Posts Tagged ‘W.S. Merwin’

Congratulations, once again, to Dana Gioia!

Saturday, January 25th, 2014
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gioia

Dana at Stanford in 2007 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Once again, Dana Gioia has a new honor: This time, the Sewanee Review has just announced that he will receive this year’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.

Previous winners have included Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, W.S. Merwin, Anne Stevenson, Donald Hall, X.J. Kennedy, and others.

Dana, known for his poetry, criticism, and arts advocacy, holds the newly created Judge Widney Chair in Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.  He’s also a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and has received a number of honors in recent years, including the Laetare Medal. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here and, oh, perhaps a zillion other places.

His most recent collection is Pity the Beautiful – we’ve written about it here, and I’ve published excerpts from the volume, also here.  Writing in Best American Poetry, David Lehman stated unequivocally:  “I have no hesitation in declaring it to be his finest to date . . . These poems in which sentiment is refined by technical prowess, and simple words combine to make music and meaning merge marvelously and memorably.”

Pity-The-BeautifulI love all the Gioias – including those I have never met (his parents, for example) – so perhaps my favorite passage from the announcement is this one:

Gioia’s poetic philosophy—particularly his belief that poetry should “touch on those things that are central to people’s lives”—can be traced back to his childhood in Los Angeles, where his Sicilian father and Mexican mother raised him. He remembers that his mother, who, he says, received no education beyond high school, recited poems to him by heart and read others from a “crumpled old book that had belonged to her mother.” Because of this, Gioia says, “I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.”

The awards ceremony will take place February 19 at the University of the South in Sewanee.  David Mason will give a lecture on Dana’s work on the 18th.

Seth Abramson dons “Kick me!” sign; makes list of top 200 advocates for poetry.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013
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Jane-Hirshfield

Jane made the cut.

Seth Abramson is an intrepid man in a country that publishes 20,000 books of poetry each decade, among 75,000 poets (who counts them, and how?) Here’s why: he has issued a list of “The Top 200 Advocates for Poetry (2013)” in the Huffington Post – it’s here, as well as on dartboards across the U.S.  We all love lists, of course, and everyone has an opinion on how they should be done – this one, particularly.  Two hundred is long enough to give the impression that everyone ought to be included, but short enough that not everyone can be. So Abramson’s gesture is akin to wearing a “Kick me!” sign on your back. He begins by almost apologizing: “The poets favored by one reader will invariably not be the poets favored by another; in fact, it’s getting harder and harder to find two readers whose reading interests or even reading lists exhibit much overlap at all. Too many such lists, such as the widely- and justly-panned one recently published by Flavorwire, exhibit obvious age, race, ethnicity, and (particularly) geographic biases.”  We would like to fault him, first of all, for hyphening an adverb that ends in “ly,” which is never done – moreover, it’s dangerous to begin a list by dissing someone else’s. In that way, you’ve made your first enemy already.

Wilbur2

Lifetime achievement, for sure.

He continues for some paragraphs in the same vein: “As a contemporary poetry reviewer who publishes his review-essays in The Huffington Post, I have no special access to knowledge of who is or isn’t doing the most to be an advocate for American poetry (a term I define very broadly) on a national or global scale. While I’m lucky to have access to many more published poetry collections than most poets or poetry readers do, as like any reviewer I regularly receive poetry collections in the mail from U.S. and international publishers, because the list below isn’t intended to detail who’s presently writing the best poetry, but is rather simply a list of who’s doing the best to advocate for American poetry by any and all means (including by writing it, but by no means limited to the authorial function), I’m not in a much better position than others are to generate a list of the most influential poetry advocates in America and beyond.”

Well, sure, I guess.  That said, we were pleased to see a number of friends and colleagues on the list – Kay Ryan, Jane Hirshfield,  W.S. Merwin, Don Share, Ron Silliman, Helen Vendler, Heather McHugh, Allison Joseph, Eavan Boland, Mark McGurl – and nonagenarian Richard Wilbur, a lifetime achievement award, for sure.

hirsch

Where’s Ed?

