Posts Tagged ‘A.M. Juster’

“Touching the good”: on Richard Wilbur – and Charlee Wilbur gets the last word

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017
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Richard and Charlee Wilbur getting married, 1942.

Death doesn’t offer many satisfactions, but there’s a notable one in the death of the late Richard Wilbur, the most perfect poet in the English language. I was gratified by the outpouring of love for his poetry from many unexpected quarters – one can’t quite call him “neglected,” but he certainly didn’t command the notice he merited. How often was he recognized as America’s foremost living poet? Moreover, he was as great a human being as he was a poet.

But one friend needed no selling, on that point in particular. Wrote Sam Gwynn: “I knew him for almost 50 years, and he was always the same–courtly, courteous, and civilized. He showed a lot of us how to live as both a person and as a poet.”

The praise continues over at First Thingswhere a friend A.M. Juster (we’ve written about his translations of Petrarch here) has written (not entirely warmly) about  Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg‘s new biography, Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A Biographical Study.  From the essay, “To Imagine Excellence”:

Although friendly with most of his poetic contemporaries, Wilbur resisted the trendy temptations of his time. Unlike Adrienne Rich, Louis Simpson, Donald Hall, and many others, he did not succumb to the pressure to abandon formal verse for free verse. Like Elizabeth Bishop, he refused to put his life on display in the manner of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and the “confessional” poets who were his peers. His work often displays joy and optimism, qualities in short supply among contemporary poets..

Juster: a Petrarch lover, too.

These qualities caused him to be largely ignored, and occasionally criticized, by the academy and the poetry establishment. In 1964 Leslie Fiedler complained that “there is no passion and no insanity” in Wilbur’s verse. Adam Kirsch, a critic whose work I usually admire, criticized Wilbur’s Collected Poems, 1943–2004 for employing “a style so elaborately formal that the most awful subjects are sublimated into irony, or even black comedy.”

These charges of bloodlessness and clumsiness lack merit. Even in the gorgeous “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World” is the unexpected violence of the phrase “the punctual rape of every blessèd day.”

Well you can read that whole poem here. It is gorgeous.

The Baggs’ new biography won’t change the perceptions about Wilbur’s “almost suspiciously normal life,” he writes, “although it should dispel the sense that he shared none of the horrors and despair of his more self-revealing peers.” The biography documents his combat experience in World War II, when he witnessed the death of friends and nearly died himself.  “The book discloses early financial difficulties and the autism of one of his four children. It also reveals that he and his devoted wife went into rehab for overuse of sleep medications and maybe alcohol.”

He was throughout, writes Juster, “a singularly humble and self-effacing member of a generation of competitive and catty poets.” He continues: “When Wilbur won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a disappointed John Berryman sent him a sarcastic telegram so subtle that he missed the barb entirely. (Berryman later both clarified and apologized.) Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and others frequently denigrated Wilbur in order to lift themselves up in rankings of the greats.”

However, he bristles at the the Baggs’ speculation that Wilbur had an affair during the war years, “simply on the basis of one photograph of him posing with a woman that someone in France had sent to his wife.”

And here’s the money shot: Charlee Wilbur’s “feisty and forgiving 1945 letter” that she sent to her husband, after he warned her of the photo’s existence:

You’re a dolt! Did you really think you had to forewarn me about that picture of you and that sexy-looking French Frail? Even if I saw a picture of you actually in bed with such a babe, I shouldn’t think any other thought than—“god, I’d like to be in her shoes!” (Or out of them as the case might be.) You must remember that I have tremendous respect for your essential taste. And I also have great faith in and dependence upon our common love so that whatever you did couldn’t possibly touch the good that ties us irrevocably together.

Read the whole thing here.

Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems: plaudits, readings, an award, and an evening at Stanford

Saturday, May 28th, 2016
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Dana Gioia at Stanford’s Humanities House on May 5.

Dana Gioia and his 99 Poems: New and Selected (Graywolf Press) have been getting a lot of attention. California’s current poet laureate had a reading from his new collection at Stanford’s new Humanities House on May 5 (an occasion that also doubled as a family reunion afterwards), and the following week he received the Denise Levertov Award in Seattle on May 11. This week, a reading at Kepler’s in Menlo Park on the 26th.

There’s more: A.M. Juster (we’ve written about his work on Petrarch here) has an article, “The Case for Dana Gioia,” in the current Claremont Review of Books here. An excerpt on Dana’s career:

99PoemsThough Gioia continued to publish poems, essays, reviews, and libretti, he came to devote more time to public service. He received broad praise, after some initial grumbling, for his tenure as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009. His Poetry Out Loud program, a poetry recitation competition for high school students, has become a blowout success, particularly among recent immigrants. He also initiated programs that promoted community discussions of poetry, brought Shakespeare to mainstream audiences, and helped returning veterans relate and cope with their war experiences.

