Podcast • May 24, 2013

Iyer Dyer & Doty is not a Law Firm

This one won’t be on the final exam, but in the spring clearance from the Key West Literary Seminars I didn’t want to let it go. Seriously funny Englishman-at-large Geoff Dyer, American Poet Mark Doty ...

Dyer Doty Iyer close 2

This one won’t be on the final exam, but in the spring clearance from the Key West Literary Seminars I didn’t want to let it go.

Seriously funny Englishman-at-large Geoff Dyer, American Poet Mark Doty and globalist Pico Iyer and are testifying about the writers who inhabit writers — in their cases, respectively, D. H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman and Graham Greene. We’re dropping names and having fun here with a genial crowd… but what’s more memorably instructive in the end than artists talking about the inner voices of their ancestors? As in conversations past with Harold Bloom on R. W. Emerson and the great Schmuel, Dr. Johnson. Or Dave McKenna speaking about his ideal, Nat Cole, the only pianist who could “bend” a note and play the tones in-between. Or Sonny Rollins, in humble astonishment that he had actually made music with the geniuses Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt. Or Roy Haynes talking with Ben Ratliff about Jo Jones.

As usual I am pining naively in the writers’ chat for my own William James or some magisterial successor who might explain Americans to themselves in a universal frame today. But the writers are reminding me of the contradictions in all these affinities. What we don’t have these days, and maybe don’t want, is a “synthesizing voice.” It’s one of England’s great achievements, Geoff Dyer slipped in, not to have a Bernard Henri Levy on the premises. If we had Whitman and his democratic vistas in our midst today, Doty says we might ignore him as his own generation did, or celebrate his worst poems, not his best. If by a miracle Graham Greene had been announced in the lobby of our theater, Pico Iyer insisted he’d have sprinted away because to meet his inspiration “would simplify, not deepen, my understanding of the man.” Odd, then, that everybody wanted to sit down with the subject that made Geoff Dyer famous — the inexhaustibly contentious, inconsistent and sometimes monstrous D. H. Lawrence, remembered as “a man who burned like an acetylene torch from one end to the other of his life” and elsewhere as “the man who could write brilliantly and awfully, in the same sentence.” Geoff Dyer gets the last line on the perplexity of writers’ affinities: “… but one would have thought it a huge privilege to be on the receiving end of a lashing from Lawrence.”

Podcast • September 7, 2011

Salima Hashmi: in the worst of times, the alchemy of art

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Salima Hashmi (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Salima Hashmi with her father, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz Speak Speak, your lips are free. Speak, it is your own ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Salima Hashmi (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Salima Hashmi with her father, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Speak

Speak, your lips are free.
Speak, it is your own tongue.
Speak, it is your own body.
Speak, your life is still yours.

See how in the blacksmith’s shop
The flame burns wild, the iron glows red;
The locks open their jaws,
And every chain begins to break.

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, ’cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, trans. by Azfar Hussain

LAHORE — Salima Hashmi is the vital link between Pakistan’s greatest poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911 – 1984), who was her father, and a “resilience” that you’d feel in the air even if Pakistanis weren’t invoking it so urgently and so often. You’d be aware of an edgy, “on” air of pleasure in life — very particularly this life of everyday risk and uncertainty — underlying a typical conversation in Lahore; an almost reckless intensity that I’ve heard young Pakistanis in America say they miss. You can hear it, I’m pretty sure, in Salima Hashmi’s linking of the Beaconhouse arts university she founded in Lahore seven years ago and the poetic vision of her father.

Faiz is remembered (and celebrated in many languages and far corners of the world on the eve of his centennial year) as an iconoclast and oppositionist, but equally for his own serenity and gentleness. He was a communist who liked to say that “the Sufi saints are the real comrades.” He asked to speak, he daughter says, for “the weaker voice” in the square, for religious minorities and the unorthodox, as in his prayer:

Let us too lift our hands,
We who do not remember the customary prayer,
We who do not remember any idol or God except love.

Salima Hashmi is well known as a television comedienne, but equally for her public protests against nuclear testing in Pakistan as in India. These days she paints, she writes, and she oversees the teaching of art and design — all with a certain imperturbable enthusiasm.

