Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Paper Cuts

Tonight at The White Crow Conservatory of Music in Saginaw (Michigan, USA), I had the pleasure of meeting Eli and her friend Matt. Eli reminded me we had met before, when she was a student at Meridian High School. I worked there as a substitute teacher a few times, and I subbed for one of her teachers.

DJs at the Christian pop/rock radio station I like (101.7 FM The Fuse). You can listen online at www.1017thefuse.com. I'm lucky because, as it turns out, The Fuse is one of my local radio stations here in mid-Michigan. I doubt that I would have heard of this station if it wasn't local. I enjoy hearing it in my car, at home in the morning and whenever.

Eli has a degree in English from
Alma College which is also here in mid-Michigan. As part of her show at The Fuse, she reviews books. She calls her book reviews Paper Cuts. Naturally I thought of giving her a copy of my chapbook, Philip & the Poet (published by Mayapple Press, 2008), in the hope that she would review it. When I called the station during her show, Eli answered the phone and told me to send the book to her at the station (which I did without delay).

Eli reviewed my chapbook during another one of her shows, and I think she did a great job. The Fuse now has this
Paper Cut online in a podcast. Listen to Eli's review of my chapbook, Philip & the Poet, online at www.1017thefuse.com. The widget down the right-hand side of the homepage has links that you can scroll through until you see the one you want. After you follow the link, click the 'Play' button to make it go.

Friday, April 25, 2008

William Stafford

One of my favorite poets is William Stafford. Among other things, he is remembered for writing a poem every day. He did another difficult thing when he was in his mid twenties. At that time he was expected to enlist and serve his country in one of the armed forces. He refused. During WWII he served time as a Conscientious Objector. That has always impressed me. That war was probably the most popular war in our history. Popular in the sense of having a lot of patriotic support. More popular even than the Revolutionary and Civil wars. That was a time of rationing fuel and food. And Stafford said no.

He refused because he was unwilling to kill or to participate where others were killing. He had to know at the time that the rest of his life would be lived in the shadow so to speak of that decision. But he was never loud about protesting war or anything else. He quietly went about his life pursuing what interested him: his wife and kids, teaching in Oregon, writing poetry and generally participating in the poetry community. In the early 1970s he served as Consultant to the Library of Congress. That position was later renamed to Poet Laureate. There are some quotes attributed to him that I remember:
  • "War is failure of imagination."
  • "Poetry is a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there."
  • "Justice will take a million intricate adjustments."
The second one I remember because it surprises me. Stafford's method as a writer is to be alive to the moment, to be attentive to the impulses of the language as it delivers words to him while he is seated quietly with paper in front of him and pen in hand. I can see what he means though because we live in the world of work, of running errands, buying groceries, sleeping, kissing, eating, etc. We can be alive to the work of writing a poem, but that does not require us to live in language or poetry. Still, when I read a poem like "Biography," it's hard for me to see how Stafford separates his life from poetry.
Two days were walking down the street,
one bright, one dark, and both my birthday,
glowing for my head. (Dark is delight for
me. Both my parents are dead.) That street

was the one we lived on, years ago - that is,
while they lived.

Two days left that place; after my birth
nobody saw two days together ever again,
my mother said; and my father said the same,
but they always liked both kinds and welcomed
dark and light; both glowed for their head,
while they lived.

The house they knew has opened;
it stands at large in the hills; its
door is the rain; its window, evening.
Today I bend for roof, have shelter
when it's cold, but that great house
arches for all, everywhere, for them, too,
while I live.

From The Way It Is, Graywolf Press, 1998 p. 183.

Stafford seems to be disclosing some very personal, even private information. I think there's more to it than that: he has made himself transparent, enabling me as reader to "see" his mother and father through him and to learn something about their family. He is (as poet) alive to the memory without sentimentality, and he is alive to the writing without living in poetry. When I first read it, I thought he was putting himself in the poem. After rereading it and thinking some more though, it seems more likely that he is telling me as a reader about himself and his parents, and he is honoring them by talking about them and the house in the manner that he does. Clearly the speaker of the poem is sharing a memory: until the third stanza, the verbs are all in the past tense. Then the poem turns, and the final lines give us the speaker's current relationship to the house he used to live in with his mother and father, as well as the relationship of the house to the rest of the world. As long as he lives, that house "arches for all, everywhere, for them, too..." With the last line, the speaker enters the poem. We aren't given information about the future of the house other than to know its availability as long as the speaker of the poem lives. That's where I get some confusion as to whether Stafford is living in poetry or not. Perhaps he is being a conscientious participant in his memory, his life and his future as a poet. He may have made an intricate adjustment there that I haven't seen yet.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Charles Simic at the Chicago Library