Now 65, Gioia’s new collection of brief essays, Poetry As Enchantment, is a quieter and more reflective expansion of the themes in Can Poetry Matter? He defends poetry as a spiritual need, partially resistant to the tools of New Criticism and later schools of literary theory. His populist argument is rhetorically brilliant. Gioia undercuts a likely objection by including the songlike chants of Ezra Pound’s verse as evidence for his proposition, even though Pound was instrumental in transforming modern poetry into obscurities academics pored over and everyone else ignored. Enchantment also cites the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, William Blake, and the surrealists to bolster its point.

Though Gioia’s role as a cultural warrior and arts leader would be sufficient to make him a minor figure in American literary history, his time in public service damaged his literary productivity. Thankfully, he is back on a mission with 99 Poems, a “new and selected” collection likely to be a future candidate for inclusion in the canon.

Dana is one of the few poets in the world to have an MBA – from Stanford, no less. He worked at General Foods in New York, eventually rising to vice-president. The story is retold by a former colleague, Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, in  “A Poet Laureate, Jell-O, and Me” over at the Lunch Ticket:

gioia-reunion

The Gioia clan at Stanford, May 5.

I attended Dana Gioia’s poetry workshop on The Poetic Line and listened to him read Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool” twice—once to accentuate the rhymes and once the way it was written. As he discussed strategies of syntax and stops, I could clearly see Gioia, the client, the man I knew more than two decades prior—the one who seemed different from other corporate executives even then.

When we had worked together, I was in my early twenties, he was in his thirties, and aside from a client crush sparked by his unchanged good looks and resonant voice, I was particularly enamored with his ability to simplify complex marketing ideas, communicating only what was essential. He was also one of the few clients who not only got the idea of culturally-specific marketing, but also seemed to embrace it. All too often, the average white male (or even female) marketing execs struggled with this new way of looking at the world. Nothing about Gioia was average. The son of a Mexican-American mother and an Italian-American father, Gioia was no stranger to cultural nuances, but there was more to his distinct style than that.  He wasn’t as literal as many of his corporate MBA-trained colleagues, and he approached problem solving with an open mindedness and imagination that was more often associated with liberal arts types. At the time, I had no clue that he was a poet and neither did anyone else at General Foods or the Agency. Likewise, he didn’t know that I was an actress-writer in a costume, playing a role. There was a time when such things were better left unsaid.

…What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide….
From Unsaid, by Dana Gioia

jelloOne day in 1992, I was informed that Gioia had left General Foods. The news came as a surprise to everyone. He had turned the Jell-O brand around. We had even worked on Jell-O Jigglers together, a product innovation that helped grow sales. I heard something about his leaving to become a writer, but it wasn’t anything too specific. I remember thinking, That makes sense. He was sensitive and soulful in an industry where souls were sold, not protected.

In his essay, “Being Outed,” Gioia writes about the Esquire  article that stripped him of his literary anonymity. “When I entered corporate life, I resolved to keep my writing secret,” writes Gioia. “There was no advantage in being known as the company poet. For nearly a decade I succeeded in keeping my double life hidden from my co-workers.”

Oh, and listen to Garrison Keillor read Dana’s “Places to Return” last month (April 24) on the Writer’s Almanac – it’s here.

Happy birthday to poetry impresario Mike Peich!

Monday, May 19th, 2014
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philimagpeichYesterday on Facebook I wished a Michael Peich a happy birthday. He is the cofounder (along with Dana Gioia) of the West Chester University Poetry Conference, as well as founder of Aralia Press– I wrote about the conference, and Mike, fourteen years ago in the pages of Philadelphia Magazine here.  Frank Wilson over at Books Inq. says he is “pretty sure” that it’s still the largest annual poetry conference in the U.S. I have no reason to doubt his word. But I have no firsthand way to observe it, either. I attended several in the early years – but soon the June dates coincided with the high school and then college graduations of kids and stepkids, so I lost the habit of making the East Coast trek. Frank has an advantage – he lives in Philadelphia. So I’m stealing these poems on Books Inq. as a kind of revenge.

Several of the West Chester poets sent poetic greetings to Mike on his 70th, and three of them have been in these pages already: Dana, of course, but also David Mason and A.M. Juster (in fact, West Chester probably where I got that short volume of his Petrarch translations, which I discussed on Petrarch’s birthday here). Joshua Wren, by the way, is the founder of the brand new Wiseblood Books.

Frank intends to run more commemorative poems later – so check out his blog over here.  It’s a good habit to get into, if you don’t scan Books, Inq. regularly already. Meanwhile, evidence of my theft:

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birthday cakeFOR MICHAEL PEICH ON HIS 70th BIRTHDAY

May 18, 2014

 

Gnarliest of trees, this apple now
Sports withered fruit along its bough,
Drooping sideways, sere and gaunt—
Hardly the symbol that you want.

