Bicentennial Symposium: Poetry & the American People

[ Silence ]>>John Y. Cole: Good
morning everyone. I’m John Cole. I’m the director of the Center for
the Book in the Library of Congress and it’s my pleasure to welcome you
to a continuation of the Library of Congress’s Bicentennial
Celebration of Poetry. This indeed is the Library of
Congress’s bicentennial year. We are 200 years old and we are
marking the occasion by emphasizing and expanding on some of the Library
of Congress’s special programs. As many of you know poetry
has been part of the Library of Congress’s programing since the
1930’s when the office consulted in poetry was established. In recent years we have been blessed with very activist
poetry consultants who also are poet laureates
of the United States and this has brought a whole new
range of activity to the Library of Congress and it’s a
pleasure that you can be part of this poetry bicentennial
celebration. There is material on the
table as you came in — as you come in about the Library
of Congress’s Bicentennial and about some of the
other poetry events and activities that
are going on now. I would like to say first
of all how pleased we were that so many people turned out
last night for the reading. I think that those of you who
were there not only enjoyed it but you’ll see that it
provides a fertile field for today’s discussions. I also would like to point out
that we have a few of the people who were involved in last
night’s activity here. The co-chair of today’s events will
be Prosser Gifford whom you met last night, who’s the director
of Scholarly Programs here at the Library of Congress. I would like to recognize Grace
Cavalleri who is here today. There’s a press announcement about
Grace’s interviews with our poets, which are part of the
bicentennial celebration. They are — those interviews
are now being broadcast on public broadcasting and are
helping us celebrate poetry and the Library of Congress. One of the reasons we’re
doing the symposium is to give not only last
night’s experience that we had in hearing favorite poems
on film and in person, we’re trying to give
it a historical context to give this particular
celebration an after-life. Therefore we have today gathered
together not only scholars but poets, participants, people
who are interested in poetry, the spoken word, and
the written word to talk about not only their perceptions of
last night, but of course the topics that are in your program. And I hope you’ve all
picked up a program which also has some biographical
information about our participants. For this reason I’m not going to go
into detailed introductions of each of the panel members, I refer you
to your program, but I would say that what we are trying to
do today and what we will do through the discussions and
what we can do with your help is to give context, historical
context and context for the future about this poetry experience. We’re starting with the panel
on “Recovering the Experiences of American Readers,” where people
interested in book history are going to present some points for
discussion, contemplation. We then will move on
with the panel chaired by Prosser Gifford talking
about poetry and voice. We’re hoping that Robber Pinsky
our poet laureate has recovered his voice by the time this comes on. Robert is of course,
and actually is — we’re hoping to get his
throat taken care of. There will be a panel at 1:30 on the
making of the Favorite Poem Project, which many of us saw last night. We’ll talk about poets and
publishers in the afternoon panel and conclude with a look
at poetry in America today where we bring our consultants
and some of our poets and our participants together
for a final look at the day and reflections on the day. I would now at this time like to
turn this over to our panel members. Each is going to make a brief
presentation in the order in which they’re listed
on the program. After that is over we will open this up for your ideas and
a panel discussion. I’ve asked our panelist to
decide whether they want to come to this podium or speak
from the table and our first speaker is David Hall
of the Harvard Divinity School. David? Give David a hand. [ Applause ]>>David D. Hall: My remarks
are not about my favorite poem but about a — mostly
about a favorite novel, although as you will see shortly,
not everyone’s favorite novel. In 1851, a young man named Charles
Holbrook, very much a Yankee, very much a native of Massachusetts,
graduated from Williams College. During the closing months of his college career he had worried
a good deal about his future. Should he enter the ministry or perhaps start out
as a school teacher? A few months after
graduating he noted in a pocket diary he had been
keeping and would continue to keep during the experiences
I’m about to describe, that — and this is very characteristic
of recent college graduates, that he had been thinking
of happy days at college and wished almost they
were not ended. Several days later he received a
letter informing him that a planter in North Carolina was seeking
someone to instruct his children. Lacking, it seems, any other offer
of employment and, as he put it, tired of working on the family
farm, Charles, though unsympathetic to the institution
of slavery as we know from various entries,
accepted this offer. And in February 1852 traveled the
long way down to Rockingham County, North Carolina where he joined
the household of Thomas Galloway, a substantial planter who owns
some 30 slaves and whose children, together with those of a brother, become the new teacher’s
responsibility. Several months later on
October 1st a neighbor arrived, and now I quote the diary, from
New York bringing many presents andUncle Tom’s Cabin. Immediately Charles took hold of
this book and began to read it. October 1st, “I’ve been
reading the first volume ofUncle Tom’stonight and
am much interested in it.” It was a two-volume work
when it was printed. The next day, October 2nd. “I have completed volume
one ofUncle Tom’s Cabin. Became much interested in it. It relates some exciting scenes.” October 3rd. “Read the sublime, the pathetic, and affecting description
of Eva’s death.” That’s the little girl who dies, described at some considerable
length, just a long time to die. “Oh, there are some such children
even in this land of darkness. The tears rushed into my eyes as
I read about her peaceful death and resolve tonight
to be more devoted.” October 4th. “FinishedUncle Tom’s Cabin
this morning at recess. I believe it to be the most
interesting book I have ever read. Poor, old Uncle Tom. He has gone to meet little Eva
in the better spirit land.” October 5th. “Read some ofUncle
Tom’s Cabin
to Sandy,” who happened to be
one of his pupils. “He says Edie’s sister at Mr. Harris’s was tied
to a tree and whipped!” Lots of exclamation points. “That the man struck her first in the forehead with
the tobacco stick!” More exclamation points. Then we learn from the diary
that this novel was passing into other hands on the plantation. October 14th. Mr. G. likesUncle Tom’s
but Mrs. G.,” Mrs. Galloway, “is
bitter against it.” October 15th. “Great talk in the
house about Mrs. Stow. Mr. G. is honest, he says he
admiresUncle Tom’s Cabinfor its true characters.” October 16th. “Mr. Galloway says he will
burnUncle Tom’s Cabin. He has changed his mind on it. Mrs. G. thinks Mrs. Stow
is worse than Legree.” Out of this sequence of reactions
recorded for us in a diary that by chance has survived into our
own times, I and Barbara Sicherman, and Joan Rubin, and
others, many others, are helping to fashion a history
of reading in America that has to simplify two principle
objectives. The first is to understand the
text that readers encountered in past times as well
as in the present. And the second is to understand the
responses of readers themselves. And as we are constantly
rediscovering these two elements of a history of reading,
text on the one hand, readers and their responses on the other are
confusingly ambiguous and complex as indeed as indicated by
these episodes narrated in the diary of Charles Holbrook. Texts most certainly imposed
themselves on readers. Like Charles Holbrook weeping
as he readUncle Tom’s Cabin, who among us has not been
captured, or swept away, or possessed by something
we have read? But on the other hand, who among
us has not been suspicious of, or found ourselves resisting
text that we encounter? A resistance summed
up in the truism, the merits of which are
demonstrated every day, don’t believe everything you read. The history of reading is at once
therefore a history of agency, that is of readers as actors
choosing, appropriating, modifying, reworking in various
ways, and of texts. And by texts I mean all kinds
of texts, poems, and novels, and many other forms of
printed work or written work. Of texts or narratives structures
that impose themselves on us, that constrain in some
manner, that are free and that shape us in
some deep sense. Both aspects, agency and
constraint are evident on the Galloway Plantation
in October 1852, as the remarkable novel made its
way around this group of readers. Charles Holbrook, swept away — swept away by the power of this
story of mothers, white and black, who lose their children to
illness or to the social death that slavery causes as
it splits families apart. A story which the underlying
plot contrasts. An amoral world in which money
and men have all the power and do cruel things to
women, children, and slaves, as opposed to the moral power
of women who resist this world of men and their amoral ways. And then there’s still a deeper plot that Charles Holbrook surely
was captured by as well, a world that God seems to
have abandoned, the distant and caring God of the
old [inaudible] theology that Harriet Beecher Stowe herself
found so cold and unsatisfying. And then the redemptive action,
not of churches and ministers, but of women and innocent children
such as Eva, and of Christians such as Uncle Tom, who like Christ of whom he is a figure
— or refigured as. Who like Christ submits to suffering
even unto death and in doing so from her perspective challenges
and even triumphs over the forces of cruelty and amorality. Yet this of course is not the only
way to readUncle Tom’s Cabin. Like Mr. and Mrs. Galloway
southerners in the 1850’s and even some northerners
were outraged by the novel and produced a rash of
fictional responses. Aunt Phyllis’s cabin, or Uncle
Robin in his cabin in Virginia and Tom without one in Boston. That’s effort to — maybe
you already know this — that’s an effort to reverse the
plot ofUncle Tom’s Cabinand to suggest that wage slavery
in the North was far crueler than the paternal,
loving, domestic slavery — slave system in which the
planters, or the fathers and the planters wives, or the
mothers, and so forth and so on, to take the same domesticity idea
and make it work for the South. Incidentally an idea
that is referred to inUncle Tom’s Cabinwhere
little Eva at one point says, astonishingly enough when the
question raised is slavery moral or immoral, she says,
“Well slavery makes so many more around us to love.” That’s the domestic
ideology transformed into a defense of slavery. I suspect however that Mrs.
Galloway, who is clearly the one who detests the novel the most
was reacting to other threats in the novel, including for
example, the many examples — including the characters who are
black women serving as mistresses of white men and of white
women who are lazy, indolent, and really in some
sense anti-mothers. Much later after the Second World
War certain African American readers would join the Galloway’s
in resisting this text, at a point where it’s theological
framework of suffering women and slaves as stand-ins for Christ
and of redemption occurring not by social revolution but by some
longer arc of God’s providence, no longer made much sense. These readers refigured Uncle
Tom, not as an agent of salvation but as someone who
accommodated himself to a corrupt and amoral social system
and in doing so betrayed the possibilities
for direct resistance. Uncle Tom, the way we use
the term so often today. Still closer to our own days
feminist readers have resisted the idea and image of home as
this remarkably harmonious and benevolent place that’s
still accepted and exalted as the proper place for woman. And feminist readers have also
resisted Stowe’s arguments the way for woman to overturn an amoral
social system was through suffering and sacrifice in their
own distinctive sphere. In these readings and re-readings,
and I daresay mis-readings ofUncle Tom’s Cabinlay
the concrete particulars of a history of reading in America. A history that as I have indicated, is structured around an ever
recurring tension between the power of text to impose themselves on us,
to enter into our very selfhood, and on the other, as in these
examples that I have given, the power of readers to
suspend belief to accept or reject the logic of the text. There is therefore no simple
answer to the question how was such and such a book read in the past or
what does a particular text reading? The history of reading is a great
field to work in because it is so remarkably open-ended
as we attempt to do justice to the complexities both of text and of the responses
of those who read them. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Barbara Sicherman: Thank you. Having been privileged to see
the videos last night I see this contribution to today’s events
as the meeting of reading in two past lives, or at
least a segment of that. “Books are the dreams we would most
like to have,” writes Victor Nell, author ofLost in a Book. “Like dreams,” he continues,
“they have the power to change consciousness,
turning sadness to laughter, and the anxious introspection
to the relaxed contemplation of some other time and place.” Nell focuses here on
reading as escape. A fitting concern for a book
subtitled, “The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure.” No mention of nightmares here. By examining the stories of
reading of two women born under quite different circumstances
in the late 19th Century I hope to show that reading not
only changes consciousness, but by doing so can
also change lives. M. Carey Thomas, later
president of Bryn Mawr College, grew up in upper middle class
privilege, tempered somewhat by the family’s Quaker
heritage, which in theory at least banned theater,
music, and novels, though not, it should be noted, poetry. But Thomas had access to
the world’s great literature through a neighboring uncle
and to more current fare at Baltimore’s Mercantile Library. Reading was as necessary
to her as breathing. On returning from an
Adirondacks vacation in her early 20’s she
headed for the local library where she read for
four days straight. “And the hours were like seconds,
it was like treading on air. It is the purest happiness, the one
thing which no man taketh from you.” For Thomas reading was also
a vehicle for articulating and thereby intensifying ambition. “The fact is,” she proclaimed
at 14, “I don’t care much for anything except dreaming about
being grand, and noble, and famous, but that I can never be.” But even then she hoped
to show that the woman who has fought all the battles
of olden time over again, whilst reading the spirited pages
of Homer, Virgil, Herodotus, been carried away by Carlisle,
and mildly enchanted by Emerson. Is not any less like what God
really intended a woman to be, than the trifling ballroom
butterfly, an ignorant doll baby
which they admire. The passage reveals
the possibilities for female heroism Thomas found
in classic text and demonstrates as well the reciprocal relationship
between her reading and her ambition for it concludes, “My greatest
ambition is to be an author, an essayist, an historian,
to write hardy, earnest, true books that may do their part
towards elevating the human race. The woman who could read herself into books might grow
up to write them.” Toward this end Thomas engaged in a
wide variety of literary activities from the ages of 13
and 15, and later, but these are the ones
I’m going to discuss. In addition to starting a journal
she kept a commonplace book, a list of favorite poems,
which I should’ve brought, and lists of books she had
read or wanted to read. She also wrote poetry
and short stories and sent one of each Harpers. Both were rejected. She was 12, 13 at this time. Although Thomas was precocious
she claims to have learned to read by age three and she started
Greek in her early teens. These pursuits were
by no means unusual. Girls of her class were expected to cultivate literary
self-consciousness. Like Thomas they kept diaries,
wrote and recited poetry, read aloud together, and
aspired to authorship, then the most prestigious
career available to a woman. When Thomas began her journal
in 1870, at the age of 13, she did so in the persona
of Jo March, the heroine ofLittle Women. “Ain’t gonna be sentimental. No, no, not for Joe. Not Joe.” And I should explain,
the first Jo is Jo March, and the second is a J-O-E, Joe. So she’s saying that
this is a female Joe that she’s going to be like. Emulating a literary character was a
common practice among young diarists as they attempted to
establish their own personal and literary identities. Like Thomas, Jo was
a tomboy, a bookworm, and eager to do something splendid. Most importantly she
was a successful author who was paid for her writing. Alcott [inaudible] appealed,
because as Jo, J-O, not Joe, J-O-E, she demonstrated that women could
be writers and in other ways aspire. Years later when Thomas was
embarking on graduate study in Germany a childhood
friend who had joined her in adolescent roleplaying
which centered aroundLittle Womenreflected,
“Somehow today I went back to those early days when
our horizon was so limited, yet so full of light, and our
path laid as plain before us. It all came of reading over Ms.
Alcott’s books, now the quintessence of philistinism, then a Bible. Doesn’t thee remember when to turn
out a Jo the height of ambition?”Little Womenwas only
the beginning of course. In early adolescence Thomas also
crossed gender boundaries reading herself as a Carlislian
hero a [inaudible] hero. Later a devotee of the romantic
poets, Shelly especially, Thomas adopted a worldview mode of
reading that fostered self-creation. In her early 20’s her ambitions
were reinforced by members of a feminist reading circle
who read and wrote and dreamed and schemed to advance the
[inaudible] women together. Their later achievements included
securing the admission of women to Johns Hopkins Medical School. Can I get some water? Thank you. A very different story is
that of Rose Gollup Cohen, who was born in the Russian
[inaudible] in 1880 and grew up in an old world
tradition where reading and storytelling both
centered on religion. Like other Jewish girls she
learned Yiddish, not Hebrew, the language of sacred
text was for men only. Neither her mother or
father could write. Coming to the United
States at the age of 12, as the oldest child she went to work in a factory foreclosing the
possibility of further education. In her autobiography,Out of
the Shadow
, published in 1918, Cohen narrates her progress from
marginal literacy in Yiddish to authorship in English,
a change accompanied by an awakening self-consciousness. Unused to reading in the new
land she initially had to spell out the words of the
neighbor’s Yiddish book, astonished that it was not
about religion but just a story. She became a regular customer
at the soda water stand, borrowing books at
five cents a copy. She read the volumes,
mainly romances, to her mother and siblings. They transported her. “And I live now in
a wonderful world.” She was alternately a beautiful
countess living in a palace and a beggar’s daughter
singing in the street. Her encounter withDavid
in the Yiddish translation was of a different kind. Electrified by the title of
the first chapter, “I Am Born,” and by the intimate first-person
narrative, she was filled with a strange feeling of happiness. “Someone was talking to me. I could almost hear the voice.” Cohen had no doubt that this story
was real, something she used to love to know and she did
not want to let it go. She and her family did not
read another book for a week. Another volume, part letters,
part diary, similarly appealed because of its intimate tone and precipitated her
first hesitant efforts at authorship in the
form of a diary. Though she had to rub out most
of the first night’s labor one but bold sentence remained. “I hate the shop. I feel sick. I feel tired. I cannot see any meaning in life.” By this time Cohen’s
reading went beyond the stage of vicarious adventure. Books were now a springboard
for emotional communication. Reading the diary had
triggered the desire to express herself
in personal writing. Diary-keeping and self-awareness
were mutually reinforcing. The diary encouraged introspection,
but the desire to keep one and her rejection at this
time of an arranged marriage to an incompatible man symbolized
in Cohen’s account by his lack of interest in reading,
signaled an already heightened self-consciousness. Like many immigrants
Cohen learned English through a series of intermediaries. Night school, settlement
houses, and libraries. Although, she encountered
these only after she’d been in the States for five years. She finally learned to read English from the Bible during a three-month
stay at Presbyterian Hospital. But her achievement was problematic. The volume was a New
Testament and her reading in Gentile books enraged her father who threw one of them
out the window. These books came mainly from
the [inaudible] Free Library at the Educational Alliance, a
Jewish Settlement in New York where she had gone first
seeking a volume of Shakespeare. Unable to understandJulius Caesar
she requested an English book, like for a child, and was
rewarded withLittle Women, which seems to have been the
iconic book for immigrants. As her skills improved Cohen
read widely, favoring Dickens, Longfellow’sThe Day is Done,
and Olive Schreiner’sDreams, a series of allegories, which I think influenced
her own writing style. Reading not to escape her
situation but to comprehend it, Cohen turned to Silas Marner
which a friend recommended when there was trouble at home. “It was so that I loved
best to read. When I could see a connection
between life and literature, literature to me was
as real as life. Literature was life. Many amusement that was within
my reach I gave up to read.” Reading offered solace that made
her own situation easier to bear, elicited a sensibility that helped
her understand it, and provided her with a language into which she
could translate her own experience. What did she mean when she
declared that literature was life? That she lived in books rather than amidst her impoverished
surroundings? That literature made life bearable? That she could not live without it? Perhaps something of all of these.Out of the Shadowends
on an ambiguous note, with Cohen still laboring
to write English. We know she succeeds because she
has written her autobiography. It begins with the line, “I
was born in a Russian village.” Perhaps an unconscious
echo of the passage inDavid Copperfieldthat had
captivated her years before. Cohen went on to publish
several short pieces, one a story of Russian village
life was selected as one of the best stories of 1922. As she described the process of
creation, when the first pictures of the story came to her she fell into weeping with the
peasant mother. “I was no longer building a
story, I was living the life of my childhood over again.” Perhaps the emotional intensity
of the creative act helps to explain why the editor of the
volume ranked Natalka’s portion as one of the works that unite
genuine substance and artistic form in a closely woven
pattern with such sincerity that these stories may fairly claim
a position in American literature. It was an extraordinary achievement
for one who had struggled for literacy and who
had learned English on her own in her late teens. It also I think is an
interesting definition of what constitutes
American literature, since these were Russian stories. In different ways then
reading helped Thomas and Cohen obtain more self-assertive
identities than were expected of women of their time and place. During adolescence both moved on
from reading and dreaming to trying to realize their dreams in the first
instance by bringing them to life through the act of writing. I would argue then that reader — reading, even pleasure reading bears
a more complex relationship to life than the one suggested
earlier by Victor Nell. The imaginative space
opened up by reading can, under the right circumstances
stimulate creativity and foster a reciprocal rather than a one-way relationship
between books and lives. [ Applause ]>>Joan Shelley Rubin: Thank you. After seeing the videos last night
several of us were tempted just to throw out our remarks for today and to let those stand
in all of their power. I guess I’ve been dissuaded
from that move. But before I start my brief comments
I do want to just say that our idea as John Cole already indicated, was to connect the Favorite Poem
Project, to some of the work that we’re doing in the History of
Reading to give the project a kind of historical context and also, to indicate how much this project is
going to mean for us as historians. This is exactly what we wish
we had for readers in the past. I also want to thank all of the
participants in today’s symposium, many of whom I personally
dragooned into being here. They have told me that they were
delighted to be there last night and also of course to carry
on the conversation with you but they already feel well paid
by what we saw last evening. Well, I began to look into the
history of poetry reading — God now quite a few years ago and
when I began that undertaking I came across a comment that William Dean
Howells, the novelist but also at that time, this was 1902. Howells was occupying the editor’s
easy chair atHarper’smagazine, and I came across a comment that
he made after he polled his readers about whether or not they
believed that the United States was in the midst of a slump in poetry. There was no denying
Howells’ acknowledged that the Anglo-American lords
of rhyme, as he called them, Longfellow, Whittier,
Bryant, Tennyson, Wordsworth, had passed from the
ranks of working poets. Some of the readers Howells
queried bemoaned this demise of the Anglo-American lords
of rhyme and they felt that there was a slump in poetry. Others insisted that the
genre was flourishing. But Howells himself made
a crucial observation when he remarked the really
interesting and important thing to find out would be
whether the love of poetry shares the apparent
decline of poetry itself. Today no one would argue that poetry
is in a slump, quite the opposite. But in a sense the
Favorite Poem Project after almost 100 years gives
Howells his answer and that is because the poet laureate’s
inquiry has followed through on Howells’ instinct to
disconnect reading and writing. Those of us who have
been working in the field of print culture have
been attempting to construct a literary history that
describes more than just a series of movements, romanticism,
realism, modernism, and so forth. And instead to separate at least
somewhat the history of reading from the vicissitudes of production. In that way we hope to recover the
ideas and values of ordinary people and to understand how they have
made sense of their experience. So I got into this myself a
few years ago when it dawned on me that poetry was a genre. That because it was
both intimate and public at least gave us half a chance of
recovering both what people read and how and why they read the text
that they had chosen and the way that the text gave them both
agency and constrained them, as David Hall has remarked. I can remind you that in the
period roughly from 1880 to 1950, Americans routinely encountered
poems at school, in church, at family gatherings, at community
events, and even as it turns out for some, in summer camp. I want to share with you this
morning just a brief look at some of the lessons that I’ve learned by exploring poetry
read at those sites. I’ve already hinted at the first
lesson but I want to make it clearer to you by giving you an example. None of us can talk, including
Robert Pinksy himself. Thank you. Okay, this is an example
from the autobiography of a man named Walter Locke,
who became editor of the Dayton, Ohio Daily News in 1927, but
who grew up in the 1890’s. Locke developed eye
problems after, as he put it, he delighted intemperately in books. He decided that the
way out of this was through poetry and
through memorizing. Longfellow, Whitman, and
later Sandburg, and Millay. This memorization and then
recitation of the poems to himself became what he
called a way to carry on a life. But Locke described his
pursuit of poetry in language that suggests the cultural
tensions surrounding the genre. He was aware, in his words that
the age was choosing between poetry and speed and it was
not choosing poetry. And so he saw himself
forging an alliance with the poets the
world was passing by. In addition he associated
reading with addiction, intoxicant effects, and indulgence. So poetry was for Locke
a guilty pleasure, a source of what he called
his secret, joy, and shame. Now most of us are not accustomed
to thinking of reading Longfellow in the terms we usually reserve for
sex and so this is a jarring remark, his secret, joy, and shame. But Locke’s clandestine relationship to poetry is highly
instructive I think. First it points out the inadequacy
of depicting the early 20th Century as simply the period
when the beginnings of early modernism planted
the schoolroom poets. Not only is Longfellow’s work
alive and well but Locke, as he goes on as reader,
assimilates Carl Sandburg — this is very interesting —
he assimilates Carl Sandburg, a poet of smoke and steel, to
what he imagines was the simpler, slower life of the 19th Century. So this is an instance of
that kind of appropriation or we might even say misreading because of his own needs
and predispositions. Furthermore these eclectic
texts survive in Locke’s memory giving them
an ongoing life in culture long after he has put aside
the printed page. There’s another reader in
the same period who talks about his secret shelf collection. The books that he really loved
even though he knew that he had to exhibit what he called an
intelligent social self and that to do that meant that
he wouldn’t talk about Longfellow’s most sentimental
poems or the battered old volume of Tennyson that he had
on his secret shelf. That remark reveals not only this
closet of affection for verse but also, incidentally, the
practice of rereading older works, this battered old volume
that he keeps coming back to. So these confessional accounts of these [inaudible] poetry
lovers thus illuminate for us how the history of reading
can elude both conventional categories of literary
scholarship such as modernism and customary measures of
distribution such as sales figures. The second lesson that I
discovered is that site matters, the setting in which
readers are reading matters. Text acquire values and functions
as a consequence of those settings. Here I want to give you an
example of the classrooms of progressive educators in
the 1920’s, those teachers who experimented with new ways
of instructing their students. In one of those classrooms we
find that pupils are learning to approach Edna Saint Vincent
Millay’s lyrics by striving for what one educator called
apprehension, not comprehension. It doesn’t seem to me those
have to be mutually exclusive but they were in this formulation. And so in that milieu the
progressive classroom reading Millay became the occasion for
submitting to feeling. We have this review
that one student wrote after readingThe Harp
and other poems. “It is cruel to review it. It is too lovely. Nothing can be said
better than read it.” Now — right. So, actually that’s
sort of akin to how some of us felt about speaking today. It’s cruel for us to do this
kind of analytical presentation. Nevertheless, for cultural
historians who are inclined to regard the 1920’s as an era
of tough-mindedness and sort of new-minded sensibility, that comment is a telling
counter example. That’s a very romantic
approach to the text to submit to the feelings of the text. And yet at roughly the same time, in
the 20’s, there’s also the example of a Methodist minister who was
given to incorporating poetry into his sermons and he pronounced
Millay’sRenascencean account of what he called a good,
old-fashioned religious conversion, thereby yoking her rebellious
sexuality to conservative impulses. Right? Which also characterized
the culture of the interwar period. That is the conservative
impulses are also there in the culture of the
interwar period. Finally, for the journalist
Margaret Parton, reading Millay, this is somewhat later, became
a test of the relationship between father and daughter. In the early 1930’s while
Parton was a student at Swarthmore College she grew
anxious that, in her words, she might, “Let down
her parents by failure.” She wrote home, as she said, “To
prepare them for this possibility.” And her father calmed
her down with a letter that reveals how this family worked. He responded, “If when I handed you that little Edna Saint Vincent
Millay poem you had tossed off some flip crack, or had been insensitive to its quaint Elizabethan
charm I would have flunked you in practical and applied aesthetics. And I would not have felt
the serenity and assurance which now I give you my
word I feel about you.” She passed the test and the poem
certainly further strengthened the bond between Parton and her
father, though it is clear that there is a great deal
at stake in this reading. So at school, in church, at home,
Millay’s poetry read according to different rules, served different
psychological and cultural purposes which I think were integral to reader’s understanding
of its meanings. Furthermore, and I hope this isn’t
too dismaying to the poets among us, sometimes the history of poetry
reading reveals that the content of a poem matters far less
than the act of reading of it. Readers queried about their use of
verse frequently report practices that we might call anesthetic. So, you know, in the dentist
chair, on an airplane, and it doesn’t really matter at
