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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