You can define poetry in many ways. You can focus its form, its content, its language, its purposes or its differences from prose. Or you can define it as John Updike — the poet, novelist and critic — did in Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism. He said that poetry is “the exercise of language at its highest pitch.”
April 4, 2012
May 23, 2010
David Wojahn’s ‘Pentecost’ – A Poet Honors His Father’s Task of Guarding Ezra Pound in a Wartime Prison in Italy
It’s a brave poet who writes about Pentecost – often called Whitsun in Britain – in the wake of Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings,” one of the greatest poems of the middle decades of the 20th century. But David Wojahn succeeds beautifully in his “Pentecost,” which you can listen to in a podcast on the Poetry Foundation site.
“Pentecost” at first appears to be about the human inability to comprehend the divine. An American soldier in Pisa in 1945 sees in a piazza a light “infinitely brighter than the light he woke to” and imagines that he has “the power to speak in Greek, Italian, and Chinese.” But he blames “the oddness of his thoughts” on grappa he’d been drinking. He can attribute his glimpse of transcendence only to the Italian brandy.
But Wojahn says in the Poetry Foundation podcast that some of the inspiration for “Pentecost” came from his father’s wartime task of guarding the poet Ezra Pound, who was imprisoned for treason in a wire cage in an American detention camp near Pisa and had a nervous breakdown there. So “Pentecost” is also about the link between what are perceived as spiritual and mental “derangement” : What is the difference between the speaking in tongues that occurred on the first Pentecost and the strange words that Pound uttered in his cage, or wrote in his Pisan Cantos?
Quotations are from the podcast — I couldn’t find a copy of the poem to read — and line breaks or other elements may differ in the printed version.
May 14, 2010
March 30, 2010
John Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’ Answers the Question, How Should Christians Talk About the Resurrection?
A novelist makes the case against turning the event into a parable
“Seven Stanzas at Easter.” A poem by John Updike. From Collected Poems: 1953–1993, Knopf, 387 pp., $27.50.
By Janice Harayda
As a young writer, John Updike submitted “Seven Stanzas at Easter” to a religious arts festival at the Lutheran church he attended on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He won the “Best in Show” award for the poem and returned his $100 prize to the congregation.
Fifty years later, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” has become perhaps the most famous Easter poem of the second half of the 20th century. In some ways, its popularity is surprising. The modified-envelope rhymes of the poem are subtle enough that you might miss them. The seven stanzas might invoke any of many Christian associations with the number seven — the days of Holy Week, the gifts of the spirit, the sayings of Christ on the cross — but it isn’t clear which. And all of the 35 lines in the poem deal with a question that can make Christians squeamish: How should we talk about the Resurrection?
Updike speaks directly to the reader from the first stanza onward:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
The poem goes on to reject the idea of talking about the Resurrection in literary tropes that mask or deny the corporal realities of the Crucifixion:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable …
“Seven Stanzas at Easter” is about the body of Christ in more than one sense, and its theme appears unambiguous: In for a dime, in for a dollar; if you talk about the Resurrection, you can’t turn it into a Jungian projection of a collective unconscious. But it’s a mistake to read “Seven Stanzas at Easter” a tract. The poem doesn’t weigh the historical or theological evidence for or against the Resurrection. It less about what happened or didn’t happen at the tomb than about how to talk about it. And its message is more equivocal than Job’s “I know that my redeemer liveth.”
Updike tips his hand with the “if” in his first line: “Make no mistake: if He rose at all.” That “if” modifies all that follows and turns the poem into a variation on Pascal’s wager, the idea that although the existence of God can’t be proved, a person should live as though it could be, because that position has all the advantages. Updike tells us to avoid sanitizing the Resurrection for our own comfort or because we can’t otherwise conceive of it. To mythologize the event, he warns, is to being “awakened in one unthinkable hour” and find that “we are embarrassed / by the miracle, / and crushed by remonstrance.”
