Tag archive for poetry

What is the musical analog of poetry? (Moonlight)

Composer Nicholas Brittel talks to Song Exploder about how he discovered the theme to Moonlight:

On what drew him to Moonlight:
When I first read [the script], I was just overwhelmed by this feeling of beauty and poetry, that was really the starting point for my personal experience with the film. There was just this incredible sense of beauty and of sensitivity and tenderness and intimacy in the screenplay. What was amazing to me when I first saw the early cuts of the film after it was shot was how well Barry had preserved that feeling of poetry in the movie.

My first emotional reaction to the film was that sense of poetry. I actually was saying to myself, What is the musical analog of poetry? Among the first things I sent to Barry was a piece of music I wrote that I called “Piano and Violin Poem,” because I was sort of trying to channel this idea — that actually [turned into] Little’s theme.

When it comes to the Academy Awards tomorrow night, La La Land will probably win for best score (and most other categories) but Moonlight’s score is in fact musical poetry — deserves rememberi

As the composer manipulates the sound itself, algorithmically dropping the pitch and in other ways reworking Little’s theme, refracting it so it’s almost but not quite unrecognizeable, we hear memory itself grinding gears, struggling to process the emotions it stirs up.

The only flaw in the score, sez me, is that the official version doesn’t include “Hello Stranger,” the classic R&B song with which the story concluduesa. So I”m including it here.

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To be young (and old) in the wild: This Feeling

Last week, in his un-ostentacious but no bullshit way, Nicholas Kristof of the NYTimes wrote a great column on the joys of being on the PCT. I'm not going to quote it, because it's hard to know which bit to choose, but encourage you all to take a look

Today, in a similar vein, but in a more beautiful and more poetic style, Katie Lei, a thru-hiker of a year ago, publishes on her marvelous Doodles page, a beautiful poem/drawing called This Feeling. 


Lei writes about being in the wilderness at the beginning of her adulthood, and about looking back on "this feeling" from the future. Reminiscent of another young poet, at the beginning of his career:

Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now…

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The pleasure of making sense of the world: May Swenson

MayswensonOr trying to. To say something simply and well, is a pleasure like no other.

Poetry magazine, a consistently wondrous publication, concludes their December issue, their last issue of the year, with an essay on May Swenson that could not be gentler, nor more sweetly loving.

Example? Simply publishing a stanza that may be one of May Swenson's most charming poems, written late in her life: 

The purpose of life is
to find the purpose of life
to find the purpose
of life is
The purpose
Life is
To Find


She finds not just purpose, but pleasure in the finding out. 

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Whispering in the ear of nature’s secrets: Harriet Monroe

In Nature's Altars, Susan Schrepfer looks at how much it meant to women of the turn of (the 20th) century to go to the mountains. She writes:

"High altitudes…released [women], they said, from the requirement of being a consumer, from "clothes and vanities," from the corsseted, perfumed, and coiffured dictates of polite society. Of a trip into the Sierra's Kern Canyon in l908, Harriet Monroe confided:"

Harrietmonroe"We learned…to wear our short skirts and high hob-nailed boots…as though we had been born to the joy of them…to be a barbarian and a communist, a homeless and roofless vagabond, liited to one gown or one suit of clothes, to lose one's last hat-pin…to make one's toilet on a slippery bnak, after a brave plunge into an icy river — all these breaches of convention became commonplaces…part of the adventure, a whispering in the ear of nature's secrets. We knew literally the emancipation of having "one one dress" to put on." 

After her adventures in the mountains, Monroe went on to launch Poetry, which is still this nation's best journal for lyrical thought.  

Fascinating to see how women saw mountain life as freedom, whereas so often men saw it as a competition — between man and mountain, man and rival man, man and beast. 

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The only ones who know spring is coming: Jack Gilbert

The poet Jack Gilbert died this week, after a long illness (which usually means cancer, but in his case meant Alzheimer's…a story well told in the Los Angeles Times). 

