Living Poetry, Living Poets

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A key question in the first fantasies of Open Source three years ago was whether we could build a radio conversation in which techies would tune in to poets, and poets would tune in on techies.

So here we go — first time but not the last — with younger poets reading live in our studio from their own work and taking us inside this paradoxically burgeoning but often isolated world of contemporary poetry, on-line and in book form. The observation you hear a lot is that poets have become their own audience, but that their voices are heard more dimly in the general culture, published more rarely in places like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and reviewed less and less commonly in, say, The New York Times Book Review. I’m not even sure the observation is true, but when I Google “poetry blogs” and scan the oceanic range and depth of public poetry just in the US these days, I think: the Web poets now must be as vast and lively an audience as new verse has ever had. And of course I want to crash the party.

Dan Chiasson

A very relaxed Dan Chiasson in our studio (check here for more pictures from our studio) [Brendan Greeley]

The former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky is our tutor and guide here. In his Favorite Poem Project Pinsky found the living pulse of public poetry, from the street-corner to the White House — and, with it, vindicated the suspicion that poetry old and new is a roaring stream in the heads of ordinary people.

With us at our inaugural poetry party: Maggie Dietz, whose first book of poetry, Perennial Fall, just out from the University of Chicago Press, reminds me of the voice of the late Raymond Carver: acquainted with suffering and much longing, tough-minded, rigorous, and sometimes gorgeous in the flow of sounds and images. As in her poem “The Yellow House, 1978,” which seems to place the poet as a small child in her mother’s Wisconsin kitchen:

To be in that room must be what it was like to be the man

next to her at night, or the child who, at six o’clock had stood

close enough to smell the wool of her sweater through the steam,

and later, at the goodnight kiss, could breathe the flavor of her hair —

codfish and broccoli — and taste the coffee, which was darkness

on her lips…

Maggie Dietz, “The Yellow House, 1978,” in Perennial Fall

Dan Chiasson is a sly wit and polymath who reminds me more of a very hip (in the sense of knowing) contemporary Emerson. In his new collection Natural History from Knopf, Chiasson sets a number of poems about poetry in the minds of ancient circus elephants, like this one:

… my friend saw

a man gouge out an elephant’s eyes with a shovel,

and the elephant cried, Oh, Murder, I am Murdered!

the way we do — wordless, comical, like a choir of kazoos:

is that poetry? Or is poetry picking the scarcest word,

say, “charred” instead of “burned” —

as in “charred in a fire”? Real life is so raw,

all on its own; it hurts; words should perhaps

protect us from real life.

Perhaps words should be a shield, rather than

a mirror; and maybe poems should be

an ornamental shield, like the shields

gods made for their favorite soldiers,

sons and lovers. Poems should be

like people’s faces by firelight:

a little true, for verification’s sake,

but primarily beautiful. Or like

pomegranates: hard to open at first

but, when you get them open, full of sweet granules

of meaning.

Dan Chiasson, “Scared by the smallest shriek of a pig, and when wounded always give ground,” in Natural History

So, can we talk about poems, poets and what we expect from them in 2006? Feel free, please, to nominate your own candidates for the next round, and your favorite contemporary poems for our delectation immediately.

Robert Pinsky

US Poet Laureate, 1997 to 2000

Professor, Boston University

Author of six books of poetry, among them: Jersey Rain and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems. Just out: First Things to Hand from Sarabande Press.

And weekly literary columnist in Poet’s Choice in The Washington Post.

Maggie Dietz

Author, Perennial Fall

Lecturer in Creative Writing, Boston University

Assistant Poetry Editor, Slate

Dan Chiasson

Author, The Afterlife of Objects and now Natural History

A contributor also of criticism in The New York Times and elsewhere, he teaches at Wellesley College.

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  • wordbuzz

    Stanley Kunitz, who died at age 100 yesterday, is my choice. In his last book, Kunitz says, “The universe is a continuous web. Touch it at any point and the whole web quivers.” To me, that thought puts it all in perspective: we are equally responsible for this earth, and indeed, for each other. We are all interconnected and interdependent–six degrees of separation, and so on.

    Anyway, here’s one of Stanley Kunitz’s poems. Thank you Stanley Kunitz: You touched me deeply and made my life richer.

    The Layers

    I have walked through many lives,

    some of them my own,

    and I am not who I was,

    though some principle of being

    abides, from which I struggle

    not to stray.

    When I look behind,

    as I am compelled to look

    before I can gather strength

    to proceed on my journey,

    I see the milestones dwindling

    toward the horizon

    and the slow fires trailing

    from the abandoned camp-sites,

    over which scavenger angels

    wheel on heavy wings.

    Oh, I have made myself a tribe

    out of my true affections,

    and my tribe is scattered!

    How shall the heart be reconciled

    to its feast of losses?

    In a rising wind

    the manic dust of my friends,

    those who fell along the way,

    bitterly stings my face.

    Yet I turn, I turn,

    exulting somewhat,

    with my will intact to go

    wherever I need to go,

    and every stone on the road

    previous to me.

