Diann Blakely

Why do so many inveterate readers shy away from poetry? If you count yourself as a member of this group, here’s your chance to break away from the book-club clusters whose participants have their noses buried in the latest novel or memoir—for it’s National Poetry Month, a time to celebrate a different genre.

Works in progress
This year we’re lucky enough to have an entirely fresh and fearless exemplar, the largely unknown Pearl London, who made poetry—or, to be more specific, poets—accessible to her students at the New School in Greenwich Village over the course of 25 years. The invited poets were required to bring not completed works but unfinished drafts, even jottings on envelopes, scribbled phrases or anything else that contributed to “works in progress as process.” The astonishing humility of poets who accepted the increasingly coveted summons included Nobel and U.S. poets laureate, as well as National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners. Equally astonishing is the genesis of Poetry in Person: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with America’s Poets: some 100 cassette tapes, a complete catalog and, as editor and transcriber Alexander Neubauer tells us, “file upon file stuffed with copies of the [poets’] manuscripts and drafts” were found in a closet of London’s home after her death in 2003. Winnowing the tapes and papers of 100 poets to the 23 represented in this book was only the beginning of Neubauer’s task; each chapter also includes an introduction that locates the poets’ visits at a specific point in time: “who they were when they arrived at London’s doorstep, what they had written, what was later to come.” If you protest that you don’t live close to a doorstep through which someone like Maxine Kumin or Seamus Heaney is likely to pass, check out the rapidly growing numbers of special events and readings devoted to poetry in your hometown this month. Also take note of Robert Polito, author of the book’s postscript. As the director of the New School’s Writing Program, Polito was London’s boss as well as a participant in Works in Progress, as the seminar came to be known. Polito’s most recent addition to his string of much-lauded titles, a collection of poems called Hollywood and God, has been featured on the web in a variety of forms, including interviews, personal statements and archived audiovisual material. For a sample, go Googling.

New thinking
One of the most amusing chapters in Poetry in Person represents Robert Hass. His newest publication, The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems, has as its anchor “Meditation at Lagunitas,” the poem whose opening lines became, almost overnight, a cultural mantra: “All the new thinking is about thinking / Hence it resembles all the old thinking.” Hass came to London’s class with his thoughts somewhat awry, having mistakenly brought the very first draft of the poem, forgetting its three-line second page and thus having to quote it from memory. In addition to adding to his own canon—see “My Mother’s Nipples” for a jolt—during the past 30-odd years, Hass has worked tirelessly as a translator; and during his tenure in our nation’s capitol, he inaugurated “The Poet’s Choice” series for the Washington Post Book World. Hass’ aesthetic functions like Neubauer’s introductions in Poetry in Person, and perhaps it functions best in triplicate fashion: Whether writing about the maternal body, rendering into the American idiom a piece originally in Polish or turning our attention to a contemporary from our own country, Hass aims, sometimes mercilessly, to give the subject at hand such a real, palpable nature that we sense a new living presence, one demanding our acquaintance, on our doorstep.

A master wordsmith
Easily the best-known and most acclaimed poet with a new book available on shelves today is Derek Walcott, one of those Nobel winners Neubauer mentions as a visitor to London’s classroom. Perhaps coincidentally, White Egrets flows—or beats its wings and flies—more naturally out of Midsummer, the 1984 collection upon which Walcott was laboring at the time of his visit to Works in Progress, than any of his books since then. Nature collides with history, history with nature, with humankind and language acting as go-betweens, and no grander verbal or intellectual magnificence has been seen in our time. Not only does White Egrets convey the masterful wordsmith’s ability to combine near- Elizabethan diction with Caribbean patois and even American slang (“What? You’re going to be Superman at seventy-seven?”), but the collection also serves as a reminder of his dramatic achievements. Among these is The Haitian Trilogy, which resonates all the more tragically in the aftershocks of that country’s horrific earthquake, the effects of which will be felt for at least as long as the slave rebellion and the savage corruption of the Duvalier regimes.