One of my favorite books is The World Doesn't End by Charles Simic. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, the book continues to inspire me as a place where humanity and poetry intersect. I'm sure humanity and poetry intersect in other poetry as well, but in Simic's work it's like an analysis that includes inspiration. If there is such a thing as a map of intuition, this is it. The word surreal or surrealism is often applied to it. It seems to me a type of wit. Wit in the sense that the so-called Metaphysical poets used the term.

Mr. Simic is now U.S. Poet Laureate, and he will be reading in Chicago this Saturday, the 26th of April, 2008. I so want to go, but with gas prices the way they are it isn't reasonable for me to go, especially since I'm without a job and looking for work. It's a five-plus hour drive for me (one way).


Poetry Off the Shelf: Charles Simic
Cindy Pritzker Auditorium
Harold Washington Library Center
400 South State Street
Noon. Free Admission.
Charles Simic, current Poet Laureate of the United States, was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1938, and immigrated to the United States in 1953, at the age of 15. He has lived in New York, Chicago, the San Francisco area, and for many years in New England, where he was a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire until his retirement. A poet, essayist, and translator, he has been honored with the Wallace Stevens Award, a Pulitzer Prize, two PEN Awards for his work as a translator, and a MacArthur Fellowship. Simic has published numerous collections of poems, among them, My Noiseless Entourage (2005); Selected Poems: 1963-2003 (2004), for which he received the 2005 International Griffin Poetry Prize; The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems (2003); The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems (1990), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Selected Poems: 1963-1983 (1990); Classic Ballroom Dances (1980), which won the University of Chicago's Harriet Monroe Award and the Poetry Society of America's di Castagnola Award. His new book of poems, That Little Something, will be out in Spring of 2008. Simic has also published several prose books and translations.

Co-sponsored with the Chicago Public Library

This announcement and a selection of Mr. Simic's poems posted online are available at The Poetry Foundation, http://poetryfoundation.org/programs/events.html accessed 4/23/08.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Andy Christ at The White Crow

Siusan and Zig of The White Crow Conservatory of Music (AKA The Crow) are opening their doors to poets and their poetry once again. Be there next Tuesday, April 29th, at 7 p.m. The Crow is at 3736 Mackinaw in Saginaw, Michigan 48602. Phone 989-790-2118.

After I read for twenty minutes or so, a few other members of Saginaw's poetry group, the River Junction Poets, will read a few of their own poems. While they read I hope to sell and sign copies of my chapbook, Philip & the Poet published by Mayapple Press in February of 2008.

The event starts at 7 p.m.; it's $5 at the door and another $13 for the book.

-- "It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."
River Junction Poets Mission Statement

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Matthew Olzmann

It was my pleasure to have lunch today in Lansing with members of the Poetry Society of Michigan and Mr. Matthew Olzmann who came to the Spring meeting of the PSM as a Featured Speaker. Among his stated goals was to read a few of his poems (from his chapbook The Discarded Halo, Pudding House, 2007) and to talk to us for about an hour. He achieved both his goals and looked good doing it. He spoke to us about surprise in poetry. Afterward, a few of us, including me, were interested in having a copy of his talk in print. Hopefully we can get that through the e-mail. We made it clear to him that he is more than welcome to join our Society and that, by doing so, he automatically becomes a member of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. Hopefully we'll see more of this young man, and maybe we'll get to meet his wife as well ( poet Vievee Francis). All in all, the meeting went well. We conducted business, enjoyed reading our poetry to each other and we look forward to bringing the Convention of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies to Michigan in 2011 or 2012. Either way it'll be in June. And it'll be in Grand Rapids.

-- "It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."
River Junction Poets Mission Statement

Friday, April 18, 2008

Philip Levine

We met in January at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Saginaw, Michigan to read poems by Detroit native Philip Levine. Maureen, who had gotten us interested in 2007 about Philip Levine, told us about Levine's interest in the Spanish Civil War. We talked about that civil war, among other things, as we read several of his poems and some of his autobiography. Maureen brought her signed copy of his autobiography.

