An Author's Assemblage: Brief Notes and Notices

The accumulation of posts to this web page serves merely as an author’s assemblage of brief notes and notices: the collection of informal bits of information, quotations, and observations gathered as one way to display a personal reflection of perceptions on poetry, publication, and related selections of material drawn from my perspectives as a poet or professor of literature and creative writing.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rosanna Warren on Characteristics of Pastoral Poetry

“In the first place, pastoral archetypally situates itself in an idealized and artificial landscape. Whether in the Greek Arcady often invoked by Virgil or Theocritus’s Sicily, the scenery is standard (tamarisks, beeches, willows, galingale, olive trees, musical brooks), and it is understood that nature here has obliged by providing an elemental poetic space. We shall find an analogous space in Strand’s moonlit fields.”

* * *

“The idealization of the landscape requires, as a corollary, a principle of exclusion, and this feature also characterizes Strand’s poems. Pastoral seems to provide shelter from the city, family, politics, illness, and the biological consequences of love. It is the locus amoenus whose very conventionality affords it blessed protection. But the power of pastoral paradoxically rests in its fragility, its evanescence. Its generic purity and artificiality direct our attention inevitably to all it has excluded. We are invited to study the ways in which pastoral poems willingly suffer contamination, and derive from it their most poignant strengths.” —From “Negative Idylls: Mark Strand and Contemporary Pastoral,” a chapter in Rosanna Warren’s Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry (W.W. Norton, 2008)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Valparaiso University Press Release for SEEDED LIGHT

I am pleased to note the following press release distributed today by Valparaiso University’s office of public relations:

Professor’s poetry book called “scenic and intimate”

Seeded Light, Dr. Byrne’s sixth collection of poems, is the most extensive book of the English professor’s career.

“‘Seeded Light’ contains a fairly comprehensive scope of poetry,’ Dr. Byrne says, ‘that expresses, through imagery written in accessible language, a variety of views on subjects as diverse as nature, art, literature, music, memory, imagination, friendship, family, love, loss, life, maturity, and mortality.’

“Dr. Byrne says lyrics in his newest collection connect the past to the present, raising readers’ awareness of their own worlds.

“Noted poets have offered praise for the book.

“Award-winning poet David Baker writes ‘Edward Byrne shows the lyric couplet to be a form with its own remarkable flexibility and narrative capacity. Seeded Light is memorial and social, scenic and intimate, by turns, providing a humane pathway of one gentle man’s passage through the world in all its weather and worry.’

“‘Seeded Light,’ poet Alfred Corn writes, ‘offers abundant evidence of a mind’s alertness to the world of nature and to modern urban reality . . . . The fineness of Byrne’s perceptions and the musicality of his lines make following his journeys an instructive pleasure . . . .’”

Visitors are invited to read the rest of the press release.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and the Avant-Garde 50 Years Ago

“I remember that in the spring of 1949 there was a symposium on the arts at Harvard during which a number of new works were performed including Schönberg’s Trio for Strings. My friend the poet Frank O’Hara, who was majoring in music at Harvard, went to hear it and was violently attacked for doing so by one of the young instructors in the music department, who maintained that Schönberg was literally insane. Today the same instructor would no doubt attack O’Hara for going to hear anything so academic. To paraphrase Bernard Shaw, it is the fate of some artists, and perhaps the best ones, to pass from unacceptability to acceptance without an intervening period of appreciation.

“At that time I found the avant-garde very exciting, just as the young do today, but the difference was that in 1950 there was no sure proof of the existence of the avant-garde. To experiment was to have the feeling that one was poised on some outermost brink. In other words if one wanted to depart, even moderately, from the norm, one was taking one’s life—one’s life as an artist—into one’s hands.” —From John Ashbery’s Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles 1957-1987 (Knopf, 1989)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Louise Glück on Ambition and Power of the Implied in Art or Poetry

“What I share with my friends is ambition; what I dispute is its definition. I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem. I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum. A few years ago, I saw a show of Holbein drawings; most astonishing were those still in progress. Parts were entirely finished. And parts were sketched, a fluent line indicating arm or hand or hair, but the forms were not filled in. Holbein had made notes to himself: this sleeve blue, hair, auburn. The terms were other—not the color in the world, but the color in paint or chalk. What these unfinished drawings generated was a vivid sense of Holbein at work, at the sitting; to see them was to have a sense of being back in time, back in the middle of something. Certain works of art become artifacts. By works of art, I mean works of any medium. And certain works of art do not. It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished. All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.” —From Louise Glück’s Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (Ecco, 1994)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Stanley Kunitz on the Poet's Relationship to the Poem

“After a certain period, the poem seems to have no maker at all. Poems gather their own momentum and you feel they’re moving on their own. You are part of the world in which they are born and come to maturity, but they have an identity beyond the person to whom they are confiding because the poem doesn’t really belong to anyone, it belongs to a great tradition. The great tradition includes what I think of as the essential spirit of the poem, which belongs to centuries, and not to any single moment in time.

