Louise Glück’s Way of Telling the Truth

Louise Glück is one of those American who is temperamentally diametrically opposed to me, but whose style I greatly admire. Her austere, pared-down poems are deeply confessional, but you don’t quite know what the poet confesses to, so deeply embedded is the truth in her narrative. Like Elizabeth Bishop, she wants to reshape events from memory, with discipline, technical precision, and above all a certain distancing. Restraint is her favourite tool, but we can guess at an undercurrent of passion.

Bearing testimony, she seems to suggest, is the poet’s fate:

I’ll tell you

what I meant to be-

a device that listened…

Not inert. Still.

A piece of wood. A stone.

I was born to a vocation

to bear witness

to the great mysteries.

The poet has stated in essays that she often writes poems backward: she begins with the abstract insight or illumination that she wants to demonstrate and then tries to find a real-life example to relate it to. She often turns away from the very specific and concrete – this is not the poetry of rich detail, allowing you to feel textures, colours, tastes – but a poetry of the abstract, the universal.

Does it matter where the birds go? Does it even matter what species they are?

They leave here, that’s the point,

first their bodies, then their sad cries.

And from that moment cease to exist for us.

You must learn to think of our passion that way.

Each kiss was real, then

each kiss left the face of the earth.

Winning the National Book Awards for poetry in 2014.

She has a wonderful way of blending the personal with the myths of the Ancient World, especially in the two collections which are of most bleak comfort to someone going through a divorce: Meadowlands and Vita Nova. Yet, in an interview, she takes issue with being called ‘grim’ or ‘bleak’.

Unless it is grim to write a poetry that does not soothe or placate or encourage (except in the sense that it might, if it worked, dignify a certain kind of struggle). Or grim to write without a taste for noble thought or moral heroism. Perception seems to me in its very essence not grim: it tacitly believes meaning exists, that experience has complexity and weight, that accuracy is of the most immense importance.

The sustained blessing of my life has been the weird conviction that certain kinds of distilled utterance have unique, timeless, unquestioned value. This conviction confers meaning on experience.

I’ll close with fragments from one of my favourite poems: The Untrustworthy Speaker. Notice the cool detachment of her spin on confessional poetry (if you can bear to use that word).

Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken.
I don’t see anything objectively.
I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist.
When I speak passionately,
that’s when I’m least to be trusted.
In my own mind, I’m invisible: that’s why I’m dangerous.
People like me, who seem selfless,
we’re the cripples, the liars;
we’re the ones who should be factored out
in the interest of truth.
When I’m quiet, that’s when the truth emerges.
That’s why I’m not to be trusted.
Because a wound to the heart
is also a wound to the mind.

Advertisements

Maxine Kumin on Poetry

At first sight, Maxine Kumin is not the obvious poet that would appeal to me. Calm, contained, not really confessional or overtly feminist, she writes lovingly observed nature poems, depicting life in New England, her horses, her garden. Yet there is something there, in that deliberate simplicity, a real warmth beneath the coolness, that makes me feel like I am drinking delicious fresh spring water when I read her. In the Poets on Poetry series that I am currently slightly obsessed with, she has some brilliant insights into her own poetic work and that of others (she was famously great friends with Anne Sexton, who’s a very different type of poet).

I often go in search of one thing and come back with another. Yes, there is a definite spin-off from one poem to another, because in the process of narrowing in on a subject a lot of peripheral i deas occur which then struggle to announce themselves. Some of them insist on becoming poems.

Writing a poem, she insists, is ‘at least to some extent a mysical process’. When a poem is ready to be written, she gets ‘a real prickle at the base of my neck’. She doesn’t think things through before writing, just scribbles things down, because she is often startled and perplexed at what is building. ‘The whole process of writing the poem is a process of elucidation’.

You begin with the chaos of impressions and feelings, this aura that overtakes you, that forces you to write. And, in the process of writing, as you marshal your arguments… your metaphors really, as you pound and hammer the poem into shape and into form, the order – the marvellous infomring order emerges from it… You feel, to that degree, reborn.

Of course, there are a lot of things that fall by the wayside in the process, what she calls the ‘bone pile – all the little snippets that failed and the aborted poems and stuff’. She tells poets to never throw any of that away, because later in life you might come back to it and find something that you couldn’t deal with earlier.

There’s a line from a Sexton poem: ‘The writer is essentially a crook./Out of used furniture he makes a tree.’… That is what art should do: create something natural out of all the used-up sticks and bureaus of our lives, the detritus of our lives.

She admits to being somewhat scared of free verse, that she prefers to have some constraint in poetic form, which gives you permission to be more honest with your feelings.

When I’m writing free verse, I feel as though I am in Indiana, where it’s absolutely flat and you can see the horizon 360 degrees around. You feel as if you have no eyelids, you can’t blink. I lose, I have no sense of the line.

