Friday
Apr152011

1998

This Time: New and Selected Poems

By Gerald Stern

Original and Current Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Ross Gay writes: 

I remember sitting in the graduate poetry workshop at Sarah Lawrence College where Gerald Stern was presiding in one of his last full-time teaching jobs, when in the middle of a story about being shot in the neck by two kids in Newark he reached over and grabbed my hand, with some force, and stuck my fingers pretty close to his carotid, where I could feel two bullet fragments stuck, slipping slightly under my touch.  When he talks about the incident, he’s always sympathetic to the kids (he calls them kids)—he mentions it in the essay aptly titled “Bullet in My Neck” from his book of essays, What I Can’t Bear Losing.  And maybe it’s too much to say, but Stern’s poems feel to me, often, a bit like that story, or rather, his manner of telling it: here is my pain, here is my sorrow, here is the song I’ve made of it. 

Gerald Stern wrote his poems for a long time in a kind of isolation, a kind of obscurity.  It wasn’t until Lucky Life, published in 1977 when he was about 50, that his poems received serious attention.  The poems in that book, while very different than the poems he’s writing these days, originate in a similar place (the first half of Stern’s Collected Poems just came out in the fall, the second half forthcoming): our sorrow.  And it’s the “our” that feels significant here, as while Stern’s work has a kind of unquestionable interiority and singularity of voice and vision, an obvious peculiarity and personality, the poems are not the wailings of an individual.  There is a difference between sadness and sorrow—you can even hear it in the sounds of the words: sadness is pinched, abbreviated, fleeting, drifting off, about me; sorrow is cavernous, permanent, and born of wisdom.  But as Keats instructs us, sorrow does not exist without joy, or relief.  Or mercy.  I think mercy is Stern’s word.  Here’s the end of “Lucky Life”:

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

But I’d be missing the point if I didn’t mention that Stern’s poems can also be comic—not funny, but comic, in the way of Richard Pryor or Beckett.  It’s the kind of humor that drops the floor from under you while you’re laughing, that butts together the playful and horrible, that makes off the cuff observations about the century’s worst cruelties.  It’s interesting to listen to an audience listening to Stern read his poems.  Sometimes you hear laughter immediately followed by a kind of deep silence.  One such poem is “The Dancing”: one second we’re laughing as the father is “doing the dance / of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum, / half fart,” and the next second the family is “screaming and falling, as if we were dying, / as if we could never stop—in 1945— / in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home / of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away / from the other dancing—in Poland and Germany— / oh God of mercy, oh wild God.”  This aspect of his poetry is maybe less discussed than it ought to be—almost all of his great poems (it’s something, by the way, when we refer to a poet’s great poems…and Stern has several great poems, a number of them written since This Time) are comic.  “Lucky Life,” “The Dancing,” “Behaving Like a Jew,” “Another Insane Devotion” and “Soap” all come to mind.  He makes us remember our cruelty and stupidity, and our persistence despite it. 

And to close I’ll let one of Stern’s poems do the talking.  You’ll notice in it, like in so many of his poems, an animal, a small one.  You’ll notice the sorrow and the meditation.  You’ll notice the struggle.  And you’ll notice, too, the conversion.

Singing

I have been waiting for a month
for this squirrel to dissolve in water.
I couldn’t afford the disgrace
of dumping it onto the ground
and watching its body lurch and its teeth chatter.

There is such ghoulishness now
that it might drag its back legs after it,
such desperation
that I might rub its shoulders or brush its lips
to bring it back to life.

You who rushed home to masturbate,
you who touched the same red flower every day,
you know how I must skirt this lawn
to avoid the barrel.
You know how I live in silence.

You who knelt on the frozen leaves,
you know how dark it got under the ice;
you know how hard it was to live
with hatred, how long it took to convert
death and sadness into beautiful singing.     

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:

  • B.H. Fairchild for The Art of the Lathe
  • Alicia Suskin Ostriker for The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998
  • Linda Pastan for Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998
  • Carl Phillips for From the Devotions

Poetry Judges that Year: Michael Collier, Rita Dove, Mary Oliver, Grace Schulman, David Wagoner

The Year in Literature: Black Zodiac by Charles Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Gerald Stern (1925- ) was born in Pittsburgh, PA.
  • Stern has been Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets since 2006.