As usual, we all signed a store newsletter for the River Junction Poets' scrapbook, and then we signed a birthday card to send. With the card we included an unsigned store newsletter. Barnes & Noble has generously and reliably mentioned our Poets Birthday Readings in their store newsletters ever since we started this activity in the summer of 2005. We wanted to send a newsletter to Philip Levine that listed our Philip Levine Birthday Reading, and that's what we did. We sent the newsletter with the birthday card that we all signed. Since he is no longer teaching in NY with Sharon Olds, I decided to send the card to him where he used to teach in Fresno, California. It took a while for the card to get to him, but eventually he got it. He wrote back shortly after that:

Dear Poets of Junction City,

Thanks for your birthday greetings. They finally reached me. I retired from Fresno State back in '92.

It's wonderful to know the memory of the Spanish Civil War is alive & well in Saginaw. It was very much alive this fall in NYC; I spoke at a show of the photos of Gerda Taro, Robert Capa, & a living photographer from Spain who is part of a national project to focus attention on the horrors of Franco Spain. I just reread a book by Jose Yglesias on exactly that subject. It can break your heart. As one man said in 1972 not long before Franco died, "Spain is an 82-year-old senile man." Thank God, it's not the same Spain today.

And thanks for reading my work.



Phil Levine

-- "It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."River Junction Poets Mission Statement

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Yusef Komunyakaa Birthday Reading

A poetical celebration of Yusef Komunyakaa's birth, life and poetry.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 7:00 PM

Barnes & Noble Bookseller
3311 Tittabawassee Rd.
Saginaw , MI 48603
phone 989.790.9214

Who should come
Join us if you love poetry or are curious as to what poetry is all about. Join us if you'd like to talk to people whose hearts and minds are more open than closed. Join us if you can agree or disagree with someone's opinion respectfully. Bring a book if you can. It's OK if it's from your library. Note: Yusef Komunyakaa will not be joining our group.

Find out what poems sound like out loud. Listen in on the group and then find a place where you can jump in and read something yourself. Great fun for the whole family. If you have specialized knowledge regarding our poet, do not hesitate to regale us with your story. Don't expect to leave our event with a definitive understanding of the poet or the poems but please do seek to experience and communicate the joys of poetry with others. Join in our informal discussion of poems we know and love and poems we are only just discovering. Better readers make better writers. Visit with our group where everyone's poetry is valued if not appreciated. If you have a smile to share be sure to bring it; otherwise be prepared to leave with one on your face and in your heart. If you're too far away to join us, create your own Birthdays of Poets Reader's Workshop. Speak up now and forever share your peace. Tell (bring!) a friend.

How to find the organizer(s)
We are in the Poetry section, near the window that affords a view of Tittabawassee Road. The staff at Barnes & Noble will put up a sign that says 'This space reserved for The River Junction Poets at 7 p.m.' We'll be getting a few folding chairs to add around the coffee table there.

(Interviewer) What would you say the state of poetry is in America, by any definition? Where do you see poetry going? And where do you think it should go?
Komunyakaa: I've been kicking around the phrase neo-fugitives inside my head. What I mean by it is that there tends to be a fugitive sentiment that can be compared to John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. The creed states that basically the poet shouldn't get social or political. That he or she should do better to stick with the impressionistic and ethereal to the extent that true feeling evaporates off the oage. That's much safer, and too often it insures a poet's empty endurance and superficial reverence in the literary world.There's a sameness about American poetry that I don't think represents the whole people. It represents a poetry of the moment, a poetry of evasion, and I have problems with this. I believe poetry has always been political, long before poets had to deal with the page and white space . . . it's natural. Probably before Socrates, in Plato's Republic, banished poets from his ideal state – long before South Africa, Chile, Mississippi, and Marcos in the Philippines suppressing Mila Aguilar and others. There seems to be always some human landscape that creates a Paul Celan. Too many contemporary American poets would love to dismiss this fact. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: Michael Harper, June Jordan, [Carolyn] Forche, [Adrienne] Rich, C. K. Williams, and [Amiri Imamu] Baraka. But still, if you were to take many magazines and cut the names off poems, you would have a single collection that could be by any given poet; you could put one name on it, as if the poems were all by one person. True, a writer can say almost anything in America and have it completely overlooked, yet I think we should have more individual voices.

from "Lines of Tempered Steel: An Interview with Vincente F. Gotera," Callaloo 13:2 (1990)
From http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/komunyakaa/poetry.htm accessed 4/16/08