that point so much what the text is. More subtlety in many
circumstances of reading the setting and the feelings that
the reader brought to that setting overshadow
the poet’s form and language. So here I’ll give you
just one example. This comes from a woman named Clara
Holloway who was a teenager growing up on the Iowa frontier in the
1880’s and who grew despondent because her future husband,
Eddie Grossbeck, failed to show up for her 18th birthday party and she was actually
given to self-blame. It’s quite an interesting diary. But at any rate a few days later
Eddie made amends by coughing up a book of Wordsworth poems. Clara found reading
Wordsworth enjoyable but of much more importance was
the symbolism of receiving a book of verse from a boy of whose
affections she was uncertain. She later actually married him. But as she remarked in what I take to be a wonderful 19th Century
expression, “I shall prize it for the givens sake more
than for anything else.” If the historical record
reveals that the site of reading sometimes
imparted to text, meanings we might call
extraneous due to their literary qualities however,
it is equally important to see that it also shows us how
the same poems linked readers who occupy different social
and economic circumstances. And here I am thinking not only of
the Millay example where it’s safe to say that all of the readers I
mentioned were middle class but also of instances involving
working class readers such as the ones Barbara Sicherman
has noted, and more affluent ones. With the development of a relatively
standardized educational curriculum by around 1900 virtually everybody
read Longfellow and Byron in school. And to associate such poems only
with middle class culture is to forget what one writer, a
man named Rollo Walter Brown, recalled in his memoir about growing up in the clay mining
country of Ohio. Brown discovered Byron
and Longfellow in a cookbook his mother
had borrowed — printed that is in the cookbook, and this fact I think
underscores one thing. The multiple and pervasive
forms of printed verse assumed in the early 20th Century. Reading Byron over and over he
committed lines to memory until, in his words, “I could drop back
over my heels against a pile of clay and recite to myself with
unvoiced eloquence these or any other poems I knew and
then sit up and rake the shovel across the gritty floor with
pandemonium of approval.” In that way he transmuted his
experience of work into an occasion when he said he could sort out
the choice parts of a world that ran off everywhere from the
face of the clay until a splash of roof somewhere reminded
him, woke him up, that he was still in a clay mine. While Brown’s poetry reading
permitted him a vision of what we might call upward
mobility, it does still seem to me a mistake to say that it was
not part of working class life, especially since his approach
to rereading is quite parallel to the way his father reads
religious periodicals, which is to say that he reads them
over and over half a dozen times. At the same time, Brown’s class
did not restrict his access to the same text that his more
affluent contemporaries were memorizing in other
settings at the same time. So, to those lessons that poetry
reading exhibited sustained, if sometimes hidden, a clandestine
vitality, that sites mattered, that in some respects class did not,
I just want to add a final lesson, a final point, and that is that
for American readers the figure of the poet has worn
a variety of guises. The representation of the poet
as seer and visionary has been and remains a powerful
idea, but it has coexisted with more accessible images. In the correspondence of Carl
Sandburg one finds letters such as this one from a woman
in Fort Worth, Texas dated 1927. “I am not a poet and do
not want anything accept to tell you how much I love you, and how your poems have been a good
influence in my life which I hope to pass on to other lives. This is not a mash note. You have spoken to me individually
in the loneliness of my heart. You have spoken to me individually
in the loneliness of my heart and I have found in your sympathy
understanding and encouragement to go on telling the story
of my kind of people.” No doubt the poets in
attendance have sometimes wished for more remote [inaudible]
or at least less mail. Certainly the question
of the poet’s ideal role in a democratic society is
complicated and controversial but by bringing poet and public
together today this symposium and the project it celebrates embody
what the historical record affirms. That poetry has been a
vibrant act of presence in the lives of the American people. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>John Y. Cole: I’d like to
make the brief observation that through these three wonderful
speakers we’ve had a terrific introduction to the field of
the history of reading and many of its implications and indeed this
is going to be a good background for our discussions for the rest
of the day and for our reflecting on the Favorite Poem Project and
the archive that’s being built as Joan Rubin was saying. And I would like to thank Joan for
her help in corralling, as she said, such a distinguished
group of speakers and this is what we’re going
to be able to look forward to for the rest of the day as well. Before I open it up for questions
I’d like to ask our panel if they have any questions
or observations based on each other’s comments. [ Inaudible Speaker ] It’s interesting, though, even
the concept favorite poem which, of course, Robert Pinsky has
carried on so effectively is an idea that comes from our past and I’m
sure those of you like myself who memorized a lot of
poetry for different reasons. When I was a child I did also
have a list of favorite poems which I found my old
anthology, one of my first ones, the Louis Untermeyer anthology. Which in fact I discovered later
when I traveled I actually clip — I got a second copy of the paperback
and I actually clipped out some of the poems and I took them
with me in my guidebooks when I went to different places. So each of us I think will find as
we go through today’s discussion and observations that we can relate to this favorite poem
concept in a different way. David any thoughts?>>David D. Hall: I have to say. I read an essay by Mary
[inaudible] on the subject of [inaudible] plausible
idea about the book. It argues essentially that
[inaudible] this [inaudible] who has been [inaudible] by books
and [inaudible] extraordinary idea and I wondered whether in
[inaudible] reading of books that [inaudible] scholars
like yourselves, this aspect of the history of
reading plays and the part, any significant part
[inaudible] interesting.>>John Y. Cole. Thank you. Please, yes, it’s on.>>I can provide a
17th Century example and then others perhaps
can add more recent ones. But in the 17th Century which
is [inaudible] the very familiar [inaudible] the very
familiar concept that reading could lead one astray and very often this is
a gender [inaudible]. That’s to say women were more easily
led astray than men [inaudible]. And John Winthrop, the first
governor of Massachusetts, who kept an extraordinary
diary/journal, tells us the story of [inaudible] Hopkins
of Connecticut who he says actually becomes
mentally ill [inaudible] misogynist [inaudible] because
she had read too much. So it’s a — there are warning signs
posted everywhere in the history of reading for what is good
and what is bad and of course, what is reflected in our own school
system and so many other systems in which we’re a part [inaudible]
trying to parse for us [inaudible] like the internet debate, you
know, what is good and what is bad and trying to police or regulate
or license in some fashion. License in the sense of
regulating, not license in the sense of open-ended [inaudible]. So that’s one quick way
of saying absolutely. It’s a charged field and the history
of reading is in part a history of [inaudible] a history of efforts
to of course run around or get around those regulations.>>Joan Shelley Rubin: I just wanted
to add, on the notion of the power of the book is so striking. Certainly throughout the 19th
Century and even today but I think by the late 19th Century it was
also dangerous for boys as well as for girls [inaudible] a
child murderer [inaudible] claims that he was led astray
by reading novels and other — claim other boys gave him
specific novel [inaudible]. But it’s fascinating isn’t
it [inaudible] of all sorts and I think some of it
[inaudible] great fear about pleasure reading [inaudible]
figure out exactly [inaudible] to some extent [inaudible]
they should be doing more worthwhile things.>>Right. And I [inaudible]
is the physicality of it and I have not seen that in any of the other [inaudible] I have seen
it [inaudible] that is women readers who don’t feel comfortable socially
and [inaudible] social world and even sexual world [inaudible]
it’s not exactly an escape its [inaudible] control [inaudible].>>Just one quick addition here. An American novelist who admired
[inaudible] Henry James of course inPortrait of a Lady, it’s
a young growing up in Albany who reads novels [inaudible] Europe and then cannot read
[inaudible] read it correctly because of the fictional framework
through which she sees things, so she’s violated in some
sense by her reading.>>John Y. Cole: Other
comments on this topic from anyone in the audience? Yes, sir?>>My name is [inaudible],
I’m a reader. The thought just came to me,
asking about [inaudible] we seem to [inaudible] television very
easily, which is another way is kind of reading being translated
into visual medium and I would appreciate your
comments on that thought.>>Joan Shelley Rubin: After seeing
the videos last night it’s very hard — if you saw them last night
[inaudible] visual translation because they were so wonderful and
they will be shown on television. So, and I guess I certainly share
the dismay that many people feel when we see kids who are not
reading and we think that, you know, they’re putting their energy
into computer games and TV, but I’m cautious enough as
an historian and as somebody who knows a little
bit about the concerns when radio came along [inaudible]. I’m cautious enough that
I want to say, you know, we can’t just [inaudible] just
because we have this powerful medium and it’s having this sweeping
detrimental effect and we know that there’s some good
consequences [inaudible]. I’m not sure what your
own views are.>>John Y. Cole: Joanie,
let me say a word on this because in a way I’ll give
you the official Center for the Book position. Because Center for the Book
was created 22 years ago to stimulate public interest in
books, reading, and libraries and it was created by
Daniel Borsten who was with us last night at the showing. But the very beginning
Dr. Borsten said, “We must use the new
technologies to promote reading.” And in fact the one that we
should be using is television. And it’s not the enemy it’s the way
you entice people into the world of books and you must make
certain that while we recognize that if people are watching
television they’re not reading. Nonetheless, through a project
called “Read More About It” that we started 20 years
ago with CBS Television, we’ve used television to introduce
people to the world of books and the notion, as Joan has
indicated, is to use all media which includes radio, and
television, and now the computer. To open up this world of books and
to look for ways that we can work in common rather than being
viewing new technology as any kind of an enemy. So we join the enemy right away
with some television projects and to this day have used technology
in kind of this cautious way. But again, if what you
saw last night in this — with those wonderful films about
reading and about the experience and fact of literature,
again, I would submit that this is a wonderful
enticement into the world of books. At least that’s how we prefer
to view it and always working to find new opportunities
for partnership kinds of programs and promoting reading. Go ahead, please, Barbara.>>Barbara Sicherman: I
think it’s interesting that probably the most influential
figure I’ve been reading these days is a television figure. Oprah’s reading, I mean,
when she sells, what, 750,000 copies of each
of those books. So, I mean, that’s
pretty interesting.>>David D. Hall: Yes, sir.>>Paul Breslin: I’m Paul
Breslin and I [inaudible]. My question is for you, Barbara. I was quite struck on the story of
Ms. Cohen by her learning English by reading the New Testament,
her father becoming furious. And it resonates with a great
deal of what I’ve been reading in my studies across colonial
literatures [inaudible] English [inaudible]. Was there any sense in materials
you examined by her of resentment or a sense of tension [inaudible]
to Gentiles to the other culture or just a sense of gratitude and
[inaudible] in learning English? Just — I mean Derek Walcott
for instance feels that way about the English language, that it’s not tainted
[inaudible] colonialism [inaudible] that there’d been other
kinds of responses. So I’m interested in
anything you may have — [ Inaudible Speaker ] Yeah. Yeah.>>Barbara Sicherman: Well, I think
it was probably difficult for her but I think she really — I found
with the Jewish women I’ve read that much of the material is in
autobiography, so it’s [inaudible]. That because they were denied
the sort of main literacy of their own culture in terms of not learning Hebrew they
[inaudible] appreciated value of literacy. And so they really welcomed,
they really went more than any other group of women
to night schools here and tried to learn English so that in many [inaudible] early
generation I think took to it rather wholeheartedly, at
least the ones that I read who — these are writers in English
[inaudible] my own limitation. So in her case I don’t — it was difficult for her but I don’t
see her feeling it was [inaudible].>>John Y. Cole: I was going
to ask Jerry Ward first, did you have a question
on this Jerry? Or — your hand was up. And I’ll come to you sir.>>Jerry Ward: [Inaudible]
I forgot what it was. I’m Jerry Ward [inaudible] College. My question for the panel was
really [inaudible] general one about how your research informed
you about the history of literacy, which is a very complicated history when you [inaudible]
wonderful videos last night. That people are crossing all
kinds of artificial boundaries that are set up now in terms
of race, gender, class, in order to access
poetry and embrace it, make it part of their lives. I think this is going
on for a very long time, but just what are you discovering about how this has informed
American literacy [inaudible]?>>Do you want to take this?>>David D. Hall: Appreciate
the question. Excellent question. Very, very often we, we in
this audience and those of us who are historians
working out of the present, start with the very
limited notion of literacy, namely it’s the capacity
to read the printed text which is the way it’s
[inaudible] taught in our schools. But when we turn back at the past
or stimulated by the past we think about the present moment we
realize that we absorb text, we learn text through oral and
performance context all the time. Hymn-singing would
be a great example. Where I grew up in a
hymn-singing church and although I’ve lost
somewhat of the capacity to sing those hymns I’m not going
to break into one right now. Nonetheless, it’s a pure
example of where persons, who might be described in the
Census record in 1800, or 1810, or 1840 as illiterate, nonetheless
could command the remarkable repository, repertoire of text. And there those texts do cross
every line, class, race, gender. Camp meeting songs of the south,
camp meetings were attended, they were interracial
events, I mean they — the slaves were free
[inaudible] very often. [Inaudible] but nonetheless
they were interracial events. Pure example of this. So we need to work with much more
fluid notion of literacy in order to recognize how deeply
we are influencing. People in past times, even
more so than today [inaudible] by the performances in oral aspects
of literacy, the making of literacy. I think of people who can sing. I once knew someone who claimed
to be able to sing 5000 pop songs. I can’t sing one. I can’t remember one. But that’s another example of
a kind of astonishing literacy that is not part of
the school curriculum but nonetheless is an empowerment; it’s a form of empowerment,
very direct empowerment.>>John Y. Cole: Barbara? Go ahead.>>Barbara Sicherman:
Well, I just done some work on post-reconstruction African
Americans going to school and it’s very moving to see
older people, younger people, and just be — and the reversal in the way children teaching
their parents and I don’t know. Just — it’s a very different
version and the importance of that version was very
striking I think [inaudible].>>John Y. Cole: Sir, the
gentleman behind Jerry. Yes.>>My name is Robert
Garten, I’m a poet. My question perhaps is better
addressed to Ms. Rubin, if you are able to answer. My question is on the
delivery of poetry. You mentioned that that
was extremely important and my question is the trend
towards dramatic presentation or [inaudible] presentation versus the more academic
presentation, if you will. And any comment that you might have
about that, whether it’s poetry, or fiction, or non-fiction. I’d be interested to know.>>Joan Shelley Rubin:
I think that — probably hear more about this in the
next session, which I hope is enough to talk about tomorrow [inaudible]. But I would just say that it varies
tremendously and [inaudible] first of all just within the school
setting different ways of reading. One of the practices in the late
19th, early 20th Century was to have poetry recitation on
Friday afternoons in small towns and parents would sometimes come
to the school and hear these. And these, I gather, were
rather formal deliveries but also disclosed a different
rhythm so to speak for the week and so there was some [inaudible] and at the same time I’m
sure people wanted to get out of there [inaudible]. So, and then it’s also
an occasion for children to impress their parents
and in some instances really to secure their love or
at least their approval. And then by the same token we
see this kind of [inaudible] some of the students are really
replicating Millay’s own behavior [inaudible] romantic. Or I’ve looked at meetings and
church today, which is to say in non-denominational services,
where the service is not constrained by fixed liturgy and
poetry [inaudible], and there I would say the
practice of a group reciting a poem in unison lends a kind of weight
and authority to the text, so much so that [inaudible] really
makes everything sound good. [Inaudible] confounds the
hierarchy [inaudible]. So I think in particular the popular
poet Edgar Guest whose lines were written in newspapers [inaudible]
for decades [inaudible] century and when an Edgar Guest
poem is recited at a congregation [inaudible]
certainly a modernist [inaudible]. So I think it varies very much and again I’ve [inaudible]
contribution [inaudible] this process.>>John Y. Cole: Other questions? Yes, in the back. I’ll come to you next.>>One of the things that [inaudible] Favorite
Poem project has been — I think we were all struck
last night at the videos about the poems were not just
[inaudible] one text after another but it was like we were
turning over and over to a single text [inaudible]
memorizing it. And it was mentioned on the panel
today that this kind of return to a single text was kind of religious model
[inaudible] reading practices. So I was wondering if the panel
might address this idea of poems or texts that have a relationship
of returning to the same text.>>John Y. Cole: Thank you. Question relates to the tendency
to return to the same text again and again, and how the panel
members feel about that. David? [ Inaudible Speaker ] Okay.>>Joan Shelley Rubin: So,
I [inaudible] because one of the ideas floating around
the history of the book for a while was the distinction between intensive and
extensive reading. And I think the notion here was that
when there wasn’t a lot of print around that people read the same
page over and over and [inaudible] and also, the [inaudible] religious
artifacts, which is [inaudible]. And then more recently people
[inaudible] to see [inaudible] and what you’re alluding to
here, what you’re talking about is a really good
example of that. People do read both intensively
and extensively at the same time, depending on what it is
that they’re reading. So, and I [inaudible] it’s worth
pointing out that the recitation of poem itself echoes the
memorization of [inaudible] Bible and reciting Sunday school so
there are these novels [inaudible] that precede and coexist with reciting poetry
in a more secular way.>>David D. Hall: I’ll
just add one thing. I think what’s interesting to
watch from the point of view of the historian reading is how
devotional practice linked to text that might be considered sacred,
such as Psalms or what have you. That the sacred becomes an
elastic and an expansive category, it can be transposed to
other kinds of texts. So of course to say the 19th
through the 20th Century much of what many [inaudible]
have been given by Barbara and Joan [inaudible] have really
demonstrated how this is a wonderfully elastic category and
other things take on this quality for us not just things that are
strictly speaking religious. So it’s really a kind of —
it may be rooted in religion but [inaudible] once
rooted in religion but later on it became something that could
be transposed or appropriated by writers who could say or by readers working
in very different ways.>>John Y. Cole: Thank you. Would you have a question? Come to the mic please. Thanks. Oops.>>My name is Deborah Snyder. I’m a poet and I live
in Stafford, Virginia, and I’d like to preface my
question with an observation. [ Inaudible Speaker ] Or a — this past Saint
Patrick’s Day, a National Public Radio broadcast, a
little excerpt of Yeats’ [inaudible] and what I was really concerned
about, I was driving in my car at the time so I couldn’t pull
over, but I was really concerned because when it was first broadcast
on the radio, the famous line, “That is no country for old
men,” they told Yeats that had to be changed for the radio. And I was just devastated
when I heard that.>>That he did it, right?>>He actually changed the first
line so that it would be read on the radio when it was
first read on the radio. And also what I do
sometimes is go online and there is now a poem finder
where there are some 500,000 poems. I have one of them in
[inaudible] 500,000 poems and more and more are coming, we
were told with the one.>>Prosser Gifford: As you
can see from your program, this segment of our daylong
discussion is on Poetry and Voice. We have one slight impediment and that is I think our poet
laureate has no voice [laughter]. And I hope he doesn’t try to
do too much and strain it. But one way or another,
he will communicate. So we’ll just plunge ahead
and for the same reasons that John Cole mentioned, the
brief bios are on your program. I will not rehearse them. The eye is quicker than the voice. And let’s just head right in with
Kenneth Cmiel, who’s from Iowa, which of course, has a long and distinguished tradition
in poetry workshop. Many of our finest poets have
come out of that experience. I don’t know whether
you want to talk from here or there, but all right. [ Background Sounds ]>>Kenneth Cmiel: The
Iowa Poetry Workshop of which I have absolutely
no connection [laughter]. I teach history. I don’t teach poetry. I don’t teach much poetry at
all in what I do for a living. In point of fact, my connection
with poetry is probably a lot closer to the people that we saw
in the videos last night than most university types that
you’d think of who would be up here talking about poetry. Poetry was extraordinarily
important in my life. When I would say roughly
from age 13 to age 17, when I thought I was going to be
a poet, when I thought I was going to be, you know, Robert
Pinsky [laughter]. But in fact, my life’s taken a
different turn, a downward spiral and I teach history
instead [laughter]. And there was a point
for several decades where poetry was not particularly
important in my life at all. And there’s become a point
in the past few years where poetry has come back. But poetry is something
that I read by myself, that I read unprofessionally, that I love to read unprofessionally,
but matters a lot to me. So why am I here? I’m here because Joan Rubin
corralled me to be here. And because I’ve written on
eloquence and oratory in the 19th and early 20th Century before. And today, I’m going to talk which
something which actually turns out to be a little bit of
history and a little bit of me. And the history is
probably half right and the me is probably
uninteresting to most people but I’ve got 15 minutes
and you’re going to be listening to it [laughter]. First, the first — I’d like
to start out with a few facts. I teach, as I said, I teach history. I have 30-some colleagues. I talked to about six colleagues
about coming here to do this. I was extraordinarily excited
about coming here and doing this. And so I was actually flattered
when Joan asked me to do this. And as I said, I was very flattered. And I thought last
night was spectacular. Last night was just a grand
experience for me personally. However, I talked to about
six people in my department that teach history at a
university, PhD’s 21st Century. And not one that I
talked to could figure out what the hell I was
doing here [laughter], could figure out why a historian
would talk about poetry? And it was clear that none
of them really read poetry or thought about poetry themselves. I state that to start
out by just saying and reminding people not
everybody reads poems. Not everybody who’s educated, who’s
considered educated reads poems, or likes poems, or
cares about poems. And some do but many don’t. And in a setting like this,
I suppose it’s important to remember both sides of the story. Contrast this, I would say,
with the mid-19th Century where Walt Whitman
could actually dream of a poet chanting a
nation’s soul into being, where the poet could
be conceived of as — I’m sure I’m getting this wrong, the unacknowledged
legislator of mankind. What’s the real [inaudible]?>>Of the world.>>Kenneth Cmiel: Of the world, the unacknowledged
legislator of the world. That a president like
Lincoln could greet visitors on occasion, as he did, with a poem. That by the time you went
through the Sixth McGuffey Reader, you had read some Milton,
Burns, Longfellow, Pope, William Cullen Bryant and
Shakespeare, among others. I don’t want to overplay
this and I don’t want to romanticize the Romantics
but it is a surely — assuredly a case that poetry
held a different place in the world then than
it does today. Now what I’m going to do in the
next few minutes is give you as a historian, what
I think are a few of the major pillars
in that history. And to keep it short,
I’m going to try to make three basic points
and leave it at that. Poetry has to jostle with all kinds of new culture between
1890 and 1940. And as Joan has pointed out in her
paper, poetry lives on and I want to talk about poetry
living on but living on in a different cultural space. So this is related to new
forms of sound which appear in the early 20th Century. Point number one. Point number two is that
poetry starts to think about itself differently. It shifts in purpose
from a more public civic to a more personal
form of expression. It injects a form of expression
that injects wonder, imagination, reflection as a counterweight
to mass culture. It is a quieter voice
in the culture. And third, I want to
briefly talk about what from my personal perspective, leave
aside the history, the dangers and benefits of this shift. Point number one; between
1890 and 1940, sound culture undergoes major shifts
which affect the place of poetry. First, the popular
music industry explodes. We always had popular music. And there’s always been music. But there is just a
dramatic explosion in the whole music industry
beginning in the 1890’s. Tin Pan Alley starts in the 1890’s. Mechanically reproduced
sound starts in the 1890’s. The player piano goes
on the market in 1898. Records which were around for a
while, really take off in the teens. The radio is there in the 20’s. The jukebox is there
in the 20’s and 30’s. Poetry is a mix of
cadence and words. Music is a mix of cadence, words
often and melody and harmony. There are whole ranges of ways
that these pieces then interact but music is not the
same exactly as poetry. And always in music,
words are diminished in at least some small measure by —
because some part of the response, some part of the oral
response is devoted to the melody, the
harmony, the beat. Cadence too — actually while
there’s flexibility in both mediums, cadence too has less — cadence too
has less flexibility in music rhythm than in poetry where you can really
dramatically change the reading of a poem by just deciding
you’re going to stop, pause, and make a point. You can do this at times with music
but especially in ensemble music and live ensemble music,
the flexibility is less. To the extent that popular music
becomes so important in the culture, it pushes poetry and the form of poetic expression
to a different place. If music is one thing in the
popular music industry is one thing that changes, a second
thing that changes in those periods is different
attitudes towards words and performance. One, is the rise in a dramatic
way of the plain style of prose. Rhetoric falls off the
map between 1880 and 1930. It was the most important way that
people initially learned some talk about poetry in the
mid-19th Century. It was through rhetorics
and rhetoric classes in high schools as
well as in college. As rhetorics fade, as
formal rhetoric fades, what takes its place, literally
takes its place in the late 19th to early 20th Century, the rhetoric
class is freshman composition. And freshman composition
becomes ruthlessly devoted to straightforward, plain, solid,
clear, unaffected English prose. Strunk and White’sElements
of Style
rmal, for instance, a book more — I can’t think of a book more ruthlessly
devoted to the plain style. It is originally published by Strunk
alone in 1919 as one of the end of the first wave of these freshman
composition books which are meant to replace older rhetorics. If the plain style becomes one
thing that becomes a new norm, the second is conversation or conversational style
of public performance. If rhetoric falls off
the map, oratory, formal oratory falls
off the map as well. Oratory was a sister art to poetry. It was about words and
rhythm, words and cadence. By the 1920’s, people
like H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann are
making fun of formal rhetoric. By the 1920’s, Dale Carnegie
who’s famousHow to Win Friendsand Influence People
which was published in ’30 — in ’36, I believe. But by the 1920’s, he is already
making a fortune teaching people how to speak in the new way and he
keeps saying, “Don’t be affected. Don’t be formal. Don’t be rhetorical. Be conversational.” Even in music, the new conversational style
appeared with crooning. Males had to project
before the microphone. Males had to project and
they had to and it led to a more formal sounding
song style. Crooning allowed people to
be relaxed and conversational in the 1920’s and 30’s, someone
like, Rudy Vallee or Bing Crosby. And finally, of course, the person who masters the new
conversational style of public communication is Franklin
Delano Roosevelt whose fireside chats are have nothing to do with
the formal oratory but are meant through the radio to
convey the impression that here is someone conversing
with you in your living room. Poetry can respond by and
certainly you can think of William Carlos Williams
as one example. But to the extent that poetry
consists of charged words, and where the delight comes from language centrally
then the conversational and the plain style also placed
poetry some place outside where the mainstream of public
communication was heading. Poetry then becomes, as Joan
talks about, a secret pleasure, a guilty pleasure for
people by the 1920’s. By the late 1920’s, Edmund
Wilson is making the point, is making this point. In hisIs Verse A Dying Technique?Wilson says basically
yes, it’s dying. And in this essay, he
pointed to both music and prose as displacing poetry. “Don’t trust the talk about the
different schools of poetry. Don’t let that get in
the way,” Wilson said. “The important thing is to
recognize, it seems to me, is that the literary technique
of verse which was once meant to serve many purposes, now
we as a rule, use prose.” Wilson basically thought
that prose was being — was replacing poetry and he thought, “For the prose was
equal to the task.” Wilson basically had
a tin ear for poetry. He was not good on poetry and he
was not concerned that he thought that verse was a dying technique. Yet, as we’ve seen today,
as we’ve seen from — as we’ve seen in the videos
yesterday, as you all know very well from your life experience
more than me, as my life experience
says, “Wilson was wrong. Verse wasn’t a dying technique.” And this leads to point number
two, poetry’s role shifts. Consider the contrast with oratory. By 1930, oratory is gone. No one’s studying it. No one’s thinking about it. In 1880, both poetry
and oratory were listed in most conventional
lists of fine arts. They were fine arts. By 1930, oratory is a distant
remain, and poetry continues to be one of the fine arts. In 1942, another essay
on poetry was delivered, Wallace Stevens’ isThe Noble
Write and the Sound of Words
. Stevens saw as much as Wilson
the triumph of the real. He knew that the modern
poet “cannot be both — cannot be too noble a writer, that
he cannot rise up loftily in helmet and armor or horse
of imposing bronze.” Yet he still, unlike Wilson, he still thought that
poetry had a place. Poetry was the fruitful mediation
between imagination and reality. And imagination itself gave
nobility to the real for Stevens. It was contemplation. “It was a way,” he
says in this article, “to step outside mass culture.” And he says, it was not
social but personal. He makes this point several
times and he makes it firmly. “The poet’s role in short,” he says, “is to help people
