Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations

By David Ferry

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press 

Jean Valentine writes:

David Ferry, in a lifetime of making his ardent poems and translations, has given us a kind of light and energy, and what we hope for most from art: experience.  And often—especially in Ferry's most recent collection, Bewilderment—a sense of companionship.

Richard Wilbur calls David Ferry's major theme human loneliness; and sometimes the reader's own loneliness can be, if not lightened, at least recognized in another. Accompanied so.

Sometimes the author's voice can summon what, like Beckett's, might seem like scorn, but may be agony, otherness.

     I don't know who it is I am sitting next to.
     I can hear some notes tried out about the song
     That they are trying to sing, but I don't know

     What song it is, it's not exactly mine.

In this poem (“The Birds”), and I think all through Bewilderment, you can feel this otherness, and I think you can hear also the heartbreaking voice in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape: "Let me in."


This poet moves between two worlds, the ancient past and his own present, with a natural warmth, and the familiarity of long study:  he brings the same passionate interest and attachment to Gilgamesh and Horace as he brings to the poems of Arthur Gold and to the guest Ellen at the supper for street people.

All his writing becomes translation, and all his translation simply experience.

His books often move somewhat like novels, following narratives drawn from his earlier work (his earlier life), and from world literature's earlier life, and from friends' lives (his wife Anne, Bill Moran, Arthur Gold). He often seems to follow Robert Lowell's drift, "Why not say what happened?" as he also follows his own life in quotations from Goethe, Virgil, Horace, his own father, Schumann, Edward Hopper, Cavafy. Except for Anne, there is an absence of women, but Bewilderment holds her in its pages by naming or sensing her, as does all his work.


The great scholar and teacher Reuben Brower had been David Ferry's mentor at Amherst, and Anne Ferry was later Brower's colleague at Harvard.  Professor Brower said he wanted written on his tombstone, "He loved tone." Once I sat in on a very small class on the reading of poetry with Professor Brower, and I remember from it that it didn't matter if you loved the same poems he loved or not, you came away loving tone.

Ferry's own work ranges in tone from jokes to conversational description to slang to dream to elegy to agony:  the steadiness is himself, the intelligent watcher of his own lifetime, and of the reach of time from Gilgamesh to the street people and climate change. In Bewilderment he has become free to do whatever he wants.

He is like a guest leaving an ordinary social evening, one who stands by the door first and asks if he can read the remaining couple of people a new poem. He pulls it out of his pocket, where it has been sitting newly all evening, and reads his great poem on anger, ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE.


He is like an author who has just read from his Gilgamesh translation in a large hall, and answered many difficult adult questions about it, who is then asked an intelligent question from the back of the hall by a boy of about ten, and answers it as carefully as he would answer Sir Thomas Wyatt, or the guest Ellen, or Goethe, or Elizabeth Bishop.


His great subject I think, too, as Wilbur has said, is the human agony of separation: "What is your name that I can call you by?" Sometimes this is written in elegies for dead friends, sometimes in estrangement from the living: "I don't know who it is I'm sitting next to."

Sometimes it is closest longing:

Where is it that she I loved has gone to, as
This cold sea water's washing over my back?


In Lloyd Schwartz's true words, "...he has become our Horace.  And even better, in the process he has also become more deeply and indispensably himself." Here is a poet who has never stopped his walking & talking with his earthly and his godly teachers through the layers of existence, no matter what. And who has never stopped translating for us what he hears there.

Jean Valentine won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book, Dream Barker, in 1965. Her eleventh book of poetry is Break the Glass (Copper Canyon Press, 2010). Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965–2003 was the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. The recipient of the 2009 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, Valentine has taught at Sarah Lawrence, New York University, and Columbia.


Poetry Finalists That Year:

Poetry Judges That Year: Laura Kasischke, Dana Levin, Maurice Manning, Patrick Rosal, Tracy K. Smith

The Year in Literature: Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • David Ferry (1924- ) was born in Orange, New Jersey.
  • Ferry taught at Wellesley College for many years and is now the Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English there.
  • Fellow National Book Award-winning poet W.S. Merwin said that Ferry’s work communicates “complexities of feeling with unfailing proportion and grace.”

