Tagged: contemporary american poetry

Guest blog post: Endings and Legacies, by Naomi Jaffa

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Stopping off with Billy & Charlie at Michael Laskey’s for The Poetry Paper interview (August 2006)

In terms of my poetry world, 2015 has turned out to be a year of endings and legacies. The Poetry Trust office is empty and up for rent, my marvellous former teammates have all gone, and the most recent Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is certainly the last of its kind. ‘Mothballing’ is the term being used by the trustees, to leave the way open for some kind of re-vivification, but certainly it’s the end of an era that has seen 27 years of the Festival delivered by a combination of the same three individuals (Michael Laskey, Dean Parkin and me). If it’s true what they say about all good things – and how can it not be, given our finite reserves of time and energy – then sometimes I can’t help wishing we’d strive to be less greedy (people always seem to want and feel the right to expect more) and more grateful. It’s been a marvellous thing, Aldeburgh, and no one can take away the preciousness of all those shared live readings and the evidence of the archive recordings. Enough should be enough.

Back in 1993 when I started working with Michael Laskey (to help with Aldeburgh, then in its fifth year), I knew embarrassingly little about contemporary British poetry and still less about the international scene. I’d heard Joseph Brodsky (a boyfriend was nuts about him) and that was about it. Who should I start by reading? Who would make me believe that great poems could be written by living writers? ‘Sharon Olds and C K Williams’, Michael urged. I devoured his recommendations and a consequence, I’m sure, was that throughout my tenure at Aldeburgh (1993-2015), I was always most excited by contemporary Americans.

C K Williams (who I could never quite bring myself to address as ‘Charlie’ – too presumptuously familiar – even though it’s what most people called him) was joined by Galway Kinnell and Philip Levine, and I was lucky enough to meet my trio of heroes in person. Kinnell came to Aldeburgh in 2001 (memorable for a heroic reading, whispered with laryngitis); Williams in both 1990 and 2000 (when he was awestruck by Michael Hofmann’s lecture on Lowell) and then again at the Poetry Prom in 2006; and finally, after years of pleading emails, Levine in 2009 (‘Phil’, he and his wife Franny insisted…).

All three poets have died in the past year, creating a seismic gap in the most senior pantheon of American poetry, and it’s a gap which is only going to widen. How much longer will, for example, Robert Bly, Donald Hall, W S Merwin and Gerald Stern be with us? Soon, this oldest generation of poets who’ve lived and written their way through the 20th and early 21st centuries will be literary history. Thank goodness for the body of work they leave.

In his prose reflections Poetry and Consciousness, CK Williams gets to the heart of the need (or certainly his need) to write: ‘For whatever reason, human consciousness is not satisfied with experience in itself, it is our reflection on our experience that allows us to consider ourselves legitimated, that makes us recognize an emotion as authentic. Unless we can manage to accomplish this reflection, we feel we have been cheated and, in a radical sense, may even begin to question the reality of what we have experienced.’ A little further on, he expands: ‘Emotions, I hold, are in and of themselves neither pure, spontaneous, nor very clear. They require a stringent attentiveness, and, if the soul is to do justice to their turbulence and furor without belittling itself, it must indeed be educated, and rigorously so. It is my thesis that the most useful method we have devised for that education is poetry.’

Philip Levine also produced selections of prose essays, conversations and interviews and in So Ask (published in 2002, some twenty years after the first volume Don’t Ask) he was characteristically plain-spoken about his own motivation back in 1997: ‘The art I have pursued for better or worse for over fifty years is poetry, and I have found it an enterprise worthy of a human life, and I haven’t the least notion if anything I have written will in the hearts of others outlive me. Why, you might well ask, with that knowledge do I call it an enterprise worthy of a human life? Because I have been part of something far larger than myself: I have been part of the attempt to verbalize as precisely as possible what it has meant to live through the great depression, the horrors of World War II, the fiasco of anticommunism, the long, painful failed struggle for racial justice, and wind up in old age in a country gone to ruin through the greed of capitalism with a technology that can take us to the moon while our streets are stained by the lives of the poor and the homeless, the present world of Microsoft [perhaps he’d choose Apple now], unfettered pollution, the epidemic of murderous drugs, and the economic policies of Ronald Reagan.’ Elsewhere he says, ‘I believe the truth is we form a family with other poets, living and dead, or we risk going nowhere’, and introducing a roll call of fellow poets, he concludes: ‘We have told America and the rest of the world should it care to listen, what it’s been like living through this age. We have been useful.’

Being ‘useful’ is central to the moral imperative that underpins both poets’ work. Their poems present and examine internal and external realities in order to enlarge their own and our collective consciousness. What can we learn from our and other people’s lives? How can we live and treat each other better? And while neither poet goes in for abstraction (what a relief!), their poems abound in self-knowledge, truthfulness, philosophy and a deep sense of justice. They were such ‘good’ men, as well as poets. But this isn’t a eulogy and so let’s focus instead on two of their poems.