    In my darkest night,

    when the moon was covered

    and I roamed through wreckage,

    a nimbus-clouded voice directed me:

    “Live in the layers,

    not on the litter.”

    Though I lack the art

    to decipher it,

    no doubt the next chapter

    in my book of transformations

    is already written.

    I am not done with my changes.

  • scribe5

    When will this show air?

  • spacebo

    Wordbuzz, your idea of Stanley Kunitz is such a good one and would be an appropriate tribute to him by OpenSource. My suggestion would be for Wendell Berry who has so much to teach us about living authentic lives. He is also passionately against computer technology so the irony of him as a choice for OpenSource could be dynamic and interesting. I am including a link I found re:his ideas about computers and also a couple of short poems.

    The Peace of Wild Things

    When despair grows in me

    and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound

    in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

    I go and lie down where the wood drake

    rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

    I come into the peace of wild things

    who do not tax their lives with forethought

    of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

    And I feel above me the day-blind stars

    waiting for their light. For a time

    I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

    A Warning To My Readers

    Do not think me gentle

    because I speak in praise

    of gentleness, or elegant

    because I honor the grace

    that keeps this world. I am

    a man crude as any,

    gross of speech, intolerant,

    stubborn, angry, full

    of fits and furies. That I

    may have spoken well

    at times, is not natural.

    A wonder is what it is

  • A Poem

    Escape from it all

    behind the deafening white noise of the waterfall

    through the refreshing torrent

    see a bit of life


    there is a truth

    whether pain or beauty

    on the other side of the veil


    part the waters

    they part you

    make you laugh or wail

    you knew this truth

    it was always there

    the fall of the water

    just laid it bare

  • Mary

    One of my favorite blogs 3 Quarks Daily regulary includes poetry.

    Last week this poem from Wislawa Szymborska was featured:

    Consolation, by Wislawa Szymborska


    They say he read novels to relax,

    But only certain kinds:

    nothing that ended unhappily.

    If anything like that turned up,

    enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

    True or not,

    I’m ready to believe it.

    Scanning in his mind so many times and places,

    he’d had enough of dying species,

    the triumphs of the strong over the weak,

    the endless struggles to survive,

    all doomed sooner or later.

    He’d earned the right to happy endings,

    at least in fiction

    with its diminutions.

    Hence the indispensable

    silver lining,

    the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,

    the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,

    fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,

    stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,

    good names restored, greed daunted,

    old maids married off to worthy parsons,

    troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,

    forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,

    seducers scurrying to the altar,

    orphans sheltered, widows comforted,

    pride humbled, wounds healed over,

    prodigal sons summoned home,

    cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,

    hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,

    general merriment and celebration,

    and the dog Fido,

    gone astray in the first chapter,

    turns up barking gladly

    in the last.

  • the only thing out of my head

    to make these forums well-read:

    for a nightly show

    to take it slow

    and have a poetry-only thread.

    I try.

    but hey!

    wait! up in the sky!

    could it be? out West, beyond the clouds?

    that old rebel Sol,

    the Sun!

  • I would add, in prose, that I wonder if the web can help us reach a time when poetry is no longer cordoned off from public discourse into its own carrels; I, for one, try to dedicate a piece to wordplay (poetry and other mischief) when I write. Do any of the top political/tech/cultural bloggers do so? I’m not aware of any.

  • ward cleaver

    Here’s my favorite poem:

    Your poetry disturbs me

    like a toaster in the sand

    I grasp my throbbing temples

    like a toaster in the sand

    I hope your mother isn’t listening

    like a toaster in the sand

    Give me Keats and Frost and Silverstein

    like a toaster in the sand

    New voices strain to entertain

    like a toaster in the sand

    More monolog sans talent

    like a toaster in the sand

    You’re about as intertaining

    as a toaster in the sand

  • ward, that’s more my style: who’s the author?

    just to explain my posts above, bear in mind that the undercurrent ethos of the blogs is that anyone can become a writer, or journalist; and, even, it’s been figured, that any average person can “commit an act of journalism,” why can’t someone commit an “act of poetry” as well?

    I like the elephant poems.

  • ward cleaver

    That would be me Jon. I wrote it while listening to the new poets. Most of what they write, in my opinion, is monolog and just too conversational. I like the old stuff. This “poetry” reminds me of the “deep” poetry teenagers write. This self- conscious blithering should be read by the author at midnight in the bathroom.

  • ward cleaver

    This, I hate to call it poetry, reminds me of the “art” that falls under the umbrella of “art for arts sake.” Could this be “poetry for poetrys sake?”

  • Jon G –

    Mine was in the same vein as yours – “an act of poetry.” I like the concept. Perhaps we could have thread for “Random Acts of Poetry”

  • Caught the second half of the show just now. Chris quoted wordbuzz’s quote of Kunitz.

    But I guess the three of us are on our own here. We’re writing verses, because of the groundswell of “citizen’s media” movements.

    Many years hence, people looking for the Great Flood of 2006 will have many ‘reader photos’ from to look through. But how many observations will they have of the sun finally emerging after the first time in almost a week?

