January 18, 2017

National Book Critics Circle Finalists

The National Book Critics Circle has announced their 30 finalists in six categories – autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry – for the outstanding books of 2016.

The awards will be presented on March 16, 2017, in New York City.

The 5 finalists in poetry:

Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Tyehimba Jess, Olio (Wave Books)

Bernadette Mayer, Works and Days (New Directions)

Robert Pinsky, At the Foundling Hospital (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Monica Youn, Blackacre (Graywolf Press)

January 13, 2017

The Alarming Spread of Poetry by P. G. Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse wrote "The Alarming Spread of Poetry."  Do you think he was being sarcastic?
To the thinking man there are few things more disturbing than the realization that we are becoming a nation of minor poets. 
In the good old days poets were for the most part confined to garrets, which they left only for the purpose of being ejected from the offices of magazines and papers to which they attempted to sell their wares. Nobody ever thought of reading a book of poems unless accompanied by a guarantee from the publisher that the author had been dead at least a hundred years. Poetry, like wine, certain brands of cheese, and public buildings, was rightly considered to improve with age; and no connoisseur could have dreamed of filling himself with raw, indigestible verse, warm from the maker.
read "The Alarming Spread of Poetry" by P. G. Wodehouse

January 6, 2017

Rilke's Terrifying Angels

When I visited Prague this year, I encountered two writers of the past as I wandered the streets: Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke. They were both born in Prague. Like Kafka, Rilke's family had a plan for his life's work. They wanted him to be a lawyer and take over his uncle’s law firm. But both men wanted to be writers, if that was a possible career.

Rilke published some "love poetry" and it gained some popularity, so law was left behind.

He led a much more Romantic and romantic life than Franz. He was part of the Munich arts scene. He fell in love with a woman fifteen years his senior who helped him develop as a more serious poet. When they broke up, he became a bit of a gigolo, seducing rich noblewomen who supported him.  He wasn’t particularly good looking, but he seems to have used his poetry quite well with women.

Duino Castle, near Trieste, Italy

He met Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, another rich, older woman. But she didn't like the way Rilke treated women and refused to be seduced. They were close friends and wrote hundreds of letters, and she let Rilke stay in her castle in Trieste, on the Adriatic Sea.

At Castle Duino one winter while he was living there alone, Rilke said he heard a voice in the wind while walking along the cliffs. Then an angel appeared and spoke to him about life and death, beauty and humanity. It set Rilke to immediately begin writing what would become The Duino Elegies.

The elegies are made up of ten long verses. The two sequences, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus are his most famous poems. They have made him a poet described as one of "romantic transformation and spiritual quest" and the poems are often described as "ecstatic."

I was surprised to learn that Rilke's angel symbolism was influenced by their depiction in Islam. There they represent the embodiment of transcendental beauty.

Persian angel tapestry

What interests me this month about the The Duino Elegies is their inspiration. They are intensely religious and mystical poems, but I don't expect that many of you reading this have had similar "angelic" inspirational moments.

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them
pressed me against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
Every angel is terrifying.

Some people would define an angel as a spiritual being acting as an agent, or messenger of God. Conventionally, they are represented in human form with wings and perhaps clothed in a long robe. Some people see angels as more Earthly persons of exemplary conduct or virtue or transcendental beauty.

I believe that Rilke’s angels are invisible. They are manifested human longing. They are outside any language, but we only have language for our expression.

I feel sorry for his angels who are trapped in a realm of living in both the present and the past simultaneously. They exist in the real and the unreal. That must be terrifying.

As Rilke writes:

Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas, I invoke you,
almost deadly birds of the soul, knowing about you.
But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars took even one step down toward us:  our own heart, beating higher and higher, would beat us to death.

Terrifying and yet we call upon them. And they have no voice but through Rilke and you.

This month we write about angels or the angelic.


December 28, 2016

A Poet Named Paterson from Paterson

Jim Jarmusch’s new film is Paterson. which opened this week in the U.S. but received good reviews last May at the Cannes film festival.