Historically, the African American has had to survive by his or her sheer nerve and wit, and it often seems as if we have been forced to create everything out of nothing. Music kept us closer to the essence of ourselves. Thus, there is little wonder that the drum was outlawed in certain slave-owning locales. The drum was a threat because it articulated cultural unity and communication. But we of course began to clap our hands and stomp our feet to sustain that connection to who we are. Music is serious business in the African-American community because it is so intricately interwoven with our identity. Most of us don't have to strain to see those graceful, swaying shadows of contemporary America in cahoots with the night in Congo Square – committing an act of sabotage merely by dancing to keep the forbidden gods alive. …Jazz also worked for me as a way of reestablishing a kind of trust. A trust in what I had known earlier. For some reason, I think it directed me back to my need to say something.What do I mean by that? Whatever it is, maybe I'm trying to say it in these words, in a poem called "Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel": [Komunyakaa quotes the poem in its entirety, whose text is available in Neon Vernacular (Middletown: Wesleyan U P, 1993), p. 176] Essentially, that's what I'm talking about. You have to have that need to take risks, and they come to us in varied patterns and intensities. [Claude] McKay's protest sonnet "If We Must Die" took a risk in content. Why else was it read into the Congressional Record by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge? But McKay took few risks structurally. Poetry has always been associated with the elite, the leisure class, with "high" culture of Europe, and the African-American poet of the 1920s was still in almost the same dilemma as Phillis Wheatley when her work was defined by Thomas Jefferson as beneath a critical response. That is, well into this century the black poet was still aspiring to acceptance by whites, still biding for the wand of approval and recognition as a mere human being.Consequently, few black poets were willing to admit the influence of jazz because it was defined as "low" culture; it had been created by the descendants of Africa. Only during the 1960s did we begin to rediscover that which was ours, redefining ourselves with Africa as an emotional backdrop. Young black poets began to accept Langston Hughes and Frank Horne and those white poets associated with modernism – an American tongue and ear. Indeed, jazz shaped the Beat aesthetic, but that movement seemed a privilege only whites could afford. Blacks, fighting for inclusion, didn't have to ostracize themselves voluntarily. Of course, this was a cultural paradox. To many the Beat Movement was nothing more than the latest minstrel show in town with the new Jim Crow and Zip Coons, another social club that admitted hardly any women or blacks. Yet they said that Charlie Parker was their Buddha.The whole thing seemed like a love-hate complex magnified. …[Note: Komunyakaa's last reference is to Jack Kerouac's "239th Chorus" in Mexico City Blues which opens: "Charley [sic] Parker Looked like Buddha / Charley Parker who recently died / Laughing at a juggler on the TV." The legendary circumstances under which Parker died included the story that he had been watching at the very time of his demise Jimmy Dorsey of the Dorsey Brothers "Swing" Band – like Parker an alto saxophonist – performing on the network television show whose musical tastes made it a forerunner of the Lawrence Welk Show.]

from Robert Kelly, "Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation" (with Yusef Komunyakaa and William Matthews" in Georgia Review 46:4 (Winter 1992), pp. 645-646, 653-654.
http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/komunyakaa/blackjazz.htm accessed 4/16/08.

Facing It

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

Copyright © 1993 by Yusef Komunyakaa
http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/komunyakaa/onlinepoems.htm accessed 4/16/08.

Expect more at the Birthdays of Poets Blog. Go there now.

All best and see you Wednesday,
Andrew Christ

Legal stuff
Your e-mail address will not be sold or used by me for any purpose other than to promote these special events and the Birthdays of Poets Blog. If you prefer to not receive these messages, reply to this e-mail address (riverjunctionpoets at gmail dot com) and include the word 'unsubscribe' in the text of your message.

Parting Thoughts
Research indicates that better readers make better writers. Maybe this is why, in the Poet's Market, editors of literary magazines often recommend poets read more poetry. Are you not aware? You are a cultural event, and so is everyone else. Celebrate your humanity at Saginaw's Birthdays of Poets Reader's Workshop. May God continue to bless us mightily one and all. Be sure to thank a veteran for his/her service. Remember: only you can improve the audience for poetry. Please read, discuss and share responsibly. And vote.