to live their lives.” In that same paragraph he says,
“I might be expected to speak of the social, that is to say the
sociological or the political, that those political
obligations of the poet but,” Stevens says, “He has none.” Stevens’ essay, I’d like to
make two quick points about. One is in some way; it’s suggesting
recognizing a shifting place for poetry in the culture. That is, poetry is not the
real legislature for humanity, for mankind, for whatever it
is, for the universe [laughter]. Like I always forget
— but poetry is –>>The unacknowledged
legislators of the world, [inaudible] of Shelley’s
Defense of Poetry
.>>Kenneth Cmiel: Yes, so it’s unacknowledged
legislators of the world. In some way, he recognizes
that it’s not going to be the unacknowledged
legislator of the world. And that if it’s not having the
sort of dramatic civic force that Shelley imagined, that it still
had a strong place in the culture. So that’s point number one. And point number two is
that this role was personal. That poetry becomes
a form of wonder, reflection on ourselves
and condition. It is a moment of quiet
in a loud mass culture. And this, as I watched the
spectacular videos last night which actually confirmed my own
thoroughly unprofessional contact with poetry in the past few years, is what I saw most of
the reciters doing. Whether it is people reflecting
and thinking about suicides in South Boston, about being
a gay African-American male in Atlanta, I believe. Whether it was having a
daughter dying of cancer or whether it was simply
a meditation on a slug, these were people who were
talking about reflecting about their condition,
who were trying to bring some expression
to the wonders of life. These were people where words worked
like a clearing in the forest, where light can peer
down allowing us to see what might have always
been there but hidden from us. This was poetry as a
sort of uncovering. This is a personal
quieter form of poetry, a sort of wonder and reflection. If you think about it this way
then Emily Dickinson becomes the paradigmatic first modern poet. Now, if this is where we said
what Stevens in the 1940’s, I want to briefly talk about —
mention for one second, the benefits and dangers and the
benefits are this is a moment of quiet in a loud culture. And I like loud cultures. I think loud cultures are fun. As one of my favorite poets
and great moralist of our time, the Cat in the Hat says, “These
things are fun and fun is good.” I like the internet. I like music. I like it all. I like my kids when they like it. But at the same time, I must
say, that I come back to poetry because it is a moment of quiet
for me in a rather loud culture. But the danger is that it can
become — it’s the same thing, the quietness, that it could
become too quiet, too personal. I do not like Archibald MacLeish’s
lines that a poem should be palpable and mute as a globed fruit. I have mixed feeling about
Stevens’Of Modern Poetrywhich in some ways is a wonderful
introduction to 20th Century poetry. But when Stevens speaks of “the
poem of the act of the mind,” or of words speaking “in the
delicatest ear of the mind,” or if he speaks — when he speaks
of the invisible audience listening, it seems too self-contained
and a little bit too quiet. Poetry is sound, as Stevens knew but did not always adequately
express, to my opinion. Too quiet, too personal. If you look at the last 10 to 15
years and if you think of two things that — I strike me as important
in the public culture of poetry, one being the poetry slam movement
and the second being this sort of affair and the work that
Robert Pinsky has done. Both of those things, it strikes me, are trying to say we can’t
let poetry be too private. We can’t let poetry be too personal. It has to be a blend. Stevens was close but he
didn’t entirely get it right. You have to have a mix, lest it
become too private, too personal. Lest it become too many people like my six colleagues
who’ve never read a poem. Thanks. [ Applause ]>>Prosser Gifford: We move on
now to Paul Breslin but I just like to take a moment to — this is fromThe Idea of Order
at Key West
, the opening stanza. “She sang beyond the
genius of the sea. The water never formed
to mind or voice. Like a body wholly body,
fluttering its empty sleeves and yet its mimic motion
made constant cry. Caused constantly a cry that was
not ours although we understood. Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.” Stevens knew public as well. Okay, Paul’s on.>>Paul Breslin: I
was encouraged not to write a formal talk so I didn’t. What I’m going to give you is first
of all, a kind of quick jumping tour of a longer essay that I’ve written
called “The Sign of Democracy and the Terms of Poetry.” That’s going to include the
sections I’m going to deal with include an analysis of a
poem that appeared in Dear Abby and my experiences as
a participant observer at the Uptown Poetry
Slam in Chicago. Then I want to talk a little
bit about the perspectives on these things that I’ve gained by
working for the last several years on a book about Derek
Wolcott and spending time with West Indian literature
and culture. And on the extraordinary perspective
provided by what we saw last night, the various people
presenting their favorite poems from the Favorite Poem Project. And I think what I have
to say segues very nicely from what Ken was saying. It’s sort of about the distinction
between poetry as public performance and poetry, I think, it was Joan in
the first panel who quoted someone who read a letter to Carl Sandberg
saying, “You’ve spoken to me in the loneliness of my heart.” That sense of poetry is something
that happens quietly apart from collectivity, and poetry that also is a public performance
and speaks to everybody. One of the classic sources on
this is T.S. Elliot’s Essay of the Three Voices of Poetry in
which he distinguishes three — the poem that is addressed to the
whole community or collective, something like Virgil’sAeneid
Homer’sIliadtelling a story that everyone listening
knows that defines in some way the collective
identity of the group. The second is poems addressed to
a smaller, more intimate audience, perhaps one person or a
few particular people. And then the third kind seems to be
the voice of inner thought overheard as if the poet is aware
of speaking to no one. These things will be on
my mind as I proceed. Well, to take up the essay, I got
the title,The Sign of Democracyin the Terms of Poetryrmal
from two lines in Whitman’sSongof Myselfwhich keeps
coming up at this — at these meetings as a kind of central founding
text in American poetry. Whitman writes, “I speak
the password primeval. I give the sign of democracy. By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have their
counterpart of in the same terms.” These words appear in the
1855 edition and remain apart from minor changes unaltered in the
deathbed edition of 1891 to ’92. They are core Whitman. So I ask, “Can an American concerned
with poetry read them unmoved? Can an American with any
brains read them uncritically? What if some things worth
having cannot be had on the same terms by all people?” Whitman seems worried
enough by that possibility to include the translation
term counterpart of. But what in poetry is an
acceptable counterpart and where does counterpart
end and impoverishment begin? Can poetry adapt its terms to the
demands of all and remain poetry? And who defines the
terms of poetry anyway? Are the verse homilies
printed occasionally in Ann Landers and Dear Abby poetry? And I guess my first example
was to try to deal with that. So I have a little section
in this essay called “Poetry and Self-Flattery” which
sort of is my attempt to understand what I’m looking for and what I’m not looking
for in a poem. So I tried the experiment of trying
to put down my preconceptions which I imagine are shared by
most people in the room and try to think what it would mean to
become the ideal reader of one of those poems in Ann
Landers or Dear Abby. So you know, I point out that the
poem I chose which is from a couple of years ago maybe kind of
like shooting fish in a barrel for an audience like this. But the point of the exercise is
to be as articulate as possible about why I can’t take these poems
seriously and to try to think about what it would mean
to be able to do so. So here’s the poem complete with the
prose that framed it in Ann Landers. Dear Ann Landers, I found this
verse in a column of yours in my father’s desk drawer. It was in a datebook from 1974. It’s just good today
as it was 23 years ago. I can’t argue with that [laughter]. Please rerun it, Dixie. Dear Dixie, I agree. Thank you for asking. Here it is. And the poem is called “Forget
It” by Judd Mortimer Lewis. “If you see a tall
fellow ahead of the crowd, a leader of men marching
fearless and proud and you know of a tale whose mere telling
aloud would cause his proud head in anguish be bowed. It’s a pretty good
plan to forget it. If you know of a skeleton hidden
away in a closet, and guarded, and kept from the day in the dark and whose showing whose sudden
display would cause grief, and sorrow, and pain, and dismay, it’s a pretty good
plan to forget it. If you know of a tale that will
darken the joy of a man or a woman, a girl or a boy, that
will wipe out a smile or the least bit annoy a fellow,
or cause any gladness to cloy, it’s a pretty good
plan to forget it.” So you know, if you’re set upon
someone says this is good today as it was 23 years ago,
valued by father and daughter across generational lines, it
passes Samuel Johnson’s test of pleasing many or three
at least, and pleasing long. So what does it please by? Well, it has this kind of
insistent anapestic tetrameter meter and it’s got a trimeter line
that functions as a refrain. It sounds singable. It’s instantly recognizable as
verse, not prose chopped into lines. Each stanza has four
consecutive rhymes and the refrain provides relief
not only by varying the meter but by breaking the pattern of
rhyme at predictable intervals. The refrain functions as a punch
line, reversing the temptations to indiscretion in the
previous four lines. Well, no poet I know would be caught
dead owning up to a poem like that. But if you think back
to the 19th Century when famous poets had three names
like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier,
or Judd Mortimer Lewis, the author of this one — highbrow
poems might still have much in common with this piece. Of course, they’d be more gracefully
written, with fewer redundancies and clumsy enchantments
but they would rhyme and lilt and point a moral. I mean, if you know the once
beloved recitation piece,The Village Blacksmithby
Longfellow, it’s got closing stanzas in praise of Ernest Humble industry. And yet this poem is written
by the first Harvard professor of modern languages and
able translator of Dante, an up-to-date literary
intellectual of his time. So as has already been remarked this
morning, the conventions of popular and what I’ll call professional
or “highbrow verse” have sort of drifted apart in the years between Professor Longfellow
and Mr. Lewis. And then I start thinking about
what you would have to not care much about in order to like that poem. There’s no progression because
each case is parallel to the last. And it’s full of appositive
rephrasings of the same idea and little paratactic add-ons. So in order to like “Forget
It”, you have to want a poem that develops a helpful maxim in
a clear unmistakable way rather than a poem that questions
its own statements or leaves them to implication. You can’t value economy
of means too highly or you’ll find yourself asking why
and then I have a bunch of questions about why all these
things have to be in there. But the moral shallowness
of “Forget It” — and here’s where I’m getting
to my point about the poetry of self-flattery, the
moral shallowness of “Forget It” bothers me even more than its prefab diction
and lazy versification. To show what I mean, I tack on the
stanzas still doggerel, of course, that would have made a difference. But suppose the young fellow whose
head is so proud writes by night with the clan though he’s
never avowed the connection and afterwards going home, plowed starts beating his
children until they are cowed. Speak up or you’ll live
to regret it [laughter]. Or to spell it out, tact is a virtue
but it’s not the highest virtue and there are times when other
responsibilities outweighs its claims. So I guess what bothers me most about that poem is it
thinks it knows we are. It thinks it knows what
we think and what we ought to think before we begin reading it. And what it can offer us is a kind
of pat on the back and tell us to keep on being whoever we were
before we started reading it. And then I go on and say, it would
be nice to think that when you pick up a reputable literary journal that
all of this thing is far behind you and we enter a different
order of discourse. But apart from the undeniably much
higher level of pure literary skills that one encounters there, I
found that there are poems in — oh, I won’t mention
names, but I, you know, say magazines that I’ve published
in and had been proud to be publish in that nonetheless strike me
as having something in common with the poem that I just read you. There is one — you know, I won’t —
it could have been any of a number but there’s a poem by
Robin Becker called“Why We Fear the Amish”that
was in American Poetry Review and it has lines like, “Because
they smell us in fellowship with the dead works of darkness and
technology” and at the end it says, “We know their frugality
in our corpulence. We know their sacrifice
for the group and our love for the individual. Our gods are cross dressers,
nerds, beach bums and poets. They know it. By their pure talk and practice
do they eye us from their carts?” Well you know, it’s
pretty good in a way but that self-indicting placement
of poets at the end of the list of our gods is kind of
a giveaway of something that bothers me a little bit on. I think that it sort of identifies
its ideal reader as a poetry person, someone who might be
contributing to this journal or at least the regular
reader of it. And that’s the “we” and
that “we” is supposed to have certain attitudes
known in advance. And that, I guess, is what
troubles me about that kind of poem. Well, I’m skipping over a good deal. I think I will go to the second
part of what I have to say which is to give you a report on my trip to the Uptown Poetry Slam
equipped with a questionnaire. I returned — I got 61 of them
back from people in the bar. And I hadn’t planned to
participate in the slam when I went, but it was a slow night and to
avoid things being too boring, I decided to enter at the last
minute and ended up winning by a tenth of a point which
is a very dubious honor since there were only
three of us [laughter]. I recall from my youthful
obsession with baseball that the lowest league-leading
batting average in major league history was 306 so I think this was
sort of like that year. So on — all right, the
night of the slams on. Attempting to gather less
impressionistic evidence about audience for poetry than
appears to exist at present and this was written a year ago. Got some very interesting evidence
last night, which I’ll come to in a couple of minutes. But I decided to write
this questionnaire and pass it out at the slam. So I — when only one person had
signed up for the slam that night, Mark Smith, the host
proposed that that person read against himself [laughter]. And for various reasons, I had
my poetry manuscript as well as the questionnaires with me. I was polishing it up at that point. So I volunteered and
somebody else volunteered. And so three judges were appointed
at random from the audience. Some of you may know the drill at
poetry slams but I assume that — how many of you have been to one? Maybe 25 to 30% of the
people in the room. Well, they got three judges
at random from the audience who were asked to introduce
themselves. One was a teacher. One worked for Dow Chemical and
took no end of crap for that. I mean [laughter] and then there
was one who was sort of in the arts but not in the literary arts. And Smith’s role as emcee seems to
be kind of heckling participants. So each judge was asked to
hold up a score from zero to 10 after each poem so it’s
like Olympic skating or diving events in this respect. The three scores were then
averaged and the contestant with the lowest score was dropped. The two survivors read another poem and whoever got the higher
composite score would win. Smith sort of shall we say
Mirandized the audience. He read it its rights
and prerogatives. So if listeners thought
a poem was dragging, they could come like
this [laughter]. If it rhymed too predictably,
they were invited to shout out the rhyme word along
with the poet [laughter]. And any content judged to be sexist
was fair game for the feminist hiss. So there were two other contestants,
one of whom was a young woman who had signed up at
that very last second. And she didn’t seem used
to reading in public. She was nervous and her
delivery of her poem, I think, was what caused her to
lose in the first round. The guy who gave me a
run for my money was — had participated in a slam scene for
people under 25 in North Carolina and was an experienced veteran. His first poem was a diatribe
against his poetry teacher delivered from memory with much
dramatic flair. The student, it seems, had
wanted to write an erotic poem about women’s legs but
and I quote from memory, “My PC teacher said you are
objectifying women and I said, you are objectifying poetry.” The instructor wanted analysis
of poetry but the student thought or felt that poetry
was all about emotion. Toward the end of the poem,
the poet faced the audience and shouted, “Feel, feel, feel! Legs, legs, legs!” [ Laughter ] There was no feminist hiss and the poem got the warmest
audience response of the evening and as I recall, the highest score. I came in second and survived
through the next round. Mark Smith gave me almost as
much flak about being a professor as the chemist judge got
about his job with Dow. As my young opponent finished, I sat
in the front row waiting my turn, and I closed my eyes to
concentrate, Smith said, “The professor’s nervous now. He’s doing his yoga. He’s been reading too
much Gary Snyder.” [ Laughter ] Determined to take up in good humor,
I replied, “You could do worse!” And then it was time to read and I chose a political poem
calledThe Scalepublished in TriQuarterly some years back. And I think — shall
I read it to you? Yeah, why not [laughter]? This is my 15 minutes of fame. The Scale — and I
read it about this way. It wasn’t this kind of
highly choreographed reading. The man doing life with no chance of parole watching
the walls grow visible in the first light thinks how
all over the city men wake up beside women, even the
losers get lucky sometimes but nobody gets lucky here. Where they put you to make
sure you have no pleasure and miss it constantly. The guilt that had seemed
almost nothing inside him, they had made solid. So they could not look away from it
to take some comfort from the sky without seeing bars also. It could have been worse. One hears that in certain countries,
political prisoners are locked in boxes too short to lie down in,
carried down to a cellar and stacked like so many warehouse
crates in one dense tenement of tormented flesh soaked
in its own excrement. For someone somewhere,
this is actual. One of those boxes is where he
is and has to continue being. If he dreamed of a prison
cell with a bed and a toilet, he would weep bitterly to wake in
his box and find it all a dream. This is the stone on the
far pan of the scale. Load what you will on the other. It scarcely trembles. So that was — it got
me to the second round. [ Applause ] Anyway, on — fortunately for me,
the leg man’s second poem wasn’t as hot as his first and so my
quiet second poem beat him by — you know, my composite score came
out fractionally higher than his, and I found myself the winner of $13
and a board game called Poetry Slam. Which Mark Smith said
had it all wrong and every previous winner had
returned it after receiving it. [ Laughter ] So the questionnaires
were modestly revealing. I’m acutely aware having
been in conversation with sociologists friends
that my sample is minuscule. My methods probably need refinement. But at least my questionnaire
was symmetrical which is apparently good [laughter]. And this is what I got. It was a young crowd, 44%
gave their age as 20 to 29. But there were more people over
30 than under, 26% in their 30’s, 11% in their 40’s,
and 11% in their 50’s. One of my 61 respondents
admitted to being 60 and over. Fifty-nine percent of
them had attended slams and poetry readings before this one. Another 20% had attended
poetry readings but not slams. The remaining 21%, so that’s
over a fifth, had never been to a poetry reading
of any kind before. It was a more diverse
audience than — well, I compared it to
one that Robert gave at Borders a few years ago on. But it was still predominantly
white although a number of the respondents declined
to give race or ethnicity or they ridiculed the question. So for race, they wrote triathlon
[laughter] or this was my favorite, none of your damn bigness
[laughter]. So it kind of spoiled my
statistical results but if I go by what they said, 8%
checked African-American, 3% identified themselves
as Hispanic. Most interesting was the
spread of occupations. Five percent said they worked
as clerks or wait staff and these were usually the ones
who were 21 or 22 years old, still looking to see
what they wanted to do. Twenty-three percent
worked in business or sales. Sixteen percent were in
professions such as law or medicine. And 10% were engineers
or technicians. Only 8% identified themselves
as teachers and 11% as students. Another 11% indicated that
they had careers in the arts but only 3% claimed to be writers. So the prevailing notion
that only poets and their force-fed students attend to poetry does not
hold for this audience. That was the most encouraging
thing that I found. Now, just a couple of quick remarks. I’ve been engaged in for
almost a decade in a book that I just finished about
Derek Walcott when I started, I knew nothing about the
Caribbean where he comes from. So I had to learn a lot. And that culture gives you a
kind of basis for comparison because there is a tradition
of verbal play and performance that is not necessarily
confined to educated people. And there are extravagant uses of
speech in things like the rants of the Midnight Robber
and Trinidad Carnival. Or you know, when I look
at the poetry slams, I think of another Trinidad
Carnival convention, the Calypso War where the leading Calypsonians
improvise verses sometimes satirizing each other and whoever
makes the wittiest responses and gets the most applause
wins the Calypso War. So it has this competitive
edge as well. Walcott has said, “I come from a
society that likes big gestures.” And I think we come from a
society where ever since the turn of the 20th Century
when the conventions of Victorian poetry were getting
kind of flyblown, we’ve been kind of walking backwards
away from big gestures. Ken’s remark about the decline
of rhetoric and the replacement of rhetoric classes with composition
classes that emphasize clarity and plainness rather than flourish,
I think is quite indicative. I think World War I really
did a lot to kill rhetoric. You know, people came back
from the war like Wilfred — well, Wilfred Owen didn’t
come back from the war. But people who saw it would
look at the kinds of rah, rah war poems comparing it to
soccer or rugby written by people like Sir Henry Newbolt and
say, “What the hell is this?” and look for some way to register
the shock of that experience. We’ve had since then, you know, I
think another event that was bad for the faith of rhetoric was the
Vietnam War because of the kinds of very calculate uses of
language to manipulate the public that were used at that time. So you know, it’s interesting
to me to see a society that somehow has come from a
different history where all of these inhibitions
against rhetoric and flourish and bravado are not so much in place and it produces a different
kind of art. In closing, just a couple of
reflections about the slams in relation to what
I saw last night. What I liked about the slams
was the kind of possibility of openness and spontaneity. Although in fact, many things are
heavily choreographed and rehearsed, you don’t see too much of that
but potentially, it can be that. And the idea of coming not to some
kind of sanctimonious location but to a bar, you know, it could be
a little bit more like an Irish pub, it would be better yet but
it’s, you know, it’s a bar. You’re sitting in there in a bar. People are reading poetry and
if you like it, you can show it and if you don’t like
it, you can show it. And that’s nice. What I don’t like, two things. The competitive aspect,
you know the aspect of it that’s a little
too much like wrestling or professional sports
of other sorts. Blake said, “Among true poets,
there is no competition.” And the speed of judgment,
that is on — here’s a poem, what do you think? Clap, don’t clap. If you’re bored, go like this. You know, it doesn’t — it says in
essence and this is the relationship to the poetry of self-flattery, I am the all competent
judge of this poem. I already know who I am. I already know what I want. This poem has nothing to tell
me that I don’t already know. That I don’t like. And it struck me in the
extraordinarily powerful videos of people from all walks of life presenting their
favorite poems last night, that they don’t think like that. The construction worker who
lovedSong of Myselfsaid, “When I first read this, it
didn’t make any sense to me. I couldn’t follow it but
something caught my attention.” And Whitman himself when he says,
“Failing to fetch me one place, you’ll find me in another,
you know, keep encouraged.” He says, “That seemed to be
directing me how to be patient with the poem, how to get it.” The Jamaican immigrant
who lovedNickand the Candlestick
by Sylvia Platt says, “I love this because it doesn’t
follow any rational process. It doesn’t make any
sense but it’s powerful. It’s raw. It’s bitter. It doesn’t seem to me a
false use of language.” Over and over again, they talk
about being looked by something that was opaque to
them for a long time until they’ve lived
with it for a while. And that’s what I think we’re in
danger of being too impatient with. The poetry slam has too much in
common, I fear, with the rock video and with other sort of
short attention span forms. That’s one problem with it. The other thing I noticed
last night was that there isn’t the
ferociously anti-intellectual and anti-academic bias in most
of the respondents we heard from last night that seems to
be a kind of stock attitude which you must affect whether or not you actually
believe it or not at a slam. In other words, the
professor isn’t the enemy. A lot of these people
said, “I first ran into this poem when
I went to school.” I have the impression that
people come to poetry later than they did instead of being
read it by their parent’s maybe or being made to memorize
it and recite it in grade school or in church. It’s kind of terra incognito
until they get into college. And college is a kind of
door into this other thing. And some of these respondents
seemed very grateful for that. So while I don’t want to
whitewash the literary academy and I’m well aware of its follies
and failings and my own sins in that regard, I think
it’s refreshing to see that people don’t necessarily have
this kind of stereotypical academic versus free spirit
notion of what poetry is. And I think the universities and
colleges are one of the places where poetry survives, where
people learn when they’re young that they still want it for
the rest of their lives. [ Applause ]>>Prosser Gifford: Thank you. A plug that is also, I think,
germane, on the 26th of April, we will have here a reading from
the New American Library two-volume collection on the — essentially on
the first half of the 20th Century. Some of you probably saw the review
by Bill Pritchard in Sunday’s Times. One of the things that he remarks
on and that others have remarked on is the amazing breadths,
two volumes of — to be in that anthology,
you have to be dead. So it only [laughter] — it only
goes up to around the 1960’s. But it includes popular
songs, ballads, blues as well as Elliot
Pound, Stevens, et cetera. So it is a testimony to the
enormous breadth and indeed, musicality of poetry in the first
half of the 20th Century in America.>>Robert Pinsky: It’s the voice of whoever likes the
work of art and loves it. If poetry is as it appears to
becoming more popular than it was, my conviction is that is in response to an eloquent, beautiful
mass culture. I join Kenneth in admiring and enjoying mass media very
much whereby their nature on a mass scale, the poem by its
nature is on an individual scale. The instrument is the reader’s
body as we saw last night. Ken spoke of loud and quiet. I would speak on of
individual scale and mass scale. I hope that some people
here will help us find ways to get the Favorite Poem
videos into schools. Two powerful forces I’ve learned as a teacher are autonomy
and physicality. If you ask the student to choose, the student’s individual
dignity is your ally. If you ask the student to
read aloud in their own voice, to listen to your voice, the voices
of their peers, corporeality as well as autonomy is joining you. What we saw last night was evidence
to me that the work of art lives in whoever loves the work of art. And if it has people or teachers, as
humans, we’re not willing to trust that cultural principle, we
might as well give up anyway. Principle involves dignity of
the individual and the belief in the beauty of the work of art. I’m sorry I don’t have
any more here. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Prosser Gifford: Okay, we now fortunately have a
good deal of time for you. So I think the panelists
would love to have it opened up to your questions and
concerns, indeed, your voices. Who wants to start? Yes, can you come? I think its best if you come
forward because otherwise people –>>My question has to do with
the influence of mnemonics on the composition [inaudible]. Does the end [inaudible]
that tells about [inaudible] and in a certain memory
or tradition [inaudible]. The same thing applies
to the [inaudible] of the Iliad where the [inaudible]. It seems that there
was a [inaudible]. And there used to be a [inaudible]
whereby constant sounds were used in conjunction with [inaudible] and
I was wondering if anybody knows about that tradition or
knows anything [inaudible]? My name is Robert Birch, by the way. I live over in [Inaudible]. [ Laughter ] I turned around [inaudible] with one
person [inaudible] is my colleague, Martin Miller, who has just put the
Greek [inaudible] in the Odyssey on a database to study
stylistic variation. Some of you is very interested in what might be learned
about [inaudible].>>Martin Miller?>>M-U-E-L-L-E-R, he’s from
Northwestern University.>>[Inaudible] that’s
the kind of [inaudible]? It applies also to Dante and
to Conan Doyle [inaudible].>>Prosser Gifford: Yes.>>I have been writing a lot of
poetry in my native language –>>Prosser Gifford: Could –>>In Portuguese.>>Prosser Gifford: Could you
come to the microphone, please?>>Recently, I have been
writing a lot of poetry in my native language
which is Portuguese. And I have been asking if you — my question is [inaudible]
to common knowledge and there is always a
comment that puzzles me. And the comment is it
needs more universality. And I’ve been thinking about this. What makes a poem more universal
than just a [inaudible] collection of one’s life or experience?>>People have been trying
to answer that question for more than a thousand years. [ Laughter ]>>Robert Pinsky: The most
universal thing is physical appeal.>>How does that go in a poem?>>Robert Pinsky: It’s evidenced
in beauty of the sounds. It’s basically consonants
and vowels. If they’re arranged artfully enough,
if you [inaudible] a long time for that arrangement, the most
universal thing is this [inaudible].>>Can I say something?>>Prosser Gifford: I think –>>I think her point is universal
when it can be written all over the world and can
we [inaudible] a message to all over the world. Not for just one group
of people or country. I think that makes it universal
and that’s the [inaudible].>>Could I continue? You see, what happens is they say
my poems have too much musicality. They rhyme too much.>>Robert Pinsky: Maybe
you’re right. [ Laughter ]>>It’s not impossible. One further observation, sometimes
it’s not when people are setting up more self-consciously to
be universal but they are so. We had last night a couple of
instances of people saying, “You know, this poem is written by someone whose life experience
was utterly different from mine,” and often the poems were
very personal in their use of the poet’s life experience. Yet the reader for some reason
said, “Yes, this speaks to me.” Emerson’s answer would have
been that if you’re utterly true to your own inner experience,
you end up speaking universally without quite knowing
how you got there. I would like to hope at
least that it’s true.>>Prosser Gifford: I think we ought
to be a little cautious though. Bearing in mind the first panel this
morning and that is, tastes change. Byron was certainly at one point
considered almost universal. His death in the Greek
revolution helped. But I don’t know that
that’s true anymore. But it may become true again. In other words, what — there’s a — universality is as much subject
to changes of taste and influence and resonance as other
things in our lives. Did you have a question? Please.>>Hi, I’m Mary Case. I teach at American University of Washington this semester
in the arts program. My question is for Dr. Breslin. Do you –>>[Inaudible] please, yeah.>>Yeah [laughter]. I don’t want to [inaudible] way.>>No.>>You talked about the poetry
[inaudible] and one of the things that you found that you [inaudible]
the competitive nature of it. You won that poetry — [ Laughter ] And I’m interested in this because you have this wonderful
poetry slam program here in Washington, for the
junior high school aged kids and they really engage. So, I’m wondering about this
