Friday
Apr012011

1982

Life Supports: New and Collected Poems     

By William Bronk

Original Publisher: North Point Press
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Scott Challener writes:

Little Things

When asked how he felt about receiving the American Book Award for Life Supports: New and Collected Poems, William Bronk said: “That prize, so far as I was able to see, actually did nothing for me.” Today, twenty-nine years later, nearly twelve years since his death at the age of 81, it seems Bronk was clairvoyant: no one I asked had heard of him. Bronk was born and died in his family’s house near Hudson Falls, New York. He left only to go to college (Dartmouth), serve in the army during World War II, attend graduate school (Harvard, briefly—he dropped out), and finally, to teach (at Union College, for a year); after his father’s death he returned to take over the family business. Yet Bronk’s second collection, The World, the Worldless (1964)—published with the help of his friend, George Oppen, and Oppen’s sister—was reviewed in daily papers around the country, and at one point Bronk’s stature was such that the The Nation could name him “our most significant poet.”

In Life Supports Bronk didn’t tell the truth slant, he told it on a grid. The collection is divided into eleven sections, each titled after individual books (he published at least 28 books, 10 alone in the 1990s; if you read Life Supports without knowing this, as I did, you may feel that each ‘book’ feels more like a section of something larger). “To Praise the Music,” the sixth, comprises poems in fourteen lines, some sonnets. “Silence and Metaphor,” the seventh, poems of eight lines. “Finding Losses,” the ninth, quatrains. “The Force of Desire,” the tenth, perhaps the most lyrical, is a series of discrete, titleless, closed tercets. I expected and half-hoped the last eponymous section would dwindle away to epigrams and one-line aphorisms, but it is in twenty-line poems.

An exchange between Bronk and George Oppen about Bronk’s poem, “Displacement: The Locks of the Feeder Called The Five Combines” might help to explain why Bronk’s work remains so little known. Here’s the poem:

The Feeder falling, its lock-walls crack, as once
their gates would open while they held fast against
the barges bumping, washing water. Now,
they tumble, going the way the water went
and had to go, though locking west, uphill,
seemed sucking upward, always it was down.

The cracks are puzzles, like natural apertures,
corollas of flowers, caves where, looking in,
we look for something that happened, and hold our breaths
on the hoped-for chance it should happen again as we look.
We inspect how nearly, with our never knowing, stone lay
against another, their two sides faced to fit,
and fitting all that dark, long time
when what seemed surfaces was always depth,
and look in there as into empty rooms
in ruined cities, not quite imagining
what life they ever held, such as it was,
no vivider than ours, grown indistinct.
But more to marvel at than this is the freed
courage of cut stone, the assured assumption
devised to convince our minds, as it always does,
that cutting, facing, piling stone is a way
to meet reality, impress it, that what
our forceful show has dealt with here is the same
reality that years of cutting stone
or moving water have failed to bring us to.
We know all this—our pledge of debt
to evasiveness—that almost everything we do
is beside the point: as though our courage were that
we give an answer, however irrelevant,
not having willed to answer the questions risked.
We sham responses. The shunting details pretend
another question. We are displaced. We bear
ourselves as into a house across the street
and live as though a neighbor’s life until
we ready a death there and bear him away
and bury him. And what of it was ours?
We invented for him the whole of the tangible world,
the birth and death and all such things as we found
distracting to do, as cutting stone, the skills
to lay it close. I hurt for the double waste,
the falling ruin of all the uselessly built,
and turn for nearer home—I covet it,
though no one there and not the sill of a house.

In a September 2, 1964 letter to Bronk, Oppen wrote that he thought the poem would have been “so absolutely conclusive, so absolutely beautiful” if the last eighteen lines (beginning with “We know all this—”) were cut. Oppen wrote that these lines sounded “a little professorial” and implied that they felt less necessary, less original, less magical, and less powerful, than the first twenty-six. “How should I not be grateful for the worth of your criticism,” Bronk responded the next day.