Suggested Links:

Ferry receives the National Book Award for Poetry

Ferry reads from Bewilderment at the National Book Awards Finalists Reading

Buy the Book:


A Tribute to Adrienne Rich (1929 - 2012)

Adrienne Rich won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974 for Diving into the Wreck and was a Finalist four other times: in 1956 for The Diamond Cutters, in 1967 for Necessities of Life, in 1991 for An Atlas of the Difficult World, and in 2011 for Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. She was also the recipient of our Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented by Mark Doty, in 2006. After hearing the sad news of her passing at the end of March 2012, we asked a handful of poets to share their thoughts on Rich and her work. We would like to thank Martha Collins, Suzanne Gardinier, Patrick Rosal, and Patricia Smith for their heartfelt words, and we also invite you to read Evie Shockley’s appreciation on Rich’s original NBA Poetry Blog page.

In Doty’s presentation of the DCAL Medal to Rich, he noted, “Her lived commitment to questioning and revealing the structures of power and how we live within them turns out to be the deep rock shelf under her work.” Rich’s acceptance speech echoed these words: “I am both a poet and one of the everybodies of my country. I live in poetry and daily experience with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion, and social antagonism huddling together on the fault line of an empire.”


Patricia Smith writes:

Let’s just say I lied to America, and singlehandedly ruined journalism for all time.

I was a demon, a lightning rod, a circumstance, the downfall. I’d been fired from my job, publicly flogged, pointed at, pointed to. I was the news. Someone on CNN muttered the wretched four syllables of my name. Panicked in the sudden flood of limelight, my husband at the time left skid marks getting away. My mother was ashamed at her church. I think she denied knowing me.

Look it up if you’re curious. This is not the place for that story, but there is much, much story if you care to explore. You will see me differently when you are done. But you will see me. 

And you will know the woman who ventured home in the midst of this, hungry for the warm clutches of Chicago.

Chicago. I was raised up on the West Side, first generation up north, and it is that locale and that time came to define me. I was the gangly little colored girl who opened the dictionary and started with “A,” repeating and memorizing, stunned by the way words pried open my world, determined to own every one of them. After all, everything I laid eyes upon was expected to fail—my neighborhood, my school, my mother, my father. But language dazzled me, entered my body, became both hurt and hallelujah. It screeched otherwise. I wanted all of it, wanted to hurl it at every day’s blank canvas, wanted its riotous colors. I wanted to live in the center of its stories. Being who I was, where I was, I was born to fail, but words taught me to live beyond my boundaries. I believe it’s called defying the odds. 

Until the odds defeated me. Look it up. Let’s just say I handed the words all the power that I had. I allowed them to rename me. And the world as I knew it imploded. I locked myself in the smallest rooms, swilled biting spirits, and shoveled oily food into my mouth, desperate to change my shape. Depression swirled through the core of my body. I slept desperately, waking to sweat and a discussion of my sins on morning radio. Convinced that days would spin brighter without me, I held a gun in my hand. Its chill, clunky weight was an answer. 

But Chicago knows her girl. As I balanced on the edge of an end, she called me, said Come home, chile like a mother, like a warm wall. Poetry was the only language I hadn’t betrayed, and Chicago wanted to hear my voice, whole and possible, it wanted rhythm, it wanted breath from me. My friends, knowing the outline of what I’d held in my hand, wanted to know I would not die.

What kind of poet was I? Fresh from the slam, teetering on that line between making a splash and living my passion. Reading poems like reading poems was food. Come home, meet this woman, read with her, and the woman was Adrienne Rich, and I suppose right here I should tell you how Adrienne Rich saved my life.

The Chicago Cultural Center is a massive, high-ceilinged, glitter-tiled place, and I didn’t know her before we both found ourselves there, and we said hello, friendly but formal at first, and then she pulled me to her and held me there, her fingers pressing into the backs of my shoulders, she held me just long enough for both of us to know. And that evening I read my poems like reading my poems was food, every word took on a new, and I gasped my stories and there she was, small and glaring love at me from the front row, hating me for giving up, daring me forward. And I swept the room with my eyes and saw friends who clutched me hard before I was a headline, people who remembered how language was bone. And then this woman, Adrienne, took the stage and wrecked me with narrative, dismantled and rebuilt me, brought me home. 

We became friends after that. A friendship built upon a fracture.