whole thing about competition. [Inaudible].>>Paul Breslin: Yes, the arts
competitive in a certain true sense. I mean, [inaudible] how
well am I doing, you know, who’s doing the work
that I love the best. Would my [inaudible] be found
[inaudible] by those standards? What can I do to make it better? My sense is that they were
kind of more in competition with what is is given you by
your combination of [inaudible] and weaknesses to achieve. I mean, if you worry
too much about — I mean, I’m speaking
personally [inaudible]. I just find that the less
I think about what X, Y, and Z [inaudible] are doing and
measure what I’m trying to do against them, the less blocked
I am, the better the work that I produce is the less
satisfied with it I become. You notice I don’t say
the more it satisfies me, the less it satisfies
me [inaudible] become.>>[Inaudible] society
question which is a big one. The whole direction was in the form
of [inaudible] literature test 25 to 30 years has been
to attack [inaudible] and when people say something is
universal, they mean that a lot of — mostly white, mostly male
people with a lot of access to culture and power
[inaudible] pass it on. And if I take — you know, I
think this is taken to the point where the question of trying to
explain why we value something other than as the outcome of the
power struggle has become almost an embarrassment. And I’m very concerned with the idea
that although [inaudible] to change, of course cultural power and
cultural wars have a great deal to do with what [inaudible]. I don’t think these
suspicions are irreversible, and I think more it’s a
matter of faith than something that I could prove intellectually
that in some kind of rough balance where — survives the
sifting [inaudible] meant to have something other than
cultural good luck behind it, which is not to say that some things that don’t survive it aren’t worth
reviving and might be just as good as [inaudible] has survived. And I also think there’s
such a thing as [inaudible]. That sucked, you know [laughter], and I think that that poetry is
finally okay when we’re young and we’re starving, but at a
certain point it becomes trouble. I do believe that.>>Paul Breslin: Just
a word on competition. I think if you read
between the lines, or not even between the lines,
you read the lines in the Odyssey or the Iliad, there is a point when
it’s quite clear that the speaker, the Bard – and this goes back
to the pneumonic question, is lauded because of the complexity
and the fullness of memory. You get the same thing in
the Griots and Senegal. There’s a sense that the greatest
of the Griots are the ones who have the great legends
of [inaudible] and whatever, and they can bring
them in the fullness. So, there’s a sense of competition, the Calypso’s already
been mentioned. There’s a sense of competition
not, I think, solely in the quality of the poetry, although that’s
important, but in the fullness of recollection and the aptness
of recollection certainly in the great oral traditions. And those are valuable qualities. Yes?>>My name is [inaudible]. In response to the universal success
of poetry, I think it’s the ability to connect because only in America
are we going to market poetry with its competent repetitiveness,
you know, [inaudible] but it’s ability for some kids,
junior high kids to connect and relate with a [inaudible]. When I first read Walt Whitman, he
was like – where is he coming from? I had no interest and
didn’t connect at all. Later, I took the book off the
shelf and I heard him calling to me and I heard him raising
me, and affirming me, and really calling me
back to life [inaudible]. And I have a friend from Ireland
whose oral tradition is so precious, he’s memorized poem after poem
and he carries it with him when he visits here in America. And I watch him as he’ll
take a woman off the street, or a man off the street, or in some
context [inaudible] socializing while he was here and he knows
a poem would fit this man’s life and he will say, “I’ve got a poem for you [laughter] [inaudible]
recitation of this poem. It does have a [inaudible] to it.” [Inaudible] watched the man tear up
or to watch [inaudible] just open up of a flower under the light
of somebody touching somebody and connecting with them. That’s what it’s all about. So, I would say connect with people,
give them as many [inaudible] of imagery, [inaudible]
and that’s giving the gift of life and poetry — [ Applause ]>>Prosser Gifford:
That is indeed voice. Yes.>>I too have a [inaudible] by that question [inaudible]
on his achievement. What I would like to do is recite
a few lines and compare them and see what they [inaudible]. The last line, “It matters
not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments
the scroll. I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul. With rue, my heart is laden,
for the many friends I have, for many a rose-lip maiden
and many a light foot lad. By brooks too broad for leaping,
the light foot boys are laid. The rose-lip girls are sleeping
in fields where roses fade. Which if the [inaudible] universal. [ Laughter ]>>Prosser Gifford: I — we’ve
just been enjoined not to act like judges in a poetry slam. [ Laughter ]>>One of the things that struck
me is [inaudible] Roberts had sound and the person over there basically
said meaning for younger sounding and in some ways, in some
ways, those are the two poles by which people find universality. You know, to be universal, you
know, I can hear the rhythms of a Portuguese poem and I can
proudly hear most of the rhymes but I sure don’t know what
the hell that poem’s about. [Inaudible] and so once it moves
into translation, it has to be — it has to be reworked, so there’s
a sound to it [background noises]. For me, the whole universality
[inaudible], I — in a sense, why do we care? I care less. My sense is that poems that takes
change, tastes move in and out and that’s a good thing, that
taste move in and out sometimes for reasons of power but
sometimes for other reasons, for reasons of the lifecycle,
for reasons of culture sitting in certain places at
certain moments. Other things going on
[inaudible] culture. So, you know, things can move
in, move out and who knows? In 20 years, people might
be reading in a [inaudible]. Maybe many of you are, you
know, but I just don’t – for me, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Yes, it all has been a bunch of – a
bunch of white males from the West and I do agree that there’s
considerable truth to that. On the other hand, I’ve been
thrown here in the 21st Century and I’m busy trying to figure
out how to live my life. Well, in keeping both [inaudible]. I guess I’ve come to like
[inaudible] thinking more about ethics and translation
for somebody. In other words, [inaudible]
overnight, different context. After all, it’s not as if God said,
“Before there were human beings, let’s create this idyllic
form called [inaudible].” And all earth and poetry
that’s universal, be some asset that [inaudible]. Emerson said something like that, but I beg to differ
with [inaudible]. No, it’s more than, you know,
people from ancient Greece on a ship [inaudible] coast through the language barrier say
[inaudible] some people did serve [inaudible] different kinds of [inaudible] called
Policious [assumed spelling]. You were something like that too and
later when Westerners made contact with places like [inaudible],
you know, gradually – but that, there’s kind of an agreement to translate the term poetry that’s
covered all these different things. It’s not absolute. We’re talking about
desire, not fact here. Poetry is what people
in a wide range of times and situations have wanted to call poetry [inaudible]
recognize [inaudible] kinship. To get back to your two
examples, I think [inaudible] from [inaudible] recited the last
stanza [inaudible] trouble with now because it celebrates
this kind of [inaudible] of the inviolable [inaudible]
soul that is somehow able to master its own fate out
of context and I think a lot of people have trouble buying
that anymore and have trouble – it sounds to my ears as a
family protests too much. There’s a kind of hysterical
[inaudible] about that rhetoric. The house and the farm [inaudible]
George Orwell’s essay when he talks about having “[Inaudible] going back
to Rita to finding out [inaudible]. It just tinkles.” So, you never know [laughter].>>Prosser Gifford: Let me
suggest a couple of other examples. I’ve been thinking about
this universality question and I’ll give two from
this very room. Let’s take the Japanese haiku. A very constrained and restricted
and long-polished form in Japan, but Bob Haas as many of
you know, has translated – there’s a whole book of
translations from three great haiku, three of the greatest haiku
writers and they do come across. You do feel the intelligence, and
irony, and the delight in constraint and contrast, and then I think
of an evening, one of the — probably one of the most memorable
evenings in this room with — [ Laughter ] — Joseph Brodsky. Joseph Brodsky was reading
[inaudible] in Russian and I was reading translations in
English from various translators and there’s no question that
some of that poetry is universal. That is, you feel the
power, you feel the tragedy, you feel the magnificent
uplift of the human spirit in terrible conditions and it doesn’t matter really
what the language is as long as you can understand the language. So, I think – I think universality
is of course, it’s best judged in the original language but if
it can come across in translation into another language and if it
can still give you that thrill of intellectual and emotional
recognition, then it’s on the way, I think, to becoming universal. Another question? Yes, please?>>My name is Jennifer Hubbard
and I’m a hostile English teacher and since I’m taking the
day off from my students, I thought I would ask a
question on their behalf. They would love a professional
opinion as to why we English teachers make
them memorize and recite poetry. [ Laughter ]>>Prosser Gifford: Let’s — we’ll save Robert’s
voice, so you’re on, Paul.>>Paul Breslin: Well,
as Robert said, maybe the most primal [inaudible]
poetry [inaudible] included in the experience [inaudible]
and you don’t really get to recite poems [inaudible] page. I think there’s a tremendous
tendency in the way we’re taught to read especially in
[inaudible] college curriculum that people [inaudible]. The idea is [inaudible] what you
have to read, extract what you need on the exam, get back out, and particularly [inaudible]
is not important. The poetry [inaudible], it
is first face of the language and [inaudible] the idea [inaudible]
in which [inaudible] exists. So, when you memorize too,
it starts to be [inaudible]. In order to memorize, you have to
pay attention to how it sounds. You have to say it to yourself. You have to live with it a
while and kind of dwell on it. I made my students memorize
two poems per quarter when I teach Reading
[inaudible] Poetry [inaudible]. This is how they have to live word
by word, the decisions poets take. Every poem was once one page
and every word that’s added, it’s [inaudible] direction and away
from [inaudible] directions and it’s in that changing process, that field
of energy as that process continues, the poem has [inaudible]
and that’s true [inaudible], that’s true for formal
poetry, as well. [ Inaudible Speaker ]>>Prosser Gifford:
Kenneth, you want to say? No? Yes?>>Good morning. I would like to address the
universality of the poetry question. I feel that when we bring forth our
truths, the truth of our experience, that is when we question to
the universality of who we are and we all in different cultures,
experiences, ethnic groups, can feel that universality when
it is truth and the essence of the person’s experience. Now, I am not an academia. My work is in healing and I
have found that I have been able to touch the muse and
teach through poetry, so I think when the
truths are who you are and your experience comes through,
that’s who [inaudible] for me.>>Prosser Gifford: Thank you. Yes, back there? No, there’s nobody behind you. Just speak.>>My name’s Greta Erick and I’m
a poet as well, a coming poetess and first of all, I appreciate
all that you’ve talked about today and [inaudible] topics
that you raised. But I guess I would — I feel strongly to
[inaudible] conservation, which is that for me
there’s been a real absence of women’s voices on this panel. That the only two women poets
that have been discussed by this panel [inaudible], uses
examples of [inaudible], actually. And, I guess my question
— excuse me — would be, given the context in which such a [inaudible] thing could
occur [inaudible] celebrations, but how would you propose
nurturing the voices of women [inaudible]
minorities in our culture? And I don’t mean to be, like,
a huge downer, I was just — — [ Laughter ] [Inaudible]. And I’d like to hear from
the panelists, as well, [inaudible] audience if you
have ideas or suggestions about this issue, I would be
happy to talk with you afterwards. Thank you.>>Well, let me think. It was a matter of what
happened that the nervous person at the poetry recital was the
woman who maybe [inaudible]. I mean, if I knew more
why that was the case, it might turn out that
she [inaudible] possible. In my teaching, [inaudible]
course that was [inaudible]. It’s funny you focus on different
things in different contexts, and –>>Prosser Gifford: I can only
say come back late afternoon when you have Naomi Nye and
Rita Dove and Louise Gluk. I don’t think there’s any attempt
to discourage or exclude, I think –>>Paul Breslin: No,
the question is, why unconsciously [inaudible]
played out that way. It’s a serious question. Yeah.>>[Inaudible]. Given that context, how can we
nurture the voices of young poets who don’t see themselves
represented [inaudible]?>>Paul Breslin: I think
you’re generalizing for — were you here for the first panel?>>Pardon?>>Paul Breslin: Yeah, there
were some women’s voices prominently represented.>>. [Inaudible], especially
[inaudible] voice. I just find it interesting
that [inaudible]. I just find it interesting that the
panelists happened to be like that, and that [inaudible] so
were all these [inaudible].>>Prosser Gifford: I recall
mentioning [inaudible] at the [inaudible] one of her poems
in the presentation [inaudible].>>Prosser Gifford: We are– [ Multiple Speakers ]>>[Inaudible] deal with
that [inaudible] voices? [Inaudible] who wouldn’t be
sitting up there, you know, when it comes to be our time?>>Paul Breslin: They often are. I think you’re — [ Inaudible Speaker ]>>Prosser Gifford: Yes, we
are drawing to a close — no, please, come forward,
but just let me say that we are drawing
towards noon and we’re going to have to cut off fairly soon. So, please keep your
questions succinct. Thank you.>>Hi, my name is [inaudible]. How I started liking the poetry
when I saw a poet performer, and that is the way that I think
[inaudible] little children because many people used to
say that poetry was boring and just it was very
hard [inaudible] and people didn’t like it. When I saw a teacher,
when I was in school, I loved the performance,
and I started studying. I started studying and [inaudible]
and I didn’t [inaudible]. I think once you go to all over the
world, not just to a little group of people that [inaudible],
they should go to everybody, because it changed the world. It changed [inaudible] change
many things in this time and then. I just wanted to tell you that. And, [inaudible] actress, and I think we should
work together [inaudible] to make enjoy more
poetry, everybody. Thank you, very much.>>Prosser Gifford: Thank you. Yes, that gentleman, please.>>I very much admired
the work that [inaudible] and I thought [inaudible] comment
from the panel upon the subject or the fact that when you get into
the various cultures [inaudible] to them, you find out in our
history, our early history that each is very unique, each
perceived music in different ways and the arts, the paintings,
and so on. And of course, their poetry. I was wondering if there is a
belief here, to some degree, that perhaps there are
[inaudible] in existence which are not intercultural
or cannot be completely or perfectly translated [inaudible].>>Yes. Translation is always
imperfect, it strikes me and that’s what translation is. It’s trying to move
halfway or move partway or see what you can bring
from one to the other.>>Yes, so I think what’s
plain now is the problems with translation are really
more visible when you move between languages [inaudible]
than a single language. We’re taught the dictionary
means words we acquire a sense of [inaudible] of words
from all of the uses over time, which we [inaudible]. And, in fact, there’s a lot
of common ground [inaudible] because there’s also things
[inaudible] variation. And depending on which particular
artist [inaudible] I’m from, I’ll feel differently. So, we’re already translating
when we talk to each other in English or any other language. It only becomes more intense
and more visible when we try to translate from one
language into another. One of the best books I read
[inaudible] is calledActsof Identity: Creole-based
to Language, Ethnicity, and Race. And the authors come
up with the idea that everyone is performing a
kind of instant [inaudible], a kind of improvised
lingual [inaudible] and it develops according
to feedback in the sense that people are picking up on what
they’re saying and continue further. If you don’t, you back up the
truck and try something else. Another article [inaudible] how
in London, it’s considered cool in the youth culture [inaudible] to
speak like a Rastafarian but most of the immigrants aren’t
from Jamaica. That’s another [inaudible],
they may never have heard a Rastafarian speak. So, there’s this kind of
invented Dred talk in London and to the extent that
people buy it. That’s Rastafarian speech
[inaudible] in London until someone comes along
and notes that or comes up with a more convincing
version of it. I think that’s kind
of how things work. The miracle is and maybe this
is [inaudible], the miracle is that we understand and are moved by each other’s language
as often as we are. Don’t ask me how.>>Prosser Gifford: Yes? I think this is going to
have to be the last question. Thank you.>>Hi, my name is Peg [inaudible]. I’m a poet, I’m half
Cuban, [inaudible], so I have a great access
to a great [inaudible]. And I’d just like to [inaudible]. I want to say that, it’s our
responsibility to take poetry to great richness of all of the
traditions and one of the functions of poetry is to provide a
window out of our parochialism, our national parochialism which
[inaudible] gender parochialism. And I would say that it’s
irrelevant to want [inaudible] on the panel [inaudible]
focus on [inaudible]. [ Applause ] [ Silence ]>>Prosser Gifford: That’s
a nice note on which to end from two great poetic
cultures, Spanish and Irish. This panel, as I think
the program is clear, is about this exciting
project, that is the making of the favorite poem
project and the tapes. And there will be some
tapes shown, so those of you who are not favored visually may
want to move back a little bit. I’ll ask Maggie Dietz, who’s
standing talking to Robert, to introduce her fellow
panelists, who are the producers of the tapes, is that correct?>>Maggie Dietz: That’s correct. I’ll introduce them.>>Prosser Gifford: All right. So it’s over to you, Maggie.>>Maggie Dietz: Okay. We decided to change the
nature of this panel, because this is actually, as you
noted, a short panel, a more casual and kind of relaxed panel. We’d like to invite — we’re going to show you a few more videos
[inaudible] that you saw last night, which we thought would be fun,
which [inaudible] has ever seen, but you will be the first. And then invite questions
to the number of people whose talents
contributed to this project. It doesn’t matter for this
panel that Robert can’t talk, because [laughter] the idea is that what you saw last night
speaks [inaudible] to the project and to the goals of the project. We have on the end, next to
Robert Pinsky, Mark Stafford, who is the senior audio producer
for the Favorite Poem Project. You have not seen or — you have
not heard, excuse me, Mark’s work, in particular because we didn’t
do an audio presentation, but it should be known that the
audio segments are ended separately based on the same raw materials. And it may be of interest to some
of you to ask Mark some questions about his approach to honing
the pieces for that medium. Juanita Anderson is
the executive producer of the Favorite Poem Project. She is on Robert’s left. And I can’t say enough
good about her. Without Juanita Favorite Poem
Project would not be possible. And Juanita was responsible
for finding all of the people who are sitting up
here at this table. On Juanita’s left is [inaudible],
who was one of the principle editors for the Favorite Poem
Project video pieces. I think [inaudible] did more than
half the pieces, 21 of the 50, and many of those that
you did see last night. So one of the first
things we’re going to show you is a completed
segment — [ Inaudible Speaker ] Pardon me? [ Inaudible Speaker ] Oh, no, no, I’m getting to Deborah. In fact, I’ll just go there first. Deborah [inaudible] was
a production manager for the Favorite Poem
Project and she had a big job, and she worked long hours. And she was also one
of the field producers for the Favorite Poem Project,
and the piece that Deborah shot in Barbados is the
last piece on the tape, which we very much [inaudible]. It’s Reverend Michael
Haines [assumed spelling], a Baptist minister from Boston
who did this shot in Barbados. I was talking about the first piece
we were going to show with respect to [inaudible], because
you’re actually going to be probably the only people ever,
besides the people at this table, to see Favorite Poem
Project outtakes [laughter]. And we’ve just — we’ve
just chosen one. We’re going to show the entire piece of Alexander Shir [assumed
spelling], a law professor from Athens, Georgia, reading
a favorite poem of mine, Elizabeth Bishop’s [inaudible]. And then we’re going to show, as a
demonstration, some of the things that the production team has
encountered when they were out on these shoots, and I
won’t say more than that. I’ll let, again, the
videos speak for themselves. So I will begin by playing that
piece, and then we’ll stop and it and maybe invite some questions
for the production team, and then see if there’s an
appropriate point to see more.>>I’m Alexander Shir. I’m a Law Professor at the
University of Georgia, in Athens. I’m 45 years old. I was born in New England, lived out
West for awhile [inaudible] Midwest. Now I live on a farm about 15
minutes away from where I work. We have horses and the land
has three fields on it, and a real nice barn,
so it suits to them. The trees are just beautiful here. There’s a real nice [inaudible]
between where the building’s sit and where the land is, everything
seems aligned just the right way. So when I’m here, I really
feel like I’m settled down in a place that I want to be. After the Fish Houses is a poem
that [inaudible] read for years. I think I first read it when I
was in college, 25, 30 years ago. It speaks, at least in
parts, [inaudible] background from the Rocky New England
coast, cold water ocean, and the very harsh landscape
that exists at that spot. I have a real admiration for
Elizabeth Bishop’s method of paying attention to small,
domestic, really tiny details. It’s a preference of mine to
look carefully at things and try to understand things
the way they are. I have a complete book of her
poems, which I keep around here in my office, [inaudible]
my office at work. But I also — I used to carry
around a paper version of it, but I actually have one of
those little palm pilots that I have it on,
and when I need to, I [inaudible] read it whenever
I can [inaudible] to hear it. So I try to keep it pretty close. I’ve long had the feeling that
life has lots of hard edges to it. We all have [inaudible] in
one way or another [inaudible] from our own doing or from
circumstances beyond our control, and it’s often hard to get a
feel for why it’s happening, or just how to understand
it and stay steady, and stable, and keep your balance. The thing that’s wonderful to me
about At the Fish Houses is the way that she looks at all
these things in the world, she locates everything,
including the human being, the fisherman at the beginning
[inaudible] this world response to it and allows herself to
get the sensation of knowledge, which she speaks to at the
very end, that encompasses that everything that she’s seen. And because that’s a real — it’s a dark sensation but
a real reassuring feeling that however hard things might be
we can look at it and understand it, and come to terms with it. At the Fish Houses
by Elizabeth Bishop. Although it was a cold evening, down by one of the fish houses
an old man sits netting. His net [inaudible] almost
invisible, a dark purple brown. And his shuttle warm and polished. The air smells so strong
of cod fish, makes one’s nose run
and one’s eyes water. The five fish houses have
steeply peaked roofs, and narrow [inaudible] gang planks
slant up to storerooms in the gables for the wheelbarrows to
be pushed up and down on. All is silver. The heavy surface of the
sea [inaudible] slowly as if considering the spilling
over [inaudible] opaque. But the silver of the benches,
the lobster [inaudible] and mats scattered along the
[inaudible] jagged rocks is [inaudible] like a
small old [inaudible] with an [inaudible] growing
on their [inaudible] walls. The big fish [inaudible] are
completely lined with layers of beautiful herring scales and the
wheelbarrows are similarly plastered with [inaudible] coats
of [inaudible] with small iridescent
flies crawling on them. Up on the little slope, behind
the houses [inaudible] sprinkle of grass is an ancient
wooden [inaudible], cramped with two long bleached
handles, and some melancholy stains like dried blood, where
the iron work has rusted. The old man [inaudible]
lucky strike. He was a friend of my grandfather. We talk of the decline of the
population [inaudible] cod fish and herring while he waits
for a herring boat to come in. There are sequins on his
vest and on his thumb. He has scraped the
scales, a principle beauty from unnumbered fish from
that black old knife, the blade of which
is almost worn away. Down at the water’s edge, at the
place where they haul out the boats, up the long ramp, descending
into the water, fins silver [inaudible] are laid
horizontally across the gray stones. Down and down [inaudible]
of four or five feet. Cold, dark, deep and
absolutely clear. [Inaudible] to no mortal,
to fish and to seals. One seal particularly I’ve seen
here evening after evening. He was curious about me. He was interested in music. Like me, a believer
and total [inaudible], so used to seeing [inaudible]. I also [inaudible] water and
regarded me, [inaudible], moving his head a little. Then he would disappear,
then suddenly emerge almost in the same spot with
a sort of shrug, as if it were against
his better judgment. Cold, dark, deep and absolutely
clear, the clear gray icy water. Back behind us the
dignified tall firs begin. Bluish, associating with their
shadows a million Christmas trees stand, waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the [inaudible] gray and blue gray [inaudible]. I have seen it over and over,
the same sea, the same slightly and differently swaying
above the stones, [inaudible] free above the stones. Above the stones and then the world. If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to
ache, and your hand would burn as if the water were [inaudible]
of fire that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame. If you tasted it, it would
first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we imagine knowledge
to be, dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold
hard [inaudible] of the world. Derived from the rocky
grasses forever. Flowing and drawn. And since our knowledge is
historical, flowing and flowing.>>Juanita Anderson: I have a number of things I wanted to
say about this piece. When I think about
the work in general, it seems Robert plays [inaudible]
filmmakers a tremendous challenge for people who are used to
working in television and film. The notion that the human
body, the human voice is a form of a human expression becomes
the instrument [inaudible] which poetry is [inaudible]. It meant for us that [inaudible]
much of what [inaudible] in poetry, particularly in our
public television, because we would not
make the attempt to use visual medium
to interpret the poem. But to let the human beings
speak for the poetry themselves, which meant that they
would be on camera at all times while the
poem was being read. Which is very contrary to
what most of us who work in public television
are brought [inaudible]. So the challenge for us is to
really try to look at engaging ways to make the poem come alive, to really use Robert’s
notion [inaudible] television to rebuild this concept of
Robert’s vision for this project. I think that one of the
instructions that I left with the filmmakers was that, in
addition to the reading of the poem, we wanted to give a
sense of who they were, as well as a sense of place. And a sense of sense of place
in some cases meant geography, in some cases it meant [inaudible]
or other producer directors on the program looking for visual
codes that would give you insights to who that person was, or in
some cases using environment to convey something
about the poem itself. I have to confess, I was not
a poetry major, [laughter] and this is my first segment. I did seven segments as the
producer/director myself, and they were all based in Georgia. This was our first shoot
day and it illustrated all of the potential problems. First of all, I was
intimidated by this poem. There were three pages in front
of me that read to me more like a visual treatment
of the setting as opposed to what I was accustomed
to in terms of poetry. And I went like, gosh,
the first stanza is a page and a half, what do you do with it? Fortunately both Natasha and I
had the privilege [inaudible] who was the West-Coast based
producer and Nick [inaudible] who shot in New York State, and in Washington DC did not
have the privilege of doing, was to do site surveys previously
with each of the participants. Natasha got to do it
in Massachusetts and Connecticut [inaudible]
all at once, and made two trips to them [inaudible] and meeting
with people [inaudible] shooting. But in meeting Alex Shir, I remember
reading his letter that talked about the notion of there being
a dark side into his life. And when I met him I think I took
him off guard and I asked him about and it and he was quite
revealing about what he meant about his dark side,
but I instinctively knew that he would not discuss
it ever again. We had asked him in a
pre-interview process — there was a pre-interview that we
did with each of potential readers to really gauge how they would
read the poem to find out more about them, so that we could
help plan how we wanted to deal with the visual treatment. Sort of figure out
what their stories were and how best we could
convey and bring them out, and each one individual
was just like each of these pieces is so individual. We worked to really use the medium
based on who the people were and what story they had to tell. It wasn’t a formula that we
created to make this happen. But, Alex, in his pre-interview was
asked a question by the [inaudible] who did the interview, “Where
would you like to do this? Where do you see yourself
reading it?” And at first Alex thought, well,
maybe I should try to take a look at someplace [inaudible] mostly
[inaudible] describing it, which didn’t quite make sense to
me, because here he was in Georgia, there was no Rocky
New England shore, there was no ocean, so
why would he do that. So I spoke with him on the phone and
I said, you know, we’re not looking for a imitation setting, but I’m
more interested in finding a place where you feel comfortable in,
and does that make sense to you. He says, you mean the
point of [inaudible]? Yes [laughter]. I have no clue exactly what he
thought, but the point of connection for him [inaudible] talked
to me about environment and how important environment
was to him. So the concept that I had was that I would [inaudible] visually
link what was important to him about his environment to
the kind of environment that Elizabeth Bishop was
describing [inaudible]. But I still didn’t
get the [inaudible]. And we drove two and a half hours
in Athens, and I’m reading the poem, and I shared it with my crew people. By the way, [inaudible]
makes a film solo. I mean, it takes a lot of
work and a lot of people. We went [inaudible], camera
person, and [inaudible] takes care of [inaudible] microphone
[inaudible] and that’s only the
beginning [inaudible]. But we get there and I take my crew
around and show them the location that [inaudible] has chosen and
why they were important to him. And we begin to do the interview. We had a lot of problems because the
sun was in the wrong in the place at the wrong time and we were
working with these mini TV cameras which were not broadcast standard,
but we wanted to [inaudible], but we had [inaudible] to what
those cameras could and couldn’t do, so lighting was extremely
important in this case. We start the interview
and [inaudible] at the very beginning during
the interview [inaudible] where we had the antenna
for the microphone and chewed the microphone
[laughter]. So that was sort of the
beginning of the day and [inaudible] opening is
actually Alex going back [inaudible] and felt very badly because he had [inaudible]. I was actually trying
to [inaudible] back up. So that was how the day went. Then, you know, Alex
[inaudible] very quiet area, you know, [inaudible] very quiet. Well, he didn’t realize
that, you know, the sounds of the airplanes
[inaudible] small airport four miles away from him, and they were,
like, crop duster planes. So we were getting sound, and I knew
that Mark was going to kill me — where was Mark [laughter] — because
we were [inaudible] recording on [inaudible] separately. And [inaudible] missed the turn off
because I was [inaudible] figuring out the [inaudible], so I forgot to
tell [inaudible], finally made it. All of a sudden the