The human element
Andrew Hudgins—who, like Polito and Deborah Digges (see box), represents the younger generation here—has garnered nominations in his prolific career for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. American Rendering: New and Selected Poems gives ample proof for the critical esteem in which his work is widely held. Hudgins’ poems are often funny, hinging on a joke or wisecrack or malapropism, but human nature red in tooth and claw has always been his greatest theme, whether writing about the pain, fear and trauma that are an inevitable part of childhood, or the female victims of a serial killer (“It’s raining women here in Cincinnati”), or the three young men murdered by the Ku Klux Klan during Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer,” repeating and repeating their names, “Goodman, Cheney, Schwerner,” in the difficult litany required by the villanelle.

A light extinguished too soon
The poetry world reeled out of its accustomed orbit last spring when the news traveled that Deborah Digges had committed suicide at the age of 59. Fewer poets have, throughout their careers, been seemingly more life-affirming. We’re lucky to have been left, as part of Digges’ legacy, The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart, a final collection of her work that will be published next month. In beautiful and multilayered poems such as “The Birthing,” we experience, through the poet’s words, not only a calf ’s fraught entrance into the world but also one of the means by which humans seek renewal—“[we] made love toward eternity, / without a word drove slowly home. And loved some more.”

How lucky too that Digges’ work is so readily, personally and manifestly available through audio and video archives—including YouTube, where Digges can be seen and heard reading the aforementioned poem. She also bequeathed to the world two memoirs full of the flora and fauna she loved: Fugitive Spring (1992), focusing on her Missouri childhood, spent largely in the apple orchard outside her house; and The Stardust Lounge (2001), recounting her travels and travails as a mother seeking to give a new life to a troubled son through empathetic immersion in the animal world. For those seeking a personal invitation into Digges’ life, and thus into her poems, these memoirs are doors that will always remain open.
Poet Diann Blakely’s most recent book is Cities of Flesh and the Dead (Elixir Press).

Why do so many inveterate readers shy away from poetry? If you count yourself as a member of this group, here’s your chance to break away from the book-club clusters whose participants have their noses buried in the latest novel or memoir—for it’s National Poetry Month, a time to celebrate a different genre. Works in […]

Published on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s sonnets, So Long As Men Can Breathe is Christopher Heylin’s riveting account of the tangled publication history of one of our literature’s most famous, and infamously mysterious, volumes. Heylin begins by defining “booklegs,” essentially bootlegs, arguing that the Sonnets are in fact the most well known “booklegs” of all. He then makes an extended comparison between Shakespeare and Dylan.

Why all the Bob Dylan references? It’s difficult to think of a musician as “bootlegged” as Dylan, for whom Heylin has served as biographer (Behind the Shades) and discographer (Revolution in the Air). Indeed, a Renaissance man in his own right, Heylin applies his encyclopedic mental database of the ways and means of bootlegging with a scholarly but entirely unstuffy zeal, revealing in the bargain commonsensical answers to the questions the sonnets have provoked for centuries: Who was Thomas Thorpe? “Mr. W. H.?” The “Onlie Begetter?” The “Fair Youth” and the “Dark Lady”? What hand did Shakespeare actually play in his sonnets’ arrangement and publication?

In Renaissance showbiz, as in today’s music business, most monies accrued to the publishers, not the artists themselves. Shakespeare, an astute businessman, owned part of the Globe Theatre and its productions, and as a result, by 1609, when the Sonnets appeared, he was the most successful playwright in London. While he couldn’t prevent pirated editions of his work—the “bad quartos,” for example—evidence points to Shakespeare’s enabling such piracy in the case of the Sonnets, a crux that Bardists have long sought to solve with interpretations of their notoriously baffling preface. (Heylin believes it was written by Thorpe, a man whose ambitions, if not talents, rivaled Shakespeare’s.)

Every imaginable (for me) question raised by every subsequent edition of the Sonnets is taken on by Heylin, and answered with passion and substance. What finer anniversary present could their author have asked, except, of course, the fulfillment of his wish that they be read—even misread—“so long as men can breathe?” Heylin makes a successful case that Shakespeare knew what the world’s reply would be even as he dipped his quill.

