Marylin Hacker and the journey of the woman artist

When Marylin Hacker visited Pearl London's class in April of 1980, they spent much of the time discussing Hacker's poem "The Hang-Glider's Daughter." The poem, which looks like free verse but is in fact a series of Petrarchan sonnets, unfolds as the interior monologue of an adolescent girl in the car with her father and sister, on her way to watch her father go hang-gliding.

My forty-year-old father learned to fly.
Bat-winged, with a magic marble fear
keeping his toast down, he walks off a sheer
shaved cliff into the morning. On Sunday
mornings he comes for us. Liane and I
feed the baby and Mario, wash up, clear
the kitchen mess.

The quotidian and the fantastic--doing housework with her sisters, and watching her father take a running jump off a cliff--are inextricably linked throughout the poem.  There is a sense that the marvelous has found a place in day to day life; this miracle of flight occurs every Sunday, after all, and has become just one thing among many to worry and wonder about: "If I forgot French, too, who would I be inside my head?" "How does he feel, suddenly slung from billiant nylon, levering onto air currents like a thinking hawk?" "Did I remind Mario, if the baby cries, he needs to be burped?"

When asked about the metaphorical overtones of the poem, Hacker tells London:

"I don't think that symbols or metaphors can be injected into a poem like pints of fresh blood; they have to grow organically out of the subject...I suppose the hang-glider's daughter and the hang-glider are, just in that limited sense, metaphors for where the woman artist must start out. Which is not jumping off the top of the mountain--or if it is jumping off the top of the mountain, [first] it's rather laboriously climbing one. With all the paraphernalia of ordinary life as gear."

The commingling of ordinary and extraordinary is characteristic of the artist's inner life. It isn't Wordworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility;" it's emotion in constant flux, and poetry coupled to living.  As Hacker discusses with London--and as she shows in "The Hang-gliders Daughter"--poetry doesn't have to bypass the trivialities of life but, rather, can encompass them.

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Six American Poets Laureate in “Poetry in Person”

This final post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The book is just now out in paperback.

The announcement of Philip Levine as our new (American) Poet Laureate is bold and just. Levine deserves recognition for his affecting, imaginative, and occasionally brutal verse rooted solidly in the experience of the working class. In a time of economic hardship and political polarity, Levine's selection couldn't be more relevant. Plus, a shine on the apple, at 83, he's a mensch. Levine continues to write and teach poetry at the highest level.

Interestingly, the announcement increases to an even half dozen the number of Poets Laureate featured in Poetry in Person.

All the poets visited London's class before they were named laureates--in some cases, well before. Philip Levine, for instance, was a guest in her seminar more than thirty years earlier. Below are some excerpts and audio clips of interviews with each, in chronological order of their laureateships:

Maxine Kumin, Poet Laureate, 1981-1982

Maxine Kumin visited Pearl London's class in 1973.  That same year, she won the Pulitzer prize for her fourth book, Up Country: Poems of New England. During the seminar, Kumin explains the role of poet:

"Because, you see, this is what I conceive the function of the poet to be. Not to moralize, not to polemicize, not to grieve, not to praise, and not to damn. But to name, to tell, to authenticate, to be specific, to support what he sees and what he feels. I suppose if I have a credo, that would be the credo that I have."

Robert Hass, Poet Laureate, 1995-1997

When Robert Hass visited Pearl London's class in 1977, he brought with him a typed and notated draft of his poem, "Meditation at Lagunitas." The poem went on to become one of Hass's most celebrated poems.  Speaking with London, he confessed that the poem made him nervous; in the poem, he said, he wanted to "use abstract language and talk directly about ideas and use a long line and deal with what I was feeling and still have a poem."