Now of your threescore years and ten,
Seventy will not come again,
And take from seventy springs that sum . . .
Well, on this subject, let’s play dumb.

But since you’re now on borrowed time,
you’re spending someone else’s dime,
So hang around the bars and gab,
And let your heirs pick up the tab.

 

.                                             – Dana Gioia

 

Gnarly? Withered? Drooping? Sere?
No, No, my dear!
Let no such imagery from Gioia
Even begin to annoy ya!

Trust, instead, to Rhina,
Whose eyesight’s keener,
Though it’s an old codger’s:
She says you’re gorgeous!

 

.                                       – Rhina Espaillat

Mike Peich
Doesn’t much like
A bad Cabernet or weak Pinot —
And he’s not afraid to tell you so.

.                                         –  David Rothman

 

Had not Mike helped design our book
the thing wouldn’t have garnered a second look
But there is no “had not,” you see
and – what’s more – he offered advice for free
Now that I know he’s on borrowed time,
spending someone else’s dime,
I wish he’d spend mine!
So Pinot, Cabernet, you name the type
I’ll send it with thanks near o’er ripe
Seventy times seven bottles to give
Hoping seventy times seven eternities you’ll live

.                                              – Joshua Wren

 

Mike Peich still has his fastball at his age
and throws that inside heat like Satchel Paige.
Our formal phenom is still on his game;
the Phillies’ closer cannot say the same.

.                                              – A. M. Juster

 

Mike Peich
Took a vast hike
Down to the wine cellar.
He is quite the feller.

Peich, Mike?
What’s not to like?
You tellin’ me
The bastard’s seventy?

Dianne’s old man
Made a big plan.
So what’s so baffling
About God’s laughling?

Old man Peich
Made a lucky strike.
I know it by dint
Of I seen it in print.

 .                                          –  David Mason

Our birthday card for Petrarch: “his deepest torments are shockingly foreign”

Saturday, July 20th, 2013
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Where would we be without both of them?

sainte-claire-avignon

Met and buried here.

Happy birthday, Francesco Petrarca (a.k.a. Petrarch), born this day in 1304. What better way to celebrate the Tuscan poet’s birthday today than with this Venetian painting, circa 1510, which portrays him with the lady who rejected him in life, Laura de Noves? She rebuffed him for good reason; she was married with children at the time of their first meeting.  As Samuel Maio writes in his foreword to A.M. Justers translations, published by Birch Brook Press (2001), it was “a longing intensified by the cultural, religious, and moral fates that have deemed her unreachable. Perhaps this is the reason for our age’s attraction to Petrarch, that his deepest torments are shockingly foreign and mysteriously antiquated compared to our culture’s insistence on immediate (if not satisfactory) gratification of our every whim and concupiscent impulse.”

But I have become intrigued with both figures for other reasons, for I am in love with Avignon.

That small Provençal city is where the poet first encountered Laura.  She was born in Avignon during the Babylonian Captivity, when the city was the hub of Western Christendom.  Petrarch summed their relationship this way:

Laura, illustrated by her virtues and well-celebrated in my verse, appeared to me for the first time during my youth in 1327, on April 6, in the Church of Saint Claire in Avignon, in the first hour of the day; and in the same city, in the same month, on the same sixth day at the same first hour in the year of 1348, withdrew from life, while I was at Verona, unconscious of my loss…. Her chaste and lovely body was interred on the evening of the same day in the church of the Minorites: her soul, as I believe, returned to heaven, whence it came.

Plaque_dépossée_sur_la_façade_du_Couvent_Sainte-Claire_Avignon_by_JM_RosierOr, as he expressed it in his Canzioniere, in Juster’s translations:

Love, just when hope,
the yield from all my faith, had bloomed,
I lost the one whose mercy I assumed.

She died at the age of 38 in the year 1348, on April 6th, another Good Friday, and 21 years to the hour that Petrarch first saw her.  One biographer wrote that we know little about her except that she possessed great beauty. I rather doubt we know even that. I’ve known too many men to see extraordinary charm in ordinary faces, and enough of a Jungian to know that we project much of ourselves into the beloved. I suspect he saw in her, as his father’s chum Dante saw in another woman: grace and dignity and proportion and (let’s hope) a profound spiritual dimension that made her worthy of attention, though not inclined to be silly if she was ever aware of the rapture she had inspired. 

Recalling, perhaps, the Paschal associations with their meeting and her death, Petrarch wrote:

justerHe did not grace Rome when he came to Earth,
but chose Judea, for above all traits
it pleased Him to exalt humanity.

And so to show that He appreciates
both nature and my Lady’s place of birth,
a village sun becomes his legacy.

So let us celebrate both today, in the remaining hours of the day.  Were it not for her, we would not have Petrarch’s Canzoniere – and without the Canzoniere, I doubt we would be remembering this day with quite so much veneration.