Friday
Mar042011

1964

Selected Poems

By John Crowe Ransom 

Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Current Publisher: Out of Print

John Murillo writes:

I find it strange that early critics of John Crowe Ransom found him a bit too cool and disengaged in his work, considering his technical virtuosity a bit too front and center, self-conscious, pretentious even.  Some thought it came between him and his subject, and, ultimately, between poem and reader.  I don't read him this way.  In fact, I think it is through his technique—his handling of line, sound, and rhetorical progression—that he arrives at what the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca would term duende.

I can hear the criticism already: Duende is not a matter of craft, but quite the opposite.  It's that bright black heat boiling up from the ground, through the gut, and out the mouth or hands or whatever the artist is using to fashion his art.  But I'd argue that this is an incomplete view, that Lorca himself was a craftsman of the highest order.  (He once wrote—tired, I believe, of critics treating him as if his work were all viscera and no brain—that if he is a poet by virtue of the duende, he is also a poet by virtue of knowing exactly what a poem is and how it works.)  Although he argued for art that started from and ended in soulcry, he also knew that the means of achieving this—the wrestling with the duende that he spoke of—is by way of craft.  (Consider Valery's proposition that the poet's duty is not to experience what he called the “poetic state,” but to evoke that state in others by using whatever technique he has at his disposal.)  Duende, then, is both source of inspiration as well as a quality of art.  We would do well to keep this in mind when reading the poetry of John Crowe Ransom.

Lorca tells us that in Spanish and Mexican culture—where he considers duende most apparent—one of the defining qualities of duende is the way in which it engages death, embracing it as a necessary condition of this world. A writer of the American south—blues and bluegrass south—Ransom also does this throughout his work.  He doesn't try to sell us on any one way of viewing death.  He simply presents it.  Poem after poem.  He presents death plainly and allows the reader to feel how they will.

BELLS FOR JOHN WHITESIDE'S DAUGHTER

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond,
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Trickling and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

As this poem shows, sometimes the duende isn't all gnashing teeth and torn clothes.  Sometimes it whispers.  In this short elegy, Ransom speaks to the enormous grief of all who knew—and, maybe, didn't always love—the dead girl.  He renders this grief through understatement.  And this coldness gives way to heat.  By simply telling the story, Ransom lets death speak for itself.  He does it again and again throughout the collection.  See the following poem, for example:

HERE LIES A LADY

Here lies a lady of beauty and high degree,
Of chills and fever she died, of fever and chills,
The delight of her husband, her aunt, an infant of three,
And of medicos marveling sweetly on her ills.

For either she burned, and her confident eyes would blaze,
And her fingers fly in a manner to puzzle their heads—
What was she making?  Why, nothing; she sat in a maze
Of old scraps of laces, snipped into curious shreds—

Or this would pass, and the light of her fire decline
Till she lay discouraged and cold, like a stalk white and blown,
And would not open her eyes, to kisses, to wine;
The sixth of these states was her last; the cold settled down.

Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,
But was she not lucky?  In flowers and lace and mourning,
In love and great honor we bade God rest her soul
After six little spaces of chill, and six of burning.

Lorca tells us in “Play and Theory of the Duende” that “intelligence is often the enemy of poetry, because it limits too much, and it elevates the poet to a sharp-edged throne where he forgets that ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head.”  Perhaps this is what Ransom's critics had in mind when they derided him for his foregrounding of craft at, as they saw it, the expense of the poems' soul.  But here we see that Ransom used his craft in the service of soul.  In this poem, he is reminding us of the exact same reality that Lorca urges us to keep close to our hearts:  that we are indeed mortal, that this world is finite, that death does dog us at every moment, that we should therefore live as fully as we are able in the here and now.

DEAD BOY

The little cousin is dead, by foul subtraction,
A green bough from Virginia's aged tree,
And none of the county kin like the transaction,
Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me.

A boy not beautiful, nor good, nor clever,
A black cloud full of storms too hot for keeping,
A sword beneath his mother's heart—yet never
Woman bewept her babe as this is weeping.

A pig with a pasty face, so I had said,
Squealing for cookies, kinned by poor pretense
With a noble house. But the little man quite dead,
I see the forebears' antique lineaments.

