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.

[audio:|titles=Edward Hirsch on adjectives]

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:

[audio:|titles=Robert Pinsky on abstractions]

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:

[audio:|titles=Lucille Clifton on abstractions]

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:

[audio:|titles=Eamon Grennan on abstractions]

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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And…Edward Hirsch on how to read poetry

On Friday I posted a clip of Paul Muldoon discussing how one should read poetry. Over the weekend, I stumbled across an online version of the first chapter from Edward Hirsch's How to Read a Poem (and Fall in Love with Poetry)--a great read to get warmed up for National Poetry Month in April.





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Paul Muldoon on how to read poetry

I've seen Paul Muldoon read several times (and even had the honor of hosting him as a reader for the launch of Poetry in Person-skip to 45:00 for his bit) and each time I'm struck by how contagious his passion for poetry is.  It seems that his visit to Pearl London's class was no exception. In this clip he talks about how we all must learn to read poetry, and it makes me want to double the intensity, and the attention, that I bring to my reading.

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Inspired by Edward Hopper

This second 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.

"All I really want to do," Edward Hopper once said, "is paint light on the side of a house." The famous American realist's attention to light and the mood it creates—his work will be featured at the Whitney until the end of April—continues to influence a range of artist, poets included. Both Edward Hirsch and Eamon Grennan discussed Hopper's influence in the course of their conversations with Pearl London.

During Hirsch's visit, London comments on the imagery in his poetry and brings up, as an example, his description of Hopper as "brutal as sunlight" in the poem "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)."

[audio:|titles=Hirsch on Hopper]

Hopper, says Hirsch, uses sunlight as a metaphor for remorselessness, "exposing that which might prefer to be hidden." In the poem, the house "must have done something" to be left so alone, but that "something" is never named.

"House by the Railroad" 1925. Oil on canvas. 24 x 29 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

But the man behind the easel is relentless.
He is as brutal as sunlight, and believes
The house must have done something horrible
To the people who once lived here

Because now it is so desperately empty,
It must have done something to the sky
Because the sky, too, is utterly vacant
And devoid of meaning. There are no

Trees or shrubs anywhere—the house
Must have done something against the earth.
All that is present is a single pair of tracks
Straightening into the distance. No trains pass.

As the poem continues, the house "begins to suspect / That the man, too, is desolate, desolate / And even ashamed." There is a sense that the source of shame is not important, because anything scrutinized so closely will eventually offer up its own particular point of shame; what's central, in the poem, is the very ubiquity of guilt.

Grennan doesn't dwell on Hopper as long as Hirsch, only making reference to a poem he once worked on, about Hopper's "Sun in an Empty Room," that ends with the line, "Tomorrow, I'll talk away the wall."

[audio:|titles=Grennan on Hopper]

"Sun in an Empty Room" 1963. Oil on canvas. 28 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches. Private collection.

"Sun in an Empty Room" is, Grennan says, "lovely"—it's clear that Hirsch wouldn't use this adjective to describe "House by the Railroad." And yet both poets seem to point to the same Hopper-esque capacity of light to become a subject in itself. For Grennan, light has a prelapsarian quality, and this too is what Hirsch suggests—how light emphasizes the faults of the fallen man, of a fallen landscape.




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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.

[audio:|titles=Hirsch on American Poetry]

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."

[audio:|titles=Rukeyser on American Poetry]

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.

[audio:|titles=Pinsky on American Poetry]

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."


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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After Decades Hidden, An Audio Release

This week marks the first audio appearance of eight previously unreleased and nearly unknown conversations with essential poets of our time: Robert Pinsky, Lucille Clifton, Edward Hirsch, Muriel Rukeyser, James Merrill, Eamon Grennan, William Matthews and Paul Muldoon. These recordings, which can be found on, serve as an audio companion to Poetry in Person: Twenty-Five Years of Conversation with America's Poets, published by Knopf in 2010, and called (by the Washington Post) "one of the best books you will ever read on how poems are actually made." Here is a little history of their unusual existence.

The recordings were made during seminars at the New School in Greenwich Village, where from 1973 until her retirement in 1997 Pearl London hosted Nobel Laureates, U.S. Poets Laureate, and National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners. She asked each poet to bring in a fresh manuscript and drafts of the very poems they were writing at the time, and she used this material as the foundation of a discussion about the making of the poem, from influence to editing--from vision to revision.

Soon after London's death in 2002, three cardboard boxes were discovered hidden in a closet in her home near Washington Square Park. The cassette tapes found inside represented nearly twenty-five years of these historic classroom visits. Their existence surprised almost everyone who'd known London and her classes. As I started editing the sessions into book form, I realized that sometimes, by necessity, part of the spontaneity and humor of the conversations had to be left on the cutting room floor. So, too, some of connective tissue between passages had been removed in favor of including as many highlights as possible.