That night after the reading, I stumbled into the restroom and wept myself stupid, snorting snot and saying some words aloud and cursing that woman for making me remember

the weapon of language coiled inside my body

that I was a woman still, and a woman’s whole voice is weather 

Patricia Smith is the author of six books of poetry, including the newly-released Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah; Blood Dazzler, chronicling the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award, and one of NPR's top five books of 2008; and Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series selection. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly, Tin House, and both Best American Poetry 2011 and Best American Essays 2011. She is a Pushcart Prize winner and a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, the most successful poet in the competition's history. She is a professor at the City University of New York/College of Staten Island, and is on the faculty of both Cave Canem and the MFA program of Sierra Nevada College.


Patrick Rosal writes:

The Making of a Difficult World 

A patriot…

I voted for George Bush in 1988. I was 19. I got kicked out of college a second time. It was the same year Clint Eastwood, my childhood hero from “The Outlaw Josie Wales” and “Dirty Harry,” directed “Bird,” which drove me towards the records of Charlie Parker—I wore “Ornithology” down to a crackle on wax. Same year, I cut class every week with a basketball in my trunk and hit the outdoor campus courts, more for fistfights than the runs themselves.

A patriot is a citizen…

Of course, Bush won. And 1988: that was the year that Adrienne Rich began to write An Atlas of the Difficult World.

Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference…

Here, she says, are the suburbs of acquiescence—whose streets I knew well. (By nine I’d ride a half block off our tree-lined street and head not a quarter mile down the county road to pass the truck ramps at Revlon and Fedders—now closed; if I pedaled southwest along the same stretch, the Ford auto plant—shut down now too—lay just past U.S. Route 1). Rich’s poem maps out a landscape of collisions, crossfade, quick cut and splice. 

This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water…

Though I was American, there was no country I knew that would take me, none to accommodate my rage. No nation, you could say, but violence itself… or, maybe, poetry. It was 1988. For the next half decade my anger would grow faster than any language I could acquire in order to record or transform it.

…locked away out of sight and hearing, out of mind, shunted aside… 

Edison, New Jersey, heading south on our block, up the hill, another county road, four lanes across with a grass divider, led to what used to be army barracks. An eight-foot fence of iron pikes painted black picketed the sidewalk all the way to the plastics plant. As kids, we scaled that fence, flipped our scrawny legs over, and dumped ourselves into a huge blacktop lot: missile casings lined up for some hundred yards. Sometimes we would just stand there looking at the rows. We ran our fingers along their shells’ smooth bodies. We played among them. We were never chased out. 

“An Atlas of the Difficult World” names the wardens of silence, but also the political being I would eventually choose to be…

A patriot is trying, Rich writes, to remember her true country.

I used to cover our piano with a bed sheet and slide my hands underneath to practice II-V-I changes in various inversions, hoping I could play one day like Dodo Marmarosa. Hours later, I could choke a kid so his spine bent back over a flimsy second-floor banister. Let him up, Pat. Let him up… Or I could be one of about three dozen half-time roughnecks who burst out a bar to flood the intersection of Livingston and George Street, cracking each other in the nose until the red hatchets of police lights chased us out. And don’t we read maps, in part, by legends? What’s the story anyway? I thought. It was 1988. What’s a boy to do with his hands…

… bind, join, reweave, cohere, replenish…

I was a young man, a kid really, who felt radically about love and justice but had no way to name that feeling let alone describe what that meant in civic or intellectual terms, a boy who knew something about the good exile of music and the terrifying wonderment of art but who had no way to make peace or sense of his estrangement from a nation to which he was obliged a particular kind of patriotic love.

…and he experiences his first kindness, someone to strain with him,
to strain to see him as he strains to be himself,
someone to understand, someone to accept the regard,
the love, that desperation forces into hiding.
…no one responds to kindness, no one is more sensitive to it
than the desperate man

Rich’s poems in An Atlas of the Difficult World and my numerous reckless withdrawals into personal violence and the comforts of ignorance belong to a time—down to the year. I didn’t know that my own desperation might correspond to something or someone else. It was 1988, the year I’d begun to confront my own terror and my own sensuality.

A patriot is a citizen trying to wake…

It was certainly not the last year I would thoughtlessly fulfill an obligation. But I look back now and consider that all my bewilderment might indeed have been the beginning of awe. The making of my poetic life was the making of my political life. The difficulty of the world is the difficulty of connecting the personal and particular to the public record. (What’s a civic institution got to do with a kiss?) It was 1988. And the making of my poetic life could not have happened without the work of Adrienne Rich.