-- "It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."
River Junction Poets Mission Statement

Friday, April 11, 2008

Teen Ink

Are you not aware? Here is a great website, print publication and opportunity for English teachers and their students everywhere. What is Teen Ink? Here is how they describe themselves at their website, http://www.teenink.com/:

Welcome to Teen Ink, a national teen magazine, book series, and website devoted entirely to teenage writing and art. Distributed through classrooms by English teachers, Creative Writing teachers, Journalism teachers and art teachers around the country, Teen Ink magazine offers some of the most thoughtful and creative work generated by teens and has the largest distribution of any publication of its kind. We have no staff writers or artists; we depend completely on submissions from teenagers nationwide for our content.

We offer teenagers the opportunity to publish their creative work and opinions on the issues that affect their lives - everything from love and family to teen smoking and community service. Hundreds of thousands of students have submitted their work to us and we have published more than 25,000 teens since 1989.

The Young Authors Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that supports all Teen Ink publications. The foundation is devoted to helping teens share their own voices, while developing reading, writing, creative and critical-thinking skills. All proceeds from the print magazine, website and Teen Ink books are used exclusively for charitable and educational purposes to further our goal.

http://www.teenink.com/About/ accessed 4/11/08

Teen Ink has a place for themselves at MySpace as well. That could be helpful for teachers who'd like to figure out how they could use MySpace with their students but have questions about privacy issues etc. Supposedly Teen Ink has a presence on Facebook as well but I couldn't find it easily.

Obviously, high school English teachers could have their students submit their work to Teen Ink for publication. But what about teachers and students at the college level? Hmm...well, according to the Teen Ink website, Hundreds of thousands of students have submitted their work to us and we have published more than 25,000 teens since 1989. To me, that means another such magazine would be easy to fill with quality writing. I'm guessing that in Michigan alone there are hundreds of thousands of high school students. Not all of them will write pieces that editors will want to publish in such a magazine, but that's no reason to keep the opportunity from those who are interested. How many High School English teachers even know about this magazine? I taught chemistry and math in high school for four years. That was six years ago. Two years ago I joined NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English), and just recently I received out of the blue so to speak a sample issue of Teen Ink. Until I received the Sample Copy, I'd never heard of Teen Ink. I showed it to Skip Renker, a friend here in Midland who has retired after a long and wonderful career from teaching English at Delta Community College, and he had never heard of it either.

Anyway, English teachers and Journalism teachers at the college level could work together to receive writing submitted by high school students, select the pieces for the next issue and then put the issue together and get it published and distributed independently of Teen Ink without taking anything away from what Teen Ink is doing. When I mentioned this idea to Scott Hirko of the Michigan Humanities Council (shirko@mihumanities.org), he said, "I love it" and he told me to apply for a "Quickie Grant" to get it going. Alas, I am not employed as a teacher any more. I am only, as President of the Poetry Society of Michigan, a cheerleader so to speak.

The Sample Issues I've received have 46 numbered pages that measure just under 11 inches (28 cm) by just under 14 inches (about 35.5 cm). It's all much like newsprint, even more so than the American Poetry Review. About 12 of those pages are full of ads for college studies in language, writing, drama, etc. One full page is an ad by Pepsi for Aquifina bottled water (Smart Choices Made Easy). Apparently their distribution costs are offset by their advertising revenue.

-- "It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."
River Junction Poets Mission Statement

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Wisława Szymborska

Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1996

The Poet and the World
They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come - the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line - will be just as hard, since I'm supposed to talk about poetry. I've said very little on the subject, next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that I'm not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. All imperfection is easier to tolerate if served up in small doses.

Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves. They publicly confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. But in our clamorous times it's much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they're attractively packaged, than to recognize your own merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself ... When filling in questionnaires or chatting with strangers, that is, when they can't avoid revealing their profession, poets prefer to use the general term "writer" or replace "poet" with the name of whatever job they do in addition to writing. Bureaucrats and bus passengers respond with a touch of incredulity and alarm when they find out that they're dealing with a poet. I suppose philosophers may meet with a similar reaction. Still, they're in a better position, since as often as not they can embellish their calling with some kind of scholarly title. Professor of philosophy - now that sounds much more respectable.

But there are no professors of poetry. This would mean, after all, that poetry is an occupation requiring specialized study, regular examinations, theoretical articles with bibliographies and footnotes attached, and finally, ceremoniously conferred diplomas. And this would mean, in turn, that it's not enough to cover pages with even the most exquisite poems in order to become a poet. The crucial element is some slip of paper bearing an official stamp. Let us recall that the pride of Russian poetry, the future Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky was once sentenced to internal exile precisely on such grounds. They called him "a parasite," because he lacked official certification granting him the right to be a poet ...