    That’s why I interjected that little Dickinsonian verse above. And also that’s why why Adam Gaffin at Universal Hub gamely found a couple of local blog posts of the moment– though neither of them aimed to be poetic.

  • I just donwloaded the show as a podcast–sorry I didn’t hear it live.

    The amount of poetry being written and published online is simply amazing. What I respect about the Internet is that it allows people like me, a wife and mother with a full-time career, to keep up with some of the best contemporary writing today. Poetry is like ivy, it can thrive almost anywhere.

    Here is a link to my blog, Poet Mom and my new current favorite, Poetry Thursday. Both sites are attempts to continue the poetry conversation beyond the classroom.

    One of my favorite poems is by Tess Gallagher:

    I Stop Writing the Poem

    to fold the clothes. No matter who lives

    or who dies, I’m still a woman.

    I’ll always have plenty to do.

    I bring the arms of his shirt

    together. Nothing can stop

    our tenderness. I’ll get back

    to the poem. I’ll get back to being

    a woman. But for now

    there’s a shirt, a giant shirt

    in my hands, and somewhere a small girl

    standing next to her mother

    watching to see how it’s done.

  • spacebo

    As interesting as last ight’s poetry show wa i had hoped one of the guests would have been a non-professional poet to give courage and encouragement to other people for whom poetry is just part of living and interpreting life…maybe next time.One of the strongest parts was Chris’ immediate visceral reasponse to teach poem read– such a good model for so many who may be timid to react to poetry from the inside of one’s soul. I like allison’s idea of random Acts of Poetry. Jon Garfunkel., I am sorry you think there are only ‘three of you on your own here”…..I must have misinterpreted what you wrote…instead,just enjoy ..January O’Neilpost…or Mary ‘s post..I think our individual lives and perceptions of those lives are as important to the collective humanity as is the sound of the sun rising after eight days of rain…and here is a poem for today


    stepping through wet meadow grasses before light this earliest morning without rainfall

    you hear hedgerow rustlings

    louder than the mourning dove’s reminder

    and then there it is

    sliding upward in a fury of song

    the sun

    you can hear the sun rise, you know,

    as easily as the moon tonight

    will croon its roundest melody

    All day and forever these sounds will stay in your day and night.

    you won’t hear the world otherwise

    you never have.


  • spacebo

    Please excuse my typos—annoying to read I know–sorry.-

  • spacebo — forgive me, it didn’t jump out at me that you were the author of the poem you submitted, I thought it was Wendell Berry. The “Three of us are on our own” was referring to people their own verses.

    I was also looking for poems “of the moment”, this being a *live* medium, after all. Thank you for yours.

  • Isn’t it fabulous the interest poetry is getting these days? I have been so inspired by the talent I see, not just among those who have been fortunate enough to publish, but the people who show up at local open mic readings. The number of teenagers I see showing up at these, rather than “hanging out” or getting into trouble, has lifted my spirits. I leave you with one of my own:

    We Write

    “…to taste life twice”, Anais said

    and surely she would know

    who tasted much, chose her

    morsels with gutsy grace

    in times when one had space,

    time to chew on elegance,

    dip crust into mulligan

    stockingless for a taste

    of bittersweet truth.

    Love amidst the ruins,

    feasts in silken gowns,

    creative conspiracies,

    typed regurgitatons

    more flavorful than ever,

    fed to those more hungry

    than small birds for life

    they’d savor if only

    it were on their menu

    or in tin lunch boxes.

    Mary Curro

  • spacebo

    jon–the poems of my May 16th post are indeed by Wendell Berry—sorry for the misunderstanding—(today’s is my own)—and thank you for explaining ‘Three of us….”and for the for the link to “wordplay” with your Whitman essay and your conversation with Robert Pinsky about Walt Whitman on Open Source. You seem very interested in the role of the blogger in society beyond what you call a monolog–you have provoked my thinking about this too–and makes me wonder if blogging in its present nascent state has not yet evolved into being “ART” where the making of the commonplace universal endures. Robert Pinsky’s response about the importance of the physicality of Whitman’s writing startles us in its truth and simplicity. Truth lies in our behaviors, our actions; words are cheap after all. You would make a great “live” guest on the next poetry show.

  • A Poem:

    the night was dark

    the sky was blue

    and through the sky

    a toilet flew

    a man was hit!

    a scream was heard!

    a man was killed by a flying


    – thank you

  • Wonderful show–had the chance to listen to it on my long commute home. I’m familiar with Pinsky’s work but had not heard Dietz or Chiasson before, and was pleasantly surprised with their poems. Loved the elephant poems!

  • CrackWilding

    Check it out: The New York Times did a piece yesterday on a website called QuickMuse ( that invites poets to improvise on a topic for fifteen minutes. The results are stored and can be played back as they originally unfolded. You have to take a look to fully understand, but it’s pretty neat, and the poets are top-notch — Paul Muldoon and Thylias Moss were recent participants; Robert Pinsky and Julianna Baggott are due up tonight.