‘She confronts the monsters in herself’

One of the things to love about Glück’s poetry is that, while her work contains many emotional registers, she is not afraid to be cruel — she confronts the monsters in herself, and in others, not with resignation and therapeutic digression but with artery-nicking knives.

The poet Kay Ryan, in her terrific new book of essays, “Synthesizing Gravity,” writes: “I think it’s good to admit what a wolfish thing art is; I trust writers who know they aren’t nice.” Glück’s work is replete with not-niceness. You would not, you sense, want her as an enemy.

I’m reading the Kay Ryan book currently (and it is terrific), and I was happy last month to read of Glück winning the Nobel Prize. In this blog, way back, I liked to pretend she was an enemy, testing me with that cruelty. Years later, a big book of her work sits on my shelves. She won our non-existent battle. She’s too tough for me, by a mile.

Poets chase fall and its opposite

I can’t describe exactly what leads to put these three links together. Two are poems, and one is an essay by a poet. They all remind me of fall. None of the three are too cold or set late in the year. But they all contain an idea of early darkness — some of them clearly and others less so — and, most importantly, consider how to push back. Or set themselves apart from it.

Vespers” by Louise Gluck.

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.

Elegy for the Living” by Kathryn Simmons. “We wash up side by side / to find each other / in the speakable world, / and, lulled into sense, / inhabit our landscape….”

And an essay, “Omphalos: Returning to the troubles of a Northern Irish childhood” by poet Colette Bryce, who gives us a great word and stories.

I write about you all the time

Dan Chaisson’s review of Louise Gluck’s new book is a good piece that finds a great passage, true for just about any blogger, myself included.

My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.

We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of your sister.

Then later:

I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.

Transposing memories is okay

Why? The December issue of Poetry gives five arguments I like.

1. Ango Mlinko, “Epic.” Because when you are somewhere amazing alone, you can think of bringing someone there someday. “It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with / You I’d like to take to bed of cyclamen….”

2. Louise Gluck, “Visitors from Abroad.” Because when you write as an aware first-person, you write as many first people. “I write about you all the time, I said aloud. / Every time I say ‘I,’ it refers to you.”

3. Emilia Phillips, “Saul Bass Redesigns the First Man.” Because the best movie posters are the pop earworms of the eye, you can disassemble your existence, under the right light, as easily as Bass a film.

4. Tomas Q. Morin, “Love Train.” Because the world of repetition inside an overnight train is more transpository (can that be a word?) than any other mode of transportation, an overnight train cradles love.

5. Merrill Gilfillan, “Alfresco” (an essay not a poem). Because an up always exists, new worlds are okay. “Facing any landscape demands bearings, finding a footing, and then a bearing. Which way is up, for example.”

Recognizing, fleeing the language of necessity

When poet Tracy K. Smith told NPR this week that poetry was a way we could get away from “the moments in our lives that are characterized by language that has to do with necessity,” I felt a tremendous twinge and stopped reading the story at that sentence. Smith had hit close to home.

Poetry, in my life, has become exactly an escape from certain language.

Before I’d read Smith’s quote, the escape part was already pretty clear in my mind. But I hadn’t understood as well what I was escaping until she put it the way she did: I was escaping the language of necessity. In that tongue, everyone needed something or needed to respond to someone else’s need. The language of necessity was more than vocabulary. It had grammar, idiom, vocalization, and accents. Necessity was air, and as we expressed its language, we breathed only out of a sense of requirement.

This realization is not the happiest one. But at least there’s escape.

So, I owe thanks to three poems in the last week: David Baker’s “Old Man Throwing a Ball,” Louise Gluck’s “An Adventure” (yes! even Gluck, once a foe on the page and now becoming a friend) and Alice Fulton’s “The Next Big Thing,” which The New Yorker has put behind a paywall and no wilder-than-I Interneter has yet liberated. But know Fulton’s poem contains this passage: “I feel free as water fangling over stone and falling / with a dazzle on the next big thing, presence / ribboned up in ink, instant and constant, / all tied up in a gift. Just wrap the world / around a pen and draw a cradle in a lake / and in the cradle draw a flywheel / free from mortal rust.”

Van Diemen’s Land and the magazine on a Sunday morning

About the song, a comment I’d never noticed before in the Rattle and Hum liner notes: “Dedicated to John Boyle O’Reilly, a Fenian poet deported from Ireland to Australia before of his poetry. [It wasn’t very good … !])” Hadn’t realized either about the album’s faded last verse turning up in full in the booklet, turning the song harder toward Belfast. The Edge explains.

