Podcast • September 29, 2009

Whose Words These Are (4): Joan Houlihan

Joan Houlihan has rebuilt a poetry nest in Concord, Massachusetts — home of the “American Renaissance” of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott & Co. in the 1850s, the town where, in Susan Cheever’s line, “most of American ...

Joan Houlihan has rebuilt a poetry nest in Concord, Massachusetts — home of the “American Renaissance” of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott & Co. in the 1850s, the town where, in Susan Cheever’s line, “most of American Literature was written in three houses over a period of five years.” On the chance lightning could strike twice, Joan Houlihan founded The Concord Poetry Center to nurture a big open network of writers at many stages of growth. Joan has been a passionate critic of poetry criticism — of what seems to her more like blurbs and fans’ notes, a manifold failure to arbitrate the landscape of contemporary poetry. Joan teaches in MFA programs at Lesley University, in Boston, and at Columbia in New York. She reads to us here from her latest book of poems, The Us, a public epic for our times.

Q: The poetry that got you into the game?

A: “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The sound of Gerard Manley Hopkins, both poet and priest. A lot of my ‘poetic learning’ came from parochial school — in the form of ritual and song and psalm and parable and story — all very useful, after the religious part. That Hopkins was so talented and had such a voice and could also be a priest was a puzzle that interested me — the power of voice and music. I am interested in the ear and sound, in sonic textures.

Also Sylvia Plath & Emily Dickinson. These women poets gave me a way to be part of the poetry pantheon. Up until then, reading prescribed literature, I saw it as male oriented kind of life. In other words, something that I saw as not related to me.

Q: Describe the state of American Poetry.

A: A reader going into a bookstore and pulling down a book of poetry could try five times and come up with five very different ways of approaching the art.

Q: What quality do you look for in a poem?

A: A sweeping sense of humanity. I love a great poem, a poem that works on so many levels you never tire of it. A poem you can revisit and re-experience.

Q: Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other mediums?

A: I’ve always had a kinship with the absurdist playwrights: Pinter, Albee and Beckett were a huge influence on me and my work.

Q: What talent do you covet that you don’t have, yet?

A: Musical ability would be neat.

Q: What’s the keynote of your character as a poet?

A: A need to see things as clearly and honestly as possible. I like the reality of things.

Q: What do you learn from teaching?

I learn that the drive to be a poet is primal. The voice of youth in this art is through song. My sons listen to music. I like Coldplay. Young people see the poem-in-a-book as an artifact.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “Be Prepared.”

Podcast • May 7, 2008

Mary Jo Salter’s "Phone Call to the Future"

Up with poets. Send us your favorites, please. We begin a new series of poetry conversations with the well-known American formalist, Mary Jo Salter, who teaches at Mount Holyoke and Johns Hopkins and co-edits The ...

Up with poets. Send us your favorites, please. We begin a new series of poetry conversations with the well-known American formalist, Mary Jo Salter, who teaches at Mount Holyoke and Johns Hopkins and co-edits The Norton Anthology of Poetry.

In the poem below, we are standing in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The poet is spinning out a tribute to Nicolael Maes, a student of Rembrandt’s, and his painting of a girl with an apple-round, red-ribboned head. The girl is paring an apple, and dangling a fragile coil of apple skin as she goes. The poet’s coil is plain in the layout and the links of rhyme — “pun… bun” in the heart of the first stanza, “unbroken… spoken” at the start and finish of the last. So this is a formal paean to craft — in the peeler, the painter, the poet, and in poetry itself: “this spiral of making while unmaking while the world goes round.”

maes painting 

 

Nicolaes Maes: “Young Girl Peeling Apples” at the Metropolitan Museum, New York

    Young Girl Peeling Apples

(Nicholaes Maes)

It’s all

an elaborate pun:

the red peel of ribbon

twisted tightly around the bun

at the crown of her apple-

round head;

the ribbon coming loose in the real

apple-peel she allows to dangle

from her lifted hand; the table

on which a basket of red

apples

waits to be turned into more

white-fleshed apples in a water-

filled pail on the floor;

her apron that fills and falls

empty,

a lapful of apples piling on

like the apron itself, the napkin,

the hem of her skirts — each a skin

layered over her heart, just as he

who has

painted her at her knife

paints the brush that puts life

in her, apple of his eye: if

there’s anything on earth but this

unbroken

concentration, this spiral

of making while unmaking while

the world goes round, neither the girl

nor he has yet looked up, or spoken.

from A Phone Call to the Future, New and Collected Poems by Mary Jo Salter, Knopf, 2008, page 100.

