Saturday, December 19, 2009

Merry Christmas and a Happy 2010

The big news this year is that Linda and I finally decided what we wanted Lillian’s baby daughter Luciana to call us. Linda has accepted the name Nana, and I have to say that I’m pretty happy with Zee-Zee, although there is still some discussion about how that name will be spelled. My preference is the French spelling “Zi-Zi!” but Linda and Lillian and Luciana all seem happier with the more traditional spelling of the last letter of the alphabet, twice.

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The other big news is that Lillian did have the baby! Luciana was born on May 19, 2009 at 1154 pm and came weighing in at seven pounds and eleven ounces and measuring twenty-two inches, same as a bobcat. Lillian has asked me not to reveal her current weight and size, but let me just say that if you’ve seen some recent pictures, you know Luciana has grown. If you haven’t seen those pictures, you should. There’s about a 1000 more at Lillian and Luciana’s webpage. Just click here to see them.

This baby is something else. Linda and I know what perfect babies are like because we had Lillian, and we are happy to report that this baby is just as perfect. Luciana’s always ready for a laugh and a hug, and she’s got the curiosity of a kitten. She loves the feel of different colors and textures, and she spends a lot of happy time flicking her fingers back and forth across cloth or cardboard or a piece of plastic or wood. She’s fun to watch.

When we’re not watching the baby flick or listening to her say “Mm-Mm-Mm-Mm-Mm,” we’re doing a lot of travel. I thought we were doing our part last year to re-vitalize the travel industry, but this year we decided to increase our stake in the bailout. We’ve been to Las Vegas three times, and we’ve gone on three cruises. The last one was a 12-day oceanic extravaganza that took us to the Eastern Caribbean. I would like to add that our luck both in Las Vegas and the cruise ship casinos has been excellent. For 2010, we’re already planning to double our vacationing, six Las Vegas trips and six cruises with maybe a couple side trips to the new casino at Greenbrier, WV, thrown in.

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When we’re not watching Luciana and traveling and gambling, we’re enjoying retirement in other ways. Linda has been doing a lot of volunteer work here in Danville at the Free Clinic, and she’s also been doing jury duty here. (Buy her a glass of red wine when you see her next time, and ask her to tell you about the case of the non-habitual habitual offender. Unbelievable story.)

And I’ve been working on my writing. The American Council for Polish Culture honored me this year by giving me their Cultural Achievement Award for my poems about my parents. I also gave readings at the Polish Museum of America in Chicago, the Association of Writing Programs, and the Sept. 1939 Commemoration at the Polish Mission at Orchard Lake, Michigan. But most of my energy has gone into trying to get my novel “The Soldier and the Widow” published and writing my new novel, a police procedural set in 1950’s Chicago in the Polish-American community around Humboldt Park. I’m about two chapters for the end, and I’m hoping this novel will be an easier sell than the one about Nazis committing terrible atrocities on the Eastern Front in a really bad blizzard.

I hope next year I’ll be able to report that both novels have been sold, our luck at blackjack just continues to get better, Lillian’s gotten a position as an assistant principal, and Luciana’s walking and talking and drawing pictures and practicing her letters and helping her mom cook in the kitchen and finding out about all the great things in the world to touch and see.

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Friday, November 06, 2009


People keep asking me what's up with baby Luciana, and I keep wanting to post about her but getting bogged down in various other activities, like feeding her or trying to explain gravity to her.

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But right now, while she's in the other room practicing how to eat peas, I think I will post a link to a site Lillian has set up full of pictures of this beautiful and smart baby.

Here's the Luciana Link. Just click here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Walt Whitman Sells Pants

Yes, he does. And he does a great job at it.

Levi's -- the jeans company -- is doing a series of ads using Whitman's poems.

Here's an ad using lines from "O Pioneers":

Here's an ad using some of "America": has an article about this amazing development in literary history.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Charles Swanson's "After the Garden: Selected Responses to the Psalms"

When my mother was dying, I spent a lot of time in the hospice with her. She had had a stroke, and she couldn’t talk or move. The doctor didn’t even think she could hear me or understand what was happening to her. It was quiet and lonely and sad there with her in her room. Sitting near her, I sometimes talked to her, and sometimes I read the bible.

There was a copy in the waiting room, and I had carried it back to my mom’s room. I’m not religious, but I found myself reading the bible, especially the psalms.

I had always loved their poetry, ever since I studied them in a Colonial American Lit class in college. I’m not the kind of person who likes to memorize poetry or much of anything else, but I sat down as a student and memorized some of the psalms.

