December 4, 2010

Specimen Days: December 4

Rainer Maria Rilke1123 – Omar Khayyám, Persian poet, astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher (b. 1048), dies
1555 – Heinrich Meibom, German historian and poet (d. 1625), is born
1609 – Alexander Hume, Scottish poet, is born
1649 – William Drummond of Hawthornden, Scottish poet (b. 1585), dies

1732 – John Gay, English poet, dies at 47

1800 – Emil Aarestrup, Danish physician/poet, is born

1875 – Rainer Maria Rilke, Austria, poet, is born

1876 – Dimitur Poljanov, [Popov], Bulgaria, poet, is born

1933 – Stefan George, German poet, dies at 65

I would like to cradle you and softly sing,
be your companion while you sleep or wake.
I would like to be the only person
in the house who knew: the night outside was cold.
And would like to listen to you
and outside to the world and to the woods.
—from “To Say Before Going To Sleep” by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)

Poetry in the News

Succinct, Not Pithy

Ciara ShuttleworthA young poet spent ten minutes on a sestina. Now it’s going in The New Yorker.
“I like to call it ‘The Night the Poem Happened,’” Robert Wrigley says. Last week, Wrigley and fellow poet Ciara Shuttleworth sat in the Red Door, a low-lit and checkerboard-floored gastropub in Moscow, Idaho, kibitzing about an incident that happens maybe once in the life of a writer, if ever. Read more at the Inlander.
Ciara Shuttleworth [Photo: Kevin Quinn]

Illustrating the Wealth of Persian “Kings”

The “Shahnama” is a terrifying book. Not because it is long, though with 50,000 verses, it is long indeed. Nor because it is dry or taxing on the reader. As translator Dick Davis demonstrated in his 1997 rendering of the “Shahnama,” or “Persian Book of Kings,” into English, it is endlessly delightful and compulsively readable. Read more at the Washington Post.

World Poetry

Somalia’s Last Poets Sing of a Country on the Brink

The Mogadishu poets’ club seldom meets these days. Sugaal Abdulle Omar is one of only a handful of survivors who have stayed on in the Somali capital despite what has become of the once beautiful coastal city. “The poet is always trying to talk about peace,” he says. “But there is nowhere to talk about peace here and no one who wants to listen.” Read more at the Independent.

Bella Akhmadulina Obituary

Bella AkhmadulinaFor more than 40 years, the poet Bella Akhmadulina, who has died aged 73, was a regal, even sainted presence on the Moscow literary scene. She was practically unique, because it was simply not done to speak ill of her, no matter what one’s position in official or unofficial hierarchies. She had an aura to which everyone deferred. Read more at the Guardian.
Akhmadulina in 1962, the year of her first collection, The String. Photograph: Malyshev/Ria Novosti/AFP/RIA Novosti

New Books

Cover of Silver Roses by Rachel WetzsteonSilver Roses by Rachel Wetzsteon
[Paperback] Persea, 96 pp., $16.50
“Rachel Wetzsteon achieves maturity and mastery in this poignant collection.”—Harold Bloom
This bittersweet posthumous collection solidifies Rachel Wetzsteon’s place among the most talented poets of her generation. Written with her characteristic wit, incisiveness, and flair, it confirms her as a peerless flaneuse of New York City, a skeptical yet large-hearted bookworm with spot-on takes about culture, love, and loss.

For Us, What Music?: The Life and Poetry of Donald Justice by Jerry Harp
[paperback] Iowa, 198 pp., $32.95
Because Jerry Harp was Justice’s student, his personal knowledge of his subject—combined with his deep understanding of Justice’s oeuvre—works to remarkable advantage in For Us, What Music? Harp reads with keen intelligence, placing each poem within the precise historical moment it was written and locating it in the context of the literary tradition within which Justice worked. Throughout the text runs the narrative of Justice’s life, tying together the poems and informing Harp’s interpretation of them. For Us, What Music? grants readers a remarkable understanding of one of America’s greatest poets.

