Thursday, May 26, 2011

Amy Lowell: Nobody's Bitch

Amy Lowell won the PPP in 1926, which would have been very exciting for her had she been alive. She died a year earlier, at the age of 51. Though she came from the wealthy Lowell family of Boston, she wasn’t allowed to go to college, as it wasn’t a proper thing for a lady of her station to do. But nobody puts Amy in a corner—she took to the family library and educated herself.

In many ways Lowell was a trailblazer (I hate that word, but it fits): She was writing contemporary Imagist poems which were at the time mostly being written by men; she wrote in free verse and “polyphonic prose” (which today we’d call prose poetry…sorta); she was a lesbian who smoked cigars and thought of her poems as “masculine” yet was against political feminism; and she didn’t take much shit from anyone.

I’m inspired that Lowell came to poetry later in life, at age 36, when her first poem, “A Fixed Idea” was published in the Atlantic Monthly. If you read it you’ll see that she started out pretty formal (surprise, it’s a sonnet!) in both her style, subject matter, and diction. This was before she self-identified as an Imagist.

So, what’s all this Imagist stuff? Well, you can look to the writing of its granddaddy, Ezra Pound, but Lowell saw her work fitting in to this contemporary poetic movement for a few, concrete reasons. Aside from the obvious deviations from form, Imagism allowed for humor, but not for moralizing. Lowell said herself in one of her short prose pieces, “I wish to state my firm belief that poetry should not try to teach, that it should exist simply because it is a created beauty, even if sometimes the beauty of a gothic grotesque.” But what I think was kind of subversive at the time is that these poems could be about anything, and the more “unpoetic” the better. You see red slippers in a shop window? Bam; here’s her poem "Red Slippers." You have a green bowl? Bam; write a poem about it called "The Green Bowl." But of course, these are just jumping-off points for the imagination. Nothing is off-limits—just don't be sentimental or verbose.

Some mildly interesting facts about Amy Lowell:

-She did poetic re-workings of literal translations of Chinese poems.
-She wrote over 650 poems. Daaaaamn!
-She hated Gertrude Stein’s poetry, but loved Edna St. Vincent Millay’s.
-She had a gland problem that caused her to be overweight, and was called “the hippopoetess” by other poets. I gotta laugh at that one; sorry, Amy.
-She love love loved John Keats and wrote a very long biography of him.
-She won the PPP for her book What’s O’Clock (incidentally, a very cool title).
-You can read some of Amy’s stuff at Project Gutenberg.

I tried to read a handful of poems from different books, since I kept reading that Amy Lowell’s poetry “grew” so much over time. I realized I’m just not a fan, so I’ll leave any further reading up to you. I couldn’t help but get a sort of cocky (pun intended) vibe from her, even before I read that she liked to smoke cigars and thought of herself as a masculine poet. It’s as if she thought she had to prove herself to her male contemporaries and ended up with a somewhat macho voice that I can’t really connect with. It doesn’t feel authentic, rather it comes across as a mask or defense. Case and point:

Epitaph of a Young Poet Who Died Before Having Achieved Success

Beneath this sod lie the remains
Of one who died of growing pains.

Yeah, that’s actually a poem. She seemed to be in a lot of feuds with people, too. Most notably with Ezra Pound after she claimed to be the visionary poet who made Imagism what it later became. It’s hard to blame her for this tone, given the place of women in poetry at the time and I have to give her a nod considering that she was a compelling and provocative figure. Lowell is at her best in her love poems, so I’ll leave you on a positive note with her poem "The Letter":

Little cramped words scrawling all over
the paper
Like draggled fly's legs,
What can you tell of the flaring moon
Through the oak leaves?
Or of my uncertain window and the
bare floor

Spattered with moonlight?
Your silly quirks and twists have nothing
in them
Of blossoming hawthorns,
And this paper is dull, crisp, smooth,
virgin of loveliness
Beneath my hand.

I am tired, Beloved, of chafing my heart
The want of you;
Of squeezing it into little inkdrops,
And posting it.
And I scald alone, here, under the fire
Of the great moon.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Robert Frost: Golden Boy

I think I was subconsciously putting off this entry because of my long history with Robert Frost, the details of which I’ll spare you in this post. If he were alive, let’s just say I’d be willing to defend his poetic honor to the death (but it wasn’t always that way). Frost was one of those rare poets who had such amazing success in his career while he was alive that it’s hard not to envy him: FOUR Pulitzer Prizes, numerous teaching fellowships, reading at Kennedy’s inauguration, and nearly thirty published books/collections. I don’t think I could live long enough to produce that much. His personal life, however, was fraught with grief, depression, and loneliness.

Frost was born in California (not Vermont! not New Hampshire!) and moved to New England when he was 12 after the death of his father. His mother died when he was 26. Frost and his wife Elinor had six children, but she died in 1938 and poor Robert only outlived two of his children. There was a history of depression in his family, including his mother and sister (who died in a mental institution), and two of his own children (a daughter who was committed, and a son who killed himself). This was perhaps the recipe for Frost’s poems, which often deal with the cruelty of nature and the poet’s attempts to understand a world that is all the more frightening the closer you look at it.

