Turning away briefly from his administrative responsibilities to appreciate contemporary art, President Barack Obama awarded one of this year’s 12 National Humanities Medals to poet and Yale English professor Louise Glück on Sept. 22.
The award crowns an acclaimed poetic career for Glück, a writer-in-residence and adjunct professor who came to Yale in 2004. She received the medal during a brief ceremony at the White House last month. Glück’s achievement was met with great excitement and pride in Yale’s English Department.
“I join with everyone in our department in celebrating our colleague’s spectacular achievement and its recognition by the president,” Jessica Brantley, director of undergraduate studies for the English Department, wrote in an email to the News.
The National Humanities Medal honors those who have deepened our national understanding of and engagement with the humanities, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities website. It is awarded annually to a dozen writers, artists, actors, historians and musicians. The president, in consultation with the National Endowment for the Humanities, selects each year’s medal winners. This class of medal recipients included jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya. Glück’s medal citation stated that she had given “lyrical expression to our inner conflicts.”
Though Glück said that winning the National Humanities Medal has not significantly changed her life, she said she was grateful for the honor. However, she noted that this recognition has not lessened her drive to write.
“It always seems a very great gift to write a poem of which you stay proud longer than 24 hours. That is what I want more than anything I can name,” she said.
Glück’s poetry has been praised for its retelling, refashioning and reviving of mythological stories. Additionally, Glück is highly regarded for her technical ability as a poet. Working within the lyrical poetic tradition, she simultaneously conveys both song and narrative in an often precarious balancing act, said English professor Richard Deming, who directs the department’s creative writing program.
“She finds ways that those stories and myths aren’t past, but are psychological and emotional realities that she allows us to reinhabit in a way that makes it feel like they are, whatever else they might be, the stories of what it means to be human,” Deming said. “She [works] within a music of familiar language, of immediate language, of direct language.”
According to Deming, this combination of powerful craft and complex content makes Glück’s poetry popular. Deming went on to say that Glück is one of the great figures in contemporary American poetry and one of the most influential.
While Glück said she prefers to not overanalyze her own work, she noted that her work fits within traditional poetic motifs.
“Most writers would say that they write about life, death, love and work, with very enormous variations within those categories,” she said. These themes recur in her 1986 poetry collection, “The Triumph of Achilles,” in her 2006 National Book Award Finalist “Averno” and most recently in the 2014 collection, “Faithful and Virtuous Night.”
The National Humanities Medal is just the most recent prize on Glück’s long list of accolades. In 1993 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection “Wild Iris” and in 2001 was awarded Yale’s Bollingen Prize for a life’s work of exceptional poetry. From 2003 to 2004, she served as the United States Poet Laureate.
Nonetheless, Glück maintained that her awards are not her legacy. Rather, she said, “I would hope that I’m writing things that people would read for a long time.”
Instead, Glück views teaching as an essential part of her literary legacy. By teaching, she is able to both honor the great teachers who helped her improve her writing and share her gifts with future generations. As an added benefit, teaching seems to help her write, she said. “Teaching keeps me alive in my mind,” said Glück.
“In reality, the value of having someone like Louise Glück is not the awards that she wins but her absolute dedication as a teacher, her commitment to working with students and helping them become the writers they have it in them to be,” Deming said. “She’s about as necessary a poet as we have in these days when language feels so fraught and embattled.”
Glück’s essay collection “American Originality: Essays on Poetry” is set to be published in March 2017.
Mary Karr, a poet, essayist and memoirist, came to the Divinity School last week to speak at a colloquium hosted by the Institute of Sacred Music about “Art Born of Trauma.” It was a natural choice — Karr often writes about religion and her traumatic childhood in eastern Texas; her memoir, “Liar’s Club,” which addresses the latter, was a New York Times best seller for over a year and was named one of the best books of 1995. Her best-known essay, “Against Decoration,” criticizes modern poetry for its attention to form for the sake of form. For Karr, writing is supposed to be about feelings and moving the reader. Karr has also taken an interest in religion. She has described her spiritual history as a journey “from black-belt sinner to lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.” Karr currently teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Syracuse University. WKND sat down with her to talk about God, art, and why and how we write.
Q: Why did the Yale Divinity School reach out to you? You’re an author!
A:I have written about God. I was an atheist my whole life and converted in my thirties. I’m Catholic. Everyone’s surprised I wound up Catholic. I think it’s deep. When my son was little, he asked me to go to church and I said why and he said the only thing he could have said: to see if God’s there. So we did this thing I called God-a-rama: we just went to any church or temple where somebody we knew had a practice. I would sit in the back and grade papers, and then I just got lured in. I think it’s the simple faith of the people, of liberation theology, of working for the poor. All religions are charitable, but I just happened to find myself in the company of this wad of Catholics. They got me.
Q: You’ve written that “poetry is the same as prayer” — can you explain this idea?
A: In both places you’re reaching out from despair, in hope of finding something sacred. I can’t remember who said it first, but I always think art of any kind should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. I think religion should do the same thing. I think I put my hope and despair in poetry, whether I was reading it or writing it. I do both: I write and read poetry, and I pray as well.
Q: What’s the work you’re most proud of?
