Derek Walcott: Rhyme, Process and “Sea Grapes”

Derek Walcott's interview with Pearl London in the spring of 1982, included in Poetry in Person (Knopf 2010), is remarkably illuminating, thoughtful, and humorous.  Walcott has a tendency toward aphorism and toward spontaneous, weighty pronouncements that made his discussion with London particularly engaging and satisfying both to transcribe and to excerpt. "Innocence," he says at one point, "is reborn in the poem at the same time that knowledge, ordinary knowledge, is there."

Walcott's emphasis on landscapes is one of the most remarked upon aspects of his poetry; his use of rhyme is another.  He speaks movingly to London of the need for rhyme, joking first that any poet that doesn't have a habit of trying to rhyme difficult words should "write a nice big fat novel." He goes on to say: "A rhyme is harmony.  A couplet to me encloses the world...The necessity of rhyme is a philosophical, organic necessity."

[audio:|titles=Walcott rhyme 2]

This passage was part of a larger explanation Walcott gave, of how he went about writing the poem "XLVIII." His unpretentious narrative of the process sheds light on the confluence of deep and trivial things that together shape his poems; the room for chance and free association, but also the need for technical and grammatical picking-apart ("The present participle is so pathetic you feel like kicking it, you know what I mean?"). 

At the end of the seminar, London asked Walcott to read Sea Grapes, "as a kind of farewell gesture." He complied:

[audio:|titles=Walcott reading Sea Grapes 2]
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Fall 2010 Poetry Preview

While reading through the very good and helpful 2010 book previews--especially those from The Millions (part 1 and part 2) and Second Pass--I was disappointed only by the lack of attention to poetry. Anne Carson's breathtaking Nox, the new and collected volumes from Robert Hass and Maxine Kumin, and Walcott's White Egrets all excited critical acclaim, and Nox has attracted enough readers to bump it to the top of the US poetry list on Amazon. I'm working to put together this preview in the spirit of drawing attention to some of the fall's offerings. I will add more books as they come to my attention, and would love to hear suggestions about what should be added to this list.


Paul Muldoon, Maggot: Poems, FSG

Muldoon's newest collection will include some of the poems from his recently released Plan B, a collaborative work with photographer Norman Macbeth and a book in which Muldoon plays "master of mistake and retake, a poet whose wild laws of echo and erratum play fast and loose with our expectations of sense" (TLS). The multi-talented , pop-culturally aware poet will surely continue in this playful, punning vein, although the title of this volume suggests a preoccupation with death and decomposition. Read the rest of this entry »

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Kirby on Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin’s new volume, “Where I Live: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010,” was released today. In Sunday’s NYT Book Review David Kirby called the book a “deeply satisfying collection,” discussing the poems loosely by type (“political poems,” “war-is-wrong poems,” poems that “measure the passage of years.”)

I was struck to see some of the resonances between poetic tendencies that Kirby touches on and the issues that Kumin discussed, almost forty years ago, when visiting Pearl London’s New School seminar. Towards the beginning of the review, for instance, Kirby writes: “[T]here are a few nature-is-holy poems: agreed, so let’s move on to something more tantalizing.” Kumin has long been known as a writer of “nature poems,” and when speaking with London she reacts against the facile description of her as a pastoral poet:

When you say someone is a pastoral poet, it’s almost pejorative, isn’t it? I mean, it’s saying, this is somebody who writes about God, nature, butterflies, and little brownies who come and drink the milk you put out for them.

To class modern poetry as pastoral, or as “nature-is-holy,” is to dismiss it outright. Many of the new poems in this collection are replete with natural imagery (the “tumult of red oak seedlings,” an “azure day,” the “wake-robin trillium / in dapple-shade.”). And while many of them are unapologetically in awe of nature, they are not unclouded; the titular and opening poem of the collection describes a solitary walk through pasture and forest, but ends with the lines, “Almost from here I touch / my mother’s death.” Kirby lauds Kumin’s Emersonian ability to find “points of contact between two different things, leading to some new and unexpected thing,” and even in her “nature-is-holy” poems she seems to do that, recalling “ovoid scat” and “beech tree sprouts” side by side as a means of introducing the subject of loss. As Kumin remarked in her conversation with London:

The only reason for writing so-called nature poems or pastoral or antipastoral poems is because you are looking constantly to find out the human’s place in this order of things. Anything that invites reflection becomes a point of departure. That’s what the nature poems do over and over.

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Louise Glück on Emily Dickinson, the Ego, and “Autumnal”

Louise Glück visited Pearl London's class in February of 1979, while at work on Descending Figure, her fourth collection. She was already recognized as a strong voice in contemporary poetry and would ultimately go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and be appointed the US Poet Laureate from 2003 to 2004.