Reading those poems of love and grief, sadness and light, I sat near my dying mother and thought about how much truth and longing there was in them. I said to myself that maybe someday I would try writing poems about the psalms, try to write something that would carry something of what I found in them.

After my mom died, I did try to write those poems. Over and over and over again I tried, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t know why, but they didn’t come for me.

But they did come for Charles Swanson, a fine poet I met here in Virginia. He lives about thirty miles north of Danville and teaches high school in Gretna. He also pastors the Melville Avenue Baptist Church in Danville.

Charles has written a series of poems that respond to the psalms, and those poems are now included in his first book, After the Garden: Selected Responses to the Psalms.

The poems in this book take us back to the true roots of poetry, to its source in prayer, music, and the lives of ordinary people who struggle to make sure that the ones who come after them are able to live lives of freedom, hope, and faith. In these beautifully-shaped poems about growing up and living in the Virginia Piedmont and Appalachia, Swanson turns ordinary lives into extraordinary prayers.

Here’s the title poems from his book:

After the Garden: What Does It Mean, the Killing Fields?

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Psalm 51:3, RSV

Now this is the truth:
If there is sin, sin beyond
the thorns and the sweat of the brow, then
I have eaten.

We ran through the swamp woodlands,
blasting hummocks of litter like puffballs,
the bunny zagging through patches of light,
my mother with the twenty gauge,
I with a mouthful of marbles,
hard questions that choked me.
She shot a log from under his leap—
mossy wood showering green fireworks,
the somersaulting figure
an acrobat landing on his feet.
He slipped the skin of earth,
in the hollow trunk of a tree.
Putting aside the gun,
she reached a long arm up to armpit
into the mystery of darkness
to grasp his warm hind foot,
pads like buttercups, smooth as wax.
He came out lank, sinews stretched,
long last the tender twitching ears.
We sank onto the mossy log
damaged by her errant shot
and she laid the rabbit along her lap.
Her left hand gripped his feet,
and with her right she swaddled his head
in caress or stranglehold.
The rabbit made a squeaking noise
and I choked out
one hard marble. “Mama,
what will you do?”
A practiced hand made the wrenching sound.

These are the killing fields.
Out of the milk of human kindness
I have been fed.


Charles Swanson's book is available through his publisher, Motes Books, and through Amazon.

The Motes Books site has more information about Charles and includes another poem.

This November, Finishing Line Press will be publishing his second book, a chapbook entitled Farm Life and Legend.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Hercules: The Epic Poem Unbound!

Hercules has appeared in TV shows, movies, Disney cartoons, comic books, and even Disco Battles, but for a long time there hasn't been an epic poem focused on this hero.

Sure there may have been such a poem in ancient times. There are rumors on the internet that Peisandros of Rhodes (c. 600 B.C.) wrote such an epic but the thing is apparently "lost," and there are some scholars who figure that this epic was just something dreamt up by Peisandros's PR man to pump up his reputation.

All of this is changing, however. My friend, Matt Flumerfelt a fellow originally from New York who is wild about rhyme and Ancient Greece and Hercules, is in the process of completing an epic poem based on the life of Hercules and the poem (or at least XIV books of the epic) is available online at Matt's blog, Baloney Emporium.

Here's a sample from book XI with a brief introduction by Matt:

I’ve always been rather proud of this section, when Hercules goes to the ends of the earth and the Garden of the Hesperides to retrieve the golden apples for Eurystheus. In this section he’s crossed the desert and begins to reach the garden.

For days on end Alcides faced
the barren waste without the taste
of food or water, trudging west,
his gaunt cheeks hollow as a ghost.
Sporadic tufts of stoic greenery
intruded on the sabulous sea,
infringing on the sterile scenery
till dunes gave way to luscious lea.
The air grew vibrant with the song
of birds, the murmuring of leaves.
A vernal ichor, young and strong,
made zaftig earth's eclectic entities.
He abutted on a crenellated wall,
a bulwark reared of rough-hewn megaliths
with barbicans to guard against assault,
though here were neither Gauls nor Visigoths.
Such monumental piles of stone
have mostly been reserved for those
whose dainty nates graced a throne,
their egos perilously grandiose.
Tracing the wall's periphery,
he came to a quaint embrasure,
a portal of azure porphyry
with an elaborate entablature.
He gave the door a gentle push,
surprised at finding it ajar.
It swiveled open with a whoosh
as wind swept through the aperture.
The fields unfurled before his eyes
were named for the renowned Hesperides,
praised in the lays of other days
as Dilmun, Eden, Asgard, Paradise.

