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A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Chesil (---.client.attbi.com)
Date: October 12, 2003 02:45PM

A new US Poet Laureate, Louise Gluck, has been appointed, will anybody notice?

I often wonder to what extent the presence of a Poet Laureate has an influence on the wider interest, acceptance and understanding of poetry. Much is written about accomplishment, the Library of Congress is eager to point to the success of Pinsky’s Favorite Poem project, Billy Collins’ poem a day in High School project and much more beside. Have they actually made a difference? What about the many State Poet Laureates, what is their accomplishment? It is, of course, an honor for the poet. At least I think it is, but do they then feel constrained?

Only one, to my knowledge, has been thrown out of office, or rather in his case the office was abolished. That was Amiri Barake in New Jersey who penned lines suggesting quite firmly that the 9/11 atrocity had been effected by Israel. Rather than being controversial, he was merely proving his foolishness in believing and repeating an internet conspiracy theory that had its roots in Wonderland. Back to honor. Are the chosen poets selected in expectation that they will not prove controversial, that they will not, for example, send off a poem to Sam Hamill to be considered for his anti-Iraq war poem project? I don’t see Billy Collins or Robert Pinsky or our new Laureate, Louise Gluck, listed as contributor in his book indeed only one past Laureate, Rita Dove, is shown as a contributor. There are many other well known poets in the book; Adrienne Rich, W S Merwin, Mary Oliver to name just a few. There might have been State Laureate contributors, but none I knew.

Are Laureates chosen for poetic excellence or in anticipation that they will prove non-controversial? The non-controversial nature of the Poet Laureate has been set for centuries in the UK. Why else could Andrew Motion have been chosen to succeed Ted Hughes. Motion is probably the least controversial Poet Laureate since Robert Southey and will probably be similarly (and thankfully) forgotten as a poet in a generation. No poems of outrage over anything from him. No sign of these poets being the unacknowledged legislators that Shelley wrote about. Perhaps there never were.

What might we expect of Louise Gluck? I knew little of her, I had read a book of her essays, Proofs & Theories, but none of her poetry. I picked up a couple of her books to acquaint myself with her. The books are Ararat and The Seven Ages. In these books she is a confessional poet writing of painful autobiographical memories of herself, her parents, sisters, son and other family members. I hope this does not mean an even greater resurgence of the confessional mode. ‘I’ appears to be the most popular word in poetry at the moment and this self-absorption rarely seems to lead younger poets into freshness. It doesn’t seem to for Gluck either; consider the opening stanza of Stars from The Seven Ages:

I’m awake, I am in the world ­
I expect no further assurance.
No protection, no promise.

Plenty of self but no revelation. It hardly gets better, the third stanza:

I’m alone ­ all my riches surround me.
I have a bed, a room.
I have a bed, a vase of flowers beside it.
And a nightlight, a book.

Not to mention a good teaching job, a recent $50,000 poetry prize, a Pulitzer prize among many others. Why do these confessionals forget the good things in their lives? Is it that we don’t want to read good news poems? The evidence suggests otherwise. Hallmark sell plenty of greetings cards with happy verses attached. Perhaps to be taken seriously requires a poet to write darkly. Really, though, after Plath and subsequently Hughes, is there anything further to be stripped bare from dark times in the lives of poets?

Gluck had therapy for seven years, a result of anorexia when a teen. Are her confessional endeavors further therapy? Evidently, as the next Poet Laureate and a richly awarded poet, there are many that believe that her confessional poetry has much merit. I’m not persuaded. There are no blinding revelations for me in her work. Perhaps I miss the point, her work has inspired reviewers to say, for example:

‘ Louise Gluck’s poems…move in an unmistakable sharklike fashion, their flukes and square jaws cutting the sea horizontally.”

The Nation What on earth can this mean and why was it chosen for a cover blurb?

More sensibly, Stephen Dobyns wrote in the New York Times Book Review:

‘No American poet writes better than Louise Gluck, perhaps none can lead us so deeply into our own natures.”

