Poetry: NewsHour with Jim Lehrer - PBS Podcast
A special NewsHour series that couples profiles of contempory poets with reports on news and trends in the world of poetry.
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Weekly Poem: Ellen Bass wants you to eat that strawberry
Mon, Aug 25, 2014
“Like a Beggar” is the most recent book of poetry from Ellen Bass. Photo by Irene Young
In the first poem of her new collection, âLike a Beggar,â Ellen Bass tries to accept what she has spent her whole life avoiding: misfortune.
From the âtrivial to the tragic,â including scenes of melting ice cream in your car and your son hawking your refrigerator for drug money, Bass stops fighting what she calls the unavoidable.
âThis is a kind of a watershed poem for me,â Bass told Art Beat. âOf course you donât surrender just once so the poem has become a kind of teaching poem for me. Even though I wrote it, it talks to me and reminds me what I have to keep doing over and over.â
She closes the poem with a Buddhist story about a woman trapped on the side of a cliff. The woman arrived in that precarious position because she climbed down a vine to avoid a tiger that was chasing her, only to find another tiger below. To make matters worse, the woman looks up to find two mice gnawing at the vine that got her there.
The woman is stuck in a predicament, but she notices a wild strawberry growing near her. âShe looks up, down, at the mice./Then she eats the strawberry.â
During the seven years that Bass worked on âLike a Beggar,â she was going through a challenging time. As a narrative poet, her first inclination was to write the stories of her difficult experiences, but this time she couldnât do that. The events concerned other people and she wasnât able to write about them directly.
âAt first that really threw me for a loop — what will I do? How will I be a poet?â said Bass.
âI soon realized that I had to take this as an aesthetic challenge and that it would be good for me, that it would push me to write in ways that weren’t as familiar to me, that it would push me into new poetic territory.â
What Bass found surprised her. She ended up with a lot of odes and realized âthe harder the times the more important to praise.â That discovery can be seen in an epigraph from Rilke, which she uses to open the collection:
âBut those dark, deadly, devastating ways, /how do you bear them, suffer them?/ –I praise.â
One such poem of praise is for repetition, a daily phenomenon that Bass uniquely sees as a privilege.
âI don’t think Iâm completely alone in loving repetition, but Iâm certainly in the minority in our culture. Thereâs a great premium places on new, adventure, variety, all of that and again, in my family i get teased a lot about my kind of mule-like inclination for repetition.â
Listen to Ellen Bass read âOde to Repetitionââ from her new collection âLike a Beggar.â
Ode to Repetition
I like to take the same walk
down the wide expanse of Woodrow to the ocean,
and most days I turn left toward the lighthouse.
The sea is always different. Some days dreamy,
waves hardly waves, just a broad undulation
in no hurry to arrive. Other days the surfâs drunk,
crashing into the cliffs like a car wreck.
And when I get home I like
the same dishes stacked in the same cupboards
and then unstacked and then stacked again.
And the rhododendron, spring after spring,
blossoming its pink ceremony.
I could dwell in the kingdom of Coltrane,
the friction of air through his horn,
as he forms each syllable of “Lush Life”
over and over until I die. Once I was afraid
of this, opening the curtains every morning,
only to close them again each night.
You could despair in the fixed town of your own life.
But when I wake up to pee, Iâm grateful
the toiletâs in its usual place, the sink with its gift of water.
I look out at the street, the halos of lampposts
in the fog or the moon rinsing the parked cars.
When I get back in bed I find
the woman whoâs been sleeping there
each night for thirty years. Only sheâs not
the same, her body more naked
in its aging, its disorder. Though I still
come to her like a beggar. One morning
one of us will rise bewildered
without the other and open the curtains.
There will be the same shaggy redwood
in the neighborâs yard and the faultless stars
going out one by one into the day.
The poem ends in a much darker space than where it starts, an evolution that Bass wasnât expecting.
âEven people who donât like repetition, we all want the kind of repetition that allows the people that we love to stay in our lives and not die and we don’t want to die. We want to wake up every morning. It surprised me that this poem that started out somewhat playful about my quirks and idiosyncrasies,â said Bass.
