On the Passing of Poets

Over the last few years, some of America’s most well-known poets have passed, including Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, Galway Kinnel, and now, Mark Strand, who, at 80, passed away this last week. I have certain memories associated with each poet. Adrienne Rich and Amiri Baraka, for instance, taught me how to write an effective political poem. Galway Kinnel taught about poetry’s quiet moments. Mark Strand is especially important to me, however, because his books, along with Charles Simic’s work, were loaned to me when I was an undergraduate student at West Chester University. At the time, I was writing cliché poems about spookhouses and midnight howls. My professor introduced me to the Deep Image school, namely Strand and Simic, to show  me how to effectively write a surreal poem that could have bizarre-o themes, but also some basis in reality. I took home Strand’s Selected Poems and Simic’s The Voice at 3 a.m. and read them cover to cover, while trying to decipher my professor’s notes on the margins.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read Strand’s work, but I did so this week. As a very young poet, I was especially drawn to his surrealist poems,  such as “The Tunnel”  and the odd twists and turns his lines and images offered. While revisiting his work this week, I was impressed by the range of his subject matter and the tone, including the familiar surreal poems I loved years ago, but also the softer, tender poems, like “The Coming of Light.”

Looking back on my early poetry workshops, I think my professor recommended Strand to show me how to write a poem that incorporates the weird and bizarre, but also one which avoids the cliché. I think she also wanted to show me how diverse a single poet’s work could be, how there should be no boundaries regarding subject matters or forms. Thank you, Mark Strand, for teaching me that.

New Poet Laureate

Big congrats to Charles Wright, who was named the 20th United States Poet Laureate and follows Natasha Tretheway, who held the post for two years in a row. Like Tretheway, Wright is a southerner. A Tennessee native and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1993 and went on to win the Pulitzer and Griffin Prize. He also won the National Book Award for his collection Country Music. Regarding the selection, Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation said, “He’s long been one of my favorite poets. His work, while rooted in a vivid sense of place, crosses all borders — geographic, aesthetic, and cultural. Charles is modest, but brilliant, an essential contemporary metaphysical poet. I can’t wait to see what his projects and initiatives will be.”

Here’s a link to several of Wright’s poems and an interview/overview of his work. It’s worth checking out!





In Honor of Dr. Angelou

In honor of Dr. Maya Angelou and her recent passing, I wanted to post one of my favorite videos of her. This is an interview/conversation she had with Dave Chappelle from the show Iconoclasts. The conversation focuses on a number of issues, including language, race, the Black Arts Movement, hip-hop, and her family history. Enjoy.

In Honor of Maxine

The American poetry scene has lost some big names over the last few years, including W.D. Snodgrass and Adrienne Rich. This weekend, Pulitzier-prize winning poet Maxine Kumin passed. In an article published by The Los Angeles Times, Carol Muske-Dukes says of Kumin’s work, “Kumin wrote deceptively straightforward poems. The ‘below surface’ artistry of these poems lay in their ability to transform familiar experience to precisely calibrated insights, couched in a quietly elegant style.”

Most recently, over Christmas break, I was thinking of Maxine Kumin while reading Anne Sexton’s letters, specifically how Kumin provided important support and friendship to Sexton, especially through Sexton’s bouts with depressions or doubt in her work. Kumin was also friends with Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, and Muske-Dukes notes that the passing of Kumin means we “have lost the last ‘member’ of this august sisterhood of poets.” And yet, while Kumin may have addressed feminism and gender issues in her work, like the “sisterhood of poets,” I always enjoyed her naturalism, the way she recounted the cycles of life and death, witnessed after living on a farm in New Hampshire for years and raising horses.

For more info on Kumin’s work, visit her website here or her bio on the Academy of American poets here.

The HuffPost Defends American Poetry and Poetry Advocates

It’s been a tough year for American poetry. In a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, Mark Edmundson published an essay titled “Poetry Slam, or the Decline of American Verse” bemoaning the current state of poetry and longing for a modern William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, or Robert Lowell, a poet willing to address serious issues. Specifically, Edmundson called out W.S. Merwin, Robert Hass, Seamus Heaney and other contemporary heavy weights for failing to use their talent and skill to seriously address social and political issues. That is the author’s claim, not mine.

This essay followed an online blog post by The Washington Post titled “Is Poetry Dead?,” which ran shortly after Richard Blanco, one of my favorite contemporary American poets, read at President Obama’s second inauguration in January. The blog post’s author, Alexandra Petri, asked if poetry can still “change anything,” but has that ever been the point? I have always viewed poetry as an art form that makes us see the ordinary differently, that makes the common thing new, to paraphrase Williams. Furthermore, it is an art form that pushes the boundaries of language and indeed challenges language. Perhaps most importantly, poetry is a community-builder. I have seen that time and time again over the last decade or so that I’ve been doing readings and attending readings.

This point is why I bring attention to a an article in the HuffingtonPost entitled “Top 200 Advocates for Poetry (2013).” What impresses me about the list is the range of names- including some well-knowns, such as current Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway and several former Poet Laureates, such as W.S. Merwin and Billy Collins. But the author, Seth Abramson, includes several people that work for small presses, such as Fence and Black Ocean Press, and folks that run various reading series. His list points out that poetry is indeed still alive and well and has several big names left, which I’ve mentioned above, but more importantly, poetry is about community, about small presses and reading series. There are plenty of people keeping the art form alive and plenty of people writing it, since over 20,000 books of American poetry are published each decade, according to Abramson’s article. It is nice to finally see a publication as well-known as the HuffPost point out that poetry is indeed alive and well and there are several people, especially at the small press level, working to foster community through poetry.

Inagural Poet Chosen

It was announced this week that Richard Blanco will serve as the 2013 inaugural poet and now must compose and read a new poem for the president’s ceremonial swearing-in on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 21. The New York Times has a great article about the poet and his reoccurring themes of place, identity, and his Latino heritage. In the article, Addie Whisenant, the inaugural committee’s spokeswoman, said President Obama picked Mr. Blanco because the poet’s “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American.”

I only discovered Blanco’s work very recently, after the poetry organization Split This Rock published its list of the best poetry books of 2012. Blanco’s latest collection, Looking for the Gulf Motel, made the list. I got a copy for Christmas and devoured it in one or two sittings. I’m currently in the process of writing a review of it for Poets’ Quarterly. Based on Blanco’s work, I feel he is a wonderful pick to read at the president’s inauguration. Obama won re-election with a diverse coalition, especially the Latino vote. Blanco, who was conceived in Cuba, born in Spain, and  raised and educated in Miami, is representative of the changing demographics of the United States, a change that helped get Obama elected twice. Like the president, Blanco is of mixed heritage, and his poems address that, often incorporating lines of Spanish in the stanzas.

Blanco is the fifth inaugural poet. The tradition was started when John F. Kennedy asked Robert Frost to read in January 1961. The tradition was picked up again in the 1990s when Bill Clinton selected Maya Angelou. I’ve posted some videos below from the inaugurations, including an audio recording of Frost reading the inaugural poem “The Gift Outright” and Elizabeth Alexander reading “Praise Song for the Day” from President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.