Not me. I am led to her self-absorption. I wonder what her family makes of her, her son, her sister’s daughter, cousins? I recall reading that Plath’s mother was hurt by the thinly disguised autobiographical poetry of her daughter. Do Gluck’s family feel the same way? To write as catharsis is one thing, to seek an audience is another. Gluck writes that each group of poems is a closing, ‘a swearing off’ and that in the next she endeavors to move to a different style, for example:

‘What I wanted, after Descending Figure, was a poem less perfect, less stately; I wanted a present tense that referred to something more fluent than the archetypal present.’ I’m not sure what this means, but it seems a little odd to me that a form should no longer be suitable. It’s rather like Shakespeare swearing off sonnets. Why would he want to? Surely, the poem commands the style? Isn’t there something lost in ‘swearing off’ styles? Endeavoring to be fresh is good but blocking avenues is blind. Not a lesson I would want any young poet (or MFA student for that matter) to learn.

Sadly, having entered her poetry with a willing mind, I have found myself unmoved by its pathos. The imagery does not feel new and I have learned nothing of myself and not enough of the poet that I feel empathy for her suffering.


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Jack? (---.southg01.mi.comcast.net)
Date: October 12, 2003 03:40PM

Chesil-

No single word in poetry is a quicker turn-off than 'I'.
It had better be followed by something pretty good, or it all falls apart for me.

As far as poets laureate go, it doesn't really take a GREAT poet.
It would better to have a good poet who is a GREAT ambassador for poetry.
Nobody on this site needs to told of the dwindling popularity of poetry. "It's too HARD", "There are too many RULES". Unless, of course, you consider rap or hip-hop, or whateverthehell they choose to call it this week. "It's the voice of the PEOPLE, man. It's the voice of the STREETS".
whatever
A laureate who could offer something of value to young people to get them interested, and strike a chord with others to rekindle their interest in things poetic would be better than having the greatest poet in history (no nominees, please) without a clue as to how to connect with real people.



(my too sense)


Jack


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Chesil (---.client.attbi.com)
Date: October 12, 2003 04:44PM

Jack? wrote:

A laureate who could offer something of value to young people
to get them interested, and strike a chord with others to
rekindle their interest in things poetic would be better than
having the greatest poet in history (no nominees, please)
without a clue as to how to connect with real people.


Now there is the rub, Jack.

To connect with young people needs relevance and the relevance changes according to age group. Ted Hughes wrote some good poetry for young children, I recall reading it myself as a child. I doubt, though, teenagers found it too illuminating.

Why not rap, if that leads to interest in other forms of poetry? Couldn't be worse than it already is. A glance at the homework phorum demonstrates that the vast majority of poetry being prescribed for work is completely irrelevant to today's kids. Where is there reference point for Blake?

A laureate would have to leave their own poetic baggage behind, no easy thing to do, and embrace a completely new genre - or a rap poet is chosen instead, but that would alienate the rest of us perhaps.

Gluck, I think, wants to reach out to young people. Perhaps she can through the confessional and dark style of her work. The continuance of such a style isn't what I would wish but if it brings more in to the fold....

I'm not sure that I agree with your belief that interest in poetry is dwindling. When Dana Gioia's essay "Can Poetry Matter" arguing exactly that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly ten years ago it elicited the greatest reader response the magazine had ever had on an article. The popularity of the USP forum and countless more like it around the web does, to my mind, affirm a huge ongoing interest in poetry. Now we might all argue as to the quality, style and so forth of the poetry being written but we should also celebrate that it is being written at all.

Poetry has been written off many times since Plato wanted to exclude poets from his envisaged Republic. It doesn't seem to me that it is any closer today than it was then.


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Hugh Clary (---.denver-04rh16rt.co.dial-access.att.net)
Date: October 12, 2003 07:17PM


Descending Figure

[www.artstomp.com]


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: glenda (---.client.comcast.net)
Date: October 12, 2003 08:38PM

By what method is a poet laureate appointed?

Your question regarding our wanting to read good news poems makes me wonder just how many poems of that nature, past and present, are widely read and appreciated. Darkness sells.


