When a poet and a scholar find that they both share a love for Gwendolyn Brooks, who in 1950 became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and get asked to write a paper on it, they contemplate how to begin. Each is drawn to Brooks for different reasons. For the poet, Brooks is a predecessor and an inspiration, verifying her sense that Eurocentric accentual-syllabic forms and black American life experiences can be brought together to manifest beautiful verse. For the scholar, Brooks is a kind of puzzle—what is she saying, especially in her more difficult poems? And what are the implications for literature? Can the poet and the scholar find a way to articulate separate adorations for Brooks and simultaneously write something that speaks to the common man?
by Sam Graham-Felsen
(Penguin Random House, 301 pp., $27)
With the death of Philip Roth on 22 May, the business of reading and then writing about Jewish American fiction seems to take place in the dark, or under water. These last weeks have proven a fine occasion to wander the Upper West Side—past Barney Greengrass, the Museum, Nice Matin—in a daze, ambling in a state not only of disbelief, but also of legitimate sorrow. This is a loss, not an absence.
Jonathan S.F. Post
A Thickness of Particulars: The Poetry of Anthony Hecht
Oxford University Press, 2015, $35
Jonathan S.F. Post approaches Anthony Hecht’s varied oeuvre with a combination of meticulousness and vision. A scholarly humility, paired with a willingness to venture broader claims about Hecht’s poetic evolution, makes A Thickness of Particulars not just essential criticism of Hecht’s work (not to mention the first comprehensive study), but an elegant illustration of how careful close readings are not just compatible with—but are indispensable to—acts of interpretive imagination. In his preface, Post imports Hecht’s phrase “A thickness of particulars” from his well-known poem “The Transparent Man” as an invitation to think with particular precision about the nuances of individual poems, and as “a call, a credo, applicable to poet and critic alike, and also, of course, a warning about the difficulty of getting things right.” It seems very clear to me that Post’s scrupulous and discerning readings of Hecht’s poetry have gotten it right.
May 9, 2018
New York City
Patricia Hampl, essayist, memoirist, poet, and Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, read from her new book, The Art of the Wasted Day, published by Viking Penguin in April 2018. The event, which took place at the Sulzberger Parlor at Barnard College, was co-hosted by the ALSCW and Women Poets at Barnard.
Phillis Levin, Chair of the Development Committee for the ALSCW, introduced Hampl, whom she first met in August 1994 at a meeting held in Washington, D.C., for Fulbright Scholars who would be traveling to post-communist countries on their fellowship award. Levin emphasized how The Art of the Wasted Day explores and celebrates the art of daydreaming and the discovery of the mind.
On October 12, 1990, I heard Gwendolyn Brooks read her poems at the Los Angeles poetry venue, Beyond Baroque, in Venice, California. Her presence and her voice had a powerful effect on me, and I wrote a poem about it almost immediately afterward. I thought well enough of the poem to send it to her, and was promptly rewarded with a warm thank you note from Chicago, signed simply, “Gwen.”
“If you wanted a poem,” wrote Gwendolyn Brooks in Report from Part One, recalling one of the kitchenettes where she and her husband lived early in their marriage, “you only had to look out of a window. There was material always, walking or running, fighting or screaming or singing.” Brooks almost always wanted a poem. Growing up, she wrote at least one a day. At first, she looked in books, which were closer companions than her peers, writing poems that featured remote Romantic landscapes and the conventional pieties of an American schooling—work hard; forgive and forget…. As she got older and more popular, though, she started looking more often and imaginatively at the people in her neighborhoods, and her writing began to thrive in the richness of that view. But Brooks never stopped being good, even as she became great. And goodness for Brooks turned out to be remarkably capacious and unusually mobile, a disposition she enlarged and revised across a lifetime of poems and a variety of styles.
Ryszard Krynicki, Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014,
trans. by Clare Cavanagh (New Directions, 2017, 227 pp., $18.95)
Our Life Grows,
trans. by Alissa Valles (New York Review of Books, 2017, 157 pp., $14.95)
Sometime in the late eighties, when I was growing up in Poland and just beginning to discover contemporary poetry, I came across this poem by Ryszard Krynicki:
“Nie mogę ci pomóc”
Biedna ćmo, nie mogę ci pomóc,
mogę tylko zgasić światło.
“I Can’t Help You”
Poor moth, I can’t help you,
I can only turn out the light.
One might profitably read Night Vision, the latest collection of poems by John Foy, as a protracted argument about the plain style. The language is so bare of ornament or ostentation that when, in “Englewood,” Foy writes, “The white-throated sparrow / gives up its seven-note song,” the two compound adjectives feel almost decadent. Foy signals from the outset the deliberateness and import of these stylistic choices. The second poem of the collection, “Killing Things,” presents in the first three stanzas a series of man-made manglings: Robert Frost runs a tractor across a bird’s nest, Philip Larkin runs a mower over a hedgehog, and Richard Wilbur runs a mower over a toad. Frost’s birds perhaps make it, Larkin’s hedgehog dies without suffering, and Wilbur uses the high style to glorify the toad, as Foy points out: “He used / the words ‘ebullient’ and ‘emperies’ / to talk about the life he’d compromised.” Foy’s fourth stanza is dedicated to his own enterprise and reads in full,
Just Another Day in Just Our Town: Poems New and Selected 2000-2016
By Bruce Bennett
Orchises, 214 pages, $24.95
What’s better than commitment to a fight
That brings your best out, focused on what’s true?
You have one purpose: Write it till it’s right.
It might not take a lifetime. But it might.
Just Another Day in Just Our Town is Bruce Bennett’s tenth poetry collection, and that total does not include chapbooks and pamphlets. Bennet has faithfully obeyed his Muse’s voice for decades. This collection is a must-read for poetry aficionados, but more importantly this book is for those who assume they “don’t ‘get’ poetry.”
New York Review Books, 2018, $15.95