Three of my favorite Frost poems deal with this subject, which I think can also be described by the epitaph on Frost’s grave (from one of his own poems): “I had a lovers’ quarrel with the world.” The favorites are “Design,” “Acquainted with the Night,” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Here’s “Acquainted with the Night,” since you may have already read the other two:

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain --and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height 

One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.

Yes, it’s a sonnet. And before you can complain that I keep posting sonnets, let me remind you that it’s a reflection of the time (the 1920’s) and not of my personal preference. This poem reminds me a little of Neruda’s “I’m Tired of Being a Man.”

I think Frost was a genius in that he was an extremely close observer of the world, which in my mind, makes for the best poet. He also captured the human voice so well, in all of its various speech patterns. I read that he wrote “Stopping By the Woods On a Snowy Evening” in fifteen minutes as if he’d been possessed. And it’s in iambic tetrameter. I’d like to see someone do that today. It’s like the poetry equivalent of perfect pitch…effortless poetic rhythms that are both natural and composed. Let’s give the man the credit he deserves.

I just wanted to say a few words about Frost’s long poem, “New Hampshire,” since it gave his book its title and then won him the Pulitzer. It is, indeed, a long poem (but not epic!). You can read it for yourself, but I have to say it’s really not that great, though a little more playful and even funny. I liked the part about Vermont the best (no surprise there). I’d always thought of Vermont and New Hampshire as enemy states or foils, but after reading this passage in Frost’s “New Hampshire,” I may have changed my mind:

She's one of the two best states in the Union.
Vermont's the other. And the two have been
Yokefellows in the sap yoke from of old
In many Marches. And they lie like wedges,
Thick end to thin end and thin end to thick end,
And are a figure of the way the strong
Of mind and strong of arm should fit together,
One thick where one is thin and vice versa.

And last, but not least, here is some really cool footage of Frost giving a reading. It's from a documentary about his life called "A Lovers' Quarrel with the World." This particular reading was either at Amherst or Sarah Lawrence...I'm not sure which.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Lovely Light

The second poet on my list—and the second person from Maine. Coincidence? Before you start trying to recall the one poem you know by Edna St. Vincent Millay that you probably learned when you were, like, ten, let me help you out so we can get it out of the way.

First Fig

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

There. Much better. I wanted to approach what I’d been taught about Edna St. Vincent Millay with some skepticism. Though I read many similar accounts of her life, she was a much more nuanced person than her life-loving, sexually free, frank, feminist reputation allows us to believe. Biography turns out to be a mishmash of a person’s most-often cited characteristics. Of course, we also find Millay’s qualities in her poems. That’s right, I’m reading biography into the work. Take that, poetry teachers! I mean, she lived in Greenwich Village when it was pretty much the coolest its ever been. How could I not see that in her poems?

Edna liked to be called Vincent, which she got from subtracting the “St.” from her middle name (duh). It seems sorta crazy to give your child the middle name “St. Vincent,” but her uncle’s life had been saved at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York just before her birth, and her parents were obviously grateful for that fact. Vincent knew about gender studies before they existed, and possibly inherited her independent, feminist attitudes from her mother, who divorced her father in something like 1904. I didn’t even know that was possible. And she was openly bisexual. Can you imagine how radical that seemed at the time? Or how threatening it must have been for the mostly male-dominated world of poetry?

Vincent won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her fourth book (yep, she was just 31), and got married the same year (to a man…the times weren’t that different, after all). Her husband, Eugen Boissevain, was a self-declared feminist, who, get this, did all of the domestic chores and quit his imports business to manage his wife’s career and plan all of her readings and book tours. They were married for 26 years and even according to Vinny herself, “acted like bachelors.” That part I’ll leave to your imagination.

She spent a lot of her life on her estate called Steepletop, which is just outside of Albany, NY, and once they finish renovating it, I’m planning a pilgrimage there. I’m getting a little caught up in biography…so let’s fast-forward a little. She died at Steepletop (a year after her hubby) from falling down the stairs after a heart attack. I think all of that burning-the-candle-at-both-ends thing finally caught up to her. By all accounts she was an intense and often nervous woman. You can read her NY Times obituary if your’e interested.

Oh…so, the poems! You may not want to read her long poem, the Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, which she dedicated to her mom (because you’re lazy), but did you know that you could listen to Johnny Cash reciting it? I can really see why he was drawn to it. It’s Vincent’s homage to her mother, who though they were poor and moved around a lot when she was growing up, instilled in her a love of reading and even lugged a trunk full of literature with them whenever they moved. You can also hear Vincent’s own voice reciting it.

If you’d like to read one of her bolder, feminist poems, try sonnet 18. She was known for being a master of the sonnet above all else.

Here are a few of my favorite nuggets from the poems I read:

From “Three Songs From ‘The Lamp and the Bell’” (part II):
“The heart grows weary after a little
Of what it loved for a little while.”

