Saturday, October 4, 2008

John Surowiecki

Recently, I've been reading John Surowiecki's book of poems The Hat City after Men Stopped Wearing Hats. It won the Washington Prize for Poetry in 2006, and it is excellent. John is smart and funny and humane. He pulls off that most difficult role: he's a writer who has something important to say about the way we live and die, and he does it in a way that makes you feel he's not afraid of being human, one of us, a friend.

Here's one of the many fine poems in the book that mixes the elegaic and the comic:

The Polka King’s Death (1963)

They liked that his casket was lined with robin’s-
egg-blue satin undulating in G-clef patterns
and that his golden initials, so cleverly intertwined
and flecked with stars and Saturns and grace-
noted comets, once again blazoned from his pocket;
most of all, they liked that he kept his fez.

He had played at all their weddings, started
them on all their journeys, all bound for the same
unremarkable place, all the same to him.
He had given them a day of joy and frenzied music,
a day without bosses or angry looks or remarks
about being poor or uneducated or just plain stupid.

In return, they gave him a joyless hour and, heads
bowed, they sang their sluggish hymns.


John is also a terrific playwright, and his play My Nose and Me: A TragedyLite or TragiDelight in 33 Scenes will be given a dramatic reading at the University of Connecticutt, Storrs, on Thursday, November 13 at the Nafe Katter Theatre at 7 pm.

The play won the Poetry Foundation’s first Pegasus Award for Verse Drama. Inspired by Gogol’s story, “The Nose,” it recounts how a man and his proboscis battle cancer and win. Praising the play’s madcap ingenuity, the Poetry Foundation website describes Surowiecki’s protagonist as a man who “suffers not only the dread, despair, and indignity of cancer treatment but also the temporary disappearance of his nose,” which departs to travel the world.

Presented as part of the English Department's Creative Sustenance Series & Connecticut Repertory Theatre's Uncommon Sense Series, this event is a benefit for the Covenant Soup Kitchen in Willimantic. Audience members are invited to make a donation or bring canned goods.

Before I forget, let me also say that John won the Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry last year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Congratulations to John Guzlowski

I'm breaking the holiday quiet to announce that co-collaborator John Guzlowski's poem, "What My Father Believed," was read by Garrison Keillor today on Writer's Almanac. This poem is a wonderful example of poetry worth reading. Hit the link and listen three or four times. Enjoy, and Happy New Year from Poetry Worth Reading.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Modus Operandi: Poetry Worth Reading

Sitting with John over coffee one day, chatting about blogs, their merits and advantages, we started talking about doing something with poetry. At the time I'd recently finished a review, one about a book that I loved, but the review kept coming back with the admonition, "Cut more." The result, which understandably fit better into traditional print media, was that I had to cut many quoted lines of poetry from the review. As a former editor, I completely understood the motivation to make it smaller, more efficient, and more pithily objective, so I did. Paper is expensive.

But the process also started us thinking about creating a venue for talking about poetry that we like without the limitations (and, truth be told, the institutional advantages). We wanted a space to quote freely and write more casually about work we are reading and perhaps teaching, work that influences or challenges our own writing. We want to start a conversation about good poetry rather than simply pass judgment.

To that end, this. Look forward to appreciations, conversations, defenses, and other peregrinations regarding all things poetical.

Poetry I Really Really Like: A MANIFESTO by John Guzlowski

Let me first say that there are poets and poems I really really like.

Here's a short list of poets who immediately and without prompting come to mind:

Whitman, Robert Lowell, Emily Dickinson, Randall Jarrell, Robert Frost, Ai, Wisława Szymborska, Homer, Francois Villon, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Elizabeth Bishop, Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert (we share a first name!), Auden, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Karl Shapiro, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Allen Ginsberg, Eavan Boland, Donald Hall, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Most of the poets on the list are dead, and the ones that aren't are getting along.

I'm not sure what that means except maybe it takes a while to figure out who you really like and who you really don't like. Poets and poems grow on you, or maybe you grow into them.

I've got an essay online about my relationship to the poetry of Emily Dickinson that talks about that. When I was a student I thought that what she was trying to tell me through her poems was pretty miserable, useless. I said, in fact, "They should feed this stuff [her poems] to the cows." I don't feel that way about her anymore. In fact, she's in the list above. Here's the link that will take you to my essay about what changed my mind. It's listed under essays in the menu on the left of the screen that will come up. Also, there's a poem there called "Midnight" about what I thought about her when I was a student:

I've been thinking about and reading the poets in the above list for a while and I can say without equivocation that I really really like them.

I think that one of the other things my list of poets says about my taste in poetry is that I like serious poets, poets who tend to take a more or less gloomy view of things, see the dark side, the Darth Vader side of things.

So what's Whitman doing on the list?

Well, he's got that dark side too. It's there with his sunny side. He's a man who knows about the blues. You get this in a lot of his poems, but one I like a lot is one that's not read much. It's buried in the half a thousand pages that make up the later editions of Leaves of Grass. It's a poem called "This Compost." In it, Whitman talks about the wind that rises from the "sour dead" and licks his naked skin.

Yeah, Whitman has his gloomy side.

I like poets who talk about everyday things too, tools and hammers, car parts, branches and limbs of trees, the way a head turns when a person feels too much sun on the back of his neck.

I teach poetry writing, and I'm always telling students to make sure that their poems have everyday things in them, things like hands and arms, feet and lips in them. I like poems that are crisp in that way. John Milton didn't make my list, but he was a guy who knew something about feet. You read Paradise Lost, and you hear him talk over and over about the sound feet make when they step on grass or what it's like to step on something you're not used to stepping on.

Someone asked me recently how I know what is good poetry and what isn't. There is the long story of what is good and the short story of what is good. The long story involves criteria and personal biography, the short story involves a simple statement. I'll give you the short story. What I feel is "good" is what touches me. All of the poets I mentioned above touched me. And that's why I read them and continue to read them.

This is getting too long so I'll just mention one other thing about the poets I like. I don't know if all of them are like this, but enough of them are so I'll mention it here. They write long sentences. I like the rhythm that you get when a sentence goes on and on and on, and you don't know when it will end but you're sure it will, and you're sure also that when you do get to the ending you'll feel exhausted but happy.

Whitman writes sentences like that, and Frost and Ai do too. Not always but enough of the time.

I'm sure that there are other things that make me like the poems I like (a sense of a personal "I" is one), but I think I'll save that for some other time.