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.

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)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

William Logan on Wallace Stevens

Much of Stevens is tedious, refractory, pompous, or ponderous; even his masterpieces are full of bombast and puffery. As he got older, he fell into blank-verse philosophizing no less like boilerplate than the reams of legal documents that presumably issued from his office. He’s a poet whose words you want to get behind: the language is as much an obstacle as a pleasure. But, when you parse those phrases, when you go to the Palaz of Hoon and come back again, you’re often a little disappointed. The philosophy of his poems, the grand ones as well as the pleasingly trivial, are those of a freshman class in ontology, epistemology, or aesthetics. Stevens had a high opinion of his philosophical gifts—he was prickly and childish when a late lecture was rejected by the Review of Metaphysics. Eliot, who was a trained philosopher and possessed the subtlest mind among the moderns—perhaps the subtlest mind in all American poetry, if you exclude Melville—knew enough to leave the philosophy out, or to bury it deeply.

The best poems in Stevens don’t require the philosophy (if there’s an exception, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” proves that philosophy is rarely more honored in the observance than in the breach), and the worst are deformed by it. The long poems, those most drawn to Stevens’s metaphysical itch, those that feel it necessary to justify their length in terms of abstractions rendered and sustained (but rarely blooded), have made critics the most diagnostic. The critical response to Stevens has itself so often been abstract, so full of critic’s legalese, it has made him more a great cloud of being than a man who at times played with words. —From “The Sovereign Ghost of Wallace Stevens” by William Logan in The New Criterion (October, 2009)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Robert Penn Warren on the Purpose of a Poem

“I think a poem is a way of asking a question rather than answering one. You’re trying to find out what’s important to think about. You’re trying to ask questions about yourself, about what your values really are. It is more important to ask the questions vitally than it is to give an overall answer. If you know the answer, you are a very lucky or a very stupid man. In any case, a poem is not a story or an essay. It ultimately deals with something not workable otherwise.” —From an interview of Robert Penn Warren by Richard Jackson in Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets (University of Alabama Press, 1983)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Larry Levis on Grief and the Image

“Although it must be living itself that leads anyone to conditions of grief, it may be a poet’s obsession with the Image that leads to grieving. But how so? Why? If an image is, as Pound said, ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,’ it is exactly that ‘instant of time’ which passes; even though an image may reify itself many times in a reader’s experience, it will pass again as well. The image draws on, comes out of, the ‘world of the senses’ and, therefore, originates in a world that passes, that is passing, every moment. Could it be, then, that every image, as image, has this quality of poignancy and vulnerability since it occurs, and occurs so wholeheartedly, in time?” —From “Some Notes on Grief and the Image,” a chapter in Larry Levis’s The Gazer Within (University of Michigan Press, 2001)


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