Gilbert was brilliantly eulogized in Andrew Sullivan's irreplaceable blog, and in passing Sullivan mentioned the name of his poetry editor Alice Quinn, formerly of The New Yorker. (No wonder his site has been featuring poetry as of late!)

In any case, Quinn referred us to an interview in The Paris Review, in which Gilbert talked about two types of poems, which perhaps could be distinguished as poems about what just happened, poems of the broken-hearted, and poems of thought.

Gilbert suggested that poetry is a way to fearless examine matters of the heart, as much as thoughts in the mind, and perhaps his great skill is using that craft to think through the heart's pains: 

"INTERVIEWER: In your interview with Gordon Lish in Genesis West,
you say that there are two kinds of poetry. On the one hand, there are
poems that give delight; on the other, there are poems that do something
else. What do you mean by “something else”? 

GILBERT:  I think serious poems should make something
happen that’s not correct or entertaining or clever. I want something
that matters to my heart, and I don’t mean “Linda left me.” I don’t want
that. I’ll write that poem, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m
talking about being in danger—as we all are—of dying. How can you spend
your life on games or intricately accomplished things? And politics?
Politics is fine. There’s a place to care for the injustice of the
world, but that’s not what the poem is about. The poem is about the
heart. Not the heart as in “I’m in love” or “my girl cheated on me”—I
mean the conscious heart, the fact that we are the only things in the
entire universe that know true consciousness. We’re the only
things—leaving religion out of it—we’re the only things in the world
that know spring is coming."

Not sure Gilbert is right about that: When a Clark's Nutcracker hides nuts in pine trees for winter, does it not know at some level that spring will come? But the point is that in his work Gilbert thinks through big ideas, and comes up with what we may not have thought of before. Agree or disagree, one can be changed by his insights. So it is with a poem Sullivan/Quinn led with, called Failing and Falling

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.

It’s the same when love comes to an end,

or the marriage fails and people say

they knew it was a mistake, that everybody

said it would never work. That she was

old enough to know better. But anything

worth doing is worth doing badly.

Like being there by that summer ocean

on the other side of the island while

love was fading out of her, the stars

burning so extravagantly those nights that

anyone could tell you they would never last.

Every morning she was asleep in my bed

like a visitation, the gentleness in her

like antelope standing in the dawn mist.

Each afternoon I watched her coming back

through the hot stony field after swimming,

the sea light behind her and the huge sky

on the other side of that. Listened to her

while we ate lunch. How can they say

the marriage failed? Like the people who

came back from Provence (when it was Provence)

and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.

I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,

But just coming to the end of his triumph.

Arguably a rethinking of Auden's famous meditation on the same story (and Brueghel's painting) and, as unsparing as the thought remains, a rethinking of the suffering of Icarus as well. 


If you look closely, you can see Icarus hitting the water near the ship. 

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“Nothing is more permanent than the temporary”

A really good essay can be read and re-read just like a really good novel. Example: Austerity Measures: A Letter from Greece, by translator A.E. Stallings, in a recent issue of Poetry. Have read it several times. 

So good it's difficult to figure out what to quote in this poetry-rich piece. Every time I find a line or two, it turns out to be part of a longer passage, which turns out to be just as delectable. Hard to choose! 

So: here's a Greek proverb suitable for Stallings' situation (a translator who moved with her family to Greece for a couple of years, and has been there a decade). For Greece's situation — a perpetual crisis. And even for poetry, which as Stallings notes, is "the opposite of austerity." 

Nothing is more permanent than the temporary

Heraclitus would understand. 

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Poetry vs Oil (and bulldozers)

Vancouver poet Stephen Collis writes about the poetic resistance to another pipeline planned to transport oil sands slurry from inside western Alberta to market in Poetry vs. Oil

Right now, one major pipeline carries the goop to Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, where it is loaded onto supertankers tourists can wave at from scenic Stanley Park. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, south, to Texas, has been (temporarily, perhaps) blocked. So now there are plans for a “Northern Gateway” pipeline to carry massive amounts of crude over 1,170 kilometers of forested and river-crisscrossed Northern BC—to the still largely undeveloped coast of the Great Bear Rainforest. Charming.