Diann Blakely has been short-listed for the Georgia Author of the Year Award for her most recent collection of poems, Cities of Flesh and the Dead (Elixir Press).

Published on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s sonnets, So Long As Men Can Breathe is Christopher Heylin’s riveting account of the tangled publication history of one of our literature’s most famous, and infamously mysterious, volumes. Heylin begins by defining “booklegs,” essentially bootlegs, arguing that the Sonnets are in fact the most well known “booklegs” of […]

Some of the finest titles to enjoy during National Poetry Month aren’t, strictly speaking, collections of verse. Instead, they’re biographical studies, letters and/or interviews with poets: Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats, which swoops back and forth temporally like one of the poet’s odes; Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s correspondence, Words in Air, the loving story of poetic friendship that lasted 30 years; Letters of Ted Hughes, hailed as the best since those of the aforementioned Keats; and Stepping Stones, a hefty new collection of interviews with Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll.

Irish eyes
Heaney is one of a long line of poets to graduate from—and teach at—Queens University in Belfast, and he might be called the grandfather of The New North, an impressive anthology edited by Chris Agee and recently published by the premier house for Irish poetry in this country, Wake Forest University Press. The collection intersplices, with the work of younger poets, several “seniors,” from Heaney to his students Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, as well as Ciaran Carson, whose signature twining, long-lined narratives are continued in his collection For All We Know. Perhaps the most interesting and best known of the newer names here is Nick Laird, the last poet in The New North and the author of this year’s On Purpose. Laird typifies these younger Northern Irish poets in that his work is less concerned with the “Troubles” that haunted the two previous generations; their poems, as Agee notes in his introduction, “are much more likely to be interested in new technology, ecology, Eastern Europe, or bilingualism.”

Gaelic, anyone?
J.D. McClatchy, the longtime editor of the Yale Review and the recently appointed president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has just brought out Mercury Dressing. Quintessential McClatchy, the poems balance mandarin wit with enormous learning, a fully 21st-century sensibility and a deft use of the demotic: “At the second intermission of Manon / We were bored and on a third vodka. . . .”

Updike’s farewell
There are comparisons to be drawn between McClatchy’s poems and those of the late John Updike, though the latter had a sometimes derided lighter touch. Endpoint and Other Poems, assembled in the weeks immediately before his death, consists of the last eight years of Updike’s verse. In “Requiem,” one of the book’s last and darkest works, Updike laments that his age dictates that he will not die a prodigy; indeed, indifference or bewilderment that he hadn’t already died is more likely to greet his passing. Endpoint’s last three poems, however, strike a brighter note, in particular the final work, which celebrates his wife’s new vision after a cataract operation on her birthday, offering “A cake of love from your own / John.”

Rita Dove, former poet laureate and longtime professor at the University of Virginia, mastered the formal narrative with her third verse collection, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomas and Beulah. She continues in that vein in Sonata Mulattica, the tragic, fact-based story of a virtuosic violinist. Son of a white woman and “an African prince,” George Polgreen Bridgetower is possessed of fingers “agile as the monkeys from his father’s land” as they play the strings of his instrument. He travels to meet the young genius Beethoven, whose plans to dedicate a sonata to Bridgetower are incinerated by—guess what?—trouble over a woman.

Small wonders
Many of the year’s best collections have been published by small publishing houses, which, along with university presses, comprise the backbone of poetry publication. For example, Graywolf’s Elizabeth Alexander wrote and read the inaugural poem, and Coffee House Press author Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler ($16, 90 pages, ISBN 9781566892186), a Category-5 sequence about Katrina, was a National Book Award nominee. Overlook has just issued a collection not-really-for children (unless their parents are willing to pay for years of therapy), Shut Up, You’re Fine ($14.95, 144 pages, ISBN 9781590201039), by Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-nominated author Andrew Hudgins with illustrations by the acclaimed Barry Moser; and BOA Editions recently issued one of the year’s most interesting books, The Heaven-Sent Leaf ($16, 72 pages, ISBN 9781934414156), a collection of parable-like poems about that seemingly most unpoetic of subjects, money, by former hedge-funder Katy Lederer. Finally, Copper Canyon’s 2008 list included C.D. Wright’s Rising Falling Hovering ($22, 100 pages, ISBN 9781556592737), whose singular mix of Ozarkiana, the avant-garde and social consciousness has made her one of today’s most interesting and admired poets.