âI was validated in my love of repetition. You may think you don’t want repetition, but you really want it, too, because you don’t want to wake up and find your beloved one gone either. â
The title of the collection comes from one line towards the end of âOde to Repetition,â where Bass references going to bed with her wife of thirty years, âher body more naked/in its aging, its disorder. Though I still/come to her like a beggar.â
âWe are all in some way beggars in this lifetime. We are at the mercy of others and at the mercy of what will happen to us. Of course, we can chose how we respond to it, but we are always praying for something to happen or not happen in one way or another. We come with these empty bowls and there’s a great deal that is given to us âŠ We are all vulnerable to whatever might befall us.â
Itâs those vulnerabilities that Bass focuses on in âRelax,â that first poem about misfortune.
âIn the poem, I was able to commit myself more to not trying to escape and instead trying to remember in any moment to eat that strawberry.â
“Ode to Repetition” from âLike a Beggarâ by Ellen Bass. Published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press. Used by permission Copper Canyon Press.
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Weekly Poem: Dan Chiasson reads âThe Flumeâ
Mon, Aug 18, 2014
Listen to Dan Chiasson read “The Flume” from his new collection “Bicentennial.”
Here we go up again, up again, the mountain
The men who have assembled it for years
Assembled yesterday, so that you and I
Headed who knows where together, but
Headed there together, will see
From the top the bottom, from the bottom the top,
Then feel the inside-outside-all-over-nowhere
My God I Am Going to Die, Not Someday, Now
Sensation that, once we plateau, feels silly,
Since when were we safer than when we sought
The danger that when it subsided returned
Us to the dangers it had blotted out?
There are no fears, here at the start:
This is when, the book just opened,
Knowing you will one day know the story
You donât know yet changes the story
You are getting to know, the way we know
Before you know what anything means it means
Something: a fireworks display, the birthday
Of the Country; thatâs me; my uncle and I
Are racing through the past on the Python,
Which men assembled absentmindedly that day
And, so you could visit it with me,
I assembled here again inside my memory;
Now, when you remember how things were
Today, you will also remember yourself
Looking forward to yourself looking back
A looking back that, here in your past,
You do already, you already say
About what happened yesterday, remember whenâŠ?
–The future doing its usual loop-de-loop,
The sons all turning into fathers
Until the absentminded men take the ride down.
Dan Chiasson has published four books of poetry, including “Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon” and “Natural History.” “Bicentennial” is his most recent collection. Chiasson is also a critic. He reviews poetry for the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review and has published one book of criticism, “One Kind of Everything: Poem and Person in Contemporary America.” A recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, a Pushcart Prize and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Chiasson teaches at Wellesly College.
Photo of Dan Chiasson by Nicholas Chiasson
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Weekly Poem: Alison Powell dissects myths to uncover human complexity
Mon, Aug 11, 2014
Alison Powell has always been a fan of the underdog. In her debut collection of poetry, âOn the Desire to Levitate,â the writer takes that attraction as inspiration for her work.
âI think that poetry, especially in the Western world, has such a tradition of celebrating beauty and celebrating passion and love. Iâve always been particularly drawn to and interested in poetry that sort of digs its way into the crevices of life that may be less attractive, less traditionally attractive,â Powell told Art Beat.
âMany of my poems are preoccupied with trying to find sympathetic perspectives on characters that may not be so sympathetic.â
The poet, a winner of Ohio University’s Hollis Summer Poetry Prize, explored a variety of subjects, from the protagonists of iconic Greek myths to different versions of herself from her own childhood. She harkened it to âapproaching these topics in reverse.â
âItâs normally the mythic character from great Western literature that we read about and expect to be heroic and exalted. Instead Iâm trying to bring them down to earth and have Hercules lamenting what his wife does to him; Eurydiceâs snarky with Orpheus,â said Powell.
One such poem is âAfter Paradise Lost,â where Powell seeks to understand Satan.