A: I’m not particularly proud of anything. I’m just not. I mean, I don’t really think an artist can have an opinion about his or her work. I do the best I can do, and whether it succeeds or not is about my detaching from it.
Q: Do you enjoy creating it?
A: No, I don’t.
Q: Why do you do it?
A: It’s just something I’m supposed to do — I don’t know how else to explain it. I’ve been writing since I was five. The best days, you can’t feel your ass in the chair: you lose self-consciousness. It is absorbing to me. It takes all of my intelligence and what little I can muster. I can’t think of any great writer who says they enjoy writing. When I was younger I enjoyed writing, but I think as you get older you don’t enjoy it anymore.
Q: Can you imagine not writing?
A: No. I’ve been doing it for 55 years.
Q: Do you have advice for people who want to be writers?
A:Read. Read, and read, and rewrite. If you can avoid writing, I would suggest you do. I don’t think it’s that healthy of a lifestyle. You’re by yourself all the time, and in your head all the time. It makes you narcissistic and self-conscious and self-involved. I always say my mind is a bad neighborhood, you know — you shouldn’t go there alone. I would recommend doing something else, if you don’t have to do it. But most of us don’t have a choice. I was talking to Louise Glück, and I said if I had a choice between being a writer and being happy I would choose being happy. She laughed and said, “Don’t worry, you don’t have a choice.” We’re not moral titans; we’re not Oprah. I think God wanted me to be a writer. I think a lot of young people have an idea of being a writer that’s really different from the reality of being a writer.
Q: How did you get to where you are?
A: I grew up very poor. Most writers are from upper middle-class families. But I was 40 years old before I could make a living. People who were way dumber than I was were making a lot of money … They try to teach heroin addicts not to disassociate; if you’re a writer, you’re in a constant state of disassociation. If you look at most writers, if you read a lot of writers’ biographies, they’re not nice people. Most writers, we do heroin, we sleep with your daughters. It doesn’t have to be that way — we’re God’s creatures, we’re just odd creatures. I take my husband, who’s a businessman, to a dinner party with other writers and no one even asks him what he does.
Q: Why do you write memoir?
A: For money.
Q: Would you rather be writing something else?
A: I would rather write poetry. If I didn’t have a kid who needed to go to college, I wouldn’t have written a memoir. I was a single mom living in Syracuse, I didn’t have a car, I had to take a bus for an hour and a half to pick him up after school. It’s a good reason to write for money. The poetry and the essays and stuff: that’s labors of love. Nobody cares if I write those except me. They’d probably give me a million dollars to write another memoir, but I’d rather eat a bug.
Q: Who is one of your favorite poets?
A: Christian Wiman, who invited me, is one of my favorite poets. His poetry is really felt — it’s not someone just showing off, it’s genuinely about a struggle. He has a terminal disease, and he writes a lot about God.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing a script for a TV show based on my memoir. The script is due — what’s today, Wednesday? The script is due Friday.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” Da Vinci’s synesthetic suggestion found favor on a recent rainy Thursday at the YUAG, where art, poetry and music came together, allowing an audience to see, hear and feel the ethos of the Romantic period.
The poetry and music were part of “The Critique of Reason”, a new art exhibition put on by the YUAG and the YCBA next door — surprisingly, the first collaboration between the two. The evening began with a concert in the YUAG’s auditorium, consisting of two string quartets performed by students from the School of Music. The audience was next treated to readings of Romantic poetry meant to complement the paintings exhibited four floors above.
After a tiring day of math class and number-crunching, I, for one, was ready to enjoy some beautiful Romantic melodies. “The Harp,” Beethoven’s string quartet in E-Flat Major, balanced melancholy with occasional and much-appreciated bursts of vigor and energy, and was followed by the haunting tones of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor. The sudden shifts between tension and tranquility in both pieces evoked a strong and unique emotion, perhaps the “sublime” state that Romantic art often strove for. The masterful rendition of both quartets was uplifting, yet I could not help feeling that my enjoyment didn’t deepen or broaden my appreciation of the actual exhibition.
In this pleasant but confused state of mind, I made my way up to the fourth floor for the second (and undoubtedly more exciting) part of the evening: the artwork and poetry. Six undergraduates who had taken Paul Fry’s “Romantic Poetry” last semester stood by their paintings of choice in different rooms of the exhibition. Each recited one or two works of poetry from the same period as the painting they had chosen.
Well-matched paintings and poems gave me a new appreciation for the aura of the Romantic period. Some combinations, like Alison Hutchison’s ’15 recital of Percy Shelley’s “Clouds” against John Constable’s “Cloud Studies,” exemplified the Romantic spirit and its traditional associations with landscapes and the celebration of nature; the image that the poem created in my mind perfectly matched Constable’s painting, enhancing the effect of both. In contrast to that classic Romanticism, Devika Mittal’s ’15 subtle and poignant recital of two Byron compositions alongside Pierre Paul Prudion’s “A Grief Stricken Family” and Ary Scheffer’s “The Retreat of Napoleon’s Army from Russia in 1812” exposed me to the more human side of Romanticism, far removed from ideal scenes of natural splendor. Although the subject matter diverged from Hutchison’s pairing, the synergy remained: The wounded soldiers in Scheffer’s painting seemed to have emerged straight from the conclusion of Byron’s “Lara.”