The elder men have strode by the box of death
To the wide flag porch, and muttering low send round
The bruit of the day. O friendly waste of breath!
Their hearts are hurt with a deep dynastic wound.

He was pale and little, the foolish neighbors say;
The first-fruits, saith the Preacher, the Lord hath taken;
But this was the old tree's late branch wrenched away,
Grieving the sapless limbs, the shorn and shaken.

Ransom's is a quiet pain.  A steady ache.  That he presents it in carefully controlled verse—in this case, rhymed quatrains—does nothing to diminish its effect.  The pain is contained, sure.  But this control serves to intensify without sentimentalizing. 

In reading Ransom's Selected Poems and critics' responses, I'm reminded of how some jazz traditionalists treated John Coltrane and what they considered his furious, wild, uncontrolled solos.  For whatever reason, they weren't able to see—or hear, rather—that he was working out utterly complex tonal problems right in front of them.  What they were witnessing was a master at work.  In that case, the critics got it wrong because they focused on the blood and not the brain in Coltrane's art.  With Ransom, quite the opposite seems true.  Many of his critics saw only brain and were blind to the blood running through his best work.  Fortunately, in 1964 at least, somebody got it right.

John Murillo is the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010). A graduate of New York University's MFA program in creative writing, he has received fellowships from the New York Times, Cave Canem, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, among others. He is a founding member of the collective, The Symphony, and is currently visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Cornell University. (Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • W.S. Merwin for The Moving Target
  • Louis Simpson for At the End of the Open Road
  • May Swenson for To Mix with Time 

Poetry Judges that Year: Jean Garrigue, Anthony Hecht, John Hall Wheelock

The Year in Literature:  

  • At the End of the Open Road by Louis Simpson won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Reed Whittemore was named Consultant in Poetry of the United States. 

Other Information:

  • John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974) was born in Pulaski, TN.
  • Ransom was the founding editor of The Kenyon Review.

Suggested Links:

Buy the Book:

Thursday
Mar032011

1963

Traveling Through the Dark

By William Stafford

Original Publisher: Harper & Row
Current Publisher: Weatherlight Press

Eric Smith writes:

Traveling Through the Dark, winner of the 1963 National Book Award, was a breakthrough book for William Stafford, and set the stage for one of the most productive careers in American poetry. For all his prodigious output, it is difficult to imagine a poem looming larger over an entire career than the title poem of this collection. Its speaker, “by glow of the tail-light,” considers what to do with a dead doe heavy with fawn. In the end, for the sake of other drivers on that narrow road:

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
Then pushed her over the edge into the river.

A startling ending, perfectly measured in its dramatic intensity, and loaded with a multi-faceted psychological crisis (the images in the last line alone a feast of Freudian birth anxiety). But the penultimate line’s heavy pause—“my only swerving—” sets the metaphorical tone for this book. Often, Stafford’s poems come to some edge: of cliff sides, maps, even national borders. Too, his poems arrive at a similar precipice between the speaker’s present and a past he tugs out of that darkness, one line at a time. This past haunts telephone wires in “Long Distance,” the faces peering out with “that look / the early camera gave” in “The Museum at Tillamook,” and most powerfully in the sonnet “In Medias Res” (we shouldn’t forget that Stafford is a formal poet, and this poem one of a handful of greats in a book that deftly handles its received forms). In this sonnet, the speaker stumbles along a downtown street, his father before him obscured by shadow, and his son behind, while around them “our town burned and burned.”

It is easy to mock him for some of his shop-worn philosophizing and suburban platitudes (he even cranks up “Elegy” with “The responsible sound of the lawn mower” in the first line), but often these poems surprise with their ability to capture startling images of the natural world and its inhabitants. There are few better cartographers of the Western expanses of our country than Stafford. And he is just as capable navigating the lonely stretches of being human as well (read “The Tillamook Burn” and “A Dedication” if you don’t believe me).

Five years ago, Loren Goodman published “Traveling Through the Dark (2005)” in Poetry. The poem remains mostly familiar in this newer form. But Goodman alters that final couplet to read:

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
Then pushed myself over the edge into the river.

It’s a good joke.