airplanes start going on. Across the road there is some
construction going on, hammering and buzz saws, and so we have
to stop taping and Alex goes and gives them the rest of our
scones that he had bought us for breakfast to appease
the [inaudible] so that they can be quiet for
a couple of hours [laughter]. Then a bull gets stuck in the
middle of the road [laughter]. Horns are honking, and [inaudible] stop, and
[inaudible] which I really began to understand once he started
to reading it, I finally got it. And, oh my gosh, Robert
is so right [laughter]. But [inaudible] sort of envisioned,
you know, we don’t want television who are used [inaudible] get
bored, you know, I’m still paranoid about this, and I’ve since
changed my whole attitude by the time I’ve gotten
through 50 of these now. But I had worked out in my head
scenes in the different locations that we would use, and the
scenes are there, but they’re not in the way that I had
envisioned them in terms of where they would fall in
the placement of the poem, because so much happened. Every time we went to roll tape and shoot a particular scene
there would be some noise, the bulls were the absolute
worst because cars were honking. Finally somebody comes down
the gravel road and says, “Is this your bull in the road?” And Alex has to go and
[inaudible], let me call my neighbor because it’s [inaudible] day. Finally [inaudible]. We got to [inaudible]
last page and a half. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I had been trying in two locations
to do the whole [inaudible] through, and it just didn’t happen,
particularly with the very last part of the poem, [inaudible]. And I knew that it was supposed
to be connected to [inaudible], very hard to figure out
since we couldn’t connect it in the same scene because there
were either airplane noises or something going on, how to make
the two different scenes connect. So [inaudible] what I thought
was amazing audio transition where there was sort of this overlap
of audio between the two locations. And I [inaudible] feel it in my gut, but Robert thought it
was a mistake [laughter]. So we had to get rid
of it [laughter]. And when Robert [inaudible] the
poem really should [inaudible] in a different place. And [inaudible], you know, how to
make these cuts work and finally, after we did the best we could
[inaudible] the only way I’m going to convince Robert that we can’t
do the scene any other way, [inaudible], why not. So what I want to share
with you is the one take that we did [inaudible] all the
way through [inaudible] mid-way and [inaudible] to get to the end. Again, it’s [inaudible]
about 4 o’clock and we had maybe 20
takes of the poem. I’m still thinking of
Mark because I know that he wants [inaudible] location, [inaudible] so that the
audio will be consistent and we’re trying to get [inaudible]. We’re about halfway through. [ Noises ]>>– moving [inaudible]
then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge, almost in the
same spot, with a sort of shrug, as if it were against
his better judgment. Cold, dark, deep and absolutely
clear, the clear, gray, icy water. Back behind us, the
dignified tall first begin. Bluish — [ Laughter ] [ Inaudible Speaker ] [ Laughter ] [ Inaudible Speaker ] [ Laughter ] [ Inaudible Speaker ] [ Laughter ] If you tasted it, it would
first taste bitter, then briny, then surely burn your tongue. It is like what we
imagined [inaudible]. Dark, salt, clear, moving,
utterly free, drawn from the cold, hard [inaudible] of the world to [inaudible] forever,
flowing and drawn. And since our knowledge is
historical, flowing, and flowing. [ Laughter ] [ Applause ]>>Juanita Anderson: I think
we’ll be able to open it up to a few questions [inaudible].>>I thought we should [inaudible]. Well, first, I thought
we should do [inaudible], just because I thought it
was so fantastic how he kept on [inaudible] such [inaudible]. And he reminded me a lot of
something that [inaudible] a story about [inaudible] and she
had just come to the point where she [inaudible] and she
figured out what she was going to write, and she [inaudible] orange
juice all over the [inaudible] and she just wrote [inaudible]. She thought she had that moment. So, you know, [inaudible]
it reminded me of that kind of earnest
approach, so. But I think [inaudible] film, I
think we made the better choice.>>Juanita Anderson: [Inaudible] after I saw this I remember being
there in that moment and saying, he’s going to get through
this, he’s going [inaudible]. I’m not going to stop him. But actually looking at him, our cameraman didn’t say anything
[inaudible] he normally would stop in a heartbeat to say, can
we stop and do another take. Everybody kept going [laughter].>>We’ll open it up. If anybody has any questions,
not only about this piece, but about what you saw last night, or just for the production
team in general.>>How did you manage to get
everyone to be so [inaudible]? How did you manage to get
everyone to be so [inaudible]?>>Juanita Anderson: I think
that there is a bonding process that happens between
producer/director and participant. It’s sort of one of the key elements
I think about [inaudible] filmmaking where the subject is
really critical. Someone once used the term “cocoon”,
that as a [inaudible] you try to really get inside what
that person is thinking, let them get to know you, and you them until [inaudible]
are comfortable with you, and it works in many ways. I mean, you don’t — I
mean, a lot of people think about asking questions and
you write down the questions that you’re going to ask. It doesn’t work that
way when you do that. You really have to have a
conversation with people. I found that’s work
best for me, certainly. But I think part of the task
is getting them to forget that the cameras there,
which is really hard to do when people are saying,
[inaudible], you know, this didn’t quite work out. And, I mean, you’re there and
you’re paying attention to them and you’re paying attention to
what your camera person is doing, what your sound person is doing. Some people are notorious for
letting me know when [inaudible], at least the really good ones are. And you’re in the moment. I had a case where I
was really in a moment and my subject [inaudible] this very
powerful story, was almost in tears, and my sound man said, [inaudible],
and it broke the moment. So you have to really
try to rebuild it. But I think — I mean, what was so
special about this is because we got to meet so many wonderful people. And last night when Mike
[inaudible] was here, who did the [inaudible] poem, I
mean, the first thing he says, “Well, where’s David?” I mean, he and David [inaudible]
is here today and David wrote — [inaudible] maybe you can respond.>>Well, it got [inaudible] and
David talked to me a few times on the phone [inaudible]. The first time that I was supposed
to read, I had a terrible flu and there was no way
[inaudible], so he — I don’t know, I haven’t
seen the piece, I don’t know how it came out, but I think he did a superb job
because he had very limited time, he had no chance to see
where we could do the poem, and I had trouble finding a place. And so we wound up doing
it in my office downstairs, which is a horrendous mess because
I had just moved to that office, so there was piles of stuff
everywhere, and I was embarrassed. He said, no, no, no,
[inaudible] actually work. [ Laughter ] And he put me very much at ease and
whether he meant it or not he seemed to relate very much to the poem
and I think that he was inspired by the poems that [inaudible]. It was a very [inaudible]
experience for me. I don’t know [inaudible]. [ Inaudible Speaker ]>>You mentioned that you were
concerned about pasting or editing with this so it wouldn’t get boring
and I was just going to ask you, you and the sound and
actually everybody if there was anything that you
discovered or realized or changed about how your thinking
because you were doing poetry as you went into it. But is what was your thought
process about, what was unique about doing this poetry versus,
other things that you’ve done in any dimension of
production, if any?>>[Inaudible] could you maybe
repeat the question [inaudible].>>The question I wanted
to eloquently state.>>You stated that it’s all very
eloquently I think the short part was there was something in the
process that was different for us because we were doing
poetry [inaudible].>>Juanita Anderson: Okay, well,
I edited many of the pieces so in terms of pacing that’s where
a lot of things happened [inaudible] and I think one of the
things that happened for us in the edit [inaudible] of the is
an appreciation, for the rhythms of the poem and kind of
leaving them be still. But is that different from
other forums that in terms of a documentary filmmaker, I do
not think so actually because one of the things that especially
in editing, that we try so hard to do is kind of maintaining
integrity the person that’s given their time to be a part of the film. And then that’s not always so
evident in some of the films that you may have seen, but
it is part of the process when you’re editing you’re
actually really dropping things that people said, gestures, and you’re highlighting
others or, you know, I would maybe on first chance I
would have [inaudible] the dogs. But that wasn’t necessarily disciple
to the poem, poet Alex, or the dogs. [ Laughter ] But — so these are the choices that
we had to make and I don’t think that they are particular to poetry. The thing that I did feel in the process is really what
Robert set out to do, came true. In the sense that, as we were
cutting these pieces together there were many poems that
I had no relation to, you know I just really
wasn’t attracted to. But when you match these
poems and these poets again through these people
they really had meaning that perhaps they didn’t
have before at first. And I thought that the
reading and the creation of this poem being theirs was
really a practice and that really in the end I feel like this
is a very strong format for understanding poetry
personally and I really enjoyed it, and loved most of the poems
that we worked on in the end. And [inaudible] say that [laughter].>>Could you talk about
the collection because you got these letters
right and you read them and decided which one [inaudible].>>Juanita Anderson:
I’ll quote Robert. Always the governing
principle [inaudible] selection for both narrowing
the18,000 letters we received down to what became the 200
poems and 360 letters in the book and then these 50 first videos
was that the main criterion for selection is the relationship
between the person and the poem.>>So that the thing that we were
trying to capture and perpetuate by creating this archive was the
unique or particular relationships between Americans and
very particular poems that had become part of what
they go through their lives with. But one of the things that
is actually interesting to me about the video is that it
changes the scope that [inaudible] with these video pieces is
quite unlike reading the letters and the accompanying
poem for example as they are explained in the book. It does emphasize more the
personal elements, the people and their stories and how
that relates to the poem and that’s what makes them
dramatic, that’s what makes it TV. But I was also very pleased to
feel that that was successful and it’s slightly different
from the original idea.>>A two-part question, ballpark
estimate what’s the ratio of qualitative footage to
finished product [inaudible]? And the second half of the question for the most part were the outtakes
removed because of dog problems, [inaudible] in the middle of
the [inaudible], carpenters or because something wasn’t
working, or something not going where you wanted it
to in the shoot itself without external interruption?>>Juanita Anderson: No generally
there were I mean there were cases where again, [inaudible] element
to so we often would start in the middle of the take
because of something [inaudible]. Any barrier [inaudible]
the first thing you do when you’re shooting indoors in
someone’s home is you ask them to turn off their refrigerator, which [inaudible] very
[inaudible] thing to ask someone. But it’s something that if we were
in our home don’t pay attention to but on a shoot when there are
refrigerator noise in the kitchen, or when the heat or air conditioning
[inaudible] it’s very noticeable with the microphones. So yet it’s often [inaudible]
I asked each of the producers to limit the tapes that
they shot to an hour. Most of them limited it to somewhere
between an hour and an hour and a half, more like
on the latter range. But there [laughter] but there was
reasons and one of the things just in the whole process of
[inaudible] think about it, when people are talking
about their lives and they are talking [inaudible] who
they are is to really try to work to make stories concise as possible. So there is lots of usable material, but it’s really finding the most
concise way of telling that story and [inaudible] can
certainly attest to I came into the editing [inaudible] and
saying oh my gosh I’ve narrowed it down to half an hour
now [laughter], help! But to be honest though [inaudible]
a number of the producers and I think it depended upon
the person and that they were, who the reader was, as well
as the poem itself to try to use different angles or
different vocal [inaudible]. So we often found ourselves
[inaudible] asking the reader to read the poem ten times
maybe, seven or eight times. So that we could record it
at different perspectives, different vocal [inaudible],
different angles so there would be that option of how it would
be cut into final segment. So it wasn’t so much the
material wasn’t usable it was more about the choices that were actually
made both visually, as well as — [ Inaudible Speaker ]>>Sure. The amazing thing for me
working on this project was to get to know the sound patterns of
50 peoples’ voices because apart from the fact that
I worked with David on actually holding the
boom mic and recording on location twice I’ve never
seen any of these people. The way that if you didn’t
already understand it from Juanita’s introduction,
the way it worked with regards to creating pieces which hopefully
are going to be played on the web, or played through the radio,
or available on cassette, was that I would take
the complete recording, including the outtakes
from the filmmakers. And I would listen to them and
then I would try and make a piece of about between five
and six minutes long. Getting exactly the same spirit
of that the filmmakers have got in basically quite a different way
because obviously I was just going to use sound and I had to
get right to the relationship between the reader and the poem. So my process was to basically, for
those of you who are not familiar with any aspect of
digital sound editing. What you do is you take a dap
tape that a filmmaker gives you, you put it through a
mixer and then you’re able to sample different tracks
from all that’s recording and the track basically
yes you can listen to it, but primarily what comes
out is, something that looks like a cardiogram just a
very beautiful representation of the movement of somebody’s voice. And the fascinating thing is
that it goes both north and south so you have a sense
in which the voice, the pattern of the
voice is being reflected as like a tree would be
reflected in a pond or a river. So for me I was involved in looking at this visual representation
knowing what part of the poem it represented
and then looking to see how concentrated I could
make the recording not with any kind of visual reference, not with
knowing that there is no way that anybody is going to understand from any visual image
what this person is like. So my process was I had
the privilege of being able to over you know overhear all of
these takes and in fact I was able to use material that the
filmmakers weren’t able to use because the tape was
spoiled or altered because the visual
thing didn’t work, but in terms of the actual
expression it worked fantastically. So far as many times as
there are beautiful moments where the person doing
sound on location said, “You know you can’t tape that because it’s got too
much background noise,” there are also many moments
which are only captured hourly and wouldn’t appear visually. So I think that’s part
of the justification for having these two different
directions to the project. [ Inaudible Speaker ]>>The panting was really
great it gave a whole new — [ Laughter ] That was Alex’s darker side. [ Laughter ]>>Juanita Anderson:
We’ll show two more tapes, we have two more segments,
we don’t have a lot of time. The next one we’d like
to show is particularly because of the [inaudible], it
was the only exception to the rule that poets will not be
recorded for this archive and its Stanley [inaudible]
reading of the poem — [ Background Noise ] [ Inaudible Speaker ] [ Inaudible Speaker ] [ Inaudible Speaker ] [ Inaudible Speaker ]>>– technically on the almost
always the really good ones are very connected, truthful in their filming
and that they [inaudible] you know, if I can be — if the
poetry can come to me, if I can give you a
little bit [inaudible]. My art is that this
bonding process [inaudible] that other [inaudible] is usually
visually in love with [inaudible] and then the editing would really — we get to know the right
mix of [inaudible] and feel like we known them
for years [inaudible]. But you get to know these little
idiosyncrasies that can [inaudible]. It’s actually quite amusing to watch
[inaudible] on tape and everything. And the moments that they’re on
and the moments that they’re off. So that’s one of the parts of
the process that usually get them to [inaudible], showing themselves that are really revealing
themselves.>>I know also that we took
[inaudible] off the [inaudible] because of that [inaudible] said,
I mean, we [inaudible] yesterday that we never met a person
[inaudible] instantaneously knew that she wasn’t — she didn’t
have a clue [inaudible]. [ Laughter ] But we knew her [inaudible]. Mark, you wanted to add something.>>Just that one of the
fantastic things about working on this project was the whole
question of this context, of how it would be received. What is the — how
do you really relate to this person’s relationship
to the poem? And the fascinating thing to
me is that the filmmakers, just because of the medium
that they’re working in, have to give some kind of context. They can’t — I mean, [inaudible]
Rodney reading last night’s very interesting because it
worked fantastically largely because he was completely in black and that all you see is
some photographs which, if he hadn’t identified
himself as a photographer, you never would have known
that they are his work. And it still works fantastically. You could do all of them that way. But it wouldn’t function
as a whole project. So the filmmakers almost
have an impediment in — like looking for a
context because the heart of the project is something in which
you have to throw the context away. What’s so moving about this is that what the person reading
the poem reveals is that they — yes, it’s true — physically
are reading the poem. But, actually, the poem is speaking
them, and that is really what is so extraordinary about this project,
and why it’s so wise in a sense not to have famous people
read their poems. Mr. Kunitz [assumed spelling]
does a fantastic reading, and we all learn something
about the origin and meaning of poetry in his life. What you see when you listen and
when you watch the videos of people who you don’t know is you
find something out about them which you could never have known, and which they never would
have told you unless they had that poem to read.>>And it’s a brave process. I wish we had 10 guys
like [inaudible] to introduce [inaudible] were here because I think it’s
very brave of them. I mean, we really stripped them
bare, and it’s not only them. It’s their families that participate
in this, and for our readers to be willing to allow us
to come into their lives and interrupt their lives and
rebuild so much of who they are, I think is just an amazing thing,
and they’re all to be applauded. I wanted to introduce
Deborah because Deborah who I had mentioned earlier
was my production manager. She’s also a producer
of [inaudible]. I mean, she’s a producer in her
own right and agreed to come on this project to [inaudible] to
make sure that our structure was in place because of
all the [inaudible] that we had to deal with. But one of our participants
who actually lived in Boston was scheduled
to be in Barbados. He’s from Barbados originally, the
[inaudible] and when we asked him in pre-interview, “Where would you like to be taped,” he
said, “Oh, Barbados.” And we thought it was a joke. But we realized that from the
standpoint of a production schedule that we were dealing with it
was the logical place to do it. Unfortunately, we did
not have Barbados money. So — [ Laughter ] I said, okay, Deborah,
if you can get a deal and get the Barbados tourism
for [inaudible] to pay for it. You shoot it. She did. [ Laughter and Applause ]>>And the rest is history.>>Doing this piece it seemed
logical that going to Barbados to tape the piece that immediately
it conjures up images of the beach and trees and just the beauty,
that type of beauty of the island, and to be quite honest with
you, before I got there that was the intention after
speaking with Reuben Haines briefly, the intent was to have him walking
the beach, to have him, you know, sitting at the beach reading books
and sort of reflecting and talking about the significance
of his poem in his life. And the other aspect of it was
that it seemed quite simple was that he was — about 10 years ago, he was faced with a life-threatening
illness and, you know, he, himself, thought his days were numbered. As a matter of fact he had
engraved on his headstone, you know, a verse from this particular poem. Fortunately, he got
well, he got better. And so, you know, he said,
“Well, we’ll go to Barbados and we’ll tape it there.” We’ll have a little
bit of him preaching. He’s a minister. And this is how it
will all come together. Well, in terms of speaking with
him, spending time with him, things began to unravel, you know. Clearly “The Psalm of
Life” was his poem ever since he first heard
it as an 11-year-old. You know, what makes a poem like
that stick in an 11-year-old’s mind? There are other things
that happened, you know, to him throughout his life that
made him commit to that poem, and I think when you see
the piece you’ll understand. [ Music ] [ Music and Singing ]>>Reverend Haines served as
minister of the 12th Baptist Church in Boston, Massachusetts. I was born in [Inaudible] Crossing on the threshold of
the Great Depression. My parents were — half
were Caribbean immigrants from the Island of Barbados. The Great Depression brought
difficult times in our family, exposed us to public
welfare, poverty, fear, and a lot of other things. My father had hopes of gold in
America so he became depressed and became part of oppression of
racism and all the other things that could impose itself upon a man
of color at that time in history. So I grew up poor, but I grew up
seeking for some faith and hope. In junior high school an Irish
teacher kept quoting verses from Longfellow. “Be not like dumb driven cattle
to be a hero in the strife.” And that’s how — I
didn’t understand all that was really saying but I
learned it and it stayed in my mind. Later on feeling called
to the Christian ministry as a theological student “The
Psalm of Life” began to take on real meaning for me in my
own personal struggles in life, and as I looked back and reflected
upon my childhood, you know, the experiences of my parents. Oftentimes West Indian immigrants
with their foreign accents and their foreign ways were
so stereotyped and ridiculed and laughed at, so I
don’t think that Iowa some of my brothers making a big fuss
about having parents who had come from a foreign land and
spoke a foreign accent and oftentimes might have
been called monkey-chasers or banana-eaters or all these sort
of negative stereotypical things. My mother was about
19 when she left. I’m happy she reached
her 65th birthday. She stated that she wanted to visit
her home one time before she died, and someone had to
take her to Barbados. So then I ended up
being that person. [ Music ] To come to this hill called Mount
Tabor and to see this church that my father sung
in the choir here. He was tenor soloist. My mother was very
active in this church. And I developed a new interest and a new pridein what
Barbados represented in terms of its independence, in
terms of its culture, in terms of its religious faith. He became very proud to be, as
they say here, of being some — [ Inaudible Speaker ] Coming to this place just makes
me think of all of the names that are tied in with my family. My grandmother was a Basque
[inaudible] when she married Payne. My father’s family were
Haines’s, Nichols and Howards. So they were all in here. “Life is real; life is earnest;
and the grave is not its goal. Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
was not spoken of the soul.” And this is the real significance of
what Christian faith is all about. It gives you a hope that goes
beyond the grave for the essence of who you are, that the
soul can live eternally, you know, in a better existence. And if you didn’t have
that whole life become sort of a dead-end street and it becomes
futile and you have the right to go to the cemetery and
cry and give her hope. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s
“Psalm of Life.” “Tell me not in mournful numbers,
life is but an empty dream. For the soul is dead that slumbers,
and things are not what they seem. Life is real. Life is earnest. And the grave is not its goal;
dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul. Not enjoyment and not sorrow is our
destined end or way; but to act, that each tomorrow find
us further than today. Art is long, and time is fleeting,
and our hearts, though stout and brave, still, like
muffled drums, are beating funeral
marches to the grave. In the world’s broad field of
battle, in the bivouac of life, be not like dumb, driven cattle. Be a hero in the strife. Trust no future, however pleasant. Let the dead past bury its dead. Act, act in the living present. Heart within, and God overhead. Lives of great men all remind us
we can make our lives sublime. And, departing, leave behind us
footprints on the sands of time. Footprints that perhaps another
sailing over life’s solemn main, a forlorn and a shipwrecked brother
seeing, shall take heart again. Let us, then, be up and doing,
with a heart for any fate; still achieving, still pursuing,
learn to labor and to wait.” Whenever I read Longfellow’s “Psalm
of Life” I’m challenged for living. [ Singing ] [ Applause ]>>Well, please join me in
another round of applause for this very talented
favorite poem production team. [ Applause ]>>I just want to say one thing
about Barbara, is I’ve never been in a screening in my life
when someone has gotten up after watching a few
films and goes, “Yes.” [ Laughter ] I must say just for that — [ Laughter ]>>John Y. Cole: Well,
thank you all. We will reconvene in about 10
minutes for the next session. Thank you, Robert, Juanita, Maggie. It was terrific. Their form of outreach if you will
with poetry — actually, I had a — I was thinking during that wonderful
film presentation a little bit about how we are talking
about using all media. This morning one of our earliest
questions had to do with television and use of other media in promoting
poetry or in promoting books, reading, and the written word. And I feel, in part,
we’ve now covered — we are answering our own
question a little bit by demonstrating the power of film
with the demonstration for some of you who had not seen
the films last night. We are going to continue
to talk about other media. We had a good discussion this
morning about radio as well. But now, if we’re going to
concentrate a little bit on the print media and
publishing and talk about poetry, which is what, of course, brings
us all together, and the publishing of poetry and how it has
changed in recent times as well as a little bit through history. And for that discussion we have
added a panelist who is nice enough to come up, take time — Jack
Shoemaker, who is from Counterpoint, the book publisher, and Jack has
agreed to add his perspective to our discussion of
poets and publishing. But what I would like
to do, again, is to, rather than introducing everyone,
to refer you to your programs and we will go through
with brief statements from each of our panelists. Then we will ask the panelists
to add anything they would like after hearing the others. And then we will open it up to
hear one more time from you. So we would like to start with Bob
Boyers who, I learned from talking to Bob on the phone, is indeed the
Founding Editor of Salmagundi and — the well-known poetry journal — and also has been involved in
poetry institutes and I would like to turn it over to
Bob for his statement. Bob.>>Robert Boyers: I begin
by noting just that contrary to what’s indicated in the
program, I’m not actually the Editor of a poetry journal exclusively,
but of a generalist magazine that publishes lots of poetry. It’s a small distinction but it may
be an important one given what I have to say. My little talk comes in
two very brief parts. The first one devoted to
poetry in periodicals, the subject I suppose I
know best, and the second to other questions recommended
by Mr. Cole for this meeting. It’s indisputable that most
literary magazines exist principally for those whose work they publish. Very few of the tens of thousands
of poets who send out their work to “AGNI, or “The Sutton
Review,” or “Grand Street,” or my own “Salmagundi” support
those magazines by taking out subscriptions or, in fact, most of the time reading
those venerable periodicals. In fact, poets are as little
inclined to buy literary magazines as the species once
commonly referred to as the general literate reader. At a time when those of us with
a stake in poetry have more than a little to be thankful for,
when our Poet Laureate has stirred or renewed the interests
and the sentiments of a great many people not
apparently susceptible to or thoughtful about poetry,
when throngs sometimes turn out for a public reading by Frank
Bidart or Rita Dove or Louise Gluck, or Carolyn Forche, the
situation of poetry is, let’s call it complicated. A survey of the better-known
magazines devoting substantial attention to poetry
reveals the following. I have a little list. One, they continue to have and to hold relatively few
long-term poet readers. Two, they receive greater
and greater volumes of unsolicited manuscript
material, mostly poetry, and mostly by poets not previously
published in their pages or likely to read around in them
unless they expect to be or to find their own
work published there. Three, they have tended in recent
years to reduce the reading period in which they consider
manuscripts from 10 or 12 months to at most six months each year. Four, many editors routinely place
a moratorium on the consideration of unsolicited manuscript material
as the Kenyon Review did last fall and so I’ve been told as AGNI and the Missouri Review
have lately done. Magazines likeRaritanpublish
work by solicitation only, and this would seem
to be the direction in which many magazine will go. Five, many magazines, my own
included, which publish lots of poetry and devote
space in each issue to younger poets also devote a large
proportion of their space to writers who have published with them
before so that even very fine work by potential new contributors
will usually be rejected for lack of space. Six, most poets report that often
their manuscript submissions are never responded to either
by national magazines like theNew Yorkeror by many
of the smaller literary quarterlies which routinely lose or otherwise
lose track of manuscripts. The reporting time for most
magazines is between four and eight months with
some not likely to respond even within a year. Seven, very few magazines are able to offer a grown-up editorial
assessment to manuscripts, many of them relying
on unpaid student help, sometimes on the graduate
students’ help to give a first, usually final, reading to new poems. Rejection slips typically
come in one kind only, the thanks-but-no-thanks kind
and spare-me-the-explanation. Eight, younger or newer
poets are right to complain that the situation often seems
intolerable and editors overwhelmed by the inexorable tide of
manuscripts coming in each week — we get more than 5000 unsolicited
manuscripts a year at Salmagundi. We’re not theNew Yorker.— are right to respond
that they are mostly doing as well as they can. Most editors, in fact, have
accepted the fact that a good deal of what they consider will
be a multiple submission so that the longer they take to
look at a first-rate group of poems, the less likely will
those poems be free by the time they get around to them. But though editors will occasionally
be disappointed to learn that a poem they covet has
been grabbed by someone else, there are so many attractive
poems to be had that the disappointment
will be short-lived at best. Nine, even the best-known literary
magazines are apt in any given issue to publish one or two or
more brilliant poems along with many others that are merely
competent, though it is rare to find many bad poems
in the better magazines. Of course, what seems
merely competent to one editor may seem considerably
better than that to another. But I would contend
that the proliferation of write-in programs all across
the country has raised the level of poetry generally so that the
average submission takes rather longer to reject than was
the case 25 or 30 years ago. I started 35 years ago,
so I’ve actually been able to watch this for some time. Writing programs cannot
make great poets, but they can often help hard-working
poets to become serious writers who will produce creditable work. Number 10, the poetry scene
is diverse in ways that seem to most of us very healthy. At this moment no one school
dominates the leading magazines which rarely follow a predictable
party line in their selections so that the followers
of Ashbury and Bishop and Plath are not much better
represented than the followers of Adrienne Rich or C.K.