In the first quotation above, the line beginning “the amino acids” should be indented six spaces, which this template won’t allow. The full text of “Seven Stanzas at Easter” appears on the site for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, where some lines break in different places than they do in Collected Poems. The Lutheran recounts how Updike submitted to the poem to the Religious Arts Festival at Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.
© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
October 6, 2009
It Ain’t Me, Babe! Bob Dylan and Maya Angelou Lead Among American Poets in the Race for the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, London Bookies Say
[Clarification: Adonis leads among writers known primarily for poetry. Herta Müller, also a favorite of bettors, writes poetry in addition to novels and essays.]
Weep for Richard Wilbur and Donald Hall. The London odds-maker Ladbrokes says that in the race for the Nobel Prize in literature that will be announced Thursday, the highest-ranked American poets are Bob Dylan (25-1) and Maya Angelou (100-1). Adonis (8-1), a Lebanese resident of Paris, leads overall among poets.
September 13, 2009
Update: 2:25 p.m. Monday: A video of John Ashbery’s entertaining talk has been posted on the NBCC blog.
You might expect an anniversary party for a literary-critics’ organization to resemble a wake now that so many book-review sections have folded or shrunk. But the mood was lively at the festivities that marked the 35th year of the National Book Critics Circle last night at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in downtown Manhattan.
I spoke at the event along with the poet John Ashbery, the novelist E. L. Doctorow and dozens of current and former NBCC board members. Ashbery, born nearly a half century before the critics’ organization was founded, received the first NBCC Award for poetry in 1975 for his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which also won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. And he set the tone of the anniversary celebration when he said: “It’s great to be back here. Actually, it’s great to be anywhere.”
Ashbery praised the Rain Taxi Review of Books and offered it as partial evidence that serious criticism of poetry and other art forms exists amid the meltdown at newspapers. The NBCC has posted a brief news report on his speech on its blog. You’ll find excerpts from other speakers’ comments, including mine, in a separate post there. The full text of all the speeches is scheduled to appear soon the NBCC site.
July 2, 2009
Just picked up Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue (Columbia University Press, 368 pp., $29.50), the new book of poetry criticism by William Logan, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Undiscovered Country. I’d read and enjoyed many of the pieces in Our Savage Art when they appeared in The New Criterion and elsewhere. (Sample opening line: “John Ashbery has long threatened to become a public monument, visited mainly by schoolchildren and pigeons.”) But I’d missed a 2002 Contemporary Poetry Review interview with Logan by the poet and critic Garrick Davis that’s reprinted in the new book.
In the interview, Davis asks, “What do you think of the present situation of poetry? Of its current health as an art?” Logan replies:
“I distrust the motives of the question. Much of what we dislike about the poetry around us won’t bother the readers of the future, because it will have been forgotten. I doubt even the Pulitzer Prize winners of the past two decades will have many poems in anthologies half a century from now. This isn’t simply a problem with the prize, though it’s a scandal that Amy Clampitt never won it and another that Gjertrud Schnackenberg has yet to win it.
“Our poetry is healthy, if the sole measure is that there’s a hell of a lot of it. Much is mediocre, but most poetry in any period is mediocre. What bothers me, as a reader, is how slim current ambitions are – too many contemporary poems start small and end smaller. They don’t bite off more than they can chew – they bite off so little they don’t need to chew.”
May 6, 2009
Back in December, I wrote that Frank Bidart was turning into poetry’s equivalent of Susan Lucci, the soap opera star who lost l8 daytime Emmy awards before winning on her 19th nomination. After decades of work, Bidart is one of America’s most respected poets, but he has never won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Critics Circle Award.
I noted in a review of his latest book that Bidart has written seven poetry collections, and if his publisher nominated each for all three prizes, he passed Lucci in November when he got his 19th snub: He lost the National Book Award for poetry to fellow finalist Mark Doty. He had a chance to win on nominations No. 20 and No. 21 for the most recent NBCC and Pulitzer prizes but didn’t make the shortlist for the critics’ award. And he was a Pulitzer finalist for Watching the Spring Festival (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 72 pp., $13, paperback). Did Lucci send a sympathy card?