Several years ago, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Brodsky in person. And I noticed that, of all the poets I've known, he was the only one who enjoyed calling himself a poet. He pronounced the word without inhibitions.

Just the opposite - he spoke it with defiant freedom. It seems to me that this must have been because he recalled the brutal humiliations he had experienced in his youth.

In more fortunate countries, where human dignity isn't assaulted so readily, poets yearn, of course, to be published, read, and understood, but they do little, if anything, to set themselves above the common herd and the daily grind. And yet it wasn't so long ago, in this century's first decades, that poets strove to shock us with their extravagant dress and eccentric behavior. But all this was merely for the sake of public display. The moment always came when poets had to close the doors behind them, strip off their mantles, fripperies, and other poetic paraphernalia, and confront - silently, patiently awaiting their own selves - the still white sheet of paper. For this is finally what really counts.

It's not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. The more ambitious directors seek to reproduce convincingly the creative process that led to important scientific discoveries or the emergence of a masterpiece. And one can depict certain kinds of scientific labor with some success. Laboratories, sundry instruments, elaborate machinery brought to life: such scenes may hold the audience's interest for a while. And those moments of uncertainty - will the experiment, conducted for the thousandth time with some tiny modification, finally yield the desired result? - can be quite dramatic. Films about painters can be spectacular, as they go about recreating every stage of a famous painting's evolution, from the first penciled line to the final brush-stroke. Music swells in films about composers: the first bars of the melody that rings in the musician's ears finally emerge as a mature work in symphonic form. Of course this is all quite naive and doesn't explain the strange mental state popularly known as inspiration, but at least there's something to look at and listen to.

But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens ... Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?

I've mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It's not that they've never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It's just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don't understand yourself.

When I'm asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."

There aren't many such people. Most of the earth's inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn't pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven't got even that much, however loveless and boring - this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there's no sign that coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes.

And so, though I may deny poets their monopoly on inspiration, I still place them in a select group of Fortune's darlings.

At this point, though, certain doubts may arise in my audience. All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they "know." They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don't want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments' force. And any knowledge that doesn't lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

This is why I value that little phrase "I don't know" so highly. It's small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself "I don't know," the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself "I don't know", she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying "I don't know," and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating "I don't know." Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that's absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their "oeuvre" ...

I sometimes dream of situations that can't possibly come true. I audaciously imagine, for example, that I get a chance to chat with the Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I would bow very deeply before him, because he is, after all, one of the greatest poets, for me at least. That done, I would grab his hand. "'There's nothing new under the sun': that's what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn't read your poem. And that cypress that you're sitting under hasn't been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same. And Ecclesiastes, I'd also like to ask you what new thing under the sun you're planning to work on now? A further supplement to the thoughts you've already expressed? Or maybe you're tempted to contradict some of them now? In your earlier work you mentioned joy - so what if it's fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt you'll say, 'I've written everything down, I've got nothing left to add.' There's no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself."

The world - whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we've just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don't know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing.

But "astonishing" is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We're astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we've grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn't based on comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like "the ordinary world," "ordinary life," "the ordinary course of events"... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world.

It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.

Translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1996/szymborska-lecture.html accessed 4/6/08.

This Nobel Lecture is included in New and Collected Poems.

-- "It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."
iver Junction Poets Mission Statement

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Photoshop Elements 6

Yes! I finally bought Adobe Photoshop Elements 6! I've wanted this for a few weeks now. I think I got a good deal. At Staples yesterday, with tax, the total came to just under $85. Fortunately, Judy Kerman gave me an introductory tutorial today. Until yesterday, I'd never used Photoshop before.

Anyway, now we have an unequivocal answer to that pressing historical question: exactly how did Walt Whitman change after reading essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson? Here we have before and after photos:

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Proud to be an American

Emerson's essays influenced Whitman as a poet. Emerson's letter to Whitman gave Whitman more confidence as a poet in the public eye so to speak.

For more on Emerson's influence on Whitman, see
For more regarding Emerson's famous letter to Whitman, see

-- "It is our goal to appreciate and improve our talents, to share our own work and to communicate the joys of poetry with others. Everyone's poetry is valued."

River Junction Poets Mission Statement