 

Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate, 1997-2000

Robert Pinsky was a guest in London's seminar in 1993. A tireless champion of poetry as a spoken art, Pinsky tells this story during his visit to Pearl London's class about a group of young professionals who took to heart his admonition to always read poetry aloud:

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Louise Glück, Poet Laureate, 2003-2004

When Glück was the guest poet in Pearl London's class in February of 1979, she read one of the poems she was working on for her not-yet-released Descending Figure. It's called "Autumnal":

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Public sorrow, the acquired
gold of the leaf, the falling off,
the prefigured burning of the yield:
which is accomplished. At the lake's edge,
the metal pails are full vats of fire.
So waste is elevated
into beauty. And the scattered dead
unite in one consuming vision of order.
In the end, everything is bare.
Above the cold, receptive earth
the trees bend. Beyond,
the lake shines, placid, giving back
the established blue of heaven.

The word
is bear: you give and give, you empty yourself
into a child. And you survive
the automatic loss. Against inhuman landscape,
the tree remains a figure for grief; its form
is forced accommodation. At the grave,
it is the woman, isn't it, who bends,
the spear useless beside her.

As I discussed in a blog post last year, this poem achieves an "egolessness" that nonetheless remains coupled with an intensely personal experience—a competing pair of qualities that Gluck told London was one of the aims of her poetry.

Charles Simic, Poet Laureate, 2007-2008

Charles Simic was a visitor during one of the last few years of London's classes, which stretched to more than twenty-five years by the time she retired in 1998.  While he was there in April of 1995, he shared his working draft for "Official Inquiry Among the Grain of Sand':

 

Philip Levin, Poet Laureate, 2011

And so we come to the newest American Laureate, Philip Levine. Levine visited Pearl London's class in 1978; he later wrote that, at the time of the visit, "I believe I was writing at my very best, although it would be the books the come that would win me the prizes." Below is the final typescript of his "You Can Have It":

 

 

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“Poetry in Person” is now available in paperback

First a hardcover, then an expanded audio edition, and now finally Poetry in Person is out in paperback.  The material for the book was born in the classroom—specifically in Pearl London’s New School classroom, where some of the best poets of the last twenty-five years sat down to share their most recent work, discuss their poetic process, and field questions from eager students.  And I’m hoping that the material will return to the classroom, in this more portable, more bendable, more student-wallet-friendly format. I hope teachers and students, poets and poetry lovers will let me know what they think.

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Robert Pinsky’s “The Want Bone”

When Robert Pinsky speaks with Pearl London as a guest in one of her seminars, London asks him about the "want bone"--the word, the object, and the poem. Pinsky obliges by talking through the symbolism of the object; the ossified, frozen-open "O" of the shark's jaws as an embodiment of desire. The discussion ends with Pinsky reading the poem aloud.

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THE WANT BONE

The tongue of the waves tolled in the earth's bell.
Blue rippled and soaked in the fire of blue.
The dried mouthbones of a shark in the hot swale
Gaped on nothing but sand on either side.

The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,
A scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.
The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving
And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O.

Ossified cords held the corners together
In groined spirals pleated like a summer dress.
But where was the limber grin, the gash of pleasure?
Infinitesimal mouths bore it away,

The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean.
But O I love you it sings, my little my country
My food my parent my child I want you my own
my flower my fin my life my lightness my O.

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Wrestling with Loss: Hirsch, Grennan and Matthews on Loss as the Basis of Poetry

This seventh post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

"Poetry begins in loss, begins with alienation, and speaks against our vanishing." So Edward Hirsch tells Pearl London when he visits her poetry seminar in 1993. The poetic experience, as Hirsch tells it, is "an encounter with the worst," a kind of confrontation with negativity and darkness, in which one tries to find "something" to bring back out into the light. Here's how he puts it:

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"Orpheus and Eurydice,"Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein-Sub, 1806

Hirsch calls Orpheus's decent into hell the "archetypal poetic experience," as he attempts to recover his dead wife by going into the underworld after her. Ultimately, however, Orpheus's story ends not with triumph over loss but with the doubling of it; having convinced Hades to allow him to bring Eurydice back to the upper world, he violates their agreement by looking back at his wife before they have completed the journey out of hell. If the poetic experience truly is modeled on Orpheus's journey, then although the poet may "try to bring something to the light," he will never entirely succeed; he will think he has triumphed over loss, only to have it slip, devastatingly, away.