It’s odd that the worse things are, the better the art becomes. I suppose that is also something noticeable elsewhere. We are told that in very difficult times of war, the human spirit or the resilience of creative people is challenged and comes to the fore. That’s happening here too. I curated this show of contemporary art at the Asia Society museum two years ago in New York and people were talking about how unusual the work was, how vibrant it was, how vigorous it was… there were 15 artists in the show and I said I could have brought 50, because that’s how many I can look upon and say they’re doing something rooted and yet it takes into fact the very difficult conditions that they work in. And their work is important to them. Sometimes they get an audience and sometimes they don’t. Very often their economic situation is precarious, but they manage: some of them teach in schools, in colleges, some of them have galleries who can market their work — not always — and occasionally they’ll get a showing in Fukuoka or Delhi, New York or San Francisco, that will tide them over for a while.

It’s very diverse because there are very many different kinds of crises in Pakistan. There is the crisis of the terrorist, there is the crisis which encroaches on a woman’s right to be herself and to choose what she wants to do with her life, with her body, with her future. There is the crisis which hits people who belong to a minority religion or a sect. There is the urban-rural clash, there is the devastation of large parts of Pakistan by environmental change. I think that you find that artists and their work can reflect some of these, but it is also about the celebration of survival, and the fact that you are living to tell the tale everyday…

After we’d said our thank-yous, she added: “Please take back the message from Pakistan to friends everywhere that we live a life which is a hard life, but it is still full of hope and we are maybe not the people you see painted and dehumanized every day in the media. We’re really okay and we have fun and make nice paintings, and we sing wonderful songs, and we make poetry… In the worst of times in Pakistan, there is always a joke, dark humor and irony… We all have feet of clay. And the emperor never has any clothes on.”

Podcast • July 5, 2011

Harold Bloom: On the Playing Field of Poetry

Harold Bloom, in conversation about his famous Anxiety of Influence, slips so comfortably into baseball and jazz metaphors (“tropes,” in the lingo) that I’m wondering if it’s time for the wall chart version of his ...

Harold Bloom, in conversation about his famous Anxiety of Influence, slips so comfortably into baseball and jazz metaphors (“tropes,” in the lingo) that I’m wondering if it’s time for the wall chart version of his literary argument — something like David Marriott’s Periodic Table of Jazz Pianists. Or perhaps an interactive game, or Wiki, drawing on a poetic equivalent of Bill James‘ reinvention of baseball statistics. “A Sabremetrics of literature, you mean?” quoth Bloom. Yes, poetry’s answer to fantasy baseball, I say, with players named Shelley, Keats, Dickinson and Ashberry.

How different, I’m asking him, was Mickey Mantle’s relation in the Yankees’ centerfield to the myth of Joe DiMaggio on the same turf (or Johnny Damon’s relation more recently to the memory of Mickey Mantle) from the creative tension between American poets Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955) and Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)? “No different,” judges Professor Bloom. Or Paul Gonsalves sitting in Ben Webster’s tenor saxophone chair in the Ellington band in the 1950s? “Absolutely no different.” Or Adele, the contemporary young British songstress with the Ella Fitzgerald intonation?

Influence, as the Sage of New Haven expounds it again in The Anatomy of Influence, is a process that begins in love and extends itself in a certain amount of narcissism and robust self-investment. It describes part of Milton’s link to Shakespeare, Nabokov’s to James Joyce, Charlie Parker’s to Johnny Hodges and Louis Armstrong, and Carl Yastrzemski’s to Ted Williams.

I am confessing that I preferred the original title for the new book: The Living Labyrinth, because it so elegantly represented not literature so much as the surging search-engine of Bloom’s overstocked head. Influence anxiety, as he likes to say, exists not between the artists but between their poems endlessly bumping into each other in readers’ memories, none vaster than his own. “Let’s face it, Harold,” I had said to him most of two years ago, “the living labyrinth is you!” He answered with a long laugh, and then: “A nice trope, my boy.”