Director Jarmusch came to New York in the 1970s and wanted to be a poet. He was diverted by music and filmmaking, but poetry has not left him. In his film Only Lovers Left Alive, one character is Christopher Marlowe, and in Dead Man one is William Blake.
"Well, when I became a teenager I started reading French symbolist poets — translated, of course. And I discovered Baudelaire — and, consequently, Rimbaud — and I started looking at American poets; Walt Whitman first. And then, when I escaped Akron, Ohio, where I was born, and eventually ended up in New York. I got to study in the New York school of poets and I got to study with Kenneth Koch, a great poet of the New York school and David Shapiro. Ron Padgett, who wrote the poems for our film and David Shapiro, who was my teacher, they both edited a book called the Anthology of New York Poets in 1970. I didn’t discover it until the mid-1970s, but it was kind of a bible for me. "

But in his newest film, we follow a guy called Paterson was born and still lives in Paterson, New Jersey. He drives the #23 bus which has his name on its side.

Among other things, Paterson, New Jersey is a poetry city. This "Silk City" was known for that elegant fabric during the latter half of the 19th century. It was and still is an immigrant city. It has a large Hispanic population and many immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world. (It has the second-largest Muslim population in the United States.)

The Great Falls
You may know that the Lou Costello half of the comedy team Abbott and Costello grew up there. You may know the Great Falls of the Passaic River, now a National Park.

Paterson is also the subject of William Carlos Williams' epic poem Paterson. The city shows up in the poetry of another native son, Allen Ginsberg.

In Allen's friend's novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac's protagonist Sal Paradise lives with his aunt in Paterson. (Kerouac's own hometown was another mill town with a waterfall, Lowell, Massachusetts. New Jersey's Junot Diaz uses Paterson. It is the setting of John Updike's novels In the Beauty of the Lilies and is renamed "New Prospect" in his novel The Terrorist.

I worked at Passaic County Community College in Paterson for five years and for me the city is a poetry place. Besides Williams and Ginsberg, it breathes poetry today through the work of poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan on the page and in everyday life.

Maria sings of her hometown in all of her twenty-one books of poetry. She also helps make Paterson  the beating heart of poetry for the state as the Founder and Executive Director of the nationally known Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. She is the editor of the Paterson Literary Review which comes from the Center and sponsors the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prizes.

Ginsberg, Gillan and Williams

The Paterson in the new film, played by Adam Driver, seems to take William Carlos Williams' poem and its aesthetic of finding beauty in the everyday to heart. He awakens and talks to his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), drives his NJ Transit bus, walks his dog and writes his poems. The work of contemporary poet Ron Padgett inspires and is the prose poetry of the character Paterson.

LOVE POEM by Ron Padgett

We have plenty of matches in our house. We keep them on hand always. Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip, though we used to prefer Diamond brand. That was before we discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches. They are excellently packaged, sturdy little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone, as if to say even louder to the world, ''Here is the most beautiful match in the world, its one and a half inch soft pine stem capped by a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious and stubbornly ready to burst into flame, lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love, for the first time, and it was never really the same after that. All this will we give you.'' That is what you gave me, I become the cigarette and you the match, or I the match and you the cigarette, blazing with kisses that smoulder toward heaven.

This poetry finds meaning and beauty from simplicity and routine. The film too is described as  subdued and undramatic. It may be an antidote to the superhero, violent, explosions of most films today. It may be just too simple and quiet for today's audience.

As we follow Paterson for a week, small changes in that routine seem large. Paterson's wife is also an artist but her creativity has no pattern. One day she is learning to play an instrument, or redecorating the house, designing clothing, or baking cupcakes. She builds. He strips things down to essentials.

Paterson seems quiet and gentle, but this veteran in one scene disarms an armed man. In a quiet world, small sounds seems louder.

Even in the film's trailer and clips, I see Paterson's old warehouses and factories that I know pretty well. This was a birthplace city of American industry set in a place chosen by founding father Alexander Hamilton to harness the power of the Great Falls. We see unpublished but prolific poet Paterson at the Falls too, as Ginsberg, Williams, Gillan and many other poets have done.

He is not much of a talker, but he is a listener, and that is important work for a poet.