Archive for May, 2010

James Tate (born 1943) won the Pulitzer for his book of "Selected Poems"

I looked today to see if I could find the poems I submitted to Tate in 1989 for a private workshop when he was a visiting poet at the University of Memphis. To my surprise, I still have them. When I walked in the room, he said, I can’t find anything in your poems. He sat holding them not knowing what to say:


The day mother sold her house,
I stood looking at the tamarack trees curved along the back fence.
Clustered together, the limbs looked delicate.

As a child, I climbed the fence and clutched the trees for balance,
and the tough edges of the needles
cut sharply into my hands.

Often I let go,
wavering, seeing how long before
I had to jump.

And standing perfectly still
I smelled the trees in my hands,
and the cleft of the imprint remaining.

He wrote on that poem, If this is supposed to convey the anxiety of moving, I don’t think it yet succeeds —. And on another, The only thing this poem conveys is that your mother is old, but I like the form a lot. I’m going to use it in my next book. On a sestina about my father’s woodworking shop, he didn’t write anything. The text is so dense I can see why. And on the final poem are the words, The ideas and images in the poem are crammed together so tightly.

I can see now in the scribbled writing and lines drawn around the words what he was trying to tell me that day. I wasn’t building tension in the poems. The narratives are descriptive but flat.

But I was too young and impressionable to hear that then. This was the first time I’d been allowed a one-on-one workshop with a visiting poet. When he said, I don’t see anything in your poems I could only hear, You’ll never be a poet. Now looking at the poems 20 years later, I see what he was trying to tell me that day. There is even a note on one letting me know I could see him any time I liked while he was there.

In Reading on the Right Side of the Brain in James Tate’s Poetry, I discuss his poems The Wheelchair Butterfly and The Lost Pilot. Today, I’m posting a poem from his book Absences, published in 1972:

Deaf Girl Playing

This is where I once saw a deaf girl playing in a field.
Because I did not know how to approach her without startling
her, or how I would explain my presence, I hid. I felt
so disgusting, I might as well have raped the child, a grown
man on his belly in a field watching a deaf girl play.
My suit was stained by the grass and I was an hour late
for dinner. I was forced to discard my suit for lack of
a reasonable explanation to my wife, a hundred dollar suit!
We’re not rich people, not at all. So there I was, left
to my wool suit in the heat of summer, soaked through by
noon each day. I was an embarrassment to the entire firm:
it is not good for the morale of the fellow worker to flaunt
one’s poverty. After several weeks of crippling tension,
my superior finally called me into his office. Rather than
humiliate myself by telling him the truth, I told him I
would wear whatever damned suit pleased, a suit of armor
if I fancied. It was the first time I had challenged his
authority. And it was the last. I was dismissed. Given
my pay. On the way home I thought, I’ll tell her the truth,
yes, why not! Tell her the simple truth, she’ll love me
for it. What a touching story. Well, I didn’t. I don’t
know what happened, a loss of courage, I suppose, I told
her a mistake I had made had cost the company several
thousand dollars, and that, not only was I dismissed, I
would also somehow have to find the money to repay them
the sum of my error. She wept, she beat me, she accused
me of everything from malice to impotency. I helped her
pack and drove her to the bus station. It was too late to
explain. She would never believe me now. How cold the
house was without her. How silent. Each plate I dropped
was like tearing the very flesh from a living animal. When
all were shattered, I knelt in a corner and tried to imagine
what I would say to her, the girl in the field. What could
I say! No utterance could ever reach her. Like a thief
I move through the velvet darkness, nailing my sign
on tree and fence and billboard, DEAF GIRL PLAYING. It is
having its effect. Listen. In slippers and housecoats
more and more men will leave their sleeping wives’ sides:
tac tac tac: DEAF GIRL PLAYING: tac tac tac: another
DEAF GIRL PLAYING. No one speaks to anything but nails
and her amazing linen.
Other Pulitzer finalists in 1992 were Robert Creeley for his book of Selected Poems and Adrienne Rich for her book An Atlas of the Difficult World.

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Woodblock print by Gustave Baumann

Woodblock print by Gustave Baumann, A Small Untroubled World

Woodblock print, The Original Tree of Life (artist unknown)

Woodblock print by Hajime Namiki, Blue Dragon

Woodblock print by Ando Hiroshige, Owl on a Maple Branch in the Full Moon

Woodblock print by William Rice, Sheep Barn

Woodblock print by Takahashi Shotei, Crows on a Cold Night

Woodblock print for book Bolom Chon, a book of ancient Mexican myth (artist unknown)

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Mona Van Duyn (1921-2004) won the Pulitzer for her book "Near Changes"

I had a poetry workshop with Van Duyn in 1989. She told a story about applying for her driver’s license and being laughed at by the people at the license bureau when she filled in her profession as poet. Here is a poem from her book To See, To Take:

“The Wish To Be Believed”

It is never enough to know what you want.
The brick in your hand, dampened but solid, crumbles,
and a boundary being built, in the midst of a building,
stops. (Why shouldn’t one say what it is like?
How would they ever know, otherwise?)