These recordings, 30 to 60 minutes each, restore what had to be edited out and offer an even more intimate portrait of eight key poets. Constituting volume one of the series, these sessions were chosen for the poets' variety of styles, approaches and concerns. Robert Pinsky reads the "Want Bone" and discusses the effect of his upbringing on his poetry; Lucille Clifton talks about being discovered as a poet; James Merrill talks about the significance of the the autobiographic "I" in his work; Muriel Rukeyser talks in vivid detail about how recovering from eye surgery influenced her work, and on and on. My hope is that these recordings will give the listener something of the flavor of the seminars, as well as offering as-yet-unheard, and often stunningly frank and moving accounts of, the poetry of our time.

In the weeks to come, I'll be blogging a series of eight posts that highlight clips from these recordings. My focus in tomorrow's post will be on American poetry, and future posts will reveal the poets speaking about metaphor, form, abstraction, and more. I hope you enjoy.

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Amy Clampitt and the “sonorities of English”

Although involved in literary endeavors in some form throughout her life, Amy Clampitt did not publish her first poem until she was in her forties, and her first full-length book of poetry until she was 63.  She wrote prolifically after that, releasing four more volumes in the ten years before her death in 1994.  In February of 1983, she came to speak in Pearl London's seminar. Their discussion is transcribed in my book, Poetry in Person (Knopf, 2010).

She was a poet, as her New York Times obituary wrote, of "dense, ornate and allusive" lines. In this audio clip, Clampitt discusses these and other characteristics of her diction. One of the most fascinating things about this exchange is the dynamic of the back and forth between Clampitt and London; as an interviewer, London just as often disagrees with her guests as agrees with them.  Here, buffering her repartees with succinct bits from Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound, London asks Clampitt about the musicality of her poetry, and about Clampitt's view that there is today a "wholesale deafness to the sonorities of English."
[audio:|titles=Clampitt writing by ear long version 2]

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Poetry Preview Updated

I've added two new titles to the Fall 2010 Poetry Preview--both second books.

Dora Malech, Say So, Cleveland State University Poetry Center

Dora Malech recently received one of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships, which comes with a $15,000 scholarship. This is her second book, following a well-received debut.  Hopkins is often cited as an influence on her work, and the alliterative musicality of her poems speaks to that.  Her poetic voice, however, is not at all antiquated; a poem published with The New Yorker ends: "Always, some part / of the heart must root for the pliers, some / part for the snow’s steep slope."

Timonthy Donnelly, The Cloud Corporation, Wave Books

This is the highly anticipated second book from Columbia professor Timothy Donnelly, who is the editor of Boston Review.  In a recent interview with Publisher's Weekly (who gave his new collection a starred review), he described the process he used to compose a number of the poems in the volume. "This assignment was dreamed up by the poet Geoffrey G. O'Brien, a good friend. Basically he said to write a poem using the words in a chunk of the Patriot Act and, once per line, a word from another text. I picked Bruce Springsteen's 'Born to Run.' Two other poems mashed up Percy Shelley's A Defence of Poetry with a chapter of the 9/11 Commission Report, and Osama bin Laden's 1996 fatwa against the U.S. with the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies." This intermingling of politics, poetry, and popular culture is characteristic of Donnelly's work as a whole, although this collection is touted as being more personal and more intimate than his last.

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Eamon Grennan on Ending Poems

Eamon Grennan visited Pearl London's class in March of 1996, and did a seminar with her New School students that is transcribed in "Poetry in Person: 25 Years of Conversation with America’s Poets" (Knopf 2010). Born in Ireland, Grennan kept close ties to the country despite moving to New York for a long career as an English professor at Vassar College.

One of my favorite moments in this interview is Grennan's meditation on how he ends his poems. Grennan tells London: "I'd like to be more Ashbury or Jorie Graham, to kind of shrug or walk away with the thing kind of hanging, ringing strange cacophonic bells in the air, and yet at the same time I keep wanting this chapel bell of conclusion and closure at the end of the poem." About his own endings, he goes on to say, "the content is sometimes a shrug, but the music is a closing of the gate."

Grennan on Closure: [audio:|titles=Grennan closure 2]

"Shed," which Grennan read during the seminar, is a good illustration of this attitude towards endings. It's a quiet poem, focused around the image of a peach tree growing untended.

Grennan reading "Shed": [audio:|titles=Grennan reading Shed 2]

Here, the ending is signaled by the full rhyme of "ringing" and "springing." Coming at the beginning of the line, the rhyme shoots harmony through the lines without snapping them shut the way an end rhyme would. The short last line draws out the final word, "darkness," letting the s's hiss to a close. Compare this to, say, the end of Graham's "The Surface:" "I say iridescent and I look down. / The leaves very still as they are carried." The fragmented sentences and the total lack of rhyme seem constructed to resist closure.

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