   And you are esthetically unassailable. Indeed you don’t go far enough. I know I am frequently sententious and tedious as even Polonius hardly dared to be.
   I tried the poem as you suggested and it makes a valid and effective unit and is more vivid. So why not? Well, I hadn’t finished when I got to “have failed to bring us to.” A weak defense but all I have…

Bronk never changed the poem, and it is still worth reading. But readers might agree with Oppen. Bronk’s poems frequently do not end soon enough; they do not resist closure or their own intelligence almost successfully. Nor do they take advantage of partiality—of the magical power of the unfinished, of gesture and suggestion, of the unsaid and the unsayable—in ways we might be familiar with from reading Oppen or Stevens, the poet with whom Bronk is most often compared. In “The Unsaid,” for example, Bronk writes: “Once we have in mind / what there is to talk about, whatever we say / is all right; it doesn’t matter what we say / or even if we don’t find anything to say.” Bronk’s poems nearly always go beyond poetic endings to intentionally unpoetic (or less poetic) ones, in which a determined self concludes, or finishes, what it has to say. 

Bronk rarely edited or revised his work: he thought that such “improvements” were betrayals. In the letter to Oppen he admits, “I think Eliot was wrong to let Pound improve and make The Wasteland by his excisions, making a poetically valid piece from his discursive excursions as though mining diamonds out of the mud—(as one is led to believe he did)…But Pound was probably right. As you are probably right. But that doesn’t make me wrong.” And so he willfully wrecked a lot of otherwise beautiful poems because he wasn’t “finished,” he wasn’t done saying what he wanted to say, and since the difference to him between the sayable and the unsayable was so minimal, or so minimally important, he kept going. The force of poetry to him exerted merely another bewildering force, be it of emptiness and desire, joy and despair, or even wonder: however it shaped the poems was how it shaped them. Poetry was for Bronk a way to say what one does not know; at its best, like reality, it was “brought to mind by the inadequacy of any statement of it, the tension of that inadequacy, the direction and force of the statement.” He didn’t think that what made a work of art beautiful was any more worthwhile than what made one ugly. We take to what is beautiful “our naked pleas,” he writes in one poem, even though the beautiful never responds, being neither of us nor made by our efforts. The truth was something else, more and less than the experience of the poetic or the beautiful, than diamonds in the mud, than even mud. One late poem reads: “If you want, now, not to say more, / I’m ready. Little things: what / else was there ever of all there was to say?”

For Bronk a poem was neither a pheasant nor a perception, but what Stevens thought a poem was not: a conception of the mind. For these reasons, among others, I find the comparison with Stevens—which to a certain extent Bronk invited— misleading. For instance, Bronk’s “On Credo Ut Intelligam” might be interesting, companionable even, next to “The Snow Man”:

Let me not have a life to look at, the way we look
at a life we build to look at, in the world belief
gives us to understand, a snowman life:
hurry to pack it solid, buttons on
and a proper hat, finished before dark,
before the rain to wash it away. 

Bronk seems to write with a mind predisposed to perpetual winter, always wary of the temptations of the snowman life. Early in Life Supports he declares: “It is this winter mind, the ne’erdowell / that finds a plan, that tells us to see. / And we open our eyes and feel our way in the dark.” Yet Stevens could almost be addressing Bronk in “Gubbinal”: “Have it your way. // The world is ugly, / and the people are sad.” In fact, in “The Abstract As Real—Concrete As Imaginary,” Bronk writes: “How ugly the world is / and no one to set it right: it is as it is.” There’s no essential gaudiness, no gaiety, and little color in Bronk’s work. If there are fictions, even bold ones, Bronk always takes pains to make them unsupreme. The trees he writes about so consistently throughout his work could never be junipers shagged in ice—only, as he writes in “Green as a Verity,” the trees “are not the point”—a confirmation of his singular belief in nothing, the same eradicating thoughts, the same central terminus: desire. At his gaudiest, Bronk’s dying elms are “gray-groined.”

Though spare and bleak, Bronk’s poems are not quite so reduced as I’ve implied. While an early poem of Bronk’s dismisses the sun as “an intruder,” a “suborner of earth from truth,” toward the end of Life Supports Bronk could profess to be “dazzled” by its “chastity.” Some of the poems in Life Supports are memorable; most are worth reading and arguing with. We don’t need to turn to them for gaiety or color—we have Stevens for that. We can read Bronk’s poems for what Oppen saw as their absolute originality, for their moments of desiring and magic, their poignant longings for connection and wonder. And we can skip the clunkers. Because it is really true in Bronk’s case that he was trying to write one poem, called “the truth” or “reality” or “the world.” Though he knew it was impossible, he still wanted to drill down as far as he could go. In “The Mind’s Limitations Are Its Freedom,” Bronk declares: “I stand in awe of the mind,” but his awe derives from the fact that the mind can sense its own “final uselessness” and yet still produce a kind of helpless, uncontrollable “wonderment.” The pots and pans and tulips in Stevens’s poem of life would be what Bronk calls in “The Disproportions of Desire” “…the nameless things…not worth wanting.” “But oh,” he confesses,

        I wanted the day as much as though
great things had been possible; I knew they were not.
How should we ever go on except for desire,
or more, except that desire were disproportionate
to its means, its object and, at last, to anything here? 