“You cannot know completely what your obligation is in writing the poem. The primary responsibility is to speak the true word and to distill the complexity of sensitivity that enters into any human experience.

“The poem becomes a vehicle of this so-called persona or soul, whatever you want to call it; it is a crystallization of your unconscious life. It carries a big load!

“The poet doesn’t so much disappear into the poem as become the poem. It is a concentration of faculties, of everything you are or hope to be, and at that moment you have a focus not only on your conscious life, but your unconscious world, and it is as much an expression of your whole being as is conceivable.” —From The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine (W.W. Norton, 2005)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gregory Orr On Romanticism and Personal Lyric Poetry

“Inspired by Rousseau, the Romantics took lyric back from the Overculture. Returning it to its ancient and honorable identity as personal lyric, they used it according to its primordial function of ordering individual lives around emotionally charged experiences and restabilizing the self in a chaotic time.

“It is in the context of the personal lyric and its subset, the transformative lyric, that certain figures emerge; poets who, coping with their own crises and traumas, seized the opportunity to create new selves and new meanings through the making of poems. These poets became poet-heroes by disclosing visionary possibilities that went far beyond their own private situations and revealed hopes and meanings that were broadly useful to others, both contemporaries and those of us who came after. They fulfilled Keats’s dream of being ‘physician to all men.’ Of course, the term ‘all men’ is hyperbolic and, to our postfeminist ears, restrictively sexist. It would be more accurate and thus more complimentary to say that these visionary poets were physicians to broad spectrums of the population who identified with their sense of trauma and confusion and their need for self-transformation.

“Romanticism and its aftermath gave us hero after hero of spiritual renewal through the personal lyric.” —From Poetry as Survival by Gregory Orr (University of Georgia Press, 2002)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Walt Whitman: Multiplicity of Speech in American Language and Literature

“Language, Whitman argued, must express the multiplicity of habits, heritages, and races that make up the American nationality: ‘The immense diversity of race, temperament, character—the copious streams of humanity constantly flowing hither—must reappear in free, rich growth of speech. From no one ethnic source is America sprung: the electric reciprocations of many sticks conspired and conspire. This opulence of race-elements is in the theory of America.’ Into the purity of New England English, Whitman introduced the ethnic and idiomatic color of American speech. His desire to keep language and literature open and responsive to the multiethnic sources of American nationality corresponded to his political desire to keep the country open to the immigrants who, after 1850, began coming to America in ever-increasing numbers.” —From Whitman: The Political Poet by Betsy Erkkila (Oxford University Press, 1989)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Art's Inadequacy in the Face of Horror: Natasha Sajé

“September 11 provides ample opportunity for poets to diminish their ethical standing by generalizing. Again, like the experience of being in a foreign country and noting sights, some poets who observed the devastation (either in person or through media) felt that describing it, culminating in an insight about terror, pain, or destruction, justifies their poems. I have a file of poems replete with images of burning towers, people falling or jumping out of them, fiery planes, and smoke-and-paper-filled streets. Most of these poems are unsatisfying because they merely repeat clichés; moreover, I find many ethically repugnant because of the ease with which they presume to describe the pain of others. The poet is making art out of others’ suffering without any risk or consequence to himself or herself. As Susan Sontag says, ‘No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain’; ‘what matters precisely is who is killed and by whom.’ By glibly generalizing what should be an individual memory, these poems fail morally and aesthetically. ‘It is intolerable to have one’s own suffering twinned with anybody else’s,’ notes Sontag, a presumption that mars many 9-11 poems. Living in New York or being in the towers does not guarantee a good 9-11 poem, neither does having a relative who died, nor being Arab-American. Sontag writes, ‘a narrative seems likely to be more effective [in conveying pain] than an image. Partly it is a question of the length of time one is obliged to look, to feel.’ Sometimes the 9-11 poems fail because their treatment is too glancing: the poet hasn’t gone far enough to understand his or her true subject and reveal something new about it.