There are more flashes of autobiography than usual in this our umpteenth conversation, on the eve of Bloom’s 81st birthday. It touches me somehow that baseball keeps popping up as a sort of alternative home of the Bloomian imagination. He’s remembering the Bronx in the summer of 1936 when Bloom’s uncle, “the splendid Sam Kaplan,” took the 6-year-old boy to Yankee Stadium, and the rookie Joseph Paul DiMaggio streaked like a gazelle onto the Bloom horizon. The inspiration is not forgotten. Bloom loves (who doesn’t?) the famous DiMaggio line when asked why he’d nearly killed himself chasing down a fly ball in a game that had already been decided: “because there might be a kid in those stands who hasn’t seen me play before.” Bloom will teach another ten years at Yale, he hopes — till he’s carried out, in any event; and he still takes speaking gigs at the New York Public Library, he explains, because there might be someone in New York “who has never seen Bloom talk before.”

I call the first section of this book literary love. I think that in order for later poets to be profoundly influenced by earlier poets, they have to begin by falling in love with the poems. But of course, like love of all kinds, if you’re fiercely enough in love, it carries its ambivalences. And those ambivalences constitute part of the phenomenon I call the anxiety of influence.

When I call the subtitle of this “Literature as a Way of Life,” I mean that. I think that there are people who love religion. I don’t. There are people who love history, I hate history. I agree with James Joyce that it’s a nightmare from which we should try to awake but we can’t. There are people who love science or philosophy. I don’t.

I think we are in a society now, for more than a century, and it will go on this way, I fear, where all our cognitive modes have failed us. My late friend Richard Rorty once said to me, “You know Harold, when the cognitive modes — philosophy, science, religion, history — fail a society, then willy-nilly, whether it wants to or not, it becomes a literary culture.” And I said, “Yes, Dick, and I’m not so sure this is good for literature, or good for society.” But I think this is what has happened.

Even now in the digital age, though we call it by different names and we adulterate the phenomenon, we live in a literary culture.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon in New Haven, June 2011.

Podcast • May 12, 2011

Anna West: Poetry That’s “Louder than a Bomb”

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with Anna West Anna West, poet and teacher, is letting us in on “Louder than a Bomb.” Before it was an inspirational film, it was a high-school slam ...

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with Anna West

Anna West, poet and teacher, is letting us in on “Louder than a Bomb.” Before it was an inspirational film, it was a high-school slam poetry festival she founded a decade ago with the Young Chicago Authors — a mentoring method that took off in the Second City and which she has now brought to the Harvard Ed School for some fine New England grooming, so to speak. She is on her way back now to her hometown, Baton Rouge, where she developed a WordPlay teen writing project. So she’s ready to demonstrate how lots of school districts can build platforms for budding writers — “garage poets.” That is, to build poetry into the performance repertoire of expressive teenagers.

Anna West is a favorite among the “stage” poets who have seized the initiative at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival on the weekend of May 13 and 14. The sound of her young poets here is closer to hip-hop than to Homer, you start to say, but then you wonder. It’s the sound of people first claiming their voices, the sound of selves crystallizing in words, declaring themselves. Not least: a lot of fresh responses here to the Whose Words These Are questions we started asking two years ago: Who’s writing poetry, in our midst, these days? And what is it trying to tell us?

When we talk about the bardic tradition, when we talk about Homer, of course we’re talking about spoken word. People talk about spoken word as if it’s this kind of contemporary, cultural movement, but really it’s tapping into an ancient art, which is the art of taking the verse and putting it right here in the space between you and me, as a way for us to connect.

We’re also drawing directly from hip-hop pop culture in big ways. I think that those of us who are outside the culture of hip-hop think of it in its commercialized form, which is actually something that has been co-opted, souped-up and sold back. Underneath that, there’s this entire fabric of participatory culture, which is really where it comes from, this idea that “Joey” around the corner has got crazy skills, and he’s a maker of culture, not simply a consumer of culture.

Anna West with Chris Lydon at the Grolier Poetry Book Store, Cambridge, May 2011.

Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space.

Podcast • May 10, 2011

Whose Words… (36) Alex Charalambides: “Look at Me!”

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with Alex Charalambides Alex Charalambides, a slam star at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem next weekend, is the child of Greek refugees from Romania who settled in ...