Abramson qualifies that “the list below is neither exhaustive nor authoritative nor superlative. I have no doubt that I’ve missed a number of important names, due either to forgetfulness or an unconscious bias or simply (and most likely) sheer ignorance of who’s doing what across the vast landscape of American literature. … Those poets and allies of poetry offering contributions to American poetry commensurate with the contributions of the individuals listed below should therefore consider themselves honorary members of the ‘Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry” list as well.’

RSGWYNNThen he issued this invitation: “I strongly encourage readers of this list to contribute their own names to the comment section below the article.”  Needless to say, there were a number of people ready to take him up on the offer, including other friends’ names.  What?  No Edward Hirsch?  What?  No Robert Hass?  And no mention of Dana Gioia, whose work at the NEA was tireless?

Naturally, Humble Moi didn’t make the list – but to my surprise, I did make it in the first few comments in the section afterward, for which I’m grateful to R.S. Gwynn, another friend, who did make the list:

“I’m happy to be listed here (even though I’d like to be known as ‘poet and critic’) but I miss the presence of such names as Alfred Corn, the late Tom Disch, Dana Gioia, Cynthia Haven, X. J. Kennedy, and David Mason, all of whom are (or were in Tom’s case) great advocates.

As a small plug, I’d like to mention that I edited a book of the works of modernist poet-critics some years ago. Its title?  The Advocates of Poetry.

Just for that, here’s a picture of Sam Gwynn’s book, which discusses John Crowe Ransom, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, John Ciardi, and Robert Penn Warren – great advocates of poetry all.

 

W.S. Merwin: “If something can’t be said, what do you do? You scream.”

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011
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"Famously handsome." (Photo: Dido Merwin)

Hat tip to Maureen Mroczek Morris for sending this Q&A with W.S. Merwin, former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer prizewinner.

In this interview with Nick Owchar of the Los Angeles Times, the poet talks about his friendship with Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz.  He talks about that subject at more length in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, but here he talks about his relationship to technology, too:

Though Milosz is gone, can he still function as a mentor to other poets?

Oh, I think so, and I think every poet can do that. I still find myself reciting for pleasure, as I have ever since I was 18, [Yeats’] “Sailing to Byzantium” and hearing something in one of the lines that I didn’t hear before. You go on learning. What a great poem teaches you, and it’s not intellectual at all, is the resonance in the language that’s heard there. This goes back to the very origins of poetry and to the very origins of language. I think poetry is as old as language, and both come out of the same thing — an effort to try to express something that is inexpressible. If something can’t be said, what do you do? You scream. You make some terrible noise of pain or anguish or anger or something like that. You make a sound, an animal-like sound which, with time and society trying to calm you down, begins to take shape into something.

Is there still a place for this kind of primal expression in our wired-up culture?

I wonder, and I think one of the problems about so-called virtual reality — which is not even virtual and it’s certainly not reality either — is that homo faber [“man the creator”] is a creature who has made things that substitute for him doing them himself. These things may do them more conveniently, but they always atrophy his abilities to do them at all.

I’d guess that you probably don’t tweet.

No, and I don’t use email either.

Still a mentor

Yes, but convenience seems to be the answer to why we do everything now. I can’t believe it. That reminds me of something Czeslaw once said not to me but to [Milosz’s wife] Carol. They were coming to stay with us on Maui, and our home isn’t easy to find. It’s a little remote, and you can’t see it from the road. Czeslaw told Carol, ‘Wherever we go to see William, I know one thing. It’s always going to be a little hard to get there, and there won’t be many other places around it.’ It’s true. All of the places I’ve ever loved in my life have been inconvenient, and that has been part of the beauty too, you know.

It’s the same with poetry. What about the student who asks, ‘Why do we need to memorize a poem when we can find it on the Internet?’ In other words, why should I have this experience when I can allow the computer to have it for me? That is one of the things that still makes me deeply suspicious.


Kay Ryan wins the Pulitzer Prize: “I would like my work to be weightless.”

Monday, April 18th, 2011
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In praise of lightness: Marin's self-sytled "Sheriff of Emptiness" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Kay Ryan has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.  I wrote about the Marin poet here during a recent visit to Stanford.  I blogged some outtakes from my interview with her eight years ago here. And I’ve written about her elsewhere, too – oh, for San Francisco Magazine, in an October 2004 article, “Let There Be Lightness,” which isn’t, alas, online.  (Postscript on 4/19:  It is online now – here.)