Atlas' daughters roamed the meadows,
weaving chaplets to adorn their tresses,
trolling airs and three-part operettas
whose harmonies and graceful cadences
were sweet as honey from Hymettus.
Spring, that Dionysian season,
was perpetual, reason being
the garden's pivotal location,
beyond the range of winter's fang.
Ladon was the garden's sentry,
a reptile of outstanding parts,
a member of the dragon gentry,
past master of the mantic arts.
Crossing the intervening croft,
Alcides reached earth's finisterre,
where Atlas held the world aloft,
though what he stood on isn't clear.
Heracles was frank with Atlas,
explaining in plebeian phrases
what he wanted with the apples
and why he'd made his anabasis.
"Why stick your neck out?" Atlas said.
"That dragon's like a pet to me.
He's sweet as lamb’s milk when he's fed.
I'd fetch the apples if my hands were free."
Rather than face the dragon's wrath
and slay so mannerly a creature,
Alcides chose to prop the earth
while Atlas took a little breather.

Putting his shoulder to the wheel,
he hoisted the telluric sphere.
If Heracles had dropped the ball,
life might have ended then and there.
Atlas lolled about the meadow,
feeling like a pardoned felon,
lounging in a live oak's shadow,
munching chunks of watermelon.
This taste of the dolce vita
fired Atlas with a love of gold.
A life of leisure is sweeter
than playing caryatid to the world.
Instead of dealing with the dragon,
he got the apples from his daughters,
who plucked them to relieve the sagging
branches, hoarding them like staters.
Atlas, returning with the booty,
told Heracles peremptorily
he felt it was his bounden duty
to take the apples to Mycenae.
Alcides said he understood
and only asked the Titan leave
to put a cushion on his head
for reasons easy to conceive.
It seemed a sensible request,
so Atlas graciously complied
and briefly reassumed his post
after laying the fruit aside.

Heracles swept up the plunder
and booked without a backward glance.
Atlas recognized his blunder
and reviled him from a distance.
His journey seemed incredible
to the simple folks back home until
he showed them the inedible
fruit. Even then most doubted still.
Eurystheus admired the apples,
but they had a bad track record.
Anyone who touched the globules
was jinxed by the goddess Discord.
He foisted them on Heracles,
who fobbed them off on Athena.
She passed them to the 'sperides,
who socked them away for Hera.


Matt is also the author of The Art of Dreaming, a book of poems. Info about purchasing it and a sample poem are available here at Everything's Jake.

Monday, June 22, 2009

61st Birthday Post: Grandbaby Luciana

Dear family and dear friends,

Usually what I do here for my birthday is post a recent photo (that shows you I haven't changed a lick in 30 years) and tell a little about what I've been doing.

Well, the biggest news is that Linda and I are now grandparents, and we're happily spending a lot of time with our daughter Lillian and our granddaughter Luciana.

Here's a photo of Lulu and me:

Here's a photo of me and Lillian that Linda took in 1979:

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And here's a letter that Lillian sent out about where you can see some more photos of Luciana, Lillian, Linda, and Me.

Subject: one month old!

Luciana is one month old today, and I thought I would finally send out the updated website with tons of pictures. I have been putting it together in the evening after she goes to sleep and before I finally collapse into bed.

She seems to be getting bigger and changing everyday and it is hard to believe that she is already a month old. Although, at the same time, I can't remember what life was like before she got here. I seem to remember more sleep, but I don't remember being this happy.

I hope everyone is doing well.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Baby's Working For the Man Every Night and Day

My granddaughter is now three weeks old.

Last friday when she was 17 days old, she received her first bill in the mail. It was an insurance bill. She owes $237 to her insurance company for in-hospital baby doctor visits.

I don't know how she'll be able to pay off this money. She's currently unemployed and doesn't have much chance of getting a job locally. Unemployment where she lives in Danville, Virginia is about 14%. I think she would have to move someplace else to get a job. Her mother probably wouldn't be happy with that.

I figure the insurance company will bill her and continue to bill her adding 2-3% to the bill each month. I'm not much good with math but I calculate that she will probably owe Anthem Insurance about a million bucks, maybe two, by the time she's out of high school.

The good news is that her Great Aunt and Uncle (Joan and Bruce) sent her a baby gift of $50. I'm sure my granddaughter will be able to put some of that toward her Anthem Insurance bill.

