Sunday, 1 May 2016

Sunday Poem

First was the claw and the claw
clasping clay, closing in breath. 
More turns to them than to sea-snails,
brain and gut ravelled like yarn 
into clews to be threaded through.
Like Theseus, I was closed-in 
with an abomination of bestial desire:
she wanted to be nailed by a bull 
and she did a bull and bore
a bull-of-a-thing with a menacing club. 
It's with this thought that I'm locked,
throughout this maze that I travel. 
I've no key, no clue: only minatory echoes
and shadows to see it through.

By Asa Boxer, from Etymologies (with essay by David-Antoine Williams, 
Anstruther Press, 2016)

Age of Iliads

In her review of a new translation of The Iliad by Caroline Alexander—the first such effort by a women—A. E. Stallings flags the contemporary fascination for the epic:
The Iliad begins with a grudge and ends with a funeral. In between are passages, if not necessarily of boredom, to alter the war adage, of lists, pathos, sex, humour, fairytale strangeness (golden fembots, a talking horse) and lyric images, punctuated by moments of pure terror (eyes popped out of heads, a spear throbbing in a beating heart, a man cradling his intestines in his hands). With several new translations in the past year alone, as well as a film in 2004, and recent novels (David Malouf’s Ransom), dramatisations, and book-length poems (War Music by Christopher Logue and Memorial by Alice Oswald), we are clearly, in our era of seemingly perpetual war, in an age of Iliads.
James Romm has some concerns about the "increasingly rapid pace at which new Iliads keep emerging":
It was not ever thus. Classics graduate students in the 1980s (of whom I was one) debated the relative merits of Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald, the only two Iliads then in wide circulation. A new version by Robert Fagles appeared in 1990, and for most of that decade, the three Rs had the field of Homer translation entirely to themselves. Then Stanley Lombardo entered the ring in 1997 with his streamlined and brashly colloquial style, in an edition that shocked the academic world by putting on its cover a photo from the D-Day invasion. Since then, the graph of new Iliad translations has followed a parabolic curve.

Trends in publishing have led to greater diversity of many Greek and Roman texts, but none have multiplied quite so fast as
The Iliad, in part because none are so widely assigned by college teachers. As the Classics’ share of the curriculum has shrunk, Homer has remained the blue-chip stock that belongs in every portfolio, the one ancient author that the entire college community—including students, who increasingly challenge faculty on the makeup of their reading lists—can agree is worth reading. So The Iliad, and to a lesser extent The Odyssey, can be counted on to produce a steady stream of revenue for publishers, every time fall and spring term book orders come due. (It was reported in The Wall Street Journal that Caroline Alexander’s version, despite being the “new kid on the block,” would have an initial print run of 30,000, and that Robert Fagles’ 1990 version has by now sold more than a million.)

The profit motive may explain the spate of new translations, but the proliferation of translators is more puzzling. Given that a responsible Hellenist needs years of labor to render more than 15,000 lines of Greek verse into passably accurate, euphonious English, and can expect very little in the way of either financial reward or (in the ranks of academia at least) professional advancement, whence comes this great throng of men, and now one woman, who follow in Homer’s trail like enchanted children following the Pied Piper?

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Weirdly Arbitrary

James Longenbach defends the syllabic construction of Marianne Moore's poems, in which meter is governed by the number of syllables per line, rather than the number of feet:
Like any kind of aesthetic pattern, a poem’s lines may threaten to seem arbitrary—that’s paradoxically part of their power; but Moore’s syllabic lines have provoked in certain readers the need for either defense or dismissal. In her recent biography of the poet, Holding On Upside Down, Linda Leavell argues that Moore’s prosody was shaped by her experience of the then-new curriculum of the American kindergarten, which encouraged children to develop their imagination through the manipulation of geometrical forms. This argument is about as plausible as the notion that Whitman avoided the pentameter because he never learned to count to five, and in her new introduction to Observations, Leavell maintains, equally implausibly, that the “natural cadence of [Moore’s] sentences, not the line and stanza breaks, determine how the poem should sound.” The cadence of Moore’s sentences is powerful, as “My Apish Cousins” demonstrates, but if line and stanza were not by their nature in productive relationship with a poem’s syntax, determining its sound, then all poets—Moore, Donne, Pound, whomever—would simply write prose. All poetic lines introduce some kind of additional pattern to the already highly patterned syntax of a poem’s sentences, and if Moore’s syllabic lines seem more contrived than Donne’s metrical lines or Pound’s free-verse lines, that’s simply because we’re less accustomed to them; there’s no poetic form more weirdly arbitrary than the sonnet.

