A Close Look at Robert Frost
On February 9, 1997, former Academy Chancellor John Hollander gave a master class for benefactors of the Academy of American Poets. The class took place at the New York City home of then Academy Chairman Lyn Chase and her husband, Ned.
A Family of Poets: Rosanna and Noah Warren in Conversation
In this conversation between debut poet Noah Warren and his aunt, poet and former Academy Chancellor Rosanna Warren, they discuss poetry’s relationship to painting and music, the influence of place, and the experience of coming from a literary family—the poet Robert Penn Warren, also a former Academy Chancellor, was Rosanna’s father and Noah’s grandfather.
A Poetry Portfolio: Featuring Five of Our Country's Finest Native Poets
If you want to crush a person, strike that person first in the mouth. The U.S. government knew this when, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it rounded up native children and transported them to boarding schools across the country. One of the most important steps of the government’s systematic program of “civilization” and assimilation began: Native children were not allowed to speak their languages. When they returned home to tribal lands (and many did not return home), they no longer spoke their heritage languages.
An Epic Impulse: The Work of Khaled Mattawa
In this essay Marilyn Hacker writes about the work of Khaled Mattawa, a poet and translator of contemporary Arabic poetry who also serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
An Exhilarating Dexterity: On Flies by Michael Dickman
An essay by Michael Ryan about Michael Dickman's poetry collection, Flies, which was chosen by Ryan, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, and Major Jackson for the 2010 James Laughlin Award, given by the Academy of American Poets for a second poetry book.
Barbara Guest: Fair Realist
When Barbara Guest passed away in the winter of 2006, America lost one of its most fiercely independent and original artists. She had been writing poetry for sixty years. One might call her commitment to the art "heroic" but her primary task was rather, in her words, "to invoke the unseen, to unmask it." Hers is a poetry of revelation and of mystery. When Guest arrived on the scene in the mid-1950s, her work was characterized by an advanced lyricism that must have seemed already full-blown to her contemporaries.
Brooks, H. D., and Rukeyser: Three Women Poets in the First Century of World Wars
"American poetry has been part of a culture in conflict. . . . We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; at another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the idea of perpetual warfare." — Muriel Rukeyser: The Life of Poetry (1949)
Common Language: Robert Hass in Conversation
An interview with Robert Hass on the office of the poet laureate, poetry, and its role in American culture. This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. American Poet: Many of us know you as a translator as well as a poet. I wonder if you could begin by talking about that.
Eileen Myles and Solmaz Sharif: A Conversation Across Generations
Eileen Myles moved from Boston to New York City to become a poet in 1974. Since then, she has established herself as an important and quintessentially New York voice in the landscape of contemporary American poetry—from her involvement with the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where she served as artistic director from 1984 to 1986; to her championing small presses and mentoring younger poets; to her presence as an active participant in queer culture. Myles has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, among other honors.
Emerging Poet: On Jordan Davis
Jordan Davis's poems call up many arenas for me. He was editor of The Poetry Project Newsletter several years ago, and indeed there is a whiff of the downtown/Tulsa/beats/New York School tradition for which The Poetry Project has been a haven. But there are also strains of Marcel Janco, Paul Reverdy, and Matsuo Basho; of W. H.
Emerging Poet: On Joshua Weiner
I've always been impressed by Joshua Weiner's formal intelligence and his sure knowledge of how to make a poem. He's learned as much from Mina Loy, Robert Duncan, and Tom McGrath as he has from Thom Gunn, Thomas Hardy, and George Herbert. His poems are open to many different kinds of aesthetic approaches, including those of jazz and the blues.
Emerging Poet: On Monica de la Torre
No one I know writes like Mónica de la Torre. Many use some of the same techniques, the much-loved and now over-famous Ashberian non sequitur, for example, but even so she has a subtle and disarming way of tying her dissimilars together. In her poems, we encounter odd characters who meet in David Lynch-like accidental fashion. Small bizarre incidents coalesce into a sign of our own mirrored, uncertain world. The very camera which would explicate the internal state of the subject, has no film in it.
Eyes, Stones: On the Poetry of Elana Bell
An essay by Fanny Howe on the poetry of Elana Bell, whose book Eyes, Stones was selected by Howe as the winner of the 2012 Walt Whitman Award in poetry, given by the Academy of American Poets.
Forms of Reticence
Penciled in the margin of The Works of Virgil (1838), a Latin textbook that Emily Dickinson shared with a school-friend, is
Four Questions for New Academy Chancellor Brenda Hillman
Academy Chancellor Brenda Hillman discusses her poetic influences, visual art, the role of the poet in our culture, and what she finds exciting about American poetry today in this Q&A, from the spring-summer 2016 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets.
Fragility and Repetition: On the Poetry of Robert Lowell
In his time, Robert Lowell achieved unquestionable stardom. The author of twelve collections, countless translations, adaptations from Greek plays, and an original drama, he won the Pulitzer in 1947 for his second book, Lord Weary’s Castle (Harcourt, 1946), and again in 1974 for his collection The Dolphin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), one of three books he published in 1973 alone.
Henry at One Hundred
A look back at John Berryman’s iconic Dream Songs on the occasion of the poet’s centennial.
Impossible Poetry? On Gertrude Stein
“Stanza XVI,” by Gertrude Stein, is arguably one of the most clunky passages ever written—a seemingly impossible text. It is part of a much longer discursive serial poem, Stanzas in Meditation, that Stein wrote during her “middle period," between 1929 and 1933. Considered one of the most difficult texts of her oeuvre, the whole of the mammoth book is a heroic foray into uncharted poetic territory whose only subject matter is the act of writing itself.
