A book I’ve had for many years is Louis Untermeyer’s A Concise Treasury of Great Poems, English and American, published in paperback in 1958. In his introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, Untermeyer notes, “The quality of his gift as well as the tragedy of his life is indicated in the words of Sir Francis Bacon which are on the Poe Memorial Gate at West Point: ‘There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.'”
Edgar Allan Poe pioneered a distinctly American brand of gothic horror and romanticism, and introduced the short story to the literary tradition. Yet throughout his career he never received much fame or money. “The Raven” was his best-known work, for which he was paid $9. Poe spent his life traveling up and down the Atlantic coast, working odd jobs and performing parlor readings to make ends meet, going from one failed relationship to the next. He ultimately died with no family, raving mad in the streets of Baltimore.
As if in an attempt to rectify Poe’s lack of success, numerous locations of import during his lifetime have been posthumously dedicated to him, or at least honor his presence there. Here are 10 places in the Atlas that trace the footsteps of America’s master of macabre.
Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.
This is the start of Tolkien’s Christmas poem, “Noel,” which was uncovered back in June 2013. The discovery of a copy of it in Our Lady’s School in Abingdon made a stir earlier this year. You can read the whole thing here.
Our friend Ori posted a graphic on Facebook, showing a series of limerick versions of classic poems — “The Raven,” “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” etc.
I couldn’t find the original source, so I don’t care to republish it here. But I will publish the one I came up with on the spot (well, after a few minutes’ thought). It requires a sloppy but common pronunciation of “Ulysses”:
There once was a Greek named Ulysses,
Who angered a god with his disses.
He paid for his crime,
But got home in time
To wedding-unplan for his missus.
“Literature,” writes Caleb Griego, an editor for The Heights, the student newspaper of Boston College, “seems to soothe the discontents of the mind. Reading allows for us to come away from our own loneliness and relish in the solidarity of it with another. Our alienation is both the cause of anguish and the remedy to it.”
The big news on the literary front today (you’ve doubtless heard already) is that a Minnesota native (unfortunately not me) has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The somewhat mystifying choice is Bob Dylan.
I’ll admit I don’t get it. In fact I never “got” Dylan. Even his much-praised lyrics do nothing for me.
But then I pretty much didn’t get anything that happened from 1965 to 1980 or so.
In other news, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to Keith Richards.
James Delingpole decided to memorize a poem and describes for us what we can learn from that practice. “Learning a poem is a good way of experiencing this creative process [of polishing a work to be its best] because, like the poet, you’re compelled to weigh each word.” (via Prufrock News)
The original Star-Spangled Banner, in the Smithsonian Institution
One would think that the availability of the internet would increase the general truthfulness of human discourse. When it’s so easy to check our facts, our facts ought to be more… factual.
The actual effect, as far as I can see, has been to simply facilitate the spread of misinformation. Which ought to prove the doctrine of Original Sin beyond all dispute, it seems to me.
The misinformation I have in mind today is the urban legend, popularized in the wake of the recent controversy over a football player (who shall remain nameless here, because he doesn’t need the publicity) who refused to stand for the national anthem. The urban legend says that all black people should refuse to stand for the song, because it was written by a slave owner for the purpose of glorifying slavery.
This is hogwash. Francis Scott Key was a slaveholder, and a supporter of slavery, in common with most of his family and neighbors. But the song has nothing to do with that.
No one has perfected a method to restore poetry’s place in public culture. It is unlikely that the art will ever return to the central position it once held. But is it unreasonable to hope that poetry can acquire some additional vitality or that the audience can be increased? Isn’t it silly to assume that current practices represent the best way to sustain the art into the future? There are surely opportunities for innovation, renovation, and improvement. Literary culture needs new ideas.
Poet Dana Gioia learned “students actually liked poetry once they took it off the page.” He recommends exploring new ways to revive the place of poems in our lives.