By the way, if you have some spare change, please send to me, and I'll pass it on to her.

I promise.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

And on the Seventh Day God Didn't Mow

Sunday morning.

The rain falls and falls.

My lawn calls to me. A green siren. Mow me! Mow me!

I try to ignore it. The crazy grass, the clover. The tufts of weeds I can't identify.

What did the great gray poet Walt Whitman say about Leaves of Grass?

"Pretty to look at -- long as you don't have to mow!"

I mean who invented mowing? I can't remember Noah talking about it, and Moses definitely never wrote a commandment regarding mowing.

And Shakespeare -- a guy who thought and wrote about everything -- never said a thing about mowing. He never wrote: "Oh that this too too thick grass would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew--or that the Everlasting had fixed His canon against mowing!"

So I'm not mowing today, and I'm not mowing tomorrow either.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Baby Has a Name

After much thought and discussion, Lillian has decided the baby will be named Luciana Calendrillo Guzlowski.

And Luciana seems happy with it!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lillian's Baby's Here!

The baby's here--all 20 and 3/4 inches and 7 pounds and 11 ounces of her. And boy, are we happy!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Still Waiting

Our daughter Lillian is "9 months plus" pregnant and is really looking forward to not having to wait any longer for the baby to be born. Here's an email she sent out to some of her family and friends about the waiting.

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I thought I should update everyone as my due date has come and gone (it was, of course, Mother's Day).

I saw the doctor this afternoon. She said that I look good and the
baby looks good, but she didn't seem particularly optimistic that the
baby was going to come anytime soon. If she doesn't decide to arrive
in the next few days, I go back to the doctor Monday and then I'll
likely be induced on Tuesday.

I am hoping that she will surprise everyone and show up sooner, but I
kind of doubt it. She seems very comfortable and is still extremely

I thought, while we're waiting, that I would send everyone a picture
of me in the nursery. Soon, hopefully very soon, there will be
pictures of the baby in the nursery!

Love, Lillian

ps. and no, she still doesn't have a name!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reading at Spring Southeastern Literary Magazine & Independent Press Festival

Nina Riggs and I are doing a reading at UNC-Greensboro's 3rd Annual Spring Southeastern Literary Magazine & Independent Press Festival. And we'd both like to see you there.

Here's the official announcement:

Finishing Line Press, in conjunction with The Greensboro Review and PoetryGSO, will host a poetry reading by John Guzlowski and Nina Riggs on Friday, April 24th at 11:30 AM in the Kirkland Room Room of the Elliott University Center. A part of the 3rd Annual Spring Southeastern Literary Magazine & Independent Press Festival, the event is free and open to the public and will be followed by a book signing.

You all know me, but you may not know Nina Riggs, so let me tell you something about her.

She's a fine poet and her work has appeared in a lot of good places: Southern Review, Antioch Review, and Threepenny. Her first chapbook, Lucky, Lucky, was published by Finishing Line Press this year. She currently teaches creative writing the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and makes her home in Greensboro, North Carolina.

And here's one of her poems. I think you'll like it:


It's dusk here on the bedroom floor
where I've been reading the newspaper --

genocide in Guatemala, a blizzard
in Boston, and the death penalty in Texas.

It's the time of day when people inside
think it's dark out, time to turn on a light,

but people outside find themselves
bathed in a lightly fading sky.

Lying back, the light too dim to read by,
I see the sticker glow-stars on the ceiling

are beginning to come out, at first
a milky way of pale yellow blur,

then, as the shadows shift around,
a newly shining universe above me.

How unfamiliar: shoe level.
I am almost lost

in the sudden dark of my room, wondering
how I could have idled here for so long,

noticing how the world disguises
itself in darkness, as if to remind us

of everything that we can't see.
The ceiling stars become constellations.

An arching cluster over my bed is Lazia,
the goddess of sleeping in. The fat star

above me becomes Jack, my muse
of doing nothing. This mythology

comes naturally as breath, the surrounding
world dissolving as it might for a sailor

alone on deck, his tenth night at sea,
the reach of the dark around him.


If you want to see more of her poems, you can find them at Poetry 99.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sylvia Plath's Son

Sad news over night.

Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, committed suicide.