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with Alex Charalambides

Alex Charalambides, a slam star at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem next weekend, is the child of Greek refugees from Romania who settled in Worcester, Massachusetts — the town that gave the world Elizabeth Bishop.

Greek patriotic poems opened Alex’s road into poetry and performance — and kept him out of Little League baseball, he says. As a word nerd in high school, then a history major at Boston College, he found his inspiration in Charles Bukowski, the high priest of low-life; then Daniel Quinn, the anarcho-humanist-environmentalist of Ishmael, and climactically the poet and songster Saul Williams of the documentary film “Slam.”

For a decade now, Alex’s poetry has developed out of the Rand McNally School of Self-Discovery, on the long road of jams and late-night joints from Providence to Oakland where he found his fun and expressive power in slam competitions.

“Look at me!” delivered for us here, gives you the spirit of his enterprise. He’s remembering that it was “a charming 2-year-old” in Duluth who cooed “look at me,” at him! “That’s what all art says,” he answered her, laughing uncomfortably. “I guess I do kinda want your attention. All artists who dare take page or stage, we just tend to augment, like ‘Look at me: war is fundamentally wrong… Look at me: the world is in desperate need of new love songs… Look at me: Crazy!… Look at me: I dig jazz, the good kind… Look at me: I dig trenches…’ I say: ‘Look at me, ’cause I’m frantically searching for options. Look at me, ’cause I think I know some words that you don’t know.”

For Alex Charalambides no venue is too small, no national slam rivals are too big. He likes to reflect on “what someone along on a stage could do with just words. Beyond the hoopla, the competition, the small fish rock star status, a human being, alone, with their words on a stage, could change someone’s world forever.”

Q: If you weren’t a poet, what would you be?

A: A bass player

Q: What’s the talent you’d most like to have, but don’t, yet?

A: I would love to be a really great cook.

Q: Who are your brother and sister artists in other mediums?

A: Daniel Quinn is my favorite writer, not for the way he writes but his overall message. I have it tattooed on my arm — he wrote this book called “The Story of B.” … I have an album that is called “I am B”, that’s sort of dedicated to that. I love Tom Waits as a singer-songwriter musician. He shows such a range of emotion and style and texture of voice, I love his work.

Q: What’s the quality above all that you look for in a good poem?

A: Honesty

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: I try to make my poems say yes.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “Quit your job and get to work.”

Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space.

Podcast • May 5, 2011

Whose Words These Are: January O’Neil’s Underlife

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with January Gill O’Neil January Gill O’Neil personifies the very broad reach of the third Massachusetts Poetry Festival, coming to Hawthorne’s old witch-burning town of Salem, north of ...

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with January Gill O’Neil

January Gill O’Neil personifies the very broad reach of the third Massachusetts Poetry Festival, coming to Hawthorne’s old witch-burning town of Salem, north of Boston, on May 13 and 14.

Family poems fill O’Neil’s first collection Underlife — about her mom’s career in a newborn intensive care unit: “She liked doing the kind things that love cannot do: adjusting another woman’s breast, lifting the pillow under her head…;” about her daughter Ella, at three, munching on her crayons. “This tells me you know how to eat words. You’ve tasted those intangible calories that fill my cavernous heart.” O’Neil is chatty in the kitchen, first obvious then arresting “In Praise of Okra: … you were brought from Africa as seeds, hidden in the ears and hair of slaves.” And then she’s bold in the bedroom: “Ass up, head down, no stroking, no kissing, just clumsy, fractional fucking that was over before it began.”

It was the Massachusetts Poetry Festival two years ago that prompted this “Whose Words These Are” series of Open Source conversations on where poetry comes from these days, and where it is going. At Salem, poetry would seem to be heading in the direction of hearty performance — led by inspirational school teachers like Anna West and Alex Charalambides as well as Sarah Kay and Jericho Brown; the Iraq War veteran Brian Turner of Here, Bullet; the crowd-pleasing Filipino-American Aimee Nezhukumatathil and the hall-of-fame slammer Patricia Smith. And oh, yes, the National Book Award winner Mark Doty, for Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2008).

January O’Neil, Virginian by birth, is a writer/editor at Babson College outside Boston. She has studied with Sharon Olds, Philip Levine and Galway Kinnell. She credits Toi Derricotte with “opening the door,” and Cave Canem with keeping it open.