Suggested Links:


Gerald Stern reading two poems at the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival
Posted by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

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Thursday
Apr142011

1997

Effort at Speech: New & Selected Poems     

By William Meredith

Original and Current Publisher: Triquarterly

Scott Challener writes:

A Stranger in a Thousand Particulars

When William Meredith died in May of 2007, Andrew Rosenheim wrote in The Independent that “If there is such a thing as an American poetry establishment, William Meredith was at its heart, and he is in danger of becoming known for whom he knew, rather than for what he wrote.” I wonder if all of this statement is true. Meredith’s particular genius, as his former student Michael Collier observed, was the genius of friendship. And friendship, Meredith showed, is not who you know but how you know them. He knew by loving. In a letter to John Berryman he confessed, “The only thing I don’t envy is the hard way you have gone about being a great poet,” and then quickly hedged: “But even that perverse and roundabout way is inextricable from the man and work I love.” Meredith’s work is no different: the best poems are not so much an extension of his character (the quality in them Lowell saw and praised so highly) but the making of character. They think and feel through ways of knowing and loving that depend on friendship.

In Emerson’s classification, Meredith was a friend of his friends’ thoughts, not their buttons. Friend of the thoughts of Auden, Berryman, Frost, Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Penn Warren, and Richard Wilbur, among others, Meredith came to see himself as a kind of Trelawny-figure (the beloved friend of Shelley and Byron). In a letter to Robert Penn Warren, Meredith wrote that the biggest problem in judging someone else’s work lies in getting rid of one’s own style. Meredith seems to have solved this problem again and again, which is all the more remarkable when one considers that his friends were some of the country’s best poets: he was being asked to distinguish the very good from the great, and he excelled at such distinctions without losing the good faith of his friends.

At the same time, ambivalences animate many of the poems Meredith dedicated to his friends, and nearly all of them encourage us to read them as quarrels, often at least in part about differences in style: unlike Meredith, many of his friends stood on the other side of decorum. Meredith’s elegy for John Berryman, “In Loving Memory of the Late Author of Dream Songs,” is a case in point: “Friends making off ahead of time / on their own, I call that willful, John, / but that’s not judgment, only argument” it begins. After Meredith calls his friend “fastidious John of the gross disguises,” he writes “…suicide is a crime / and…wives and children deserve better than this. / None of us deserved, of course, you.” Then he asks:

Do we wave back now, or what do we do?
You were never reluctant to instruct.
I do what’s in character. I look for things
to praise on the riverbanks and I praise them.
We are all relicts, of some great joy, wearing black,
but this book is full of marvelous songs.
Don’t let us contract your dread recidivism
and start falling from our own iron railings.
Wave from the fat book again, make us wave back.

Over the course of several weeks in January and February of 1970 Berryman asked Meredith what he thought of a new clutch of poems (probably part of his last book, Delusions, Etc.). In a well-known letter, Meredith said he had “misgivings”:

I don’t need to add golden numbers to golden numbers: I’m on record privately and publicly as thinking you are the living end, the cat’s pyjamas, and an uncommonly good and generous friend. My bizarre response, then, to this chapter of our friendship is to write you this scoutmaster’s advice about the virtues of self-reliance, self-criticism (‘but take one virtue, without which a man can hardly hold his own: that a man should always reproach himself’) and patience. Don’t it make you sick, when a friend talks to you like that?

Meredith comes off as congenial, generous, funny, self-aware, flirtatious, endearing, and optimistic, and yet before this paragraph he shares serious reservations: “The new poems do not please me as much as the poems of yours I’ve got used to seeing,” he writes, calling their narrative “unsophisticated” and their material unimaginative, “diary-raiding rather than fantasy.”

Meredith’s response invites us to think of him as one of Emerson’s “unknown friends”—the audience for which Emerson said all great poets write—and to think of Meredith’s best poems, whether they elegize, quarrel, remember, or describe, as acts of friendship. In “Parents,” the only poem Meredith rated an ‘A,’ parents are “friends who become our enemies”:

                                    Everything
they do is wrong, and the worst thing, 

they all do it, is to die,
taking with them the last explanation,

how we came out of the wet sea
or wherever they got us from,

taking the last link
of that chain with them.