California; March 2000.

I’m 31. Have been reading/writing poems for six years. Dropped $250 from my dwindling 400-dollar bank account to fly from Jersey to L.A. 

Childhood friend, Phil, is a pharma rep on a trip to Marina del Ray. We meet at his hotel. On our way down to dinner we enter the elevator where a boy, maybe four, with his back to his father, examines his yellow plastic pistol. He is shooting at the doors as we drop one floor. When the doors open, Adrienne Rich enters. The boy begins to shoot her with his imaginary bullets. The child is not rambunctious but matter of fact. The father pats the boy on the shoulder. The late West Coast light is bright off the marina’s waters and through the glass. This is the America that confounds me. The boy is firing away. Which one in the sun-filled elevator is ruffian? Which one the man in the good blue suit? Which one poet, which one father, which one boy with the gun? Where is the America I refuse to wrestle with or love? Which one do I dare not write down?

If your voice could overwhelm those waters, what would it say?

Patrick Rosal is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Boneshepherds, My American Kundiman, and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. His poems and essays have appeared widely, including in Tin House, The American Poetry Review, and Harvard Review. He has won, among other honors, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award. He is a member of the Creative Writing faculty at Rutgers University-Camden.


Suzanne Gardinier writes:

In 1999 Adrienne and I worked together on what became her Arts of the Possible; one afternoon we met to talk over the manuscript in a borrowed room on Central Park South, where we could see the statues of the Latin American revolutionaries from the window. At one point we were talking about a world beyond the "savagely fathered and unmothered world" her book described and struggled with―"where the new could be delivered," she wrote later in "Midnight Salvage," in a draft she sent―and in the book it became "where the new would be delivered : : though I would not see it"―and I said something like "We wouldn't recognize it―the new world would be too strange to us, it would be for our children and grandchildren"―and she looked at me and gestured with her chin out the window and said, "What if everyone out there had a place to sleep tonight," and my eyes filled with tears, at this thought that of course wasn't strange at all. She had a way of finding cowardice and despair and illusion and not dreaming big enough, and a way of taking it apart, with her acuity and her fury and her tenderness, which often began with those revolutionary words she loved: What if.

Here she is on Dickinson, in "The Spirit of Place":

with the hands of a daughter I would cover you
from all intrusion even my own
saying rest to your ghost

with the hands of a sister I would leave your hands
open or closed as they prefer to lie
and ask no more of who or why or wherefore

with the hands of a mother I would close the door
on the rooms you've left behind
and silently pick up my fallen work 

Suzanne Gardinier is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Iridium & Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press), and a book of essays on poetry and politics, A World That Will Hold All the People (U of Michigan Press). She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Manhattan.


Martha Collins writes:

In fall 2007, FIELD magazine devoted its annual print symposium to the poetry of Adrienne Rich. The following is a slightly revised version of the anonymous introduction I wrote for that feature, to which several poets contributed essays on individual poems. The most difficult change I made in revising this short piece was shifting from the present perfect to the past tense, from has become to became.

Beginning in 1951, when she received the Yale Younger Poets award at the age of twenty-one for A Change of World, Adrienne Rich’s work was characterized—in practice, awareness, intention, and effect—by expansive change. Some of the changes seemed dramatic, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when even women who rarely read poetry found in Diving into the Wreck and The Dream of a Common Language a radical new voice. But change was, for Rich, a process of expanding, not supplanting.

As Marilyn Hacker has noted, Rich did not so much abandon the accomplished formalism of her early poems as build on it. And when, following the books mentioned above, Rich opened herself to both personal and political concerns that transcended gender in Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), she was not turning from the feminism of the past twenty years but rather extending the idea of what “the dream of a common language” might mean. After that, the poems moved beyond nation to world, as the 1991 title An Atlas of the Difficult World suggests, taking in more and more of what a 1993-1994 note calls “the continuing pressure of events.”

But Rich’s concerns were not limited to the political turmoil of the present: no poet has used historical materials more thoroughly than she, and none has looked more consistently toward the future. “I wear my triple eye as I walk along the road / past, present, future are all at my side,” she wrote in “Calle Visión” (1992-1993).