Diann Blakely’s most recent poetry collection is Cities of Flesh and the Dead (Elixir Press).

Some of the finest titles to enjoy during National Poetry Month aren’t, strictly speaking, collections of verse. Instead, they’re biographical studies, letters and/or interviews with poets: Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats, which swoops back and forth temporally like one of the poet’s odes; Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s correspondence, Words in Air, the loving story of […]

Julia Reed's The House on First Street is distinguished by its elegance and wittiness, as well as its poignancy and civic-mindedness. Told by a 40-something woman of privilege, one who could afford a TV-watching companion for her cat while Reed led a split existence between the Big Apple and the Big Easy, she is ultimately a woman without any true home until she moves permanently to New Orleans and finds, first, true love, and then, the city of her heart in ruins.

Reed, a contributing editor to both Newsweek and Vogue, was born in what was the wealthiest, most urbane city in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, also the native ground of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, was, like its larger, more sophisticated sister to the south, nearly destroyed by the Mississippi River flood of 1927. Thus it's in keeping that a beautiful but decaying New Orleans house owned by another Percy becomes home to Reed and her new husband just weeks before Katrina hits.

The house remains a wreck, though largely unscathed by Katrina, and the horrors of home renovation – and the devastation wreaked elsewhere in the city – are almost a match for Reed's descriptions of the glorious, spiritual delights of food. She chronicles with obvious glee the progressively better meals she manages to offer an entire contingent of Oklahoma National Guardsmen stationed down the block to fend off looters at a time when almost no city stores are open and no city, state, local or federal officials are to be seen.

Despite Reed's self-deprecating generosity, also seen in her loving commitment to both new and lifelong friends, to neighbors, to various people who have worked for her, and to an improbably sweet-natured crackhead she tries again and again to redeem, Reed ensures that we do not mistake her for Mother Teresa. The tantrums she throws at contractors attract neighbors and passing cars; she lapses into what she later concedes is a “Marie Antoinette moment” while she cleans out the rotted contents of her (predictably) stuffed refrigerator after 12 electricity-free days; and her scorn for then-Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco and Nagin practically curls the pages.

Some readers will be tempted to condemn The House on First Street as trivial or paternalistic in comparison to Montana-Leblanc's book. But Reed marries, and finds her place in New Orleans, to earn what Montana-Leblanc possesses at the beginning and end of her tale: a family and roots too deep for any hurricane to destroy, despite the anger and tears and grievous loss wrought by our country's greatest naturaldisaster.

Diann Blakely's third poetry collection, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, to be published this fall by Elixir Press, takes its title from a work set in New Orleans.

Julia Reed's The House on First Street is distinguished by its elegance and wittiness, as well as its poignancy and civic-mindedness. Told by a 40-something woman of privilege, one who could afford a TV-watching companion for her cat while Reed led a split existence between the Big Apple and the Big Easy, she is ultimately […]

The title of Phyllis Montana-Leblanc's Not Just the Levees Broke is derived from Spike Lee's documentary about Katrina. A poem Montana-Leblanc had written the night before Lee paid her a final visit in her FEMA trailer gave him the ending to his work; and he, in turn, was the impetus for her book. Though her language is, for the most part, plain and repertorial (and at times appropriately profane), we see Montana-Leblanc's lyric gifts in the first pages' description of Katrina's clouds, “dark gray, light gray, white, and almost black. . . . They're all separated, as if they know once they connect all hell will break loose.” Montana-Leblanc's nightmarish tale fulfills the prophecy in those clouds.