In our conversation, I volunteer that Ms. Salter, a student of Elizabeth Bishop and a famous teacher in real life, has given us a modern American manual of lessons — about form, beauty, womanhood, wifehood, artistic and family life. She can sound like our daughter and our mother, both. There are just a few “public” poems here — about paying for a war in Iraq that shocks us into silence; about feeling like a fossil in a digital age. But most of her interests are inward, even domestic. She writes in “Au Pair,” a poem on a Swiss girl’s encounter with small-town America: “she had no boyfriend yet, but she was hoping.” There, and in “Lullaby for a Daughter,” she can encompass the lifetime of womanhood in a few lines:

Someday, when the sands of time

Invert, may you find perfect rest

as a newborn nurses from

the hourglass of your breast.

We are speaking here about tradition and a contemporary poet’s reality — and about what may be a renewed appeal of formal poetry. With all the poets we engage, we want to hear also about the place of new poetry in the wider American conversation. Nominations, please!

Podcast • December 20, 2007

Helen Vendler: Reading and Riffing on W. B. Yeats

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Helen Vendler here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3) Helen Vendler: A Poem’s Best Friend Helen Vendler — the poet’s best friend and the reader’s too — helps you ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Helen Vendler here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3)

vendler4

Helen Vendler: A Poem’s Best Friend

Helen Vendler — the poet’s best friend and the reader’s too — helps you hear a poem by showing you first how to see it.

Look, for example, at Yeats’s famous World War I memorial for Major Robert Gregory, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” The difference between reading this elegy not as a speech, but as a poem is as simple and striking as realizing that the poem has the form of a perfect cube:

AN IRISH AIRMAN FORESEES HIS DEATH

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

From THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE (1919) in William Butler Yeats, Collected Poems

That is, the shape of it is 4 x 4 x 4. Four beats in each line. Four lines in each of the “quatrains” (each in the “perfect” rhyming order a b a b, in this case). And four quatrains (not separated here into four stanzas) in the poem.

So the one-off form of the thing is as elegantly, decisively squared away as the soldierly beat of the marching monosyllables: “fate,” “hate,” “love,” “cross,” “loss,” and the rest. Form makes a tight fit with the cool, collected thought the poem voices. The form itself is a statement of the sad but settled order in Major Gregory’s mind. So the original shape of this poem becomes virtually inseparable from its “message.” Or as Helen Vendler puts it in her new account of Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, “By such formal means Yeats confirms that the airman’s choice is the correct one for his soul.”

vendler yeats2

Yeats is labeled the “last Romantic” by some, the “first Modernist” by others. It’s not the sort of argument Helen Vendler is impelled to settle. The thrust of her much-admired “close reading” is rather that Yeats was the Compleat Formalist: a hard-working, endlessly original genius when it came to variation and invention in the size, shape and settings of his staggering phrases, a master of all the poetic tricks of “rhythm, balance, pattern,” as he said, and the imagery of passion.

There’s an informal conversation here — and not specially about form, either. When you ask Helen Vendler about a Yeats poem, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard has an endearing, unaffected habit of reaching for her trusty Collected Poems and then introducing, reciting and riffing on the work with barely a look at the text.

I asked her to sit by the hearth for Open Source and show us how to see and hear a few of the great Yeats poems we think we half-know… and to break through the surface familiarity of lines like “That is no country for old men,” or “A terrible beauty is born,” and “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

The poems are: “Sailing to Byzantium”, “Never Give All The Heart”, “Easter 1916”, and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

Pull up a comfortable chair, please…