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:

  • A.R. Ammons for A Coast of Trees
  • John Ashbery for Shadow Train
  • Douglas Crase for The Revisionist
  • Daniel Hoffman for Brotherly Love

Poetry Judges that Year: Philip Booth, Robert Creeley, Linda DeLowry-Fryman, Robert W. Flint, Inge Judd, Frances Lindley, John Frederick Nims, Alice Quinn, Louisa Solano, Richard Weaver

The Year in Literature:

  • The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Anthony Hecht was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • William Bronk (1918-1999) was born in Fort Edward, NY.
  • After attending a semester of graduate school at Harvard and teaching at Union College, William Bronk decided to temporarily manage his family’s coal and lumber company.  He ended up running the business for over thirty years. 

Suggested Links:

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Thursday
Mar312011

1981

The Need to Hold Still

 

By Lisel Mueller

 

Original and Current Publisher: Louisiana State University Press

 

Dilruba Ahmed writes:

"No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” While reading Lisel Mueller’s collection, The Need to Hold Still, I found myself mulling over Robert Frost’s well-known dictum. While writers may struggle to explain precisely how they arrive at such surprise, as readers we recognize it on a visceral level. As Emily Dickinson explains in another famous quote, this sense of discovery can make a reader feel “as if the top of [one’s] head were taken off.”

 

We experience that discovery in a few startling poems by Mueller, particularly two that take on the rich material of myth and allegory. In “Testimony,” for example, Mueller retells the story of the birth of Venus from the goddess’ perspective, rewriting a seaside fantasy into a cold, brutal reality. In Mueller’s version of the tale, an accusatory Venus reproaches a collective “you,” the painters and other artists who have historically depicted Venus’ birth as an eroticized event, or as one of singular beauty: “Telling the story, you omit / that in the beginning my hair was green / seaweed, before it turned / into the yellow silk you admire.” The charges continue: “you paint me floating ashore / with rose-tipped breasts,” and “you say I stepped into heated shoes / of glittering white sand.” Here, the goddess sets the record straight.

 

What poor eyewitnesses you are.

I remember it was a cloudy day,

a starved dog ran along the shore,

the rocks and shells cut into my feet.

No one was there. I was cold and lost.

The scraggly leaves all pointed

in one direction, toward the interior.

I had no other place to go.

 

Mueller’s use of persona allows her to recast—and to criticize from the female speaker’s point of view—the fantasy of a sensual, stranded beauty. The final declaration arrives with a sense of both inevitability and surprise, and Mueller establishes the persona’s authority through the accusatory tone, the series of brief declarations, and the specificity of images that counter the other, more pleasant version of the story: “starved dog,” “scraggly leaves,” and “rocks and shells” that “cut.”

 

Mueller’s skill at composing dense, compressed poems of human tragedy is perhaps best glimpsed in “The Story,” in which a storyteller depicts, in parable form, an incompatible couple seemingly fated for disaster.

 

You are telling a story:

How Fire Took Water to Wife

 

It’s always like this, you say,

opposites attract

 

They want to enter each other,

be one,

so he burns her as hard as he can

and she tries to drown him

 

It’s called love at first

and doesn’t hurt

 

but after a while she weeps

and says he is killing her,

he shouts that he cannot breathe

underwater—

 

Here, a familiar narrative—a love story, a fable— becomes wonderfully strange.  As explained in Stephen Dobyns’ Best Words, Best Order, Mueller’s chosen metaphors—the female figure as water, and the male as fire— can be comprehended but are not easily encompassed. As a result, we are compelled to return to the poem again and again to more fully understand how one human might “burn” a beloved while trying to “be one,” or how even love can lead to conditions under which we “cannot breathe.”