Cover of Jean Follain: 130 Poems translated by Christopher MiddletonJean Follain: 130 Poems translated by Christopher Middleton
[Paperback] Anvil Press, 176 pp., $18.95
Christopher Middleton has chosen poems spanning the whole of Jean Follain’s work. Born in 1903 and raised in Normandy, Jean Follain died in a street accident in Paris in 1971. His poetry is now recognized as central to French poetry’s change of course after surrealism. He has influenced a generation of poets with his short, subtle, and down-to-earth poems, here elegantly translated and introduced.

Recent Reviews

Weird Science

by William Logan
On I Love a Broad Margin to My Life by Maxine Hong Kingston; Walking Papers: Poems 1999-2009 by Thomas Lynch; The Sun-Fish by Eliéan Ní Chuilleanáin; Toxic Flora by Kimiko Hahn; Maggot by Paul Muldoon; and Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Shcnackenberg.
Since The Prelude, the poem-memoir has been surprisingly rare, especially in a day when lives are scarcely lived before they’re committed to Facebook or laid open like fresh corpses in blogs. I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, Maxine Hong Kingston’s breezy and peculiar new memoir, is cast in verse, which to a prose writer must seem a wonderful idea.[1] Writing verse is so easy, after all—why, it just spills down the page like Jackson Pollock’s dribbles. You break the lines wherever you like—never too long, never too short—and soon a humble-jumble work briefer than The Great Gatsby is splashed across two hundred pages or more. Read more at the New Criterion.

Mick Imlah: The Lost Talent

by Alan Hollinghurst
When Mick Imlah died, in January 2009, he was mourned as one of the outstanding British poets of his time. He published only two collections, both dazzlingly original though very different in mood. Birthmarks came out in 1988, when he was 31, The Lost Leader not till 2008, when he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and knew he did not have long to live. The 20-year gap between the books, though tantalising in the extreme for his admirers, was revealed as a period of continuous exploration and change. For at least 10 years before its publication the second book was expected, its name was chosen, it was about to be sent to a publisher – on occasion was sent and then retracted. The long delay, the result both of Imlah’s technical perfectionism and of a steady deepening and focusing of his vision, gave an extraordinary cumulative force to The Lost Leader, when he finally decided to let it appear. His terrible last months were those of his greatest critical acclaim, including the award of the Forward Prize for the best collection of 2008. It seems already a pre-eminent book of a much longer period. Read more at the Guardian.

The Best Thing about Christian Wiman is Not that He Reminds You of Previous Poets: It’s that He Makes You Forget Them

By Clive James
Not yet 50 years old, the American poet Christian Wiman has recently been stricken with a serious illness. His doctors say he is likely to survive but for anyone in doubt about the magnitude of the possible loss, one glance at his latest collection, Every Riven Thing, should serve to state the case. Read more at Slate.


Joumana Haddad: A Writer who Loves to be Hated

Joumana Haddadby Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
Joumana Haddad has been called the most hated woman in Lebanon. She is a poet, a translator, the culture editor of a mainstream daily newspaper and the publisher of her own magazine. She has written five books and speaks seven languages. She is the administrator of the “Arab Booker”, a prize that has changed the course of literary translations from Arabic to English, among many other languages, in four short years.
She is also a working mother who lives in Beirut with her two sons. She travels all the time. In a business not well known for satisfactory compensation, she says she is well paid. She loves what she does. She is still two months shy of 40, a fact that made her eligible this past spring for being named one of the Beirut 39, the Hay Festival’s closely tracked list of the 39 most exciting Arab writers under the age of 40. Read more at The National.