âAs many people have said, the character of Satan, despite Miltonâs best intention, comes off as infinitely more interesting than the character of God. Itâs a wonderful accident, but he’s also tremendously sympathetic. He’s a fallen angel, heâs jealous, but he loved God and that’s how he became who he became.â
Powell used poetry to think through Satanâs shift âfrom love to jealousy to destruction.â
Listen to Alison Powell reads her poem âAfter Paradise Lostâ from her debut collection âOn the Desire to Levitate.â
After Paradise Lost
When the evil army comes it is accompanied
by a deceptively novel trumpet, as a woman
wears white and believes in it. An angel
is not spiteful without cause, having been flung
from the hand of God, whose engine, reportedly,
is love itself. How badly the crippled angel
wanted to be first in everything, Godâs
man Friday! He is not without scruple;
he envies the earth. The earth is just
beyond chaos, and rests against chaos,
yet everything that comes from the earthâs Garden
can be tended, pulled, made orderlyâ
blanches and laid before a guestâ
the earth has something called an offering.
The story of the Garden is allegorical
An allegory is like a forked tongue;
an allegory is an infant bastard who is fitful.
The Garden becomes linked with a feeling
of sickness and trepidation: a dream
of taking an air balloon ride over a river
because the bridge is burning.
Powell grew up in rural Indiana, a past she draws on to create new mythic characters.
âThe way I grew up was such that girls had a certain place and were supposed to be relatively nurturing and docile creatures. And Iâm trying to make them into rebellious characters, not unlike what I am trying to do with Eurydice and Satan and Hercules.â
In each instance, Powell, who will teach poetry at Oakland University in Michigan in the fall, is attracted to the nuances of the human experience, âacknowledging the things about us that are not pious or generous or exalted.”
âWhat it means to be a human being is to be profoundly complex and conflicted. I would definitely not say itâs out of any urge to be cathartic — that if we face these things, we can better deal with it. It’s more that we should look at them and even celebrate them, celebrate our passions, even the ones that lead us astray,â said Powell.
âWhen we turn to poetry itâs because we want to be reminded how to slow it down and pay attention. I think that’s especially true now. And part of that paying attention means looking at things that we might not want to look at — or that we’ve trained ourselves not to look at — and appreciating what those things are as well.”
âAfter Paradise Lostâ was excerpted from the book “On the Desire to Levitate” by Alison Powell. Copyright Â© 2014 by Alison Powell. Reprinted courtesy Ohio University Press.
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Weekly Poem: W.S. Di Piero reads âThe Smell of Spearmintâ
Mon, Aug 04, 2014
W.S. Di Piero reads “The Smell of Spearmint” from his collection “Tombo.”
The Smell of Spearmint
He told, he didn’t suggest or ask.
So when the unfinished father
told the son to do it, the son obeyed
and laid out razor and Barbasol
next to the bed-tray’s plastic cups,
ashtray, straws, and mucilage
of scrambled eggs. Forty-three,
he demanded to look clean and spare.
We die with habits of self-regard.
The son, seventeen, can’t know
that when he’s his father’s age,
a life’s love would soap his face,
run the blade, nick a nostril
–hold still, you nervous you–
then pass into time’s menthol airs.
He trowels, plumps, pats the lather,
he turns the head, he drags the trucky
brutish double-blade down
jaw and hallowed cheeks:
it planes the meaty manly whiskers,
it resists its task, yet life feels lighter
in his hand, most of all when it lies
lightly on the cabled throat.
One big bone, the father’s head,
in custody of the speechless son,
the untrained hand that never knew
the contents of that bone, does what
it’s told to do and can’t know
what love will bring back in time.
W. S. Di Piero is a poet, essayist, art critic and translator. He is the author of 10 books of poetry including “The First Hour,” “Skirts and Slacks” and “Nitro Nights.” “Tombo” is his most recent collection of poems. The winner of the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Di Piero has published poems in “Poetry” and “Threepenny Review.” He writes a monthly column on visual arts for the San Diego Reader, an independent newsweekly and has published five collections of his essays, including “When Can I See you Again?” Di Piero is the winner of a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund fellowship.
Photo by Beth Weber
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Weekly Poem: Jennifer Michael Hecht riffs off iconic poems
Mon, Jul 21, 2014
Jennifer Michael Hecht. Photo by Maxwell Hecht-Chaneski
In her new collection, âWho Said
,â Jennifer Michael Hecht
âcomments on,â âventriloquizes,â or âmeaningfully transliteratesâ iconic poems throughout history. She has many terms for her work based off some of her favorite verse.