The poet Edward Byrne wrote an article about it at his blog One Poet's Notes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jeff Vande Zande: Into the Desperate Country

I read a lot of novels every year, and a lot of times it feels like I'm reading because I have an obligation to novels as a genre to keep reading. You know what I mean. Novels have given me a lot of pleasure in the past, and I feel I ought to be reading because I owe it to the novel. It's like when you have an old friend you don't have much in common with any more, but you keep going over to see him for old time's sake.

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It wasn't like that when I read Jeff Vande Zande's novel Into the Desperate Country. From the first page I was reading not because I had to be reading but because what was happening was fresh and engaging. Jeff's created a novel with a hero, Stan Carter, who blends the kind of plausible motivation and implausible action that you see in the really best novels. Stan's lost his wife and daughter in a car accident, and in his mourning he's gone up to the vacation cabin he shared with them in Northern Michigan. Up there, while he's trying to pull himself together, trying to make sense of what happened, he discovers that he hasn't been making payments on either his cabin or his house, and both are to be repossessed. Stan's unfolding relationship with the woman from the bank who comes to assess the value of his property is beautifully and believably done.

What follows is great. I'm not kidding. It was easily the best book I've read in the last year. It reminded me of Updike at his best--the same sharp, beautiful language, the same effortless narrative flow, the same intensity and complexity of character. The same kind of crazy male behavior, but I thought Vande Zande pulled it off in ways that Updike didn't.

I really did enjoy Vande Zande's novel.

How could I tell? I read mostly at night now, and when I do I spend most of my time nodding off over novels, fighting to stay awake. It wasn't like that at all with Into the Desperate Country. In fact, the night I finished it I stayed up way past my bedtime (10pm) to finish the novel.

By the way, it was a super ending.

PS: Jeff's new novel Landscape with Fragmented Figures is just out, and you can read a review of it as his website site. It sounds like it's just as strong as Into the Desperate Country.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Can American Poetry Be Great Again?

My friend Elizabeth Oakes, author of The Farmgirl Poems, sent me a New York Times article that she saw posted on the Women's Poetry List about whether or not American poetry will ever be great again. It's a good article that raises a number of important questions about poetry and reading and the audience for the written word.

What do you think?

On Poetry
The Great(ness) Game

Published: February 19, 2009

In October, John Ashbery became the first poet to have an edition of his works released by the Library of America in his own lifetime. That honor says a number of things about the state of contemporary poetry — some good, some not so good — but perhaps the most important and disturbing question it raises is this: What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.

That may seem like a strange (and strangely fraught) way of putting things. But the concept of “greatness” has a special significance in the poetry world that it often lacks elsewhere — after all, in most areas of life, greatness is to be cherished, but it isn’t essential. The golf world idolizes Tiger Woods, sure, but duffers will still be heaving 9-irons into ponds long after Woods plays his last major. Poetry can’t be as confident about its own durability. Poetry has justified itself historically by asserting that no matter how small its audience or dotty its practitioners, it remains the place one goes for the highest of High Art. As Byron put it in a loose translation of Horace: “But poesy between the best and worst / No medium knows; you must be last or first: / For middling poets’ miserable volumes, / Are damn’d alike by gods, and men, and columns.” Poetry needs greatness.

Or so the thinking goes, anyway. The problem is that over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out to be an increasingly blurry business. In part, that’s a reflection of the standard narrative of postmodernism, according to which all uppercase ideals — Truth, Beauty, Justice — must come in for questioning. But the difficulty with poetic greatness has to do with more than the talking points of the contemporary culture wars. Greatness is — and indeed, has always been — a tangle of occasionally incompatible concepts, most of which depend upon placing the burden of “greatness” on different parts of the artistic process. Does being “great” simply mean writing poems that are “great”? If so, how many? Or does “greatness” mean having a sufficiently “great” project? If you have such a project, can you be “great” while writing poems that are only “good” (and maybe even a little “boring”)? Is being a “great” poet the same as being a “major” poet? Are “great” poets necessarily “serious” poets? These are all good questions to which nobody has had very convincing answers.

STILL, however blurry “greatness” may be, it’s clear that segments of the poetry world have been fretting over its potential loss since at least 1983. That’s the year in which an essay by Donald Hall, the United States poet laureate from 2006 to 2007, appeared in The Kenyon Review bearing the title “Poetry and Ambition.” Hall got right to the point: “It seems to me that contemporary American po etry is afflicted by modesty of ambition — a modesty, alas, genuine . . . if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense.” What poets should be trying to do, according to Hall, was “to make words that live forever” and “to be as good as Dante.” They probably would fail, of course, but even so, “the only way we are likely to be any good is to try to be as great as the best.” Pretty strong stuff — and one wonders how many plays Shakespeare would have managed to write had he subjected every line to the merciless scrutiny Hall recommends.