The metaphors that other poets use to discuss loss are likewise colored with a sense of almost certain failure. Seamus Heaney once described Elizabeth Bishop's poetry as one that "ingests loss and transmutes it," and Eamon Grennan notes that Heaney's poetry does the same thing. But Grennan says that he doesn't think of his own writing in quite those terms—his poetry is the narrative account of the "act of wrestling" with loss. This is how he explains it to London:

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Quite bluntly, Grennan says that his poems often record his inability to absorb, to "transmute" loss. And William Matthews says his poems are grounded in a loss that one tries to obscure with a "ground cover, or even a magnificent topiary garden"—but, as Matthew's says at the very end of this clip, "I can always see it through the leaves:"

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Writing the Parent: Muldoon, Clifton, Hirsch and Matthews on family poems

This sixth post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

In her conversations with the poets who visited her classroom, London was never afraid to probe into the forces that drove them to write, including their background and upbringing. In the course of these conversations, many of the poets spoke of their parents, both as they were in life and as they are continually reimagined in their poetry. Lucille Clifton, for instance, spoke candidly with London about both her mother and father and talked about the early influence of her mother on her as writer:

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Interestingly—tellingly—this is not at all how Clifton herself writes; her poems rarely feature rhyme, or even standard capitalization and punctuation, tending instead towards a bluesy, colloquial cadence. Her mother may have made Clifton recognize that poetry "was a thing one could do," but it didn't mean that Clifton would do this thing her mother's way.

Here, parental influence is often painted as something to be resisted rather than absorbed—and this tension is even more pronounced when the mother or father becomes the poetic subject. When London speaks with William Matthews about his poem "My Father's Body," she complains of the absence of personal details.

Here's their discussion, and below is the excerpt in question:

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The ashes will be scattered,
says a hushed man in a mute suit,
in the Garden of Remembrance,
which is out back.
And what's left of a mild, democratic man
will sift in a heap with the residue of others,
for now they all belong to time.

Matthews explains that it was his father's "mild, democratic" nature that seemed most durable and that "touched the most people." He elegizes his father using the terms one might for a public figure, rather than more intimately paternal qualities.

Paul Muldoon speaks to the difficulty of capturing a parent through poetry when London asks him about "Brazil," a poem from Muldoon's prize-winning collection Annals of Chile (a wonderful recording of the poem, read by Muldoon, is available here). Although the poem provides, doubtlessly, an intimate portrait of the parent, Muldoon still laments that his mother comes across as "too cold" in the book.

Here's Muldoon's conversation with London:

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Hirsch offers a compelling take on the issue of family in poetry when he and London discuss his poem "Family Stories." He complains that readers of "Family Stories" came to think of him as a "family poet."

Here's what he says:

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He saw the poem as an excuse to think about stories and the way they function, operate. But for his reader, the "Family" overtook the "Stories"—the content and subject matter of the poem overwhelmed Hirsch's examination and experimentation with storytelling. This line of thinking offers one intriguing explanation for the complicated place of the parent in poetry;  that it's not the writer's Freudian focus that makes the parent such a problematic poetic subject, but rather that conscious care must be taken with the subject for fear that the reader will seize hold of the parental figure to the point of missing the nuances of a work.

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Partial Draft of June Jordon’s “Poem for South African Women”

One of the things that I included in the book whenever I could was copies of the drafts or typescripts that poets brought with them to share with Pearl London and her students. I was especially drawn to the intimacy of the handwritten versions—for instance, this fragment of June Jordon's "Poem for South African Women," most famous for its final line: "we are the ones we have been waiting for."

You can find more drafts here and here.

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Lucille Clifton reads “The Thirty Eighth Year”

The poet Lucille CliftonWhile visiting Pearl London's class, Lucille Clifton--with tenderness, weight, a slight sadness--read her poem "The Thirty Eighth Year," which, as she tells the class, was the only poem of hers ever to be rejected.

