When Israeli novelist and essayist and activist Amos Oz visited the Writers House in October 2004, his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, was just then begin published in English--in a beautiful translation by Nicholas DeLange. DeLange visited the Writers House too as part of a 4-day Oz conference. I had read the proof copy of the memoir in the weeks prior to the visit, and had fallen under its spell. Then I had the honor of reading a chapter from the book in English, with its famous author sitting there in the front row. Fortunately he liked the way I read the chapter very much.
I chose to read the chapter about attempts by the young Amos and his father to grow vegetables in the Israeli soil. Not a success. It's easy to think of the story as an allegory for living life in Israel from Oz' political point of view, but Oz himself resists this interpretation, preferring to think of the tale as a literal remembrance. You can judge for yourself. The reading of the chapter takes 26 minutes, so perhaps you'll download the mp3 of my reading of it and listen to it on your IPod.
When the weather starts to get a bit nasty, and just going out for a stroll in nature seems the last thing I'd want to do, I make "Let's Go Out" as recited by Jaap Blonk my poem of the day. Oh, let's go out, let's go out. Let's go out into nature, nature, nature, the natural word along with natural language, the most natural language there is....
Jaap Blonk read at the Writers House on November 11, 2004, and this performance was stunningly good. Woke me up, completely, to the sound of words as sounds.
So, dear reader, it's my poem of the day: so start it off with a good listen, please, to "Let's Go Out".
Wallace Stevens loved to buy paintings from Paris, especially in the late 1940s. And yet he never traveled to Paris and in those pre-internet, pre-fax days, he typically could not see the painting he was about to purchase. In several instances, he depended entirely on the descriptions in words provided by the daughter of his long-term Parisian agent (who died during the war); her name was Paule Vidal. Through long letters back and forth, Stevens came to know her well and could tell what he wanted in a painting from the way she described it. In one case, she sketched the painting that interested him and mailed the sketch to him along with yet another letter of descriptive language. The sketch is reproduced here above right.
I found this whole process fascinating: a modern poet imagining his paintings for weeks and months before he saw it. And of course this wouldn't be nearly as interesting is Stevens didn't write poems about some of these paintings. I should say poems "about" the paintings, because it's not entirely clear whether Stevens could properly be said to have written "about" the painting or about the description of the painting or indeed about the interanimations entailed in the process of slowly apprehending or viewing the painting. After all, their representations slowly emerged for him.
So I wrote a long essay about this, and chose the story of one painting and one poem to tell--that of Stevens' "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" (first published in 1950) and Still Life by Pierre Tal Coat. The painting depicts some items on a table: a napkin surrounded by a tureen and some vases and bottles. The angel-like quality of the napkin is something Stevens "saw" in the letters from Paule Vidal. Back in the late 1980s my colleague Wendy Steiner was editing a special issue of Poetics Today and invited me to write this story for that. It appeared in the summer 1989 issue. Here is the article as a PDF. The full citation: "Still Life without Substance: Wallace Stevens and the Language of Agency," Poetics Today, "Art and Literature II," vol. 10, no. 2 (Summer 1989), pp. 345-72.
I once visited Stevens' daughter, Holly Stevens, at her ocean's-edge home in Guilford, CT, and spent the afternoon with her and my friend and co-editor Beverly Coyle. I had a chance to see many of Stevens' paintings right there on the walls of this small house. I was struck by the Tal Coat. There it was. I either took a color photograph of it then, or later had Holly or Bev take a shot of it, but in any case somewhere in my files I have a color photo of it. The black-and-white reproduction of the painting done for the Poetics Today article was taken during a 1963 exhibit of Stevens' paintings at Trinity College in Hartford.
The Penn Electronic Poetry Center (PEPC) recently secured permission from Susan Bee and Jerome Rothenberg to reproduce, as a PDF file, the Granary Press 2005 special illustrated edition of The Burning Babe, which is also now the third section of his Triptych. Here the link.
Rothenberg will be at the Writers House in April 28-29, 2008, as a Writers House Fellow.
William Carlos Williams, "Between Walls"
Can such a brief bit of writing - William Carlos Williams's "Between Walls" - be a "campaign poem," as host Al Filreis at one point in PoemTalk #1 suggests? Saigon-born poet Linh Dinh (Jam Alerts) insists that it is a garbage poem and prefers not to claim for it such large literary-political territory. Williams is "flirting" with the poetic, but never quite gets there. Teacher, editor, poet, translator, college administrator Randall Couch sees greater awareness of the poetic line in the poem as printed on the page than in the way Williams's read the poem at public readings. Linh and poet Jessica Lowenthal (As If In Turning) see and hear two different poems. Al keeps wondering if the poem can be negative (be about nothing) and yet at the same time produce something and point toward this bit of shining broken modern shard to discover, or re-discover, life. To Al and Jessica it's positive ("lie / cinders / in which shine") but Linh insists with pleasure that Williams is being neutral - just a snapshot of an urban scene. As such, the poem has had a huge influence on poetry and photography since its first publication in 1934. Yet can any artist today get away with so straightforward and seemingly objective a mere observation?
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
We at PoemTalk were celebrating Williams's 124th birthday a little while back when we noticed several bloggers seemed to feel it necessary on that very day to "avoid[...] the urge to romanticize" WCW. The blogger who creates Caught in the Stream led the way, pondering - and then rejecting as untrue - the distinction between Walt Whitman's long-lined sentimentality and WCW's succinct and seemingly exclusive focus on things. We delighted at the way respondents to the blog weighed in on one side or the other. But on our cake, at least, we held an extra candle for Walt, sensing that the two poets are very much in the same line.
PennSound's Williams page has the complete recordings, every last one so far as we know. Including, of course, the three recordings of the poet reading PT's first poem, "Between Walls."
PoemTalk #1 was recorded in Studio 111 at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The show was produced by Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay, and was directed and edited by Steve McLaughlin with help from Curtis Fox.