Yet many of Hall’s points are still being wrangled over more than 20 years later. In 2005, Poetry magazine published a round-table discussion entitled (naturally) “Ambition and Greatness,” in which participants were alternately put off by the entire idea of “capital-G Great” (as the poet Daisy Fried put it) or concerned that, as the scholar Jeredith Merrin suggested, the contemporary poetry world might be trying “to rewrite ‘great’ as small.” What no participant did, though, was question the im plicit premise that greatness isn’t something American poets can take for granted, but rather something they should subject to the analysis of a panel. No one, for instance, said, “Well, obviously we are living in an age of great and hugely ambitious American poetry, so let’s talk about [insert name(s)] and how we all admire and envy [insert work of timeless relevance].” No one even mustered the contrarian hyperbole with which William Carlos Williams greeted “The Waste Land”: “It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust.” Instead, the panelists bickered mildly over Elizabeth Bishop (who had been dead for more than 25 years) and Frank O’Hara (who was born 15 years after Bishop but died in 1966), with Adam Kirsch concluding, “Good and enduring as they are, . . . there is something not quite right about calling them great, in the sense that Eliot and Whitman and Dickinson are great.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for either poet. And yet the ambivalence about Bishop’s status in particular is worth pausing over for two reasons. One relates to the structure of the poetry world, and I’ll get to it shortly. The other has to do with the fact that, as I touched on above, words like “great” have a tendency to get a little squirrelly when applied to complex disciplines like poetry. In relatively straightforward activities, such words aren’t as much of a problem. If we’re looking at a series of foot races, for example, it’s not hard to see who finished first the most times (or had the highest average finish), and as a result, whether we call a given runner “great” or “excellent” or “terrific,” we’ll generally have the same thing in mind. Not so with poetry. A list of “great” poets will look quite a bit different from a list of “perfect” poets, which may have almost no overlap with a list of “spectacular” poets, which in turn may be completely different from a list of “sublime” poets. When we talk about poetic greatness, we’re talking about style and persona, even when (or maybe, especially when) we think we aren’t.

OUR largely unconscious assumptions work like a velvet rope: if a poet looks the way we think a great poet ought to, we let him or her into the club quickly — and sometimes later wish we hadn’t. If poets fail to fit our assumptions, though, we spend a lot more time checking out their outfits, listening to their friends’ importuning, weighing the evidence, waiting for a twenty and so forth. Of course, this matters only for poets whose reputations are still at issue. It may have taken Emily Dickinson 100 years to get into the club, but now that she’s there, she’s there. For contemporaries and near contemporaries, though, falling on the wrong side of our intuitions can mean trouble, because those intuitions give rise to chatter and criticism and scholarship that can take decades to clear away.

What, then, do we assume greatness looks like? There is no one true answer to that question, no neat test or rule, since our unconscious assumptions are by nature unsystematic and occasionally contradictory. Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.” And the persona we associate with greatness is something, you know, exceptional — an aristocrat, a rebel, a statesman, an apostate, a mad-eyed genius who has drunk from the Fountain of Truth and tasted the Fruit of Knowledge and donned the Beret of. . . . Well, anyway, it’s somebody who takes himself very seriously and demands that we do so as well. Greatness implies scale, and a great poet is a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way.

It’s risky, then, to write poems about the tiny objects on your desk. But that’s exactly what Bishop did — and that choice helps explain why she was for a long time considered obviously less “great” than her close friend Robert Lowell. As the poet David Wojahn noted in a letter in response to Poetry’s panel, Lowell was “probably the last American poet to aspire to Greatness in the old- fashioned, capital-G sense.” Lowell had the style: his poetry is bursting with vast claims, sparkling abstractions and vehement denunciations of the servility of the age. And Lowell had the persona: he was a thunderbolt- chucking wild man from one of America’s most famous Bostonian lineages. Bishop, on the other hand, had neither. Her poems open with lines like “I caught a tremendous fish,” and she’s invariably described by critics as “shy,” “modest,” “charming” and so forth. Yet it’s Bishop’s writing, not Lowell’s, that matters more in the poetry world today. “What is strange,” the poet-critic J. D. McClatchy writes, “is how her influence . . . has been felt in the literary culture. John Ashbery, James Merrill and Mark Strand, for instance, have each claimed Bishop as his favorite poet. . . . Since each of them couldn’t be more different from one another, how is it possible?”