 

In “The Story,” Mueller depicts intimacy and conflict by recasting humans as elements of nature, a strategy that animates the poem’s intensity and desperation, the characters’ passion and antagonism. Adding to the surprise in this poem is Mueller’s resistance to resolution, as her speaker exhorts the listening children to “make up [their] own / ending,” and then claims, “…they will, they will.”

 

In other poems in The Need to Hold Still, Mueller adopts the perspective of figures from myth and folktale to shed light on a character’s motivations, or to reveal the misgivings of characters we typically encounter from a distance. Framed by an epigraph from William Stafford—“So, the world happens twice— / once what we see it as; / second it legends itself / deep, the way it is”—Mueller’s collection draws on allegory to encourage us to more fully inhabit human experience. In particular, narrators in the book’s third section, a linked sequence called “Voices from the Forest,” invite us to reenter familiar folktales and myths to confront human qualities that may prove to be our weaknesses: curiosity, trust, and innocence. In this sequence, superficiality, fickleness, lust, and envy also take center stage.

 

In the sequence’s first poem, “The Voice of the Traveler Who Escaped,” for example, we hear from a character who failed to heed the warnings that the original tales were meant to provide, one who knows the terror of what happens when “…the witch / locks the door from the outside / and throws away the key” and now admonishes us to learn from his or her mistakes. The cautionary tone continues in the sequence’s second poem, “Warning to Virgins,” which alerts young women to the “unspecified beast” who may come to court them, a shape-shifting figure who sometimes appears as a “bear / who lumbers to the door / of two young beauties, to be brushed / and petted, and to eat / out of their hands.” In “A Voice from out of the Night,” Mueller’s speaker questions her attempt to inform and instruct, as the narrator seems to surrender to the idea that her words of warning are useless among the young and naive.

 

The eight poems in “Voices from the Forest” use folktale figures and extended metaphor to reveal our human weaknesses. “The Story” and “Testimony,” however, possess an urgency in the telling that is rarely duplicated in the other poems. And while Mueller’s “Voices from the Forest” sequence could have reinvented the form and content of classic material in ways that might startle the reader toward new insights, in some cases, what seem to be missing are the wonder and strangeness that compel us to return, again and again, to poems like “Testimony” and “The Story.”

 

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:

  • Philip Booth for Before Sleep
  • Isabella Gardner for That Was Then
  • Mark Strand for Selected Poems
  • Robert Penn Warren for Being Here

Poetry Judges that Year: Turner Cassidy, John Ciardi, Inge Judd, Betty E. Munger, John Frederick Nims, Robert Phillips, Louise Solano, Paul Zimmer


The Year in Literature:

  • The Morning of the Poem by James Schuyler won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Maxine Kumin was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Lisel Mueller (1924- ) was born in Hamburg, Germany.
  • Mueller immigrated to the United States from Hamburg, Germany at the age of 15.

Suggested Links:

 

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Wednesday
Mar302011

1980

Ashes      

By Philip Levine

Original Publisher: Atheneum
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Philip Levine also won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1991 for What Work Is. 

John Murillo writes:

Because I came to poetry so relatively late in life, Philip Levine’s 1991 National Book Award-winning volume, What Work Is, was among the first full-length collections I’d ever read cover to cover.  I could have done a lot worse than to have Levine as one of my first guides, no?  His trademark honesty and image-driven narratives kept me hungry not only for more of his work, but for contemporary poetry in general.  From there, I went on to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Simple Truth, his selected poems, his interviews, essays, and memoirs, and further back to his 1980 NBA-winning collection, Ashes: Poems New and Old.  For a long while, it was all Levine, all the time.  I apprenticed myself to his work and learned much.  Problem was, when I started reading other poets, I was disappointed to find that what I loved most in Levine is depressingly rare among his contemporaries. (Rarer, still, among mine, I’m learning.)

What little verse I had read pre-Levine was almost exclusively from the African-American canon, sprinkled in with volumes of political philosophy and a steady diet of what we used to call “conscious” hip-hop.  By the time I got to What Work Is, I was well-schooled in such literary movements as the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement.  I was still listening to tapes from rap’s “Golden Era.”  Writers such as Alaine Locke, KRS-One, Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde set up expectations that literature should speak to, from, and about the world we live in; that we read and listen in order to help us understand how we fit into this life.  Writers are people writing to other people.  So, of course, Levine represents for the little man in the factory.  That’s what a good poet, playwright, or emcee is supposed to do.  (Consider that if Phil Levine was born about fifty years later, still in Detroit, Marshall Mathers might only be that city’s second most significant rapper; MC Levine’s rhymes would rouse rabble, stir the funky proletariat like a white Tupac Shakur.)