“Wislawa Szymborska’s poem ‘Photograph from September 11’ (translated by Clare Cavanaugh) acknowledges the speaker’s inability to describe and, in my mind, is successful. She begins with a common image to such poems, ‘They jumped from the burning floors—’ but then immediately reminds us that she is only looking at a photograph. She tells us that ‘Each is complete / with a particular face / and blood well-hidden,’ and ends by saying, ‘I can do only two things for them— / describe this flight // and not add a last line.’

“Not adding a last line (although, of course, she does: ‘and not add a last line’) indicates Szymborska’s understanding of her inadequacy, of art’s inadequacy in the face of horror. She notes ‘the particular face[s]’ she does not have access to. Even the title acknowledges her limited access and understanding. She does not presume to speak from authority. While she does imagine the flight, the poem is ultimately about the speaker’s own inability to describe it fully. It is her stance of unknowing that permits her to repeat familiar images.” —From “Poetry & Ethics: Writing About Others” by Natasha Sajé in The Writer’s Chronicle (December 2009: Volume 42, Number 3)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

David Kirby on the Wealth of Poetry

“Look, a poem either sends you a bill or writes you a check. You can use up too much of your intellectual and emotional capital, not to mention your good will, and come away feeling had. Or you can pat your billfold and say, ‘Hey, this baby just got a little fatter.’

“When I’m asked by fellow air passengers what I do for a living and reply, ‘I write poems,’ the reaction is often a startled smile, as though they’re thinking Homer! Dante! Milton! (At least that’s what I’m thinking they’re thinking.) And then comes the lean-in, the furrowed brow, the voice thick with compassion as my new friend says, ‘But there isn’t any money in that, is there?’

“There are some pretty snappy comebacks to this one, but what I usually offer is Somerset Maugham’s ‘Poetry is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five.’ Actually, Maugham says ‘money,’ not ‘poetry,’ but that’s the point. Money and poetry both act as catalysts, and they bring together objects and experiences that wouldn’t have anything to do with one another otherwise. Wealth takes many forms, and sometimes it shows up as stanzas.” —From David Kirby’s New York Times review of Amy Gerstler’s book of poems, Dearest Creature

Friday, November 6, 2009

Robert Pinsky on the Influence of Creative Writing Programs

“Creative writing programs have made American poetry more regionally and socially diverse: once, most American poets came from a few east coast colleges. Imagine, Robert Creeley and John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich and Donald Hall, all at Harvard at the same time—we could add Kinnell and Merwin at Princeton, Ginsberg at Columbia. Now, the poets, my generation and younger, seem more likely to come from state universities, small colleges, various parts of the country. For years, a lot of them attended the MFA program at Iowa, Montana, Irvine, etc.—the social and geographical center is no longer local, no longer on a certain social model. Creative writing programs are part of a cultural change that includes the GI Bill, the rise of state universities, maybe the decline of English departments.” —From Michael Shea’s online interview with Robert Pinsky for The Southeast Review

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mark Strand on Measured Verse and Free Verse as Poetic Forms

“I believe that all poetry is formal in that it exists within limits, limits that are either inherited by tradition or limits that language itself imposes. These limits exist in turn within the limits of the individual poet’s conception of what is or is not a poem. For if the would-be poet has no idea what a poem is, then he has no standard for determining or qualifying his actions as a poet; ie, his poem. ‘Form,’ it should be remembered, is a word that has several meanings, some of which are near opposites. Form has to do with the structure or outward appearance of something, but it also has to do with its essence. In discussions of poetry, form is a powerful word for just that reason: structure and essence seem to come together, as do the disposition of words and their meanings.

“It hardly seems worthwhile to point out the shortsightedness of those practitioners who would have us believe that the form of the poem is merely its shape. They argue that there is formal poetry and poetry without form—free verse, in other words; that formal poetry has dimensions that are rhythmic or stanzaic, etc., and consequently measurable, while free verse exists as a sprawl whose disposition is arbitrary and is, as such, nonmeasurable. But if we have learned anything from the poetry of the last twenty or thirty years, it is that free verse is as formal as any other verse. There is ample evidence that it uses a full range of mnemonic devices, the most common being anaphoral and parallelistic structures, both as syntactically restrictive as they are rhythmically binding. I do not want to suggest that measured verse and free verse represent opposing mnemonics. I would rather we considered them together, both being structured or shaped and thus formal, or at least formal in outward, easily described ways.