Link. “‘Sometimes I take out your letters & verses, dear friend,’ he wrote in 1869 (one of only three messages to her that survived), ‘and when I feel their strange power, it is not strange that I find it hard to write … If I could once take you by the hand I might be something to you; but till then you only enshroud yourself in the fiery mist & I cannot teach you, but only rejoice in the rare sparkles of light.’ ”

No link. “He is perhaps the showiest performer since Vladimir de Pachmann, a Chopin speciailist of a century ago who used to milk cows to exercise his fingers and dip each digit in a glass of brandy before recitals. Lang’s irreverence is unabashed. One of the most popular clips of Lang Lang on Youtube shows him playing Chopin’s Black Key etude, Opus 10, No. 5, with an orange. Lang wears so much product in his hair that when he sways in rapture to his playing his head looks like a porcupine in a typhoon.”

Link. “I live in an old folks’ home, where people do all the heavy lifting for me, so I am free to sit around and daydream. I was daydreaming, and got hit by the poem.”

Link. “Unless your name is Judas, a kiss is just a kiss. Nonetheless, filmmakers cling to the smooch in the hope, or the fond pretense, that it might mean something more. Despite everything, it remains the most trusted image that we have for the clinching of an erotic deal: the zinger of our desires. How do we feel, then, when a movie like In Search of a Midnight Kiss begins with kisses — loads of them, exchanged between lovers who are never identified? Should that strike us as romantic reassurance, staunchly insisting that love is all around, or as a sly debasing of the currency, hinting that the simple meeting of mouths is no big deal?”

Link. “Everything is settled now. / Where you are now is where you’ll sleep, where you’ll wake up in the morning. / The mountain stands like a beacon, to remind the night that the earth exists, / that it mustn’t be forgotten.”

Ted Kooser and the poet lariat

Being the U.S. poet laureate must be easier than becoming the poet laureate. “Here, you introverted freak of nature, become a public figure!” Like that. Not all are introverted freaks of nature, but not all are totally comfortable in the spotlight either.

Take the outgoing laureate, Louise Gluck.

Gkuck’s immediate predecessors (Haas, Dove, Pinsky, and Collins among them) had all used the role to be the nation’s top poetry promoters. But upon earning the position, Gluck bluntly said she wasn’t going to do much to promote poetry. The press coverage at the time didn’t know what to make of this choice — unorthodox but valid — and had to make do with “she’s shy (like those poets are)” and “she’s severe (like those poets are)” explanations.

But was Gluck that out of it? Probably not. When she appointed to a Yale teaching post last winter, she talked to the student paper and sounded quiet and artistically normal. “Gluck, 60, said she still likes to make time for the simple joys of cooking, going to the gym and simply thinking.” And then the writer spoke for herself: “I read a lot of detective fictions. I stare at a lot of walls. There’s a lot of unused, wasted time, but I think there’s some importance in that.”

But was Gluck that with it? Lazin’ like a beer commercial man? Probably not. As at least one professor wrote at length, her poems weren’t for good-time fun boys. The intensely personal made public didn’t go easily.

So it’s a little funny to find Ted Kooser in the same spot. He’s Gluck’s successor as poet laureate, a quiet Nebraskan appointed last month, and reporters still don’t know what to do. Not to blame the reporters, of course. I’m sure they know they don’t know what to do. How do you put across a moderately reclusive genius to a moderately literate readership? “So, would you say poetry is like reality TV? But, you know, with rhyming?”

Insert blank stare here. But that hasn’t stopped some publications from trying. Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten has a poetry duel with Kooser this week. The L.A. Times digs into his humanity as well, drawing out how Kooser worked in insurance for 35 years and used to rewrite his poems if his secretary didn’t understand them.

The New York Times, meanwhile, tries to go to the same spots and comes up way short. In the 12 Questions department of the paper’s latest magazine, the interviewer parries with Kooser and tastelessly suggests he isn’t cosmopolitan enough for the job. Kooser promptly puts her in her place.

Where’s he find that kick? I figure the answer comes from Kooser’s hometown paper, the Lincoln Journal Star. The story on his selection there calls him “slightly reclusive” and even gets a friend to discuss Kooser’s “Nebraska modesty.” Almost as a side note, the article mentions his wife, Kathleen Rutledge — she edits the newspaper.

In fact, Rutledge is the editor who stirred up a political correctness debate in the state last year, announcing the Journal Star’s stance banning Native American sports nicknames from its pages. Whatever you think of that decision, it’s clearly a gutsy one. There’s no comment from her in the story about her husband, and the headline of “He’s a poet, now everyone knows it” leads one to believe she didn’t see the story before it ran. But you can imagine that shy Ted Kooser knows how to abide a tough journalist or two.