For Meredith, friendship wasn’t limited to the famous poets he knew—it included not only parents, but also, more importantly, people he would never know. I think it is true for most of us that reading and friendship are alike in the illiteracy they require, whether we call it with Coleridge a suspension of disbelief or with Meredith a relinquishment of style. What makes Meredith special is his willingness to subsume the act of writing to this illiteracy, too. When we read a poem as unknown friends, as Meredith points out in his two addresses as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, we become what all poets and critics are: readers who “look at the work as if it were more interesting than themselves.” If it is true that every truly new poem must tutor its readers in how to read it, then it is also true that all readers are illiterate before a truly new poem.

“The reason for a new poem is, in some essential, a new reason,” Meredith wrote. “The Illiterate,” probably Meredith’s most famous poem, in many ways enacts this reasoning, since although neither friends nor friendship are mentioned in name as they are in many of the later poems and dedications, the friend who is lover is powerfully present in the poem’s enigmatic first phrase.

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

“The illiterate is a type of the poet because he cannot or will not make words disappear into easy instrumentality, will not take them for granted,” Linda Gregerson observes. He is also a type of the friend for similar reasons.

In its final lines “The Illiterate” returns us to the primacy of the feeling for the words, not the words themselves. It is this feeling that Meredith translates so excellently in the poem, paradoxically, by not translating it at all. “The Illiterate” stands against the assumption that prior knowledge or knowledge external to the world of the poem alone will allow one “access” to the poem, and against the kind of conscientious reading that makes a singular meaning or interpretation—“what the poem means”—primary. In fourteen lines it makes us attend to the highways and byways in which words mean and are means, in which we keep them and their personal meanings near to ourselves until we are kept by them.

 “To a great heart,” Emerson wrote, a friend “will be a stranger in a thousand particulars, that he may come near in the holiest ground.” Meredith’s sonnet is perhaps the greatest poem about becoming this amicable stranger. His work, taken as a whole, feels to me like a testament to this labor of estrangement and approximation. It is born out of a tradition born of great friendships—the kind of friendships on which much great literature depends—and of a deep, abiding belief in belief—the difficult kind of belief only great friendships can sustain. The sage also wrote: “The only way to be a friend is to have one,” and we who are lucky in friends, as in poems, know it. 

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:

  • John Balaban for Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems
  • Frank Bidart for Desire
  • Sarah Lindsay for Primate Behavior
  • Marilyn Nelson for The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: Red Chappell, Michael Harper, Li-Young Lee, Mona Van Duyn, Rosanna Warren

The Year in Literature:

  • Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Robert Pinsky was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • William Meredith (1919-2007) was born in New York, NY.     
  • When Meredith was at Princeton he wrote his senior thesis on Robert Frost.

Suggested Links:

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Wednesday
Apr132011

1996

Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995 

By Hayden Carruth

Original and Current Publisher: Copper Canyon Press         

Patrick Rosal writes:

In “Birthday Cake,” Hayden Carruth proclaims, “I am too old to write love songs now.” But Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey is as much a book of love poems for a wife and a nation as anything. In the poem, he’s eating a stale piece of his lover’s birthday cake, five days in the refrigerator, and he comes to contemplate his own amazement at the fact and feeling of being loved.

The poem itself, like the collection, has several notable moments in which Carruth declares his love for the things of the world, that which is “beautifully vulgar and bluesy,” a phrase he uses to describes his lover’s verse, but it’s true of his own poems as well. He loves, too, “the season of mud and trash, broken limbs and crushed briers / from the winter storms, wetness and rust, / the season of differences.” In the cycle of seasons, winter is ending, spring beginning, and he contemplates his aging and her youth (“you still young at forty-two and I growing old at seventy”).

Without the aching penitence of William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel,” Carruth’s collection is an act of looking back, wherein looking is an act of love, a moral act, to witness and remember one’s life. And Carruth is like Williams in many ways, yes, his love of the ordinary and the broken, as in the poem “Quality of Wine”:

This wine is really awful
I’ve been drinking for a year now, my
retirement, Rossi Chablis in a jug
from Oneida Liquors; plonk, the best
I can afford, awful. But at least
I can afford it, I don’t need to go out and beg
on the street like the guys
on South Warren in Syracuse, eyes
burning their sockets like acid.
And my sweetheart rubs my back…

And so even when he is contemplating his mixed luck and the poverties of the local landscape, there is his inability to reject tenderness and affection—a failure I can live with. Maybe even a failure I can live by. You’ll have to read the whole poem; the ending is worth all our tragic era’s wishes.  