She is surprisingly upbeat about the effect that teaching has on her poetry:

It’s very good for me. I think of it as a discipline… I feel I get as much as I give… It keeps me on my toes, probably stimulates me to write more poems than I otherwise would. I’m really very lazy by nature…. I find more ways to evade getting down to business than a centipede has legs. It’s just astonishing the things that I can suddenly decide need doing that have nothing to do with writing.

She finds her family, her community, with other writers, because it is such a solitary job that writers like to get together and moan about how terrible and lonely and difficult writing is. That aspect of the writing life certainly seems to be timeless!

But there are some interesting historical observations as well: even back then in the 1970s, she said she would not recommend poetry as a career, because it is ‘a thin living at best’. Only do it if it’s ‘an obsession, the scratching of a divine itch… nothing to do with money.’ She remembers back in the 1950s, early 1960s when editors would write to her that they could not accept any poems from her for 6 months or so, because they had already published a woman poet in the preceding month.

Above all, I appreciate her ‘kick-in-the-backside’ advice for wannabe poets and writers:

I thin there’s a real value to forcing [yourself to write]/ I do not think it hurst at all to write to assignment… Get in the habit of jotting down states of mind or weather reports. It’s habit forming and it’s good. Also, I do not think anybody becomes a writer who is not a juge reader, omnivorous and wide-ranging. You have to love words, and you have to be willing to take lots of risks with words, and be willing to write really bad stuff in order to get to the good stuff. You only grow by doing…

Denise Levertov in Her Own Words

After reading Robert Bly’s ruminations about poetry, I wanted to read more poets on poetry. It’s always inspiring, even though occasionally it sounds like they are making it up, to provide legitimacy after writing a poem. Perhaps it’s their own way of reflecting on their work. I certainly find poets have much more trouble articulating consistently what they try to achieve with their poetry. They are perhaps too open to change, to different interpretations, to evolving over the course of one’s lifetime. And, of course, there is probably no ‘purpose’ in poetry at all, or if it has too obvious a purpose, it ceases to be poetry.

A young Levertov.

Anyway, long preamble to say that I borrowed a small volume from the libary entitled Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, published in 1979 but containing essays and interviews going as far back as the 1950s. Levertov is truly a citizen of the world: an American poet with a Russian name, born and raised in England, with a Welsh mother (and a Russian Jewish father who became an Anglican priest), she also translated from French and Italian (although she only spoke the former). She was also very politically engaged, worked as a nurse during the war, campaigned against the war in Vietnam, supported and encouraged feminist and leftist writing. She is perhaps the perfect contrast to Robert Bly’s far more ivory tower approach to poetry, with his need for solitude and finding inspiration in nature. This becomes obvious when she talks candidly about Bly, but in fact they have similar thoughts about inspiration and craftsmanship.

But visual imagery can be overemphasized, and I think that is what dissatisfies me about so much of the poetry of Robert Bly and the Sixties group write. I like some of it very much, but Bly’s point of view is too much based on phanopoeia (visual image). I think the visual image is terribly important, but it must be accompanied by melopoeia (sound)… of a distinctly expressive kind, not just the musical over-and-aboveness that Pound speaks of in How to Read.

Elsewhere, she has the dancer’s discipline when it comes to poetry (she trained as a dancer in her youth). She creates (in my mind) this image of poetry as some kind of primordial sea that all poets flow into whether rivers or streams. They are all contributing to Poetry in some small way.

I believe that the gift of being able to write poetry must always be considered as a gift. It’s a responsibility, whether one considers it given by God or Nature. It’s something which the poet must take seriously. His responsibility is not to himself, not to his career, but to poetry itself…

She is also very clear-eyed about reading and teaching poetry:

It’s natural that people want to feel that they have understood what has been said, and sometimes a degree of interpretive paraphrase may be necessary if you want to talk about a poem. But you can receive a poem, you can comprehend a poem without talking about it. Teachers at all levels encourage the idea that you have to talk about things in order to understand them, because they wouldn’t have jobs otherwise. But it’s phony, you know.

Above all, I enjoy her discussion of inspiration, what sparks a poem and gives it life.

There is often a kind of preliminary feeling, a sort of aura… which alerts one to the possibility of a poem. You can smell the poem before you can see it. Like some animal… Hmmm, seems like a bear’s around here…

Very tempted to try and locate this biography of Levertov now…

A poem in which the intellect and conscious mind have predominated can be a very good poem, but not at deep levels… In the first-rate poems, something the method breaks and something utterly unpredictable happens… a sudden illumination.

The most interesting poetry can move back and forth with perfect ease between the rational and the irrational.