Though I no longer believe so much in “shoulds” when it comes to literature, I’m nonetheless pleased when I happen upon a poem—a good poem—that while providing all the aesthetic joys it does, also serves as a prism through which we can view a world that typically goes unnoticed.  No one does it quite like Levine.  In the poem that opens What Work Is, “Fear and Fame,” for example, Levine’s speaker walks us through work that, while mundane as all hell, is also life-threatening and necessary—not only for the manufacturer for whom he slaves, but in order for him to earn his daily bread; work that goes unrewarded either by a decent wage or by any recognition from the larger society for its sheer danger, its heroism: 

Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs.  I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes…

His is a knowledge of a select guild, one which very few care to—or would ever have to—enter.  Levine’s worker descends, as if into hell, then returns to us:

                                                                                …stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.

Levine’s speaker doesn’t sentimentalize his circumstances.  He’s not asking for pity or even an “attaboy!”  He’s just sharing a bit of his life.  And it is what it is.

What it is, is work.  The hard work of looking directly into worlds we’d just as soon pretend don’t exist.  Levine denies us that luxury at every turn.  Throughout this volume and others, he provides us with truths that sometimes cause us discomfort, but always make us more aware and, therefore, more alive. 

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: 

  • Stanley Kunitz for The Poems of Stanley Kunitz
  • David Wagoner for In Broken Country

Poetry Judges that Year: Not Available

The Year in Literature: Selected Poems by Donald Justice won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Philip Levine (1928- ) was born in Detroit, MI.
  • Levine earned his MFA from the University of Iowa where he studied with previous National Book Award Winners John Berryman and Robert Lowell.

Suggested Links:

Poetry Everywhere: "Belle Isle, 1949" by Philip Levine
Produced by David Grubin Productions and WGBH Boston, in association with the Poetry Foundation.

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Tuesday
Mar292011

1979

Mirabell: Books of Number

By James Merrill

Original and Current Publisher: Atheneum

James Merrill first won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1967 for Nights and Days.

An appreciation of Merrill’s work may be found here. >

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Robert Hayden for American Journal
  • Sandra McPherson for The Year of Our Birth
  • Philip Schultz for Like Wings
  • May Swenson for New & Selected Things Taking Place

Poetry Judges that Year: Elizabeth Bishop, Michael S. Harper, Anthony Hecht

The Year in Literature: Now and Then by Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.         

Other Information:

  • James Merrill (1926-1995) was born in New York, NY.
  • Merrill’s father, Charles E. Merrill, was the founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm.

Suggested Links:

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Monday
Mar282011

1978

The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov

By Howard Nemerov

Original and Current Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Ross Gay writes:

Preparing these entries has been an interesting opportunity to think about prizes, and how the winners of those prizes get chosen.  Howard Nemerov’s Collected Poems won the National Book Award in 1978 over the individual volumes of Marvin Bell, Michael Harper, Barbara Howes, and Charles Simic.  I’m curious, I think, how often someone’s collected poems is determined “the best” of that year’s books, and maybe further, I’m interested in what “the best” means.  Obviously, the prize-granting institutions are in the business of defining “the best,” so perhaps this is the place to consider this, at least a little.

The books that have most often been considered “best” by the National Book Foundation are, not surprisingly, written by white men.  (Only 13 of the nearly 60 winners are not white men.)  Additionally, a good percentage of the winners (not quite half) have been the Collected or Selected of so-and-so (between 1950-1955 all but one winner was a collected or selected, for example).  Does this actually mean that, say, Howard Nemerov’s Collected was the best book of poems that year?  Or does it mean that Howard Nemerov’s life-long contribution to the art was so substantial that the Collected, a kind of symbol of that work (which at 516 pages, sometimes more than a poem a page, constitutes a good bit of it) rather than an individual volume of poems, deserves the honor?  And if it means the latter, how ought we feel about the award?  In other words, do we really believe that the book itself—how it moves us, how it travels from page to page, its individual great poems, the innovations or perfections or explorations, or struggles, its deepest questions, and all the things we often think about when writing the poems that will become a book—was the best book of the year?  Do we?  I’m guessing that most often readers don’t feel that a collected is the best book of the year, but rather the most important, or even the most useful: “at last, we have them all in one place,” or, “yes, they’ve earned it.”  Maybe the test would be this: how often is a collected more valuable (by which I mean you’ve read it to shreds and could barely part with it) to you than an individual volume or two of the same poet’s?  I know my answer.  Not often. 