An excerpt from that piece, in honor of the occasion:

A bubble. The foam on a stein of beer. A tulip quivering on a slender stem. A feather, to counterpoise the world’s density, inertia, heaviness.

Lightness is a much underrated virtue, and a much misunderstood one. “Lightness” does not mean being vapid or intellectually shallow. It means looking at the world from a different perspective, with a different system of weights and measures. Marin County poet Kay Ryan—a very quiet writer who is suddenly creating a lot of noise—does exactly that in her poems.

It’s a pickle, this life.
Even shut down to a trickle
it carries every kind of particle
that causes strife on a grander scale….

The lightness of atoms inhabits Ryan’s fey, easy-on-the-ear poetry, which wins her instant fans at her occasional, low-key readings. She explains what she’s after this way: “It’s the object of my life to get things to float. Because I like it. Because it’s a relief. It is relief. It’s freedom. So I would like my work to be weightless.”

But in today’s grim and weighty world, she’s been rebuked with charges of insubstantiality, even frivolity. Library Journal gave Ryan’s 1994 book of poems, Flamingo Watching, a stern “not recommended,” commenting, “Ryan’s cramped syllabics have a monotonous density that too often mistakes sound for sense… these poems are derivative and lacking in substance.”

The winning book

There’s nothing frivolous, however, about the attention Ryan has been getting lately, finally, after decades of writing and six books of poetry, including 2000’s Say Uncle. Within a few months last spring, she won both a $40,000 Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and the $100,000 Ruth Lilly prize from Chicago’s esteemed Poetry magazine.  The award, praising a “singularity and sustained integrity that are very, very rare,” establishes her in an enviably successful firmament that includes Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, Anthony Hecht, John Ashbery, and W.S. Merwin—heavyweights all.

One thinks of Ashbery’s avant-garde experimentalism. One thinks of the erudite Hecht’s dark and troubled formal verses. One thinks of Rich’s heavy-duty poems on poverty, racism, lesbianism, violence. Or of Levine’s obsessions with working-class life in Detroit, or Merwin’s dreamy, densely imagistic poems, with their long lines. One thinks of millions of poems everywhere, trying to impress you with their suffering and how very seriously they take themselves. Clearly, Ryan is hacking out a path of her own, but with a scalpel, not a machete.

She’s not so much treating serious things lightly as she is turning the world upside down—not being drawn into its heaviness, not letting its heaviness inhabit her. In a sense, she’s been keeping the darkness of the world from extending its territory, which is a signal act of defiance, perhaps more so than that of many “protest” poems. (Witness the leaden dullness of so much of the work in the Poets Against the War movement.) Ryan’s poems may shimmer on the surface— and how is that a bad thing?—but they are compelling in the quiet knowledge they bear.

You can read the rest here.

***

Congratulations to Bruce Norris, whose Clybourne Park, won the Pulitzer for drama.  We had the pleasure – and it was indeed a pleasure – of seeing the smart, politically incorrect play a few months ago at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.  The San Francisco Chronicle‘s little man was out of his seat clapping, and Robert Hurwitt had this to say:

The jokes, lobbed like grenades, are more offensive than funny. The reactions to them are hilarious. And revealing. For us, as for the characters in Bruce Norris’ scathingly observed “Clybourne Park,” the only thing more cringe-inducing than a tiptoe around the taboo topic of race is confronting it.

As seen Thursday, “Clybourne” is the kind of trouble-making comedy of manners that tears the lid off good intentions and hypocrisies to amusing and salutary effect. And it’s being performed to discomforting perfection by the ACT cast in the pinpoint-precision stagings of California Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone in his company debut.

Attitudes toward gender, patriotism, marriage, the touchy topic of real estate and various ethnicities come under fire, but race is the elephant in the room. That would be the spacious living room of the house in Chicago’s (fictional) Clybourne Park, which undergoes its own remarkable transformation …

“So this is the sound of you”: W.S. Merwin and the Tucson memorial

Friday, January 14th, 2011
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His poem read in Tucson

Speaking of the U.S. poet laureate, I just got an email from Copper Canyon Press, publisher of the current poet laureate, W.S. Merwin.

I was unaware that this week’s memorial service in Tucson concluded with his poem, “To the New Year.” The email read: “This message speaks to the inherent power of poetry, how we reach for necessary words at times when any words are difficult to find.”