SHRAPNEL

1

Seven hundred tons per inch, I read, is the force in a bomb or shell in the
            microsecond after its detonation,
and two thousand feet per second is the speed at which the shrapnel, the
            materials with which the ordnance
is packed, plus its burst steel casing, “stretched, thinned, and sharpened”
            by the tremendous heat and energy,
are propelled outwards in an arc until they strike an object and either ric-
            ochet or become embedded in it.

In the case of insufficiently resistant materials, the shards of shrapnel can
            cause “significant damage”;
in human tissue, for instance, rupturing flesh and blood vessels and shat-
            tering and splintering bone.
Should no essential organs be involved, the trauma may be termed
            “superficial,” as by the chief nurse,
a nun, in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, part of which takes place in a hospi-
            tal receiving wounded from Dunkirk.

It’s what she says when a soldier cries, “Fuck!” as her apprentice, the
            heroine, a young writer-to-be,
probes a wound with her forceps to extract one of many jagged fragments
            of metal from a soldier’s legs.
“Fuck!” was not to be countenanced back then. “How dare you speak that
            way?” scolds the imperious sister,
“your injuries are superficial, so consider yourself lucky and show some
            courage worthy of your uniform.”

The man stays still after that, though “he sweated and… his knuckles
            turned white round the iron bedhead.”
“Only seven to go,” the inexperienced nurse chirps, but the largest
            chunk, which she’s saved for last, resists;
at one point it catches, protruding from the flesh – (“He bucked on the
            bed and hissed through his teeth”) –
and not until her third resolute tug does the whole “gory, four-inch
            stiletto of irregular steel” come clear.

2

“Shrapnel throughout the body” is how a ten-year-old killed in a recent
            artillery offensive is described.
“Shrapnel throughout the body”: the phrase is repeated along with the
            name of each deceased child
in the bulletin released as propaganda by our adversaries, at whose oper-
            atives the barrage was directed.
There are photos as well – one shows a father rushing through the street,
            his face torn with a last frantic hope,

his son in his arms, rag-limp, chest and abdomen speckled with deep,
            dark gashes and smears of blood.
Propaganda’s function, of course, is exaggeration: the facts are there,
            though, the child is there… or not there.
… As the shrapnel is no longer there in the leg of the soldier: the girl
            holds it up for him to see, the man quips,
“Run him under the tap, Nurse, I’ll take him home,” then, “… he turned
            to the pillow and began to sob.”

Technically, I red, what’s been called shrapnel here would have once
            been defined as “splinters” or “fragments.”
“Shrapnel” referred then only to a spherical shell, names after its invent-
            tor, Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel.
First used in 1804, it was “… guaranteed to cause heavy casualties… the
            best mankiller the army possessed.”
Shrapnel was later awarded a generous stipend in recognition of his con-
            tribution “to the start of the art.”

Where was I? The nun, the nurse; the nurse leaves the room, throws up;
            the fictional soldier, the real child…
The father… What becomes of the father? He skids from the screen,
            from the page, from the mind…
Shrapnel’s device was superseded by higher-powered, more efficient pro-
            jectiles, obsolete now in their turn.
One war passes into the next. One wound is the next and the next. Some-
            thing howls. Something cries.

C K Williams (2nd November 1936 – 20th September 2015)
from Wait (Bloodaxe, 2010)

‘Shrapnel’ was new and, I believe, unpublished when CK Williams read it at the Dodge Poetry Festival (New Jersey, US) in 2004. The huge tent was packed to capacity (2,000+) in the middle of the recently idyllic grassy estate that had turned quagmire during the October weekend when it never stopped pouring. Audiences were chilly, wet, muddy and not a little grumpy – but all discomforts were banished as we found ourselves listening hard to a shockingly visceral, tightly-controlled yet imaginatively-expansive account of the ‘significant damage’ shrapnel does to the human body. I’d never heard a poem like it and couldn’t stop thinking and hurting and talking about it afterwards. And when Williams read it again at our Poetry Prom in Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 2006, the 600-strong audience was equally gripped. At The Poetry Trust, we’d worried that the relatively ‘populist’ Prom audience might find CK Williams demandingly ‘serious’ in comparison with the more ‘entertaining’ Billy Collins who was sharing the bill. The fact is that Charlie’s books were the best-sellers that night. ‘Shrapnel’ will remain a desperately relevant poem for as long as human beings drop bombs on one another. If only there was a mandatory reading list for politicians everywhere…

Levine APF 2009 (1)

From the macro to the micro. When Philip Levine closed his final reading at Aldeburgh in 2009 with ‘The Two’, I couldn’t not cry.

