September 29, 2016

Edited by David Sanders

Filed under: Poetry News in Review |

Specimen Days

1800—Michael Denis, Austrian poet (b. 1729), dies.
1902—William Topaz McGonagall, British poet (b. 1825), dies.
1966—Maurits H E Uyldert, Dutch poet/writer (Motion), dies at 75, dies.
1973—W. H. Auden, Vienna poet, dies.
2006—Khalique Ibrahim Khalique, Pakistani journalist and Urdu poet and critic (b. 1926), dies.

Epitaph on a Tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

—W. H. Auden (1907–1973)

“Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, / And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;”—W. H. Auden

World Poetry

Trinidadian Poet Vahni Capildeo Wins 2016 Forward Prize for Poetry

Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo has won the 2016 Forward prize for best poetry collection, making it three years in a row that a Caribbean poet has won one of the most prestigious poetry awards in the UK and Ireland. The prize for first collection was also awarded to a Caribbean writer, Tiphanie Yanique, who was born in the Virgin Islands.

Culture Minister: Public Reading of Darwish's Poem 'humiliated Israel'

Culture Minister Miri Regev has defended her decision to walk out of the Ophir Awards ceremony Thursday during the recitation of Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish's works, after which she returned and faced angry protests during her speech.

Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo has won the 2016 Forward prize for best poetry collection.

Recent Reviews

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson review – Playful Poems from a Master
by Nicholas Lezard

A few days ago, I played a little trick on the internet, asking people to name and date a sonnet, whose first few lines I gave as: “Whenne I was ruined by Love, I tooke a Vow / That if I loved againe, I’d love the lesse; / Soe when I spoke love, spoke it to excess, / As Love will make its mirror anyhowe.” What I had naughtily done was antiquate the spelling, for this is “A Vow”, the 17th sonnet in Paterson’s collection, off which an early 17th-century steam rises so powerfully that I couldn’t resist the joke. And I think this is precisely the effect he was after: there’s only one clue to the fact that the poem is modern: the later use of the word “lift” to mean what Americans call an elevator. (And an indirect one: a glancing reference to the speed of receding galaxies.)

Book Review: Remains by Jesús Castillo
by Daniel Simonds

Amid Jesús Castillo’s book-length serialization, Remains, the poet asks of his ever expanding domain: “Do I sit before the question now or later?”  That “question,” among others in a series, is the non sequitur rhetoric of the virtually episodic—an in medias res reference to the modern implausibility of having a legitimized corporality or not: “Will this/ new touchscreen help me hide my body?”

Amid Jesús Castillo’s book-length serialization, Remains, the poet asks: “Do I sit before the question now or later?”


Max Ritvo, 1990-2016

Max Ritvo sadly passed away in August. Max was a gifted and inspirational poet. His debut collection of poems, Four Reincarnations, will be published on September 30th. We asked his family and friends to share some of their memories of Max. Our [Berfois] tribute opens with a previously unpublished poem that will appear in his final book of poetry.

Why Vahni Capildeo Deserved to Win the Forward Prize
by William Sieghart

There is nothing accidental in a good poem. Those at the 25th Forward prizes on Tuesday could not ignore the hungry, concentrated listening that filled the Royal Festival Hall. Vahni Capildeo was about to read from her collection, Measures of Expatriation.

Max Ritvo sadly passed away in August. His debut collection of poems, Four Reincarnations, will be published on September 30th.

Drafts & Fragments

The ‘Poetry Battle’ of Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith

Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith took the stage, pausing to wave to a cheering crowd. After Winfrey read a passage from Maya Angelou, Smith joked, “did you just challenge me to a poetry battle?” Smith responded with Langston Hughes.

When Oprah Winfrey read some Maya Angelou, Will Smith joked, “did you just challenge me to a poetry battle?” and responded with Langston Hughes.