At least one reader was “horrified” at Goodman’s license, but the gag is evidence of something crucial about this poem, and a handful of others like it in this collection. How many poems could withstand such a reorientation of content and tone? 

In fact, some of the best poems here are burnished by the ways in which they both capture and succumb to rewriting, whether at the hands of younger poets, the wind’s lash in “Tornado,” or the scouring fires in “The Tillamook Burn,” in which “you can read His word down to the rock.”

No, Stafford is not a subtle poet. Or if he is, he’s as subtle as rolling a pregnant dead deer into a canyon. But what Stafford lacks in grace, perhaps, is a kind of sturdiness. What more could we ask of a landmark poet, and a landmark book? It will be these poems—revised or not—that outlast us, and stand as markers for future readers, as these lines from “The Only Card I Got on My Birthday Was from an Insurance Man” will:

                          when I die,
my glance drawn over galaxies,
all through one night let a candle nurse the dark
to mark this instant of what I was,
this once—not putting my hand out
blessing for business’ sake any frail markers
of human years: we want real friends or none;
what’s genuine will accompany every man.

Who travel these lonely wells can drink that star.

Eric Smith is a managing editor of Cellpoems. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Five Points, and Best New Poets 2010. He teaches at Marshall University.

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Robert Creeley for For Love
  • Donald F. Drummond for The Drawbridge
  • Robert Frost for In the Clearing
  • Kenneth Koch for Thank You and Other Poems
  • Howard Nemerov for The Next Room of the Dream
  • Winfield T. Scott for Collected Poems
  • Anne Sexton for All My Pretty Ones
  • William Carlos Williams for Pictures from Brueghel

Poetry Judges that Year: Rolfe Humphries, Henry Rago, Reed Whittemore

The Year in Literature:

  • Pictures from Brueghel by William Carlos Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Howard Nemerov was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • William Stafford (1914-1993) was born in Hutchinson, KS.
  • During World War II, Stafford was a conscientious objector. As a registered pacifist he worked for the Civilian Public Service Camps doing forestry and soil conservation work.
  • Stafford’s son, Kim, wrote the memoir Early Morning about her relationship with his father.

Suggested Links:

Buy the Book:

Wednesday
Mar022011

1962

Poems

By Alan Dugan

Original Publisher: Yale Series of Younger Poets
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Alan Dugan also won the National Book Award in Poetry in 2001 for Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry.


Katie Peterson writes:

Alan Dugan won the National Book Award for the first time in 1961 for his first collection, simply titled Poems, which was also chosen by Dudley Fitts for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. He won again in 2001 for the last book published in his lifetime, which includes that first (now out of print) prize-winning volume, six more books, and what would be his final collection. Dugan’s poems have earned frequent characterizations of “tough talking” and “urban.” In the memorable “Letter to Donald Fall” from the first book, Dugan concludes:

I, as an aging phony, stale, woozy, and corrupt
from unattempted dreams and bad health habits,
am comforted: the skunk cabbage generates its
frost-thawing fart-gas in New Jersey and the first
crocuses appear in Rockefeller’s Channel Gardens:
Fall, it is not so bad at Dugan’s Edge.

“Dugan’s Edge” is where the rest of the poems reside. They teem with proper names, both the hyper-local and the hyper-national. You begin to wish you could get hyper-linked to a wiki of what he’s talking about except that you also feel shameful that your cultural knowledge has been revealed to be so paltry. Dugan delights in the names of things and the roots of words. He writes love poems where intimacy has all the brutality and wordlessness of animal instinct; he writes some of the best poems about animals of the century. His lines are tense and govern expectation by making you so pleasurably anxious you feel compelled to continue to read.