Yet not all poems were meant to recreate the scenes they accompanied, and many made me look differently at the paintings in front of me. Eleanor Michotte’s ’15 articulate performance of Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” against George Romney’s “Ann Wilson with her daughter, Sybil” — perhaps my favorite moment of the evening — juxtaposed a simple mother-daughter portrait with a wistful dream of an ideal childhood, untainted by industrialization, many Romantics viewed skeptically. And Hutchison’s recital of Wordsworth’s “Idiot Boy” against Gustave Courbet’s “Hunter on Horseback” breathed life into a rather still scene by weaving an imaginary story around the figure in the painting.
Despite the enjoyable music and the effective pairings of paintings with poems, the exhibition’s three components seemed somewhat scattered, and it was hard to find a single cohesive message or idea connecting the three: The music that opened the evening seemed somewhat out of place, and upon arrival on the fourth floor, viewers were allowed to wander at will, without a set order. But was this an unintended consequence or a deliberate attempt to celebrate the Romantic “critique of reason” by abstaining from a prescribed order? As the evening drew to a close, I still wasn’t sure. I guess some stories are best left untold.
The poet Jorie Graham isn’t a robotic woman. In fact, as she stood in front of a group of Yale students, she seemed to be the most human, vivid one in the room. Her hair, captured like a wild animal in the black and white photos of her youth, fell into a gold wave behind her ears. A blue shawl rested comfortably on her shoulders. Most natural were the words she offered — those from poems written between 1976 and 2014, selected for her book “From the New World.” She shared pieces from its just-released pages on Monday evening in Linsly-Chittenden Hall.
When she read the poem “Fast,” her right hand moved differently than the rest of her body. It jerked with her syllables, twitched up and down with her intonations like a small machine. The poem is about her experience chatting with an online bot (think of Spike Jonze’s “Her”), and the moving hand broke her organic image for a few minutes.
Like that hand-body divide, Graham’s new collection wrestles with, as she put it, a “dismembered sense of self.” Only four poems out of the book’s 105 are previously-unpublished, but she considers it a new body of work. The way she tells it, the book seems to have had a life of its own. “It’s precisely the book you don’t write, but the one your life writes,” she told us. “It uses you to get written.”
The span of the writing reflects Graham’s impressive track record. Currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University, she has won the Pulitzer Prize, taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and been dubbed “one of the most celebrated poets of the American post-war generation” by the Poetry Foundation. Other sources consistently call her “a badass” (for her talent as well as her powerful eyeliner). Her work oozes approachable yet complex philosophy, the kind found in the fibers of quiet, everyday experiences; it gains an iron force when shaped by her voice.
At the reading, Graham recited her poems in the order they were written. She wrote “The Geese” while holding her first teaching position in Kentucky, and in it you can detect the uncertainty of youth and new surroundings: “There is a feeling the body gives the mind / of having missed something, a bedrock poverty, like falling / without the sense that you are passing through one world, / that you could reach another / anytime.” Passing from poem to poem, she seemed to age. “On Difficulty,” a piece about Adam and Eve, uses history to achieve a universal lamentation. The audience hummed in affirmation, the way one often does, after the last lines: “When you look away / who will they be dear god and what?”
As her self evolves in “From the New World,” so do Graham’s priorities. She prefaced the works on Monday by describing her shift in poetic interests and anxieties, which moved from nature, to war, to climate change (a kind of equation). The book’s title poem was written during a violent Iowa rainstorm, but “at this point, we are in perpetual war, perpetual storm,” she said. “Lull” came next, another account of being at the mercy of nature. In it, the speaker prepares for rain that never comes and assumes the identity of a fox. Although written in the first person, the poem feels less centered. It’s a 360-degree view of humans and their greed.
“Fast,” the poem about the online bot, closed the reading. Out of everything Graham read, it was easily the most detached, the most purposefully processed. Short sentences, like “I’m not alone. People come back / again and again. We are less kind than we think” give it at a rapid motion, as if it were information being digested by a computer. Yet it’s somehow still refined, just like her meditations on geese, Eden and weather. Graham made clear the “dismembered sense of self,” this time in a way more insidious and dramatic than before.
“It’s very interesting to grow up,” she said, a few minutes before we all left the room. “None of us are what we thought we were, are we?”
Student poetry gets a notoriously bad rap. Much of that is deserved — teenagers going through adolescence do tend to write about trite things: breakups, emotion, botched sex, emotion. But on Wednesday, the Connecticut Poetry Reading Circuit proved that some student poetry is worth paying attention to. The event, in Morse Common Room, featured poets from the state who had been selected by their colleges to participate in a series of readings around Connecticut. Four writers took to the podium and were joined by four undergraduate Yalies.
Standards varied. The first reader settled the audience in nicely, inflating expectations perhaps a little cruelly. Justin Greene, a junior in Anthropology at Wesleyan University, gave a lively reading of his very anecdotal and sharply-observed poems. He performed as much as he read, pausing between poems to throw optimistic questions at a stolid audience that seemed reluctant to laugh.