Williams or Louise Gluck. Adams Zagajewski, the Polish poet,
recently argued in an article in theNew Republicthat most
of the poetry out there is tepid, ironic, and conversational, and has
no interest in high or final things. But I have a hard time applying
those derisory epithets to much of the work that I see in the
Salmagundi offices though, of course, tepid ironies
are always plentiful. Eleven, last one, so few
magazines any longer print or commission serious reviews of
poetry that most poets have ceased to write them or, except where their
own work is concerned, to miss them. And, of course, even poets inclined
to regret the absence of steady, bracing criticism coming from first-rate poet critics
can easily console themselves for the loss by simply intoning — once or twice each
afternoon should be enough — the words “William
Logan,” and giving thanks for William Logan’s decision,
at least for the moment, not to offer a scathing
review of their latest work. That’s Part One. Part Two is somewhat briefer. These are responses to questions
put to me on a phone by Mr. Cole. I’ll tackle them in
very summary fashion. One, who writes poetry? Answer, just about anybody. And to judge from the
manuscripts coming into our little magazine
mailbox five days each week, just about everybody. At the Summer Writers Institute
I direct each summer our Poetry Workshops are filled with
people, some of whom live and breathe poetry, but also
with many others who are doctors, lawyers, musicians, businessmen,
social workers, and so on. Question Two, who certifies
for those who write poetry that
they are poets? This is hard to answer,
and no doubt most of those who write poetry just
know what they’re doing and need no reassurance about
who they are when they write. Others less confident
will require, I suppose, confirmation from some external
source, often an encouraging mentor, sometimes an encouraging
magazine editor willing to publish their work, and thereby to confer upon them I guess
what we call an identity. Whatever the means, many
people apparently believe that writing poetry confers upon
their lives some meaning or dignity or shape that is highly desirable. And I don’t blame them. Three, last question. What is the poetry scene
today or what is it like? I’ve already indicated in Part One of this very brief
talk what the scene is like from the peculiar perspective
of a long-time magazine editor. But I’ll add that the
scene can claim many, many excellent poets whose work
appears in so many different places, from so many different presses, that
it is no longer possible to suppose that only the commercial presses or
the national magazines will bring out really distinguished work, though things out there can seem
dark or difficult especially for poets trying to break into
print at the better magazines. There are many editors around
who are more than eager to discover new talent
and to promote it in the modest ways
available to most of them. Yes, the scene is crowded
with many voices, so many, that it is impossible for most of us
to attend even to a small fraction of those many voices and, yes,
most of us will be very fortunate if we can find the time to love
and to master the new books coming out by Robert Pinsky or Louise
Gluck, or Seamus Heaney. But some of us will continue to make
time for the grayer frailer voice of a poet like Carl Dennis,
the mordancies of a young poet like Danial Levin, or
the orchestral resonances of a strange anachronistic
poet named Herbert Morris. None of these three, with titles
presently available at Kramer Books or Politics and Prose where I
investigated the local scene on Monday morning, and did so
with those three names of persons with recent books in
print were not to be found in the rather nicely
stocked poetry sections. In short, though there is too
much poetry out there to take in, we can see that much of it
is admirable and compelling, sometimes even thrilling
or austerely beautiful. And though there is always reason
to complain about look-alikes and sound-alikes in the graduate
writing programs about the thinness of air and idea in many of
the well-made poems churned out in major MFA programs, we have only to remember how
much really good work there is that we haven’t the time to master and how consistently our best poets
have struggled to exceed themselves. We don’t live in an age of
poetry, but we have more than two or three handfuls of poets
whose work may well be read and loved long after we are gone. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Jerry W. Ward: I’d like
to thank Robert Pinsky, the Center for the Book,
and the Library of Congress, and everyone else who was
responsible for having me come here. I must tell tales out of school. Last spring, Robert
Pinsky was in Mississippi, and we met for the first time. And I think we enjoyed the
meeting despite our disagreement about a few things. And most of my discussion today
is based upon that disagreement, which is a friendly one,
about the use of the Internet. So I decided that maybe
I ought to talk to you about my antiquated beliefs that
poetry still loves the page more than the screen or, as a kind
of subtitle for my remarks, it’s what you have to say when
you ain’t no spring chicken, as my poet friend [inaudible]
whom I was very pleased to publish inTroubled Waterssaid, and
having been here for the videos and having watched
the audience today and the way people are responding,
I just felt moved to read this. “I am as old as sin,
quiet as it’s kept. As ancient as an exorcism
from paradise. I used to swing by my feet, make
a dance out of trees catching me. I used to stand on my hands and throw huge rocks
with the bow of my legs. I used to outrun daylight home
to a woman dressed in nightfall, older than the blues, older than
the grace of sitting years later on the porch of a rocking
chair poem. I used to turn my eyes
inside-out and cure a headache in a time before color 3D TV, in a
time before footprints on the moon, in a time before the wheel. Let me tell you of a time long
before Lucifer when the sky and the sea were the same, when
we could swim to the stars. I am slow dragging against
the walls of a cave, combing the wind with my hair. I wear a rainbow as my diaper
and a feather in my ear. I am tapdancing majestic waves, surfing for the rocky ground
where the tribe waits. They throw chains out to fetch me, pulling me in like old
age with open arms. They bite and growl a
song which welcomes me. Even then there was more to
the world than meets the eye.” That’s about the way I feel when
I talk about what’s happening to poetry now, because no doubt
I belong to some ancient tribe of scriveners who were very much
put out when the craft they loved and the livelihood they depended
upon was undeniably diminished by the triumph of printing. As a writer who has moved from
pencil and what we in the South used to call cornbread paper to pencil
and nice paper, through the manual and electric versions of the
typewriter, to a now shameless use of the computer as a word processor,
I must admit that I have a kind of residual kinship with those
ancient makers of manuscripts. No, I do not want to return
to the use of pen and ink as a habitual mode of writing. My hand would cramp. But at certain stages
in composition, particularly when I
am writing poems, I must have the evolving
product on the page and not on the computer screen. I must have the paper in hand. The screen does not permit me to
touch the word as the page does. And as I remarked yesterday
after looking at the collection of treasures in a new exhibit
in the Jefferson Building, unless there was a paper there with
ancient printing on it I don’t know that that particular magic
moment would happen for me. So in my creative projects
and in my creative responses, poetry still loves the page. And as a reader of poems,
I still want the look and feel of the printed page. My brain is not hardwired
in the intellectual and aesthetic acts it performs
for the e-book or the Palm book or whatever it’s called, and
any other extremes in the future to which we will wind up as we
explore the full possibilities of hypertextuality. By sheer habit I respond more warmly toDover Beachin
a printed anthology than to the most handsome
presentation the electronic village at the University of Virginia
might be able to make. In 1992, Robert Coover wrote
a rather starting piece for theNew York Times
called “The End of the Book.” And I think what he had to
say is to be taken seriously. He contended — or at least I
suppose he partially contended — that poets and publishers
cannot behave as if the electronic has not
changed how we communicate, conduct our daily affairs, enjoy
or suffer a quality of life. Indeed the revolution is well on the road toward changing
the cognitive functioning of the human brain. We can’t ignore either the unsettled
questions regarding intellectual property, copyright, and
something I learned recently which is called copyleft which
pertains only to the computer. Other entitlements
and most especially as the Authors Guild reminds
me, I have to be concerned about the recovery of
royalties from various misuses. Writing from the vantage of fiction, Robert Coover really
humorously remarked, “You will often hear it said
that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology,
a mere curiosity of bygone days just [inaudible] to
be consigned forever to those dusty, unattended museums we
now call libraries. Indeed. The very proliferation
of books and other print-based media
is held to be a signal of its feverish moribundity,
the last futile grasp of a once vital form before it
finally passes away forever, dead as God.” That’s the end of Coover’s
quotation. Coover has willing to face
the new world by experimenting with hyperspace at Brown University
in the creation of narrative that would free a writer
from the tyranny of the line. As he said, “Hypertext
reader and writer are said to become co-learners or co-writers
as it were, fellow travelers in the mapping and remapping
of textual and visual kinetic and aural components, all of
which are provided by what used to be called the author,” unquote. The number of fiction
writers willing to go the whole nine yards
with hypertext is small. To my knowledge, the number
of poets willing to do so would be absolutely miniscule. We — or at least I can
speak only for myself — we are reluctant to have co-poets
tamper with out creations except in workshops or by way of
private feedback solicited from other writers or kindred souls. Such poems as are published
at various sites on the World Wide Web are
more or less imitations of what one finds on paper. And it is disappointing to me that
you can’t even write marginal notes on the Web-published poem. It is probably pleasing
to the publishers of the amazingly popular
new translation ofBeowulfthat Seamus
Heaney did not opt to sell it by way of the Web. That book is selling well according
to theNew York Timesof 29 March. But maybe another edition of his
translation will include a CD or of him reading or of some
well-spoken print reading at — which will return it to its
natural context as poetry. The sales of this new version of an old epic is probably one small
indicator that the book is not dead, the text lives, and will
live in new transformations. I do not think that we need
to do a hatchet job on poetry and new technologies of publication. There is something to be
said about the positive good of getting people interested in
poetry by way of the Internet. Robert Pinsky’s project is probably, especially after last night’s
cybercast, a very fine example of how you can use the Net to
reach a democratic audience. I think there’s something very good
to be said about this because some of those materials will find
their way to the joys of print. Some of the people who find
things on the Net will again learn to enjoy the heft of a book in
hand and the turning of pages, rather than the clicking of mice. And I have to ask learned people
here, is the plural of mouse used as a computer instrument
“mice” or “mouses?” I really don’t know, but I
would like an answer, please. The act of reading encourages
then a very active participation in one’s literacy. The reading of a poem, as those
wonderful videos have shown us, shows that there is a very
active use of the voice, but also of various powers
of imagination in figuring out the meanings that emerge
from that kind of encounter which are quite different
and perhaps more blessed than the meanings that
ever occur in my classroom. For academic purposes I do not
object to preparing the text of poems so that students can
have access to links for now that can do what footnotes
and glosses in the old technology used to do. On the other hand, as a
teacher I always warn students about the dangers of thinking that somehow it’s all
there in hyperspace. No, it is not. There is so much in the library in
print that awaits our discovery. The epiphany for me yesterday was,
my God, I’m over half a century old and I could spend another century
reading in the Library of Congress. No, this new enthusiasm and wonder
for what a well-chosen configuration of words might contain
has this possibility of springing forth even
in the new technology. And the Library of Congress
website has done much to disseminate the possibilities
to hundreds of thousands of Americans who got there online. No doubt in the future things
will be very different. Surely there will be fewer
of us around to carry on a long-term love affair with the
poem manifested on paper in ink. Perhaps some century hence poets
will alienate their individuality for the good of the
commonwealth of poetry. Perhaps e-Lit-zines web-located
literary magazines will be all too commonplace and people will fashion
anthologies from electronic poems with real audio readings. Neither poets nor publishers can
stop the revolution involving the new management of boundless
centerless space and unlocked time or,
perhaps, unclocked time. But any conclusion that
poetry on the Internet is more than an interesting and
emerging set of possibilities is, as was the announcement about
Truman losing to Dewey, premature. The page still simply
loves the poem. [ Applause ]>>John Y. Cole: Thank you, Jerry. Our next speaker is Leslie Morris who will present another
perspective. Leslie.>>Leslie Morris: I should
probably begin by saying that I’m not a publisher. So I feel a little bit out
of place on this panel. I’m an archivist and what I’m
interested in is what the publishers and the poets leave behind. And what I’m talking about
primarily today is my experience as an archivist with one
particular publisher, and that was New Directions
Publishing Company. The outline of the story
of James Lockland IV and his New Directions
Publishing Corporation is familiar to anyone interested
in 20th century poets. So I will only recap it
briefly here to set the scene. Jay, as he was usually known, became
a publisher because he was told to become one by Ezra Pound. He had sought out Pound in
Italy, taking leave from Harvard in his sophomore year to
attend Pound’s Ezuversity, hoping in this way to become a poet. After several months with Pound,
Pound finally said to him, and I quote from Jay’s
reminiscences of Pound here. “No, Jazz, it’s hopeless. You’re never going to make a writer. No matter how hard you
try, you’ll never make it. Go back to America and
do something useful. Go back and be a publisher. If you’re a good boy your
parents will give you some money and you can bring out books. I’ll get all my friends
to send you stuff.” [ Laughter ] Lockland’s family owned the
Pittsburgh steel company Jones and Lockland and Jay did not really
need to work to support himself. But following Pound’s advice
he returned to Harvard and in 1936 while still
a student brought out his first New Directions book. Almost half of the titles that
New Directions has published have been poetry. Many poets who are now part
of the accepted mainstream of 20th century poetry had
their early work published in New Directions, in one of the
firm’s annuals, or have been kept in print by New Directions, when other more commercial
publishers were not interested. To name only a few of the poets — Ezra Pound and William Carlos
Williams are foremost, of course. They are the two pillars upon which
the house of New Directions rests. Tennessee Williams, who was a
poet as well as a playwright, and New Directions has published
almost all of Williams’ work. Dylan Thomas, Delmore
Schwartz, Kenneth Patchen, Thomas Merton, Lawrence
Ferlinghetti.A Coney Island of the Mindwas one
of ND’s biggest and best sellers. Denise Levertov, Elizabeth
Bishop, Gary Snyder, and the list could go on and on. New Directions was also
extremely important in bringing to an American public
translations of foreign writers, exposing American poets to the
traditions of French modernism such the work of the surrealist
Paul Eluard, and a Spanish and Latin American lyric in the
work of Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz. When I read off the names of the
poets that New Directions published, you might be excused for
thinking that, of course, with such a list the firm
must have made some money. And, after all, it’s still in
business today after 64 years. The fact is, however, that the
firm operated in the red for close to 40 years until the explosion
of courses in contemporary poetry in American universities
in the mid-1970s. Only New Directions had the
essential text still in print and so, finally, they
began to make profits. Although often in the years the firm
did make a profit it would not have been in the black had its
publisher taken a salary. Life, even for successful poetry
publishers, can be marginal and it helps greatly to
be independently wealthy. Jay Lockland’s publishing
philosophy was to publish only work that he liked. Jay was proud to say that
he’d turned down Rod McKuen who sold millions of books
because quote, “It’s poetry, sure. I admit it’s poetry, but it’s not
a kind of poetry that I like.” Because he didn’t need to turn a
profit in order to support himself, he could, again, in his words,
quote, “do things I wanted to do without having to waste a lot of time publishing
junk to support them.” Jay also subscribed
to a belief of Pounds that there was almost always
a time lag of 10 to 20 years until a poet’s work was appreciated. Consequently, New Directions keeps
books in print for a very long time, waiting for that period
to end and to be ready to sell those books when it does. But I’m on this panel today
not simply to tell the story of New Directions as a case study in
poetry publishing, but to speak also in my professional
capacity as an archivist. What does the written record left
behind by this company tell one about the relationships
between poets and publishers? One might expect that the proofs
and other production materials for the books of poetry New
Directions published would be extremely revealing of how
Jay worked with his authors. But, in point of fact, the
proofs tell one very little. For the most part Jay did
very little line editing for his writers largely because
most of them wouldn’t stand for it. Can you imagine trying to
edit Pound or Williams? Instead, he invested
time and long letters, occasionally dispensing advice
or offering a point of view, but for the most part
simply being the facilitator of their creative work. Denise Levertov, a poet whom Jay
published early and often summed it up eloquently when she said,
“For over 20 years I have had in Jay a publisher who
has consistently affirmed and supported my development
through all its changes, a friend whose personal
kindness has been practically, as well as verbally, expressed. And in association with a
fellow poet, consistently fine and at the same time modest and
totally unselfserving” The letters between poet and publisher in the New Directions archive
are quite truly remarkable and repeatedly showed the
devotion, kindness, lack of ego, and passion for poetry
that Levertov mentions. Fortunately, Jay usually
kept carbons of his letters, so one can actually sit down and
read both sides of these exchanges. I find one of the central
pieces for understanding Jay as a publisher an exchange he had with William Carlos
Williams in 1937. Williams had just published
his novel,White Mulewith New Directions and it had brought him some long
overdue recognition and success. But, as do many writers who become
successful with a small publisher, he was now thinking of
taking his next book to a more commercial publisher. Williams wrote to Jay, in part,
“Tentatively, I’ve been thinking that it might be wisest to approach
a regular commercial publisher concerning my next
book when it is ready. Harcourt Brace once smiled at me and
Simon and Schuster grinned broadly. I’m just talking along, let it
go in one ear and out the other. I won’t make a move
without a talk with you.” Jay thought about this for 10
days and then wrote back — and just a reminder, at this point, Williams is 54 years old
and Jay is all of 23. “Dear Bill, you’re thinking
that you want somebody else as a crisis in my life. I had thought that I was doing
all right in what I had taken up in what was probably
to be my lifework and now, if you doubt me, I don’t know. You are the cornerstone
of New Directions, and if you left me I think I
wouldn’t be able to go on with it. I have built my plans around you. You are my symbol of everything
that is good in writing, and if you go over to the enemy, I just don’t know where
the hell I’m at. [ Laughter ] “Would they take the mule? Now that you have made
a success they want you. They think they can exploit you. “It isn’t a case of publishers. It’s a case of life and
death, or right and wrong, of good writers starving and
lousy writers going to Palm Beach. [ Laughter ] “Of course, I see the other side. I see that you need money. Well, if you will trust me for a little while I’ll
see that you get that. You are different from their trade. You and literature
are not merchandise. They cannot fake you. Suppose your next book is too good and doesn’t pay its
share in their overhead. Those fair-weather friends
will kick you right downstairs. They don’t understand you. They don’t know what it’s all about. They just want to exploit
your success. But you are free. You must do [background
laughter] what you want to do. [ Laughter ] What can I do for you? I can push you steadily
with the kind of people who are your proper audience. I can put out good books
for you irrespective of whether they pay their way. And if you think you are
losing money with me, I’ll see that you get that. What are Simon and
Schuster offering you? I’ll meet anything they put up. Why do I care? Because I know that I need
you in order to do anything for the young ones coming on. I can print their books for them. But unless the name New
Directions stands for something, they’ll have a hell of a row to hoe. With you, New Directions
does stand for something. And the people it prints
will get a start and a break. This is not just monkeyshine. It’s the way the things work. But, again, you are absolutely
free, and you must do what you want. You mustn’t think of me –>>Right.>>Leslie Morris: — “but
I think you should think of the other writers whom
New Directions made strong by you could on their feet. Well, think it all over
a while and let me know. Best, Jim.” Williams wrote back
[laughter], “Dear Jim, so be it. I frankly didn’t think
you were interested. Now it’s different. We’ll go ahead together, not
any faster than is reasonable, but just as far and as
persistently as we are able. It isn’t that I need money now. That’s not the point. My sole thought was that sometime
or other, in the near future, I ought to try to make some sort
of connection which would enable me to get some sort of
return from my writing. I agree that my chances are slim,
but I felt that I had to try. I’m convinced that my
best chances now lie with you, looked at quite coldly. Nor do I expect the impossible. It was impossible for me to know before this last letter
what your plans could be. It’s noon now and I have to eat. Let me have your reactions. Sincerely yours, W.C. Williams.” A second exchange, this
one between Dylan Thomas, another core New Direction
writer, and Jay. Thomas of course was
perpetually short of money. In this letter, written in 1938,
and shortly after the exchange with Williams I’ve just read, Thomas concludes a densely
written five-page letter in which he describes his poverty
in graphic detail as follows. “I apologize for this recital,
but every one of my hopes is based on the possibility that
New Directions may be able to give me an advance on royalties. It’s extremely irregular, I know,
and must be very annoying to you. For this unavoidably miserable
letter I again apologize. I had hoped to write all this in a
business-like manner but I failed. I failed because, although I
know nothing about the business of publishing or the agreements
that can be made between publisher and author, I know enough to
realize that my most sincere appeal for an immediate advance
on the work you wish to publish is unorthodox
and possible insolent. I am sorry I had to write this, but
I am forced to do away with dignity and formality and ask
you this question. Can you, at once, give
me money for which in return I promise you all the
work I have done and will ever do?>>Whoo.>>Leslie Morris: “I hope beyond
all things that you will answer me.” Jay responded immediately. “Your letter had quite an
effect on me [laughter]. When I got it in Paris I was
just on the point of going off to Spain to fight in the war. Then I thought about
your situation and — [ Laughter ] “– then I thought about
your situation and that of two other young writers of mine
in America and I said, ‘My, God. No, I can’t do that. I’ve got a duty to do.’ So I didn’t go. I can’t get myself killed right now. As long as you stay good and write
the real thing you will never make money. I must tell you that. You must resign yourself to that. That is the state of
publishing today. But you can count on me
to do what I can for you. At this moment I have
almost no money at all. I’m living on $2 a day myself,
but in good times I have plenty. So I cannot promise you
very much right now. I can send you $20 now and
the same again next month. If business gets better,
I can do more for you. In the meantime, I’ll do
my best to see you through. New Directions is the best
publisher for you in America because I fight for my books. None of the big houses will
fight for a poet these days. If they think he’ll write a
novel, they’ll play him along, but they won’t fight
for him as a poet. I worry about you,
let me hear from you. Lockland. The correspondence
in the archive continues to be rich throughout Jay’s
active involvement with the firm, even thought the telephone
was handy. It’s my impression that perhaps
because he was a writer himself, he often wrote letters even when presumably a telephone
call would have been possible. But faced with such a
wealth of documentation in the New Direction’s archive for
the poet and student interested in how writers write and how
writers survive as writers. I do lament the passing of the
tradition of letter writing. Certainly, much of the
author correspondence that I see these days is
not terribly revealing. The telephone has made serious end
roads [phonetic] in this record. Email does to me, at least offer
the possibility of reversing some of this loss, but only if poets
and editors keep their email and please not in electronic
form, but on good old paper, which at least we know
how to preserve. I hope that this very brief overview about New Direction’s has given some
indication of a possible formula for eventual success as a
poetry publisher, although, to be honest I think that
Jay was nearly unique. He attracted and kept good
poets because he cared for the poet’s interest
in every possible way. He also had the patience
to wait 10 to 20 years until the work was appreciated by
a broader public and to be ready with their books and
print when the call came. I also hope given that there
are publishers and poets in this audience, that you
will all think a little about future generations of
poets and student’s of poetry. Keep your drafts, print out
your email, submit graciously to oral history interviews. If you don’t, yes, the printed books and your poetry may survive
for future generations. But those generations will have
lost the opportunity to appreciate that very personal passion for
poetry and the promulgation of poetry that comes through so
clearly in correspondence like that in the New Direction’s archive. And I think poetry and
scholarship will be poor without it. [ Applause ]>>John Y. Cole: Well
after listening to Leslie, how can one doubt the importance
of archives and the kind of archive actually that [inaudible]
building as well for the future, which is an important part of
the endeavor, as well as efforts on the part of libraries
and archives to retain these important records
and copies of correspondence. Jack Shoemaker is a
experienced, passionate publisher. Jack — [ Audio Skips ]>>Jack Shoemaker: On
one of the first pieces of advice he gave me was, get
good advisors, listen to them and ignore everyone else. A writer that Leslie didn’t mention
that Laughlin died in despair over the lack of reading —
readership for was Kenneth Rexroth. In the early days, it was
clearly Pounds influence that ran the engine
that was New Directions. Shortly thereafter, a woman named
Barbara Guess was really the French informant to New Directions,
but when Pound returned after the Bollingen
fiasco, returned to Italy and really entered a
prolonged period of silence. It was Rexroth who stepped forward and taught Jay pretty
much everything he knew about Chinese writing,
about Japanese poetry, turned him onto a whole
generation of poets that he — Jay was not familiar
with, and was I think, in a way that people have not
appreciated, absolutely central to what we now think
of as the Beat Scene or the San Francisco Renaissance
or the New York School of Poetry. I also want to take a
chance for a short — we just shipped Herbert
Morrison’s new book, so you can make your
way to a Border’s. Because of the tyranny
of chain bookstores, we can now know precisely when
our book will be in their hands. It’s 17 days from the day
it leaves our warehouse, so it should be there this
weekend — fabulous book. Well, John was very kind,
really what I said to him was that I didn’t think I
was going to be here and I didn’t have very much time to
think about what I was going to say, so I was just going to talk
about myself or my career. And I’m most anxious because I
thought that’s what we were going to do to really respond
to questions. I have many responses to
what’s been said already. But I will give you a brief
overview of how I got to where I am. I’ve been involved with publishing
and selling poetry for a long time. The first thing I published
in 1965 was a broadside of Gary Snyder poem,
The Bed in the Sky
. The first book I published through a
press associated with my book shop, we called ourselves, The Bookshop
for Poets then, was a book of poems by the Vietnamese monk Thich
Nhat Hanh,The Cry of Vietnam. In 1966, Tye as he was
known at that stage had a — a singular job, he was the last
person Zen monks saw before they burned themselves. For a few of us, the late ’60s and early ’70s were the golden
age of poetry publishing. The counter culture
was in full bloom, poets were among the
leading scholars, philosophers, activists and leaders. Donald Allen’s [inaudible]The New
American Poetry
introduces us all to the work of Charles Olsen,
Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg,
Gregory Corso and a dozen others. As a book seller, I could
easily recall the excitement as people would hear about and
look forward to new books of poems. I had a waiting list of all
things, of more than 30 customers for the first volume of
Ed Dorn’sGunslinger. As longhairs moved
into the countryside, they took along their copies ofRip RapandCottish[assumed
spelling] and to this day some of the largest audiences
for poetry are found in these back country locations. This was the golden age too
of small press magazines and journals and books. One could have an entire session
of this conference on the history and demise of the small
press movement. But let me just say that
nothing has been seen since that even approximates the
vitality of the scene at that time. It was in a direct way, government
support that managed to kill it. It is hard to remember
sometimes how visible poets were and what impact they had then. Press proceeded by the moderns, by the ’60s Yates Pound
Elliot classes were taught in virtually every
university of the country. Frost was still in
everyone’s memory, more his persona really
than his poetry. Stevens was — Wallace Stevens was
the most influential unread poet since [inaudible]. Marianne Moore was in Life
Magazine for God’s sake. She worked on a project
with the Ford Motor Company that became the Edsel. I — I once held in my
hands a long playing record of Cassius Clay [inaudible]
Muhammad Ali with the entire back cover
printing an extended [inaudible] by Marianne Moore, wherein she
[inaudible] Clay’s couplets to Alexander Pope. The late ’70s and ’80s
were a desert. Poetry sales plummeted. More importantly, the poets
themselves withdrew or so it seemed. And the decade of greed convinced
the literate audience in America to [inaudible] Calvinist
ancestors reading nonfiction; reading for profit
became the anthem. Small presses disappeared, poetry
sales dropped, so did the sales for serious work in translation,
serious experimental fiction and first and second novels. There was, as this library named one of its own conferences,
a crisis in publishing. The poets who came after,
those of the late ’70s and ’80s were mostly invested in either a small minded personal
confession — confessional poetry, sanctioned by the writing programs
that grew up like a cancer all over the country, or they veered
off into an opaque experimentalism that essentially mocked the audience
with an arrogance that was more like academic writing than
poetry — modernist or otherwise. It may be that these
matters are all cyclic. I’ve begun to wonder what the impact
is of lyrics and popular songs on those most vulnerable,
listeners in their 20’s. Frank Sinatra, Ira Gershwin,
Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, The Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles,
REM, Nirvana, Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, Tracy Chapman, Portishead,