From “God’s World”:
“Oh World, I cannot hold thee close enough.”

From “The Wood Road”:
“Yes, though Grief should know me hers
While the world goes round,
It could not in truth be said
this was lost on me:
A rock-maple showing red,
Burrs beneath a tree.”

My only criticism of Vincent is that she can border a little bit on “light verse,” à la Dorothy Parker, but she has such a wide range of themes and so many differing styles that it’s impossible to dismiss her. On my Poetry Love Scale (biography aside), I give Edna St. Vincent Millay a 6 (just based on what I’ve read).

One of my favorite poems was on the lighter side of things, but really beautiful in its simplicity:

I drank at every vine.
The last was like the first.
I came upon no wine
So wonderful as thirst.

I gnawed at every root.
I ate of every plant.
I came upon no fruit
So wonderful as want.

Feed the grape and bean
To the vintner and monger:
I will lie down lean
With my thirst and my hunger.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Edwin Arlington Robinson: Word Fisher

Edwin Arlington Robinson was one sad bastard, even though he wrote 28 books and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1922, 1925, and 1928. His parents wanted a girl and didn’t name him until he was 6 months old, when “Edwin Arlington” was decided by having friends draw names from a hat. When he was just 6 he announced that he wished he’d never been born. Living in the shadow of his handsome, athletic brothers, E.A. (as he preferred to be called) never married, and spent his life in love with his brother’s wife, whom he proposed to (before their marriage and after his brother’s death) to no avail.

E.A. was the quintessential outsider, a loner, an alcoholic…and a poet through and through—or as he described, “an incorrigible fisher of words.” In a letter to one of his few friends, he wrote: “It must have been the year 1889 when I realized finally — that I was doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry. There was nothing else that interested me.”

A lot of poems in E.A.’s Collected Poems (wow,, thanks!) are fairly straightforward narratives depicting other sad bastards, all with a tinge of autobiography. His most famous poem, “Richard Cory” was said to be about his brother, who died of a drug overdose. How contemporary of him. You may also know “Richard Cory” as a song, originally adapted by Simon & Garfunkel.

I vaguely remember reading this poem when I was in elementary school—I think teachers like it because it conforms to what people think of as poetry (rhyme, meter, and an obvious “meaning”). But like most of E.A.’s poems that I read, I feel a deep undercurrent of sadness in his language and a complexity of thought that only someone with an ambivalent relationship to life could communicate.

Loneliness was one of E.A’s biggest subjects. But not ordinary boo-hoo-nobody-likes-me loneliness, rather an existential brick in his gut that told him we’re all isolated inside ourselves. Here are a few of my favorite lines on the subject, from his poem “Mr. Flood’s Party” (they're taken out of context and are from three different parts of the poem):

"Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,"

"He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;"

"amid the silver loneliness
Of night..."

I think that if E.A. had ever met Schopenhauer, they’d have been great friends. Even in his exploration of the Hindu and Buddhist concepts of Maya and Karma (in his poems of the same name), E.A. manages to be pessimistic. If you like those poems, I also recommend reading “The Sheaves.”

Ok, now I’m starting to sound like a downer, but really I have a medium-sized spot in my heart for Mr. Robinson, which I didn’t expect (him being one of those old-timey, dead, white guys and all). I admire that he was dedicated to poetry his entire life, though he wasn’t published for realz until he was 35, and he wasn’t well known until even later, when President Teddy Roosevelt was turned on to him by his unfortunately named son, Kermit.

My favorite poem from today’s reading is E.A.’s sonnet “Dear Friends,” about his relationship to his own art, and which resonates with me. On my Poetry Love Scale, I’m giving E.A. Robinson a 6.75…I like precision. Question: Does he remind you a little of Emily Dickinson?

For your resonating pleasure:

Dear Friends

Dear Friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own: the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.

And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores;
So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Day Zero: PuPriPoePro

An MFA student without a summer job, and left to her own devices during warmer months, may find herself listless. As in, both "lacking energy," and "without lists." I made up that second definition, but I'm taking semantic liberties. Where did all that poetic enthusiasm go? And what am I supposed to do with myself when nobody's waving homework assignments over my weekends' heads?

The Pulitzer Prize Poetry Project (a.k.a. PuPriPoePro; a.k.a. 4P) is my solution to the academic lull that is summer vacation. Inspired by a professor, I've decided to undertake the task of reading as many Pulitzer Prize-winning poets as I can until September. Thanks to the wikipedia entry on this very subject, I'm going down the list chronologically, beginning with the Collected Poems of Mr. Edwin Arlington Robinson. In all honesty, I doubt I'll read them all, but I'll read until I get a sense of something just beyond sense. Or until I get bored with him. Though I intend to give his poems a fair shake.

My goal is to update the blog every few days with as un-boring-as-possible impressions of the poet, the poems, and maybe even a link or two. Yeah...I like that idea. So: Wish me luck!