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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Pinsky and Hirsch on adjectives

I read through a revealing and rich Robert Pinsky interview from SmartishPace—with his answers to about 25 questions submitted by readers. One reader asked for Pinsky's view on adjectives, and Pinsky replied with his characteristic blend of wittiness and insight:

A basic way to make a passage more vivid is to try it with all the adjectives and adverbs taken out. It's remarkable how much bolder and more physical the passage—especially if it's descriptive—can become. And you can deaden something you like, as an experiment, by addings some adjectives. Fulke Greville begins his elegy for Philip Sidney: "Writing increaseth grief; silence augmenteth rage." What if it were: "Mere writing eventually increaseth my severe grief; stony silence immediately augmenteth frantic rage."?!

Reading his answer reminded me of something Edward Hirsch remarks in his visit to Pearl London's class, about how adjectives can be effective if they do work for the poem, rather than just adorn it. He uses examples from his revisions of Wild Gratitude, the typescript of which he brought with him to the seminar.

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Pearl London: What about adjectival? How do you feel about adjectives? I always keep saying they are the stuffing in a big Victorian sofa. How do you feel about them?

Edward Hirsch: Well, I mean to some extent you're right in the sense that they don't usually do much work and that you're trying to have the language work for you, and that Pound is right to put them under prescription. Although when I say, "though I slip my hand into Zooey's waggling mouth", I don't say "into Zooey's mouth". "Waggling" seemed to me to do something there, it seems to do some work, whereas "the small clink of milk bottles" isn't doing any work. So you go back and you go, well "clink" does the work, you don't need the "small".

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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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