“Dugan’s Edge” may not always, or ever, be a humane world but it’s nevertheless a world for humans. Rage, “closest to reason in the mind” (“On Being Unhappily in Love With Reason”), energizes, clarifies, and brings what is loved proximate: the “Edge” isn’t thrill seeking but truth seeking. If it doesn’t make you angry it’s not worth talking about. Dugan sees beauty but sees it in all its cultural confinement. In the amazing poem, “Poem,” a vision of feminine beauty is also a commentary on commerce:

The person who can do
accounts receivable as fast
as steel machines and out-
talk telephones, has wiped
her business lipstick off,
undone her girdle and belts,
and stepped down sighing from
the black quoins of her heels
to be the quiet smiler with
changed eyes. After long-
haired women have unwired
their pencil-pierced buns, it’s an
event with pennants when
the Great Falls of emotion say
that beauty is in residence,
grand in her hotel of flesh,
and Venus of the marriage manual,
haloed by a diaphragm,
steps from the shell Mercenaria
to her constitutional majesty
in the red world of love.

“Poem” presents an amazing chain of connections—an intimate history of a human brought from the world of buying and selling into “the red world of love.” That world is, significantly, in no way free of buying and selling—the shell Mercenaria is both a clam and a world whose Latin root is the same as the one for “mercenary.” Dugan’s vocabulary may be demotic but his terms of art take the form of the epithet, formalizing makeup into “business lipstick” and the body into a “hotel of flesh,” turning a diaphragm into a halo. To see such a poem as purely ironic is to miss the grandeur of the final two lines.

Dugan’s later work reminds us that a career in poetry is at its richest a life in poetry, and that the poet is responsible to what is neglected, minimized, and swept under the rug. He and his characters are informed as much by how cultural events make the shape of any biography—and diminish that shape—as they are by the hours and rituals of any day. As he describes a soldier,

To me, he seemed diminished
in his dream, or else enlarged, who knows?,
by its accomplishment: personal life
wrung from mass issues in a bloody time
and lived out hiddenly.

 (“Portrait from the Infantry”)

It would be easy to characterize Dugan as “American.” His poems are full of a particularly male Americana, with bars and girls and baseball games. But a reader is also quickly impressed by how little patience the poet has for our myths of self-reliance, and how shamelessly he wants to call us on our delusions of individualism. He knows how badly we want to hide from the brutality of actual self-reliance. I want to read the first lines of the following poem to everyone I know who bells their cat, keeps them inside so that they won’t kill things, or is a vegetarian for ethical reasons:

This is what your cat did to your mouse
while you were out shopping for what, cat food?
It carried it across your lawn in its mouth
and put it down under your flowering rose bush,
and watched it try to get away. It couldn’t.

(“Another Cat Poem. To A Cat Person”)

Either can you, reader. Once again, the funny title is more than funny. If you’re really a cat person, the poem seems to imply (while also reminding us that we live in a culture that has made up the kind of thing that a cat person is), you should probably kind of enjoy this gruesome scene. The alacrity of the line, the concise action of the verbs, the directness of the voice, and the rage displaced onto description all make the argument that we can, even if we don’t exactly like to, watch ourselves watching.  

Dugan was born in 1915 in Queens and published a total of seven books, whose numerical titles are indicative of how little his style changed on the formal surface of the poems. His subject matter continued to range widely. He died in 2003.

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:

  • Robert Bagg for Madonna of the Cello
  • Philip Booth for The Islanders
  • John Ciardi for In the Stoneworks
  • H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) for Helen in Egypt
  • Abbie Huston Evans for Facts of Crystal
  • Isabella Gardner for The Looking Glass
  • Horace Gregory for Medusa in Gramercy Park
  • John Holmes for The Fortune Teller
  • Denise Levertov for Jacob's Ladder
  • Ned O'Gorman for Adam Before His Mirror
  • John Hall Wheelock for The Gardner and other Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: Leonie Adams, William Jay Smith, Mark Van Doren

The Year in Literature: Poems by Alan Dugan also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Alan Dugan (1923-2003) was born in Queens, NY.
  • Dugan won the National Book Award twice, in 1962 for his first collection, Poems, and in 2001 for his last collection, Poems Seven: New and Collected Poetry.