In expanding her territory, both geographically and temporally, Rich made way for a wealth of materials that include prose, journal-like entries, and extensive quotation from non-literary as well as literary sources, as well as the techniques of photography, film and collage. At the same time, she remained deeply conscious of poetic traditions and forms, among them the sonnet and the ghazal. That both of these forms are practiced sequentially is significant: poems in sections, or sequences of poems, became a trademark of Rich’s work.

Ultimately, Rich’s inclusiveness comes not from a facile vision of universal likeness and wholeness, but rather its opposite: the earliest poems address the tension between perfection and imperfection, and acknowledge that “We are split, / Done into bits” (“The Insomniacs”). It is precisely by acknowledging splittings, tensions, binary oppositions—between men and women, between art and life, between the powerful and the powerless, between the personal and the political, between tradition and change, between the poet and the reader—that Rich helps us to overcome them.

If there are more reasons than ever to despair of such a project, Rich is ultimately a poet of great hope. A poem from the 2007 collection, Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, defines what she has done for generations of readers, including those who have followed her work for decades and those who are discovering poems that were written before they were born. What Adrienne Rich has written for 56 years are “poem[s] with calipers to hold a heart / so it will want to go on beating.”

Martha Collins is the author of White Papers, which was published by Pittsburgh in January, as well as the book-length poem Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), which won an Anisfield-Wolf Award and was chosen as one of “25 Books to Remember from 2006” by the New York Public Library. Collins has also published four earlier collections of poems and two collections of co-translated Vietnamese poetry. Her other awards include fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, as well as three Pushcart Prizes and a Lannan Foundation residency fellowship. Founder of the Creative Writing Program at UMass-Boston, she served as Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College until 2007, and is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine and one of the editors of the Oberlin College Press.




Head Off & Split

By Nikky Finney

Publisher: TriQuarterly Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press 

Terrance Hayes writes:

I can remember first hearing Nikky Finney’s “The Condoleezza Suite” in 2006 at a reading for the Cave Canem Tenth Anniversary Reunion. As she read a poem in the voice of Condoleezza Rice’s Ferragamo shoes, a kind of Sunday swoon echoed through the auditorium. The poem, now among her most celebrated, is at a glance, an indictment of Rice, but the first time I heard it and later when I read it, I was drawn to Finney’s depiction of Rice’s humanity:

No other Black girl
In Bombingham, with the sound of music emerald
set so deep in her heart, has ever been told over
Sunday dinner, while the gravy is still passing through
the air, King is crazy.

As “The Condoleezza Suite” conjures scenes of Rice when four girls were murdered in the 1963 Birmingham Alabama Church bombing, Rice exercising at the Watergate Hotel, and Rice shopping for shoes during Hurricane Katrina, Finney’s audacious imagination is in full display. She is a poet of contemplation and grace, but one who very possibly wears a switchblade around her neck. It is this combination of fierce scrutiny and fierce empathy that fortifies her long gaze into/through history.

“We begin with history,” Finney says at the opening of her National Book Award acceptance speech. The line is both literal and figurative; it casts multiple degrees of forthrighteousness (sometimes a word has to be tailor-made). It suggests we begin attached to history: the umbilical cord connecting the child to everything the mother has encountered. It suggests we begin not with the Self, but with all that precedes the Self.

Finney’s wondrous acceptance speech is an acknowledgement to being alive while being inextricably bound to the past. It is now appropriately included in the new edition of Head Off & Split. Like the speech, the book is a manifold act of acknowledgement. “If my name is ever called out, I promised my girl-poet self, so too would I call out theirs.” The history we begin with is rooted in acknowledgement, in witness, and, as Finney shows us, in collaboration. Her poems are duets and choruses. We hear the italicized voices of Rosa Parks, Mayree Monroe, Robert F. Williams—even the titles are peopled acknowledgements: “Shaker: Wilma Rudolph Appears While Riding the Althea Gibson Highway Home,” “Dancing with Strom,” “Alice Butler,” “The Condoleezza Suite.” The poems braid the immediacy of the weather channel, the NBC Nightly News, Discover Magazine, politics, and catastrophes to the enduring struggle against forces “devoted to quelling freedom and insurgency, imagination, all hope.” In short, all that is breathtaking in this poet’s acceptance speech is breathtaking in her poems.