THE TWO

When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He’s tired,
a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
The two gaze upward at the sky, which gives
nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.
The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn’t decided
what to become. The traffic light at Linwood
goes from red to green and the trucks start up,
so that when he says, “Would you like to eat?”
she hears a jumble of words that means nothing,
though spiced with things she cannot believe,
“wooden Jew” and “lucky meat.” He’s been up
late, she thinks, he’s tired of the job, perhaps tired
of their morning meetings, but then he bows
from the waist and holds the door open
for her to enter the diner, and the thick
odor of bacon frying and new potatoes
greets them both, and taking heart she enters
to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke
to see if “their booth” is available.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no
second acts in America, but he knew neither
this man nor this woman and no one else
like them unless he stayed late at the office
to test his famous one-liner, “We keep you clean
in Muscatine,” on the woman emptying
his wastebasket. Fitzgerald never wrote
with someone present, except for this woman
in a gray uniform whose comings and goings
went unnoticed even on those December evenings
she worked late while the snow fell silently
on the windowsills and the new fluorescent lights
blinked on and off. Get back to the two, you say.
Not who ordered poached eggs, who ordered
only toast and coffee, who shared the bacon
with the other, but what became of the two
when this poem ended, whose arms held whom,
who first said “I love you” and truly meant it,
and who misunderstood the words, so longed
for and yet still so unexpected, and began
suddenly to scream and curse until the waitress
asked them both to leave. The Packard plant closed
years before I left Detroit, the diner was burned
to the ground in ’67, two years before my oldest son
fled to Sweden to escape the American dream.
“And the lovers?” you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
of spent breath after eight hours of night work.
Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write!
Why the two are more real then either you or me,
why I never returned to keep them in my life,
how little I now mean to myself or anyone else,
what any of this could mean, where you found
the patience to endure these truths and confusions?

Philip Levine (10th January 1928 – 14th February 2015)
from Stranger to Nothing (Bloodaxe, 2006)

It’s hard to say why, exactly, I find this so satisfying and so moving, but it seems to contain all the qualities I love most about Levine’s writing. It’s a poem which raises questions rather than providing answers. The narrative offers different perspectives: ‘The Two’ themselves, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the ‘unnoticed’ office cleaner (who of course we definitely notice), the narrator (might he be one of ‘The Two’?), his ‘oldest son’, the waitress, and finally, of course, us – the ‘you’ of the reader. The convincing and conflicting emotional realities remind me, in the best way, of Arthur Miller, and the poem is as cinematic as it is dramatic. The turns – or scene changes – are exhilarating, the way we swerve from the man and woman in the diner to Fitzgerald in his ‘Mad Men’ office and back (I just adore the tone and perfect timing of that ‘Get back to the two, you say’), and then onto the final act (I can’t work out whether there are four or five) when we’re suddenly taken to task by a potentially unreliable narrator about our addiction to the romantic quest for love:

         “And the lovers?” you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
         Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
         a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
         of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
         of spent breath after eight hours of night work.

Levine pulls so many strands together here, and then in the closing lines of the poem, amplifies his implicit questions: How can we ever determine what is ‘real’? Life or art: which is actually ‘more real than either you or me’? Is there any solution to the ‘the chaos of language’ (earlier the ‘jumble of words’) and our endless (mis-)communications with one another?

The answer has to be ‘yes’, even if only sometimes, given the evidence of this poem. Each time I read it – or type it out (the most sure-fire way to feel how a poem is working from the inside) – I’m struck all over again by the ‘rightness’ of the weight of words, the choice of such convincing images, the un-showy yet powerful line breaks, the inexorable pace and forward momentum, the compelling mix of the main story of ‘The Two’ set against the social/economic/political backdrop of the ‘American dream’, fused with the poet’s own existential concerns. It delivers so much – nothing less than a life’s work.

‘Failing to communicate is part of what we live with, part of our condition. Poetry is about as good as we can get at communicating without the aid of gestures, without the aid of our bodies’, says Levine in So Ask. ‘Rilke wrote somewhere that without our bodies we cannot love. Also with our bodies, with our gestures, with our facial expressions, we can communicate far more fully than with merely words on the telephone or words in a letter. Poetry is as close as we can get to complete communication with words alone. And I think it’s good enough.’

Naomi Jaffa
11th December 2015

Naomi Jaffa was born in 1961, grew up in London and North Yorkshire, read English at Oxford, and has lived in Suffolk since the early 1990s. She was Director of The Poetry Trust – the organisation behind the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival for which she worked for 22 years – until stepping down at the start of 2015. Currently freelancing, she co-edited the latest edition of The North, co-launched a supper club (GRUB) and devotes time to horses (dressage) and classical singing (she’s the new Chair of the Norfolk chamber choir, The Jay Singers). She has published one short collection, The Last Hour of Sleep (Five Leaves Press, 2003) and a second is planned for 2016.

Photo credits: Peter Everard Smith

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