Q: Who are your brother and sister artists in other mediums?

A: I wish I could write a song as perfect as The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” which is a waltz. When I think about writing poems, I think about stringing them together like the Beatles do in some of their albums.

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: I like to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary, to capture a moment and elevate it.

Q: What’s the talent you most covet that you don’t have, yet?

A: Singing

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

A: I love being surprised. I love starting a poem someplace and not knowing where it’s going.

Q: Who is your favorite character in fiction?

A: Celie, from The Color Purple.

Q: Whom do you respect?

A: My parents.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “I move to keep things whole,” which is a line from Mark Strand’s poem “Keeping Things Whole.”

Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space.

Podcast • March 17, 2011

C. D. Wright in Triumph: One With Others

[newyorker.com image] C. D. Wright is well known for assembling her patchwork poetry from local and vernacular fragments. Even with fame and standing, she has still the one-of-a-kind comic, passionate, choleric sound of an offbeat ...

C. D. Wright is well known for assembling her patchwork poetry from local and vernacular fragments. Even with fame and standing, she has still the one-of-a-kind comic, passionate, choleric sound of an offbeat oracle of the Arkansas Ozarks, where she grew up. So the National Book Critics Circle award last week for her book-length poem One With Others — after a near-miss for the National Book Award — seals a distinctly individual triumph of voice and art.

One With Others is her telling of one small fragment of the Civil Rights epic. The place is Forest City in the Arkansas Delta. The time is August 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, about 40 miles away. The central event is a March Against Fear led by one Sweet Willie Wine. “If white people can ride down the highways with guns in their trucks,” he insisted, “I can walk down the highway unarmed.” But the center of poem is the one white person who joined Sweet Willie and the black cause — an almost anonymous mother of seven (called V.) whose raging erudition and reckless love of freedom in action set C. D. Wright an example of the provocative life and impelled her to be a writer. “Just to act,” V. liked to say, “was the glorious thing.”

She had a brain like the Reading Room in the old British Museum. She could have donned fingerless gloves and written Das Kapital while hexagons of snowflakes tumbled by the windows…

She loved: Words. Cats. Long-playing records. Laughter. Men.

Alcohol. Cigarettes. The supernatural. It makes for a carnal list. Pointless to rank. Five in diapers at once — a stench, she claimed, she never got used to.

One With Others, p. 19.

Our conversation is about V., about Arkansas then and now, and about the mixed-media of One With Others. Food price lists of the time and place (“Jack Sprat tea bags only 19 cents. A whole fryer is 59 cents… Cherokee freestone peaches, 5 cans for $1.”) are juxtaposed with Dear Abby advice columns in the local paper (“DEAR TOO MUCH IRONING, I would iron his underwear. You are wasting more energy complaining and arguing than it takes to iron seven pairs of shorts once a week. Everybody has a problem. What’s yours?”) and intercut with the poet’s interviews 40 years later:

The woman who lived next door to the old house came outside to pick up her paper. I asked if she had known my friend V who lived there in the 1960s, and she allowed that she did.

Flat out she says, She didn’t trust me, and I didn’t trust her.

Then she surprised me, saying, She was right. We were wrong.

Then she shocked me, saying, They have souls just like us.”

One With Others, pp. 10 – 11

There’s a considered bending of forms here, in the spirit of collage.

Well, for me it’s poetry if I say it’s poetry. The genres are not exactly porous, they’re not exactly fluid. But conventions and genres are shifting, like everything else, and people are increasingly receptive to those changes. I think people who read and write prose miss poetry in their lives. And I think poets are tired of the isolation of poetry. I think the documentary record has a lot to yield that creative writers can explore to put a different lens on those facts.

C. D. Wright in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, March 16, 2011.

The reader’s impression is less that she has extended her poetry with the authenticity and detail of the documentary record; it’s more that she has lifted an historical account with the breath and cadence of poetry.

The house where my friend once lived, indefinitely empty.

Walnuts turning dark in the grass. Papers collected on the porch.

If I put my face to the glass, I can make out the ghost

of her ironing board, bottle of bourbon on the end.