In fact, the wide praise for the speech left me wondering which mattered more: the poet or the poems, the maker or what the maker makes? An emphasis on the poem as a pure work of art threatens to strip it of its contemporary concerns in the name of something like “timeless beauty.” An emphasis on the charismatic poet threatens to make the poem something fleeting, topical. My question is how does a poet make poetry that is unobstructed by poetry? What does Jack Gilbert say in “Measuring the Tyger”: “Newness strutting around as if it were significant. / Irony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry.” Sometimes the poet has to break the shiny frame of artifice to name names, to praise, indict, elegize—to speak, as Gilbert says in the end of his poem, “to the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive.” Without Lucille Clifton, without Adrienne Rich, Jack Gilbert and Nikky Finney are the only other poets I can think of working as intensely at being alive. When Finney writes in her collection’s title poem: “my throat separates from the rest of me   I am fully / awake,” she seems to echo Gilbert. It suggests when the song is free of the body, the singer is conscious. How does a poet make a poem that is unobstructed by poetry? In the final poem of Head Off & Split, “Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica,” Finney tells us: “The juice is not made in the vats but in the vineyard.” The vineyard is a place of natural order and disorder, of struggle. The vat is part of the process but not at the root of the work. The vat enables refinement, but to be a true poet—to unearth the juice of a true poem—you must “keep yourself rooted in the sun, rain, and darkly camphored air.”

Terrance Hayes is the author of Lighthead (Penguin 2010), winner of the 2010 National Book Award and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and Hurston Wright award. His other poetry books are Wind in a Box, Muscular Music, and Hip Logic. Other honors include a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a United States Artist Zell Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Poetry Finalists That Year:

Poetry Judges That Year: Elizabeth Alexander, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Amy Gerstler,
Kathleen Graber, Roberto Tejada

The Year in Literature:

The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Nikky Finney (1957- ) was born in Conway, South Carolina.
  • Finney is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Kentucky.
  • Finney co- founded the Affrilachian Poets, a writing collective based in Lexington, Kentucky.

Suggested Links:


Finney receives the National Book Award for Poetry

Finney reads from Head Off & Split at the National Book Award Finalists Reading

Buy the Book:




By Terrance Hayes

Original and Current Publisher: Penguin Books        

Katie Peterson writes: 

It’s hard to know where to start talking about Terrance Hayes’ 2010 National Book Award-winning collection Lighthead because there’s just so much in it. Love poems sit next to poems about African American history: in fact, they sit inside poems about African American history. Poems about music accompany family narratives—or rather talking about music makes it possible for the poet to talk through family narratives. In many of these lyrics, the poem you think you’re reading becomes another poem. If you try to pull one strand, you get the whole tangle. The title is suggestively brainy (there’s a “light” in Hayes’ “head”) and sexual (you do the math). The book is also full of hints: let’s get heavy on Lighthead for a second and call them “cultural insinuations,” delivered in the form of strings of associations of found and made language. In Hayes’ world, a personal story not only takes place within a larger cultural context—it’s pressurized, intensified, and made fluorescent by that context.

There’s nothing simple about this book, but it still manages to be immediate and intimate. You don’t get intimidated by the names and places you don’t know—you get curious. There’s someone talking to you in these pages, and that someone wants you to listen—in fact, needs you there to perform the task of the poem. Lighthead is (as one of its titles proclaims) “All the Way Live.” But “live” is different than “alive”: the poems get “lit up” and find their presence through performance, not the more sentimental delusions of earthly humanity. They’re, appropriately, full of singers: Marvin Gaye, the queer crooner Anthony of our present day, and then, in the final section of the book, almost like a joke, poetry’s first diva, Orpheus, makes an appearance.

The persona Lighthead begins the collection by addressing his version of the actual collective in the first poem, “Lightead’s Guide to the Galaxy”: “Ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and children of the state, / I am here because I could never get the hang of Time.” The problem that the speaker has, Time, might be the problem of living an individual life in time while also living out a cultural destiny. It also might just be the problem of being impatient in the mind while living a life in the body, and therefore, in time: it’s hard to quote effectively from these poems because the sentences are nothing short of headlong, rushing forward as if to beat the clock. The reference in the title of the first poem, “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy,” is to one of the great classics of the alienated male teenager, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was later made into a mediocre movie that generally disappointed the book’s cultish admirers. It’s my understanding that the book still provides a virtual support group (akin to video games) for alienated young people everywhere, but I think of it as being really male and really white (it was kind of mandatory high school reading where I grew up in the eighties and nineties, the Silicon Valley). I remember the main character, a human stuck in space, complaining that living in eternity would be bearable except for the Sunday afternoons. The trouble is, as Hayes recognizes, that mortality can feel like eternity even if we keep dying. Especially if we see how history keeps roughing us up again and again the same way. Hayes ends the poem as follows:

Maybe Art’s only purpose is to preserve the Self.
Sometimes I play a game in which my primitive craft fires
upon an alien ship whose intention is the destruction
of the earth. Other times I fall in love with a word
like somberness. Or moonlight juicing naked branches.
All species have a notion of emptiness, and yet
the flowers don’t quit opening. I am carrying the whimper
you can hear when the mouth is collapsed, the wisdom
of monkeys. Ask a glass of water why it pities
the rain. Ask the lunatic yard dog why it tolerates the leash.
Brothers and sisters, when you spend your nights
out on a limb, there’s a chance you’ll fall in your sleep.

Lighthead here offers us consolations for the difficulties of life lived “out on a limb”: how do you survive when you’re “carrying the whimper / you can hear when the mouth is collapsed?” His answer is a poet’s answer: you fall in love with a word, you create a myth of heroism, you keep singing. As he begins a wickedly titled sonnet later in the book (“God is An American”), “I still love words.”

Throughout Lighthead, Hayes’ intense, unpredictable voice pulls together qualities that may seem, at first, opposed. Throughout his career, he’s been a master of the poetics of the vernacular, bringing together blues rhythms, slang, riffs on song lyrics, and hip hop style. In his previous book, Wind in a Box, he writes, “Suppose you were nothing but a song // in a busted speaker?” That poem, a self portrait called “The Blue Terrance,” continues:

That’s why

the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in


Poetic form is nothing if not a way poets have of holding themselves to consequence. Poetic form is how poets revise fate into destiny. Lighthead is full of poems in traditional and self-made forms. They can even feel purposely overwrought. In an intricate ghazal, a Middle Eastern poetic form enslaved to the repetition of the final phrase of each couplet, he writes: “I lied, what about it? I loitered too. Like dust. / I did what you did like a no-good mirror, that’s what.” (“Ghazal-head”) In this and other poems, the reader witnesses Hayes merging his own cultural vernacular with a poetic form that already has a history. In a set of poems based on the pecha kucha, a Japanese business presentation format based on images, Hayes pairs resonant words with intense, self-contained cinquains that iterate through intense dramatic scenarios. In these, he reveals that he can write simply beautiful lyric lines, full of loss and the kind of intimate melancholy we read poetry to experience and to heal. I love this moment at the end of “Arbor for Butch,” a poem later in Lighthead, which feels like the contemporary speaking to the ancient:


Where there were too many trees and too many names
etched into the trunks; where the knots in the wood
were the scars of old limbs; where, to be reborn, the birch pine
must be set aflame; where the door if I opened it might have
revealed the lovemaking or abuse still waiting to be named.

Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues, 2006). She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her reviews have appeared in the Boston Review and the Chicago Tribune. She teaches literature at Bennington College. (Photo credit: Ariana Ervin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Rae Armantrout, Cornelius Eady, Linda Gregerson,
Jeffrey McDaniel
, Brenda Shaughnessy

The Year in Literature:

  • Versed by Rae Armantrout won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • W.S. Merwin was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • Terrence Hayes (1972- ) was born in Columbia, SC.
  • Cornelius Eady has said of Hayes’ work, “First you'll marvel at his skill, his near-perfect pitch, his disarming humor, his brilliant turns of phrase. Then you'll notice the grace, the tenderness, the unblinking truth-telling just beneath his lines, the open and generous way he takes in our world."

