Thursday, April 30, 2009


'April, come she will,' the old nursery rhyme says, and who can forget the wistful rendition by Simon and Garfunkel on the soundtrack to The Graduate (1967)? The month, so famously called 'the cruellest,' has been wet, at times windy, at times humid, occasionally halcyon, and finally downright summery before switching back to an early spring feel. All things to all people I guess you could say.

Not only the weather has been slippery, but the ways I’ve been spending my time have been something of a mixed bag, as I’ve felt myself blown here and there, hither and yon, by whatever vague winds of change seem to be in the offing. It’s 'National Poetry Month,' y’know, so, in-keeping with that sudden spike in national awareness of the value of the poetic word (yeah), I attended, late in March, a poetry reading by D. A. Powell, and a bilingual reading by Jacques Roubaud, then, in April, a reading by Mark Strand, from his New Selected Poems (2007; Knopf); Strand shared the stage with Chang-Rae Lee, who read from his forthcoming novel. I also had a poem posted on the online magazine nthposition, thanks to Todd Swift, and read a few new poems at a gathering of writers local to New Haven, sponsored by The New Haven Review and by Yale’s McDougal Center for Graduate Student Life, where the participants reading poetry outnumbered those reading prose by 8 to 3. And earlier in the month I met some fellow OpenSalon bloggers at a comradely party to celebrate the first anniversary of the hottest forum for bloggers.

On the day of the OpenSalon celebration, I visited the Met to see the Pierre Bonnard show again before it closed -- for the express purpose of writing a poem in situ. I managed to write two, even though there was quite a milling crowd. Foolish me (it’s April, after all) was unaware that kids would be off from school that day and had picked a Thursday thinking it might be more relaxed, solitary, less given to the crowds of a weekend. No such luck.

Powell’s reading, at St. Anthony’s Hall at Yale, was subdued, offering the stringent lyricism of his poems in a quiet, undemonstrative manner. The week before, we had kicked around a selection of his poems in a poetry reading group; from that brief exposure, it seemed to me that the poems in Chronic (2009; Graywolf) were the best of his career thus far. After the reading, while getting a copy of the book signed, I mentioned that to Powell and asked if the book was well-received; a little bemused he said it had gotten some unfavorable reviews -- later, I came across the review on Poetry Magazine’s website where Jason Guriel takes Powell to task as a kind of epitome of the tiresome tricks of contemporary verse. The enumerated failings that Guriel finds in Powell’s verse might well apply to an entire cohort of poets of our times, but I can’t see the reason in laying that at Powell’s door. I assume it must have to do with praise, deemed unmerited, Powell has received in other quarters. I suppose there is some purpose in the ‘set the record straight’ sort of review that wants to make clear that the views of other reviewers simply don’t hold water. About Powell’s reading (I haven’t gotten through the entirety of the book yet, so will hold off any more extensive comment), I’ll just say that I don’t think he presented the best of the book. My feeling was that the poems we read for the group were better chosen than those he elected to read. Where there was agreement was in the excellent paired poems 'Corydon & Alexis' and 'Corydon & Alexis, Redux' -- Powell ended his reading with them, and I wished we’d given them due discussion in our meeting, but so it goes.

'oh, you who are young, consider how quickly the body deranges itself
how time, the cruel banker, forecloses us to snowdrifts white as god’s own ribs'

One might believe the Eliot 'Waste Land' crib is uncalled for (Consider Phlebis), that time personified as a banker foreclosing on us is a bit obvious, even if effective, and that the choice of a verb phrase like 'deranges itself' is deliberate poeticizing. In fact, what I like about Powell is his willingness to poeticize in this register: allusions, apt similes, somewhat off-putting word choice. I found myself having to listen pretty intently, while reading his poems to myself, to catch, again and again, a very deliberate music that, in his reading, was easy to miss: 'forecloses us to snowdrifts white as god’s own ribs' -- the course of the 'o' sound in the entire line, set-off nicely against short and long 'i.' At his best, Powell’s mastery of such music is woven easily into his poems so that it constantly teases the ear while reading.

Mark Strand’s reading was delightful; he presented himself as a very affable, unpretentious poet, and his poems are at times mysterious, at times amusing, and at times both. In response to a student’s questions about trying to integrate the creative and the everyday lives, he said something to the effect that he has no problem keeping them separate; that the outer life keeps him busy, while the inner life keeps him amused. I hope to pick up the Selected soon.

Jacques Roubaud was also extremely affable, discussing his compositional methods, seminar-style, earlier in the day, than reading in the rather unkind to poetry ambiance of a Barnes and Noble (aka Yale Bookstore). Roubaud read from an amusing text entitled The Form of a City Changes, Alas, Faster Than the Human Heart (2006; Dalkey Archive) which was very exacting in its treatment of the streets of Paris, and also read 'Genesis in Reverse,' a poem not to be missed.

Chang-Rae Lee read of American soldiers during the Korean war mistreating a prisoner (blowing out his eardrum with a bugle, for instance), which, apropos of the recent spate of torture talk, seemed topical if a bit uncomfortably grim for a springlike afternoon amidst Yale writing students; Denis, a graduate student acquaintance, offered his take: well, he’s going gray and he seems like a simple family man and teacher -- what can he do to come off like a badass? Perhaps. Of course the style of the writing and the reading were in that unencumbered, almost inflexionless prose that seems to be Lee’s only mode.

My favorite bits at the New Haven writers reading: Jim Berger’s hilarious poem trying to imagine the lives of the authors of Best American verse, Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s nonfiction piece about being mistaken for Sandra Oh, and Brian Slattery’s 150 word stories on the theme, Las Vegas.

About my poem, 'Gold and Gloom,' I'll say only: it was written in 1996 during a particularly glum autumn, but reads to me now as quite apropos for last November when the economy's precipitate plunge became the stuff of daily reports: 'I toil not, neither do I spin' might describe a lot more people in the great attrition of jobs in the current economic scene.

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