Eight American Poets: Notes on Seminar
Lyrical Intelligence: The Poetry of Linda Gregerson and Mark Doty
(The last in a series of brief essays accompanying this fall’s Eight American Poets seminar at the Writer’s Center.)
One of the greatest pleasures of teaching is, for me, selecting the works to be considered in a given class. But if the task itself is intoxicating – ah, to spend a day re–reading selections from favorite books and scouring new ones! – it can also be daunting. How do you chooses between, say, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, or Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore? And once you’ve worked your way through those choices, how do you choose from among an individual poet’s work? Do you want a representative slice of work, or a chronological selection to show the development of voice and style? Do you want to rinse the much–anthologized poems of their familiarity, “make it new” again? Or are you after the obscure, the overlooked gems, in a poets’ catalogue?
Over the course of this seminar, we’ve spanned 100 years of American poetry, in a wide–roving discussion in which the development of the poet’s voice has been a recurring, stabilizing theme. I had several reasons for wanting to conclude our work with the poems of Linda Gregerson and Mark Doty. First and most simply, I believe they are two of the most exciting poets working today. Second, their backgrounds and approaches are different enough to make for interesting comparisons – for example, Gregerson is at least as well known as a Renaissance scholar as a poet, while Doty’s writing outside of poetry has been mostly in memoir and autobiography. But perhaps most importantly for our purposes here, Gregerson and Doty are both possessed of strong, utterly original voices. No one else sounds quite like either one of them.
Though they both write intellectually challenging poems – hers the more overtly, his the more deceptively so, it seems to me – the challenges themselves are couched quite differently. His seems the more private, more intimate speech, hers the more public discourse. Take, for example, the first few lines of Gregerson’s “Maudlin; or, The Magdalen’s Tears,” the opening poem of her first collection, Fire in the Conservatory:
If faith is a tree that sorrow grows
and women, repentant or not, are swamps,
a man who comes for solace here
will be up to his knees and slow
getting out. A name can turn on anyone.
The speaker begins by asserting a syllogism, in metaphors that we are evidently intended to accept on their own terms – that faith is a tree, that women are swamps – in a sentence that stretches over four–and–a–half lines. Before we know it, we’re in the world of the poem. (When I first encountered this work, nearly twenty years ago, I was so enchanted by the music and the metaphors of that opening sentence that it was instantly embedded in my memory, line breaks and all. I used to repeat it to myself, like a riddle I might one day crack.) And just when we look around to get our bearings, she hits us with a short sentence whose simple syntax undercuts the mystery of its meaning. With each turn of each line, we are pulled into an inquiry whose roots in the speaker are never addressed, only hinted at.
Indeed, the question of just who is speaking in a given Gregerson poem is less easily answerable than it is with Doty. Like her, he is poet of profound intelligence, but of a more ruminative cast, as evidenced in the opening lines of “Visitation,” from his collection Sweet Machine:
When I heard he had entered the harbor
and circled the wharf for days,
I expected the worst: shallow water,
confusion, some accident to bring
the young humpback to grief.
Don’t they depend on a compass
lodged in the salt–flooded folds
of the brain, some delicate
musical mechanism to navigate
their true course?
The speaker invites us in with a personal reminiscence, then turns on his own uncertain memory with a question. The voice here, as distinctive as Gregerson’s, is softer. If she begins many of her poems with a bang, he often commences with a near–whisper.
Even as I write this, I am aware that none of the above assertions are quite so clear–cut as they might seem. (It may even be that in choosing which poems of theirs we will read this week, I was unconsciously reinforcing my own theories.) And indeed, I’m continually surprised by both of these poets. Doty will turn suddenly fierce, or Gregerson will crack a joke, and I have to reconsider my perceptions. As they keep enlarging the ground they work from, the nimble reader must stretch to accommodate them.
Of course, one of the glories of loving a poet’s work in his or her own lifetime is watching it develop and grow and change, feeling the anticipation of the next title, the pleasure of cracking open a new book from an old favorite to see what surprises are in store. But such pleasures also provide a kind of spiritual exercise. A good poem widens and brightens the psyche, instructs us with its music and its perceptions. I believe that poetry makes us better people – a fine reason, if one is needed, to keep reading.
October 26, 2005
Learning to Listen: Reuben Jackson on Frank O’Hara & Robert Hayden
(The third in a series of brief essays accompanying this fall’s Eight American Poets seminar at the Writer’s Center.)
Some poets come easily into our lives, and some don’t. It might be a matter of taste, or of time – when we read a particular poem is often as important as what poem it is – or of method, of how that work comes to us, whether taught or given or found.
For me, with Frank O’Hara, timing was everything.
I first discovered the work of those poets called the New York School – O’Hara, John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch – in my early twenties. None of them, then, moved me much. At the time, I was deep into two different currents: simultaneously in love with the work of Anne Sexton and Robert Duncan, I was reading both the Confessional Poets that she represented and the Black Mountain Poets – so named because of their affiliation, in various ways, with legendary Black Mountain college – who included, in addition to Duncan, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. Entranced by the psychological complexity of the former and the philosophical complexity of the latter, I was in no mood for playfulness. The poems I loved were serious, damn it. O’Hara, in particular, looked to me as if he was having too much fun.
