Mentor and Muse
Essays from Poets to Poets
Publication Year: 2010
Published by: Southern Illinois University Press
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There’s a painting that Diego Rivera completed when he was thirteen years old—an obvious imitation of Monet’s Water Lilies. Rivera’s work is often associated with folk art, or with depictions of historical events and political themes. Although he is not typically considered to be a technically sophisticated painter, a scan of his juvenilia reveals other strikingly ...
Double Vision: The Tactic of Indirection in the Lyric Poem
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No doubt I’m not alone in remembering a comment by former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, perhaps on one of the evenings he appeared on Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour, concerning political poems or poems penned in response to war and a particular evil. He said usually the best such poems were written—I’m paraphrasing here—“long before the event happened.” I ...
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You might call this a descriptive report, which means that its signal ambition is to paraphrase the content—that is, the contents—of a poem entitled “Simile,” a poem that appears in a new collection called Old Heart. I’m certain, in the space available, that I’ll not have enough room to say all that might be said: not because my poem as a text is infinitely inexhaustible (a ...
Beauty and Its Opposite Conceit
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Dante had Beatrice; Petrarch coveted the fair, chaste, and unattainable Laura; and Shakespeare bred diﬀerence into the life of his Dark Lady. As Beauty’s opposite, his darkly complected beloved, with wiry strands of black hair, epitomized the antithesis of qualities Laura possessed. The Dark Lady became, as some critics have suggested, a reinvention of idealized ...
The Arresting and Fluxing Image
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In the poem “Portrait with Commentary,” Tomas Tranströmer, a Swedish poet and psychologist, calls a newspaper “that big dirty butterfly.”1 Tranströmer’s image is both stunning and memorable. In another poem, “About History,” he likens anonymity to an unexpected image: “anonymous as grains of rice.”2 While reading Tranströmer’s poems, one is immediately ...
Gallant with Delight: A Use of Setting
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Philip St. Clair’s “Water” still stands as one of my favorite poems, with all the sentimental affection one has for a first love. In fact, I have a framed broadside hanging above the desk in my office. I read the poem practically daily: ...
Not Metaphor but Magic: The “How” and Why of Narrative Poetry
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My grandmother told me stories. I wish I could say that these were the stuff of great tradition: family stories handed down orally for generations. They were not. They were stories from the Little Golden Books, often sanitized versions of fairy tales, and, to be more accurate, my grandmother read them to me. Until she taught me how to read—which happened before ...
Myth, Persona, and the Personal
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In eighth grade, my English class studied Greek mythology. Trying to interest a roomful of disaffected adolescents, our teacher staged a Jeopardy! game around the subject. I’m not someone who easily recalls facts under pressure, so I was surprised to find myself of value to the team. The Greek gods and goddesses we’d been learning about, with their virtues and flaws, ...
The Self Made Strange: On Translating Tomasz Różycki’s “Iterations”
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My awareness of translation as a vital activity began, as is fitting, when I left the country for the first time to participate in a reforestation project outside of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. I arrived alone at night into Managua, the capital city. Deplaning on the tarmac, I felt like I had landed on a movie set filled with ambient pink light and fake palm trees in rows along the ...
The Uncanny in the Short Lyric
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Tomaž Šalamun’s poem “To Immerse the Weight” took off the top of my head, as Dickinson would say, when I read it on the Web site Poetry Daily last spring. And, in the paradoxical way of poetry, it did so quietly, the way a ghost might take off the top of a head: without fanfare, but with great effect. Here’s the poem: ...
Recording Mortal Sight: The Drama of Prosody
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Phillis Levin: The reason [Anthony Hecht’s] “The Transparent Man” seems so appropriate for this anthology is that the process of reading the poem yields profound insights into the creation of voice through prosody, as well as insights into the relation of pattern to meaning. It is one of the best poems for unfolding and illuminating the genius of blank verse, the ...
The Physics of Persona Poems
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When we talk about the short story, we think of a moment in a character’s life that defines who this person is. In the persona poem, we have a similar artistic problem: we need to locate that person’s voice, but, more important, we need to locate where that voice is at this time in his or her life. The question I often ask of the persona is, why are we hearing this story now? That ...
“For he can creep”: Christopher Smart and Anaphora
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I have always loved Christopher Smart’s poem “My Cat Jeffry” from Jubilate Agno. It grabbed my attention when I discovered it as an undergraduate, and it has held my attention ever since. Written during Smart’s 1756–63 confinement at St. Luke’s Hospital, the poem uses anaphora to build to a quiet resolution. Considering that Smart was institutionalized ...
The Burden of Seed, the Seed of Burden: “Repetitional Schemas” & Pace in Terrance Hayes’s “Sonnet”
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Recently, on two electronic mailing lists, “performing poetry” was a popular topic. Not performance poetry, but performing (one’s) poetry. Members on both lists lauded Auden, Yeats, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas & (genially) harpooned slam poets. I take it that the great difference between “performance” and “performing” has a lot to do with the poem itself, as well ...
“Slapped:with;liGhtninG”: Poetry and Punctuation
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When language was chiseled into stone slabs in ancient Greece, the writers had to save space, so they left none between words. Words ran together and became confused. So the first punctuation element was a dot suspended between words to separate them. Later, space itself was used to separate—to punctuate—words. White space includes word spacing; paragraph, ...