Introducing Four New Chancellors
The Academy of American Poets' four new Chancellors, Ellen Bass, Forrest Gander, Terrance Hayes, and David St. John discuss what they find exciting about American poetry at the moment.
THE OCEAN, THE BIRD AND THE SCHOLAR: Essays on Poets and Poetry
Harvard University Press
Helen Vendler is one of the most respected commentators on English-language poetry in our time. Readers coming to this book hoping for wise, well-found instruction will not be disappointed; they will find new ways into the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Amy Clampitt, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell, to name but a few of the poets to whose work she directs a schooled intelligence and an informed, loving heart and mind.
Vendler brings to her studies a lively attention, a profound and wide-ranging depth of learning, the daring to trust her own leaps of insight and a steady prose style that recruits the reader to her unfolding analysis with persuasive ease. She is, in short, a good companion, a good person to walk through a poem with, a tactful guide, a canny and patient teacher.
All this, of course, one should be able to say about any trained scholar critic, so it was with a mounting sense of unease that I found myself, time and again, pausing in my reading to reflect that, in fact, the depth and quality of attention Vendler brings to a poem have become unusual. We live in an age of opinion, where all opinions are thought equally valid, where often the only thing that usefully distinguishes one opinion from another is its attempt at singularity, its vivid, particular squawk for attention.
The tendency towards phrasemaking for its own sake, towards the partial or skimped reading, towards recruiting a text to exterior purpose, all these things have accumulated to the point where one now hesitates before trusting that the critic has put herself or himself fully and consciously – I want to say also humbly – at the service of the text as it fully intends itself.
“Look at this” is constantly in danger of being trumped by “Look at me”. The insidious effects of this are many, but of the damage done by such low ambition two principal effects should be noted: the reader, crossing new ground, cannot be sure of the guide’s integrity, and the ancient, necessary, compact between poet and scholar, between creation and reflective attention, breaks down in an atmosphere of recrimination and sullen suspicion. So many now come to bury, not to praise.
Unswerving dedicationAgainst all this, against sloppiness and bad faith, against glibness and unexamined bias, we can set the moral and learned weight of Vendler’s unswerving dedication to scholarship and to the poetry it companions. She believes passionately in what, quoting Wallace Stevens, she calls “the radiant and productive atmosphere” of poetry. She believes in transmitting “in books and in the classroom, the beautiful, subversive, sustaining, bracing and demanding legacy of the poets”.
She sets out as the motive force in writing these essays “the belief that poetry belongs to all”, and her warrant is the further belief “that its audience often needs – as I do still – paths into its inexhaustible precincts”. That note of modesty tempered by ever-renewed curiosity is typical.
As an epigraph to his collection Responsibilities (1914) Yeats used the phrase “In dreams begins responsibility”. The word (with “response” resting comfortably inside it) calls up, among its other shades of meaning, the expectation of trustworthiness. The scholar critic, responding to the dream that is the poem, must above all else be trustworthy. Vendler is the most honest of responders, not just because of her schooled, acute and self-examining sensibility but also because of the moral imperative that governs her reading and teaching: nowhere in this luminous collection of essays does she permit herself an insight, judgment or reflection that is not supported and underpinned by profound (and probably exhausting) contextual reading.
Only a passionate love for the work – her own and that of the poets she guides us to and through – can explain and sustain such a voluntarily assumed burden of responsibility.
In themselves, then, and in their accumulating authority, the essays in this book offer vivid and sustaining examples of how enlightened and enlightening scholarly criticism can be done. In their individual instances, each essay offers particular pleasures and provocations, fresh insight and spurs to thought, so much so that in cases where I knew the work of the poet (or thought I did) I found myself taking down the poems again, animated by fresh insight, curiosity and excitement.
BreathtakingI would not have thought it likely that I would again read, for instance, The Waste Land as if it were fresh and new, but that happened. I have never felt any particular affinity with John Ashbery, the work far too willed, dry and Apollonian for my taste, but at least now I understand better what might be attractive and accomplished in the poems for those to whom he appeals.
I had only read AR Ammons in passing, but Vendler has persuaded me to pursue him in his entirety. Stevens is a great passion of hers, and she reads and explicates him very well, perhaps drawn too deep, sometimes, into the arcana and minutiae, but always, and so forgivably, with an afficionado’s ardour.
Her rereading of Heaney’s Sweeney Redivivus, the 1998 version, is breathtaking and sent me hungering back into the sequence with entirely fresh eyes – and ears, because Vendler is very good on the sonics of poetry, just as she is persuasive in her arguments for the relationship between poetry and the body.
She is even more illuminating and challenging in Seamus Heaney and the Oresteia, where she examines in great depth the conversation between Aeschylus and Heaney that stands like a shadow armature in the background to Heaney’s Mycenae Lookout. Rereading the poem in the light of her deep-delved analysis, I see now – what I got wrong in my own long-ago review – the “perennial parable” Heaney was making from the plight of Cassandra.
It is not the least of her virtues as a reader that Vendler can prompt us not to be stubborn in our own views but to revisit them with an open mind, in the dispassionate hope of gaining deeper insight, more enduring pleasure.
She quotes Heaney on “the moment of poetry”, “the moment when all those complications and contradictions of history, politics, culture, fidelity, hostility, inner division, challenge and change get themselves gathered in words and become available to writer and reader as a mode of self-knowledge”.
In these wise, weighty and illuminating essays, Vendler shows herself a true and bracing friend to the moment of poetry, its charge and value, its heart-place in the difficult struggle to be fully and joyously human.
Theo Dorgan’s latest book, Nine Bright Shiners (Dedalus Press), was awarded The Irish Times Poetry Now Prize for best collection of 2014