Poetry In the News

Claudia Rankine, Author of "Citizen," Wins MacArthur "Genius Grant"

And the award-winning poet Claudia Rankine has won this year’s MacArthur "Genius Grant." Rankine is best known for her 2014 book "Citizen," an exploration of race, which New Yorker reviewer Hilton Als described as "the best note in the wrong song that is America. Its various realities—’mistaken’ identity, social racism, the whole fabric of urban and suburban life—are almost too much to bear, but you bear them, because it’s the truth."

Poet Sonia Sanchez: This Moment Was ‘a long time coming’

As they waited for the ceremonies to begin, African American elders took their seats on the pavement in front of the museum along with donors and other officials. Poet Sonia Sanchez said the moment was “a long time coming.” She was born in Birmingham, Ala., and became associated with the Black Arts Movement. In her eyes, the museum is the black community’s triumph in physical form.

Award-winning poet Claudia Rankine is a recipient of one of this year’s MacArthur “Genius Grants.”

New Books

George Washington: Poems by Adam Fitzgerald 
[Hardcover] Liveright, 112 pp., $19.98

In the wake of the critical success of The Late Parade (“poetry as lush as any of Keats’s odes,” New York Times Book Review), Adam Fitzgerald’s George Washington follows in the documentary poetics tradition of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain and Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. These frenetic poems channel the proper names and product placement in the suburban New Jersey memescape of the 1990s. Fitzgerald’s catalogs―a world of video games and love songs, entertainment franchises and widespread anomie―seek out the proxies by which millions now live their most intimate experiences, examining everything from sexuality and faith to the spectacles of shopping and mass shootings. The poet’s memory may prove as fungible as the once-ubiquitous VHS cassette, but these queer poems form a hypertext archive of life as it’s packaged and purveyed. Fitzgerald’s “primal vision” (Harold Bloom), so wildly alive in The Late Parade, metamorphoses into an exhilarating exploration of Americana’s dark origins.

You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett 
[Hardcover] W. W. Norton & Company, 320 pp., $26.95

You Must Change Your Life reveals one of the great stories of modern art and literature: Rodin and Rilke’s years together as master and disciple, their heartbreaking rift, and ultimately their moving reconciliation. In her vibrant debut, Rachel Corbett reveals how Rodin’s influence led Rilke to write his most celebrated poems and inspired his beloved Letters to a Young Poet. She captures the dawn of modernism with appearances by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Lou Andreas-Salomé, George Bernard Shaw, and Jean Cocteau. And she recounts the remarkable friendship of two extraordinary artists whose work continues to reverberate a century later. 

House of Lords and Commons: Poems by Ishion Hutchinson 
[Hardcover] Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $23.00

In House of Lords and Commons, the revelatory and vital new collection of poems from the winner of the 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award in poetry, Ishion Hutchinson returns to the difficult beauty of the Jamaican landscape with remarkable lyric precision. Here, the poet holds his world in full focus but at an astonishing angle: from the violence of the seventeenth-century English Civil War as refracted through a mythic sea wanderer, right down to the dark interior of love.

Slant Light by Sarah Westcott 
[Paperback] Liverpool University Press, 65 pp., $19.95

In her first full-length collection, Sarah Westcott immerses the human self in the natural world, giving voice to a remarkable range of flora and fauna so often silenced or unheard. Here, the voiceless speaks, laments and sings – from the fresh voice of a spring wood to a colony of bats or a grove of ancient sequioa trees. Unafraid of using scientific language and teamed with a clear eye, Westcott's poems are drawn directly from the natural world, questioning ideas of the porosity of boundaries between the human and non-human and teeming with detail. A series of lyrical charms inspired by Anglo-Saxon texts draw on the specificity of the botanical and its spoken heritage, suggesting a relevance that resonates today. Westcott's poems are alive to the beautiful in the commonplace and offer up a precise honouring of the wild, while retaining a deeply-felt sense of connection with a planet in peril

Stairway to Heaven: Poems by Alison Deming 
[Paperback] Penguin Books, 112 pp., $20.00

In her fifth book of poems, Stairway to Heaven, Alison Hawthorne Deming explores dimensions of grief and renewal after losing her brother and mother. Grounded in her communion with nature and place, she finds even in Death Valley, that most stark of landscapes, a spirit of inventiveness that animates the ground we walk on. From the cave art of Chauvet to the futuristic habitat of Biosphere 2, that inventiveness becomes consolation for losses in family and nature, a means to build again a sense of self and world in the face of devastating loss.

