poetry

The noble Bob

October 19, 2016 | 12 Comments

Poetry & prose

June 15, 2016 | 12 Comments

I wonder how many prose writers unconsciously draw on the rhythms and content of the poems they read as children? The longer I write, mostly nonfiction in my case, the more poetry I read. Poetry’s distilled wisdom feeds me as a person, and its precise diction and careful phrasing nurture me as a writer. Poetry grows your literary intelligence and seeps into your sentences.

Formalist poetry—which employs meter and sometimes rhyme schemes—enchanted me during my nine years as book publicist and then marketing manager for Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. David Sanders was the director then, a poet and a publisher of poets who launched the Press’s esteemed Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. We didn’t publish only formalists, and poetry collections of any kind constituted a handful of our annual publications, but they were among our most interesting. I moved on, and later so did Sanders, but our old Press, now led by Gillian Berchowitz, has just published a new collection of his poetry, Compass and Clock. In it, Sanders mixes free-verse poems with those that employ formal elements. The book was elegantly designed in-house by Beth Pratt, using Jeff Kallet’s collage “Sunrise” as the cover’s striking image.

I’ve read Compass and Clock twice. There’s the strangeness of true art in odd little poems like “He Was Once,” about a man who drives a widow to a mountaintop to watch an incoming storm.

Along with his witty wordplay and his poetry showcasing, as poetry does, the power of metaphor, I was struck by Sanders’s spare, precise descriptions. The “thin curtains” in one poem seemed so perfect, telling, and sad.

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Living with racism

March 31, 2016 | 4 Comments

How well I remember asking my friend Mike a stupid question. We were young reporters together. But there our similarity ended, for Mike’s skin was brown. He was the only person of color who worked at that newspaper. In fact, the entire town lacked racial diversity. One day I got marveling at Mike’s situation, imaging myself surrounded by and working only with members of another race.

“That’s got to be so weird,” I said. “Does it feel strange, Mike?”

I expected props for seeing his plight, but Mike gave me the most withering look I’d ever received. I was surprised, too, because at parties he mocked racial stereotypes by bringing fried chicken or lugging in watermelons. I was trying to be sensitive and insightful, but I put him on the spot with my cluelessness.

I thought of Mike reading Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine’s short book, a long segmented essay-poem, on her experience as a person of color making her way in realms still mostly white. Citizen, Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, proves that great literature doesn’t have to be hard reading. Except, in this case, emotionally. Rankine challenges white readers as she conveys the cognitive dissonance she lives with as an African American.

For example, when her white friends slip and reveal their unconscious prejudice toward her or another member of her race. Or when she witnesses the barriers faced by tennis star Serena Williams. Or when she hears of a black person harmed by cops. Consider, when even people with white skin feel wary in dealings with police, what a cruiser’s appearance must feel like to black people.

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The power to charm

January 20, 2016 | 4 Comments

Anthony Lane’s irreverent reviews for the New Yorker of Hollywood blockbusters make me laugh. He’s fun, quite cheeky. But I’m always pleased when he casts his wit and his elegant sentences toward what he admires. Such as his recent appreciation of Todd Haynes’s film Carol about forbidden love between two women in 1952 America. Less than 20 years after that repressed era, David Bowie, with his androgyny and his openness about his bisexuality, helped usher the shift in consciousness that has culminated in America in marriage equality. Among last week’s many tributes to Bowie, surely there wasn’t a finer one than Lane’s for his fellow Brit, “David Bowie in the Movies.”

For a brief essay, Lane’s reflects deep processing and manages a thrilling range of considerations. Like Bowie’s work, Lane’s delights in its own performance but hits you with unexpected emotional force.

If genius is brilliance plus output, Bowie certainly qualifies as one. Even among superstar performers, that rarified group, he seemed one in a million. In an ultimately soaring appreciation, Lane takes a measured view of Bowie’s film work. Most of Bowie’s roles were in minor films, Lane says. He doesn’t crown Bowie as a great movie actor, while noting his performance instinct and impact.