The next two poets — Nikki Byrne from the University of Saint Joseph and Lisa Gaudio from the University of Connecticut — were less flamboyant in their presentation. Byrne’s poetry was strewn with clichés — a lover’s freckles formed “constellations,” his back was a “landscape,” his spine a “valley.” If Emily Dickinson had indeed been an influence, as Byrne intimated, the older poet was keeping a characteristically low profile, as Byrne didn’t seem to pursue Dickinson’s subtlety and restraint.
Gaudio followed Byrne and delivered a change in tempo. In one powerful poem, the speaker articulated the tension between her wish to remain a grease-elbowed tomboy, and the desire of her “momma” to have a recognizably feminine daughter. But standards slipped once more in Gaudio’s last poem, a cumbersome ode to endangered elephants. Sounding like a Greenpeace tirade, it was bookended with maddening archaisms (“I bid you not that way,” etc.) that clashed with the tone elsewhere, as well as the youth of the reader herself.
Katherine Rose Monica, of the University of Connecticut, blew the rather limp competition out of the water when she finally took to the stage, having arrived late after getting stuck in traffic. Vivid and fluid, her poems were remarkably songlike, featuring anaphoric patterns that the writer wove and unpicked expertly. Like that of her peers, Monica’s poetry also tended towards the confessional, but it was still fresh and, at moments, unexpectedly moving.
The Yale poets were accorded less reading time than the others, with the exception of Jessica Yuan ’15. Her background in architecture came to the fore in her meticulously constructed poems, which were at their most effective when grappling with her family’s immigration narrative. One poem, for instance, took aim at the notion that a “mastery of speech” would offer a failsafe weapon against cultural and social alienation.
It would have been nice to hear more from the other Yale writers invited to the podium. Margaret Shultz ’16 offered a brilliantly dry piece about sisterhood, entitled “Ghost Poem”. This teetered dangerously — and successfully — on the edge of banal anecdote,but was repeatedly brought back from the precipice by abrupt changes of rhythm, time frames and moods. The unusual poem of Austin Carder ’15 was accompanied by a photograph of the YUAG sculpture his verses were about. And although the poem relied a little too much on the picture, it was an elegant, well-written response to an object Carder sees regularly, as a member of the YUAG workforce. The singular offering of James Orbison ’16, “Beauty Supply,” was luminous: short and sweet enough to leave me wishing he had been accorded considerably more stage time.
This mismatch between stage time and ability was a theme throughout the evening. Although the poetry reading offered its share of delights, some writers walked off the stage with lots left to say, while others seemed to be gasping for air by the end of their set. After all, student poetry is nothing if not inconsistent. But even in a mixed bag, there are some things worth holding on to.
On Monday evening, approximately 50 Yale students, professors and New Haven residents wrapped around the long oval table of LC 319 in anticipation of a conversation with Yale professor and renowned poet Louise Glück.Overflow chairs were placed behind Glück’s seat, and when those were filled, attendees sat crosslegged on tables and positioned themselves awkwardly on window ledges. Still others clustered by the narrow doorway. A member of the Literature, the Arts and the Environment Colloquium — the academic organization sponsoring the event — gave a brief introduction, and then the podium was Glück’s. She commenced by first making clear that, “This is not a poetry reading.” Instead, a one-hour question and answer session ensued that focused mainly on Glück’s new book, “Faithful and Virtuous Night.”
Two characteristics of Glück’s collection become apparent upon a first reading. One is the placement of prose poems among a larger number of verse poems. During Monday’s conversation, Glück revealed that it was not until she tried her hand at prose poems (which look like prose but retain the imagery and delivery of poems) that the manuscript started coming together. “[The prose poems are] what the manuscript needed to be aerated,” she said.
The book’s second striking feature is the shared settings, themes and syntax among the poems: parks, trains, night, wooden toys, music, nature, the moon, silence and more. When discovering one of these recurrences, the reader can’t help but flip back to find its kin. The connections between poems mean that each complements the others; they become a chorus, rather than a series of individual voices.
One such interwoven theme surfaced during Monday’s conversation, when Glück described her attempts to write about the inability to write. “Cornwall” and “A Sharply Worded Silence,” two of her new poems, seem to have been influenced by this theme. Both make mention of silence, but on a deeper level, both poems may describe periods where Glück was unable to write.
“Cornwall” begins: “A word drops into the mist / like a child’s ball into high grass/ where it remains seductively / flashing and glinting until / the gold bursts are revealed to be / simply field buttercups.” Later, when the mist has cleared, the word has become “flattened by the elements / so it was now both recovered and useless.” It seems here that “mist” stands for consciousness or the landscapes of the creative mind. The poem’s opening lines depict the frustrating experience of a writer trying to retrieve a thought. Equally depressing are the times when Glück does fish out the thought and realizes it is much less appealing and stimulating than she had first imagined. Later in the poem, Glück describes both trying to keep a journal and moving her chair to the balcony in order to coax herself into writing. In Monday’s conversation, she mentioned that, for a time, she used to keep a typewriter close to her for the same purpose. When asked what to do during these periods of internal resistance, Glück replied, to laughter, “Despair.”
In “Cornwall,” she feels that perhaps her best days have come and gone: “It was all behind me, all in the past. / Ahead, as I said, was silence.” She writes that there were wooden eggs in her studio, suggesting her current creative state: inert and infertile.