Into the fray steps a poetry anthology—The Enpipe Line (Creekstone Press 2012)—edited by a diverse collective that includes poet/activist and project founder Christine Leclerc…Originally conceived as a 1,170 kilometer long line of collaborative poetry (matching the proposed pipeline’s length), the project eventually grew to over 70,000km. The poetry in it is diverse, to say the least, and includes contributions from widely published and recognized poets to children and “professional” activists (such as Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler).


Here’s an example of the range. Eleven-year old Ta’Kaiya Blaney of Sliammon First Nation wrote the song “Shallow Waters” (the performance of which has become a popular mainstay of demonstrations in the province over the past year) when she was ten:

In shallow waters, I can’t see
Your clear waters lapping at my feet
The lifeless ocean, black not blue
I didn't help but deep down I knew


From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, some readers might find some of the work in this anthology “lacking.” However, the precise point this anthology raises—the very fact of the concatenation of art and revolution that it works—is the disappearance and impossibility of the “purely aesthetic” in today’s world. Rex Weyler, writing in the Forward, asks—“Can poetry stop ecocide?” I would have to answer no. But I would also say—it’s not not going to stop it either. 

A similar point was made in a striking essay in Poetry a couple of years ago by John Kinsella, an Australian poet, about resisting the destruction of the natural world:

A pacifist, which is what I am, can be the strongest resister, and pacifism the most defiant form of resistance. Same with language usage: I mix the old and the new to engage with a debate about protection, preservation, conservation, and respect of the “natural” world. I am aware of the problems these words carry in terms of implying complicity, because I am a poet rather than a speech writer. For me, because of this, poems can stop bulldozers. Not because they just say “stop bulldozer,” but because the intricacies of language challenge, distract, and entangle the bulldozer. I am using a semantics not of analogy, but of opposition. My words are intended to halt the damage—to see what shouldn’t be seen, to declare and challenge it.

Resistance, in this case, is not futile — it's a belief in life. Here's the enemy, in an astounding photo essay from, of all places, Business Insider, called The Oil Sands Mines Refused Us Access, So We Rented This Plane to See What They Were Up To


via Fountain, not Mountain

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What we have over-run and on which we rely

Here's a lovely profile of a poet new to me, Kim Stafford, from High Country News' Uncommon Westerners features series. 

The writer finds Stafford in a coffee shop in Portland. Nearby, writes Tara Rae Miner, is "a strip of untamed land, bounded by busy roads in a dense, urban landscape. It is not a park, simply a tract of woods that developers missed."

Stafford muses:

"a place like this is an island that's never been conquered, a metaphor for that wild part of the mind." That wildness, according to Stafford, is manifest in horsetail pushing up through a crack in the sidewalk and cottonwood seedlings growing in an abandoned storefront. Such things, he writes, "remind us of what we have over-run, but on which, in the end, we rely."

Horsetail pushing up through a crack in the sidewalk — a picture of life itself.


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Tennessee Williams: The literary factory

In l937, when Tennessee Williams was twenty-six and just beginning to write plays as well as poems and stories, he and a friend named Clark Mills, who grew up to be a professor of French and poetry, set up what they called a "literary factory" in the basement of Mills' parents' home in St Louis. They would retire to their sanctuary and pound away at their typewriters.

