Al Filreis traveled to Harvard University and was hosted for this on-the-road episode of PoemTalk by the staff of the Woodberry Poetry Room (WPR) in Lamont Library, where Lisa New, Rafael Campo, and WPR Director Christina Davis joined him for a conversation about Robert Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour.” Probably Lowell’s most well-known poem, it was placed last in Life Studies (1959) but had been written first — and can be said to have inaugurated Lowell’s “looser” style, associated with his so-called “confessional” mode. When Lowell began composing “Skunk Hour,” he later recalled, “I felt that most of what I knew about writing was a hindrance.” Our conversation is taken up by the many conflicting aspects of that perceived hindrance. And on top of those there are, of course, the hindrances put up by the new, allegedly freeing style itself.
Simone White, Sophia Le Fraga, and Andrew Whiteman joined Al Filreis to talk about Ed Dorn’s “The Sundering U.P. Tracks.” A political reading of the poem emerges through the discussion, as they group situates it as a late-1960s reflection on a slightly earlier moment of realization and radicalization: the turning-point summer of 1965, when Dorn’s collaborator, photographer Leroy McLucas, arrived in Pocatello only to discover that he was to be housed on the other side of the tracks. The racial trope and idiom of the US East reverts to its literal origins in the making of the US West. And there it is: the key fault line, a built-environment actuality and metaphor. Dorn here is ready rhetorically and politically for a counter-expansion that rereads American generations of Manifest Destiny, monopoly, segregation, and local oligarchy on one hand, and, on the other, “summer firebombs / of Chicago.”
To celebrate the one hundredth episode of PoemTalk — the series began in 2007 and is ongoing — producer and host Al Filreis convened seven poet-critics who had participated in previous episodes: Herman Beavers, Maria Damon, William J. Harris, erica kaufman, Tracie Morris, Steve McLaughlin, and Charles Bernstein. These seven were asked to listen again to the series and choose two episodes that in particular stimulated new thinking or the desire to revise, restate, reaffirm, assess, and/or commend.
LISTEN TO THE SHOW. Julia Bloch, Joseph Massey, and Michelle Gil-Montero joined Al Filreis to discuss four four-line poems by William Bronk. The four were selected from Bronk’s book Finding Losses, which was published by Elizabeth Press in 1976. The group seeks to describe Bronk’s strong rejection of the pathetic fallacy in a world unabettably bleak. That desolation will not be lessened by the writerly act of “compar[ing] trees to what it means to be human,” and these poems identify “an honest acknowledgement of how deep and challenging intimacy can be.” That challenge not only extends to poetry but is at the heart of it.
Herman Beavers, Salamishah Tillet, and Chris Mustazza joined Al Filreis to discuss James Weldon Johnson’s “O Southland!” Johnson made a recording of this and a few other poems late in his life in December 1935 at Columbia University, as part of a project led by George W. Hibbitt and W. Cabell Greet, lexicologists and scholars of American dialects. The PoemTalk conversation here speaks to the depth of Johnson’s rhetorical, idiomatic, metrical, and strategic influence on civil rights in later decades. The extent of this influence — and the centrality of Johnson’s “call” for us to hear “The mighty beat of onward feet” — seems to be disclosed fully only on close listening, for those “feet” are metapoetic notes toward the inexorable work of the poem as poem.