She was well known as a bit of a stickler for how poetry should be read and carefully ‘annotated’ her own poems with indentations and punctuation, becoming too prescriptive, as her students used to tell her.

I defend it, absolutely, because I feel that it’s exactly like the writing down of music. When music is written, it allows a considerable amount of interpretation to the performer, and yet it is always definitely that piece of music and no other… without that much care about the structure of a poem, I think what you have is a lot of slop.

Given how demanding she is with the way her poems appear on the page, you can imagine that she is frustrated by the limitations of the printed format (I dread to think what she’d have thought of ebooks, which I find almost unusable for poetry). As someone who adores oddly sized books but has experienced some frustrations with shelving them, I could relate to the following:

It bugs me when I have a line broken up that way… I have wished that poetry books could be different dimensions… but my publishers tell me it’s very hard to change the dimensions of books. Bookshelves are designed to hold books of certain dimensions, booksellers don’t like to handle books that are odd shapes…

Robert Bly in Conversation

Here are some passages that resonated with me from the book Talking All Morning with Robert Bly, in the series Poets on Poetry published by the University of Michigan Press. Although Bly keeps referring to ‘he’ and ‘him’ when he talks about poets (typical of the late 1960s perhaps), I do agree to a large extent with his breakdown of poetic talent or craft.  

Let’s imagine the poem to be some kind of knife. The poet uses the poem to cut through the dead tissues in himself, and through certain filaments or sinews that are holding him to past patterns… But the poem can also be a two-edged knife, with two sharp edges. The whole thing moves like a pendulum and when the knife swings back, it swings away from the private and cuts into something public.

In Anglo-Saxon literary life we’ve always had the knife sharp only on one edge, with the other edge deliberately blunted, so that when it swung back into public life, it did not cut… It’s perfectly clear that Pasternak, by contrast, uses a two-edged knife…

Basho said, ‘To express the flavor of the inner mind, you must agonize during many days.’ That is a wonderful sentence! The purpose of it all is not to write long, endless poems, but to express the flavor of the inner mind… Two hours of solitude seem about right for every line of poetry.

The Japanese say the haiku is a poem in which there’s a tiny explosion inside – and if that’s not there, I don’t care how many syllables it has, then it’s not a haiku. And that little tiny explosion brings the life to this creature.


I dislike the word ‘craft’ when it comes to poetry. Craft suggest an inanimate object, as when we say a carpenter crafts a chest of drawers… Making the poem from the beginning involves three different areas of experience. The first … is interior… When the poet touches something for the first time, something far inside of him. It’s connected with what the ancients called The Mysteries… If any person comes near that experience he or she will never forget it the rest of his life. If he writes poetry it will come from that.

The second necessary stage… I would call something like cunning. And cunning involves the person’s rearranging his life in such a way that he can feel the first experience again. This is worldly and involves common sense… For Rilke… cunning meant finding long periods of solitude.

The third stage could be called ‘letting the animal live’… psychic energy. Living energy is more growing the tree than shaping it. In the US the emphasis on craft and technique comes too early, before the wood has been grown.

Taking care of animals is the best preparation for writing poems. When you write poems, you feed poems language. Instead of craft, I talk about ‘letting the creature live.

Asymptote Fall 2018 issue is out now

Or ‘Autumn’, for those of us who are still resisting the encroachment of Americanisms into our daily speech. With photography by Olaya Barr, visual arts, drama, non-fiction, poetry, fiction and reviews, there is something for everyone here

So many goodies to explore! As usual, the sheer ambition and mix of languages is dazzling. 31 countries featured in this issue alone. Togo is represented here for the first time, bringing the total of countries in the archives up to 122.  The number of languages featured is now at 102, with the inclusion of Q’anjob’al from Guatemala.

Just a few of the things I want to read at leisure during my holidays, if I have internet connection:

  • the special feature on Catalan fiction, about which I still know far too little beyond Mercè Rodoreda and Jaume Cabré
  • Phillip Lopate talking about the personal essay as ‘a mode of being’
  • Abdellah Taïa about why he chooses to write in French – asking himself if he even likes this language anymore, this has real emotional resonance with me, since I too write in my ‘non-native’ language
  • An intriguing review about the unfinished novel of one of the great losses to Chinese literature Xiao Hong.

The contrast between intriguing possibility and depressing probability is perhaps widest of all with Xiao Hong, who, in her brief thirty-one years on this planet, managed to write some of the finest Chinese fiction of the twentieth century. I wonder what would have happened to her had she lived another few decades, but I doubt it would have been anything good.

Dylan Suher

#WITMonth: Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs Moscow Diaries 1917-22, edited and translated by Jamey Gambrell.

It has just occurred to me that for someone who likes to read and write poetry so much, I should have read more poetry by women in translation this month (which would have been easier than novels too, and would have allowed me to feature more women). Ah, well, as they say in Romania – give the Romanian the mind in retrospect!