In “A Sharply Worded Silence,” in which the narrator searches for meaning in a conversation she once had with an old woman, Glück writes, “so I assumed there would be, at some point, / a door with a glittering knob / but when this would happen and where I had no idea.” The door does not appear; once more, the poet finds herself at the whim of some uncontrollable power which hampers, but ultimately inspires, her creativity. Glück suggests that for her, writing about a period of creative infertility is the best cure for emerging from it.
Other poems in “Faithful and Virtuous Night” dwell on related themes: doubt, fear, disorientation. The manuscript is further strengthened by a “voice” that Glück found ten years ago and hadn’t been able to put to use. And the author’s own comments futher illuminate her work’s hidden undercurrents. To know what one wants while being unable to get near it is a well-documented struggle, but in Glück’s beautiful web of images that echo and inform each other, this struggle takes on an ethereal dignity.
This article has been updated from the version that appeared in print on November 7, 2014
Q: Many writers, poets and novelists alike, espouse a life of “difficulty.” Do you find yourself cultivating a difficult life for art’s sake?
Difficulty is so resonant of modernism to me. That whole idea, the value of all things difficult, is kinda throw-backy and retro. It was the ambition of a generation 100 years in the past, and it’s no longer as persuasive for me by argument. Poetry isn’t just writing about all the problems we have. It’s what I think about things. What I feel about things. When I write a poem, there are surprises and shocks. The poem itself is on the border of intelligibility, and I don’t want to understand too much. That’s the reader’s job. Part candor, part mystery. Poems are meant to be read (hopefully) hundreds of times, and they have to hold your attention
Q: Zadie Smith was here recently, speaking about writing and creativity. She suggests that creativity necessitates a “refusal.” What does the word mean to you?
Yeah, creativity is having a particularly bad stretch, because business and industry have taken it up. Now it’s fashionable to invite writers and artists to the corporate dinners. What Zadie said is just right: There has to be some desire to upset the existing idea of a poem, say, or an essay. Literature, or on a more ambitious level, culture, too. I remember Robert Frost said something about poetry … it involves “getting into danger legitimately so that we may be genuinely rescued.” I’m going to use a horrible phrase now, but our “comfort zone” should be challenged by poetry. The novel directs its mimesis toward social life. The poem — the kind I write — directs itself at the inner life and private speech. It depends on what you write. Either way, the content should challenge.
Q: Your work shows your reverence for Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Tom McCarthy in the London Review of Books recently suggested that writing after “Ulysses” can never be the same. How does “Ulysses” make writing different?
I feel exempted from it’s long shadow because I’m not a fiction writer, but here comes along a book which represents every last aspect of being human, and it comes close, it comes very close, to being right. Being final. He’s made one of the most approachable — on its terms — books you can imagine.
It’s trying to figure out how to represent emotion and experience in language — what writing, in essence, is. As a poet, I feel despair when I read Wallace Stevens. He does it so well that I don’t want to pick up a pen.
Q: Does nostalgia and reading the greats make it harder for you to write?
It makes me despair of doing anything as good, but I’m too stupid to be intimidated by Stevens because I was teaching myself things. My family wasn’t highly literary or indulgent of literary stuff. I had to introduce myself to most poetry and literature. Ultimately I feel alone with my work. I’m 43, almost 44, an age where you start to think about the arc of your career, and I don’t think there is any arc as triumphant as that of Stevens. In terms of career — the production of individual poems, a book — Stevens is the model.
Q: On your Wellesley bio page, you say, “I like to give advice about food.” Can we talk about food?
That’s a great question. Let me give you an anecdote — I think you can print this — yeah, it’s fine. Anyway, I once introduced John Ashbery, and someone asked him, “would you tell me the influence upon your work of food”. He gave an amazing, eloquent and extensive response of all the great meals he’d eaten. Turns out the guy asking the question actually said “Proust.” On another note, my form of cosmopolitanism when I was in high school was to eat. I hung out at a restaurant run by University of Vermont students, where I ate food that wasn’t available at home. I always associated it with expanding my horizons.
Now, my ritual at home involves making dinner. It’s important to cultivate rituals around writing, which accommodate days where the writing hasn’t gone well. Food is great, because my wife will tell me I’ve done a good job, even when I haven’t.
When I think about food, I think about why I’m a critic: I have strong enthusiasm, strong opinions and strong aversions. They need to be communicated, and shared.
I need to share, persuade. Advice about food is continuous with advice about poetry.
Q: You claim you weren’t much of an intellectual in high school. How did you develop a passion for culture?
I owe a lot to Joyce. I started Greek in college, and I had some Latin, but not as much as the kids from Groton, Andover and Exeter. I did Greek because of Ellman’s biography of Joyce, where he mentioned that Joyce scribbled the first few lines of the Odyssey, in Ancient Greek, on a piece of scrap paper. I thought that was pretty cool. In high school, I used to walk around with a copy of Ulysses. I now have a copy from 1922, which has uncut pages. That’s ironic, because here’s one of the original copies of a book that people fought so hard to make public after its ban, and it went unread. To some extent it’s still an unread book. I never really sat down to read it until recently. I think it’s unfortunate the way it opens; the first three episodes are the hardest – the Telemechiad, as they’re called. The book is a compound self-portrait — Joyce was involved in relationships, being a father, grieving: All the things that happen to you whether you plan or not, and these processes work their way into book, which changes as he does. He’s showing his earlier blindness [Joyce’s sight deteriorated as he wrote Ulysses] in the first real character we meet, Stephen Dedalus, before we shift to Bloom.
