The Poems That Stick With Us

By The Editors on 7.16.10

This week we’ve been finding out a lot about how accomplished poets feel about their earliest published work. We’ve asked Beth Ann Fennelly, Eavan Boland, Linda Pastan, and Stephen Dunn what they think about their first book now and how they went about creating their first collection. Today, we simply wanted to find out which of their early poems still stick with them to this day. Here’s what they had to say:

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The Best Poems in Their Best Order

Four Poets Look Back on How They Assembled Their First Book

By The Editors on 7.15.10

Yesterday we asked four poets how the feel about the work they published years ago. Now, the same four poets tell us how they struggled to find the best order for the poems in their debut collection. The methods range from rudimentary to abstract, logical to magical. There seems to be no right way, but in each case the poet knew the moment it felt right. Here is Beth Ann Fennelly, Stephen Dunn, Eavan Boland, and Linda Pastan looking back on their first book of poetry.


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The Test of Time

Four Poets Look Back on Their Early Work

By The Editors on 7.14.10

The recent publication of Gerald Stern’s Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992 made us curious about how poets feel about their early work. Would they agree with Pericles when he said, “Time is the wisest counselor of all?” We got in touch with Beth Ann Fennelly, Eavan Boland, Linda Pastan, and Stephen Dunn and got the scoop on how they react to their early poetry now that a few years have passed.

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The Early Poems of Gerald Stern

By Gerald Stern on 6.21.10

What I attempted to do in this Early Collected—the first six books of my collected poems—is to reach out simultaneously for a new language and a new subject matter. I was interested in that which was overlooked, neglected, and unseen, from a political, religious, and personal point of view and a voice that bespoke this in the simplest, most honest manner. I found myself returning to early—to fundamental—experiences, as I found myself discovering a new language. This constituted a celebration as well as a kind of mourning or elegy, and the results can be seen in such poems as “Lucky Life,” “The Blue Tie,” “Stepping Out of Poetry,” and “Bob Summer: The Final Poem.” This was a difficult road to hoe, for it expressed neither formal, academic niceness nor bohemian madness. If there are sources they are variously in the Hebrew prophets, in Blake, in Whitman, in Ovid, in Coleridge, and, as far as modern poets, in Yeats, Stevens, Pound, and Hart Crane.

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The Oral World vs. The Written Word

By Nicholas Carr on 6.18.10

Early in the fourth century BC, when the practice of writing was still novel and controversial in Greece, Plato wrote Phaedrus, his dialogue about love, beauty, and rhetoric. In the tale, the title character, a citizen of Athens, takes a walk with the great orator Socrates into the countryside, where the two friends sit under a tree beside a stream and have a long and circuitous conversation. They discuss the finer points of speech making, the nature of desire, the varieties of madness, and the journey of the immortal soul, before turning their attention to the written word. “There remains the question,” muses Socrates, “of propriety and impropriety in writing.” Phaedrus agrees, and Socrates launches into a story about a meeting between the multi-talented Egyptian god Theuth, whose many inventions included the alphabet, and one of the kings of Egypt, Thamus.

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The Importance of Merging Margins

By Kimiko Hahn on 5.20.10

In the current Broadway play Red, Mark Rothko shouts at his assistant for never having read such writers as Nietzsche. It’s both an attack on the younger man’s perceived lack of cultural literacy and a provocative way for the older artist to mentor. All the while, classical music is playing in the background in a kind of surround-sound tutoring. The audience comes to discover something about the assistant’s own musical preferences when he plays a Chet Baker record while the master is out wheeling and dealing in the art world. We also learn that the assistant’s artistic taste runs more toward Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns than toward the high modernism of his self-aggrandizing guru. I’m impressed by the variety of culture represented in that studio.

When I was about that young man’s age, say twenty-eight, I was in the throes of an art movement here in New York City. It was 1983, and the group became known as Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America. Reagan was president and he was funding “freedom fighters” to undermine the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the region. We congregated in the loft of Leon Golub and Nancy Spero.

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Hand Weights & Newspapers

By Kimiko Hahn on 5.11.10

Young writers—as well as random people who come up to me after a reading—often want to know the tricks of the trade. And there are a few that I learned as an undergrad (show don’t tell; every item on a list needs to be equally extraordinary; etc.). In general I frustrate the person by simply badgering her or him to read more poetry, both classic and contemporary.

But the truth is I do have my own “tricks.” This feels like a good moment to share one in particular.