Mills later described Williams' unique method of writing: 

"I could never imagine anyone writing as he did. He would do, say, a half page or two pages, and it was fast — he was fast on the typewriter — he would be operating as if blindly. He was never sure if he knew where he was going, but when he got there — when he finished that passage and it might not be right — he'd toss it aside and start all over again. While he would do the whole business over, it would go in a different direction. It was if he was throwing dice — as if he was working toward a combination of some kind of result and he wouldn't have any idea what the result might be but he would recognize it when he got there. You know, usually one sits down to write and writes page one, two, three, four, and so on — but he would write and rewrite and even in the middle of a passage, he'd start over again and slant it in another way." 

Because Williams was at the time writing poetry as well as plays, Mills had a chance to compare them. 

I think he has more poetry in his plays than in his poetry. And, in fact, I would say there is a quality that I think is unique to him. It has to do with the flow of his language and dialogue: It has some kind of of a poetic quality to it. I don't know of any other American playwright, living or dead, who has it. That quality was present even in the early days when he would come to my house and write, banging out page after page and throwing them on the floor. I'd pick up and read what he'd discarded, and there still would be his magic quality to the dialogue — it wasn't the language or the words or the sentences or the way they were put together; it was the "sound" of the words that came through somehow. He seemed to "hear" the voice as much as he heard the words. And I think when you hear a voice like that, you're in the realm of poetry." 

[from Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, by Lyle Leverich, Crown Publishers, New York, N.Y. l995, 644 pages, pp206-207]


Williams did write some good poems — at an early age, one was accepted by America's best journal of verse, Poetry, an astonishing feat for a then unknown writer — but surely Mills had it right.  

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Poetry: the difference between objective and verifiable

Verifiable — which is also popularly characterized, imprecisely, as "objective" –doesn't necessarily mean numerical, as Belle Randall reminds us in a great letter to Poetry

To put it another way, judging poetry (or writing, or human beings, for that matter) is not purely a matter of opinion. Not if the points can be proven. Mathematics is not the only form of logic. 

To get every nuance of Randall's brilliance, you will have to go back to Michael Robbins explosive review of the book in question, a collection by former poet laureate Robert Haas, and the outrage that the review provoked. But it's not necessary! Randall brilliantly sums up both the review, and the book in question. Please see below.

Dear Editor,

Regarding Michael Robbins’s criticism of Robert Hass [September 2010] and the letters that followed [November 2010]: those on both sides of the debate seem to have difficulty keeping their focus on the language of the poems. “This isn’t poetry, it’s a list of stuff in Hass’s kitchen,” Robbins declares. “The Haiku masters . . . are behind simple but elegant passages like this,” John Matthias replies. One feels caught between two small boys arguing is too, is not. The danger is that both positions—perhaps all strong opinions about poetry—begin to seem arbitrary and subjective. Yet verifiable observations about poetry can be made:

        On the oak table
   filets of sole
stewing in the juice of tangerines,
slices of green pepper
        on a bone-white dish.
              —From Song

Of this, one may say: it begins with a capital and ends with a period but is not a sentence. Lacking a predicate (the implied “are”), it isn’t a complete thought. Instead, as Robbins observes, it is a list. In a list, every item has equal weight. Because of this, a list lacks the focus of Haiku.

The passage is fairly representative of the “period style” of the seventies, with the omitted verb showing the influence of Gary Snyder, who often omits verbs and articles for the sake of compression (“Across rocks and meadows / Swarms of new flies”). Yet the fragment by Hass, compared to Snyder’s, is notably adjectival, while introducing the unwelcome but inevitable association “stewing in one’s own juices.” A peculiar weight falls on the final three syllables—“bone-white dish.” Thud, thud, thud. This sounds profound, like a gavel falling, but is it? If I were to tell you that the fragment was lifted from a restaurant review in Sunset magazine, could you believe it? Isn’t this an accurate description of the language? When Robbins says, “This isn’t poetry,” maybe he means: This is journalistic rather than poetic, descriptive rather than evocative. It’s not bad writing, but, like professional “food writing,” it ain’t poetry.

Amen. Food writing is to poetry as lyrics are to a song.  

After a week at a science conference, it's refreshing to experience precision…in articulate English. 

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