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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Blooding the abstract

This third 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.

"Abstract," as Robert Pinsky points out when visiting Pearl London's seminar, comes from the Greek "ab," for away, and "trachere," for draw:

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The etymological suggestion is that the abstract is the result of a separation, an untethering from the material world. When the guest poets in London's class talk about abstractions, the conversation often turns to their attempt to reenact this process of separation; that is, to push the concrete and the particular to a point where they call up, gesture towards, or are transmuted into the abstract.

This process, however, is also discussed in the reverse. When London speaks with Lucille Clifton, for instance, she comments on the poet's propensity to "concretize" the abstract:

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As an example, London mentions Clifton's short poem "chemotherapy," which starts: "my hair is pain." This curious linkage transforms pain from a sensation to a human substance. Clifton draws the abstract back down to the concrete through this jarring association to the body. As Clifton puts it, she wants the "specific thing to illuminate the larger thing."

 

London discusses this issue with poet Eamon Grennan as well, and he goes into detail about his "embarrassment" of the abstract:

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Both the Wallace Stevens phrases they allude to—"the abstract must be blunt" and "blooding the abstract"—suggest the need to materialize, or corporeally infuse, the abstract. Grennan's poem "The Statue" elegantly achieves just this, underscoring Grennan's stated poetic aim of "allow[ing] the accumulated particulars to embody, to dramatize the idea, the abstract idea.":

...the muscled legs steady, ready to step
through any drawback or impediment--
even death itself, it's wall of glass--
and not turn a curl amongst the bunched
unshockable waves of his hair: he is
a summary of boys...

From the inanimate and material we move into the animate and immaterial; and so the abstract comes alive.

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American Poets on American Poetry

This first 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.

"You might say, 'Oh, to be pure would be so much more poetic.'  On the contrary.  Your poetry is the poetry of the mix." So Robert Pinsky tells Pearl London when their conversation turns, as so many of hers do, to the question of what it means to be an American poet, and what makes poetry American. And Pinsky is not the only one to pick out heterogeneity as a defining characteristic; each poet that she speaks with describes the "Americanness" of their poetry as entangled with both their personal history and the history of the nation. Edward Hirsch, for instance, discusses how his Jewishness "jostles with" his idea of himself as an American.

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As a Jew, Hirsch looks backwards into the past; as an American, he looks to the future. Variations on this formulation are offered by many of the poets. Regardless of background, each tackles the question of American poetry by looking back to his or her ancestry and looking forward to how it can and should influence them—as if being an American is something that is always reached for, moved towards, but never accomplished.

Muriel Rukeyser articulates this relationship in reverse—being an American, she says, allows us to make choices about our personal history and gives us license to "choose our own ancestors."

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An American's  lineage is likely divergent from the history of the country, transforming the past into a place of potential and allowing us to take ownership over historical events to which we have no ancestral connection.

If Rukeyser and Hirsch are concerned with the poles of past and future, then Robert Pinsky focuses on the space between—on his present self, as he's been shaped and is still being shaped.

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For Pinsky, being American is characterized by having a mix of competing cultural identities; it is not a pure state but necessarily a dappled one. This is true both on a personal and a national level: "biographical facts...themselves are parallel to cultural truths."

This "mix" is articulated in poetry through the various American dialects and languages. As Lucille Clifton says, "The American language is a wonderfully vital and alive thing—it will only die if we kill it, I think. But it seems to me that we can keep the language alive and that we can use the whole thing of it."

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For more on American poetry, take a look at American Poetry Society website, where over a hundred poets have weighed in on the question, "What's American about American poetry?"

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Lucille Clifton New Audio

Poet Lucille Clifton, who died in February at the age of 73, made a special visit to a classroom at the New School, taught by Pearl London, on May 3, 1983.  She brought in manuscripts to poems she’d been writing, including “chemotherapy” and “the thirty eighth year,” and during her amazing session with students she spoke with empathy and elegy about her family growing up, her writing at present, and the poetic process in general.  This previously unknown conversation has been transcribed and appears in Poetry in Person: 25 Years of Conversation with America’s poets, newly released by Knopf (March 2010).  In one audio clip from her visit, posted here on Knopf’s website, she can be heard speaking of her life as an ordinary kind of extraordinary woman; and in another clip she reads and speaks about her poem, “the thirty eighth year”.

Clifton was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for two different books in the same year (1988)—the first poet ever so honored.  She won the National Book Award (2000).

On the Ordinary / Extraordinary:

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On "the thirty eighth year"

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