A few years ago, I found myself re–investigating the New York School. In every case, I had underestimated them, but most especially, O’Hara. The cleanness and freshness of his language, the subtlety of his music, the quick edge of his wit, the washes of melancholy – how had I missed all that before? I guess you could say that I had to be both older and lighter of spirit to hear what O’Hara was doing.
But it also helped to know the poet Reuben Jackson. I’ve said before that in many ways Reuben seems to me to be one of O’Hara’s literary inheritors – their poems share a sly simplicity, and a way of hearing as well as seeing the world. Because of that – because he knows O’Hara’s work from the inside out – and because he is a great teacher, I invited him to guide the seminar through that work. I also asked him to pick another poet to pair with O’Hara. He selected Robert Hayden, whose poetry is overdue for some serious attention. Re–reading Hayden these past weeks, I’m struck by his profound elegance, as well as by a certain contained fullness of emotion. He was a master.
Two very different voices, indeed, in Hayden and O’Hara. I’m looking forward to the ways in which Reuben will help us to hear them.
October 19, 2005
“A Certain Sense of Order” – The Poetry of Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell
(The second in a series of brief essays accompanying this fall’s Eight American Poets seminar at the Writer’s Center.)
I read my first Anne Sexton poem in an undergraduate Introduction to Literature course when I was 19 years old. The conditions of that encounter are set in memory, as your first meeting with someone you will come to love so often is. I can recall the faded yellow tile of the classroom floor, the uncomfortable plastic chairs with their Formica desktops, and the harsh fluorescent lights only somewhat muted by the haze of cigarette smoke. (We were allowed to smoke in class back then, and almost everybody did.) I remember the professor, a tough, arrogant, brilliant man who had given a typically dazzling opening lecture on that group of mid–20th–century Americans known as the Confessional Poets.
Plumbing the most intimate – and some might say, most appalling – details of our human lives, these poets explored their troubled family histories, their marriages and divorces, their bouts with mental illness and seizures of ecstasy, in unflinching language. They were heroes, my professor said, mapping the unknown regions of the psyche as explorers had mapped the New World. And the best known had paid a high price. John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton had all taken their own lives; Robert Lowell had died of a heart attack in the back of a taxi, a wreck washed up on the shore between two dramatically failed marriages; Randall Jarrell had been struck down by a car that many believe he stepped in front of deliberately. It was a chilling introduction the professor gave that day, and I expected the poems we read to be as jagged and messy as the lives he described.
Then he placed before us that masterpiece of control in the face of despair, Sexton’s, “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward.”
The title establishes the persona Sexton takes on in this poem, written in the voice of an unmarried young woman about to give her newborn up for adoption. In five 11–line stanzas, written in regular a/b/a/b rhyme, the girl addresses the baby, whose sex we never know, directly. The language is simple and elegiac, the girl’s acceptance of her predicament framed in a mournful minor key established in the opening stanza:
Child, the current of your breath is six days long.
You lie, a small knuckle on my white bed;
lie, fisted like a snail, so small and strong
at my breast. Your lips are animals; you are fed
with love. At first hunger is not wrong.
The nurses nod their caps; you are shepherded
down starch halls with the other unnested throng
in wheeling baskets. You tip like a cup; your head
moving to my touch. You sense the way we belong.
But this is an institution bed.
You will not know me very long.
I had never read a poem quite like this before – or perhaps I should say that I had never heard a voice like this in poetry before. My father had raised me on Shakespeare’s rich and witty language, the melancholy eloquence of Keats and Wordsworth. Later, I’d fallen for Emily Dickinson’s wild inner landscapes, and for T.S. Eliot’s existential complexities. But I had no idea that a great poem could be made from the material of everyday experience, that a woman speaking plainly about plain lives could have such power. Sexton was skilled – people overlook, I think, the formal strengths of many of her poems, particularly the early ones – but the authority in her voice is not based in the mastery of her craft alone, but won from hard experience. “I was there,” these poems seem to say. “That was what it was like.” And if the experiences described are not always pretty, that is in part because they bear the unmistakable mark of authenticity. This is life as it is really lived.
I do not remember what poem of Lowell’s we discussed that day. For me, Sexton had blotted everything else out. But I soon discovered that Sexton had been Lowell’s student in a now–legendary Boston University workshop that also included Maxine Kumin, George Starbuck, and Plath. What I would give for a time machine that could take me back to that room! And what an interesting pair they make – Sexton, the housewife who began to write poems in her late 20’s as a way of coping with her mental illness, and who churned them out, sometimes, at the rate of one or two a day; and Lowell, the privileged son of an old New England family, who knew before he had reached preparatory school that poetry was to be his life, and who revised continually, obsessively, carrying different versions of poems over from one book to the next. I’ll admit that I struggled for a while with some of his early work; the swooping, Melville– infused voice of “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” for example, put me off at first. But the more I read him aloud – the more I heard him– the more I understood, and by the time I had reached “Skunk Hour,” where the poet, observing the parked cars of lovers, suddenly confesses, “My mind’s not right,” I knew that once again I was in the presence of a writer who would not spare himself or his reader the truth, no matter how difficult to digest.