Suggested Links:

Buy the Book:

Tuesday
Mar012011

1961

The Woman at the Washington Zoo      

By Randall Jarrell

Original Publisher: Atheneum
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Scott Challener writes:

The Other Jarrell: Randall Jarrell’s The Woman at the Washington Zoo

Children have fewer and fewer empty hours…

—Randall Jarrell, “The Age of Criticism”

It’s still an open question, though not too long ago it wasn’t: Will we keep reading Randall Jarrell as a critic or as a poet? The Poetry Foundation’s website’s entry about Jarrell begins, “Best known as a literary critic but also respected as a poet…” Or consider Jay Parini, in The Wilson Quarterly, in 1999: “Although he was by far a better critic than poet…” (109). Or William Logan, in the introduction to Poetry and the Age: “When we read the poems, we hear a man trying to be a poet, trying with great skill and intelligence; when we read the criticism, we hear a man born to the trade” (xix). How Jarrell finds himself in these dependent clauses! Respected? Is respectability the measure now? By far? How far is far? Trying? Oh, miserly verb!

Here’s the rest of Parini’s sentence: “…his criticism gained its uncanny power from the fact that he understood what was at stake in the writing of poems. He knew that poetry was, if properly conceived and executed, a central form of culture, and that if the standards for poetry deteriorated, a general deterioration of thought and feeling—of expression—would follow” (109). It’s true that Jarrell believed in the danger of such deterioration, worried a lot about it, and wrote and spoke publically and repeatedly against it. And reading “The Taste of the Age” or “The Obscurity of the Poet” you will find this sharp cultural critic. These are worth reading, but I find them among Jarrell’s least interesting essays. Pronouncements like Parini’s (and Jarrell was not opposed to them; his speech at the 1958 National Book Awards reportedly trundled on for forty minutes about the “mass culture” debate) about “knowing what poetry is,” about poetry as a “central form of culture”—are off-putting and beside the point. Jarrell could not have written great poems or great criticism if he knew what poetry Is; he could not have written the essays on Whitman or Frost or Marianne Moore, whose poetry he called a triumph of limitations—isn’t that an excellent way to imagine what a poem is?—or conjured the great late poems in The Lost World, a book Robert Lowell rightly called his “best,” if he conceived of them as ideological centerpieces meant to complete the furniture of Culture. “Anyone who has written much poetry,” Jarrell admits at the end of “Levels and Opposites,” “knows how pathetically inadequate our knowledge of structure is; how much more he does as a poet than he knows as a critic.”

This felt inadequacy becomes more important than anything we can know; for this reason the voices that sing in Jarrell’s poems are not of Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Freud and Auden and Frost and Rilke, but of children—the children we imagine we once were, the children we become again, the children we have or want to have or have lost. (Except Jarrell knows, too, that in some sense we never “have” them at all.) “We are all children to the past,” he writes in “The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln.” Jarrell the critic—and this goes to the heart of his best poems—always returns to this common human denominator, the test of poetry and of life. “Criticism demands of the critic a terrible nakedness: a real critic has no one but himself to depend on,” he writes. It is this nakedness—what the woman who speaks in “Seele im Raum,” a German title of Rilke’s that means “The Sound of Space,” which Jarrell said sounded “too glib” for a title, calls “that raw thing, the being inside” the skin of being, “That has neither a wife, a husband, nor a child / But goes at last naked from this world / As it was born into it”—that animates Jarrell’s best work as a poet and critic. He examines each terrible, unthinkable thought lovingly and gently, for its own sake, as though they were his children, looking with eyes just like the eland’s (a large African antelope) in “Seele Im Raum,” tearless and melting, at their nakedness.

Listen to the middle of “Field and Forest”:

At night, from the airplane, all you see is lights,
A few lights, the lights of houses, headlights,
And darkness. Somewhere below, beside a light,
The farmer, naked, takes out his false teeth:
He doesn’t eat now. Takes off his spectacles:
He doesn’t see now. Shuts his eyes.
If he were able to he’d shut his ears,
And as it is, he doesn’t hear with them.
Plainly, he’s taken out his tongue: he doesn’t talk.
His arms and legs: at least, he doesn’t move them.
They are knotted together, curled up, like a child’s.
And after he has taken off the thoughts
It has taken him his life to learn,
He takes off, last of all, the world.

When you take off everything what’s left? A wish,
A blind wish; and yet the wish isn’t blind.
What the wish wants to see, it sees.