“Form is manifested most clearly in the apparatus of argument and image or, put another way, plot and figures of speech. This aspect of form is more difficult to discuss because it is less clear-cut; it happens also to be the area in which poems achieve their greatest individuality and where, as a result, they are more personal.” —From “Notes on the Craft of Poetry,” a chapter in Mark Strand’s The Weather of Words (Knopf, 2000)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Donald Hall on Ezra Pound's Literary Taste and Magnanimity

“Pound was a catalyst to other poets. His presence made poets out of people who might otherwise never have survived into poetry. Greatly as I admire the poetry of William Carlos Williams, I am not sure he would have been a poet without Ezra Pound. Pound’s energy and conviction, at any rate, pulled H.D. and William Carlos Williams further into poetic commitment, when the three students knew each other at the University of Pennsylvania. Later, when Pound met older writers already committed to the art, he bullied editors into publishing them, he reviewed them, he invented public relations devices like ‘Imagism’ in order to attract attention to them, he raised money for them, and got them out of jail—and on one occasion sent one of them a pair of old brown shoes.

“Pound discovered Eliot, through the agency of Conrad Aiken, when Eliot had written ‘Prufrock’ but little else, and seemed destined to become an American professor of philosophy. He argued Harriet Monroe into publishing ‘Prufrock’ in Poetry; he encouraged and cajoled Eliot into further poems; when Eliot’s work at the bank seemed to burden him, he set out to support Eliot by subscription (which embarrassed Eliot, who put a stop to it); when Eliot fumbled toward ‘The Waste Land,’ Pound’s solid and magnanimous critical intelligence cut that poem into shape.

“I could tell story after story illustrating the accuracy of Pound’s taste, and the generous energy with which he promoted the writers he admired. Nor was his taste limited, when it included D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, as well as Eliot and the Imagists; Ford Maddox Ford and Yeats among the elders; Ernest Hemingway, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting among the youngers; most astonishing of all, it included Robert Frost, whose literary predilections might have made him The Enemy. (If Pound’s first task, as he says in a Canto, was to ‘break the pentameter,’ Frost wasn’t helping.) But Pound knew quality even when it turned up in a sonnet, and he leapt to promote Robert Frost—who disliked him and avoided him—without worrying about the politics of literary styles.

“In the history of literature, no writer equals Pound in accuracy of taste, or in energetic magnanimity.” —From Donald Hall’s Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (Harper & Row, 1978)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nicholson Baker's Anthologist on Writing Poetry

“The master class I gave had a rocky moment. I told them to copy poems out, and to start by saying what they actually wanted to say, and to read their drafts aloud in foreign accents, and to clean out their offices, and to make two supporting columns when they packed their books in a box, and I described trying to edit an anthology and how crazy it made me, and I heard myself sounding more or less like a professional poet. Which amazed me.

“And then a man of forty or so, with a French accent, asked, ‘How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?’ And something cracked open in me, and I finally stopped hoarding and told them my most useful secret. The only secret that has helped me consistently over all the years that I’ve written. I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?’ The wonder of it was, I told them, that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something that I hadn’t known was important will leap up and hover there in front of me, saying I am—I am the best moment of the day. I noticed two people were writing down what I was saying. Often, I went on, it’s a moment when you’re waiting for someone, or you’re driving somewhere, or maybe you’re just walking diagonally across a parking lot and you’re admiring the oil stains and the dribbled tar patterns. One time it was when I was driving past a certain house that was screaming with sunlitness on its white clapboards, and then I plunged through tree shadows that splashed and splayed over the windshield. You, windshield shadows, you are the best moment of the day. ‘And that’s my secret, such as it is,’ I said.” —From Nicholson Baker’s novel, The Anthologist (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Laurence Lieberman on John Berryman: "Our Shrewdest Clown"