Bloom has his own lapses, but the main framing lapse is Molly’s. He’s a person who makes mistakes but he’s a person who comprehends lapses.
Q: As a man who makes his living in words, how do you feel about the spread of the word “like”?
It’s funny, one of the hallmarks of being an English professor is that people become self-conscious about their speech around you.
Of course there’s a difference between spoken English versus written English.
The word “like,” in spoken English, specifically in spoken American English, can be used to real expressive purpose. Terry Gross, the NPR host, has this wonderful way, part of her modesty, that she’ll frame a question with a number of “likes,” tics and quirks that seem very expressive and continuous of colloquial English.
When I started lecturing at Harvard, I began to listen to my lectures when they were recorded, and I was appalled by how many “ums” there were in my sentences. One of the most powerful things you can do as a public speaker is pause. You appear to be framing your sentences silently. Even if you have no idea.
Q: You’re fond of the word “fuck,” and as a Joyce fan, you clearly value the power of obscenities. Can a work of art ever be obscene?
Obscene? No. Obscenity can’t apply. You have to imagine that if we have a legal quality for obscenity, it means “having no social value,” which cannot apply to great art. Nabokov’s Lolita is more transgressive a novel than Ulysses and, with some trepidation, I’ve taught it to all-female classrooms. It’s a rare person who can see that it’s value as art trumps all potentiality to offend. In fact, it’s hard to even imagine a work more transgressive than Lolita. To some desensitized individuals it might be mild now, but in the 1950s it was anything but.
Q: Let’s talk a little about your work as a critic. What are your criteria for a good poem?
I think my failure and strength as a critic is that I have no set criteria. I want to be surprised. I’ve read a lot of contemporary poetry, so if I’m surprised and compelled, it’s a sign that something is working. Linguistic imagination is something I appreciate. I start with a blank slate every time I take up a new poem. But poetry is what’s in your ear. Which poems do you have in your ear when you look at a new poem? Which poets? Which ideas?
Q: Many of your poems contain a great emotional intensity, and deal with“love’s sincerity.” What do you think of the culture of casual sex that goes on at a lot of colleges?
I feel like a dinosaur in relationship to casual sex now. I came from the AIDS generation, so I can’t ever really take sex that lightly. The line you brought up is taken from an idea Donne comes up with: You can block out the universe doing certain things — by closing your eyes for example — but you block out forms of verification, like seeing your lover’s face, when you shut down. I’ve always thought that it’s hard for a straight white guy to write about sex.
I’m not entirely sure. Most writing about sex feels sentimental. I think it borders on the identification of woman as aesthetic, as sexual object. It can be done well; sex is another sensory experience, albeit a more intense one. It’s tactile. It seems that Joyce is always on the side of the tactile — taste, smell, touch.
Q: Are you on the side of the tactile?
I think you have to be. You still can maintain temperament, you can be ironic and intellectual, but there needs to be the tactile part in there. You have to be.
The pictures he uploaded were not chronological. Instead of instant images, they rang out from his archive of experience as delicate grams of sound. His verse seemed liked, too. Other listeners within the marble walls sometimes murmured approval from their seats. Hitchcock’s “Psycho” tore him out of his seat when he was just a kid and the film took New York City by storm. In a poem honoring Henry Hudson’s discovery of the New York harbor, the last lines of “The Great Gatsby” melted into his final product. He once had a manx cat named Jeepers and “Cats” the musical, did you know, gusted out of T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” This is the poet John Koethe, as told by John Koethe.
This Tuesday afternoon, the verse writer serenaded his audience with self-titled “memory poems” in front of a flickering spotlight at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. I listened as library curator Nancy Kuhl provided a graceful introduction, but then Koethe proceeded to track a profile of his own life, in his own style. Kuhl said with Koethe, the “tension between intimacy and public memory falls away,” and indeed, he conjured a link between his words in the air and the other chapters of life in progress. “The years were pages,” he said.
In one selection, he likened poetry to snow. Koethe, who has written nine books of poetry, spent his undergraduate days at Princeton and graduate years at Harvard. Behind the podium, he certainly stood as a master — of simile, cold weather and the flakes of language he lets fall, covering and illuminating a range of nebulous subjects. In his first poem, “Sally’s Hair,” he describes the titular as object as “like living in a lightbulb.”
In another poem titled “16A” after a graduate school apartment, the narrator qualifies: “but that’s history, real history, not this private kind.”
Thinking of his words, my mind drifted to a framed illustration that I have at home, one that depicts two figures in a snowstorm: a young boy following in the footsteps of a bundled man. The caption in the foreground reads: “In his master’s steppes he trodde.” It is a John Hassall, and I have not imagined it in a little while. Hearing poetry as snow conjured thoughts of my own private history.
Toward the end of his reading, Koethe shared a poem precipitated by Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Village” and a reverence for Proust. Sounds linked the time lost between words — a clang, a bell. It had been after the poem “Alfred Hitchcock” that I noticed Koethe’s reflection in the glass behind him, in the case with the two massive books and flickering spotlight, and then again diagonally to the left of that phantom, traveling into the monument wall. In both panes, his back faced his listeners, his students, as if my perspective were from the opposite side of the space. Minutes later, I caught the phrase: “Meaning lies beneath it or beyond it.” Meteorologists could never have predicted such a timely, tender snowfall.