There is another function of the collected, which is its literary historical utility—with the collected you can walk right through the poet’s many volumes, referring back and forth easily, witnessing the development and change all in one big book.  And that’s precisely what Howard Nemerov’s Collected afforded me: the opportunity to hold the whole body of his poetry at once.  Nemerov was prodigiously productive, writing dozens of books of poetry, fiction, and criticism.  Additionally, during his life he won nearly every major literary prize there was to win, including the Theodore Roethke Award, the Pulitzer, the Bollingen, the National Medal for the Arts, and, of course, the National Book Award.  Additionally, he served a term as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, and another as Poet Laureate (the spruced up title of the same position).  This is all to say that during his life he was a bit of a giant. 

The first book included in the Collected, The Image and the Law, is from 1947, and the last, The Western Approaches, from 1975.  There are seven books in between.  The earliest poems that are most moving to me are ones that seem to derive from Nemerov’s experience as a pilot in World War II.  They tend to veer away from grand poetic ideas of some of the earlier work and land more on particular, individual experience or perception, like the following: 

For the Squadron

236th Coastal, Royal Air Force

A salt weather on the East River
Where it runs with bristling spine
Between the towns.
                                       An ocean day,
And they are taking the guns
Off the ships.
                        We fought the war
From places called North Coates and
Skegness, and saw the Danish coast
And Heligoland like a gunboat
On the shallow sea.  That time
Is gone, they repaint the ships
Gay colors.
                          Yet here the sea
floods in among us, black, silent,
Moving ever its continual cover.

The water in every ocean, like
The blood in one body, ever
Equalizing pressure and level.

Of Middlemas and Prince, then…
Resting forever behind their
Four smashed and rusting guns.

In this same water.

That subtle and moving stanza in which the “sea / floods in,” and the poem as a whole, is such a potent reminder of how the violence that a war enacts on its participants does not simply disappear, even if the war ships are gussied up.  Lest we forget as we send our young people to die.  A recent Harper’s Index reports that while 455 American soldiers died in combat last year, at least 407 committed suicide.  Another poem that moves me similarly is “Grand Central, With Soldiers, In Early Morning”: 

These secretly are going to some place,
Packing their belted, serviceable hearts.
It is the earnest wish of this command
That they may go in stealth and leave no trace,
In early morning before business starts.

But Nemerov is by no means simply a war poet.  He is a poet deeply entrenched in history, literary and otherwise.  His is also an intellectual poetry that can be purely playful, as in “Mystery Story”:

Formal as minuet or sonnet,
It zeroes in on the guilty one;
But by the time I’m told who done it,
I can’t remember what he done.

Or sharply ironic, as in “Morning Sun”:

How many more this morning are there dead of
The peace I came to bring a sword instead of? 

Additionally, the kind of formal meticulousness for which Nemerov was known feels most interesting when he’s using it to pull more taut the rhythms of common speech, as in the poem, “The Beekeeper Speaks,” the first section of which concludes:

…The best of them
Will last out maybe six weeks of the season,
Doing the apple’s business for his drink,
Until, exhausted, or with a broken wing,
He falls; and when he falls his fellow workers
Team up in tandem to bear him from the hive
And drop him in a field to starve to death:
There’s that much nonsense to a hive of bees.

In Howard Nemerov’s Collected Poems is the better part of a productive life of poetry.  And this is part of the great benefit of the collected.  While it might not actually be the best book of poetry published in a given year, and likely is not the individual’s best book of poetry either, it does allow you to hold a whole literary life in your hands, to watch that life as it begins, evolves, and as it comes closer to an end.   

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:

  • Marvin Bell for Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See
  • Michael S. Harper for Images of Kin
  • Barbara Howes for A Private Signal
  • Charles Simic for Charon's Cosmology

Poetry Judges that Year: Daniel Halpern, Grace Schulman, Theodore Weiss

The Year in Literature:

  • The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • William Meredith was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was born in New York, NY.
  • Photographer Diane Arbus was Nemerov’s sister.

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