Jarrell believed from beginning to end that poems were “delicate and inexplicable,” that they could not be willed into being: they “came” or they didn’t. Poets were struck by lightning once or twice; poems were not written but granted like a blind wish or delivered almost by surprise, a little like the newspaper in “Nestus Gurley,” which arrives announced only by an almost inaudible whoosh. Ostensibly about a newspaper boy named Nestus Gurley, “Nestus Gurley,” like “Field and Forest,” is really about the access to experience (a phrase of Marianne Moore’s that Jarrell loved), about the feeling of deliverance, of hope: “the hope,” Jarrell clarifies toward the poem’s end, “That is not proofed against anything, but pure / And shining as the first, least star / That is lost in the east on the morning of Judgment…”

Jarrell once wrote that poetry is made out of decades, not craftsmanship—and that is what his poems feel like: out of air and time, they crystallize. They are large precise structures precisely made. The people who live in their capacious rooms—the gunner, the farmer, the sick child, women and men and children—continually remind us how truly strange it is that we were once children too, and make what Jarrell once called the empty hours of childhood a little richer, a little more appreciably empty. They are masses of air we can float in to experience this emptiness.

Frost famously suggested that poetry should not be “too precise,” but for Jarrell, being too precise was a way of being free. The principle Marianne Moore’s formulation suggests—“What’s more precise than precision? Illusion”—makes more sense: Jarrell’s illusions feel naked because they relentlessly strip away the shoddy protections adults plaster up between themselves. As Stephen Burt notes in his book on Jarrell, the disturbing likeness between adults and children is the point of this exposure. “The work of art demands of us,” Jarrell reflected, “that we too see things as ends, not as means—that we too know them and love them for their own sake.” And for Jarrell, that is what children demanded and do, too. There is not much difference, then, between the critic who doesn’t confuse life with art, and the poet who aspires to create just such an illustrious confusion: both know the old paradox, that art feels so often truer than life. And when it does, as Jarrell says, “it is life.”

Part of their greatness of Jarrell’s best poems is their differentness and strangeness; like children, they are so much themselves, they cannot be anything else. Sometimes I think that they could be called The Collected Fairytales—several would share the title “The Door.” In “The House in the Wood,” Jarrell writes:

As far as I can walk, I come to my own door,
The door of the House in the Wood. It opens silently: 

On the bed is something covered, something humped
Asleep there, awake there—but what? I do not know.

Jarrell’s second wife remembered that as he approached his 50th birthday he took to calling his experience of aging torschlusspanik, German for “door-closing panic”; I imagine him coming across the word in the Grimm fairytales or Rilke he translated when he couldn’t write poems. If the style of his poems can be described as “plain,” then the meaning of plain has changed, or, like the blanket in “The House in the Wood,” the term covers up something more strange and unwieldy and shifting with aliveness than what it suggests. Some of Jarrell’s criticism may still belong to Jarrell. One may tire of its clever comparisons and nasty witticisms. But I don’t think we’ll ever tire of his poems. Perhaps one day someone will say of them what Jarrell said about Marianne Moore’s poems: they’re “too good…for that, [they] long ago became everybody’s.”

Scott Challener teaches writing in Boston University’s Writing Program and Metropolitan College and Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, and he volunteers for PEN New England’s Prison Writing Program and 826 Boston. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Narrative Magazine, The Rumpus, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. (Photo credit: Thomas Gearty)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • W.H. Auden for Homage to Clio
  • J.V. Cunninghan for The Exclusions of Rhyme
  • Robert Duncan for The Opening of the Field
  • Richard Eberhart for Collected Poems
  • Donald Justice for The Summer Anniversaries
  • Howard Nemerov for New and Selected Poems
  • John Frederick Nims for Knowledge of the Evening
  • Anne Sexton for To Bedlam and Part Way Back
  • George Starbuck for Bone Thoughts
  • Eleanor Ross Taylor for Wilderness of Ladies
  • Theodore Weiss for Outlanders
  • Yvor Winters for Collected Poems 

Poetry Judges that Year: Dudley Fitts, Kimon Friar, W.D. Snodgrass

The Year in Literature:

  • Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades by Phyllis McGinley won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Louis Untermeyer was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) was born in Nashville, TN.
  • At Jarrell’s memorial service, Robert Lowell was quoted as saying that Jarrell was “the most heartbreaking poet of our time.”