It’s possible, one might answer, because Bishop was a great poet, if we take “great” to mean something like “demonstrating the qualities that make poetry seem interesting and worthwhile to such a degree that subsequent practitioners of the art form have found her work a more useful resource than the work of most if not all of her peers.” But our assumptions about how greatness should look, like our assumptions about how people should look, are more subtle and stubborn than we realize. So in certain segments of the poetry world, the solution has been to make Bishop what you might call “great with an asterisk.” In particular, there has been a persistent effort to pair her with the less-talented but greater-looking Lowell, a ploy that resembles the old high school date movie tactic of sending the bookish plain Jane to the prom with the quarterback. (When her glasses are slowly removed by the right man, she’s revealed to have been, all along, totally hot!) In reviewing “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell” for the Book Review recently, William Logan carried this tendency to its logical if nutty conclusion, depicting the two poets as star-crossed lovers despite the fact that (a) Bishop was a lesbian; and (b) Lowell’s only romantic overture to Bishop in their 30-year friendship — and this was a man who would’ve made a pass at a fire hydrant — was met with polite silence by its intended recipient. Yet while this flight of fancy is almost comically unfair to both writers, it does give us a workable if unwieldy model of greatness. Bishop wrote the poems, Lowell acted the part, and if you simply look back and forth fast enough between the two while squinting, it’s possible to see a single Great Poet staring back at you.

Which brings us to the point I mentioned earlier about the structure of the poetry world. Greatness isn’t simply a matter of potentially confusing concepts; it’s also a practical question about who gets to decide what about whom. Our assumptions about poetic greatness are therefore linked to the reputation-making structures of the poetry world — and changes in those structures can have peculiar effects on our thinking. For most of the 20th century, the poetry world resembled a country club. One had to know the right people; one had to study with the right mentors. The system began to change after the G.I. Bill was introduced (making a university-level poetic education possible for more people), and that change accelerated in the 1970s, as creative writing programs began to flourish. In 1975, there were 80 such programs; by 1992, there were more than 500, and the accumulated weight of all these credentialed poets began to put increasing pressure on poetry’s old system of personal relationships and behind-the-scenes logrolling. It would be a mistake to call today’s poetry world a transparent democracy (that whirring you hear is the sound of logs still busily being rolled), but it’s more democratic than it used to be — and far more middle class. It’s more of a guild now than a country club. This change has brought with it certain virtues, like greater professionalism and courtesy. One could argue that it also made the poetry world more receptive to writers like Bishop, whose style is less hoity-toity than, say, Eliot’s. But the poetry world has also acquired new vices, most notably a tedious careerism that encourages poets to publish early and often (the Donald Hall essay I mentioned earlier is largely a criticism of this very tendency). Consequently, it’s not hard to feel nostalgic for the way things used to be; or at least, the way we imagine they used to be. And this nostalgia often manifests as a preference for a particular kind of “greatness.”

The easiest way to see this phenomenon in action is to look at a peculiar development in American poetry that has more or less paralleled the growth of creative-writing programs: the lionization of poets from other countries, especially countries in which writers might have the opportunity to be, as it were, shot. In most ways, of course, this is an admirable development that puts the lie to talk about American provincialism. In other ways, though, it can be a bit cringe-worthy. Consider how Robert Pinsky describes the laughter of the Polish √©migr√© and Nobel Prize-winning dissident Czeslaw Milosz: “The sound of it was infectious, but more precisely it was commanding. His laughter had the counter-authority of human intelligence, triumphing over the petty-minded authority of a regime.” That’s one hell of a chuckle. The problem isn’t that Pinsky likes and admires Milosz; it’s that he can’t hear a Polish poet snortle without having fantasies about barricades and firing squads. He’s by no means alone in that. Many of us in the American poetry world have a habit of exalting foreign writers while turning them into cartoons. And we do so because their very foreignness implies a distance — a potentially “great” distance — that we no longer have from our own writers, most of whom make regular appearances on the reading circuit and have publicly available office phones.

In addition, non-American writers are the perfect surface upon which to project our desire for the style and persona we associate with old-fashioned greatness. One hesitates to invoke the dread word “colonialism” here, but sometimes you’ve got to call a Mayflower a May flower. How else, really, to explain the reverse condescension that allows us to applaud pompous nonsense in the work of a Polish poet that would be rightly skewered if it came from an American? Milosz, for instance, wrote many fine poems, but he was also regularly congratulated for lines like: “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies, / A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment, / Readings for sophomore girls.” Any sophomore girl worth her copy of “A Room of One’s Own” would kick him in the shins.