I can’t bring up Williams in a reading of Carruth if I don’t mention their shared passion for the American vernacular. In a charming series called “Faxes to William” (the title is not, as far as I can tell, addressed to the Paterson bard), Carruth carves gorgeous American idiomatic shapes:

These nearly anonymous bastards
have increased my assessment 3.5
times. That’s three point five! Taking
advantage of an exiled poet, the shits.
They better watch out, I’ll spread their
rotten town all over the map for the rest
of time! Well, for a few years anyway

If you can stand the punch line of the nineteenth, and last, section in the series where he reveals that William doesn’t even have a fax machine, the poem (dedicated to Stephen Dobyns) moves through gorgeous landscapes and grumpy meditations like the one above.

In this relatively short collection, Carruth tests all of his muscles with the formal invention of the fax as well as the tradition of the villanelle—both with equal ease. More importantly, the forms contain vital and complicated human experiences. Carruth can evoke outright both laughter and outrage. He is not blind to injustice to say the least:

When the young brown-haired
woman was shot
a drop of blood swayed
briefly
on the end of her nose
and her baby brother for an instant
thought of a lantern.

This is the opening passage of “The Camps,” a long poem in quick episodes, snapshots really, surveying the atrocities both domestic and abroad. “[T]his,” the poem continues in a later section:

is his way of being in the world, writing
on scraps of paper with stubby pencils
or on cheap tablets from the drug store, on a battered typewriter
set on an orange crate in a roach-ridden flat
in Chicago or in a small country house
on a computer, writing…

That is, the speaker is located in a specific and tangible world and compelled to record the injustices—compelled to reveal his position in the cartography of war while, at the same time, rendering what he can of the war himself. This is an astounding poem of political conscience, not just in its form and vision, but in the way it reflects, pauses, telescopes, pauses, and swells.

Carruth sort of famously cut himself off from the traditional academic communities, though it seems he had many friends in the academy throughout his lifetime—James Laughlin among the many, but also Adrienne Rich, who appears in one of the finer, poignant poems of the book called “California.”  Many of the poems—as he addresses his beloved wife, and expresses his grief over a gravely ill daughter, and stares down the lines of power, and etches forceful images of violence—refer to places visited in and far out of New York and Vermont, though Carruth largely preferred to be rather isolated. This is a powerfully troubled spirit who drew from rich wells of restlessness and exile and put into poems endless dimensions of appetites, whether scrambled eggs or whiskey or both—what we long for and live on, what we grieve and ultimately leave behind.

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), which won the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry and the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Tin House, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, the Beacon Best, and Language for a New Century. (Photo credit: Stephen Sullivan)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Lucille Clifton for The Terrible Stories
  • Robert Hass for Sun Under Wood
  • Alicia Suskin Ostriker for The Crack in Everything
  • Charles Simic for Walking the Black Cat

Poetry Judges that Year: Marilyn Chin, R.S. Gwynn, Marilyn Hacker, Yusef Komunyakaa,
William Matthews

The Year in Literature: The Dream of the Unified Field by Jorie Graham won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Hayden Carruth (1921-2008) was born in Woodbury, CT.
  • The poet Galway Kinnell has said of Carruth, “This is not a man who sits down to 'write a poem'; rather, some burden of understanding and feeling, some need to know, forces his poems into being.”

Suggested Links:

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Tuesday
Apr122011

1995

Passing Through: The Later Poems  

By Stanley Kunitz

Original and Current Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Megan Snyder-Camp writes:

Stanley Kunitz was one of the first poets I fell in love with. Kunitz, who died in 2006 at the age of 100, was one of our greatest poets, a man whose attention ranged from garden to ocean to battlefield, equally at ease in the language of science and the vocabulary of dreams. Over the course of his long career, Kunitz slowly built critical acclaim, and his honors included a Pulitzer Prize, a Bollingen Prize, the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, the Lenore Marshall Prize, Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, a National Medal of Arts and a term as US Poet Laureate. Passing Through: The Later Poems shows Kunitz at his height: expansive yet uncluttered, passionate yet clear-eyed.

Passing Through came out in 1995, the year I graduated from high school, and I took my copy with me to college, where I hoped to become a poet. It was Kunitz’s bravery, first, that captivated me—his embrace of the mystical and archetypal within the realm of our lives. No trifling, no shoelace-tying. And, second, it was the clarity and calm with which he held this fire steady, as if saying, of course our lives are full of this rich, painful turning—now let’s lean closer so that we may be transformed by its brightness.