If Jimmy Stuart was “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Mr. John Koethe could be the poet who knows enough. He is the poet who rolls meaning and history into one, aiming across time at the unknown drifting through Jeepers’ stare, and further back, toward Fitzgerald’s green light.
On social media, stories are told on a vertical track. Below yesterday’s recipe link are last weekend’s wedding pictures and the most-read New Yorker or Buzzfeed articles. They may be outlined, but sometimes it’s difficult — even dangerous — to chart someone’s private history through public statements. That afternoon, Koethe gave his listeners this chance. In pages of verse, Koethe gave them passwords to the years of his life. Catching flakes of his past somehow made everything a little clearer for a spell.
Every review I’ve read so far has gotten the title wrong. The full title — as it was meant to be spoken, never read — is: “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die,/ Cherish, Perish, a novel by/ David Rakoff.” You see? It has to rhyme. And isn’t that the point?
David Rakoff’s first — and last — novel is truly a must-read. Rakoff, a wry and funny critic who passed away last year from cancer, wrote the entire book in anapestic tetrameter. It rhymes, it sings, it moves, it’s only 113 pages. The novel can easily be finished in an hour or two. But you won’t read it just once. And you won’t stop thinking about it for a long time.
As novelist Paul Rudnick wrote, the novel “didn’t make me love poetry, but it certainly affirmed my love for David Rakoff.” Only Rakoff could take such a clichéd and almost juvenile form and make it into something moving and entertaining, tragic and funny. “Love, Dishonor” is a story that lacks a clearly defined plot or set of characters. It jumps around in time and place, and at times it’s even a little difficult to follow. But it gets at so many simple truths, so many dark places in our history. The book is ultimately about death — written with an intimacy all too familiar.
“Love, Dishonor” tells the story of diverse characters — these characters are all connected, but to trace the connectedness would be quite difficult and highly unnecessary. The novel begins in the bloody slaughterhouses of turn-of-the-century Chicago. A girl is born of Irish immigrants, possessing nothing but a poor mother, a sadistic stepfather and a length of shocking red hair. Sexually abused, she runs from her plight, riding the rails of the Great Depression, comforted by a nameless man who senses her agony. Later, that man faces some serious family problems. In another place and another time, a prim girl finds happiness in her love of drawing, and then she becomes a prim secretary who sleeps with her boss and can’t move up in her job. A closeted gay boy comes to terms with himself in booming Southern California. He moves to San Francisco, gets caught up in the city and art and happiness, gets many sexual partners, gets AIDS. A man gives a sad and inappropriate yet moving toast at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. A directionless woman changes her name to fit changing times — from Susan to Sloan to Shulamit. These characters together tell the story of 20th century America.
“Love, Dishonor” is not a happy book, yet neither is it a depressing one. It’s funny. When a gay pornographic cartoonist is attacked by conservative critics, he responds: “I know it won’t sway you the smallest scintilla/ To point out the sex is quite firmly vanilla.” It’s poignant. A dying character reflects: “In thrall to the twists of his brain’s involutions/ The cranial mists and synaptic occlusions/ He’d had to contend with since he’d has his first stroke/ Like trying to sculpt something solid from smoke.” It gives a bizarre sense of closure. Of the nuns at a Catholic school, Rakoff writes: “They meted out lashings and thrashings despotic/ (With a thrill she would later construe as erotic).”
Rakoff even maintains his politics to the bitter end. Here is a passage I had no choice but to quote in full, which surely will stand the test of history: “The drugmakers, government — all who’d forsaken/ The thousands — the murderous silence of Reagan/ Or William F. Buckley, the fucker at whose/ Suggestion that people with AIDS get tattoos;/ (The New Haven lockjaw, the glib erudition/ When truly, the man’s craven moral perdition/ Made Clifford so angry he thought he might vomit/ Or fly east, find Buckley’s address, and then bomb it.)” Even if you disagree with Rakoff’s sentiment, you can’t fault his poetry.
You have a tough decision to make — book or audiobook. The book is a comfortable, slender volume, illustrated with odd and endearing cartoons by Gregory “Seth” Gallant, the illustrator for some Lemony Snicket works, among others. But the audiobook is narrated by Rakoff himself, recorded within a month of his death. His voice — formerly so lively and expressive — is reduced to a rasping whisper. It’s as sad a form as it is darkly comedic.
Ultimately, the book does not have a happy ending, but it gives a satisfying sense of finality. It is the intentionally final work from a man who knew he was going to die. This wasn’t a guess; Rakoff had undergone four surgeries for cancer in as many years. He’d been working on parts of the novel for 10 years, but he could only finish it in the last weeks of life. Of death he writes simply (and with characteristic wit): “Inevitable, why even bother to test it,/ He’d paid all his taxes, so that left … you guessed it.”