As in her conversation with James Merrill, London's discussion with Louise Glück turns towards the issue of personal pronouns. And Glück, like Merrill, says that she tries to avoid them, or at least to avoid the "swagger" and the egotism that comes with emphasizing "I" and "me." Glück complains that contemporary poetry is "horrifically disfigured" by the "territoriality...that goes out to claim 'my pain,' 'my father,' 'my mother,' 'my past.'" Here is the audio of this conversation:

[audio:|titles=Gluck the issue of ego 2]

She brings up, as a counter example, Emily Dickinson's use (or rather, non-use) of personal pronouns, quoting from "After great pain, / a formal feeling comes--"

After great pain, a formal feeling comes--
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round--
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought--
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone--

This is the Hour of Lead -
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow--
First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--

Dickinson drains the ego out of her poem by emphasizing the parts of a person rather than the whole--"the Nerves," "the stiff Heart," "the Feet." The definite article lends a feeling of specificity, but there is no "I," "you" or "ours" to define this subject further. Although Glück's poem "Autumnal" can be read as similarly ego-less, it achieves this by different means. Glück brought in her typescript of this poem, and also read it for the class:

[audio:|titles=Gluck reading Autumnal 2]

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.

The very first words, "public sorrow," indicate a shared grief, but by the end it is the ambiguously plural, and certainly female, "you" that is suffering. It is clear that Glück is speaking about her own pain, even if it is not hers exclusively. In this way, she accomplishes what she tells London is her aim: to "write poetry that was intensely personal and seemed absolutely devoid of egotism."

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James Merrill

James Merrill visited Pearl London's class on May 23, 1979. He'd been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedy two years before, and had just won his second National Book Award for Mirabell: Book of Number, the middle part of an epic poem later published in full as The Changing Light at Sandover.  His poetry had lately begun to incorporate mystical, occult themes, veering away from the formal verse that had characterized his earlier work. Several early drafts of pages from Mirabell are included in my book, along with a transcript of the interview.

One of the discussions that took place in the seminar concerned Merrill's use of pronouns. London observes that, despite the fact that "the center of gravity in your work is autobiography," in his early poems he rarely uses "I." This tendency, Merrill says, was shaped by Rilke, who doesn't use the first person pronoun in his shorter poems and who, in the elegies, "seems to invite his readers into a community of shared suffering, or shared sensitivity." Here is the audio clip:


Indeed, the elegies begin with this encompassing move from "I" to "we."

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.

And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.
Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need?

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Following Elizabeth Bishop, however, Merrill says he learned that the "I" can be used "with the greatest self-deprecation, humor." In the poem that he read later in that class, we see a veiled, deflected "I" that has been seen as characteristic of Merrill's poetry--an "I" that is not sure of the facts of his own journey, and that is untethered enough from a self to be able to "change into / The pattern of a stream."

Merrill reading "The Kimono":


The Kimono

When I returned from lovers' lane
My hair was white as snow.
Joy, incomprehension, pain
I'd seen like seasons come and go.
How I got home again
Frozen half dead, perhaps you know.

You hide a smile and quote a text:
Desires ungratified
Persist from one life to the next.
Hearths we strip ourselves beside
Long, long ago were x'd
On blueprints of "consuming pride."

Times out of mind, the bubble-gleam
To our charred level drew
April back. A sudden beam . . .
--Keep talking while I change into
The pattern of a stream
Bordered with rushes white on blue.

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Poet Paul Muldoon and his methods of work

The following audio clip from Poetry in Person:25 Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf, 2010) represents poet Paul Muldoon speaking about methods of work.  In it, among observations about how "shape is made in the world," he refers to the importance of revision.  Or lack of it, in his case.  Interestingly, he says that for him revision is "the exception, not the rule," of his working state.  Compare that to fellow Irishman James Joyce, who could spend weeks on a sentence, not necessarily creating new words but famously tinkering with their order.  Which perhaps explains how Finnegans Wake took 17 years to complete.  Muldoon's absence of the revisionist's compulsion has allowed his to become one of the most productive and important poets of our generation.

Born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, Muldoon published his first book of poems, New Weather, (1973) when he was just 21 years old. It immediately caught the attention of Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney. In 1995, he was still seven years away from the Pulitzer Prize when he visited Pearl London's class in New York. He brought along with him 13 draft pages of his poem "Cows," from his volume The Annals of Chile. It was a book that caught all of his most recognizable traits: word lists and wordplay, breaks of form, wit, shifting technique and the widest net among all poets for the sounds and catchphrases of other poems, other poets.

[audio:|titles=Muldoon methods of work]
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On Robert Hass’s Empathy in the NYTBR

In The New York Times Book Review of May 16, 2010, David Orr considers Robert Hass's new volume of selected poets, The Apple Trees at Olema, and sees a shift from early to late work.  Given the importance of the review and the importance of Hass to American poetry, it's worth a look for what it says and what it leaves out.

Robert Hass, a former U.S. poet laureate, is one of our presiding masters.  I credit Orr with recognizing the essential beauties of his work, the embrace of equanimity, the empathy toward the world and the human action within it.  Stanley Kunitz saw it early on, too, that Hass's poems are "as much an expression of an organic principle as the activites of which they are an extension--walking, eating, sleeping, lovemaking--and they are equally pleasurable, equally real."   Orr cites two of Hass's early great poems, "Songs to Survive the Summer" and "Midatation at Lagunitas," as examples of this empathy untinged by sentimentality, a truthfulness that Hass, in the second half of his 'golden' career, as Orr puts it, has lost.