Suggested Links:

Buy the Book: 

Monday
Feb282011

1960

Life Studies

By Robert Lowell 

Original Publisher: Vintage Books
Current Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Dilruba Ahmed writes:

While the jury is still out on the relationship between creativity and psychosis (see this, this or this), the poetry world includes many writers who have struggled with—and in many cases, written about—mental health concerns. Among the most frequently cited examples we have Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and, of course, Robert Lowell.

In contemporary poetry workshops, students are warned not to conflate the persona of a poem with the writer behind it. In Lowell’s case, not only is he widely regarded as the original confessional poet who was among the first to draw heavily on personal experience in his work, the very structure of Life Studies asks us to blur the boundary between persona and poet. Lowell’s book is a hybrid collection—part poetry, part memoir—with one section consisting of thirty-plus pages of autobiographical prose encouraged by Lowell’s psychotherapist, prose that helped to catalyze Lowell’s shift away from formal conventions and toward looser, more plain-spoken verse.

In a poem that specifically addresses a hospitalization for psychological difficulties, “Home After Three Months Away,” Lowell paints a bleak picture of the speaker’s so-called recovery and suggests that the real work of regaining mental health begins upon the return to a life that has been irrevocably altered.

After his homecoming, Lowell’s speaker reacts to passage of time with detached observation, “Gone now the baby’s nurse / a lioness that ruled the roost / and made the Mother cry,” as well as the exclamatory, disbelieving “Three months! Three months!”  The skeptical speaker obliquely questions his recovery: “Is Richard now himself again?”

If the speaker wants to believe that he can resume normalcy, the sights and sounds around him concur, both the tenderness of a domestic scene and the unspecified voices of collusion.

Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub, each of us pats a stringy lock of hair—
they tell me nothing’s wrong.

The speaker is troubled by deeper preoccupations, however, revealing that, in the aftermath of intense treatment, the struggles of establishing any psychological well-being have just begun: “Though I am forty-one, / not forty now, the time I put away / was child’s play.” Still, Lowell’s speaker attempts to persuade himself that he can reclaim his previous life by pointing out that “…[a]fter thirteen weeks / my child still dabs her cheeks / to start me shaving.”

In this father-daughter scene, the speaker’s sense of certainty about surface appearances begins to blur.

When we dress her in sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush. 

Below, his bleak outlook casts a neglected garden as a “coffin’s length of soil.”

Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips below.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigree
imported Dutchmen; now no one need
distinguish them from weed.

The “horizontal tulips” embody the inertia of a speaker who, “recuperating… neither spin[s] nor toil[s].” These leveled flowers rest much like the poet’s dead family members: Lowell’s mother passed away shortly before the hospitalization that gave rise to the poem, outliving his father by only four years. This remarkably dense passage also bespeaks Lowell’s break with his blue-blooded Bostonian family.

In the poem’s grim closing stanza, two end-stopped, declarative sentences emphasize the speaker’s despair and his loss of vitality. 

I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small. 

The word frizzled reminds us of the poem’s first stanza, in which “porkrinds in bowknots of gauze” hung for “three months…like soggy toast,” helping birds “weather a Boston winter.”

Lowell’s speaker remains unconvinced of his recovery and the return to his natural environment—while apparently “cured,” he has lost both his previous markers of identity and any sense of vigor. His loss of “rank and station” may also reflect a Lowell who, albeit rebellious against the conformity of Boston’s upper crust and his aristocratic family, found himself alienated and orphaned before the age of forty.

Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book of poems, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011), won the 2010 Bakeless Prize for poetry. Ahmed’s writing has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, and The Normal School. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives near Philadelphia. For more information, visit her website at www.dilrubaahmed.com. (Photo credit: Mike Drzal)

Poetry Finalists that Year: Not Announced

Poetry Judges that Year: Philip Booth, Stanley Kunitz, M.L. Rosenthal, May Sarton,
James Johnson Sweeney

The Year in Literature: Heart’s Needle by W.D. Snodgrass won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was born in Boston, MA.
  • When Lowell died of a heart attack in 1977, he was in a cab on his way to see ex-wife and fellow writer Elizabeth Hardwick.

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