April 28, 2009
Emily Dickinson, War Poet (Quote of the Day / From Drew Gilpin Faust’s Pulitzer Prize Finalist, ‘This Republic of Suffering’)
How did Americans deal with the unprecedented scale of death in the Civil War? Many grappled with the carnage partly by writing about it — in poems, letters, memoirs, sermons, diaries, and more — given a lucid analysis by Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering, a finalist for the most recent National Book Award www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html and Pulitzer Prize for history www.pulitzer.org/citation/2009-History.
Gilpin Faust writes about Emily Dickinson in this excerpt from a much longer section about Dickinson’s work and that of other writers of the era, including Ambrose Bierce and Herman Melville:
“Emily Dickson is renowned as a poet preoccupied with death. Yet curiously any relationship between her work and the Civil War was long rejected by most literary critics, even though she wrote almost half her oeuvre, at a rate of four poems a week, during those years. Dickinson has been portrayed as a recluse, closeted from the real world and its tribulations. But her work is filled with the language of battle – the very vocabulary of war that she would have encountered in the four newspapers regularly delivered to the Dickinson household. Campaigns, cannons, rifle balls, bullets, artillery, soldiers, ammunition, flags, bayonets, cavalry, drums, and trumpets are recurrent images in her poetry.”
Gilpin Faust adds:
“Like so many reflective Americas of her time, she grappled with the contractions of spirit and matter and with their implications for heaven and for God. Death seemed ‘a Dialogue between the Spirit and the Dust,’ an argument left painfully unresolved. Dickinson wondered where she might find heaven (‘I’m knocking everywhere’) and what an afterlife might be (‘Is Heaven a place—a Sky—a Tree?’) …..
“Ironically, it was death, not life, that seemed eternal, for it ‘perishes—to live anew … Annihilation—plated fresh / With Immortality.’ No territorial justifications, no military or political purposes balance this loss; victory cannot compensate; it ‘comes late’ to those already dead, whose ‘freezing lips’ are ‘too rapt with frost / to take it.’ Dickinson permits herself no relief or escape into either easy transcendence or sentimentality.”
You might also want to read the Oct. 4, 2007, post, “Do Emily Dickinson’s Poems ‘Make a Virtue Out of Collapsing’?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/.
© 2009 Janice Harayda
February 13, 2009
Valentine’s Day Poems for Straight or Gay Lovers, Including Couples Getting Engaged or Married on Feb.14, With All the Words Online
Two poems that aren’t usually thought of as Valentine’s Day poems contain lines that would suit longtime lovers, including engaged and married couples.
Robert Browning’s classic “Rabbi Ben Ezra” begins:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
“Rabbi Ben Ezra” isn’t a love poem but a meditation in verse on the life of the 12th-century scholar in its title. But countless lovers have inscribed its famous first two lines, both written in iambic trimeter, onto the flyleaves of books or Valentine’s Day notes and cards. And all three would work for straight or gay couples. The full text of the poem appears online at Bartleby.com.
Another classic with lines that would suit gay or straight couples is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation from the German of Simon Dach’s “Annie of Tharaw.” It includes the rhyming couplets:
Oppression, and sickness, and sorrow, and pain,
Shall be to our true love as links to the chain.
As the palm-tree standeth so straight and so tall,
The more the hail beats, and the more the rains fall, —
So love in our hearts shall grow mighty and strong,
Through crosses, through sorrows, through manifold wrong …
Though forests I’ll follow, and where the sea flows,
Through ice, and through iron, through armies of foes.
“Annie of Tharaw” sounds less sophisticated than many contemporary poems, in part because of its anapestic meter, commonly found in children’s poems such as “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” But Dach’s words may speak more directly than some of their modern counterparts to couples facing serious illnesses such as AIDS. Their sentiments implicitly ratify and amplify the “in sickness and in health” of wedding vows, so they would also suit anniversaries. The full text appears online at Litscape.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.