In rereading this collection recently, I was glad to rediscover “Halley’s Comet,” with its heartbreaking final stanza addressing Kunitz’s father, who committed suicide in a public park mere months before the poet was born. Here is that stanza in its entirety:

Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

I read that poem aloud on my very first episode of the late-night college radio show I hosted, which I had eagerly named “The Sex & Death Poetry Hour.” It was my first time reading a poem into a microphone, and I remember the hour stretched before me, the darkness outside the studio, the near-certain lack of listeners but the incredible possibility that maybe, finally, suddenly, someone within this ten-mile range of radio waves might happen to hear my voice and linger.

Who knows? No one ever called in. But in the safety of those quiet nights, I practiced reading aloud the poems I had treasured and brought from home, as well as the new ones I was discovering in my writing workshops. I read them again and again, slowly testing the nuances of breath and inflection and pace, and then I began to try sending a few of my own poems out, too, into that kind nothingness. Those late hours held the gift of maybe. “Halley’s Comet” helped me to put into words the yearning I felt, like that boy staring up into the sky.

Passing Through: The Later Poems contains selections from The Testing-Tree (1971), The Layers (1978), and Next-To-Last Things (1985), as well as nine new poems. The Testing-Tree, Kunitz’s first collection in more than a decade, marked a significant shift in Kunitz’s poetry. He abandoned metered lines for a shorter (three-stress) breath-driven line. Here he also began to engage a more personal subject matter. Noting his desire to “squeeze the water out of my poems,” Kunitz in his 1977 interview with Chris Busa for The Paris Review stated, “I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through and see the world.”

Kunitz was most at home in the natural world, and his poems about wild creatures are often lifted into exaltation through the transformation of these creatures into archetypes, as in “The Snakes of September”: “At my touch the wild / braid of creation / trembles.” Or this passage from “King of the River,” a poem about Pacific salmon spawning:

On the threshold
of the last mystery,
at the brute absolute hour,
you have looked into the eyes
of your creature self,
which are glazed with madness,
and you say
he is not broken but endures,
limber and firm
in the state of his shining,
forever inheriting his salt kingdom,
from which he is banished
forever.

So many of Kunitz’s poems are elegiac, rooted in loss, grief, “the separate / wilderness of age” (from “Raccoon Journal”). But what makes his elegies so stunning is that they are built not from a careful measure of personal or historical loss but rather from a deep, intoxicating love of all life. His work is elegiac in the broadest sense, marking the passage of life around him, as in these lines to his wife from “Touch Me,” the book’s final poem: “What makes the engine go? / Desire, desire, desire.”

I know I’m not alone in naming Kunitz one of my first loves. I was grateful for this chance to return to the fire of his work, to find again that hum of possibility.

Megan Snyder-Camp's first book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things, is a deconstructed domestic narrative set in a small, historically preserved village on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her poems have appeared in Field, the Antioch Review, Smartish Pace, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She recently received an Individual Artist grant from Washington's 4Culture Foundation to support her current work. (Photo credit: Laura M. Hoffmann)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Barbara Howes for Collected Poems, 1945-1990
  • Josephine Jacobsen for In the Crevice of Time: New and Collected Poems
  • Donald Justice for New and Selected Poems
  • Gary Soto for New and Selected Poems

Poetry Judges that Year: Joseph Bruchac, Karl Kirchway, Sandra McPherson,
Sharon Olds, Robert Phillips

The Year in Literature:

  • The Simple Truth by Philip Levine won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Robert Hass was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) was born in Worcester, MA.
  • Kunitz published his last book of poetry, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden (2005), at the age of 100.

Suggested Links:

Stanley Kunitz reads his poem "Touch Me." Part of the Poetry Everywhere project airing on public television. Filmed at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation.



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Monday
Apr112011

1994

Worshipful Company of Fletchers

By James Tate

Original and Current Publisher: Ecco Press

Evie Shockley writes:

One issue that regularly arises in connection with James Tate’s oeuvre is the question of how to categorize it.  Critics and readers have described it in so many different ways, some of which are commonly thought of as dichotomous, that the fallback position seems to be that his work is uncategorizable.  I have witnessed passionate debates unfold in the comments streams of poetry-oriented websites about whether or not his poems can or should be designated surrealist or (merely) humorous.  In an interview, Mike Magee asks Tate whether his work is more appropriately considered modernist or postmodernist (which begs the question of what distinguishes these two categories in the first place—a source of ongoing scholarly inquiry among literary critics).  When folks are not balancing Tate’s poetry on the fence between two opposing aesthetics, they instead tend to describe it as an eclectic mix of competing emotional and poetic gestures, one shifting erratically and dramatically into another.  The uninitiated reader is led to expect the unexpected—or, ultimately, to develop a set of expectations based on the common eccentricities of his own poems, rather than on the kinds of poetry people of his generation or stature or background typically write.