When I taught workshops in the past, I used to bring in a volume of Emily Dickinson, a hand weight, and a newspaper. The first was obviously in the “go read poetry” category. The hand weight was there to remind students to take care of their bodies (since even the deskbound have bodies). And the third was meant to inspire them to read the newspaper.

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A Poet and Her Editor

By Kimiko Hahn on 5.06.10

What does it mean for a poet to have someone edit her collection? I am not sure what that might involve for other poets—aside from having some lines cut or stanzas rearranged—but my own experience has been extraordinary. On a panel last year, I spoke to a room of emerging writers on this topic; seated beside me was my editor at Norton, Jill Bialosky. This column feels like an appropriate place to relate some of my comments.

Mosquito and Ant was the first manuscript I submitted to Jill, who was familiar with an earlier book of mine, The Unbearable Heart. She found the new book intriguing but not quite ready—that was the gist of her response. A year later, I tried again and she returned the manuscript with a few comments on the parts that felt most compelling to her. She suggested I add a prose section (what I’d been calling zuihitsu, a Japanese genre) that would give the dominant sequence some kind of backdrop. I love assignments, and so I wrote two zuihitsu: “Reflections Off White” (a sort of catalog of weddings) and “Morning Light” (a more narrative piece on a wife’s leave-taking). If memory serves, I already had two other such zuihitsu: “The Downpour” (written in response to a Sei Shonagon millennium celebration at The Poetry Project) and “Sewing without Mother” (a prose elegy). I saw that Jill was right: these changes added some backdrop and the manuscript felt richer. After about another year, I sent this new version. At that point, the collection resembled the finished book—except for arrangement. Given that Jill is a writer herself, I’ve often wondered how she finds the time and energy to offer such guidance. Even with no guarantee of publication, I was intensely grateful.

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The Famous Poet’s Society, Part 8 of 8

An Excerpt from Nothing Happened and Then It Did

By Jake Silverstein on 4.26.10

Now, the conclusion of the serialized excerpt from Jake Silverstein’s Nothing Happened and Then It Did, in stores now. [Need to catch up? Read Part 1 | Read Part 2 | Read Part 3 | Read Part 4 | Read Part 5 | Read Part 6 | Read Part 7]

My plane did not leave until the following morning. I spent Tuesday night in the casino. The Nugget is not actually as big as I’d thought at first—a trick of mirrors—and most of my time was passed at the Aquarium Bar. The musical entertainment came in the form of a well-oiled duo known as Bobby and Ricky, whose engagement was listed as “indefinite.” Bobby was a sax player with a genial smile; Ricky, a guitarist in a leisure suit with curly gray hair. When I arrived Bobby was tying up the last few bars of “Secret Agent Man.” When the song was through he grabbed the microphone and shouted, “Have some more tequila!” pronouncing the last word with a lascivious sneer. The mostly geriatric crowd responded with a lusty yell. I noticed a table of famous poets, all wearing their medallions and drinking heavily. Bobby and Ricky started into “Unchained Melody.” Dancers crowded the floor. An elderly couple stood in the center, barely swaying, locked in an embrace. A man wearing a cowboy hat and a shirt patterned with the American flag asked one of the poets to dance. I knew her. She had bent my ear the night before, telling me all about her unhappy marriage that fell apart a few years back and the poetry that had helped her through it. Her first poem had come to her on her birthday at the exact hour of her birth. Smiling, she gazed up at the cowboy and laid her hand on his outstretched forearm. Some of us began to sing along with Bobby. The din of the slots died away. Out of the fake thatched roof descended Apollo, god of song. The waitress stood and watched, her tray full of tequila shots, limes, salt. The muse of the lyre visited Ricky, and he strummed a lovely chord. Time and loss for us seemed distant, made-up things. At the center of the world were Bobby’s lips, singing the immortal verses, and in these verses our hearts were gladdened. This was poetry.

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The Famous Poet’s Society, Part 7 of 8

An Excerpt from Nothing Happened and Then It Did

By Jake Silverstein on 4.22.10

Now, Part 7 of the serialized excerpt from Jake Silverstein’s Nothing Happened and Then It Did, in stores now. [Need to catch up? Read Part 1 | Read Part 2 | Read Part 3 | Read Part 4 | Read Part 5 | Read Part 6]

The Famous Poet’s Society had impressed upon us throughout the convention that we were all winners: that as far back as the first night when we had put pen to paper we had ceased to lose. But some would leave Reno with less than others. This fact was underscored by the $6,000 in door prizes that greeted our return to the Rose Ballroom.

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