Tsvetaeva in 1917.

So let me try to make up for it a tiny bit by reviewing a poet’s diaries. Marina Tsvetaeva is often described as the most Russian of poets, even though she claimed her first language was German and it was German poetry she turned to most for inspiration. She was certainly one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, and her life was full of political and personal drama, culminating in her suicide at the age of 48 during the Second World War, when practically her entire family was taken into labour camps by the Soviets. Here is a fragment from one of my favourite poems by her; entitled ‘Homesickness’, it encapsulates the feeling of loss, betrayal, anger of a writer in exile:

And I won’t be seduced by the thought of
my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I
am misunderstood by whoever I meet

(or by what readers, swallowing
newspring, squeezing for gossip?)
They all belong to the twentieth
century, and I am before time

stunned, like a long left
behind from an avenue of trees.
People are all the same to me, everything
is the same, and it may be the most

indifferent of all are these
signs and tokens which once were
native but the dates have been
rubbed out: the soul was born somewhere.

For my country has taken so little care
of me that even the sharpest spy could
go over my whole spirit and would
detect no native stain there.

Houses are alien, churches are empty
everything is the same:
But if by the side of the path one
particular bush rises
the rowanberry…

Moscow in 1917.

However, in these diaries of 1917-22, she is still in the country that will disenchant her and she comes across a very strong, resilient person and artist, who manages to keep her brain working and her pen flowing even when faced with revolution (she was from a wealthy family and lost everything), civil war (her side lost), her husband missing in war for three years, mind-numbing job, starvation (her younger daughter died of malnutrition) and a hostile environment around her. She makes me feel like a snowflake for ever complaining about hardship or not having time to create:

The brilliant advice of S. (the son of an artist). At some point during the winter, I complained (laughing, of course!) that I had absolutely no time to write. ‘I work till five, then there is the fire to light, then the wash, then bathing, then putting the children to bed.’

‘Write at night!’

In this there was: disdain for my body, trust of my spirit, a high mercilessness, which honored both S. and me.

The highest tribute of an artist  – to an artist.

She is almost comically inept in all practical matters, too outspoken for her own good, soldiering on, fierce, indomitable, at times desperate, but also abrasive and satirical. Her description of  her rival (although she would not deign to regard him as such), the Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov, for instance, in the section A Hero of Labor is utterly, delightfully wicked. She mocks his introduction to a poetry reading by nine women poets that he has organised:

Woman. Love. Passion. Woman, from the beginning of time, has known how to sing only of love and passion. The only passion of woman – is love. Every love of a woman – is passion. Outside of love, woman – in creative work, is nothing. Take passion away from woman… Woman… Love… Passion…

Typical communal flat kitchen in Soviet Russia, taken from Expatica website.

She describes sordid details of everyday life, almost too painful to contemplate, but also manages to rise above them with witty, acerbic observations:

There are almost no men: in the Revolution, as always, the weight of everyday life falls on women: previously in sheaves, now in sacks. (Everyday life is a sack: with holes. And you carry it anyway.)

Another young Marina Tsvetaeva picture, from Odessa Review.

She has no illusions about Communism although she doesn’t seem to have too much nostalgia about the past either. She may regret losing her old home, but on the whole:

The difference between the old and new orders:

The old order: ‘A soldier came by… We made pancakes… Our grandmother died.’

Soldiers still come, grandmothers die, only no one makes pancakes anymore.

I have long regretted that I am only able to read this poet in translation (I’d have learnt Russian for her and Dostoevsky alone), for most translators agree her voice is very difficult to capture. Yet Joseph Brodsky also has this interesting observation about her:

Tsvetaeva’s voice had the sound of something unfamiliar and frightening to the Russian ear: the unacceptability of the world. It was not the reaction of a revolutionary or a progressive demanding changes for the better, nor was it the conservatism or snobbery of an aristocrat who remembers better days. On the level of content, it was a question of the tragedy of existence in general, par excellence, outside a temporal context.

These diaries are such a wonderful insight into the mind and tormented life of a fascinating and controversial poet (I keep wondering if people would have been more lenient with her if she had been a tormented genius of a man). I filled them with pagemarkers and post-its, and will be returning to them again and again.

 

Speaking in Tongues (Poetry)

I learnt to breathe in Romanian
but I swallowed the secrets of English with my breakfast
sprinkled German consonants on my lunch
and took small French sips of my champagne

And now I cannot unsay
or jump in tangential arcs from one rooftop to the next
with gleeful glance at the abyss
rushing up to stun me at every move.

At times I fear
to speak at all in words
of more than one syllable.

But if, by the side of a poem,
there is a sharp intake of breath, that too
is the echo of my mothertongue.