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Hugh Clary (---.denver-05rh15rt.co.dial-access.att.net)
Date: October 13, 2003 12:13PM



By what method is a poet laureate appointed?

[www.loc.gov]


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Pam Adams (134.71.192.---)
Date: October 13, 2003 01:17PM

Why not rap, if that leads to interest in other forms of poetry? Couldn't be worse than it already is. A glance at the homework phorum demonstrates that the vast majority of poetry being prescribed for work is completely irrelevant to today's kids. Where is there reference point for Blake?


I agree. One problem with having a 'rap poet' appointed is that the appointers have no connection with the form. Perhaps if they went home and asked their children.........

I was recently helping my niece work her way through Anne Bradstreet. She's a smart kid, although not a great reader (where did I go wrong?), and she really struggled.

As I understand it, the Laureate in Great Britain actually has work to do. Ours just have to stand around and look pretty- kind of like Miss America, and therefore picked for some of the same reasons.*

pam

*feel free to picture the Poet Laureate swimsuit competition


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Linda (---.cache.pol.co.uk)
Date: October 13, 2003 06:32PM

Not much work for not much pay. As I vaguely remember it, he has to produce a poem for national occasions and receives a barrel of wine.


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Chesil (---.client.attbi.com)
Date: October 13, 2003 06:54PM

No longer. He gets 5,000 a year in addition to a barrel of malmsley. Given his output, he hardly looks underpaid!


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Chesil (---.client.attbi.com)
Date: October 13, 2003 06:56PM

glenda wrote:

Your question regarding our wanting to read good news poems
makes me wonder just how many poems of that nature, past and
present, are widely read and appreciated. Darkness sells.

So does romance and nature and inspirational, I suspect that poems of hope are more often sought than the dark side of the poetic force!


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Chesil (---.client.attbi.com)
Date: October 13, 2003 06:57PM

Pam Adams wrote:

As I understand it, the Laureate in Great Britain actually has
work to do. Ours just have to stand around and look pretty-
kind of like Miss America, and therefore picked for some of the
same reasons.*

They get an office in the Library of Congress (nice perk) and most, if not all, set some form of program for their period of office.


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Desi (---.grecian.net)
Date: October 15, 2003 10:14AM

Pam says:
"I agree. One problem with having a 'rap poet' appointed is that the appointers have no connection with the form. Perhaps if they went home and asked their children........."


The children DO choose their favourite rap poet: they choose by buying the albums, and I think Eminem is on top of the list. I could be wrong though, since I am not that much into rap.

I really enjoyed reading your post, Chesil. You wrote it yourself? For a particular purpose?

I agree with Chesil that poetry can't dwindle (love this word!). Not as long as human beings keep on using language. Only the form it takes changes. And I must say that the form it takes in Glucks poems horrifies me...


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Chesil (---.client.attbi.com)
Date: October 15, 2003 10:29AM

Desi,

Good to see you around again. Where are you now?

I wrote the piece. Just for fun, I guess.

Glad you enjoyed it.

Chesil


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Desi (---.grecian.net)
Date: October 15, 2003 10:38AM

Still in Crete. I just gave up my barwork. Was turning into sun fearing vampire. So now I have a lot of time for internetting again... Till my next job.

"Just for fun"!: it's worth being published in my opinion! But well, you did in a way by posting it here of course.


Re: A digression on the new poet laureate
Posted by: Talia (216.117.99.---)
Date: October 20, 2003 12:05PM

It's the birthday of former United States poet laureate Robert Pinsky, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). He was the first poet to hold the position of poet laureate for three consecutive years. His poetry collections include Sadness and Happiness (1975) and Jersey Rain (2000). In addition to his own poetry, Pinksy published an award-winning verse translation of Dante's Inferno (1994). He also wrote a book-length poem called An Explanation of America (1979). The poem covers many aspects of American culture and history, and in it he compares America with the early years of the Roman Empire. Robert Pinsky said, "I would like to write a poetry which could contain every kind of thing, while keeping all the excitement of poetry."




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