Category Archives: Poetry

Hatin’ on Poetry

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.

Read the rest of Cope’s poem.

Dana Gioia on the Common Reader

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.

‘The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,’ by J.R.R. Tolkien

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.

The result was very pleasing to me. Tolkien has definite views about Old Norse Eddaic poetry, and in his view it’s a very different thing from the Anglo-Saxon kind he translated in Beowulf. Continue reading ‘The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,’ by J.R.R. Tolkien

Did Frost Take the Untaken Road?

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.

Everyone loves Frost, and according to David Orr, almost everyone misreads “The Road Not Taken.” I think he’s right. I know I’ve misread it.

Rejected Under His White Name

Poet Michael Hudson has a strategy for getting his poetry accepted. He explains it in a note attached to his contribution to The Best American Poetry.

“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.

Update: Hudson’s pseudonym is reportedly the name of one of his high school classmates. The Guardian states, “While the real-life Chou refused to speak to the paper directly, her sister said that the woman was furious at the appropriation of her name for this purpose.”

History in plastic

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.

Kieron Winn, All Will Be Well

Poet Kieron Winn has the curious role of being a “freelance teacher of creative writing and English literature.” That’s probably like being a gunslinger, only with pens instead of guns–more lethal. He has released his first collection of poems, The Mortal Man, in the U.K. One of them is available this month in The New Criterion, called “In the Garden” and others through his website.

In one about his aging father, he writes:

I cannot bring a bucket of rock-pool creatures
And have him beam at me and understand,
But it dies hard, wanting someone to say
All will be well, with the power to make it so today.

‘Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

First of all, it should be made clear – and I wonder how anyone could be in doubt on this, but it’s possible – that J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is not a work of imagination meant for popular entertainment. It’s a translation of an already much-translated work, intended as a teaching aid, by a major scholar in the field. If you’re unfamiliar with Beowulf, you might want to try one of the modern verse translations, like Heaney’s, but I liked this version very much.

Personally, I prefer a prose translation. Tolkien probably knew Old English poetry better than any modern man, and here he attempts to provide some sense of the original metrical form, but he is not forced to alter the text in order to make the verse scan. Any translation is always a trade-off, especially in poetry, and for my own part I prefer some approximation of the original text.

Tolkien’s translation is a lively one. I can imagine him reading it to Lewis (and we’re told Lewis did advise him on bits of it) and then ignoring, as he always did, Lewis’ suggestions.

There are many notes. Some are by Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son, who is editor. Others are drawn directly from Tolkien’s own notes. Some of this material fascinated me, some seemed to me (approaching more from the historian’s than the language scholar’s perspective) pretty tall grass. It was interesting to read, for instance, that Tolkien thinks the Beowulf poem correct in crediting (in passing) the slaying of the dragon to Sigfried’s father Sigmund, rather than to Sigfried himself. The dragon-slaying fits in with Sigmund’s story, he thinks, and seems like an interpolation in the Sigfried-Brunhilde narrative.

Also in this book is a work called “The Sellic Spell,” which is Tolkien’s attempt to reconstruct how the Beowulf story might have been passed down as a folk tale, rather than as a heroic poem. He sees a separation between the “fairy tale” Beowulf and the “historical” (by which he does not mean to suggest he thinks Beowulf a real historical character) tale. Here Tolkien may be observed “reverse engineering” an imagined lost legend, something he later did in a larger, more powerful way with The Lord of the Rings.

Also appended to this book is “The Lay of Beowulf,” an attempt to reimagine story as a sort of ballad. That was pleasant to read, but the editor gives us two earlier drafts to read as well, at which point I’m afraid I lost interest in it.

I recommend Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary for people interested in the Old English poem itself. Less so for readers whose main interest is Middle Earth. I’m glad this work has come out in print, and I’m happy I read it.

How To Write a Poetry Review, And How Not To

Glynn Young offers six overused words in poetry reviews, words such as “luminous” or its variant “filled with luminosity.” “Breathtaking” is another one. There’s nothing like a slim book of poetry that hits you like a punch in the gut.

“I consider poetry and book reviews highly subjective endeavors,” Young says. “It is someone’s opinion, after all, of someone else’s creative work. There’s no textbook approach I could cite that would meet all conditions and situations.”

He suggests using the journalist’s 5 W’s and and H for reviewing poetry.

Farm Storm

Why College Students Avoid Literature Studies

“When I was growing up in the Bronx, the local Jewish deli owner, whose meats smelled vaguely rancid and whose bagels seemed to start out already a day old, attributed his failing business to the vulgarization of Bronx tastes.” Professor Gary Saul Morson says the deli owner’s rationale illustrates the same by many humanities professors. Students and their parents have every right to ask why they should subject themselves to literature courses.

“I speak with students by the dozens,” Morson writes, “and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. And when I hear their descriptions of these classes, I see their point.” (via Prufrock)

W.B. Yeats at 150

Yeats Memorial

June 13 will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Bulter Yeats.

“a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy”

The Irish Times has several articles and personal reflections to commemorate the day. They say he published with them, being “a prolific journalist, contributing to dozens of newspapers, magazines and periodicals on matters of both politics and poetry, although for the budding writer the two were indivisible. The young idealist may have had loftier aspirations than the industry he later decried as ‘jeering, tittering, emptiness,’ but it was a good and important beginning for him: a way to augment his meagre living and increase his profile for his poetry.”

“And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age—
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage—”

Futility

just go with the flow

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

“Futility” by Wilfred Owen