Art is made of emotion and it’s about emotion. Lane’s essay showcases perhaps the highest role of the critic, to be emotionally responsive in turn to art.

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Sign me, Bemused

December 3, 2015 | 30 Comments

Way back in graduate school I wrote a paper on the misuse of forte. It means a person’s strong suit when pronounced “fort” but refers to a loud musical passage when pronounced as its spelling indicates, for-tey. Or once it did. The distinction has almost been lost partly because people who knew better began mispronouncing forte to fit in.

Which I think is what interested me, that cognitive dissonance. Everyone wants to belong, to be admired by her or his chosen group. So I was upset when I realized recently that I’d misused the word “bemused” several times in my book, Shepherd: A Memoir. The memorable one to me involves our ewe Big Mama and her sardonic attitude toward me. I said she was bemused by me.

But bemused does not mean “extra amused”; it means bewildered or confused; a secondary meaning is lost in thought. The word is so rampantly misused that its meaning may be changing. And even when used correctly, its meaning often is unclear.

Here’s Mary Karr, describing her father as her storytelling model, in The Art of Memoir: “He had a talent for physical detail and a bemused attention to the human comedy.” Karr is a best-selling memoirist and a respected poet, so we must assume she’s using the word correctly here. Or must we? I think so. Yet Karr intends praise, and it’s more flattering to her father to picture him as amused by the human comedy than confused by it. Maybe he’s just a bit puzzled like everyone else in this comedy of errors we call life.

You can see the lack of clarity flowing from this slippery word.

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Poetry of Light in August

June 22, 2015 | 8 Comments

William Faulkner began as a poet, and it shows. He adores words. His sentences shine as well in Light in August, sometimes referred to as his greatest novel. Sometimes it’s also called his most accessible great one, the last bead on his string of masterpieces between 1929 and 1932: Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary. I remember Light in August fondly from college. I wrote mostly poetry then, and realized only recently that I had based a character, in an epic poem I was slaving over on nights, after the novel’s immortal Lena Grove.

Rereading it this summer, I’m struck by how sure a writer Faulkner was. His sentences thrill and inspire. Then again, there are enough of those Faulkneresque doozies to keep you on your toes. The story is simple. Lena Grove, a poor and naïve, very pregnant but indomitable, a girl from nowhere Alabama, tracks her feckless beau to Mississippi. He works as a sawdust shoveler at a sawmill with a fellow named Joe Christmas, a bootlegger, soon-to-be murderer, and all-around tortured soul. Suffice it to say, troubles ensue.

Some of Faulkner’s sentences are seemingly based on his observations, others seemingly arise from his immersion in his fictive story.

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Judith Kitchen’s noticing

November 10, 2014 | 12 Comments

Hearing on Sunday of Judith Kitchen’s death, I felt a pang of loss. I’ve only recently become a fan. Last June I read her Brevity essay “On the Farm,” a consideration of two archival photographs—a girl with chickens, a child with her father in a cornfield—and modeled an essay on it. And I read her celebrated essay “Blue,” a segmented lyric that moves from her father’s, mother’s, and brother’s blue eyes to her children’s to her high school geometry class.

Then, in August, I read her essay collection that opens with “Blue,” Distance and Direction. It’s one of my top books of 2014.

Kitchen’s essays here verge on poetry. Moments from memory; how memory works. The world’s beauty. Her father’s image and his memory everywhere. And grief, loss, regret. Might you wish for more connective tissue? Maybe. Yet how neat to be given bright shards instead of always the mirror’s entire, dutiful brown frame too. Did Distance and Direction wholly achieve the author’s aim as art. Yes, surely. These essays make you want to be more alive yourself—to notice as much—and to write with such clarity and meaning.

Here’s a paragraph just before a space break in “Displacement”:

“If it is going to rain, it will rain the cold, spiraling rain of the seacoast. Blinding rain that will wash in from the sea in a shroud of fog. The day will close down. The streets will be dark with the words of the sea, dark with the blood that has yet to be shed in a time that surely will be.”

Note the rhythms, the simple diction, the precision. The passage’s culmination, that mysterious final sentence, soars beyond mortal power.

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