The Active Blank: The White Space Speaks
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As poets, we depend on words to do our work. What happens, however, when words alone aren’t enough? We labor over their precise arrangement in order to convey the most minute of nuances, to have words serve as the best vehicle for our conceptions. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation, as well as form within a poem, are all meant to serve the poet’s meaning, and ...
Back to Back: An Epistolary Essay on Collaboration
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Alice and I are writers. Sometimes we write to each other. We write for each other. This is an interesting process that involves spontaneity and serendipity. Put another way, Alice is like lightning. I am like mud. We are Alice and I are friends. We have had many meals together, and her lovely blue eyes keep me honest. I am writing this and will send it to her. ...
The Quarrelsome Poem
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We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.1 While William Butler Yeats’s famous formulation is gorgeously and almost convincingly mellifluous, as is the case with so many declarations about poetry in general, it is simply not true: many poems are Poems in fact argue in a host of ways, employing all the argumentative ...
“Memento Mori” and Terza Rima: A Revision Narrative
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For years, I had the idea to write about a memory of an odd middle-school project I did on Dante’s Inferno. The narrative itself existed (in my mind and memory), but the piece hadn’t yet found its form. Would it be cast as an essay, a story, a poem? Choosing poetry to tell the story of first encountering Dante’s epic seemed most appropriate, but the choice of terza rima...
The Eccentric Discipline
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During the past decade or so, I’ve been writing, often but not always, sometimes without intention, syllabic verse. I don’t count syllables as I draft a poem, but have found that certain cadences, those of decasyllabic lines or their variation—alternating lines of thirteen and seven syllables, for example—insist themselves as the poem takes shape. “There are those ...
"Winter Gulls”: Toward Authenticity
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I first read that passage—the opening to Marcia Southwick’s “Winter Gulls”—as a graduate student getting my MFA.1 If I could have borrowed forward in time from a poem I hadn’t read yet, I think I would have thought of Muriel Rukeyser’s lines “I want to speak in my voice! / I want to speak in my real voice!,” exclamation points and all.2 What Southwick’s poem...
Longfellow’s Ghost: Writing "Popular" Poetry
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Nineteenth-century poets—Lydia Sigourney, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and others—had something precious that we latter-day poets have lost. They had readers. They had thousands of readers. Ordinary people not only read poems such as “The Charge of the Light Brigade” but read them aloud and committed them to memory. By pointing ...
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The first poem I ever published in a nationally recognized literary journal was called “For a Teenaged Chicana in Phoenix.” In the years since its publication, I’ve learned to become ashamed of it. I wrote it as an undergrad and was trying, as I wrote, to synthesize hope and distill meaning from work I’d done leading groups of “underprivileged” Denver preteens on excursions to ...
Breaking with Strategy
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When workshops incline toward questions of form and audience, they tend to talk in terms of strategy. That word has both a military and a competitive ring to it. Whom or what do we imagine we are fighting against? ...
Writing Against Your Music
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As a student, I often heard that the music of a good poem ought to be inseparable from the poem’s meaning. I had no idea, however, what that meant, though I could play like I understood it. I could talk about prosody with some fluency, nodding occasionally toward the neat fit of form and function in certain classic poems. But when it came to my own work—or ...
“Lucifer Matches": Epistles and Other Conversations (The Epistolary Lyric)
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As I write this week, there is almost too much to report. Close to home, the local drama that’s played out to vast acclaim on HBO has left two dozen murdered on Baltimore’s gritty streets. Car bombs go off daily in Baghdad; senators debate a proposed “troop surge”; the Iraqis themselves criticize the delayed security plan; still no solution—political, humanitarian—to the...
(On Preparing for a Tribute Reading) A Few Thoughts on O’Hara’s “Personal Poem”
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I’d been on the phone one morning, one day back in September, I think. A pleasant young man from a start-up magazine in San Francisco called at the arranged time to interview me. He asked smart questions. He was clearly well read. He cared about poetry, and he cared about language and its gazillion possibilities. But near the end of a perfectly amicable, even ...
Hiding Your Heart’s Desire
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One night last summer in the Umbrian city of Assisi, it came to me. What lends Italy its compelling energy, why I return year after year, is exactly what the country hides from me. The sun had begun to set. At one of those hairpin curves where small trucks (nun-driven) ride so closely the shoulder, I stopped and waited for traffic to clear. Within a grayish alcove I saw a ...
The Poem, Its Buried Subject, and the Revisionist Reader: Behind “The Guardian Angel”
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To revisit an old poem of yours is often to come to it as an interested stranger. By degree, you’re more reader than author, and like all readers you bring to the poem an aesthetic and a psychology forged by personal history and your history of reading. If twenty years have elapsed since you’ve written a poem about a certain kind of spiritual endurance, and in...
Bring Yourself Along
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Some of the best advice I’ve ever received came from my friend Rebecca and was not in the context of poetry but could have been. She said, “Don’t forget to bring yourself along.” My poems are the record of my effort. So, too, is this essay: ...
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Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 1 B/w halftone
Publication Year: 2010