but quietly heroic cottage-industry of its production and promotion. The exercise of critical judgement (and again, that might be too grand an expression) does not take place on any wide field of engagement, with important things at stake; rather, as has been said before, it is more like a knife-fight in a phone box—intimate, cramped, and unlikely to end well. Everybody gets hurt.
He continues:
I would like to be able to appreciate more of what I encounter, and I’d be the first to concede that my failure to do so isn’t necessarily the poetry’s fault. For appreciation is one of the highest skills in criticism, and one of the rarest: it is worth aspiring to. There is a difference, though, between appreciation and approval, just as there is a divide between literary criticism and promotional copy. Much of what passes for critical discussion of contemporary poetry is (and for some time has been) merely a form of recommendation, one that tends to the hyperbolic. I do not believe that reviewing should be a form of professional networking; but I have to acknowledge that here the facts are against me. In time, all the hyperbole proves corrosive: it should be no surprise that, the higher the volume of praise from reviewers and prize juries, directed in predictable ways to a consistently small circle of predictable names, the less a general reading public feels inclined to tolerate contemporary poetry.

Sunday 7 February 2016

The Long Lost Leprechaun of Irish Lit

Austin Ratner profiles the once-celebrated Irish writer Joyce called his "spiritual twin":
This much is known: he was very small as a child; when he grew up he was still so short that one journalist said he was no taller standing than sitting; others called him a leprechaun, and he didn’t much like that; he told a cartoonist, “Eh, you want to caricature me, eh? Well, the Almighty beat you to it.” This too is known: notwithstanding his diminutive beginnings, great men would come to worship at his feet. The Irish playwright Seán O’Casey called him “the jesting poet with a radiant star in his coxcomb.” Eugene O’Neill asked him to name his children and soOona and Shane O’Neill got their names. James Joyce asked him to complete Finnegans Wake should Joyce himself go blind. He published plays, novels, stories, and poems, including a series of them in The New Yorker in 1929, and his voice once pervaded the Irish airwaves like rainbows south of Skibbereen. This so-called leprechaun with a voice “nimble as a goat’s foot,” as one commentator puts it, was called James Stephens.
And he could be prickly:
It was in a 1915 essay in The New Age entitled “The Non-Existence of Ireland” that Joyce’s influential champion Ezra Pound dismissed Stephens as “a mild enough writer.” It enraged Stephens, who wrote a bitterly funny letter to The New Age deriding Pound in doggerel form. Stephens concludes that having written Pound’s name, he had to go “fumigate” his sullied pen.

Cultural Archaeologist

August Kleinzahler doesn't sugarcoat the challenges of reading Christopher Middleton's poetry:
Middleton's poetry will seem difficult and unfamiliar to the American reader accustomed to magazine verse and the work of Creative Writing's more popular personalities. It is aggressively, unapologetically intellectual, often allusive, and is apt to make assumptions about the breadth of the reader's knowledge that are, well, somewhat generous. The difficulties, though, are not the kind one might encounter in the work of Pound, say, or David Jones. They are more often folded into the logicoithe poem, which can seem baffling, even secret. Middleton is a cultural archaeologist, raising ancient artifacts and finding likenesses. He is often a philosophical poet, in his fascination with time and the phenomenological, by which I mean in the complex ways of perceiving and thinking about how we perceive. He is not anecdotal and certainly not confessional. Poetry, for Middleton, is very much involved in the act of retrieving in language the imaginative experience or moment, letting it find its own pulse and exfoliate on the page. It detests "reportage" or "brute discourse"; it wars against "languishing idioms." It is improvisatory.