Must I Write?

Karen Solie wonders if we're overselling the idea of poetry as a "vocation":
As many brilliant poets have written, there’s not a whole lot to recommend becoming one, practically speaking. It’s not a good plan. So there must be something else involved. Rilke bids us ask: “must I write?” If the answer is “a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of the urge and a testimony to it.” A prescription that might make some of us tired and anxious. I don’t reject or disdain the idea of poetry as a vocation. Some of the poets I most admire speak of their philosophy and practice in this way. But it’s also possible to write beautifully while believing one’s vocation lies equally, or singularly, elsewhere—in teaching, activism, the machine shop, scholarship, music, whatever. It need not mean one’s commitment to the contemplative and technical discipline poetry requires is diminished, need not mean one doesn’t (even if in a fractious, queasy, intermittent way) love it.

But belief in vocation, feeling “called to be an artist,” has also been known to present itself wreathed in a fog of quasi-religious incense, or in a thoroughly modern odor of reverence and authority that nevertheless likewise signals a presumption of, and romantic infatuation with, separateness. With the poet as, somehow, more than. I truly wish the pursuit of poetry as a “destiny” whose “burden and . . . greatness” one accepts were an idea—like hamburgers sandwiched by Krispy Kreme doughnuts—whose time has passed.

Identifying one’s art with vocation can be a mode of solidarity, of belonging in solitude, a comfort, challenge, and discipline uniting intellect and spirit. If poetry is your calling, more power to you. But to Rilke’s admonishment that “to feel that one could live without writing, then one must not attempt it at all,” my first response is I could live without it. Not without reading, no way; but without writing, probably, yes.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Successes and Shortcomings

John McAuliffe praises a new crop of Irish poets, but wonders where the reviewers are:
Such healthy diversity is an impressive turnaround, possibly a consequence of new publishing technologies and cheaper costs, as well as the rise in festival and event nights through which publishers can sell the books. But it also suggests a question about the reception of new poetry: welcome as the emergence of presses with good production values is, is there a review culture which situates and considers these books? How are books’ successes and shortcomings judged, and who is reading them in relation to one another, in relation to poetry’s existing audience in Ireland, as well as to new audiences, and the increasingly international and wired literary culture in which English-language poetry in particular operates? Poetry Ireland Review and its associated publication, Trumpet, do clearly cover critical reviewing, as do other venues, but there are not nearly as many journals as there are publishers of Irish poetry: it would certainly be good to see both more argument and careful reading of the books written by the “Rising Generation” in the “little magazines” and online journals which would match the growth in publication of new poems.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Sunday Poem

Look below: the sable-eddied Kelvin
flowing fast, despite the town’s depression;
never angry, only bloody-minded,
rolling on to reach the red horizon. 
Glaswegians put their trust in how it carries:
they toss into its care the things they use:
lolly sticks and condoms, knives and bottles,
babies’ toys, a jilted lover’s shoes. 
A force that churns has somewhere else to be,
especially when spattered with this light.
Someone got it started; it is free.
To go a little closer must be right. 
And sometimes there’s a child from an estate
pulled from games along the muddy edge,
and this is why the branches bend and wait
and why we always pause upon this bridge.
By Alexandra Oliver, from Let the Empire Down (Biblioasis, 2016)

(Photo by Greig Middlemiss)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Is Poetry An Escape From Responsibility?

"Not at all," says D. A. Powell:
It is a place where messages of great value and import can be woven in, like the hidden but not-so-hidden calls to freedom and safety that are found throughout the lyrics of spirituals. When enslaved Americans sang “Wade in the Water,” it wasn’t merely about baptism, it was a call to escape captivity by hiding near the river, to cover one’s tracks by stepping into the current where the scent of the runagate or fugitive could be masked from the pursuing hounds. For me poetry has always been a place to put the most urgent messages of existence, because they can pass through undetected. The urgent message can hide in plain sight.