You find in your pocket a key, two keys,
one with a curlicued stem, heavy, absurd,
the other perfectly blank, anonymous.
Who knows what they open; you glance at keyholes.
It is like — you can’t, after all, say exactly.

And the rooms, supposing you enter them calmly,
are different from your own; one is bare,
with a gilt-framed mirror facing the door.
Suppose you are tempted to insert your face —
you see a face, and the door closing.

And you go on past the half-built boundary,
clicking the keys together, entering.
And you reach, finally, a plain, absolute place,
and stand in the center, saying to someone,
“Believe. Believe this is what I see.”

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Charles Simic (Born 1938) won the Pulitzer for his book "The World Doesn't End"

Charles Simic is one of my favorite poets. In Three Perfect Poems, I discuss his poem The Healer, but in truth all Simic’s poems seem perfect to me. In a perfect poem, the subject matter is intriguing, the form fits the subject matter, the poem is written from the poet’s heart and the writing seems effortless.

Today I’m posting one poem from Simic’s book My Noiseless Entourage, published in 2005, three prose poems from his book The World Doesn’t End, published in 1989 and excerpts from his book of literary criticism The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, published in 2008:

Description of a Lost Thing

It never had a name,
Nor do I remember how I found it.
I carried it in my pocket
Like a lost button
Except it wasn’t a button.

Horror movies,
All-night cafeterias,
Dark barrooms
And poolhalls,
On rain-slicked streets.

It led a quiet, unremarkable existence
Like a shadow in a dream,
An angel on a pin,
And then it vanished.
The years passed with their row

Of nameless stations,
Till somebody told me this is it!
And fool that I was,
I got off on an empty platform
With no town in sight.

Yugoslavian passport issued in 1953 for Simic (top) and his brother

From The World Doesn’t End

My mother was a braid of black smoke. She bore me swaddled over the burning cities. The sky was a vast and windy place for a child to play. We met many others who were just like us. They were trying to put on their overcoats with arms made of smoke. The high heavens were full of little shrunken deaf ears instead of stars.
I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole me right back. Then the gypsies stole me again. This went on for some time. One minute I was in the caravan suckling the dark teat of my new mother, the next I sat on the long dining room table eating my breakfast with a silver spoon. It was the first day of spring. One of my fathers was singing in the bathtub; the other one was painting a live sparrow the colors of a tropical bird.
Ghost stories written as algebraic equations. Little Emily at the blackboard is very frightened. The X’s look like a graveyard at night. The teacher wants her to poke among them with a piece of chalk. All the children hold their breath. The white chalk squeaks once among the plus and minus signs, and then it’s quiet again.

Excerpts from The Monster Loves His Labyrinth

I’d like to show readers that the most familiar things that surround them are unintelligible.

There is a weather report in almost every folk poem. The sun is shining; it was snowing; the wind was blowing. . . . The folk poet knows that it’s wise to immediately establish the connection between the personal and the cosmic.

Poetry is a way of knowledge, but most poetry tells us what we already know.

Between the truth that is heard and the truth that is seen, I prefer the silent truth of the seen.

If I make everything at the same time a joke and a serious matter, it’s because I honor the eternal conflict between life and art, the absolute and the relative, the brain and the belly, etc. . . . No philosophy is good enough to overcome a toothache . . . that sort of thing.

Contradictory pulls when it comes to making a poem: to leave things as they are or to reimagine them; to represent or to reenact; to submit or to assert; artifice or nature, and so on. Like the cow the poet should have more than one stomach.

There are three kinds of poets: Those who write without thinking, those who think while writing, and those who think before writing.

Awe (as in Dickinson) is the beginning of metaphysics. The awe at the multiplicity of things and awe at their suspected unity.

To make something that doesn’t yet exist, but which after its creation would look as if it had always existed.
Other Pulitzer finalists in 1990 were Adrienne Rich for her book Time’s Power and Paul Zweig for his book of Selected and Last Poems.

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Richard Wilbur (born 1921) won the Pulitzer for his book of "New and Collected Poems"

The Reader

She is going back, these days, to the great stories
That charmed her younger mind. A shaded light
Shines on the nape half-shadowed by her curls,
And a page turns now with a scuffing sound.
Onward they come again, the orphans reaching
For a first handhold in a stony world,
The young provincials who at last look down
On the city’s maze, and will descend into it,
The serious girl, once more, who would live nobly,
The sly one who aspires to marry so,
The young man bent on glory, and that other
Who seeks a burden. Knowing as she does
What will become of them in bloody field
Or Tuscan garden, it may be that at times
She sees their first and final selves at once,
As a god might to whom all time is now.
Or, having lived so much herself, perhaps
She meets them this time with a wiser eye,
Noting that Julien’s calculating head
Is from the first two severed from his heart.
But the true wonder of it is that she,
For all that she may know of consequences,
Still turns enchanted to the next bright page
Like some Natasha in the ballroom door —
Caught in the flow of things wherever bound,
The blind delight of being, ready still
To enter life on life and see them through.
Other Pulitzer finalist in 1989 were Donald Hall for his book The One Day and Garrett Hongo for his book The River of Heaven.