It may be starting to sound as if greatness isn’t all that great; that it’s simply another strategy for concealing predictable prejudices that poets should forswear on their path to becoming wise and tolerant 21st-century artists. That is, however, almost the opposite of the truth. Yes, greatness narrowly defined to mean a particular, windily dull type of writing is something we could all do without, and long may its advocates gag on their pipe smoke and languish in their tweeds. But the idea that poets should aspire to produce work “exquisite in its kind,” as Samuel Johnson once put it, is one of the art form’s most powerful legacies. When we lose sight of greatness, we cease being hard on ourselves and on one another; we begin to think of real criticism as being “mean” rather than as evidence of poetry’s health; we stop assuming that poems should be interesting to other people and begin thinking of them as being obliged only to interest our friends — and finally, not even that. Perhaps most disturbing, we stop making demands on the few artists capable of practicing the art at its highest levels. Instead, we cling to the ground in those artists’ shadows — John Ashbery’s is enormous at this point — and talk about how rich the darkness is and how lovely it is to be a mushroom. This doesn’t help anyone. What we should be doing is asking why a poet as gifted as Ashbery has written so many poems that are boring or repetitive (or both), because such questions will allow us to better understand the poems he has written that are moving and funny and beautiful. Such questions might even allow other poets — especially younger poets — to find their own ways of writing poems that are moving and funny and beautiful. Which for those of us who read them, for those of us who believe in them, would be a very great thing indeed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

When Beloved Writers Die

John Updike died earlier today.

I was reading Updike's Bech: A Book when I heard, and in it, Updike is funny and smart, and loving.

He loved books and writing so much, and he loved showing everyone how much he loved books and writing. You can see it on every page.

When David Foster Wallace died recently, I wrote a piece for my other blog about the deaths of the writers we love.

Here's that piece:

I've been a reader for 50 years and I've seen writers I love die, some naturally and some unnaturally. I've said goodbye to Faulkner, Hemingway, Plath, Steinbeck, Kerouac, Primo Levi, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Saul Bellow.

The deaths have always hit me hard because the relationship you have with a writer is different from the relationship you have with anyone else. In the secret place you go to when you are reading, you and the writer share dreams and fears and wishes and hopes in a way that is nothing like your relationship with anyone else.

The writer is your lover and your confessor, your mother and your father, your God and your Satan. And you are the same for him. The writer tells you what he dreams and what he fears. When he tells you what he dreams, you help him come a little closer to those dreams. When he tells you what he fears, you help him push those fears away a little bit. And this works the same for you when you tell the writer in this secret place about your fears and dreams.

It's hard when a writer you love dies, but it's only hard for a while. His death begins to fade when you pick up his book again, return to that secret place.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

I've spent most of the day dropping in on poetry blogs and listening to what the poets are saying about Elizabeth Alexander. She's the poet that Obama chose to write and deliver the inauguration poem yesterday.

Some of the poets felt that Alexander did the best she could given that there were a couple billion people listening to her who would rather have been eating grass than thinking about a poem, and some of the non-poets liked the poem because they felt you didn't need a dictionary and a PhD in modern poetics to understand the poem, but most of the reviews were pretty negative.

They felt that the poem's language was flat, it wasn't musical, it had too many cliches, there was too much needless repetition, and she wasn't a very good reader.

I don't think it was all that bad. In fact there were some passages that were downright moving.

What I think the poem needed was some pruning. She needed to run it through a couple more revisions.

Let me show you what I mean. First, I'll post her poem, and then I'll post a slimmed down version of it.

Here's her poem:

Praise Song for the Day: A Poem for Barack Obama’s
Presidential Inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.


If you've read all of that, you probably agree with me that it doesn't have the kind of intense condensing that we see in the best poems.

But there is a poem here. My old creative writing teacher at the U of I in Chicago (Paul Carroll) would have said, "the whole poem is in the last 6 three line stanzas. Cut out everything else and throw it away!" And I think he would have been right:

Here's what she should have read:

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp.


There's an interesting discussion of the poem going on at Edward Byrne's poetry blog.

Also, Sharon Mesmer (author of the very funny Annoying Diabetic Bitch) just posted a funny poem at her blog called Things I Hate about the Inaugural Poem.