As someone who first became more than superficially acquainted with Tate’s work as a listener, rather than a reader, I would draw my own dividing line (if one must be drawn) between the experience of hearing him read his poems and that of encountering them on the page.  He is a remarkably effective reader of his own poetry, which cannot be said of every poet, and his oft-noted “deadpan delivery” and sense of comedic timing tend to focus listeners on the humor in the seemingly wild juxtapositions that appear within his lines.  A recording of his live reading of “How the Pope Is Chosen,” for example, allows us to hear the audience move from giggles to guffaws as he pauses to emphasize each of the last three line breaks in this passage:

                       After a poodle dies
all the cardinals flock to the nearest 7-Eleven.           
They drink Slurpies until one of them throws up
and then he’s the new Pope.

But the laugh-out-loud ridiculousness of this revision of the somber rituals of the papal conclave, while making for very satisfying listening, is not what commands my attention as a reader.  Reading the poem, one discovers a humor that seems meant to make you think, more than to make you laugh.

This same poem, for example, begins: “Any poodle under ten inches high is a toy.” After an observation about the significance of the word “toy” as a classification, he switches abruptly to a sentence that appears to be about classifying popes: “Popes with unclipped hair are called corded popes.”  Within a few more lines, however, one begins to see that Tate has simply replaced “poodle” with “pope” in a series of sentences from a text on dog breeds, which the speaker shortly acknowledges in a moment of self-reflexivity:

I could go on like this, I could say:
“He is a squarely built Pope, neat,
well-proportioned, with an alert stance
and an expression of bright curiosity.”

Funny, yes—but the joke is on the careful reader, who must suddenly grapple with the question of whether and why this clearly patronizing language is really more appropriate for describing poodles than popes. 

Tate has remarked that, while he recognizes that his poems are funny, that recognition comes after the fact—that when he’s writing, he isn’t thinking about humor.  This comment doesn’t surprise me.  “How the Pope Is Chosen” moves away from the extended riff identifying poodles and popes to a consideration of ways in which popes are not human: sometimes super-human (legendary, able to fly), sometimes outright monstrous (“They are continually grinding up pieces of the cross / and spitting them out. Black flies cling to their lips.”).  We mere mortals know “we are not like them,” because “we can’t even dress like them”—an actual fact that underscores the pointed accuracy of the poem’s critique of social hierarchies and our need to box and label the contents of our world.

“Pointed accuracy,” indeed.  The title of the book in which this poem appears, the collection that won the 1994 National Book Award, is Worshipful Company of Fletchers.  The phrase seems calculated to elicit a snort, as the name “Fletcher” rings to our ears of nerdiness and the mundane contemporary world, quite in contrast with the solemnity evoked by the idea of a “worshipful company.”  But a little research reveals that trade associations organized in London beginning as early as the 14th century typically called themselves The Worshipful Company of . . . Grocers, or Fishmongers, or Haberdashers, and so forth.  This discovery adds another layer of irony to the contrast in the title—until further research reveals that the Fletchers, the makers of arrows, constituted one of these venerable organizations.  Their motto was “True and Sure”—a phrase which says something both funny and pointed about Tate’s accomplishment in this collection.

Evie Shockley’s collections of poetry include the new black (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2011), a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks. She is also author of the forthcoming critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line, Iron Horse Literary Review, esque, Talisman, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Shockley co-edits jubilat and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: Stéphane Robolin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Richard Howard for Like Most Revelations
  • Heather McHugh for Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993
  • Anne Porter for An Altogether Different Language
  • David St. John for A Study for the World's Body

Poetry Judges that Year: Dana Gioia, Garrett Hongo, David Lehman, Carol Muske,
Kathleen Norris

The Year in Literature: Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • James Tate (1943- ) was born in Kansas City, MO.
  • In addition to his poetry, Tate also wrote two books of prose: The Route as Briefed (1999) and Dreams of a Robot Dancing Bee (2001).

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