Roundtable on Poetry

Russell Letson

Poultry: I like chicken any way you fix it.

Oh, poetry: I’m a bit fussier, and I get moldy-figgier the older I get. My tastes were formed as an undergrad. Before: Kipling and Robert Service and e.e. cummings and the Child ballads. After: cummings, Frost, Donne, Auden, Hopkins, Yeats, Housman, Larkin, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Dickinson, MacNeice. Early, late, and eternally: Shakespeare and Chaucer and Dante.

Bits of some poems have been lodged in my brain for decades–Frost’s “The Star-Splitter,” Auden’s “Law Like Love,” Housman’s “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” Russell Edson’s “A Performance at Hog Theater,” Nemerov’s “The Goose Fish,” cummings’ “Ponder, darling.” And most of Hamlet, along with major chunks of Twelfth Night, Much Ado, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, The Tempest, and King Lear. This may explain why I can’t remember the date of my next dental appointment.

Michael Dirda

Over the years I’ve read and written a lot about poetry, though only a few pieces have ever gotten into my collections of essays. I early on discovered that many publishers charged outrageous permission fees, which compounded with the overall hassle, made it easier just to leave out modern poetry. But I’ve written about or love–to mention some that deserve to be better known– Geoffrey Hill, L.E. Sissman, Charlotte Mew, Ralph Hodgson,  Jane Kenyon, James Schuyler, and–a friend as well as a great poet–Anthony Hecht. My favorite poet of all is Baudelaire, with Marlowe, Herbert, Pope, Wordsworth,  Hardy, Cavafy,  Yeats, Akhmatova,, Eliot, Stevens, Auden and Larkin  being in my starting line-up. Among translations I like David Ferry’s Horace quite a bit and Pound’s various versions. By my bedside I keep The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation and Martin Gardner’s two collections of “chestnuts,” Best Remembered Poems and whatever the other is called.

I don’t think poetry influences how I write at all. No, let me take that back. It does show me how to make every word count and I do like to bury poetic allusions and quotations in my prose, usually without italics and sometimes slightly inaccurately. A gentleman should always quote from memory.  Being a journalist, I’m leery of anything overtly lyrical–maple syrup, one of my editors used to call it–and I lack that fundamental gift for metaphor: Nothing ever reminds me of anything else. My focus remains on nouns, verbs and the syntax of the sentence, even as I strive to actually say something and not be boring.

Rich Horton

Yes — there are a few poets that I have devoted myself to over a long time, slowly reading and rereading. Fundamental to me in this sense are Wallace Stevens and Philip Larkin. Less obsessively studied: Mark Strand, W. B. Yeats. Auden. Frost. Usual suspects, I suppose.

And to sort of “keep up” I read the magazine Poetry. I should read the poems in the New Yorker too (I read everything else) but for reasons I can’t work out those poems don’t work for me in that context.

And, as Michael Dirda’s post reminded me, the remarkable Geoffrey Hill.

I haven’t read James’s books, but I find his reviews of poetry in Poetry excellent and refreshing, and yes, sometimes funny in the service of truth.

F. Brett Cox

Poetic Inspiration: My tastes here are by and large very conventional, as I unapologetically return time and again to the British Romantics (especially Coleridge and Keats) and the American High Modernists (Eliot, Stevens, Williams, cummings–Pound not so much).  Of course, there was more going on inside Emily Dickinson’s head than the rest of them put together.

My recent discovery of the plays of Sarah Kane was as significant an aesthetic slap in the face as I’ve had in years.

And I’d also have to mention half a hundred musicians and songwriters, from Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams to Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards to Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith to Chuck D to PJ Harvey to whomever I discover next week.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the music I love means more to me than any book I’ve ever read.

John Clute

Good to see Bob Dylan mentioned. Those my age (I’m a few months older than he is) will likely have had tags and lines and stanzas in their heads for fifty years, just long enough ago for those my age to wish they’d been a few years younger when they first heard him, so they could be more like baby ducks doing imprint.

Like Michael (Dirda) and (I suspect) Peter (Straub) and others talking here, there is a hemi-demi-semi-iambic pentameter ostinato running through what we write, fiction or nonfiction, which needs constant violation (like what gardeners do) to stay alive. Out of this basic pulse of story, for me, the tags emerge like dolphins: Dylan, Yeats most often for me. But if we read poetry at all regularly — my own list includes some of Peter’s, some others, and also, in no particular order, Franz Wright, Roy Fuller, Frederick Seidel, Frank Bidart, Emily Dickinson (the Helen Vendler annotated collection keeps staring you in the face with genius), Leonard Cohen (more the lyrics than the poems as such), Ben Miller (I think) of Low Anthem — then vigilance must be eternal, like.

Ah well, looks like I just stayed in Mississippi a day too long.

5 thoughts on “Roundtable on Poetry

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  • March 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    The original poster’s choice of “useful/inspirational” as a standard for desirable poetry gives me the willies. Literature functions on many levels, of course—but I am saddened to see speculative fiction writers (whose work would generally not be primarily intended as either “useful” or “inspirational” applying these narrow strictures to poetry appreciation. And I am even more grieved to see, with few exceptions, tastes restricted to the ancient, non-living, or geriatric poets (I will grant you that Russell Edson, despite his codgerliness, is way cool). The real outrage, though, is the apparent lack of any awareness of science-fiction poets. While any decent writer should be reading a broad spectrum of work outside their field, to exhibit a complete lack of interest in and awareness of a whole subset of active writers within one’s own genre when discussing poetry is pathetic. Not a single poet mentioned identifies as a speculative poet.

    The Science Fiction Poetry Association, which encompasses SF, fantasy, and horror, has existed since 1978. Its members have been widely published in mainstream as well as SF venues. SFPA publishes a quarterly journal, Star*Line, as well as annual anthologies. The winners of its annual Rhysling Award appear regularly in the Nebula winners anthology—but somehow, it would seem, fly completely below the radar of those who have posted here. Many, if not most, venues that publish short SF also publish SF poetry—do none of you read the other works in the periodicals where you are published?

    We write—and read—speculative poetry for the same reasons that apply to the reading and writing of speculative fiction: to entertain, evoke, and stimulate, and to present new ideas (as well as old ideas made new), using original ways of looking at the world. Those are appropriate standards for poetry, not the dreary utilitarianism that would define poetry as having only didactic and motivational purposes.

    F.J. Bergmann
    Star*Line Editor
    Science Fiction Poetry Association

  • March 27, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    I’d like to apologize for the “useful/inspirational” language. That was very sloppy, as I tossed it off in a rush. I agree that there is some very fine spec fic poetry out there that deserves to be better known.

  • March 27, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Kenneth Burke called literature “equipment for living,” and I found that view a, um, useful corrective to the art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic that dominated my early education–and also an alternative to the flatter moral-critical approaches of, say Marxist theorists. So thinking of poetry as useful or even inspirational isn’t a big deal, even if neither of those terms exhausts our relationship to the art. As for which poets one reads for whatever reason–when you start putting words on paper, you’re playing with the big boys and girls, and if you have to be prepared to be compared to two or three millennia’s worth of news that has managed to stay news. If you want to know who the great poets of the twenty-first century are, ask me in a hundred years or two. (Though you shall find me a grave man.)

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