One With Others, p. 7.

Podcast • December 9, 2010

Rainer Maria Rilke for Beginners: Whose Words These Are (31)

When Rilke was dying in 1926 — of a rare and particularly agonizing blood disease — he received a letter from the young Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva. “You are not the poet I love most,” ...

When Rilke was dying in 1926 — of a rare and particularly agonizing blood disease — he received a letter from the young Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva. “You are not the poet I love most,” she wrote to him. “‘Most’ already implies comparison. You are poetry itself.” And one knows that this is not hyperbole. That voice of Rilke’s poems, calling us out of ourselves, or calling us into the deepest places in ourselves, is very near to what people mean by poetry… He induces a kind of trance, as soon as the whispering begins…”

Robert Hass, “Looking for Rilke,” in Stephen Mitchell’s Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Damion Searls, the precocious story-writer, translator and trend-maker, is our conversational guide here in digging up old gold and present-day power in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Often bracketed with Yeats at the pinnacle of European poetry in the 20th Century, Rilke makes an even better pair with Walt Whitman as the irresistible great poet for everyone.

From The Inner Sky, “poems, notes, dreams” that Damion Searls has selected and translated, we are reading Rilke fragments that can make one gasp on a first hearing. I like specially, for example, these “Notes on the Melody of Things,” which snuck up on me six weeks ago and induced just the sort of trance Robert Hass recounts:

VII. There are, in fact, moments when a person stands out from his grandeur in clarity and silence before you. These are rare festive pleasures that you never forget. You love this person from then on. In other words, you work to retrace with your own tender hands the outlines of the personality that you came to know in this hour.

VII. Art does the same thing. For art is a farther reaching, more immodest love. It is God’s love. It cannot stop with an individual, who is only the portal of life itself: it must move through that individual. It cannot tire. To fulfill its destiny, it has to appear where everyone is — a someone. Then it bestows its gifts on this someone, and boundless riches come over everyone.

Rilke has a history, of course, but it hardly seems to matter. He was born in Prague in 1875, the German-speaking only child of a unhappy family in what was then the capital of Bohemia. In Proust’s Paris, Rilke became a sort of all-around aesthetic apprentice of the sculptor Rodin. Rilke’s mistress Lou Andreas-Salomé — who’d been Nietzsche’s mistress and later a confidante of Freud’s — took him to Russia to meet Tolstoy. So he had familiar access to the giants of the fin de siecle, and still his writing seems to come from beyond time and space, as in the legend that his masterpiece “Duino Elegies” were “dictated” to him by an angel in a final 3-week frenzy of writing in 1922. Rilke’s writing is continually turning up cards we’ve seen in his work before: theories of “space” and “sky,” mirrors and roses, girls in a game “as if set on fire by something godlike,” death, loss and longing, but also praise in those famous elegies: “Tell us, poet, what do you do? — I praise.” But it remains the great lure and beauty of reading Rilke that his meanings are not reducible, not readily transcribable into any other context. To take another of those “Notes on the Melody of Things,” might we hear this as a comment on intimacy? on globalization? perhaps on the American war in Afghanistan:

XI. Art has accomplished nothing, except to show us the confusion in which we already find ourselves most of the time. It has frightened us, rather than making us quiet and peaceful. It has shown us that we all live on different islands, only the islands are not far enough apart for us to stay solitary and untroubled. Someone on one island can pester someone on another, or terrorize him, or hunt him with spears — the only thing no one can do to anyone else is help him.

“Notes on the Melody of Things,” in Rilke’s The Inner Sky, Damion Searls, translator.

All I really know on an early acquaintance with Rilke — “when a person stands out from his grandeur in clarity and silence before you” — is that I want to keep reading him for the rest of my life.

Podcast • December 7, 2010

C. K. Williams on Whitman’s Music: Whose Words These Are (30)

  C. K. Williams is giving us his luminous, really rapturous, account of a lifetime reading Walt Whitman. Something changed just a few years ago — then moreso when C. K. Williams, himself a lavishly ...