Ben Lerner’s elegant, amusing essay turns on a distinction between Poetry and poems. Poetry is Caedmon’s dream, a virtual ideal that actual poems can’t live up to. “The fatal problem with poetry,” Lerner writes, is “poems.” Every poet is, inevitably, “a tragic figure.”
Peter J. Leithart reviews Lerner’s 96 page essay on the aspirations and failures of poetry. “Poetry isn’t hard,” Lerner says, “it’s impossible.”
Speaking of the impossible: Wendy Cope.
He tells her that the earth is flat —
He knows the facts and that is that.
The new poet laureate for California is the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and USC poetry professor Dana Gioia. Micah Mattix asked him a few questions
Writing for “what we used to call the common reader . . . doesn’t mean dumbing things down,” Gioia told me. “It is possible to bring the best of poetry to a broad audience without condescension . . . The common reader is not an idiot. He or she is a lawyer, doctor, farmer, soldier, scientist, minister, civil servant.”
Mattix states, “Gioia’s own poetry ignores the current fashion for obscure, partially fragmented free verse whose allusions and assimilated jargon appeal mostly to academics and other poets.”
For example, here are a few words from “Becoming a Redwood,” a poem that sounds as if it were written by Robert Frost.
Yes, it’s hard to stand still, hour after hour,
fixed as a fencepost, hearing the steers
snort in the dark pasture, smelling the manure.
And paralyzed by the mystery of how a stone
can bear to be a stone, the pain
the grass endures breaking through the earth’s crust.
When I wrote yesterday that my life was “full of Viking stuff again,” I neglected to tell the whole of the tale. I was also finishing up my reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.
I find it difficult to get enough objective distance on this book to make any guess as to how the public at large will receive it. For me, and some of my friends, this book is a gift. All our lives we’ve heard of the young scholars Tolkien and Lewis sitting in their rooms at Oxford, reading Eddaic poems to each other in the original Icelandic (this was how the famous Inklings began). Yet in their published work, both men have surprisingly little to say on the matter. Tolkien gives us echoes in The Lord of the Rings, although those elements are generally as much Anglo-Saxon as Norse. And Lewis seems to have shed his passion for Northernness along with his atheism, as if he’d put aside childish things.
But here we have a genuinely Norse work from Tolkien himself. It’s not a translation. It’s an original poem, drawing on varied sources. The original poem he’s trying to refashion, found in the Codex Regius manuscript in Iceland (where she shares honors with the Flatey Book I mentioned yesterday), is interrupted in the middle by the loss of a whole signature of pages. There are other versions of the story extant, both prose and poetry, but they vary widely in quality and consistency. Tolkien determined to do his own version, in which he’d try to work out contradictions between the traditions.
Frost is not simply that rare bird, a popular poet; he is one of the best-known personages of the past hundred years in any cultural arena. In all of American history, the only writers who can match or surpass him are Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, and the only poet in the history of English-language verse who commands more attention is William Shakespeare.
“After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again,” he wrote. “As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful … The poem in question … was rejected under my real name forty times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”
The guest editor this annual collection, Sherman Alexie, was angered by Hudson’s bluff, but he kept the poem in the collection because Hudson’s rationale was looking him right in the eye. “If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.”
Naturally, this has stirred up a conversation about race and the merits of poetry.
Someone shared the video at this link on Facebook today. It’s “The Battle of Maldon, the Lego Version.” The creators went to the trouble of staging the story in Lego figures. They commit the sin of horns on Viking helmets, but let’s face it, you can’t be too scrupulous when you’re dealing in Legos.
“The Battle of Maldon,” of course, is a famous Anglo-Saxon poem describing a battle between Englishmen and Norsemen in 991. The Norsemen won, due either to cheating by the Vikings or the stupidity of the English commander (depending on your point of view).
By the way, it’s generally agreed that the Viking commander that day was Olaf Trygvesson, a major character in my novel The Year of the Warrior. Some years back I read historians saying they’d decided it wasn’t him after all, but now everybody’s saying it was. So I guess they changed their minds.