It's worth reading Orr here if only for his contemplation about what makes a poetic "career," whether it needs to build and grow or whether, for him as he sees Hass's case, it's enough that a poet be struck by inspiration five or six times in his life.  These competing narratives are fickle, though.   Fashion grows or fades, critical response changes, work gets reevaluated, new work uncovered.  But that's not the only reason why I feel Orr's choice of the "not-the-same-as-he-once-was" narrative for Robert Hass is incomplete.  We can't forget how readers are perpetually drawn, whether they know it or not, to Hass's ear.

In his 1977 conversation with Pearl London at the New School (collected in Poetry in Person: 25 Years of Conversation with America's Poets; Knopf, 2010), Hass happens to discuss two of the poems Orr mentions as early triumphs, "Songs to Survive the Summer" and "Meditation at Lagunitas".  "What's happening in the poem," Hass says to London about the first work, "is the slowness of the breath. The spirit, literally the breath of poetry, is in the vowel sounds ... the way a poet actually reaches into and takes over your body while you're reading and experiencing a poem."  He goes on in detail.  And about the second poem he says, "What I tried to do was write in longer lines. To have a longer breath. And as soon as I did that I used more words...and I saw I was involved in this terrific battle of control."

That Hass recognizes, if only after the fact of his writing, the workings of sound and breath and control in his work, demonstrates another power of his poetry to this day.  His work breathes.  It moves rhythmically.  Its sound is distinct.  For me, beyond the quality of empathy that binds his work together, it's what happens to the ear when you read a Hass poem aloud, new or old, that always moves me. For that reason alone the new selected work is worth our attention--and devotion.

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Biespiel and Poet Activism

You can't fault David Biespiel.  We're all (mostly) failing the test of political engagement.  His provocative essay in the May 201o issue of Poetry is a cry from the heart for poets to become more engaged in public speech and public action for the betterment of democracy---and for the betterment of  poetry itself.

You can't fault him for his frustration toward anyone who, being "uniquely qualified to speak openly," as he says, fails the test of civic action.  As an emotional plea with the volume turned high, his essay serves the good purpose of animating conversation on the subject of activism and accountability.  I'm all for it--who wouldn't be?--and recommend a reading.  Then again, as an argument against poets specifically, it leaves me wondering, Do poets really carry more of a responsibility for moral leadership than others artists, other professions?  Biespiel suggests it, and I think that's why he's so bothered by what he sees as their insularity and "anti-civic" posture.  But poets, of all people, are poets for a reason.  There is a side to the art that just can't be nurtured through the tussle of activism.  Despite that, and despite Auden's belief that "poets who want to change the world tend to be unreadable," I know plenty of poets who are angry already.

As a mere sample, the book I've just finished, Poetry in Person, contains 23 conversations with poets of all stripes: June Jordan, Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, Derek Walcott, Lucille Clifton, C.K. Williams, Muriel Rukeyser, Edward Hirsch and Philip Levine, to mention a few, all made particular points of speaking out about accountability--of poets to themselves and to society.  Many of them had been open as activists at different times in their lives.  Biespiel mentions some of them in his essay; but there are dozens of others in the same position he doesn't consider.

We want a great deal from our poets.  The world needs them.  The poetry world is not as bleak as he paints it, however.  Far from it. Should more poets drop the pen, speak out, speak for, speak against?  Write letters to the editor?  Influence friends and congressmen? Perhaps more should.  Shouldn't we all?

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Poetry in Person at the New School, with Pinksy, Muldoon, Kumin, Hirsch, and Plumly

On March 31, five of the nearly 100 poets who had been invited over the years to Pearl London's famous class at the New School returned there to celebrate her life and work.  Robert Pinsky, Edward Hirsch, Maxine Kumin, Paul Muldoon, and Stanley Plumly each read the poems she discussed with them on their visits years earlier, including Pinsky's canonical "The Want Bone," the title poem to Hirsch's "Wild Gratitude," and Muldoon's, "Cows."   These discussions, and dozens of others, formed the basis of the new Poetry in Person: 25 Years of Conversation with America's Poets.  The 66 minute event, introduced by Robert Polito and myself, was webcast and can now be viewed on Youtube.

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Poetry in Person in National Poetry Month

During National Poetry Month every April, Knopf send out a Poet-a-Day email to thousands of free subscribers.  Today, April 5, 2010, the featured item comes from my Poetry in Person: 25 Years of Conversation with America's Poets, with special highlights from a 1982 conversation with Nobel Prize winning poet, Derek Walcott.  Walcott speaks with excitement about the making of his poem "XLVIII," from Midsummer, and about Carribean mythmaking.  At the end of the post is an audio clip of Walcott about mythmaking.

Later in the month Knopf with add other audio clips from among the other poets.  If you want to add your name to their subscriber list for a poem-a-day in the month of April, follow:

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