 

 

Here's the audio:

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The Thirty Eighth Year
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A Poet’s Poet: Robert Frost

This fifth post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

One thing I was surprised to find, as I started listening through the tapes of Pearl London’s classes, was how often the name Robert Frost came up in her conversations with poets.  Frost has fallen out of favor with the academy in the decades since his death, relegated to Hallmark cards and middle school pick-your-favorite poem assignments. Here, however, he seems to have become a poet’s poet, celebrated for verse, prose and a very modern mood of darkness.

Paul Muldoon, for instance, is not only an admirer of Frost, but also, quite literally, an inhabiter of the same space; he has spent thirteen summers, so far, at Frost’s old cabin.  He and London discuss several observations of Frost’s: that poetry is a “feat of associations,” and that a poem be a "momentary stay against confusion."

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Comparing Frost to Auden, William Matthews said he was drawn as a high school student to the modesty and distinctly American quality of Frost’s poetic voice.  Like Muldoon, Matthews spent a summer at the Frost estate, and he remarks to London that the place felt very isolated, deliberately so.  Finding the corollary in his poetry, London notes the “Hopper-like quality of insularity” in Frost—calling up another artist that was mentioned frequently by the poets in London’s class.

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London again brings up the darker side of Frost in her discussion with Edward Hirsch, mentioning the large number of empty barns and wintry landscapes in Frost's work.  Hirsch points to Frost’s haunting “Desert Places” when trying to describe his conception of the absolute—an “absolute erasure,” a “terrifying invisibility”—and recites the last stanza of this poem for London:

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They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

They also discuss the popular misconception of Frost as a pastoral poet—“our Frost,” Hirsch says, referring to the modern poet’s Frost rather than the layman’s Frost, “is the darker Frost, and that Frost is unblinking…remorseless in his willingness to look at the darkness.”

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Formal Help: Muldoon, Rukeyser and Hirsch

This fourth post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

In their use of rhyme, metrical regularity and other formal elements, modern poets are remarkably divided. Marilyn Hacker and Molly Peacock, often associated with the New Formalist movement of the 1980's and '90s, are known for their work in the sonnet, villanelle, and other traditional forms.  Other poets write in what Muriel Rukeyser calls "notebook jottings". Lucille Clifton, for instance, is famous for her short, unpunctuated, spare poems, avoiding capitalization, meter and rhyme as well. These stances, of course, aren't static—James Merrill's formalistic first books gave way to a sprawling, three part epic collected in The Changing Light at Sandover. From the conversations that take place in Pearl London's class, however, it's clear that all poets must confront the question of form and position themselves somewhere along the spectrum, even if their positioning changes from one poem to the next.

When the poets speak with London about form, they often use a rhetoric of assistance, with three distinct ideas of how forms "helps": it can aid the poet, it can aid the reader, and it can aid in the internal working of the poem itself.

Paul Muldoon, for instance, talks to London about how he constructed a form that served as "a little box" in which to construct "Incantada"—a poem written in honor of a friend that had recently passed away.

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Muldoon admits that this is not how he usually writes, but he still offers a notable instance of how form can assist the poet in the construction, at least in this case, of a particularly difficult poem.

Edward Hirsch, discussing form, talks about the inverse of this process, describing how his poems sometimes push through from one form into another as he writes them.  Hirsch brought "Wild Gratitude" into the class in several drafts, revealing that the poem was a single block of text until the very last version, where it was broken into the stanzas that it retained as a finished poem.

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Hirsch says that he thinks form is “a series of expectations—it’s a contract that you set up as a musical form, a series of patterns and expectations and fulfillment and thwartings and movement, and that your task is to work through the form so that the reader can follow that.” Form is oriented towards the reader, rather than the poet.

And yet, it isn't as if words are dropped like blocks into a form built to hold them, or that words are forced, at the last stage of revision, into a form that they weren't written around. The words, as Hirsch says, must "enact and push" the form, the rhythm of the poem, and, as Muriel Rukeyser adds, "a sound structure" that is something you must "fuse with the literal meaning" of words:

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I could go on with further clips—every poet included in the audiobook talks about form in some sense—and I may include a "Part Two" to this post later in the series with some other clips.  Until then, I'll direct you to this meditation on form from George Szirtes, published in Poetry.

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