“The daring imagination of John Berryman in Dream Songs, and to a lesser degree in the Sonnets, is constantly en route between the bizarre melodrama of a loser-in-love—with all that world’s particularity of detail—and the hallucinatory dream-world of his inner life. We keep traveling back and forth between these poles, and Berryman’s sensibility is so rich, his imagery so fresh and varied, he never repeats himself, even though he seems to be covering virtually the same ground again and again. The possibilities are endless, inexhaustible, always unpredictable. The circuit between dream and reality is a pliant, limber, ever-adaptable medium for expressing what may well be the most tantalizingly resourceful personality in contemporary literature. Many of the poems gravitate too near one pole or the other: those that are explicitly confessional, almost journalistic, tend to be outlandishly slapstick, corny, self-pitying, or indulgently freakish. Others sail away in dream-clouds of smoky obscurity. In fact, I find very few of the poems to be altogether successful. Nearly all are flawed in some lines; some are cluttered with glaring blemishes. So often, Berryman tries to mix irreconcilables: classical references, squibs in French or German, insolubly diverse metaphors . . . . When the technique fails, his phrasing suffers from redundancy, imprecision, word-thickness. When it succeeds—more often than not, surely—each element in the cluster of meanings seems like an irreducible fragment of the inner state of personality, and the successive words and phrases connect horizontally, if not vertically, in a chain which, though discontinuous at points, vibrates uniformly. The characteristic tone frequency of Berryman’s poetry is a superarticulate mental wail. The accumulative effect of the Dream Songs, as well as the Sonnets, is overwhelmingly powerful. One must read Berryman by the bookful. Then one is struck by the ceaselessly self-risking explorations of levels of pain and frustration in modern life, and, in addition, his marvelous capacity for laughing at himself whenever the poetry verges on studiously earnest self-torture. As in the art of Groucho Marx, the slapstick comedy veils a keen, self-piercing intelligence. Berryman is our shrewdest clown.” —From Laurence Liebermann’s Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review, 1964-1977 (University of Illinois Press, 1977)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Robert Lowell on Cooked Poetry and Raw Poetry

“Our modern American poetry has a snarl on its hands. Something earth-shaking was started about fifty years ago by the generation of Eliot, Frost, and William Carlos Williams. We have had a run of poetry as inspired, and perhaps as important and sadly brief as that of Baudelaire and his successors, or that of the dying Roman Republic and early Empire. Two poetries are now competing, a cooked and a raw. The cooked, marvelously expert, often seems laboriously concocted to be tasted and digested by a graduate seminar. The raw, huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience are dished up for midnight listeners. There is a poetry that can only be studied, and a poetry that can only be declaimed, a poetry of pedantry, and a poetry of scandal. I exaggerate, of course. Randall Jarrell has said that the modern world has destroyed the intelligent poet’s audience and given him students. James Baldwin has said that many of the beat writers are as inarticulate as our statesmen.

“Writing is neither transport nor technique. My own owes everything to a few of our poets who have tried to write directly about what mattered to them, and yet to keep faith with their calling’s tricky, specialized, unpopular possibilities for good workmanship. When I finished Life Studies, I was left hanging on a question mark. I am still hanging there. I don’t know whether it is a death-rope or a life-line.” —From Robert Lowell’s acceptance speech in 1960 for the National Book Award in Poetry given to Life Studies (1959)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Randall Jarrell on Qualities of a Critic

“Everybody understands that poems and stories are written by memory and desire, love and hatred, daydreams and nightmares—by a being, not a brain. But they are read just so, judged just so; and some great lack in human qualities is as fatal to the critic as it is to the novelist. Someone asked Eliot about critical method, and he replied: ‘The only method is to be very intelligent.’ And this is of course only a beginning: there have been many very intelligent people, but few good critics—far fewer than there have been good artists, as any history of the arts will tell you. ‘Principles’ or ‘standards’ of excellence are either specifically harmful or generally useless; the critic has nothing to go by except his experience as a human being and a reader, and is the personification of empiricism. A Greek geometer said that there is no royal road to geometry—there is no royal, or systematic, or impersonal, or rational, or safe, or sure road to criticism. Most people understand that a poet is a good poet because he does well some of the time; this is true of critics—if we are critics we can see this right away for everybody except ourselves, and everybody except ourselves can see it right away about us.” —From “The Age of Criticism” in Poetry and the Age by Randall Jarrell (Vintage, 1959)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dean Young on Intention in Writing Poetry

“To approach the practice of poetry as an acquiring of skills sets may provide the stability of a curriculum, but the source of inspiration is as much instability, even recklessness. Poets are excellent students of blizzards and salt and broken statuary, but they are always elsewhere for the test. Any intention in the writing of poetry beyond the most basic aim to make a poem, of engaging the materials, should not be realized. If the poet does not have the chutzpah to jeopardize habituated assumptions and practices, what is produced will be sleep without dream, a copy of a copy of a copy. The poem always intends otherwise. At every moment the poet must be ready to abandon any prior intention in welcome expectation of what the poem is beginning to signal. More than intending, the poet attends. Attends to the conspiracy of words as it reveals itself as a poem, to its murmurs of radiant content that may be encouraged to shout, to its muffled music there to be discovered and conducted. Revision is just that, and it begins before the first word is even written . . . .” —From Dean Young’s “Beyond Intention: Poetry and the Art of Recklessness,” Poets & Writers Magazine (Nov./Dec. 2009)


Click image for further information