The Past in Fragments: an Interview with Julie Carr

by Andrew Zawacki
Julie Carr’s unit of composition has tended toward the book, allowing her a wide, elastic format for thinking—and feeling—her way through an array of intertwined issues.
Andrew Zawacki: “I’m ready to cannibalize my own past,” you write in “Lines for the New Year,” in Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines. Is that true in this new book—or is it a resolution of sorts?
Julie Carr: In this book I am interested in writing about a personal story through an overriding metaphor. When we write autobiographically we are, in a sense, cannibalizing ourselves—taking apart our own lives for the sake of this thing that we are making. Especially when one is writing about tragic or difficult events in one’s life, this process can feel like a kind of violence. We take something very sad, very painful, and turn it into this other thing—the poem or the book. This can be, and often is, a powerful and positive transformation, but it can also feel like an invasion of the life. Read more at Rain Taxi.


Poetry and the Problem of Standards

by Jan Schreiber
Ordinary readers, literary editors, and some English professors confront an inescapable question of judgment: In principle, is it possible, faced with an overwhelming body of work in print, to cull out excellent poems in the way one can cull out fine diamonds or superb soufflés? Consider the matter carefully: the diamond expert knows the criteria for excellence with great assurance; he can spot an exceptional gem quickly when it comes before him, and his criteria do not change. He may never find an ideal diamond, but he can tell you what it would look like. Similarly a chef who knows her craft can enumerate the qualities of an ideal soufflé and can tell you the precise ways in which any given actual specimen falls short. Read more at Contemporary Poetry Review.

Double Double, Part 1 (Dactyls)

by Cody Walker
I’ve been seeing double lately — which, considering the assignments I’ve been giving my students, makes sense. One class has been writing double dactyls; the other class, double abecedarians. My original idea was to combine my thoughts on the two forms into a single post — a kind of double double — but then those thoughts led to more thoughts (and more poems, and more links) . . . and, as this Sunday’s New York Times reminds us (and then sort of takes back), we’re becoming increasingly bad at, well, focusing. So, let’s take up double dactyls now, and double abecedarians in another week. Read more at the Kenyon Review.

Editor’s Notes: For What It’s Worth

Carpe Clay

Carpe Clayby Tamsin Smith
Nature is so brilliant. There’s no point in attempting the replication of perfection. But sometimes, we base and flawed creatures transcend folly and make art. Art is our best glancing brush at the wonder of nature. Science is, as well. These are the marvels that human beings bring forth. We, with the gift of imagination, give life to these miracles. Occasionally, the gifts are so lovely that they help us see and feel even the grace of nature itself more clearly.
My friend Maria grows porcelain roses. She nourishes and nurtures them by hand, pressing the finest slivers into petals, and winding them into beauty’s whole. Her fingerprints become their counterfeit veins, her intentions their sap, until each one glows with a radiant, absolute, unmatched loveliness. They cannot be compared to Rodin’s masterpieces, nor to Nature’s. That is not their heart’s desire. They are humble, quiet, testaments to the gentle love and aesthetic purpose that drives my friend to sit in a studio and “seize the clay,” as they say at Greenwich House Pottery (GHP). She kneads herself, as well as the spirits of those who surround her, into these blossoms. She would say she’s just doodling, testing how extensively she can build the fragile artifice without having it fall apart in the kiln. I know she does it for the work, not the product, because I paid witness one day. Read more at the Huffington Post.

I like much of what Tamsin Smith tells in this post. But Picasso’s quote that “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth” and Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” are at the heart of it. They both call to mind the opening speech of The Glass Menagerie in which Tom says: I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Poetry, with its artifice of form and rhetoric is an obvious illusion, one we accept. But we accept it with the knowledge that underneath the “pleasant disguise of illusion” there is the ineffable, the truth that cannot be gotten at any other way. And though it may be no more real than the porcelain flowers that Ms. Tamsin describes, that truth holds within it its own validity. And so the poet—conjurer, con man, and liar though he or she may be— is faced with exploring his or her own side of the truth, which dazzles “gradually or every man be blind.” It is not sleight of hand; it is magic.
—David Sanders

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