In House of Lords and Commons, Ishion Hutchinson returns to the difficult beauty of the Jamaican landscape with remarkable lyric precision.


Mary Szybist’s Poems like Religion for Nonbelievers
By Evan Karp

Shortly after winning the 2013 National Book Award for her second collection of poems, “Incarnadine,” Portland’s Mary Szybist told the Paris Review that she started writing poetry when she was young, after losing her ability to pray.

To Mark the Infinite Language of the Body: An Interview with Sara Deniz Akant
by Ally Harris

Reading Sara Deniz Akant’s Babette is like stepping into an alien bog, where matter is composed in language that looks vaguely Earthlike, vaguely English, but is actually largely foreign, partially invented, but familiar enough to tether the reader to the world. Babette, frankly, is an amazingly odd book. Reading it feels like decoding a puzzle where the lack of certainty is exciting and productive. It irritated my desire to reach outside of its pages, caused me to stuff my head into the Internet portal to unearth clues and concepts or new words, like Cheburashka, the creepy/cute cartoon character of Russian children’s literature. I say “irritated” because “unavoidable,” because the wanting to learn was impossible to ignore—a brisk jolt in the dome of poetry. So, I interviewed Deniz Akant to find out more about her creation of language and texture in Babette.

Seeing a Culture of Fear, Poet Explores the Immigrant Dream
by Mary Jo Brooks

Tishani Doshi says she worries about the “culture of fear” that has developed toward immigrants in the United Sates and Britain. Doshi grew up in India but went to college and worked in the U.S. and the U.K. before returning to India several years ago. This past spring, she visited both countries during the American primaries and just after the British vote to leave the European Union. She said she was shocked to see the “us versus them” rhetoric so nakedly on display

Sylvia Plath Interview

Sylvia Plath interviewed in 1962.

Poet Tishani Doshi says she worries about the “culture of fear” that has developed toward immigrants in the United Sates and Britain.

Envoi: Editor’s Notes

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The Old Masters are, to be specific, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and the painting he refers to at the end is Breughel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in which Icarus's pointy legs can be seen in the lower right foreground causing a splash.

What is not so often noted is that the poem also refers to two other paintings by Breughel. Both are in reference to the Christ child. When Auden writes of "waiting/ For the miraculous birth, there always must be / Children who did not specially want for it to happen" the painting he has in mind, also at the Musee des Beaux Arts, is Breughel's The Census at Bethlehem, in which Mary and Joseph are seen in the foreground while all the action centers around the crows of people getting their reward for taking part in the census, although in this case Bethlehem appears to be re-located to the Netherlands, and thus, as Auden notes, the children are "skating/ On a pond at the edge of the wood."

Likewise, the passage that begins "they never forgot/ That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course. . ." refers to another Breughel painting. This one is The Massacre of the Innocents, which depicts the roundup and murder of all the male children in Bethlehem and vicinity on the orders of Herod. The painting seems to show a horse in the center-right of the painting scratching its forehead on a tree rather than scratching its innocent behind. But Auden's substitution of an innocent behind is perhaps more tragi-comedic.

The offhandedness with which the Breughel pieces contemplate suffering not only is underlined by Auden's description but is also mirrored throughout in the incongruity of the poem's playful tone with the severity of the situations depicted. One of Auden's best-known poems, it does what good poems do: it forces us to reassess what is already always there but which we might not have otherwise have noticed. In this case, we re-view not only the issue of suffering, as Auden proclaims, but also Breughel's societal perspective as well.

“About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position” –W. H. Auden