 

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C. K. Williams is giving us his luminous, really rapturous, account of a lifetime reading Walt Whitman. Something changed just a few years ago — then moreso when C. K. Williams, himself a lavishly decorated poet, decided to write a short book, On Whitman. “I felt he was overwhelming me. He was just annihilating every other notion of poetry I had. I spent a summer just reading everything about him, and then reading the poems again and again. Finally I thought, this guy is killing me. I have to stop, I’ll never write another poem myself. And then when I finished my new book I went back to it, and the Whitman book came very easily because I had sort of put him in his proper place in my own life and identity as a poet.”

Suddenly Williams was hearing the Whitman words as music. “He is singing. It’s a kind of singing: the way poets control language and measure and make language move is closest to music. And it probably comes from one of the modules in the brain that’s different from the language module, so that the fusion of the music and language in poetry is, for those that hear it, what makes it so addictive and so glorious.” When Williams resumed his marvelous little book on the poet’s poet a few years later, he put it this way:

The new way of composing must have come all at once; I imagine it must have felt like some kind of conversion experience. There are very few signs before the 1855 edition that this great thing was about to occur. It’s as though his actual physical brain went through some incredible mutation, as though — a little science fiction, why not? — aliens had transported him up to their spaceship and put him down again with a new mind, a new poetry apparatus. It is really that crazy.

C. K. Williams, On Whitman

C. K. Williams is reminding me that the last time we heard Sonny Rollins at Symphony Hall, three years ago, he seemed to be our walking, improvising, all-encompassing, lyrical contemporary version of the great Walt. As I noted after our interview, then concert, with the great Rollins: “When Sonny Rollins soloes, we ‘hear America singing, the varied carols’ we hear.” So it seems entirely right and just that when C. K. Williams reads Whitman nowadays, he hears something like the sound and genius of the saxophone colossus. Or as I put it on Open Source, April 7, 2007: In sum, we stopped this night with Sonny Rollins at Symphony Hall and possessed, as Walt Whitman told us we would, the original of all poems and all music:

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look

through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

Podcast • October 28, 2010

Whose Words These Are (29): the Haunting of Peter Balakian

Click to listen to Peter Balakian’s reading and conversation with Chris (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3) Peter Balakian has made “the aftermath of catastrophe” his poetic terrain. He is doubtless best known for his prose ...

Click to listen to Peter Balakian’s reading and conversation with Chris (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3)

Peter Balakian has made “the aftermath of catastrophe” his poetic terrain. He is doubtless best known for his prose memoir of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Inspired by his grandmother’s strange shards of stories and nightmare visions, Balakian’s celebrated Black Dog of Fate (1997) is a classic account of repressed memory among survivors of the Turkish slaughter, and of resurgent memory and activism among diaspora Armenians born in America — near Tenafly, New Jersey, in Peter’s case.

But Peter Balakian seems to have been hooked on poetry even before he understood his family’s history. And his new collection Ziggurat widens the frame of his fascination back to ancient times in Mesopotamia, and up to the 9.11 attack on Lower Manhattan (where Peter Balakian was a teenage mail runner) and the US war in Iraq.

The Ziggurat of his title was the very type of the monumental tower in the ancient world — most famously the Sumerian Ziggurat at Ur, in what is now Iraq, excavated in the 1920’s by England’s Sir Leonard Wooley.

The longest poem in Peter Balakian’s new book is a 43-section lyric in which four strands emerge: A protagonist on the A-train subway heading south under Manhattan is reading Wooley’s history of Ur, recalling his own erstwhile messenger’s intimate knowledge of the alleys and elevators of Wall Street, and reflecting on the news that a former student, now an ABC News correspondent, has been struck and very nearly obliterated by an IED in Iraq.

Peter Balakian has assigned himself a sort of test, he suggests, to see how well his long lyric sequence can weave those four strands of experience: the A-train, long-gone Sumerian glory, an insider’s haunted memory of the Twin Towers, and the explosion of Iraq. Balakian is working an American tradition of longer lyrics that includes Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; Hart Crane’s “The Bridge”; William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson”; and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Ears better tuned than mine will probably hear New York echoes of Frank O’Hara as well.

With thanks again to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop on Plympton Street in Harvard Square for turning a store into a studio, in support of our continuing series with people “committing poetry” in our times.