âThe poems that I chose were guided by poems that I love, but also poems that work, that I was able to get a poem out of that was moving and memorable,â Hecht told Art Beat. âI could open them up as a way of looking around myself and seeing what came out of myself by engaging with these poems that mean so much to me.â
In her book, Hecht is in conversation with a wide variety of poems, from Robert Frostâs âThe Road Not Taken,â to the beginning of Danteâs âInfernoâ and John Keats’ âOde to Autumn.â In one poem, Hecht creates a mash-up of the Declaration of Independence and Shakespeareâs Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes…”). In another, she responds to a Nirvana song.
â[Emily] Dickinson makes two appearances. I couldn’t keep her out — she just kept singing songs in my head.â
Her âLady Look-Alike Lazarizedâ is based on Edgar Allan Poeâs âAnnabel Lee.â
âWe translate poems from other languages every couple of generations just to keep the language fresh, but of course we don’t do that in our own language,â said Hecht. âItâs fun âŠ to liven these things up again.â
Listen to Jennifer Michael Hecht read “Lady Look-Alike Lazarized” from her new collection, “Who Said.”
“Lady Look-Alike Lazarized”
It was any of many years ago
in this half townhouse, with this tree,
that a woman who lived whom I don’t know,
in a photo you can see. She baked bread,
ate with two fat men,
and her picture looks like me.
I was a child and she was a child
then neither again would be
she in nineteen thirteen
me in two-zero one-three.
And we loved with a love that was more
than a love, at the heads of our centuries.
Let me see less than she’ll see
because I know more than she
and, even from here, it near blinded me.
And with virtue and reason, long ago,
in this picture that looks like me,
a bug blew out of a cough one night,
chilling the woman who looks like me;
so her muscled kinsman came
and took her away from our tree
to bake no more bread for fat men
and escape brutality.
Yes, a wind blew out of a cloud
one night chilling and killing
who looks like me.
Microbes, heartache, and wars
give little way to reason nor pause
at the soaring wrought-iron gate
of Brooklyn, nor at the doors of state.
She was here and in time died,
well before I arrived here or anywhere.
But our love, she for her men, I for my
small and tall friends, is stronger by far
than the love of those younger or richer
than we, and who would be wiser than we?
And neither the redbreasts in heaven above
nor the flounder down under the sea
can ever quite sever my sight from the sight
of the woman who looks like me.
For the moon rarely beams without bringing
dark dreams of the woman who looks like me;
and the stars never rise but I feel my tight eyes
on a dark dream who looks like me. And so,
all nighttime, I lie down by the side of my
searching self and my self that hides. With a
photo from nineteen hundred one-three,
of a woman who looks a lot like me.
Even though the Hecht knew by heart the poems she chose, she still had room to grow her relationship to the works.
âWriting into a poem that you’ve always had certain feelings about, you’re going to get to know it better and in a new way as you are trying to speak to it and really test where it makes its arguments and where itâs going to take you,â Hecht said. âIn some poems, what i really learned more is the rhythm of them and the way that rhyme worked and the way that itâs pleasurable when you put it in the vernacular.â
At the back of the book, the poet included a series of cryptograms. Each cryptogram, when solved, reveals the original verse that Hect is âspeaking toâ in her poetry. While most people who know poetry will recognize the origins, Hecht wanted to invite people to interact with the text.
âThere’s a way in which poetry is this decipherable system, but itâs always going to be so fantastic. Juxtaposing something that is solvable and that you can unravel and that your knowledge goes in to it — the more you know about these poems, the more you’re going to be expecting poems to show up in the cryptogram answers.â
Hechtâs variations on iconic poems, which in the end make up about half of âWho Said,â are not meant to offend long-time lovers of the original works. The first poem of the collection, not even listed in the table of contents, is aptly called âKey,â and functions as just that for her readers.
“‘For people who’ve been around before/I’m offering humbly a little bit moreâ — I’m saying Iâm not trying to take this over, but I am inviting us to play with it in this way,â said Hecht. âI tell my secrets in the book as I always do with my poetry. There is narrative and there is biography and there is my own particular, personal experiences.â
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