Hayes receiving the 2010 National Book Award in Poetry

Hayes reading from Lighthead at the 2010 National Book Award Finalists Reading

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Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy     

By Keith Waldrop

Original and Current Publisher: University of California Press           

Ross Gay writes:

On the cover of Keith Waldrop’s book, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy, is a reproduction of one of Robert Motherwell’s collages made with the Gauloises wrappers.  It’s significant that he chooses Motherwell’s image for his cover, as Waldrop’s book employs the collage as its primary mode.  In the introduction to The Painter and the Printer: Robert Motherwell’s Graphics 1943-1980, Stephanie Torenzio writes: “Collage (a strictly 20th century phenomenon) evolved as a pictorial solution to convey the simultaneity, relativity, and multiplicity of the modern sensibility.”  And the Motherwell image serves as one (perhaps the first, depending on how you get to the book) of many facets of a dynamic accumulation of signifiers that accrue meaning certainly not in narrative or even conventional lyric fashion (I’m thinking Keats or Dickinson), but rather through their whimsical interaction (temporally disrupted, relative), an interaction that is very much dictated by the hand of the poet…but maybe that’s the wrong word: the interaction is suggested by, or released from the hand of the poet.  Conjured maybe.  Discovered.     

In an interview for the National Book Foundation, Waldrop explained that he discovered collage as a mode for making this book while being swamped by the burden of running Brown’s M.F.A. program.  After a while of not writing any poems, he decided to take a new approach:

“I decided to do some collage work with my poems, and the mechanical part of it, just getting words from somewhere, I thought would be something I could do without thinking, so I got a batch of books and put them on the table—the plan was very simple, I put three books in front of me, all prose, a novel, then something psychological, then whatever I happened to have around. I would take phrases from these three books and make some stanzas, four, five six lines. Once I had that I’d make more stanzas of the same number of lines, and when that gave out, after a page or two, I’d say alright I have this poem now and I would take it to the typewriter and type it up and in doing so I would rearrange the stanzas alphabetically. I wasn’t worried about keeping the words exactly what they were—sometimes I changed words. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about collage, I was trying to write poems.”

Necessity (lack of time, lack of mental energy) occasioned the formal decisions of these poems, and this book.  The pleasure, of course, is reading through the poems, which read sometimes like loosely-knit philosophical wanderings, sometimes like fragmentary descriptions, sometimes like lightly cohering lyrics, and stumbling upon or discovering gems of what, for lack of better words, I’ll call intelligence or insight or meaning (which of course does not override the fact that the whole way of the book is a kind of meaning: formal meaning, sonic meaning)—a kind of meaning that arrives despite the intentional lightness of touch.  Section five of the first part of the triptych is one of these, alphabetically ordered, apparently unconnected, but gathering as they go:

after this, the cold more intense, and the night comes rapidly up
angels in the fall
around a tongue of land, free from trees
awakened by a feeling of heavy weight on your feet, something that seems inert and motionless
awestruck manner, as though you expected to find some strange presence behind you

The poem continues like this, concluding:

while with a sickening revulsion after my terror, I drop half fainting across the end of

the bed
with a pair of great greenish eyes shining dimly out within the lattice fonts
with painting carvings of saints and devils, a small galvanic battery, and a microscope

It makes you wonder what’s in the middle.  Some of it means as we come to expect a poem to mean, and some of it does not.  It points toward or alludes to, or perhaps evades meaning entirely.  But as it turns out, meaning only evades for so long, as the arranging mind makes things mean, despite any artist’s intentions.  The final section of the book is constituted of, among other things, many short pieces, and in these I find moments that I especially want to sit with—not to “understand,” but rather to feel, or sense, to wander through and circle around.  Something the book as a whole invites as well.  I’ll conclude with an especially beautiful one of these.

The Macedonian Architect

Dark forms of belief.  I have
made a design: to shape Mount
Athos into the statue of a man.

In his left hand a city, in his right
a bowl for all the water of all the
streams from the whole mountain, so that it might
from the bowl into
the sea.

Ross Gay’s books of poems include Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming January 2011). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, MARGIE, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He has also, with the artist Kimberly Thomas, collaborated on several artists’ books, including The Cold Loop, BRN2HNT, and The Bullet. He is an editor with the chapbook press Q Avenue. Gay received his MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and his PhD in American Literature from Temple University. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program in poetry at Drew University, and in Indiana University’s English department. (Photo credit: Zach Hetrick)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, A. Van Jordan, Cole Swensen, Kevin Young

The Year in Literature: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Keith Waldrop (1932- ) was born in Emporia, KS.
  • Waldrop composed parts of Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy using what he called a “collage method,” by pulling words from randomly chosen books and arranging them into phrases and stanzas.

Keith Waldrop receiving the 2009 National Book Award in Poetry.

Video from the 2009 National Book Awards Finalist Reading

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Waldrop's 2008 NBA National Book Award profile page