The evacuation order comes too late from Mayor Ray Nagin. One by one, the floors of the apartment complex where Montana-Leblanc, her husband and other members of her family have taken shelter are torn off by the wind. Debris flies outside, projectiles of death. Her family is split up, first by the storm, then by officials. For eight days, Montana-Leblanc and her husband trudge, nearly sleepless, soaked in foul water and mostly without food, from dry spot to dry spot, waiting in line after line after line, until they are airlifted to San Antonio. The racism that was all too evident on big-screen TV – one of LeBlanc's chapter headings recalls the prevention of the Red Cross from entering the state while military forces were marshaled, officials fearing rioting blacks more than being concerned with helping people – is microcosmically revealed when she realizes that Cheetos are being given only to white people in one feeding station.

Montana-Leblanc's story may not be the best-written account of Hurricane Katrina, but it is surely among the most harrowing and enraging.

Diann Blakely's third poetry collection, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, to be published this fall by Elixir Press, takes its title from a work set in New Orleans.

The title of Phyllis Montana-Leblanc's Not Just the Levees Broke is derived from Spike Lee's documentary about Katrina. A poem Montana-Leblanc had written the night before Lee paid her a final visit in her FEMA trailer gave him the ending to his work; and he, in turn, was the impetus for her book. Though her […]

Some people don’t believe that April should be devoted to rejoicing in ars poeticae. An early advocate of National Poetry Month, the late poet William Matthews, disagreed. Furthermore, he reminded practitioners that “the work of the body becomes a body of work.” Nothing of poets lives on except their lines.

Memorable lines are bewilderingly ubiquitous in FSG’s centennial birthday gift of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems. Enough has been written about this extraordinary writer to hide her entire adopted country of Brazil from the map, but who mentions Bishop’s wonderful sense of humor? Consider one of the gem-like mottos in “Songs for a Colored Singer,” i.e. Billie Holiday: “I’m going to go and take the bus / and find someone monogamous.”

Like Matthews and Bishop, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins recognizes the value of humor, music and sensuous pleasures, all fleeting, but none more so than that which springs from writing itself. Collins’ poems often close on a down note, making the rest of the poem resonate in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible; and his most recent book, Horoscopes for the Dead, contains a microcosmic example. Reflecting on the “little time nearly every day” spent “on a gray wooden dock,” Collins concludes with the disappearance of nearly everything, not to mention himself: “gone are my notebook and my pencil / and there I go, too, / erased by my own eraser and blown like shavings off the page.”

Another important event this month is the publication of Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems. Previous National Poetry Month columns enumerated his many and varied efforts on behalf of poetry not his own, so the very appearance of this carefully honed volume shines all the more brightly. In one of the entries, “Gulf Music,” Pinsky has written arguably the best poem about Katrina by choosing instead the 1900 Galveston hurricane as his subject. No one even knows the precise number of people who lost their lives in that unnamed horror, and the disjunctions of “Gulf Music” mirror perfectly its anonymous chaos and clashes: “After so much renunciation / And invention, is this the image of the promised end? / All music haunted by the music of the dead forever.”

The latest work from Major Jackson, Holding Company, possesses a treasure of notable poems and qualities. The collection is composed of strict 10-line curtal sonnets. Pre-empted by another reviewer in terming these poems “dark” and “wrenching,” I’d venture much further: Holding Company is the best book of Jackson’s career, combining lyricism and wide-ranging intellect not unlike Pinsky’s with something all his own. Lines nearly vibrate off any page in Holding Company—think of the levels of meaning contained in the title itself—but here are four particularly riveting ones: “Sartre said: man is condemned to be free. / I believe in the dead who claim to believe in me— / says, too, the missing and forgotten. Day darkens / on. I hear our prayers rising. I sing to you now.” Sing amen, somebody.
 

Some people don’t believe that April should be devoted to rejoicing in ars poeticae. An early advocate of National Poetry Month, the late poet William Matthews, disagreed. Furthermore, he reminded practitioners that “the work of the body becomes a body of work.” Nothing of poets lives on except their lines. Memorable lines are bewilderingly ubiquitous […]

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