For me, the great signature poem of the Confessional era is Sexton’s “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further.” Written for another of her teachers, John, Holmes, who questioned what he saw as her tendency to dwell on the “ugly and pathetic” aspects of human existence, the poem states its case gently at first, but gathers heat and conviction as it goes. She begins,
Not that it was beautiful,
but that, in the end, there was
a certain sense of order there;
something worth learning. . .
For more than 20 years, I have returned again and again to Sexton and to Lowell to find what is worth learning in this life. “A certain sense of order” – yes, they give us that. And beauty, as well.</>
October 12, 2005
A Poet’s Predicament: Finding an American Voice
(The first in a series of brief essays accompanying this fall’s Eight American Poets seminar at the Writer’s Center.)
When I told colleagues that I was beginning my new Eight American Poets seminar with the work of T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop, the reactions were almost all ones of puzzlement. “What do those two have in common, exactly?” was a recurring question.
The obvious answer is, not a lot. Eliot was born at the end of the 19th century, Bishop more than 20 years later. He left America for London early in his life, and claimed that city as his home until the end, dying a British citizen. Bishop traveled extensively and adventurously through Europe, South America, and Morocco, among other places, and lived for some time in Brazil before returning in her last decade to the U.S. Eliot came from a distinguished family, but had to struggle to support himself and his first, mentally ill wife; Bishop was an orphan, but an inheritance made her financially independent. We could go on and on – she’s a woman, he’s a man, she was a lesbian, he was heterosexual – but you get the idea.
Still, these two writers have something very important in common, a predicament that still confronts American poets today but which was much more acute as the 19th century folded into the 20th – how do you go about finding an authentic voice when your country of origin is so young and has such a short tradition from which you can learn and work?
By comparison, consider a British poet of Eliot’s time, Robert Graves. When Graves looked back at the poetic lineage and tradition of his country, he saw, to name just a few, John Keats and William Wordsworth, Tennyson and Milton, Browning and Shakespeare, Sidney and Chaucer. Now think of Eliot, born in 1888, and Bishop, in 1911. What was their inheritance here? Whose teaching did they have to develop or reject? What guidance did they have about how to craft or call up from within oneself an authentic American voice in poetry?
The answers are – almost nothing, almost no one, almost none. They did have two undisputed greats, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, but even they were relatively recent entries into the family tree. When Eliot was born, Emily Dickinson had been dead for only two years, and Walt Whitman was still alive. For an American poet at the beginning of the 20th century, the past was near, and sparely populated. *
Both Eliot and Bishop responded to this situation, in part, by finding mentors just a little older than themselves to nurture their work and help them into print – he in Ezra Pound, she in Marianne Moore. But I believe they also responded in a larger way to this predicament of voice, and that they did so in opposite ways. Eliot, longing for a deep and storied tradition, claimed not just the literature of his adopted country but of Italy and France as parts of his own, interweaving allusions to Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jules la Forgue, and his beloved Dante, among others, into his poems and taking on a voice that is, I will argue, already old even when the writer is young.
Bishop, on the other hand, seems to have been liberated by her short past, or perhaps not to have seen it as a predicament at all, but as an opportunity. If Eliot looks back, she looks at right now, gathering in the world as it is with a clear voice that seems untrammeled by convention or expectation. Bishop embraces the present, but not simply or for only itself. Rather, she is concerned not just with what we see, but how. She does not sound young, not really, but her voice is both more stringent in tone and less shadowy in spirit than Eliot’s.
It is this difference in voice that made me consider them together – that, and the fact that I hear over and over again from students how “difficult” the work of these two poets is to read. I won’t deny it, won’t try to re–couch the word as “challenging,” though I am tempted. But I would say that another alikeness in these two very different voices is that each carries the authority of intelligence. When you read a poem by T.S. Eliot or Elizabeth Bishop, you know that you are in the presence of a mind that is both educated and nuanced, rich and subtle. Sure, they ask a lot – brilliant people usually do, in life and in art – but they also give a lot, even in that asking. For their request as writers to us as readers is that we bring the best of ourselves – our most intelligent and most open, our most sensitive and most observant – faculties to bear on the fact of the poem. They ask us to pay attention. They ask us to be more than we already are. What a fine place to begin our seminar.
*My husband, when I was running all this by him, interrupted what I had thought was persuasive eloquence with, “What about Longfellow? A lot of people love his poetry.” I think I responded with some weak, wordy version of, “Longfellow ain’t no Shakespeare.” (He let me get away with it, too, which was kind. I think he could tell I was on a roll.) But, yes, OK, Longfellow. And then you’d have to add Emerson, too, though it’s not for his poems that we remember him. I guess we can allow Anne Bradstreet, as well, though she wasn’t actually born in the New World. Still, you get the point – this is a slender ancestry.