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Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (Russia, 1918-2008)

It is difficult to know what to post about a man whose life and work have reached such mythic proportions as Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. In literature, he is best known for his novels Gulag Archipelago, written between 1958 and 1968 and published in 1973, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1963.

The two novels are based on his years of imprisonment in a Soviet labor prison camp from 1945 to 1953. He was arrested and imprisoned for anti-Soviet propaganda and remarks made against Stalin discovered in correspondence to a school friend. After his eight-year imprisonment ended in 1953, he was sent into exile in Kazakhastan, on the fringes of Siberia. In 1956, he was freed from exile and exonerated. In trying to publish his work over the next 18 years, he was persecuted by the KGB, arrested again in 1974 and deported to West Germany. He then moved to Zurich, Switzerland, and later to Cavendish, Vermont. In 1990, his Soviet citizen was restored, and he returned to Russia in 1994.

Solzhenitsyn after his release in 1953. He smuggled out his padded jacket and number patches and had his photo taken.

In Solzhenitsyn’s book Voice from the Gulag, he said,Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened. Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

And in his Nobel lecture, “During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky’s speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Such an emergence seemed, then, to me, and not without reason, to be very risky because it might lead to the loss of my manuscripts, and to my own destruction. But, on that occasion, things turned out successfully, and after protracted efforts, A.T. Tvardovsky was able to print my novel one year later. The printing of my work was, however, stopped almost immediately and the authorities stopped both my plays and (in 1964) the novel, The First Circle, which, in 1965, was seized together with my papers from the past years. During these months it seemed to me that I had committed an unpardonable mistake by revealing my work prematurely and that because of this I should not be able to carry it to a conclusion.

It is almost always impossible to evaluate at the time events which you have already experienced, and to understand their meaning with the guidance of their effects. All the more unpredictable and surprising to us will be the course of future events.”

The following excerpt is from Solzhenitsyn’s novel An Incident at Krechetovka Station in his book We Never Make Mistakes, published in 1971 and translated by Paul W. Blackstock:

“Only the people who worked at the station were not driven away by the rain. Through a window a watchman could be seen on the platform near the rain-drenched cargo. Covered with a heavy tarpaulin, he stood there all wet and soaked from the rain without even trying to shake it off. On the third track, the switch engine was slowly moving a tank car, while the switchman, covered entirely with a hooded poncho, waved to him with his flagstick. The dark, dwarfish form of the wagon master could also be seen walking along the train formation on track two, looking and searching under each car.

And so — everything was rain-drenched! In the cold, persistent wind, the rain beat on the roofs and walls of freight cars and the engines. It cut along the fire-red, bent-iron ribs of two, ten-car skeletons (some for the boxes were still burning from the bombing raids, but the useful parts of those remaining had been brought to the rear). It drenched the four Artillery pieces standing on flatcars; it blended with the approaching twilight; it began to tighten and close in on the green, small circle of the semaphore, and on the livid, purple-red sparks which were flying out of the chimneys of the ‘heated’ cars. [These were boxcars adapted for troop transport which in cold weather were fitted with makeshift stoves, with long thin pipes for chimneys that extended through the roof.] All the asphalt on the first platform was covered with crystal-clear water blisters, which had not had time to drain. Even in the dusk the rails glistened and sparkled with bubbles, and all the gray storm covers shimmered with pools of water.

There was little sound besides the trembling of the earth, and the weak sound of the switchman’s horn. (Whistling by the engines had been forbidden since the first day of the war.) Only the rain trumpeted through the broken pipes.

Behind the other window of the Commander’s room, in the path along the warehouse enclosure, grew a small oak. Its drenched and trembling branches had held a few dark green leaves, but today even the last few had blown away.”

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William Meredith (1919-2007) won the Pulitzer for his book "Partial Accounts: New and Selected Poems"

The Illiterate

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

Tree Marriage

In Chota Nagpur and Bengal
the betrothed are tied with threads to
mango trees, they marry the trees
as well as one another, and
the two trees marry each other.
Could we do that some time with oaks
or beeches? This gossamer we
hold each other with, this web
of love and habit is not enough.
In mistrust of heavier ties,
I would like tree-siblings for us,
standing together somewhere, two
trees married with us, lightly, their
fingers barely touching in sleep,
our threads invisible but holding.

Other Pulitzer finalists in 1988 were C.K. Williams for his book Flesh and Blood and Lucille Clifton for her book Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 and Next: New Poems.

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