To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

Breaking news: W.S. Merwin gets email!

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010
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Old dog ... new tricks

A few weeks ago, I got a short note from Hawaii — our new poet laureate, W.S. Merwin, had a quick  correction to make to his essay in An Invisible Rope.  He hoped he wasn’t too late, he had scribbled, but he only had snail-mail to reach me — he doesn’t do fax or texting.  He barely does phone calls.  The octogenarian poet still didn’t have email, “Thank God,” he wrote.

Last July, I wondered how effective our unworldy pineapple farmer (or former pineapple farmer) would be as a U.S. poet laureate, given these circumstances.  “I do like a very quiet life,” he said by telephone to the New York Times after learning of his appointment. “I can’t keep popping back and forth between here and Washington.”  It all seemed a fairly hopeless affair.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw W.S. Merwin’s name in my electronic inbox this morning.  Hell has indeed frozen over.

Although clearly a form letter, he wrote:

Thank you for your kind words.

I was deeply honored and moved by the warmth and generosity behind all the messages. I look forward to serving as your Poet Laureate and I hope our paths will cross over the coming year.

W.S. Merwin

What can we say?  I knew a few late adopters — while working on Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, I communicated with Sven Birkerts via his son’s email account, and Peter Dale acquired one expressly to work on our manuscript for Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven — but both those cases were years ago.  Takeaway: Never underestimate the human capacity for change.

Best of luck, Bill — and good luck with the poet laureate thingumme!

“I do like a very quiet life,” says Merwin, our new poet laureate

Thursday, July 1st, 2010
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Merwin ... a genial presence

W.S. Merwin has been named the new poet laureate.  New York Times story here.  An excerpt:

“I do like a very quiet life,” Mr. Merwin said by telephone after learning of his appointment. “I can’t keep popping back and forth between here and Washington.” He said he does relish “being part of something much more public and talking too much,” however, and the job of the nation’s premier poet will enable him to do both.

Bill Merwin contributed to my forthcoming book, An Invisible Rope, so I’ve had the privilege of working with him.  In his remote enclave in Haiku, Hawaii, he continues his reputation as the genial father of the American poetry scene.  He doesn’t return phone calls promptly, doesn’t use fax or email.  He is pretty much a recluse, and likes it that way.

The position does not carry many formal duties, though laureates have traditionally undertaken projects that reach out to potential audiences.

What on earth were they thinking over at the Library of Congress? The Pulitzer prizewinning poet (receiving the award twice) doesn’t need another line on his resume.  Every possible honor has already been heaped on the octogenarian poet.

Mr. Billington said he is confident that Mr. Merwin can broaden the audience for poetry through technology, if not in person: “We even discussed the possibility of doing something using remote technology from Hawaii.”

That of course presupposes that Merwin wants technology in his life. So far he hasn’t.

Maybe it’s time that we start putting a thought into what the “poet laureate” gig is supposed to mean.  Robert Hass, another laureate, is renowned for his selfless public work.  I recall the activism of Joseph Brodsky as poet laureate, with his plan to put American poetry in every hotel room in the U.S., next to the Bible.  William Wadsworth, executive director of the Academy of American poets from 1989 to 2001, recalls Brodsky muscular approach to the job here:

We spoke on the phone three days before he died. I was still at the Academy and we were continuing to work with Joseph on the project of distributing poetry anthologies around the country. Joseph called me at the Academy, and said, “Bill, do you know what American poetry is all about?” “No, Joseph, I don’t. Please tell me.”  He said, “American poetry is all about wheels, it’s about the Open Road. It’s all about wheels . . . So, you know what you have to do?” “No, Joseph, what do I have to do?” “You have to call up the Teamsters. We have to get poetry on the trucks. So when milk is delivered in the morning to the grocery stores, they deliver poetry with the milk.”

Now the Teamsters Union is the most notoriously corrupt union in the U.S. I said, “Joseph, are you telling me that The Academy of American Poets should collaborate with organized crime?”  There was a pause. Then Joseph said, “Bill, one thing about organized crime: It’s organized.” This was the last thing he said to me.

What is the job supposed to do?  What do we want it to be?  Anything?

Expect a quiet year.