Matchbook Twenty — each generation seems to
believe that the lyrics of their popular songs are
superior or in fact art and this leads those 20 something’s
perhaps to an appreciation of the power of the heightened
language that is poetry. Maybe that’s a seed,
but however it happened, the ’90s was a time
of audience expansion. From sales of poetry books to poetry
slams, the more accessible poets in their 40’s and 50’s and
very early 60’s, show sales say above 20,000 copies that
their forebears might not have dared imagine. A few of the old guard, Gary Snyder,
Wendell Berry, William Merwin and the like can match
the youngsters. This very week as we’ve
already heard, we have Seamus Heaney’s
translation ofBeowulfsitting on the New York Times
bestseller list with more than 45,000 copies shipped. Writing schools are crammed, so
are festivals and conferences, even the difficult work coming
out now causes response. News magazines will
actually devote articles to the difficulty of Jorie Graham. We must forgive them in
their apparent belief that she is America’s
first difficult poet, but I’ve actually had meals
interrupted when a poet I was dining with was recognized
by fellow diners. This is a time on fire. But lest we become too complacent,
let’s insist on the long view and understand that
it was not always so, but it has been good before and
it will not always be this way and this probably won’t
last very long. As poets and publishers, we can
enjoy ourselves for this moment. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>John Y. Cole: All right, first
I would like to ask panel members if anyone has any comment
or anything to add. All right, we all did our
— yes, Bob, go ahead. Okay.>>Robert Boyers: Any
comments to the other people?>>John Y. Cole: Yes.>>Robert Boyers: [Inaudible]
any comments for each other.>>John Y. Cole: You may. If not, let’s go ahead
to the audience. All right, we’re open. Again, if you have a question,
we’d appreciate if you would come to the mic so we could get it on
the recordings that we’re making of this memorable occasion. May I have the first
comment or question from someone in the audience? [ Inaudible Speaker ] Yes, please. Sure, please.>>My name is Bob Stevens
and it’s my understanding that through the Internet, anybody
can publish anything nowadays if they have the money to do it. And what this eliminates, at least
to some extent is screening — editorial screening and what it
does is disseminate what used to be a term of [inaudible]
vanity publishing. I wondered if the board would
like to comment on those things.>>John Y. Cole: Anyone, Bob?>>Robert Boyers: Well, I guess I — I’d say that [inaudible] has always
been [inaudible] publishing –>>Oh, sure.>>Robert Boyers: [Inaudible] and
I suppose [inaudible] magazines of the sort much admired by the [inaudible] other small
magazines imperative to [inaudible]. So, [inaudible] magazines in
William’s sense of them at least, wide open and not organized
around the exercise — the rigorous exercise of
editorial judgment and assessment. There’s always [inaudible] that we
should have a [inaudible] like this, lots of magazines, lots of
publications, publishing, all sorts of different people
with many different levels and that people who wanted to write
for those magazines and wanted to look around in them and discover
what people were doing would have access to them, would
[inaudible] those magazines. Alternatively, they have
all these [inaudible], at least in this century, of
the kinds of magazines organized around every [inaudible] apparently
of more rigorous principles of assessment than discrimination. And for better or for
worse, those — those magazines, many of them [inaudible] have been
rather long lived [inaudible]. I said for better or for worse. I think we need both kinds of
magazines and I think the kinds of access that the Internet is
[inaudible] to large numbers of people whom — many of
whom would not have access to widely circulated
little magazines. This [inaudible] in the same way,
you might mention that the — the development of [inaudible]
publishing has allowed lots of younger people to
create small magazines with very small sums of money. And with considerable ingenuity
to get them [inaudible], at least in some locations
where most people are likely to see them and to purchase them. And as far as I’m concerned,
that’s a good thing. [Inaudible] that kind
of magazine, but I — I [inaudible] St. Lawrence Book
Store and Greenwich Village, I like to be able to look
around [inaudible] magazines that have been published [inaudible]
by groups of young people who don’t have access to the
[inaudible] or to [inaudible] to see what they’re doing. So, I mean, in that sense,
it seems to me a measure of a vital literary scene, that it
creates access for lots of people to publishing — different
kinds of publishing, different kinds of audiences. I think that’s what [inaudible].>>John Y. Cole: Jack?>>Jack Shoemaker: [Inaudible]
suggest that [inaudible] had money and I would suggest to you that in the late ’60s it was a
lot more direct and less expensive to buy a cassette [inaudible]
machine, a stencil maker and you were in the business
that afternoon as a publisher. You did not have to learn computers;
you did not have to spend $895 to buy the basic equipment. And then, I was thinking
of the comments about the [inaudible] publishing,
I have to look at slate a lot. For a while, slate was
publishing poems [inaudible]. Accompanied by their photograph
[inaudible] American poetry review [inaudible], but also accompanied by
a reading, so that if you could — you clicked on the material
and you could get a reading of that poem by the poet. Well, the first time I tried that, it took me nearly four
hours [laughter]. I never did get it. So, we’re talking about
[inaudible] — you’re really worried
about standards, I think. And standards in the literary
magazines will always remind me of Margaret Anderson,
Little Review
, one of the most distinguished
magazines in the history of literary
magazines. She had the audacity to ship
her subscribers a blank issue because she could not find work
enough — good enough [inaudible]. Now you can’t imagine that
happening these days [inaudible]. I’m not too worried
about [inaudible]. You know the writer Richard
[inaudible] many years ago, I published a little bit
of Richard [inaudible]. Richard wrote a short
story about the — a library for unpublished work. You would send your copy off to this
library where [inaudible] archived. And it was in fact,
[inaudible] library was opened [inaudible] principles. And they added one
interesting [inaudible], they refused to keep
records or to expose records of what was checked out [laughter]. It didn’t take very long to discover that nothing had been
checked out [laughter]. So [inaudible] material up
there on the web right now, it’s easy to get it up there,
it’s easy to maintain it up there. [Inaudible] I think one of the
most interesting of [inaudible] to develop is for us to understand
what is meant by a hit [inaudible]. And once that’s understood, I think
that we’re going to see [inaudible] that is going to make all
— all other [inaudible].>>John Y. Cole: Thanks, Jack. One here and then I’ll come to you. Yes, please — would you
come up to the mic please?>>I just wonder [inaudible]
talked about, what are the necessary qualities
for a good poetry editor?>>Leslie Morris: Well, I suggested
what made Jay a good poetry editor. It was his passion for
poetry, his willingness to lend money — that
was very important. And he was fortunate in having
family money to a certain extent. He had a trust fund, it didn’t
generate that much income. He had an aunt, Lila, who would
constantly give New Directions infusions of new money. But this also had, and it’s
something I didn’t talk about, a somewhat dampening effect on
what New Directions published because Jay was always concerned that Aunt Lila might get
upset by some of the stuff. It had been submitted
to him to publish. So, for example, he
was offered Lolita by [inaudible] and
did not publish it. And there are other instances
of — of big things that — that he turned down simply
because he was worried about his financial backer. I think the personal
involvement that Jay had with his authors was the thing
that they valued the most. And as a quote from Denise Levertov,
I think made clear it was — it was a personal involvement and
an involvement with their work. Jay himself, although
Pound, was so cutting about his own poetry
was a good poet. And he understood what his poets
went through in their writing and tried in every way that
he could to support it. That was what made him I
think a good publisher.>>John Y. Cole: Any other
— yes, Jerry, please.>>Jerry W. Ward: If I — if I
might address this very briefly, [inaudible] there were various kinds of editors [inaudible] depends
upon whether we’re just talking about magazines or anthologies
and I have some experience with the latter — all
with both, I should say. But I think the — the — a good
editor does use time differently and does take time, not just on
the mimeograph or [inaudible], but actually even with the
worst [inaudible] establishes a communication. And if this — this is a writer that US [inaudible] are extremely
interested in might even say, “Would you resubmit this if
you agree that certain kinds of changes ought to take place?” Now when you’re doing
what few of us are doing with any [inaudible]
anymore anthologies, you have another problem
[inaudible]. I think we all need
to know about this. There are many poets if you are
doing anthology, which you think of as being constructive
[inaudible] principles or your trying to [inaudible]
of time. Yet you would like to
have had [inaudible]. Now those who have been
sufficiently [inaudible], because their work is usually in
the public domain, but all angels and saints had better help you with
living people who have [inaudible]. When I was trying to doTroubled
, if I had not been able to figure out [inaudible] — when I had Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich asking me for $5000 for one poem, I just
started cursing. And I said, although I like the
work of this person very much, if it means I only include one
poem that’s going to be in it, people are going to ask, “Why didn’t
you have more of this writer?” And I’m going to [inaudible]
say, “The writer costs too much.” So, we have to be aware
as editors I think, that very often our intentions
cannot be [inaudible] anthologies simply doesn’t matter [inaudible]
publishers we have unless we were independently wealthy, not
willing to put up the kind of money that would get some of the work we
want because other publishers are out to line their pockets and
rightfully the pockets [inaudible].>>John Y. Cole: I think on this
question, we can march right down the table, Jack and then Bob.>>Jack Shoemaker:
[Inaudible] think for a minute. I think you should understand the
place that a subsidiary rights and anthology rights, [inaudible]
any given writer’s income. A book like Robert Duncan
publishes well by New Directions for several books is because
of the class group [inaudible] for his work was making more
money on subsidiary rights than he was on royalties. And it’s partly the
editor’s responsibility because the editor gives a majority
of that money to the poet himself. The part of our job is to protect
them from their own benevolence and to help them maintain a certain
[inaudible] level via academic and anthology rights. Somebody’s making money on those
books, whether it’s the editor or the publisher, somebody’s
making money on those books. They’re very expensive and
somebody [inaudible] that — that that somebody ought to include
the writer’s who are [inaudible]. I think, an answer to
your question, I — I don’t think there’s
much difference between what makes a good editor
and what makes a good poetry editor. What makes a good editor in my view
is somebody who’s capable of getting in the [inaudible],
discovering their voice and helping them do
the best job they can at what they’ve set out to do. And that doesn’t matter whether it’s
fiction or poetry or nonfiction. Nonfiction manuscripts come forward
and they’re exquisitely prepared. Some — I had to publish a writer
who’s [inaudible] as the writer of shitty drafts, Anne LaMott, she sends in the messiest
manuscripts you’ve ever seen. She’s [inaudible], but it ranges
all the way through there. I’ve edited Gary Snyder’s
[inaudible] 1965, so what I gave him in essence when we were working on that long poem was a
single faithful reader over a long period of time. I also was able to point
out to him that the couple of times he faced actual [inaudible]
and a couple of times he needed to double check his sources. So, you know, we do all kinds of — of things like that that I
can’t imagine sitting there and writing a letter to every
submission that comes in, I would think of myself
as a therapist. I — I cannot — I — I spent [inaudible] 85%
of our [inaudible] writers that we have [inaudible]
and 15% of the — of the time trying to investigate
those who wished to be [inaudible]. And it would be a terrible thing
if we weren’t able to do that. I don’t know about this
obligation for response is. Now if you’re sitting at home one
morning and you’re drinking a glass of milk and you think,
“Boy, I could do that.” You go out and you buy
yourself a cow and a couple of weeks later you send a handmade
quart of milk to Berkley Farms and say, “See, I can do that,
you should publish my milk.” I mean, it doesn’t happen
in almost any other field. [Inaudible] we don’t send stuff to
Chevy saying, “I figured out how to make a car [inaudible].” I think, you know, there’s
a tremendous amount of — of what we’ve figured out after
[inaudible] was that those people who couldn’t scientific,
couldn’t be creative. Those of us who couldn’t
carry a tune or [inaudible] virtually
born [inaudible]. And so we then decided
we could be writers since we couldn’t be anything
else, we could be writers. And there’s a — there’s a
tremendous [inaudible] tremendous competency out there. But I remember two things
Lou Welsh once said, [inaudible] not very many people
do it very well, no one knows why. And [inaudible] is
no excuse [laughter].>>John Y. Cole: Bob?>>Robert Boyers: Well, [inaudible] for the most part [inaudible]
just said would be — could be possible for anyone
[inaudible] could not be done. So there — there is that. [Inaudible] sheer physical
impossibility [inaudible] and then I think also [inaudible]
trying to suggest the need to be in regular contact with the people that you have committed
yourself to [inaudible]. I will say, in response to
something that was mentioned earlier in this panel, that a surprising
number of the writers we publish, including many very
experienced writers, but considerable [inaudible] that is
in [inaudible] editorial criticism and suggestions for
revision [inaudible]. Some writers, in fact, when they
submit [inaudible] material, if they published [inaudible]
before, actually invites critical
assessment, share with you those feelings
[inaudible] poem they’ve sent [inaudible] and we have those kinds
of editorial relationships with lots of writers, which of course,
absorbed an enormous amount of time and [inaudible] very important
time, it’s time well spent.>>John Y Cole: Thank you. You’re next.>>This is sort of a
two-part question too. One is addressed to [inaudible]
or Robert [inaudible].>>John Y. Cole: It’s for the
whole panel, I guess, right. Okay.>>Robert, you said that the amount of unsolicited manuscripts
have skyrocketed and what I noticed is [inaudible]
of people who are having crisis as a way of getting manuscripts
and then that fee is attached. Could you discuss the trend that [inaudible] editors
feel about it [inaudible]. This year’s writer market
by the way, has pages and pages of literary crisis. I wonder if this is a trend
that is going to increase and –>>John Y. Cole: You
want to ask a second part of that now and then we’ll –>>The second part is because
of the amount of work coming through your — over your
[inaudible] should poets like fiction writers send
query letters or how to — how does unknown [inaudible]
press [inaudible]?>>Robert Pinksy: I’ve just
written a letter complaining about [inaudible]. The first [inaudible] is a
Ponzi scheme, it’s a [inaudible] that is organized also, and I
don’t mean to be terribly cynical, but I think it’s very clear that these people [inaudible]
charging $15 reading fees for poetry submissions where
first prize is $500 [inaudible]. So I would be very [inaudible]
like I would be [inaudible]. There are very few that do very few
legitimate [inaudible] will ask you for a so-called [inaudible]
fee or a submissions fee. And having said that, I think some
of the university [inaudible], oh it’s [inaudible]
under significant prizes that are [inaudible]
by the institution and seem to have [inaudible]. Those are accesses to
[inaudible] very important from the previous [inaudible] Robert
Hess — first book was [inaudible]. So, [inaudible] it’s really a matter
of judgment, but I would stay away from [inaudible] associated
with a legitimate operation.>>Robert Boyers: I guess
typically what you do recognize or what you’re expected to
recognize is the name of the judge or judges associated with
a particular competition for which they [inaudible]. That automatically is
expected [inaudible]. And I suppose it does. But you — you [inaudible]
a personal [inaudible] in a new competition,
judged by [inaudible]. It’s genuine and — and in that
sense, however skeptical you may be about being [inaudible], it’s unlikely that [inaudible]
poet looking to make a place for themselves, you pass up
the opportunity to pay $15 here and $25 there [inaudible]. So that’s — that’s one thing. I would not — I think
[inaudible] send my work out, send [inaudible] letters because
I don’t think that managers at that time [inaudible] letters,
they just respond to manuscripts if they could do it [inaudible]. There are plenty of
editors [inaudible].>>Thank you.>>I’d just like to add that
maybe we should remember some of the things that Paul Breslin
said this morning about slams and think very seriously
about the whole [inaudible]. Because along with that, I
realized that many young people who would ordinarily [inaudible]
being published have turned away from that [inaudible]. And now, you find that slams,
cybers and other kinds of things, a lot of young talented writers who
have simply bypassed the old route of getting published [inaudible] or they have used the laptop
publishing of something. [Inaudible], but I think the
world now has some of the choices that a number of people who are
not looking for the [inaudible] from the establishment have decided
that whether we think they’re good or not, they are going to
get their voices [inaudible].>>John Y. Cole: Time
for another question. Well, if not, I’m going to
declare this panel over. I wish to thank the
audience and in particular, I’d like to thank our panelists. We’re going to reconvene,
however, at 4:30, please join me in giving our panelists a hand. [ Applause ]>>Prosser Gifford: We’re going
from cyberspace to inner space. We’ve had a lot of
context for poetry today. We’ve had historical context
and interesting discussions of publishing context,
now we get the real thing. And we’re getting poets
reading their own poetry, which is after all, a
foundation for it all. They’re going to read in the order
that they are in the program, which is the order that you see
them here, progressing down. Robert tells me, heroically that he
will read for three or four minutes. May I just say, at this point, just
remind the audience that there is at eight o’clock tonight in
Coolidge, a reading ofDante. I think under the circumstances,
Robert will not read, but William Merwin who is a
absolutely first rate reader will read for both Robert and himself fromThe Infernoand
The [inaudible]
. I mean, excuse me,
The Purgatorio
. All right now, my job
is to get out of the way and hand it over to Joshua. They will just go down the line. Joshua?>>Joshua Weiner: Well, okay,
I’m as excited to be here today, as I was last night, which means
my nerves are a little strained. I’m going to — most of the
poems I’m going to be reading are from a book called
The World’s Room
. And this is the opening poem. Bruno’s night — up the hill of
snoring, the father climbs in dream, the mother sinks in silence
and baby sucks its thumb. But struggling next door, boy Bruno
smells the dawn while the sick, the sad, the torn apart
quiet their song. Dropped curtains hide the
night’s inspired fantastic pomp that liquidates with light. Don’t oversleep, wake up,
run to the grimy window, press your nose to the dirt. Under the dawn, you follow
the mass of gathering earth. This next one is a — is a poem in
couplets and it’s in two voices. The — the first voice is the
voice of a not yet conceived child. The second voice is the poet’s voice
and they’re engaged in an argument. The first voice here is the child’s. The not yet child, why
won’t you make me now, who wants a life inside your life. I fear you as a thief
stealing about the — stealing about the orchards of
my future, green fruit glistening above a starving creature. To increase the coin buried inside
yourself, you need exchange it for an alien wealth,
wealth being you. I need to spend my horde on public
conquests of a private world, take drugs and chances,
love recklessly and build. I promise, I’m your most
famous bright adventure. My stances will collapse,
mere rooms in nature. I understand you dwell on agony, but there you’ll shape
your strongest poem, me. Your cry will play the
tune ending my work as health plays boss
over the art I serve. Not always helpless,
one day I’ll help you and you’ll be grateful
for what I give to you. Fever, high blood pressure,
sleeplessness, I’ve my beloved to cause me such distress. And in my distress,
I find again denial, if I’m the father how
can I stay the child. Make me and as your face grows old, you’ll find in my face,
your face taking hold. That’s vanity you call prosperity, afraid the future bears
what you want to see, of where I could become
but might not be. The — the poet lost the argument
and this next poem is my imagination of my son’s voice at about 11
months, when he’s just starting to discover a word
or two for himself. It’s calledThe World’s Room. Big meat, fur teeth picks
me up, puts me down. Do it, do it, do it now. Dotta, doggie, puppet God, he
will, he won’t, the floor is cold. I hunt my milk song, she titted
sweet for me, tongue in, tongue out, mister, mister, I can sniff them
at the household, wagging bye-bye. Bye-bye, why? Hi, hey where, hey how, a door, a
page, both swing first word, hello. I said it, hello. Hear it, they hear it, they heard
me, it grows to the room we’re in. Next page please turn. Do it, do it, do it now. She will, she won’t,
why, try, my, cry. I’ll find a shape,
tongue in, tongue out, and be that shape I make obey me. I love it, big meat, warm arm,
I love it, wants me, milk song. The page opens, a phone opens to, I’ll turn it on and
walk right through. Next page, please turn,
do it, do it, do it now. I’m in the page and now I’m gone. Switching modes here. This is a — this is a —
an ode to a former landlord and it gives me tremendous
to be able to read it here at The Library of Congress
[laughter]. In — in the poem, I — I address
— I address the landlord directly, but I’ve stolen a name, Crispis
Solistius [assumed spelling] from a horse and this is a character
that horse speaks to directly in a poem of his own that
the poet, David Ferry, translates as Averis
[assumed spelling]. Tempest, 3000 miles from this
outermost seaside province, sky darkening to a purple
amber wash across the harbor. You, Crispis Solistius, sit in
your house perched among hills of a western paradise and consult with your lawyer how
best to sue my ass. Lift your pen from the page
and look out your window. How the heavy light seeks the
world and warms it, drying the sod and earth and seducing
reluctant buds. Just weeks ago, rain that never
stopped would never stop it seemed, attacked the panes like buckshot
flying sideways with the wind. Bad news in the mail,
phone, fax, online, your enemy’s triple headed barking on a river edge brimmed
over, plosive and cascading. The river of your ire, strangling
by submerging as dream — as dreams too filled up with
rain and banks refused to hold. But here as there, despite all
precipitation, the rains rained out, while salt air and sun
yank the covers off in lick us to rise up and hum. Why waste your precious coins
in minutes on battle plans for some official dim interior? The polished wood and
balustrade reflecting back in brass are convicts likenesses,
as we prevail upon dignitary robes to judge us, who cannot
sit still in silence. What could satisfy your hunger? The starving adventurer, having
wandered lost in mountains drenched by rain, falls on a
shepherd’s humble table and eats until he’s sick, chucks it up to
force it down, bellying revolt against an agitating mind. Agitated to anger at my
mere figure on your step, you shouldn’t have come here. You’re responsible, you
owe, carbon pupils flaring, oh how I fucked you over,
over good, as I stood wooden and bewildered lost in panics wood
and you gathered breath to bellow like an actor on his final
stage, overcome for the finish by black fury’s torn finding
its voice merging with your own. Your doubled voice enriched as
venting pleasure frothing over, under, all around, carried me
off in a ripping ugly rush. I’m not your father, your keeper. Well, I couldn’t have agreed more. Though, months later, I’d reverse
that if I saw you now and try, no doubt failing, to bow to you, my
cheaper so close this long winter, I too gorge myself on
platters of revenge and tart – tart sorbets kept cold
in a metal dish of fear. Nights of revelry at the sink, each
plate congealed with meat juice, a model of my mind,
I tried scrubbing and scrubbing smooth,
or was I just a fool? My mind more water, pouring from
the faucet, seeking the basin to give it shape, contain
it, it finding only drain and a polluted route
to other larger waters. But your epic of triumph and
suffering need this minor book, take your pen to a blank
page of scrap, boot up and delete my name
from your databank. You have others to care for,
without taking care of me. Our fates mixed together, makes
more stormy weather and see, it’s just stopped raining. So, step to you balcony and breathe
the new atmosphere thoroughly cleaned of me. That’s life, egging
your heartbeat on. I want more of it too than
could ever fill me up, before the rain falls again,
this time falling with no end. Late seasons flood water,
sweeping out of cherished homes. Thanks. [ Applause ] [ Silence ]>>Naomi Shihab Nye: Gratitude to all the eloquent stunning
speakers of the last two days. I don’t know when I’ve heard
more exhilarating presentations and I have conquered my phobia
of panels forever having listened to the panels that have
been up here today. It’s — it’s been a marvelous time. I want to thank everybody
who made this — this program possible and
special thanks to Robert Pinsky and Witter Bynner for this very
unexpected and kind support. Since the topic is poetry in America
today, I just wanted to say a word for where I’ve been for the last
25 years, which is out in schools as an itinerant visiting writer. And never have I heard a
teacher say that her teacher — her students have spent significant
time with poetry in any way and gained nothing from it — never. This past season I was asked
at a conference of teachers, “But what have you
done over the years when the students made fun
of one another’s poems.” And I had think for a long
minute before answering, “Well, they never have, not
once have they.” Once a teacher made
fun of a student, but I had never heard students
make fun of one another’s poems, and how excited I am to think
of them seeing these videos. How wonderful that will be for them. And I just wanted to
read two little stories. I’ve worked as an anthologist
for the past 10 years as well, trying to create books that would be
friendly to students, bringing poets from around the world from
Mexico, from the Middle East, voices I wanted to see in more
American classrooms into the hands of teachers in this country. My most recent anthology
though that’s just out is calledSalting the Ocean,100 Poems by Young Poets
from people I’ve been with. And I just wanted to read two
little stories, which we sneaked into the index from
classroom experiences. And these were stories from
my journal working with them. Waiting for the coffee
pot to percolate, one teacher in the
lounge speaks to another. Does poetry have anything
to do with math? Her friend says, “What?” “Well,” says the first teacher. “You know how I told
you about Benjamin who never does his assignments? So then we started this poetry
workshop a month ago, he volunteered to read his poems, the
other kids cheered him on. Yesterday, he brings
his math homework in for the first time all
year and leaves it on my desk. I don’t get it. What does poetry have
to do with math?” A fifth grade boy telephones the
poet who visited his class and asks if he could dictate a poem to her. She says, “Why don’t you
just write it down yourself and give it to me next week?” He says, “I feel I need to
say it into somebody’s ear or it won’t come out right. There’s nobody at home over here.” So she writes down what he says. It’s pretty great. She promises to give
him a copy next week. Two hours later her
phone rings again, “Do you have another
piece of paper?” And just one of the poet’s voices, this was from a fourth
grader, Brenda Burmeister. I have managed to keep in touch with
her over the years and she does say that this — writing of
this poem, which she wrote in approximately seven minutes,
staring into a broken compact mirror on her desk was very significant because it was the
first time she learned that you could find something
out while writing a poem. You didn’t have to
know it in advance. Fourth grade, Brenda Burmeister. “Alone with my mirror, dreaming
of love, wishing for love, thinking of my dear old grandmother. My eyes represent my grandmother,
my nose represents my grandmother. Suddenly my face turns into
my dear old grandmother. I start to speak, I hear my voice,
I hear my grandmother’s voice. I say to myself, that can’t be
my grandmother, she is dead. She says to me, it
is your grandmother. I had trust in my grandmother, so I believe my grandmother
lives beyond death in my mirror.” And then a few from me. I wear this poetry advocate button
from poet’s house in New York, not to announce myself, but to
invite people to tell me stories. And they do. In an airport two weeks ago,
a woman came up and said, “So, can I tell you about the
time a poem saved my life?” And she isn’t the first
one who’s done that. They also let you check
into hotels early and things if you wear a button
like this, feeling — feeling you’ve probably been
sleeping in lobbies until now. But I want to dedicate this
poem to The Library of Congress. Remembering my childhood library in
St. Louis and our exquisite library in San Antonio, because of
libraries we can say these things. She is holding the book close
to her body, carrying it home on the cracked sidewalk
down the tangled hill. If a dog runs at her again, she
will use the book as a shield. She looked hard among the long
lines of books to find this one. When they start talking about money,
when the day contains such long and hot places, she will go inside. An orange bed is waiting. Story without corners, she
will have two families, they will eat at different hours. She is carrying a book past the
fire station in the five and dime. What this town has not given
her, the book will provide. A sheep, a wilderness
of new solutions, the book has already lived
through its troubles. The book has a calm
cover, a straight spine. When the step returns to itself
as the best place for sitting and the old men up and down the
street are latching their clippers, she will not be alone. She will have a book to open and
open and open, her life starts here. Wedding cake — once on
a plane, a woman asked me to hold her baby and disappear it. I figured it was safe, our
being on a plane and all. How far could she go? She returned one hour later, having changed her clothes
and washed her hair. I didn’t recognize her. By this time, the baby and I
had examined each other’s necks, we had cried a little, I had
a silver bracelet and a watch, gold studs glittered
in the baby’s ears. She wore a tiny white dress, leafed
with layers like a wedding cake. I did not want to give her back. The baby’s curls coiled tightly
against her scalp, another alphabet. I read new, new, new,
my mother gets tired. I’ll chew your hand. The baby left my skirt
crumpled, my lap aching. Now I’m her secret guardian,
that little nub of dream that rises slightly but won’t
come clear, as she grows, as she feels ill at
east, I’ll bob my knee. What will she forget? Whom will she marry? He’d better check with me. I’ll say once she flew dressed
like a cake, between two doilies of cloud, she could slip the
card into a pocket, pull it out. Already she knew the small finger
was funnier than the whole arm. William Merwin and I were
talking at lunch about poems which we must write in response
to certain things in the news and I’ll just read these. This is two — two poems,
part — one poem, two parts. Jerusalem headlines 2000, Holy
Land experiences biggest snowfall in 50 years. Having been there for
the previous two biggest, I felt a lot of images
coming over me. If your house is covered, if someone’s small lemon tree
disappears under a drift, if your auto with the blue
license plates, if your goat or my aged donkey, if the clay jar
in which your mother hold water for 60 years, if the snow piles up past everyone’s
windows, all of the windows. Palestinians and Israeli’s worked
together in the west bank to rescue. A sweeter sentence than
baklava, than all the oranges of Jericho offered up to God. Second headline, top Israeli
official hints at shared Jerusalem. After all this time, just a hint. He could sing it loudly,
gent from the top of a wall, he’s a top official after all. Why whisper, why not stand
in the street bursting with syllables shocking taxi
drivers and bread sellers, why not, why not, why not? Does a mother hint that
she loves her child? Now, while we are fresh, while the
century is still a wide open page, now a new story to be made and
everyone with their fragrant nouns and muscular verbs to write it. And on behalf of the Internet, I
