Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Carta Marina by Ann Fisher-Wirth

"A world-class poem about desire," Lesley Wheeler calls Ann Fisher-Wirth's long poem, Carta Marina, published by Wings Press (San Antonio 2009).

A Place to Blog about Poetry

The Intro to Lit course is finished, but I find myself continuing to blog about poetry here in anticipation of the Writing Poetry class I am teaching in the spring. The internet continues to be a growing resource for conversations about poetry, book reviews, and resources. So I've decided to keep this blog going, hoping it will become an ongoing resource of its own for future classes as well as lovers of poetry.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Poetry Slam? -- Rita Dove vs. Helen Vendler

The poetry world isn't always a peaceful place. Especially when a poet is given the job of creating an anthology and a famous critic disagrees with her choices. Recently Penguin books published an anthology of American poetry, edited by former poet laureate Rita Dove. Helen Vendler, Harvard professor and long-time poetry critic, wrote a scathing review published in The New York Review of Books, criticizing Dove's choices as too heavily influenced by political choices. (Dove's anthology includes a large percentage of African American poets.) At one point in her review Vendler attempts to attribute Dove's critical acumen to her being a poet, not an essayist. Dove, in an essay rebuttal of Vendler's review, takes the critic to task in the upcoming December 22 issue of the New York Review of Books according to The Atlantic Wire, an online publication of the venerable magazine.

What counts as poetry in America is rich and varied, but when a major publishing house attempts publishes a book that threatens to change the course of the canon--that is, the few poets selected for inclusion in a volume of what counts as the best of American poetry--some critics, in this case Vendler, get energized. For almost forty years Vendler has been an arbiter of taste in the poetry establishment. She has had the power to make or break careers. Earlier in her poetry career, Vendler praised Dove's work as a poet. But apparently, Vendler is not impressed with Dove's work as a critic--or, she is threatened by someone who has dared to create an arrangement counter to Vendler's taste. Who is to judge? There's no respectable way to do this without reading the book, which means the poets win--they get more readers!

For an in-depth interview with Dove by Jericho Brown and more insights into the editing and publishing process, see the Best American Poetry blog.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Gertrude Stein on Poetry

Gertrude Stein, the experimental writer, attempted to define poetry in her essay, "Poetry and Grammar."

Here's an excerpt from "Poetry and Grammar," published in Lectures in America (1935).

When I first began writing, I felt that writing should go on, I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it, what had commas to do with it, what had periods to do with it what had small letters and capitals to do with it to do with writing going on which was at that time the most profound need I had in connection with writing. What had colons and semi-colons to do with it what had commas to do with it what had periods to do with it.

What had periods to do with it. Inevitably no matter how completely I had to have writing go on, physically one had to again and again stop sometime and if one had to again and again stop sometime then periods had to exist. Beside I had always liked the look of periods and I liked what they did. Stopping sometimes did not really keep one from going on, it was nothing that interfered, it was only something that happened, and as it happened as a perfectly natural happening, I did believe in periods and I used them. I really never stopped using them.

Besides that periods might later come to have a life of their own to commence breaking up things in arbitrary ways, that has happened lately with me in a poem I have written called Winning His Way, later I will read you a little of it. By the time I had written this poem about three years ago periods had come to have for me completely a life of their own. They could begin to act as they thought best and one might interrupt one's writing with them but one could come to stop arbitrarily stop at times in one's writing with them that is not really interrupt one's writing with them but one could come to stop arbitrarily stop at times in one's writing and so they could be used and you could use them. Periods could come to exist in this way and they could come in this way to have a life of their own. They did not serve you in any servile way as commas and colons and semi-colons do. Yes you do feel what I mean. Read more on line.

Here is a sample of Stein's writing from her book Tender Buttons.


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

Now, the same text in a Wordle:

Wordle: A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass - by Gertrude Stein

Monday, December 5, 2011

What is Poetry?

To end the semester, we're revisiting the question, "What is poetry?" Based on their reading and writing this semester of 20th and 21st century poets--including a unit on the poetry of witness, the study of an individual volume of poetry by a poet of their choice, and the visits of several quest writers--students will write their own definitions. I can hardly wait to read them!

Students have just concluded their final project of the semester--a thorough study of an individual volume of poetry by a contemporary poet--and have gotten to know the work of a particular poet in depth. Visit their blogs to read their reflections on work by Margaret Atwood, Eavan Boland, Peter Fallon, Kenneth Koch, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Anne Sexton, and Brian Turner.

Here's a Wordle creates with phrases students offered up to describe what they've learned about poetry in this class:

Wordle: What is Poetry

Monday, October 10, 2011

Paul Celan - Todesfugue

Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel in 1920 in Romania of German-speaking Jewish parents. (Celan is an anagram of Ancel, the Romanian form of his name.) They spoke German at home at his mother's insistence; she was a passionate student of German literature. Celan also knew Romanian, Russian and French, and could understand Yiddish, a German Jewish dialect. Celan went to France to study medicine in 1938, but returned to Romania in 1939 to study literature instead. First the Russians and then the Nazis took over the part of Romania in which he lived. Forced into a Jewish Ghetto created by the Nazis, he translated the sonnets of William Shakespeare and continued to write his own poetry. In 1942 both of his parents were captured and taken to concentration camps, where they died. Celan was made to do forced labor until 1944, when the Russians drove out the Nazis and took over again. Celan wrote Todesfugue at the end of the war, using accounts of the death camps he had heard when the camps were liberated. After the war he moved to Bucharest, where he worked as an editor and translator and changed his name. In 1948 he moved to Paris to study German philology and literature. He became a French citizen in 1955 and remained in France for the rest of his life. He committed suicide in 1970 by drowning himself in the Seine River.

Celan struggled with the irony of writing in German. It was both the language that connected him to his family, especially his mother, and the language spoken by the country that had killed his parents, uncle, and numerous other close friends and family members. He struggled with survivor guilt and depression, but became one of the major German language poets of the 20th century in spite of this. In 1958 we won the Bremen Prize for poetry and in 1960 the Georg Buechner Prize.

Of language, Celan wrote:

"Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, 'enriched' by it all." (from "Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen", p.34, in Celan's Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York, The Sheep Meadow Press, 1986.

You can hear Celan read "Todesfugue" by clicking on the link at the end of the poem on this site.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Musee des Beaux Arts - another Auden poem, with painting

"Musee des Beaux Arts" is a poem about art and suffering, and the ways in which our perspective influences what we care about. Although it's a very different poem than "September 1, 1939," it touches on some of the same themes and was written at about the same time. The Musee des Beaux Arts is a museum in Brussels, Belgium.

To make his point that suffering goes on all around us, yet we pay little attention, Auden describes a painting by Flemish painter Pieter Breughel the elder called "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus." The painting focuses on a plowman in a landscape, and in the lower right hand corner there is a leg sticking out of the corner--Icarus.

Check out some informal, student-friendly commentary on Schmoop.

William Carlos Williams also wrote a poem about this painting with the same title.