On Saturday mornings, I park a car outside the Cheshire County Correctional Facility, and then walk through a metal detector carrying nothing but a book, perhaps a Bible, some pencils and my Yale ID. Since my freshman year I have been involved with the Yale Prison Initiative, mentoring post-GED incarcerated youth in an effort to smooth their reintegration process upon release. The prison schooling system is geared towards GED completion, and established post-GED programs are targeted at inmates with imminent release dates, marginalizing those serving longer sentences. With this in mind, I devised a four-person group that has been meeting in the prison for over a year now — myself, and three inmates, ages between 17 and 20. They have all been convicted of multiple charges ranging from armed robberies, drug possession and second-degree murder.
One of the young inmates is a Hispanic from New Brighton, Lionel (whose name has been changed for anonymity). Lionel has the liveliest presence for someone in his situation: Every Saturday, he greets me with a warm chuckle and sincere handshake. He hangs on every word of our conversations, though at times jittering and shaking his head, explaining to me that “Ma’am, we are sheltered from the way you think.” Trying to better understand him, I asked him to write a piece that was representative of his past. The next week, Lionel showed up with his unfailing smile and this poem, asking me when he would become a published author. Well, here it is, Lionel.
The Mighty Dollar
Cold blood spills for the warmth of a green piece of paper.
Faces many of us never take time to admire are printed on them.
The things these national heroes have done — it’s earned them this currency spotlight,
but their deeds and efforts can’t compare to
some endure to have a pocket filled with their portraits.
Most of us are careless:
their faces go unnoticed
and instead get crumpled into the pockets,
pockets of individuals who crave this power,
crave the liberty, freedom and honor of these portraited men.
And most of us, holders of these images, have no freedom.
We are enslaved by the vice,
The corrupted need for one more dollar bill
A twisted obsession with the collections of images,
Intrinsically valueless but socially invaluable.
What an overwhelming power does this piece of paper have —
to pull the world together into buildings and stores and capitalism,
The Yale Divinity School sits on a hill overlooking the New Haven skyline. At 5:15 p.m., the sunset is a brilliant blend of burnt orange and magenta. The city’s church spires and houses are silhouetted against the sky and the mild weather belongs more to spring than late January.
But, of course, I don’t really notice any of this.
I’m running from section. I’m late for an event. I’m focused on the long night of problem sets lying ahead, not on the stunning vistas of a New Haven evening.
Brad Davis’ poetry seems a bit like a diagnosis prescribed to the typical overcommitted Yalie. At a reading of his work this Thursday at the Divinity School, he told the audience that, through his writing, he tries to make sense of the beauty of ordinary moments. Borrowing images from Christian texts, he uses his poetry to identify the holiness in everyday scenes and interactions.
But listening to Davis read his poetry feels more like opening the pages of a friend’s diary than flipping through the Bible. He brings images from the Old Testament into modern-day contexts with unabashed irreverence. At the start of one poem he takes his readers to the top of a holy mountaintop, only to reveal that we are actually at the peak of a ski resort in British Columbia, “delivered by chairlift/ … / [to] worship at His holy mountain.” In another poem, he weaves images of the ancient city Jerusalem together with descriptions of Times Square in downtown New York.
The crowd laughs in delight, taken by surprise each time he twists religious language into a contemporary context. For Davis, religion is beautiful not because it is mysterious, but because it is comforting and familiar. His casual use of religious language is refreshing — he is openly critical of overly complex discussion of God and faith, the moments when “we speak in tongues.” Similarly, he refuses to overcomplicate descriptions of his family and loved ones. The poem he reads about his grandmother’s death is strikingly plain and lacking in pretension. He explains that he wanted to write a tribute to his grandmother because she loved him more than anyone, and let him watch TV whenever he wanted.
“You don’t pull out intellectual googahs when trying to tell someone who ran a Laundromat ‘I love you,’” Davis explains.
Sometimes he interrupts his own poetry readings with admissions of his own insecurities. “I feel like to read these things I’m taking off clothing,” he says at one point, midpoem. “I’m exposing parts of myself I don’t want you to see.” The personal elements in his poetry make the reading feel like a conversation with a close friend, as he walks the audience through the parts of religion he finds confusing and the members of his family whom he doesn’t understand.
But Davis is not just in conversation with his listeners — he seems to be in dialogue with a long list of writers whom he admires. In a poem about the gates of heaven and the New York skyline, he refers to “Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn,” and another of his writings references the pond in Thoreau’s “Walden.” He was particularly excited to introduce a poem that explicitly brought together two of his favorite artists: Bob Dylan and John Berriman. He explained that because he so admired the two writers, he wanted to explore a scene in which Berriman visited Dylan in the hospital after Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident.
“The Lord accepts prisoners/ in the hospital Berriman to Dylan August 1966,” Davis reads. And perhaps he doesn’t realize it, but this poem is actually about a meeting between three great artists: Berriman, Dylan and Davis. Davis inserts self-effacing remarks during the reading — “There are too many great writers, thank you for indulging me,” he exclaims at one point, seemingly oblivious to his audience’s excitement about the raw, moving quality of his work.
As I am leaving the reading, I walk a little slower and take notice of the Divinity School’s beauty when it is lit up at night. Davis’ passion — for nature, faith and poetry -— is infectious. After the reading, one audience member, similarly affected, asks him to explain how he maintains his state of constant exhilaration.
“I have ADHD,” Davis says. “I can’t stop getting excited about new things.”