feel like I keep finding out a lot of intriguing things
from the Internet that I appreciate knowing about. And this was one of them,The
Many Hats of William Yale
. I love odd collections, cookie
jars, light bulbs toothpaste tubes, the man who gathered sugar
packets for 37 years. So when I heard about the hats made
from rinds of lemons and limes, a century ago decorated
with bits of frill and cloth to represent the tribes and
occupations of the time. I loved William Yale, the strange
gift for his Jerusalem bride. I sent my Boston friends
to see those hats. They got lost driving there in a wild rainstorm,
more lost coming home. But they reported the hats
made by children’s hands, lined up teeny tiny, displayed
on thimbles and walnuts, were withered only a
bit around the edges as any rind might be after so long. And they felt hypnotized. A sudden tangy hopefulness rose up
from those hats, a stunning wish for women and men with tinier heads to solve Jerusalem’s
troubles [laughter]. And back to Poetry in America in the
schools, I’ll close withValentinefor Ernest Mannfor the boy who
stalked up to me in the hallway of his junior high school and said, “If you are the poet,
write me a poem.” And it was February 14. You can’t order a poem
like you order a taco. Walk up to the counter
and say, I’ll take two, and expect it to be
handed on a shiny plate. Still, I like your spirit. Anyone who says, here’s my
address, write me a poem, deserves something in reply. So I’ll tell a secret instead. Poems hide, in the bottoms of
our shoes they’re sleeping; they are the shadows drifting across our ceilings the
moment before we wake up. What we have to do is live in
a way that lets us find them. Once I knew a man who gave his
wife two skunks for a valentine, he couldn’t understand
why she was crying. I thought they had such
beautiful eyes and he was serious. He was a serious man who lived in a
serious way; nothing was ugly just because the world said so. He really liked those skunks. So he reinvented them as valentines and they became beautiful,
at least to him. And the poems that had been
hiding in the eyes of skunks for centuries crawled out
and curled up at his feet. Maybe if we reinvent whatever
our lives give us, we find poems. Check your garage, the
odd sock in your drawer, the person you almost like,
but not quite and let me know. And I’d have to say to
all of you here today, you let us know in a big way. Thanks. [ Applause ] [ Silence ]>>Robert Pinsky: I’m going
to try to read the first poem and the last poem from my brand
new book calledJersey Rain. They are short. Samurai song, when I had no
roof, I made audacity my roof. When I had no supper, my eyes dined. When I had no eyes, I listened. When I had no ears, I sought. When I had no thought, I waited. When I had no father,
I made care my father. When I had no mother,
I embraced order. When I had no friend,
I made quiet my friend. When I had no enemy,
I posed my body. When I had no temple, I
made my voice my temple. [Inaudible] before. I have no priest, my
tongue is my choir. When I have no means,
fortune is my means. When I have nothing,
death will be my fortune. Need is my tactic,
detachment is my strategy. When I had to lover,
I courted my sleep. Last poem is the title
poem,Jersey Rain. Now near the end of the middle
of the road, now near the end of the middle stretch of
road, what have I learned? Some earthly wiles that aren’t, that
often I cannot tell good fortune from bad; they had once
seemed so easy to tell apart. The source of art and woe,
a slant in wind, dissolves or nourishes everything it touches. What [inaudible] doesn’t mend; it carves the deeper,
boiling pony images. It spins itself regardless into
the ocean, it stains and scours and makes things dark or bright. Sweat of the moon, a
shroud of benediction, the chilly liquefaction
of day to night. The Jersey rain, my
rain, soaks all as one. It smites Metuchen, Rahway,
Saddle River, Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne. I feel it churning
even in fair weather to craze distinction,
dry the same as wet. In ripples of heat, the August
drought still feeds vapors in the sky that swell
to drench my state. The Jersey rain, my rain, in streams
and beads of indissoluble grudge and aspiration, original
milk, replenisher of grief. Descending destroyer, [inaudible]
source of passion, silver and black, executioner, source of life. [ Applause ] [ Silence ]>>Rita Dove: I’d really like to
hear another round of applause for everything that Robert Pinsky
has done here at the library. It’s been — it’s been
just a remarkable two days and a remarkable three years. I want to thank him. [ Applause ] I’d like to start with a
poem for sentimental reasons. It’s for my daughter and she
kind of grew up in these halls. She knew every elevator
here, between the — and the tunnels between the Madison
Building and the Jefferson Building. This poem took a long to write, it’s
in my latest book, but it’s a poem about her birth and now she’s 17. And she’s given me
permission to read it. You have to ask at a
certain age [laughter]. She was born in Phoenix, Arizona and we weren’t sure exactly how this
experiment was going to come out. It came out pretty
well, but we took — we had a good omen in
our — in our midwife. We did the safe way, we had
midwives in the hospital so that in case something goes
wrong, you can pretend that you were doing it naturally. But our midwife was
a remarkable woman, we could not quite
figure out what she was. And that’ll become
clear in the poem.Incarnation in Phoenix
Into this paradise of pain, she strives on the slim
tether of a nurse’s bell. Her charcoal limbs
emerging from crisp whites, unlikely as an envelope
issuing smoke. I’ve rung because my breasts have
risen, [inaudible] I’m not ready for this motherhood stuff. Her name is Raven and she swoops
across the tiled wilderness, hair boiling thunder
over the rampart of bobby pins poking
her immaculate cap. She dips once for the baby
just waking, fists punching in for work, right on schedule. Bends again to investigate
what should be natural, milk sighing into one
tiny [inaudible] mouth. Ah, she whispers, ambrosia,
shaming me instantly. But no nectar trickles forth,
no mana descends from the vault of Heaven to feed this
pearly syllable, this package of leafy
persuasion dropped on our doorstep and
ripening before us. A miniature United Nations just
like me, Raven says, citing the name of her mother’s village
somewhere in Norway, her father a buffalo soldier. Now of course, we can place her, and
African Valkyrie who takes my breast in her fists grunting, this
hurts you more than it does me. Then my laugh squeezed to
whimper and the milk running out. The — I’d like to read one poem
from the title sequence of the book,On The Bus With Rosa Parks
, is the title of the book. And this poem is about — not about
Rosa Parks and that historic moment, but by about another
woman in a moment that by all rights could have
been the historic moment. There were several women who refused
to give up their seats on the bus — on the buses in Montgomery,
Alabama in the year of 1955, which was the year that Rosa
Parks made her historic stand. And for various reasons, they
were not taken up as the test case for the anti — for
the segregation laws — against the segregation laws. This woman’s name was
— that I’m reading about in this poem
is Claudette Colvin, who now works in a
nursing home in New York and she has been interviewed and people have asked her how
she felt not being Rosa Parks and she’s truly bewildered
by this question as — as if what she is is
not something already. There’s an epigraph for this
poem from the boycott flier that was distributed a few
days after Rose Park’s arrest. And I quote, “Another Negro woman
has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to
get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person.” This is the second time since
the Claudette Colvin case, this must be stopped. Claudette Colvin goes to work. Menial twilight sweeps the
storefronts along Lexington, as the shadows arrive to take
their places among the scourge of the earth. Here and there, a fickle
brilliance, light bulbs coming on in each narrow residence,
the golden wattage of bleak interiors
announcing, anyone home or I’m beat, bring me a beer. Mostly I say to myself, still
here, lay my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
before flipping the switch. I like the sugary look
of things in bad light, one drop of sweat is
all it would take to dissolve an armchair
pillow into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until it’s dark
enough for my body to disappear, then I know it’s time
to start out for work. Along the avenue, the cabs
start up heading toward midtown. Neon stutters into ecstasy as the
male integers light up their smokes and let loose a stream
of brave talk. Hey mama, souring quickly to
your mama when there’s no answer. As if the most injury they can do
is insult the reason you’re here at all, walking in your
whites down to the stock, so you can make a living. So ugly, so fat, so dumb,
so greasy, what do we have to do to make God love us? Mama was a maid, my daddy
mowed lawns like a boy and I’m the crazy girl off
the bus, the one who wrote in class she was going
to be president. I take the number six bus to
the Lexington Avenue train and then I’m there all night, adjusting the sheets,
emptying the pans. And I don’t curse or
spit, or kick and scratch like they say I did then. I help those who can’t
help themselves. I do what needs to be done. And I sleep whenever
sleep comes down on me. Two newish poems — I’ve been
working a series about the painter, Albrecht Durer, for as long
as I think I’ve been writing. I can’t seem to finish it. He intrigues me I think because he
was on the cusp of the Renaissance and it fascinated me to
think of someone who knew that something new was happening,
but didn’t quite know what it was. He was early for his times. He wrote a painter’s manual, which
is extremely post modern, actually. I have a quote from it in which just to give you an idea of
how his mind worked. He said, I [inaudible] my
imagination throw a point high up in the air or drop
it into the depths where I cannot reach
it with my body. But in order to make it plausible,
I must draw it with a pen and write the word point next to it,
so that the point will mean point. This man, I mean, 15th Century was
not for him, but he also thought that perhaps you could
quantify human beauty if you just measured it enough. And this became a lifelong
obsession. This poem takes place
right about at the turn of his millennium into the 1500s. And it’s calledWeltschmerz
, which is German for — well, it means world pain, but
that doesn’t — that’s nothing. It means really, a longing
that you can’t put a finger on that’s bigger than the world.Weltschmerz, You who refer
to your wife as my good Agnes, and always in connection with
the maid, a simple girl who cried out in the midst of a miracle,
crosses dropped from the sky onto the clean white
shirts of her master. What could you say to a
creature so devoid of irony, she couldn’t even laugh when you
yelled, come out of the rain. Still, the centuries fresh, three
days journey to view a beached whale and by the time you arrive, the
whale has been swept to sea again. You stay awhile anyway, collect
rocks, sketch a [inaudible] so plump and shy, she won’t lift her
eyes from your hot nailed boots. Morosity, you write, is the penalty for too much thought
without exercise. So you dig dame sorrow out of
metal, carve her slouched among orbs and compasses, swathed
in grim drapery and yet, it is your jaw etched in fury, our gaze you find burning
beneath her extravagant curls. What goes up, must come down. The maid saw that with
her own silly eyes. Throw up your hands, put it down
on paper, in ink, what can you say to a woman who refuses to pose
nude even for a famous artist? Gather up your stones, your crab
carapace’s, your smudged equations for human perfection and
remember a green broach for the melancholy Agnes. This poem is — I kind of date the
new poems as post-fire or pre-fire. Some of you might know we had a fire
in our house, lightening struck it and burned quite a bit of it. And it — contrary — I
mean it was devastating, but contrary to what I always
imagined when I looked at disaster on television and you
think how unspeakably sad, it has been a process or recovery. What you do discover is
that you find things again and everything that
you find is a gift. As a consequence, I’ve
started writing poems which I guess some critic
will say predictably enough, are poems about paradise,
Adam and Eve. This is one of Eve’s, of
a quote from the Bible, I have been a stranger
in a strange land and an epigraph from
Emily Dickenson. Life’s spell is so exquisite,
everything conspires to break it. It wasn’t bliss, what was
bliss but the ordinary life. She’s spend hours in patter moving
through whole days touching, sniffing, tasting, exquisite
housekeeping in a charmed world. And yet there was always
more of the same, all that happiness, the
aimless being there. So she wandered for awhile,
bush to arbor, linger to look through upons rest of mirror. He was off cataloguing the universe
probably pretending he could organize what was clearly
someone else’s chaos. That’s when she found the tree,
the dark crabbed branches bearing up such speechless bounty. She knew without being
told, this was forbidden. It wasn’t a question of
ownership, who could lay claim to such maddening perfection. And there was no voice in her head,
no whispered intelligence lurking in the leaves, just
an ache that grew until she knew she’d already
lost everything except desire. The red heft of it warming
her outstretched paw. Thank you. [ Applause ] [ Silence ] [ Applause ]>>Louise Gluck: Now a
foreseeable end, but it — it treats the different periods
of a life, youth, adolescence, theoretic life, domestic
life and old age. As a — in a kind of swirl
of associative patterns, you won’t be able to get
that from a smattering, but I’ll read a few of these poems. The sensual world, I call to you
across a monstrous river or chasm to caution you, to prepare you. Earth will seduce you,
slowly, inperceptibly, subtly, not to say with connivance. I was not prepared, I stood in
my grandmother’s kitchen holding out my glass, stewed plums, stewed
apricots, the juice poured off into the glass of ice and the water
added patiently in small increments, the various cousins discriminating,
tasting with each addition. Aroma of summer fruit,
intensity of concentration, the colored liquid turning
gradually lighter, more radiant, more light passing through it. Delight, then solace, my grandmother
waiting to see if more was wanted, solace then deep immersion. I loved nothing more, deep
privacy of the sensual life, the self disappearing into
it or inseparable from it, somehow suspended, floating, its needs fully exposed,
awakened, fully alive. Deep immersion and with
it, mysterious safety, far away the fruit
glowing in its glass bowls, outside the kitchen the sun setting. I was not prepared, sunset, end
of summer, demonstrations of time as a continuum as something coming
to an end, not a suspension. The senses wouldn’t protect me. I caution you as I
was never cautioned. You will never let go, you
will never be satiated, you will be damaged and scarred,
you will continue to hunger. Your body will age, you
will continue to need, you will want the earth then more
of the earth, sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not
respond, it is encompassing, it will not minister, meaning it
will feed you, it will ravish you, it will not keep you alive. Solstice — each year on the same
date, the summer solstice comes. [Inaudible] light, we plan for
it, the day we tell ourselves that time is very long indeed,
nearly infinite and in our reading and writing, preference is given
to the celebratory, the ecstatic. There is in these rituals
something apart from wonder, there is also a kind of preening, as
though human genius had participated in these arrangements and we
found the results satisfying. What follows the light
is what precedes it. The moment of balance, of dark
equivalence, but tonight we sit in the garden in our canvas
chairs, so late into the evening. Why should we look either forward
or backward, why should we be forced to remember it is in our
blood, this knowledge? Shortness of the days, darkness,
coldness of winter it is in our blood and bones,
it is in our history, it takes genius to
forget these things. Stars — I’m awake,
I am in the world. I expect no further assurance,
no protection, no promise. Solace of the night sky, the hardly
moving face of the clock, I’m alone. All my riches surround me. I have a bed, a room, I have a
bed, a vase of flowers beside it, and a nightlight, a book. I’m awake, I am safe. The darkness, like a shield. The dreams, put off, maybe
vanished forever and the day, the unsatisfying morning
that says, I am your future, here is your cargo of sorrow. Do you reject me? Do you mean to send me away
because I am not full in your word, because you see the black
shake already implicit. I will never be banished. I am the light. Your personal anguish
and humiliation, do you dare send me away
as though you were waiting for something better. There is no better,
only for a short space, the night sky like a quarantine
that sets you apart from your task. Only softly, fiercely, the star
is shining, here in the room, the bedroom, saying I was brave,
I resisted, I set myself on fire. Youth — my sister and I at
two ends of the sofa reading, I suppose English novels,
the television on, various schoolbooks open or places
marked with sheets of lined paper. Euclid, [inaudible], as though
we had looked into the origin of thought and preferred novels. Sad sounds of our growing
up, twilight of cellos, no trace of a flute, a piccolo
and it seemed at the time, almost impossible to conceive of
any of it as evolving or malleable. Sad sounds, anecdotes that
were really still lives, the pages of the novels turning,
the two dogs snoring quietly and from the kitchen,
sounds of our mother, smell of Rosemary, of lamb roasting. A world in process of shifting,
of being made or dissolved and yet we didn’t live that way. All of us lived our lives as the
simultaneous ritualized enactment of a great principle, something
felt, but not understood. And the remarks we made were
like lines in a play spoken with conviction, but
not from choice. A principle, a terrifying familial
will that implied opposition to change, to variation, a
refusal even to ask questions. Now that world begins to
shift and eddy around us. Only now when it no longer
exists it has become the present, unending and without form. I’ll read two more short ones. [Inaudible]. I had drawn my chair to the
hotel window to watch the rain. I was in a kind of dream or trance,
in love, and yet I wanted nothing. It seemed unnecessary to
touch you, to see you again. I wanted only this,
the room, the chair, the sound of the rain
falling, hour after hour in the warmth of the spring night. I needed nothing more. I was utterly sated. My heart had become small. It took very little to fill it. I watch the rain falling in heavy
sheets over the darkened city. You were not concerned. I could let you live
as you needed to live. At dawn the rain abated. I did the things one does in
daylight, I acquitted myself, but I moved like a sleepwalker. It was enough and it
no longer involved you. A few days in the strange city, a
conversation, a touch of a hand, and afterward I took
off my wedding ring, that was what I wanted, to be naked. Time, there was too much
always and too little. Childhood, sickness. By the side of the bed
I had a little bell. At the other end of
the bell, my mother. Sickness, gray rain, the
dogs slept through it. They slept on the bed,
at the end of it, and it seemed to me they
understood about childhood, best to remain unconscious. The rain made gray
slats on the windows. I sat with my book, the
little bell beside me. Without hearing a voice, I
apprenticed myself to a voice. Without seeing any
sign of the spirit, I determined to live in the spirit. The rain faded in and out. Month after month in
the space of a day, things became dreams,
dreams became things. Then I was well. The bell went back to the cupboard. The rain ended. The dogs stood at the door,
panting to go outside. I was well, then I was an
adult and time went on. It was like the rain,
so much, so much, as though it was a weight
that couldn’t be moved. I was a child, half sleeping. I was sick. I was protected. And I lived in the world of the
spirit, the world of the gray rain, the lost, the remembered, then
suddenly the sun was shining and time went on, even when
there was almost none left. And the perceived became
the remembered, the remembered the perceived. Thank you. [ Applause ] [ Silence ]>>W.S. Merwin: I’m going to
begin in a conventional way by thanking everyone whose been
responsible for this program in every sense of the word. This particular program,
and the marvelous things that have been said here, Robert’s
favorite poetry project program, and what they have both shown and
what I believe that [inaudible] in the 6th Century, the
poem said of the mules, it is natural to love her. I believe that this is something
that we’re all born with, and that we get educated
out of ourselves. Why that great [inaudible]
is so important. The children naturally love
poetry, and if they don’t love it by the time they’re adolescents, it is because something
wrong has happened, some derailment has come about. And then I wanted to thank
everyone responsible for my being on the platform with these
other poets, many dear friends and poet’s who’s work
I’ve loved for years. It’s a great pleasure
anytime that anything of any chance for that happening. I’m going to read a
few poems, beginning — they’re all short poems,
and they’re — they — going back to the book published
several books back called,The Vixen, which all of
the poems are in the same form and they’re all related to the same
place, a different length in time and in other various respects. But I noticed that the poems that
I’ve chosen to read this evening, many of them have to
do with animals, and I suppose that’s no accident, that’s one of the great
sympathies of my life. And one of the things that one
shares with other poets, by the way, is not necessarily animals,
but passion, a passion. And a passion that
I realize is a part of a lifelong romanticism of mine. I suppose I am a romantic
in many respects. But I believe that the poets
owe each other generosity, as much generosity
as they can muster. It’s not — it’s never total
and it’s [inaudible] sometimes. But it’s for the rise from the fact
that they recognize in each other that passion and that — that
concern and gratitude for being able to touch something so remarkable and
so beyond our own use of language. That’s something we also, I
believe, share with many animals. Substance. I could see that there was a kind
of distance lighted behind the face of that time and it’s very
days as they appeared to me, but I could not think of any words
that spoke of it truly nor point to anything except what was there at the moment it was
beginning to be gone. And certainly it could not have
been proven nor held however I might reach toward it, touching
the warm likens, the features of the stones,
the skin of the river. And I could tell then that
it was the animals themselves that were the weight and place
of the hour as it happened. And that the mass of the cows
neck, the flash of the swallow, the trout’s flutter were
where it was coming to pass, they were bearing the sense
of it without questions through the speechless
cloud of light. Totally different kind of poem
next is one of several city poems in the book that followedThe
,The River Sound, a book of short poems that
followedThe Vixen. This is about an apartment
that I lived in and that represented a very
important part of my life for a great many years,
and that I lost. That’s a story in itself. Sixth Floor Walk Up. I was born in New York City
and this is in New York City. New York to me is the
[inaudible] city. I mean, to me, it’s
the core of history. I mean, we’re not — we don’t
live entirely in history, but nor do I live entirely
in New York [laughter], but. And sometimes I felt there was a
friend of mine who was also born in New York, said — someone said, “Why if you notice all
these terrible things about it all the time, and
complain about it so much, why do you keep coming back?” And he said, “I hate it
better than anywhere else.” [ Laughter ] Sixth Floor Walk Up. Past 4:00 in the afternoon,
the last day here, the winter light is draining out of
the sky to the east over the grays of the roofs, over the tiered bricks
and dark water tanks, clock towers, aerials, penthouse
windows, rusted doors, bare trees and terrace gardens. In the distance a plane is coming
in, lit by the slow burn of the sun, sinking two weeks before
the Solstice. And the lingering perfect autumn
still does not seem to be gone. The walls of the apartment and the
long mirrors are becoming shadows. The latest telephone already cut
off is huddled against the wall, with it’s deaf predecessors. The movers have not
showed up for what is left. Bare bed, bare tables, and the sofa,
the piled LP’s, the great chair from which at this hour once I
called up a friend on Morton Street to tell him that all
the windows facing west down the avenue were
reflecting a red building flaming like a torch somewhere over
near the old post office on Christopher Street. The sirens were converging,
all the bells clanging, and the sky was clear as it is now. They’re stacking Christmas
trees along the fence again down at the corner to
the music of the Subway under the avenue, on
it’s way to Brooklyn. 25 years. And then another — one
other poem fromThe River Sound, and this is — [inaudible] said
that for a poem to be real, this doesn’t necessarily
mean it is true, but it’s very interesting
to think about. For a poem to be a real poem you had
to know what time of year it was. This is called Waves in August, so you cheat with the
title, you see [laughter]. Waves in August. There is a war in the distance,
with the distance growing smaller. The field glasses lying at hand
are for keeping it far away. I thought I was getting better
about that returning childish wish to be living somewhere else
that I knew was impossible. And now I find myself wishing
to be here, to be alive here, and is it possible enough to
still be the wish of a child. In youth I hid a [inaudible]
under the bushes beside the water, knowing I want it later, and come
back and would find it there. Someone else took it and left me
instead the sound of the water with it’s whisper of
vertigo, terror, reassurance, and old, old sadness. It would seem we knew
enough always about parting. But we have to go on learning
as long as there’s anything. The rest of the poems that
I want to read are all from a new manuscript that’s
just gone to the publisher. And there are a number — quite
a few poems in the early part of that poem that have to do with
the night sky and day and night, light and darkness, time. And I want to read a short one
of those called Glassy Sea. As you see each of
the stars has a voice, and at least one long syllable
before words as we know them and can recall them later one by
one with their company around them. After the sound of them
has gone from its moment, even though we may say
it again and again, it is gone again, far
into our knowledge. There were words as we know for
whatever does not die with us, but the sound of those words
lasts no longer than the others. It is heard only for
part of the length of a breath among those
clear syllables never heard from which the words were
made in another time. And the syllables themselves
are not there forever. Some may go all the way to the
beginning, but not beyond it. I want to read a difficult
kind of poem. This evening Robert and I were
going to, but Robert is indisposed, his voice has left him, and
I’m going to have to do it. I’m going to have to
read [inaudible]. And I think probably
the hardest subject — one of the hardest subjects to
get into poetry, to write about, properly and make a
poem of is anger. Dante [assumed spelling] was a
person who traveled through life with terrible anger, a great deal
of anger, and he dealt with it in various ways, some of them we
would think quite successfully in the [inaudible]. He dealt with it both in the inferno and in the purgatorial
quite differently. He dealt with — he was dealing
with his own anger at the same time. I will deal with mine as
well as I can in a minute if I can possibly find his poem [ Laughter ] I thought I knew where
it was, but — [ Inaudible Speaker ] No, I’m not, but [laughter]
I’m getting desperate. I know it’s here. And I’ve said all I
wanted to say about it, so you’ll [laughter]
have to bear with me. I’ll just end up by reading
something else instead. I do want to read this one. It’s a poem about something
that’s actually happening, and I’ll tell you a little
bit about it, because — and the reason I want
to read it here is because I think it
concerns all poets. However you may care or
not care about animals, poets and the marginal aspect, I’ve
been hearing about the mainstream and about computers and so on in
all this time and I’ve never felt that I belonged to the
mainstream in a lot of ways. I felt that my life was
marginal and there’s a part — there’s a thing about poets that is deliberately
marginal and always has been. We speak from the edges
of things and that’s where we recognize a place there. When poets — when — in the
beginning of the romantic period from which Dante came, the line
between those who wrote poems and those who recited them in public
was vague and it kept dissolving. And the [inaudible] were — the
[inaudible] were the people who used to sing the poems — this
poem has just disappeared. The [inaudible] were associated
with people who did all sorts of juggler acts and dancing
acts, and with people who had dancing bears, dancing
bears, a strange figure. Bears sometimes have been
taught to dance kindly, but that’s been seldom the case. Bears don’t generally want
to perform for human beings, unless they’ve been taught to do it, and usually they’ve been
taught in terrible ways. Well that’s what’s been going on
in Pakistan and is still going on in Pakistan, and it’s been
going on until quite recently in northern India, Greece, Turkey. One — I won’t — I’ll spare
you some of the horrible details about how they’re been trained to do
— well, this is very embarrassing. Here we are. Here we are. Sooner or later, you see, patience,
your patience, not mine [laughter]. Founded. This will tell you why
I think poets should concern themselves with this terrible thing. There’s an association
called the World Society for the Protection of Animals. You can look that up
if you get concerned about what I’ve been telling
you, and what I’m going to read, this poem, which is an angry poem
called Fieste [assumed spelling]. Almost at the end of the
Century, this is the time of the pain of the bears. They’re agony goes on at
this moment for the amusement of the wedding guests, though the
bears are harder to find by now in the mountain forests of Pakistan. They cost more then they used to,
which makes it all the more lavish. And once they are caught,
their teeth are pulled out, and their claws pulled out. And among the entertainments after
the wedding, one of them is hauled in now and chained to a post and the
dogs let loose to hang on it’s nose so that the guests laugh at
the way it waves and dances. And those old enough to have
watched this many times compare it with other performances,
saying they can tell from the way the bear screams,
something about the children to be born of the couple
sitting there, smiling. You may not believe
it, but the bear does. And I want to read
one small, very small, another animal poem called The
Name of the Air, about a dog. It could be like that, then, the
beloved old dog finding it harder and hard to breathe, and
understanding but coming to ask whether there is something
that can be done about it. Coming again to ask and then
standing there without asking. I’ll read two more poems, and
one of them is also about dogs. When the great South African writer,
one of the greatest writers alive, in my opinion, [inaudible], was
invited to give a series of lectures at Princeton recently
on any subject he chose. He said he would like to do it about
[inaudible] in the form of fiction, and they said that
would be all right. [Inaudible] is an Australian
woman novelist of some age, [inaudible] invited by the
American university to give a series of lectures on any subject she
chooses, and she chooses not to give on the topic of literature, but
on the human treatment of animals, which is a taboo subject. You don’t mention that
in polite company. It’s a very interesting book
called,The Lives of Animals, this [inaudible] most recent book. Why are taboo subjects
taboo subjects? Home Tundra. It may be that the hour is
snow, seeming never to settle, not even to be cold now,
slipping away from underneath it. Past, slip — sorry. Slipping away from
underneath into the past from which no sounds follow. What I hear is the dogs breathing
ahead of me in the shadow. Two of them have already gone far
on into the dark of closed pages, out of sight and hearing. Two of them are old already,
one cannot hear, one cannot see. Even in sleep they are running,
drawing me with them on their way, wrapped in a day I found today. We know where we are because
we are together here, together, leaving no footprints in the hour. Whatever the diary’s say, nobody
ever found the [inaudible]. Past stream, the chipped lake, gold
strokes on the high clawed hollows where you never set foot. What would you see from there? Not the past, which is fiction,
nor the present, which is the past. You would stand there shaken in
the presence of Vertigo, the God, clutching the air, hearing that
one note you keep forgetting. Thank you. [ Applause ] [ Silence ] [ Silence ]>>John Y. Cole: Any words I
could say would be superfluous. We’ve been taken into six different
visions of human possibility, six different sets
of sound and sense. It’s been a marvelous
end to a very full day. There is a reception outside where
you can mingle with our poets. And thank you for being with us,
and thank them for being with us. [ Silence ] [ Applause ]

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